‘Did Hitler visit you last night?’
PUBLISHED: 17:10 26 September 2013 | UPDATED: 17:11 26 September 2013
Surviving Great Yarmouth and Gorleston children who were wartime evacuees have long been senior citizens, but will never forget the mixture of trepidation, heartbreak and excitement as they boarded special trains in 1940 to take them to a new – and, hopefully, safe - life in the Retford area of the Midlands.
The incredible logistical operation on June 2 took thousands from the borough, deemed to be a front-line target for German air raids and invasion. Parents left behind had a worrying few days until the first letters arrived with news from the youngsters in their fresh environment, one so different from their home town.
Beneath the headline “Happy letters from Gorleston children in the Midlands”, the Mercury carried extracts from their correspondence. We said: “Never before have Gorleston postmen delivered so many children’s letters. Never have so many parents opened at the same time letters from their sons and daughters. Never have they read their letters with the same interest and curiosity as they have this week.”
Graham Roling (Clarence Road, Yarmouth Grammar) reported having an easy time except for the fact that it took him 20 minutes to walk to Retford Grammar School.
Douglas Johnson, 12 (Suffield Road, Alderman Leach), asked for weekly pocket money to be sent and added that his pals were close by, and school day included walks in the country, on one of which pupils saw a gate made from whalebone. Two coal mines were visible from his new home.
Nine-year-old Ralph Shaul (South Road) asked for a new cap to be sent because his was blown out of the train window! “I like being here,” he wrote. “Did Hitler visit you last night?”
Derek Russell, 16 (Poplar Avenue, Grammar), was living at a solicitor’s home with a tennis court. Activities had included punting, trout fishing and cinema-going. School? “Punctuality is very strictly observed.”
Betty Fox, 14 (Roslyn Road, Yarmouth High) was also in “a simply marvellous house (belonging to a Sheffield steel mill owner) with a tennis court, supposed to be the best in the north of England.” Her bedroom had hot and cold water!
Another High School pupil, Heath <CORRECT> Joyce, 18 (Trafalgar Road) told her parents: “We are having a marvellous time. The scenery is glorious.”
Jean and Joyce Chatten, aged 10 and 11 (Back Chapel Lane, Senior Girls’ School), were very happy in their new home, enjoyed walks round a lake, glasses of lime juice...and had been given a penny each to spend.
Sheila Dye, 14 (South Road), exclaimed: “Oh! They are nice people, very hospitable. I can do as I am used to doing. The view is lovely from my room.”
Mr H A Calvert, of Beccles Road, received a happy letter from his two sons and daughter whose foster parents “cannot do too much for them and are teaching one of the boys to play the violin.”
And Stradbroke School headmaster Mr M Howard told parents: “The people have taken us into their homes and given us such a welcome as to have softened the parting with our homes and dear ones very considerably.”
My recent column brought contributions from two on-line readers. One, Edmund Earle, was “only a babe in arms of six months so I have little in the way of memories of the war.” But on returning home to Burnt Lane in Gorleston aged five, “we had various bomb sites as playgrounds, and I enjoyed every minute of it.
“No electronic toys, no mobile phones, no televisions, not even any electricity in the house for a while, only gas lamps and a weekly trip to Precasters, off Avenue Road, to have your accumulator filled so that we could hear our Radio Rental. The highlight of the week was to listen to Dick Barton, Special Agent, and Journey into Space. Such lovely memories of just after the war.”
I clearly recall both programmes. Dick Barton (Noel Johnson) and his sidekicks Jock and Snowy were on five nights a week at 6.45pm.
And John D Reid wrote: “One of those children was subsequently evacuated to the safety of Halifax, Nova Scotia (Canada) where he learned his father had been killed in Yarmouth in a bombing raid.”
Regular correspondent Danny Daniels, a former Southtown resident, writes from Canada where he has lived since 1957: “I wound up first in Tollerton, just outside Nottingham, before moving to Retford after the results of the 11-plus came out. I well remember both the anxiety and the anticipation of that June 2 morning.
“Especially strong is the recollection of waiting in the parish hall at our destination while the pick-and-choose went on by many of the foster-home mothers assembled there. When they’d taken what they wanted, I was one of a group of about half-a-dozen who were ‘remainders’ and taken by the in-charge person to be deposited with people who hadn’t, presumably, been able to come and choose for themselves.”
Danny reminds us that before local children were sent to the Midlands, the Yarmouth area received in autumn 1939 evacuees from London, sent by passenger steamers on the eve of the declaration of war to avoid the expected onset of raids on southern England.
“My Nana Ulph, who lived in Bradwell, took in two such refugees from the East End - and what an eye-opener it was for both parties! They’d never been to the countryside before, and Nana had no idea that their outlook on life and city-bred behaviour would be so different from her own grandchildren’s.
“I guess it was a trying time for all concerned - especially for the youngsters having to get used to the ‘biffy’ at the bottom of the garden, being surrounded by nothing but open fields, virtually no traffic, and the fact that there was only one tiny village shop in which to spend their scarce pennies.
“I gathered from Nana that they arrived with only one small cardboard suitcase between them and had no real change of clothing, so everything had to be found for them from donations at the village hall.
“However, in those first months of the ‘phony’ war, there was no blitzkrieg on London or anywhere else at that time - in fact, little in the way of enemy aircraft intrusion after the sounding of the air-raid sirens on September 11.
“I think they only stayed in Bradwell for about six weeks before they were trotted back to their familiar home environments, thankfully for all concerned.”