Below are extracts from a conversation with Mr Derek ‘Dick’ Norton, in 2007, who was 4 years old at the outbreak of war. Dick is my uncle and here he makes references to his father – my grandfather Bert Norton. My own father was not born until after the war.
The Home Guard
They used to do the roadblocks on the major roads in Brandon and they would have these holes set into the road and would drop a metal angle shaped obstruction into the hole and anything coming up the road would have had to hit it with such force to shift it, and I’m not sure even a tank would have shifted it easily. Then they would take them out and leave them by the side of the road to let traffic through. When they weren’t using these holes they would drop a block of wood into it so the road could be used as normal. That was one of the jobs of the Home Guard. I didn’t see any exercises as such but you would see them march up the London Road and off into the woods. Bert, my father would go off two or three times a week and most weekends. When they first started they didn’t have a uniform, all they had was an armband. Just like you’ve seen on Dad’s Army, they just had an armband and a broom handle or a pitchfork, or something similar, but then they gradually got kitted out with a uniform.
News of the war
You wouldn’t get much news from the papers, but mainly from the radio instead and not many people could afford a newspaper and they tended to be passed around and gradually got torn up for use as toilet paper! It was the routine that at mealtimes we switched on the radio to hear the news about the war. One of the main things I remember was the chasing of the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, cornering them in the Norwegian fjords. They are the main things I remember. You must remember that I was very young at the time and worries about things happening outside of Brandon, unless I heard them on the news, would not have meant too much to me. However inside Brandon there was a lot of concern about who had gone missing and there was this one particular chap who lived down our road and he was missing. His wife was a great friend of my mother’s and I well remember her coming to our house to say she had received a telegram saying that he had been killed in the war. He was the very first I remember being killed.
Soldiers billeted in the town
We had a four-bedroom house in Coronation Place and we didn’t have a choice. They just came around and said, “we have these soldiers here and they need billeting. 1 … 2 … 3 … 4 … they’re yours!” That’s how we ended up with them, although mother got their rations though to help out. We got on fine with them and they were decent blokes and they had their own families too. I remember one time mother was making pickled onions and there were some small pickle seeds lying around. One of these blokes said, “here you are boy, eat that”. So I put it in my mouth and it felt like my tongue was on fire, so I started howling and he asked what was the matter. I told him it was burning and he said, “put this one in your mouth and it’ll cool it off”. Of course that was even hotter! But they were nice blokes and they were accepted into the family and after the war a couple of them wrote to mother thanking her. We had all sorts of soldiers around here. The ones we had billeted were from a Lancashire regiment and I remember their cap badge had a horse on it. There were also some Canadians in the town and some Indian soldiers at Weeting.
There was a pillbox at the bottom of Rattlers Road and there was also a big gun mounting. A big block of concrete was poured into the ground and on top of it was a ‘knuckle’, about six to nine inches high and shiny, the Army would drop a gun off it’s wheels and lower the gun onto it. It would probably have been a 10 – 12 pounder gun. The Army would have operated it as the Home Guard only had light weapons, rifles or Bren guns, though they might have had mortars.
Bombing in Brandon
I am 100% sure that they (the Germans) had a go at Green’s (a wood yard – though this was adjacent to an engineers camp who repaired tanks). At the bottom of our garden, which is now Sweden Place, there was nothing, just an open field with sugar beet. When the beet wasn’t growing then they had pigs on the field and I remember hearing these bangs and we all went down to the bottom of the garden to a shed, which had been put up by the Council, and we watched these German planes diving down. Father said, “Come on let’s get the hell out of here and get into the house.” Now when my father spoke like that then you went! So we all went into the house. I think there were three planes.
Being an avid cinema goer I used to go to the pictures on a Saturday afternoon whereyou would get the Pathe News showing the war. We used to cheer when we saw, say, the British tanks rolling across the desert and boo when we saw the Germans. The only time I went to the cinema was on the Saturday afternoons, as we weren’t allowed to go in the evenings during the week, as it would have interfered with our schooling. Sundays were meant to be for the soldiers and their girlfriends. The cinema was so busy that they had to have a Commissionaire in a green and gold uniform, two people behind the kiosk and usherettes. There would be big queues down the cinema steps and down into the Avenue and I think there were more who went to the cinema than the pubs, especially the soldiers.
The schools had air raid shelters. I was in the Infants School at the time so I don’t know where the one in the older kids’ school was, but I think our one was were the dining room used to be. We would have a practice where they would come into the classroom shouting for everyone to get into the shelters and we would then run out and have the times of our lives!
There were different types of gas mask for different ages. For kiddies we had a small one, and if I remember rightly it was made of blue rubber and it had a beak like a duck’s beak with a red piece of rubber. I suppose it was to amuse the kids so they weren’t scared of it, but it was scary really. I’m glad we didn’t have to really use them because it was horrible to breath in, and you had to breath really slow and easy but us kids would panic a bit. It wasn’t until I was in the Army later that I myself learned not to panic and just breath easy, but when you put one of these on as a kid the first thing you want to do is pull it off because you panic.
I remember having a pair of new shoes and new shoes in the war cost a fortune, a lot of money. Add the fact that we were on rations and clothing was rationed and then you get an idea of how valuable new shoes were. Anyway I saw this big heap of tar for the road, so what did I do? Well, I jumped onto the top of it didn’t I! The tar goes right up to my knees, and well when they pulled me out of it those shoes were still stuck to the bottom! I wasn’t very popular with my folks.