No one could foresee that the commemoration of the 75th anniversary of VE Day tomorrow would be under a lockdown due to a virus pandemic, with many of those who lived through the war reflecting on the similarities of the Great British spirit between then and now. We salute those who sacrificed their lives for others. Let’s join others around the UK at 3pm for a toast to the heroes of WW2.
Richard (Dick) Charlton is Henley’s last surviving WW2 veteran. He fought with the 4th Battalion Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry. He was born in Wargrave in 1920 and joined the TA the year before the war broke out. He played for Henley Town FC and a few weeks before he got called up a man from Reading FC had said to him he should try out for them. The video below was filmed by Henley resident and videographer Richard Pinches (The Lone Rat) on Dick’s time during the war on the front line and as a prisoner of war. Dick recalls “The worst place was where there was heavy bombing in Tournai in France – there was a terrible loss of life. In France we never had the fire power, so we had to keep retreating.” Dick was taken prisoner in the Battle of Cassell in May 1940 and taken to Stalag VIIIB Lamsdorf camp in Germany. He explains, “Some of the guards were rotters. I had a mate from Henley who was in a nearby camp. We used to throw things to each other over the fence in a parcel. Under one of the stoves, the officers had a receiver so that’s how we got to hear about D-Day.” After a epic journey of walking miles and miles for many months in cold weather, in the same clothes, Dick was finally airlifted to Brussels in a Dakota and then a Lancaster back to Worthing. He returned to Henley via London on the train. 72 Henley servicemen were killed during WW2.
We also interviewed three local residents who lived in Henley through the war. They’ve shared a wonderful insight into what life was like in our town. This map (click on it to enlarge) was drawn and printed by the Women’s Voluntary Service, mainly for the benefit of the 1,000 evacuees that came to Henley, showing the location of the town’s various landmarks and important facilities. During the war residents of Henley raised £5,000 to support the war effort to build a Spitfire aircraft and an underground factory was constructed under the hillside near Park Place on the Wargrave Road. Henley Regatta was cancelled during the war. You can watch a film Henley – How Time Flies filmed in 1940 at https://m.youtube.com/watch
Residents were recruited into Home Guard, the Air Raid Wardens, the Auxiliary Fire Service, Red Cross, the Women’s Voluntary Service and Women’s Land Army. Stuart Turner had its own Home Guard platoon, recruited from employees.
Peter was the youngest of five boys. He had a brother John, a step-brother Fred and 2 half-brothers Val and Don, as his mother and father were both widowed before they married. His father Thomas worked at Pithers, a grocer, baker and pork butchers, in Bell Street and his mother Lucy looked after the family during the war. His two half- brothers, Val and Don Hookins, were in the army, Val in the Wiltshire Regiment and Don with the Royal Berkshire Regiment who served overseas.
As war was declared Peter left Trinity School and was due to start at the National School in Henley. Peter recalls, “We only had school either in the mornings or in the afternoons because of the influx of evacuees from London who came to the school. Our first evacuee was a young girl called Sheila and after she left we had a second evacuee who was a boy called John. I remember a huge vegetable garden which went from Gravel Hill to Greys Road where we helped with vegetable gardening for the children that stayed at school for lunch. At school we had one whole day of woodworking and another whole day for gardening. One week we had a whole week off school for potato picking! During the war, half of the vegetable garden was reclaimed to build air raid shelters on, so they ploughed a field at the bottom of Greys Road, next to the water works in Deanfield Avenue, and we helped convert it to grow vegetables.”
There were two public air raid shelters in Henley, the other one was on Station Road. The siren was installed on the top of the Town Hall and could be clearly be heard as far away as Hambleden. Peter commented, “The shelters at school were like slit trenches, with concrete slabs on top and with narrow seating that ran the whole length. They housed around 40/50 people and were only lit by a hurricane lamp in the middle so it was pretty dark and there was an Elson toilet. Henley became quite a garrison town with many regiments being stationed there and many companies moving their head offices from London.
The VE Day Henley parade on 13 May 1945 saw hundreds of people in uniform from all of the organisations, the cadet forces, the Home Guard and the various civil defence organisations, the police force, the fire brigade, the Red Cross, the WRVS and many more. There were so many in the parade there wasn’t a huge crowd watching!” Peter remembers, “They paraded down from the Town Hall to the St Mary’s Church for the service. A lot of local men from Henley served in the Oxon and Berkshire Territorial Army and had been taken as prisoners at Dunkirk and those who had managed to return walked down to the church with the Mayor.”
“Mr Reginald Machin, the local Veterinary Surgeon, whose surgery was in Bell Street where Domino’s Pizza is now and whom I worked for while I was waiting to be called up, filmed the parade on his cine camera in 16 mm and I filmed it in 8 mm on another of his cameras.” These films are unique as they are in colour, copies of which are held in The Imperial War Museum and Henley River & Rowing Museum. Peter recalls, “We were in great demand after the war and these films were shown to many of the local organisations with several showings at the Town Hall to the forces on their return from the war.” Peter explained that he had always been a very keen amateur photographer, “I had my own dark room but film was in scarce supply. I had previously worked as a projectionist at the Regal Cinema after I left school. Before that I worked at the Kenton Theatre which was then called The Playhouse.”
After the war, Peter was called up into the RAF between 1946 and 1948. He was an instrument repairer and was based RAF Dishforth (Yorkshire), Upper Hayford and RAF Beaulieu in the New Forest which was The Airborne Forces Experimental Establishment. After demob, on his return he went into partnership with his half-brother Donald Hookins and built a very successful business called General Decorating Supplies Limited (GDS), with several retail shops in Henley including Home Centre and Home Building Supplies and the GDS wholesale business which operated from Reading, covering seven counties. They sold the business to a national company in 1988.
Arthur was one of 7 children. His father was an Army Sergeant in the Royal Buffs Kent Regiment and served in the Army for 27 years and fought in WW1. When he retired from the Army he became a gardener.
Arthur was called up in 1945 after the war to go into the RAF when he was 18. He was asked to report to a base in Lancashire. He had only been in the RAF for 10 weeks when he was given an embarkation leave to a posting in Singapore but at the last minute the trip was cancelled. Arthur commented, “I’m glad I didn’t go.”
On recalling the war, Arthur said, “We certainly knew about the war. I lived 3 miles out of Henley and used to see the German planes go over during the day time. I remember we had two disasters where we lived. About 200 yards away we had a bomb dropped which caused a lot of damage all round. There were several bombs targeted at two big hangers at an airfield in Upper Culham where they used to bring parts of the Spitfire (wings, body etc) to assemble there. The Germans had a couple of goes and missed it but the farm hay caught alight nearby. The Germans started firing V2 bombs across from Germany landing in this country. They were jet propelled with no pilot and the engine would just switch off and you never knew where it was going to land. When you heard the engine go off, my Father shouted to duck under the table. One of these landed about 500-600 yards from the airfield into the fields and made a big crater, the size of two double decker buses.”
Arthur came into Henley for the VE Day celebrations where there was a big parade around the town. Arthur recalled, “It was packed from miles around. There was dancing and drinking in Market Place with people celebrating, cheering and singing. The more they drank, the more they danced. It was one good day that we remember after the war.”
Jean was the third eldest in her family of nine. Her Dad worked at Stuart Turner foundry during the war and her Mum was at home looking after the family. Jean’s older brothers Fred and William fought in WW2. William aged 21 was in the Royal Engineers and Fred aged 19 was in the Gloucestershire Regiment (Glosters).
Jean attended the National School (at the College site in Deanfield Avenue). She recalls one day, she heard a horrific bang, and an aeroplane had come down in Cripps Meadows (near Mount View). She recalls, “When the planes went over you couldn’t see the sky.”
She was in the Girls Training Corp where she learnt morse code, first aid and what do in an emergency.
She remembers rationing which included just 2oz butter, 4oz margarine, 4oz sugar, 1 egg per week and bacon if you got it and bread. Jean said, “With 7 children to feed my Mum used to mix the butter and marg together to make it go further. She’d come up with all sorts of recipes. She would often cook an ox heart which would come out like beef. You’d queue for ages at the butchers to get just a couple of sausages. Dad was a keen gardener and grew vegetables and we kept chickens and rabbits.”
At home the family played Shove Ha’penny, Snakes and Ladders and cards as they had no television. Outside Jean used to play a running game called Crumbs and Crusts and swung on a rope that was tied to a lamppost. Jean added, “Despite the war we were quite happy, we used to go off over the fields for hours on end. One thing I did hate was the radio because the only way you could play it was to carry accumulators (battery) to keep the radios going, which contained acid and you had to hold your hands out. We use to get them from Hammants.”
Brother Fred told Jean many stories from his time in the war. She recalls, “He was given a bike to carry in France and he didn’t know why, so he threw it away after 5 miles!” She also remembers him telling her about a time that him and his mate were surrounded in a wood and were really hungry so they ate some apples and got a really bad tummy ache and on his 21st birthday he was in a wood again up to his waist in cold water (not a great birthday). Fred was wounded twice in the invasion in France. Jean said, “My Mum hadn’t heard from him for 6 weeks because he was wounded in hospital.” When the invasion was imminent, Army lorries lined up all along the Fairmile. Jean added, “My Mum went all along and found Freddie in the one of the lorries. When he came home for sick leave we had to keep clear as he used to go around the house shouting (because of the affect the war had on him).”
There were 1,000 evacuees in Henley during WW2. Jean remembers one evacuee Maggie who was a bit naughty who used to pinch stuff. She said, “My Dad found out and told her she needed to give it all back but she just left it on the front step.”
Jean used to go to dances at the Town Hall and the Catherine Wheel with her mate Trixie. One time she said, “We were laughing at something and an American soldier who had a knife asked us if we were laughing at them. I replied, no just a joke. Nobody liked the Americans. My Dad was really strict and said I wasn’t allowed to wear lipstick.”
Jean doesn’t remember the VE Day celebrations, she said, “I was talking to my sister about this and she didn’t remember anything either. We knew it was all over but there was no street party where we were.”