Wartime in St. Neots

by Bill Lancaster

I lived in St Neots for the final year of WW2. 6 Almond Road. Our home was Dorking in Surrey. We stayed in St Neots because my Dad was a civilian electrician working on Tannoy communications on the many aerodromes which were located in the area. We moved back to Dorking at the end of the war in 1945. I celebrated VE Day in both St Neots and Dorking. VJ Day in Dorking.  

My first memory of Almond Road is of bomber aircraft constantly taking off and landing, especially at night. It seemed that the rumble and roar of the ‘planes was ever present.

There was a prisoner of war camp at the top of Almond Road, the POWs were Italians and Germans. Unlike the POWs I had seen in Dorking who worked on the land and the brickworks, I never saw any of the St Neots prisoners outside the camp. We used to risk severe punishment from the authorities and parents by getting under the wire and into the camp, I remember the Italians making long strips of pasta on long tables. I often wonder if any of the POWs escaped, it was easy for us to get in and out so they could have got out too.

My older sister was in the same class at school as the St Neots Quadruplets. They would be a year older than me. 

There were wide white gates across both ends of a road through a local common, they were there to stop cattle from straying, when coach loads of American soldiers or army lorries drove towards the gates we would swing them open for the vehicles to pass through, as reward they would throw us pennies, chewing gum or candy.

Everybody collected Sweet Caporal cigarette packets because they had illustrations of allied and enemy aircraft on the back. We would swap them, just like Pokemon nowadays.

As planes passed overhead we would shuffle through our collections of Sweet Caporals to identify them.

The town was full of American soldiers and airmen, they were very generous. We used to go up to them and say ‘got any gum chum’ and they gave us chewing gum. Rationing was on, we didn’t have the coupons to buy cakes, my sister and I were looking longingly at a big cake in the window of a bakers in the high street, two Yanks came along, asked us what we were looking at, we told them, they went into the shop and bought the biggest cake in the shop and gave it to us.

They also taught us lads rude songs which I remember to this day, we didn’t know they were rude until we sang them at home, a smack around the head soon stopped us. So we went down the park and sung them amongst ourselves.

Priory Park was strictly private, the only time I remember going there was with a sack to collect acorns for the war effort. I think an extract of the acorn was an ingredient for some kind of explosive.

At the end of the war we had a huge bonfire on the patch of grass at the entrance to Almond Road  on which we burned an effigy of Hitler. I often wonder what the POWs in the camp on the other side of  Huntingdon Road thought of it, the bonfire being about 50 yards away from the wire.

 My brother John was born in a nursing home in Little Paxton. He was christened in a church in St Neots, I think was called St Marys. My uncle John was supposed to be a godfather but being in the navy he was called away to sea just before the ceremony, I had to stand in and make his vows for him.

Houses in Almond Road had no electricity. We had gas lamps in every room,  a coal fire had to be lit every day for warmth. For hot water there was  big ‘copper’ in a little room off the kitchen, we had to light a fire under it with paper and kindling wood then keep it going with coal until the water was hot. There was no bathroom, Mum would get a tin bath from a hook in the wall outside the back door and fill it with water from the copper. She did the weekly laundry in the copper too. To wash up the dishes and for our morning pre school wash we would get a bucket of water from the copper and carry it to the huge porcelain sink.

One of my chores was to fill the coal scuttle from the ‘coal hole’ just outside the back door. There were no outside lights because of the blackout so it was very dark. One night I was filling the scuttle in the pitch black coal hole when suddenly I could see every detail, every lump of coal, scuttle everything just lit up as if flood lights had been switched on and off, then came the bangs. I looked around to see in the sky some flaming exploding bits tumbling down. I don’t remember how I reacted, but in later years my Mum said I was terrified. We discovered later that two fully loaded American bombers off on a night raid had collided in mid air. The collision was many miles from St Neots, Kimbolton I think, but it was suddenly so bright in that coal hole as the on board bombs exploded, I will never forget seeing that image in so much detail. Some people who lived in Almond Road found some perspex from the crashed ‘planes, one of the parents pushed a red hot poker through pieces of  it and filed it down to shapes to make rings for our fingers. 

My Dad mainly worked on Tannoy communications. He often took me to the ‘dromes he worked at, probably during school holidays, I’m not sure. They were all American. Most of the bombers I remember were Boston Bombers. I did go to one that had Flying Fortresses. The only one I remember is Kimbolton. I think that was where the crash happened. Some ‘dromes had “Fog Intense Dispersal Operation” also known as FIDO, which my Dad worked on. At one of the aerodromes, I saw it tested, it scared me. 

When he took me to the ‘dromes the people there used to look after me while he was at work, they made sure I was well cared for and fed me with American style food, Hershey bars, tootsie rolls and M&Ms. I remember we called Tootsie Rolls stickjaw. When it was time for him to take me home his voice would come out of the loudspeakers telling me to go to the van, at the time, cars, vans, buses and lorries drove around with muffled headlights and no rear lights, just a round white spot on the back of the vehicle, my Dads van was white because it had to be seen when he was driving around the ‘dromes, everybody on the ‘drome heard his announcement, there was always someone to hold my hand and take me to the van.

The American airmen adopted me as a lucky mascot, dressed in their flying outfits they carried me on their shoulders to touch their bombers for luck before they took off. I wore an American Air Force cap, much too big for me, and an American jacket. They were all heroes to me and still are to this day. I wonder if my lucky touch helped them at all?

One evening the bombers were landing after a raid, for some reason my Dad had to always be there until all the bombers returned. I was sitting alone in the van waiting to go home because most of the planes had arrived, a bomber in flames landed and came towards me, the burning wing passed close to the van. Several airman and my Dad came running towards me expecting me to be injured or in shock, my Dad often told the tale in later years and he always said that I wasn’t in the least bit concerned. 

Often we woke up in the morning to see strips of aluminium, we called it chaff, hanging from the almond trees, we collected them and Mum made them into Christmas decorations. Another thing we saw were little headscarf sized parachutes all over the place, we were told they were the remnants of parachute flares.

I remember a funfair was held in the square in the town centre. Roundabouts, swings, coconut shy etc. The Yanks used to pay for us to go on the rides, I sat in a dodgem with a Yank and we chased and bumped into other cars with my mates in other cars also being driven by Yanks. We were on there for ride after ride. They took us to the chipshop and bought us chips wrapped in newspaper. No fish, we didn’t know what it was like to buy fish. We ate the fish we caught in the river, mainly pike. Ducks from the river were tasty too.

My dad brought home records of American music from the ‘dromes which we took back to Dorking with us and had them for years. I remember Woody Guthrie, Fats Waller, The Carter Family, Ella Fitzgerald, Bing Crosby and big bands especially Glenn Miller. My Mum liked Al Bolie.

The government issued free bottles of orange juice and cod liver oil which we had to drink to supplement our wartime rations. They also issued free milk powder for nursing mothers. The cod liver oil was so disgusting we avoided taking it, but later we got cod liver oil and malt instead, it was a brown sticky substance in big jars, it was sweet and delicious. One day my sister stole a jar and ate spoonful after spoonful of it, shortly after, she spent a lot of time in the cold outside toilet. She used up a whole pack of our toilet paper which was made from tearing newspaper in three inch squares, making a hole in one corner, threading string through it and hanging it on a nail in the wall of the outside toilet beside the lavatory. Our toilet often froze in the winter.

They were tough times, but we, in our ignorance, didn’t know it. It was life as we knew it. I once asked my Dad what policemen would do when the war ended, I didn’t think they would be needed in peacetime. 

We had some great times, it is just that life was so different. If a modern 7/8 year old son was was expected to fill scuttles from the coal hole, what would his response be? If he had to carry buckets of hot water from the copper to a tin bath in a stone floored draughty kitchen for a weekly bath, then wait until his older sister had finished before getting in, how would he feel? If Mum had to stand on a chair to light the gas lamps without damaging the mantle, then sit and listen to them hissing all evening? Sitting in front of a coal fire in a room with dense black blinds at the windows, not allowed to go out because it was dark, really dark, outdoors. Listening to the wireless was difficult because it took time to warm up, to tune in then the signal kept fading thereby distorting the sound to make it incomprehensible, twiddling with the tuning knob to get the signal back. When going to the outside toilet in the evening, the kitchen light had to be extinguished before opening the back door because of the blackout and no light was allowed to escape, stumble the few steps in the backyard to the little brick toilet, sit there in pitch darkness, freezing, then using the little squares of torn up newspaper with a hole in one corner with string threaded through which hung from a nail in the wall, then going back indoors and Mum relighting the kitchen gas lamp which had been off while you were out there. Go to bed in a freezing cold bedroom. Waking in the morning winding up the blackout blinds and seeing ice on the inside of the windows from frozen condensation. Morning wash and clean teeth in the kitchen. Breakfast of  a bowl of bread and milk, bread and homemade jam or, our favourite, bread and dripping, spoonful of cod liver oil with a glass of the government issue orange juice to take the taste away. Then, off to school.

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