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U3A Writing: Wartime Memories

...Imagine our surprise when on the first morning Auntie and I were in the town when we saw loads of houses with sandbags piled high in front of their windows as if they were expecting a full-scale invasion any minute...

Philip Hayworth recalls Word War Two days in a quiet corner of England.

For most of the war I lived in Stourport-on-Severn in Worcestershire, a little country town far removed from the constant air raids on the big cities and the South and East Coast towns. My uncle, who brought me up, had never heard of the place until he saw the advert for the Assistant Secretary at Bond Worth's Carpet Factory.

Auntie and I were temporarily evacuated to Oxford from London at the time when France collapsed in June 1940, and he continued working in London and spending weekends or longer periods at his sister's home where we were staying in Oxford. He endured a whole winter of this split existence doing his utmost to dodge enemy bombs, and then we were guided to Stourport in April 1941, where he had already started his new job in the carpet factory.

When we first came to Stourport we were in lodgings until we were able to get a house on the edge of the town near the countryside - quite a contrast from suburban London.

Imagine our surprise when on the first morning Auntie and I were in the town when we saw loads of houses with sandbags piled high in front of their windows as if they were expecting a full-scale invasion any minute. In fact a leading citizen had told Uncle that the Germans were coming straight for Stourport. We had never seen anything like this before in Oxford or London.

What had put the wind up the inhabitants of the town was when a stray German bomber was being chased over the town and, as it did so, it dropped its bombs on the Boys' Elementary School on a Sunday when no one was in it. But in the places where Uncle was, this sort of thing was a common occurrence; bombs were being dropped every night.

I can remember gas mask drill at school and how we used to chant our tables with them on. Every so often the Civil Defence Organisation used to bring their mobile gas chamber round to the schools and we all trooped into the van and sometimes had to take our gas masks off in the van and then put them back on again. The ironic thing about this gas mask drill was that no one had to use them during the whole of the war.

At the top of our road in the early months of 1942, where we had got our house, there was open countryside. There was a level crossing over the railway line and then a lovely green lane where children used to play and plenty of trees which we used to climb. It was a great relief to Uncle to get away from the bombing in London.

I remember going up this green lane with Auntie one Sunday afternoon and when we had got up the hill, all of a sudden we heard The Brainstrust coming from the bushes and, rounding the bend, we saw some gypsies and a soldier listening to a portable radio outside some tents with a fire going away to keep them warm. We learnt afterwards that often gypsies used to shelter deserters from the army.

All too soon this countryside was to be overrun by the construction of an American Military Hospital, as the U.S.A. had now entered the war. I can remember them coming as well because the Chaplain and one of the officers were coming down our road, which led into the camp, and my uncle was gardening in the front. The Chaplain commented upon his garden and then asked Uncle where the Baptist Minister lived, whereupon Uncle said "I'm the Baptist Church Secretary", and he told the Chaplain where our Minister lived.

A few Sundays later the Chaplain was preaching at the evening service, and he said, "Friends, it's strange how the Lord leads, but no sooner do I get out of the old tub (meaning his plane) than I run bang slap into a Baptist."

Auntie and Uncle had quite a lot of these Americans to supper or afternoon tea, and one of the GIs used our lounge to study in quietly as he was intending to go out to China as a missionary. He also taught in our Sunday School.

In these early days there was not much medical activity because these troops were later to be involved in the D-Day invasion. There were some medical staff there but the bulk of them came later when the wounded were starting to be brought from the front. When this happened, every week ambulance trains would come into Stourport and be shunted onto the coal sidings from where the motor ambulances took the wounded up to the hospital. I don't suppose Stourport saw such activity in its station before or after.

During their convalescence quite a number of the wounded felt that it would be good to have baseball activities on a local factory's sports field and, of course, the local inhabitants used to come to watch these matches.

I can remember how the Americans entertained the school children of the district. We all went up to the camp and enjoyed a varied amount of entertainment and some chocolate ice cream and cake. This was at Christmas time and we sang carols as well. At the end we were given a bag of sweets with a plentiful supply of American chewing gum. The troops had been saving up their sweet ration so that they could give the children a good send-off at the end of this party.

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