Wartime Britain & Things Look Bleak

This is the second of a series of four articles about life in Britain in the 1940’s. My uncle the late Mr Gordon Bessant is talking to Mr Joe Hieatt-Smith. The recordings were made in 1996.

The average daily life for myself during that particular time was usually to get ready for work, I was usually out by quarter past six in the morning, although I might have been out of bed all night through the air raids, but at quarter past you got yourself ready to go to your job and you usually talked about the places that got flattened out during the night.

Usually as soon as about 8 o’clock in the winter they were over and gone again in about 2 or 3 hours. But in the summer when there was more moonlight and less cloud coverage they would come over from about 8 o’clock at night and they used to persist until 2 or 3 o’clock in the morning. So they bombed Southampton and districts, and Portsmouth, they didn’t do an awful lot of damage to Bournemouth, as it wasn’t industrial so much in and around these towns.

Coventry got practically flattened, you know this was where the car engines were made and the bodies of tanks and all kinds of other equipment were made there. Not just Coventry but all over the Midlands.

If we had had a quiet night we’d get ready for work at a quarter past six in the morning and you started work just after 7. You had to cycle to work on your bike. At some places there was no electricity and no water because if the Jerries had been bombing Southampton and they’d hit the water pipes in the roads then there’d be no water. We were very fortunate in that we had a well right here outside this cottage, so we always had a source to pump water from. (That well is still there to this day. It is very deep and dangerous, but the water that comes up from it is the sweetest water you could ever wish to drink.)

But for electricity, you’d substitute candles or paraffin lights for emergency lighting, but all those things were part and parcel of your life everyday. You didn’t look on it as any hardship to be without light or without water or without gas. The important thing was getting the people who were injured to medical care if there were available beds for them. Often you had to wait quite a long time for treatment because the roads got bombed, houses collapsed, they caught fire. The fire people, they were exceptionally brave. They were all over the south, and everybody, yourself included, you would have been detailed into a fire fighting team which was called the firewatch scheme.

The cinema that we were going to had a direct hit that afternoon. It was filled with people. I think it was about 50 or 60 killed, 100 injured. We didn’t go into that cinema only because I didn’t want to see that film. It flattened that cinema almost to rubble. So we missed that impact. Coming up the hill, Fourpost Hill, we missed the fire engine impact but when we got to Standard Telephone Cables it was also on fire. Standard Telephone Cables factory had been taken over by people who made parts for submarines (our own British submarines).

Quite a lot of the instrumentation was built in there and it had had a direct hit and was on fire. That happened about six nights a week. On an average, every night we were either out fire watching, or putting out incendiary bombs. What the Germans did was, they had small bombs. They were only about 18 inches long and about 2 and a half inches round, with a long piece of steel tube and it had a very small fin on the back. They were incendiary. They operated on impact detonation.

The nozzle or the nose had to impact on the surface. They’d drop a master bomb, or a container full of them, which would burst open and they would scatter all over a large area and they carried phosphor, when you put water on, they burnt faster, you’ve probably heard about it in science. To put them out you have to use sand. If you put water on they only get worse.

Everywhere you went nearly everybody had 2 or 3 buckets of sand and long handled shovels, with long extension handles, not big shovels. The bombs didn’t explode in the true sense and explode to fragmentation, they just burnt and caused fires. They would land on the roofs and land by the chimney and burn away where you couldn’t get at them. So intense was the flame that it would catch the roofs on fire.

Lots of places got burnt out like that. Also the factories – they’d scatter them all along where they knew there were factories. You’d have an awful job really to put them out once they’d got a hold. Water was no good, as I said, they’d burn faster. So they’d use these as a means of lighting the area up for their main bombers to come in and bomb. Now we pulled the same tricks on them as they’d pull on us. Only they were more advanced than us in Britain.

It won’t happen, they said, – it’ll never happen here – but even the politicians thought they had a gentleman’s agreement with Hitler and his mob. Chamberlain, he was Prime Minister, he had a gentlemanly agreement that they weren’t going to attack. They would withdraw their forces from Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia and Poland and leave the Danzig corridor alone so that Poland would also be safe from the German army and war machine. But it didn’t work that way. It didn’t happen.

You know it’s like having an agreement with somebody and shaking them by the hand, then you turn your back and they stick a knife in your shoulders. It’s the same thing exactly. We were too very British in those days, far more than we are today. If you give your word to somebody it meant something, but today, well I think we’ve lost that. I call it loyalty to the crown and country. There are so many things going wrong in the country, so many things happening. When we were younger, like your age, it was impossible to think it could possibly happen.

The food situation got pretty tight. Thank goodness we had the British Empire. The Australians, the Canadians, the South Africans, and the Americans helped an awful lot with supplying food. They weren’t in the war until the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbour, and that was where in my lifetime I worked till I was 19, in the docks in Southampton, getting on towards the end of the war.

We’d had lots and lots of setbacks but all the time I was working in the factory I was learning a trade. But you learnt your trade a lot quicker than you do today. As soon as you were capable of doing something skilful on your own you’d use that knowledge and skill to produce. We weren’t allowed to scrap the material if we made a mistake, you’d have to rectify it damn smart otherwise you got chewed off. Learning your trade was one thing, but developing materials for war was another. To develop something was far more important than learning lots of intricacies.

If you are interested in the events of the 1940’s look out for article three in this short series, “Death and Destruction and the Run Up to D Day”.

Copyright David Carter 2005. Reproduced with permission.

When he is not 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 new book SPLAM, Successful Property Letting And Management is now available, 240 plus pages and you can find more information on that at http://www.splam.co.uk. You can contact David direct on any matter at supalife@aol.com

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