Days Gone By: Readers recall memories of war before county falls silent in Remembrance
This weekend will see Remembrance Services all over the country. Residents of towns and villages will gather at war memorials to pay their respects to those who have died to secure and protect our freedom.
Few remain with first-hand experiences of the Second World War, but in this week’s Days Gone By I feature memories from a 97-year-old Ipswich resident, George Brunning, who was a soldier based at Landguard Fort, Felixstowe, when HMS Gypsy hit a mine close to the fort killing 30 members of the crew.
George Brunning From Ipswich said: The main section of the 166th Suffolk Heavy Regiment was based at the Great Gipping Street, Ipswich, while a much smaller section of the same regiment was based at Garrison lane, Felixstowe. They trained independently, but came under the same command at Ipswich. The regiment came together often at Landguard Fort, Felixstowe, for training. There was another drill hall in Ipswich opposite the 166th, which housed the ill-fated 4th Suffolk Infantry Battalion, who were captured by the Japanese in Singapore and spent a ghastly existence in prisoner of war camps.
Before the Second World War they had an excellent full brass band and often played in Christchurch Park, Ipswich, in their red and gold uniforms.
They were a pleasure to watch and listen to on a Sunday afternoon. I was 18 in 1939 and I joined the 116th Suffolk Heavy Regiment RATA. They were a mixture of all trades a professions. On August 24, everyone in the battery received a letter to report to the great Gipping Street Drill Hall.
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Our uniforms were not suitable to go to war, we had best and ceremonial breeches, putties and spurs, brown leather belt, cheese cutter cap with a leather chin strap. All the leather and brass buttons had to be polished (there were six buttons on the jacket and eight on the overcoat). It took an hour to get dressed. When we later exchanged the uniform for battle dress we were a bit sad because although none of us had any experience with horses, except Sgt. Brown, who was a coal-man and his ‘Old Nag” pulled a coal cart.
I drew a long First World War Enfield rifle and bayonet from the store. We were taken by Eastern counties bus to Landguard Fort. We had left the comfort of our soft feather beds that morning to be greeted by three six-foot boards resting on trestles with a pillow. The food was terrible, there was lots of soup and a thick slice of bread served into a mess tin for dinner. For tea it was a hunk of cheese and a couple of slices of bread with a dollop of jam. We were not allowed a pass to go to Felixstowe town so we could not buy anything like fish and chips to fill up.
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War had not been declared and there was no NAAFI and the Army had to buy locally. Ships approaching the harbour had to stop and be examined by a small naval vessel. If any did not stop we had to fire a round over the bows, if it still did not stop we were instructed to sink it. We only had to fire one shot over the bows during the whole war. On night duty it was difficult to stay awake; everybody smoked and the unventilated gun shelters filled with smoke. We had to turn the light out and open the door. One day our lookout shouted “they are attacking the harbour”, which was full at the time with a light cruiser, a couple of submarines and other naval vessels. I do not think there were any direct hits.
On the night of November 21, 1939, a German Heinkel seaplane machine gunned the coast and dropped a magnetic mine in the approach to the harbour.It was a bright, sunny day and in the late afternoon when the German twin wing seaplane flew extremely low. We could clearly see the pilot and swastikas on the fuselage. At the time we were unaware that a mine had been dropped. All was quiet, with men playing cards and listening to the radio, when there was a massive explosion, men on benches fell on the floor, dust showered from the ceiling. Alarm bells started ringing. Sgt Briggs shouted “take posts”. We grabbed our helmets and dashed onto the gun platform. When we reached the gun level we saw a huge pall of black smoke and the red glow of the destroyer HMS Gypsy which had detonated the mine and was slowly sinking with its bows and stern still high. Searchlights scanned the water as it was thought it was a submarine attack.
Every evening up to six destroyers left the harbour to patrol the sea looking for German submarines and one pulled up at the stern of the Gypsy amid shouts for help. We were only around 300 yards from the blast and it was no wonder we experienced such a tremendous shock wave. Thirty of her crew, including the captain, were killed. The 115 survivors were rescued by the other destroyers. The fact is we were not ready for war.
The German seaplane would not have got anywhere near its target a year later. The war was only a few weeks old, the Observer Corps was in its infancy and radar was not operational and there were no barrage balloons over the harbour. If the German aircraft had been shot down over the fort or the town the devastation would have been enormous. At the beginning of 1940 vast improvements were being made to the harbour defences, a big increase in the number of barrage balloons and a boom defence, made up of two vessels anchored in the centre of the channel, each operating a line of great timbers with huge iron spikes protruding from them to combat enemy motor torpedo boats (E boats).
The beach was closed to civilians about mid June and anti tank traps, barbed wire and scaffolding appeared everywhere. King George VI visited us in July 1940 and inspected the guns and surprised the gun crew with his knowledge. The 166 Battery was told to get ready for embarkation. I was told I was not included, maybe I was too young. A skeleton battery was left behind and reformed into the 515 Heavy Suffolk Coastal Regiment RA. The old 166th finished up in Iceland.
Another Ipswich resident tells us more about the day he experienced, as a 12-year-old schoolboy, when a German bomber crashed into Ipswich after being shot down.
Terry Blake said: The day in 1940, when a German bomber crashed in Ipswich, featured in a recent Days Gone By. I remember the day in August 1940 when a Dornier aircraft crashed close to Gippeswyk Park, Ipswich. I was 12-years-old and living in Dickens Road. Machine gun fire was heard during the air raid and then we surely saw the German plane flying low coming straight over Dickens Road towards the park.
It was so low it was close to the shops at the highest part of the road.It was pretty certain it would crash on or near the park so my friend and I immediately cycled to see if we could pick up some mementos. By the time we got there though policemen and firefighters prevented us from finding anything.
I understand, my uncle, who was a dustman working in the area, caught one of the German airmen who landed near the large gas holder at Harris’s Bacon Factory, off Hadleigh Road.
During the Second World War, all roads into Ipswich were blocked by the army and one barrier was on the Hadleigh Road railway bridge and some of the soldiers were firing at an airman who had just baled out. Some of the residents who were in their back gardens of Dickens Road shouted to them to stop as, I believe, shooting at parachutists was only allowed if there were six or more baling out at the same time, as this would mean a possible invasion. John Wrathall, who wrote to Days Gone By about the crash, was in my class at Ranelagh Road, Ipswich School.
Mick Hawes emailed his memories:
I recall Remembrance Sundays in the early fifties. My family occupying a row of seven seats at St John the Baptist Church, Cauldwell Hall Road in Ipswich. The line would have been my Father Percy Hawes, my mother Daisy, myself, my grandmother Daisy Pollard, my grandfather Harry, my Aunt Dulcie and my brother, Malcolm, eight years older than me. The service would have started 10 minutes earlier than usual so that the Union Jack (as we
incorrectly called in those days) and the flags of the Scouts, Guides, Cubs, Brownies and the Girls Friendly Society, could be paraded up the aisle and left by the altar so that we could be ready to “Remember Them” while the 11 o’clock two-minute silence was observed.
While millions had died in the war that had so recently finished, just one death dominated the thoughts of that row of people. My grandparents
had lost their beloved son Ralph. My mother and my Aunt Dulcie had lost their much younger and only brother. My father had lost his brother-in-law. Sadly, Uncle Ralph had been officially declared “missing” on June 17, 1944, my brother’s sixth birthday.
Cyrus Ralph Pollard was a navigator in the RAF. He was on anti E-Boat patrol off the coast of France and Holland. A lady, whom I only met once, who had lived next to the family as a girl, told me that my grandfather’s hair went white overnight after he received the news. My brother, with the obvious limited understanding of his age, is reputed to have said “well he is only missing”. My grandmother clutching at any such straw had deemed that if “a child could utter such words” then “missing” was perhaps all he was?
So much did this euphemism “missing” continue to dominate her thoughts that she had frequent dreams, which she related to the family in which
Ralph returned. I think my mother had these dreams too. As a child, I certainly heard about them so often that even I, Michael Ralph, born in 1946, two years after his disappearance, the only one in that family row in church who had never known him, but the one who bore his name, although no one ever called me by it, also had that dream where my Uncle Ralph came home. In those dreams, I did not recognise him as I had never seen him before. Strange that because his photograph always stared out at me from the top of the sideboard in both my own and my grandparent’s houses. When the EADT and Evening Star published, in 2015, a supplement listing all those Suffolk people who were killed on military service in the second world war, my uncle was not in it. His name does appear on the RAF memorial at Runnymede. I was at the opening of that by the Queen in October 1953. My grandparents, mother and aunt as next of kin had tickets. My father drove them there and, as I was only seven, I was taken along too. With so many invited from Commonwealth countries unable to attend, my father and I ended up in seats much nearer the front than they did!
Ralph’s name also appears on a Roll of Honour in Harleston Church, a neighbouring village to Onehouse where he grew up. A ‘Roll of Honour’ is a list of those who served. Three names are marked as POW so they, hopefully, would have come home. Only one name has RIP against it and that is not Ralph’s. I wonder if, when the board was erected there, his death was not noted, because of my grandmother’s unwillingness to admit to the inevitable truth.
If you have memories you would like to share write to David Kindred, Days Gone By, Ipswich Star/EADT, Portman House, 120 Princes Street, Ipswich, IP1 1RS or e-mail them.