Royal Observer Corps and work on the bases

Location : Thetford

So what memories do you have of the 2nd World War?

Well I was born at Roudham. Near the old First War airdrome. In one of the wartime brick bungalows. There's still two remaining now, even at this later date. Mum and Dad took the bungalow when they got married. In, let's see, it was, it was October 1927. Anyway I was born there and I lived there until I got married. And I left school in July 1942 and the 2nd World War had been going on for nearly three years then. And all around they were building up airdromes and army camps. There was a army camp built right next door to where we lived at this old airdrome bungalow that I've just mentioned. And they built a large food store there to supply the many air fields and army camps in the area. ‘Cause naturally if there was all those American servicemen here, they needed food. And they, they done their own thing, as most of you know. And then at that time I recall East Wretham, airdrome was already finished. And aircraft had been taking off there from early 1940's. Where at that time The Vickers Wellington Bombers were piloted mostly by Czechs and Polish airmen and the air crew… As a historic interest there's a plaque, dedicated to them, as a memorial stone outside the Thetford Guildhall, just a few yards from here. That can be plainly seen as one goes into the Guildhall for concerts or events; can be seen on the wall, the left hand side, as you go in. And there's also, memorial stone outside the King's House Gardens, at the bottom of King Street, which that one is dedicated to the airmen of the 359th Fighter Group who were stationed at East Wretham later. In the 1940's I recall is when the air field was opened, with the Vickers Wellingtons and later they had the heavy Lancaster Bombers there,the 4-engined ones and then this is where I come in, at East (Wretham).

The airmen of the 359th Fighter Group, as I just mentioned there's a plaque dedicated to them by the King's House, right in front of the King's gardens and gate.

They were stationed there from 1943 ‘til the end of 1945. Where I was fortunate enough to get a job, as a civilian worker doing general duties for the US air force. And it certainly was a very happy time for me; that was nearly two years. You might like to know there was P-47 Thunderbolts there first in ‘43 and later in beginning of ‘44 there was the P-51 Mustangs. And there's still some flying today and they usually attend the air shows at Lowestoft and the local airdromes they still have the historic open days. There was the heavy bombers, the 4-engine Flying Fortress Bombers that were stationed at Snetterton and Nettleshall, all round this area. Every few miles there was a American air field. Well anyway, as I mentioned, there was the fighter planes at East Wretham where I worked and I was lucky enough to see some of the films that they took. There was always a film camera air craft that went with them to record the events and I used to make sure I got in to that Aero Club, near where I worked to see some of the films if I could. To see what up-to-date things had happened when they were on their raids. ‘Cause the fighter planes went to escort the bombers, as I'm sure you will know.

We woke up one morning around the spring of 1941 to find a twin-engined Blenheim Bomber from Watton, that had made a forced landing just about 200 yards from the bungalow where we lived. I believe the radio had been shot out of action and they saw this old First war hanger, as I mentioned next to where we lived and they thought it was an operational air field. However they managed to put the plane down and I think one of the men was injured. They had an attack from the front of the plane but the others seemed to be alright. I remember seeing some of the airmen as they were picked up and taken back to Watton. I also recall a 4-engined Lancaster Bomber that crashed and blew up by the side of the road, right outside Roudham Hall which is still going. Less than a mile away from where we lived and all the crew were killed! The spot where it happened can still be seen today. As the trees were burnt and a great gap was left where nothing grew for a long time!

The first US airmen arrived at Snetterton air field in April 1943. And then after -'cause they prepared the way for the flyers the airmen, the B-17 Flying Fortress. And they also came a couple of months later in the June 1943. I recall it well, I was at the Guiltcross Gardens near Alston's farm. They still call that Guiltcross today. And I was at a person's house named Honeywoods and he used to be a carpenter in East Harling at the time. We used to do some work as young people then, I'd be about 15 then and we used to go out helping people with their gardens that were much older than what we were and needed some help. It was so exciting I could see those planes all coming over and going round and breaking off and it occurred to me just after a short while that they were coming in to occupy the base at Snetterton.

Now we lived about a mile and a half away from the base, so we were very close to seeing the planes taking off and coming in. I remember a plane flying very low one morning and I expected it to go down any time and it crashed at West Harling, just a mile away, near Middle Harling Farm, known as Barters Farm. Killing all the crew! I went to have a look at it, and it was an awful mess! It's very sad! Another similar circumstance when a Flying Fortress crashed, was at Larwoods Farm, he'd only just left the air base about, probably not half a mile away. And it was just taking off and that plane also blew up and killed all the men. And I went up there, just to have a look and it was very sad to see! All those men lost, in one go before they even had a chance to strike back! By the way that was in, I try to recall these things that was in January 1944.

And in November 1944 a plane came in to land at Snetterton and flew over Bryant's Bridge which some of you will know is just about a mile from the race track, perhaps less than that, half a mile. All the crew survived that crash because it landed on the side of the bank. It was all set to come in safely but another plane had come in who needed more attention, so this plane was pushed out but they managed to land the plane very slowly on the edge of the bank. So although it broke up, I understand they all survived but some of them were quite injured, but at least there was some good news attached to that one!

Friendship with the US personnel

One of the good things that came out of the war was the co-operation and friendship we had with the US personnel via our Methodist Church. Our Methodist minister at that time and the US air force chaplains used to get together and meet so as to liaise and go to each other's churches. Which brought the Americans and local people together. And not only did, they were able to arrange a meeting to come down and visit us Perhaps some sing to us, most of them had a singing group. And they would wish for us to come and visit them and give them a little sketch or a little sing song and so that was very good during the war years. I recall the Chaplain's name was Chaplain Morris Smith. There's a photograph of him in the 96 Journal and a picture of some of the airmen. I did, actual meet him because our minister took me up to the base and we met Captain Smith, he was then. And also at the same time as I started my job at the East Wretham airdrome, there was a Chaplain there Chaplain Ziegler. And these two men came out and either brought their choirs with them or they conducted a little service, with the help of some of the other airmen. The good thing about it was as well we could black out the church, the Methodist Church at East Harling on a Sunday evening. And that gave the airmen a chance to come down. First of all we had the RAF men come down and join us on a Sunday evening. They came in November 1942, to pave the way for the Americans coming to occupy the base.

In the summer of 1942 the coloured Americans – the black Negro Americans – arrived to build up this camp I mentioned this food camp, next to where we lived. They were 364 Engineers Group. And they done all the heavy work, laying the concrete, foundations, putting up all the steel round bars, all the corrugations, all the paths and roads. And of course, we were surrounded at that time by their diggers and their scoops and all their mechanical things that they used to build up the stores. I remember going into the very big building they done was called the ordinance repair shop. There was all modern equipment in there. I think they were a bit fussy about anybody coming in. I know I went in there a couple a times and somebody came to ask me what I was doing and I told them I lived next door and they said "You shouldn't really be in here." I think perhaps it might have been for safety reasons. I did manage to creep in just inside the door from time to time and I was amazed to see all the modern equipment that they had, which we certainly didn't have and didn't have until a long time afterwards.

So this big Marsden shop was right next to our bungalow, you only had to come out of our gate, walk up the path and there it was. In the spring of 1943, the Americans came, the black Americans came and done all this the heavy work as I said. And then they left in the spring of 1944 and most of the work was done and finished then. That is what the purpose of them coming to build up the camp. More than once I was taken to the guard room for identification, they didn't quite make out who I was or what I was doing. And so they said take me back to your home if you can for identification, which I did. I jumped in a jeep once, course my home wasn't far away as I said the camp was all round us; they didn't know that we lived there, they thought it was all part of their camp. And Mother identified me and said who I was and they were happy with that. And that happened a couple of times. And then as the war proceeded in our favour, they weren't so fussy about checking civilians.

I will always remember the Christmas of 1943 as two of my American airmen friends from the camp took me to London on Boxing Day and gave me a treat viewing all the important places. And we went to the Rainbow club for a three course meal and entertainment. Which was a servicemen's club, mostly Americans. A course I asked Mother, a course Mother used to often make them a coffee or give them something to eat and they really valued that coming into the house. And we all liked to see the Americans from time to time of course ‘cause that was somethun, that was a novelty for us, at first until we got used to them. But we realised how lucky we were to be able to talk with them. So I had a great day on that day and will always remember it.

In June 1944 the invasion of France took place and the camp was on strict alert. I was unable to get on to the camp anywhere at that time. But afterwards we went back to normal. We made friends with many of the US airmen and soldiers. We, oh we trusted them with their friendship. I used to go out in the Summer time and go cycling with some of them, two different airmen I used to go out with. That was from the Wretham base. Used to like to cycle round the countryside. So the Americans occupied this camp at Roudham with the food store, until 1946 When the German prisoners of war came and occupied the camp and then the Italian prisoners of war, then the Polish soldiers came and all this time the camp was being used to support US airmen who stayed on until 1946 to see all this through. As they were the beginning and the end of employing at the camp. I myself was at Wretham airdrome until November 1945.

The Royal Observer Corps

After that I joined the Royal Observer Corps, as I was always interested in air craft. And I was in that until 1962. Part of my duties was to observe air craft outside on a seven-mile radius. To repeat and log in and out to record the exact place and to pass on information to the next post. We also went for flights in the RAF transport command, some observers were in regularly during the war time and they also flew. By the way Snetterton, who were 96 Bomb Group have a very interesting museum at Eccles Hall School which can be seen and found on the edge of the Eccles and Quidenham crossways. We still have open days still once or twice a year. And the school have taken on the war history of the air force from the time from 1943 ‘til 46 and have continued to entertain and meet relatives from the men who were killed or who served there during the war. I myself go there regularly and its good to see the museum can be opened and all sorts of things in there. There's the memorabilia, there's the air craft, there's squadrons there's the numbers, there's the base number there's the people that have put their names in and have attended from America and its really great. I'm glad that I was able to be part of that in my younger days.

There's also a lovely stained glass window that has been put in the Quidenham church, which one passes on the way from Kenninghall to Attleborough or Kenninghall along that road, to Eccles. And that's dedicated to the men who gave their lives in the cause of freedom that flew from that base Snetterton 96 Bomb Group. I have seen and looked at many books referring to not just Snetterton but all the other air fields. And the ceremony took place at Quidenham church in liaison with America, I believe it was in 1946 some time after the war and it was quite a big thing, it was on BBC. It was also relayed to USA and UK. And it was a big occasion. The Reverend Harper Mitchell was the one who organised that. Was the minister there at the Church of England at that time.

I recalled we had to have an identity card while I was on the base and hardly ever had to show it. Only a couple of times. That was when I started there and when the invasion was. We also went out to the Nettleshall US air force base which was about five or six miles from Thetford, near Coney Weston. Our minister arranged for us to do a play for the airmen there. An Easter play. I remember that I took part with that, I was a centurion at that time and I can plainly remember that. After the play and the sketch was over, we went up the base for doughnuts and Cokes. The men came round to chat to us and thank us for coming. And I believe that was in the spring near the Easter of March 1945 when of course the war was still going on then. I think if the war wasn't going on, no I've got that wrong, the war finished in 45, so it must have been 44 that we went and gave this play to them. Mind you they were stationed here some of them right up to 1946 so that could have well been, 1945 and I'm pretty sure it was now ‘cause I recall my age and the time that I was there. There was many other great things happened during my those important years. But I'm pleased to have it recorded and I'm grateful to the Ancient House Museum for accepting my diary and I hope it's interesting to you who've heard it? Sorry my voice is a little bit thick but I am 83 now, so I'm not as young as I was!

Civilian worker at East Wretham

By the way while I was at the East Wretham base … I started at 8 o'clock and I had toast at 10 o'clock, I had a main meal at 1 o'clock I had tea at 3 o'clock!

What did they give you for your main meal?

Main meal, there was no shortage of food on the base. I would have meat, I would have beef and rice, beef mince, and sometimes sausages but they did what they called Rissoles and things like that. I always had a hot meal because where I worked at the Aero Club, we had a civilian staff and they used to make cakes for the men when they came off duty. Into this Aero Club – it was like a NAAFI. They would come in and have a cup of coffee or have a Coke and they would have all the lovely home-made cakes and sausage rolls and things. There was no shortage really but that was at the base. But war-time bases weren't like they are now at Mildenhall, that was all just on economy stuff, you know it was just the basics. There was a Pigex [PX?] what they called it where you could go and get a packet of sweets or gum but that wasn't anywhere near where I worked. I was staying at this end of Wretham and the buildings are still there today I meant to say, I can go to the building I worked in after all this time! The British army are using that. So I was lucky enough, sometimes if I worked late overtime I would go up there and they would give me something to eat, as I was working, a cup of coffee or tea or something. And I'd work through, and I got transport there. I had a luxury job! Not at first, I had to cycle in. So I got picked up with four or five more civilian people in East Harling where I lived.

The girls done cleaning up and helping with the cooking. And my job was to keep the fires going. I had a boiler in the kitchen and a kitchen stool and I used to have to keep them fires going.

Was it hard work?

It wasn't if you were organised. I'd get it ready next day, get my sticks ready for the next morning and my coal ready to start in a pail.

Did you have to go and collect the sticks?

No, they were all near, the wood was brought to me and I had to cut it up. I helped to do the sawing by the way. We had a little saw mill, somebody would bring in and I'd do a whole heap of wood and then I would have to pick out each day some sticks, ready to light these two fires and put the coal on and put the coke on. So I was quite busy in the winter time as you can imagine ‘cause I had to look after the fires in the club. That's why they wanted me to work overtime if there was a party or anything on, they said "Can you stay?" I said "How am I going to get home?" And they said, "There's plenty of bicycles in the shed, take one of them."

What was your average working day?

8 ‘til 5.

And it sounds like you got quite a few breaks!

I got some perks, yeah, that was good! If we were late getting there some mornings, you'd hardly get there and just get to start and they'd say "The toast is ready." And time you get stuck into some work they'd say "Your lunch is ready." That's the best job I ever had, it really was!

If you don't mind me asking how much did they pay you?

I was getting about £1.50 on, I've got to stop and think. Yes I was only getting about £1.50 in those days. Which doesn't seem much but it was in line with agricultural wages. And there I got £2 which was quite a rise for the first year and £2.50 for the second year, which was good money in them days. With the dinner thrown in and toast. Mother was pleased ‘cause it saved the rations!

What sort of things did you do socially after work?

Well I was a member of the Methodist Church at East Harling and that's still going now! I belonged to the youth club which I mentioned we did this play and I was a centurion. I'd go to the youth club on a Sunday ‘cause we were all church people I meant to say, we're all Methodist people, I go to the Methodist Church here now in the town. Mum and Dad brought me up that way and I decided to follow. And so there was the church on Sundays and you heard me say we had meetings there. Airmen and soldiers came. So we had that on Sundays, youth club would be on perhaps on a Tuesday or a Thursday and I'd go out cycling in the summer.

I like cycling it's my favourite hobby. I've done no end of cycling. I used to do cycle speedway. We made the old track, after the Americans left because they used to put their cinder muck and cinders all out in one big area, that used to keep sinking down and they raked it off, it was ideal to make a cinder track for speedway racing, so us lads used to do that. So there was always something on during the summer months, and we had the youth club and er we used to meet in the Nag's Head pub at East Harling.

Before you started working at the base I guess you experienced rationing didn't you?

Yes we had a ration book and Mother used theirs, seven of us, five and Mum and Dad, so it meant that she could make the food go round a little better because she could do more at once. And as I was having a meal out I didn't cost her so much, not for food or money. But she was very fair, Mother was and gave us all our shares! But yes we were rationed and funnily enough you get used to it you know, and yet now people seem to grumble if they can't get this and can't get that! Yet we were a healthier nation. I can't make out why everything has gone wrong but it has! Just lately and everything seem to gone wrong.

We had, that wasn't white bread, it was kind a between white and brown, it was a standard bread. We were rationed for it but we had enough I suppose if you were careful with it. We were rationed for everything, butter, cheese and sugar and sweets. Weren't many sweets about, you could get a packet of crisps some times and there weren't any fruit. You never saw a banana, an orange in the shops, nothing like that, not for five years or more, five or six years! Course we got used to it, now it's a long while ago since it all happened!

During the time the coloured soldiers were here outside our house building up this camp, the food store, they had a rule amongst the soldiers that the blacks walked on one side of the road and the whites on the other. My Dad was away and I was mixing up the chicken feed or food, we kept some poultry ducks, geese and chickens. When I heard a bang which was right outside my shed, we had the bungalow and then we had a couple of war time sheds we used. Before I could hardly get to my gate to see what was happening on the side of the road there was a whole group of men gathered round and a man laid on the floor, a coloured soldier, and I could see there was blood on his face and I asked what happened and one of the white guys, soldiers just shot him! And he said because all because he wasn't walking on the right side of the road and I thought well this is terrible! But then I got to know that the blacks didn't like the whites and they hated them in some cases! But it seemed as though, we had blacks right outside my … working on the same camp as the white men lived and there was no problem, no incident only this one. And I understand sadly the man died! I think he was a sergeant too! The black soldier he died the next day we heard. And there was a curfew on – of course that there was a strict curfew about the mixing and people keeping themselves separate. And they told me, they advised me to stay indoors for a few nights after that. ‘Cause I always liked to go outside and talk to the, I used to talk to the black men at evening time when they came back from the base and the white men during the day. To me that didn't cause a problem, to them it did. And it still does in America in some parts, which is rather sad. But I wanted to record I was, I did witness that. And so I'm pleased I've got that down.

Market gardening and building

What memories do you have of the other jobs that you went on to after the base?

When I left the airdrome there wasn't much I went on to market gardening. Digging carrots, cutting cabbages and cauliflowers, which is quite different. But I was a young man and fit and healthy so I didn't mind.

Was that your own business?

No I worked for H.E. Kemp & Son which a lot of people know is still … Mr Frank Kemp lived in Thetford actually. One of the Kemps I used to work for. And I finished up doing some painting for him, in my retirement. I went from the agricultural – people started leaving land work because of machinery. And I could see it was getting less and less, there was 60 people there when I was there. Then it got to 50, and then 40 and then 30. And I could see what was happening, so I decided to get another job.

Were they quite long hours when you were doing that?

No, no I could go to work at 7.30 and finish at 4 o'clock, and in winter time it was 8 o'clock ‘til 4, which weren't bad! And the money was piece work, you got paid for what you did. So if you didn't work you didn't get paid.

Was the pay very good though?

Yes it was really we had a good employer. We had a good man who would bargain for us. He wouldn't be satisfied until he got a good price, especially in the winter. I heard him say to him "Well you wouldn't like to be working out in this weather would you?" So he'd think about us, we'll do it you know but we expect you. He used to say "I know you can pay it". You don't always get a good foreman to do that for you!

Did you have to travel quite far to do that job?

Yes I had to catch the lorry some times to go out from East Harling to Croxton and Kilverstone. And if you missed a truck of course you lost a day's pay. Now after that I decided to go to the building trade, they started to build houses round near me. And a friend of mine said "Why don't you join us in the building trade?" and so I did. I went as a labourer, doing building work and I was on there until the contract finished. The trouble is with building work its often a contract. It's like a council contract can last up to 2 or 3 years and then the firm move and go somewhere else. Take on another contract, so I had to leave that job but then the army were just starting up at the camp where I lived.

Store keeping

Funny enough when my Mother still lived in the bungalow, Mum and Dad. And they started to build this camp up because there was trouble with the Russians then things were getting bad and I know …

Sorry what year was this please?

This would be, let me see 19.., I've moved on '47-48, building trade. This would be in the mid 50's. The army camp was being built up then for for stores to keep stores in. Because of supplying the battle area which was only a few miles up the road, at Stanford, which included West Tofts and Tollington and on the edge of Watton Merton. And then there was the battle area, so the soldiers still needed training. They were very uncertain times, The Russians were causing us a bit of trouble. Some of my mates went there I went and joined them and I had 10 years there. Doing labouring work first and then I got skilled and then I went on to become the store keeper's job. That was a good little job and I was there 10 years. Then my son was taken ill whilst I was there with meningitis. Which it meant that we had to … We was offered a special school then in Attleborough. About 8 miles away and I decided to take that and move house.

And after I did that I went back in to the building trade but as next time I went as a brush hand, to take up painting. In those days you could, don't think you could do that so easily now but if you had a good boss or a good governor that wanted people badly they would take you on slight increase or they would take you on as an improver. You could be a brick layer improver, a painter improver. So I took his offer as a painter improver. And I remember him saying to me "I'll give you a trial, give you a chance." Which was a bit uncertain but I took it. I was there for 6 years so, I've always took what opportunities came along really. And I've never gone back, I've always benefited meself, a part from the air field job, I'll never get another one like that I don't expect, as long as I live.

Because I was trained as a store keeper with the army at Roudham East Harling eventually I moved back to store keeping at Attleborough in the Briton brush company. I went as a store keeper there and I was there for 10 years. I think that just about sum up my, most of my life time.

More about the black and white soldiers

I found the black soldiers easy to get on with and friendly. Never had a incident or any bad incident or anything like that to make me scared or it never occurred for me that anything might happen to me. I didn't know much about the black and whites in America at that time but of course I've learnt a lot since the black soldier was killed right outside my gate. I'm a kind of chap that takes anyone into my confidence whether they be white as I worked with the white airmen during the day time and the black soldiers during the night. I used to go into their tents because they used to say "Come in, come in buddy and sit down and talk to us." And then perhaps make me a hot drink or give me some sweets. I don't regret any time that I spent there with them.

We had this film show, the Americans had a film show in one of their buildings, for something to do for entertainment. I used to go and join them and one night we had a special show. And I went in with them and they looked at me and said "no civilians allowed today." So the two I was with (who took me to London Boxing Day), they came out with me. I said "You don't have to come out." And they came out and one of them got his helmet and plonked on my head and the other one took his tunic off and put round me. And he said "I think we'll try again." And so next time we walked in without any problem. [Laughs!]

Were they white?

They were the whites yes and they didn't allow blacks into their cinema. So the blacks had their own show, which was rather a shame wasn't it?

Did you ever watch the show with the black ?

The blacks never had their own cinema, which was a pity wasn't it? Them poor devils never got a look in they didn't, no. But I think they used to get together and … I think they never had an official film show but they used to have entertainment amongst themselves, social entertainment. They liked playing guitars and things and I remember one having one when I was down there, played me a tune.

So, yes it was a quite different to what I expected but it was a good learning experience for me during those three years, or more. Say you know 1942 which they started until end of ‘45/46. I think I'm very fortunate to have lived in that day, in those days!

Added after the recording by the contributor:

In the Spring 1942 my last year at school, I was going back to school from my home at Roudham when a German bomber came over very low right close to us and machined-gunned the red hangar. My sister was with me and we could plainly see the bullets as they exploded when they hit the building.

And during the winter of 1943 a German aircraft dropped flares over the camp and over our house. There was red alert on but no bombs were dropped at this time. The American soldiers took cover and showing of films promptly ceased.

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