Memories and Thoughts of a Wartime Teenager

Harpenden 1939/45

John Hunt. Credit: R. Ross, September 2019

John Hunt wrote his memories of the second world war in 1990 (BF 2B.2s) in response to a competition organised by Harpenden Local History Society. A shortened form was published in John Seabrook’s “The Best of Times”, published in 2012. Both John Hunt and John Seabrook have given their permission for this comprehensive essay to be published.

Fairy lights in Harpenden for George Vth Silver Jubilee celebrations in 1935. Credit: LHS archives

As the 1930’s drew to a close, the memories of someone who had just become a teenager were of those bright and happy celebrations of the Silver Jubilee of King George V and the Coronation of George VI. We had no television to watch these events, so like most villages, Harpenden organised its own celebrations and fun for all to enjoy. The day concluded with the High Street looking very colourful with the Chinese lanterns hanging from canes on the greens and candles in fairy lights hanging from the chains. Happy days, even though it did rain at the end of one of those days, and the dye from the decorations ran down my father’s raincoat.

By 1939 these were just memories and now the future looked very black though as a thirteen year old I did not appreciate the seriousness of the situation. Even those that did, I don’t expect they thought that it would be nearly six years before we had peace and something to celebrate once again.

Evacuees arrive in Harpenden

Crosthwaite – an evacuee reception point in 1939. Credit: St George’s School – Pamela Wetherley

With the declaration of war on September 3rd 1939, those first days saw the evacuation of children from the large towns to safer country areas. Trainloads were to come to Harpenden including Hugh Myddleton and Medbourn Schools from London. As a member of the Scouts we met these trains and escorted groups of these children, each with their label attached, and carrying a small case or bag and their gas mask box, to Crosthwaite in Stewart Road. Crosthwaite was a large house on the corner of Carlton and Stewart Roads which was for boarders of St George’s School. Here the evacuees were recorded and fed before being taken to their new homes throughout Harpenden. With the inactivity of those early months of the war, some, like the two boys billeted to our house, returned to London quite quickly; many stayed for the duration.

The Methodist Sunday School, Southdown. Credit: LHS archives – detail from 1900 photo

The new Manland Senior (now Sir John Lawes) School and Junior School were due to open at this time and so many of the Harpenden children were having to transfer to new buildings. This must have been a headache for the Education Authority and then to have also the evacuees’ schools to house.  This and the lack of air raid shelters in the new buildings was to necessitate a slight delay in the opening of the new schools. The problem was solved when the Harpenden School and evacuees were to have the school buildings on part days. No, we did not get away with half week education, as various halls around the area became our classrooms. The Methodist corrugated hall in Southdown, on the site of Somerfield’s (now Co-op) store, was to be my school without desks. The small windows in the lower part of the front of Manland Senior School were sandbagged up and it was here we would all shelter on hearing the air raid siren. Always going from classroom to shelter in well organised drill under the supervision of the Headmaster, “Tiger” Watts and the other teachers.

Formation of the Comforts Fund

During the early part of 1940 with just over twenty Harpenden men serving in the forces in France, both the British Legion and Harpenden Urban District Council had ideas of forming a Comforts Fund. Rather than overlapping, this was formed jointly and the Harpenden Comforts Fund was created. I have many memories of the work in raising money, packing parcels, knitting woollens, sending postal orders and finally the five Welcome Home parties held after the war for which many Harpenden people gave of their time. I knew of these activities and the events because of the involvement of my father (Herbert Hunt). He became Secretary when the Committee was formed and like most members was to continue until the disbandment after the 5th and final Welcome Home during 1948. To raise money many groups of people organised dances, whist drives, concerts and during the summer gardens were opened to the public. The biggest event was during August 1944 when there was a week of entertainment organised by the Committee and the Harpenden Good Companions which raised over £1400. The Good Companions was a group of local businessmen formed to help raise money for charities and included Ernie Ackroyd and Archie Smith.

Parcels to the Forces and Echoes of Harpenden

During the early days of the war the parcels of knitted garments or toiletries were packed in our front room until many more men and women were called up and it became a larger task, then this was transferred to the Council Chamber in Harpenden Hall. When each parcel was sent a list of many items was included so they could advise their requirements for the next time. Later in the war as goods became more difficult to obtain, it was decided to send postal orders. Parcels or postal orders were sent twice a year.  Amongst the requests was for news of Harpenden. The Committee decided a news sheet should be sent at intervals and this was called “Echoes from Harpenden”. It was provided cost free by an anonymous donor and the joint editors were Sid North and Rudd Smith, both Committee Members and in the print trade.

Many letters of appreciation were received by the Committee – one serviceman wrote “The gift of useful articles will always remain in my thoughts as a remembrance that I am not forgotten by the people of Harpenden and today that is one of my greatest comforts”.  Each service person’s record was kept by my father in a ledger with room for the ever changing addresses and details when parcels were sent. Sadly by the end of the war 108 of those pages had written on them “killed in action” or “missing, presumed killed”. They gave their lives for their country and for their village – Harpenden.

The Civil Defence Services

Digging the air-raid shelter in Bowers Parade Gardens. Credit: LHS archives

Before the declaration of war and immediately after there was much dedication in the forming and training of the Civil Defence Services. Many sandbags were being filled and air raid shelters dug. In the centre of Harpenden shelters were dug under Leyton Green and Bowers Parade Green. Men and women, especially those not expecting call-up for the services, were volunteering for Auxiliary Fire Service, Air Raid Wardens, Red Cross and St John Ambulance services, Women’s Voluntary Services and other various requirements for that unknown future. When the situation became serious in Europe, the Harpenden Urban District Council, like all councils, had to plan and set up these services.

Civil Defence buildings behind Park Hall – demolished for site of Sports Hall. Credit: LHS archives – LHS 12299

First someone was needed to take control of the Civil Defence Services. For this they didn’t have to look far as Mr F.N. Gingell, one of the Councillors was to take on this very responsible position. Mr Gingell, a Churchillian type character, carried out these duties throughout the war with utmost dedication until these services were disbanded with peace once again. All this was controlled from an air raid shelter dug behind the Old Public Hall (now Park Hall). I always remember just above was a small wooden hut which was filled with gas and we had to go through to test the efficiency of our gas masks. Harpenden was divided into twelve sections, six to the East and six to the West of the railway, each section having a control post and a group of air raid wardens.

Entertainment for the Armed Forces billeted in Harpenden

From the beginning of the war, units of the army started appearing in Harpenden. The first I recall were light armoured vehicles camouflaged beneath the trees of the Hatching Green driveway to Rothamsted and the then unmade Stewart Road. These were being prepared to go across to France. Later, searchlight stations were built at Mackerye End, Beeson End Lane and Kinsbourne Green and Rothamsted Manor became a base for a signals unit. Luton Hoo House became headquarters of Eastern Command.

Chirney’s Garage – one of the WVS canteens. Credit: LHS archives – LHS 4800

With the growing number of service personnel in the area arrangements were made in Harpenden to help entertain them during their off duty moments. There was a canteen at Leyton Green and in the building of the old Chirney’s Garage and on many Sunday evenings, the British Legion, headed by Sid Watts, organised concerts in the Public Hall. Entertainment was given by local artists and also “Stars in Battledress” – professional entertainers then serving in the forces. A good evening was always assured when artists like the comedian Charlie Chester and his gang appeared.

Summary of booking at Harpenden Public Halls. Credit: LHS archives – G. Ross, from Public Halls Booking Register

Not many Saturday nights passed without there being a dance at the Public Hall, which was enjoyed by locals and the service personnel. These dances were organised by many of the local clubs and societies which benefited from the profits made. This was one of the ways that much of the money was raised for the Comforts Fund. Geoff Stokes’ band from Luton was one of the most popular and on special occasions a services band would be obtained. The few hours of television programmes were stopped during the war years but very few people had sets then and the cinema was still the main form of entertainment. This applied to Harpenden during those war years when its two cinemas were popular places. The Regent, which was the building converted from the original Methodist Church in Leyton Road, and the purpose built Austral Cinema in Luton Road (closed in 1984 and now the site of a petrol station) which cost 6d (2½p) entry and it was not unknown for us youngsters under cover of darkness, to move back to better seats during a performance.

All these things were to help take your mind and worry from the war which was spreading right round the world.

Factory work for the War Effort

Many local men, and as the war continued, more and more women, transferred to the factories to help the war effort. The factories included the Vauxhall at Luton and Dunstable which earlier produced many Bedford trucks (always to be seen in pictures from the war zone throughout the world) and then also later, the Churchill tank. When these tanks came off the production line, they would be tested by being driven up Cutenhoe Road in Luton along the A6 Road to Kinsbourne Green and then over Thrales End and back along the Lower Road to Luton. They could be heard coming from quite a distance. De Havillands at Hatfield was to become the centre of the production of the famous Mosquito aircraft and at Radlett, Handley Page produced the Halifax bomber. Many smaller firms were to make parts for these factories. All this of course involved working shifts both day and night, hindered at times by air raid warnings and bombing.

Response to the appeal for aluminium – in front of the Public Halls. Credit: LHS archives – LHS 12271

All these things needed materials to manufacture and to help out with supplies the government appealed for aluminium articles for making aircraft and the iron fence and gates at the front of our house had to go. Newspapers were saved and a building in Saunders’ yard in Southdown Road was the centre where Scoutmaster N. Collison and the Scouts spent many hours bundling and tying up for recycling. Many Saturday mornings I spent down there.

The Work of the Home Guard

With German forces capturing Holland, Belgium and then France in 1940 and only the English Channel dividing us, the Government asked for volunteers in May 1940 to form the L.D.V. (Local Defence Volunteers), later to be called the Home Guard. Better known many years later through the television programmes of the name “Dad’s Army”. No doubt, like this programme, there were lighter moments but with this crucial situation the training and their activities were taken very seriously even if there were only pike, pitchfork and shotguns at the start. Trenches appeared in the banks at the side of the roads and concrete tank obstacles to cover the ways into Harpenden and trenches were dug and objects placed anywhere there were flat open spaces where gliders could land. Road signposts disappeared and anything which had names of the town or village which could help the enemy. At the start these volunteers just had an armband and soon they were issued with scruffy khaki denims and eventually the army’s uniform. They were seen parading and carrying out many duties efficiently.

Air training Corps

When the war started I had moved up from the Cubs and had been in the Scouts for two years. Two years with very few changes of faces. Then of course, older members started to join the armed forces and eventually units of Army Cadets, Sea Cadets and Air Training Corps were formed in Harpenden. So this meant they were leaving active scouting on attaining age of 16 and joining whichever Cadet unit they preferred in preparation for their call – up. My scout group, the 3rd Harpenden, had as Scoutmaster Mr N. Collison with Bill Nye as his assistant. He was very dedicated to the scout movement and its principles and many Harpenden lads, I’m sure, thank him for his guidance for their future life. At the conclusion of each meeting a member of the group would read the Roll of Honour of members who were serving in the forces, prisoners of war or had paid the ultimate sacrifice.

Being interested in aircraft, I decided at sixteen to join the 1488 Harpenden Squadron Air Training Corp. The Commanding Officer was Flt. Lt. C. Childs. The meetings and lectures were held at St George’s School and for drill we joined the National Children’s Home Wing of the squadron on the playground behind the Chapel at Ambrose Lane. Sports such as cricket were played on the playing fields at either place. The uniform store was an old railway coach in a garden in the then unmade Byron Road and was administered by George Harris, son of the Clerk of the H.U.D. C.

One of the highlights of the year was the squadron’s week away at the R.A.F. training unit at Panshanger Airfield near Welwyn Garden City. We met up at Harpenden East Station and went by train to W.G.C. and then transported from there. During the week everyone had a flight complete with helmet and goggles in a Tiger Moth aircraft. My flight included a landing at a practice landing field on the farm at the back of Nomansland Common and a low flight over my home. Many local teenagers passed through the A.T. C. before being called up on reaching their 18th birthday and joining the R.A.F.

Harpenden’s Holidays at Home Week

I always remember when flying over my home I could see a large poster in the front garden which puzzled me (were my parents hoping to move out before I returned?). On returning I was to find it was advertising the Harpenden Holidays at Home Week. A week organised as mentioned before, by the Comforts Fund Committee, the Good Companions and Women’s Institute to give the local people entertainment and a break from the war involvement with the added financial gain for the Comforts Fund and our hospital. By then we had had more than four years of war and not been able to get away for any holidays.

Programme for a Military Boxing Tournament held during Holidays at Home Week. Credit: LHS archives

The week commenced with the Bank Holiday weekend (1st week in August) with golf competitions at Hammonds End and The Common Golf Clubs and on Monday a Horse Show and mounted Gymkhana in Rothamsted Park, with tug-of-war competitions, Scottish pipers, Vauxhall Motors Orchestra and various exhibitions and sideshows. The Rovers Social Club organised a dance in the Public Hall in the evening to finish the day. Admission 4/-, Forces 2/6d. The rest of the week there were Brains Trust, folk dancing, seaside concert parties, children’s sports and various other sporting events including a Military Boxing Tournament in the Public Hall with prizes presented by the impresario, C.B. Cochran. The poster advertising the event said “Cycle Park, with attendant”. On the final Saturday Horticultural and Handicraft shows were held and a popular dance in the evening with the Beds and Herts Regimental Dance Band. The week concluded with a Drumhead Service on the Common under the Baa-Lamb trees. It was a very satisfactory week and helped to take the thoughts and worries of the war away for a time.

Air-raid warning system and bombing in Harpenden

Water Towers at Shakespeare Road. The siren was on the metal tower on the right. Credit: LHS archives – LHS 509

September 1st 1939 the street lights were switched off. September 3rd at 11.15 a.m. the Prime Minister, Mr Chamberlain announced we were at war and not long after the air raid siren went for the first time. What were we to expect? Blackout curtain material was in demand, windows were boarded up and Harpenden, like the rest of the country, was in complete darkness. The early air raid warning system was a steam siren at Abbott Anderson and Abbott’s factory in Leyton Road. Previously used for calling the firemen from their work when needed during the day. No thoughts then of mobile phones!! Eventually electric sirens were installed on the water tower at Shakespeare Road, in Grove Road, at Harris the Builders, 98 Luton Road and on the Bedco factory near Harpenden East Station, Batford end of Station Road. During the night I would always have early warning that the siren was going to go when Mr Gingell (Head of Civil Defence), who lived almost opposite my home, would drive off in his car to the Control Centre. Our house had a cellar and although my father had the outside exit protected by sandbags and the ceiling shored up with timber posts, we never ever slept down there. During the worst raids of the winter of 1940/41 we slept downstairs in the living room because that window was boarded at night for blackout and protection against blast.

Aftermath of the bomb at 10 Crabtree Lane, Oct 1940. Credit: LHS archives – LHS 13209

There were 41 high explosive bombs dropped on the Harpenden area; the worst damage was to a house in Crabtree Lane. The roof of Batford Methodist Church was burnt out on the 12th May 1941 by one of the 2099 incendiary bombs to be dropped in the area during those war years. A disaster was averted when one of these fire bombs fell in Claridge & Hall’s wood yard in Cowper Road. The quick action by Arthur Carter with the help of a sheet of corrugated iron and the yard was saved.

On the nights when London was being bombed you could see flashes of anti-aircraft guns, searchlights and the sky would be lit up with the fires burning. The night in November 1940 when Coventry was severely raided, German aircraft could be heard going and returning. Later in the war we had the V1 doodlebugs and the V2 rockets. The doodlebug (pilotless jet propelled bombs) had an easily recognised sound but the danger was when you could hear it and then the engine cut out and you waited for the explosion. The V2 rockets you knew nothing until they exploded. Having many war factories in Luton, Hatfield and in the surrounding area Harpenden was surrounded by targets. My father, being Senior Warden of E.9 sectors of air raid wardens, I was always interested in his activities and his fellow wardens and on reaching the minimum age of 16 I joined them as a messenger, complete with bicycle, and slept many nights at the warden’s post which was below the Ministry of Agriculture of Fisheries building in Milton Road.

Morale boosting radio programmes

The radio played a big part in keeping the morale of the people during these long years, with mainly two stations – the Home Service and the Forces’ Programme, the latter being continuous variety and music. The music by many of the service dance bands and orchestras and later the American forces, and their programmes were very much involved. Every morning at 10.30 a.m. and during the afternoon and then at 10.30 in the evening there was half an hour of continuous music without vocals “Music while you Work”. The main purpose was to have this relayed throughout the factories and canteens.

I suppose one of the most popular variety programmes was “It’s that Man Again” (I.T.M.A.) with Tommy Handley. One of the regular programmes on the Home Service at breakfast time was a local celebrity, Dr Charles Hill (the Radio Doctor). He would give advice on how to keep yourself healthy and what to eat and make the best of your rations.

Coping with food and clothing rationing

Food rationing started on January 8th 1940 and this seemed to be popular because it ensured fairness. Each family registered with a grocer, butcher and dairy and the number registered governed the amount of supplies each shop could obtain. The rations varied from time to time according to supplies in the country but the average was ½ to ? pence in cash value of meat, 4oz bacon or ham, 2oz each butter and margarine, 2oz lard, 1 egg, 2oz tea and 8oz of sugar. Later as America sent us supplies there was a ration of tins of dried milk, eggs and spam. December 1941 a points system was introduced to ration biscuits, dried fruit, cereals and tinned food, if available. My mother, like most mothers, performed miracles and always provided a substantial meal. With comparisons of today’s supermarkets and Salmons, the small grocers in Station Road where we were registered during the war years, I am sure one of the present day trollies with a week’s war rations would raise a smile. Our back garden and an allotment given over completely to vegetables and fruit helped to bolster other shortages. Harpenden Urban District Council gave a Cup to encourage allotment holders to grow more and a large plot just off Amenbury Lane was cultivated and divided into smaller plots for groups to grow potatoes supplied by the Council.

Ploughing on the Common. Credit: LHS archives – LHS B3.32

The 3rd Harpenden Scouts of which I was a member had one of the plots and I remember helping dig them and transporting them away on our trek cart. More agricultural land was needed as the war went on and a decision to plough up part of the Common was taken. Not a straight forward job as the area just above the cricket pitch was chosen and this had quite big areas of gorse bushes to clear.

1941 saw clothes added to the list of ration goods. We were allocated 66 coupons which were considered sufficient for a complete new outfit each year. Coupons required for a man were 13 jacket, 8 trousers, 8 shirt and for women 14 coat, 11 dress and a corresponding amount for underclothes etc. Under a utility label clothes and furniture were produced to keep prices down and to cut out trimmings to save on materials. There were no double breasted jackets, turn ups and some pockets banned and skirts shorter and straighter.

John gets called up

Over five years since this country became involved in the war, there were many ups and downs throughout the world and I saw many friends called up and sadly some never returned. The beginning of 1945 I had reached my 18th birthday and a letter arrived requesting my company at Warley Barracks, or words to that effect, so I am unable to conclude my war years in Harpenden with descriptions of how our village celebrated V.E. and V.J. Days. They did – and very successfully too, I am told!

Programme for the final Welcome Home dinner in the Public Halls. Credit: LHS archives – LHS BF 2B 3.16

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