This is the first of a series of four articles where my uncle, the late Mr Gordon Bessant is talking to Mr Joe Hieatt-Smith about life during the war years. They taped these recollections in 1996.
What did you do during the war Gordon?
From the time I was 14 to the time I was 19 I worked mostly on armaments, the Spitfire, Bristol Bombers – the engines and fuselage components for the Spitfire and the Western Lysander. At the very beginning of the war itself – it was on a Sunday morning the 3rd of September 1939.
I was at Testwood Church, because I sang in the choir. Everybody in the church as they came in were all saying “Do you think there’ll be a war?” Of course I was only fourteen years of age and I’d just finished school. There was none of this going on to extended school like there is today. It was basically compulsory that you left school at 14. I’d left school in the August, 1939.
It was our summer holidays and my father was negotiating with a company that was working for the repairs and maintenance at the Sunderland flying boats (and the flying boats flew into Southampton Water). They were docked and stationed at Hythe on the west bank of the river Test opposite Southampton docks itself. There’s a company there that was manufacturing exhaust equipment and all manner of ancillary equipment for the flying boats.
Anyway I got a job with them as an apprentice in sheet metal working and general engineering. I was 14 and my rate of pay was 10 shillings a week. (That’s 50 pence in modern money, less than a dollar, a week!) Out of that we paid fourpence for our stamps for National Health and Unemployment. We had the princely sum of nine and eight a week for the first 12 months. At that time there wasn’t an awful lot of work in the area, not for children, boys, of 14, so you more of less got a job where you could. Much the same as it is today really. Only because of the war you went into production mode and everybody was working for peace and the defence of the country so you really got a job whether it was an apprenticeship or not. I was fortunate my father had been negotiating with the employment of myself in the industry and of course I naturally got a job.
How did life change when the war started?
The first thing was everybody was telling everybody it would all be over by Christmas, that was in September, we got the idea it wouldn’t last long. My father who had been in the Royal Navy in the first world war, he wasn’t fooled too easily by others, and he said it would take them some time to even catch up with what the Germans had developed in armaments and war material. Of course the Germans had tried out all their weapons – you’ve probably heard of the Spanish civil war they had in 1937,38 when the Germans had a fighter bomber called the Stuka. They tested that on the Spanish in Spain during the civil war, and other armaments they had developed, so they knew that they operated much more efficiently than our own.
We were still relying on the Enfield rifle that was built and designed way back before the first world war in 1910,1911 and the Germans were using more sophisticated equipment. What else did they have? They had a very good size of navy and exceptionally well developed air force – so the Spitfire, R H Mitchell I think it was, the designer of the Spitfire and he had designed it more or less as an aircraft for winning the Schneider trophy (which is the air speed record). It was flown from Calshot round the Isle of Wight and the Schneider trophy was won by the SR6 which was based in Southampton (at the aviation museum, have you seen it?). That was the aircraft before the war which they developed basically the Spitfire from, with a Rolls Royce Merlin engine.
Lots of things changed then. The towns had to be blacked out at night because of showing up any industry. The German bombers would come over so there had to be no lights showing. We had to black out in the evening. Everything had to be on a war footing. There had to be very little light showing on cars. There was a clamp down on petrol, and food rationing started, because most of our food, as you well know, is imported. We are not sufficiently big enough to support ourselves. Lots of areas in the New Forest around here were ploughed up and put to corn and wheat and maize and potatoes.
The ground in the New Forest needed more nutrients and more fertilizer because it was very poor ground. The crops did not prove very successful. There are places in the New Forest now even here around Sway, where the ground was ploughed up. It was planted with mostly potato crops. You know where, along Slade Bottom, Horseshoe Common, by the Marlpit crossroads, you know there’s open stretches of land there where the cattle now graze, there’s hardly any fern or any gorse bushes, they are all cleared out. It was all ploughed up during the war and planted with crops, but it was a token effort because the ground didn’t produce very good crops at all so they left it and after that they decided they’d only plough it and plant a potato crop, a root crop, because the ground was a bit sour, had too much acid I think.
Having said that, the food rationing was felt really badly in 1941,42,and 43 because the Germans had tremendous strength in their submarines (U-Boats as they called them) and our shipping coming across from America and Canada, Australia, and South Africa, when our boats were coming in, they would follow the convoys.
The boats would be in convoys because convoys could be protected by the Royal Navy and part of our Air Force, but they could only be protected for so many miles out and it’s the areas where they couldn’t be protected where they were most vulnerable, so the food had to go on rationing because of the supply.
I didn’t realise till after the war that Germany had the same trouble. They were in a worse position than we were, but because their propaganda was so good we believed that they were really living in the lap of luxury and it was only Britain that was suffering. It wasn’t so. The continent was very short of food too. They used lots and lots of alternatives, they even made coffee from acorns. They ground acorns to make a drink, but we didn’t have to go that far.
We did have with the aid of the Americans, powdered eggs, and spam which is a well known meat compound put in tins and sent across to us. There were lots and lots of other food supplies coming in which was all a new type of thing to us . We had “K Rations” they called it, which was an American way of sending out a complete meal in a box.
Something similar to the rations you get on an aircraft when you fly on holiday – they put it on your lap in front of you. It’s a made up meal which is supposed to contain enough proteins and sugar, all that you require all in one package. But with the British, whilst the Americans had a lot of tinned food we still had the old corned beef as we call it, with bread which was quite good really considering the problems we had getting flour.
The second article in this series is entitled “War Time Britain & Things Look Bleak”. Look out for it if you are interested in the events of the 1940’s.
Copyright David Carter 2005, reproduced with permission.
In between writing David Carter runs a holiday cottage website http://www.pebblebeachmedia.co.uk where you can browse through over 7,000 holiday cottages, villas and apartments worldwide. His latest book is SPLAM. Successful Property Letting And Management, 240 plus pages and you can find more details of that at http://www.splam.co.uk. You can contact David on any matter at email@example.com