Below are extracts from a conversation with Mr Charlie Wharf, who was 14 years old at the outbreak of war. This was recorded in 2002. Charlie joined the Army cadets and Brandon’s Air Raid Precautions.
Declaration of war
I was in the Baptist Chapel Sunday school and a bloke named Harry Mutum announced it. It was 11 o’clock in the morning during the service and when it finished at about 12 o’clock we went into the street where there was a lot of activity going on. The Paget Hall used to be the Territorial Army Headquarters, and they were sandbagging around there on the same day too. I’ll always remember my mother saying, “Ah well, MY son won’t go.” Little did she know…
Air Raid Precautions
I had just left school at the age of 14 when I was working for Mr. Woodrow and I became an A.R.P. messenger. This meant that when the siren went off I would have to cycle all the way from Bury Road to the Old School near the Church and report to the A.R.P. Headquarters for duty. In fact one of the little rooms there was the ‘den’ of control. It could mean going out at 2am and not getting back until 6am, then off to work at 8am. Of course at night we weren’t allowed any lights and I didn’t have a rear light on my cycle and I had to have brown paper with a little slit in on my front light. I’m not kidding you, I got booked for showing too much light on my bike and had to prove that I was an A.R.P. messenger, but I still got booked. They didn’t do anything about it though. Something else I had to do for the A.R.P. was making signs using stencils and I used to make arrows, or ‘HQ’ signs.
I was also given 6lbs of sugar and 2lbs had to be delivered to each petrol pump owner because if the ‘Jerries’ were seen coming down the road the owners were supposed to open up the pumps and pour the sugar in to render the fuel useless. They also created Emergency Food supplies – sugar, flour and dried milk – and I used to help them with it. They would come in lorries and I would go with the lorry driver to deliver it. One store was the Maltings next to the river, another was at the Brandon Park House and also Brandon Hall. Another A.R.P. duty was the fitting and checking of gas masks – baby gas masks and adults gas masks. We had to carry them about in little boxes.
I had done two years as an A.R.P. messenger then they had the cheek to tell me that I was too young, so I joined the Army Cadets. We did all sorts of things, like when we used to act as casualties during exercises and I myself have been lowered from the top of the old ‘corner shop’ on a stretcher for the A.R.P. Rescue Section. There were different sections for the A.R.P., – builders, carpenters, rescue, as a matter of fact their HQ was in a building by the school. Exercises used to be at weekends and, for example, they would put a big tin on the floor with a label, “500lb BOMB”. There would be casualties labeled, “BROKEN LEG”, “BROKEN NECK” and one “DEAD”. Then as casualties we would have to lay there and be treated while the dead ones would be put into a blanket. They would be doing this all through the night and then by 2 o’clock or 3 o’clock on Sunday afternoon they would go down to the Old School HQ and have an inquiry into what had happened. It was serious because at that time because we didn’t know what was going to happen.
Now, the firemen used to have an old steam fire engine called ‘Louise’ and it came from Lynford Hall. That was a lovely thing, solid brass, all the helmets were brass and then war was declared and they introduced the Auxiliary Fire Service. We had quite an efficient crew in Brandon. I used to work at the ironmonger’s, where the ‘bookies’ is now. Mr. Reggie Woodrow owned it and he was a First World War man and head of the A.R.P., and I think he also ended up being the Adjutant in the Home Guard. I worked for this Woodrow and in those days the powers that be were buying up almost anything and the warehouses at the back of Woodrow’s shop were full of galvanised buckets and enamel pails, bins and basins. Swaffham A.R.P. section were given some money and they bought the lot and they cleared it all out over night and it was used for emergency supplies. They cleared the lot! Woodrow must have made a fortune then.
One of the things they had to do, ordered by the Government I suppose, was to obliterate the word ‘Brandon‘. The plaque on the Infants’ School was done with cement and then after the war they tried to chip it out. The one on the Market Hill, near the town clock, was just painted out. They removed all signs too. The next thing was they got some old blowing machines from the Maltings and used them to erect road barriers. They put them across the road and they had lights on them for about three nights but after that the novelty wore off. Well we used to sit there in the pitch black, ‘cause it was ‘blackout’, and all of a sudden we would hear a ‘BANG’! You knew what had happened and they did away with them in the end.
When the war went on, and they got a bit more organised, they dug holes in the road in the London Road with little wooden stoppers on so they could sink irons down and this was near the cinema. The roadblocks were manned by the Home Guard so when the siren went off they would have to come out as well. Something else they put on the road – big lumps of concrete, 5 or 6 feet wide cubes. I should imagine they were where the entrance to the fuel station on the London Road is now. They also put a barbed wire fence between the block and the fence and now bearing in mind that everywhere was in darkness at night, if you didn’t know where it was there then 9 times out of 10 you would walk straight into it. BANG! “What was that?” The Spigot mortar, that was a lump of concrete with a steel cap of about 3″, and do you know to this day that bit of steel is as bright as the day it was put in.
The Home Guard was there because of the need at the time and nowadays it is all treated a bit like a pantomime, but you must remember that these men were old soldiers, some had medals, and they knew what it was all about. Though I don’t think they took you into the Home Guard until you were about 17½, the alternative for us was to go into the Army Cadets.
We created our own shelters to start with. The stairs was the best bet. Then people started going into the pillboxes, but we realised we would rather die by the Jerry than freeze or rot to death in the pillboxes. They were terrible. After a week or two we just gave up and didn’t bother, but in Park View they built their own at about where the clothing factory was later built, big panics you see, but then of course the Government issued shelters and so that put paid to that.
There was such a terrific shortage of everything, like photographic paper,and even if you could get it and you were walking around with a camera you damn near got shot! You would have been under suspicion straight away for being a spy unless you were a bonafide photographer or war correspondent type. That’s why the only photos we have are the small personal ones. My mother was a cook and she used to work at Lynford Hall in her youth. She could make a banquet out of a tin of sardines! A lot of people were self-sufficient in veg because they had allotments and gardens though they still had to queue for everything. I was working in the building trade so we had extra cheese ration, if you were working in the Forestry you had extra cheese, we lived on cheese sandwiches. I guess we were lucky living in the country. Father would keep rabbits, he always had fifty or sixty rabbits down the bottom of our garden and he never sold one and we would eat them or friends would get one. They also formed a ‘pig club’ where there would be a group of people and together they had to produce so many pigs. All the waste food was saved to feed the pigs and as a result of that it worked out that they could get a half a pig. Of course they had to pay for someone, maybe the local butcher, to kill it and I can see my mother now, we never had fridges, she used to get that half a pig out and rub salt into it.
Another thing … matches. You couldn’t buy matches for love nor money and I’ve seen my father cut a Swan Vesta match into 3 to get more use out of them. I tell you what was a craze, making everything into a petrol lighter. The inspirations that went into making them. The favourite one was the old army bottle made out of brass and what they did was buy a little wheel with a flint on it, then get a wick that went all the way into it and filled the bottle with cotton wool and put a little petrol in it. Hundreds of lighters were made like this and the squaddies would moan that they had lost their oil bottles. I’ve seen them make lighters out of bolts and large nuts.
Another thing, at the start of the war there was a big shortage of raw materials and all the iron railings had to go. They simply banged a hammer into them and took them. They just smashed the lot off and dumped them into a lorry and I don’t know if they ever used it as scrap but that’s what happened.
Of course Brandon was full of troop activity – Rattlers Road camp, Santon Downham shell depot and the old dairy on the Thetford Road was the Army Dental Office. Plus all the local air activity. Most of the evacuees went down London Road and so we had to have soldiers and anybody who had a spare bed HAD to have a soldier. There was no question of saying, “No, I don’t want one” because you just did it. If they heard, “Mrs. Smith down the road has a spare bed”, then they would put a soldier into the house. Of course a lot of soldiers ended up at Singapore, that’s the other side of it and women were becoming widows, kids were becoming fatherless. And of course there were the aircrews and we got to know a lot of them. They used to live all over the town, some with their wives. We didn’t really know what they were doing ‘cause they never really said anything. Guy Gibson (an R.A.F. bomber pilot famous for leading the Dambusters, though killed in action in 1944) used to live in the Riverside Lodge at one time and that was full of aircrews. There were also three airmen lodged in the rooms at the ironmonger’s and I remember one was called Robinson, whatever happened to him I don’t know. You would see them one day and then they weren’t there, then their women would go.
Well we only got to hear what they wanted to put in print or on the radio, and the communication just wasn’t there. Whereas you can now go on your computer and see what is happening in the world, whereas then it could take six weeks to reach us. Another way to find out was when you saw a bloke you hadn’t seen for a while and you could see he had changed. He looked like an old man and he would say something like , “Cor blimey Charlie Boy, I could tell you some things. I didn’t know people could be so cruel …”
I suppose because of the war there had been thousands of tanks across the bridge, but do you know that old bridge withstood all that lot. Then they decided to put in a wooden bridge and coming into town you would use the old bridge and going out you would go over the wooden bridge, but eventually that old bridge just about gave way though they didn’t replace it until the fifties.
Then of course the Americans came in and the funny thing with the Americans was they weren’t used to our beer to start with and they would only have to smell the barmaid’s apron and they were drunk. Now near where the video shop is in the High Street there used to be a wine merchant. Well, as we came past there we kicked something, that was all right because you did that because at night if you bumped into things you would kick them, but when we kicked this thing it went “OWW!” Just imagine that! A couple of young kids kicking something that went “OWW!” God that put the wind up us! Well curiosity got the better of us and when we began to grope around we found it was a Yank and he was absolutely paralytic. Well we thought that we couldn’t leave him there, so we got him up, best way we could, and propped him against the wall. Then we went down to the Police Station to tell them, and Jack Dent was what we called a War Reserve who helped the regular Police, and he said, “Alright Charlie we’ll put that right.” We walked from the Police Station to the High Street and I’m not kidding you that by the time we got there there was a Jeep from Thetford with four ’snowdrops’ in it (the name given to the American Military Police because of their white helmets). They picked this Yank up and they didn’t even lower him into the Jeep, they just threw him in and let him go between the metal supports of the folding canvas canopy. I thought “MY GOD THEY’VE KILLED HIM!” One said “Ah well, leave him in the cooler, I guess he’ll be sobered up in the morning”, and I thought he’d be lucky to be alive!
The Americans had a siding built at the railway station for unloading bombs for the bomb dump at Elveden. Do you know their trains used to come in on Monday mornings and they would start unloading Monday morning and they’d still be going until the next Monday morning. Day in, day out and up and down the road. Now these Yanks had to try to camouflage themselves and they would only go up to the sidings three or four at a time and load up and then they were away. These Yanks would sit under the trees waiting to be called and they would be playing poker. My sister worked there with three other girls creosoting pit props for the mines and she said there would be hundreds of dollars on the blanket. She would come home with candy for me, chewing gum, chocolate, and cigarettes for father that they used to give to her.
I can remember standing where the Playing Field is and looking up at the sky and the sky was literally full of gliders and aeroplanes. It was Arnhem.
As boys, when we had nothing to do, say on Wednesday afternoons due to early closing, then we would go to the aerodrome at Lakenheath. They would be loading bombs into the aircraft and you could go in amongst them, and of course there was no security in them days. Well, Woodrow’s got the contract for supplying all the half-inch wire and they must have used over 100 rolls easily. They used to call at the shop for delivery boys and Mr. Woodrow had a pass for people to go deliver on the base and I would go with the lorry drivers to show them where to go. That’s how I know about the decoy site. The dummy aeroplanes were made from old Tate and Lyle sugar boxes, broom handles for guns, and camouflaged, but they looked like proper aeroplanes. Then they built a bank all the way round it and then laid the wire netting on the bank to let the grass grow into it. They used to light this site up at night. We were there one Wednesday afternoon and they reckoned these planes were so heavy with bombs that they used to ‘bounce’ them off the runway, anyway, we were watching this plane that had got near Shippea Hill (a few miles from R.A.F. Lakenheath) when there was one big ball of fire. The whole lot had blown up. I can still see the aircrews now, they carried on working but they had had the stuffing knocked out. That was a regular thing for them.
I remember there were some Canadians down on the London Road and they of course used to get on the booze and get up to all sorts of stuff. Well this particular night they threw a liquid soap container through somebody’s window, and they (the house owner) thought it was a bomb. If we saw it today we would say “vandals”, but for these blokes they were away from home, on the beer and in the prime of their lives, but they could also be dead the next morning.
The cinema was our only entertainment and they used to queue up. I have seen them queue way, way, past the Church Institute and just imagine hundreds of people trying to get in through the doors. Then they had the bright idea of putting those railings up to ‘funnel’ you in. Every now and then there would be a big bang, or the siren would go but the film would still carry on and I can’t remember them ever stopping the show. There used to be an ol’ girl there, named Tilly Underwood, she would be the usherette with her torch. That wasn’t the original cinema and before that there used to be an old wooden cinema but it got burned down. They built the new one in just nine weeks and they worked night and day. I always remember it because when we were kids we would come home from school and the foreman would want something from the shop, maybe a ball of string or a packet of fags and he would give us tuppence and we would go to the shop and tell them who it was for. It was a very modern cinema and Towlers used to ship people into Brandon by bus. In those days they had buses to bring people into Brandon to go shopping and you could buy just about anything and at one time Brandon had four bakeries: Clarkes, Zipfells, Hyams and the Co-op.
Enemy action in Brandon
We only had about 12 bombs dropped on Brandon. One stick was dropped from the Water Works and ended up at the back of the council houses on Thetford Road. We that heard one. The other incident I remember is the machine gunning of the school and that was at one minute to one in the afternoon and I tell you how I know it was one minute to one … I was working at Woodrow’s on the Market Hill when I turned to look around the corner at the town clock and just as I put my head around the corner I heard the machine gun. I think the only casualty was a woman standing in a doorway, when the shells hit the ground some of the shingle flew up and hit her in the leg.