A letter reveals stories of life in Lambourn during World War Two

Thanks to Lambourn resident Mick Dowdeswell for sharing the letter below. It was written in the late 1980s/early 1990s by a lady who had been a teenager in Lambourn during World War Two and includes many stories of local people and visiting troops.

The above photo of C Company of the 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment (PIR) of the 101st Airborne Division, were stationed in the grounds of the old Lambourn Place. In the background, is the old Wesleyan, later Methodist Chapel, that is going to be changed into part of the Almshouses complex. Another part of C Company were stationed in part of Stork House Stables. The 1st and 3rd Battalions of the 501st were stationed here in Lambourn and Upper Lambourn and the 2nd Battalion were at Hampstead Marshall.

In the July of 1944, the 501st were pulled back from Normandy, to regroup and rebuild, as many men had been lost. However, they all returned to Hamstead Marshall to retrain and very few returned to Lambourn. On September 17th 1944, they all took off again for the Netherlands drop. From then on, they stayed on in Europe until the end when those lucky enough to have survived, returned to America.

Some returned here to visit their old billets, mainly in 1994 as a pilgrimage 50th anniversary. Sadly, there are now only a handful of those men left. There were five main airfields through the Kennet Valley: Ramsbury, Membury, Welford, Greenham Common and Aldermaston. A They were initially designed as bomber training units but when the Americans came into the war and looking to the invasion of Europe, they were soon turned into training bases for the C-47s of the Americans, or Dakotas, as the British called them and the gliders of course. Membury was, like the others, a very busy airfield.

 

Dear John,

Thank you for your letter etc. I received it before I heard from …….., so it came out of the blue. I will try and set out things that was either hush hush or a nine day scandal. I came to Lambourn in December 1935 and lived at the Laburnums, Oxford Street; then in 1944 moved to ‘The Weathercock Inn’ at Upper Lambourn, (which is now Jenny Pitman’s stables).

I remember you as a little boy, you wore a brown beret and then later, a black one, you seemed a delicate child, and rather alone. B….. and I caught hold of your hand to take you over Edwards Hill to the little school (Miss Jacobs). Your mum was B’s auntie L…, but mostly your mum took you. Like Mrs Bray from Baydon Road took Joan. She died Christmas night, I think, in 1937, I know I cried, off and on for days after, yet no one else seemed bothered. Her little wooden cross in the cemetery read Edith, Joan Bray. I know in about 1945, I put little bunch of Violets and a few primroses on her grave.

About 1939, my Mum took in paying guests (lodgers really), but Mum was a bit uppish as she had known better days and now had a job to make ends meet. We had a race-horse trainer, a Capt. Ferguson from Cozy Lodge; Seven Barrows Road staying with us about 1940-41. He drank a lot but had been a wealthy trainer in Egypt before the war for the Chester Beatty family. Anyway, one day, two men came for him in a black London Taxi (never such a car was seen in Lambourn). My Mum called him from his bedroom, downstairs; I hid behind a curtain in the dining room, they really bundled him out to this waiting car, and he was shouting something but I never knew what he said, it was just drunken slurred speech. My Mum went to see Sarg. Church at the Police Station, who came to search his bedroom. All his clothes, shaving stuff, night clothes, everything was still in his room, with a big case full of photographs of horses and beautiful houses. Sarg. Church said he’ll be back later he felt sure. My Mum said, “I know something is really wrong”. This Capt. Ferguson was never heard or seen again, his stuff was kept until after the war, it was eventually burnt when they moved from the Weathercock, even his racing colour bag was still intact. What happened to him no one ever knew. Lambourn Police passed it on to the London Police, but with the bombing it was never investigated. Mum always said he wasn’t drunk he was drugged somehow, and was then murdered, maybe it was debts or to do “with them Arab lot”, but we never ever heard of him again, and no one ever came looking for him either. I wonder what the real story was behind it all.

Then there was the event of Michael (or was it John) Cullinane, he was an Irish jockey. I think he was quite well known in racing circles, but what his connection with Germany was I have no idea. He had a sister who worked for Capt. O.M.D.Bell at Stork house as kitchen maid. Some special men came from London (I wonder if they were MI5). They seemed to be something to do with the troops we had in the village, I think they were 14th Forresters (Sherwood). We thought they were looking for a German Parachutist who had landed on the downs. The slogan of the day was “ careless talk costs lives”, so no one said anything. I cannot remember how I was told the story or by whom, it could have been a stable lad (my secret boyfriend) or a batman to one of the officers we had billeted in our house, but this Cullinane chap was caught up on the Weathercock Gallops by the ‘rubbing house’,  flashing Morse Code with a torch, then he went into the ‘rubbing house’, and opened a case which contained a wireless and head-phones, it was then these men caught him transmitting, he was questioned and then given a gun, and he shot himself. His body was brought down on a sheep hurdle to somewhere by Ashdown House. After the war, my late husband also knew this story, he had spent a few days of his leave at Russley Park where he’d worked before the war, but he always said there was a trainer involved, a Mr Lloyd-Thomas from Uffington, who was a traitor, but my husband never knew if he was caught, but the story was, he accidentally shot himself whilst shooting rabbits on his estate.

Do you remember Mr Lasham (the mad chemist)? He was shell-shocked from the first world war. He sat out in ‘The Park’, us children went to stare at him, digging a big hole, I think he had a funny sort of gun, we didn’t go close to him, we were half afraid of him at the best of times, he’d also set up a tripod camera, poor chap! Had a break down, the war had brought the 1st World War back to him, he thought he was in the trenches again.

I was in the Girl Guides, what fun that was. We used to parade and march in the procession for ‘War Weapons Week’, and ‘Save A Spitfire’. Mrs Hailstone arranged for us to do plays in the Village Hall, the proceeds went to help the war effort. Then when I was about seventeen, we took our concert to Lambourn Woodlands Village Hall to help with their war effort. Some Americans were there to help us as well. They played and sang cowboy songs and set up beautiful spotlights. We thought they were Gene Autrey, Tex Ritter or Roy Rogers, like we’d see on the films. One chap named Albert Drew, asked me to go outside with him to look at the moon. I went and asked Mrs Hailstone if I could go outside? She said, No I couldn’t. I’m seventeen and didn’t know why she wouldn’t let me!

One Saturday, I was waiting for Mum to dish up our lunch (even then, we weren’t like other children, we had dinner at night). I wandered out to our gate in Oxford Street to see who was about, I suppose. I was looking for someone to talk to and there were some sort of funny dressed soldiers crawling on their stomachs with rifles and big packs on their backs, one had a wireless aerial coming out of his pack, I said ‘Hello’, he just went on crawling along in the gutter and down by the Mill Lane turning, there were more of them. I ran indoors shouting to my Mum that the Germans had landed and were coming up Oxford Street, she told me not to be so stupid, but she came and looked, then hustled me back indoors, then calmly dished up the lunch and said, we’ll see what your father has to say when he comes home.(He was by then a B.Special-Police). He came in and said he’d seen nothing or no one like we described. Anyway, I had to stay indoors the rest of the day. Next day, Sunday, I went to the gate again and right close to our gate was the biggest tank I’d ever seen and the whole of the street was filled with tanks and soldiers. They spoke English, so I asked them about the Germans and would they like a cup of tea? These tank troops were Canadians and my ‘Germans’ were American Combat Troops (We’d never seen Americans before, their helmets looked like Germans as well). It turned out that the Americans had to take the village, then during the night the Canadians had driven the Americans out and taken over. It was a mock battle that lasted three days, the Canadians never moved an inch for those three days, we never saw the Americans again, but I wrote to one of the tank crew for a while. That was the first time I’d seen Americans or Canadian troops. Little did we know, that within a few months American Troops and Airmen would be everywhere around and in the village.

In 1939, we were to have gone back to school on Sept 4th, but as war had been declared on Sept 3rd, we had another two weeks off. There was a family named Dyche that walked each day to school across tracks from Lambourn Woodlands. Ernie Dyche was my age (I think he never married and still lives in the Woodlands) also there was Mary and Gwen and another boy. Anyway, Ernie didn’t come to school one day in October, when questioned why he’d been absent, he said he’d had to go with his dad, to show lots of men around the woods and tracks “because they be going to build a ‘haerodrome’ for ‘undreds’ of big flying machines”. We all laughed in class, at such a silly story. Later that day, I had to take Ernie out into the school corridor, to try and teach him the poem ‘The Brook’, so I asked him about the aerodrome. He said it was true, “they be going to build it, and it’s going to be bigger than Lambourn” Sure enough in 1940-41 Membury Airfield was on its way, half of male residence went there to work, for a firm called Gee, Walker and Slater.

The workforce were issued with white duffel coats, with these words printed on the back, that word duffel, or was it duffle, was new to us. Then came Tersons with navy blue duffle coats with Terson painted in white letters across their backs. Then hundreds of Irishmen worked at laying roads and runways. ‘Tersons’ was an offshoot of Carter Patersons the great hauliers of England. Eventually it was finished, and the RAF took it over and there was a WAAF site nearly opposite Kingwood Stud. Then in 1942 America entered the war. I can’t remember when the Americans actually took over Membury, but after a few of their planes landed the runways began to break up, and were too short for their huge planes (Flying Fortresses) so they used their own most wonderful equipment and soldiers and more or less re-built Membury, and then they made (Tent-Town) which was used until Ramsbury Airfield was built, and by then Greenham and Welford, they were great builders and they had the most wonderful ideas, and they worked. They brought in fresh veg and fruit on some of their ‘long haul planes’, sometimes.

I wonder if anyone remembers ‘Tennessee Ted’? (Top Sarg Ted Miller). He used to ride a bike from Membury you could hear him coming, he used to yodel from the top of Hungerford Hill all the way down into Lambourn Market Place, there he would sing for us girls. He was a huge chap, rosy cheeked, with the loudest voice I’ve ever heard. Sometimes he’d bring his guitar slung across his back. Then he’d go into the Red Lion. After a few weeks he began to get roaring drunk and the ‘Snowdrops’ (American Military Police) would cart him off in a Jeep and we wouldn’t see him for a while. Then he’d appear again. After not seeing him for weeks, I was in our garden in Oxford Street and heard him shouting in the Market Place. I raced up to see if he would sing again, but as I got there he was handcuffed and screaming and shouting swear words, these four huge ‘Snowdrops’ threw him into a wagon and handcuffed him by his feet to a bar in the wagon, he was pale and thin to what he’d been before. A few days later I plucked up courage to ask the ‘Snowdrops’ what had happened to ‘Tennessee Ted’. He’d been mixing his drink in the Red Lion with aviation spirit, then he started drinking it neat, he’d been in their hospital, but he’d been flown back to America, as he’d gone mad. He was only 22.

Then came the 501 Parachute Infantry, they came right into the village, there were now Americans everywhere. Bockhampton Manor was the Motor Pool, Waldrens Farm (Upper Lambourn) was the Post Sorting Office. A house in the High Street was the Medical Room. The old school (High St) was a garage for four food delivery trucks. (Violet Clayton married Sarg Barney from Lambourn Place). These troops did a lot of practise parachute jumping over the downs it was a site never to be forgotten, the sky was full of planes, then just full of white parachutes with a man dangling on the end, then came another wave of planes, with red and orange ‘chutes’ and on the end were jeeps and folding motor bikes, we watched it all in awe, but after a while it was just another ‘jumping day’, or sometimes at night. Then one day a lot of people living in ‘The Granthams’ were all out digging in their gardens, what was going on? It seems a number of parachutes were missing. Some American soldiers had given ‘chutes’ and sheets to women they knew, and all at once there was a search going to take place, but someone tipped them off and chutes and sheets were being buried in the gardens, at great haste.

My dad usually made friends with Americans, who he could get food from, like chefs, or from those who hauled the food. I’m pretty sure the 501 Paras fed most of Lambourn population in one way or another. I know we had butter, bacon, tin fruit, fresh fruit, meat, tins of sausages, tins of Spam, bars of chocolate, soap, and other items, that these Americans brought to our house. They would usually ask to take Sunday lunch with us. I learnt much about the United States and its history from them.

D-Day was supposed to be June 4th but we only knew something was going on about June 1st or 2nd. Barriers were put across the roads manned by ARP Wardens and Police, you couldn’t go up to the station, along Eastbury Road, Baydon Road, Hungerford Hill or Seven Barrows, or ‘Gasworks’ Hill, if you tried to pass you were asked why you wanted to use these roads and to show your identity card. I know I tried to get to Bockhampton Manor but was turned back. The village was like a ghost-village. Then on June 5th it all started. The planes and gliders filled the sky day and night. Membury seemed on fire, but it was the engines of the planes. Then came the news of D-Day landings in France. The barriers were removed, and there wasn’t a truck or American troops anywhere to be seen, Lambourn was so empty and quiet, it was awful. They just moved out, no one saw or heard what really happened till years after 1945. I’m sure it was the greatest secret and so well kept, in all of English history. Did any 501 Paras, ever come back to Lambourn, after all they lived amongst us for two years?

I don’t remember any celebrations at all on May 8th 1945, Lambourn was still very empty, people were just tired and waiting to see who had survived in Europe and the Far East (14th Army). The latter were certainly the Forgotten Army. I wrote to a soldier (English) all through the Burma Campaign. He came back, but not to me. We still send Christmas cards though. He was in the 2nd Recce Regiment, a Suffolk lad.

I hope you can read this J……, and it is sort of what you wanted. I have often thought of writing a book about those wartime days, there is so much I haven’t mentioned, like the boys and girls of the village and what they did. Lambourn Garages was taken partly over by a London firm, The Flexible Shaft Co. Ltd. The Evacuees, and the blackout were part of everyday life.

 

Mick Dowdeswell

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