|Lest we forget:|
|the War years|
By Judy Turner
Seven young men from the village died in the First World War. Brothers and cousins from two families and my uncle, Reginald Roberts, who joined up at seventeen was killed in the last days of the war and buried in a French wood. I have taken flowers from the fields and lanes of Haselor to all their memorials in France as a token. How surprised they would be, if they could see us now checking their histories on the Internet.
The Second World War made its mark on the villages in various ways, including the death of two village lads. We were always aware of our vulnerability to attack because of the proximity of the Maudslay Motor Company at Great Alne which had been bombed out of Coventry. We received warnings to our house about enemy activity, and immediately recognised the sound of approaching German aircraft. If they turned right they would bomb Coventry, while a left turn meant Birmingham would suffer.
A string of bombs fell along the ridge of the Alne Hills. The only loss of life was a local goat who was considered to have died of surprise!
Incendiaries were dropped at Walcote, but caused little damage. The local people were not aware a bomb had been dropped until the corner of a hayrick in the Dutch barn caught fire. The people from the Cider Mill rushed out to find a bomb fizzing on the doorstep. They went to get a bucket of sand and found another had fallen at the back of the Mill.
The evening bombers dropped their bombs across the bottom of Walcote, Nillands and Church Hill and the next day we went out and picked up pieces of shrapnel which I still have.
There were quite a few crashes locally. One bomber with a Canadian crew was badly hit returning from Germany, crashed in the Alne Hills and then blew up. The crew had baled out up Pear Tree Hill along the Broad Road. The pilot knocked at my Auntie’s door at the Cross Roads, but one of the crew was missing. The villagers went out searching for him, but it was a cruel night with a severe frost and they could not find him. He had come down in a field and rolled into a ditch with legs and jaw smashed. He could not move or call out and probably heard the search going on around him but was unable to respond. He was found the next day dead of hypothermia.
Another double crash happened on Pear Tree Hill which was quite exciting as nobody was hurt. A bomber, call sign Prairie Green 1 2, became lost in the fog trying to return to its hanger at Snitterfield and crash landed in the field next to Marl Lane. The field on the other side of the lane was planted with potatoes. I remember how we all raced to the scene but being only little I had a job to get over the earth humps, and the older children shouted at me for being slow.
We took the pilot, a Canadian from British Columbia called Bob Strachan, back to our house. Uncle Cyril Harris, who was in the Home Guard, took his rifle and with other RAF personnel stood guard over the plane. The crew were more concerned about missing the dance at the Sergeant’s Mess that evening!
The saga did not end there because when a second plane called ‘The Maggie’ arrived to hook Prairie Green off with a hawser, it misjudged the distance and pulled off its own undercarriage on the hedge... we now had two crashed planes in the field!
We were fascinated by one of the crew who was black as, of course, we had never seen a black man before.
Prairie Green eventually took off on its own, but the Maggie was taken off the field on an aircraft transporter. My Auntie kept in touch with Bob Strachan for many years.
In the early part of the War the ruling was that in the event of a raid the school children were to be sent home. With the onset of the heavy daylight raids on Redditch the ground shook at Haselor and after my mother saw a Messerschmidt fly under the wires in Bomford Orchard (now Upton Green) she decided it was time to meet the children who were then at school at Aston Cantlow. She found them lying in the ditch up Walcote Hill as the fighters were firing at the cattle in the fields.
Some of the boys from the school said that they went on the Alne Hills and found a trap door guarded by a soldier with a rifle who told them to go away and not reveal what they had seen. More about this later.
We had a large number of prisoners of war in the village working on the land and cleaning the brook. They had red squares stitched onto their backs and knees. Some of them slept in the fields in the summer. Cleaning the brook out caused a furore in the village and the young people embarked on a programme of sabotage. The men’s camp was at the bottom of the Tuer in Pillar Meadow and their jackets, buckets, kettles, mugs, teapots and tools were left there overnight in the hot summer weather. The protest by the village youth started up Pear Tree Hill with cartoons and slogans appearing written with lumps of agricultural chalk and then progressed down to the camp. More cartoons and offensive slogans and drawings were left for the Germans to find and then things got out of hand. The tools were slung into the brook, teapots, mugs and kettles were filled with mud and the buckets also went in the brook. A jacket was ripped to shreds and an old garden statue that the children had dug up had a moustache pencilled in and a tin cap placed on his head. The fence was pulled up and burnt and the small footbridge over the brook towards Walcote was virtually sawn through. The following morning some of the culprits waited along the road and watched the bridge collapse as the men started to go across. The police were called but no action was taken.
Funnily enough, what incensed the village children was nothing to do with the War, but the fact that the brook was being destroyed. It had always been a favourite play area with clear water from a spring in Jingle Brain rippling over a red clay bottom. There were little sandy beaches and shells, fish, sticklebacks and smooth grass-covered edges. Cuttings were made in the bank for cows to go down and drink. Wild flowers, dog roses and sweet briar grew there and it was a lovely place to play. The area was ruined and sadly remains the polluted eyesore we see today. A plaque was placed under the culvert at the bottom of Bomford’s Orchard (now Upton Green), stating that the brook had been cleaned out by prisoners of war. A family who lived in an adjacent property, allowed their children to remove the plaque and took it away when they left the village.
There were searchlight batteries in the Crown Field and at Exhall. One night after a rainy day the weather cleared and a full moon and cold night ensued. Because the lights were wrongly sited they shone across the valley, reflecting light off the frozen streets. Subsequently that night Redditch was heavily bombed.
On the night Coventry was bombed all the hills appeared to be on fire and we could stand outside in the road and read a newspaper. Men from Haselor went to Coventry to help with the rescue work as they were used to working on and clearing the roads. The enemy planes circled Coventry first with high explosives to destroy the roads and water mains and then went in with incendiaries to burn the city.
First Aid classes were held in the village and children as well as adults learned the rudiments of making slings etc.. The youngsters were also taught how to use a safety pin to pin their tongue to their coat lapel to prevent them swallowing it in the event of a gas attack.
The children were also taught how to make Molotov cocktails and, if invaded, they were to hide in the double hedges and lob them out at the enemy.
Of course there were funny incidents too. One foggy night there was a St. John’s Ambulance meeting at the school. A certain lady had to leave early, but when the rest of the group came out an hour or so later a little voice said “Can you show me where the gate is”! A tremendous explosion occurred in the village which everyone thought was a bomb, but the early morning light revealed that the wall at Highfield had collapsed. The first aid workshop was interrupted one night by a terrible bang, but it only proved to be someone falling over one of the heavy school benches!
My Dad was friendly with Farmer Hodges whose land was adjacent to Long Marston Airfield. They were talking one day and watching the planes go off on bombing raids when one crashed and all the bombs exploded, sadly killing the crew. The force of the explosion lifted the contents of the muck yard and deposited it on Mr. Hodges’ house! The ground shook at Haselor as the bombs exploded.
The Free Czech Army, who were based at Leamington, performed manoeuvres around the Haselor area. They had a stop-off in the village and were very caring towards the local children, cuddling and talking to them, no doubt thinking of their own children. They were from the group that had assassinated Heydrich, resulting in the destruction of Lidice.
Of course, with new men in the village the teenage girls developed relationships with some of the German and Italian prisoners of war. Younger sisters such as myself were used as runners with messages when irate parents managed to keep the girls in. Many long lasting friendships and marriages resulted from these meetings.
It was only until well after their deaths that we seriously began to wonder about my parents involvement in the War. We knew there was something secret, but they refused to tell us and both took their secrets to the grave. We wondered, for instance, why we had a telephone when virtually no one else did and we did not have the Post Office then. We also had a colour-coded warning system; yellow - over the coast, red -overhead, green - all clear, etc. Dad was not able to joint the Army because of severe injuries he had suffered in the First World War, but why wasn’t he in the Home Guard when nearly everyone else was? Tar barrels were stored on the roadside, but Dad had told us not to play on them as they did not contain tar and, of course, there was the extensive widening of Wood Lane. My sister said jokingly to Mum “Are they storing atom bombs on the Alne Hills?”. Mum said “Well, you’re on the right track”.
However, fate plays a hand of its own and a very early morning programme on Radio 4 at the end of December 1997 possibly revealed all. An old man from Yorkshire decided to tell his very interesting story. He was now 84 years old and the order given to him over fifty years ago had never been rescinded. This was his story - Britain’s Secret Army:
The Ministry of Defence was given the job of recruiting one agent for a given area. Suitable people were game-keepers, farm workers, roadmen, etc. whose normal occupation would take them out and about without drawing attention to themselves. The chosen man was ordered to recruit six others and set up a working cell or unit to act as saboteurs if we were invaded. They were enrolled and given status of Home Guard and issued with standard uniforms. The leader would then recruit six others, each chosen for their intimate local knowledge and skills. Their activities were known to no-one outside their patrols, not even their families. They carried on with their normal day-to-day work and trained in utmost secrecy. Patrols were well armed and hide-out well equipped with several weeks supply of food, ammunition, first aid equipment and other essentials. Underground caches of arms and gelignite were concealed in chambers. A trap door led to a flight of stairs going to a manmade chamber which was usually in a ten foot drainage tunnel or something similar. The exit would come out in a privy, cold frame or under brambles or bushes (remember what the schoolboys had told their friends from Aston School?). Uniforms and instructions on how to survive for three days (the limit of expectation) were there. We now know, of course, that the countryside was to be burnt if it was invaded. The man from Yorkshire said that because no one had told him to stop, he had been regularly going to a secret hideout and turning weeping sticks of gelignite! All too far fetched? Most of this was confirmed in a Secret History episode on the Home Guard shown on television in the spring of 1998. When the threat of invasion lessened, the patrols were stood down. Weapons and stores were collected and hide-outs destroyed. However, as late as 1978, the odd observations post was still being found complete with stores and weapons. If we are on the right track, I bet I know who were members of the Haselor unit!
We had three more plane crashes in this area. In 1941 a light aircraft crashed near Hoo Mill and the pilot was killed, and another came down at Oversley. In 1953 an Aer Lingus Dakota flying from Dublin to Birmingham got into difficulties and crash landed on the Great Alne to Spernal road. We all went down to see it and luckily no one was hurt.