‘I Remember Them With Affection’: the USAAF in the Essex Sound and Video Archive

Feeling inspired by our recent conference on the United States Army Air Force (USAAF) in Essex?

In the Essex Sound and Video Archive, we preserve dozens of interviews with American servicemen and those who worked and lived alongside them during the Second World War. Take a listen below.

You can also browse the conference programme with links to further resources here.

Photograph of silver tape reel with black magnetic audio tape. Two handwritten labels read 'I remember them with affection'.

Radio programmes

The BBC Essex documentary ‘Essex Airfields at War – I Remember Them With Affection’ (SA 1/643/1), broadcast in 1990, is a substantial account of the history and role played by airfields in Essex during the Second World War. The BBC Essex archive also includes the original, unedited interviews recorded for the documentary, including interviews with an American soldier who helped build Willingale Airfield in 1942 and British RAF and WAAF operators who recall the Americans well.

“We just worked constantly in mud, mostly up to our knees… Concrete flying all over the place, and lorries running up and down runways which are partly built.”

Excerpt from interview with Ken Arnold, a US Engineering Battalion soldier who built Willingale airfield in 1942 (SA 1/635/1). Ken met his English wife in the Forces canteen in Epping. Read a transcript here

In 1992, BBC Essex celebrated the 50th anniversary visit of USAAF veterans with another documentary, ‘Overpaid, Oversexed, and Over Here’ (SA 1/1927/1). The anniversary also saw reports on a reception for the veterans at Silver End (SA 1/888/1) and a tea and dance at Cressing Barns (SA 1/889/1).

“We don’t have enough words in the English language we use over in America to tell you how we feel about your welcome… It’s wonderful, and we sure appreciate it.”

Excerpt from a BBC Essex report on the 50th reunion event in Silver End (SA 1/888/1). Read a transcript here

Other relevant BBC Essex programmes include the 1989 documentary ‘Wartime in Essex’ (SA 1/463/1) and interviews with American pilots Clifford Pontbriand and Julian Woods, who were both stationed at Stansted (SA 1/1183/1 and SA 1/1740/1).

On Essex Radio, the 1989 documentary ‘World War Two in Essex’ (SA 11/503/1) also features interviews with people about the American air bases in the county.

Oral histories

The Colchester Recalled oral history group also recorded many returning American airmen at the 50th anniversary visit in 1992, alongside BBC Essex. The archive (SA 8/8) includes 59 recordings at reunion events in Essex and beyond – at Black Notley, Chelmsford, Stansted, Wormingford, Debden, Great Saling, Earls Colne, Rivenhall, Boreham, Braintree, and Boxted as well as Madingley and Duxford.

Excerpt from an interview with David E. Hubler about his memories of Boxted Airfield at the reunion of the 394 Bomber Group and Eagle Squadron, Black Notley, 1992 (SA 8/8/4/1). Read a transcript here

Saffron Walden-born, Pennsylvania-based Mona Johnston talks about meeting her American husband during the war (SA 8/8/25/1). Read a transcript here

We also preserve a number of interviews about specific airfields: in 1994, Wethersfield Local History Group recorded their discussion of the airfield there that had closed the previous year (SA 24/866/1); and in 2003, the Essex Record Office interviewed four members of the 394th Bomb Group Association about their memories of Boreham Airfield during the war (SA268).

“So I haven’t liked orange marmalade since…”

One member of the 394th recalls the things he was most surprised by at Boreham Airfield (SA268). Read a transcript here

There are other references to the Americans scattered across the oral history collections – people who lived near the airfields during the war often recall the novelty of the newcomers, and the dances, candy and nylons that came with them. Many of those interviewed in the Silver End oral history project (SA733) talk about their childhood memories of the American soldiers at the nearby Rivenhall Airfield.

“This American serviceman came along and he talked to me, you know, and he more or less said, ‘Are you watching the planes?’ … and he said, ‘Would you like to go in one?'”

Silver End resident Derek Gilder talks about playing in one of the bombers on Rivenhall Airfield when he was 8 or 9 years old. Read a transcript here.

In April 2024, we were fortunate to find the real Geraldine who the 322nd Bomb Group at Andrewsfield had named a B-26 Marauder after. Last week our very own Neil Wiffen visited Geraldine to talk to her about the experience.

“Once they’d got the name on, and that, I said to them, I don’t want you making any holes in my plane, okay?”

Geraldine talking about the Marauder being named after her (SA966). Read a transcript here

To see what Marauder squadrons looked like at the time, see ‘Pioneers, Wolfpacks, and Widow-makers: The Story of Boxted Airfield’ (SA811). You can also watch the East Anglian Film Archive’s documentary ‘GI Airmen in East Anglia’ (VA 1/47/1) in our Searchroom.

To explore more recordings, search Essex Archives Online, or take a look at the Essex Sound and Video research guide on the Second World War.

Welcome to Essex: remembering the USAAF

 

Tickets are selling fast for our forthcoming event, ‘Welcome to Essex’: remembering the USAAF.

Saracens Head in Chelmsford (Now 'The Garrison') was used as the American Red Cross.

The Saracens Head in Chelmsford (Now ‘The Garrison’) was used as the American Red Cross Service Club.

In the spring of 1944, the United States Army Air Force (USAAF) reached peak strength in Essex during the run-up to the hotly anticipated invasion of Europe — D-Day. Week after week new units of the USAAF flew into recently constructed airfields across the county, to start participating in the air campaign against the Luftwaffe and German coastal defenses. Small, rural villages across Essex became the center for many hundreds of American servicemen to descend on, to look at the ancient architecture as well as go in search of a pint of warm English beer! For the locals their quiet roads were filled with unsurpassed numbers of trucks and Jeeps buzzing around, ferrying men and material about the countryside. Overhead the air was filled with aircraft, Mustangs Thunderbolts, Flying Fortresses, Liberators, Havocs and Marauders, and many a morning was interrupted by the thunderous sound of hundreds of thousands of horsepower engines warming up.

Join us 80 years on from these momentous times for this mini-conference to remember the impact the Americans had on the county, both in how they shaped the physical landscape as well as making memories with the locals. Remembrance will be a theme running through the event, the date on which it is being held being of particular significance to one of the speakers in relation to one of those Americans who flew out of Essex.

This mini conference will see a series of short talks given on various aspects of,
predominantly, the Ninth Air Force, although mention will be made of the Eighth as well

– there’s just so much to discuss!

 

 

For further details and bookings please visit: www.essexrecordoffice.co.uk/events.

Reduced price ‘early-bird’ tickets are available If you book before mid-day on March 14th – don’t dilly-dally as tickets are selling fast. We look forward to seeing you there.

Memories of the Second World War

Frequently over the last several months commentators have compared living through the COVID-19 pandemic to life on the Home Front in the Second World War. Is that a valid comparison? What was it really like to live through that major event? Thankfully, there are still some people who remember those years and can share their stories with us.

Southend Achievement Through Football (ATF) is an organisation dedicated to changing lives through football, especially the lives of young people at risk of exclusion. By participation in sports and other recreational activities, young people develop skills and capacities to mature into individuals and members of society. But they do not just stop at sport. ATF also helps young people develop their sense of self by finding out about their heritage.

Building on the successful Heroes and Villains project, which allowed young people to explore the stories of individuals from Southend’s past, further funding from the National Lottery Heritage Fund has allowed Southend ATF to encourage young people to hear the stories of residents in local sheltered accommodation. After training provided by ERO, Southend ATF interviewed 18 people specifically about their memories of the Second World War.

The participants ranged in age, from those who were still children in the 1940s, to those who were old enough to fight or serve the war effort in some other way. Thus the collection contains multiple perspectives, with different levels of understanding about current events, and different levels of impact experienced. Many of the participants grew up in London and were therefore prey to the Blitz and the stresses and strains that caused. Some were evacuated, some stayed at home. Some had family members who served in the military, some lost loved ones either at home or abroad, and some came through the ordeal relatively unscathed. Therefore there is no one common experience of what living through the War was like: it depended on personal circumstances.

For instance, the extent to which people’s lives were disrupted by air raids depended on where they were living. Robbie spent much of the War as a Land Army girl, posted to a farm outside Witham to help keep the country’s agriculture growing and fill the gaps of men sent overseas to fight.

Advertising poster for Land Army, with the title integrated and positioned in the lower quarter, in red and in dark blue. The text is integrated and placed in the upper right, in black, and across the bottom edge, in light blue. All set against a white background. image: a shoulder-length depiction of a member of the Women's Land Army, smiling and looking directly at the viewer. The text reads: "Keep the farms going while the men are fighting. Join the Womens Land Army. A vital war job... a healthy open-air life"
Copyright: © IWM Art.IWM PST 16608. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/33506


While all the rural residents had air raid shelters, she found them unnecessary overkill in those quieter areas.

‘We [the Land Army girls] never used it, only the country people used it – they thought they were in the thick of the war, you know, and nothing ever happened.’

The difference between life in London and life outside hit home on a day trip she took to the capital early in the War, when she first saw the scale of the devastation caused by intense enemy bombing.

Robbie describes her shock on her first visit to Liverpool Street, London, after the War had started.

This heavy fire seriously affected Johnnie, who was living near the docks in East London, with repercussions lasting into his adulthood, anxieties that resurrect during fire alarms. He recalled 68 nights of constant bombing in 1940. The mental and emotional strains could be as grave as physical injuries.

‘Each night… you just wondered, is this gonna be your last night? And you never knew…. You never get over what you went through, even though all those years ago…. In fact I still have, now and again, flashbacks as to, you know, what was going on.’

The experience of evacuation varied widely too. Some people used family connections to send their children to places of safety, and these generally resulted in happier experiences. For example, Norman stayed with his grandmother in South Wales, and found life in that peaceful village so idyllic that he initially refused to return to London when his father came to collect him.

Suddenly being sent to live with strangers was a very different matter. Even for those who stayed with their siblings, it was difficult: getting used to the rural way of life, feeling conscious of imposing on the family’s space and resources, and experiencing animosity from local children. But sometimes even being evacuated with strangers could turn into a happy occasion. Joan enjoyed her experiences living on the edges of the Longleat Estate so much that she frequently returned to the area for holidays in adulthood. As she was only six or seven years old when she was sent away, she came to see her evacuee family as her adopted parents, and didn’t even recognise her mother when she finally returned to her birth family five years later. ‘Home’ was a word of shifting meanings, and it could be difficult to adjust.

Joan describes the upsetting experience of coming ‘home’ to a family she barely knew after so long spent with another family as an evacuee.

However, there are common trends evident among the interviews. While the impact of rationing varied from family to family, largely dependant on how much families could grow for themselves, all participants recalled the need to ‘make do and mend’ to some extent. There was no waste, and parents had to be resourceful to acquire sufficient food and clothing for their families. While treats were limited, this made them more treasured, as some interviewees presented very vivid, detailed memories of eating their weekly sweets ration.

John and Violet share their memories of their weekly sweets rations, precious treasures to be guarded and savoured.

Another common theme is that children still found ways to play. Sometimes their normal play spaces were converted to fields of war, such as the parts of the beaches around Southend, which were fenced off both due to defences against potential invaders and to protect residents from possible mines dropped by enemy aircraft. Instead, children turned scenes of devastation into playgrounds, exploring bomb sites and collecting shrapnel to trade like marbles or Top Trumps cards. The interviewees’ experiences prove that even in the midst of great upheaval, children have a knack for play, a facet of their lives so important that the right to play is one of the rights for all children enshrined in the 1989 United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Finally, most participants commented on the sense of relief when celebrating VE Day, Victory in Europe Day, on 8 May 1945.

VE-DAY CELEBRATIONS IN LONDON. (HU 92607) Women and children at a VE-Day street party in Stanhope Street, London NW1. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205090481

Although the War was not yet over, with fighting continuing against Japan until August, VE Day marked the start of the end: no more fear of bombs, no more disrupted nights of dashing into air raid shelters. But life did not return to normality straight away. Rationing continued into the 1950s. Servicemen returned home only gradually – Fred, who served in the Army, describes long periods of time spent in Germany and Italy after VE Day, just waiting to be sent home. He was not demobilised until 1947. And the war changed people irreversibly, meaning life could never again be the same.

Johnnie describes the immense sense of relief he felt on VE Day, and acknowledges that he was very lucky to have survived the War, living by the docks in East London.

Four of the interviews took place after lockdown (recorded outside, observing safe distances). These presented an opportunity to ask for comparisons directly from survivors of the Second World War, seeking reflection on how that ordeal compared to living through the COVID-19 pandemic. We will let their observations stand for themselves, without further comment or interpretation:

Essex Record Office · Comparing the Second World War to the COVID-19 Pandemic

Many thanks go to the participants who shared their remarkable stories for future generations to learn from, and to Southend ATF for taking the time to record these precious, unique stories and then share them with ERO for others to listen and enjoy.

You can listen to themed compilations of clips from all the interviews on our SoundCloud channel.

Or you can find out more about accessing the whole collection on Essex Archives Online (Acc. SA892).

Operation Market Garden: 75 Years Ago Today

Archive Assistant Neil Wiffen looks at a military operation crucial to ending the Second World War, which took place over 17-19 September 1944.

Essex played a vital role throughout the Second World War, being crucially placed to help in the defence of London, home to many important industries, as well as being a base for many British and American aircraft taking the fight to the Germans in occupied Europe. By the late summer of 1944, following on from the success of the Normandy invasion and liberation of much of occupied western Europe, there was a real hope that, after five years, the war could be finished before the start of 1945.

Flushed with the success of the advance across France and into Belgium the British commander, Field Marshall Montgomery, planned a new offensive for mid-September to drive a spearhead of troops that would outflank German defences by crossing the rivers Meuse, Waal and Lower Rhine. This would allow the deployment of armoured and mechanised forces to drive on Berlin and finish the war. In order to enable the ground forces to cross the many rivers in their way, para-troops and glider-borne infantry would be deployed to capture the bridges crossing them, creating a ‘carpet’ of friendly troops to make the advance of the ground forces as easy, and, crucially, as swift as possible.

Three airborne divisions were used: the American 82nd and 101st Airborne and the British 1st Airborne, the latter to be dropped furthest away from the relieving ground forces – their objective being the bridge at Arnhem. The airborne phase of the plan was codenamed MARKET while the ground-based operation was given the name of GARDEN. The lightly armed and equipped airborne troops had to be relieved as quickly as possible by the ground units – speed was of the essence. Perhaps the joint operation is most well-known to us from the 1977 film – A Bridge Too Far.

The 101st Airbrone Division was reinforced with 12 glider serials on September 18, 1944. In this photo, Waco gliders are lined up on an English airfield in preparation for the next lift to Holland. Apart from the serial number on the tail (the nearest is 339953) there are no other markings, which suggests these gliders are yet to be issued to the units that are going to use them. By U.S. Army Signal Corp – http://www.amazing-planet.net/operation-market-garden-chronology.php, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6080516

The operation commenced on Sunday 17 September. The first many people in Essex knew of it was when the vast aerial armadas of gliders (over 2,000 of these were on hand) and their tug aircraft (almost 2,000, mainly the famous Douglas C-47 Dakota, were available) flew over the county (the author’s father, then a teenager, retained vivid memories of the aircraft flying low over Broomfield on their way to mainland Europe). It is this phase of the operation that concerns us here.

Due to the large force of paratroops and gliders that were required, along with the dropping of supplies, several days of flying had to be undertaken to bring in more troops and equipment. This just added to the complex nature of running an airborne operation, increasing the risks inherent in conducting a successful engagement. The weather played a crucial part: gliders really did need quite still and stable conditions.to be launched. Conditions were not always kind. Early morning fog and mist delayed the launching of further reinforcement flights. By 19 September conditions had deteriorated, but resupply and reinforcement flights had to continue despite the risks.

In the afternoon of 19 September, at 13:15, an American Waco CG-4 glider broke its tow rope and came down in a field, ending up in a ditch in High Easter. Fourteen soldiers and the two crew hadn’t made it to the continent. Shortly afterwards, at 14:05, another CG-4 came down for the same reason, along with its pilot and six soldiers, near to Spitals Farm, Tolleshunt D’Arcy.

We know about these gliders because they were recorded in the Air Raid Precautions records which are still held at the Essex Record Office. These incidents are from the Crashed Aircraft series of records – three extracts below (C/W 1/11, click to enlarge images).

Of interest are the details contained in each report. A six-figure map grid reference is quoted for each report, which allows us to accurately plot where the event took place. These references correlate to the GSGS 3906 War Office series of maps (c.1940), which is different from our current National Grid Ordnance Survey (OS) map references. Luckily ERO has a set of these maps, and we include an extract to show where in High Easter the glider landed.

As the GSGS 3906 series of maps are at a 1:25,000 scale we have also included an extract of the same area from a 2nd Edition 6 Inch OS (1895) map which, while from the nineteenth century, does show the area in more detail. Also, being mapped on an individual county basis means that these earlier maps cover a different area. This allows us to also show Blunts farm, which is mentioned in the report but which is just off of the GSGS map extract – thus observing the First Law of Local History Research which says that whatever part of the county you are researching will always be on at least two maps, but often four!

Extract from GSGS Prov. Ed. 1:25,000 map, sheet 59/22NE, c.1940.
Extract from GSGS Prov. Ed. 1:25,000 map, sheet 59/22NE, c.1940. This kilometre square shows the area in which the glider came down. The six-figure grid reference, 099349, places it in the top right-hand corner.
Extract from 2nd Ed. 6 inch OS, sheet 33SW, 1895. ‘X’ marks the spot in this larger scale map. Possibly it was the northern boundary to this field that contained the ditch the glider ended up in?

The glider that came down in High Easter was recorded as having the following numbers on it: 274026 (serial number?), 29B (individual aircraft squadron number?) and 6413. The entry for the second glider is even more revealing. We know that the aircraft number in this case was 340369 and that the pilot was called Lionel Neyer with Sergeant Prupey[?]. They had taken off from Greenham Common. This would mean that this glider at least was being towed by a Dakota from the 438th Troop Carrier Group. (R.A. Freeman, UK Airfields of the Ninth then and now (London [1994]), p.16).

That’s about all we know, so over to you. What can you tell us about these events? Did you have a relative living in High Easter or Tolleshunt D’Arcy who was eyewitness to these momentous happenings? Do you know what happened to Flying Officer Neyer and Sergeant Prupey? Are you an expert on WACO CG-4 gliders and can tell us more about them? Comment below, or e-mail us to share your stories and research.

RAF at 100 in Essex

As the centenary of the founding of the RAF is marked across the country, Archive Assistant Neil Wiffen has been looking at the history of the world’s first air force in Essex.

Orville and Wilbur Wright’s first powered flight of a heavier-than-air-aircraft took place on December 17 1903, just over ten years before the outbreak of the First World War. These first aircraft, despite being primitive, were soon appreciated for their potential to assist with reconnaissance over a battlefield. In Britain the Royal Flying Corps (RFC), to support the army, was established in 1912 while the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) was formed in July 1914. With the outbreak of war, the first deployment to support the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) in France was of three squadrons with around 60 aircraft.

While supporting the BEF was of primary role of the RFC, German air attacks on Britain forced the deployment of Home Defence Squadrons in order to provide some air defence against first Zeppelin and then Gotha bomber raids. The proximity of Essex to London meant that the county was an obvious place in which to base aircraft. The first squadrons were operational by September 1916 with Flights of aircraft being based at Rochford, Stow Maries, Goldhanger, North Weald, Suttons Farm and Hainault Farm.

RAF Sopwith Camel.jpg

The Sopwith Camel became one of the most iconic fighter aircraft of the First World War. It was first used on the Western Front, but eventually was used for home defence as well.

Early airfields, or landing grounds, were like early aircraft – basic. Virtually any fairly flat piece of farmland could be utilised to land and fly off aircraft and during the course of the First World War 31 locations in Essex were used with places as far apart as Beaumont near Thorpe-le-Soken, Chingford, Thaxted and Bournes Green, Shoeburyness. The most well-known of these is Stow Maries which still retains many of the buildings that were constructed to support the aircraft and personnel who were based there during the war. (You can read more about Stow Maries here.)

By 1917 official thinking was moving away from having two distinct services to support the army and navy and it was proposed that a single service would make more efficient use of resources. On the 1 April 1918 the RFC and RNAS were combined to form the Royal Air Force, the world’s first independent air force and with over 100,000 personnel and 4,000 aircraft, at the time the world’s largest air force, a far cry from four years earlier.

After the First World War the armed services were cut back, and the RAF did not need so many landing grounds. With so few permanent buildings and infrastructure, the transition back to agriculture came quickly for most sites.

During the 1930s, as Hitler’s Nazi party rose to power and rearmed Germany, the British armed forces expanded again, albeit slowly. The RAF was at the forefront of home defence. Permanent airfields, such as those at Hornchurch, North Weald and Debden were constructed, with well-built brick accommodation for the personnel stationed there as well as large, spacious hangars to help look after the larger and more powerful aircraft that had been developed.

At this point, the aircraft were still mostly biplanes, such as the Hawker Hart and Fury and later the Gloster Gladiator, and were really just modernised versions of the Sopwith Camels of earlier days. These airfields were situated to defend London from German attacks across the North Sea, and they were the most prominent part of RAF Fighter Command’s integrated defensive system, which combined with anti-aircraft guns and barrage balloons, was designed to prevent the German bombers getting though. However, their biplane fighters were starting to look antiquated when compared to the new aircraft being developed by the Luftwaffe.

Gloster Gauntlets belonging to 56 Squadron at North Weald in 1936. The Gauntlet was the last RAF fighter to have an open cockpit, and the penultimate biplane it employed. Image courtesy of North Weald Air Museum.

Fortunately for the RAF, Sidney Cam, of Hawkers, and Reginald Mitchell, of Supermarine, were both engaged in designing the next generation of fighter aircraft, this time monoplanes powered by the Rolls Royce Merlin engine and armed with eight .303 Browning machine guns – double the firepower of the Gladiator. These fighters, the Hurricane and the Spitfire, both flew from Essex airfields during the Battle of Britain (July-October 1940) and were instrumental in defeating the Luftwaffe.

Members of 41 Squadron at RAF Hornchurch during the Second World War (courtesy of Havering Libraries – Local Studies)

It was not only London and other big cities that the Luftwaffe were bombing. This photograph shows bomb damage at Campbell Road in Southend-on-Sea, 4 February 1941. Two men and six women were killed, four men and five women were injured. (D/BC 1/7/7/7)

Once the initial threat was dealt with, the ‘Few’ of the RAF had to be increased to take the fight to the Germans. As part of this expansion new airfields had to be hurriedly built, such as RAF Great Sampford, to take the new squadrons that were being formed and trained. While by the end of the Second World War there were over 20 airfields in Essex, the majority of them new, most had been built for the massive expansion of the United States Army Air Force (USAAF), such as Matching and Boreham.

USAAF servicemen based at RAF Wethersfield held an Easter party for local children in Lindsell in 1944. See more photos from this occasion here. (A12844)

The majority of the RAF were stationed in the midlands and the north, these being the major concentrations of RAF Bomber Command while Fighter Command fought the Luftwaffe from the east and south of the country, North Weald, and Hornchurch retaining their importance as fighter fields. RAF Bradwell joined them later on in the war, with both night fighters and the RAF’s new Hawker Tempest in the later part of 1944, helping to combat the V1 flying-bomb menace. Things were quieter at North Weald for most of 1945, but excitement returned when Group Captain Douglas Bader, after his release from Colditz Castle in April, was briefly given command of the North Weald Sector. Bader was also chosen to organise a victory flypast on Battle of Britain Day, 15 September, which was made up of some 300 fighters and bombers from both the RAF and USAAF. Bader himself led a Spitfire formation with 11 of his colleagues which took off from North Weald to lead the flypast.

Douglas Bader, centre, led the victory flypast taking off in his own Spitfire from North Weald on 15 September 1945. Image courtesy of North Weald Airfield Museum.

Again, at the end of hostilities the size of the RAF drastically reduced. Most of the wartime-built airfields were quickly disposed of as their Nissen hut accommodation, while suitable for emergency use during the war, were far below the standard of the permanent brick-built barracks constructed in the inter-war years.

RAF Stansted Mountfitchet, opened in 1943, shown here on a 1956 Ordnance Survey map, was used by the RAF and USAAF during the war as a bomber airfield and major maintenance depot.

However, just as there had been continued improvement of aircraft from biplanes to monoplanes, so now the jet engine aircraft, such as the Gloster Meteor, now took over from the piston-engined Spitfires and Tempests. Along with the new technology so new requirements for servicing and longer runways were required, something which disadvantaged airfields close to London, such as North Weald and Hornchurch. Fast jets and the suburbs did not make for very easy bedfellows. The speeds which could be achieved by new aircraft meant airfields did not have to be so close to London to defend it, and new bases were built nearer to the coasts to intercept Russian bombers over the North Sea.

Most of the RAF bases in Essex closed in 1945 or in the years immediately following the end of the Second World War. RAF Hornchurch remained open until 1962, and RAF North Weald until 1964. RAF Debden is still in the ownership of the military and home to the HQ of the Essex Wing of the RAF Air Cadets and the army’s Carver Barracks. Traces of other former RAF bases have helped to shape our modern landscape; RAF Stansted Mountfitchet became London Stansted Airport, and RAF Southend is now London Southend Airport.


With thanks to Havering Libraries – Local Studies and North Weald Airfield Museum for supplying images for this post.

The Siren

In searching recently for Christmas items in our collection, we came across this curious typescript magazine from Christmas 1939, which is full of humorous poems, stories, articles and puzzles (D/DU 948/1). The tone for the magazine is set by its title page – a play on the double meaning of ‘siren’ as both an air raid warning and an attractive (scantily clad) woman.

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The Siren was put together by the staff of the Civil Defence Control, the part of Essex County Council which was in charge of civil defence during the Second World War.

The Civil Defence Service was charged protecting people and property from injury and damage. Following general schemes laid out by central government, there were three main strands to their work:

  • Preventative – evacuation, air raid shelters
  • Alleviative – rescue
  • Remedial – clearing of debris, first aid, restoring vital services

The nerve centre of the system was the Control Room, based at County Hall in Chelmsford.

Reading The Siren not only gives an insight into the work of the Civil Defence staff, but also shows that they had a strong sense of humour, poking fun at each other in poems, stories and songs.

The magazine opens with ‘The Cuties of the County Control’, a song about the glamour of the young women who staffed the Control Room:

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‘A Disrespectful Ditty’ on one of the following pages begins with a ‘bereavement’ – ‘We’ve lost the deep respect for our betters once we bore’, which has become lost in the blackout.

It goes on to reference various staff members, including the first County Archivist, Frederick Emmison, ‘relentlessly efficient in the middle of the night’, and steadfastly avoiding getting tipsy at the staff party.

Other verses poke fun at two of the Deputy County Controllers – Major J Meikeljohn and Mr H.P. Jamieson – before another verse spares other managers the same treatment: ‘But on these exalted persons may depend our daily bread, So you can’t expect us to rush in where angels fear to tread’.

IMG_8638 1080

Later in the magazine we find a ‘Prefatory Alphabet’, which gives a wonderful insight into what was on people’s minds, such as:

‘G is for Gas-mask. Alas for humanity –

Visibly sign pf social insanity.

K is for Knitting, nocturnal and endless;

Those making the garments will certainly spend less.

M is for Molotov, Soviet minister,

Whose machinations have lately been sinister.

R is for Rota that grimly enmeshes you;

Think of the coffee that nightly refreshes you!

V is the Volume of work that oppresses

The people whose job is to clear up the messes.

W’s the Warden, ensconced in a helmet,

Who moans of the light ‘twixt the curtain and pelmet.’

IMG_8641 1080 IMG_8642 1080

Some of the pieces do not relate directly to the war, but provide some escapism, such as this (slightly cheeky) meditation on a day out in Epping Forest:

IMG_8643 crop

Even though the staff of the Civil Defence Service were engaged in serious, vital work during the war, what comes through in The Siren is a strong sense camaraderie amongst the staff. The magazine was clearly supposed to provide some light relief at a dark time; as one of the couplets of the ‘Prefatory Alphabet’ says:

‘U are the reader. We hope this experiment

Will bring you good cheer and the odd spot of merriment’

We have only been able to just begin to lift the lid on these people and their work – if anyone out there has any more information do get in touch.

Winter in Wartime

Throughout December, the ERO’s Learning from History service will be offering a special session for primary schools investigating what Christmas was like during the Second World War.

Children will start with what they know. The session will begin by inviting them to suggest what they need for Christmas. As items are suggested they will be placed on a table. We will then look at these items one by one and think about whether people had them during the Second World War, using the archive at the Essex Record Office as evidence. Fairy lights will prompt a discussion about blackout restrictions and bombs dropping. Presents will lead to thoughts about shortages and include a craft activity where children create their own toys from clothes pegs. Thoughts of Christmas dinner will be compared to the realities of rationing. One by one the items that they think represent Christmas will be removed from the table.

American airmen host a party for local and evacuated children in Lindsell, 1944

American airmen host a party for local and evacuated children in Lindsell, 1944

Through this process the children will understand how Christmas was different and why, and empathise with children from the Second World War. Knowing what they can’t do, they will start to ask what they can do. We will try and find out from sources at the Essex Record Office what people did to have fun and end with playing some party games.

Cost: £75 for one session, for a class of 30 pupils (subsequent sessions on the same day are £60)

When: Book any day between the 8th and 18th December [1st-7th now fully booked]

Timings: Recommend an hour per session, but timings can be adapted to fit in with the school day

Where: In your classroom

Bookings and further information: please e-mail ero.events@essex.gov.uk

Under Fire: Essex and the Second World War

Ahead of his talk at ERO to launch his brand new book on Essex in the Second World War, we caught up with author Paul Rusiecki to find out more about his research. Join us for Paul’s talk at Dark Days and Dark Thoughts: Morale in Wartime Essex, 1940-41, on Saturday 9 May. See our events page for full details.

 

How did you come to write Under Fire?Under Fire cover

It was a natural progression after writing The Impact of Catastrophe [Paul’s book on Essex during the First World War], as I wanted to compare and contrast the county’s experience of two world wars. I had already done a lot of work on Essex in the inter-war period, but I chose to ignore chronological conventions, leave a book on 1918-39 to another day, and jump forward to the Second World War. I was already very well acquainted with the resources that were available, having spent the best part of twenty years researching various aspects of the county’s twentieth century history.

 

What sort of sources did you use to write your book?

Secondary works are always an essential starting point so I spent a great deal of time in the libraries at Colchester, Chelmsford, Southend and Stratford.  The Essex Record Office is a fantastic treasure trove of information on all aspects of the war and is matched only by the details which can be found in the county’s newspapers. Aided by my wife and son (both trained historians) I also visited the Imperial War Museum, the National Archives and the Mass Observation Archive at Sussex University, where we spent four days during a grim January. So far I have not made much use of the internet, as I prefer to use books rather than unauthenticated articles.

 

Did anything surprise you during your research?

I think that the honest answer must be no. In the last 40 years some historians have spent time trying to debunk the idea of Britain as a completely united nation engaged in total war and fighting for its survival, especially in 1940 and 1941, spurred on by the ‘Dunkirk spirit’ and the ‘Spirit of 1940’. In fact most people who lived through the war did not have this rosy view of things. I was not surprised to find a great deal of evidence of a positive, patriotic and courageous attitude in my researches, just as I also expected to find that people could be selfish, nervous, defeatist, or that they engaged in criminal activities. I expected to see all forms of human behavior being exhibited, and I certainly did!

 

Are there any stories that you found during your research that have particularly stuck with you?

Naturally the stories that stick in the mind often come from the time of the Blitz, or the attacks by V-1s and V-2s. How a direct hit on an Anderson shelter meant that a Dagenham warden had to collect body parts with a shovel and a sack. At Colchester when a laundry was hit, a dustbin lorry was controversially used to carry the bodies away. I also found out that when Severalls ‘Mental Hospital’ was bombed in 1942, many patients were killed. There is evidence that some residents of the town felt that the bomb could not have fallen in a better place as the people there were sub-normal. Then I discovered a note to the Essex War Agricultural Committee from a man who could not come to work because his ‘dear young daughter’, a patient, had been killed there. It brought a tear to my eyes, I must admit, and it also made me cross-reference my thoughts as to what was happening in Germany at this time.

 

Do you have any family connections with the Second World War?

My father was serving as ground crew in the Polish Air Force when it was practically obliterated in the first few days of the German blitzkrieg of 1939. He and others retreated from the advancing Germans and evaded capture by the Russian invaders. They made their way across Slovakia, a German protectorate, aided by local people, and then travelled through Rumania, including hanging on underneath trains. Having reached the coast they were picked up in secret by British agents who ferried them to Egypt, and from there to France. He had not been there long when the Germans invaded in 1940 and he was evacuated from a west coast French port. Once in England he joined the Free Polish Navy, and crewed Motor Torpedo Boats during the war. My mother’s family lived in south Yorkshire and remembered the severe bombing of Sheffield in December 1940, when the night sky to the south was lit up a deep red from the blazes.

 

Is this your first book?

I wrote a book called The Plough and The Pick, about the two coal mining villages I grew up in Yorkshire. I’ve written many articles in various journals. My second book The Impact of Catastrophe: The People of Essex and the First World War, was published in 2008 by the Essex Record Office.  I shall shortly be working on an occasional paper for the Essex Society of Archaeology and History, which will be a sort of guide to anyone interested in researching the impact of the German air war on Essex 1940-45. In the long–term I will be continuing to dig into Essex in the inter-war period, but I also hope to publish a history of the county from 1945 to about 1975.

 

Are you a full-time author?

Since I retired in 2009 I have more choice in when I can do my research, but as everyone who has ever retired says, how did I find time to fit in work?? Certainly as a retired teacher the huge never-ending commitment to preparation and marking has gone. So it is easier, but to be honest – full-time work, even leisure work – of any sort – never again!

 

What is your connection with Essex?

I married my wife who was born and raised in Colchester, so I have known the town and gradually more and more of the county since 1972. We returned here when our first child was born in 1978 and have lived here ever since. I did my PhD at Essex University and spent the last 4 years of my teaching career at Colchester County High School for Girls. I have been Programme Secretary of the Essex branch of the Historical Association since 2002, and that, and much of my research, takes me a lot to Chelmsford.

 

Where is your favourite place in Essex?

I love Blackpool so naturally I love to go to Clacton or Walton. Colchester’s Castle Park is a simply wonderful facility right in the heart of this busy town, it’s beautiful and quiet, if you avoid the children’s playground! And of course there’s the Essex Record Office. My second home!

 

What advice would you give to someone thinking of writing a history book?

Always check first to see what’s been written. No sense in re-inventing the wheel. This applies whether you have a very in-depth, highly focused project in mind, or a more general, wider study. Always take advice from people who have expertise and knowledge, never be afraid to ask for help. People are usually immensely generous with their time. Keep an open mind about where you might find resources – that way you might not overlook some obvious ones. Look at how other people write. Historical writing is first and foremost about communicating the past to people in simple, elegant and easily understood language. That doesn’t mean talking down to people. It means avoiding both jargon and writing which is so convoluted and obscure that it is hard to follow and understand. If you come across any history book like that, even by an eminent historian, or a ‘TV historian’, chuck it in the bin!

Easter 1944

On Easter weekend we thought we would share these photographs of a children’s tea party held in Lindsell, a small village between Great Dunmow and Thaxted, at Easter 1944.

The party was hosted by members of the 9th US Air Force stationed at Wethersfield, and the guests were a mixture of local children and orphaned or evacuated children who were living at New Barn, one of the War Nurseries established by Anna Freud.

The US airmen provided treats such as tinned fruit that would, of course, have been a rarity in the war years, and took the children for a ride in one of their trucks.

These are just a few photographs from the collection, catalogued as A12844, which is available to order up to view in the ERO Searchroom. If anyone has any further information relating to the tea party shown in the photographs we would really like to hear from you; please get in touch on 033301 32500 or ero.enquiry@essex.gov.uk

If you would like to find out more about Essex during the Second World War, join us on Saturday 9 March for Dark Days and Dark Thoughts: Morale in Wartime Essex, 1940-41, the launch of Paul Rusiecki’s new book, Under Fire: Essex at the Second World War. Full details can be found on our events page.

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Images copyright PLAN International, used with their kind permission.

Document of the Month June 2014: Map of Tilbury showing plans for Operation Overlord

Each month a document is put on display in our Searchroom. Our document for June has been chosen by Archivist Allyson Lewis to reflect the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings which began on 6 June 1944.

This month we look at Essex’s involvement in Operation Overlord, known as the D-Day landings.  Eastern Command, which included Essex, was to provide for 104,000 men and their equipment embarking through Tilbury and London Docks.  Tilbury was a Marshalling Area for collecting men and vehicles for the D-Day landings.

C/W 3/4/9

Marshalling Areas (MAs) were intended to hold 40,700 men and 6,500 vehicles prior to embarkation, load them and send them out as part of the initial landings, and then to embark 4,000 men and 600 vehicles per day for as long as necessary after D-Day itself.  Once sent for embarkation, the troops had to be provided with food and drink so any postponement of the operation posed a serious logistical problem.  The MA was arranged in 8 sub-areas located at Orsett Golf Club, Tilbury, Purfleet, Thorndon Hall, Belhus Park, Warley Barracks, Weald Park, and the Halfway House Inn on the Southend Arterial Road.

Planning began in February to identify suitable sites for camps field hospitals, ammunition dumps, petrol dumps, bakeries, rail heads and traffic routes.  This map (C/W 3/4/9) shows the location of the camps in each sub-area and the routes traffic should take to reach the embarkation points.  Most of the vehicles were parked up on the Southend Arterial Road.  They had to be waterproofed before being loaded onto the ships.  During March camps were constructed and roads strengthened, and by 1 May the area was ready.  Postal censorship began on 1 April and by the end of May all camps were patrolled to prevent contact with the local population.

Embarkation of troops and vehicles was a four day process: three days to waterproof the vehicles and get them aboard and to issue supplies and load the men, and one day to clear the area and get ready for the next detachment.  Y-Day was the name given to the day when everything would be ready to go.  Any long delay at this point would mean that men would have to be disembarked and sent back to their camps.  However, the weather improved sufficiently on 5 June for Operation Overlord to commence on 6 June 1944.

Information from http://www.airfieldinformationexchange.org/community/showthread.php?11999-SECOND-WORLD-WAR-D-Day-Marshalling-and-Embarkation-Areas