Yeovil at war

Yeovil at war

The wartime recollections of the late Walter McGowan


These are the wartime Yeovil recollections of the late Walter McGowan and are reproduced here by permission of the Old Yeovilians Association Archive.


"My first realisation that we were at war happened the day after war was declared. I was gazing out of the drawing office window at Westland Aircraft when a troop of soldiers marched down the road, stopping outside the large door of the Power House and proceeded to stack sandbags against the door. So began the war time activity. However, nothing much happened for another seven months.

The first bombing raids made by the RAF were minor efforts to drop leaflets. One plane did not return for three weeks as they mistook the order to DROP leaflets, instead they put them under the doors. I doubt the story was true!.

The Maginot line was a wonder of defensive fortifications erected by the French after WWI. Very impressive, and it was the done thing for VIPs and politicians to tour these fortifications with the Press hot on their heels.  One General had his son in tow, and the Press had a laugh when the son remarked that the line did not go to the coast, only as far as Belgium. That of course is where the German onslaught came through in 1940. Imagine the conversation at the General’s house. “Hey Dad, remember what I said about the Maginot Line?” “Oh shut up!”

It was soon realised that if local bombings occurred the water mains maybe destroyed. So a large pumping station was located at the River Yeo and large iron pipes were laid in the gutters to send water to concrete containers about 20 feet in diameter and 4 feet high. These were situated at various locations around the town. There were some in Bides Gardens, at the bottom of Wyndham Hill behind Aplin and Barretts, and in many other key points. The local fire department had vans with trailers upon which were mounted pumping units. These units would pump the water from the big concrete cisterns and take it to where it was needed. The water got very stagnant and netting had to be installed to stop rubbish being thrown into the containers.

The local citizens knew where the water pipes were in the dark and knew when to step over them. However, occasionally there was a metal clang from a British army boot followed by a good British curse in some strange dialect. Later when the US forces were here, it would be a thud followed by a strange curse emanating from the hinterland of the USA.

The army opened a camp at Houndstone for anti-aircraft trainees. A lot of the conscripts came from the London area and some of them were musicians in the top bands of that era. They formed a group called  “The Searchlight Swingers” and they played twice a week at the new Westland Sports Club in Westbourne Grove. They were terrific even though their versions of popular songs were somewhat racy causing  the girls to blush.

A new interest at this time was the arrival of barrage balloons in the shape of what resembled huge elephants. They ringed the town and the Westland Aircraft factory, and other key spots inside the area. I lived near the Western Gazette in Sherborne Road and one was located at the bottom of Wyndham Hill. There were two warnings to activate them. A 'Yellow' which made them go aloft a few hundred feet, which we took note of, so that if there was real danger 'Red' they could be sent aloft all the way. In a high wind they did not go aloft. However some times a sudden gale would catch them whilst they were aloft and before they could be retrieved. This happened on one occasion to the balloon at Wyndham Hill. The gale blew up from the south, the silvery Elephant came over my way and although the operators had reeled it in somewhat, it was right over the houses at the bottom of Middle Street with the wire scraping and screeching on the slate roofs.

Some folk stupidly wondered how they made the wires so stiff enough to hold up the balloons!!!

So at that stage in the war the local entertainment was, watching the balloons, going to the Gaumont Cinema in Stars Lane, (there were always long lines on a Saturday night to get into the cinema), going to one's favourite watering hole, (beer was still available at that time), or going to dances, as there always seemed to be lots of them.

Oh, one other thing, we had to carry gas masks everywhere. It was not against the law not to, but one could not get into certain places without them.

Now we come to 1940 and the life in Yeovil was about to change dramatically. The War hotted up in May 1940. The Germans swept through the Low Countries and we were very disheartened when the news was broken to us that the British army was trapped on the French coast, at Dunkirk. Very soon the trains started coming into Yeovil Town Station disgorging masses of troops of all nationalities, French, Poles, British……

An amazing armada of boats of all sizes and types was assembled so fast to pluck the troops off the beaches. For days the beaches were crowded, the courage of troops lining up to board any boat whilst under fire from German fighter planes was unbelievable. The German army could not get permission from Berlin to sweep the troops off the beaches. Then an amazing thing happened. Never before had fog been known at that time of the year. Yet it descended, shrouded the beaches and became known as the ‘Miracle of Dunkirk’. The rescued troops were wandering about the streets of Yeovil in a daze. The townsfolk took them into their homes to give them tea. We had two who told us what it was like. One man said as he was boarding a gangplank, the man in front of him had his head blown off. This made us realise that the war was now really upon us.

Some French fighter planes landed on the airfield at Westlands. Somehow the returning troops were organized and sent to various locations. The army had lost all its equipment, and it was said that in the whole of Britain there were only three old tanks available!

Next we started to get air raid sirens wailing, and on one occasion whilst making our way to the shelters we saw a ‘dog fight’ in the sky over the Hendford Hill area. One of the planes was spiralling out of control, the pilot baled out and a parachute opened, we all cheered until someone said it was one of ours.

We had many warnings but no real action, although we diligently trooped to the air raid shelters each time, this routine got slower and slower. Then one day, things livened up with bangs and guns firing creating a great noise. The Westland factory staff ran as fast as they could to the shelters, even faster that leaving work on a Friday evening! The shelters were in lines to the west of the Westland factory. A first 'yellow 'alert would permit those who were nervous to go to the shelters. A 'red' alert was optional to go, but encouraged. Many got so fed up with the trooping to the shelter when no raid had developed after the warnings that they stayed at work.
There was a problem with the night shift though. Even after the 'all clear', the security had to go to the shelters to clear out the couples having clandestine trysts.

I had a narrow escape on one occasion. I was bent over my drawing board and had just straightened up when there was a colossal BANG. My mouth became full of powdered glass and my board was covered in it. I was sitting next to a window that looked down onto an aircraft flight hanger. Noticing a hole in the glass I peered down and noticed a Whirlwind fighter aircraft leaking fuel from many shrapnel holes. Looking up, there was a hole in the roof. A fellow from the other side of the room brought me a jagged piece of shrapnel that had just missed my head as I straightened up!. It appears that the Bofors anti-aircraft gun located across the airdrome was exercising and had been accidentally fired and ruined the sergeant's promotion. At the end of the War their score was enemy aircraft nil, roof one!.

On one occasion, across the street from the Western Gazette, I saw two women that were holding each other. One had a child in a pushchair and was holding a telegram - it was the usual “We regret to inform you……“. She was weeping bitterly with her whole world crashing around her head. The other lady was trying to console her. This was a single instance of just one of the many who gave up their future so that we could have ours. The scene is etched in my mind and heart forever.

As 1940 progressed life was certainly getting more difficult. The air raids increased and although Yeovil was somewhat shaken up, it did not suffer anything like the blitz raids that were made on the larger towns and cities. However, as we were under the path of the bombers coming from the west of France, proceeding north to Bristol, Liverpool, Manchester etc. we were under constant nightly air raid alerts.  Coupled with the proximity of the Houndstone Camp guns, we also had to endure a number of heavy Naval guns located on the other side of Summerhouse Hill. For hours the windows and house shook and rattled. It would die down and then start again as the bomber aircraft returned. With disturbed sleep and early morning work requirements, it was tough. After a while we got used to it, and by staying in bed, it was possible to sleep through most of it.

I had a personal experience of close up bombing one summer evening I was over at the Westland Sports Club. It was quiet with hardly anyone there, probably as we had had an air raid in the town that day. Some bombs had been dropped on Station Road, and in the middle of the town where the old Town Hall used to be in High Street. I was outside the clubhouse when I glanced up and saw three aircraft approaching. I recognised them as not being ours so I ran into the clubhouse and dived under the big billiard table. The planes shed their load of bombs and the building shook so much that table lifted several inches off the floor. I raced outside and the eerie quiet was being broken by a dog barking and the distant clanging of fire engine bells and sirens. It was now dark, gas mains were flaring and a crater which extended from one house to the other side of the road was blocking the rescue squads. On the path outside were the remains of an Anderson air raid shelter.  A whole family had been wiped out with a direct hit.
I decided to get away from there in case of a follow up aircraft group should appear. Finding a muddy path around the edge of the airfield, I got home as fast as I could through the town.
Atrocity? No. The Westland factory was camouflaged to blend in with all the houses both sides of the airfield. Unfortunately the enemy planes approached from the east instead of the west, hence the mistake.

The food supply was by now getting difficult. We had ration books, but the food was not there to be had. Shops opened at odd hours depending upon their supply. People came together in a manner not seen today. Folk helped each other. A woman may say to another woman, “I hear 'Bloggs' has some tinned stuff coming in” so they would hasten to 'Bloggs' and join the line waiting for him to open. Sometimes it was just a rumour and the store did not open. There were times when some pranksters would line up at a store, then when the line had increased, walk away, leaving the others wondering what they had lined up for!

Britain was the only country during the war that conscripted women. (Germany did not as it would have affected the wives of high ranking party officials). Of course like the US the UK women played a big part in the factories and forces. Women without children and under a certain age had to go into the forces or factories, or join the land army, (working on farms). They also had to do fire watching, ambulance work and they volunteered to run canteens etc. The housewives had to go out each day to find provisions for their family which was also no mean task. The women who had to leave their homes to work in the factories had an allowance for lodging, which was very inadequate and it was not uncommon for prostitution to be resorted to in sheer desperation.

There was also the compulsory billeting of labourers from Ireland who came over for work and if you had a spare room, you had to take them in.

The sign "Regular customers only" became a very common expression. If cigarettes were available, it was “regular customers only”. Barbers would also only serve regulars, prompting some factories to set up a barber's shop on their premises.

Most folk these modern days have gone on a safe and comfortable trip by air. Consider this trip.  our Managing Director had to go to Washington DC. He flew in a converted bomber swathed in leather fleecy flying gear and sleeping in a sleeping bag on the bomb bay doors. The toilet was in the rear gun turret, minus guns and was a transparent enclosure. Probably most of the trip was spent hoping that the bomb bay doors were secure!

The 1941 period was the high point of the U-Boat attempts to starve us out and the supply of food got even more difficult. On one occasion there was no meat, but somehow whale meat was obtained. I sat down to a whale meat steak. It was GREAT just like a fine grained steak with a very slight liver taste. From my point of view the whale meat substitute did not last long enough.
The air raids continued, or rather the nightly activity from the bombers passing overhead but this did not deter many people including the younger ones who got used to these evening disruptions and went about their normal activities.

An example of this is as follows. The Houndstone Camp used to hold dances and would send a bus or two into the town to pick up anyone in the forces and the local girls. I went to one of those as I was in a Home Guard uniform. The dance was well underway when an air raid developed. The unit based at Houndstone, being an anti-aircraft and searchlight training camp, went into action. The noise was fantastic, the building shook and the lights swayed.  An announcement said that the air raid shelters were open if anyone wanted to use them. The band played on louder than ever, the dance continued and with each and every bang and roar the girls clutched their partners a little tighter, needless to say the men were delighted.

When going about one's evening activities, it was difficult to see in the blackout, as one also had to keep an eye on the sky. All those twinkling lights in the sky were anti-aircraft shells. One watched and when the lights started to come more overhead, it was safer to take shelter in the nearest doorway. What goes up must come down, and often there was pinging and clunking as  hot sharp shrapnel came down. In Sidney Gardens there was a bandstand with a heavy thatched roof.  It was a safe place to sit with your girl on a date. In the blackout discrete coughing let others know where other couples were.

I had an odd personal experience escorting a girl home from a dance and she --- well to move the story along, I was going along Huish and getting as far as the school by the old fair ground, when I noticed a lone plane flying around. This seemed odd as the balloons were up and it was a brilliant moonlit night (a Bomber’s moon, so called). All was quiet except for this droning of the plane. Then there would be a “ping” and a silvery balloon would take off, then another and another. It was, I realized, an enemy plane equipped with wire cutters (a heavy rig, attached to the nose of the German plane with girders stretching from wing tip to wing tip. It was not always successful as we found out later due to the fact that sometimes the wire was NOT cut). Then there was an engine roar and the plane dived down towards me to about twice the height of  Huish School and I had a quick glimpse of the low lighted cabin. (Crews were put together on these planes in the front, of what looked like a greenhouse, hence I saw them clearly). In a split second I was face down in the gutter. The plane climbed away heading towards upper Preston Lane and towards Yeovilton, where there was a crump, crump, crump as the plane unloaded its bombs. Realising I was on the ground in my one and only suit, I was quickly on my feet, dusting myself off and hastily homeward bound.

During the summer of 1941, Summer Time was extended by an additional hour, called Double Summer Time. It was intended to provide more light for late evenings work shift etc. Food was always a problem, it varied according to the success or otherwise of the food convoys and weather on the Home Front. On one occasion we only had a ‘one egg a month’ ration, or else one had to know someone who knew a farmer!

Late 1941 was a bad news time, Japan was in the War, and we lost two of the biggest and latest battleships as they fled the Japan onslaught. However with the US in with us now we had renewed hope.

During 1942 we saw the first US troops. They were a black Engineer Corps, working on Houndstone Camp which was now to be a US base. Bear in mind that at that time Yeovil had rarely seen a black person. They were well behaved and welcoming.

Later the white contingents showed up and with them came more food, especially to the folks who welcomed them into their homes. Interesting little sidelights ensued as we struggled to understand each other. The US troops knew so little of us and we of them. To use a phone box, one learnt to press button B to get the spare change that sometimes emerged. In the US if a call does not go through, the money is returned automatically. So button B was ignored by the newcomer troops.

At the intersection of Wyndham Street, Reckleford and Earle Street, there was an empty store which was taken over by the US Paymaster. A US truck would pull up, armed guards would leap out and take up positions with machine guns. Rather an odd sight to us in a quiet street. On one occasion a woman, worse for wartime beer, yelled out, “They think someone is going to steal their money!”   Very embarrassing for the guards.

The arrival of US troops did bring some problems. The troops discovered that bicycles made good transport back to camp so plenty of local bicycles went missing. We were not used to this as we could previously always trustingly leave our 'wheels' parked at the curb.

Food was not so tight as we now had “Lease Lend”. The US sent food and supplies to us and on the war front we had some successes. The ladies found out what nylons were like, and the US troops soon took little time in finding out how much the nylons were sought after!

For us young men, the beer supply was always a problem. By using intelligence we had a map of all the pubs and the days of opening and possible hours. Thus we could navigate from one pub to another quickly even if it meant a long walk. However, contrary to what we had been taught, “The shortest distance between two pints was not always a straight line“.

The air war was being won by our side as the enemy were now heavily committed to the Eastern Front. The blackout persisted of course and this was quite a depressing part of life.

Life trundled on and the build-up was impressive in military might. As D-Day approached we knew it was to be very soon. On one side of all the streets in the Park Road area and Kingston and many other street names I cannot remember, were lined end to end with every type of  military vehicle imaginable. They were waterproofed in the engine compartment with distributors sealed with some kind of 'goo' and snorkels had been added to air intakes and exhaust pipes. They sat there waiting until one day they moved off to Weymouth, all designed to make the trip from boat to shore. We knew very little of what was actually going to happen.

The Westland Home Guard that I was a member of had orders to guard the supply routes if German parachutists attacked the columns. Great!...... we had no transport available, no medics, and had to report with enough rations for 48 hours. Mother said “Where in God's name can I get that kind of food!” Nothing happened. Then we heard that perhaps the Home Guard may be shipped over to guard prisoners. Still nothing happened.

The rest of 1944 is covered by many movies. We all began to see some light at the end of the tunnel. The blackout was lifted and folk hoped one day to have a petrol ration and get the old car off the blocks.

1945 came and the war is over. Now we can get back to the high standard of living we had pre-war. Settle down, marry etc…... But wait! Lend Lease stopped and the USA said that we must pay now for whatever we wanted. With what? We had exhausted all the big investments in the USA dating back to the financing of the “Wagons Westward” etc. I had an Aunt who used to say “Enjoy the war, the peace is going to be terrible!” Was she right? We now had a Labour Government.  We had to get foreign currency. All the defeated enemy and the occupied countries were now starting their economy from scratch. We were saddled with enormous war debts! One suggestion was to declare war on the USA, smash a few embassy windows and sue for peace. That way we can start again with an infusion of dollars and no debts. The other countries were getting millions of dollars and their debts wiped out.

The government of the UK decided to export as much as possible. Posters carried  “Export or Die“ slogans. All we had hoped for seemed far away."


Memories of the late Walter McGowan
Courtesy of the Old Yeovilians Association Archive