The War Years
When war was declared in September 1939 hundreds of evacuees were brought to Letchworth and Jean and I spent a whole day carrying suitcases and bags for them as they were taken round to houses for compulsory billeting. When I got home I found that two women (large size) and three children had been allocated to us and I was moved to a mattress on the floor of our box room. We obviously were sorry for them and did all we could to help but I was glad when they went back to London after a few days. This happened to many of them during the long period of ‘phoney’ war, when no air raids took place but of course they were all re-evacuated, when the London Blitz started. We were lucky in Letchworth in that we never suffered an air raid, although there was a near miss to the Three Horseshoes Inn at Norton with one bomb and another dropped fairly close to The Wilbury Hotel. As we had no pubs in the town in those days these got a bit of publicity and Winston Churchill wrote to our local paper to say he was giving instructions to Bomber Command to target some German pubs in retaliation, obviously tongue in cheek morale boosting.
1940 were the ‘dark days’ of the war and my brothers, Ernest in the RAF and Albert in the Army, were serving in France. At the time of the Dunkirk evacuation Albert came out through Dunkirk but Ernest, who had got separated from his unit came out through Calais and was one of the very few who brought his lorry back to Britain. On reaching the UK he was immediately sent home on leave. I went to see him after he had been home a few days and we walked to the town together. While we were out a telegram was delivered to his wife May to say that he was “Missing, presumed killed in action”. We had a good laugh thinking what a dangerous place Letchworth must be, for that to happen within five minutes of leaving the house. It would not have seemed funny if he had not been at home on leave, there were a lot of those messages being sent out at the time most of them, sadly, were correct.
When Ernest decided to join the RAF father would not, or could not, take on the responsibility of the mortgage, so my parents and I became homeless. We were re-housed by the council in a tiny cottage in a difficult to let area of the town and this is where we were living at the time of mother’s death in 1941. Father died some six months later and I applied for the tenancy of the house. This was granted on the understanding that I was to be married in the near future. Father had died in hospital and I was told of his death by a policeman who, knocked on the door and asked if I was Eric Fitton. On acknowledging that I was, he said “ Your father Albert Fitton died at 3.10pm, please sign this paper to confirm that you have been informed”. They didn’t bother much with treating people gently at that time. So at 19 years of age I was without parents, earning a very small wage and taking on the responsibility of a rented house and marriage. In those days it was customary to ask the father for permission to marry his daughter and nervously I waited on the doorstep for him to come home from the Club to put the question. His reply I will always remember “ Yes, but if you don’t look after her I’ll b****y soon look after you.
Jean and I married at the church in Willian on the 23rd May 1942. We had been ‘courting’ for some time and had intended marrying when we were more mature but decided to ‘advance our attainment of maturity’ to conform to the council’s condition of granting me a tenancy. My own wage at the time were very low, about sixpence an hour but, with our joint wages we could afford the rent, ten shillings and sixpence per week, and settled down to married life. Our only problem at the time being the next door neighbour, an elderly spinster, who had 23 cats and 2 dogs. Our honeymoon, not very glamorous by to-days standards, consisted of two nights in a London hotel, seeing Max Miller at the Palladium and the film ‘How Green Was My Valley’ at the Pavilion.
In 1943, a year after we married, Jean’s Aunt, Uncle and young cousin were bombed out of their London home and came to live with us. They did make a little contribution to the rent which obviously helped but with four adults and a child we were very crowded in that little house which consisted of one room a kitchen and bathroom on the ground floor and two small bedrooms upstairs. But it was the ‘done thing’, they were homeless and we had a roof, there were lots of similar arrangements in Letchworth houses at that time. Aunt and Uncle would stand in the garden at night looking at the glow in the sky, from the fires in London worrying about Grandad and Grandma, both in their 80’s, who had refused to leave their basement flat in Finsbury Park. We went to see the old couple one day and found them having a very angry argument, shouting and swearing at each other. She said that after the last raid there were only three unbroken windows left in the flat, he said there were four.
Our main pastime was still cycling, and with Jean very proficient at knitting we used to go on our tandem dressed in similar outfits, very smart knitted jumpers. In summer we both wore shorts but in winter I had ‘Plus Fours’ and Jean had a divided skirt. We often rode to the village of Litlington, to see Jean’s Auntie Maud who lived in a very old centre terraced thatched cottage. All interior walls were covered by layers and layers of wallpaper, Auntie said she dare not strip any off when decorating as it was the paper that held the walls together. Old Grandad had only one tooth, all brown and pitted but would not have it out as it was the only means of holding his pipe in. He never had any money and was always on the scrounge, how Auntie managed on the pittance he allowed her we never knew. When he died it was discovered that the big belt he wore had a concealed pocket full of gold sovereigns. Water was obtained from a hand pump in the back yard and was shared by the other seven families in the terrace. The toilet was a privy (there was one for each house) at the end of the back garden, which consisted of a wooden hut with a door at the front, and a trap door at ground level at the rear. Inside was a large box with a hole in the top under which was a metal bucket. The trap door at the back was to facilitate access to the bucket for emptying. In the village it was possible to purchase eggs, and even the odd chicken, to supplement the very meagre wartime rations to which we were legally entitled. At the right time of year we were also able to purchase fruit such as plums, apples etc. and Jean I became known as the “Greengage couple” to the villagers. I also used to purchase beautiful tomatoes from Auntie, which she grew in the back garden but I could not understand why she never grew them in rows. They were all over the garden in the middle of the potato patch and among the cabbages and beans. On asking why? I learned that they were self-sets from the toilet bucket that Auntie emptied, in holes she dug all over the garden. I stopped eating them but still used to help her by continuing to buy them from her. I supplied them to neighbours back in Letchworth. What the eye doesn’t see !!! I made a very bad mistake one day by greeting Auntie’s neighbour with “Good morning Mr Shortan” and getting a load of abuse in return. I then learned that his real name was Pateman but because he was so small had always been known by the villagers as Billy Shortun and didn’t take kindly to the nickname.
Our other cycle rides took us many hundreds of miles but we were always prevented from going to the East Coast. There was a war time exclusion zone of some 20 mile, obviously as a precaution in case of invasion by the Germans, through which only authorised persons were allowed to travel. We would eat in transport cafes on these trips where the usual food on offer to people like us was baked beans on toast. Jean, never very keen on baked beans anyway, really hated them for the rest of her life. Lorry drivers fared better but that was only fair.
In 1940 Jean and I cycled to Oldham to spend a week’s holiday at my sister Annie’s house. The 160 mile journey took a day and a half, starting at lunchtime on Friday we got as far as Market Harborough by evening and stayed the night in a YHA youth hostel. We were the only travellers staying that night, I in the men’s dormitory, a big old draughty barn and Jean in a similar barn at the other side of the hostel. This was fine until about midnight when the air raid sirens sounded. I lay there quaking but the lady warden thankfully took pity on Jean and took her into the house, where she slept on the floor. It was our first experience of a raid and although the target was Rugby, a few miles away, I was convinced it was me they were after. In Oldham, where we arrived on Saturday evening, we spent four of our five nights holiday in the Anderson air raid shelter at the end of the garden. The target this time being Manchester, although seven miles away the bombs and anti-aircraft fire seemed to be at the bottom of our street. A lovely example of the wartime comradeship, or was it just north-country friendship, was shown to us when we arrived in Oldham. Coal was rationed and we could only use five inches of water when we had a bath but Jean was allowed a bath at Annie’s and one of the neighbours allowed me to have a bath at their house. Very welcome gestures to a couple who had just finished a 160 mile cycle ride.
In 1942 I joined the Home Guard and had to attend drills and training, also occasional guard duties patrolling the local gas works all night. We were excused these duties when on nightshift at work but still had to do them after a 12 hour day shift. My first Home Guard Platoon was attached to BTM, my employer, and we were designated ‘Defence of the Factory’ so sometimes we went to the rifle range for practice and were paid for it. Not only that we were even paid a bonus. That came to an end however when membership of the HG became compulsory. I wonder now, how on earth did we find the time and energy to do all these things?
Jean and I became friendly with another tandem riding couple, Alf and Margaret, and we had many happy cycle rides together. Twice we cycled to Lancashire with them for our annual weeks holiday (a return journey of more then 320 miles), Jean and I went to Oldham, Alf and Margaret to Bolton. We also did one trip to North Wales, staying overnight, sometimes in Bed & Breakfast places and others camping. One night we actually slept in the hayloft of a barn and Alf and I convinced the girls that the rats we heard during the night were cats. They believed us at the time but we got into trouble when the farmer told them in the morning what the noises really were. On the return journey down the A5 we cycled all day in rain with a head wind and were absolutely shattered by evening, having completed some 95 miles. We tried to get B&B but the only vacancy was a pub with one double room. Too tired to look further we booked in and anticipated the permissive society by some years with all four of us sleeping in the one double bed, girls in the middle, boys on the outside. This remained our secret for years but it doesn’t hurt to tell it now. When Marie was born in 1944 we were still cycling and I fitted a sidecar to the tandem so that we could take her with us and carry on with our pastime. It was cheap, healthy and enabled us to get about, something that was not too easy in wartime. It was about this time that Alf and I took up the game of Chess and although we both enjoyed the game we never got to very high standards. Having said that I did once play against Harry Golombeck the British Chess Champion but did not come out of that match with any credit.
By this time I was working at the British Tabulating Machine Company, having become disillusioned with the grocery trade and had left the Co-op in 1939, some six months before war was declared. I was employed on unskilled work in the machine shop for approximately three years before an opportunity arose which enabled me to upgrade to skilled status. I together with three other chaps were sent to Vauxhall Motors at Luton to be trained as Auto-Screw Lathe Setters. The training was intended to last for some months after which we were to return to Letchworth to work on an important new project. However this new project turned out to be of national importance and very urgent so we were recalled from Luton after only three weeks. We were then set to work in a basement below the Government Training Centre in Pixmore Avenue, where Ernest had started to train to be an engineer some years previously, under very tight security. Soldiers brought in machines, naval ratings bedded them down. Our instructors came from an organisation called EMTAC (Emergency Machine Tool Assistance Corps) and we learned the job of setting and running these machines as each one was brought in and installed. Setters like myself were mainly re-trained existing workers of BTM but some were recruited from other firms under compulsory labour orders, or released from the armed forces. The machine operators were girls, also under compulsory orders, who had been directed, some from the Lowestoft area, some from Hastings and were billeted, either in a hostel in Baldock or with local residents. For the first year we worked 12 hour shifts, 7 days or nights each week, the machines never stopped. Even on annual holiday, which was one week per year, (this was upgraded to two weeks per year after 21 years service) we had to take turns so that production never halted. I had already registered and was expecting to be called up for service in the armed forces but this new work I was engaged in proved to be more important and was classed as a reserved occupation. Often VIP visitors, high ranking servicemen and government officials, were sometimes shown round the factory and one of these picked me out for questioning, what type of work I could do, where I came from etc. He was from the Manpower Board and after he had gone I was convinced, as were my colleagues that I was due to be transferred, or called up. It was a long time afterwards that I found his only interest had been my name, he was also called Fitton, but never made any reference to this while questioning me. The work was so secret that it wasn’t until more than 30 years after the war ended that I and my former work colleagues found out we had been engaged in making the piece parts for ‘Ultra’, the decoding machine, Britain’s answer to the German ‘Enigma’. A museum has been set up at Bletchley Park to commemorate this machine and to record how important it was to the war effort. It was gratifying to learn that our efforts had enabled convoys to beat the U-boats, to bring in supplies from America and Canada and had saved the lives of thousands of sailors. The people analysing the data from these machines were recruited from Universities, I understand mainly Cambridge. They were all top mathematicians / scientists / chess players and again, 30 years after the war was over, I found out that Harry Golombeck was one of them. My wife Jean was working at the Spirella Corset Factory where at this time were they were making parachutes from this wonderful new material, Nylon and she told me that one of the girls had borrowed odd lengths of this material to take home to make a dress. Temptation was strong because of clothes rationing. However after the poor girl had spent a long time cutting and stitching she tried to iron the finished article only to find that it melted as soon as the iron touched it, this new material had to be handled differently than silk. In order to supplement food rations for the war workers, larger factories had canteens to provide meals for both day and night shifts and in addition to this British Restaurants were set up for the same purpose. Although I am not absolutely sure I believe the charge for a dinner was six pence and three pence for the sweet. At weekends we often cycled to a village pub, the Six Bells in Sandon. It was more expensive there, two shillings for the two course meal for each of the four adults (Alf and Margaret always came with us) but there was no charge for baby Marie who received mashed vegetables in gravy and a milky pudding. These outings helped out a lot with the ration entitlement, people who could not get about as we did used to get one egg, 2 ounces of butter per week, sugar and meat allocation was also very small. The Ministry of Food worked it out that one could live quite well on 1200 calories a day and based our rations on that figure. I think they got it right, there were very few fat people about then and certainly none who could have been described as obese.
In the days before television we used to amuse ourselves and play with our children more than parents seem to do today and I will never forget a game of Hide and Seek Jean and I played with 18 month old Marie just before she went to bed one night. The ground floor of our little house consisted of one room, a kitchen and a bathroom with toilet. Marie hid and of course we had to pretend it was difficult to find her, then panic, we couldn’t find her for ages. It was impossible for her to have got upstairs or outside but what she had done was to get onto a windowsill and hide behind the blackout. The window sill was about three feet from the floor, nothing near for her to climb on, and to this day I will never know how she did it, or how a tot of that age could keep quiet for so long while we were looking for her. We didn’t just play children’s games we had great evenings playing Monopoly and Mah-jong with our friends and the husband of one of my nieces who was stationed in the RAF at Henlow often used to come over and join us. Unfortunately he had a tendency to stay late and then worry about getting back to camp by 23.59 hours and I was often called on to get the tandem out, put him on the back seat and take him there, a 14 mile ride at midnight.
Copyright Eric Fitton © 2008 page last updated 28/03/2009 23:23