Memories of WW II
Memories of the Second World War in Caston - This account, written by John Barnes, was first published in The Waylander in three separate parts from April to June 2009 and is republished here with his kind permission.
In November 2008 I was working in a school with Year 6 children studying the Second World War and originally this account was written for the class. Since then I have spoken to my brother Gerald Barnes, to Brenda Beales (nee Webster), Evelyn Harrand, Jane Horner, Doreen Smith (nee Prebble), Alan Hall, Bill Mann, Michael Childerhouse and Dick Childerhouse about their memories and, with their permission, I have included some items here together with my memories of life in Caston in wartime. We hope that there will be comments from others who lived through the war years; I can be contacted on firstname.lastname@example.org or by telephone on 01689 853666.
On Sunday mornings my father always attended church service and I can recall that fateful Sunday morning in September 1939 when he stayed at home to listen at 11 o’clock to Mr Neville Chamberlain’s broadcast which told the British people that we were at war with Germany. I cannot recall the actual words of the broadcast, although the first two or three sentences of it are still heard on air from time to time.
At an early stage everyone was issued with a National Identity Card – I still have mine – and we were made to memorise our National Identity Number. Mine was TSEE 14/3 and we think that Gerald’s was TSEE 14/4.
It cannot have been long after that that evacuees arrived at our house. The billeting officer was Mrs Miriam Hardinge, the wife of Lt Col Hardinge who had served in the First World War, and who lived at ‘Flaxmoor’. We accommodated a lady from East Ham or West Ham and her two children. The first period of the War saw little bombing and few air raids and they returned to London after a few weeks. I was later told that they went off with a pair of my shoes.
One family of evacuees, however, made Caston their permanent home. On 21st October 1940 Mrs Ada Prebble arrived at Stow Bedon Station with her four daughters. Because of air raids in London it was late in the evening and their first night in Norfolk was spent with Mr and Mrs Walter Brown, next door to Stow Bedon ‘Windmill’ public house, opposite the station. (Mr Brown was our Roadman who was usually seen with his handcart. He gritted the roads in winter, mended potholes and kept the verge gulleys clear so that water could run off the road swiftly.) For the next seven months they lived with the Stone and Grieves families at Lower Stow Bedon until, in May 1941, Mr Charles Prebble joined them and they moved to Caston. My father was involved by chance with their arrival but exactly how is now uncertain. Probably he was delivering bread to the houses near the station when they arrived and he introduced them to the Brown family. He used to say that he was the first local person that they met. I have always understood that on one occasion he gave one or more members of the family a ride to Caston in Joe Tricker’s bread van. The family had come from Greenwich and they settled in Duke Lane in the leftmost of the row of three cottages that have since been demolished. Of the four daughters, Molly married Nelson Banham from Bridge Cottages (Jane Horner and Eddie Banham are their ‘children’), Ada married Leonard ‘Sugar’ Bailey, also from Bridge Cottages, Anne, who worked for a time as a Land Girl, never married and Doreen married Tony Smith of Great Hockham and they now live at Shirley, Southampton. Mr and Mrs Prebble, who had intended to return to London, moved in 1961 to what is now ‘Sengena’, Griston Road. Nelson was a bricklayer and he built both that bungalow and the nearby ‘Greenwich Villa’, in which his family lived and which is now the home of Jane and Roy Horner.
Alan Hall recalls that a few yards south of Church Farm front gate, anti-tank obstructions were built across Church Lane. They consisted of two blocks of concrete, each about four feet square, placed on the verge with further concrete blocks with sockets sunk into the road. Had the enemy landed, iron girders would have been cemented vertically into the sockets. On frosty mornings, the places where these sunken blocks were situated may still be seen today. My brother Gerald thinks that there were similar obstructions placed at the beginning of Green Lane (now Stow Bedon Road).
In the village we had our platoon of the Home Guard or ‘Dad’s Army’ as it is now known. It was led by Lt Col George W Barnham of Griston, Lt Saunders of Merton, and Sergeant John Reeve and Corporal Bob Wymer of Caston. Supplied with live ammunition, the battalion had to assist with the operation of the searchlight positioned near the entrance to the drive to Whews Farm. They may also have been involved with the pill box situated in the nearby meadow. My father had to join The Home Guard but because he worked long hours – a twelve-hour day – he appealed to be relieved of duties. He appeared before a panel in Norwich and was let off further Home Guard service. Dad’s bravest moment was in persuading a farmer’s bull to return to the farmyard rather than escape to the road. At one period it was thought that the Germans might drop incendiary bombs and frighten people and cause damage. Each night a fire watching team kept watch from the church tower, either from the bell chamber or from the top. They also watched for enemy parachutists. The only incendiary bombs that I was ever aware of happened whilst I was staying on holiday with an aunt and uncle at Banham, about fourteen miles southwest of Norwich. I was woken up one night and got up in order to watch Norwich being bombed. I can vividly remember watching a ‘basket’ of incendiary bombs falling gently on the city. Much damage was done. Norwich was protected to an extent by barrage balloons and we could see these from the top of the rise near the gravel pit (now filled in) along Green Lane. I think that there were no pill boxes actually in Caston. That which stood on the meadow beyond “The Whews” gateway was eventually broken up and used to fill up a pond. Gerald suggests that the nearest existing box is probably to be found at Breckles on the east side of the road as one approaches the church from Caston. Breckles had a dummy airfield beside the Watton to East Harling road but I was unaware of this at the time. The land mines of November 1940 (see below) may have been meant for this decoy whose purpose was to try to persuade German aircrew to bomb the dummy planes and buildings and not the real thing at Royal Air Force, Watton.
It was whilst I was staying at Banham that sweets became rationed. This was not much of a shock because my family regarded sweets as an occasional treat. Sweets continued to be rationed until about 1953, by which time I was in the Royal Air Force doing National Service.
During the war every house had blackout curtains and /or wooden shutters so that German aircraft could not identify towns and villages at night or deliberately drop bombs on houses. Our village carpenter, Mr Ambrose Smith, made up heavy wooden shutters that my mother fitted to the windows every night and removed each morning. On patrol every night were Air Raid Wardens and part of their job was to tell people if any light could be seen coming from their windows. The headlights of cars and cycles were heavily masked by black metal discs so that very little light shone on the roads. I gather that there were many accidents caused by drivers being unable to see properly where they were driving. I clearly recall the first time I saw the unmasked headlights of my father’s van when the discs were removed after the war in Europe had ended. I was amazed at their brilliance.
In the 1970s, when I was writing ‘A History of Caston’, I discovered that ‘Flaxmoor’ garage had housed an emergency food supply – powdered and canned goods, I imagine – in case the Germans landed and food became extremely scarce. Of course, the Germans never landed and neither did food become so scarce as to need the distribution of the emergency supply. I imagine that every community must have had such a store, although it must have been a closely guarded secret. Certainly my mother also had a reserve of canned food, should it have been needed. My parents had been considering turning our front vegetable garden into a lawn. Not so! It grew vegetables, especially potatoes, until about 1950. In Norfolk there were millions of wild rabbits and as they were serious pests to the farmers, they were shot when possible. Rabbit meat is tasty and many a Norfolk family enjoyed rabbit stew into the 1950s when the disease myxomatosis killed off most of the rabbits. In the back garden we had five Bramley apple trees and one eating apple tree. The eating apples did not keep for long but the Bramleys, gathered in September, would keep through the winter until the following April. Many were stored under our beds. We would give some away to friends and neighbours. They provided fruit that we would otherwise not have had. During the war there was no imported fruit and it was some time after the war that I ate my first banana and seedless grapes. It was not until 1954 that I tasted my first grapefruit at a friend’s house in Littlebourne, Kent. I think that by careful management my mother and father never ran short of food. Each summer, apples, blackberries and other locally-grown fruits were made into jam by my mother. A number of people kept chickens and each Autumn mother would buy eggs and store them for winter use in a large pot in a substance called isinglass. The only food shortage that I was aware of occurred whilst we were visiting our relatives at Banham. We had sat down to tea and my aunt looked at me and announced, “Now, John, you can have either butter or jam on your bread, but not both.” The Mann family was particularly fortunate because Mr Mann’s employer, Mr James Petrie, kept bees and so, once a year, they were given honey.
Bill Mann adds that it was not only food that was stored in wartime. He can remember that after the war had ended, his father and Mr Petrie went into the woodland behind The Old Rectory and dug up at least two barrels of petrol. Long before electricity reached the village in the mid 1930s, Mr Petrie had an installation at The Old Rectory that operated at 110 volts. The supply came from huge accumulators (which Alan Hall also recalls) and these were kept charged by a dynamo driven by a petrol engine in the outbuildings. We think that the hidden fuel was intended to keep the lights burning. Alan also says that their radio got its power from an accumulator and that this was re-charged by Mr Petrie – until one exploded!
I remember that all the school windows had crosses of sticky paper tape stuck over them in order to avoid possible splintering if a bomb had caused them to break. In November 1940 two landmines fell late one Friday evening in the next parish, Stow Bedon. Mother ran upstairs and hastily carried Gerald and me downstairs. I think that we slept through it all! Our south-facing downstairs front window at Ivan House was damaged and many of the church windows on the south side were badly damaged. My brother and I were taken on the Sunday afternoon to see the enormous holes that had been created in the fields. Stow Bedon church and school were considerably damaged and, like Caston church windows, were not repaired until some time after the war. Until that time, some Stow Bedon children attended Caston School and some of the people worshipped with us at Caston church. Harry Andrews, sub postmaster at Stow Bedon, sang in Caston church choir for a good number of years. The hymn book with his name in it may still be there.
One morning, when I was still in bed, a German aircraft flew very low over our house. Our neighbour, Mr Buckle, ran for his life! The plane was shot down seconds later by an anti-aircraft unit and crashed in Ovington.
When the V1 ‘Doodlebug’ flying bombs began to hit London, a girl named Janet Bickham, aged about nine I suppose, came to Caston to live with relatives at Chase Farm. She joined us at school. Mrs Chapman was from Bethnal Green and we think that Janet may have been a niece. Alas! Janet returned to London and one Saturday morning, whilst at her local library, was killed when the building received a direct hit by a flying bomb, either a V1 or a V2.
At school at one period we were given (I think) cod liver oil each day: I did not enjoy the taste. We also drank a one-third of a pint bottle of milk each morning, a practice that continued until the 1970s. It was known by 1940 that Vitamin C was good for health. Rose hips in the hedgerows contain much Vitamin C and so, during one summer, we went on nature walks from school to pick rose hips. They were then sent to a factory to be turned into rose hip syrup. Bill Mann relates that he was given Virol, but whether at home or at school he cannot remember.
It is well known that for most of the war years our Prime Minister was (later Sir) Winston Churchill. What was not very widely known at the time was that he and his family were friendly with The Honourable Edwin Montague and family at Breckles Hall and from time to time the Churchills stayed at Breckles. Indeed, Winston is credited with a bit of bricklaying there – I wonder if the wall survives! At Caston there was a forge, owned by Mr Clifford Chapman, and on at least one occasion my father saw one of the Churchill girls visiting Caston to have her horse shod.
At one point during the war small anti-personnel bombs, designed to kill or maim, were dropped around the village. I remember that morning because an aunt and cousins arrived at Stow Bedon Station to spend the day with us. They were warned by me not to touch a ‘butterfly bombs’, as they were called. Bill Mann recalls how his father, wearing his helmet, joined in the search for the bombs. In the event there was only one casualty – a sheep was killed and a cart in the charge of Eddie Breeze was damaged.
The baker’s rounds that my father undertook from Caston extended to Griston, Merton, Thompson and Tottington. On 19th July 1942 Tottington ceased to exist as a community when the Army took over the area, along with Stanford, Buckenham Tofts and West Tofts, to form what became known then as ‘The Battle Area’. From an early age I would accompany my father on his Saturday bread round and I have wartime memories of Tottington: of my father buying a lump of cheese from the village shop and of our eating it in the van with a small loaf of bread, of delivering bread to various homes and particularly to Mrs Childerhouse at Mortimer Farm, with its splendid Victorian tower, and of passing the house at Keymers Corner which had a veranda (the only house I had ever seen with one) where Lawson Blanche and his mother lived. A most vivid memory, however, is the Saturday when Dad turned to me and said, “This is the last time that we shall come here with bread”. Gerald can also remember Dad saying that to him.
A large loaf of bread cost fourpence and I remember when, probably after the war, it rose to fourpence ha’penny and I had to learn my four-and-a-half times table.
Norfolk is one of the closest counties to Germany and, as part of the war effort, a considerable number of United States 8th Army Air Force bases were established all over the county. Within twelve miles of Caston there were ten aerodromes and the county was swarming with American servicemen. Locally, I believe that Royal Air Force, Watton was shared with the Americans. The base was always referred to locally as ‘The Camp’ and it provided work for local people, including some from Caston. The end of the runway was less than two miles from our back garden. When they were off duty the GIs, as they were known, came to Caston to our village’s three public houses and there my father chatted to them and got to know them. (In those days ladies were never seen in pubs.) Norfolk people were told that many of these young men were probably homesick and it was suggested that people should invite them into their homes at weekends. So it was that the Barnes household welcomed a group of these servicemen to Ivan House. I can recall Norman Hartle from Sayreville, Newark, New Jersey, ‘Frenchie’ from New Orleans, Joe ?Bonello and Quinn. There was also a Lou with a Polish sounding surname who may have married a young lady from Griston. Norman Hartle gave my parents a dictionary, which I now have. Although I never saw a black American in our home, my first sight of one such person was when the Americans built a sewer in our village. Some of the concrete they laid down is still there! One afternoon, during the digging of a sewer trench across Northacre, just below ‘Northfields’, the digger cut through an electricity cable, thus cutting off the supply for much of the village. A day or two after the American servicemen started work on their sewer I met Brian Banham outside his mother’s shop near ‘The Duke’s Head’ public house. Brian introduced me to the new verb he had learned that day, to quit, and he explained its meaning to me.
Living in Mill Bungalow (which I believe they had had built) were Mr and Mrs Fred Self who kept poultry on meadows. Across the meadows, on the Griston side of the Caston – Griston boundary, were the many huts in which the American servicemen lived. As a short cut to the Caston pubs, some G I s would cut across Mr Self’s meadows. I can remember him relating to my father in his broad Norfolk voice how he had rescued a rather inebriated G I from a ditch. From June 21st 1943 Griston School was closed because of its position on the edge of the airfield and the children were transferred to Caston School, Mr Norman Peeke Vout fetching and returning them in his bus. It was probably a Griston child at Caston School who told us that on at least one occasion a four-engined bomber, probably a Liberator, was towed across Griston Street halfway between Mr Coughtrey’s woodyard and Blackwater Corner.
At times I cycled to Griston to the base. I recall watching part of a baseball game, being taken around the base hospital but declining to visit the mortuary, and going to the base cinema to see Merle Oberon in the film ‘Dark Waters’. My father’s work in Mr Tricker’s bakery enabled me for some months to cycle to the base each evening and sell bread rolls to the Americans. The unit on the Griston side of the base collected together all the serviceable parts of Liberator bombers that had crashed in East Anglia and built second-hand aircraft from those parts. American security was rather lax and I recall clambering through a bomber and making my way across the (empty!) bomb bay. Various small items like switches and wiring found their way to Caston School and thence to our homes. I cannot have been the only pupil whose first steps in electricity were learned using parts from Liberator bombers. Some of the Griston children even flew in one on an air test! My first flight was a few years later from Croydon Airport whilst staying at Sydenham, London, with Mrs Beryl Yates. During much of the war we slept downstairs (as did the Mann family, sleeping soundly under the angel ceiling of Old Rectory Cottage) because it was considered to be safer. Our upstairs front bedroom was rented out to this lady, then Beryl Dracup, who was a WAAF Squadron Officer. After the war, and until Beryl’s death about 1990, my mother kept in touch with her. Beryl’s fiancé was Warrant Officer Bill Yates and he was one of the party who escorted to London the crew of the aeroplane that was brought down at Ovington. He died suddenly before they could be married and she took his name by deed poll. I well remember her arriving in tears at eight o’clock one morning with the news of his death.
One Sunday afternoon Francis Reeve and I took our little bicycles and pedalled the seven or eight miles to Snetterton airfield to see the ‘Flying Fortresses’ which were based there. The one that I remember most was lying partly on the verge and partly within the airfield. We presumed that it had been badly damaged by German defences but that the crew had made a successful crash landing, something that often occurred after a raid. (Bill Mann recalls aircraft limping back to Watton.) It must have been a hot day because I recall stopping at a house close to Larling School and asking if I might have a drink of water: the request was sympathetically received.
From the engineering section of the base, a succession of American lorries passed through the village on ‘Road Test’. I was greatly puzzled by his, for why should our roads need all this testing? The American whom I confronted with this question explained to me that it was the lorries that were being tested. Bill Mann can also remember British army convoys passing his home, Old Rectory Cottage. The school log book of the time records in an entry dated December 8th 1941 that “During the weekend some of the school railings were broken by a bren gun carrier during mock invasion.” I am sure that at times tanks, too, passed through the village.
One October morning in 1944, at about eleven o’clock, we noticed a succession of ambulances and emergency vehicles passing the school window. When we reached home that day we learned that two B17 ‘Flying Fortress’ aircraft had collided in mid air (at 16,000 feet, it turned out) on the boundary of Caston and Rockland. They had been fully loaded with bombs and ammunition and, having taken off from Deopham Green airfield, were climbing into formation for a bombing raid on Germany. Only two of the eighteen crew members survived, both of them rear gunners who managed to ‘ride down’ the tail gun turret before baling out. With members of Caston Boy Scouts, I recall cycling past the remains of one of the aeroplanes lying in a field opposite Caston Hall. Bill Mann’s memories of the event are more vivid. He writes, “The most significant (wartime) memory must be the collision of two aircraft over the school. I was in the Infant Room when the collision occurred. Dick Childerhouse rushed for the door but was told not to leave. Other children dived under their desks. Further explosions happened and then we were taken outside, perhaps as it was considered safer. As we looked beyond The Green and the Red Lion, the tail section of one of the planes fell slowly towards the earth as if on a parachute. It was followed by an airman on a parachute who broke through the cloud and made his way to safety. A motorist travelling towards Rockland stopped his car and climbed to the top of ‘The Stone’ on the Green for a better view.” Dick Childerhouse remembers the big explosion, remembers children, including Bill Mann, taking cover under their desks and then, in his memory, stampeding out into the playground. Dick says that he believes one of the parachutists walked along Church Lane to the Green, where he was picked up. My brother Gerald also witnessed happenings from the Infant Classroom and speaks of the terrifying explosion. As was Gerald’s custom, he walked down the village to play with his friends after school. On his return journey he got as far as The Rectory (now The Old Curatage) and was too frightened to go further until someone cycled past and he realised that it was safe to continue. Such was the effect upon a young boy. Brenda Beales, then Brenda Webster, lived in Rockland and attended Thetford Grammar School for Girls. Every school day she and two companions cycled to and from Stow Bedon Station. That afternoon, on reaching the Carbrooke Road turn in Caston, they found her way home blocked because of the danger of unexploded bombs and had to make a long detour in order to reach Rockland. Brenda says that they had been warned at school not to cycle home via Caston but they persisted in doing so! Alan Hall was working in a field on the west of Church Lane and he remembers seeing the tailplanes falling to earth. The late Albert Palmer and Lewis Savory were at work on the opposite side of the lane on the Low Meadows and they made their way up past the Nut Pit to see what they could do to help. They reached the shepherd’s hut at the top of the rise but could get no closer because of exploding ammunition. One of the airmen killed was friendly with a young lady from Rockland and the crash thus caused local distress.
Details of the accident are in ‘Eighth Air Force Bomber Stories’, by McLachlan & Zorn, published by Patrick Stephens Limited, 1991. It includes an account by Louis Correia, one of the rear gunners. Memory is peculiar: I cannot recall the explosion at all.
A school memory is of ‘The Gas Van’. I think that early in the war we were supposed to carry gas masks with us all the time but that did not always happen! However, we did have to carry them on our backs to and from school. Occasionally the van would park in the school playground and we would put on our gas masks and stand in the van, perhaps for a minute or two. We would then be asked if we smelled anything during that time but in my groups no-one ever did. They were, of course, testing the efficiency of the masks. The school log book records that the gas van called at school from 10 a.m. to 12 noon on May 22nd 1944, about two weeks prior to D Day. It also records that on June 25th 1943 Mrs Darbyshire-Bowles gave us an “anti gas talk”. Bill Mann says that his young brother Walter had a gas mask which was rather like a present-day incubator and which accommodated the entire baby.
An interesting shortage in the village in highlighted by the school log book in an entry dated January 28th 1943 – “No fires again this morning. Cleaner says owing to no matches.” I cannot recall that we were sent home. Indeed, on winter Monday mornings when the heating had been off all weekend we often sat in our coats.
I can recall three particular wartime incidents that involved Caston families and Americans. The first involved the loss of our afternoon playtime. Mr and Mrs Self’s car – was it a Lanchester? – had been in collision with an American lorry at the crossroads outside the school entrance and we were not allowed to intrude on the privacy of the occasion and so were kept in our classrooms. We were disappointed! (The layout of The Green was altered in the 1950s so as to eliminate the crossroads.) The second incident involved an American lorry carrying four crated aeroplane engines that was being driven through Caston on its way to the Watton air force base. The driver took the ninety degrees Duke corner too fast. One of the huge aeroplane engines fell off and demolished part of a wall of Mr Tricker’s bakery at which my father worked. Later I was shown a photograph of the damage. We were later told that the driver was drunk! The third incident was more serious and took place at Great Hockham. Whilst cycling home from work, 17 years old Rita Upstone of the Council Houses, Green Lane (now Stow Bedon Road) was struck by a USAAF lorry, knocked from her bicycle and killed. Her grave is in Caston churchyard.
The Americans were well paid and were better off than many English families. One Christmas all of us schoolchildren were loaded into American trucks (as they called lorries) and were taken to the American base at East Wretham, six miles away, to a huge Christmas party. Other children went to the Watton base. The presents were quite modest and my brother Gerald and I came home with, amongst other items, a model ship and a yo-yo. Made from wood and painted green, the ship floated in our outside water tank for many years. Doreen Smith tells me that the girls were given a handkerchief and a heart made from perspex.
The Americans met the girls from Watton and the surrounding villages at local dances. At least two Caston ladies, Meg Grimmer and Esther Glover, married American servicemen.
As the war progressed more men and aircraft were needed in France and very suddenly, secretly and without warning (lest the Germans should get to know) the men from the Watton base disappeared. (Later we had confirmation that they had gone to France.) I had made friends with the Americans who manned either a searchlight or an anti aircraft gun opposite Park Farm, Griston. Many of the Americans, being short of storage, had made wooden chests from spare wood. I had asked one of them if I could have his chest when he left. When I told my father about the wooden chest he collected it for me on his next visit to Griston. I still have it in my loft, full of railway books.
Bill Mann has a memory of something built or standing on Mr Hall’s field just beyond the gravel pit as well as what might have been an air raid shelter opposite the easternmost pair of Bridge Cottages. Neither Gerald nor I can recall these.
The likelihood of ‘Gerry’ aeroplanes flying over England ceased some time prior to VE Day and I am fairly certain that it was during this period that an illuminated landing circuit for Watton aerodrome was installed in the fields and meadows. Each light was at the top of a tall pole that looked exactly like an electric light pole. One was installed in the field behind ‘Ivan House’ and at the planning stage an officer calling to ascertain the owner of the field.
The village War Memorial on the Green records the deaths of three servicemen. They were considerably older than me and I did not know them but I can remember my father coming home on different occasions with the news that Reggie Lawes and Geoffrey Curtis had been killed, the latter in a flying accident in Rhodesia in 1945. I did not know the Thorpe family whose son Frederick was killed in 1942, but I was at school with Dick Curtis, Geoffrey’s brother, and with Brian Banham, a nephew of Reggie Lawes who was killed in 1943.
The war did bring some social events whose aim was fund raising. In connection with one of these we attended sheep dog trials at Chase Farm. There were also dances, jumble sales and similar fund raising events. The school log book has the following entries. “June 26th 1941 – A day’s holiday given for extra work in War Weapons Week, June 5th 1943 – Wings for Victory Week. Money collected for School Bank, £60.1s.0d” and “June 12th 1944 – Salute the Soldiers Week. Target for school £50. Money taken £79.13s.3d.” In February 1942 there was also an Aid for Russia period when £12.12s.2d was collected at school. It included seven shillings received from the sale of rose hips that we had gathered.
For some of the war years and for many years after the war my mother’s coat proudly bore a ‘WRVS’ badge. Whilst I do not remember much about her involvement with the Womens Royal Voluntary Service, the members of the Caston branch met at Flaxmoor to knit blankets and socks for the servicemen. In this way ordinary village people forged a bond with those who were serving in the forces. (In those days socks were not long lasting and quite quickly developed holes and hence the need for replacements.)
I can remember – I suppose about 1944 - being given a piece of metal (which we still have) from the V1 ‘Doodlebug’ that crashed at Breckles, brought to us one Sunday lunchtime by Mr Slattery of Stow Bedon. Bill Mann tells me that whilst walking between his home at Old Rectory Cottage and Bridge Farm Cottages he once saw a flying bomb in the air. Whether it was the one that came down at Breckles we do not know. On another Sunday afternoon we were taken to see a crashed British bomber at Stow Bedon, close to what my father always referred to as ‘the Black Prince’s house’ (I think that at one time it had been the home of Prince Duleep Singh) at the bottom of Sandy Lane.
For a young lad the “Children’s Hour” broadcasts on the BBC Home Service (now Radio Four) were looked forward to. There were plays, stories and talks and there was always ‘Uncle Mac’ to introduce them. A series of adult broadcasts that I remember concerned the lives of the Plum family. Although I cannot recall any of their adventures, the broadcasts ended (and may have begun) with a catchy tune with the words “Plum, Plum, Plum, remember you’re a Plum, never start a worrying when things look glum. It doesn’t matter what the weather, Plums will always hang together, Plum, Plum, Plum, remember you’re a Plum.” I can only assume that the broadcasts were a morale booster.
Our war effort was aided by German and Italian prisoners of war who worked on the farms. I cannot recall any who lived in Caston but my uncle and aunt at Potash Farm, Banham had two German prisoners towards the end of the war. One of them persisted on coming to attention and saying “Heil Hitler” and had to be returned to camp! The other was dear old Joseph, from Bavaria, who lived in a hut in the garden and who taught me ‘The Blue Danube’ waltz. Thus did I fraternise with the enemy in wartime. After the war my cousin Patricia visited him and his family in Bavaria. (Not long after the war a German man, Karl, came to live in Caston, lodging with Mrs Flowerdew next to The Chapel.)
On Monday May 7th 1945 the war in Europe ended. Doreen Smith recalls someone – possibly Mr Ernest Buckle, our sub postmaster – coming into school and saying, “It’s all over!” I cannot recall this but VE Day (Victory in Europe Day) was celebrated on May 8th. Shortly afterwards I think that my mother, my brother and I were staying at Holbeach, Lincolnshire with an aunt and uncle. The adults went to watch a torchlight procession but Gerald and I were put to bed. However, on VJ Day (Victory in Japan Day) we were in Caston. It would have been the afternoon of August 14th 1945 and my father’s boss, Joe Tricker, had invited me to accompany him on a bread round which took us to isolated houses on Stow Bedon Heath. We stopped at a pair of cottages beyond the railway line (Bill says that the gatehouse was called Breckles, rather than Stow Bedon, Gatehouse) and Joe took the bread to the door of the first cottage. When he returned to the van he said to me, “The war is over!” It came as a surprise because I think that we children were unaware of the two atomic bombs that had been dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan. Indeed much of the detail of the war had been kept from us, perhaps so as not to alarm us but also because it was not the sort of thing that was discussed with children. My parents had bought their first radio, a Murphy, in 1936 when we moved from Northfields Cottage to Ivan House and so we had a radio. There was no television during the war period, not that it had reached Caston before the war anyway. Newspapers were six or eight pages long and contained only such news as was good for us to know. No information was to be given away to the enemy – did not the posters tell us that ‘Careless talk costs lives’? Nor did we travel far – again, the posters asked us ‘Is your journey really necessary?’ All in all, we seemed to have taken the war in our stride and simply got on with living.
I cannot remember any organised celebrations in Caston to celebrate either VE Day or the end of the war. Evelyn Harrand recalls that on the evening of VE Day, David, an American serviceman who had been befriended by the Peeke-Vout family, brought a Very pistol and fired coloured flares into the night sky. Bill Mann, however, remembers a large Union Flag flying from the school chimney and smaller flags attached to the eaves. Bill also recalls a party and being given a small glass mug with letters V (for Victory) on opposite sides. Gerald also has one of these. Because there are two conflicting accounts of celebratory straw stack fires at Mr William Hall’s Church Farm, Dick and I think that his and (he says) Terry Cator’s memories of a fire close to the Caston – Stow Bedon boundary was on VE Day. He recalls Eddie Palmer setting off the event by firing a flare before setting alight to a stack of poor quality straw. Bill Mann, however, remembers a fire beyond the stackyard area, situated way past the top of the farm drive on the right. He recalls that Mr James Petrie of The Old Rectory took along a small cannon from which he fired blank ammunition. Perhaps this latter fire was for VJ Day. I can only think that on both occasions Gerald and I had been put to bed and we regret having been deprived of the excitement! Doreen Smith recalls a church service on at least one of the occasions.
Dick Childerhouse says that shortly after the end of the war a German aeroplane adorned with swastikas came over Caston and was seen to dive over RAF Watton. I gather that others witnessed this and I suggest that it was a captured aeroplane being flown by RAF personnel.
On the Sunday following the end of the war I was ‘browsing’ over our Murphy radio dial when by chance I tuned in to a Hilversum, Netherlands, station. A church service was being broadcast and the congregation were singing Nun Danket, the tune universally sung to ‘Now thank we all our God’. The feeling of thankfulness was worldwide. Peace had come at last.
John Barnes, February 2009.