Yeovil at war

On the railways during the war

The wartime recollections of Bill Froude

 

These are the wartime Yeovil recollections of the late Bill Froude, adapted from his autobiography "What a Life" and reproduced here courtesy of his son, Roger Froude.

 

"My main ambition was to join the service of the Great Western Railway which was, at that time, reputed to be the finest of its kind in the world. I was fourteen years of age when I left school therefore I had to wait two years before I could apply for a job on the railway. My Father was insistent that I learn a trade. My sister Winnie’s husband was a charge-hand fitter at Westland Aircraft in Yeovil, so he used his influence with the apprentice supervisor to get me in as an apprentice. I hated it.

I was placed in the sheet metal shop to train in that trade. Me a tin smith? - not likely - I had other ideas. I was so miserable in that job that some days I used to play truant and cycle off to somewhere like Castle Cary, which was the nearest place on the Great Western main line Paddington to Penzance. Trains like the Cornish Rivera, and the Torbay Express, passed through at very high speeds. But I soon had to discontinue those little jaunts as my wage packet suffered - the wages where terrible anyway. Well, I put up with this job for about a year then began to pester my father to join the railway.

My father was the Chief Signal Engineer stationed at Yeovil Pen Mill station and was responsible for a large area, from Frome to Weymouth, so of course he had quite a lot of influence. He eventually arranged an interview for me with the Station Master at Pen Mill. This interview was successful, subject to my passing an interview with the Superintendent of the Line, and a medical examination, the next week.

I passed on both counts and began as a trainee telegraphist at 9am on 10 July 1939. I arrived that morning, very nervous as the Station Master introduced me to Fred, the telegraphist I would be replacing, once I was trained by him and had passed my exams. Fred handed me the Morse code manual and said "There you go William get stuck into that for a start". I took Fred at his word, and within a couple of weeks, became a learner reader on the "Single needle" instrument. It took a lot of hours of intensive study but it always amazes me how quickly one can attain a very high standard of efficiency, when performing something that you love doing. Even the smoky atmosphere of the station itself gave me one hell of a kick, so I made rapid progress and within a few weeks was reading the Morse instrument at high speed.

I went to Bristol Temple Meads Station for my final exam. I was directed to the Superintendent of the Line's offices, which were situated outside the station itself over a stone bridge, with a uniformed man on the door - his head adorned with the most gorgeous brown top hat with a cream coloured band - obviously representing the Great Western colours. I was tested by the Superintendent for about an hour and finally he stood up and held out his hand to me "Well lad I'm pleased to tell you, you have passed with flying colours. Well done, I hope to see you in a signal box in my district in a few years’ time. Here is your badge and a ten shilling note.”

The month was September 1939, war was declared on Germany and all train services were cut to accommodate routes for special trains to evacuate thousands of school children from the large cities and towns such as London, Birmingham, Manchester and many others. The Great Western bore the brunt of this operation, as it served much of rural England & Wales, which was in easy access from the main cities.

During this period of time I was kept very busy, with Morse messages being sent and received in the hundreds during the course of a day. A special code had been set up for the different types of trains, stations and strategic railway military areas, so I had to learn all these various codes. It meant burning the midnight oil again, as the Station Master and I were the only people allowed to be conversant with these codes and we were among the first to sign the Official Secrets Act. The main problem for me was the Station Master had a poor memory and was continually calling for me to decipher the codes.

By October 1939 the evacuation of school children, and some adults, was well under way. I remember train loads of them arriving at Pen Mill, being shepherded and sorted by local teachers and voluntary workers. Most of them from the east end of London. It was a sad sight, the poor kids had never been away from home or their parents. Later they were marched around the streets of Yeovil, each house had a knock on the door and the occupants asked to take in as many children as possible.

The railways were now faced with a serious staff shortage as this was before the exemption law for operational staff was brought into being. Many men had been called up for military service in the early days, without any thought as to problems that materialised in the operation of essential civilian services, the war effort could not run without them.

The war was very quiet throughout those first months, until the bombs started to drop. Immediately plans had to be made with regard to warning all the stations and signal boxes, so the staff were alerted to the air raid danger. I was asked by the Station Master to keep the telegraph office open for twelve hours every day to receive air-raid calls on the national phone from the Observer Corps. Then I had to pass these warnings on to all stations from Frome to Dorchester, and all signal boxes in that area from 10am until 10pm each day, Saturdays and Sundays included. From the next day I became the area controller for the air- raid warning system. The procedure was that the first air-raid warning ‘yellow’ informed me that enemy aircraft were within a 25 mile area and to be prepared. I would then inform all stations etc. under my control. This was followed by air-raid warning ‘red’ meaning enemy aircraft immediately in your proximity. This I then transmitted over a railway phone circuit set aside for this purpose, these phones had to be attended at all times, and immediately.

On one occasion I was busy transmitting a yellow warning to all stations along the Taunton branch line. Since this was sent over a communal line any person on that line could cut into your conversation. This was done by a signalman at Cogload Junction, a box situated out in the wilds of the Somerset levels. He shouted "Bill call the police, I've got a bloody German airman here in the box with me." I asked "Are you OK George?" He answered "Yes, I'm alright, he's sat here drinking a cup of tea. He gave me his gun when he walked in. Blimey mate, he's only a kid." I called the police, they in turn informed the military, who collected him. His war was over. Apparently he bailed out of his aircraft and landed in a field opposite Cogload box. Unhurt, he saw the box and made his way to it.

During the evacuation of Dunkirk in 1940 the code for this massive operation was "Dynamo". Many of the regular train services were either altered or cancelled to allow routes to be found for these special trains transporting hundreds of troops from the ports to various holding camps and hospitals throughout the country. Houndstone camp at Yeovil was one such camp. Many of these trains arrived at Pen Mill and these men were in a pitiful state, some dressed only in paper bags, and many were starving as they hadn’t eaten for days. Some were shell shocked and were assisted off the trains by medics and Red Cross nurses. Army ambulances were waiting outside the station for all the wounded, army doctors running from one to another. The voluntary services like the Salvation Army, the Red Cross and the Women’s Voluntary Service were all there doing a wonderful service, providing food and hot drinks for those men whilst they waited for their transport. The atmosphere was one of silent dejection as if this was not real. It was almost one of total misery, I had never experienced anything like it before

30 September 1940 was the day I thought my life was going to end. At about 4pm, while I was busy on the telephones sending air raid warnings ‘red’ to stations up and down the line, all hell was let loose. The noise of bombs whistling down, the station buildings shaking, doors slamming, the screaming of passengers outside was indescribable. I ran on to the platform and helped the station staff usher the passengers into the waiting room shouting at them to lay on the floor. I returned to my office to find Ernie the parcel porter crouched under the desk; he seemed very agitated, so I asked him what the trouble was (what a bloody stupid thing to ask when we were likely to be blown to smithereens at any moment). He replied "My wife is having a baby this afternoon". So, as his house was only yards from the station, I suggested that perhaps he should be with her. He replied "Oh she’ll be all right, the nurse is with her so there shouldn’t be any problem". I murmured something in reply and he added "After all lad, it is the thirteenth child, but perhaps I'd better go". I just stood there flabbergasted; however his wife had twins - so that made fourteen in all.

We were informed later that the massive load of bombs intended for the Westland aircraft factory, missed us and landed on Sherborne, and caused enormous loss of life and damage to the town. Apparently the RAF fighters had intercepted the German bombers over Yeovil so they turned for the coast and, in doing so, they jettisoned their bombs which fell on Sherborne.

 


Courtesy of Roger Froude

Pen Mill staff photographed in 1941. At left is Joe the porter, at centre is telegraphist Bill Froude and at right is the signalman (name unknown).



During 1941 the railways were a prime target for the German bombers, therefore many stations, yards and signal boxes were attacked and many railway men lost their lives. I experienced a few nasty moments when I became a signalman later that year. Signal boxes were becoming prime targets for the lone raider, especially on moonlit nights, as the rails gleamed bright so the pilots followed them easily. Then suddenly they came upon a signal box stuck up in the air with enough light to fix their sights on and bang bang bang - too bad for the signalman. I had two very frightening experiences, where I had to take cover by diving outside and crouching in the bank of the river at the rear of the box while the pilot shot out the windows. I finished my shift dressed in overcoat and gloves and my mate who relieved me had to do the same, until the builders arrived to repair the damage. Usually these repairs were carried out by special gangs made up of skilled carpenters, bricklayers and roofers, etc. who were rushed to the scene either by road or rail - whichever was quickest. When I arrived for my next shift all was normal.

After a number of signalmen where killed, including some of my old friends, the powers that be decided that some protection should be installed in signal boxes. This took the form of a six foot high, heavy steel box, similar to a night watchman’s' hut. It had spy slots to enable the signalman to observe the instruments, but how you pulled the levers was anyone’s guess."