Letters document wartime life

THAT grand radio and music-hall comedian from many decades ago, Robb Wilton, always introduced his gentle reminiscences with: “The day war broke out...

THAT grand radio and music-hall comedian from many decades ago, Robb Wilton, always introduced his gentle reminiscences with: “The day war broke out...” Next year marks the 70th anniversary of the outbreak of the 1939-45 war began, changing our nation and lives forever.

The number who experienced that era first-hand diminishes, but many passed their memories to the next generation as a valuable insight to those dark times.

A man with vivid wartime memories was Alfred Jenner, my early mentor in journalism in the mid-Fifties. I attended the funeral of this nonagenarian in May when the tributes included mention of his expeiences in a German prisoner-of-war camp after being shot down on a bombing mission.

Two years ago he became Peggotty for a day, his recollections of the time when Britain declared war filling this column, for he was the Mercury's resident Gorleston reporter when a paddle-steamer sailed into the port, bringing evacuated children from bomb-threatened London to live with families here.

The evacuees looked piteous as they disembarked, “clutching their meagre belongings and gas-masks, many in tears, most bewildered and frightened, and all tired and dirty,” he wrote.

“Onlookers were consumed with anger about those who had caused such unnecessary suffering for the innocents, and many young men among them resolved to rush to the Colours as soon as possible. Among them was myself, then 22. I enrolled in the Royal Air Force the next day, only to find myself training to drop lethal weapons on equally terrified German children.”

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There was evacuation from the Yarmouth area, too, with schools heading for places like Retford in Nottinghamshire, and recently Mercury readers have contributed their personal accounts. A friend of this column, ex-Gorlestonian Mike King, writes from his Lowestoft home: “I'll wager that not many will have kept all the documentation relating to this epic ordeal of evacuation!

“Thankfully, my late father-in-law never threw anything away and perusal of these papers has enabled me to ascertain exactly the process they had to go through.”

He has sent me copies of no fewer than 18 of the relevant documents.

“On the actual day of the declaration my late mother - then Miss Joan Webb, of Cobholm - was in Great Yarmouth Town Hall helping to pack food parcels for refugees. Nothing much happened until July 11 1940 when the first bombing raid took place.

“The Howes family lived in Burnt Lane, Gorleston - Sidney and Ethel Howes, five-year-old Pamela, and Neville, eight weeks. Sidney's elderly mother Clara lived two doors away. Sidney was above the age of call-up and for the time being continued with his job as a French-polisher with Wolsey and Wolsey.”

Mike has the 1940 letter from the Civil Defence regional commissioner advising that certain of the town's inhabitants were to be evacuated forthwith, helped with rail fares and accommodation.

“The Howes family must have got wind of this evacuation and decided that Norwich would be a safe place to move to, for a month earlier a Mr L J Ling of Sprowston, wrote to Sidney, telling him when the accommodation would be ready. Mr G D Wroughton, Yarmouth's evacuation officer, signed a certificate authorising the move which was done by taxi, although Sidney stayed behind for the time being.

“The three-bedroom Sprowston house was very crowded for, apart from the Howes family and Sidney's mother, Clara, Nanny and Grandad Brown from Row 125 also stayed there.

“Sid wrote to Ethel that the warning siren sounded the previous night when he was coming along Southtown Road so he made up a bed 'in the dugout' and slept in that!”

One of the main problems for the family was communication, so they arranged for Ethel to use a shop's phone in Sprowston to ring Gorleston 249, the phone box in Church Road at the bottom of Burnt Lane where Sidney would wait between certain times.

“In October 1940 a letter from the Ministry of Labour and National Service wanted Sidney to discuss training. He must have moved to Sprowston by then for two months later he signed a contract with Mann Egerton & Co of Norwich to start work as a fitter at 1s 3d (6p today) an hour, making munitions.

“When not at work he was required to attend for duty with the Home Guard. One duty was to guard Trowse swing bridge! An undated card from Mann Egerton stated that Sidney was working overtime on Government contracts (probably to prove he could not always attend for Home Guard duty). In 1942 he was notified that he was no longer in a reserved occupation.

“Clara Howes, aged 80, decided that she would not stand any truck with Hitler and promptly returned to Burnt Lane for the rest of the war, bombing or no bombing! Before leaving she received a letter from a cousin who remarked: 'I thought about you when I heard Norwich was raided. This terrible war, when will it ever end?'

“In the event, Norwich was far from a safe place to move to. Sprowston was near RAF Horsham St Faith airfield that was under constant threat of bombing. One elderly relative, aunt Caroline Carr, from Wellesley Road, was killed in a bombing raid on the city!

“From time to time Sidney popped home to Burnt Lane to check on his mother and his home. Several houses in Burnt Lane suffered bomb damage and on one such visit he found the roof of his own house had been damaged by bomb blast in 1941. Windows were broken and brickwork and ceilings damaged.”

Mike has Identity Cards for Sidney and Ethel, and also for an addition to the family, baby Joan, born in 1944 and christened at St Cuthbert's, Sprowston, by the Rev Aubrey Aitken whose father, Canon Aubrey Aitken, was vicar of Yarmouth from 1920 to 1941. Her card was valid until the age of 16 in 1960! She has long since been Mrs Michael King.

“A press cutting from May 1945 announced that east coast evacuees were to return home. The identity cards show that they returned (by train) in June. Pamela, who did not attend school before the evacuation, transferred to Church Road Infant School, Gorleston. Sidney had to work at Mann Egerton for another two months.

“Now the problem arose of claiming for war damage! Normally this should have been reported within three months and the application form asked why this was not done. Sidney replied that 'Government work prevented my visiting and inspecting the property'. His declaration had to be signed by a magistrate and sent to the Inland Revenue with a postal order for 2s 6d (12p).

“His excuse was accepted and payment was duly made but he was required to make a contribution of £13 9s 6d (£13.48) towards the cost of stripping and re-covering the roof!”