A SHILLING, A BADGE & A MESSERSCHMITT
by Norman P. Barnett, evacuee.
A child sitting alone in the middle of a small school hall. It is getting dark. All the other children have gone and most of the adults. This was me, as an evacuee in 1940 . I should not have been there. I should not have been sitting alone in a small village in Devon. I should have been in Reading, hundreds of miles away. But I had got on the wrong train This meant that I was with the wrong group. I was not on the list. The billeting officer did not have a place for me. Throughout the long afternoon, I watched people arriving and collecting children until I was the only one left.
When we left the school in London, there were three separate groups. The “mixed infants”, the “big girls” and the “big boys” I should have been with the “big boys” but my mother’s friend asked me to look after Michael and Jane. Being the obedient child that I was, I dutifully followed them on to the “mixed infants” coach and on to their train at the railway station. My mate, Clifford, followed me. We were not sad, that came later. We played paratroopers, jumping out of coaches, feet together in the approved position , our rucksacks, our parachute packs. I do not know why nobody noticed a difference in numbers or noticed that Cliff and I were not quite “mixed infants”. But as I remember, everyone was in a tremendous hurry , probably anxious to get to our destination before nightfall. Cliff and I were just over 8 and did not look that much older than the other children. If they did think we were in the wrong group, there was nothing they could do about it once the coach was on its way.
In later years, I learnt that the “big boys” had gone to Reading, from where something like 50% of them had run back to London within weeks. That could have been behind the thinking of the authorities. Place those most likely to run within easy distance of London, then they would be less likely to get into trouble on their journey. I have often wondered what my life would have been like if I had got on the right train. I would have seen more of my parents, as it was within reasonable travelling distance from London and I might have spent the war years in the Berkshire countryside.
I was eventually billeted with a greengrocer and his wife. They were obviously on a reserve list which is why they got the “leftover”. They told me later, and not in an unkind way, that they had said that they were too busy to take an evacuee. When told that they had no choice,they had space, they said they would prefer a “big girl” who could help in the shop.
I was lucky that they had a spare bed otherwise I would ended up on a camp bed supplied by the billeting officer, as happened to other evacuees. They decided not to use me in the shop, when they discovered I could not make change to save myself. They found a job for me, however, deciding that I could deliver orders to save precious petrol. Michael and Jane? They were billeted with the lady of the manor, whose children were grown and in the forces. They had a nursery full of toys, the run of a big estate and were brought to school in a pony and trap in bad weather. I was not happy in my billet, but thought I was better off than my mate Cliff. As he was also “surplus to numbers” after following me, he also drew someone from the reserve list but for a very different reason.
He was billeted with an old lady, said to be a witch. She lived at the end of a narrow lane, in a thatched cottage. It had no running water, no electricity and the toilet was at the end of the garden. But he always seemed to be happy. You could see that she was fond of him and he did not seem to go short of anything although she could not have had much. He would come to school every morning, a bit scruffy but clean and with a jam sandwich in his hand. At lunchtime and at the end of the day, he would run home while the rest of us would dawdle. In school, he would tell the the class and the teacher of the animals he had seen when out collecting sticks to start the fire. But it seems that some one thought that things were not right for Cliff. One morning he did not come to school and I never saw him again. Years later, I heard that he had returned to London and had been “bombed out”. That term had a loose meaning amongst kids in those days, covering anything from being killed or injured in an air-raid to losing one’s home and moving elsewhere. The truth is that I lost touch with Cliff long before he left the village.
I did not have much time to think about missing him. I was always busy with something. There was school, of course, which was at the other end of the village from my billet and consisted of two rooms, one for infants, one for the juniors. I was taught by a Miss Smith, who won my devotion by admiring my essays. I would wheel her bicycle for her, back to her billet, at the end of every day. This must have caused her some wry amusement as her younger (and prettier) colleague usually had two young soldiers competing to perform the same task for her.
I knew the lane where Miss Smith lived from my rounds, delivering orders from the shop. The lane was high above the village and led to the moor. For most of the year it was just another call but in Winter, it was purgatory. I remember one particular Saturday night when it was snowing and freezing cold. Saturday nights were the busiest and this was no exception. My last call was on the moor lane. I struggled up the slight rise to the beginning of the lane and started my ascent of the hill, carrying a wicker basket, full of groceries. I walked crabwise, three paces forward, slide back two paces, three paces forward, slide back two. By the time I got to the top, dusk was falling and as I got there, a snow shower blew in from across the moor. I remember that I started crying at this point but cannot recall if it was because of the cold or from fear of the growing darkness. But I pressed on to the house where the order was to be delivered, after all it was nearer than the village.
Another ordeal awaited me. There were a series of steps down to the house, covered in ice and powdery snow. I stepped on the first step, fell down the next two, picked myself up, stepped down two steps, fell down the next two and so on, for what felt like an eternity. When I arrived at the door of the house, I must have looked a sorry sight. Tear stained and covered in snow. They took me in, sat me beside the fire and gave me a cup of tea. But what I remember most vividly was that the lady of the house gave me a shilling, a large sum in 1941, and told me that I was very brave to come out in such terrible weather. That shilling in my pocket warmed me all the way back to the shop.
Bravery of a different order was being displayed by the Local Defence Volunteers, the forerunners of the Horne Guard. I would watch them drilling in the grounds of the house opposite the shop every Sunday morning. Some had shotguns, some had rifles but most had only broomsticks. But everyone had that serious look that grown ups had when something bad had happened and they have to do something about it. They marched and they drilled, some in their best suits, others in their work clothes, one or two in plus-fours. I think if they had not looked so serious, they would have looked comic. As it was, they looked so fierce, they frightened me a little.
In a matter of weeks, they were able to relax. The Army arrived in the village. They set up camp in a large field not far from the school. They were a source of great excitement to the children. Any soldier walking in the village soon had an escort of children , begging for souvenirs. The most highly prized souvenir was a cap badge. Most of the boys had at least one badge, while others had collections and did a brisk trade in swaps. I did not have a badge, being shyer than the others, that is I did not have a badge until my meeting with Sergeant Fowler.
The “other ranks” were in tents in the big field but the officers and NCOs were billeted in houses around the village. The “Sergeant’s Mess” was located in a house near the post office and I passed it every day when delivering orders. I would often see this older man who had a pleasant smile and was always patient with the crowd of children milling round him. On this particular day, I had been to the post office with two other evacuees, Freddie and George. We had been to cash postal orders from home and were busy deciding how we would spend the money. As we passed the sergeant’s house, Sergeant Fowler came out. Freddie and George set an immediate clamour. “Got any Souvenirs, Sarge” “Give us a cap badge, Sarge”. He smiled patiently and to my surprise, spoke to me “What about you, son, do you want a badge?” I replied “Yes, please”, hesitantly, half expecting a tease. He took off his forage cap, removed the badge and gave it to me. I was so surprised that I forgot to thank him. The sergeant turned and went back into the house, probably for another badge for his cap, leaving three stunned and silent boys. I kept that badge for years, long after I was married and was the father of three boys. I never let it get dull or tarnished but after all those years of polishing it, I cannot remember what regiment it was for except that it was one that disappeared in a merger. The badge itself disappeared in time and for all I know one of my sons found it and swapped it for a handful of conkers.
The war seemed far away from that quiet haven in Devonshire. The Army had become part of the scenery and boys no longer clamoured for souvenirs. But that peace was shattered, late one summer afternoon. I had been to the recreation field with Michael and Jane. I still felt responsible for them, after all they came from the same street in London, as me. Loyalty to your home area was important to evacuees and there were fights about whose area was best. We were starting home along the top road above the village. We were passing the police house, when the air-raid siren, which was mounted on the roof, started its ear splitting howl. We nearly jumped out of our skins. As London kids , we had heard sirens before, not often, but we had heard them. But we had never been so close to one before. We stood screaming and as hard as we pressed our hands over our ears, we could not shut it out. It stopped. The silence seemed as loud as the siren had been.
There was a roaring sound in the distance and a popping sound. It came nearer and louder. Some instinct made us huddle under the hedge, just as something heavy crashed against the other side. The world was falling apart and we were frozen in our terror. With a roar and a stutter of machine guns, a mottled green and brown mottled shape flew over our heads and seemed to just miss the roof of the police house. It was a Messerschmitt 109 . Even without the crosses on the side, I would have known what it was, every boy was into aircraft recognition. I could see the pilot, even the details of his face. I remember thinking how ordinary he looked except for a look of intense concentration. Then he and the plane were gone. We waited, listening to the receding noise of the engine, expecting some new terror. But peace returned to the countryside and we stood up. A noise made us look up and we saw the rolling eyes of a terrified horse. He had crashed into the hedge in a frenzied attempt to get away from the roaring monster bearing down on him. He bolted when he saw us. We bolted too. We did not stop until we got back to the village.
We wanted to tell everyone what we had seen. But the adults had other things on their minds and had no time to listen to all the children who had been caught out in the air-raid. The children were not the only ones that had been caught out. The defence network might expect the slower heavy bombers in the West Country but the fast fighter bombers were not expected, they did not have the range. But the planes that came to Devon used disposable wing tanks, a tactic used later in the war by RAF. It seems that the target of the plane that we saw was the airfield on the moor. It is difficult to see why they bothered. The sole strength of the airfield was a couple of bi-planes, complete with floats. They were museum pieces compared with the sleek lines of the Messerschmitt. The men who flew them were brave to get into the cockpits, let alone take on the enemy planes. But their efforts were in vain, the enemy had long gone by the time they got in the air.
The Army had also been unprepared. Their only armour, one bren gun carrier, clattered around the village for a while but had nothing to shoot at. The raid led to the carrier making twice daily patrols, up to the moor and back again. The only result of these patrols was complaints from the County Council about the way the carrier tracks damaged sections of the road.
I did not have any further brushes with the enemy while I was in Devonshire. I did not stay there much longer, in fact. I developed chronic otitis media that did not respond to the care of the local doctor and district nurse. My mother, who had to deal with it in the past, came down to care for me and both of us were billeted in a grotty bungalow, with another evacuee family. We did not have to stay there for long, fortunately. My father had been directed to work in the Midlands and had found a house where we could join him. After hurried preparations , my mother and I travelled across the breadth of England to join my father in Coventry.
It took the Germans two weeks to find out where I had moved to.