The World War Two Memories Project - East Anglia



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My father was a chief mechanic for the B-52, the flying fortress. I like to think he helped keep the flying fortresses flying. He told myriads of stories about his service in WW2. War is hell, but fighting for Right is a service to God and man. My father found the people of England and Scotland to be the kindest, most generous and delightful people in all the world. (Second only to the state of Alabama, which produced his lovely wife!)

He met - unintentionally and inebriatedly - a Scotsman while taking leave one weekend. My dad would often say whatever popped in his mind. So, upon seeing a man wearing a kilt, he made some crack about "the man in a skirt". The next thing my dad remembered was regaining consciousness after being (rightly) decked by the indignant Scotsman. My dad quickly sobered up and offered his hand in apology. "I'm so sorry for my rudeness. My name is Jimmy Peacock..." Wham! Another fist to the jaw! Come to find out, this Scotsman was of the same family/clan and thought dad was still trying to insult him! They eventually patched things up and became good friends. Daddy related how he'd supply them with meats and other hard-to-come-by necessities.

I would love to find someone who knew my dad.

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 and 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 ha no radio, 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 from the communal pump, what could he do with his umbrella? They said. It seemed that Chamberlain never went anywhere with out 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 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, 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 Two. RAF radio-controlled Queen Bee targets, T flight 1 AACU, rocket testing. Now a WW2 museum, http://www.muckleburgh.co.uk)

At the beginning of 1939 a lot of building work was going on at West Beckham, about four miles from our house, although and uncle worked on it, noone knew what it was for. Four wooden and four steel pylons were erected 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 pf the pylons had lights on to warn approaching aircraft and we would watch every night to see the lights come on. If any 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 realised they were part of the radar defence system.

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

During the dark days of 1939 as we were preparing for war, the Hall in our lovely park was 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 has been used many of us would have died.

As all the men who were eligible to be called up joined the forces, 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 the BBC`s Dads Army, them you have seen our Homeguard in its infancy. It did eventually shape up and get into uniform, changing their hoe handles for rifles to carry out vital sentry and fire watching duties. My mother nearly died to shame one night when my father was demonstrating how to use a rifle when it got tangled up with her big bloomers hanging on the kitchen line.

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 my gas mask. When we got home, my brothers and sisters and I had to go round the garden and pick up any pieces of paper or anything 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 didn't know any 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 at £13 10s 00d (£13.50). Soon we were surrounded by evacuees, my mother couldn't have any as 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 use, so we had to alternate mornings and afternoon sessions. Coming from the East End of London 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 at school all day with the few evacuees that stayed.

Once when I was going to 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 coach saw my predicament so he got some of his mates to haul me and my bike into the train and 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 didn't leave until the all clear. I cab 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 filed with military vehicles and troops, 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 an order to pack only a kit bag and personal possessions and to destroy everything else, many of the soldiers knowing that their village friends were short of most things, distributed they things they could not take to the villagers, although this was illegal. 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 the word went round the village that the police were investigating 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 the back door received a pile of blankets on top of his head, dumped straight out of a 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 filtered 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 there 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 as we were of them. The authorities did not consider them dangerous as they were allowed to work in the fields, then towards the end of the war they were allowed more or less complete freedom and came round the village selling ornate carvings and knick knacks made from anything they could get their hands on.

This reminds me of a 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 their 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 for an answer as before the week was out the Italian prisoners were round the village selling sandals made from plaited horsehair. 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 the pigs, getting paid 6d for a bushel (2.5p for 30kg) and rose hips for 3d a pound. (2.5p per kilo) to be made into rose hip syrup for vitamin C. We gathered blackberries and helped the Women's Institute 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 acorns in my sleep.

When I left school I went to work as a domestic servant for Mr and Mrs Hagen at Green Farm, Hempstead, ether I could not get away from jam making as Mrs H was president of the W.I. We used to call the W.I. Jam and Jerusalem. I'm sure Mr and Mrs Hagen were past retiring age when I joined them, but nobody retired during the war. It was a very busy dairy farm, they had just built up a Friesian herd and Mrs Hagen was very proud of her cows and dairy. Mrs H was also the 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 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 any pranks on our farm but a tale was told about threshing days when the stacks were threshed to get 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 when the bottom of the stack was reached and out would pour dozens of rats and mice who had made their home there, 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 was concerned. There was so much for one person to do in the farm house. The paperwork seemed to grow each week, so many forms to fill in so after a lot of harassment from the farmers, the minister of labour decided they would not call up the domestic servants of 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 Hitler youth he thought it would be like that. I was a member of the local youth club and 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 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 the as if the films were blockbusters, but everyone eagerly awaited the Pathe news to hear and see how the war was going. These news reels were days old as they had to be transported from the actual battlefield (no instant satellite pictures as of today) I can remember the newsreels after Dunkirk with the scenes of our troops returning home defeated. You could feel the atmosphere, the people's spirits sank, we all thought we would loose the war. I am sure that it was Winston Churchill`s speeches that kept peoples morale up.

I was 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 3.00pm to hear Winston Churchill's victory speech on eth radio. 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 servants were treated 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 everything was back to reality. The war in the Far East was still going on and the aftermath of war as pretty rough. So much sadness, so many killed, so many injured and so many failed marriages. Hardly a family that had not been affected.

People were unsettled for years. Those coming home from the fighting were finding it very difficult to settle down. There were so few jobs for the returning troops. Most of them had not been out of Norfolk before and had begun to realise there was another world out there. Domestic servants who had been in the forces 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 only afford small amounts.

Prefabricated houses were built in 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.



At the beginning of the second world war I was nine years old, the second eldest of our family. Living in Gorleston near Great Yarmouth on the east coast of Norfolk with my sister Jean and brothers Reg and Tony and attending Stradbrooke Junior school at Gorleston. My elder brother Fred was already in the navy having joined at the age of 16, he went on to serve on the same ship as the Duke of Edinburgh.

Soon after war was declared we were all issued with gas masks which we had to go and be fitted with. They fitted into a brown cardboard box which had string slotted through it and we had to carry them everywhere we went. Babies like Tony were fitted with Mickey Mouse ones which fitted over the pram.

Families were also issued with Anderson shelters which were dug into the garden and the roofs covered with sandbags and soil. They were made from corrugated iron and although they were very cold you made them as comfortable as possible with a supply of candles and blankets to keep warm. Some people who did not have a garden or were unable to get into a garden shelter because of age or disability were issued with indoor shelters which were a bit like big cages put on the floor. They were made of steel and had to be crawled into, they were Morrison shelters. As soon as the air raid siren sounded, we all had to put on our gas masks and get into the shelters as quick as possible and stay till the all clear went. It was nearly always at night and we children thought it was great fun. But then of course we had no idea then what it was really all about but not so our poor elders who had probably experienced some of the horrors of world war one. Some places had big communal air raid shelters. Later on when we were evacuated I never saw another shelter.

We learned to distinguish between the sounds of our own aircraft and the Germans. The German ones had a distinctive drone and as soon as daylight began to fade and we had to have a light on, a black out curtain was put over the windows so that no chink of light could be seen from outside. There were no streetlights for obvious reasons and air raid wardens patrolled the streets making sure no lights were showing.

After the Germans began bombing Great Yarmouth it was decided that all school children and even younger ones were to be evacuated inland where it was considered to be safer. It was the same up and down the country. I remember some Yarmouth children were evacuated to Scotland but we were sent to Nottinghamshire.

One morning we were all put onto a bus along with other children from our area, we each had our gas mask boxes and our names pinned to our chests, we carried spare clothes in a brown paper parcel. A teacher and our Head Master went with us. I think we were told that we were going away for a short while, and I remember we were all waving goodbye to our parents not realising that it would be quite a while before we saw them again. Dad, who was in the RAF, was allowed compassionate leave to see us off. Mum and Dad along with other parents were crying as they waved us goodbye. They were wondering what they had let their children in for. It was a terrible decision to make, as it all had to be done very quickly. Being children having a bus ride, not knowing where we were going and kissing goodbye to tearful parents and out little brother was rather upsetting and daunting as we wondered where we were all going. I can't remember which station the bus took us to but I remember the train stopping at Peterborough where we were given refreshments. We finally arrived at a place called Bircotes which was to be our home for over a year.

We were then taken into the school for some refreshments. Afterwards we were taken on a short walk and lined up outside each street as the house holders who had arranged to have an evacuee came out and picked who they wanted. Gradually the line got smaller, then a lady chose Jean as she had a daughter about the same age, she was seven, the lady next door who happened to be her sister in law choose Reggie as she had lost a little boy who would have been about the same age, four years. We were ten told to move along to the next street, but I told them that mum had told me that as I was the oldest I was to make sure that we all kept together and I was to look after them. There was a discussion amongst the grownups and then the lady who had chosen Reggie said she would take me as well, so we were lucky that we were able to live next door to each other.

Bircotes was a nice little place with shops along one side of a long street and an indoor market. I remember the fish and chip shop where you could always ask if they had any pieces which were little pieces of batter that were scooped of the hot fat and given free. They also fried scallops which were sliced potatoes dipped in batter and fried, I have never found them anywhere else. There was a little cinema where we children could go to the Saturday matinee.

I think my biggest impression of Bircotes was the coal mine, with the huge slag heaps which always filled the air with an unmistakeable smell of sulphur. All the men worked down the mine and we watched them going off to work each day, all dressed alike with black clothes and lamps on the front of their hats, carrying their sandwiches in metal tins, their clogs clattering on the cobble stones. When they came home from working their shift they would be as black as the coal they mined but luckily the houses in the street all had bathrooms and the living rooms had a range which heated the water, the pits didn't have showers then.

The nearest town Bawtry was a bus trip on a Saturday night for the miners to get together and enjoy billiards and darts in the working men's club. Wives and children could go into another room to enjoy a gossip and a drink. The children enjoyed a bag of crisps and lemonade, this was a new experience for me, Jean and Reggie, we all looked forward to those Saturday nights out.

We shared the local school having our own teachers teaching us and when we were old enough to sit the eleven plus, our exam papers were sent from Yarmouth. We attended the Methodist Sunday School every Sunday afternoon as we had at home.

One day when we came out of school we found a group of Ghurkhas resting by the roadside, they seemed pleased to see us and although we couldn't understand them and they could not understand us they laughed and talked to us.

Mum came to visit us for a few days at Bircotes and was going to bring Tony, but at the last minute he had caught measles and she could not bring him, we were disappointed not to see him.

One day our teachers informed us of the sad news that some of the children from our school at Goreleston who stayed behind because their parents did not want them to go away, had been killed by tracer bullets as they walked home from school. German planes, possibly heading home from raids on London would fly low over the town and fire their guns at people as they walked in the street.

Mum was beginning to find it hard to manage money wise as she had to send money for our keep and buy what ever clothes we needed as well as to keep herself and Tony. We had relatives living around Briston in North Norfolk and after finding a cottage close by she decided to bring us all home again to live there. We had been evacuated for just over a year. We later learnt that our old house in Gorleston was bombed along with others.

Mrs J Wakefield (nee Baker)



This is something my late father told me, which I found particularly evocative. In the spring of 1944 he was a fifteen year old schoolboy at the City of Norwich School. For weeks there had been a build-up of various military vehicles all along the side of Newmarket Road. One morning in late May, on his way to school he noticed that they had all gone during the night, and he knew that D-Day was imminent.

Matthew Codd

Bridge Farm, Bradfield in the heart of rural north Norfolk, was the home of William and Matilda Gibbons, and their son Jack. Farming was pretty tough in the thirties and forties, no cars, tractors or combine harvesters; no telephone or electricity in the house.

October 8th 1943 had been just another day, and as is the habit of the farming community, they retired early.

On the many RAF airfields across East Anglia it was a different story. Hundreds of airmen were preparing for take-off. Their bombers were fully laden with a deadly load of assorted bombs to be delivered to the heart of the Third Reich. That night the main force was to visit Hanover, with a diversionary force to head for Bremen.

The crew of Halifax HR777 TL-Y of 35 squadron, members of the crack Pathfinder Force based at RAF Graveley in Hunts., were to mark the target at Bremen. They took off at 22.46 hours and headed off to join the formation.

What happened after this is best described by Derrick Coleman, then a nineteen year old air bomber and radar operator

"We crossed the English coast in daylight attempting to reach RAF Coltishall, but crashed a few miles short; just not enough power to hedge hop in. In the Halifax the bomb-aimer occupied the co-pilot’s position for take-off and landing. I recall quite vividly while in this position the ‘hedge hopping’ as the pilot struggled to keep the aircraft above ground. The aircraft passed between two trees which hit the wings. It was a complete write off; although the nose and part of the fuselage remained reasonably intact at least one of the engines had been torn away and was on fire. All the crew escaped injury except for Tommy Ellwood, the flight engineer who had taken up his crash position behind the main spar and sustained a bad cut over one eye which required stitching. There was a touch of humour at the end. Blazing petrol had, unknown to him, landed on the back of ‘Benny’ Bent’s flying clothing, but ‘Hoop’ Arnott, the mid-upper gunner had seen this happen so jumped on ‘Benny’ (who must have wondered what was happening) to roll him over, so putting the flames out. A rather nervous couple living in a nearby cottage (sic) initially thought we were Germans, but when they realised we were RAF we were invited inside and given cups of tea until transport arrived. Fl t Sgt Emery was the navigator, and Pilot Off ‘Mac’ Maskell the Wop. There was no doubt in the minds of all crew that we owed our lives to the amazing ability and strength of the pilot, Max Muller."

The farmhouse was Bridge Farm, and the nervous folks were the Gibbons family

Jack Gibbons cycled to the next village of Antingham, and with difficulty managed to arouse the post mistress in order to phone the police.

by Roger Gibbons, with the help of many

For a full version of this story please visit Roger Gibbons Website



Flying Fortress Station, Somewhere in England, 1944

A snap decision made by the pilot of a B-17 Flying Fortress in a raid on Germany is credited with saving the lives of his entire crew.

He feigned unconsciousness while the ship was in a 400 mile and hour dive and under attack of 30 Focke-Wulfs. The Germans, thinking the ship was out of control, broke off the engagement. The pilot is First Lieut. William C. Henderson of Danville, Illinois.

His ship the "Rocky" was literally riddled by scores of 20 mm shells. "If there`s any credit to be given" grinned Hendrickson upon a spectacular landing, "give it to Augie. He saved the day."

Augie is tail gunner Staff Sgt. August J Donatelli of Bakerton Elmora, Pa. In the encounter with the Germans, which took place in a maze of cloud and vapour trails, Donatelli shot down two Folke-Wulfs and probably got a few more.

Describing his bag for the day, Sgt Donatelli said, "I got the third Jerry who attacked and I caught the one tearing in behind him. I saw the first one smoke and go down. the second one smoked a bit and went down too. Then seven more came in. My right gun malfunctioned but my left was a beauty. Think I`ll take it home with me. If a guy had seven guns he`d have had quite a time that day."

Immediately after Donatelli`s kills, Pilot Hendrickson threw the ship into a dive from 25,000 to 14,000 feet to elude the German fighters. The speed was 400 miles and hour. The Germans were on his tail down to 15,00 feet when he and Co-pilot 2nd Lt. John H Moore of Phoenix Ariz. pretended to be unconscious.

During the dive a German shell ripped the door off the ball turret compartment and left the ball occupant, ball turret gunner S/Sgt Samuel M. Bishop of Churdan, Iowa hanging onto the gun controls. He somehow managed to crawl inside the ship after Radioman/ Gunner T/Sgt. Gus Hauser from Monsoon, Pa. hand cranked the turret from aft position until the guns were pointed down. Another shell banged through the top turret gun compartment and blew the flak helmet from the head of Gunner Gus J. Ball of Victoria, Texas. He was bruised and bloody about the head, but was on his feet when the "Rocky" landed.

Others in the crew were: Navigator Flight Officer Harry B. Wolodka of Buffalo, N.Y. Bombardier James P. Moore of Dallas, Texas. Left Waist Gunner S/Sgt Rance J. Webley of Portland, Oregon and Right Waist Gunner S/Sgt. Clarence Hamm of Massachusetts, who bailed out during the dive and was captured.

Sgt Bishop

As a follow up to this story, on the 6th March 1944, the "Rocky" was shot down over Germany and the entire crew, with the exception of the co-pilot John H. Moore, who failed to bail out, were captured by the Germans and spent the remainder of the war in various POW camps in and around Germany. Also aboard was Staff Sgt. Thomas Grange of Chicargo, Illinois who had replaced Sgt Hamm. The crew spent the majority of the time in Stalag Luft IV. They were liberated by General Patton and his troops in 1945.

Monna Bishop

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