For the last few weeks, it has been very cold, we have been ‘wooding’ up St Anne’s hill. Most of the fallen branches that are nearest to us have already been cleared. So now I am with my brother Don and his friend Kingy Edwards, and to find any firewood we have had to go further up into Blue Bell Dell. We take turns pushing our old pram with its buckled wheels along the very rough track.
Before we ever get to the Dell, we hear a lot of noise coming from below the big look-out, it sounded like one of the tanks that we saw drive past our house last week. Kingy said.
“That sounds like a German Panzer tank to me”—It must be said, that Kingy thinks he knows everything since he is the only one who has seen the German tanks on the newsreel in the Picture Palace. Just in case Kingy is right though, we creep very carefully down the back of the look-out, carrying the pram so as not to give away our position, I don’t know what we could have done if it was the Germans—three little boys—even though Kingy was nine!
We were told at school to keep calm and not to panic if the Germans came, they said that bravery overcomes fear. Kingy said that we should just observe the situation and report it to the Army unit in Lasswade house., I think Kingy has been reading too many wartime books.
This was my first taste of warfare, and I must admit it was not as exciting as I thought it would be, it was very scary. We got to the old Wishing Well and were lying on the top keeping our heads down, when we saw a big tree come crashing down, then the loud engine noise again. I expected to see a German tank coming through the woods knocking trees down as if they were matchsticks, as Kingy had told us they could do. then he said.
“I don’t think we can do anything here; we will have to go and get the Home Guard to deal with it”. Don just shot him a glance but said nothing. I think he and I were both thinking the same thing, we had seen the Home Guard practicing, but before we could do anything, we saw this big man walk by carrying an enormous axe, he looked up at us and saw our old pram.
“You won’t get any firewood sitting about up there, you need to go down to the sandpits, we are clearing all the Oak and Chestnut trees, there’s plenty of big chips for your fire”.
So, my first skirmish with the enemy came to nothing, I admit it was very exciting for the ten minutes that it lasted. All the noise was lumber jacks busy felling trees for the war effort, the big chunks of wood from their axes make good firewood, we were lucky to find out about this before anyone else, but I felt a bit sad to see all our best Chestnut trees were being chopped down.
Don looks at our old pram full of these quite heavy chips and then at the buckled wheels. He decides that we carry as much as we can, hoping a pram that is only half full, will survive the bumpy track down the hill
The lumberjacks were very quick and the whole hill with loads of trees was gone in a matter of weeks. The old Nun’s Wishing Well that was pretty much hidden in the dense undergrowth, and only a few of us knew where it was, is now there for all to see.
We returned day after day, together with the rest of our mates and cleared the hill of all this wonderful firewood. We gave some to old Mrs. Phillips—her son ‘Pedlar’ was one of the first to join up, leaving her all on her own. The Oak was very good for burning but the Sweet Chestnut wood chips are still very green and didn’t burn so well, but at least they were free, and once they had dried out a bit, they were fine.
The oak chips made a lovely blaze in our kitchen fire grate, and with only one fire to heat the whole house, we would all crowd round it, with the result we had scorched legs or worse still, chilblains.
The blackout is now in full force, fire wardens would soon shout if they saw so much as a glimmer of light from your windows. They would say an enemy plane can see someone smoking a fag from very far away. We believed everything they told us. The Home Guard were always good for a laugh, which was very unfair as they were so keen to protect us, and they took it all so seriously. I think even they thought it was funny though. They had no guns and had to practice drill with broomsticks or something similar. They were men too young or too old for the Army.
In our house the wireless was always switched on for the nine o’clock news, with Alvar Liddell, the news reader. He sounded so posh I could hardly understand what he was saying but if his voice became very low and sad you would know it was bad news, like when HMS Exmouth was sunk with many sailors dying. The news was followed by ‘Into Battle’, a news-play about the war in which we always seemed to be winning, I loved the music that it started with, Iris said it was classical, it still cheered us up though, we all loved it even if it was posh.
Mum was very upset when we heard that the Italian government were thinking of joining forces with Germany, we had a lot of Italian friends and neighbours, and we thought they would be sent away to prison camps. This never happened though, later on when they did join the war, and Italian soldiers were taken prisoner, they were sometimes camped near Chertsey. They worked on the local farms and were soon allowed out— with an escort— into the town. I don’t think the Italian people were very keen on the war at all.
So far, the war had been happening somewhere else, and one of our young evacuee’s decided to go back to London, as many others did. Mrs. O’Keefe and her son Dennis stayed with us, she said that London would be the first place that the Germans would bomb.