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’.

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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.’

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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:

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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 heritage.education@essex.gov.uk or telephone 033301 32500

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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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.

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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

31st May 1944 – Just another mission

Neil Wiffen, Public Service Team Manager here at ERO, writes for us about a bombing raid that took off from Essex 70 years ago today…

Seventy years ago the skies above Essex would have been filled daily with the aircraft both of our own Royal Air Force but to a much greater extent by the massed forces of the Eighth and Ninth United States Army Air Forces.

By April 1944 there were eight Bomb Groups of Ninth Air Force Martin B-26 Marauder medium bombers and three groups of Douglas A-20 Havoc light bombers in Essex, totalling over 700 aircraft with many thousands of personnel and their supporting units. These aircraft and their crews were tasked with ‘softening up’ the German defences and associated transport infrastructure in Europe in order to facilitate a successful invasion and liberation of occupied territory, something dreamed of, and planned for, since the dark days of June 1940.

Some of these Bomb Groups had been in Essex since the summer of 1943, such as the 387th BG based at Chipping Ongar and the 322nd at Andrew’s Fields (Great Saling). Seven groups were relative newcomers, only arriving ‘in theatre’ in 1944. One of the more recently arrived was the 394th Bomb Group with around 64 B-26s who were based at Boreham, flying their first mission on March 23rd when 36 aircraft set out to bomb a Luftwaffe airfield at Beaumont-le-Roger in France.

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A B-26 Marauder of the 394th Bomb Group (at Boreham?) This was taken sometime after D-Day as evidenced by the worn black and white invasion stripes which can be seen under the wings. Note what appears to be aircraft’s Auxiliary Power Unit under the port wing. This was used to ‘power-up’ the aircraft before main engine ignition. (A10950 Box 1 ‘Book 1’).

Bombing raids were run as regularly as the English weather allowed, with as little let-up as possible, and with sometimes two raids a day. With the date for D-Day set there could be no relaxation for the planners in endeavouring to give the assault troops as much assistance as possible before they hit the beaches. This meant that the Allies’ combined air forces had to keep on pounding away whenever they could.

The 394th was tasked with carrying out one such raid on this day 70 years ago. Their target for what would be their 53rd mission since arriving at Boreham was a bridge in Rouen (J.G Ziegler, Bridge Busters: the story of the 394th Bomb Group (Phoenix, Arizona, 1993), p.38.) This was to be the 10th mission in the last eight days, such was the intensity of the air campaign to date and with only a week to go for the planned launch of D-Day on the 5th June.

One of the 36 Marauders that was designated to fly the mission that morning was being piloted by Lt John Connelly of the 587th Bomb Squadron. Connelly was 11th in line to take off (S.D. Bishop & J.A. Hey, Losses of the US 8th & 9th Air Forces: aircraft and men 1st April – 30th June 1944 (Bury St Edmunds, 2009), p.543). Taking off for a heavily loaded combat aircraft was always a crucial time but especially so for an over loaded twin-engine Marauder. Fat with fuel and armed with two 2,000lb bombs the loss of an engine on take-off could have devastating consequences, and was something which Connelly was about to experience first-hand.

Lt Jack Havener of the 344th over at Stansted later recounted his experience of losing an engine after take-off: ‘We had just taken off…and were about halfway through the first turn to join up…when the right engine started sputtering and losing power. As we frantically clawed the…controls, trying to get some life back into the engine we realised we had a serious problem…By the time I had trimmed for single-engine operation we were still losing altitude, so I gave Sgt Skowski the order to pull the emergency bomb salvo lever…He immediately reached up and pulled the lever and greatly relieved the tension in the cockpit when he yelled out: ‘We got a haystack, Lieutenant!’ Havener and his crew were able to land back to their base – just (R.A. Freeman, B-26 Marauder at War (London, 1978), p.120).

Connelly decided, however, against dumping his bomb load as he decided that opening the bomb-bay doors would cause too much drag and force his Marauder to crash. Trying to regain the runway he was not able to stay aloft and crashed short of it into one of the extensive orchards that once surrounded Boreham airfield. Of the six man crew all survived wounded but Connelly and his co-pilot, Flight Officer Preston Fulgham, received major injuries.

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Two views of the Connelly’s Marauder (Serial number 42-96069). How any of the crew survived is unbelievable. Note the bomb lying on the ground. (A10950 Box 1 ‘Book 3’)

As with all things that fell out of the sky, be they enemy bombs or friendly aircraft, the local authority civil defence system sprang into action. Even though this was an American aircraft and it fell within easy distance of all the US emergency services there were two very large bombs and several hundred gallons of high octane fuel that had been spilled over the Essex countryside. Around mid-day a message was reported to Essex County Control that ‘Waltham Rd. [was] closed from Russell Green to Little Waltham. Houses in the immediate vicinity evacuated on the instruction from American Police’ (ERO, C/W 1/11/3). Shortly after 1pm the road was re-opened and residents allowed back to their properties. While all this was going on the raid that was launched earlier was carried on with – just one more day in a long war.

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The Crashed Aircraft Report for 31st May 1944 with the details of the crash from the British viewpoint. (ERO, C/W 1/11/3)

Using the description I wondered if it might be possible to pinpoint the exact location of the crash. The orderly rows of fruit trees show up very well on aerial photos and Looking at am image held at ERO, taken immediately after the end of the war, there does appear to be a scar in the landscape (circled on map), so very close to the runways at Boreham that Connelly nearly made. Seventy years on, I wonder if anyone remembers this event and can confirm the crash site?

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Boreham Airfield post war. The runways, taxiways, hardstands and accommodation areas, along with the orchards, are all shown. Circled is the suggested area of the crash. (OS TL71SW, 1:10560)