We love hearing about our members' incredible family history discoveries. On the release of the 1939 Register, we're delighted to share George Hodges' story. Do you have an amazing story from the #eveofwar? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org for a chance to see it featured on the blog!
At the outbreak of war in 1939, I was 11. I lived in Strood, Chatham, in Kent, overlooking the dockyard, Short Brothers, manufacturers of the Sunderland Flying Boat, close to the Royal Marine Barracks and near to Rochester airport. Also nearby were huge oil storage tanks at the Isle of Grain.
Although in 1939 the Luftwaffe was not greatly active, nevertheless some raids took place, notably hitting the oil storage tanks which in consequence emitted foul smelling, thick, black smoke.
My father was on leave from India where he was working as an engineer. He was recalled immediately and my mother had to decide whether the children (myself, my two brothers and my sister) should be evacuated. In the event, we were sent to Wales with the second batch, in early 1940.
The German airman
In September 1940 we returned to Sussex to stay with relatives. Just as we arrived in Sussex, by coach, a "dog fight" was taking place overhead. The road was being shot up in front of us, causing the coach driver to stop, and we all took shelter in a nearby house. This was the first occasion that I saw a German airman. He had bailed out from his aeroplane and "Roman Candled" (his parachute failed to open). Quite a welcome home!
This was the first occasion that I saw a German airman. He had bailed out from his aeroplane and "Roman Candled"
Having settled into a house with no electricity, no bath and an outside lavatory, I eventually went to the local grammar school (14 miles away by bus, and 2 miles to the bus stop!).
At the age of 14, in March 1942, I joined the National Fire Service as a messenger. This entailed attending the local hall every other night for duty. I was paid 3 shillings for each night (15 pence for some 10 to 12 hours). I did this for three years and was awarded the Defence Medal. On reflection I must be one of the youngest of such holders.
I did not go to any fires of great significance, which is just as well, because at the same time I was studying for my school certificate, working all my spare time on a local farm, selling parish magazines, acting as a server in church and, on occasions, as a bus conductor!
Bombs in the cow field
We were required to report enemy aircraft movements in our sector, and in 1944 doodle bug activity. One occasion I recall vividly was early one morning, after having milked some 10 cows (by hand of course), walking with them to a field when, on opening the gate, I saw a string of five fins sticking out of the ground. Realising that they were bombs, I returned the cows back to the dairy and told the farmer.
While walking the cows back to the field I saw a string of five fins sticking out of the ground. They were bombs
Unfortunately I had then to get home, breakfast and get off to school. That same evening, back at the farm, the bomb disposal squad had removed the missiles and left me a complete fin as a keepsake.
Friends who never returned
I passed my school certificate and later, at the end of 1945, joined the Royal Horse Guards (now the Blue element of the Blues and Royals). There was a Canadian army camp near where we were living and many of the troops became friendly. Many of them failed to return after the commando raid on Dieppe, such that the camp was closed.
We saw the American Flying Fortresses and Liberators returning from the daylight raids over Germany, landing at nearby Dunsfold aerodrome, shot to pieces, with bits hanging off, engines not all functioning and with big holes through them, and wondered about the condition of the crew.
We saw the American Flying Fortresses and Liberators returning from the daylight raids over Germany, shot to pieces, with bits hanging off, and wondered about the condition of the crew
All too frequently it seemed, the headmaster of the school (Collyers, Horsham) would read out names of old boys killed or missing in action: some I knew. The red glow which appeared every night of the blitz over London. A friendship grew between myself and two Italian prisoners of war, working on another farm. They were both farmers and had been conscripted into the army.
On these clear September days and nights, I still recall these memories, and remember particularly what became a stock phrase in those fire service days "will they be over tonight?"
The hunt is on
Recently, now well in retirement, I have tried to trace my family history. So far I have found that my maternal grandfather who had retired from the army before the beginning of the first world war, re-enlisted at the age of 49 in 1914, also that I had a great uncle who fought in the Boer War and received the Queens South Africa Medal with Ladysmith, Transval and one other clasp, which I cannot decipher.
My great grandfather was in the navy and was killed on board HMS Doterel in April 1881 when she blew up in southern Chile. His daughter, my grandmother, was born in the August following his death. I have traced a further ancestor, who was a Greenwich Pensioner, and I am trying to find out if he, or any others, fought at Trafalgar.