Fish, surprisingly, is off the ration, and this Saturday morning, we heard that they had some fish up near St Peters Church. This sort of news goes round Chertsey as if someone has found gold, and it causes something similar to a gold rush—or maybe it’s the nice smell of fish and chips. So here I am near the top of the town. I can smell my dinner before I turn the corner near Agnew Nicholson’s Chemists, but then I see the long queue going past Mr Gibbon’s butcher’s shop. It’s only twelve o’clock and the fish shop is not even open yet, but I decide to join the queue anyway.
There are a couple of my mates there but mainly women. There is a lot of chatter going on, not moaning or anything like that, more remembering things that had happened just a few months ago. I have always been a good listener; some would say I’m just nosey, but it is quite surprising what ladies talk about!
I was looking away as if I wasn’t listening—but at same time hearing every word. The talking suddenly stopped, I thought at first that the shop had opened, and that we would soon be moving along. The lady in front of me started to shake, I could see her dress flapping, I thought she was having some sort of a fit.
Looking up, I see this little MG sports car that is waiting at the traffic lights in the road next to our queue, in the passenger seat is an RAF officer looking very smart in his pilot officers uniform. He is very young looking I should think not much older than my brother Bernard. He turns to look directly at me, then I see why the ladies had gone quiet. One side of his face is perfectly normal while the other side is hardly recognisable as a face, the skin is distorted and very red, he has bandages around his neck and on his hands. I feel very shaky just like the lady in the queue, they drive off and park in ‘The Crown Hotel’ nearby. The ladies start to talk again, they say that he is probably from the medical unit in Egham. It’s a special hospital for treating burns, where the doctors can grow a new ear or even a nose, but they say he will never look the same again.
I am beginning to realise that the war is not all exciting or glamorous, it is brutal, not at all like the films I see in the Picture Palace. The sight of that young Airman made it anything but.
The thought of eating fish and chips is the last thing I feel like doing. I leave the ladies still talking about the young Airman and go home. I will tell mum that they were sold out, which would probably have been true, looking at the length of the queue.
Wounded soldiers are now a regular sight in Chertsey, they are back from the early battles of the war such as Dunkirk. They are kitted out in Royal blue uniforms, with white shirts and red ties. Some of them are just about able to walk but are still laughing and joking despite their wounds.
St Peters, a military hospital, is about a mile away. This must have been like a marathon for some of the men but with the help of their mates and their spirit, they walked into Chertsey and were met with lots of back slapping and hand shaking, every-one of them was a hero to us.
Even now, in wartime, there are still divisions between the posh parts of Chertsey and the council house area, which is near Chertsey railway station. Of course, at my age, I was not aware of this, but I did notice that most of these soldiers—who were in the main infantrymen—stayed near the station end of town.
Anyway, officers preferred the ‘Top of the town’ as we called it. This is where London Street and Windsor Street meet, and had hotels rather than pubs. In days gone-by, ‘The Hunt’ would gather there to begin their—hopefully fruitless—chase for the cunning fox.
The Golden Grove, at the bottom of St Ann’s Hill, was a lovely old pub, it was also a favourite place for the officers—it soon attracted the local girls. Another place that was a magnet for the ladies is Lasswade House. The house is taken over by an army unit with a searchlight and a Bren gun carrier. Some of the soldiers are French Canadian. Judging by the many lady’s bikes parked along the hedges most evenings, the ladies come from far and wide.
The grounds of this house are also our playground, with a lovely Japanese garden complete with a small stream and wooden bridge, it’s all a bit neglected but all the better for that. There is an orchard with fruit of every kind—good for scrumping, and a long line of tall Aspen trees along Chilsey Green Road. I can hear the rustle of the leaves on a windy day from my home less than a hundred yards away. The house must have been owned by a wealthy family at one time but had been almost derelict before it was taken over by the Army. Nearby is another fine building, Pyrcroft House, it is said to be where Charles Dickens wrote Oliver Twist. Chertsey is full of such stories, but I am told this one is true.
Private cars are now rarely seen, only doctors or army cars. Sometimes a long convoy of tanks and lorries drive past us towards Staines. Every child cheering and waving from every vantage point, mine was on top of ‘the green thing’—a large transformer of some sort over six feet tall. Other kids climb the big Oak tree that stands on the same raised island. These are just outside my home. It is all very exciting!
On the wireless the news reporter and the announcer’s seemed to give us good news first like when we had sunk a German ship. Then some bad news if it was an allied ship had been lost. The next morning my Mums friend, Mrs Edwards, came round to tell us that her husband was on one of these ships. Everyone one was crying. Mrs Salmon, who just happened to be in our house, said.
“There may be a lot of survivors, because it was in warm waters, and people can keep alive for a long time, especially if they are on a raft or something”.
Mrs Edwards just sat and stared at the floor, she said that the ship had sunk with ‘all hands’ meaning that there would be no survivors. She was the only one not crying, it was the first time that I had known of any family losing someone because of the war.
Peggy Edwards, a friend of Chrissy, came round looking for her mum, as soon as she came through the door Mrs. Edwards started really crying. They both just stood holding on to each other, it was such a sad thing to see. This is not the excitement that I thought the war would give us, I had to leave and see if any of my friends were coming out.
Although the news readers always tried to sound optimistic, the words they were saying where anything but. The lift in their voice when an enemy ship had been sunk didn’t make up for all our ships that were being destroyed by the ‘U’ boats.
We are now hearing a lot of German aircraft passing over at night, they were on their way to a factory or Aerodrome somewhere else. We did have a bomb fall near Chertsey bridge, it landed in the drive of a big house. In the lodge of this house was a family of evacuees, a mother and her three young daughters. Although the lodge was undamaged the mother gathered her family and moved out, they were re-housed in a tiny shop in Windsor Street opposite the ‘The Old Vine’ pub. The shop was less than a mile away, but she said she felt safer there because she thought that Chertsey Bridge would always be a target. The family had just moved out of London as evacuees to avoid the bombs and now they had one exploding a few hundred yards away from their front door. They were sent to Chertsey for safety!