Derek Stevens 07/09

On D-Day plus one allied soldiers in Normandy, exhausted by their first day of battle, turned on battery operated radios supplied to their units, to hear the first sounds of the Allied Forces Network. Introduced by a recorded message from the supreme commander, General Dwight Eisenhower, the AEF comprised American and Canadian broadcasting services, together with and the services of the BBC to bring to the troops the comfort of popular music and news from home. The first broadcast was at 6 o’clock on the morning of June 7, introduced by the tune ‘Rise and Shine’, the first record was that of Artie Shaw’s orchestra playing ‘Begin the Beguine’, followed by Glen Miller’s  ‘Chatanooga Choo Choo’, songs by Deanna Durbin, Vera Lynn and our very own George Formby singing “When I’m Cleaning Windows”.

The program’s presentation was shared between an airman of the United States Army Air Force and an airman of the RAF and introduced to this side of the Atlantic American radio shows which included the Jack Benny Show. The AEF network  gave entertainment and comfort to both servicemen and a strong civilian following until a few days after victory.

The programme gave us kids more songs to sing along to on the school bus, so we would belt out “Give me land, lots of land, under starry skies above,’’ as we sang ‘Don’t fence me in’  on the way home from school, and other diities like ‘Beat me Daddy, Eight to the Bar’.

School children were still very active in contributing to the war effort. Summer days were spent pulling flax for a tanner a day. The flax went off to make linen thread, camouflage nets, fire hose pipes and aircraft fabric.

“An impromptu party of about 100 people was held in a meadow at Nossiters farm, Broadoak near Bridport,”  it was reported, “ near a magnificent field of golden flax with the lovely hills of Marshwood Vale around us. Country dances, reels and polkas were danced, charades were played and music was made by a small band consisting of a fiddler, accordions and a drum. This was a fitting end to a week of hard work in which the girls from Dorchester High School, Lyme Regis Grammar School and Sherborne had helped the local farmers in pulling the flax crop.”

Book recovery drives were another task children were involved in. Local authorities were allotted targets, in the case of Devon one and a half million books were to be collected. Scrutiny committees were to ensure the proper segregation into classes required, for members of the armed services and the merchant navy, for the replenishment of libraries blitzed by enemy action, for pulping for the use in the manufacture of weapons of war. Children were drafted into an army of book collectors and could earn their way up through a military ranking system according to the number of books collected. We were awarded paper armbands carrying pips or stripes displaying the rank we had achieved. The highest rank achievable, with 250 books plus, being Field Marshall. Being stuck in the sticks somewhere beyond Rousdon I did not get beyond sergeant, and that was only because my mum was  a great reader. A 9-year-old lad from Broadclyst near Exeter trounced us all by hauling to school 1,260 books, obviously a member of a well-read family.

Five thousand scrutineers examined the fifty million books collected nationally by the Ministry of Supply and many rare and interesting books were rescued for the national archives. They included a first edition of Kipling’s  ‘Letters of Marque’, of which a thousand had been published and all but 100 had been destroyed: a first edition of Bernard Shaw’s ‘My Answers’, of which only 62 were printed for Jerome Kern, composer of the musical ‘Showboat’: and British secret service records of the Napoleonic wars, including a report of the retreat from Moscow in 1812. In Exeter “A Shakespeare of considerable value” was rescued. A similar copy a few years previously was sold for more than £200, big bucks in those days.

As the Allies strengthened their hold within Europe with the use of greatly superior airpower, the growing sense of security from Nazi air attack was shattered by the arrival in south east England of the pilotless flying bomb, the V1, later followed by the even more terrifying V2 rocket. Targets were indiscriminate and the number of deaths began to accumulate rapidly.

One afternoon, whilst awaiting the school bus from Axminster to take us home, we looked down from the playground onto Uplyme village hall below us and witnessed the arrival of a fleet of Royal Blue coaches. Crowds of children were getting off and filing into the village hall as our bus arrived. Next morning we arrived at school to find it full of new faces. There seemed to be children sitting in the windows, down the aisles and in any other spare space that could be found. Another wave of evacuees had arrived, this time from Kent. We dubbed them ‘the buzz-bomb kids’.

A day or two later they had disappeared, I believe to improvised classrooms at Woodmead Hall in  Lyme Regis. When we had recovered from the short term invasion I felt a prod in my back. I turned and faced my pal Roy Crabbe who had done the prodding. “Hey Derek,” he said “I’ve just seen something walk out of your head and walk back in again”. It seemed that the buzz bomb kids had brought some unwelcome livestock with them. My gran knew what to do however, and for the next several  days my head and its contents were thoroughly examined with the use of a fine tooth comb over a looking glass.

Official suggestion for  treatment of head lice at the time was that paraffin and petrol should not be used, preferred treatment being Jeyes Fluid. I am glad my gran just stuck to the comb!

As with the first waves of evacuees at the start of the war youngsters were found en route to their homes having become disenchanted with their new foster homes. Five young lads, aged twelve to fourteen, were found near Crewkerne having walked from their billets at Exmouth. They were intending to walk back to their homes in Wandsworth, Balham and Tooting in south west London. They were gathered up and sent back to Exmouth where a sixth lad had already returned having felt too tired to go any further. He had reached Lympstone, two miles away.

Letter home from an evacuee;-  Dear mum and dad, I do not like the look of the lady here and I don’t like the look of the man either. Perhaps they will look better in the morning. I do like the look of the dog though!