Yeovil at war
Yeovil at war
The wartime Yeovil recollections of Jack Sweet
I was born in Yeovil in 1937 and during the war years was living in Orchard Street, Yeovil. My grandparents William and Beatrice Sweet lived nearby in Beer Street, where my grandfather had run a small vehicle body repair and painting works before closing it down on his retirement in 1936. However, he still kept his hand in by sign writing on the Yeovil and District Co-operative Society's delivery vans (a contract which he had received back in the 1920s). During the war because petrol for private motoring was almost non-available our family car was kept under dust sheets in the workshop positioned on blocks to keep the pressure off the tyres and suspension, and several redundant Co-op vans were also stored there. We had been living in a bungalow on Mudford Road some one mile or so away but when the war broke out returned to our Orchard Street house to be near my grandparents, and let the bungalow in Mudford Road.
I have no clear memory of events before 1939 but thereafter, memories come into focus and here are a few of them.
The Air Raids
From Friday 5 July 1940 to 16 June 1944, air raid warnings sounded over Yeovil on 365 occasions and could last for hours or just a few minutes. However, when the sirens sounded the warning most people would take to the air raid shelters listening to the uneven beat of German bombers passing overhead on their way to bomb Bristol, the South Wales' ports or the cities of the north east. On 355 times the enemy passed over, but on 10 occasions Westland Aircraft Works became the target and the bombs fell on Yeovil; there were also a few occasions when a lone raider would machine gun the town.
The first raid was on Monday 7 October 1940 and the last on 5 August 1942. In the raids, 49 people lost their lives and 122 were injured, 107 high explosive bombs fell and 18 oil bombs. 68 properties were destroyed and 2377 damaged, Only two bombs hit Westlands.
On 30 September 1940 a force of German bombers set out to bomb the Westland Works but cloud obscured the target and the Luftwaffe unloaded their bombs on Sherborne mistaking it for Yeovil. I have a clear memory of seeing a column of grey smoke rising in the east in the direction of Sherborne and watching a figure dangling from a parachute drifting across the town to the south and cheering with our neighbours, because my mother told me it was a German, However, it turned out that this was an RAF pilot shot down by one of the raiders.
One day in March 1941 after circling high over the town, a lone German bomber dived down and attacked the Westland Works. From the front room of my grandparents' house on Beer Street I saw the bombs going down on houses in Westland Road, where my other grandmother and step grandfather Forsey lived. I remember being thrown to the floor by my father who was recovering from a second attack of rheumatic fever, a legacy of his service on the Western Front in WW1. He was recovering at my grandparents' house because the under-stairs had been reinforced as shelter and our shelter at the bottom of the garden was too cold and damp. My grandparent Forsey's house on Westland Road was badly damaged but thankfully they were not at home at the time, and they went to stay with my mother's sister. Two bombs hit Westlands and cost the lives of three men, four women and a five years-old boy, four of the dead were Westland employees.
On another occasion I was with my grandfather Sweet on our land at Preston Grove, when a German DO17 bomber (I could recognise enemy aircraft by now from the illustrations in a picture book I had been given for a birthday present) flew very low across the town from west to east without the air raid warning being sounded, and machine gunned the nearby barrage balloon, I can still see in my mind's eye the head of the pilot wearing his brown flying helmet and the flicker of tracers streaking overhead.
Other memories flash by - Running along Huish on my way home for dinner under a brilliant blue sky and hearing the warning sound and running as fast as I could to get to our shelter. Watching barrage balloons going down in flames in a thunderstorm. Seeing a falling flaming light in the north which turned out to be a German bomber shot down. Seeing smoke and flames rising from the direction of the town centre when the Borough was hit by bombs on Good Friday 1941.
On one occasion some of the glass panes of the conservatory roof at my grandparents' house on Beer Street were smashed by shrapnel falling from a bursting AA shell fired at German raiders; it was amazing that this did not happen more often with the amount of shrapnel falling from air bursts. We kept the pieces for some years but they disappeared some time ago.
The Air Raid Shelter
A surface air raid shelter was built at the bottom of our garden in the summer of 1940 and I can just remember watching workmen laying the concrete base. The shelters were built by the Yeovil Borough Council as public shelters and the one in our garden was provided to accommodate some six neighbouring households. It was constructed with brick and comprised two bays, each with a concrete hipped roof, and a party wall dividing the two. The roof acted over the following years as a fort, den, airplane and any other use a boy's imagination could conjure up.
I remember sitting for hours on the benches my father had fixed along the walls, drawing, being read to, reading myself and playing indoor games to the dim light of an oil lamp fixed on the end wall, often with the uneven sound of German aircraft engines going over head and the crack of AA guns.
My father bought the shelter for £1 at the end of the war and it was used to store coal and wood in one bay and apples in the cool dark second.
There was a barrage balloon site not far from us at the bottom of Linden Road on what was the Summerleaze Park School playing field and I remember one day watching the grey balloon drifting over our house in an easterly direction. The gale which was blowing at the time had torn the balloon from its moorings and away it went over the town.
I had my own barrage balloon made by my mother from a flour sack filled with rags. String was attached to the 'balloon' which in turn was placed in a pulley fixed to a metal post put up by my father by the garden path. When the air raid warning sounded and we went down to the shelter the 'balloon' was pulled up and down when we came back at the all clear - at least that was the theory. Often or not in haste this operation was forgotten and on occasion one of the neighbours pulled it up!
This always featured large in a young boy's heart. I can't remember feeling hungry or going short of anything. Of course many of the foods we eat today were either little known at the time or I could not remember the pre-war world where they were available - bananas spring to mind.
Rationing of foodstuff was very tight, but bread was not rationed until after the war and we always had plenty of vegetables grown on our land or obtained from friends and relations, a benefit of living near the countryside. My father also bred and kept rabbits for food and the skins were sold to a local scrap merchant. We were supplied eggs (and Christmas dinner) by a flock of poultry looked after by my grandmother on the land at Preston Grove and although no one lived onsite I never heard of any theft of produce. I seem to recall that the hens were mainly Rhode Island Reds.
I doubt if anyone who lived through the war years can forget the American Army GIs or the 'Yanks', who poured into the country prior to the invasion. They seemed to be everywhere and to we youngsters they were really 'something'. I have few specific memories of the Yanks because they had become so commonplace and part of everyday life. I do remember their lorries however.
One thing I'm sure most of us who were young at the time remember 'ambushing' the GIs as they came into town, for us it was Preston Grove, with the standard call of 'Any Gum Chum', and the usual generous response of a stick or packet of Spearmint chewing gum. I can still taste it and there's been nothing to match it since, at least not in my opinion!
On D-Day 6 June 1944 I was seven years and two months old, but I have no memory of one of the days which changed history; what I can remember, however, is the build up of force for the invasion. The streets were packed with military vehicles of all descriptions, lorries, jeeps, half tracks and there were GIs everywhere. Many were playing the endless games of throwing a base ball to a catcher wearing the large leather base ball glove. Then suddenly they were gone to the invasion ports.
I was on my way to school one morning, it was probably only a few days before the invasion, when along Huish came a column of GIs marching in full combat gear and as they passed they were handing out candy and the treasured packets of chewing gum. Although we did not know it they were on their way to Pen Mill Station bound for Weymouth and the invasion fleet. I have often wondered how many of that marching column survived.
Possibly some of those GIs who marched through Huish on that June morning came back to Yeovil, because the Americans had established two General Hospitals at Lufton and Houndstone Camps. I remember on one occasion cycling with my father up Houndstone hill and stopping to talk to a group of bandaged GIs sitting on the roadside bank. Another time I had accosted a GI for gum in Preston Grove but as he had none he told me that his pal, who would be following shortly, had if I cared to wait. Naturally I did and he showed me a heavily bandaged leg which he said had been wounded by shrapnel. The promised gum came.
The War Ends
One day in May 1945, I was sitting on the roof of our air raid shelter when my friend Phillip Hamblen announced that his father had told him that the war would end tomorrow, but this was hard to digest, because all I had known was a wartime life. However V-E Day remains a memory of cheerful people, seeing and hearing thunder flashes let off in King George Street, and a feeling of relief even to my eight years-old mind. I also have happy memories of the street party in our garden when V-J Day which was celebrated in the following August.
The Second World War was over and so, to a certain extent, was my adventure.
Jack W Sweet