Below are extracts from a conversation with Mr Harry Rumsey, who was 9 years old at the outbreak of war. This account was recorded over two sessions in 2002.
The day war broke out
It was a Sunday and at that time I lived with my parents in the Cemetery Cottages and I can remember everyone was listening to the radio, then as people came out of the church everyone stopped chatting over the garden wall. As youngsters it was difficult to know what it meant and I remember my father who had been in the First World War in France saying, “I hope it’s not as bad as the last lot!” The next day at school everyone was talking about us being at war and the only thing you knew about war was that men who had been at war twenty years earlier knew what it all meant and for the general public it didn’t mean much at all. It was broadcast over the radio and I think that most families knew that broadcast was going to be broadcast on that morning at that time. Our family was gathered around the radio at that time, half expecting to hear Chamberlain say we were at war.
In the first weeks of the war I moved with my parents to Coronation Place and I can remember playing football on the London Road and seeing a large group of children coming along, two-by-two, hand in hand with W.V.S. (Women Volunteer Service) or Red Cross people. They didn’t appear to have anything with them apart from a little parcel or attaché case and they were being dropped off at the houses as they came along. They were girls from the Green School at Tottenham and some had their brothers with them and they also had two teachers. I think because they were girls we became quite friendly.
It was much different the following year when the ‘Barnardo Boys’ came to Wangford Hall. There were 20-30 boys there then and it was a bit different as there were fights and arguments but they were quite friendly though, and they had two male teachers who were quite strict so if the boys were caught fighting they got punished while we didn’t! They integrated into the local schools and there were some good friendships and some of them came back later, but there was a different feeling for the evacuees, whether you felt sorry for them or because they were girls, they were a bit pitiful as they didn’t seem to have much with them.
The first part of Coronation Place, on the left hand side when you go into the road was built in 1937, the Coronation year, and the right hand side was finished in 1939. We moved in to the street in the first week of the war and I stayed there until I got married. I still remember everyone who lived there and there were some big poor families who lived down there and I never turn my nose up to anyone if I see them now. At Coronation Place everyone knew everyone else who lived in the road.
My dad had two allotments and so we had seasonal vegetables and rabbits were about too. I suppose the hardest things to get were sugar, tea and butter but you just accepted that you weren’t going to have them. There was bread or toast, and dripping (left over fat from cooking meat) and there was always school dinners and that was a meal you didn’t have to supply. The meals were comparable to what you would get today and lots of children would stay for a school dinner and I remember one example of Shepherd’s Pie and chocolate pudding and custard. Perhaps not every week, but most weeks, we would have rabbit at home. In the Harvest time, along with other boys, we would bike up to Brandon Fields to the cornfields and as the binders would circle the fields and get nearer to the centre of the field there would be dozens of rabbits come out and the boys would catch a few. Maybe the foreman would throw you one and say, “Here you are boy”.
When we lived in one of the Cemetery Cottages we had a couple of pigs and some chickens in one corner of the cemetery, they later had the allotments there, and so we had eggs and vegetables throughout the year. When we moved to Coronation Place we didn’t keep the pigs for long because it was a bit too far to keep looking after them and I guess we had a lot more of what you would call ‘stodgy’ food then, puddings for example, but we didn’t ever go short.
We were lucky when it came to food because there were always lots of rabbits about, and you could buy rabbits but most people got theirs poached by someone who they knew. When we lived at the cottage, people would always walk past our house to get from Town Street into the town and a few of them would give us a rabbit for their beer money for example. At harvest time me and some other boys would go up to the Brandon Fields after school and the rabbits would run out to escape the combine harvester and we would catch them. We would have a stick and just chase them. Mind you there were so many that some would be running at you and you didn’t need to chase them. We would come out of school, call in to the baker’s for some bread and then get some tomatoes and that would be our food until they stopped harvesting, which could be until eight o’clock at night.
Life as a boy
There were two schools in Brandon, one was the Infants for the 5 to 7 year olds, and the other was the Junior school for the 8 to 14 year olds. In about 1942 the local Gas Manager started a Scout Troop and I think there were five patrols, which would mean that there were about 25-30 scouts and we would meet every week in White Hart Lane and sometimes go camping at weekends on Ling Heath. Later I joined the Air Training Cadets, within a year of leaving school when I was 15, and that was a good adventure. We used to meet three times a week and Sundays and at the ATC about a dozen or so of us would cycle to Feltwell nearly every Sunday and that was when I first went flying, I went up in an Oxford when I was 15 and that was very noisy. A few would get to fly each week, maybe half a dozen each week and then we would get to go away on camp each year. We went to Felixstowe one year where they had the Air/Sea Rescue unit and I had a flight in a Sunderland flying boat. Just before Arnhem the glider pilots were stationed at Shephered’s Grove near Stanton and we went there one Sunday in a bus and we all had flights in the Horsa gliders. It was rather scary for me because although some of the gliders had seats in that would take three or four people at a time, the glider I was in had barrels of ballast and no seats. I stood in the doorway behind the pilot and it was so lovely and quiet and you thought the Stirling that was pulling you was moving up and down but in fact it was the glider. Then the cable dropped and when the glider came down to land it would come down at angle of about 45 degrees before levelling out to land, and so I was left facing downward and my knuckles were pretty white then. I got to sit in the co-pilot’s seat for a while. We went to Lee-on-Solent one year; we went to the Whale Island to the Naval Gunnery School and Portsmouth submarine and warships. There was a rifle range for us to go on and that was something really exciting for a 15 year old to fire a .303 rifle and we would also get to go into the parachute packing area. So the ATC was the best thing you could be in if you were a boy. The Army Cadets did okay but they didn’t have so much to do. On Friday night after ATC we all went to the Youth Club that was housed in a big concrete classroom along the lane leading to the school. It was quite a big hall and we had games, music, dancing, table tennis, darts and all sorts of games for the 14 to 18 year olds.
Our activities and games would come and go with the seasons – hoops, conkers in Autumn, bird nesting in the Spring, building ice slides in Winter. I remember one slide on the Market Hill was probably 50 yards long and some of the kids could slide the whole length of it and us kids in Coronation Place even built our own one in the road and of course some of the adults had a go at us for doing that. I remember one time that there was a stilt craze, and everyone had to make a pair of stilts but then about a month later they were chucked in the shed for something else.
From May to October the river then became the biggest attraction – swimming. There would be loads of us down there and some would go down by the High Street bridge and some near to The Stanch, but not too many because it was a bit dangerous and some would go by Green Lane at ‘Tip. Just outside of Brandon, on the road toward Mildenhall there was a sand pit that was dug by some locals for use as building sand and the Army had built an obstacle course near to it. Now the end of the course finished at the sand pit, the men had to crawl under a net and then sprint to the sand pit, lob in a live grenade and fall to the floor, and the grenade would then harmlessly explode at the bottom of the pit. Well, some friends and me would walk over the fields and go up to that sand pit to watch the soldiers go through the obstacle course and we would lay prone on the floor in a small hollow to watch the men lob the grenades in the pit and then as the men ducked down so did we. It was great fun at the time, but now looking back it all seems a bit dangerous with the sound of shrapnel flying about.
There was so much going on for a young boy that it was a little bit exciting really. There wasn’t much school football or much out of town activities so the war was the main topic of conversation. So if there was a bomb dropped, say on Lingheath, then you would get on your bike and go looking for shrapnel. There were so many people and planes about, tanks too, so yes, I guess it was exciting. For a boy of my age, I guess they were quite exciting times. We saw so many planes, especially at the time of Arnhem, when the sky was full of planes and gliders and you then knew something was happening. The same could be said at the time of Normandy. Probably a week before there was a lot of activity with the tanks moving out from the London Road camp, when they went down to the railway station where they had enlarged the sidings and built ramps and they moved the tanks onto the trains. I remember one fella saying, “We’re off tomorrow. We’re going! I can’t tell you where we‘re going, but we’re going!”
After Lakenheath became operational I would watch the planes from my bedroom window in Coronation Place. I could see these Stirlings which were large planes, roaring and appearing to be struggling to get into the air as they were so heavily loaded. At night I could see their exhaust flames. I should have been going to bed at that time, but I would sit there watching until there were no more planes. I do remember once there was a Stirling crashed at the Brandon Fields and word got around of the crash and, as boys will be boys, so a gang of us got on our bikes to go looking for souvenirs. We rode up there and there wasn’t much left there to be honest. The guards up there kept telling us to get back, but we kept coming back and there was this parachute by the side of a track and this airman guard said, “Don’t look under that!” Well, of course we then just had to have a look! So when we did eventually get the chance to have a look there was a flying boot with half a leg in it. It didn’t appear to upset anyone though, maybe because of our ages and we talked about it for ages. It wasn’t until later I felt an element of sorrow that there were eight or nine men lost in that crash.
When they tested the sirens one Sunday morning, me and some boys went to the Police Station to watch it go off … it was quite noisy! When the sirens first went off at night me and my family woke up and went downstairs. That happened for the first week, then we took the attitude that if the enemy were going to hit us they would hit us upstairs or downstairs and so we didn’t wake up after that. You would often hear the German bombers going over and on one occasion there was a stick of bombs that fell roughly on line with the flight path of R.A.F. Lakenheath and one bomb fell behind a house on Thetford Road and another on Lingheath. I remember biking to Lingheath to get some shrapnel and it seems strange now, but there was no big crater just a hole in the ground and so we hunted around for some shrapnel. I think that in that same stick of bombs one fell into an asparagus field off Bury Road and some more fell off towards Mayday Farm. That’s the only actual air raid where bombs were dropped locally. The only other incident was the dinner time one where a stray plane came over, firing machine guns. I was going home for dinner at that time and I crouched against a fence in Coronation Place and watched it fly past. It was still firing at that time, flying toward R.A.F. Lakenheath, a long slim plane, I think it was a Dornier. When I got back to school I heard that there were two bullets that had hit the school. One went into the cookery room and the other was in the classroom. We saw the hole in the ceiling after dinner.
Later we heard the Doodlebugs. They had a particular drone and it was well known that when the engine cut out, well, they would then come down. They didn’t wake you up at night, but if you heard them, then you would sit there hoping they would pass over. It wasn’t every night, but it was something that people heard and they knew what they were and where they were going, and when the engine stopped they were coming down, but it didn’t really affect us, other than it being a talking point. Although the bombing probably didn’t wake you up you heard about it the next day. One bomb did hit a house along Thetford Road and another bomb from that stick of bombs landed in a field in Lingheath. We got on our bikes and went to look and found a crater of about six foot deep and six foot across and we picked up a load of shrapnel. We went to look at the house in Thetford Road and the bomb had fell right against the house and there was a toilet just outside the back door and the bomb seemed to have exploded in between the toilet and the back of the house and there was a hole there. We used to hear the planes taking off from Lakenheath and it was especially noisy for us living in Coronation Place at the time. Green’s used to have a big sawdust heap and big chimneys and you could see the exhausts blowing out of the planes as they struggled to take off because they were fully loaded every night between 8pm to 10pm. I used to watch them take off when I went to bed.
Every year, I believe, there would be one week set aside where they would raise money for a specific cause. I think one was ‘Aid for Russia’, and there would be various events, whist drives, dances and a big parade that would start in the High Street, and they would be collecting money on the way. I remember there being a bandstand too.
Troops billeted in the town
There were soldiers in the main camp and in the Brandon House. There was a canteen in the Church Institute, a canteen in the Baptist Chapel and there was a building on the green near the cinema. Actually the boys were inclined to drift into the edges of the camp, there wasn’t the security that there might be now, and you were reasonably well looked after. Some of the troops gave you cakes and there wasn’t any trouble really and they integrated reasonably well.
Brandon’s Home Guard
They were very active. One day a week, and maybe Sundays, they would have a parade or exercise. I suppose there wasn’t much else they could do other than man the road blocks. Most of the roads had concrete blocks halfway across the road and barbed-wire barriers that they could pull across and there were several roads where there were roadblocks and places where there were pillboxes, one was on the corner of Rattler’s Road. There were also blocks of concrete with spigot posts where you could position a mortar.
As I said earlier they enlarged the railway sidings also to serve the bomb dump at Elveden, probably near where Centre Parcs is now, and I think it was one of the biggest dumps in East Anglia and they brought a tremendous amount of bombs to the area for the American Air Force. We had never seen such big trucks as the ones the Americans used to collect their bombs. Huge trucks roaring up the High Street with their open exhausts in convoy up the Bury Road to the bomb dump. It was also probably one of the first times that people in Brandon had seen ‘black’ people as most of these drivers seemed to be. These Americans seemed to be excitable. Roaring up the road, not stopping for the crossroads, shouting, singing and laughing and it would seem to be a big thing for them roaring up the road. The fact that they were loaded with bombs meant nothing to them, but if you were coming out of school on the Market Hill they would often throw chewing gum and sweets. There was probably more trouble at the dances with the Americans than there were with the British troops. The Paget Hall was the place for dances at that time, also the Church Institute, but if there were any trouble at the dance then we saw the American white-helmeted Military Police. They were cruel. They would thump the trouble-makers across the back of the head and throw them in to the back of the jeep. Just like that! There wasn’t any questions and they would just wade in. I never noticed much friction between the locals and the Americans because they did appear to be free with what they had got. Mind you there wasn’t any Americans based nearby.
Before the war I used to watch Brandon’s two football teams play – ‘Tip played on the Crown Meadow and Brandon played on the Hall Meadow. Most of the time there was hardly any traffic and most of it was Army traffic and there were very few cars, so you could kick a football to a mate on the other side of London Road all the way to school without having to stop kicking it back and forth. We played football and cricket at every spare moment and after the war, in 1945, me and some other 16 year olds reformed the Brandon football club and we started in the Ouse Valley League. When people came out of the Forces later they joined us to strengthen the team, but most of us youngsters went on to play together in the Brandon first team a few years later. I kept playing until I was forty. We also restarted the Brandon Cricket Club on the lower part of Hall Meadow in 1945.
I was an errand boy at the International Stores on the High Street when I was 13 and 14 years old and I would have to go there at eight o’clock in the morning to clean the shop’s brass frontage and then after school I would have to go back to deliver groceries. I would have to go deliver as far as Chalk Road one day, another day it would be some houses at Wangford and Weeting another day. I would have a trade bike with a basket on the front and two boxes full, one each side of the handle.
Memories of VE and VJ Days
Everyone was excited and I think it came as a surprise that it happened so quickly. Mr. Henman’s shop, along London Road, was a cycle and radio shop, that had a flat roof and there were floodlights, fairy lights and speakers on there. The road outside was blocked off with dancing well into the night and a very large bonfire in the pit down Thetford Road. Everyone seemed to be out and I believe there was also dancing in the Church Institute. For VJ night there were dances in the Paget Hall and the Church Institute and another very large bonfire in the pit in the Thetford Road. There was a lot of thunder-flashes and firecrackers which found their way into Brandon from the corrugated iron ammunition shelter on the Santon Downham Road and I’m not sure whether the young boys found the place easy to raid for these fireworks.
After the war
A Polish Regiment moved into the big London Road camp that the British had left earlier and they also went into the camp at Weeting because I think Churchill had promised them somewhere to live after the war. After the war these Polish people were no longer soldiers and the Army camp soon became a civilian camp. The London Camp also became a home for British families who needed a home and squatted there and you would see the old ladies from the camp on the Market Hill, they did not want to buy the cabbages instead they wanted the cabbage leaves that were going to be chucked away.
The men who came back from war didn’t do too badly for jobs in Brandon. Green’s and Calder’s were big timber yard, Mounts Whiting employed a few men and the Forestry Commission took on a lot. There were not many unemployed, mind you those men that came back as Far East Prisoners Of War (FEPOW) were in a different situation because they weren’t in the best of health. There was an old lady that lived in the last house along Manor Road before you came to Crown Street and she had a son held as a FEPOW and she would wait at her gate for weeks and weeks for her son to come home. He did come home eventually; I think his name was Tommy Dyer. These men were welcomed back to Brandon and I guess we felt sorry for them and these guys formed a FEPOW Association in Brandon after the war, although I think they went to Thetford for their meetings. I had a couple of cousins who died at Dunkirk and they were Brandon brothers, named Rutterford.
… and finally
There was a particular school teacher who looked like a German and people would call him a German and wonder if he was a spy! Then there was a cinema operator who was gay and people would wonder if he was a conchie (conscientious objector) or a spy, but there was nothing in it.