Harwell in Wartime – I
When war broke out in 1939, people in Harwell were very apprehensive about the proximity of the new aerodrome, which had been built on the Downs south of the village; they feared bombing raids but fortunately none dropped on the village. One string of bombs straddled the depots at Milton and Didcot, and the railway line north of the village, falling on a barn at Milton Heights and in a cabbage field by the Abingdon path in the northern part of the parish.
The villagers were very conscious of the activities at the aerodrome, and the roar of the heavy bombers often disturbed their sleep. The gliders all congregated at the aerodrome for the Battle of Arnhem in 1944. No wonder the boys on the “Drome” called it the camp of sighs: “Ha! Well.” The folk in the village were not complacent. They had a very active Home Guard and Air Raid Precaution Unit; after a day’s work they turned out to patrol the streets at night when there was an alert. The First Aid Unit met at Miss Clewes’ house (Rosemead), for instruction in bandaging, splinting and so on. The blackout which was in force throughout the country made little difference, as street lighting was almost non-existent. For a while church Evensong was held during the afternoon, as the church was difficult to blackout.
Women who had young children worked in Mr Greenwood’s yard by the old Harwell Brewery, camouflaging tents and tarpaulins, and permeating the air with the smell of -acetone. As labour was short at this time, Italian prisoners of war were employed on the Grove fruit farm, and many stayed on after the War to make their homes in the neighbourhood. Later, German prisoners camped at the same spot at the top of the Grove Road. All was not gloom: each week a dance, known locally as “Charlie’s Hop”, was held at the Village Hall, to which many airmen came, and where many a romance blossomed. What joy it was when at last the church bells were able to ring again to welcome our boys home.
Harwell in Wartime – II by Bruce Harrison
How I came to keep rabbits at Harwell I can’t remember, but the memory remains of my outrage when I saw an Alsatian, belonging to one of the local gentry, disappear over the gate of our Five Ways Cottage with my rabbit squealing in its mouth. Remonstrance produced a bleak denial and I never forgave the owner of that dog.
Harwell, though, will forever in my mind be associated with the young men of 226 Bomber Squadron based at the aerodrome, almost all of whom were to die so very soon. My sister, Peggy, had married a dashing pilot officer, Bobby Butler, son of the Chief Constable of our home town, Ramsgate, and they were posted to Harwell before the war.
The story of her ten-year-old brother’s first holiday at their rented thatched cottage – so small that Bobby had to sit on the bed to put on his shirt – is not my proudest entry in the family history. It seems that, in order to have more sweet-money or whatever, I wrote a postcard to Mother telling her how I was being treated. I left it on the mantlepiece throughout the stay, occasionally changing the wording from rotten to wonderful as my economic circumstances fluctuated.
I remember Bobby used to speak to me on the shortwave radio as he flew in from a training mission saying what he wanted for tea; and the other officers, always full of life, visited us regularly. On one occasion we were returning from Oxford at night in an open MG and when I complained that we were on the wrong side of the road the driver stopped immediately, jumped out and told me to drive. Peggy, from the back seat, forbade it.
Bobby, almost the last of the squadron to die, aged twenty-four, on a bombing mission in France, had already become commanding officer of the squadron, only two of whom I know to have survived. One, the squadron rake, was shot down over Italy and spent the rest of the war living with an Italian lady on a farm. My sister, then a young widow with a son, asked my mother, also just widowed, to look after Beverley while she set off to rebuild her journalistic career at Reuter’s.
I only spent the school holidays in Harwell, but they were memorable ones. As Peggy shot to fame and became editor of Reuter’s overseas service – the only woman ever to hold such an exalted position in Fleet Street – various war correspondents used to visit us at weekends. One of these taught me to play tennis on the court we used to white line at the Lays’ farm, Bishop’s Manor.
It was an attractive village; we lived in three of the Lays’ farm properties and latterly Tudor Cottage, where the Canon reckoned we had panels in the lounge stolen from the church. I remember Mr Gee the taxi man; Miss Drewett the shopkeeper, who once made me drink castor oil for a bee sting; cycling to the cinema in Didcot with Barbara Lay; village dances and haymaking. The summers all seemed so hot in those days. From the age of thirteen I cycled every day on Peggy’s sit-up-and-beg bicycle to Abingdon to work for nothing on the North Berks Herald, learning the trade which was to be such a help when at the age of sixteen I found myself editor of my first weekly newspaper.
(The above account was sent by Bruce Harrison, editor of the Leamington Morning News. His sister Peggy Lessing lives in South Africa, and is the first woman ever to stand on the President’s Council. Local knowledge says that there were no “gentry” in Harwell! Stan Greenwood, who kept the White Hart, had two Alsatians, one rather vicious, called Bocchas who probably accounted for the rabbit.)
- Landlord of the White Hart Harwell Wartime
Heather Stevens –
31 Jul 2013
I am the grandchild of the landlord of the White Hart during the war. His was John Pateman. He kept the pub with my grandmother Jessie and my mother and father Jean and Rob Campbell. So who was Stan Greenwood?
- Extra – correction
Heather Stevens –
22 Jul 2014
Of course Eric Stanley Greenwood, famous pilot who lived atthe Brewery. His dog must have been the culprit.