A wartime childhood in Swanage
Stewart Borrett has been collecting the stories of those who experienced World War 2 in Swanage. Here is one of them, the recollections of Tony Meates.
Published in September ’10
I had just left St Joseph’s Catholic School in Chapel Lane and was due to start at the Grammar School when the war broke out. The early days of the war saw 1400 evacuees and their teachers descend on Swanage. These children had to be accommodated and taught in the Swanage schools. The Grammar School was disrupted and, as a result of having extra children to cope with, had to change its times to that of a shift system: mornings one week and afternoons the following week, plus Saturday mornings. I can remember that part of the playing fields behind the school caretaker’s house were dug and planted with vegetables, and these were available to the children and their families.
At that time I was living at Melbury, a guest house in Cranborne Road, with my mother, sister Wendy and younger brother Terry. My older brother, Desmond, had just joined the RAF as an Apprentice Aircraft Electrician. My mother had bought the house in Cranborne Road in 1933 after my father died. It had ten bedrooms and her idea was to turn it into a guest house in order to provide for her four children. This she did on her own.
At the age of twelve, in 1940, I got myself a job as a paper delivery boy in Mr Rose’s newsagent shop in Station Road, where Ashley’s is now. My morning delivery round was to houses in Cranborne Road, Ilminster Road and Victoria Avenue. With two other boys I used to meet the early morning train at about 6.45 am to collect the papers and take them to the shop for sorting into the various rounds. Each boy sorted his own papers for subsequent delivery to the allocated house on his round. Woe betide any boy who failed to deliver the correct paper to each house!
I used to use my mother’s bike because she had a basket fitted to the handlebars, in which I put most of the papers that were to be delivered to the houses towards the end of the round. The papers at the start of the round were carried in a canvas bag supplied by Mr Rose.
At about this time I also got myself enrolled as a messenger with the local Air Raid Precautions service. My job was to carry messages between the various ARP posts in and around Swanage. This job I could only do when I was not at school.
Along with virtually every other coastal town, Swanage soon became a target of the Luftwaffe’s ‘hit and run’ raids by fighter-bombers. When there was a raid on and the air raid siren was sounding, all of us at school would have to leave our classrooms and be escorted by teaching staff to slit trenches that had been dug across Day’s Park. The trenches were about five or six feet deep, so we were well protected from any danger should the need arise – it never did!
One day I shall never forget was 20 April 1942, which happened to be Hitler’s birthday. It was about 7.15 am. The paper boys had just finished sorting the papers in the back room and had started to go outside to start the delivery rounds. I was just putting the papers into the basket on the bike when I heard the sound of planes coming over the railway station. This was followed by the rattle of machine gun fire. I jumped into the nearest doorway, now the entrance to the office of Neville-Jones, the solicitors. There followed a large thud as a bomb hit the road around where the mini-roundabout is now. The bomb bounced on the road and landed on the second floor of what became Threshers off licence, on the other side of Station Road. I crouched, huddled up against the door. There was a very loud explosion and everything went black, with clouds of smoke, dirt and flying debris from the building opposite. The next thing I knew was feeling blood running down my right cheek and a sharp pain in my right leg.
It all happened so quickly, then everything went quiet and gradually the dust and debris settled. I came out of the doorway just as one of my classmates, Fred Jackman, came out of the paper shop. He saw that I was bleeding and took me down to a first aid post in a building behind the Trocadero. Sadly, I found myself next to several very badly injured soldiers who were at the station at the time of the attack. Others in the vicinity were killed: Cyril and Lily Smith, Arthur Williams and a Royal Navy volunteer, Sub-Lt Bertram Ewers.
I was immediately put on a stretcher and had dressings put on my ear, face and right leg. I was taken up to Swanage Cottage Hospital and there I was attended to by a nurse and put in a bed on one of the wards. I found out afterwards that my injuries were caused by splinters of shrapnel from the exploding bomb. These were removed by a doctor, although one piece was left in behind my ear and was not removed until some months later.
The incident had happened at 7.15 am, but it was not until after 11 am that my mother found out that I was in hospital. She had been looking for me among the debris surrounding the entrance to the paper shop and, seeing her bike covered in dirt and dust still propped up against the wall, had begun to worry where I was. Eventually she found my friend Fred, who told her where he had taken me. After enquiries at the first aid post she came up to the hospital, where she was told that I had suffered only minor injuries. I was kept in hospital for three days under observation in case of delayed shock.
I recovered quickly, went back to school and started delivering papers again, this time with Swanage Newspapers, just opposite Mr Rose’s badly damaged shop.
At home we were issued with a Morrison table shelter, a large metal table about six feet by four and about three feet high. All four sides were covered in a removable square mesh designed to stop any debris from entering the shelter. My family either slept in the shelter or under the stairs, apparently the safest place in the event of a direct hit. Luckily we never had to put this to the test.
In my spare time I, along with my mates, would watch the dog-fights overhead between the RAF’s Spitfires and the Luftwaffe’s Messerschmitt 109s. If we saw any planes shot down nearby, we would get on our bikes and pedal to the crash site as quickly as possible, hoping to pick up any bits and pieces of the crashed aircraft to keep as souvenirs. By 1943 we were forced to move from Melbury, our guest house in Cranborne Road, as it was requisitioned for use by the WAAFs. We went to live in an old bungalow in Newton Road until the end of the war, when we were able to return.
In April 1943, when I was fifteen, I persuaded by mother to let me join the army as an apprentice, which she agreed to, probably because I would be away from the raids on Swanage. The Army Apprentice School was in Chepstow in South Wales. I applied and was asked to attend an examination board in Dorchester to test my fitness and mental agility. Luckily I passed and was accepted as an apprentice fitter, which eventually allowed me to become a fitter in the Royal Engineers. Six months after I joined the Apprentice School, Fred Jackman and another of our classmates, David Warr, joined me, so there were three ex-Swanage Grammar School boys all being trained there at the same time as future tradesmen and Warrant Officers in the Royal Engineers and Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers.
While I was at the Army Apprentice School, Dorset became a restricted access area because of the build-up of troops for the D-Day landings, including the American 1st Division based in Swanage. As a result I had to obtain a special pass to allow me to come back to Swanage to visit my family.
While I was on leave in Swanage, I met some of the GIs who were billeted in the hotels. One GI called Tex Carter used to visit our house before D-Day in 1944. My mother probably got to know him because she used to sing in Betty Tunnell’s concert party, which used to go round the area entertaining the troops. As a result of these shows, many of the soldiers were invited to visit families in Swanage.
My mother always wondered whether Tex survived the onslaught on Omaha Beach on D-Day. After she died, I found some photographs of him in her belongings. I have made enquiries with the American 1st Division in the USA as well as with other GIs who were billeted in Swanage, all without success. I am continuing my search in the hope that someone might know what happened to Tex and whether he survived the D-Day landings.
[For details of how to obtain Swanage in World War II, edited by Stewart Borrett, telephone 01929 554482]
1 Tony Meates
2 David Haysom
3 David Haysom
4 Wesley Mullen