Another Memoir while Memory Lasts
When I was a little boy in Cornwall I heard my parents talking about the crisis. They talked about it for day after day. I didn’t know what a crisis was, and they didn’t explain it to me. I looked for it out of the dining room window. I imagined it to be some kind of a dark cloud, but the sky was clear. It was a perfect early autumn day.
I was usually out playing in my red pedal car when they listened to the six o’clock evening news on the B.B.C. wireless. But that evening when I came in towards the end of the news bulletin I couldn’t help noticing that my parents’ faces looked grave. They told my big sisters and me that Germany had invaded Poland. It was September 1st, 1939, and I was six years old.
They explained that this meant that war would almost certainly break out, and we would have to be brave. Everybody had hoped there would be peace forever. I had heard a B.B.C. broadcast when the Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, came back from meeting Herr Hitler in Munich. He promised us “peace in our time”. He said in that rather quavery voice of his: “I have in my hand a piece of paper . . . ” Three days later on September 3rd Britain kept its promise to come to the aid of Poland and declared war on Nazi Germany. So much for a piece of paper.
We lived in a very small town called Liskeard in a remote agricultural area in Cornwall, although it didn’t seem remote to me because I lived there. My father said there wasn’t much worth bombing, just a few pigs and cows and sheep. That made me feel better, but I wasn’t taking any chances.
I brought my red pedal car into the conservatory at the back of the house to shield it from the crisis. The conservatory probably didn’t provide much protection, because it was made of glass, but at least a passing Messerschmitt fighter wouldn’t see my car. My red car had been the fastest of all the children’s wheeled toys in our neighborhood until Jean Shearsmith got a chain driven tricycle for her birthday. It had big wheels and she could go really fast.
I actually married Jean Shearsmith when we were both five, because she was pretty nice. She wore a lace curtain from their dining room for the wedding, and I wore the paper collar that came from the laundry where her father had his shirts and collars starched. My big sister Pat took official photographs with her Brownie camera. I went a bit off Jean when she got her big tricycle, but we were still good playmates in games that girls could join in. I still didn’t want my red car to be bombed.
Soon there was another reason I kept my red pedal car hidden. The government announced that it was going to commandeer civilian lorries for the war effort. The army needed more transportation for essential materials. They even came and collected the fleet of red lorries that delivered Corona to our house, painted them khaki and used them to carry war materials. Corona was a delicious fizzy pop that came in different colors in special bottles, the reusable kind with a ceramic stopper with a rubber washer held on tightly by a sort of wire cage that snapped it shut. There were four bottles in a special wooden box with dividers. The driver would pick up our box with its empty bottles and deliver a new supply every week. No more Corona until the war was over. It was not essential and everyone had to do one’s bit.
Lots of things had to go towards the war effort. The government asked people to turn in their old aluminum pots and pans to be melted down and used to build aeroplanes. They sent men to cut down the beautiful ornamental railings protecting the older houses and important buildings. One old spinster lady who lived in Manley Terrace complained that she had just had her railings freshly painted. “That’s all right, ma’am,” said one of the men, “we’ll take ’em paint and all.” Seemed an awful pity. They were made of heavy cast iron, not much use for building aeroplanes.
A new boy came to live nearby about that time. His name was Leslie Solt and he was an evacuee. He had been evacuated to the country from the big city that was his home because it was too dangerous with the air raids. His father had been called up into the army and his mother had sent him to live with his grandparents in Cornwall where he would be safer. His grandfather was the foreman of the sawmill down beyond the Great Western Railway station. It used to get all the timber from the Duchy Woods. The bigger trees were sawn into planks for building, and the smaller pine trees were made into pit props and sent to the coalmines in Wales.
The sawmill used a lot of coal for the steam engines that drove their circular saws so they were also in the business of selling coal. They delivered coal to their customers in the town on a flat wagon drawn by an old carthorse called Paddy. We had a coal cellar under our house where they emptied the hundredweight sacks onto a pile. Sometimes I got to ride on the wagon on the way home from school, but I didn’t help unload the sacks of coal because you had to be really strong.
Leslie had a lot of toy soldiers and army trucks and tanks and artillery. He got a magazine with pictures of soldiers and their weapons, and navy ships and air force planes. He was really interested in that kind of thing, like my best friend Beezer would be, but he hadn’t come to Liskeard yet.
Leslie had a really good idea. There was a huge pile of sawdust near the sawmill. He said we could dig out the middle of it and build a fort that would make us pretty safe from an air raid or even an invasion. If there was an invasion the German soldiers might not notice us, or in case they did we could make wooden rifles that they might think were real and make sure they would keep their distance. We could also go to the toyshop in the town and use our pocket money to buy tin helmets that would make us look like real soldiers.
So we built a really good fort with a main front trench and connecting side trenches and a foxhole, just like the plans we saw in Leslie’s magazine. Actually, we spent most of the time playing in the sawdust pile with the toy army trucks and artillery guns, shooting match sticks at imaginary enemies. Unfortunately, there was a heavy thunderstorm a couple of weeks later and our fort was washed away.
That made us a bit worried about what we would do if an invasion came. The government stopped the ringing of all church bells to summon people to church on Sundays and even for practicing the complicated peals, because the bells all over the country would be used solely as a signal to warn the people if an invasion did come. There were rumors that the German paratroopers would be disguised as nuns to deceive us. That seemed awfully unsporting. Anyway, I should have thought it was a bit cumbersome to jump out of a plane on a parachute wearing a nun’s habit.
I actually had a couple of bad dreams after I borrowed one of Leslie’s magazines to read in bed before going to sleep. There was a picture of a German paratrooper armed with a sub-machine gun and ammunition belts and hand grenades and wearing a gas mask. He looked pretty fearsome, and I dreamt that he climbed into my bedroom at night. I was allowed to sleep in a camp bed in my parents’ bedroom for several weeks after that.
Early on in the war we civilians were all issued with gas masks. The government was afraid that the Germans would use poison gas again, as they had in World War I in the trenches in France. The gas masks were made of black rubber with straps to hold them to your head and had a flexible transparent panel on the front to see through. They were packed in a cubic cardboard box about a foot square that you had to carry with you at all times. My mother made a cloth bag to hold mine with a strap I could sling across my shoulder. It was pretty neat and some of the other children’s mothers copied the idea.
At school the teachers helped us practice putting our gas masks on. You kept the box under your desk. You had to take out the mask, unfold it, stick your chin in and pull the mask up over your face. Then you had to breathe in through a circular filter about three inches in diameter that was in front of your nose and mouth. When you breathed out, your breath blew out through the sides next to your cheeks. At first your breath would cloud over the transparent panel and you could not see. I tried not to be afraid but one of the girls got scared and grabbed her mask by the front and pulled it up over her chin and off her face. She was so relieved, but the teacher made her try again until she got more used to it. That was quite kind really.
We were also issued with identity cards. The government was afraid of spies. They could be dropped by parachute in the middle of the night or landed by submarine and rubber raft in one of the coves on the coast of Cornwall, pass themselves off as English and transmit secrets to the Germans, such as where the concrete pill-boxes and the land mines were placed to defend against the invasion. If you were stopped by a policeman or a sentry you could show your card and prove you were British.
My sister made a pretty good identity card for my favorite soft toy, Jimmy Monk. It used his proper name, James, and had official looking seals. My sister was knitting warm woolen gloves for soldiers at the time and gave me some khaki wool and knitting needles to make a scarf. She cast on enough stitches to make it eight inches wide and taught me plain knitting; she thought purl might be a bit complicated. I planned to make it about four or five feet long so it would be really warm for the winter. Unfortunately, I got quite busy doing other things so when it got to two inches long my sister cast off and we made a scarf for Jimmy Monk instead.
I really loved Jimmy Monk and kept him for a long time. My mother had given Jimmy to me in a London toyshop for my fourth birthday. He was dressed as a pageboy with a pink uniform and a black cap. It was before the war and we were on our way back from Denmark. I had stayed in Copenhagen with her for three months where she had to go to have special treatment. The Danish doctors were kind but had to burn infection off her face and nose. She had been very beautiful but she wore hats with veils after that.
Copenhagen was quite interesting and I sat in the prince’s throne at the royal palace, but the food was horrible because it was foreign. We didn’t get much sleep because a woman in the next room wanted to be an opera star and she practiced shrilly for hours and hours. My father phoned and told me to stuff an onion in her mouth. That should keep her quiet!
Most of the Danish people were really nice and welcoming. I felt sorry for them when the Germans invaded and occupied them. But they were very brave and resisted in little ways all through the war. Their fate was suffered by most of the countries in Europe.
We felt a lot safer when the Local Defence Volunteers were formed. They didn’t have real weapons at first, or uniforms. They wore armlets with “L.D.V.” on them and drilled with pitchforks and scythes. They might have slowed any invaders down for a while, but they probably couldn’t have stopped them. Fortunately, they eventually got uniforms and real rifles and Bren guns, and their name was changed to the Home Guard. They got my Uncle Dick to join, because he had been in a machine gun unit in the Great War.
My father had also been in the Great War in India, Mesopotamia, Palestine and Egypt. He had brought back an artillery shell that was used to hold our front door open. I think he wanted to join up again, because he was very patriotic and thought Hitler should be given a big punch on the jaw. But he was too old. So he volunteered for Air Raid Precautions. He was issued tough navy blue trousers with a matching blouse kind of jacket with an armlet with “A.R.P.” on it and a white tin hat saying “Senior Warden”. His tin helmet did not come from the toyshop!
Soon there was a post at the end of our front garden with a sloping board painted greenish yellow. It would detect mustard gas in the air by changing color. Then we were issued with a stirrup pump to put out fires caused by incendiary bombs. All the wardens had to attend a demonstration to learn how to use the stirrup pumps. A fire was started in a field and the instructor demonstrated how to crawl towards it on your belly and put it out. None of the wardens wanted to crawl on their bellies, partly because they didn’t want to get their clothes muddy, and partly because they were all pretty old and some quite portly. When it was my turn I plopped right down on my tummy and sprayed water enthusiastically all over the fire. After that Tom Lang (who was the manager of the sawmill where Leslie Solt’s grandfather worked) painted “Junior Warden” on my tin helmet to make me official.
Even though Liskeard was just a small town surrounded by farms, we were only about twenty miles from the city of Plymouth and its neighbor Devonport, which was a Royal Navy base and dockyard. The town’s newly installed streetlights were turned off. This was to prevent us from being attacked and to confuse the navigators in German bombers looking for landmarks at night. The air-raid wardens made sure that every house blacked out all windows and outside doors. My mother bought the special blackout fabric and also criss-crossed adhesive tape on the windows to prevent them being splintered by bomb blast.
But pretty soon the air raids started, the Blitz, night after night after night. We could see the searchlights raking the sky beyond the ridge behind our house, sometimes lighting up the barrage balloons, and we could hear the antiaircraft guns firing and then the bombs going off. Soon the sky would be filled with smoke, and lit up orange and red with the fires from the incendiary bombs.
Barrage balloons were like great big fat sausages made of fabric, attached by cables to the ground. They were filled with hydrogen to make them float up, and they were supposed to get in the way of the bombers trying to fly low over their targets.
During the day the skies were patrolled by Gloster Gladiator fighters. They were bi-planes and pretty slow and not much good at night. Their top speed was 250 mph and they were armed with four .303” machine guns. I often thought how brave the Royal Air Force pilots must have been to try and defend us with equipment that was so out-classed. The German Messerschmidt fighters were fast monoplanes with speeds as high as 350 mph, armed with 7.92 mm machine guns and 20 mm cannons.
Fortunately, the new Hurricanes and Spitfires joined the fight, just in time for the Battle of Britain. They were in the sky most of that summer, and we often saw the white contrails as they patrolled the area around Devonport. My sister gave me a kit for making a model Spitfire out of balsa wood, complete with R.A.F. roundels and paint. I rather messed up the camouflage paint on the top, but the duck egg blue on the underside was quite neat. We wished we could have seen some dogfights, but it seems the R.A.F. fighters had chased the German Junkers bombers and Messerschmidt fighters too far away from where we lived.
The town council dug a pit by the hedge of the field behind our house and roofed it with telegraph poles to make an air raid shelter. But my father said that as Senior Warden we should set a personal example. My Uncle Dick was a builder and he had his men dig a pit and build a concrete air raid shelter to a government design in the part of the back garden where my father usually planted cabbages.
My father spent a lot of time “Digging for Victory” and kept us fed with peas and beans and carrots and turnips and potatoes throughout the war. He also planted apple and pear trees. My mother was very grateful because it was hard for her to stretch the rations far enough to feed her family, although I think in a way she took pride in making do.
Most things were rationed, including meat, butter, margarine and lard, jam, tea, sugar and sweets. We each got one egg a week and three pints of milk. Fresh fruit and vegetables were generally not rationed but were often in short supply. We didn’t need ration books for offal, and the butcher liked my mother so our meat included a lot of liver and kidneys and hearts and sweetbreads, all delicious. My parents refused to supplement our supplies by buying on the black market because it would be setting a bad example.
In Cornwall you were never far from the sea and fish were not rationed. The younger fishermen had gone off to fight in the Royal Navy or into the Merchant Marine to dodge the U-Boats and help bring in most of Britain’s food from overseas, including weird but welcome concoctions like Spam and dried eggs. However, the older fishermen managed to keep going with a smaller fleet at home. Mr. Minards would bring up fish from Looe on the train in an old baby carriage every Monday on market day. And fortunately we had friends who kept chickens so we got fresh eggs and the occasional stewing fowl. At least the sparse food and the grey bread and the virtual absence of sweets meant there were few overweight people around.
Meanwhile, the effects of the war seemed to be being felt more “up country” (as we Cornish people said) around the industrial cities like Birmingham and the London area, rather than close to home around Plymouth and Devonport.
There had been quite a lot of excitement when the fishing boats and a lot of other small boats sailed across the English Channel to a small place called Dunkirk on the coast of France to rescue the remains of the British Expeditionary Force. To hear some people talk it sounded like quite a victory, but a lot of the grown ups were looking pretty worried and some of the local men who came back from Dunkirk looked really tired and not very cheerful.
The new prime minister, Winston Churchill, growled at us over the wireless and told us we had to fight the enemy everywhere until we won; we shall never surrender. All the gallant countries in the British Empire would come to our aid. We shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight on the beaches. Well, there weren’t any landing grounds near us and the beaches were covered with barbed wire and mines so they would be too dangerous. But we would manage to do our bit somehow or other.
Then Mr. Churchill told us that HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse had been sunk by the Japanese off Malaya. I knew where Malaya was because of my stamp collection. All the stamps from countries in the Empire had the king’s head on them. And I knew about the battleships because I had got The Wonder Book of the Royal Navy for Christmas. They were big ships with big crews, an awful loss.
Even though there was a lot of bad war news, there were some things to be joyful about. One of them was right in our town. In 1940 we celebrated the seven hundredth anniversary of Liskeard being created a Royal Borough with its own Mayor and Aldermen and Corporation. Richard Earl of Cornwall, brother of Henry III, granted Liskeard a Charter in 1240. Actually, Liskeard was pretty important in those days because it was a “stannary” town, which meant that it regulated the tin industry and could collect fees and taxes. Actually, in 1294 Liskeard returned two Members to Parliament and for a long time afterwards.
Anyway, our air raid shelter in the back garden was finally built. It had a front entrance sheltered by a concrete wall and an escape hatch with sandbags at the back. Inside there were bunks where we could sleep at night and shelves to store tinned food and bottles of water. From then on we would get up in the middle of the night when the air raid warning siren howled and troop down to the shelter in our dressing gowns to try and sleep through the noise of the raid.
One night as we were walking through the kitchen in the dark I was scared by a frightful fluorescent light that looked like a ghost. It turned out to be just the glow from the eyes of the fish heads on the counter, waiting for me to cook them for my cat! We would look forward to the “All Clear” sounding so that we could safely return to our own beds.
The war brought a lot of new children to our town. John Wilkins and his cousin Jennifer came from Plymouth to stay with their aunt and uncle who were neighbors. Jennifer was a bit young, but John was fun to play with. There were also Robin and Brian who were cousins. Their mothers, who were sisters, rented a nearby house with each family living on one floor. They didn’t need that much space, because their fathers were in the R.A.F. and were away a lot of the time, although they sometimes came home on leave.
There was also a family called Crump who rented the upper floor next door. Captain Crump was in the army. They had a small son named Robert. One day he leaned out of the window too far and fell on to the gravel path below. Fortunately he was unharmed, perhaps because he was well fed despite the rationing. My sisters went around saying “Bump, bump, went plump Robert Crump!” They usually had a helpful comment on what went on around us.
We often had people billeted with us, especially after my big sisters went away, the older one to Cambridge and the younger one to Bristol Royal Infirmary to study to be a physio-therapist, so that we had a spare bedroom. They were usually young married couples, and the husband was getting his army or navy officer training.
Later on when the Americans joined in and were billeted in the town getting ready for D-Day, we used to have them to the house so my mother could give them “a good square meal”. They were fun, but they slowed down our Christmas dinner because they didn’t know how to eat with a knife and fork. There was Herbert E. Arnold from Memphis and Salvador A. Randazzo from Buffalo. The Americans all had only one middle initial. They were very generous. I think they realized we were short of a lot of things. We used to ask the G.I.s, “Got any gum, chum?” and they would cheerfully give us chewing gum and “candy” (as they called it) and souvenirs such as cap badges or uniform buttons.
They did talk in a funny way. My father’s partner told about one who went into Boots the Chemist and asked for a roll of bath tissue. The girl behind the counter was baffled. Then she asked him if he meant toilet paper, and apparently he did. Then he asked for some soap. “Do you mean toilet soap?” she asked. “Oh no,” he replied, “The kind you wash your face with.”
They also gave us American comics that I started collecting. They made my English comics look pretty tame. At the beginning of the war I got Chicks’ Own. My mother allowed me to take it to the Congregational chapel on Sundays to read during the sermon when my sister was not playing the pipe organ. One of the big boys from the Sunday School had to pump air for the organ by hand and if he got too slow the music would gasp into silence. Later when I was older I got Beano one week and Dandy the next; they used to come out every week before the war but then there wasn’t enough paper. The American comics were really colorful with tough guy heroes like Superman who could jump over skyscrapers, and tough cops like Dick Tracy who had a two-way wrist radio, and athletic ladies with not many clothes on.
With so many children playing together we decided to form a gang. This meant that our parents were more lenient in allowing us to play further away. We had been told not to go beyond the second field. Now we were allowed to go through the underpass under the railway line to Looe as far as the fourth field, as long as there were several of us together. Having a gang meant that we could also make camps and have campfires. There was a wonderful place by the hedge in the fourth field where we dammed a stream and made a pond for our toy boats. We called our gang the “Chizzy-Chizzies”. I don’t remember why.
Once I showed our Chizzy-Chizzy camp to Uncle Victor. He was a colonel in the army, and so he had a real revolver, which he let me hold when it was unloaded. I don’t think he fought in many heroic battles, since he was only in the Education Corps, but he had a revolver anyway. One day I took him down to show him our camp and pond. I climbed up onto the hedge brandishing the revolver, but it was pretty heavy and I over balanced and fell into the pond. I got soaked and covered in mud, but fortunately I managed to hold the revolver out of the water. My mother wasn’t very pleased with the next load of laundry.
Soon after that we had another visitor. That was one of the advantages of being in a war. People came to see us from all over the world, and if it hadn’t been for the war they probably wouldn’t. George Rawstron was a second cousin once removed of my father’s, or at least something like that. His parents had emigrated from Cornwall, like a lot of “Cousin Jacks”, as the Cornish emigrants were nicknamed. He was in the R.N.Z.N., the Royal New Zealand Navy. He was really good at Unarmed Combat.
I wasn’t all that big for my age and a lot of the other boys were stronger than me. My sister gave me a book on unarmed combat that you couldn’t borrow at the library, and cousin George taught me some really good self-defense moves. I learned to throw someone over my shoulder when they tried to strangle me from behind, and how to break their windpipe with the edge of my hand when they tried to strangle you from in front, but you had to be really careful with that. My favorites were the wrist burn if someone was wrestling with you, and knocking them to the ground with two fingers. I practiced that on John Wilkins, who was pretty nice, and then tried it with Vivian Dennis, the bully at school. I didn’t get bullied after that.
Our gang made another camp in the hedge between the first and second fields, next to a tall elm tree. The hedges were tall and wide and made of stone and earth, with a lot of hazel and wild plum and brambles and rose hips growing in them, so you could build really good camps on top of them. I used to pick the fruits and my mother made blackberry and sloe jam, which helped with the rations.
There was an old stone cattle shelter in the next field over that was tumbling down, because the farmer wasn’t using it any more. We borrowed sheets of corrugated iron from the roof, which probably made it tumble down a bit more. Anyway the corrugated iron made splendid walls and a roof for our camp.
Our parents let us have campfires, so long as we were careful. They gave us potatoes to roast in the embers and salt to season them with. However, we were usually too hungry to wait for real embers so we put the potatoes right into the flames. They got pretty black. When we thought they had been in long enough we got them out, cut them in half with our sheath knives (actually I just had a pocket knife; my mother thought a sheath knife was too dangerous) and put salt on them. We wished we had butter, but that was rationed. They were scrumptious anyway! Admittedly the salt got pretty black, because they were charcoaled on the outside. And they were raw on the inside. But we had strong teeth, and the flavor was delicious. We enjoyed them much more than the hygienic grown-up meals our mothers took such pride in, and we had campfires and baked potatoes as often as possible.
But then our gang had to take on a serious purpose. The Cahill gang lived on the other side of the field where the old barn was. The leader was Ronnie Cahill and his second in command was David Tank. They were a bit older than we were, and rough and pretty strong and good at climbing trees. They were allowed to throw stones. Well, their fathers were away at the war and perhaps their mothers didn’t know. They thought it would be fun to attack us, and we were afraid they would capture us and take over our camp or perhaps break it up.
Fortunately, the farmer used to feed his cows Brussels sprouts stumps, and they were all over the first field. They made splendid clubs, and unlike our wooden swords they wouldn’t poke anybody’s eyes out. (I actually had a pretty good wooden sword that I had made. I wrote Icelandic runes on it in charcoal, because I had just read “The Hobbit”.) Anyway, we armed ourselves to the teeth with the Brussels sprouts stumps, and when the Cahill gang came we beat them off. Actually, we also ran away quite a lot so that they wouldn’t get close enough to hit us when they threw stones. Sometimes when your enemy is stronger you have to have a better plan and use superior tactics.
A little bit after that Robin and Brian weren’t allowed to come out to play any more. We weren’t sure why, but we heard their mothers crying a lot, and soon after they packed up their belongings and moved away. Their fathers weren’t there to help. Not long after that, John and Jennifer went back to Plymouth because the air raids weren’t as bad any more. There was still Jean Shearsmith, and we had grown out of our pedal car and tricycle phase, but our gang just wasn’t the same any more. Actually, her parents gave her a two-wheeler, and they kindly let me learn to ride it. But soon after her father was transferred and that was the end of Jean too.
I did have quite an adventure with Raymond Hocking. He was allowed to go even beyond the fourth field, and he had a pet ferret that he had trained and carried in a burlap sack. He could ride a bicycle and he knew lots of swear words. When he needed to pee he didn’t have to go home to use the bathroom; he just unbuttoned his fly and aimed himself at the hedge. He had a big sister who had a dark skinned baby boy and she wasn’t even married, so that was quite a miracle.
Raymond took me rabbiting. Our family used to eat quite a lot of wild rabbit, because with all the rationing there were only a few ounces of meat a week, and that didn’t go very far. Rabbit pie with parsley and pastry was my favorite. Once I made a pair of mittens with fur I had skinned off two rabbits, nailing them stretched out on a board and rubbing alum on them to cure them and olive oil to make them soft. I had meant to make fur gloves, but they were too difficult, and actually my mother had to help me finish making the mittens.
Anyway, I went off rabbiting with Raymond Hocking. He said that you had to find a rabbit warren and put a snare or a net at all the burrows except one. The snares were like a lasso made of thin flexible wire with a noose. The nets had pegs to fasten them around the openings to the burrows. Then you put the ferret into the remaining hole, and it would chase the rabbits into the snares or nets. Raymond tied a piece of string around the ferret’s muzzle in case it decided to eat the rabbit itself. Pretty soon we would have rabbit pie. Or several!
When he had everything ready, Raymond put the ferret into the remaining open hole. It quickly disappeared and we waited. We waited, and we waited. No rabbit. Actually, no ferret. Raymond Hocking began to look a bit anxious. He said he had spent a lot of time training that ferret and it was the only one he had. He didn’t know if his father would buy him another.
We went on waiting. Still no rabbit. Still no ferret. At least it meant we didn’t have to kill the rabbits that we caught. After a long while, probably at least five or six minutes, we gave up and walked home rather dejected. Raymond Hocking never took me rabbiting again.
Fortunately, the war seems to have led to a lot of new evacuees coming to Cornwall, just at a time when I was running a bit short of playmates nearby. Teddy Spice came from London and he was pretty nice, although he had never seen cows before and thought they were horses with horns on their heads. He stayed with Miss Spence who was a teacher. He was quite a hero because he had a hole in his skull that was covered by a metal plate, so we all quite admired him, although he wasn’t allowed to climb trees.
Then there was Keith Baynes. He came from Essex, near London. He stayed with the Misses Gill. Actually, there were a lot of unmarried ladies of about the same age who lived in Liskeard, and who were very kind to the evacuee families and volunteered to take them into their homes. Many of them had once been engaged to be married but their fiancés had been killed in the Great War.
Being Cornish, we nicknamed Keith Baynes “Beezer”, and it stuck. There were several Beezers at our school. I remember Beezer Beamish and I think there were a Beezer Brooks and a Beezer Brown. Beezer Baynes and I became best friends. I had a bit of an imagination and Beezer was very practical and knew a lot about science and how things were made, so we made a pretty good team.
Beezer and I got up to all kinds of projects. Once we built a canoe and launched it on the River Fowey when we went camping with a boys’ group from the Wesleyan Chapel. And another time we went exploring in the fields and that was when I found my amazing cat Tigger. But those are other stories.
We had an amazing stroke of luck when the Civil Defense decided to dump a huge pile of bricks in the field at the end of our lane. They were in an untidy pile, so we decided to straighten them up. Before very long we had built the most amazing fort we had ever had, much better than the ones in the hedge with the rusty corrugated iron. The basic design was circular, like the Norman Restormel Castle near Lostwithiel, with a central bailey. The wall even had battlements. We built in embrasures with loopholes that we could poke our toy rifles through. I asked my father for some of the trellis from his garden but he needed it for his Scarlet Runner beans. It was a pretty formidable fort and we had a great time training our admittedly rather small army to man it.
Unfortunately, it turned out that the Civil Defense planned to build a Static Water Tank with the bricks. It too was circular and they filled it with water to be used by the ARP with their stirrup pumps in case there were attacks by incendiary bombs. And they even thought of covering it with chicken wire so that we couldn’t swim in it, which was too bad. But we thought building that water tank was a strategic mistake. If someone had just arranged for the Home Guard to man our fort, and perhaps put some mortar between the bricks so that it would not fall down, it would have made a much better defense for our town.
As it turned out, the ARP never had to use the Static Water Tank for the purpose for which it had been built. The war was going better and the air raids were less frequent and we weren’t nervous about being invaded any more.
Then there came very good news indeed. The Allies had already brought Italy to its knees. Now the B.B.C. news announced that the invasion of France had culminated in the surrender of Germany. Everybody was very relieved and happy. We all hoped the war in Asia would soon be over too. But to our surprise there were no official plans in Liskeard for a celebration, even though the government in London had declared a VE Day to rejoice in the Allied Victory in Europe. We thought the Borough Council should have done something about it.
So Beezer and I decided to have a bonfire in the big field opposite our house. There weren’t any fireworks because all the gunpowder had to be used for the war, but it least it might be a good way of celebrating. I had a wooden wagon that my Uncle Dick had made for me, and we went around collecting old planks and scraps of wood and flammable things that people wanted to throw out.
We tried to get some of our friends from school and different parts of town to help. But they didn’t think our bonfire would amount to much and wouldn’t join in. I think they felt they would look foolish if nothing much came of it. We asked the Liskeard Silver Band if they would come and play martial music, but they said most of their bandsmen were away at the war, and anyway they could only play on official occasions.
So we plugged away. Soon the pile of wood got quite big, much bigger than the kind of garden bonfire where people burned their dead leaves and branches. Then it got big enough that it could be seen from the road that went from the town down to the Great Western Railway station. So people started bringing more wood and adding to the pile, so that by the time VE Day arrived it was about twelve feet in height and diameter and you had to throw more wood really high to get it on the top.
In fact, it got so big that the mayor decided he would come and make a speech and officially light it himself, which he did when it got dark. Lots of people came not only from the town but also from a long way away, including sailors from Devonport and Land Girls (who helped on the farms) from their hostel at Pencubitt. Everybody sang “God Save the King” and then lots of other songs like “Rule Brittania” and “Land of Hope and Glory” (although if you listened closely to what my sisters were singing it sounded more like “Land of Soap and Water”). The celebrations went on late into the evening, and even after I had to go to bed.
Just as everybody hoped so much, the attack on Japan was a success when the Americans dropped the atomic bombs and the whole war came to an end. The government declared VJ Day. This time the Borough Council decided they had better have a big celebration themselves, although they didn’t ask Beezer and me to help. There were public teas at gathering places all over the town. People got out their Union Jacks, and the red, white and blue bunting they had displayed for the coronation of King George VI. They hung patriotic decorations from public buildings and private houses, from garden fences and from the tables for the public celebration teas. There were ministers and preachers at the teas saying grace and giving thanks for peace.
The best thing of all was that the church bells were allowed to ring again. Our parish church, St. Martin’s, was at the top of the hill at the northeast part of the town, near Castle Hill. The bell ringers hadn’t practiced, but nobody minded. It was just great that they were ringing again because we had such great things to celebrate.
So at last the war was over, which was a good thing. Amazingly, we kids somehow got through it all. Of course, in the country we didn’t suffer the bombing that the people in the big cities went through. However, we had to admit that we were pretty scared most of the time, during air raids and especially when everybody thought there was going to be an invasion. I suppose we were deprived of quite a lot of stuff too, but we got used to it and it wasn’t really that important when you think of it. Although I must say that the first banana for Sunday breakfast since I was six, mashed up with sugar and Cornish clotted cream, was a huge treat.
Of course it was very sad that a lot of people from the town who had gone to help out the war effort would never come home again. The only thing you could do was to keep a stiff upper lip and make the best of it throughout, which we did with the help of our parents and our friends. It was a good thing that the war was over and I am really glad that we won. It must be awful to have lost. They said the Great War was the war to end all wars, but that did not work. Maybe this time it will be better and the human race will learn to live in peace and collaborate to create prosperity and happiness for all, even if for no better reason than that wars will get worse and worse.
Unfortunately, Beezer went back to his home with his family near London. And I went away from Cornwall to boarding school. Beezer and I didn’t see each other again after that, and neither of us were much good at writing letters. But the happy memories have lasted much longer than the war and the sad ones did, and I am thankful for that.
© Richard Hoskin 2017