A Norfolk Schoolboy’s Memories of W.W.II

 I was born on December 3rd 1928, so World War II came upon me at the age of ten until I was fifteen.  I was fortunate that I lived first in the quiet  market town of Harleston until October 1942 and then in the village of Methwold until 1946. At Harleston I attended the Junior School until I progressed to Bungay Grammar School. Living at Methwold I attended Downham Market Grammar School. I left there at the age of fifteen in July, 1945.

Basil Kybird in Bungay Grammar School Uniform.

Basil Kybird in Bungay Grammar School Uniform.

By early 1939 every household in the country had received a booklet on how to be ready for war. Even cigarette cards carried air raid precautions. These we collected and swapped at school.  There were plans for the distribution of air raid shelters to homes in areas most likely to be hit by bombs. Air raid sirens were erected. Gas masks were issued and special smaller ones for babies. The gas masks were in almost square boxes on strings. Very soon mothers were making covers for them. We had to take them everywhere with us and periodically we had to practice wearing them at school. They would smell very rubbery and were claustrophobic to wear, the visors steaming up.

On 1st September 1939 war with Germany seemed imminent and many thousands of children, some with parents, were evacuated from London and boroughs, many of them to Norfolk. I was friendly with one boy who lodged with the butcher at the top of London Road. He didn’t stay long; many preferred the risk of bombs to the oddities of the countryside. There were two girls who lodged in a big house in Harleston (the old school perhaps) opposite Redenhall church. I cycled home with them once from the ‘swimming pool’ at the river, Wells Lane I think. They were friendly with another girl Dawn C.

At 11.15a.m. Sunday, 3rd September 1939 war was declared on Germany. The government had advised the safest rooms were those in the centre of the houses.  My mother and I had single beds in the sitting room which was central. I don’t know where my father slept. Everything was rationed, ration books were issued to every household and each had to register with their local shop. The ration books came into use the following year. At school, to support the war effort, we were encouraged to knit scarves for merchant seamen – probably one plain one pearl in navy blue– mine finished six feet long!

In 1940 each person was allowed 4 ounces of butter, 12 ounces (345 gr) of sugar, and 4 ounces of ham or bacon each week.  As the war progressed there was even less. Everything was sold on the surrender of coupons. In Dad’s garden up Station Road there were copious quantities of rhubarb.   Mum made jam and it was rhubarb with everything. How I hated it.  Marjorie L from next door told me the daughter of the previous sergeant had ‘peed’ on the rhubarb so that probably put me off. Mum would save the sugar rationing to make jam. We had our own jars but when mine was going down quickly I would pinch some of Dad’s. As well as the food rationing there was a blackout which meant no light was allowed to show from within buildings, prevented by  blankets or special screens or similar hung over the  inside of doors and windows.  Windows were taped to prevent damage from flying glass, among other Air Raid Precautions published in a special Government booklet issued to all premises in the country. Vehicle lights were dimmed with masks, coal was rationed as were sweets. Mum would scrape butter onto rounds of bread and then scrape it off again. I used to love sandwich loaves of bread. I could eat nine or ten rounds. I looked for air holes which would get filled with butter. I liked Sunday tea when Mum would get out her best tea service which was pink and the edges trimmed with gilt. I wonder what happened to it ?  Sometimes we would have tinned salmon which I enjoyed soaked in vinegar. On one occasion I was ill and my mother was so pleased that she was able to obtain a few bananas for me from the local greengrocer.  This was wintertime and the bananas had come from the Canary Isles. On another occasion she was able to buy a few tomatoes. I didn’t think about it at the time but they had to come by ship over many, many sea miles, running the gauntlet of German U Boats.

 I was in the choir at St. John the Baptist church in Harleston.  During the long sermons I used to pass the time by drawing aircraft and air battles on the white pages of the prayer and hymn books, inspired by the Battle of Britain fights.  When my voice broke I was designated to pumping the organ. There was a long passage beside the organ, the wall being covered in whitewash. I soon got busy covering all this space with my drawings. Often it meant I forgot why I was there until I noticed the organ was getting precariously low on air which meant I had to pump furiously to get the weight back down again.

Soon after we had moved to Harleston a bathroom and toilet were fitted into the box room above the kitchen. Mum’s contribution to the war effort was to invite the grand-daughter of a couple living up our lane to use our bathroom when she came home on leave from the WAAFs ( Women’s Auxiliary Air Force.) Denis and I would go off on our cycles, usually on Saturdays, armed with my copy of ‘Bacon’s Cyclists Map of Norfolk. We would find churches and try to get into their towers but we weren’t lucky very often.  However on this map I marked the locations of Army camps and airfields which would have been a boon to enemy spies!     

At the beginning of the war there was a big Government campaign to ‘ Dig For Victory’ encouraging the growing of vegetables at home. A local builder allowed my friend Alan to have an allotment on the field at the rear of Alan’s home. It was from here on Saturday, 23rd July, 1940 we saw in the distance German planes apparently dropping bombs on Pulham Airfield, The Germans did try unsuccessfully to destroy it. It had been an R.A.F. Station during W.W.I. first in 1915, and it had been the home of R 33 and R 34 airships. Today the village sign proudly depicts the R 34 at its moorings. On that occasion in 1940 the Germans dropped sixteen high explosive bombs but there were no casualties. There were several other raids and the big hanger was hit on one occasion.

On another occasion German bombs were dropped into a field just passed Frank Spurgeon’s premises at Mendham Lane and killed two ponies. I didn’t see it happen but saw the bomb craters the next day. I wrote a little essay about it but my teacher was not impressed. Soon after the war started our head teacher, Mr. Rhodes, volunteered for the army.  I don’t know what happened to him. A Mr Pilch  took over. He didn’t like me because my father had told him off for riding his bike without lights. He seemed to take a delight in taking it out on me in petty ways! I didn’t have to put up with him for long because it must have been in the September, 1940, I started at Bungay Grammar School.

At Bungay there were air raid shelters to which we had to hurriedly retreat when the siren went off. The shelters were damp and smelly. Sometimes a teacher would try to give a lesson. Other times we would sing morale building war-time songs. The other side the pub next door was a large house occupied by a doctor Maidment. There was great excitement when his daughter married an army officer by the name of Vickers. Mum and I watched them from a front bedroom window drive off to go on their honeymoon in a large open topped car.

One wartime memory is of a captured German Messerschmitt fighter plane being put on display just into the entrance of Harleston Recreation Ground. The object was to boast public morale.  Quite distinct in my memory now is the sickly sweet smell of the engine oil. Some of the local boys spent a long time unsuccessfully trying to remove parts for souvenirs. On one occasion a German Dornier bomber crashed in a field at  Starston. One of the crew, the pilot, was killed. He was buried at Starston church until after the war when his remains were moved to Germany.  The other crew member was locked up in the cells across the yard at the back of our house. I was never allowed to see any prisoner. My mother or the Constable’s wife had to provide meals for the prisoners.

A most vivid memory in my mind is of one night in October 1941. I was asleep in bed.  I was eleven years old I was awakened by the loud roar of aeroplane engines. Quickly looking out of my bedroom window I saw a Wellington bomber go past, very low and a ball of flames. The next day I learned it had crashed in a field up Jays Green, a little past our school. It had come down with such force it was almost fully buried into the soil. All the crew perished.  On yet another occasion Denis and I were near the drill hall, getting walnuts off a tree just outside someone’s gateway. A twin-engined German bomber came over so low we could see the crew inside looking down at us. We were both very frightened and hurried home on our bikes but nothing untoward happened.

It was in 1941 that Sergeant Stanley George Kybird was killed while flying a Spitfire fighter plane in France. He was from the Elveden branch of the Kybird family.

One vague memory I have is just once having a ride in a Bren gun carrier. I think an Army sergeant took us. His wife was staying with friend  Alan A’s family at Candlers Lane.

I remember seeing my first Americans. They were coloured and very smart. This was at Harleston market place. They were employed helping with the construction of the airfields in the vicinity, and there were many.  Laings carted the gravel. Early in the war the American air force was known as the USAAF – Army Air Force – but later it got shortened to USAF. When they first flew from Hardwick it was the 310 Bomb Group (nick – named ‘Ted’s Travelling Circus’ )  using B 26 Mitchell medium bombers. They were at Hardwick from September until November, 1942. Alan A and I would cycle there and throw sticks up at them as they took off but of course they were too high for us to hit them.

Denis L, the boy from next door, and I would go exploring. For some reason we were attracted to a little copse of the lane at the bottom of Needham hill. Here we found a ground covering layer of certain commodities left behind by Americans after interludes with some of our local girls. Unfortunately some of the girls were left with more permanent reminders of these occasions, two in particular! Placed around the town were a number of pillboxes from which, with the necessity, soldiers or Home Guard troops could fire on approaching Germans.  This of course did not happen.  However, these pillboxes provided cover for all sorts of illicit past times. In the case of Alan A and myself, we had surreptitious smokes in one at the top of Mendham Lane. Pillboxes were rapidly constructed at the beginning of the war, in 1940 and 1941, constructed of brick or concrete, with concrete tops. They had one entrance and slits in the six or eight sides to fire from. Inside they smelled damp and musty, some flooded. For many years after the war one was on the beach at Happisburgh, having fallen down when some of the cliff collapsed. It is probably still there. On an occasion Dad took me in his car along the road at Flixton towards Bungay. On a previous occasion there had been dozens of tanks hidden in the trees. On this second occasion the tanks had gone but there were some wooden structures left and hanging in one was an Army shut knife a treasure I had for some time.

The cottage on Holt Heath where Basil Kybird was born.

The cottage on Holt Heath where Basil Kybird was born.

On occasions we would go to visit my mother’s parents at Heath Cottage, about a mile on the Norwich side of Holt. Bren gun carriers would practice on the heath. One I understand is buried in the bog there across Holt Lowes.  Just down the road near the top of Edgefield Hill was a searchlight camp. I remember well how the searchlight beams would sweep the skies. Sometimes I was able to hear the boom boom of Ack Ack guns practising at Weybourne. A light aircraft would tow a target behind it. I have read that Churchill once inspected soldiers of the Cambridgeshire Regiment on the Heath. This was in 1940 when he was checking on our Coastal Defences.

Rear of Jasmine Cottage, 40, Vicarage Road, Thetford.

Rear of Jasmine Cottage, 40, Vicarage Road, Thetford.

Similarly we would visit my father’s parents at Thetford. I remember watching the trains from a back bedroom window. The house at Vicarage Road was fairly close to and overlooked the railway lines. More than once I saw a train towing thirty or more tanks on flat trucks, heading south towards London.

On one occasion we went to Bury St. Edmunds to do some Christmas shopping. I had been given my Christmas present by my grandfather – a new ten shilling note. In a bookshop I saw a book all about the British Army costing seven shillings. This I had to have although I knew the  ten shillings was intended to go into savings. Was I in trouble over that! It was here I first saw American Air Policemen on large Harley Davidson motor cycles patrolling the town. They were so smart with white helmets, hence the nick-name Snowdrops!

In October, 1942 we moved to Methwold when Dad was promoted to Inspector. He was issued with a white steel helmet and a revolver. These I only saw once. I wasn’t too happy about the move at the time as it meant a change of school and friends. I was much happier when I learned it was a mixed school! The school was at Downham Market which meant a twelve mile bus journey each way. The bus would take us past the airfield  at Bexwell, just outside Downham. Here we would see bombers, Stirlings and Lancasters, being loaded up with bombs. Some of the planes we saw had been badly damaged by German fighter planes or anti aircraft fire over Germany during the night raids.

Two airmen from this station were posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross. One was Flt Lt Aaron who was pilot on a bombing raid over Turin and was seriously wounded by flak from German guns but managed to get his plane home safely. He died soon after. The second V.C. was in August, 1944 . Sq Ldr Bazagette was pilot of a Lancaster from 635 Squadron, a pathfinder squadron. He managed to mark their site – rocket storage facilities in France. His aircraft was set on fire and on crash landing exploded. He and his crew were killed. During the war 170 aircraft were lost from this airfield – we just did not realise the full significance of what we saw. At one time Mosquito fast light weight bombers made of wood also flew from there.  Once the American Air Force came to the area, it was not long before some of the girls were coming to school with chewing gum, cigarettes, badges and some eventually married Americans, including two sisters. Because of the war the corridors round the inner quadrangles were lined with brick walls to give some protection against bomb blast.  Fortunately they were never put to the test although when an air raid siren sounded we had to file into the corridors. School dinners were produced on economy lines but we never went hungry. There were rumours of horse meat and whale meat but we still consumed it with relish. For some meals we had luncheon meat. This was sliced so thinly to make it look more! We had a lot of stewed apples and custard – the apples coming from the Head Master’s trees. He would also sell them to us for one penny each, also sweets.  About this time British Restaurants were set up in various towns, the object being to provide basic meals cheaply. There was one in Downham Market, communal kitchens set up by the Ministry of Food as non-profit making. Meals were sold at a fixed price of 9d (just under 4p) and no meal of more than 3 courses for 5 shillings (25 p). I did sample these on two occasions when I had gone to play football on a Saturday and then had to wait some hours for the bus home. I believe it was on Thursday evenings, I and two friends would cycle to Mundford because the fish and chip shop there did fritters and chips on that night. This was a speciality. There was little fish available. I remember along roads through the forestry there would be signs warning about incendiary bombs and butterfly bombs. The butterfly or anti personnel bombs were first used in this country in 1940 against Ipswich. They were lethal within a radius of 33ft. Several would be dropped together by the Germans. We would also find bundles of aluminium foil in strips dropped by German planes. They were used as a counter measure against radar and first used by the Germans in 1943. We also used the same method, called Windows.

About 1943 there were soldiers of the Eighth Army (the Desert Rats) camped in the area. I learned from some of them a few choice words in Italian. I also learned enough of their experiences in the desert to give a talk to my class at school. On the bus ride to school sometimes we passed Italian prisoners or war working in the fields and we would call out these choice words from the bus windows. Many of these Italians were billeted in a large house near the church in Stoke Ferry.  They were easily recognised because they had round patches on their brown clothing.

Some Italian prisoners of war were billeted at the army camp at Cranwich and some of our school girls living in Methwold would walk along the road towards Mundford to flirt with them.

The Desert Rats were in the area training in readiness for D Day on 6th June, 1944.  For a brief spell some Canadian troops were billeted in Methwold Drill Hall. Dad would have to break up fights at the pubs. On 26th May, 1943 the King and Queen came to visit Methwold airfield and my father was present as he was responsible for civilian policing. He kept very quiet about it and I didn’t know until after the war. At one time airmen of the Royal Dutch Naval Air Service were stationed at Methwold. Their uniform was a very smart dark blue. This was in 1943 and they flew B25 Mitchell light bombers I believe of the 320 (Netherlands) Squadron. The front of our house overlooked the flight path and I often watched the comings and goings from a spare bedroom window.

It was on the 3rd of May, 1943 when Squadron Leader Leonard Trent (later awarded the V.C. and D.F.C.) flew out from Methwold with twelve Ventura aircraft of 487 Squadron, Royal New Zealand Air Force on a fateful raid. Their target was Amsterdam power station. I saw them go out and later only one return, the rest having been shot down.  Since the war I have been able to read that S/Ldr Trent was one of those shot down and he and his navigator were held prisoners of war. He was involved in the ‘Great Escape’ from Stalag Luft III when 220 R.A.F. Prisoners planned to escape via a tunnel.  He managed to get through the tunnel but was found by the Germans nearby and surrendered. He remained a prisoner until the end of the war. There is now a Ventura Close in Methwold.

Didlington Hall has some war-time memories for me.  I and a couple of friends would cycle from Methwold and fish in the River Wissey off a road bridge. American airmen from Bodney would walk that way, I think  this was about July, 1943.  They were very generous, giving us sweets, chocolate, cigarettes, also fishing line and hooks. We would see our friends for a while and then no more. At that time it did not occur to us they may have been shot down or killed in their missions.

On part of the estate was a watermill which breached the river. We used to swim in the mill-pond and were sometimes joined by Americans. One convinced me a quick way to have a suntan was to put vinegar onto my body. It did give me a tan but friends at school wouldn’t sit near me because I smelled like a fish and chip shop, my mother wondered where the vinegar was going !

In December, 1943 I was given an autograph album as a birthday present which I started using straight away and I still have it. It contains entries not only from school friends but also servicemen. One is by a Group Captain Yarde who was commanding officer at Methwold.  He took the salute of a parade through Methwold High Street for Salute the Soldier week on Sunday 14th   May 1944. My father wasn’t very pleased that I was audacious enough to ask for it. It was during this savings campaign there was a drawing competition at Downham. I did a drawing of the badge of the King’s Own Scottish Borderers and won first prize. I was presented with a fifteen shilling savings certificate in Downham Town Hall by Lady Ruth Fermoy who died in 1993 aged 85.

Once I saw an RAF Meteorological balloon slowly come down to land in a field opposite the Cock public house corner. I told Dad and went with him and P.C. Albert S to hold it until RAF personnel arrived. Albert was my hero. He always had time for me when Dad was elsewhere. Once he showed me some copies of Mein Kampf – (My Struggle) – Hitler’s story – seized from a German sympathiser living in the Methwold fens. They were stored in one of the cells.

It was in May, 1945 many Indian soldiers who had been captured by the Germans in the North African Desert Campaigns and held prisoners of war were flown back to England in Operation Exodus from Bari, Italy.  In this operation altogether something like 72,500 ex P.O.W.s were flown back to England in 23 days. Lancaster bombers of 149 Squadron, Methwold, played their part in this. Many Indian soldiers were billeted  in the area round Methwold and Northwold, in the camps which had been used by the Desert Rats before D Day. The Indians were fattened up before the long journey back to India.

It is worth noting that of all the aircraft which flew from Methwold during the war 43 were lost by being shot down or crashing, of these 25 were Venturas, 6 Stirlings and 12 Lancasters. The Methwold Lancasters also took part in Operation Manna in which food supplies were dropped to starving civilians in Holland. The first flight in this operation was from Methwold on 29th April and the plane named ‘Bad Penny’. The American Air Force did similar flights and named their operation ‘Chowhound’. The village sign now depicts an aircraft in flight over a ploughing scene and the church. There is a Roll of Honour in Methwold church, a page being turned each day.

Sometimes on a Saturday afternoon I would cycle to one of the camps, either at Didlington or Lyndford. I had made many friends of different creeds and castes among the Indian soldiers  and enjoyed the challenge of making myself understood. I drank pint mugs of tea, oddly with a pinch of salt. Sometimes I was given a chapatti with an egg stolen from the local farmer, or jam. I also went to the camp cinema and watched Indian films and learned a smattering of Urdu also how to write my name and address in Sanskrit. Cigarettes were plentiful albeit rather rough. One make, Victory, was like sawdust. We would often see a ‘lady’ from Methwold who wore very bright red lipstick cycling out to the Indian camps on her old bike to offer some home comforts I expect!

A British army officer, Leslie Paul, was billeted at the Hall and wrote a lovely book called Heron Lake. He wrote about the wildlife on the lake. We used to get to the lake from near the water-mill. One of the very early paintings I did from life was of the lake. The hall overlooked the lake and there was an open air swimming pool. On one occasion we went for a swim there but there was green algae on the surface.

Nearer to the time of Operation Overlord – D Day – General Sir Miles Dempsey had his headquarters at the hall. He became commander of the 2nd Army in Europe from 26th January, 1944 to 8th August, 1945. My memory of D Day Tuesday, 6th June, 1944 was hearing the roar of very many bomber planes and looking up to see the sky full of American Fortresses and Liberators. On one occasion my father took me there or it could have been Lyndford Hall. I think it was to a courts-martial but as usual I wasn’t told! I do remember having lunch in this very large hall sitting among American Air Force officers.  As a constant reminder of the Desert Rats, what they did in the war and their presence in the Mundford area there is a Cromwell tank on a raised plinth beside the road from Brandon to Swaffham. Parts of the 7th Armoured Division, prior to D Day, were stationed at the camp at Cranwich. For some reason unknown to me my father had an invitation to go to their camp to see a show by a branch of ENSA (Entertainments National Services Association). He took me along and we sat on the front row. Many well-known entertainers visited camps of H.M. Forces. I have no idea who were in this particular show but we enjoyed it.

As there were so many airfields in the area plane crashes were inevitable.  As soon as we boys had heard of a crash we would be off on our bikes looking for souvenirs, parts of aircraft or live ammunition. We would pull out the steel ends to get at the thin strips of cordite. These we lay out in a line and set fire to them just for the fun of it. Once we went to a crash site where two American bombers had collided in mid-air, fell to the ground and both crews killed. We wanted to have a look but there was an American Air Force policeman on guard and he had a gun. He told us to clear off. We told him it was our country and we could do what we liked. He wasn’t impressed and became threatening so we left in a hurry. We never gave a thought to the fact that a plane crash meant the loss of life and in the case of an American bomber as many as ten men.

On the evening of V.J. Day – victory in Japan – I was staying with my parents in Thetford. There were celebrations near Castle Hill. I went there and found some of my Indian friends. They introduced me to an Indian V.C. His name was Singh.  He gave me his autograph which I had on a scrap of paper for many years after. Unfortunately like many things with the passage of time it got lost as did many of my souvenirs like badges from different countries. I still have a small silk handkerchief also a large print of a painting of loads of cotton on carts in Northern India which were given to me by my Indian friends.

Having left school in July, after a short holiday I started work at Barclays Bank at Brandon. There was still a heavy presence of both American and British army. Officers would come into the bank paying money into various accounts and one of the lady staff was in much demand for dates and some mornings would stagger into work after a particularly late night!

These are my memories of World War Two when I was a schoolboy. I have added some information after research to explain some happenings but apart from these the rest are genuinely from my memories.

 Bas Kybird, 83 years

Drayton, April, 2012

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