BOX END CHILDHOOD IN WORLD WAR II
By Churchwarden Geoffrey Slater
It is not generally known, but a great deal of wartime activity took place in Box End. Now it can be told.
i started school in the same year that war broke out. My home was the public house known as ‘The Slaters Arms’ after my family which ran the pub for about 100 years. I can remember walking to Church End School carrying my gas mask, which I still have. They were supposed to be handed in after the end of the war but my mother thought it would be wise to hang on to it if possible. She worked on the principle that the Germans had had two goes at us and, if given the chance, would have another one. Consequently she also kept her ration books, identity cards and petrol coupons etc.
Early in the War Crossland Fosse, the house where Lady Howard lived, became the HQ for an organisation known as the ITF (International Trades Federation). There were many people there from most European countries , including Germany, which I thought rather odd as they were supposed to be on the other side. It was difficult to know how many people lived there as some of them seemed to come and go, but at any one time there were probably around twenty or so. The one common factor which seemed to bind them together was the fact that none of them spoke English, or at best, very little.
The man in charge was Mr De Witt. he was a Belgian and was, or had been a minister in the Belgian Government with responsibility for the Belgian fishing fleet. When Germany invaded Belgium their fishing fleet was at sea. Mr de Witt arranged for the ships to be contacted by radio and told not to return home, but to put into Fleetwood, which they did and continued operating from there for the rest of the war. By arrangement with the BBC he spoke to the Belgian people to inform them that he had organised the removal of Belgian gold reserves and that they were safely held in the vaults of the Bank of England.
He had a large black American car which I believe was a Packard, left hand drive, of course, which he drove at high speed. He regularly went to London, probably once a week or so, which he used to do in one hour- remember there were no motorways in those days, there was of course not much other traffic either.
Mr De Witt sometimes offered my mother a trip to London when he was going. He would pick her up about 9 o’clock and return around tea time. She said he would drive very fast and was often stopped by the police or at road blocks, but he just showed them a pass and was always waved on. When in London he just parked where he wanted and was never challenged.
Mrs De Witt appeared to be the housekeeper at Crossland Fosse and did the cooking. They had a daughter, Denise, who went to the High School in Bedford. Mr De Witt’s parents were also with them. His Mother used to visit my Grandmother who lived in the cottage just down the hill from the pub. They became quite good friends despite neither being able to speak the other’s language. His father was the gardener and odd job man about the place. The old Mrs De Witt used to play the zither, an instrument, until the ‘Harry Lime’ theme in the film ‘The Third Man’ nobody had ever heard of.
Most of the Crossland Fosse residents used to come into the pub for beer and cigarettes and some of them would play darts or dominoes with the regular customers. It was thought locally that they were spies. I don’t know, some may well have been. We would sometimes not see one of them for weeks or months and then they would appear again, or as in the case of one we knew as Sven, we were told we would not see him again as he had been killed.
Occasionally Mr De Witt went to Fleetwood and he always brought back a load of fish in the boot of his car some of which he gave to his friends in the pub. This, of course, was quite a treat because living so far inland and on food rations we seldom tasted fresh fish.
Douglas and Tonk
Halfway down the drive to Crossland Fosse stands a new derelict farmhouse, but during the war years it was the home of the Hitchens family. Mr Hitchens farmed in a small way the land surrounding the big house. He always wore a bowler hat and was a regular visitor to the pub. The Hitchens had three children. The youngest, Ivor, had been to Bedford Modern School and had left a year or two before I started. His mother gave his old school blazer and some other items to my mother, as in those days clothes were difficult to obtain and were rationed. They were then altered to fit me by my grandmother who had been a dressmaker. Ivor had been in the school Scout Troop and I also had his neckerchief in the school colours of red and black and I still have this in my clothes drawer today. Ivor joined the RAF and became a pilot. I once saw him in his uniform with his pilot’s wings, of which he was very proud, but soon afterwards he was shot down and killed. I remember my mother meeting his mother and they both cried.
The house next door to the pub was rented by the police and used to have a sergeant from Kempston Police Station. At the beginning of the war Sgt. Tompkins and his wife lived there. They had a son, Douglas and a German Shepherd dog called Tonk, who had a kennel which was like a small shed in the garden. Early in the war the Tompkins were moved and my father acquired Tonk’s kennel which he used to keep chickens in. By this time Douglas had become a pilot in the Fleet Air Arm. After my mother died last year I found a letter from Mrs. Tompkins informing her that Douglas had been killed in action, he was 21. I have that kennel in my garden today and when I see it I think of Douglas and his dog Tonk.
The Irish Tanks
Just along the road between Box End and Bromham is a lay by where in the mid nineteen thirties a sharp bend on a hill was cut out of the road leaving a tree lined hard standing about 150 yards long. In May 1944 this piece of road became the temporary home for a squadron of tanks, there were perhaps seven or eight, and they were there for a few days. The soldiers with them were the Enniskillen Dragoons, a Northern Ireland regiment but now mechanised. Their commanding officer was a Major Gregson and two of his other officers were Captain Sarson, a son of the vinegar family, and another was the earl of Kildare.
They made the pub their HQ and I got to know them quite well, even to the extent of having a ride in one of the tanks. My mother recalled how she heard a tank rumble right up to the front of the pub onto what was the car park, making the whole building shake. She ran to see what the commotion was, and saw a tank with me peering out of the top of the gun turret. I remember it well, I was standing on the gunner’s seat in order to see out of the open top.
After a few days Major Gregson told my mother that he would need to use our private room that evening, but it would be alright for us to stay. He sat down at our dining table and his tank commanders came in for a briefing. They were to leave at midnight in convoy with a motorcycle in the lead; no lights were to be used except each tank would show a small rear light, just enough for the next tank to follow.
They were to travel South, moving only at night, laying up under camouflage nets during the day. Although we didn’t know it at the time, they were preparing to take part in the D-Day landings in Normandy.
One day I heard in the pub that a German aircraft had crashed on Stagsden hill, so I went up West End Road on my bike to have a look. When I reached the turn of the hill a policeman stood in the road and said it was closed until the wreckage had been removed. So I went back a bit, through a gate into a field and walked up the other side of the hedge where he couldn’t see me. There was a large hole in the ground with parts of an aircraft sticking out with clumps of earth and metal debris scattered over a large area. I was able to pick up a small piece of shrapnel which I still have.
Soldiers and the Home Guard
In West End there was another military installation, Top Farm, where Jim Lacey used to live. This became the base for an army mobile bakery unit. It provided bread for Kempston Barracks and Grange Camp which was behind Addison Howard Park. The officer in charge was Captain Shaw and he had with him his daughter Olga who became a friend of Sheila Felce. There is a book which is still in one of our bookcases that they gave me when they were here.
We used to get a few soldiers in the pub from Grange Camp. They would walk or come on bikes. We never knew the names of most of them, but one regular I got to know quite well was Jock MacLeod. He was a sergeant in the Cameron Highlanders. A day or two before he was posted away he gave me one of his cap badges which I still have, complete with a 3 inch square of Cameron Tartan fabric which went behind it.
One evening, it must have been winter because it was dark, there were a number of soldiers in the pub from the Grange camp when some men from the local Home Guard came in. One of the Grange Camp soldiers made a comment which everyone could hear, saying that the Home Guard were not real soldiers, that they were only playing at soldiers and did not even know how to handle a rifle properly. One of the Home Guard reacted to this and jumped up with his rifle to demonstrate his skill, slamming his rifle straight through the light bulb and plunging the whole building into darkness, causing quite a few more comments from both sides.
For a week or two some Canadians set up camp in Flute’s Field. Flute’s farm was what is now the riding school and the farmhouse where Mollie Addinall now lives. These Canadians used to come into the pub and my father asked one of them if there were any Indians in their group. ‘Yes,’ he said and added that he would bring one in and introduce him. Sometime later my father called me in to see a couple of Canadian soldiers. ‘This one,’ he said, ‘Is an Indian.’ I looked at him with great disappointment and apparently said, ‘He’s an ordinary man.’ I had, of course, expected him to be in all his feathers and war paint etc. and not dressed as an ordinary soldier, which he was now.
German Prisoners of War
Also in West End were some different kind of soldiers who lived in some old cottages on the site of Vincent House. They were German prisoners of war who worked on local farms. They were paid some money and came in to the pub for beer and cigarettes. Now when I heard this, I wanted to see a German. I knew they had horns and ate babies and I wanted to see one. So I asked my father to let me know when one came in.
After a few days my father called me in to meet a young fair haired man with blue eyes. ‘This man is a German,’ he said and the boy, for he really was only a boy, smiled. I could not believe it. ‘He’s an ordinary man,’I said, ‘Why are we fighting him?’ My parents didn’t know either.
I used to wear a belt in those days covered with army cap badges which I had collected, and one of the prisoners noticed this and gave me a German cap badge with a swastika on it. I realised even at that young age that it would not be a good idea to display it with the others, so I just put it away, but I still have it today.
Another of the prisoners was Hans Kramer who some of you may know, because he married a Box End girland stayed here, living with her parents for some time before moving to Wood End. He now lives in Bedford and I still see him regularly.
Air Raid Wardens
Box End had its own Air Raid Warden. It was Reg Flute, who lived just down the road in the Council Houses and it was his responsibility to ensure that everyone had effective black out curtains and that there were no lights showing after dark. In the event of an air raid he had to blow a whistle and make sure that everyone had taken cover until the danger was over. He was issued with a stirrup pump which was regarded as essential for putting out small fires, but he would call on the Fire Brigade in the event of a large fire. He had a black steel helmet with a large white W painted on the front and always wore his official ARP badge, which I now have in my collection of war time relics.
WVS and Martin’s Garage
There was a local WVS branch, the organiser was Mrs Martin who lived in Box End House and they used the squash court, which still stands in the garden, as their meeting place. Local ladies used to go there to learn first aid and knit socks for sailors, make jam and for social events. I used to go there with my mother because to get to the squash court we had to walk past Mr Martins garage and the doors were usually open. Mr Martin used to be a pilot in the Royal Flying Corps in the First World War and hanging on the wall of his garage was a wooden propellor which, I was told, came from one of his aeroplanes. I was always fascinated by this and have space to locate it. I spoke recently to his son, who lives in Biddenham. He remembers it well but does not know what became of it.
in 1942 the USA airforce arrived in the area. They were based in both Twin Woods and Thurleigh and some of them found their way over to Box End. I have a photograph taken in 1943 in the pub garden showing two US airmen with some local men. There was Jack Smart, Bill Millard and Frank Stringer together with my father and me. Bill Millard is in his army uniform and I expect he was home on leave. I still have a couple of buttons from a US airman’s tunic which one of them gave to me.
Chinese Bank Notes
Across the road from the pub is ‘Orchardside’ the house where Peggy Groves lives. Just after the war this was the home of Colonel Nelson. He had been an officer in the First World War and knowing my interest in war relics he gave me his sword which has become one of my treasures and hangs in my siting room today. His son had worked before the war in Hong Kong for the ‘Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank’, During the war he was taken prisoner by the Japanese but survived and returned home afterwards. I still have a wad of Chinese bank notes that he gave me. He said they were now worthless, but I have always had a feeling that I would be quite rich in China as some of them are of high value.
I have some other wartime relics; a pair of pilot’s goggles, brand new and still in their original box, and a sail from a rubber dinghy. It is bright red with sailing instructions on it in white. The idea was that if a pilot was shot down over the sea he would bail out and the rubber dinghy would inflate. It was just large enough for one man and would allow the pilot to float around until rescued. There was a telescopic mast to support the sail which was red so that it could easily be seen.
The most curious of my relics is a bomb, actually an incendiary bomb and I cannot exactly remember how I obtained it. I either picked it up or someone gave it to me. It was kept in the garden where I discovered I could unscrew the end and that it was filled with white powder, probably magnesium. Some years later when I was old enough to have a bonfire on my own, I had one that would not burn, probably because it was too damp. I then remembered my bomb. I unscrewed the end and threw the powder over the fire. With a whoosh it burst into flames. In retrospect, it was a foolish thing to do. Fortunately I stood far enough away not to get singed.
I was in school one morning when someone came into the classroom and said,’The War is over, you can all go home for the rest of the day.’
I went home, but things did not seem different for a long time.