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The Home Front in Wimborne

The recollections of some of those who lived through the war in Wimborne and the surrounding area have been recorded for the Priest’s House Museum and the Dorset Sound Archive. Keith Eldred has put them together into a book, from which these selections are taken.

For the people of Wimborne, as for so many other towns, the arrival of gas masks was one of the first signs of the impending threat from the air. ‘I can remember gas masks, funny-looking things, made you feel ever so hot and sweaty,’ says Maureen Arnold, ‘but I don’t know that we all had one, I can’t remember that.’
Next came the evacuees, children moved to safety from Southampton, London and other likely bombing targets. ‘It was hard for them,’ recalls Monica Hoare. ‘It was like being a lodger in somebody else’s house. People tried to be nice to them but people who had evacuees usually had their own kids and their own kids often took priority, and it wasn’t a very pleasant thing for them, I shouldn’t think. They wanted their mums and they used to huddle together at school in groups. Although they didn’t know each other, they were the other ones. Teachers tried to be kind to them, but they’d come from a different life altogether.’
Most able men enlisted in the Local Defence Volunteers, later the Home Guard. Norman Foot was a member and remembers one Home Guard exercise: ‘They decided to have a large-scale mock battle in the town; they had all the Home Guard manning the defences and the regular army were going to attack. To make it more realistic they would have casualties, so they enlisted the aid of twenty Boy Scouts that they scattered round the town. They had labels tied on them for severe concussion, broken leg etc. At the end of the morning we all assembled back at the Allendale, which had been the Casualty Clearing Station. Having a cup of tea, they realised that they only had nineteen casualties and one had not been discovered. He had been in a doorway down Grove Road, so somebody went round to fetch him. They came back and all they had was his label, on which he had written, “Bled to death, gone home”!’
Other volunteers became fire watchers. Hazel Honeybun, whose father was a fire watcher, tells that ‘They used to go up on the roofs and watch for all the fires, because they used to have quite a lot of incendiary bombs here. Flower’s factory, which is now in New Borough, was an ammunitions place and they were trying to get that, I think.’
These raids left their legacy, as Donald Nutland recounts: ‘Two or three days later I found a couple of incendiary bombs in the river, whole bombs. We kept one of these bombs up until about 1966 and I let somebody else have it. It was unexploded, but we had undone it and taken out the magnesium powder which was inside, but it was still a whole incendiary bomb. It was made in Skoda in Czecholslovakia and it was silver with a green tail.’

ARP warden

Air Raid Precautions became a way of life, even if being an ARP warden was not quite as glamorous as this poster suggests

Monica Hoare’s father was an Air Raid Warden and ARP – Air Raid Precautions – became a way of life. ‘We used to have big shelters dug for people, and Dad used to go round on patrol looking to see if light shone out of the windows and he used to bang on the windows and shout “Put that light out, put that light out!” The toilet being outside in those days, you had to creep out and fall over by the rainwater butt to get to the toilet right down the other end of the garden, and it was quite frightening, because you couldn’t take a light!
‘We had our own air raid shelter at home. We were four cottages joined together, and we all dug this huge hole and Father went to the dump and he got two old bed bases, which he put over the roof. We had a few pit props to put over the iron bed bases and that was covered with tarpaulin, with a mound of earth over the top. You’d go down about six steps and it was lovely. We had beds down there, and we had a Primus stove and food.
‘We would go down there in our air raid shelter clothes, which were a jump suit made of a grey army blanket with a hood over, and we had torches, First Aid kits and everything in there, and it was away from the house, very strategically placed so that no trees could fall on us. The siren used to go quite often and everybody ran on up there, and we all used to look after each other. It was very close-knit, actually. We had a big communal shelter that Father and the villagers dug in the woods for people that didn’t have one, and that was about a twenty-foot-long tunnel. It was at Colehill, opposite the Post Office.’
Even among the frightening experiences of air raid there were flashes of humour. Isobel King’s father was out fire watching one night. ‘There was “ack-ack” fire and the siren had gone, and Mother said she wouldn’t go down the shelter because it was dark and Father wasn’t there. So we all got under the bed, Mum, Gran and me, and my granny said, “Floss, where’s my best hat?” and Mum said, “What do you want that for?” and she said, “I don’t want to be found dead in this old one”!’
For some children the war came very close through contact with the enemy. Marion Ricketts and her friends ‘were always told that if we went home for our lunch and if the siren went, we didn’t go back to school until the All-Clear sounded. Well, one lunchtime I went down the Kingston Lacy gardens to pick up my friend to go back to school and we heard the siren going so we said, “Oh good, we needn’t go back to school!” With that we heard the drone of this German plane coming over. We looked up and the plane was so low that you could see the pilot sitting in the cockpit. He got shot down in Sturminster Marshall just after. We went on back to school after that, full of this German plane.’
Ruth Haine’s experience was even more sobering. ‘At school we had shelters but they were above ground. We had to go in quite a lot, actually. I can remember one time we went in and I suffered from claustrophobia a bit, so I always tried to sit nearest the door. There was a lot of shouting and I looked out, and there was a German parachutist going across the school. His blood was all coming down, and it went all over our glass roof of the hall and all the children’s bicycles, which was rather awful, as we had to wash them all off before we could go home. But it was a bit ghastly.’
Rationing became a fact of life. ‘As we girls got older,’ Isobel King recalls, ‘we used to dye our legs with walnut juice and draw a line down the back. People used to get army blankets from somewhere like army surplus stores and make coats out of them; they were nice. You couldn’t just decide to have a dress, but that didn’t really make much difference as we’d never had that much money to spend on clothing.’
The girls wanted to look their best for dances at the American Hospital at Kingston Lacy. Brenda Grubb remembers, ‘We thought the Americans were wonderful, because we were young and we’d never met anything quite like them. But people didn’t like them generally, no they didn’t, but for us girls it was a dance, it was somewhere to go, we were taken and fetched, and there was food.’
It was food rationing that really had an effect. Maureen Arnold says, ‘I remember we couldn’t have many sweets because they were on ration, but we used to go to Addis’ the chemists and buy Ovaltine tablets for sweets. They weren’t rationed, and were really nice!’
Ruby Scales remembers her mother bringing home half a pound of Palm toffees. ‘She would share them out amongst the five children and if there were two odd ones, then she’d have those two but that was all she’d have. She wouldn’t share amongst six. And when people used to say there were broken biscuits in Woolworth’s she’d get on her bike and pedal like crazy into Wimborne to get a few broken biscuits for the kids. Basically I don’t think we did too badly, but we did live off vegetables!’
‘Digging for Victory’ became a matter of survival, Hazel Honeybun recalls. ‘I think everybody dug up their gardens and planted whatever they could in the way of vegetables. I can remember we had chickens, wretched things they were, because they were always getting out and flying up into the fir trees between us and next door. So we used to have to cut their wings to stop them getting out. And then they used to get into next door’s garden and we had to be sent round to herd them up, because they were eating his vegetables. But my mother kept them for the eggs, of course, and she used to have people registered with her for eggs’
It was six hard, wearisome years, but let Brenda Grubb have the last word: ‘We never sat and thought how hard done by we were, we never thought this was dreadful, we’re trying to survive on this. It was all accepted as though that was part of life.’

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