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“My Orford” - Wartime Orford

During the crisis of 1938 there was activity in the village to build air raid shelters. The biggest project was to provide one for the school children on the Recreation ground. Volunteers gathered and retired Major Wales was put in charge as he had experience from World War One. The trench dug was about six feet wide by six feet deep, the end nearest the school being sloped for easy access and egress. The trench took a zigzag course for about one hundred yards to end near the football dressing rooms. After Mr Chamberlains return from Munich promising peace in our time the trench was filled in and never dug again.

In 1939 by listening to the wireless and reading the newspapers it became clear that another crisis was looming between our country and Germany. We saw on the newsreels at the weekly picture show how fanatical the German people were in supporting their dictator, Adolf Hitler.

In our turn, Britain began a recruiting drive for men to join the territorial army and a number of Orford men joined and were transported to Woodbridge Drill Hall once a week for training in the Royal Artillery.

It was also necessary for some people to have knowledge of air raid precautions and a number of people became Air Raid Precaution Wardens (ARP Wardens). These and others who became special constables attended lectures at the school canteen. It was during one of these lectures that myself and two friends were making a noise outside which annoyed P.C. Ellis. He ran down the slope from the canteen to the road, there was a gully caused by heavy rain and filled with water from a recent shower, in the darkness he stepped into the gully, overbalanced and fell head first into the dirty water, to make it worse he was wearing his best
uniform. We made our escape before he could recover but I felt that the whack on the ear he had given me with his gloves had been avenged.

The morning of Sunday September 3rd 1939 found a group of us on the Castle Green playing a crude game of golf, we had a driver, a putter and a few golf balls between us and would drive from one hill to another, having about three holes in all. Here it was that we were told by "Tags" Smy that war had been declared on Germany. We did not realise it at the time but it was on this day that one era of the history of Orford ended and another one began. Life in Orford was never to be the same again, our simplistic way of life was to disappear never to return.

That evening saw the members of the territorial army mobilised and congregated in the Market Square where Foreman’s bus waited to convey them to Ipswich, Fred Smy, recently married to my sister Thora, Ken Smy also recently married, Ted Hawes, Peter Ashley, Fred Tricker, "Ching" Tricker, Harry "Cabbage" Green are some who come to mind. Whilst they were trying to make light of their departure, there were tears among the loved ones left behind. Thus did the war commence in the village with the departure of many of its young men and nobody could guess it would be six long years before it was over.

With the outbreak of war came the fear of food rationing and through my work at Chapman’s shop I witnessed the panic buying of bulk supplies of sugar, butter and tinned goods by the wealthy people in the village. The majority of the population could not afford to do this although the financial situation had improved and there were fewer unemployed.

These supplies ran out long before the war ended and when this happened these people were worse off than the workers who were much better at improvising nourishing meals from practically nothing, having had to do it for so long because of the low wages.

Children were evacuated from London to country areas where it was thought they would be safe from air raids and Orford received its quota of evacuees. They arrived, a pitiful sight, each with their name tag, carrying their meagre belongings in battered suit case or paper bags and their gas mask in its square cardboard box and its piece of string encircling their neck. At the school they were allocated to homes with a spare room and were taken in and made as welcome and comfortable as possible under the circumstances. They were evacuated from Dagenham, Essex by way of paddle steamer down the Thames and then to Felixstowe and from Felixstowe to the surrounding villages by bus.

After the fall of Dunkirk the east coast became the front line and the evacuees were moved on to less dangerous areas.

With the fear of air raids a total blackout came into force which made it a punishable offence to show a light during the hours of darkness. To avoid showing a light when a door was opened, a curtain was hung inside and far enough away from the door to allow it to be opened without the light showing out. Car headlamps had special masks fitted with about four elongated slits set at an angle to deflect the light downwards a few yards ahead. Thick black material was produced for making blackout curtains. The ARP wardens and special constables spent their periods of duty touring the village to ensure no lights were showing. Strips of brown paper about an inch wide were stuck to windows in a criss-cross fashion to prevent the glass shattering into small pieces in an air raid.

There were two types of air raid warning sirens, the familiar one with the tone going up and down and another of short sharp blasts. Orford had one of short sharp blasts. Situated at Friends garage it was run by compressed air and the compressor was unable to supply the air quick enough so that the last few blasts would get fainter and fainter finishing as no more than a croak. It was affectionately known as Pip Emma. The message that an air raid was imminent was received at the police station and the local constable, PC Ellis and later PC Wally Green, cycled to the garage, pulled a wire concealed above the window to open the valve which sounded the siren.

The summer of 1940 was hot and sunny and although the Battle of Britain was fought mainly over Kent, our area had its share of intruders. While cycling home from Snape one day, an Army convoy of lorries were going in the opposite direction, I noticed the soldiers were looking up and when I turned it was to see a German Dornier flying towards Aldeburgh at about one thousand feet and at the same time heard the chatter of its machine-guns, I dived over the bank for cover until the machine-gunning stopped. There were other times when working in the fields, a lone German raider returning from a raid would open up with his machine-guns and we would dive for cover into the nearest furrow.

In August 1940 a concerted air-raid was made on the air field at Martlesham Heath, it was a high level attack and we watched the vapour trails of the German bombers keeping a straight course and the vapour trails of the fighters, twisting and turning as they defended the bombers from the Hurricanes and Spitfires which were trying to prevent them reaching their target, the machine-gun and 50mm cannon fire could be heard clearly throughout the raid.

On a Sunday morning a German Dornier bomber was shot down into the sea off Aldeburgh, one of the crew who bailed out landed at Ferry Farm Sudbourne. He was brought to Orford police station and detained there until a military escort took him to a prisoner-of-war camp. A number of people gathered outside the police station in the hope of seeing the German.

On November 11th 1940 eighteen Hurricanes were seen heading seawards. Shortly after the drone of aircraft and the chatter of machine-guns could be heard, upon looking up we witnessed the first air raid made by the Italian air force on this country. The weaving of the Hurricanes as they attacked the Italian fighters and bombers was reminiscent of the mock dogfight by the Hawker Harts I had witnessed a few years before. An Italian bomber was shot down into the sea, one crew member bailed out and was floating down into the sea when another bailed out, he deployed his parachute which failed to open and just streamed behind him, he plummeted past his fellow crew member into the sea. Another Italian bomber was forced down by three Hurricanes and crashed in the forest near Spratt Street, Eyke and an Italian Fiat fighter made a forced landing east of Orford Ness lighthouse and when its wheels sank into the shingle it tipped up onto its nose. The pilot was taken prisoner.

There were many other actions in the air around Orford and many bombs, dropped indiscriminately, exploded in the fields. Four exploded on the Recreation Ground, ironically just where the trench had been dug for the school children in 1938. A land mine dropped in the forest behind Sudbourne church making a huge crater. On another occasion a land mine exploded on Keepers Walk, Gedgrave not far from Broom Cottage and another mine from the same plane dropped into the river mud, approximately near the present sewage out fall, and did not explode. The bomb disposal squad attempted to recover it, but each time they neared it the mine sank deeper. They decided to leave it, filled in the hole and presumably its still there today.

Some of the bigger houses were commandeered for use by the Army, the Gables (now the Rectory), Green Doors in Church Str, Manor House and Mill House in Ferry Road. Mill House was painted by the Army with green and brown camouflage paint and was known for many years as Camouflage House. The Mission Hall at the bottom of Bakers Lane, venue for wedding receptions, whist drives and dances (sixpenny hops) was taken over by the Army who shortly afterwards caused a fire which burnt the building to the ground before the nearest fire brigade from Woodbridge arrived. The present Church Hut replaced the Mission Hall and is a very inferior building.

Sudbourne Hall was taken over and many different Army units moved in. One of the earlier units was a battalion of the Highland Light Infantry and on summer evenings when the skirl of the bagpipes could be heard approaching the village, a crowd would gather on the Market Square and the pipe and drum band would entertain the villagers for maybe an hour marching and counter marching up and down the square and then with the skirl of the bagpipes fading into distance they returned to Sudbourne Hall.

After the fall of Dunkirk and it was thought an invasion was imminent an appeal was made on the wireless for volunteers for a new defence force to be known as the Local Defence Volunteers (LDV) which later became the Home Guard. A unit was immediately formed in the village made up of veterans of the 1914-18 war down to 16 year olds our uniforms being a khaki armband imprinted with the letters LDV.

Trenches were dug at strategic points around the village, the sandbags being filled from the sandpit on the castle green. Men with shot guns were asked to use them if necessary and the rest of us had to make do with whatever we could get hold of.

In due course .303 rifles were issued but with .303 ammunition being scarce we had target practise using .22 rifles in the pit on the castle green. With the arrival of the .303 rifles we were then required to do rifle drill. Parading in Gedgrave Road near Chantry Farm we were taught to stand at ease, come to attention, slope arms, present arms and order arms under the instruction and watchful eyes of Sergeant Ted Smy, a veteran of the 1914-18 war. This rifle drill proved to be useful for me when I was called up into the RAF later on.

We all laugh at the antics of Captain Mainwaring and Dads Army on TV but the reality in the Home Guard was at times much worse.

Many ex-service men will know that after a rifle inspection the ammunition is held down in the magazine to prevent a round entering the breech, the bolt is closed and the trigger pulled before returning to the order arms position. On one occasion a certain Home Guard did not hold down the ammunition, he closed the bolt, pulled the trigger and fortunately he was holding the rifle in the high port position so the bullet went over the head of the person next to him.

We were on the castle green receiving instruction on priming and throwing live hand grenades. Each one of us entered the sandbagged emplacement with the Army instructor and primed and threw our grenades, then it was the turn of a Sudbourne Home Guard who was left handed. He kept hold of his grenade too long and it dropped on the ground in front of them. The instructor shouted for us to get down and then had the presence of mind to scoop the grenade out of the emplacement into the next valley where it exploded harmlessly. The army instructor was later mentioned in despatches for his action.

Instruction was being given on the Sten gun by an army instructor in the Town Hall when he banged the butt of the gun onto the table, there was a loud bang and a bullet was discharged into the ceiling narrowly missing a Home Guard who was recently married. He was heard to remark that he had no wish for his new wife to become a widow so soon after the wedding.

The Home Guard gradually became better equipped and were issued with a spigot mortar, this was taken onto the island for practise firing. Then a water cooled machine gun arrived and being a member of the three man team, we spent many hours of practise setting up the tripod, mounting the gun and connecting the water supply until we became quite proficient. It was a great day when we went to Bromeswell rifle range and were able to use live ammunition for the first time.

One weekend the Home Guard was mobilised and we did duty on a 2 hours on and four hours off basis. The school canteen was used as the cook house. The meals served up by our cook, "Jit" Smy were not very appetising. I have often wondered if this weekend coincided with the mysterious happenings at Shingle Street.

When the Town Hall was taken over by the Army, in addition to it being used for lectures it was also the entertainment centre for the Army. A false ceiling was installed to improve the acoustics and make it warmer. Cinema shows and ENSA concerts were performed and civilians were allowed to attend.

Food rationing became a way of life, as the war progressed more of our ships were being sunk and the rations became smaller and smaller, at one stage the meat ration was ten pence (10d) worth each per week. The heavy manual work done by farm workers entitled them to extra cheese rations.

Dig for victory became a slogan. A gardening club was formed and many people who had never done any gardening before banded together to cultivate allotments or any piece of spare land which could be dug up and the produce shared among the members or used to supply the British Restaurant which had been established at the school canteen to supply cheap and nourishing meals for the community.

A pig club was formed, each member contributed a weekly sum to buy the ration of pig meal which was mixed with the kitchen waste from the members. One pig could be killed after a certain number of weeks and the meat shared among the members. A welcome extra to the meagre meat ration.

Other ways were exploited to gain extra rations, not all of them legal. The army cooks made a bit of extra money selling surplus tinned food to the locals. A local gamekeeper supplied some of his friends with the occasional pair of rabbits or brace of pheasants and there was always a bit of poaching to be done. By wheeling and dealing with each other it was possible to supplement the rations and in so doing a close community was formed. Nobody went hungry.

The Government needed money to pay for weapons, munitions etc and instigated many ideas to encourage the public to put their money into National Savings. One of these was Spitfire Day when a Supermarine Spitfire was brought to the village on a RAF low-loader and erected in the Market Square where it stood for one day. In this way the public could see what their money was helping to buy with the added attraction of seeing a Spitfire close up.

"Tanks for Attack" was another scheme when the village put in a very great effort. A pageant was held in the grounds of Castle House comprising thirteen tableaux depicting the history of the village from the beginning of the fifth century to the time when Sir Arthur Churchman presented the deeds of the Castle to Orford Town Trust as a gift to the nation.

Scenes included Mr Ross-Taylor playing the part of James Coe, the first mayor, returning to Orford with the first charter from Queen Elizabeth the First in 1679. Ancient Britons lying in wait for Roman Legionnaires in 400AD. Building the Castle. The Orford Merman 1292. The final scene shown was of Mr Ross-Taylor, chairman of the Orford Town Trust handing the keys of the Castle to the safe keeping of the Claviger Mr W Roberts who, at 92 years of age was at the ceremony throughout.

The Tanks for Attack campaign target of £1,600 was nearly trebled and wound up with a Harvest Supper in the Town Hall which included pasties for which the Rabbit Club provided the meat.

War Weapons Week and Warship Week were other money raising efforts.

When the villages of Sudbourne and Iken were evacuated to make way for a battle area using live ammunition, Sudbourne Hall became the HQ for this operation. It was quite an upheaval for the inhabitants of these villages, many of the families had live there for generations, but all had to leave. Many of the older folk never returned.

A tank regiment and a unit of the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers (REME) moved to Sudbourne Hall and tank workshops were erected near White Lodge, it was in these workshops that many inventions were perfected, one of which was the flail tanks. A replica of Hitlers Atlantic Wall was built and various ideas were tried out in an effort to surmount it with tanks.

One day when everyone was sitting at dinner a terrific artillery barrage began, being unexpected it was rather frightening. It was later revealed that it was for the benefit of Winston Churchill who was on a visit to the battle school.

Later in the war, on April 6th 1944, a naval warship laid off shore and should have fired into the battle area, one shell hit a house in Daphne Road and the next hit a house in Ferry Road before a message could be relayed to the Navy to stop firing.

I had left Chapman’s shop and was working at Chantry Farm on the morning of October 23rd 1942. It was a dull morning with low cloud and just before eight o’clock the unmistakable throb of an enemy aircraft was heard. It appeared out of the low cloud heading south west then suddenly turned and passed overhead at only a few hundred feet, a few seconds later came the terrific explosions and from the village a great cloud of smoke and brick dust appeared. I ran from the farm and on reaching the Crown and Castle Hotel was met with a most horrific scene, a sight forever imprinted on my memory. The first bomb had made a direct hit on Chapman’s shop which together with the house and the small cottage near Manor House had been demolished. Manor House was badly damaged and all the windows and roofs around the Square had been blown off and the Square was covered with brick rubble. Mrs Chapman had by some miracle escaped injury and was standing on top of the heap of rubble which a few minutes before had been her home.

After checking that my mother was all right I joined others in the task of finding the Ashley sisters, two of whom had a child each, in the ruins of the small cottage near Manor House. With no mechanical means of moving the rubble and having to be careful because of the buried victims we tore at the bricks and timber with our bare hands, it was a hard slog and first one body and then the others were found, one of the children was alive for a few hours and then he too died.

When this task was completed we went to Nightingale Piece where other bombs had dropped, another scene of devastation met us with two blocks of two houses completely destroyed and others badly damaged, we assisted others in recovering the remaining victims, the smell of brick dust catching the throat, the smell which when encountered in later years, brought back memories of that fateful day.

The final count was thirteen dead, thirteen out of a total population of a few hundred, a loss which was keenly felt by everyone, these were people we all knew, friends, relatives all suddenly gone. The thirteen dead were, Louise Gooding, 23, her son John, 15 months, Kate Smith, 25, her son Brian, 6, Hettie Ashley, 29, Douglas Smy, RN 20, Andrew Knight, RAF 23, Dorothy Smy, 32, Alice Hawes, 48, Jack Hawes, 14, Pauline Chambers, 11, Robin Chambers, 8, and Neville Chambers, 4.

It is difficult to describe the feeling in the village that first evening when the events of the day began to slowly sink in. Groups stood talking quietly about what they had seen and done, conversation in the pubs was subdued, the full horror of war had been brought home to us and left us greatly shocked, as it had been to the people of London, Coventry and other towns and cities, teenagers such as myself had seen sights which, I suppose made us grow up very quickly, sights which I hope will never be seen in the village again.

There emerged a greater determination to win the war against an enemy who killed at random, children, babies who were completely defenceless. Latter day historians have criticised the RAF bombing of German cities, but anyone who had experience of German bombs know it was the correct action to take at that time.

The thirteen victims were buried in a communal grave in the churchyard and gradually the village recovered from this awful disaster, roofs were replaced, windows repaired, the rubble cleared away, but nothing can erase the memories of that terrible day.

I left Chapman’s shop to work at Chantry farm and a short time later left Chantry farm to work at the sawmill at Sudbourne Hall which was owned by Sir Peter Greenwell. Sir Peter had been captured at Dunkirk and was a prisoner-of -war, the estate was run by an agent in his absence.

Timber was urgently needed for use by the forces both at home and overseas. Large beech trees were felled, using axes and crosscut saws, the trunks cut into six foot lengths and brought to the sawmill where they were fastened to a carriage which was electrically driven through the band saw and cut into five inch slabs. The slabs were then taken to Tibbenhams of Ipswich and cut up to make extra long tent pegs for use by the army in the Middle East deserts.

Many fir trees were felled and brought to the sawmill where they were cut into 4 inch by 2 inch baulks for the framework and 6 inch by 1 inch boards for the cladding of huts for use by the army.

Such was the demand for timber that on one occasion, fir trees which were standing in the woods when we started work at seven am were felled, brought to the sawmill, cut into various sizes and taken to Aldeburgh where they were made into an army cookhouse by the time we left work at 5pm.

Within a short time the Government stopped all indiscriminate felling and created a body called Timber Control whose job it was to regulate all felling and resulted in the sawmill being closed down and staff transferred to farms on the Greenwell estate.

The territorials who had been called up at the beginning of the war had served in various parts of England before being posted to the desert war in the Middle East. After the fall of Tobruk they were all reported missing and their wives and parents had a very worrying time until news arrived that they had all been taken prisoners-of-war. They were moved to Italy and then on to Germany where they remained until the end of the war.

I was called up into the RAF in 1943 and after initial training at Skegness I was eventually trained as a dispatch rider and posted to the HQ unit No 2 Group of the 2nd Tactical Air Force. After serving in England, France, Belgium and Germany I was demobbed in 1946 on a "B" class release to return to work on a farm.

During the years I was serving in the RAF the V1, rocket fuelled, pilot less bomb, known as the doodle-bug was used to attack England. Launched in France with enough fuel to reach London, when the fuel ran out the bomb would plunge to the ground and explode. The anti-aircraft (Ack-Ack) guns became very proficient in shooting them down. As the German armies retreated after D Day the launching sites for the doodle-bugs were moved back to Belgium and then Holland. This resulted in the doodle-bugs crossing the coast in the Orford Ness region.

Batteries of antiaircraft guns were moved into the area and gun sites were established at Gedgrave and Raydon. A pontoon bridge was built from the quay across the river to the island and a gun site established there. The winter was severe causing ice floes to pile up against the pontoons. To relieve the pressure on the bridge an officer of the Royal Engineers decided to break up the ice by throwing sticks of dynamite onto it. In so doing he managed to blow up part of the bridge, the remains of which are still on the river bed. The last doodle-bug to be launched against England was shot down into the sea off the lighthouse on 29th March 1945.

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