Spooner Row in Wartime

A story by Gerald Button, as told in 2005 and contributed to the BBC WW2 People’s War Project.

I was born in 1934 and was four years old when the war began and eleven when it ended. I was the baby of the family, with an older brother and sister. My father did general maintenance work on a farm at Spooner Row, where we lived, mending gates, bricklaying and helping out with the harvest. There was double Summer Time during the war to give long light evenings to help get the harvest in. When I was old enough I used to spend almost all my spare time on the farm, and helped out with the horses.

During the war I started school at Spooner Row Primary. There were evacuees in Suton, about halfway between Spooner Row and Wymondham. I still remember one girl from London, who had lovely long black hair. I took a shine to her but I was chased away by the Suton schoolboys.

At the primary school there was an Anderson shelter outside and a Morrison shelter indoors. The Morrison was a big metal cage within the classroom; with a wire mesh entrance and solid metal sides and roof. If an air-raid warning went during lessons we were herded into it until the all clear went.

Mr Potter, who was Headmaster when I started school but retired soon after, had the job of alerting the village to air raid warnings. We had no siren in the village — the siren sounded from Wymondham, not far away. I don’t remember ever hearing it myself. The siren’s warning of approaching enemy aircraft was a wailing sound that rose up, fell, and then rose again. The “all clear” was a long continuous blast on one note. In the early hours one morning — it was about 3 a.m. — Mr. Potter was woken by the sound of the siren, opened his bedroom window, leant out and gave the village a blast on his whistle. We all woke up and waited for the planes to come over — but they never came. What he’d heard was the end of the “all clear” which he’d mistaken for the warning.

Occasionally we’d get incendiaries, a tube of magnesium and explosive designed to penetrate roofs and set them alight. One landed on top of my rabbit hut — I had a lot of rabbits that I kept as pets — and set light to the roof. We grabbed buckets of water and doused it, and managed to save the rabbits.

I think it was in 1942 that two land mines were dropped by parachute near the railway line at Suton. They fell on either side of the line, one on farmer Clarke’s land and the other near the old Sawyers pub in Sawyers Lane. I distinctly remember the massive craters they left, which quickly filled up with water. At about the same time two bombs were dropped closer to Spooner Row by a German plane flying back from a raid. I suppose he wanted to get rid of a load before reaching home. A long road to the old A11 ran over the bridge near Spooner Row railway station and past the Three Boars pub. The bombs were dropped nearby. We boys went to have a look at the craters. They weren’t as big as the ones left by the landmines.

In 1942, in preparation for the arrival of the American air force in 1943, trainloads of Irish navvies travelled from Norwich to Attleborough every day to lay the runways at the airfields being built at Hethel, Buckenham, Tibenham and Deopham. We could see the railway line from the cottage. I remember one particular morning German planes followed the train, and as it came through Spooner Row, they machine-gunned it. The driver stopped the engine under a bridge, where it was protected, but the carriages were still exposed. Some of the navvies were so frightened — and rightly so — that they jumped out and hid under the train. I don’t remember any ambulances arriving or any obvious casualties but there were bullet holes in the carriage roofs.

The USAF arrived with Flying Fortresses and Liberators — all props of course, in those days. The USAF flew all the daylight raids from Norfolk, returning in the evening, and the RAF went out on night raids. I remember one night a German plane followed the American planes back, so the runway lights weren’t turned on. They wouldn’t have had enough fuel to fly much further so they had to land in the dark. They managed it but I know there was a panic.

At about 7 in the morning the Liberators would form up and we’d see them all flying across to Europe in formation. One morning a Liberator and a Flying Fortress collided near the border of Morley and Suton. I didn’t see the collision but I heard the explosion. Both planes were loaded with bombs and machine-gun bullets. The A11 had to be closed because of the exploding bombs and bullets set off when the planes crashed. I remember seeing the buses and trucks being diverted past the school.

One terrible night in winter, pitch black, pouring with rain, we heard a plane fly over. My Mother said, “I don’t like the sound of that aircraft. It’s in trouble.” Then we heard the crash. It was a Halifax, (a small version of the Lancaster) and crashed at Besthorpe Carr. Some of the local teenagers went over to look. One of the girls told us later they’d seen the crew, sitting in their seats — dead, of course. When another plane came down, again a lot of the older children went to look. They used to collect the scattered cockpit glass — they liked to make things out of it — rings and so on.

There was an American hospital at Morley, on the site where Wymondham College is now. One morning we went outside and saw an American serviceman standing on the road in his pyjamas. He seemed very vague and had obviously been shot up. Someone rang the hospital and they came and picked him up.

The staff from the hospital used to come and drink at the local pubs — the Three Boars, the Morley Buck, the George and others. There were Canadians as well as Americans. The places were packed. We kids used to hang around at the road junction near the Three Boars and call to them “Got any gum, chum?” Nine out of ten of them would give us some.

There was a manned artillery battery on the farmer’s land, with an Ack-Ack gun. The gunners used to come over and have a cup of tea from time to time. We all called the battery “the searchlight” because the gunners would spotlight any planes flying over. Sometimes German planes would fly down the light and machine gun these batteries, trying to open them up. It was a case of who got in first, the plane or the Ack-Ack. We were standing outside one summers evening at dusk, chatting to the neighbours, when we saw a plane bomber come over. We thought it was one of ours but when we looked up we saw a Swastika painted on the fuselage. He could have machine-gunned the lot of us, but he didn’t!

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