In the summer of 1940 I left the shop to go into the army, leaving my wife Elsie and the shop girls to look after things. It was not an easy time for Elsie, especially when our first son, Peter was born in September 1941. The routine in the shop was drastically altered by rationing, food shortages, black-outs and other war-time regulations.
Whenever I had any leave I made straight for home as quickly as possible. This was not always easy, as transport was very hard to come by. Trains were infrequent and overcrowded, bus services were curtailed due to fuel shortages and breakdowns. As I was in a Transport Unit, in charge of motor cycle repairs, I could sometimes scrounge the use of a dispatch riders bike to get me home. This could be great fun, as I could plot a route directly overland and avoid the main roads. I did come unstuck on one trip home when I tried to come down the track in Padley Gorge on the bike. I was doing fine until the front wheel hit an exposed tree root and I shot over the handlebars, the bike slid down into the brook. I spent most of my time on that leave repairing the bike!
When I was at Catterick I got a weekend leave. I set off in the afternoon hoping to get home for teatime. By various means I eventually arrived in Sheffield just as darkness was drawing in. I made my way to the Midland station only to find that there were no trains to anywhere running until the next day. There were no buses at that time either so I set off to walk. I managed to get a lift in a lorry on its way to Matlock, the driver kindly going out of his way to drop me on the Froggatt Edge Road. All I had to do then was walk down through Haywood and I would be home.
By this time it was pitch black, all the surrounding villages and farms were blacked out and it was difficult to get my bearings. I reckoned that if I just headed straight downhill through the wood then I must eventually reach the river, then I could walk along the bank to the bridge. So I plunged into the gloom of the wood, setting a downhill course for home. It was not quite as easy as I had anticipated to keep in a straight line. I kept getting tangled up in brambles and thorny bushes, got poked in the face by low branches and often found myself up to my knees in a bog. Eventually I heard running water ahead and thought that I had at last reached the river, instead I walked straight into Haywood brook. At least this gave me my bearings and I trudged off over the Grinsey to the bridge, then up the darkened village to the shop.
I then realized that I had no door keys and could not get in. I had to try and wake Elsie. I knocked on the door, then I banged harder on it, but there was no answer. Next I tried throwing some small stones up against the bedroom window. Still there was no response from my sleeping spouse. Then I thought about the old ‘knocker-up’ who used to go around early in the mornings waking up the factory workers in towns. I got the idea to use a clothes prop to tap on the bedroom window. I started to tap gently against the window and steadily increased the knocking until suddenly there was a loud crack. I had broken the glass! At least this did wake Elsie up.
She awoke with a start by the sound of the breaking glass and was very frightened by it. She tentatively looked out of the window to see a darkened figure in uniform out in the garden holding a long pole; obviously it was a German paratrooper. The invasion had started! When I saw her face at the window I gave her a cheery wave, but this did not allay her fears. It was only when I shouted out, “It’s me, Tom, I’m on leave. Please open the door and let me in”.
When she came downstairs and opened the door she was startled to see what a state I was in. I was covered in mud, my battle dress was torn and had bits of bramble and twigs stuck to it and my boots were a sodden, muddy mess. I had to strip off my filthy clothes on the doorstep before she let me in. That leave was mostly spent in cleaning up my uniform and kit!
On another time when I was coming home on leave I passed Ladybower Reservoir when it was being opened by King George. I didn’t know anything about this; it was purely by chance that I passed that way on yet another scrounged bike after coming over the Snake Pass.
It was quite an experience to see the King and Queen and their retinue. There was tight security round the area, in fact I had had quite a job to get through as there was a road block on the Snake and I had to show my papers to several brass before being allowed through. The King was in his full uniform of Admiral of the Fleet and looked grand. I can not remember what the Queen wore, other than that she had on a very large hat! There was a long line of limousines, a couple of Rolls and the odd Bentley or two, no shortage of petrol there! There were large crowds packed on the sides of the roads along the banks of the reservoir. There was also a bandstand and dais for all the big wigs. The date was 25th September 1945 and my Army service was coming to an end.
I had visited the village of Ashopton when the work on the Ladybower Dam had begun. It was a very sad time for the villagers there and the place had an eerie feel to it. Soon the dam wall would be completed and the outlet valves closed. Towering over the doomed village which was soon to be drowned under the reservoir, was the huge viaduct which was to carry the new road over the waters. I had my father-in-law with me, who loved to have a drink, so we went into the Ashopton Inn. We had a few glasses of beer and the old fellow was, as usual, insisting on having a few too many. He was very impressed with the quality of the ale and soon got jawing with some of the locals. They told us all about the impending flooding of the valley and how they were to loose their homes. They were all to be re-housed in a new village just below the dam wall, but it would never be the same as their real homes and village. The old man for very sentimental about it all and, with a tear in his eye wailed, “Fancy floodin’ a ruddy good boozer like this ‘un – this ale is far better than any watter any bloody day!”
During the war Elsie was involved in the Grindleford W.R.V.S., as if she hadn’t enough to do with running the shop and home! They used to meet at Stoke Hall for training and had talks on first aid, how to deal with unexploded bombs and such like. Another duty was to help with the feeding of the prisoners of war from the camp at Stoney Middleton.
The P.O.W.’s were all out to work on local farms and at times such as hay-making and harvesting the W.R.V.S. would set up feeding stations so that they would not have to take the prisoners off the job to be fed. They were mainly Germans on the camp plus a few Italians. Some actually settled in the area when the war finished. They were paid a small wage for their labours and some would come into our shop to spend part of it.
Elsie sometimes felt sorry for one or two of them who looked so very young and really did not seem like our enemies at all. One lad who came in the shop regularly would always buy needles, cottons and threads.
She asked him what was he sewing and he replied in broken English that he did not sew, they were not for him. He would send them home to his mother in Germany, she could not buy them there. Another of the prisoners would come in and ask for, “Eine cigarette, pliz”. He never buy a packet of five or ten, just the one! He was either a very light smoker or his wages were very low.
Many of the P.O.W.’s made small items from scrap material during their spare time in the camp. They would then try to sell them to the locals. Some of their work was very good, especially the woodwork. They made excellent wooden toys such as a monkey-on-a-stick and pecking-hens. The latter was a flat bat with two or three wooden hens perched on it. Underneath the bat a ball was suspended and to this was attached string which was connected to the chicken’s beaks. By rotating the bat and ball the chickens would be made to peck at the ground most effectively. Elsie bought two or three of these toys for our sons and they lasted remarkably well.
During the very severe winter of 1940 the P.O.W.’s were put to work clearing snow from the roads and footpaths. There had been heavy falls of snow which had blown into huge drifts blocking all the rods into the village. Eyam New Road and the Calver Road at Knouchley were blocked with particularly deep drifts. Here the P.O.W.’s had cut the snow into large blocks and stacked then at the sides of the road. The result was just like driving through an ice cavern, but it kept the roads open for weeks by preventing further drifts from forming as the hard weather persisted.
The village had its own Home Guard Unit which had as Head Quarters the building which is now the Youth Club. The air-raid siren was mounted there and I seem to recollect that George Stone was put in charge of its operation. Jubilee Rock was the main observation point for the firewatchers and they dug themselves in just below the skyline on the ridge. One night the sentry on duty there heard noisy rustlings in the bracken nearby, so he thrust out his bayoneted rifle and challenged, “Who goes there?” Which was met by the reply, “It’s me (George Stone) you daft bugger. I’ve just gotten us two rabbits from out the wood for us supper!”