Yeovil at war

Yeovil at war

The wartime Yeovil recollections of Tony Robins

 

Many thanks to Tony Robins for his recollections of wartime Yeovil.

 

Memories of a young boy during the Second World War in Yeovil


I was aged seven and two months when war was declared on the 3rd September 1939. I remember sitting around the table at home listening with my parents to the Prime Minister, Mr Chamberlain, speaking on the wireless set. His final words "This Country is now at war with Germany." sent a chill through the room and we all went very quiet.

My memory before that was of a German airship going over Yeovil at a great height, we all stood in the street, looking up at this long silver shape as it travelled east to west. I understood later that it was taking photographs of southern England (more of this later). As a Cub Scout I helped fill sand bags as men dug trenches where the Octagon Theatre is now and I acted as a casualty for an air raid exercise with a label tied to me saying I had been gassed!!

The first Christmas of the war I was given a Morse code machine, my only present, so that I could learn how to send messages.

We all went to Hendford Manor to collect our gas masks; we had special lessons at school to see how quickly we could put them on. The brown cardboard box they came in with string to go around the neck was useful; with two sticks it made a very good drum as we marched up and down the street beating our drums and singing ‘The British Grenadiers’, I wore a tin hat I bought from Woolworth’s for six pence (2½p). My brother, Cliff, thought he would test it and hit me on the head with a big stick making a dent in the helmet and knocking me out, mother then hit him with the stick across his behind.

Many soldiers were stationed in Yeovil, empty houses were requisitioned and lots of troops camped on the Fair Field in Salt House Lane and where the Post Office is in Huish. It was quite a sight to see Bren gun carriers going round the streets churning up the tarmac. A Scottish piper, a very strange noise to us, sounded early morning reveille. They then left for France at the end of 1939 with the British Expeditionary Force. Later I remember many ladies going to Yeovil Junction Railway Station to serve tea and cakes to the soldiers returning from Dunkirk.

The first bomb to fall in the area, as I recall, was in a field between the Half Way Inn and Ilchester, all the boys cycled out to see the hole in the ground and tried to find some bits of shrapnel, the next one was in Derryman’s field where Safeways Superstore now stands, another expedition.

It was very exciting to see Westland Lysanders flying overhead and looking at them parked on the County Cricket Ground where Westland Engineers are at the end of West Hendford. My brother was an apprentice at Westland’s, he made control columns for Lysanders in a small workshop in the under ground car park below the cattle market next to the Odeon cinema in Court Ash.

Westland Aircraft Works was camouflaged as a housing estate before the war, windows, doors and chimney pots painted on the buildings. I think the photos taken by the airship before the war confused the Germans and they got it the wrong way round, for when the bombing really started they bombed north instead south of the airfield hitting Westbourne Close, Westbourne Grove, killing Mrs Harrison whose husband had a shop there, also hitting Grove Avenue, and St Andrews Road where you can still see the marks on the walls of the houses.

I was taking our dog for a walk one evening along West Hendford by Loder’s Car Sales; it was just a stone track and garden allotments then. When the bombs started falling, I ran for home on the corner of Beer Street, men were lying on the pavement against the wall and shouting, ‘get down you silly bugger,’ but I kept running, I was going home to mum.

We had our windows blown out several times, the blackout curtains thrown across the room and the ceilings brought down; these were repaired with Essex Boarding, sheets of fibreboard Dad bought from Bradford’s building merchants. When the air-raid siren sounded, mum, dad and myself sheltered under the stairs as it was thought the safest place. My brother wouldn’t get out of bed, he said "I’d sooner go down with the rubble than be buried under it."

My father was in the Railway Hotel in Hendford when the skittle alley at the back was hit and he was very upset as bottles of whisky fell off the shelves and broke as he was lying on the floor against the bar. I well remember when Burtons fifty shillings tailors in Middle Street was hit and for ages the whole front of the building was open to the elements with the light bulb still dangling from the ceiling. I was asleep in bed when Boots the chemist (now Burger King) was bombed in the middle of the night, I was thrown out of bed by the massive explosion and onto the floor, wondering what had happened.

I was sent to Bridport to stay with friends of the family called Chant who had a bakery there to escape the bombing only to have that town bombed while I was there. I nearly went to Canada with the children’s evacuation scheme but would not go, just as well as one of the ships taking the children across the Atlantic was sunk by a U-Boat and hundreds were drowned.

Because of the danger of the school being hit and many children being killed at the same time we had our lessons in the teacher’s houses, they lived locally in those days; our class went to Mrs Berryman’s house in 93 West Hendford. Others went to Mrs Field’s; her husband had a bakery in Wellington Street and Mrs Trask a member of the local mineral water company.

Evacuees came to Yeovil from London and quite a few went at our school, Huish where Tescos now stands. These ‘Cockneys’ were very strange to us, pale, thin but very street-wise, a bit of a cultural shock to us. They definitely knew more about the birds and the bees than us country kids, but they didn’t know where milk came from. One of the strange events of those days when we had PT (Physical Training), the boys had to take off their shirts and the girls had to remove their dresses. Well, one of the London girls, Julie who was quite a big girl, wouldn’t take off her thin cotton dress, teacher said ‘Julie take off your dress at once.’
‘I don’t want to Miss,’ she replies, almost in tears.
‘I said take it off, now do it, at once.’ Demanded the teacher.
With that, Julie removed the garment, only to reveal that she had no underwear. The poor girl was very embarrassed, the lady went as red as a beetroot and said, ‘Put that dress back on at once, you naughty girl. The rest of you outside now.’
Julie put her dress back on. But us boys just looked agog, with our mouths wide open. In those more innocent days it was the first time many of us had ever seen a naked girl. I thought girls were just boys with long hair, so began my first lesson in sex education.

The small grocery shop opposite us in West Hendford was owned by Mr Freke but he was a Major in the Territorial Army and he went off to war leaving it empty so the Authorities put three mothers with their children in there, they had been evacuated from the Channel Islands.

When the air-raid siren went when we were at school we had to go to the shelter at the bottom of the playground and sit in rows on wooden benches in the dark - but it wasn’t too bad because I made sure I sat next to Janet who I really liked and I could hold her hand if I thought she was frightened.

During the time of the German invasion scare after Dunkirk, barbed wire and pillboxes surrounded Yeovil, one was at the top of Hendford Hill [now demolished] it was disguised as a gazebo and another on Summer House Hill. The road by our shop had two big concrete pillars on the pavement and metal covers across the road to put bent railway lines in to stop enemy tanks. Soldiers dug a machine gun post at the bottom of Seaton Road and a young officer came into our shop and wanted to knock a hole in our upstairs front room for a machine gun as it faced the open fields opposite. My mum, Ada, soon told him what to do. The whole town was a Redoubt or defensive system for a last stand between Lyme Regis and Bristol and east of the Country. I carved the Union Jack image in the brickwork of the shop doorway with a nail just in case the Germans occupied us.

In the hit and run raid in August 1942 two German Focke-Wulf 190 fighter-bombers went past my bedroom window at rooftop height as I was going to bed, I saw the black cross and the swastika on the side of the planes not more than fifty feet from the window. Mum, who was drawing the curtains shouted ‘get under the bed’. They then dropped bombs on Grass Royal, Gordon Road and Dampier Street damaging several hundred houses. In all the raids on Yeovil 49 people were killed 122 injured, not including some soldiers killed at Houndstone Camp. But Westland Aircraft Works only once received some slight damage.

Many thousand of American soldiers, (I think over 12,000) were stationed in and around Yeovil prior to D-Day, at Barwick Park, Houndstone camp, The Fair Ground in Salt House Lane, Martock, Bradford Abbas also many houses in Yeovil were requisitioned They were very generous to the local children giving us food, sweets and chewing gum. The call was "Got any gum chum". Also ‘K’ rations (boxes of mixed food etc for emergencies). And nylons for girls, how and why these men came to have stockings in their kit bags was a mystery to us young boys.
They were young and very friendly; I remember some coming to our house for Sunday tea. One sergeant came from Boston, Massachusetts and he gave me some postage stamps from his hometown.

It was quite exiting when they collected the pay roll for their troops from Lloyds Bank in the Borough once a month. An armoured car pulled up outside the bank, which was then surrounded by American military policemen with Colt 45s on their belts and Tommy guns at the ready, just like the movies, very heady stuff. One night the Yanks tried to drive a jeep down Lovers' Lane and it got stuck half way and they had to reverse all the way back.

My father; Harold Robins, had a paper shop on the corner of Beer Street. I was not quite twelve years old and every afternoon after school I cycled up Hendford Hill to Barwick Park selling the Evening Standard to the American soldiers, I had a special pass signed by the Camp Commander. There were about five thousand camped there, all very young and friendly. Then one day in early June I went to the camp after school and they had all left, the whole place was completely empty. No one had told me it was D-Day! But I still managed to sell the papers to all and sundry, shouting "Invasion in Europe imminent!" before I got back to the shop. Although it wasn’t actually in the papers I had to sell them, otherwise dad would be cross.

I now understand they all went to Weymouth on Sunday night and embarked for ‘Omaha’ beach on the coast of Normandy in France, where they sustained the highest losses. The total on June 6th was 5,400 casualties of which ‘Omaha’ beach had 2,400 including 1,000 killed on the first day - the same young men I had sold papers and talked to only a few days before, so very sad.

On the Wednesday afternoon of the invasion we were playing cricket on our school playing field where the Golden Stones swimming pool is now situated and the whole time bombers, Dakota transport planes and aircraft towing gilders were passing overhead towards France, it was an amazing sight with their white broad stripes painted on the wings to show they were allied aircraft.

The end of the war in Europe was a bit of an anti climax, blackout restrictions had been lifted in early 1945, the war in the Far East against Japan still went on, shortages and rationing became worse, bread and potatoes were added, rationing did not finally end till the 1950s. Shortages still went on, power cuts, water turned off at night, I didn’t taste tinned fruit until I went to Egypt in 1952 with the RAF during my National Service. Hard times… but at least we were alive.

One of the lasting memories of that time was the prisoners of war coming home, thin, pale, some yellow skinned and although glad to be home they remained depressed for a long time. Perhaps thinking of their lost youth and the friends they had left behind buried in some foreign field.