This is the third in a short series of four articles about the events in Britain in the 1940’s. My late uncle Mr Gordon Bessant is talking to Mr Joe Hieatt-Smith. The recordings were made in 1994.
You’d go to work as I said and if you’d go at 7 o’clock you’d be at your place of work. Now obviously the talk was of who got hit and who got bombed out last night, what was burning, what was knocked out. Communications were not as readily available as they are today, all we had was what the police had and what the fire service had.
If these were knocked out, then you had very little communication until they’d been repaired again, and then there wasn’t always enough cable to repair them. The telephone exchanges were fairly good, nothing in comparison to today mind, no way, and medical care wasn’t so much either. People who had bad burns – they didn’t have an awful lot of good treatment for burns. For instance, they wouldn’t have dreamt of putting a burn in cold water. We used a cream, a solution, called Acriflavine for burns and broken limbs.
The civilians suffered many casualties. I would say to you, there were many soldiers killed on the front I know, but a tremendous number of civilians were killed in various towns. I can only recall basically the things which happened to me myself. At that time I was 16. I remember one day, a Saturday afternoon, when I was 16 years old. My mother said to me she wanted to go to Southampton on Saturday afternoon because it was getting towards Christmas.
You went and looked for things that you could make do and mend for Christmas presents. She wanted me to go in with her. I was a bit reluctant because it wasn’t the done thing in those days, that boys went off and shopped for Christmas presents with their mothers. I think it was about 4 o’clock in the afternoon. It was just getting dusk, just getting dark, and the air raid sirens suddenly went.
You could hear the aircraft flying over. German aircraft, Dorniers and Heinkels – they all had their own particular engine sound. You could tell a Spitfire and a Hurricane when they went off to attack because of the sound of their engines. You listened for their sound. You could hear the low slow drone of a Dornier bomber, a German bomber, and you knew you were in for a good pasting. The Stukas, like the Spitfire, only had a certain limited amount of fuel they could carry. So they obviously could only come out to certain areas in the country to attack, and then had to return back to their base again.
Now Messerschmidts was one of the aircraft I was mostly involved with because they were like the opposing team of the Spitfire. As everyone knows our Spitfire was best. Remember you had a tremendous pride in your country. You had a tremendous pride in what you were doing.
This particular Saturday night my mother said “Oh, there’s a film on in the Classic cinema” , this was in the High Street of Southampton. She said “Robert Young” or somebody else. “Oh Mum” I said (I remember saying it too!) “Robert Young, he’s the one women weep and cry over isn’t he?” “Yes” she said “he’s a bit lovey dovey,” so I said “I don’t think I’ll go.”
The air raid had started. They had started bombing down the docks area of Southampton, which is now where the boat container quays are along there, because there was a lot of military equipment all along the docks. The ships were being unloaded of their cargoes. So if they’d been missed by the submarines out in the Atlantic or anywhere else, the ships, the Germans were still ready to stick a few bombs into them as they were unloading at Southampton docks (not only Southampton, but London and all the docking areas, Bristol, etc).
But to get back to what I was saying, we went into Southampton to the bus station to see if there were any buses going out towards Romsey or Salisbury, the rural areas. There was just one bus. The driver was going to take it out through Salisbury, and the road was still clear to go. I stood at the back of the bus with my mother, because there was only one bus going, there was only standing room available.
Everybody wanted to get out of the town, basically because of the bombing, although you were no safer really out in this area here, but it wasn’t such a prime target, it wasn’t so important to bomb you here. I looked and there was a fire engine following. We got to a place called Four Post Hill. That is where the Central Station is now.
You know in Southampton now there’s a bridge at the traffic lights which goes down to the Southampton docks and some roads go up towards the theatres and some go out towards the east side of Southampton. A place called Four Post Hill I saw 3 or 4 houses or shops on fire there and there was a fire engine which came round the bend, and as he came up the hill behind us he received a direct hit from a bomb. Everyone on board and that fire engine just disappeared.
I thought to myself, I couldn’t believe it, I just couldn’t believe what I saw. When we got home we always listened to the news on the wireless (our radios were battery driven, with batteries and accumulators in those days). We didn’t have sophisticated gear like this! This is a miracle to us, to hear your own voice on a tape or record was quite unknown then.
It’s wizardry! Having said that, that fire engine, those chaps were all going off to put out a fire. They were heading off to a place called Standard Motors along the docks, what is it now? I think it’s a car collecting area where they bring in foreign cars off the car transporters from the continent.
Everyday life… there was great difficulty in getting petrol. You had to have special permits for petrol, because it was imported, petrol was restricted terribly. The men that brought the petrol in, the crude oil, the petrol and the benzenes and the other imports they had to bring it in, either from Venezuela or from America. We had petrol coming up from Saudi Arabia. It had to come round the Persian Gulf.
In Southampton the oil refinery which is Esso now, was called the Agri. It was the American Gulf Oil Company before Esso took it over. They had to bring the crude oil in from these oil fields. Quite a lot of it was refined at Fawley in the good old Agri oil refinery. A lot of it was refined at Bristol and a lot of it in Plymouth, where they could get the oil tankers in.
The men on those oil tankers – really they were sitting on a live time bomb all the while they were travelling with it because they were targets. A tanker is a very recognisable ship at sea because of its structure, because of its tanks. They were always the targets for the German submarines and bombers. I had tremendous admiration for those men.
That was part of the daily life. You heard the news which was the 6 o’clock news and the other news stations during the war. Everybody, even the young children, used to sit and listen to the news to find out how we were doing. We didn’t do too well either. We had some tremendous setbacks. We had a tremendous setback with Dunkirk. The French had built the Maginot line, as they called it, which was a defence system round France, but the Germans, they came in at the top end of it and the guns were all pointing that way and the Germans simply walked in from behind. We had a similar thing happen in Singapore when we lost Singapore to the Japanese. Our guns were all set to fire over a certain distance and a certain arc and that was it, that was the whole field of defence.
But it didn’t work that way and the Japanese, like the Germans, came in from behind. You can’t turn the guns round because the structure, the emplacement, just basically made everything useless. So it was a walkover.
I did 5 years in industry. The second front had opened up and the troops had gone in to D-Day. On D-Day, D-Day-1 and D-Day-2 I helped to bring the wounded in off the floating barges. They had various barges built for taking the troops in to the second front. When they had discharged their cargo, these barges were then converted into carrying the wounded back. There were rows and rows and rows of barges by the Royal Pier in Southampton.
For three days I worked with the ambulance people in Southampton getting the wounded off and away to the schools and big houses which had been taken over for emergency work. D-Day wasa terrific day here, 50 years ago next month. (61 years ago now.) Everyone was helping out with the wounded. There was no thought of being defeated, everyone was working and helping each other out.
Women made the best with their clothes. They swapped clothes and turned things inside out and made them up again, made them into other things. I remember coats and dresses being turned inside out and made into skirts, and trousers for the boys. Material wasn’t coming into the country. Nothing was wasted.
If you are interested in the events of the 1940’s, look out for the last in this series of articles, entitled “Preparing to Invade Japan”.
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 email@example.com