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
Githa Challis neé Bradford
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.
The Local Defence Volunteers later known as The Home Guard and made famous by the TV
programme Dads’ Army was formed in May 1940. All British subjects between the ages of 16 and 65 were called on to assist in in the defence of the British Isles against an expected German invasion. The Stapleford detachment formed part of the Central District B company 4th Cambridgeshire battalion. The official organiser was C.K.Dove and the Stapleford Platoon, No. 21 was commanded by Captain Biggs. There were 32 men and three women who didn’t have a uniform but wore a bronze badge. Their main job was to feed the men when they were on manoeuvres We have in our records details of an exercise at Maddeningly from 1st to 7th August 1942 and amongst the information about equipment to be taken, times of parades and meals is this comment, ‘Regular forces are also in the camp. Let them see the Home Guard at its very best and that
we are worthy members of His Majesty’s Armed forces. Let them see we are as good as they are.
Do not interfere with equipment or trespass on their premises. We must not be a nuisance. The
regulars can be very helpful to us – they have given us permission to use their ablution and latrine.’
Life was very tense for everybody after the fall of France, particularly the LDV who were required
to patrol, drill and guard vital locations in the village after a full day’s work. They practised drill on
the bit of green outside what is now the Spar shop and also on Bury Farm. They also had the use
of a large wooden shed in London Road next to Stapleford House where there are now three
bungalows. When the threat of invasion was over the the Home Guard was stood down on 1st November 1944.
Air Raid Wardens
Some of the men not in the Home Guard and some women were Air Raid Wardens. It was their duty to check their allocated area at dusk to see that no lights were showing in any house but they also did Fire Guard Duty. We have a copy of a weekly roster with a total of 63 men and women on duty once a week, i.e. nine every night. There is a further list of 20 replacement personnel together with their addresses. Three gentlemen volunteered to act as ‘Street Captains’ whose main duty was to ensure the fire guards practised the use of stirrup pumps as a team.
Although some were provided by the government many were privately owned with permission given for their use in an emergency. The fire guards were trained to enter buildings which were on fire without causing harm to themselves and particularly how to deal with incendiary bombs which may not have exploded.
‘Our mothers made tasty meals out of almost nothing. They made the meat ration last an impossible time mixing the last bit of the Sunday joint minced up and put into Yorkshire puddings. Sponges were made without eggs. Lawns and fields were dug up and extra vegetables grown on every inch of soil. Every autumn after the harvest we took a picnic and gleaned the empty fields of anything that remained.’
People were encouraged to keep hens but had to give up their egg ration in return for chicken mash. Pungent buckets of potato peelings and scraps were kept simmering on the kitchen range for the hens. The aroma was unbearable. People with big gardens were able to keep a pig or share it with neighbours. ’Sheila and Peter Mowlem were completely self sufficient with vegetables and chickens. Only their pig was a mistake. They gave
him a beautiful sty at the end of the garden. they also gave him a name – Sammy. That was a mistake! Sammy was the most pampered, squeaky clean, pink fat pig. His friendly grunts of greeting made him an instant pet, unfortunate for a pig who was officially registered to help the war effort.
Sammy, like all pigs was given a firm expiry date by the Ministry of Food.There was no escape! We all became vegetarians for weeks after the departure of Sammy but father had some very fine
sausages for supper. He ate them alone!’
Barbara Asprey. The attempt to cure part of a pig for bacon wasn’t always successful. Christine Ruse remembers the result usually being VERY SALTY and being almost uneatable.
Being a rural community had some advantages. Rabbits could be trapped or shot and made a big
difference to family meals. Vegetables and fruit could be grown in the large gardens and there was
also the countryside for blackberries and wild fruit. The general view is that they were lucky and
suffered less than people in cities. There was little that wasn’t rationed. Every person had a ration
book and had to register with a particular shop. Christine Ruse’s mother had four ration books (on for each member of the family) and registered them with three different butchers to spread the chance of at least one having some meat. Of course, this made shopping an even longer activity.
The only bread was a was a standard white loaf. The only cheese was a form of cheddar. The variety in the shops today was just a dream. An orange or lemon was rarely seen and never a banana.
However, one lucky boy was ken Dean whose father was the head gardener for Sir Harold and Lady Gray at Wandlebury. They had extensive greenhouses and continued to grow apricots, peaches and even bananas and his father was always able to bring some home. One day the teacher asked the children to bring in an unusual flower, so the next day Ken was able to take in the flower of a banana. Not surprisingly non of the children or the teacher had seen such a thing before.
Children learnt the art of making a tube of fruit gums last a whole week. Confectionary was zoned
and East Anglia could only get Fry’s chocolate. The art of gleaning became very popular. After a
crop of grain had been harvested there were always ears of corn left in the field which were eagerly collected by ladies who beat the ears to extract the corn, winnowing it to remove the husks. The corn was then used to feed the chickens and sometimes farmers would allow the chickens into the fields to feed themselves. Christine recalls that her father kept cockerels for sale each Christmas.
Even before the war started children were sent from the cities into the rural areas and sometimes parents went with them. Whole schools decamped to requisitioned country houses.
School started a week late in Stapleford and 20 more children than expected turned up on the first
day which suggests there were at least 20 evacuees in the village. Nothing much happened during
the first few months after war was declared so slowly the children started to drift back to London
until only five were left. But by June 1940 there were 40 evacuees and 82 village children. The
headteacher, Mrs. Hoare did her best to keep to a routine but the other teachers were old and frequently ill so that some days she had to take the whole school on her own. The 11 year olds still took the exam for entry to grammar school including the evacuees who sat entrance exams for Bancrofts and Christ’s Hospital. The Stapleford children always thought that the exam for entrance to the Cambridge schools was harder than to get into the London schools. Margaret Collins wasn’t part of a national evacuee system but was sent to stay with her uncle who had just had a new bungalow built in London Rd. She had completed one year in a grammar school but it took a whole term for the education authority to let her into the Cambridge and County High School for Girls. In the meantime she went to Sawston VC but was put into a class a year above her age group.
The retreat from Dunkirk in June 1940 brought the first wave of soldiers to Stapleford.
‘We knew about the troops arriving by train and needing to be billeted locally. These tired, dirty,
war-weary men arrived at Shelford station asleep on their feet then marched to the village where
they were directed by the police to various houses. The kind villagers took them in, gave up their
own beds, rations and hot water for baths to make sure they were comfortable. The next day the
CO came to Dad (Sgt. Leach) and said ‘I have several hundred men around here somewhere –
where are they?’ and dad was able to tell him.’ Margaret Hardingham
These soldiers were from not the same companies or even regiments. They were hauled out of the
sea onto little boats, then onto a bigger boast and dropped off at a port while the ship returned for
the next rescue mission. From the ports the soldiers were put on trains and sent all over the country so it took some weeks to get the regiments back together again. Not all the soldiers were billeted in people’s houses and many slept in bell tents in the village. Christine remembers some in the field in front of Magog Cottages
Later in the war the 27th Lancers stayed for several months and made a lasting impression on
some villagers. There were many other regiments but most stayed only a week or two. Czechs,
Poles and Canadians were also stationed in the area, not in peoples homes but in temporary
camps. From 1941 soldiers stationed in the village were given permission to use the billiard table
in the Institute, the War Department agreeing to foot the bill for any damage. The Institute committee also stipulated that an NCO should be present at any function and that no beer or spirits should be brought into the building. The colonel of any unit stationed in the village was also asked to ensure that the military police called in on Friday nights. Another regiment stationed here for a short while was the Greenjackets: Dixie Dean a famous England footballer and Richard Green of Robin Hood fame were amongst their numbers. For most of the war the Johnson Hall was requisitioned as a canteen for the armed forces. The Sunday School migrated to the Vicarage attic! The Rose was very popular, attracting some of the bolder young women in the village to meet up with the soldiers, sometimes making lasting friendships and even marriage. One or two babies were
born to unmarried girls. When I asked the ladies about American soldiers and what they thought of
them they suddenly went coy and made comments like, ‘They were lovely dancers’. Colin Bradford
had twin sisters 18 years older than him and one had an American pilot as a boyfriend. On his return from a successful mission he would fly low over Heath Farm and waggle the wings. One morning he flew too low and scraped the fuselage which led to a visit to the squadron commander.
A rumour that Alan Ladd who starred in cowboy films was in the village was untrue but it gave a lot
of attention to the American troops stationed at the searchlight and gun battery on Little America Farm.
After the removal of the bell tents most of the soldiers in the village were in a camp of several Nissan huts at the end of Granta Terrace and there was also a small camp on what is now Green Hedges houses in Bar Lane. There was also a camp used by Czechs and Poles at the junction of Mingle Lane and Hinton Way. There was an even bigger camp at the river end of Gt. Shelford recreation ground and these Nissan huts were used by families long after the war ended. Just outside the village boundary there was a searchlight battery on Little America Farm
Entertainment was home spun but because of the lack of other forms of organised entertainment
village shows were eagerly anticipated and well attended taking place in the Institute. One famous
pantomime, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, written by Mrs. Willis and produced by Hilda Bradford was played entirely by young people from the village.
Stapleford Men Serving in the Armed Forces
Nobody talked about the men in the village who served in different branches of the armed forces in
the Second World War and this is deserving of more investigation. Did any women serve? How
many men were called up and were there any regulars, i.e. were they in the Forces before the war
started? What we do know is that 12 men were killed in WW2 compared with 18 in WW1. If you
visit other villages and look at the War Memorials you will find that the number killed in the First
World War always out numbers those killed in the Second often by 50 per cent or more, so Stapleford’s figure is comparatively high. In Great Shelford 36 men were killed in WW1 and 19 in WW2.
In addition to the long hours at work followed by duties in the Home Guard and as ARWs Staplefordians helped to raise large sums of money for the war effort.
In 1942 Warship Week raised £4677
1943 Wings for Victory £6745
1944 Salute the Soldiers £7725
1945 Thanksgiving £8348
These are huge sums of money when allowance is made for inflation. £1000 in 1945 would today
(2015) be equal to £37 660. So the £8348 raised in 1945 in today’s figures would be £321,312.
Each county in the country was given a target to reach. Remember that Cambridgeshire geographically was a much smaller county than it is today. Huntingdonshire was a separate county and the Soke of Peterborough was not part of the county. In addition, there has also been a huge expansion in population in the last 40 years. So these were significant sums for a small county.