Guns and soldiers in Thetford
It was in my young days during the war time. I was standing on the corner of the Bell Hotel in the White Hart Street in 1944 – this would have been in June -watching the tanks and the soldiers, the vehicles coming down the White Hart Street, all heading towards London. I watched at times the Ack-Ack gunners, in the park turning on their blocks. Near the new children's play ground it is now.
Oh what Castle Street?
Yes, in Castle Street. Also there was a Nissen hut, situated over near the Beech Tree, on the other side of the swings, which the concrete block is still laying there and that always brings back memories, that do, you know ‘cause I was a lad and we used to climb up on top of that. Shouldn't a done but … and used to end up ripping me trousers. And also to get drinks off the soldiers what was there, you know they was armouring the Ack-Ack Gun. Also my brother and sister used to push me in a wheelbarrow, along Rushford Road, about half mile to one/two mile out of the town, on the left hand side, there was a load, copse of trees. And the Indian army was billeted there. And we were given all sorts of tins ‘n of milk ‘n type of food, which was very hot at the time which was unknown to us, which was obviously a curry. Any other foods we could get hold of, you know beans, and bring it hom' to our Mother, because it was rationing at the time. And that was very stringent so every bit helped!
Whatever food you could get hold of …
Did you like trying new things or … ‘cause children today they won't try any thing will they? Did it bother you that it was different or you just …
Oh well we was glad of the food no matter what – you know we tried anything what was going. And some of the things we used to eat were sort of unbelievable! And when they, you just had to have it you know. ‘Cause you just couldn't get hold of it.
We used a sit on the railway bridge up on the steps. Up at Thetford railway station, watching the soldiers loading the tanks, on to the railway trolleys. I believe you've got a picture actually in the museum there, I've seen it. And we used to watch all that.
Was you scared when you saw that or was you more excited than scared?
Inquisitive is the word, as a young lad just watching for the sake of watching you know. Yeah, I mean you had a lot a people on the move, soldiers were continually on the move. I was that young they used to move me over out the way so that I didn't get trampled on ‘cause they were coming over the top you know. And also, come to mind there was the ammunition trains that used to roll through the station. They used to have five big wheels. I'll never forget ‘em and they made a clanking noise so you always knew that was a ammunition vehicle train coming down, in towards Wretham. I reckon they unloaded I believe for the air craft in the area, you know and the aerodromes. Then I would walk along the platform, on the London side and there used to be a wooden guard hut, along on the end. I used to go in there and get a drink off the soldiers because they used to man the concrete bunker, on Mundford allotments and that is still there isn't it? Do you remember?
I know where you mean, where the houses …
No where they put the new pathway down to the Norwich side, that was over there. On the allotments the bunker is. Also later on my sister used to walk me down, in our wheelbarrow, that used to get regular jobs that did. To Two Mile Bottom, where we used to watch the Red Cross trains unloading injured soldiers in to the ambulances. There used to be a big concrete buffer there where the trains used to come up against, but I've noticed that's all been taken away now, that was there for years. Then they'd be transferring them in to the ambulances, and to the hospitals around the area. Which include Thetford Cottage Hospital. Where we watched them going in and out.
I bet they were in a bad way weren't they?
Oh yeah, that's pitiful to see it. And I'll never forget it, ‘cause when we went near the trains, you could smell the horrible smell of blood! We used to call them the blood train actually, but we knew what it meant.
I used to attend the Norwich Road School and when the air raid siren used to run, we used to run to the shelters. Which were across the big boys' playground, which I believe now is the playing field, it's up the top end. There used to be, if I remember, at least six of the air raid shelters.
Did that scare you when that went off ‘cause that's not a very nice sound is it? Very scary.
Yeah oh yeah. No it was a wailing noise. Yeah we used to just run for it! We still had to be in an orderly line, but we just followed each other, you know. Used to wonder what it was all about but you'd just knew what at the end.
In the shelter – and Coca Cola and Hershey bars
What was it like in the shelter? What was you able to do in the shelter?
Not a lot because it happened so sudden and you just sat on your form that was along edge of the bunkers. But it was always damp and dingy ‘cause there's no lights, there was nothing you see. ‘Cause it was all under soil and mounds so that you know for protection really.
Did you ever worry because all the soil above you – being a child did you think: "Oh that might collapse in on us.? Or was you more worried about what could be outside?
Yeah, what could be outside I think more. You know course you did get frightened at times. Because that was getting towards the end of the war anyway, so we didn't get too many trips to the air raid shelters because of the fact we were on top. Winning the war at the time you know, so the aircraft never got too much at the end you know.
Towards the end of the war, another memory that came there. We were picked up in lorries, on the Market Square by the men of the American air force. And we was taken to Wretham and Lakenheath aerodromes. And we were allowed to climb into the aircraft at the time. And afterwards we were taken to a party. In one of the big Nissen huts where we received presents you know and food and such a things we're never seen before, like Coca Cola and chocolate Hershey bars used to stand in my mind and, chewing gum. Because of the ration obviously, it was brilliant for us.
Because it was Christmas or to do with the fact it was near the end of the war?
I think it was Christmas more times, you know, more for the Christmas time and then there was other celebrations towards the end.
Going to hospital
An incident which happened to me at the time I was knocked over and had a broken leg. And I was picked up by the American airmen and taken to Thetford Cottage Hospital. Waited to catch my Mother, ‘cause as we lived in St Giles' Lane which was just across the road. When she appeared because I hadn't arrived home. They took her over into the hospital and that's where I was.
What had you been knocked over by?
By a vehicle. I think it was a bike actually if I remember rightly. They shouldn't been riding there and I was on the path and that hit me you know. And I was found to have a broken arm and a broken leg. And I had to be operated on and later they found complications. I had to be taken to Norwich City Jenny Lind hospital for children. But getting there was a problem. Because my Mother was able to get somebody to drive us. ‘Cause you never had the ambulances were all ready for the servicemen and that. But they had to get permission to travel from Thetford outwards, you see, you just couldn't go down a marked road on a vehicle or anything. You was told, that you had to have permission. And they got the permission to travel along the A11. Because the road itself went through Snetterton airfield. And what happened was, the aircraft used to come across the main road. Which is where the main runways used to be, across to the other side, to park up and to have repairs done I take it. And we used to have to wait until them aircraft went across. And then we got permission to go on and complete our journey to Norwich. To get the go ahead.
Did it take long to get the go ahead?
Very often that would take you half an hour or more, you know, you'd be sitting there.
So you don't want it to be a real emergency then do you?
Well no no no, no you'd have a job you know. ‘Cause the ones at Bury were used mainly for the service chaps. I think it was called St Mary's at the time.
Is that where West Suffolk is now?
Not the new West Suffolk. I don't know if you know where Waitrose is?
It used to be at the top end of the market, the cattle market. And as you go over the hill, on your right hand side used to be the … They were all wooden huts. When I was a lad – in fact my son was born there.
Was you treated well in hospital or did you …
Oh yeah, I was operated on again, in Norwich. They had to break me leg. And reset it all because they'd done it wrong.
Was you conscious when they done that, I suppose you was …
No they used to use, used to use ether, in them days. That was like a mask they put on your face. And the next thing you know after that was used, you'd gone you know. The operating things weren't brilliant in them days. When I had to go back to have my plaster off, they used to use big tong things like, and they used to cut your leg protection what they'd put on. And ‘cause what they'd done they'd cut all the way down and went through me ankle! So I had to have stitches.
But were they any shorter than normal because of the fact the war was on, shortage of …
Yeah there was, there just weren't …
And they weren't like today, today the equipment they've got is marvellous and I mean with the operations they do today!
Another one when I used to be shopping with me Mother, down Guildhall Street. The siren would go and we ran across the road and there used to be an air raid shelter where Roys department store is now. And that spread from Guildhall Street back towards Pike Lane. And that was all concrete roofs and everything. Weren't very nice one to go in, because when it used to rain, if you were there in rainy times, the water used to come through the door and we'd be sitting there with our feet in the water. That weren't a very good one unfortunately! But we used to get soaked.
Another thing that came to mind. The big Nissen huts in the Abbey Gate. Used to be Priory Park area you know. And down the Abbey Gate area right down the bottom. Were used by the soldiers. After the war they made them into two, and divided them into two properties, for the local people, so they'd got somewhere to live because a lot of them, they were just homeless and they could put them in there. And that was that.
Another thing we came across… I don't think many people knew this but there used to be a prisoner of war camp! Up Brandon Road.
The prisoner of war camp
I didn't know that.
I will tell you where it is now, that's the Mackenzie Road area. And a course that was all trees and fir trees, and larch trees and bushes all the way along there, and you used to go through a track, and in the back used to be a camp there. And that was well covered and we used to go up there with me sister and I used to go up there. Used to take food, what little we had and you know give to the prisoners behind the barbed wire. But I think they were Italians because you know they were later, yeah they used to lay them on the fields and that. But I think there was a few Germans but I weren't too certain about the …
Was there quite a few people in there?
Oh yeah there was, yeah yeah there was quite a few yeah and they were well treated. As well best we could – people round the area could feed them you know. I remember that distinctly, because we used to play about round there and because of the sand and that. Shouldn't done but there you are. That was getting near the end of the war so you know.
Its more fun to do what you're not supposed to do isn't it when you are young?
Yeah oh yeah used to enjoy that. Its like as I said down here the Bell Hotel I would stand there, when the tanks all come down King Street, and went into Bridge Street and in towards London. They made me move, well they picked me up and moved me over to the other side because the tanks used to swing round and perhaps catch you see, if I'd been anywhere on that side of the Bell Hotel. Because they were big old lumbering things.
Did you ever get a chance to go on one?
Oh yeah there was. What happened was. That was the end of the war that was, the tanks. Because what happened was they allowed you, if you paid 6d old money, two and a half pence today. If you paid that you used to get a saving stamp, it was purple or mauve colour more like mauve with a union jack on it. I'll never forget it and you used to stick it in this little book. And if you had that you could then get on the tank and they used to ride you down King Street. And that was when the war was finished obviously. And you used to go up as far Catholic church, in the old London Road and they used to turn you round and then bring you back. That was well, that was lovely you know just to think you know.
Parties and the cinema
Then a course the parties all began. On the market, we used to go on the market. And Ben Culey he opened a cinema up and that was during the war, to the gurkhas and the regiments, so that they could have cinemas. That was before the D-Day landings I take it, because they were all in this place just being entertained you know. He was very good Ben Culey. He used to give us, when the war was over a party at the Odd Fellows Hall. We used to have food there, well we'd never seen it before, cakes. Great you know. Then he'd give us a free … a lot of local people would know this, they used to give us a free picture, in the afternoon. Then later on he used to give us ice-cream! I don't know where he got that from. I think the Americans had the machines you see and they used to sort a' lend them the equipment to do it; that's the only thing I can think of. But we used to walk up to the, from there we used to, as I said the Odd Fellows Hall and then we'd have a little show in there and play games, oh that was marvellous!
Was you not allowed to use the cinema during the war ‘cause you were saying it was for the service men really wasn't it?
I believe that it was used but of course most people never had the money and very often they weren't allowed out at a certain times at night, so that really only had the afternoons you know. I don't think he used to run them as I say it was mainly for the … My sister used to be the usherette, one of the usherettes in there. Mary and she used to be the usherette for the Gurkhas and all these other servicemen that used to come in. But that's great you know.
Another thing was when I was walking round here the other week, I see a picture of the local home guard. And my Father was in the first war. And he went into the second but he was getting on a bit but they more or less threw him out because I'm afraid he got pneumonia and it affected him. He came, home and joined the home guard. I think I came across a picture, in the museum here. He was part of the local guard you know. And I remember him coming home with his helmet and, in the morning. And also with his gun and used to put it under the stairs. For protection you know, for safety really for all of us.
I also remember we was issued a identity cards, which I've still got. And also we used to have a gas mask. And I had the type which looked like Mickey Mouse, a red one.
Did you like putting them on or was it a bit …
No, that was horrible! That used to smell strong of rubber and it made you wheeze, and the horrible smell coming up through the mouth piece. And you just couldn't stand it, you know it was horrible.
At the end of the war as I said, they brought a fair in at the park. There was all sorts of other things going on; of course I couldn't use it because I was in a wheelchair ‘cause of me broken leg. So I missed all of that. On the market they, I remember on a transport they brought a Spitfire in. And put it together on the market. As part of the celebrations you know, that was lovely that. It's a pity we didn't have cameras in them days, well we weren't allowed to use them anyway but you know if we had a camera that would have been a lovely picture that would. That's, you know basically I think, that's most of the things I can remember at the moment. Just little things keep coming back, when I'm walking down the road and I see something, a sign or something and that remind me. They had a hard time round here as much as anybody but I suppose with the farm area, you could, and the allotments, they kept them going strong and so a lot of the food came from there.
How did you celebrate like your birthdays and Christmases at home with your family?
Oh yeah. Obviously with our neighbours next door. We used to have games like. One in particular I remember they used to tie apples on to a piece of string and hang ‘em from the ceiling and you'd got to try and bite them, and finish them off. Or they fill a bath up, and put apples in there and you used to have to put your head in and try and pick them up; oh that was weird that is a funny game. As I said the food they just, how they got it together I don't know! But yeah we had a good life, for kids you know we'd do alright you know larking about and playing a bit. But, I'm afraid I was an adventurous – I was never in the house I used to escape. I used to escape – cause in St Giles' Lane we used to have a passage way. And around the back you'd have your walk way, and they used to put a fence up to try and stop me. But I used to get underneath this fence, in the drain area where they couldn't drop it low enough and I used to get out of there. Next thing you know I was up White Hart Street here opposite the museum, used to be sitting in a truck out the back, an old broken down thing and used to be playing. But the police picked me up, and brought me home, needless to say I got a good hiding for that. But that didn't stop me, I still got out. And played around you know. I thought that overall I mean, as a child, it was something new and adventurous. Today I don't think young'uns could stick it, not what we had to do I'm afraid. As you say you was afraid of the sirens. When they went you just had … and the Doodle Bugs, I forgot to mention them – they used to rattle over and, you'd hear that whining noise. And the next thing you'd hear an explosion, which you know is a long way away but you could hear it you know.
I remember my Mother one night, she used to be up at the petrol dump up Mundford Road. The sirens went, that was a lot earlier, in the war. They used to look for them, if they could, the Germans could find them they'd drop their bombs but, they were well protected and covered. They did drop a stick and …, but that missed, that was miles away. That was, well down towards Two Mile Bottom. But that was the thing that, most that I could remember.
What sort of presents did you have? Sort of home-made things and fruit and things like that?
Oh, oh the fruit. Used to have a sock and my brothers, were in the services. And my oldest brother was in the D-Day landings in the first, wave in. And my other brother was in the Navy. And when they could get home, which weren't very often obviously. But they used to bring odds and ends with them course, they'd bring an orange in, and some nuts. But as you say, my Father used to make toys, as best he could you know and he was quite good at it, we had a little train I used to sit in and, play about in. You know that was marvellous really. We used to get things sent over from America as well. That was very far between. They used to come over from America and from friends we had out there. They used to be here between the wars, and they went back to America. When they heard what state we were in they used to send us clothes and anything they could get through, well what could get over the seas really to get here. There'd be, as I said, nuts and they'd bring overseas oranges.
And we used to have, down St Giles' Lane, we used to have a lot of the Americans. Well in particular one used to have a jeep. And I think he was an officer ‘cause they were the only ones what were allowed them. And he used to bring his friends with him and they used to come in the house and they'd bring tins, big tins, big tins of peaches. And a course we never had no fridges in them days, how my Mother kept them for weeks and weeks on end I just don't know. But I can remember the eggs, they used to bring us eggs as well, from their PX I suppose. My Mother used to put these eggs in a pail. Full of salt and some other chemical in it but I just don't know what it was. And they used to go all white, like a foam on them outside. And they used to keep for weeks on end they did. If you couldn't get your own potatoes at the time, like from the allotments, they used to give you a packet of food, and it was called Pom Pom. And it was all mixed up. There's all different names they give them nowadays. But er, that was Pom Pom in them days that stick in my mind. Mum used to mix it all up, and that was mashed potato.
Oh did it taste alright or was it a bit …
No that weren't very good, not today you can get them better than that. Another thing we used to get; I used to go with my Mother down to the Co-op butchers. As I said when the siren used to go, we used to cross over quickly [to the shelter]. And the meat we used to get … you might get the odd heart! That used to be like rubber! I didn't, weren't nice at all. Another thing they used to get is the whale blubber! That's supposed to be good for iron. That was like a big lump of, well it weren't like liver, that was similar nature but that was, terrible stuff to eat!
Didn't that put you off meat for life?
Well that, yeah that was. Didn't used to like the hearts neither ‘cause they were so tough. Mother used to cook them as best but today, you see the programmes today on television and see how they cook the hearts. They look quite nice. But in them days they weren't.
Did your Mum keep it from you what they actually were you was eating?
Yes. Used to put it in front of you and there's a phrase they used to use: "Well if you don't want it somebody else will." And they used to eat it, you know they used to hand it around the table. Another thing we used to get, was the ration book, was the sweets we, well if we were able to get them. I remember a shop up Castle Street on the right hand side. It was Bouser the shop used to be called. And that used to be a little sweet shop. Used to go in there and used to get two ounces of peppermints. Well, to be honest peppermints was the only thing you could get. And there was no assortment, I mean it was later on, when rationing came off, that things began to change. In them days, you just got peppermints. And I remember one particular one, they were big and they used to be hot, really hot. And that was a 2D that was the coupon. I'll never forget that was 2D that was called, 2 ounces you see, that's all you were allowed. But your quarter was E4. But that was for 4 weeks rationing, 4 weeks that was. If you had that that was the whole lot went. And there used to be another type of food here, it was like a rope That was all in display like it. I think it was called arrowroot or somethun, ooh and that was vile! Another thing we used to get, little packets called Nipits, like liquorice. And of course they used to give, in the war time they'd give you plenty of that! To keep you going. There was plenty of liquorish – you used to get that alright. But a course when the end of the war come; [rationing] I mean, that was not until 1954 I think that came off.
So that was a while wasn't it before the rationing …
Yeah yeah before it all came out and things got better.
What did you do at home when there was a raid, did you have a shelter?
Air raid shelter out in the back garden. Me dad, he dug it in and used to be the Anderson yeah it was the Anderson that one outside. I remember going to the doctors as well, during the war time and we used, you used to have to get under the table. And which I think was called the Morrison, I ‘ent sure about that but I think it was.
We used to have to get inside that, when they used to go. That weren't very often.
Just going back over things that erm, I wondered if that would be any help to know these things. But, you know for seeing your, museum here now what you've got up there, yeah there's a lot of things keep coming back when I was walking around. And I think "Oh yeah that happened to us." The Pulp Mill down near the rivers, you know the bridges. They used to go in and out of there and make the pulp for the helmets and different things. I think that turned over to be ammunition in the end. I'm not too certain on that but. Remember seeing the lorries come out, and the girls and that. But er, I think that's getting near the end of what I can remember right now unfortunately.
They didn't have a library back then did they or did they?
I think it was just after, the war. The nearest one I can remember used to be down School Lane right down the bottom. They used to have a little school down there one time. That was before my time my sister can remember going there. And that used, they made that into the little library. And then eventually that moved from there up to the Market Square. Which is now the British Legion I believe. That was there for years. Course they made that into a doctor's surgery. That moved down to School Lane later.
But there was some, yeah there was some frightening times and there was certainly really good times I mean. Going out you know with the Americans, they used to bring you stuff you know what I mean, used to enjoy that. But the aircraft we used to watch that go over, during the day. The sky would be full of aircraft, you know. Course they were Americans they were, ‘cause you could always tell the super forces and whine of them. Course our's used to go out at night, you never got much sleep at times you know but us kids used to get through it in the end. I know my Mother moaned about waking up during the night, was dead tired by the time she got up the next morning! Remember some of the crashes that used to ‘appen ‘cause you never see it actually happen but you used to see the lorries there with the aircraft, you know and picking out the pieces that they could sort of use again I suppose. That was at Rushford Road way area that was.
Did you have wireless?
Yeah we had a wireless and that was a accumulator type. I'd say it was like a vase but all glass. They used to have to charge it up – used to take it down to Barnetson's which was in Magdalen Street. I think it's the Portuguese café now.
It used to be there and we used to take ‘em in and they used to charge ‘em up over 24 hours and used to put it in the back of your radio. But course weren't too much on the radio, only telling you about the war.
Did, did they charge you much to do that, to charge it overnight for you?
Don't really know too much about how much they charged, that was just a thing that you had to pay and that was it. And very often you'd be sitting there listening to your programme; the ones that used to stick in my mind was ITMA – we used to sit and listen to that. Can't think of the name of the people now but they were well known. [Note: Tommy Handley]
It was for children was it or …?
Oh no no, that's for adults, you didn't have nothing for children. Oh no that was never … I can't remember anything for children, to be honest. That was all In Town Tonight and things like that you know, on a Saturday night. But you'd be listening to programmes sometimes and then the radio used to go. ‘Cause, they'd just wind down and there was no more juice in the batteries, and that was that – you just didn't have nothing else. You used to do a lot of reading, I remember as kids … American comics, ‘cause they used to obviously have the comics and they used to bring ‘em in to us you know and we used to sit there and read them, over and over and over again.
And you had no phones did you, telephones no.
No, no no. Oh we couldn't a, oh we never dreamt of ‘em I don't think. The main ones down the street in the boxes like that was all there was. They was about, there weren't any near the Post Office. Never used them, couldn't afford to. Had no money. So you see no money was coming in, very little and they just, just couldn't afford to use ‘em.
As I said, in the early stages at war time you used to have to pay the doctors for any treatment. And I remember, my Mother, ‘cause I had bad ears as well, I was a bit of a misfit I think medical wise at that time. I had bad ears and I had to have some treatment. And I remember my Mother giving the doctor two chickens, for payment. So when the war was over, the soldiers said, "Hmm we're not having this when we go back, we're having things changed." A course that's when the National Health come in. And that was the best thing that ever happened! ‘Cause as I said they used to have to pay in them days. I mean very often the doctors would do it for nothing but at times if that was anything like … you had to pay for the material they used, obviously that was their way of doing it. Didn't have the money. Then to pay young'uns, you know like today I mean, course their way of life today, the things they've got around them is … you'd never dream of things. It was a very demanding time for the adults.
The end of the war
As I said the children who I think lived in amusement really, not knowing what was going on half the time. Course when we knew that the war had been won and we all put the flags out and I remember we were putting a Royal Ensign out for the Navy, and the Union Jack and a French flag. We used to hang ‘em from the bedroom windows. And all the bunting we used to put up, across the lane and on the streets. But again, it was limited – where the people used to get the paper from – but there used to be a lot of paper type bunting, red white and blue you know. To know what was the end. Oh and I was a bit of a problem, you know at that time. Say you just didn't know nothing, the kept everything secret, until it came out on the radio and the radios got better and more informed then.