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Ashley Ford’s memories of World War II

I have very clear memories of the war which for us started on 3rd September 1939 – a Sunday. My family had one of the few ‘wireless sets’ in the village and Uncle John Henry Putt called in to hear Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, announce at 11am that our country was at war with Germany.

He fled from the house in tears, I guess remembering the carnage of WWI and the loss of his brother Percy who died of wounds 31st March 1918 – Good Friday. My mother who was 17 at the time spent that Friday making a dress, an act which her mother said led to Percy’s death – God’s punishment for working on the holiest day in the Christian Calendar – sensitive soul Granny!

Having heard the news of the start of war Barney and I went out to play, blissfully unaware of what lay ahead. The so called phoney war followed and the only memory of that was a popular song ‘We’ll hang out the washing on the Siegfried line, have you any dirty washing Mother dear’, a typical optimistic drum beat of war, soon to be followed by the Dunkirk disaster. In June that same year the aircraft carrier HMS Glorious and her two escorting destroyers were sunk in the North Sea by a powerful German naval force. 1500 men died, among them Ernie Wood, ‘Slinger’s’ son who lived at the bottom of Ducks’ Lane, and a Tabb whose first name I don’t remember [William]. When I heard this news I was standing outside Sunnyside with a few other boys of which one was Cyril Tabb, an exact contemporary at Prawle School, and whose father was on Glorious. In fact his father was picked up, probably by Norwegian fishermen only to die in a POW camp in Germany, a sad end: Cyril is the boy to the forefront with a decorated bicycle in a photo I think you have of the 1937 Coronation celebrations on the Green. Slinger Wood was a hard drinking character – virtually lived at the ‘Provy’.

The collapse of France provided the Germans with handy airfields and Plymouth became a target for some very heavy raids. The ostensible target was the dockyard but whether by error or design the centre of the town was destroyed and the dockyard never ceased operating. We would hear German bombers outward and homeward bound, their flight path took them over Prawle, and we would go to the top of the hill at the back of the house where we could see Plymouth burning in the night sky.

One day I saw several German planes attack a small coastal cargo ship steaming up the channel perhaps a mile offshore. It was a brutal affair and over in minutes. Later on Horsley beach I saw the sole survivor who managed to swim ashore.

Kingsbridge was bombed two or three times. During the Christmas holidays 1942 the new Grammar School buildings at Westville took a direct hit, and several people across the road from the school were killed, but the school was empty and when the holiday was over we returned to the 17th century old school at the top end of Kingsbridge Fore Street. We were lucky. In another raid a village boy, David Standfast, was killed and I was a bearer at his funeral.

Our daily journey to school took us across and back the Salcombe estuary, and in 1944 we watched it fill up with landing craft preparing for D-Day. The South Hams was awash with US sailors and soldiers. We would thumb a lift on the troop carrying landing craft and save our tuppences for the ferry. The ‘Yanks’; were very friendly. We would wave from the beach on the Portlemouth side, they would drive onto the beach, drop the ramp to let us aboard, up ramp, slam into reverse and throw us off our feet as the craft unstuck from the beach. Then full speed ahead and we were off balance again. These were powerful craft to carry 36 soldiers in full battle order and in the hands of skilled coxswains performed like speed boats when empty, which they were when they picked us up.

On our way home from school on 5th June everything was on the move. Looking back I am surprised the ferry service wasn’t suspended, but the fleet, armada is a better description, was moving very slowly and the ferry boat was able to weave in and out and we never felt in any danger. It was a wonderful sight. A vivid memory is of standing on the landing stage on the Portlemouth side as a LCT (Landing Craft Tank), a large ship with hundreds of American troops on deck, waving, smoking, chewing gum, passed over the end of the landing stage which shook so violently I thought it might collapse. Next morning the 7am news told us troops were on the Normandy beaches and Salcombe estuary was starkly empty.

The Americans created an enormous dump at the head of Batson Creek which became a wonderful hunting ground for new and interesting equipment discarded by the best equipped military in the world – footwear, clothing, and best of all ‘K’ rations. A box of K rations contained a self-heating can of stew, high nutrition biscuits, chocolate, chewing gum, Nescafe, sugar, powdered milk. They provided my first ever cup of Nescafe.

The war was an exciting time for adventurous boys dazzled by stories of heroism, of which there were plenty, but not yet aware of the barbarism which disgraced all sides of the conflict. We never went hungry. Living in the country we were largely self sufficient. The family kept pigs and poultry and a good kitchen garden. I do not think bread was ever rationed although there was no choice but the war time utility loaf. Wild rabbits supplemented the meagre meat ration. We also bred tame rabbits for the pot and sea gull eggs in the laying season made good eating although fishy tasting, which remind me of ‘turnipy’ milk in the winter when cows were fed on turnips. Then of course we were enthusiastic amateur fishermen relying on Wrasse (known as ‘cunner’  locally) and conger eel caught from the rocks (we didn’t own a boat) – and we knew our crab holes!

By the time I was in my teens I was a keen beachcomber and knew the coast from Moor Sands to Lannacombe inside out. Soon after D-Day the usual detritus of the sea was augmented by materials from the Normandy landings. One Sunday afternoon I collected seven 7lb tins of what was clearly food of some sort. The labels had washed off but there was an interesting slurping noise when they were shaken. I always had a sack with me and hastened home with my mystery cans – of what? – Sunday tea time, opened a tin, wonderful, half peaches in syrup, something we hadn’t seen for three years at least. We enjoyed these for the rest of the week. Then next Sunday Mum suggested we open another tin; those peaches were extraordinarily good. Imagine the disappointment, that tin contained spinach and so did the remaining five. At that time spinach was an alien vegetable. Love it now, but not then, and it was fed to the pigs.

On another occasion I came across a beautiful auxiliary aircraft fuel tank (fighter planes were equipped with these to extend their range and were jettisoned on their way home). It made a splendid raft and we had hours of fun that summer paddling around the Horsley beach area. Then one day we found someone had punctured it in several places with an axe. We plugged the holes with clay from the cliffs and Barney put to sea. The clay plugs softened and leaked and our raft sank beneath him. He was a poor swimmer and would have drowned had an American serviceman, hearing his cries, not come to his rescue.

After D-Day a POW camp was established in fields between Chivelstone Cross and Cousins Cross and the POWs put to work on farms. My first contact with the Germans was at a victory celebration at the RAF barracks at the top of the hill behind the Thatches. The prisoners had formed a band, a very good one, and they played for the dance that evening. To this day, when I hear ‘Tiger Rag’ I can see their leader, hand raised to start them off with the words ‘eine, zvie, drie’ and later one band member leave his place on the platform, walk on to the dance floor and with an ‘excuse me’ displaced a RAF chap who angrily pushed him away. Very young and very naive I admired that German’s courage and thought the RAF lad’s attitude unchivalrous – I was yet to join the Army and appreciate that that young airman may have had good reason to shove that young German away.

I spent the summer of 1946 working on Higher Farm and found myself spending many hours with a POW, Herman, ‘opening up’ corn fields, a process which allowed the binder to make the first cut around the periphery of a field without trampling standing corn. This procedure was done with a scythe and usually involved two men, one scything, the other binding the corn into sheaves. Herman and I opened up every field on Higher Farm that year. I spoke no German, Hermann had picked up maybe half a dozen words of English. On day one, having received our orders, I collected a scythe and a carborundum stone from the tool shed and started to sharpen the blade. Hermann watched for a moment, then said ‘no good’ and disappeared into the shed. He emerged with a 14lb sack weighing machine weight [little drawing here]and a hammer and using the weight as an anvil proceeded to beat a razor sharp edge to that scythe. He then swung the scythe to feel how it handled, rather like a golfer at the first tee, and said ‘good’. I had assumed that I would cut and Hermann bind sheaves – the menial job, the women’s job for centuries! But he immediately started cutting, creating the widest swathe I had ever seen and at a slow walking pace. Somewhere, sometime he had had a lot of practice. Our inability to communicate other than by signs and gestures prevented me exploring this. A most likely explanation is that he was of peasant stock, Germany at that time still having a significant peasant population.

The boss, Geoff Tripp, soon realised he had an exceptional farm worker in his team that harvest. The prisoners were provided with a doorstop cheese sandwich for their midday meal and Geoff’s aid ‘no man can work like that on a sandwich’ and gave him the same dinner he enjoyed himself. At that time dinner was in the middle of the day, lunch was a quarter hour break for a snack and drink at 10 am. Geoff always filled his pipe at our 7.30 am briefing and passed his tobacco pouch to Hermann who still had his pipe. This was civilised behaviour which made a deep impression on this sixteen years old schoolboy.

One lunch time Hermann and I were sitting under a hedge and he produced photos of his wife and children and started quietly to weep, his whole body shook. I was able to understand he thought he would never see them again. I hope he did. All prisoners held in UK were repatriated in 1948 but if their homes were in the Russian zone many train loads were diverted to Russia and weren’t freed until, I think, 1955, and then only after Churchill intervened with Stalin.

About this time, returning home from an evening event in Kingsbridge on my motorbike I stopped to pick up a man thumbing a lift. He was a POW working on a farm in West Charleton and regularly missed the evening pickup which was supposed to collect all prisoners at the end of the day and return them to camp. I gave him a lift on several occasions and he would crawl under the wire to reach his billet. Security was very lax, in fact almost nonexistent. He had fallen for the farmer’s daughter and I believe after repatriation he soon returned and married her – a Miss Cornish.

Postscript

My children owe their existence to WWII, as I owe mine to WWI. A kindly providence brought Harry Ford to Prawle in 1917 and seven years after leaving the Army I was sitting in a Glasgow coffee bar and was approached by a man who had spotted my regimental tie. He introduced me to the best club in town, the Glasgow University Students Union where I met Anne, (Mark, Alison and Kathryn’s mother). I find the randomness of it all fascinating – the ‘what if’ and ‘buts’ of life, but have to switch off when pondering the fact that two generations of Fords owe their existence to two ghastly wars.

 Ro Ward’s youthful memories  Jan Page’s thoughts Ashley Ford’s WWII memories   Barry Smithard’s recollections