The War Years in Meldreth
Most of the information here is taken from notes and documents I acquired after my parents, Leslie and Ruby Pepper, died in the early 1980s.
Although I didn’t realise it at the time, a trip to Whaddon in Howard Bros. baker’s van was to collect some bricks from a recently burnt-down chapel required by my father to complete the construction of an air-raid shelter at the end of our garden. This well-built dugout was to be our retreat if the bombs started to fall. The pantry under the stairs in our house was another area that had been prepared, this time for the threat of a gas attack. The door frame had been lined with a coarse felt and a bolt attached to the inside of the door. I can just remember my gas mask being orange or red in colour, and with two large windows to peer through. There were also some thin tentacles attached to the face which were supposed to encourage a young child to wear it. I don’t recall it being very successful because it made you look like something from outer space.
My father joined the Home Guard on June 19th 1940, soon after taking the tenancy of 4 Allerton Terrace, Meldreth on March 25th. In joining he became a member of Number 2 Section, Number 1 Battle Squad, 19th Platoon (mobile), C Company, 4th Battalion, Cambridgeshire Regiment, Home Guard.
After some basic training he attained the position of Lance Corporal and some time later was promoted to Corporal. He was entrusted with a a Sten Gun No.048105 FB64105 which was kept in his bedroom, hidden in the wardrobe. (Note: the Sten Gun’s name was an acronym comprising the initials ‘S’ and ‘T’ of chief designers – Major R V Shepherd Harold Turpin – and ‘EN’ for Enfield). The amount of ammunition he had was just a few bullets, not enough to do much damage to the enemy.
Among the members of his Platoon were: Corporal L Pepper, Corporal Russell; Lance Corporal Henderson; Privates D Pepper, L Turner, G Handscombe, H Jude, E Andrews, J G R Jones, S Chamberlain, A Jacklin, S Fost, F Andrews, R Green, Cecil Adams, N Gibson, J Gibson, A E W Webb.
The Company Commander was Captain Munday and the Battalion Commander, Colonel Parker. Battle Headquarters C Company was at Fowlmere Rectory and Battalion Headquarters at Bulbeck (Mill) House, Barrington.
The Home Guard’s standard equipment was an Eddystone Rifle 3.00, 1917 pattern. It is interesting to find in my father’s notes that Meldreth had two telephones, one at the Post Office and the other at the Railway Station. There was one other which was a private line run by the Electric Light Company. Under the heading, ‘Home Guard Duty’, he writes: “Wednesday evening 9pm – 11pm, at North End barricade; Red Warning 2am – 4am and Sunday evening 11pm – 1am, North End barricade; Red Warning 1pm – 2pm.” The organisation of all the services he listed as follows:
“Air Raid Wardens have only a moral responsibility, not a legal (one). They must assist other services. The Police are responsible for law and order and evacuation. Battalion MO will be at Battle Headquarters. Pioneers stationed at Meldreth. The 16th Lancers at Melbourn. There would be no support from either of these groups except if the commander decides at the time for aerodrome defence.” It appears that the Mobile Platoon of C Company had access to a car when required. Their services would be needed to assist in the defence of the outer perimeter of Duxford (aerodrome).The Battalion function was primarily to defend Bassingbourn, Litlington, (should this be Steeple Morden?), Duxford and Fowlmere aerodromes. When organising a patrol, key words were used to assist in its planning e.g. P – Preparation; A – Arms and Equipment; T – Time Out; R – Route; O – Objective and L – Layout. In 1942 it appears that the Platoon was divided into two parts, A & B. Each part was sub-divided into sections; A into sections 1 & 2 and B into sections 3 & 4:
Section 1, A half
Lewis Gun, Sergeant Hale, Lance Corporal E Elbourn, Private C Adams, Private EA Andrews, Private SE Chamberlain, Private JG Dash, Private G Harrup
Section 2, A half
Corporal LS Pepper, Private FC Farnham, Private EH Dash, Private GF Handscombe, Private A Jude, Private HE Winter, Private W Hunt, Attached Corporal FG Russell
Section 3, B half
Corporal Dunn?, Lance Corporal Course, Private H Jude, Private F Andrews, Private Bradley?, Private Butler?, Private Plum?
Section 4, B half
Corporal Harrup, Lance Corporal Henderson, Private C Harrup, Private A Jacklin, Private D Pepper, Private L Turner, Private W Wing, Private S Fost, Private Webb?
There were variations in these lists with some names crossed out i.e. Harland, Thurley and Drewer. In the recruits list the following names appear: E S Dash, Harper, Peevley, Ward, Stubbings, J Gipson, N Gipson, G Adams, R Green and Weathersil?
Another typed note concerns the construction of the Battle Platoon. HQ would have a Subaltern, Runner, Sergeant, Sniper and Rifle Bomber. There would be two Battle Squads and in his notebook my father also lists the names and responsibilities of a Squad C led by Corporal Pepper with Lance Corporal Course as second in command. Private H Jude is shown as No. 1 Rifle, Private W Butler as No. 2 Rifle, Private L Turner as No. 3 Rifle, Private E Dash as No. 1 Bomber, Private Bradley as No. 2 Bomber and Private C Plumb as No. 3 Bomber. B Winter, K Fast and C Harper are shown as Nos. 1, 2 and 3 on LG (Lewis Gun?).
Many of these notes and instructions seem to vary but I’m sure it was all right on the night. Their skills training included, on April 19th 1942, rifle firing at Barton; on May 3rd of the same year it was firing the .22 at Meldreth; and December 6th saw them indulge in grenade-throwing practice at Barrington. On one occasion early in the hostilities, my father was on one of his bread delivery rounds in a neighbouring village when he had to hastily roll under his van for cover, the reason being that a lone German aircraft was flying low over the village and spraying the High Street with machine gun fire. A very close encounter!
(Note: for the names of other Home Guard members pictured here please see the Home Guard Diary of Lieutenant J Paterson, elsewhere on this website)
An instruction arrived on June 23rd 1943 to ‘C’ Company, 4th Cambridgeshire Battalion, Home Guard, Meldreth Platoon from the Major Commanding. It involved Corporals and Lance Corporals in a weekend camp on June 26th/27th. “Men will report at Thriplow Hutted Camp at 16.30 hours on Saturday and disperse at 17.00 on Sunday. Rations, ground sheets, blankets, etc. will be supplied. Men will take with them the following articles: battledress, FS cap, greatcoat, gas cape, respirator, soap, toilet paper, towel, change of socks, shaving kit and mirror, knife, fork and spoon, notebook and pencil, rifle but no live ammunition.”
I am left wondering what they actually did in such a short period of time. There was a Tactical Handling of Battle Platoons exercise which involved company commanders training men in an anti-raid role and this, I believe, is the sort of programme which would have fitted the bill. The scenario was of a Radio Location Station near a village name Bolthead, which is situated on a prominent hump in a line of hills running north-south. It is vitally important for protection from enemy air action of the supply and communication system through East Anglia to British Forces in Holland and Belgium. A map is included in the notes and, with detailed instructions of the numbers of men, weapons and their positions, trainees must construct a battle plan to defeat numbers of German paratroopers who have been seen advancing towards the Radio Station. This sort of exercise would have been most useful to all Home Guard personnel and would certainly have improved their fighting ability.
On July 25th 1943, Corporal L S Pepper took the ‘Certificate of proficiency – Home Guard’ test. It included: general knowledge, rifle, 36 M grenade, Lewis machine gun, battle craft and map-reading. He successfully passed in all sections and duly received the certificate on July 27th, signed by the Commanding Officer. This achievement must have been another feather in the cap.
I recall that on one occasion there was a rumour in the village that a bomb had been dropped which, thankfully, had not exploded but had narrowly missed a house on the Shepreth Road. My grandfather and I, together with many other villagers, walked the distance to peer into a large hole in the ground. It seems strange this was not declared a restricted area. It was early on in the conflict that my mother and I visited Royston – quite an outing in those days – the purpose of which was to do some shopping but also visit the Royston Motor Company on Baldock Road. At the back was a light aircraft which I believe to have been a Taylorcraft Auster, also known as an army cooperation aircraft, and would have been used for observation duties. As a small boy I was fascinated by the array of instruments and controls in the cockpit. I believe it only had a 60 horsepower engine. There was also the shell of a bomb on which we all stuck a stamp as our contribution to the war effort! Exciting stuff for young children.
Another memory is that of Italian POWs who were employed on railway line maintenance. Being a small child they would make a lot of fuss of me, picking me up and taking me for a short walk. When the Americans joined in, my grandfather took me up on to the station platform to greet several trains packed with GIs which had briefly stopped at Meldreth on their way to Cambridge. The carriage windows were flung open at the sight of a small child and, with a lot of cheering and whistling, sweets, chocolate and cookies would be thrown on to the platform. Such was the generosity of these young men who were about to go to war.
It was soon after the construction of what was known as the ‘ambulance road’ which ran along the railway for several hundred yards on the south side of the road bridge, that we witnessed the arrival of trains bringing back war-wounded military personnel.The carriages were identified with a large red cross on their roofs. I remember how gently the train drivers would manoeuvre the train – no jarring when coupling up, very slow in gaining any movement. After the train had been moved into the siding, the wounded were placed into waiting ambulances and transported to Wimpole Hall which had been taken over as a hospital. I do remember that, on several occasions during the conflict, I would stand outside late in the evening with my parents and listen to the rattle of anti-aircraft fire as the shells and tracer bullets soared into the sky at an illuminated German aircraft many miles away to the east of Meldreth.
An instruction in the form of a standard letter dated January 23rd 1943 from a J E Hilder, manager of the Ministry of Labour and National Service office at 87 Newman Street, Cambridge, called upon my father to attend for a medical examination. He was to attend the Medical Board Centre in the Wesley Schools, King Street, Cambridge at 9.30 am on Friday 29th January. If he travelled over 10 miles but less than 20 miles he could claim 1 shilling (5 pence). I can only assume he passed with flying colours.
An ‘observation exercise’, actioned on September 3rd, 1943 was another challenge. The US Army Air Force had distributed a number of pilots throughout the area, the intention being that they were to get back to their respective aerodromes without being challenged. They would be “wearing khaki uniform trousers with a leather flying jerkin and no cap, badges or rank markings.” The Home Guard was to “keep a look-out during the afternoon and, if any of the pilots are observed, to try and challenge them. If pilots are challenged they will reply in broken English. If it is possible to touch them this will constitute a capture.” Home Guard members able to action such a challenge were to report to their Platoon Commanding Officer not later than Sunday evening, giving the place and a map reference if possible.
There were occasions when we would go for a cycle ride around the villages, with me perched on a small seat on my father’s crossbar, my mother close by on her upright ladies Raleigh cycle. I think that it was on one of these rides that we stopped at Bassingbourn, on the A14, to watch large bombers such as the B17s, with one engine running, slowly cross the road to hide on concrete aprons in the small wooded area of the north of the airfield. (Note: Ralph Betts comments that the planes were probably being dispersed so that if one was was hit the fire was less likely to spread to others).
It was a letter from Mr W B Witts of the Ministry of Labour and National Service in Royston that was to curtail my father’s activity in the local Home Guard for some time. His trade at the time was as a baker and roundsman for Howard Bros., Bakers and Confectioners of Melbourn and was instructed to make himself available at the address of a Mrs Clifford, 9 Market Place, Toddington, Bedfordshire. Although he appealed to the local board, this was rejected and he was directed under Regulation 58 A of the defence (General) Regulations, 1939 to comply with these instructions. He undertook this employment as a baker’s roundsman with Mrs Clifford commencing on 16th December 1943 and was paid £4.10 shillings for a 55 hour week. On January 28th of the following year he received an information sheet concerning ‘Allowances to Wives and dependants of men serving in His Majesty’s Forces.’ He could claim 18 shillings for a wife and 9s.6d for a child but the conditions laid down were lengthy and complex, giving you little or no room for manoeuvre. I believe that he did participate in Toddington Home Guard activities in some way, when time permitted. The directive that he work in Bedfordshire continued until June 6th 1944.
Christmas was a very bland affair for most people during the war period, but more so for children. I spent many an hour playing with a tank which my father had made for me. It consisted of an upturned wooden box, about 6 inches by 8 inches. Two pieces of wood along each side with beer bottle tops attached to them represented the tracks toothed suspension wheels. The turret was a tobacco tin with a pencil representing the gun. The wheels were four draughts screwed to each corner of the underside. With a coat of dark brown paint and some imagination on my part, it became a formidable weapon.
Towards the end of the war, I can remember standing outside with my parents to watch the thousand bomber raids flying over towards the east coast to attack Germany. Quite a spectacular sight with the sky full of aircraft producing one continuous drone from their engines. Soon after the announcement of VE (Victory in Europe) day, there was one last treat for the children of the village. I remember walking to the stocks with my mother to await the arrival of a Bren Gun carriage which had been laid on to follow the bus route. Although being only six years of age, I do recall that exciting journey as this tracked vehicle noisily made its way down Meldreth High Street to arrive at the Railway Tavern just a few minutes later.
On December 3rd 1944, there was a large parade of the 4th Cambridgeshire Battalion Home guard on Parker’s piece in Cambridge. On this occasion the Commanding Officer, Lieutenant Colonel RM Parker, was to give his final address to his men at their Standing Down parade. I remember standing with my mother on the corner of Trumpington Road and Hobson’s Conduit to watch the long columns of Home Guard marching proudly past to assemble on Parker’s Piece and recall the large numbers of people who attended that momentous occasion. On the same day, King George, RI, as their Colonel-in-Chief, gave a broadcast to the men of the Home Guard:
“For more than four years you have borne a heavy burden. Most of you have been engaged for long hours in work necessary for the prosecution of the war or to maintaining the healthful life of the nation; and you have given a great portion of the time which should have been your own to learning the skilled work of a soldier. By this patient, ungrudging effort you have built and maintained a force able to play an essential part in the defence of our threatened soil and liberty.
I have long wished to see you relieved of this burden; but it would have been a betrayal of all we owe to our fathers and our sons if any step had been taken which might have imperilled our country’s safety. Till very recently, a slackening of our defences might have encouraged the enemy to launch a desperate blow which could grievously have damaged us and weakened our own assault. Now, at last, the splendid resolution and endurance of the allied armies have thrust back that danger from our coasts. At last I can say you have fulfilled your charge.
The Home Guard has reached the end of its long tour of duty under arms. But I know your devotion to our land, your comradeship, your power to work your hardest at the end of the longest day will discover new outlets for patriotic service in time of peace.
History will say that your share in the greatest of all our struggles for freedom was a vitally important one. You have given your service without thought of reward. You have earned in full measure your country’s gratitude.”
Several weeks later a small box arrived at Allerton Terrace. A note inside stated: “The Under Secretary of State for War presents his compliments and by Command of the Army Council has the honour to transmit the enclosed Awards granted for service during the war of 1939-45.” Also in the box was the Defence Medal with Ribbon. I believe that these awards were presented to all members of the Home Guard. At about the same time my father received from King George a document which commended him:
“In the years when our country was in mortal danger Leslie Samuel Pepper, who served 19th June 1940 – 31st December 1944, gave generously of his time and powers to make himself ready for her defence by force of arms and with his life if need be”.
The country celebrated the end of the War in Europe with many street parties. There were large gatherings in Trafalgar Square and at Buckingham Palace. In Allerton Terrace a tea party was arranged and all the residents contributed to providing food. We sat around a wooden table on the grass outside the residence of Mr and Mrs Fost at No.1 just chatting, relaxing and enjoying each other’s company. A fitting way to end a very traumatic period in our history.