A Vanished Past – Portrait of a Country Couple (3 of 5)

Part 3: Jim – War Time

by Honor (Morgan) Berry

The first months of the war passed largely unnoticed in Horley. It was not until the high summer of 1940 that the reality of war became apparent. Jim’s work on the opencast iron mining was a reserved occupation, so he did not have to enlist in the army, but the threat of invasion in the summer of 1940 alarmed the nation and affected everyone. A Committee was set up in Horley, as in every other village, to draw up strategies for coping with the imminent danger, and it focused attention on the frightening possibilities of invasion. Jim and Lucy both did First Aid courses, and both passed their tests. Lucy was inordinately proud and even years later told everybody ‘I got me cers-tificate’.

So there were compensations and excitements in the war effort for Lucy but Jim was a nervous jumpy person, and being at war did not suit him at all, but along with all the other men in the village who were in protected occupations, not medically fit, or past the age of recruitment, he joined the Home Guard. This was probably the most demanding and traumatic activity in which he ever participated.

At the beginning of the war when a German invasion seemed imminent, the Home Guard organised night patrols around the village, and men who would have to be at work early next morning forsook their beds to wander in the Oxfordshire fields in search of the invading enemy. Jim did his shift with Charley Varney who was as pragmatic about this intrusion into his sleeping hours as about everything else, and determined to put his duty time to good use. One night he took Jim rabbiting, but Jim cared even less for rabbiting than for patrolling, and as soon as Charley had bagged his game and stowed it safely inside his jacket, Jim was anxious to be back in the village where he thought he would be safe from the night and the Germans. Jim did not feel much happier in the village than in the fields, for the dark and quiet of the early hours gave it a new and unfamiliar feel. Normally he and Lucy were in bed by half past nine.

On their way back Jim’s worst anxieties were confirmed. On Plot Hill a long low sound at regular intervals was carried to them on the night air from the direction of the village. Neither of them could make out what it was. Would they need to raise the alarm? They were still two hundred yards from houses. When they reached The Green and paused to listen, they identified the source was Dooky Jelfs’ cottage: Dooky’s snoring drifted out through the open window. Laughing with relief they could only have a sneaking admiration for anyone who could emit such stentorian cannon-like roars. They enjoyed the moment and started composing the tale they would tell. But the laughter was short lived. Something more immediate diverted Jim’s attention. There was a scream from Charlie. The rabbit, which had been stuffed up his jumper, at that moment involuntarily emptied the contents of its bladder down his front!

Charlie decided to throw in his hand for the night. Apart from his own discomfort, Jim was telling him in a thin, weary voice that he was ‘very near frit [ frightened] to death’. They bewailed their respective misfortunes all the way down the village, neither listening to the other, and parted at Jim’s house. Charlie walked on to his home Marine Cottage about forty yards further down the village, and Jim could hear him talking about the alarms of the night and the evils of rabbits until he reached his front door and closed it behind him, shutting out the traumas of the night.

This taste of the Home Guard was enough to convince Jim that it was not for him, and henceforth he went to enormous lengths to find a means of disentangling himself from it all. It was not an easy matter to get out of the Home Guard during the wartime – you could not just drop out because you did not like it. There was pressure to stay in – everyone resented it to some extent, but of course patriotism won out.

After the problems of the Home Guard all other difficulties relating to the war faded into insignificance. On the scale of things, the return of Mrs Herbert from London to Horley to reclaim the cottage where Lucy and Jim were caretaking, was more of an inconvenience. The Germans in the autumn of 1940 seemed to have abandoned the idea of invasion in favour of bombing the large cities. London was subjected to intense night bombing raids and the days were spent extinguishing the fires and removing the injured and dead from the rubble before the raids began again. An Oxfordshire village must have seemed a haven of safety.

After initial consternation Jim and Lucy found no real difficulty in finding a new home. There was plenty of accommodation in the village and the house that stood next to the Methodist Chapel stood vacant and was ready for letting. The Astells helped the Eadons move their heavy furniture by providing a cart. It was at Chapel House that Lucy and Jim spent the rest of their long and happily married years, and where we as children grew to know them after the war.