Village life in WWII – Reg Meredith
After the first few months of the war things became more settled, the LDV (Local Defence Volunteers) had become more organised, better equipped, issued with uniforms and were now named the “Home Guard.” The ARP (Air Raid patrols) were becoming more organised and trained with regard to air attacks, gas attacks, fires and general rescue work.
From the commencement of hostilities all young men of military age were conscripted into the services. Those not being of the required medical standard, were directed to other jobs of national importance e.g. farm work, forestry work and into mining. Many local women worked at a large underground explosives factory at Marchweil, nr. Wrexham. This was an extremely dangerous job in which ‘Gun cotton’ was manufactured by saturating cotton woollen nitro glycerine – a highly volatile chemical, which if subjected to shock, would create a massive explosion. A by-product of this job was that the fumes produced would turn the skin a bright yellow. Had the German bombers found this factory, all this area would have disappeared.
In the village schools the numbers of pupils were suddenly increased by the arrival of a party of evacuees from Wallasey nr. Liverpool. If memory serves me correctly I think that there were around thirty five children along with two teachers. After a few weeks the two teachers left along with one or two children who could not settle. This left the school – of around seventy children – in the hands of Mr Tom Jones and Miss D Cooper – the Bettisfield teachers.
As the war progressed, German aircraft began a night bombing operation on all industrial targets, Bettisfield being on a direct flight path to Merseyside resulting in the area being covered by numerous, searchlight, anti-aircraft guns and sound detecting equipment – radar had not yet arrived – these sound detectors were really large amplifiers with the ability to add direction and range to the sound – they were never proved to be successful, the German aircraft would de-synchronise their engine speeds to create the characteristic droning sound to confuse the detectors. Occasionally a German bomber would be seen caught in a searchlight beam. One night a German air gunner fired down a searchlight beam, killing two or three crew members. This was on a sight at Waterloo – Whixall. The headquarters of the local A.A. Defences was at Bettisfield Park – a wing of which had been commandeered by the military early in the war.
As the war progressed the military presence grew stronger and, due to the surrounding flat countryside, military airfields began to spring up everywhere, although Shawbury and Ternhill were both pre-war establishments. This was a flying training area but many of the local airfields could be used operationally, if required. Bettisfield area, along with the mosses was designated a low flying area and was used mainly by spitfires flying from R.A.F. Rednal near Oswestry. These were aircraft drawn from front line service to be used to train young 18 & 19 year old pilots. At this early part of the war, British bombing efforts were having little effect on the German war machine and so fighter strikes against the channel port areas of France were considered more effective. The theory was to go in quickly, shoot everything in sight and be gone again and cause as much chaos as possible.
Such pilots were being trained locally. The practice was to fly in pairs and as low as possible. Unfortunately visibility in a spitfire was not good at low altitude and many flew into the ground, this type of flying was known as hedge hopping and it was just that, with aircraft flying 5 or 6 feet above the ground and just lifting to clear the hedges. What the modern day moaners would say, who moan about helicopters flying at 500 ft I just cannot think.
Casualty figures were obviously high and news of crashes in the area were heard every day. Such an occurrence took place at The Cadney one Sunday afternoon in June 1942. Along with a gang of friends we had been playing cricket in a field opposite Cadney Cottages and belonging to Mr A Hughes. We decided to go for refreshments (home made lemonade) at the Fields Farm, home of one of the friends. We were all standing outside when a low flying spitfire hit the bank of the adjoining field and slid along, – burning wreckage -for 1/2 mile to finish in Mr Hughes’s field – where we had been playing cricket. The pilot – Sgt. George Mager aged 19 was killed instantly. We were terrified and all thoughts of being spitfire pilots were gone forever. Fortunately this was the only fatal air crash in Bettisfield during the war. I often sit and think that the modern day counterparts of these young pilots – the boy racers who steal high performance cars and have chases with the police were born 60 years too late. If they were around in those days they would all their kicks for free.
The American army camp on Bettisfield Park occupied approximately the same position as that of the First World War, excepting that this time it was made up of tents rather than permanent buildings. Its use was that of a transit camp, in that troops arriving at seaports around the country would arrive here, often in the night; and stay perhaps two days, before being shipped to permanent camps elsewhere and to be trained for the opening of the second front in Europe. Many were moved by military road convoys in addition to rail transport, and so local rural lanes were often blocked by troop movements. The railway was extremely busy 24 hours a day. Locomotive weight restrictions, due to Fenn’s Moss work, were waived and locomotives, alien to our line, were often seen double heading the troop trains much to the delight of the schoolboy train spotters. Two large military hospitals were built, one at Penley and one at Utley Park, Ellesmere, in preparation for the inevitable influx of casualties after ‘ D ‘ Day. On the farms it was a common sight to see prisoners of war working, Italians at first and later Germans. Many spoke good English especially the Germans. American aircraft became more numerous in the skies, the Americans flew locally from Atcham and High Ercall, nr. Shrewsbury and used our area, as did the R.A.F, for low flying training areas, much again to the small boy’s delight. In June 1944 allied forces landed in Europe and within hours ambulance trains began arriving at, and passing through Bettisfield station, laden with badly wounded American troops. Some bound for Ellesmere and some for Penley via ambulances. I often wondered if some of these badly wounded soldiers had ironically seen Bettisfield some months previous.
By the beginning of 1945 allied forces had pushed deep into Europe and, apart from ambulance trains still arriving at and passing through Bettisfield, the war seemed to be a long way off and life was beginning to take a more serene pace.
Suddenly in May 45 it was all over. The Third Reich had capitulated and the European war was over. It was to be another 3 months before the war in the far east also ended. Midst all the celebrations all the serving service personnel returned home to their families, sadly one who did not return was gunner Leslie Stokes of The Cadney, who had been killed in action in Italy. His name is recorded on the churchyard War Memorial and also on the village hall Roll of Honour. It is now 60 years since all this took place and memory fades with time but as a school boy during this period I still have vivid memories of —— picking potatoes on freezing November days on local farms. For 2/6. (12.5p) per week —— we were allowed time off from school —— watching from the canal bridge during a night time raid on Merseyside and seeing an aircraft caught in searchlight beams and shot down in flames somewhere in the Wrexham area —— seeing a formation of seventeen Dornier bombers one summer evening passing over Bettisfield on their way to bomb Crew railway works —— watching within two hundred yards a Spitfire crashing in flames at The Cadney killing the pilot instantly —— seeing a huge formation of American aircraft rehearsing for D Day. We counted in excess of 150, many were hidden in the clouds.—— watching a Spitfire passing over the village when the engine stopped without any warning. The Spitfire, not renowned for it’s gliding capabilities, carried on in the direction of R.A.F. Shawbury. I never found out if it reached there —– listening to hundreds of German prow’s singing as they marched through Oswestry. It took a number of years for war time conditions to revert to normal. Rationing and various material shortages, along with national service, persisted well into the 1950s before some kind of normality returned.