Second World War: “They were so low you could see the pilots”
- Credit: Sarah Lucy brown
‘Us youngsters did not realize at the time but we were living through a part of history that changed the world forever. I often wonder how today’s youngsters would cope...’ John Appleton tells Steven Russell about being a boy during wartime
“I do not remember ever being scared. To us it was an exciting time. We were too young to understand the horrors of war.”
John Appleton, now from Saxmundham, was seven when war broke out in 1939. “The first few months were what was known as the phony war, but when the raid started in earnest the children were evacuated to safer areas,” he recalls.
John was born in Aldeburgh and spent his early months in a little thatched cottage in Benhall Low Street with his mother, his grandparents and other members of the family. “My father, who was from Kent, was looking for a house there. “I do not remember anything of my early time; my first clear memory was when I was 18 months old. That was when, at Christmas, I was carried by my aunt to see the Christmas tree in a shed. It was decked out in candles and decorations.
“This memory is still clear. The war clouds had not yet started growing, and life in the country had remained unchanged for years. I was then taken to Bromley in Kent.”
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When the war started and he had to leave, John says he was lucky. “I was evacuated to my grandmother’s. She was now in her seventies, but took on a lively eight year old. Once again life went on unchanged.
“Then the news came that America had entered the war, and news soon travelled that an airbase was to be built at Parham.
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“By now I was settled in a local village school, and had made many friends. We also had a lot of evacuees from the east end. To them, country life was a different world. Us local lads were told to help them fit in.
“I clearly remember one incident. We were out in the country, and at that time there were many wasps’ nests in banks. We passed one, and before we could say anything one of the little lads said ‘I am going catch some of the pretty flies.’
“We grabbed a branch and told him to get a hold of it. You can guess we were all stung, but the London lad had a hard lesson about wasps.
“Then one morning there was a knock on the door, and there was a lorry outside with large poles on, and we were told a landing light was going up in the garden. As my grandmother’s cottage was on the flight path for the planes from the new base being built, the war now had come to Suffolk. Things were going to change forever.
“I must say that, living in the country, we had a lot better childhood than those still left in London and the big cities. Many of the children who were billeted with strangers went back home, as they could not settle down to country life.
“We watched the airbase being built, and went up to see if we could earn any pocket money. We were given a job of filling sandbags; no health and safety in those days. For a morning’s work we were given half a crown (twelve and a half new pence in today’s money). We thought we were rich.
“The next exciting thing for us youngsters was the arrival of the American airman. In those days there were no foreign people in the country, so for the country folk to have all these strange faces was something new.
“Us youngsters soon got to know that they were a source of sweets, and the saying came in of ‘Give us some gum, chum’, as rationing was on.
“If I remember, the sweet ration was one Mars bar, or the equal amount in other sweets, and the Americans were very generous to us youngsters. The local girls also found them very good company, much to the annoyance to the local lads, and several fights ensued.
“I do not remember ever being scared. To us it was an exciting time. We were too young to understand the horrors of war. There was the occasional bombing raid.
“A lot of our leisure time was spent up near the airfield, and we chatted to the pilots, as one spot we found was next to one of the stands where the planes stood.
“I remember in the morning I would stand on the roof of the shed and count the planes as they took off. As they passed over our cottage they were only about 300 feet up. I would wave and many times they would toss sweets out of the gunport door.
“The sad time was when we would count them coming home, and many times there were ones missing.
“Us lads knew all the signals. I am going on memory now. As they went over our cottage they would fire a flare. If two reds went up, it meant there were wounded on board, and the plane was damaged. If it was a red and a green, no injuries, but the fire trucks were needed to stand by as the plane was damaged.
“As all the planes had names painted on them I kept a note. I wish I had it now.
“I remember one night I was indoors and my grandmother said one of the planes was coming back. I said ‘That is a German.’ I rushed outside and it was a bomber with a fighter escort. They were so low that it was possible to see the pilots.
“The next thing, the landing light went on – the base thought it was one of theirs. We heard they went down the main runway at zero feet and dropped their bombs, but, being so low, none went off, as the bombs did not prime. That was very lucky, as one fell near the main fuel tanks.
“So that was the talk for a few days.
“Another incident those of my age will remember: a plane was coming in and a German fighter was waiting. The American pilot managed to turn the plane, and it crashed through the wall at Great Glemham. For many years after, it was possible to see the new brickwork.
“Us youngsters did not realize at the time but we were living through a part of history that changed the world forever. I often wonder how today’s youngsters would cope, without their computers, iPods and calculators.
“Parts of the rationing did not affect a lot of us in the country. There was always rabbit to supplement the meat ration, and many people kept chickens, so eggs were no problem, and us lads would help out with moorhen and pheasants’ eggs we collected.
“The war in Europe ended and I for one went back to my parents in Kent. In 1946 my school years ended, and I joined the world of work at the age of 14.
“Even at a younger age I was an avid reader, and said ‘One day I will see the world.’ At 16 I joined the Merchant Navy. So the next 10 years of my life is another story.”
The king and Churchill come out to wave ? and I was there!
Michael Hawes had a grandstand “seat” for the celebrations marking the end of the war.
“On VE Day, aged seven, I remember joining the crowds and celebrations at Buckingham Palace and chanting We Want The King,” says Michael, who lives in Halstead. “The Royal Family and Mr Churchill appeared on the balcony to wave to the people.
“After the celebrations I returned home to Hanger Lane, London, to a street party and fancy dress parade. I then joined a march in carnival fashion around the local streets before helping to make a bonfire with an effigy of Hitler on top. The evening finished with a searchlight display.”
Why don’t we mark VE Day every year?
Barrie Skelcher was almost a teenager when VE Day rolled around. Home is now Leiston; then, he was living in a suburb of Birmingham.
“Although we lived alongside a busy road we had a piece of common land opposite which was a good space for us kids to play and for folk walking their dogs. Neighbours got together, formed a casual committee and organised our celebrations.
“A bonfire was built from bits of garden trees and other waste, and an effigy of Hitler placed on the top. Food, especially sweets, was still rationed, but the participating households managed to rustle up some cakes and other nibbles.
“Somewhere near the city centre was Wilders factory, which manufactured fireworks. Three of the ladies involved in planning the celebrations took the tram and made their way to the factory shop, where they bought fireworks.
“As it was still wartime the ladies were surprised to find a massive supply of fireworks at very low prices was readily available. The factory had been making and stocking up for the 5th of November bonfire night but the outbreak of war in September 1939 meant they never got used that year. They were packed away for safety.
“With VE Day they were taken out of storage and sold at their pre-war price! As a result, the ladies brought back boxes of bangers, sparklers, Roman candles, rockets, and many other sorts.
“The weather was fine and the bonfire fired up without any problem. The menfolk spent ages letting off all the fireworks. There were so many that they were let off in bunches; but they were not the exotic sort we see today – just a mass of the smaller ones we used to use in our gardens on November 5th.
“When VJ Day came in the August the fireworks were much more expensive and not so plentiful, as the factory just did not have the time to replace all the old stock.
“I remember how nearby areas that did not have the open spaces held their parties in the roads. They even had bonfires in the road, which left scorch marks and damaged surfaces. Nobody complained; it seemed to be the accepted procedure, but then there was very much less traffic about than we have today.
“Had we lost the war and the UK been taken over and subjugated to the Nazi empire, the effect would have been devastating. Mass executions and slave labour would have taken place across the UK and Germany would have been able to reinforce its aggression against the Russians. So it is good we celebrate the victory; but it sticks in my gut that we do it only after 70 years ? contrasting with the failed attempt to blow up Parliament, which we celebrate every year. Have we got our priorities right?