Just before D-Day
Seventy years ago, Lytchett Minster and Upton were about to be invaded… by Americans. John Gould looks at how life in the villages changed leading up to D-Day.
Published in March ’14
In 1940, in Upton and Lytchett Minster – as elsewhere in the UK, food rationing was introduced on most items, except vegetables, and was to last on some items for twelve years – seven years after the war was over.
The rations were, by today’s standards, meagre: sweets 3oz per week, lard 2oz, bacon 4oz, milk ½ pint daily per adult; children also had ¹/³ pint of milk at school each day.
Milk was delivered by a float and a churn from which the ration was ladled into the customer’s jug. Bread of only one type was also delivered and the shop girls struggled through all weathers to deliver.
The meat ration was 7½p per person per week, and so meat substitutes became necessary. Snoek (whale meat) was one, others were Prem and Spam (although nothing like the Spam bought today). Macfisheries in Poole High Street sold rabbit, for which it was necessary to queue as it was an ‘off ration’ item. The fur was left on part of the carcass to ensure that the ‘rabbit’ wasn’t in fact ‘cat’. Some London ‘spivs’ had a sideline in cat rustling.
It was necessary to register for grocery from one supplier, so Mrs Edes, Mrs Harvey, Mr Walshall and Mr Palmer’s shop became focal points for village life and talk. Despite the depradations, one Upton lady, Mrs Mills, won a prize in a competition mounted by the Sunday Pictorial newspapers to find the twenty best housewives in Britain. With a large family, and Dunkirk veteran husband in the Army Mrs Mills had had to experiment a lot with food recipes.
Matching the enthusiasm of home cooks was the Home Guard, although it was enthusiasm not backed up with weapons. Captain Moorhead led about a dozen men with shared weapons; they and their horses would be facing the strongest mechanised army in the world should Germany invade Dorset. Jim Stacey of Upton Garage was said later to have had a radio transmitter hidden in the roof of his garage at Upton Cross. Messages were to be left in the hedge by today’s pedestrian crossing. Other Home Guard units locally were those of Major George at Organford, Captain Pittar at Slepe Farm, and Colonel Sir John Lees with George Dance as Sergeant at Lytchett.
To help prevent German planes and gliders from landing old motor cars were placed in fields and tripods of steel tubes joined together with wire hawsers stretched across many fields. The beaches were mined and the steel tripods and barbed wire was stretched across and along the beaches. In the event of imminent invasion, cinema screens would show a message for all servicemen and women to report to their units immediately. The signal for the invasion itself was to be the ringing of church bells, which had ceased to ring on the outbreak of war; now they were made ready to ring again, just in case.
Luckily for Britain, Germany did not invade Britain. Hitler invaded Russia instead. The Battle of Britain may have been won but air raids continued. Lytchett, although close to Holton Heath, did not suffer any air raid casualties during the war.
Bombs did fall on the parish, and some of Mr Lockyer’s heifers were killed. Three bombs fell in Sandy Lane in a line from where the bungalow No. 56 stands today to the corner of Yarrells Lane. These bombs killed a few chickens belonging to the Yarrells Farm.
By the end of 1943 the villagers were entering the fourth year of the war. The Manor, which in World War 1 was a convalescent home for the wounded, was now in use by the army. Regular dances were held at the manor, in the hall, with the gallery above to view the dancers below. Upton House, the home of the Llewellyn family, was used by evacuees, that of Lord Rockley near Limberlost now became a convalescent home for wounded servicemen.
During the war, three planes – all Allied – crashed in the parish. A Miles Magister training plane nosedived out of a foggy sky to crash one afternoon in the stream and ditch which runs behind the Bakers Arms at a point just beyond today’s roundabout; the pilot was killed.
On another afternoon, a Liberation four-engined bomber painted silver was flying towards Lytchett from the direction of Corfe Mullen. The crew were staying with the plane although the port outer engine was on fire; perhaps in an attempt to reach the sea or harbour and to avoid crashing on the village. Over Limberlost the plane began to lose height. The crew started to bale out, but not every parachute opened, then a wing broke away and with the burning engine spun to earth. The plane hung for a moment and then dived, engines roaring, into the Huntick Hill trees behind Race Farm. Once again, the pilot died with his plane; the crater where he crashed is still there.
The other incident which caused much excitement in the village was featured in the national press as a ‘Happening Somewhere in Southern England’ release. On April 7 1943 a Flying Fortress bomber named ‘Stella’ was running out of fuel and made an emergency ‘wheels up’ landing in a field alongside the Dorchester Road just beyond the present roundabout near Organford Lane.
The Americans raised the plane up and repaired the undercarriage and replaced the four propellers. They then removed a hedge and began to build a landing strip. Bulldozers levelled the ground and mesh steel sheets were laid down to form a runway, all in under nine days.
On 27 June, the same pilot, with a crew of two, prepared to take off in front of a crowd of watching villagers. With a sudden surge the plane sped forward and up into the air, as the villagers waved, whirling caps and scarves in the air. The plane turned and, passing just above the grass, it sped past and climbed into the air above the Bakers Arms. The sound of the cheering was louder than the engines.
As 1944 dawned, the war was nearing its final phase, and American infantry troops were about to arrive in the village. The first the villagers knew of it was when the drive in the grounds of Lytchett Manor was concreted over from the Lodge on the Dorchester Road, to connect up to New Road, and from St Peters Finger to the top of New Road, past Post Green round to Cottage Farm, now called the Courtyard Centre. A camp was quickly made with tents for the troops, toilet blocks, a cinema, a cookhouse, canteens and so on were erected.
One night there was a road accident on the bend outside the church at Lytchett. A lorry bringing soldiers back to camp at night crashed into a tank transporter on the corner. Many of the American soldiers in the truck were killed or injured. Miss Diffey, a teenage trainee nurse at Poole Hospital, lived in the cottage on the corner, and she helped nurse the wounded. The dead were taken to the Parish Hall, which served as a mortuary that night.
The American soldiers gradually warmed away the British reserve. These young soldiers were lonely and a long way from home. Some local lads would get stationery and stamps for the troops when they first arrived, as they were confined to camp until they had lectures on how to treat the English. Part of their education was at the St Peters Finger pub, where they put their money on the counter for the bar staff to sort out the change.
The villagers found that the troops were polite young men, who readily became friendly and were generous. Sergeant Crowe was particularly well liked; he arranged for kids to have jeep rides, visits to the camp cinema, and gave away sweets and ice cream – real ice cream – which had not been tasted for years. It was like Christmas for the children – even if it was March. Mums and dads also got treats of nylon stockings, cosmetics, cigarettes and tobacco… even fresh fruit like oranges and bananas, which some British children had never seen, became available.
The Dorset dialect of the village was now interspersed with American slang so ‘Hi’, ‘OK’, ‘Sure thing’, and RAF slang like ‘Wizard prang’ and ‘Good show’ became mixed with the long vowel sounds.
The American soldiers were based throughout the village and many a washing line began to include items of American clothing. One lady, a grandmother who lived in a lodge at the Manor, in the middle of the American camp, would be driven to the shops and did the Commanding Officer’s washing and that of other officers and men.
The American soldiers had manoeuvres around Beacon Hill. The local boys joined in and by hiding behind the fir trees could ambush troops with fir cones that bounced off their tin hats. This was usually greeted with a few swear words, and ‘beat it, you kids’. A small platoon was stationed in Ropers Lane in tents. Mrs Mills made cakes for them using their ingredients and was surprised when butter was presented for that purpose. The Americans didn’t understand that, for four years, butter had become a scarce luxury, and that what they had given her would feed a family.
Over the past years the shipyards in Poole and along the south coast had been busy building landing craft and barges of six different types. Some could carry 188 fully equipped soldiers, others a number of tanks and lorries. Others were like tin buckets. The villagers knew that the invasion of Europe was shortly to take place.
The Americans – engineers and members of the Big Red One infantry Division – left as quickly as they arrived, to go to fight on Omaha Beach – some of them never to leave – but their relatively brief presence in the village would never be forgotten. ◗
❱Abridged from “A Village at War”