Don Fathers' early memories

Family life, joining up and living in Portslade

By Nicola Benge

Photo:Don Fathers in Army gear for National Service

Don Fathers in Army gear for National Service

Photo from the WRVS Heritage Plus Archive

Photo: Illustrative image for the 'Don Fathers' early memories' page

Photo from WRVS Heritage Plus Archive

DON FATHERS' WARTIME REMINISCENCES

The Americans... they were so smart. All in gabardine. Their uniforms were more like our officers', neat, lovely. Ours were rough itchy khaki, and they stank. Absolutely stank. Do you know, they'd go to be cleaned now and again, and when they came back they stank again, of chlorine. God.

So no wonder we never had much luck with the girls at dances. All those Americans... cigarettes, silk stockings. Pah!

***
We were twelve kids in our family. We lived in Hythe, in Kent. The oldest six joined the forces, the youngest six stayed at home.

I joined the Territorials in 1938, and was called up in 1939. Dad had fought in the First World War and he joined up again, with the Pioneer Corps. I had an older brother in the Navy, and two sisters in the WAF. We got everywhere.

My Mum was born in 1900, and she died, of cancer, in 1941. That left the youngest children with no one to look after them, and there was all the bombing and machine guns round Hythe... so it was decided to evacuate them to where they'd be safe. Funny thing, though. That split up our family properly. It was never the same again. Lose a parent in those days, and you were an orphan.

Some of them went to Wales, and they were split up. Sid (eight) went to a wealthy farmer. He wasn't too badly off really. I stayed with him on that farm, on leave from the Army; they really treated him like a son. Had none of their own, you see. Much later, when the farmer died, he left Sid some money. I never heard how much. Sid's still in Wales. Married the stationmaster's daughter from a town called Boncatch. There used to be a line from Cardigan up to Boncatch, but then the line was cut. Sid has the old station buildings and the platform. It's all still there, as it was.

Vera (nine) went to a couple who ran a Post Office in a village up a hill, near Cardigan. I went up there on leave too, once. I was amazed at how she was able to walk through these fields all on her own. Wouldn't do that now, would they? Vera came back to Sussex after the war and got a job as a nanny with some well off people in Worthing. They took her everywhere. France and Egypt. But then she gave all that up and went back to Wales, back to the village on the hill where the Post office was. Married a farmer's son, and she's still there.

Cyril (ten) went to a farm with a Mrs John, and had a helluva time of it. Lots of the children were worked really hard. And of course, had to learn to speak Welsh. But he went back to Wales after the war too.

David and John didn't go to Wales. They went to an aunt in Reigate for a bit, then to a place for orphans near Midhurst. They both still live near Midhurst.

Eddie was the odd one out in our family. He ended up working for the Council, caused a real furore in Hythe when he painted swastikas on the road. MI5 came down, and everything...he's died now, of cancer.

My older sister Gladys went to Wales after the war, too. I think they liked it there because the pace of life isn't so fast.

But when you're in a big family like that, life is busy, you do lots of thinking. I'd have liked to go to Wales too. When I retired from the Post Office, I had a gratuity of £1500. There was this little cottage near my sister's, owned by a farmer... should have bought that.

***

Apprenticeships

I'd left school at 14, like we all did then. I had got my name down for a job in the Post office, because that was the best. It was really seen as a good job if you got work with the Post office. I didn't hear anything, though, and I went into a bakery.  Now, I wish I'd learned more about breadmaking. Back then, I spent my time trying to keep out of the way, doing odd jobs, sweeping up, instead of learning. All I wanted to do was finish the day and get out. I got baker's dermatitis though. You get blisters between your fingers.

Then, I got a job as a grocer's delivery boy. I had this enormous bike with a huge basket over a small front wheel. Stick half a hundredweight of salt in that basket, for one of the big houses, as well as their groceries, and it'd tip over.

I used to have to do these deliveries out to the big houses in the pitch dark, with just a little oil lamp. The lamp used to bounce up and down on the ruts in the road, and it'd go out. The oil reservoir was only clipped on. It used to come adrift.

I was terrified of the dark.

Redbrook, one of the houses was called. Miles out. I used to fly back home, I can tell you! Mind you, you sometimes got a tip for delivering. 2d -two old pence. Then I'd be on top of the world.

I remember, back at the shop, there was a sack full of dates. You had to cut open the sack, and they'd be sold by the pound. I used to help myself to those dates!

The grocer said, "There's a whole pound gone out of those dates. Is it you've been eating them?"

One day, when I went home after work, Dad said to me,

"You've been sacked!"

"But I've only been eating a few figs!" I said.

He laughed. "I'm kidding," he said. "Your Post Office job has come through." I was fourteen and a half.

I started as a messenger boy. But you could take exams when you were sixteen to get to the higher grade jobs. Competitive exams. Those with the highest marks got the jobs of Sorting Clerk and Telegraphist Operator, the middle marks got the job of Postman, and the lowest marks got the jobs of Telephone Engineer, looking after the systems.

I wanted to be an Engineer! But I got the highest marks. You could choose your job... but Dad said "You've got to have a clean job."

So I became a Sorting Clerk.  Used to row out to the ships too, before the war. We'd go out on a tender and count the registered bags off the ship into the tender, and sign for them.

All called up together we were, a whole lot of us from the Post Office. The Unit was all Post office Clerks and Postmen. 468 Company, Royal Engineers.

The Sergeant Major was a Postman, and I was a Sorting Clerk! I remember once being on radio watch and he asked for something or other. I said "I'll see what I can do." He was so cross! Said "Who do you think this is, sonny!"

We lived in caravans on the first site on radio watch. They had tiny coal burning stoves. One night the fire went out, and I stuck some paraffin on and put a match to it.

WHOOMF!

It burned my hair, and my eyebrows. Blew the chimney off the caravan too!

We used to do all sorts, lots of courses. Radio Mechanics in Oldham, Radio Location in Hemel Hempstead, Cupid's Green.  That's where I met Pat Shepherd.

We used to do all the duty jobs round the place... because it got us out of parades and all that stuff. Off duty, we'd go into Hemel Hempstead for a fry-up. We were jokers. One day we took chalk and a tape-measure, and stopped the traffic, measuring the road. This bloke stopped us, a bloke from the houses nearby. "What are you up to?" he said.  I pointed to his house. "This is all coming down," I said. "It'll be a gun emplacement, soon."

Oh, but we also has mucky jobs! One day the shout went up that the sewer was blocked. Served the whole camp, it did, this sewer. I took off the manhole cover and it was solid. We had to shovel it all out then climb down... but we did it. Cleared the lot.

We had Nissen huts. Do you know why they used them so much? Because they don't throw a shadow.  We had a semi circle of these huts round a huge mess room with a tarred roof.

Early one morning I was woken by a shout:

"Don! The cookhouse is on fire!"

"Oh go back to sleep," I said.

But it was. I got a stirrup pump and water, to stop it spreading over the roof, climbed up and started pumping.

People arrived fastish. "Where's Fathers?" someone asked.

"Up on the roof!" went the answer.

And all they said was, "Get back down here!" Nothing was ever said afterwards, you know. Not a word of thanks.

***

In the end, after I had served at Dover for a long time, in all that noise and constant bombing, with no sleep for what seemed months on end... and after all these japes and high jinks were long gone, I was discharged from the Army on health grounds.

I had what's now called a nervous breakdown. It happened while we were at Hemel Hempstead again. I started shaking, couldn't breathe. I was sent to Hatfield House for treatment. I remember being in a ward, locked in with all these nutters. But there were also lots of men trying to 'work their ticket'.

One man fed the ducks all day. And walked round with a paste pot with a flower in it.

There were two Scotsmen there. They knew I was suffering from the effects of bombing on my nerves, and one would wait until we were sitting down for a meal, then he'd screech and crash his fist down onto the table top.

"Wheeeeeeee. BANG!"

He'd lie in bed cracking his knuckles in the dark. I couldn't stand that.

We are not all the same, you see. Some soldiers go to war, and don't give a damn. But if you were sensitive, like me, in the end, it just got to you, I suppose. I was put on a course of narcotics. I used to sleep, wake up for a drink, go back to sleep. I can taste that medicine in my mouth now. Horrible!

After some time I was discharged. I was given a brown striped suit and a trilby hat, and just said goodbye.

When I got home, I went to live in Reigate with my father who was stationed there at the time. He didn't understand what had happened to me, not at all.

I remember the Chief of the Fire Service came round once.

"You should be in the Fire Service," he said. Then he said I'd need to have a medical, but would have to pay for it.

"I've fought for this country for four and a half years," I said. "If you want me to have a medical you can pay for it."

Then Redbridge Post office wanted me to go and work for them; all hours it would have meant.

"I can't," I said.

They said I'd have to get a doctor's certificate. "I've got no time for people like you," the person said. "Did you know there's a war on?"

I should have said something, but I didn't.

I was really in terrible turmoil for years.  In the First World War I'd have been shot as a coward.

But as I said. We are not all the same. I did four and a half years. Some of us are just more emotional, feel things more, I expect.

Dad thought I was a nutter. He didn't understand at all. Never had a good relationship, him and me.

I remember coming home once, saw his Austin 7 outside, and I decided to empty the radiator for him so it wouldn't freeze. The tp broke.  He was livid. I left, went to Worthing to live with my sister after that.

He thought we were kids. Never treated us as grown ups even when we were.

The effects of the war lasted a long time. I had nightmares until my fifties.

One nightmare I can remember so clearly.

Back in Dover castle, one of our weekly duties was to go up to the top of the castle keep and spot shells, spot where they landed. It was terrible. The castle is creepy at the best of times. This was pitch dark, up a flight of wide stone steps. I don't know... it was just very frightening. I had nightmares for years... climbing up something in the dark... unable to ever get back down.

Another nightmare I had was being chased by cattle. I know where that came from. When I was nine years old, I went to Worthing to my Uncle's, who ran a dairy. I used to go out with my two older cousins, up to the farm, up country, where they got the milk from. One day one of them lifted me up into the pen with the cattle...I was petrified.

It was what's now called stress. Never ending, it was.

I'll give an example... I used to do things in the workshops... and an officer came up to me one day and said,

"You can type, can't you?"

I said yes, I could.

"Then you can mend this," he said. He handed me a typewriter! What did I know about typewriters? "I'm not a mechanic" I said.

"Get it mended, or I'll have your guts for garters."

Of course, I worked it out, spent hours making new cogs using the old ones as patterns. He never even said thank you.

But there are lots of happier memories. Lots of them I've already said.

But Pat Shepherd, he was a good mate. We did have fun. I remember we went to a fancy dress dance at Cupid Green once, dressed as women! We borrowed two ATS outfits, and dressed up as girls, went to the dance. When it finished, I took a real ATS girl home, then had to get back to camp. How on earth was I going to get past the guard?!

'Friend or Foe?' he said.

'Friend?' I said, all dressed up in my skirt!

Pat Shepherd was so good for me. He used to bring me up out of my nervousness, brought me a lot of pleasure, Pat did. He was a right one for the women though. He used to find women... and then he'd go back to their place and take their husband's shoes or boots and sell them!

Once, we cadged a lift, waved at a lorry and flagged it down. He caught himself somewhere nasty climbing over the back! The next day, he said, "I dunno, Don, I think I must have caught something..." he was all red and sore down below. It didn't get better... he was going to go to the MO, and I said, "You sure you haven't just hurt yourself getting into that lorry?"

He really saved me from going crazy, that man.

I used to lose it on parade often, before being discharged, this was. Pat Shepherd used to get me a mug of hot sweet tea... and he'd get one himself too, of course!

Pat Shepherd and I we lost touch after the war. I heard he'd died.

***

Back to Portslade

I went back into the Post office in the end, and worked for them until 1971, when I left. I'm afraid I hit a customer. Well. He called me a pig. A swine. I wasn't having that.

I worked in Shoreham Harbour until 1982, then I retired.  I got a dog from the lockmaster... a dog that turned out to be a good sheepdog, and that started me on a new 'career' of training dogs for sheepdog trials!  I am still working, twenty five years later... still with dogs. I am now a 'looker'... working the Downs, helping the shepherds, looking for sheep that might be lost or got into trouble.

And I am still dancing!  Latin American, I love that. Monday afternoons and evenings, Tuesday afternoons and evenings, Thursday nights I do rock... Friday's it's ballroom.

I might even start doing some on Saturdays. I all depends how I feel...

Don Fathers
May 2007

This page was added by Nicola Benge on 16/01/2008.

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