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Heroes Of Our Time

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Ethel Gray nee Lambert

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The 1939 - 45 war as I remember it.


I was 12 years old the eldest of eight children living in a small North Norfolk village, my father was a farm worker and we lived in a tied cottage. We lived on the edge of the park adjoining Barningham Winter hall, we were allowed to play in the park and woods, paddling in the stream or lake, we were enjoying an idyllic childhood, all this was soon to end.


As young children we had heard the grown ups talking about the prospect of war to us  this was very scary. We had no radio, no television, no telephone and rarely saw a newspaper. Farm workers pay did not allow the luxury of a newspaper .   During 1938 there was talk of the prime minister Chamberlain going over to Germany to have talks with Hitler. Who was this Hitler we wondered, as we had overheard our mothers talking as they did, when they met to draw water at the communal pump, “what could he do with his umbrella?” they said. It seemed that Chamberlain never went anywhere without it.


The rumours of war rumbled on, About four miles on the coast behind our house there was great activity with target practice, As soon as we heard the guns firing from Weybourne camp  we ran to see the plane towing the target You must remember at this time an aeroplane was an unusual sight, and we ran outside every time we heard one. Soon all this was to change as German fighters flew in from the coast firing their guns attacking local airfields then we were glad to run indoors.

(Weybourne Camp, was an Anti-Aircraft Artillery range. This, along with a complementary camp at Stiffkey, represented the main live firing training ranges for ACK-ACK Command in World War II.   RAF radio-controlled Queen Bee targets, T Flight, 1 AACU, rocket testing. Now a WW2  museum


At the beginning of 1939 a lot of building work was going on at West Beckham about four miles from our house, although an uncle worked on it, no one knew what it was for. Four wooden and four steel pylons were erected and surrounded by a high chain link fence with sentries at the gate everything else connected with these pylons was underground in concrete bunkers. The tops of the pylons had lights on to warn approaching aircraft and we would watch every night to see the lights come on.. If any of the locals had problems with their cars not starting or engines cutting out they would blame it on the pylons. It was only after the war that we realized that they were part of the  radar defence system.


Then work began on the fields beside our school, heavy plant worked around the clock and RAF Matlaske  was born. (RAF 72 Sq. (Spitfires, Westland Whirlwinds, Lysanders, Walruses and P51 Mustangs) This was to be an overflow airfield for Coltishall. Originally only a grass landing strip and being very muddy  it was ideal for damaged planes to land, to do a belly flop as we called it. A whirlwind crashed in the field next to our house killing all the aircrew. Then one day a buzz went round the village James Steward the film star had flown in.  But no one was allowed on the airfield to see him.


During the dark days of early 39  as  we were preparing for war the hall in our lovely park was then taken over by the RAF. for officer quarters and a hospital.

Gas masks were distributed and as we  fitted them my mother had to be taken outside into the fresh air as having her face enclosed in that stinking rubber was too much for her I’m sure if gas had been used many of us would have died rather than wear the masks


As all the  men who were eligible to been called up to join the services, it left only the very young and  very old men in the villages to form the home guard. So you can imagine what a motley crew they were, If you have seen B. B. C’s Dads Army then you have seen our home guard in its infancy It did eventually shape up, get into uniform, changed their hoe handles for rifles and carry out vital sentry and fire watching duties. My father was one of these and made us all laugh one night when demonstrating how to use a rifle. When he  got it tangled up with mothers bloomers hanging on a line in the kitchen.


The day  war was declared I was staying with an aunt and uncle and my  father came over eleven miles on his bike to fetch me home bringing with him my gas mask then when we got home with my brothers and sisters we had to go round the garden and pick up any pieces of paper or any thing light coloured that might be seen from the air. A bit over the top of course, but no one fully understood and the powers that be did n’t know much better.


We didn’t get air raid shelters free as the towns did and certainly couldn’t afford to buy any. The domestic type for four persons were selling for £13 10s 00d (£13.50p). Soon we were surrounded by evacuees, mother could not have any she was already full up with her eight children, but was expected to do the washing for those at the hall. The evacuees used our school which meant there wasn’t room for all of us so we had to alternate morning and afternoon sessions   Coming from the East End they were quite a different breed to ourselves we were quiet country kids and their language was quite blue . However a lot of them drifted back to London the life of the country wasn’t for them, and soon we were back to all day school with the few evacuees that stayed.


Once when I was going from Holt to Hempstead I found my way blocked at a level crossing by a troop train. The front of the train was at the platforms in the station discharging the troops and a long way down the line was the rear. I realised I was in for a long wait, then one of the soldiers in the carriage saw my predicament so he got some of his mates to haul me and my bike into the train then lowered me out of the other side.


A day in the city of Norwich to visit relatives was often spent in air raid shelters, and by the time you got to see them it was time to catch the bus back home. at least you didn’t miss the bus as it couldn’t leave until the all clear I can remember many a night was spent sitting in a room with only a wire frame over the window to protect you from flying glass it was very frightening.


The Hempstead village had a miraculous escape when a German plane jettisoned a bomb or sea mine which exploded close to Hempstead hall leaving a crater big enough to put the hall in


After the battle of Britain  the airfield and hall went quiet but huts were being built in the park. Our peace was shattered one night by a scene I will never forget. The road beside our house was filled with military vehicles and troops in all it took about three hours to pass through. The yanks were here they had been airlifted into Sculthorpe air base and travelled to Matlaske airfield. The vehicles to be stored there and the troops billeted in the huts on the park. They were a friendly lot and were welcomed in the villages and many friendships were forged . Just as suddenly as they arrived so they  had to depart. When they received the order to pack only a kit bag and personal possessions were allowed and to everything else was to be destroyed. Many of the soldiers knowing that their village friends were short of most things, although this was illegal, the things they could not take, they distributed to the villagers, nearly every villager received some bed linen with the advice to remove the US markings by cutting them out and sewing a patch in. Then one day word went round the village that the police were investigating as to who had received the blankets so you can imagine the flurry there was to get rid of the evidence. It is said that one policeman while going to a back door  received a pile of blankets on top of his head, dumped straight out of the window. It is said that in every sad situation there is humour and this certainly caused a laugh in the village especially when it was found that the police were investigating a completely different matter.


For a while the village was quiet then the huts in the park were filling up again this time with prisoners of war.  When the news of the Normandy landings filtering through we realised that our American soldiers had been moved to the south coast ready for D Day.


A small part of the park had had Italian prisoners for some time which we had to pass on our way to school, we ran past very frightened in spite of the two British sentries on guard.

Even after sixty years I can still remember their haunted faces staring at us, in hind sight they were probably only thinking about their own children or brothers and sisters at home, and were more scared of what was going to happen to them then we were of them.

The authorities how ever did not consider them dangerous as  they were allowed to work in the fields, then towards the end of the war they were more or less allowed complete freedom and came round the villages selling ornate carvings and knick knacks made from anything they could lay their hands on.


This reminds me of the time when the team man who managed the working horses went into the stables to prepare them for the days work, he was astounded to find that all the manes and tails had been cut off. He was puzzled as to who could have done it and why? He did not have to wait too long as before the week was out, the Italian prisoners were round the village selling  sandals made from plaited horse hair. It is also said that the prisoners brewed some potent wine  from potatoes.


The early autumn was a busy time for us children earning pocket money picking up  acorns to feed to pigs getting paid 6d (2.1/2 pence) for a bushel Approx 30kg and rose hips for 3d per lb (1.1/4p) to be made into rose hip syrup for vitamin C. We gathered blackberries and helped the WI make jam in the village hall all this was hard work, what with the blackberries staining your hands, the brambles and thorns scratching your arms it was not surprising that sometimes I went to bed feeling quite worn out, only to find that I was still picking berries in my sleep.


Then when I left school I went to work as a domestic servant for Mr & Mrs Hagen, Green farm Hempstead there I could not get away from jam making as Mrs H was president of the women’s Institute.  We used to call the WI.  Jam and Jerusalem. I’m sure Mr & Mrs Hagen  were past retiring age when I joined them . But of course nobody retired during the war It was a very busy dairy farm they had just build up a Friesian herd and Mrs Hagen was very proud of her cows and dairy. Mrs H was also President of the district nursing association and on the county committee of the land army sorting out billets and placements for them, their welfare and social life. We had many land army girls come to the farm it  was a culture shock for them, having had bathrooms and flush toilets at home, now they had to go to the bottom of the garden. They were if necessary required to help in the farm house but coming from the city life .they thought it demeaning and refused to do it even if they were billeted there, they expected to be waited on.

I never heard of any pranks on our farm but a tale was told about threshing days when the stacks were threshed to get the corn out. The girls could not see the reason that before they started work  the men tied the bottom of their trousers round their legs . They soon found out as when the bottom of the stack was reached  out would pour dozens of rats and mice, who had made it their  home for the winter, so you can imagine the shrieks and screams when one found its way up a trouser leg.


By the time I registered for war service working in a farm house was regarded as a reserved occupation. Mucking out the kitchen range was much preferable to mucking out pigs as far as I am concerned. There was so much to for one person to do in the farm house The paper work seemed to grow each week, so many forms to fill in so after a lot of harassment from the farmers, the ministry of labour decided they would not call up the domestic servants of the farmers.


I remember my father being  upset when he heard that all young people not in the services were expected to join youth clubs. having heard so much about the Hitler youth he thought it would be like that.  I was a member of the local youth club ,also treasurer of the Baconsthorpe and district young farmers club and when the secretary was called into the forces I became secretary. I did miss going to the beach as a teenager, it was only five miles away, but because of the threat of invasion it was out of bounds and  full of barbed wire entanglements  and Heavily mined.


Most food was rationed, but being in the country had its advantages as we could get the odd rabbit or pheasant and had our own chickens and kept pigs. oranges and bananas were a luxury. Now and then there would be a rumour that there were some in town, everyone stopped what they were doing and dashed into town with their bags and ration books they didn’t need a very big bag as the allocation was very small and the queue stretched the length of the town.


Throughout the war the cinemas were crowded. People standing down the aisles and behind the back seats. It was not as if the films were blockbusters. But everyone eagerly awaited the Pathe news to hear and see how the war was going on These news reel were days old as they had to be transported from the actual battle field (no instant satellite pictures as of  today) I can well remember the news reels after Dunkirk with the scenes of our troops returning home from Dunkirk defeated. You could feel the atmosphere, the peoples spirits sank we all thought we would lose the war, I am sure that it was Winston Churchill’s speeches that kept the peoples morale up.


I was then eighteen when the war ended with Germany, I was still working in domestic service for a farming family.  I was called into the dining room at 3.00 pm to hear Winston Churchill’s  victory speech. There I stood with a lump in my throat and tears in my eyes, and no one asked me if I would like to sit down .That was how they treated servants in those days The next day the whole country went wild, I went with my friend and her brother who was on compassionate leave from Burma to celebrate in Holt. where everyone was waving the union Jack, singing, dancing, bands playing, and drinking the pubs dry.

I’m sure there was not much work done the next day and there must have been many a sore head.. It was not long before everyone got back to reality. The war in the far east was still going on. And the aftermath of the war was pretty rough. So much sadness, so many killed, so many injured, so many failed marriages. Hardly a family that had not been affected.

People were very unsettled for years.  Those coming home from the fighting were finding it very difficult to settle down. There were so few jobs for those returning troops. Most of them had not been out of Norfolk before and had began to realise there was another world out there , domestic servants who had been in the services weren’t prepared to return to that life again and Upstairs Downstairs has never been the same again.


There were still shortages of housing, food, clothing, linen, household goods and fuel some rationing continued until 1953. Wages were very low so if products were there, we could still only afford small amounts.


Prefabricated houses were built in the cities and very nice they were too, because when the war began the cities had a lot of slum dwelling. Squatting became the norm anything that could be made into a home was taken over by the homeless and woe - betide anyone who tried to turn them out.


Later when I saw the news and pictures of the atrocities committed by Germany and Japan. I was glad that My younger brothers were still at school during the war.


I am also forever grateful that my sons and daughters never had to experience war as my generation has.


E. M. Gray.  Nee Lambert.

19th May 2002