WORLD WAR II BEGINS | 1939 | 1940 | 1941 | 1942 | 1943 | 1944 | 1945 | MEMORIES

On 1 January the twenty-six members of what President Roosevelt had optimistically termed the United Nations, declared as one that they would wage war together and not make a separate peace. The declaration was meant primarily as a gesture to Russia, believed to be still suspicious that western capitalist powers would seize any chance to join Germany in an anti-communist crusade.

On the Home Front the bombing of British towns and cities had continued throughout 1941, though raids were less intense and invasion now looked far less likely as the pendulum slowly swung in favour of the Allies from the Axis powers. In North Africa, General Montgomery had halted Rommel in his tracks and in Russia the Red army, and the weather, stalled Germany’s march on Moscow.

As is the case at the start of every new year, numerous facts and figures collated from the previous 12 months were released. These included a government report that in 1941, British fighter aircraft and Ack-Ack guns destroyed 1,350 enemy aircraft for the loss of 559 RAF fighters.

Local facts and figures were a little less exciting but the H&E Observer did reveal that war savings in Bishop’s Stortford in the 4 week period ending 20 December, amounted to £25,522. This was in the form of Savings Certificates, Defence Bonds, Savings Bonds, War Bonds, Post Office Savings and Bank deposits. Despite the hardships of war and the usually expensive period in the run-up to Christmas, such investment gives a fair indication as to the wealth of the town at that time.

January: Rice and dried fruit rationed

The continued call-up of men to the Forces inevitably led to labour shortages, more especially in agriculture. To counteract this the government used ‘good conduct’ Italian prisoners of war for farm work – an experimental scheme confined to the district of existing prisoner-of-war camps, most of which were in the Midlands at that time. Locally, a prisoner-of-war camp was built at Mill Lane, Hatfield Heath in 1941/42 to house Italian prisoners, but these men were not allowed to work on local farms until 1943/44. Prisoners were allowed to ‘live in’ on farms, and farmers had to pay the County War Agricultural Executive Committee for their services: 40 shillings (£2) a week for the first 3 months and 48 shillings (£2.40) a week thereafter. From this they could deduct 21 shillings (£1.05) a week for a prisoner’s board and lodging. With most Italian PoWs housed on local farms, the Hatfield Heath camp was then used mainly for German prisoners.

On 26 January the first American Forces (3,900 troops) to arrive in Great Britain were stationed in Belfast; the US agreeing to take over the defence of Northern Ireland thus freeing British troops to engage in campaigns in the Middle East and Far East.

To further encourage public investment in War Savings Certificates and Defence Bonds, this month the government instigated Warship Week. Towns and villages throughout the country set themselves a savings target which, if reached, allowed them to ‘adopt’ a warship.

Bishop’s Stortford’s Warship Week ran from Saturday 14 February to Saturday 21 February, in which time the organisors hoped £120,000 would be raised to adopt HMS Clover – one of many Corvette class warships used to act as escorts for convoys and ward off U-boats. After a slow start it was feared the town had set its sights too high, but a late influx of cash raised the total to £126,638. Such events always provoked ‘friendly’ rivalry between Stortford and the nearby town of Saffron Walden, as to who could raise the most money. In this case Stortford came a poor second, Walden’s target of £120,000 to adopt another Corvette, HMS Marjoram, being exceeded in just 2 days.

Abroad the war took a definite turn for the worse on 15 February when Singapore fell to the Japanese with the capture of 130,000 British troops. It was one of the greatest defeats in the history of the British Army.

On the Home Front, tinned tomatoes and peas were added to the food rationing list, and to the absolute delight of young boys so too was soap. Importing the raw materials necessary for soap’s manufacture from Africa was now proving extremely difficult, putting the British, at that time described as one of the best washed in the world, in danger of losing their title.

This same month a decision was made by the British government and American military that was to change the Essex landscape for ever: to build a United States Army Air Force base on a plateau close to the village of Stansted Mounfitchet in Essex.

In March, the H&E Observer’s regular coverage of Bishop’s Stortford council’s fortnightly meetings revealed the need for all householders to apply for Anderson or *Morrison shelters. The reason for this as stated by the council was that bombing raids on an even heavier scale than in the past were to be expected.

Morrison shelters – named after the then Minister for Home Security, Herbert Morrison – were indoor shelters for those without a garden and therefore unable to have an Anderson shelter. About the size of a rectangular table and made to fit over one, its steel framework had a steel plate top with welded wire mesh sides. If the house collapsed as a result of a bomb, the Morrison shelter would squash down to no more than 12 inches, thereby protecting those beneath it and allowing them to crawl out.

March: gas and electricity rationed

Also reported was concern by the public, and the council, on the amount of freedom allowed to three Japanese poultry workers in the town – chick-sexing experts who worked for Sparks Poultry Industries. When Japan declared war on Britain and America all three men were immediately interred, but because of their great skill and speed in chick-sexing a plea from the firm they worked for ensured their release and return to the town. Like all foreign nationals they had to regularly report to the local police station but it was still felt inappropriate that these three men should be allowed such freedom. As a consequence the council protested to the Home Office.

This month the council also made public a letter received from the Commanding officer of HMS Clover, thanking the town for the £120,000 raised during Warship Week.

Making yet another court appearance in April was local man Charles Judd, imprisoned for 12 months the previous April for receiving stolen property at his business premises, the Acme Cafe in London Road. As only a year had passed since he was jailed for that offence, it seems likely that good behaviour contributed to his early release. No custodial sentence was passed on this appearance but he was fined £45 for keeping his cafe as a gaming house by having two fruit machines in use. Three men who were caught using the machines were each fined 6s 8d.

A news agency report in the H&E Observer dated 11 April, told how Britain now had more telephones (often referred to as ‘instruments’) than ever before – 3,300,000 in fact. Despite the bombings and wrecking of telephone exchanges, the service was generally always rapidly repaired and in 1941 more than 450,000 new phones – mostly provided to meet essential war requirements – were installed. Exactly how many telephone exchanges were wrecked or destroyed by bombing is unknown but no doubt many more were hit when, on 23 April, the Germans began concerted *revenge attacks on Britain’s cathedral cities, starting with Exeter.

*Hitler was enraged by the RAF’s bombing of the ancient German cathedral city of Lubeck on the night of 28/29 March 1942. The city was chosen as a target because it was used as a base to supply the Russian front and the RAF wanted to test a new incendiary bomb.

Another agency report revealed that when war broke out in September 1939, the BBC was broadcasting to the world in 10 languages including English. Now, in May of 1942, BBC radio [World] service was keeping people informed of events in no fewer than 46 languages.

Nearer to home the town’s resident rogue, Charles Judd, was again mentioned in the H&E Observer, this time applying to the council for planning permission to erect a temporary building adjacent to his cafe in London Road for use as a drivers’ rest room. A decision rested on submission of plans (see July).

In the town there was great concern over continued abuse and damage to the public toilets in Market Square, as well as to the town’s air raid shelters. In answer to the latter the council announced that in future all public air raid shelters would be kept locked until needed, otherwise they wouldn’t be in a fit state for use by anyone. The key to each shelter was to be held by a responsible person living nearby.

May also marked the centenary of the arrival of the railway in Bishop’s Stortford. During the First World War, hundreds of soldiers had departed from the town’s station to fight in Europe, but no armed Force had ever arrived here by train to help fight a war. Before the year’s end this would happen: many of the American soldiers regularly arriving at Liverpool docks, being put on trains bound for London and then Bishop’s Stortford. On arrival they were then dispersed to build air bases in Essex – the largest being at Stansted. By now some 37,000 American servicemen were already camped or billeted in Britain.

On May 30 the target for Britain’s first thousand-bomber air raid was Cologne

In June the Prime Minister’s grave warning about the possible use of gas by the Germans, imparted an edge in the efforts of ARP wardens when carrying out inspections of the public’s gas masks. Many people had now disregarded these precious life-saving items, most when challenged by air raid wardens being unable to find them in their homes. When they were found they were rarely in good working order. The public was told to be ready for liquid blister gas, a life threatening chemical compound that could soak through clothes and blister the skin. Advice offered was to have a jar of No 2 ‘Anti-Gas Ointment’ at hand, obtainable from most chemists for 6d. For those who might be affected by the liquid and have nowhere to wash it off, gas cleansing stations were established in busy streets and thoroughfares. Stortford’s cleansing station was housed at the old police station in Church Street.

Respecting the town’s rural heritage and the importance of agriculture to the community, a prominent weekly feature of the H&E Observer was farming and agricultural news – as well as a Gardening column. In June it published an urgent notice issued by the Hertfordshire War Agricultural Executive Committee, instructing all occupiers of agricultural land of one acre or more to make a forecast of their cropping for 1943. This was so that the committee could allocate phosphate and potash fertilisers to each grower on the basis of his return.

In July the chairman of the local Waterworks Committee complained that townspeople were using far too much water. It wasn’t a question of creating a water shortage but the tremendous amount of pumping required to supply it. The daily consumption of 38 gallons per head should be limited to 30 gallons, he said, and called on people to use water sparingly.

Also causing concern was the County Salvage Drive. Not only were there not enough salvage stewards to establish dumps in each street, but the Womens Voluntary Service (WVS) carrying out the work were getting very little cooperation from residents. At Thorley Park, because certain residents were having salvage collected from their homes, others were refusing to take theirs to the local dump. The council was also at odds with the Ministry of Works: a request to retain iron railings at the Rhodes Centre, King’s Cottages and land at Rye Street, having been refused. The Ministry’s one concession was that in the case of the latter, railings would only be removed where the retaining wall was not less than four feet high. For the most part the wall was well under the prescribed height and as a consequence some pre-war pre-war iron railings still remain in Rye Street.

12 July: After a short illness and an operation, popular town resident Charles Brazier died, aged 66. (See Guide 2)

26 July: sweets and chocolate rationed

Also turned down, this time by the local Recreation Grounds Committee was a suggestion that the children’s playing facilities in Castle Gardens should be available for use on a Sunday, as should the tennis courts and putting green. The reason for refusal was that they were unable to provide the necessary facilities and there was no one available to supervise the area. Bad news also for local man Charles Judd. Planning permission for his proposed extension to act as sleeping accommodation at the Acme Cafe in London Road, was turned down.

Entertainment in the town at this time was restricted to a night out in the pub, the occasional Saturday night dance or a visit to the cinema. Needless to say the latter was always a firm favourite because at that time Stortford had two cinemas showing a varied selection of films each week. The following from the H&E Observer shows what was on offer at the Regent and Phoenix cinema for one week during July.

Regent cinema: Monday – Ray Milland and Paulette Goddard in ‘The Lady has Plans’: also ‘Secret of G.31′ with Nancy Kelly and Richard Cazlson. Phoenix cinema: Monday – ‘The Wolf Man’ with Claude Rains and Lon Chaney; ‘Radio Revels of 1942′ with Ken Murray and Frances Langford. Thursday – Llyod Nolan in ‘Blue White and Perfect’; also ‘Where the Buffalo Roam,’ with Tex Ritter.

A reality check that the war hadn’t gone away completely came on 30 July when a lone German plane swooped low over Havers Lane with machine guns blazing. Several houses were slightly damaged and one female was injured.

With the arrival in Britain of more and more American Forces, many of whom would soon be stationed in this area with the task of building airfields, the H&E Observer dated 1 August, led its editorial with the following: Glad To See You America! Already the American uniform is a familiar sight in our streets. The men now among us are the vanguard of a vast army coming to aid in the restoration of liberty to the enslaved lands.

In fact, the first American unit to arrive in this area was the 817th Aviation Engineering Battalion, at Renfrew Farm, Stansted, on 8 August 1942. They were met by a Mr Grossman, the manager of the farm owned by a Jewish community in London’s East End. The battalion’s role was to begin the conversion of typical Essex green fields into a huge military air base. None at that time would have had any idea that some fifty years later their efforts would culminate in the establishment of London’s third International airport, graced with one of the world’s most state-of-the-art terminal buildings.

Added proof and comfort that the Americans were now here in force was the appearance in the skies over Britain of more and more aircraft of the United States Army and the United States Navy.

One little known fact revealed this month was that Bishop’s Stortford, despite its long history, had no coat of arms. Only after Warship Week, when the adoption of HMS Clover required a plaque to be sent to the ship, was a design prepared. It was hoped to make it of metal and mount it on an oak panel, which would then be mounted on the ship’s quarterdeck. Unfortunately, despite the generosity of townspeople in aiding the war effort, the Ministry of Health (successor of the old Local Government Board) refused to pay for the plaque and so the council had to pay for it out of the rates.

An indication as to the cost of dying in 1942 comes from an advertisement placed in the H&E Observer (8 August) by the Tottenham & Wood Green Burial Board. Cremation at Enfield cemetery was 4 Guineas (£4. 40), which included all fees and the scattering of ashes.

Americans arriving in Britain were obviously in for a culture shock, the vast majority being young men who had never set foot out of their own country and had absolutely no idea of life in a foreign land. Primarily they were here to help fight a war but as Britain would be their home for some considerable time the US government, in order to help troops adjust and understand the British character and customs, issued each man with a pamphlet containing guidelines on their expected behaviour.

Parts of the pamphlet were published in the H&E Observer, dated 5 September. This was not a time to relive old wars. Irish-Americans should not think of the English as persecutors of the Irish, or as enemy Redcoats who fought in the American Revolution. Enemy propaganda will try to divide the English and Americans by their differences. Ignore them. The British are far more reserved than Americans. They guard their privacy carefully and are careful not to invade another man’s privacy. If Britons sitting on buses or trains do not strike up a conversation with you, they are not being rude or haughty, they don’t want to appear rude or intrusive.

Care should be taken on swearing in mixed company, the word ‘bloody’ being one of their worst swear words. Don’t call their money ‘funny money’. They sweat hard for it (earning much lowere wages than Americans). Don’t mock pounds shillings and pence. American soldier’s pay is the highest in the world. Don’t brag about the fact to the British ‘Tommy’. Don’t be misled by the British tendency to be soft-spoken and polite. If they they need to be, they can be plenty tough. The English language didn’t spread across the oceans and over the mountains and jungles and swamps of the world because these people were panty-waists.

Sixty thousand British civilians – men, women and children – have died under bombs, and yet the morale of the British is unbreakable and high. You won’t be able to tell the British much about ‘taking it’. They are not particularly interested in taking it anymore. They are far more interested in getting together in solid friendship with us, so that we can all start dishing it out to Hitler.

The British also got pamphlets issued by the Army Bureau of Current Affairs to educate them about Americans. ‘Americans are not Englishmen who are different, but foreigners who are rather like us!

For the most part American servicemen (GIs) stationed locally built a good relationship with townspeople – more especially with young single women who were drawn by their smart uniforms, American accents and seemingly limitless cash. At that time a British private was paid 14 shillings a week (70p), compared to his US counterpart’s £3. 8s. 9d (£3.44p) made up of basic pay and overseas allowance. This certainly didn’t didn’t endear GIs to British soldiers who referred to them as over-fed, over-paid, over-sexed and over-here. GIs responded that British troops were under-fed, under-paid, under-sexed and under Eisenhower. Fights between GIs, locals and British soldiers were fairly commonplace.

It wasn’t so much a case that GIs were over-paid but that British soldiers were under-paid, and this month the government finally woke up to the fact by awarding a flat rate pay rise of 20% to all British troops.

By September Bishop’s Stortford had the atmosphere of a garrison town. Americans in uniform were everywhere, and on land adjacent to Bridge Street (currently the site of Charrington House and Causeway car park) the American Red Cross built a temporary PX hostel and rest centre. GIs boosted trade in most of the town’s pubs, despite the ‘warm’ beer, but one thing Americans didn’t like was the ‘raw’ milk consumed by the British at that time, which had to be boiled to kill any bacteria. To keep them happy, local dairy farmers cooperated by producing pasteurised milk.

Repeated requests to councils by the Military Authority to allow cinemas to open on a Sunday for members of the Forces, finally paid off this month. Bishop’s Stortford UDC was among those that agreed and applied to the Secretary of State for an order to this effect. Ironically, one of the first films to be seen by the Forces on a Sunday was the classic war film ‘In Which We Serve’, released 17 September 1942.

As a further war time measure the council also finally agreed to meet monthly instead of fortnightly.

Further proof that Bishop’s Stortford was an affluent town, even in war, came in November when it was revealed that since January 1940 more than £1,000,000 had been invested in National Savings through local selling centres.

Also reported in the H&E Observer was news that new powerful Ack-Ack guns protecting vulnerable targets in towns and cities were to be manned by the Home Guard for one night in eight. This was to allow regular gunners to go on further training. No doubt the Home Guard performed their duties well when called upon to act, but further reading of the report is reminiscent of watching the TV comedy, ‘Dad’s Army’:

‘After reporting for duty at their Battery Headquarters, if the sirens remain silent they will probably be doing some training indoors for a couple of hours and having a game of cards and a song in the canteen after supper. Then bed.’

The most popular eating place in the town now was the British Restaurant situated between the river and South Street. British Restaurants, run by local authorities to supply cheap meals for the public, evolved from the Londoners’ Meals Service, which originated in 1940 as a temporary emergency system for feeding those who had been bombed out. They were, though, rather utilitarian affairs so to brighten their interiors it was decided that pictures should be hung on the walls – mainly reproductions of the work of war artists.

The American 817th Aviation Engineer Battalion that had been clearing land and laying foundations for an air base at Stansted since August, left this month to apply their skills in North Africa. Replacing them was the 825th Aviation Battalion, who had arrived in October.

WORLD WAR II BEGINS | 1939 | 1940 | 1941 | 1942 | 1943 | 1944 | 1945 | MEMORIES


copyright© Paul Ailey 2004