My Wartime Memories in Alphington
By Edward Gigg
I was only 12 months old when the war started. Consequently, as my Dad had volunteered, I had no memory of him for the first few years of my life. He was captured in 1940, spending most of the war as a Prisoner of War. On his arrival in France, prior to being captured, he was befriended by a French Family. Their descendants and I are still in touch to this day, and we have visited on a couple of occasions. He returned home in 1946. Meeting him on St David's Station in about May of that year was, as far as I was concerned, the first time I had ever seen him. To me, he had been a photograph on the mantelpiece, to which I said 'Goodnight' every night. I was the only child in our road Shillingford Rd that didn't have a Dad at home and I could never understand why it was just me. In later years I fathomed the need for reserved occupations etc. but at the same time I became just a little resentful in one or two cases and remember thinking 'How does that work then'? That is water under the bridge, as they say. As a general rule, I suppose it is fair to say that I, and others of my age, didn't really appreciate the seriousness of the situation. We had never known a different way of life, so that was the way it was and we just accepted it. I still get a bit cross when I see people throwing away food, particularly when they have taken too much in the first place.
Times for us, and others I am sure, were hard. I particularly remember wearing my cousins cast off shoes she was a girl! I don't ever remember being really hungry, but I suspect my Mum was on some occasions. I do remember asking for more sometimes and being told there wasn't anything else. Also, if I didn't eat what I was given, it was served up again at the next meal.
The nights of the Blitz have given rise to some of my most vivid memories. We had a Morrison Shelter in the dining room which doubled as a dining room table. Most of our road had Anderson Shelters, but as my Grandma, who also lived with us, was partially disabled, she would not have made it to the bottom of the garden in a hurry, so I think that is why we had a Morrison Shelter. I have no difficulty in recollecting being pulled out of bed when the siren went off and bundled downstairs to squeeze in with my Mum and Grandma. There was the sound of gunfire from an ack-ack gun which was sited somewhere on the Dawlish Rd ,the sound of aeroplanes flying over and being told not to worry as 'It is one of ours', and general thuds in the distance, presumably from bombs. I can see my Grandma sat with a tot of watered down brandy and her fingers in her ears.
After the all-clear sounded, it was back to bed, but not before looking out of the front bedroom window which had, and presumably still has, a commanding view of Exeter. This is a picture that is still very clear in my mind. It was a mass of red flames and smoke as the City burned. We had relatives living in St Thomas, so the next morning, as we had no telephone, someone made the journey into the City to make sure they were still with us.
My mother had to take her turn as a firewatcher. Every so often, Miss Veitch, who I suppose was the co-ordinator, would arrive with a black tin hat and a whistle. The idea was that the firewatcher would spot a fire during a raid and then blow the whistle to alert somebody. Who that was I am not sure. I used to play with the hat but I wasn't allowed to blow the Whistle. At the same time I was encouraged to play with my Gas Mask, but I didn't spend much time with that as it was most uncomfortable, smelled of rubber and made it very difficult to breath. Whilst I don't actually remember this, the story in the family tells of the night that my mother was on duty and watching from the back bedroom window as the searchlight at Waybrook was picking up an enemy aircraft which was being attacked by 'one of ours'. What she missed was the fact that an incendiary bomb had dropped out the front and set fire to a hayrick in the field behind the houses opposite. That would be in Smithfield Rd now. Luckily a couple of the neighbours (Mr. Grimes and Mr. Creighton) had seen it and made every effort to put it out.
Most of the bombs that fell in our immediate vicinity were Incendiary Bombs. One landed on the roof of the house next door, (we were semi-detached) and went through to land on the bed. It was quickly covered in sand, which was the prescribed way of dealing with them. Another landed in the centre of our back lawn and for years after, the grass did not grow there. Compared to some, we were lucky. The other legacy of this was the fact that the bombs left empty metal frameworks and I can still see them, in groups of two or three, tied together and hung up to rattle in the wind and be used as bird-scarers for the fruit bushes etc. in the garden opposite.
As I lived over a certain distance from the school, I was allocated a family, to which I had to go in the event of a daytime raid. It was one of the cottages just above Oakes grocers shop, and I think was Mrs. Marks. It only happened once. I remember running up the road all on my own, feeling quite scared and worried because I had never been to this house before. The only person in sight was the Headmaster, Mr Rickard, who was stood by the horse trough with his tin hat on. I was convinced that a bomb was going to fall on my head before I got to the cottage. No sooner had I got there, the all-clear sounded so I carried on up the road and went home, only to be sent right back to school again. One day, while sat in class someone came in with Miss Richards, our teacher. I was singled out and given a wooden toy boat. This was because I hadn't got a Dad at home. I expect there were others in the school also given them. I am not sure where it came from, obviously a sort of charitable thing. I was so pleased with this and when I got home that evening took it with me into the bath. It promptly turned upside down and I was devastated. I never tried it again.
Many will remember that there was a Prisoner of War camp on Haldon. Some of the prisoners seemed to be able to roam around sometimes and I would see them walking down Shillingford Rd. I think we viewed them as some sort of Aliens and watched from the comparative shelter of our front hedge as they passed by. On being told that they were Prisoners of War, I remember once asking if my Daddy was there as well!
Hopefully others will recollect something about my next memory and maybe add to it. Located in a field on the left hand side of Markham's Lane, just a little way past and opposite where Markham's Farm is now it wasn't there in those days they built a series of black structures which were arranged in circles. It was known as The Decoy and I have always understood that the idea was to show a light during a bombing raid in the hope of enticing the bombers away from the city. I am not sure it ever worked as I don't think there were any bombs dropped on or near it. That is probably just as well as I recall being told that folks from Exeter would leave the city at night, trek to Alphington and spend the nights in the adjacent fields, in what they considered comparative safety. Maybe it wasn't as safe as they thought! When these boxes were removed after the war, the traces of circles in the grass were quite obvious for a few years.
Many houses had their metal railings removed as a contribution to the war effort. We didn't have any of those, but a lady came one day, empowered to look through the kitchen cupboards and deprived us of what she considered to be an excess of Aluminium saucepans. I don't think my mother was too impressed.
Our house, like many others, had a pet rabbit. The idea, unbeknown to me, was to fatten it up to supplement the meat ration. One morning I was told that it had died, which of course upset me. I am still not sure whether I actually ate any of it. I have a suspicion that my Mum would have given it to someone else to deal with.
This epistle has turned out to be a bit longer than I intended. So, my apologies if you have had a struggle to make it this far. If you haven't got this far then it won't matter will it?
I am aware that there were many who suffered much more than we did. There is no doubt that the events of my early years had a profound influence in the shaping of my life. Of course it would have been better if it hadn't happened, but I wonder how different I would be?
Wartime Memories of my Alphington Childhood
By Philip Miller
I was born on the 9th October 1935 in the family home, number 17 Devonia Terrace, Alphington, and Christened on the 3rd November 1935 at St. Michael's and All Angels, Alphington by The Rev. Prebendary Bernard Calendar Bennett, Rector.
As the war drew nearer I recall my mother pasting black sticky tape around the outer edges of our windows to stop light escaping from around the blackout curtains that every household would soon have to put in place. She also crisscrossed the windowpanes with white sticky tape to prevent the glass from dangerously shattering and flying in the event of a bomb blast. Our landlord, Mr. Moxey made shutters for the French doors. We were as well prepared as could be for the time being. Later we were issued with a stirrup pump to share between our neighbours. These were intended to put out fires from incendiary bombs. It has been said that the stirrup pump was often the first line of defence between the householder and the incendiary bomb. I don't recall ours being used in earnest but it was very useful as a garden spray as well as a plaything to drench each other!
Air Raid Precaution Officers (ARP) were appointed from volunteers. They had many duties to perform one of which was to ensure that after dark no household or business premises were allowed to allow light to escape. The cry from them if they noticed the tiniest chink of light was'Put that light out' The blackout was total. No street lights, nothing at all. What cars or lorries moved after dark had shields fitted over their headlight with just a small slit with a guard over so they couldn't be seen from the air. The light was barely sufficient to drive by. Even cyclists had to comply; a white flash had to be painted on the rear mudguard. The front battery lamp had a slit directing the light downwards. All road signs had to be removed or painted out so that they would not be an aid to an invading army. The Church bells were silenced. Only to be rung to warn of an invasion. I believe concession was given for them to be rung when Italy surrendered. Many of the older men of the village and some younger ones not yet old enough to be called up joined the Civil Defence Corps, later renamed the Home Guard. They had several pill boxes as they were called build in strategic points around the village where they patrolled at night after having already done a full days work. All along the banks of the Alphin brook, through the playing field, coils of barbwire were erected. Not sure why unless it was thought that Hitler would send gunboats up the brook!
When I think of how people in the cities fared during the blitz we in Alphington got off lightly. Exeter however became very much a target of special interest to Hitler. The first bombs I believe fell in the St. Thomas district of the City when eight bombs were dropped in 1940. I would have been in my fifth year so have no memory of that attack. In all there were nineteen raids on the City but it was in 1942 that Hitler decided to take revenge on Exeter for the RAF's bombing of the ancient German cathedral city of Lubeck. Exeter became a target in the so-called'Baedeker Blitz', a campaign to attack targets of cultural and historical, rather than military or strategic, value. It is these raids that I recall. To begin with a lot of bombs both high explosive and incendiary were falling around the Marsh Barton and St.Thomas area so in Devonia Terrace we were feeling the shock waves and the noise. As each bomb exploded the house shook. I recall we were under the kitchen table and a milk jug on the table top rattled each time a bomb fell nearby. After one particular noisy night we found a crater in the field a few hundred yards from our home in Devonia Terrace. It was behind what is now the British Legion Club, roughly inline with the end of Blenheim Road. (Before the new bit was added). This crater was quickly filled in but a much bigger one, two fields away, towards Marsh Barton farm was left. At the time I left Alphington in 1949 it was still open. This one soon filled with water and in next to no time Mother Nature took over and an abundance of pond life quickly establish. In spite of that, the sight of the crater was still a chilling reminder. The field where the bomb fell became known as Crater Field. Other bombs fell well off target at times, no doubt as a result of being chased off by our RAF fighter pilots and anxious to lighten their load so that they could run for home. These two totally harmless bombs were nothing compared to what the people of Exeter suffered. I mention them because they are my memories, by then a seven year old. Had it not been for a few hundred yards it may have been a different tale and I would not have been here to write these notes.
May 1942 saw the bombing of Exeter escalate to an alarming level, no parts of the City escaped, many lives were lost and homes and businesses destroyed. The Exeter landscape was to change for ever but the one target that Hitler had boasted he would destroy stood proud, The Cathedral.
By 1942 I was seven and as a seven year old all of this was going on around me and yet in Alphington it was at arms length. Each evening I would be put to bed not fully aware of what was happening so close to hand. At that age the war was the norm, I was too young to remember or appreciate peacetime. This was life, perhaps it was and will be always like this ... I and my pals knew no different. The drone of the German aircraft as they came in low over the village ready to drop their bombs on the City was clear to hear and scary as we were never certain as to where they would release their load.
The authorities did their best to prepare for the immanent raids. Early each evening we children watched as rows and rows of buses, ambulances, fire engines etc. would be driven out of the City and line up in the lanes around Alphington in readiness for what was to come. Even at our young age it was obvious to us as to what was expected. As soon as the raid started the brave members of the Auxiliary Fire Service (AFS) would be the first in followed by the Ambulances. They worked tirelessly night after night. Many gave their lives. Not only did the essential service move out of the City each evening, we watched as many families who felt they were safer sleeping in the fields and hedgerows rather than take their chance in the City made their way up Mill lane as if to get as far away from the bombs as possible.
My father came home on a few days leave from the army at the height of the blitz. I remember seeing him tying his garden spade to the crossbar of his bicycle and cycling off into Exeter to help dig the casualties from the bombed buildings. My mother pleaded with him to stay at home with us, but nothing was going to stop him from doing what he could to help. He eventually came home very dirty and dishevelled; we never learnt what he did or saw. He was just one of many trying to help.
The morning after the big raid on the 4th May 1942. Fires had been raging all night over the City and were still burning, everywhere smelt of fire. Falling from the sky were pieces of blackened burnt paper. I carefully picked up a fragment on our garden path, it was still readable as a page from a prayer book, The Lords Prayer. How amazing that that charred remnant had floated through the air and had remained intact. It arrived in Alphington and was still readable. I tried to pick it up to show my mother but it disintegrated in my hands.
It was early in the morning following the blitz of the 4th May 1942 that I recall seeing slow moving lines of people walking out of Exeter along what is now Church Road, past our home in Devonia Terrace. They were quietly walking past carrying what belongings they could salvage, wearing what clothes they could quickly grab, many still in their night attire. They looked like refugees from any war. They had lost their homes and most if not all of there possessions. I must have been old enough to realise that they were victims of the blitz.
Looking down the road I spotted familiar faces and called out to my mother'I can see Auntie Marge and Geoff' At first my mother thought I was being silly but it was them, still wearing their night clothes and dressing gowns. They had lost their home in Sidwell Street to the bombs. They initially fled across the Street and took shelter against the outer wall of the Churchyard. Minutes later the Church tower took a direct hit. They were showered in debris but escaped unscathed. It must have been a terrifying experience. Geoff and his mother moved in with us for a while at 17 Devonia Terrace. Geoff's school in Exeter had lost its roof so he enrolled temporally at the village school as I imagine did others. Schools that remained intact continued to operate as normally as they could. There was no question of closing, life had to go on.
There was a German aircraft brought down somewhere near Ide lane, I am not sure where but I vaguely remember cycling up to the scene with other lads in the hope of gathering a souvenir. It was well guarded however and we were not allowed to get too close. At about that time I recall a very excited John Martin the Policeman's son who lived next door telling me that his father had a captured German in his office. A boast I didn't believe at first until I saw the prisoner for myself. John came up into my bedroom and from my window we could look down into the Police office next door attached to the rear of John's house. Blinds were drawn but there was a sufficient gap for two inquisitive schoolboys to peer into the office where a young blond haired airman was sitting at a table with a mug of tea in his hand. There were several other Police and Military types in the room. Eventually a vehicle and escort came to take him away but as we watched we saw two of the army officers pick up a revolver and put it in a box which was taken away with the prisoner. I must confess that every night after that, for quite a while I looked down at the office to make sure that there were no more Germans about!
I remember that there was a Royal Artillery Anti Aircraft unit established in fields to the left in Matford lane with gun emplacements in the fields below. There must have also been a searchlight unit as I remember on one occasion seeing a German plane caught in the cross beams of two searchlights. One large custom built post was in a field to the right at the bottom of the hill in Clapperbrook lane. Deserted after the war became a place for us lads to play soldiers! The soldiers and ATS Women who manned the post were accommodated in Nissan huts.
Later in the war my father who was in the Royal Army Pay Corps was posted to the Army Pay Office Camp at Middlemoor. Many of the ATS girls who also worked at the Pay Office were housed in the Nissan huts in Matford Lane. My mother befriended some of the Girls who would visit our home for a hot bath, do their ironing and sit and chat with my mother by the fireside. It must have made a nice change for them from living in their tin huts. The playing field became the base for a Barrage Balloon operated by the RAF. Once inflated it was anchored by heavy cables to a large vehicle on the ground. The vehicle had a winch that controlled the height of the balloon. The cables were strong enough to bring down an aircraft that tangled with it. The main purpose of the balloon was to prevent enemy aircraft flying too low and to deter attacks by dive bombers. There were many such balloons deployed around major cities. I was told that ours broke loose at one stage but I have not been able to confirm this.
We had quite a few evacuees in the village. My mother prepared a bed expecting us to have a boy or girl to come and stay with us. I was quite excited to think I might have a temporary brother, not so sure about another sister, but it wasn't to be.
I am most grateful to the members for allowing me to publish their wonderful memories of Alphington, thank you so much.
Copyright © Rowena Kirkpatrick