26th March 1945 - The last air raid alarm?

Fine, dull, and very cold.  Felt tired.   Busy all day, but Edwards called and stopped me from doing anything for an hour and a half.  Must do something about this.

Went below to tackle Penny of the ARP about our tables and chairs.  He was very off-hand, and would not give any hint of the ARP organisation closing down.  “Germans aren’t done yet, you know,” he said with gloomy relish.

Tummy a little queer today, and felt really tired tonight.  Went up at 7, and fell asleep reading “Ego 5”, having finished “Ego 4” in the train yesterday.  These books are most extraordinarily good, and first class entertainment.

Shortly before midnight was wakened by the siren.  Went outside into a horrid grey world, lit with a few glimmering lamps here and there.  Heard a ‘plane come across from the S.W., but the all-clear came within four minutes, so that it was probably a false alarm.  Had a sudden feeling that this may be the last alarm of the war – surely the Germans cannot bother to send out any more raids?

25th March 1945

Wakened by the birds singing, and looked out onto a grey, damp, drizzle, low clouds sweeping over from the SE.  A four wheel milk cart came up the road, driven by a girl, (saw a nice pair of ponies on a trolley at Bletchley yesterday).

Lay reading, and wondered if there would be an alarm.  Sure enough, at 8 o’clock the sirens moaned out in the drizzle.  Heard a ‘diver’, a very long way off, rumbling along through the wet sky.  One never hears these things without thinking of Duncan Sandys inspired statement last year, when he said it would be impossible to launch them in wet or foggy weather, as the motor would not work.

There was a dull distant thump, and the ‘all clear’ came in a few minutes.  The range of the ‘divers’ must be considerably increased since last year.

Breakfast at 9.30, everything as it was a lifetime ago – grandmother’s Colchester clock on the wall, the broken spring chairs turned out of the dining room, the wood-block floor.  Went up to see Uncle before leaving.  He looked just as he had done last November, thin, pale, austere, obviously very weak.

Weather cleared, so decided to go via St. Albans.  Left at 10.30, just as the band of the Sea Cadets came marching up High Town Road, arms swinging, bugles blaring.

Went spinning along the Bath Road, through Taplow, under the railway bridge and away to Slough.  Nothing seemed changed since last November.  The great mountains of barbed wire are still overshadowing Taplow Station, and the Slough Trading Estate looks as cheap and shoddy as it ever did.  Slough itself shows no further sign of damage, but is if anything a trifle dingier.

Turned off along by the Gas Works, over the narrow, dangerous canal bridge, where a gang of a dozen men were busy repairing the crumbling parapets.  What a wonderful example of modern efficiency that after 20 years of ever increasing motor traffic, these ridiculous bridges still exist on a main road a few miles from London.

A little way along the Uxbridge Road is an Army Training Depôt, and a squad of unfortunate recruits in “civvies”, carrying rifles, were being marched through the gateway.  Nearby were some earnest soldiers learning flag signalling, a form of communication which one would have supposed to have been rather out of date.

And so to Uxbridge, crossing the Colne into Middlesex.  Saw boats on the canal, with the crews, both men and women, washing clothes on the quay side, giving an impression of an almost idyllic life.

A good deal of bomb damage in several parts of the town.  Went up to the main street, where the trolley-buses came in from Shepherd’s Bush, bringing crowds of young people, boy-scouts and girl-guides, going off for a day’s walking in the country.  Hundreds of cyclists, in great flocks, whizzed along the road towards the hills.  Odd to think of them coming from a “battle zone” – even here one sometimes heard the thump and rumble of rockets towards the east.

Realised that I would have done better to have turned off at Iver, but the sign posts around here have never been properly replaced and are very bad.  Turned back into Bucks, across the little stream marked on the map as “The Shire Ditch”.  Some costers came driving along in carts and trolleys, and there were several rough little ponies tied up outside public houses.  One lot came trotting along from Denham with a loose horse tied alongside the shafts.  Saw a brand-new breaking cart in a yard.

Turned off past the great brick wall of Denham Place, past the studios, and over the boundary-line into Hertfordshire and so to Rickmansworth.  Looked out for the bomb-damaged houses which I saw in 1941, but there was no sign of them.  Did I dream it?  Phantas-magoria?

Just outside Rickmansworth was this scene – the wide arterial road, with a grass margin several yards wide, one where two ponies were tethered, one grazing, one lying down.  On the other side of the road, a group of people were waiting in a bus shelter – an air-raid warden, an airman, a soldier and a girl, and two women.  Along the road came a 321 ‘bus, pulling in to the stop, and overtaking it was a blue racing-car driven by a young man in leather jacket, and goggles, roaring down the road like a flying bomb.  Ahead a Fort came flying over, very low.  The racing car vanished, the bus moved on, and all was peace.  No-one could have imagined that at any moment a rocket might have landed and dissolved the car, the bus, the ponies and all of us into atoms.

Stopped at Rickmansworth Station, at the top of a steep hill, and sat on a seat to eat some sandwiches, watching trains go by, and girls cycling along the road.  Army lorries were parked outside a WVS canteen opposite.  Every now and then there was a dull rumble from the south.

Got to Watford at 2, and found the tyre giving out again.  Had a cup of tea at a little café kept by a Greek or Maltese.  Quite clean, but smelt of cooking.  Around here were derelict A.A. gun sites and old battery offices – no guns left now, all having been moved into the Eastern Counties.  Quite a lot of bomb damage.

Arrived at St Albans at 3 o’clock.  Telephoned to the station from a call-box at the end of King Harry Lane, and found there was a train from Hatfield to Cambridge at 6.  This gave ample time to see the Museum, so whizzed down Romeland and Fishpool Street.  Found that Corder still goes twice a week, but his main duty is at the Society of Antiquaries, where he is still living.  He must have rendered invaluable service to the Society during the last 5 years. 

The collections are looking very good indeed, and the building was full of London visitors.  Walked into the church opposite to see once more the great man’s effigy, two young girls in cycling dress were looking at it, and one read out the inscription in the “new” pronunciation.  Notice that the authorities have optimistically given him no protection.  So far only a few odd bombs have fallen in the Park.  Looked at the theatre, and as I came away an elderly man came riding down the lane on a chestnut cob, very smart.

Had tea at a rather dirty ABC café, but got enough to eat.  Pumped up the tyre again, and so on to Hatfield.  Crossed the Great North Road, and down to the station.  While I waited, heard the church bells ringing out under the grey silent sky.  Got the train at last, and got in with a party of three young men and a girl from Cambridge.  They talked about agriculture, and the possibility of “wangling into things”, how to avoid service, and so on.  The men were talking lightly abut the rockets and discussed their mechanical side with enthusiasm.  Apparently the whole party worked on the land in some capacity or other.

In the Fens, there was a pink sunset, and the great flat fields were tinged blood-red.

Cambridge at last, and missed a Wisbech connection by 10 minutes.  Had to wait in the gathering dark until 9.30.  Bombers were going out singly all the time.

At long last got to March by quarter to eleven, and set out on the last 10 miles to Wisbech, a dreary ride under the lowering clouds.  Wisbech at midnight, no sound but a solitary ‘plane diving somewhere in the darkness.  To bed, rather tired.

24th March 1945

Glorious cool morning, not a cloud in the sky.  Daffodils blowing in the garden, and the plum trees in blossom. The garden is looking wonderfully well, and dear old Uncle Jim still works in it.  The primroses are out by the nut-tree bower where I played as a child.

“Liberators” were going over very early, and there was the sound of gunfire in the distance – probably somebody shooting at flying-bombs.  Marjorie says there has been a ‘diver’ near Cox’s Green, which did a certain amount of damage, this must have travelled about 250 miles.

Sat in the garden reading “The New Statesman”.  Left at 12 for Maidenhead, Marjorie to come over later.  Hedges in bloom, and the hawthorn out.  Two or three biplanes were flying very low from Waltham, and in front of them, at a great height, a big flight of Forts going out, on their way to bomb a few thousand more civilians.  Saw the little Queen Anne Cottage, where I once wanted to live, and Shottesbroke Church.  Will either of them yet be destroyed?  Thought of Mother walking down the lane from the bus-stop.

Bought a lamp-battery at White Waltham, the shopkeeper looking at me very suspiciously, perhaps wondering if I were a deserter or a spy.  At Cox Green saw the trains roaring down to the West.  Great longing for Wales.

Delightful lunch at Aunt’s.  Gave her a week’s meat coupon.  

This afternoon cycled down to the Library for an hour.  Found “The London Topographical Record”.  Very well done.  Should like to see something of this sort for Colchester.

Streets crowded with Saturday shoppers.  Saw Spindler’s, Alexander’s, and the Rialto Café, and thought of Mother going there in the mornings for coffee, sitting at the window to watch the crowds go by, just such crowds as were there this afternoon.

Back for tea.  Marjorie came, and we had a jolly party.  News on the radio that the Allies are over the Rhine, but Aunt still pessimistic.  Said there was an alarm this morning when I heard the guns.

Marjorie went back on the bus, and I took Jocelyn [Eric's cousin] to the cinema.  Always a pleasure to take her out.  Saw “Waterloo Road”, very well done indeed.  Came back in the grey dusk, under a pale watery moon.  Glass going back.  If the weather breaks, the new offensive will fail.

At supper, talk about what has been happening in the war, local excitements and so on – Queen Wilhelmina has been living at Stubbings, going out onto the Thicket to paint.  Some time ago a ‘diver’ fell near the house and killed a guard, but the Queen was not at home at the time.  Doolittle’s HQ is near Marlow, and the whole district is thick with Americans.

Bed in Maitland’s old room at 11.30, a dark wet night.  Lay reading until nearly 2am.

23rd March 1945

Up in the dark.  Caught the 7.23, Cambridge just after 9.  Got the 9.30 to Bletchley, arriving at 11.22.  Slept in the train, tired, having got up at 4am to patch clothes before coming on this trip.

At Cambridge, standing on the platform, was attracted by the activities of some Americans just over the wall, in the sidings.  Peeped over, and saw six men and two sergeants unloading coffins from a railway van into three closed motor-trucks.  There seemed to be about a dozen coffins, all very new and shiny varnish, glittering brass handles.  As each was dragged out of the railway-van it was covered for an instant with a Stars-and-Stripes, which was whipped off again as they were slid into the motors.  All this took place in bright sunlight, under the eyes of a few inquisitive travellers.  No doubt it was the crew of a bomber.

On the journey, saw huge dumps and camps near Woburn, which must annoy the good Duke of Bedford.  At Fenny Stratford passed under Watling Street with memories of the journey down it in Rose’s little car.

Got the cycle out at Bletchley, and found the tyre flat.  Very pleasant country, well farmed.  Hardly any traffic, fine, smooth roads.  Through Newton Longville – a few little houses, a church, a red brick inn, clean and inviting, a cross-roads, a group waiting for a bus, and children coming out of school.

Noticed I was only 7 miles from Winslow, and much regretted no time to go to see it.  Glorious country, rolling, sweeping hills, and a lot of arable land.  Farm buildings need repair.  At Stewkley, stopped at a garage and mended the punctured tyre myself, as there was nobody there to do it.  Had a cider at the King’s Arms, listening to loud excited talk in the passage way outside, from which I gathered that some woman had just been telephoned to go to a dying relative – “Won’t last more than a few hours, they said.”

Stewkley is a long straggling village, with a magnificent Norman church, the W. end very fine, with bold arch and pretty arcading and a well built squat central tower.  Much regretted no time to go in.  Left Stewkley at 1.15.  On to Wing, past a huge lonely aerodrome, ‘planes parked on the dispersal points, and some farmer’s horse and tumbril proceeding slowly along a wide concrete runway.  The village itself is up a hill, a pleasant street, in which stands the Cock Inn, with a big cock crowing over the roadway.

Got onto the main Leighton Buzzard road, and rushed along gaily through Rowsham, with a pretty looking ancient inn, and not far from there a little old brick-built brewery, a faded board inscribed “Thomas Gurney Licensed Brewer”.  Perhaps related to the Gurneys.

Crossed the Thame, and got to Bierton at half past 2.  Hurried on into the town, through a confusing maze of “one-way” streets.  Got to the Museum in time for the end of the business meeting.  Mrs. Bond [Secretary of the Museums Association] was there, looking very charming, and about a dozen assorted curators looking very bedraggled.  Clarke from Letchworth, Dr Wallis of Bristol, and Miss Baker of Aylesbury were the only ones I knew.

A man named Prince gave a talk on town planning, although difficult to see how this concerns a Museums Federation.  He talked the usual rubbish, but made one interesting point – under the 1944 Act the Minister can order towns to protect their ancient houses, and can forbid any alterations to the structures.  The onus for making such an order is upon the Minister.  This is most important, but when, at question time, I asked if any such orders had ever been made? he was vague and evasive.

At tea, Mrs. Bond said she had seen Maitland Underhill [Eric's cousin], a few days ago, and had expected him here today, but he had sent a note to say he was unable to get away.  He has been having trouble with Lord Hambledon over the Hambledon Museum, which his Lordship wishes to use as a village hall.  An official report on this outrageous proposal was before us today, and it was agreed to ask the Museums Association to protest. 

After tea, (which was very nice, with homemade cakes) we looked over the Museum, which is very good indeed and beautifully kept.  The Curator lives on the premises.  The main building is a nice 18c house, with a well-built modern extension at the back.  There is a nice lot of bygones, including, oddly enough, a few things from an old lady who lived at Wisbech St Mary and afterwards moved to Aylesbury.  Miss Baker offered me these, as they included a nice “Pope Joan” board, so I took them.

There is Roman pottery from as far afield as Oxfordshire, and a beautiful gold coin of Cunobeline, found in September 1925 at Great Kimble, about five miles South of Aylesbury, where, I am astonished to learn, there is a tumulus called “Kymbelin’s Grave”.  Obviously the chance similarity of the name Kimble to the old English rendering of Cunobeline has given rise to this, but it will be amusing to spring this suddenly on Colchester, and to watch their reaction.  It is further curious that quite a number of Cunobeline’s coins have been found in Gt. Kimble, indicating that at any rate these parts were within the territory of “Rex Brittanorum”.  The name of the tumulus may of course be of ancient origin, and perhaps represents a faint memory of the great king.  This should be investigated.

The Aylesbury museum is very pleasant and the labels are very good.  I regretted there was so little time to see details.

Went out about 5.30, into the quiet sunny street, with the fine Georgian houses, and the ancient church at the end of it, so quiet and remote.  No aircraft in the sky.

Cycled down a long cobbled alley to the station, and caught a train to High Wycombe at 5 minutes to 6.  Travelled with a handsome, dark haired woman who was going back to London.  Talked about conditions there.  She obviously was very worried about the rockets.  (Mrs. Bond has also been having a terrible time and has stuck to the Museums Association Office, through thick and thin).

On the way saw “Hughenden”.  Every hillcrest is now crowned with “villas” and the valleys are becoming filled with cheap ugly factories.

Went through High Wycombe and down the valley to Maidenhead.  Suddenly saw a narrow street, a railway gate, a high brick wall, and a little house with a window against the line.  Recognised it at once – it was Bourne End, where Uncle Underhill was organist, and the little house was where we went to tea, more than 30 years ago.  I have never seen it from that day to this.  Can't even remember who lived in the house.

Saw a glorious sunset over Winter Hill, and rushed down the deep cuttings, past Furze Platt, under the high bridge at Castle Hill, and out into the broad valley, the old causeway where we ran our scooters below, Cox’s Woodyards on the right.  Went up to Grenfell Road and saw Aunt for a few minutes before going to Shurlock Row.  She was very well, but Uncle is no better.  Aunt very pessimistic about the war.  Says a rocket fell near Henley the other night.

Left for Shurlock Row under the crescent moon.  Sinister crowds around the aerodrome at Waltham, lights glittering and flashing.

Got to Shurlock Row soon after 8.  Marjorie made me a bed on the couch in the front parlour, and there I slept in the room where a long time ago, I saw Frankie [Marjorie's brother] come in wearing white flannels, and felt afraid of him, and where I teased poor Dick the dog.  Lay a long time listening to the church clock striking and the aircraft passing over.

The 9 o’clock news warned that air-attacks are likely to get worse – but fire-guards are now being abandoned.

22nd March 1945

Glorious day.  Daffodils coming out.  Very noisy all night, ‘planes going over for hours.

Making preparations to go to Aylesbury.  Paid Mrs. B. by cheque, and cashed another for myself.  Must be more careful with money. 

Papers full of “war almost over” stories.

Cannot find the “Fox One” manuscript anywhere, which causes me anxiety.  Awkward if it has disappeared in the Museum.

This afternoon Miss Quail brought in a party from the Grammar School “Prep”.  Showed them Roman stuff.

A most extraordinary accident at Parson’s Drove.  An RAF ‘plane made a forced landing in a ploughed field, and when endeavouring to take off again it ran over and killed a little girl.

Bed early tonight.  Wrote to Father for his birthday tomorrow.

21st March 1945

Noises all night, and slept very badly.  Fine sunny morning.  “Daily Express” had a flaring headline “All Men of 35 To Be Called Up”, followed by an article stating categorically that all men born after 1909 are to be called-up, regarded, and kept in the army until the end of the Japanese war.  The article suggests there has been some “mis-apprehension” about the position of men of these ages, which the Ministry of Labour is anxious to clear up.  Am wondering whether Spivy was correct in what he told me last December, when he assured me I was free to take the Wisbech post.  I told him that I was born in 1910 and was Grade III, when he said: “Well, that’s alright, you’re quite free to take the job if you can get it.”  I remember telling Poulter shortly afterwards that I felt I ought to have had this in writing.  Incidentally, in his last letter Poulter said that Spivy had been asking after me very kindly.

Bought the “Herald” and “The Times”, but neither mention this business, so that it may be nothing more than a piece of dirty “Express” journalism.  But it makes one very anxious.

20th March 1945

Fine, but still windy, and a clear night, with a crescent moon.  Busy on museum chores, and then in the afternoon Mr A.P.D. Penrose called.  He is very like his brother Lionel.  We had an interesting talk on museum matters, and he left to go to tea with his aunt, Miss Peckover, at Bank House.

Tonight at 8 went to a meeting of the Wisbech Society at the Grammar School, when S.E. Dykes-Bower gave a talk on “Village Building After the War” (always assuming that there is an “after the war”.  Penrose was in the chair.  Dykes-Bower gave a good talk on the usual lines, but showed a considerable ignorance of the Fens – he could not understand why the Fen villages were not built round village greens in the traditional way, and suggested that more use ought to be made of the “local stone” such as flints!

He talked until about 9.15, and was just beginning to show lantern slides, when the siren sounded.  The lecturer made some facetious remark about it being obviously desirable to get on with his talk without delay, and the audience sat in grim expectant silence, while outside in the moonlight ‘planes of unknown nationality dived and soared.  The slides were run through by about a quarter to ten.  Whereupon Penrose thanked the speaker and said that “under the circumstances” it was probably just as well to conclude the meeting, adding grimly “I hope you all arrive home safely.”

I had promised to go back with old Curtis Edwards, so instead of being free to scuttle through back lanes and alleys, I had to walk very slowly through the town and across the Park.  Just as we came into the Park, a ‘plane dived in from the east in a most alarming manner, I quite thought it was a jerry, and said to Edwards, quickly, “If he drops anything, lie down!”  “Who?  Who?” asked the old man, “Who drop anything?”  Age must have many compensations.  However, the ‘plane dropped a red flare and scuttled away towards Lincolnshire.  Nothing else came over, but there was no ‘all-clear’ until 11 o’clock.  Begins to look as if the Germans had formed another air-force.

Noticed this morning that builders’ ladders were leaned against the Mayor’s house, where the bombs fell the other night, and men were at work.  The “unexploded bomb” has not yet been found, and there is still a soldier on duty in the Vicarage Paddock.