Happy Birthday to Albert

Taken in Cassiobury Park, Watford, in April 1942

My Uncle Peter posted this on Facebook today:

“Today my brother Albert would have been 100, and I can’t help wondering about what mission he had been training for on his last flight in 1944. He was the navigator of a Beaufighter and flew into a Scottish hill in cloud, after an instrument failure.

We were never told what the flight was in aid of, but when the story of our attacks on Hitler’s heavy water plant in Norway came out, we guessed that it might have been relevant, although as far as I find now, low-flying air support wasn’t used at that time.”

So today I’m thinking of my dear Uncle Peter, as he thinks of his brother. But it’s true to say I’m thinking of Albert too, feeling like I have got to know him through these letters. Once again I have fallen behind with writing my posts, so I cannot share with you what Albert was doing on his birthday in 1942, when he would have turned 21. However he chose to celebrate it, it would have been away from RAF Yatesbury as Albert’s course was due to end in a few weeks. How much Albert had already experienced in his young life – for all the hardships and loneliness that at times befell him, Albert’s life was certainly filled with adventures in these war years.

Wednesday April 22

Dear All,

I am afraid that I won’t have much to say in this letter. I am going to pack up a parcel tonight, but as it may possibly take until Monday to reach you, I shall post the letter separately.

I was going to go to Devizes tonight but the weather is rather grey and cloudy so that the ride would not be particularly good, so I shall be able to do my letter writing in the hut. Not at the NAAFI tonight, as there is a dance on.

A de Havilland Dominie airplane © IWM MH 4577

Another thing we should have done was gone on a flying trip yesterday – not much more than a joy ride, in one of the two-engined D.H. planes that Jersey Airways had, but it should have been a nice break from the usual work. The day was very misty though, & there was no flying – the first day since it began that there has been none. We hope for better luck next week.

I tried my filter on the Voigtlander & found that it does fit – rather to my surprise. You may remember that I soaked the cement out and have the two pieces of glass & the gelatine, so before that can be used I shall have to re-cement them together, but I maybe able to devise some method of fixing the other (gelatine in cardboard) filters to that filter holder.

By the way, I hope you can get my pen, as this one is behaving very badly; the joint where the nib & feed screw into the barrel leaks and whenever I write a letter I get covered in ink. I’m afraid I have no more to say, except goodnight & love from Albert.

Albert’s next letter contains details of a mammoth bike ride from Calne to Bath, there and back in one day. Knowing what I know now about Bath’s fate (see ‘More of Albert’s Travels’) it was particulary poignant to read of Albert’s pleasant afternoon in the as yet undamaged city. Later in the letter I felt a chill as I read of the ‘enemy activity’ that Albert heard in the early hours of Sunday morning. Those bombs fell not on Southampton, Bristol or Avonmouth, but on the very city that he had visited just hours before.

Sunday April 25

Dear All,

I think I will start this letter in the morning as if I go out I shall not write until tomorrow. Furthermore the weather is becoming cloudier and I am a bit doubtful about it.

I do not think that there is a great deal to reply to in your letter, except about going to Salisbury. When I said “week after next”, I should have said Sunday after next, meaning May 3rd, though actually week after next is perfectly correct. Anyway it doesn’t matter which week it is, though May 10 is fairly near the time I should be leaving here. However, I leave it to you, & will wait to see what you think about it in your next letter.

One more item is my pen. I think that it would be as well to not cancel the order, as you would have to wait at least as long to get another. At the moment though, this one is going very well, as I cured the leaks with the aid of cotton and Seccotine. I forget whether I told you that the pen I bought in Blackpool fell to bits and I bought another in Calne, still a Platignum, but with a better nib & transparent barrel. The nib is smoother and finer too.

Yesterday was our sports & spring cleaning day – something which occurs every month, though we missed the last one because we were on our weekend. On Friday I took my bicycle to the lane at the back of the camp, and parked it on the field side of the hedge. Then yeaterday I got an early dinner and whilst everyone else was feeding I betook myself across the playing fields and collected the bike. Until then it was my intention to go to Marlborough and do some shopping, but it was a lovely day, though with a strong easterly wind, and as it was only 1pm I decided to go to bath instead, especially as I should not again get the chance of going on a Sunday.

So I set off, at a good pace as I think that the road is easier in the eastwards direction and the wind was pretty strong. It was hot too & I soon took off my hat and unbuttoned my tunic. I think my times were Chippenham 1.45 , Bath 2.40 – a very rapid journey.

I parked my bicycle in one of the smaller squares or courts in the city & walked round seeing the sights. Though I had plenty of time there I did not see as much as I would have liked to have done. I delayed seeing the Abbey until after tea, and then found to my disappointment that it was shut. I did however see some of the old buildings, including the Baths and most of the shops. There are some good parks too, & in one of them I saw a good length of hedging – all forsythia. There were some lovely almond blossoms too. I spent plenty of money; apart from little things I got the Pocket Oxford Dictionary, “Highways & Byways in Wiltshire” (Like Mr Wills’ Dorset book) and a book called “Teach Yourself Air Navigation.”

Review of Albert’s purchase in ‘Aeronautical Journal’ March 1942. It seems Albert did not consider his instructors’ knowledge sufficient!

I was lucky to get some tea without queuing up for it, though it only consisted of toast and cakes. Going by the Theatre Royal I saw that the Sadler’s Wells Ballet is visiting next week but I do not see how I can possibly get ther for an evening next week – the only late trains are on Saturdays.

I had supper at about 7.30, in the same place as we went when we went to the concert there. Then, at 8.20, I left by the same main road to camp. The wind had not, as I hoped, dropped with the evening but was still strong as ever, & remained so all night. To Chippenham the journey was not so bad, as the sun was still shining & I seemed to get along fairly well. I saw a field of cowslips past Corsham and several people with wild bluebells, though I have not seen any growing, nor have I yet heard the cuckoo. I went by Chippenham church at 9.30, as it was getting darker, and from there my speed dropped rather, though I reached Calne at 10.10 or just before. Then came the worst part of the journey, from Calne to camp in the dark, all up hill and the wind getting stronger as I climbed. I should think it was about quarter or ten to 11 when I finally got inside. However, despite the ride back (which was not really too bad) I thoroughly enjoyed my day’s outing.

 Last night there was some enemy activity, with flares being dropped fairly close, I hope that it was not Southampton again. It seemed to be more Bristol or Avonmouth.

Today I do not think that it is suitable for going far. I had had some idea of venturing as far as Inkpen and Combe, about which W.H.Hudson write so well in “Afoot in England”, but it is rather windy for venturing that distance. Actually I suppose westwards, Chippenham way, would not be so cold, but that would mean I should have a headwind on the return journey.

As I expected I had not enough to say to fill another large sheet, hence the smaller piece of paper. You will see about where I go today by the postmark – if I don’t forget to post it! Anyway love to you all, from Albert.

P.S. Thanks for Raymond’s letter, I hope to reply to it soon and then return same to you to read. That reminds me that I have a couple of airgraphs to post to Phil.

New Discoveries from Old Letters

Once again Albert teaches me something new, for I had never heard of ‘Toc H’ before reading his letter. Initially I thought I had misread his sometimes spidery writing but no, Toc H is a Christian charity, which provided many pastoral services during wartime and continues to do so today, although its reach has diminshed. Call me fanciful if you will, but I think the ethos of the charity, which I paraphrase here, “To Love Widely, To Build Bravely, To Think Fairly and To Witness Humbly” well suited to my uncle and many of his generation.

So Albert appears to have bunked off from his sports day to explore another Wiltshire town and have some respite from the rigour and tedium of camp life. He’s returned to Avebury and likes it better in the springtime, and he’s visited some more churches and confidently shares his observations and opinions.

Then Albert takes us back to London, remarking on the normality of life in the capital in spite of the war. Another discovery he led me to – that Waterloo bridge is also known as ‘The Ladies’ Bridge’ because most of it was built by women. Work started in 1939 and progressed very slowly, for obvious reasons, with women replacing most of the male workforce by 1941. It was opened in 1945, so Albert would never have seen it completed. Strange to think that many times I have travelled over a bridge that my Uncle watched being built.

Wednesday April 15

Dear All,

I am writing this in a Toc H room in Devizes, which I have been looking round during the earlier part of a very lovely evening. This afternoon I was able to enjoy our “sports day” to the full. The sun was lovely  & warm, & yet there was a nice cool breeze (from the East incidentally) which made it ideal for  walking. I went to Avebury again over Windmill hill, and now that the spring is here, I like the village more than at my first glance. The fresh green of the grass, and the colour imparted by the flowers, give it a much livelier appearance. I saw very fine Japonica in one of the gardens. Tea was fairly early for a change and I was able to get away before 6, and had a good run down with a following wind all the way from Beckhampton. I fancy that it is less strong now, so it may not be too great a hindrance for the return journey. I have taken a look round the town, and into the church I mentioned – of St John the Baptist. It has some very fine Norman work in the tower and chancel, with a good late 15th century chapel on the south side.

St John’s Church, Devizes

Yesterday evening was also very nice, & I went down to Calne. In a barber’s there I heard the news and the budget. I don’t worry much about the beer or cigarettes tax (though Daddy won’t like paying 1/- for 10 Players) but I was not pleased to hear the 66% purchase tax on photography and gramophone records. A little later I may ask you to get a few before they run out of old stock.

I also went to Calne church, which too has some Norman work, though in the nave, and further, a very good old roof, & though not painted like the Bere Regis one, it has some smaller carved figures projecting from the bottom. I think that the churches around this district are very interesting, and often surprisingly large and richly built for the size of the village.

Speaking of churches, I believe I mentioned that the congregation at Heddington on Easter Sunday was very small; I was surprised to find that the Watford church was crowded with people, & there was only a very few empty seats in spite of being a large church.

I believe there are one or two more things I could say about London. The chief thing that struck me was the normality of everything, the same crowds in the parks, the orators at Marble Arch (though not perhaps so many), the many buses.

Dorothy making the bridge

I noticed that there is still some slow progress being made with Waterloo Bridge, it is going to be a nice looking one when they finish it. There is also a wooden bridge partly constructed about 100 yards upstream. That is quite apart from the temporary bridge and I don’t know what it is for. In Fleet Street I looked at a camera shop of City Sale & Exchange, they still had plenty of lovely second hand cameras. I wish they had been open so that I could have tried for some films and papers. I have not yet done anything about my filter holder, though I have a vague idea of how I may fix the filters on; it will involve using elastic bands.

Monday night I rode my bicycle to the post office and in doing so broke the spring on the 3-speed control. The spring operates the ratchet for the 3 positions. I have fixed it now with an elastic band & it works quite as well  as before. Lucky it was something I could manage.

I sent the programme of the Bath concert, and I think it pretty well speaks for itself. I enjoyed the concert ever so much, & also the journey there, especially where the road runs down into the valley from Corsham (where Jack once was) to Box. Bath is a pleasant looking city but crowded. We had arranged for some sandwiches & coffee, which we needed, having been without tea (I had some bread and butter before we went) and it was lucky that we did not leave it to chance, as people were queueing for suppers at the restaurant. We got back into camp at about 11, after one of the best evenings I have had here. Incidentally this course should only last another month.

I’m afraid I can’t reply to your last two letters, as they are in my locker. I hope Peter’s second operation goes well (or has gone well). I still have Jean’s drawing, which I will return next time if I remember it. My love to you all, from Albert.

P.S. I hear the birds singing from the room here. I had egg, toast and chips at the W.V.S. in Calne.

Albert wrote this next letter after a trip home for the weekend. I wonder what he wrote on the postcard that he thought he should not have? Perhaps that he misses his home and family; we will never know. It’s clear that Albert sneaked out of camp without permission, as you will discover. And good for him, making the most of whatever opportunities he had to be free.

This letter also gives us some insights into the changes that war brought. Millbrook is the docks area of Southampton. With his characteristic understatement, Albert remarks that had the bomb fallen on coal, it would have ‘made a mess.’ And just to prove that life really could carry on pretty much as normal, Albert devotes as many lines to a bird scarer as he does to that recent attack on Southampton.

Monday April 20

Dear All,

I hope that by now you have received the card which I wrote Sunday night & posted this morning. I thought, after posting it, that it would have been better not to have written that sort of thing on so public a form of communication as a postcard.

The bus to Salisbury was crowded in fact it was a relief run. The relief was to have gone back to Plaitford, but there were too many for the Wilts & Dorset bus which met us there, so it had to go all the way to Salisbury, which we reached at 8 p.m. I got something to eat in a YMCA near the bus station, & got the Marlborough bus, which leaves at 8.15 and not 8.20, so it is as well that I did not try for the 7.20 one. As on the other Sunday, Salisbury was full of people.

The bus journey was quite interesting as it was still light practically into Marlborough which we reached just as it was getting dark.

I saw where the bomb fell on Millbrook goods yard, though the shed was demolished there does not appear to have been anything in it. A few yards away and it would have fallen on a heap of coal, which would have made a mess for a few hundred yards around.

Just past Totton, in a cottage garden I saw a bird scare in the shape of a cat’s head, with glass eyes. The evening sun shining through the eyes made it quite a formidable creature.

I got my bicycle without having to wake up the householders, and left Marlborough at 5 to 10. There was a very little wind and a bit of a full moon, which made the journey very easy, & I got along at a good pace. When I put my bike away it was 10.35 & I had ample time to eat my cake & got to bed, as well as writing your card.

Apparently there was a check up on Saturday night but somebody (who was known to be in) got in my bed and covered himself with the blanket, so I was “present”, some of the others will probably be going home next week, so I shall step in to perform the same service for them, or rather, one of them.

I think the week after next would be quite a good chance to go to Salisbury for the day, if you can manage the journey then. I must go to Marlborough one day and see the bus times on Sunday mornings. I’m afraid that is all I have to say, so  goodbye and love from Albert.

I’m delighted to read that Albert had friends who were prepared to impersonate him asleep, and that he is able to plan to see his parents for a day in Salisbury. It seems that Albert is in a good frame of mind, enjoying his explorations near and far. Let’s hope that his happiness continues.