Ampthill during the Second World War

"For the people of Ampthill the 1939-45 war meant experiences shared with almost all communities of like size in England; rationing, call-up, troop movements, blackouts, sand-bags, anti-blast constructions, wired or papered windows as a guard against splintered glass, sirens and shelters, evacuees, silent church bells, Home Guard, A.R.P., W.V.S., Women's Land Army, Dig for Victory campaigns, and so on, and so on. All were experienced in Ampthill, and although there was no bombing - only a few land mines and stray bombs in the countryside round about - the people were very conscious of the suffering of those less fortunate than themselves." [Andrew Underwood, Home Rule for Ampthill, page 129]

As part of research into the role of the Flitt Motor Company's activities during the Second World War a series of Oral History interviews were conducted by Barry Dackombe and the following extracts have been brought together to provide a personal perspective of life in Ampthill during the Second World War.

For further details click on the links below:

AIR RAIDS

CIVIL DEFENCE

BOMBS

COLLECTIONS

DUNKIRK

EVACUEES

MUNITIONS

PRISONERS

RAILINGS

TANKS


Air Raids

In Ampthill two public shelters were opened in the town centre in the cellars of the Old Drill Hall (now Williams & Co. Solicitors in Woburn Street) and the cellars of 110 Dunstable Street (was 'Claridge & Berwick's, now 'Picture Corner'). The entrance was surrounded by a sand bags to form a protective cover.

"… I always remember the first air raid we had in Ampthill. …but when the air raid siren went the police insisted that everybody took shelter and all the traffic was held up. And every road wasn't allowed to move they just stopped the whole traffic so it was sheer pandemonium really, it all just built up." (Chris)

"…. I can remember the first air raid, everybody went absolutely mad, they didn't know what to do. And the siren went it was early in the morning. Turned out to be a false alarm… And the policeman was stopping everybody. All the lorry drivers and anybody who came through the town, which weren't such a lot then. And making them go down the shelter, so all the vehicles were abandoned and everybody was streaming down the shelter. It was a real panic, it really was." (Mary)

"…I remember hearing the sirens, particularly at night: Ampthill's 'wailer' was usually slightly ahead of the Stewartby works hooter which had been designated an air-raid-warning siren for the duration of the war. Occasionally during raids there were thuds from stray bombs dropped in the area, alarming because we didn't know it wasn't going to get worse." (Andrew)

For those living further away from the town, one option was to build an Anderson Shelter. However in Ampthill the majority appear to have made alternative arrangements.

"And we used to get up there at night and stand in that passage way up Dunstable Street at the sound of the siren …We'd stand there shivering at one o'clock in the morning" (Ken)

"Silly things we used to do, when the siren went we used to get up out of bed and go stand in the passage at the side of the house. Nobody would be any safer would they when you think about it, but we all used to do it. Wait for the all clear to go and then we'd go back to bed." (June)

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Civil Defence

Ampthill's Civil Defence headquarters were at 110 Dunstable Street (now 'Picture Corner'), with the ambulance station in the stables behind. The Royal Observer Corps created an observation post on a high point of the Firs. While the Home Guard became established in the Kings Arms Yard.

" The A.R.P. as they called it, they used to operate from there [110 Dunstable Street], that was the headquarters of the A.R.P. And they used to have a couple of motorcyclists …and they had a couple of ambulances." (Chris)

The observation area was apparently surrounded by a parapet, there was some accommodation where they could sit and 'have a cup of tea' around a paraffin heater. The post was manned 24 hours a day, with at least two people on duty, often after a full days work elsewhere.

"…there was the old observer place, …At the top of the Firs, the Royal Observatory Corp… And then they used to stand there with the binoculars and report the planes going over and that." (Ken)

"There was the Home Guard…they used to guard the tunnel… But they used to have to guard the tunnel. It was rather funny I always thought. …." (Mary)

For more information on Ampthill's Home Guard see Kevan J. Fadden's report Development of “A” Coy 3rd Battalion Home Guard Platoon 1. AMPTHILL. available from the Ampthill & District Archaeology & Local History Society

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Bombs

Ampthill was subject to regular air-raid warnings, but did not suffer from any direct bombing.

"… you could stand out there and watch London being bombed, it was like a big glow in the sky. Oh yes you could see it being bombed. Then you used to get the odd one or two bombs around here didn't we. " (Ken)

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Collections

Major fundraising schemes were a feature of the war years and raised large sums of money. The 'Wings for Victory' Week in 1943 raised £242,331, after the war the town received a share of this investment which was put towards the construction of 'Parkside Hall' for use by the people of Ampthill.

Special attractions during 'Wings for Victory' week was a large bomb case to be covered with 'Saving Stamps'.

"They used to have bombs on the Market Square didn't they. They used to have a bomb there and you had to go over the post office and buy a savings stamp and stick it on, the bomb…I don't suppose it was loaded, but it was a big bomb weren't it. You used to stand there and stick a stamp on it. Well it looked big then to us. " (Ken)

Regular collections were undertaken during the war for scrap metal (including railings) and newspapers. The image below shows local children sorting through old newspapers.

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Dunkirk

With the mass evacuation of troops from Dunkirk, unwashed, unshaven and exhausted British soldiers left behind their tanks and cars and artillery.

"Yes, when the came back from Dunkirk…They were absolutely filthy weren't they, you know. They hadn't had a wash for weeks." (June)

For Ampthill;

"Particularly memorable were the Black Watch, in their kilts and with their pipe band. Ampthill made them welcome and provided what food and rest we could." (Andrew)

"They were starving weren't they, because they had little soup kitchens up Dunstable Street didn't they in the road. They had the big old army like boiler things, they were cooking all the food up the road when they came back from Dunkirk. …lorries just dumping them off in the road. They was sleeping in the door ways, coats over them. Got no guns or nothing had they …" (Ken)

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Evacuees

By the first week of September 1939 up to 3,750,000 people moved nationally from areas thought vulnerable to those considered safe. Here the Urban District Council finalised their plans for receiving evacuees early in August 1939, and by September the first evacuees arrived at Ampthill Railway station.

"Then we had all the evacuees come, they used to just knock on your door and say … "How many bedrooms you got", "two", "well here's four for you then." (Ken)

Of Course, often mothers came with their children and this caused additional problems.

"We had a family upstairs, I remember … there was two women and about four kids. They used to live upstairs, they took over the three bedrooms up the top and we used to have to live downstairs." (Ken)

"First of all we had children, there were four children in one family and … we had two girls and they had the other two girls. But then after that we had service families like. The service men that were living in Ampthill used to bring their wives to stay didn't they. We had several of those, they had upstairs and we had downstairs." (June)

Throughout the country there were innumerable comic-pathetic stories about the reactions of city children to nature.

"They never knew vegetables grew in the ground, vegetables." (June)

"I can remember one saying he weren't going to eat vegetables coming out of the ground. "I'll have what he's got in the shops…" (Ken)

Large numbers of children were evacuated with what was considered 'deficient' footwear and clothing.

"They had hardly any clothes or anything did they. My mum used to take them out and buy them clothes and that because they had hardly anything to wear." (June)

Around half of London's schoolchildren were evacuated at the beginning of the war. In Ampthill two schools were received and these caused considerable problems in accommodation

"We had another school in there with us, from Walthamstow, I think it was…You'd be squashed in like sardines and there was always somebody arguing with you know, one of the locals. Because they used to think they knew everything. They were very good at sports, but they were no good at academic things…The other school up Bedford Street had a school from Camden Town, …" (Mary)

As a result every available corner of the buildings were utilised for the 300 plus children (at 14th September 1939).

"There was two teachers in there, Mr Whitbread and Mr York when they brought the evacuees down. I think there were over 160 pupils in that one thing with two teachers. They'd split you down the middle, evacuees one side and us the other. It was warm in there because there wasn't any room to move. " (Ken)

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Munitions

In addition to the munitions factories in Luton, a large purpose built 'Ordnance' factory was created at Kempston Hardwick (now the Elstow Storage Depot).
"Well it used to be called Elstow Ordnance Factory and was on the way to Bedford. Where they've got the shops. …It was a filling factory and a lot of the buildings they used were sheds and buildings to do with building and filling bombs. It was run by Lyons, the cake people…." (Mary)
For more on the Elstow munitions see The Tinkers of Elstow by H.E. Bates
While here in Ampthill, the Flitt Motor Company was converted to produce various small parts for bombs and other war related components.

Prisoners

In 1941 a hostel for agricultural workers was built in Woburn Road, which later housed Italian Prisoners with their distinctive brown uniforms. Across the road in the Park a military camp was built, which later housed German prisoners, who had a 'concert hall' and 'Lutheran Church' in the numerous nissen huts.
"Oh they had a wonderful time here during the war. Oh yes, they used to wander around the town. They had no restrictions at all. No body wanted to escape did they, they were happier here than being in the war. Yes, they were usually Italian prisoners of war who were where the Cheshire Home is now; they were in a building there. When we went out to play at playtime they used to come up and stand and talk to the children in the playground." (June)

Railings

Various salvage drives were organised throughout the war. Following a survey of iron railings in 1941 Ampthill's garden fences and gates were collected for their scrap metal value. Only 'examples of good craftsmanship' were supposed to be saved.
"… they confiscated all the fences and everything, it all went for scrap. Same as all these properties like ours, all had nice wrought iron fences around them, but they all went apart from a certain few were excused it, you know. The fences around these places meant as much to us as there's did to them, but no they all went, unfortunately. And it was never used that scrap because it wasn't good enough pig iron and it was still there after the war in a big heap because it wasn't, it hadn't got enough real genuine iron ore in it, because it was pig iron." (Chris)
"And then they came and cut all the railings off didn't they. Blokes with lorries and acetylene guns weren't they and braking 'em and throwing 'em on the back… And they just pulled them off and chucked them on the lorry." (Ken)

Tanks

Part of the Stewartby brick works was converted to overhaul tanks, which were tested by being driven up Hazelwood Lane Hill and passing through town to Gas House Lane. Later a turning area was constructed in Bedford Street. They proved a memorable experience for the residents. Additionally some tanks were parked in the Alemeda, whose Lime trees provided natural camouflage.
"Up the Alameda they used to store tanks down there …they used to build them at Vauxhall's and drive them down to Stewartby. Put them into service at Stewartby garage and then they used to test them up the Bedford Road and one went through a window once… so they stopped them coming into Ampthill, didn't they. Up Bedford Street they made a bit were they could turn around… they made them turn around and go back again. … They were Churchill's that's what they used to call them." (Ken)

   
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