Yeovil at war
Yeovil at war
The wartime Yeovil recollections of Brian Serjent
"I was born in India during July 1935, and also so was my sister Wendy. We were children of a long serving soldier who served in the Somerset Light Infantry. This battalion served mainly abroad, in the North West frontier, Egypt, and Burma, so our family lived in married quarters. Just before World War II all married personnel were sent home. At just 4 years of age I remember the trip back to the UK in the Troopship SS Strathallen and running around on the vast decks with other children. This ship seemed so full of women and lots of children with hardly any men. Everything was so new and exciting and we were going to Britain for the first time.
Mum took us to live at Grandmother’s house in Yeovil; it was a rambling old house with big rooms and several bedrooms because Grandmother had many children. Now at outbreak of war all my uncles were called up into the forces so I rarely saw them until after D Day, but it meant the house was quite empty. All at once with no warning the house was full to overflowing with women and children, and for me at that young age it was a real mystery. I soon got to learn that these were all evacuees. There was a lady and two children from Battersea; two sisters from Fulham, both areas of London; and an elderly couple from Dover. I recall how these evacuees were terrified of the big countryside with its mass of fields inhabited by cows and horses and chickens, they were just not used to it. I soon ran with the other children across the meadows and climbing into the trees, enjoying the freedom.
It soon became apparent how vulnerable we were in Yeovil because the aircraft factory was here, manufacturing spitfires and hurricanes and a specialty, the Westland Lysander. This latter plane had the ability to land and take off with a very short runway, so it was of special value to land spies overseas and to take part in spotting missions. I recall a close friend of the family who drove a milk float, and she would smuggle me into the factory hidden under a large coat. Once inside I would help deliver bottles of milk around the different departments, and for a little boy it was marvellous to see all these aircraft in various stages of manufacture.
The aircraft factory was high on the list of targets for enemy bomber planes, so at Yeovil we had many air-raids, on and off, and sometimes a lone plane that had bombs left after a bombing raid on Bristol dropping the rest of its load on the nearby factory. There were many anti-aircraft guns around the place that fired 4-inch shells, and it was a great excitement for us lads to run out when the guns were firing to pick up the shrapnel that littered the countryside. This consisted of long narrow pieces of metal with jagged edges and they were often very sharp, and sometimes even hot when we picked it up. Our collections of shrapnel got spirited away when we were at school so we had to start collecting again.
Our big house had an attic bedroom and I remember being there when an air-raid started, and looking out of the small attic window. I recall one plane, a Heinkel, making a turn then flying straight down our road, and for me as a young boy I couldn’t understand the spitting fire coming out of its nose. I recall seeing the faces of the two pilots, and then suddenly an aunt grabbed me by the ankles and pulled me across the floor and rushed me downstairs to hide under the table. Later I learned our roof was one of those that had its tiles all shot up and I was very lucky to be alive.
Another wartime memory I have is of the Yanks who arrived in the area with their enormous 6-wheeler trucks. I had never seen such large vehicles before and so many of them, and the place was full of Americans. There were tanks and jeeps and lorries and guns, it was all so bewildering. There would be convoy after convoy travelling along our street en-route for Weymouth, but I did not at the time appreciate the significance of it all.
Just down the street was a bakery, and often a fleet of lorries would arrive there to purchase all their large fresh loaves to take back to barracks. The young lads would run out to chat with the Yanks and do our best to help carry bread to their vehicles. They would shower me with sweets and chewing gum and give me one of the large freshly baked loaves. When I took this home, Mum was delighted since it helped to feed the family. Also I was given tins of pineapples and beans, things we hardly saw in the war years.
I recall a telephone box was fixed on an island in the middle of our wide street. One day I saw Gran and Mum helping two injured American soldiers into the house and tending to their wounds. They had driven their vehicle into the telephone box and I suspect they were a little worse for drink. They gave us a large overcoat, a real luxury and I kept and wore this for much of my life. Suddenly there were no more Troops because D Day had arrived, but I didn’t quite understand.
Another memory I have of the War is being set a daily task. Every day in the daily newspaper was published a cartoon entitled 'Jane' that depicted a shapely woman with long blonde hair dressed only in knickers and bras. My task each day was to cut out the five or six carton pictures about Jane’s exploits and stick these into an exercise book. When the book was full it told a continuing story about Jane and this book was posted to one of my uncles out on the warfront. After he finished it was passed around other mates in the soldiers’ mess before being posted on to another uncle in a different unit. During the War I must have compiled at least six of these cartoon story-books, in the course of which, as a young boy I came to appreciate the feminine body.
At close of war I remember the homecoming of the troops. All my uncles returned safe and well and I remember people crying with emotion and lots of hugs all round, also people from the street coming in.
During the war years everybody was so friendly and helpful. We were so safe wherever we went. You couldn’t get new clothes during the war since factories only made things for war, so most of our clothes were hand-me-downs. Grandmother and my mother were always repairing and making new items out of old clothes, “Make Do And Mend” as it was popularly known. Also everybody was knitting all the time for each other, and to send to troops through the post. I remember we had to save precious brown paper and string, just for this purpose. Everything was in short supply. That was my war life."
Reproduced from the BBC's "WW2 People's War".