Stapleford in the War Years – Recollections of Stapleford Residents

The War Years
This account is a combination of the memories of:
Barbara Asprey neé Smith
Isobel Talman  neé Mathews
Christine Ruse neé Willis
Jean Harvey neé Prior
Margaret Hardingham neé Leach
Joan Hall neé Hurry
Margaret Collins
Tony Prior
Githa Challis neé Bradford
Ken Dean
Basil Beavis
Pat Rickett
Tony Doggett
Wendy Reynolds
During the early years of the war the only military target near Stapleford for German bombers
was Duxford airfield but later there were many other airfields nearby such as Hadstock and Bottisham.
Many residents remember watching dogfights overhead and, at night, listening to the drone of
bombers flying overhead on their way to the industrial towns in the Midlands. The result was that
the only bombs which landed in the village were probably jettisoned by a returning plane.
See map drawn by Basil Beavis
You will remember from our talk in December by Sean Lang that that few preparations for war had
been made in Cambridge or the country before the outbreak of war in 1914. However, for some
people another World War seemed inevitable and a number of preparations were made but mostly
in the cities. War was declared at 11am on 1st September 1939 and that night an unidentified air
craft was seen or heard in South Cambridgeshire. Shelford telephone exchange rang Stanley
Smith the village postmaster, who was also the chief air raid warden, to say that there was an air
raid. He ordered his wife and children into the cupboard under the stairs before rushing outside to
warn the other wardens.
Mr. Smith’s daughter, Barbara said, “No preparations had been made. It was only a few hours after the Prime Minister’s speech. We got out of bed dragging our dressing gowns and scrambled
into the cupboard under the stairs, pushing aside buckets and brushes in the dark with Jip the dog.
Mother followed with a flickering candle swaying perilously on a saucer”. Later The ‘All Clear’ was
phoned through and mother released us from the small cupboard. We returned to bed unable to
sleep. Father had a meeting with the air raid wardens late into the night”.
On 10th November at 9.45am the school received a phone call warning of an air raid and the children were sent home or to neighbours as previously arranged. The All Clear was received at 11.50
but but very few turned up for the afternoon session. After Dunkirk soldiers billeted in the village
dug an air raid shelter in the school grounds.
All warnings had to be sent by phone because at the Parish Council meeting on 20th Nov. 1939
Col. Canning proposed and Mr. Hardy seconded the proposition that a siren was not at all necessary and this was passed unanimously. However, a siren was later housed in a wooden shed on the corner of London Rd. and Church St. Everyone soon became familiar with the warning sound: two notes repeated and the all clear : one continuous note. It should be noted that church bells remained silent throughout the war until VE Day when great peals of joy were rung. It was intended that church bells would be rung to alert the people of an invasion.
There was little fighting during the next few months until spring came. Not until October 1940 (remember this after Dunkirk) did Mr. Smith and Sgt. Leach, the village policeman, put forward a proposal for building air raid shelters. Mr. Kerridge agreed to provide building materials at cost price and soldiers who had arrived in the village after the fall of Dunkirk did the initial digging. Anderson shelters were generally cosy but some shelters were home made.
Barbara Asprey – “Mother lined our home made shelter with strips of old carpet but the pungent smell
of mildew and damp was over powering. Steadily the shelter became muddier, smellier and very
wet. Mother put her foot down. ‘the children will die of pneumonia in that trench she said one morning at breakfast. “We would rather die in comfort in the cupboard under the stairs. Father knew when he was beaten. The cupboard was cleared of brooms and rubbish. Lilos and blankets lined the floor. This became our bedroom and we slept in the light of a hurricane lamp in comparative comfort.”
But not every shelter was like this. Magog estate workers lived in the cottages which back onto what is now the Magog Down and built a shelter in the chalk pit which was fitted out with bunks and leather car seats.
Although Stapleford was never going to be a target, the village conformed with the regulations the
same as any industrial city. Brown sticky tape was applied to windows in an attempt to prevent flying glass if a bomb fell nearby. All windows had blackout curtains pulled across at night and it was the duty of the Air Raid Wardens to check their ‘patch’ every night at dusk. Street lights were switched off but that wasn’t a hardship in Stapleford. Car headlights were partially covered so that only a glimmer of light was visible making driving even more difficult. Even torches had a piece of card stuck over half the torch window. Direction signs were removed in the hope that Germans couldn’t read maps!
After the fall of Dunkirk an anti- tank ditch was dug in a line roughly from NW to SE across East
Anglia in case of invasion and hundreds of pill boxes were constructed to add to the defences.
Many, but not all, were dismantled after the war mainly with explosives and Pat Rickett who farmed
Bury Farm remembers spending many hours one summer using a sledge hammer to reduce large
lumps of concrete to smaller pieces which form the hard surface on the footpath to Babraham.
Where the tank trap reached the river were two concrete blocks on which light guns could be
mounted. A little further on where the railway goes under the bridge were two big wooden posts
and a chain which could be put across. The theory was that German troops coming by train would
have to get out to undo the chain and could be shot.
Even though Stapleford wasn’t a target Basil Beavis remembers some bombs did fall in the village
as shown on the map. Gita Challis also remembered another falling on Huckridge Hill near where
the sewage works is today. These were probably dropped by returning aircraft which didn’t want to
land with bombs on board. The biggest tragedy was the crash of a Wellington bomber belonging to
57 Squadron when it fell on the Old Vicarage in the early hours of 3rd Sept. 1941 on its return
from a bombing raid on Frankfurt. All 6 of the crew were killed and are remembered on a tapestry
plaque which hangs on a wall inside the church. The plane still had ammunition on board which
was exploding so the school was closed for the day. Perspex from canopy hoods was popular with
souvenir hunters as it could be cut and shaped. Another bomber crashed into the tops of trees at
Wandlebury and parts remained there until a gale in 1987 dislodged them. Only the rear gunner
survived this crash.
Tony Prior remembers his father was working in the field near the black barn when a parachute
was seen coming down so he took his rifle and, accompanied by Mrs Miller who had a pitchfork,
they rushed to meet him. Winded from his fall and unable to speak they thought they were going to
be heroes but a jeep drove down the track and relieved them of their American prisoner.
Parachute silk was a very valuable material in those days of austerity when fabrics were unavailable. One parachute could make lots of pairs of knickers.
All British subjects between the ages of 16 and 65 were called on to assist in the defence of the
country and nobody retired for age reasons. The schools were staffed by elderly teachers, some
called back from retirement and Europeans who had escaped the Nazis. Sawston VC had a Dutch
art teacher and Christine Ruse remembers a very clever Dutch lady who tried to teach English but
had a strong accent which the children found difficult to understand.A ll the able bodied men and
some women in the village were involved in various forms of civil defence but some were drafted
into munitions factories. Christine had an aunt who was a dressmaker but with no materials to work
with she was collected every day and taken to Bourn Airfield where there was a small munitions
factory. Ladies who didn’t do any of these things knitted socks for soldiers or collected money for
charities connected with the war. Mrs. Rickett had a group of ladies who baked pies filled with vegetables and some rabbit meat. The knitters were supplied with wool and when the socks were received more wool was sent back. Particularly unpleasant was knitting oil soaked wool for sailors socks which reached up to the knees.