The outbreak of war caused quite an upheaval on the farm. On 1st September 1939 John and Ernest were called up into the regular army as they were both in the Territorial Army as were many lads in the village. They were greatly missed on the farm so it was all hands on deck for the duration of the war and we all had to help. German and Italian prisoners of war came to work on the farm as did the Borstal Boys from Lowdham. Dad always gave them five Woodbine cigarettes per day as well as eats and drink.
The first night of war, on Sunday 3rd September 1939, the sirens sounded all over the country. Looking back that first night was funny really as no one seemed to know what to do. We had all been issued with gas masks and identity cards and some people put their gas masks on, some stayed in bed, a lot of people got up and sat under the table. We all thought the end had come and we wouldn’t survive the first night of war but eventually the all clear sounded and with a sigh of relief we went back to bed; later we found out that the alarm had been triggered by a single unidentified aircraft crossing the channel.
The blackout began at the outbreak of war and lasted for six years – not a chink of light was allowed. The Air Raid Wardens ( dad was a warden) saw to that; you could be fined for showing any light and most people had blackout curtains, blinds or shutters fitted. At Fiskerton some girls arriving home late left a light showing and a German bomber unloaded his bombs on the village destroying several houses but luckily with no loss of life.
In 1940, after the fall of France, the British stood alone and farmers were encouraged to plough up all the grass fields and meadows to grow more food. As most of the fields were undulating with humps and hollows they had to be levelled out and to do this Fowlers of Leeds designed a large Gyrotiller; it was a vicious looking monster on tracks like a tank with large contra-rotating tines which not only levelled the ground but took out hedges in one fell swoop and uprooted large trees. It ran on diesel and was certainly a mean machine the like of which we hadn’t seen before. Poles were placed over all the fields to prevent German aircraft and gliders landing in an invasion but they also prevented our own aircraft from landing in an emergency. The Air Ministry paid dad the princely sum of 1s per pole per year for the inconvenience of these poles
The majority of food was rationed during the war as were clothes. ration books were needed for all fats, butter, margarine, bacon, cereals, milk, cheese, sugar, bread, meat and chocolate. Many foods were not available at all; these included imported fruit and vegetables, tinned fruit and jellies. The lack of oranges, raisins and sultanas meant that Christmas became a rather austere occasion and prunes were used in the Christmas cake in lieu of mixed fruit. For ten years we never tasted a banana, peach, apricot or pineapple and the only fruit we had were those from our own orchard and garden.
Ration book from World War 2
The wireless was the main source of information; the news was a must as were the speeches of Winston Churchill. Some nights we would tune into William Joyce , Lord Haw Haw, broadcasting from Germany with all his propaganda news; he was hanged after the war as a traitor. The most popular programme was ITMA with Tommy Handley and characters such as Colonel Chinstrap and Mrs Mopp; 90% of the population must have tuned in on a Thursday night. Often the BBC news would report ‘German bombers last night dropped bombs at random’ and old chap in the village, Matt Holmes, used to say ‘ I’m glad I don’t live there – they get bombed most nights’.
One evening a barrage balloon, which had broken from its moorings at Derby, drifted across to Thurgarton and settled in an oak tree in Station Road. Torn and partially deflated it looked in the moonlight like a large parachute. People thought the German invasion had started and called out the Home Guard.
Local Home Guard
There were two anti-aircraft /searchlight batteries stationed at Thurgarton , one at Bankwood and one in Station Road. The soldiers were always invited for tea and also for baths. We used to visit the searchlight camps and take them newspapers, magazines, Picture Post, Tit Bits for them to read ; we would peel potatoes for them and generally be a nuisance but they didn’t seem to mind.
Thurgarton Priory became a Military Convalescent Home and servicemen from there wandered about the village in their hospital blue suits, red ties and white shirts. One of them used to come to the farm and spend all day watching the pigs – he said he got more sense out of them than from the servicemen at the Priory.
We had many evacuees at Thurgarton from Sheffield, Southend and Worthing. We had three at the farm from Southend – Jim Corder aged 3 ( who later became an Air Steward), Peter Povey aged 9 and Gordon Blanchflower aged 14. Walter and Lucy Rogers next door had a little boy from Sheffield and on his first night we asked him what he usually had for supper and he replied ‘ beer and chips’; needless to say he didn’t get that.
The war in the air
School in war time included gas mask drills, time in air raid shelters, watching troop convoys and the odd German bomber being shot at by Ack-Ack guns.The most we saw of the war was in the air.
Early on many Fairy Battles, Wellingtons and Hampden bombers flew overhead on their way to Germany . On most nights in summer 1940 about 30 Armstrong Whitworth Whitely bombers would go chugging over with their noses in a downwards attitude flying from their bases in Yorkshire to targets in North Italy; the next morning you could see the survivors chugging back again.
At the height of the bombing campaign in 1943 over 500 bombers would fly over Thurgarton on their way to Germany –Halifaxs, Lancasters and Stirling; you could count 50 bombers in the air at any one time. Every evening the peace of the village was shattered for half an hour by the roar of over 100 Merlin engines as 30 Lancasters took off from Syerston, one after another roared low over the village; we would stand in the farmyard and count them.
Later in the war when the Americans joined in, large formations of B17 Flying Fortresses and Liberators flew everyday on their daylight raids on Germany. They flew at 30,000 ft with large vapour trails streaming after the formations. A sight never to be forgotten was just before D-day when large formations of Dakota transport towed Horsa, Waco and Hadrian gliders , some towing two at a time. Part of the training was to fly low at tree top height over the villages and fields at night – they were lit up with green orange and yellow lights making an unforgettable sight.
Some of them didn’t make it and we had about 15 air crashes in the area :- at Bleasby one Wellington and two Lancasters, at Thurgarton one Wellington and two Lancasters, Hoveringham two Lancasters, Southwell one Spitfire, Fiskerton two Lancasters. Gonalston one Lancaster and several bombers crashed near Syerston airfield. In total over 100 airmen were killed and only two survived.
Every time an aircraft crashed we would jump on our bikes rushing off to see what we could do – which was nothing for we would always be met by some gruesome gory sight. One night a Lancaster crashed into the Trent at Fiskerton and another at Hoveringham on the river bank. Two Lancasters crashed within a fortnight of each other in almost exactly the same spot which was our field called Bottom Meadows; a year later you could still pick up bits of debris.
On another night two Lancasters collided over Bleasby. One was night flying from Metheringham and the other had just returned from Germany and about to land at Syerston. They were flying without lights and the wreckage was scattered over 40 acres of corn fields between Rudsey Farm and Brickyard Farm -16 aircrew died.
On the receiving end
On the receiving end several bombs were dropped by the Germans at Thurgarton , Bleasby and Fiskerton, a land mine at Thurgarton and one at Kneeton not to mention several incendiary bombs. Eakring , where there were oil wells, had many bombs one night. There was a decoy airfield at Magadales Farm which attracted the German bomber; that’s where the land mine and some bombs fell as they thought it was Syerston.
I shall always remember one night at five minutes to six I was just taking my boots off when a huge explosion shook the house. We learned later that an incendiary had fallen on a loaded Lancaster detonating the 2,000 lb. bomb. The C.O. at Syerston , Group Captain Gus Walker, happened to be close and his arm blew off; I met him later when I was in the RAF.
There was only one Blitz on Nottingham and that partially failed. After the Germans had ringed Nottingham with marker flares two RAF planes from Hucknall laid decoy flares over the Vale of Belvoir and so the main Luftwaffe force dropped a lot of their bombs in the fields. Some did get through to Nottingham hitting Trent Bridge , the Station, Woolworths and the Co-op. An elderly couple, Mr and Mrs Suter, had moved from Thurgarton to the city and were killed in that raid. He had been the choirmaster at the church and lived at Southacre – they were buried at Thurgarton.
One Friday afternoon some German bombers flew low level over Lincolnshire to bomb the Ransome and Marles ball bearing works at Newark. They hit the factory killing over 80 people and machine gunned the streets. Mary was at school in Newark and had to shelter in shop doorways. The planes came and went before there was time to sound the sirens or man the anti-aircraft guns.
In Derby one Monday morning at a quarter to eight a lone German bomber attacked the Rolls Royce works in Nightingale Road and machine gunned the streets. One bomb fell on the main stores and 11 workers were killed. The Luftwaffe pilot was shot down a fortnight later; he knew Derby very well having worked at Rolls Royce before the war.
The family at war.
Ernest joined the 8th Battalion Sherwood Foresters Territorial Army early in 1939 as did many of the village lads. They were promised a fortnights training in August 1939 at Holyhead in North Wales; most of them had never been far from the village so they thought they were onto a good thing. When they had finished training the Sergeant-Major said that he would see them all again in two weeks because there was going to be a war. They were all called up on 1st September into the Regular Army.
Ernest served in Norway, Northern Ireland, North Africa from El Alamein to Tripoli then Italy and the Anzio landings. I remember the day Ernest arrived back from the Norwegian campaign in April1940; it was a Sunday morning and he sat at the kitchen table from 7 to 9 o’clock telling us all about it. Many men had been taken prisoner by the Germans and the lucky ones who had got out in time had reached Andalnes where they were evacuated by the Royal Navy. At Anzio they were held on a narrow strip of land being shelled and bombed from the sea, from land and from the air for three weeks – he didn’t expect to make it back.
When Ernest and John came home on leave we would Blanco their army equipment and polish the brasses. Sometimes John would bring his Thompson submachine gun home or a Sten gun or rifle. The reward for cleaning it with spit and polish was to go into the orchard and fire off a few rounds into the air.
John joined the Sherwood Foresters but was transferred to the Royal Armoured Corps just before his old battalion was wiped out at Tobruk (9th Battalion). He joined the Royal Dragoon Guards and saw action in Belgium , Holland and was one of the first over the Rhine into Germany. They met up with the Russians at Lubeck but they weren’t very friendly. They then moved north and were some of the first Allied troops into Denmark where they stayed for 6 months.
Hilda spent most of the war as a Sergeant WAAF at RAF Cranwell where she met her future husband Howard who was a wireless operator. He had served on Lysanders in France and had been evacuated at Dunkirk. He transferred to 517 squadron flying Halifaxes out of Braudy, South Wales. On D-day his plane developed engine trouble and ditched in the Atlantic 300 miles off Portugal. The eight man crew got into the two dinghies and on sighting a Catalina Flying Boat they fired off some distress flares one of which sadly dropped into one of the dinghies and sank it – so all eight men now clung to one dinghy. After three more days they were sighted by an American destroyer who transferred them to an Aircraft Carrier out hunting German submarines. They were eventually dropped off in Bermuda and flown home via USA and Canada. They were given a new aircraft but on their first operation from Braudy on returning from an eight hour patrol over the Bay of Biscay on a foggy November nigh they crashed into a hillside whilst circling to land. They were lucky to survive.
Phil remained on the farm and joined the Home Guard; Rene also remained at home to work on the farm and Mary went to work in a bank in Nottingham but later on went to work in a garage. I joined the Air Training Corps and used to visit the RAF stations at Newton and Syerston and the American 9th Air force bases at Bottesford and Langar; a few flights in Wellingtons, Lancasters or Dakotas made it all worthwhile. The Americans always gave us a good time with ice cream and tinned fruit and rides in their jeeps around the base. On leaving school I joined Rolls Royce as an engineering apprentice and worked on the first jet engines; later in 1946 I joined the RAF.
After the war Ernest and John returned to work on the farm with Phil. Hilda married Howard and moved to Burton Joyce and Mary moved to Daventry after marrying Philip Benton. At least everyone came through the war safely but life was never the same again – that pre-war life had gone forever and all was about to change. One thing that stands out from the war was the friendliness and comradeship of all the people – we were all in it together.
John , Philip and Ernest Bentley on Manor farm