Archive for September, 2008

Pontypool’s “Dad’s Army”

September 22, 2008

The popular TV series “Dad’s Army” took on a humorous vein and was meant to create laughs, but the formation of the Home Guard in 1940, as we feared a possible invasion by German forces,  was anything but humorous. To start with it was not known as the Home Guard but as the Local Defence Volunteers.

I well remember that early summer evening of Tuesday 14th May 1940 when our whole family was sitting in the dining room at the back of “Garfield” in School Lane. Just after nine o’clock, Anthony Eden, who was Secretary of State for War, spoke to the country on the BBC’s Home Service. He asked for male civilians “of all ages who wish to do something for the defence of their country” to register for the LDV at their local police station. He told them “Your loyal help, added to the arrangements which already exist will make and keep our country safe.” The Local Defence Volunteers was launched without any staff, or funds, or premises of its own. Eden had simply instructed his listeners “to give in your name at your local police station and then, as and when we want you, we will let you know.”

There was a large number of men in the country who were just a bit too old to join the fighting forces but who were physically fit and able to help. My father was one of them, being in his early forties and having seen servcie in the Royal Navy in the Great War of 1914-18. He said he would go along and register the following day.

Before Eden’s broadcast had ended, police stations all over the country were deluged with eager volunteers. By the end of the first 24 hours, 250,000 men – equal in number to the peacetime Regular Army – had registered their names. Membership continued to grow at a remarkably rapid rate. By the end of May the total number of volunteers had risen to between 300,000 and 400,000, and by the end of the following month it exceeded 1,400,000, many more than the government had anticipated.

At first the volunteers had no uniforms but wore ordinary civilian clothing with  arm bands bearing the initials LDV. But it wasn’t long before Winston Churchill changed the name to Home Guard.

To begin with the volunteers had no proper equipment, no uniforms, guns or ammunition, so were forced to train with replica guns made of wood. But they embarked on serious training exercises ready for any invasion or attack. The training included camouflage techniques, assault training, the handling and firing of various types of weapons, learning how to set up road blocks and check-points and how to deal with German pilots who were shot down and other captured enemies who might attempt to land by parachute.

The aim of the volunteer force was not to engage large enemy forces which might arrive in the country but to go out on watch in small patrols and to man observation posts. Soon the uniforms, guns and ammunition arrived so the force began to look like a real army.

As a young lad I was very interested in watching the activities  of the Home Guard and I recall two occasions when I witnessed them on duty. The first was early on when I saw a group drilling in the field just beyond the duck pond at the side of the chicken run at Osborne Cottage. The other occasion was when Captain Jim Hamar had taken our Boys’ Brigade company out one day up the Race near the gypsy encampment ) There was a large flat field there surrounded by shallow banks. The Home Guard had set up a target on one bank and had a gun set up on a tripod some 150 yards away on another bank. I remember them loading what looked like a bottle of yellow liquid into the gun and firing it at the target. We saw it explode and were thrilled!

As the threat of invasion faded in 1943 and later, the need for the Home Guard decreased and eventually it was disbanded. But it had served a useful purpose. At its peak the force had numbered 1,793,000 and 1,206 of its men had either been killed on duty or died from wounds.

The Home Guard didn’t disappear quickly. It was still quite active in Pontypool well into 1944. In the “Salute the Soldier Week” in May of that year the Home Guard played a leading part. On Saturday 6th May we saw C Company provide the guard of honour at the parade held in Pontypool Park to inaugurate the week. On Sunday afternoon at 3.00p.m. we were thrilled to see all Home Guard companies parading in the park where the salute was taken, dispatch riders performed and there were tactical displays.

Going to the pictures in Pontypool

September 13, 2008

My friend, Eric Smith, who lived next door, had a sister who was considerably older than he was. Like many other young girls, she was a picturegoing fan, and I remember she regularly took the “Picturegoer” magazine which I used to have a peep at when I was in Eric’s house. Cinemagoing in those televisionless days was a much more important affair than it is today. As the title of the above magazine suggests, “going to the pictures” was the term used rather than “going to the cinema”.

There were three cinemas in or near Pontypool:  the Park Cinema, so called presumably because of its proximity to the park, the Royal Cinema in George Street but with another entrance on Osborne Road, and the Pavilion in Pontnewynydd.

We regarded the Park Cinema as the most modern of the three. It had quite a steep flight of steps leading up into the foyer which gave it a light and airy look. The films shown in this cinema tended to be the more modern and famous ones.

The Royal Cinema, popularly known as “Pitts” for some reason unknown to me, was much older and had a neglected look about it. Apart from the usual seats in the body of the cinema, there was a flight of steps on the right hand side quite near to the screen. They didn’t lead anywhere and were used for sitting on if you didn’t mind the discomfort of a hard wooden seat. During the cheap matinee performances for children on a Saturday morning there always seemed to be a great crowd of 20 or so “rough kids” on the steps who loved making a lot of noise. They were constantly being told to keep quiet by the usherettes as they shone their torches on them. The films here tended to be older, and generally there were two shows: Monday to Wednesday and Thursday to Saturday. They also went in for serials – short episodes of about 15 minutes with stories about Flash Gordon and other heroes.

Flash Gordon, played by Buster Crabb, was one of my boyhood heroes. He was so noble and correct, and you can’t criticise anyone whose main aim is to save planet earth, can you? On the other hand “Ming the Merciless” was a dastardly villain who was invariably in the wrong. I lived on planet earth and this guy was intent on destroying it! Ming was played by Charles Middleton, who, probably in real life was a nice guy who gave cookies to kids. Beatrice Roberts was quite an eyeful so I was able to put up with her.

This is a screen shot from “Ming the Merciless” 1938

The Pavilion was also used as a theatre and occasionally put on shows. I remember seeing The Great Levant, a famous conjuror, there and also a pantomime. But mostly it showed films. It was a cheerful sort of place and had an illuminated fan sign across the front of the cinema which often could be seen from some distance.

I clearly remember some of the films I saw at these cinemas; they stand out in my memory for a variety of reasons. I remember the first time I was taken to the cinema with the rest of my family to the Park Cinema. I suppose there must have been some other films on show, but the one I remember was a short cartoon called “The Peculiar Penguins”. Later, in 1938, I recall being taken by my mother to see “Snow White” which became a Walt Disney classic. When I was about 16 I went to see the comedian Sid Field in “London Town”. It also starred Petula Clark as a young girl, and in this film Kay Kendall made her debut. It was slated by the critics but I thoroughly enjoyed it and thought it was great even to the extent of buying some of the sheet music to play on the piano.

I don’t remember seeing any famous films in “Pitts”. I don’t think they showed any but I clearly remember going there many times to see the adventures of Tarzan, a variety of cowboy films such as “The Rustlers of Red Dog Creek”, and many episodes of Flash Gordon.

I saw several memorable films at the Pavilion. One was “The Great Dictator” in the early years of the war. It starred Charlie Chaplain as Hitler and was a satire of Nazi Germany. It was a great boost to our morale at that time and was nominated for five Oscars. Roughly about the same time, I saw “The Rains Came”, starring Myrna Loy and Tyrone Power. It won an Oscar and featured plague, earthquake and flooding. I clearly recall the last film I saw at the Pavilion in 1947; it was “The Brothers” starring Patricia Roc and John Laurie. It was about a long and murderous grudge between two clans in the Western Isles of Scotland.

The only form of home entertainment at that time was, of course, the “wireless” which provided a good mixture of light entertainment such as “ITMA” with Tommy Handley and also “Music Hall” on a Monday evening. About teatime there was always Children’s Hour, a well run programme especially for us kids. We loved it and I still recall how well Uncle Mac read stories to us, such as  “Swallows and Amazons” and other books by Arthur Ransome and others. There was also a variety of music and the Saturday evening play. But there was no television, so going to the “pictures” as we usually termed it, was very popular. There were often quite long queues outside the cinemas particularly if they were showing a popular film for the first time. They were continuous performances which meant that, once you had managed to get in, you could watch the film through a second time if you so wished. If every seat was taken the usherette would often go along the queue saying that it was “standing room only” for anyone who wanted it. This meant standing right at the back and making a dive for any seat which became vacant.

Some keen picturegoers in Pontypool liked to see all the new films as they were shown which could mean sometimes going to the pictures three times in a week; in a way it became their hobby and to some an exercise in “oneupmanship” to be able to tell your friends that you had seen a film before they had. Picturegoing was an integral part of our lives and it certainly helped to keep up morale during the war.

The war ends, and Pontypool celebrates

September 6, 2008

The end of the war came in two stages. As we entered 1945 it was obvious that Hitler’s forces were on the back foot and struggling. I took great delight in looking at the many maps of the progress of the war as they were published in the newspapers and I filled in with pencil the extra areas of countries as they were occupied by allied forces.

The Battle of the Bulge in Belgium headed by one of Hitler’s Panza divisions made slight ground to begin with but soon even they were driven back. It looked as though the end of the war was not far off. By 8th May 1945, after the suicide of Adolf Hitler, all German resistance finally ended.

Early in the morning of that day, unaware of what was happening, my friend Eric and I decided to go for a bike ride to Goldcliff, just on the coast near Newport. It was one of our favourite destinations where we could visit the seaside. Late in the afternoon, on the way home, as we cycled through Newport we were surprised to see people putting up flags and bunting across the streets; we wondered what was happening. On arriving home, of course, our families told us about the announcement on the wireless about the ending of hostilities with Germany, and we were thrilled. It was VE Day! We were still at war with Japan, of course, but that seemed less of a personal threat as Japanese forces were not near enough to bomb us.

I shall always remember Monday, 6th August. I had been to a matinee performance at Pitts Cinema in George Street and when I arrived home at Garfield, School Lane, I discovered that my parents were out. I put on the wireless and soon there was a news broadcast. When the news reader said that an atomic bomb had been dropped on the city of Hiroshima, I didn’t really know what that meant, but I shall never forget the words that followed: “The pilot reported that, when he looked back after dropping the bomb he could see nothing left of the city.” We were used to the dropping the “block buster”, a 1,000 pound bomb which could destroy a whole block of buildings, but a whole city? Wow! What sort of a bomb was that? I remember telling my parents about it when they returned and they were as shocked as I was. We later learned that the bomb dropped on Hiroshima was 2,000 times more powerful than the blockbuster.

Japan did not surrender immediately, but when another atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki three days later, that did it. All Japanese resistance crumbled and on 15th August they too, like Germany, unconditionally surrendered to the allied forces. It was VJ Day! The whole war was was over and peace had returned.

The following day at midnight the Prime Minister spoke on the wireless declaring Wednesday and Thursday to be public holidays in celebration. Crowds of people went out into the streets shouting, singing and dancing. On Wednesday evening floodlights were turned on in Pontypool Park. It was amazing after almost six years of intense darkness at night, to be able to see clearly at that hour of the evening.

Bonfires could be seen on the hills for miles around Pontypool, and in the streets loud music blared forth as people showed that, despite all the hardships, they had not forgotten how to party. I remember coming out of my house and, just the other side of the allotments, I could see the lights and hear the singing from the folk in Edward Street and Prince Street who seemed to be having a right royal “knees up”.

On Thursday evening at Pontypool Park and at Talywain Rugby Ground, massed choirs gathered to sing the Hallelujah Chorus and other hymns and also community songs. They were largely impromptu affairs and various people volunteered to take part. I was fortunate enough to get a seat in the park grandstand. I clearly remember a contribution from two young girls slightly younger than I, who lived in the Brynwern area quite near to me (I’m fairly certain they were sisters). They had made something of a name for themselves for singing in close harmony, just like the popular Andrews sisters. I still remember the song they sang as it was a favourite of mine: “Ragtime Cowboy Joe”. I bought the sheet music for 6d in Woolworths and loved playing it on the piano. I can’t recall the girls’ names but, if anyone else knows, I’d love to hear from them. They were excellent!

At Pontnewynydd Tinplate Works the workers held a thanksgiving service in the morning. The following Sunday afternoon a thanksgiving service was held in Pontypool Park where the Salvation Army supplied the music. As there was no time for the printing of hymn sheets, everyone was asked to take along their own hymnbooks.

Another impromptu event was arranged by John Griffiths who was the organist at Pontnewynydd Methodist Church at the time. A platform was erected on the pavement and a piano from 24 St Luke’s Road was put on it. As John played, many of the local residents gathered around The Fountain to sing popular songs and listen to the ad hoc concert. John started to learn the piano at the age of six. He became the organist at the Methodist Church in 1940 and, last November, at the age of 79, he celebrated his 70th year in the job. I’m fairly certain I knew John as a young boy who was a year or so younger than I. I think he was quite a small lad with fair hair. I have a vague notion that he might have been in the Boys’ Brigade or there might have been a connection through the Gregory family who attended the same church for many years. If he reads this blog post, or if anyone who knows him can tell him about it, I’d be delighted if he would get in touch.

After all the excitement, we all had something rather special to look forward to: all the boys returning from the fighting. I had written to both my brothers all through the war and occasionally saw them when they came home on leave, but to have them once again permanently as part of the family was something I really looked forward to.