Below are extracts from correspondence between myself and Les Bond, an ex-Brandonian who moved to Australia. Les was aged 14 at the outbreak of war.
The outbreak of war
I only have my own recollection to the outbreak of the war. At that time the Government was going to raise the school leaving age from 14 years to 16 years so my reaction was that it would be a good thing if the war lasted for at least one year so I that could leave at 14. Never in my wildest dreams did I think that it would go on so long that I would be in the Army for the last year of the war.
Well, I was still virtually a school boy and not understanding the seriousness of it all, but I do remember a lot of soldiers being billeted in the Maltings at the time. They had no equipment and all of them seemed at a loss as what to do with themselves, but that all seemed to get sorted out fairly quickly.
Military activity in Brandon
Brandon was the hub of quite a lot of military and air force activity. There was a camp on London Road, R.E.M.E. (Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers) and Engineers, I think, and Pioneers & the ammunition stacks at the Santon Downham Road Camp. There was a searchlight unit on Thetford Road where the chalk pit is now, or at least very close by. Then there was a Prisoner of War camp at Weeting and not forgetting the Battle Area. A well known film star of the time (Richard Green) was seen getting off the train at the Railway station and he was an officer in the Tank Corps, and was on his way to the Battle Area. Must say that caused a bit of talk in the town. I can’t recall soldiers billeted in the town, maybe because we didn’t have any near us. What I do remember is that soldiers stationed in Brandon used to find lodgings for their wives.
I’m not very good at specific dates and so the dates I give you will be more or less guess work. I joined the Home Guard in 1941, aged 15 or 16, as a messenger boy running messages from our section to the Headquarters and I had to supply my own bike. Our section was positioned anywhere, but our Headquarters was always in an out-building behind the Flintknappers Pub and by the way, the date given above comes from the fact that I have a certificate from Capt. Frank Holmes that I was entitled to wear three little red service stripes, one for each year in the Home Guard, but I must be honest we only joined to have a bit of fun. In the Home Guard we used to have weekend exercises up at Lingheath, Brandon Fields and in the town and at the firing range on some weekends. I think the firing range was at Elveden but don’t quote me on that one.
Sometimes we were taken by truck to Newmarket to watch training films and propaganda stuff and at one time I remember doing training with the Northover gun that fired bottles filled with phosphorous and was supposed to set Tanks on fire. Then we had a Sten Gun that was a ‘roughie’! You had to be careful how you held it otherwise it would chop your fingers off. When we were in our Home Guard uniform us youngsters used to use the N.A.A.F.I. which was in the Paget Hall, I cant remember the older guys using it though. I can also remember on one occasion of a parade on the meadow opposite the Railway Hotel. There that an ex-Guardsman, an ex old soldier probably of the Welsh Guards, anyway he wanted to urinate badly (probably because he liked his pint a bit too much) being a true Guardsman he didn’t fall out, he calmly did his business down his trouser leg. I don’t think I should give you his name but suffice to say he was a Welshman and there were not too many of them in Brandon!
One weekend we were on some sort of skirmish and our section was billeted in the shop opposite Eddie Bilverstone’s second hand shop on the Thetford Road, at one time it was a betting shop, but the last time I saw it it was a builder’s hardware shop. Getting back to the skirmish. Our enemy was what you called the secret unit (Auxiliary Unit) we knew them as the ‘Home Guard Commando’s’. One of the Home Guard Commandos got onto the roof of this building we were in and put a hand grenade down the chimney of a pot belly stove we had and blew us all up. Our section sergeant was Herbert Field from Thetford Road and he used to be a gardener amongst other things for the Rout family. Will Murrell and Jack Inns were other members of the section. The town pit on Thetford Road had a pill box on the edge of the south-east corner and there is still one just over the bottom fence of 149 Thetford Road, put it this way, facing the pit from Thetford Road it was in the top left hand corner and facing the pit. At the time they were built (by the Wing Bro’s ) steel reinforcing was impossible to get so they used old bike frames & iron bedsteads. That, I remember as plain as daylight!
I just remembered another thing – Bert Kidd was teaching some of us the Morse code as we were to become signallers, you see, I had been promoted up from message boy.
Machine-gunning of the school
I also recall a lone German aircraft machine-gunning the school just before lunch. I was working for F.J. Mount & Son in their chalk quarry at the time and two of us got under the tip truck we were loading as quick as we could as we thought we were being gunned.
Another occasion of German enemy action in Brandon was another lone plane on one evening before dark, when the noise came from the area of the river or railway line behind the council houses on the Thetford Rd. It was Bill Inns’ house on Thetford Road that caught the brunt of the bomb and if my memory is correct that same night the damage to their pantry spoilt some food so they got some extra ration coupons from the Ministry of Food to replace it. The house I lived in, 149 Thetford Road, still has a pock mark from shrapnel of that bomb, also our linen line that ran down the garden path was multi strand wire and one place on it shrapnel had cut it so only one strand was left. Then I was called up at 18 years old and spent 1 year in the Army before the war ended.
When Norwich was blitzed we could see the red glow in the sky at night from the fires, albeit faintly, nonetheless it could be seen.
Conscripted into active service
I was happy about being called up and was offered deferment for, I think, six months and then after that then to apply for a further six months. That was because I was working at Mount’s Lime and Whiting Works at the time. The lime part was tied up with agriculture you see, and food was a very important industry simply because of the shortage of it. Anyway I didn’t take up the offer as my friends were all getting called up and wouldn’t I have been a ‘Drongo’ to stay behind? Another reason was that I had always wanted to join the Navy and this was a good opportunity to get in because every one had a choice as to which arm of the services you wanted to enter into … trouble is, ask for something and you get the opposite and this is what happened to me! When the first weeks of training were completed we were given a choice as to what branch of the Army we preferred, i.e. cook-house, artillery, tanks, Bren gun carriers, support groups – such as heavy machine guns – or large mortars. My application was for the service corps as a driver. So what did I get? Well, the exact opposite … the bloody foot sloggers, infantry!!!!
When I was first called up I had to report to a barracks in York, which was the home of the Rifle Brigade and all conscripts had to wear a special hat badge, but we were also given the honour of wearing the Rifle Brigade’s badge.
After the initial training I was posted to the Suffolk Regiment at the Gibraltar Barracks in Bury St. Edmunds for the next lot of training and it was a good change to have instructors who spoke with a Suffolk accent, also to be able to get home at weekends. I used to hitch hike home as soon as we were off duty and get back on the Eastern Counties bus on Sunday nights. During training at Bury St. Edmunds an instructor, a sergeant, was killed when he was training us on 2-inch mortars with live ammunition. He would only take one recruit at a time to the firing emplacement as a precaution in case of accidents and what was supposed to happen was that the squaddie would slide a mortar bomb down the barrel then hit a firing pin and fire instantly. On this occasion it failed to do that, so he straight away slid another in on top. Well you can guess what the result may be when it hit the head of the first bomb which was primed to explode on impact. The result was horrendous.
The next lot of training was called ‘Division Training’ where we went to Weybourne, on the north Norfolk coast. It was there that I met up with an old school mate, Alfie Winter from Town Street and we bivouacked together with two ground sheets joined to make a low tent for two. That was on a grueling 100-mile route march that took us four days and poor old Alfie went on sick parade before we finished it and I never saw him again. From my time at York to the final at Weybourne was a total of six months and at the end of that period we were given embarkation leave.
When the leave was over I had to report to Wells-Next-The-Sea and the next thing I knew I was in France and on a train to Belgium. Upon arrival there I was put into a holding unit and from that unit we were put into any Regiment that needed replacements for their dead and wounded and that’s how I finished my Army life in the Seaforth Highlanders. The training was pretty tough for a young bloke who had never left home before and naturally there was home sickness, but gradually you get over that. There was the 100-mile route march that had to be done in four days and that included a few little exercises each day. We were taught about war and what it was like, such as enemy booby traps and having mustard gas dabbed on your hand so we knew what it was like. When you finally got where the action was it was nothing like we were told it would be and I think the training was just to make you obey orders with out question. During training we had one lad who was a real country bumpkin, he regularly urinated in his boots through the night.
Crossing the Rhine
How did I feel about going into active service? It was like water off a duck’s back until you find your self amongst the noise of battle and the sight of blood & guts, and then I was well and truly scared. I only knew of one guy to go AWOL and run away and he was brought back, but he ran off again, and what happened to him after that I don’t know as I never saw him again.
The crossing of the River Rhine was my baptism of fire, and although most of my time was spent doing what the army called “advancing to make contact”, when you did make contact you either fought or made a strategic withdrawal which ever you were told to do. We marched up to the south bank of the Rhine in single file through the night, which took us through the rows of heavy artillery, which when they fired without warning, frightened us to death, although they were giving Jerry a good blasting. When we got to the bank we had to wait until dawn and then we were put into vessels not much bigger than rowing boats that had outboard motors. These were driven by Royal Engineers and some motors failed on the way so those poor sods just drifted down stream and we never knew what happened to them and anyway we were not being fired on. When we reached the south bank we clambered up to the top only to find dead Germans all along the top of the embankment. We had been saved a lot by the Commandos who had gone over in the darkness and had garroted or knifed them all while they were still in their slit trenches. So our lot was a pretty easy start as we advanced and made contact. Then to our surprise we saw all these planes towing gliders in the sky and the sky was just full of them. It was a few days before we got to where they had landed and what a sight that was. They had all crash landed and after seeing that I was glad to have crossed the Rhine in a rowing boat. Our unit did see a concentration camp and that English guy that says it never happened is off his rocker because it certainly did happen!
VE & VJ days
I’m afraid I was posted in Germany at that time and know nothing about Brandon during VE day, though we were all relieved that it was over. We had a non fraternisation order from Montgomery that we were not allowed to speak to the Germans, not even to the German children. We also had to keep our eyes open in case the Russians started anything as we had also met up with them and we were told not to mix with them. Though we did raid a few houses trying to commandeer some schnapps so we could celebrate.
VJ day was also a ‘fizzog’ for me. I, with others, was put on a draft to be sent to the Far East, but because I did something silly, when I cut my arm rather badly, I was put into a Canadian Military Hospital in Belgium. That’s were I was on VJ day. But the draft only got to Gibraltar before the war in the Far East was over so I would have been lucky either way.
My first encounter with the civilians in Europe was with the Belgium prostitutes. When we got settled into our first billet we went out into the street and there they were, just waiting for us. They all had their hair shaved off, as that was what was done to the girls who went out with the German soldiers, and some of the guys went off with their choice of the prostitutes. Believe it or not I didn’t, as I just didn’t fancy a girl who was hated by her own and had been a friend of the Germans. My next contact was with a Dutch family with whom I was billeted and for a few days they were very nice as all the Dutch people I encountered were, but at the next stop back in Belgium, I was billeted with a nasty lady. She crammed as many guys as she could in her house and so we were not very comfortable and her next door neighbour only took two guys and I must say they were a nice couple and the husband was a coal miner, so we used to go to their house at night and play cards. One other thing about the Belgians was they used to let us travel free on their trams, but when the war was over they wanted us all to pay. You can guess what we told them to do. The Germans where very subdued except some of the prisoners of war who were very arrogant.
When the war finished we were all given a letter from Montgomery and we were ordered by him not to talk to the German population, not even children, and after a while we were given another letter saying it was okay, but we could speak to children only.