Lest We Forget
Childhood wartime memories. By the Author.
When I became of school age I attended the infants school at Highworth Primary School. During the early part of the war we always had to take our gasmasks to school because of air raids. The air raid siren was on a telegraph pole by the mat factory in Brewery Street. When there was an air raid warning we had to either get under our desks or stand by our clothes peg in the cloakroom with our coats over our heads. Perhaps this was to help stop flying glass hitting us? We were always glad when the all-clear was sounded. Miss Bessie Smith our teacher always stayed with us on these occasions telling us not to worry. Looking back now I think we were very fortunate to have had her as our teacher; luckily no enemy bombs fell on the school during that time.
As the war progressed things became very exciting for the youngsters of Highworth; convoys of army lorries and tanks could be seen passing through the town and of course aircraft could always be seen flying around.
During that time the Rescue services and the Aux. Fire Service held exercises in case of the real thing. They had set up a casualty station for the injured in the old infants school in Shrivenham Road. On one occasion my brother and I were just going indoors in Sheep Street when the canvas covered ambulance, driven by John Roberts, pulled up outside our house. This frightened us both because we thought they were going to take us to the casualty station. We ran indoors and looked out of the window; thankfully they went to Miss Huckson's house just opposite, brought her out on a stretcher, put her in the ambulance and took her away. My brother Roy said, "That was a near squeak", because as youngsters we all dreaded having to go in an ambulance. My brother's joy was very short-lived because a couple of weeks later he was walking up the High Street when the ambulance pulled up, (yes, and with John Roberts), someone jumped out, put his arm in a sling, bundled him into the ambulance and took him off to the casualty station. Roy reckons John Roberts knew we were frightened and that's why he did it.
When the German bombers of the Luftwaffe were going over to bomb the Midlands, mother used to put the gaslight out in the living room and allow my brother and me to stand by the door to watch the searchlights pick up the outline of the aircraft, but of course they were very high up in the sky. Some evenings we would listen to Lord Haw-Haw with his propaganda broadcasts.
On one occasion, near the end of a school day, an aircraft hit the top of some trees in the Park not far from Eastrop Grange and crashed, killing all the aircrew. It happened just before we came out of school; when the bell went we all rushed to see the wrecked plane. I remember we were told off by a man at the scene of the crash who told us in no uncertain terms that it was no place for young children to be. I remember seeing that the man had covered the bodies of the aircrew with their parachutes, but at that early age we didn't really understand too much about it. I later learnt that the pilot was a Canadian.
One day my friends and I saw a Horsa glider hit a telegraph pole at the side of the railway line just past the railway station at the bottom of the Butts. The glider carried on and crash-landed in the hedgerow of one of Mr Painter's fields, on the north side of the railway line. No-one seemed to be hurt at the time. Later an American army lorry arrived with some American soldiers. One of them asked if we could help them find the tow-rope. After searching for a while we found the rope by the side of the line near Pennie Lane. We ran back to tell them and were rewarded with some packets of chewing-gum each. In later years I found out it was an American glider practising for the Normandy landings. We found that the American soldiers were always generous with chewing-gum and plasticine from when we used to wait for their convoys of lorries passing through Highworth. The best place to wait was at a crossroads because their lorries always seemed to slow down there. Most of the local lads' lives revolved round something to do with the forces; lots of aircraft, soldiers, convoys of tanks and army lorries pulling Ack-Ack and field guns.
As the war progressed more and more military personnel seemed to be in and around Highworth. The Market Square and surrounding streets were filled with army lorries. Some of the children who lived in Sheep Street were allowed to play in the back of one of the army lorries parked at the top end of the market square. This was great fun for the local kids because none of the soldiers told us off and, of course, when it was raining we could play in the dry.
Along Swindon Street there was a long convoy of Canadian tanks parked, which I have since found out were on their way to the docks for the Normandy Landings. Like all small children we stopped to look at the tanks and saw a soldier pumping up a primus stove when it suddenly exploded and one of his trouser legs caught fire. Another soldier quickly wrapped a blanket round him and put the fire out. We had to go on to school then and so we had no idea if he had been badly burnt.
One Saturday tea-time we were queuing at Mr Haggit's sweet shop in the High Street when someone shouted, "Parachutes falling over Coleshill". We all rushed out, some getting jammed in the doorway in the mad rush. The sky was full of parachutes dropping from American Dakota aircraft. We all ran round to Cherry Orchard to see them coming down in the fields, woods and in the river at Coleshill. I later found out that this was during April 1944 and was a practice jump for the Normandy Landings.
The next morning in the Market Square there was a burnt-out tank and army lorry and soldiers walking about with their arms in slings and bandages on their heads.
During the school summer holidays in 1944 I spent a fortnight with my aunt and uncle at Kingsdown, Upper Stratton. This was just after the Normandy landings because I can remember convoys of army ambulances going through from RAF Down Ampney, where some of the badly-wounded from the Normandy battlefields were flown to. I used to wave to the wounded soldiers, some of whom were in the cab next to the driver. At that time I was much too young to really understand what terrible injuries some of them had.
On Christmas day, which must have been near the end of the war, my grandfather saw two German POWs standing by the gas lamp post near the chemist's shop in Sheep Street. He sent my Aunt Lily down to see if they would like a Christmas dinner and some bottles of beer. The next thing we knew they were drinking beer with Gramp and then we all sat down to a good Christmas dinner. During the afternoon the two POWs played with my brother and I with the toys we had received for Christmas. A few days later they brought my grandfather a present of some weather vanes, which they had made out of old jerry cans and cocoa tins. With the end of the war in Europe came the Victory celebrations in the Market Square, with dancing and singing and a large bonfire. My brother and I were allowed out to join in the fun and I remember the Market Square was packed solid with people having a good time. Mrs Baker, who lived at the end of Sheep Street, made dummies of Hitler and Mussolini and hung them on a lamp post in the square and charged people to see if they could pull their heads off; I can't remember anyone achieving this. Afterwards she threw them on the bonfire along with some bags of chicken feathers, which smelt terrible.