MEMORIES AND INFORMATION - SHROPSHIRE
LESLIE FROST REMEMBERS:
THE WAR YEARS
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This wonderful memoir was recorded on tape by William Leslie Frost (1913-1984) shortly before he died. He is pictured left in the early 1940s when he was working at Joseph Sankey & Co. Ltd. as a draughtsman. The memoir describes his service in a Shropshire Home Guard unit between 1940 and 1944 which he undertook in addition to his responsibilities as a designer working on Spitfire fuselage construction. It was transcribed and edited by his son, Allan J. Frost, and was first published in the Wellington News in November 2005.

(We are deeply indebted to Allan Frost for allowing us to reproduce this memoir and its accompanying illustrations on this website. Mr. Frost is a well known historian specialising in the history of Wellington, Shropshire, and has a number of fascinating books to his credit. Please click here for information on these and full contact details for the author.)

 

LESLIE FROST AND THE WAR YEARS

During the war I was in what you'd call a reserved occupation at Sankey's in Hadley. They didn't look kindly to anybody disappearing at that time if they'd got any experience, particularly in the engineering world. They didn't take kindly to people volunteering and clearing off and, as it happened, I got stuck on Spitfire fuselage assemblies, I was responsible for the drawing office ends of things if the drawings came from Vickers headquarters at Castle Bromwich, the Spitfire headquarters: management at Sankeys sent the drawings through to me for amendment. It was my job and responsibility to see that Vickers got the latest drawings. If any alterations or repairs were wanted to be effected during the assembly of these things, then I used to have to make the drawings out for them and apply for the concession to be made so they could be passed by their engineers and then passed through to the Air Ministry inspection department for them to follow up as well, so everybody had records of them. It was amazing the number of times that repairs were needed! And sometimes, of course, there was a problem when air operations were in progress (something giving way or wanted strengthening) and emergency operations had to be put in to strengthen where necessary: these came through to me again to see that whatever necessary was carried through.

And that was more or less what I was on all the time during the war. Which meant considerable alteration down at Sankey's itself because access to the works was only down one narrow lane and over two railways so that personnel had to walk down under two bridges but materials and stuff had to come to come to the firm over the top of the railways and over level crossings. Then down to the front of the factory, which had only got a comparatively narrow entrance. The material for the fuselages and the framework, etc., had to be transported halfway across the works to the far end of the factory. So that's how the main entrance later came into being from the Leegomery end. A new road was put through to it and it certainly made it far easier to facilitate the in and out of materials and made a big difference to the firm itself as it started expanding: production was wanted and production was needed. In addition to the Spitfires there were the spinner cones for Wellington bombers. We did one or two wings for Wellingtons as well, but the Spitfire was the main concern and at one stage we were getting around 3 or 4 fuselages a day out, complete with engine, and shipping them off to Castle Bromwich.

Well, when the invasion scare came in 1940, well before it actually happened, the government decided to form Local Defence Volunteers to help to patrol and watch for any of the parachutists being dropped over here, as spies I suppose: you never knew whether you were being told truth or lies during the war. The first casualty of war is truth. We had no weapons; it was after Dunkirk when the big evacuation came through and the blitz had started. There wasn't enough weaponry to go round the existing forces let alone anybody else, so people were wandering round the countryside looking and ducking and vanishing. That's what LDV stood for, 'Look, Duck and Vanish': you were told to do that because you'd got nothing to do anything else with!

The idea was to report anything unusual and we went wandering round the countryside on bikes: one big advantage was that you could go anywhere on anybody's land and you couldn't be stopped. There was no question of anybody trespassing or anything like that. You had the right to go wherever you fancied. Certain areas were mapped out as routes, so you patrolled these areas and used these routes but there's more than one (not in my case, I might say!) person's cabbages and beans had disappeared out of the various gardens up and down the country which were not the result of enemy action. But taking it by and large, the system worked reasonably well until munitions supplies started to come from Canada and America. When the position improved, the Government decided to run us on a more military basis and formed the Home Guard in proper army units. We were affiliated to the Regular army units of the KSLI (King's Shropshire Light Infantry) and we were in the 5th Battalion. We belonged to "D" Company whose headquarters were up at Wrekin College. One of the masters at the Wrekin College with the same surname as myself, Frost, was the company commander but my platoon was based at Blockley's Brick Works at Hadley, under my old boss Mr. Shaw.

Mr. Shaw was an old 1914-18 War veteran who'd been to Gallipoli and places like that. So that's how we formed up and started training. Regular soldiers came down to shove us through our paces, which was a very peculiar thing because we had such a mixed bag of odds in this Hadley platoon. There were people from Leegomery, farm labourers, older ones of course, who were a bit short-winded. There were us younger ones who were pretty fit and there were all shapes and sizes in between. So, when you were put through your paces, the younger ones were luckier because they could stand the pace while the older ones couldn't. And we had to do quite a bit of reading before the people who came in to instruct us realised the state they were in.

I seem to have had an eye for shooting because it wasn't very often I didn't get a possible top score with a gun on the 200 yard range they built up at Blockley's clay pits: they dug a trench out at the back, like at the Wrekin firing range, where the people manipulated targets and indicated whether the shots were on target. The targets were under/over ones. I seem to have kept at it except when I started to wear glasses and, of course, you cannot focus properly at all with glasses.

I joined just as an ordinary private but I thought to myself, 'Well, if it ever becomes necessary and you really are wanted, the more efficient you are the better.' So I used to get stuck into the exercises and swatted. You could buy books on things and borrow official books ongrenades. Eventually, after a year or so, I went to a couple of courses, one down south and another up near Southport to train as a weapons training officer. Most of that was to do with grenades, so at the finish I was quite proficient on those. We had to do the practical ends of things as well, such as what you had to do when the bombs didn't go off and had to destroy them. I became more and more interested in that side ofthings to be quite honest. I made myself some models and thingslike that to demonstrate how these things worked and, of course, you can't do things like that without coming to the notice of others. So eventually I was made a Lance Corporal and then a Corps Sergeant and ended up as a Second Lieutenant and Training Officer for the Company. With powers to do all the necessary training, organise the training, review any new weapons coming through, all this had to be done by me for the company. And we had a subsistence allowance of 1/6d (7.5p) when we went on patrol and had to stop out most of the night, to provide our refreshments if we could get them off our rations. We did have a bit of concession, I suppose, in that we had a bit of tea, free tea and things like that. That's how it worked out.

We used to stay the night up at Blockley's works, which was all right during the summer but when winter came we didn't go out on patrol but had to stop there to man the communications centre. On one occasion, when we came to use the teapot, it was full of, er, well, we'd forgot to empty out the dregs from a month or two before and there was a lot of penicillin in it which had to be scalded out! One of the drawbacks was that I lived near the drill hall in Wellington, so whenever our company was supposed to be on duty there and didn't turn up (which happened quite often), I was dug out late at night or in the early hours to go and stop at the drill hall in the communications room, at the top of a bunk (with rats scurrying around underneath) in case phone calls come through. I never had a phone call but whether they'd come through or not when I was asleep I don't know!

The arsenal, the Woolwich Arsenal, moved up to Donnington. When the workers came up there were no houses for them and, although we'd got a baby and my wife's old Mum (we'd plenty to do to look after them) as we'd got a spare bedroom, we should have one of these London chappies billeted on us. And he proved to be a very nice fellow all round, a decent chap, and he did provide access to black market eggs and things like that from the local pub where he went to have his drink.

We looked after an evacuee from Smethwick for a short while; she left when her parents had to contribute a little to her keep. She was a twelve year old.

My daughter had been born in August 1939, just before the War started. My elderly mother-in-law died in 1942. One of her grandsons came over with the American Forces (that branch of her family had emigrated to America thirty-odd years earlier) a few months later to see her but he could only visit her grave in Wellington cemetery. My first son was born in 1943. Near the time he was due to be born, I was encouraged to go on a course down at Dorking, a Home Guard course on grenades and weapon training, with a view to becoming a weapon training bloke myself. I had become very interested in these things and, with typical military efficiency, I was sent down a day too early, travelling down with my rifle and equipment and my allocation of the one or two rounds of ammunition they dare let us have. Because I was a day early, they didn't know anything about me. I said, 'Well, you'd better find out something about me because I want to come and I don't want to stop on the station all night.' So they sent a little truck to fetch me: it turned out to be the Lord Lieutenant of the County's place where this course was being run. Rank went by the board, everybody was in the big dining hall with the portraits of the Lord Lieutenant of the County's ancestors round the walls, with tablecloths, proper cutlery… and tipping everywhere you went!

It was a very interesting course, actually. I always remember one moment when it didn't seem to be such a good idea when the chappie who was taking us on mines was talking to us and had a mine in front of him. He was pretty deaf because of the bangs and explosions he'd been through during his operations and training and he kept idly pressing up and down on top of the mine; fortunately it was a dummy one but everywhere we went (to a grenade range, to the firing range, to the bombardier range, the spigot mortars range, etc.) there was a tip for the driver, another tip for the driver and so on. I always remember the first night being there: I ended up in the stoke hole with a little Irish bod who was three parts slewed with a bottle of whisky by the side of him. We were sitting there looking at the stoke hole and what he wouldn't have done to the Pope if he'd have had him there! He'd have stuffed him up the stoke hole and all sorts of things! To me it seemed funny at the time. In view of what happens nowadays you realise how far back these things go because he wasn't joking.

It was a very interesting time down there. I was most impressed with the full gas hedge-hopper, which consisted of a forty gallon mixture of tar and oil and all sorts of things like that with a charge underneath it; the ideal thing was you waited until an enemy tank was just the other side of a hedge, and you blew it up. The idea was that you just tried to hawk it over the hedge, set it on fire so it smothered the tank and enveloped it in flame. Unfortunately, (or fortunately as it went a bit wrong) one had a bit too much charge underneath it (it was a delicate operation) and it went up in the air in one big ball of fire about 50 feet across, very impressive!

Another incident on the range was when we went to throw the anti-tank mines and lob them over the hedge into the tracks of the tanks. The mines were in the shape of a Thermos flask. The aim was to get them close to the tank, not from over a hedge like we did in practice, because that isn't any protection against small arms fire or any other fire, but from behind a suitable wall from where you could lob it. You took the cap off the mine, a little tape was wound round the handle and round the fuse, with a lead weight on the end… and you lobbed it over. However, when I got to the officer after the throwing part of the proceedings, he looked a bit shaken when he asked my companion, a little Welshman. 'How did you get on? 'Oh', says the Welshman. 'Oh, I chucked mine up. The tape came out and all the rest, but it dropped down at our feet… and it didn't go off.' 'It didn't go off?! You two are the luckiest people alive!'

I enjoyed the holiday down there, and the luxury. A change during the war years. When I returned home, I was fully expecting to find whatever it was, a boy or a girl, would have arrived. But he hadn't. My son was born a week later than expected. I wouldn't have known if the anti-tank mine had done its job properly!

 

Postscript

Leslie Frost died in December 1984. A working plywood model of a hand grenade (used in his Home Guard training sessions) and countless grenade firing pins were discovered in the attic of his home in King Street, Wellington, together with his sub-lieutenant's swagger stick. The attic also contained several rounds of live rifle ammunition, two hand grenades (defused) and a smoke bomb (still primed for use). And, of course, his Certificate of Commendation from H.M. King George VIth.

 

 


 

 

Allan Frost......1st January 2006

© Allan J. Frost 2006                                                                            

                                                                                                                   

 

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