Thursday, 4 August 2011

Lea Bridge Wartime Memories: The odd job man

The following is an extract from  Sqn. Ldr. A. Garretts' life story taken from the BBC's WW2 People's War website. This is an online archive of wartime memories contributed by members of the public and gathered by the BBC. The archive and full article can be found at: people's war stories 


(note: The Princess of Wales was called the Prince of Wales up until about 1995.)


The Odd Job Man

I lived in Hackney and the house was on the corner of a crossroad. The highway running approximately North/South was the Lea Bridge Road. East/West it was the river Lea. The house was in fact a pub called the ‘Prince of Wales’. Looking out of the back window across the river and to the right of the Lea Bridge Road was the offices and reservoirs of the Metropolitan Water Board. To the left of the road were the Lea Marshes (On some maps it is called the Walthamstow Marshes).

The Pillbox

Our dining room was on the corner of the house on the first floor. The two windows gave a good field of fire across the bridge. Some one must have thought that should there be an enemy landing on the marshes the bridge would have to be defended as the road on our side of the bridge headed straight towards the centre of London. The room was turned in to a `pill box'. Normally a pillbox would stand alone and be made of solid concrete and thus safe from everything other than a direct hit from a high explosive shell. For our `pill box' the thickness of the walls was doubled and the windows were removed to be replaced with concrete in which there were slits for Browning machine guns. In addition a Sergeant and two soldiers were billeted on us. The only problem was that this room sat on top of the Pub itself and nothing was done to strengthen the ground floor walls, most of which were single brick above which were sheets of plate glass announcing, "The Prince of Wales, Saloon Bar."

Danger Money (?)

The Lea was a working river. Tugs pulling a string of barges, or a single barge pulled by a horse, would come up from the Thames loaded with wood for the various timber yards, coal for the power station and all sorts of other things, including explosives on the way to the armament factory at Ware in Hertfordshire. The ‘ammo’ barges were identified by a large red flag. One day I saw one of these coming towards us with its red flag flying, just as the alarm sounded. On arrival at the bridge the bargee tied the barge up under the bridge and then he and the horseman got on to the horse's back and trotted off. They returned when the all clear sounded. A number of our customers and local residents also departed when they found out that 90 tons of dynamite was sitting under the bridge. By the way, the bargee and his mate got extra 'danger' money when they were on these barges


The Home Guard

Prior to Dunkirk the Local Defence Volunteers had been formed. In the main these were veterans of the First World War, (hence Dad's Army) but after Dunkirk the name was changed to the Home Guard and any one could join. Youngsters like myself, waiting to be called up and/or until they were old enough to volunteer plus men in reserved occupations were encouraged to join, so I decided to join the Hackney Home Guard.

While most of the males in the U.K. were liable for conscription there were certain occupations that were exempt and called 'reserved'. Policeman, firemen, and miners were in this category but there was one way these individuals could join the Forces and that was to volunteer and be accepted for aircrew training. I stood in a queue inside the Hackney Town Hall. Behind a counter stood a very harassed character, who I later discovered was a Captain. The conversation went something like this:
CAPTAIN. "Name ?"
lst. MAN "Smith"
CAPTAIN "Reserved occupation?”
1st MAN "Yus mate, stoker in the gas works"
CAPTAIN "Sign here"
CAPTAIN "Name?”
2nd MAN "Brown"
CAPTAIN "Reserved occupation?”
2nd MAN "Yus mate, bargee on the river"
CAPTAIN "Sign here"
CAPTAIN "Name?”
ME "Garretts"
CAPTAIN "What do you do?”
ME "I'm a Junior Clerk in the City .
CAPTAIN "Yes, but what do you do?"
ME "Shorthand, typing, book-keeping"
CAPTAIN as he lifted up the flap to the counter, "Come in Sergeant, you are now in charge of this Office.

As a result of this rapid promotion at the age of 18 I think I can claim to have been the youngest Sergeant in the Home Guard.

I came home from the H.G. one night while a raid was on and went to the roof to look around. There was a large fire at the timber yard, up river, so I decided to go and have a closer look. Firemen would normally position themselves up wind of the fire but with the wind coming across the river this was not possible. They would have been too close to the fire if they worked from the towpath and too far away on the other side of the river. Instead they had to operate from alongside the fire. This meant that the positions they were working from were very hot and as a result they were being relieved every fifteen minutes or so. Spotting me, still in uniform, one of the Senior Firemen asked if I would care to help with the hoses, to which I said yes. My first shift was at ground level. The second was from the top of a turntable ladder. Luckily, although the raid was still going on, the Germans did not seem to be using the fire as an aiming point.

Across the road from the P o W was a police box. Along side it was the air raid siren. One night I was chatting to the duty copper when the 'phone rang. During the conversation I heard him say "There is a member of the Home Guard here" and then, "I'll tell him". It seemed that the signal man in the box on the Lea Marshes had seen what he thought was a parachute come down somewhere on the Marshes and that the Home Guard at the Town Hall were getting a platoon together and would come along as soon as they could find a vehicle. They were some two miles away. Meanwhile I was to go out to the signal box, get a report from the signalman and then search for and detain(?) the parachutist.

To get to the box I had to walk nearly a mile along the riverbank, with the Lea Marshes on my right, until I arrived at the point where a railway bridge crossed the river. Here I had to turn right to pass in front of the various arches that supported the railway until I reached a point where I could climb up the embankment. (It was in these arches that circa 1910 Alliot Verdun Roe {AVRO} built his early aircraft) I then had to walk just under a quarter of a mile along the line until I reached the signal box. Because of the blackout all this had to be done in the pitch dark. Having discovered the way the parachute was supposed to have drifted I was then to follow that line, searching until I reached `civilisation' and then try and make contact with the Platoon via a telephone!

The best part of the instruction was that if I came across a Parachutist I was to take him prisoner and bring him back with me. As a member of the H.G. I had been issued with a rifle so I was armed but, as I had not been on the rifle range, I had not been issued with any ammunition. Thank goodness I did not find anything, nor did the Platoon. The Germans had started to drop mines by parachute and in daylight the following morning one was found hanging from a tree on the far side of the marshes. I suspect this is what the man in the signal box had seen.

No comments :

Post a Comment

Twitter Bird Gadget