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Home <> Lifestory Library <> Pick of The Week <> Sten gun fired by young boy

  Contributor: Brian BackhouseView/Add comments

This is the second part of Brian Backhouse's wartime evacuation memories. The first episode can be found under Abbey Wood, London.

Following my train journey to Maidstone, Mrs Pearce's decision to send me to Mr & Mrs Green at Loose, Kent 'to get me knocked into shape' was to prove a momentous time in my soon future life. Somehow I got sent to the wrong Mr & Mrs Green, a lovely elderly couple in their mid sixties but not geared up for a boy.

They had been told they were going to get a 'girl evacuee' when they had volunteered and they were very disappointed when they got me; so, after a couple of days with them I was then moved to Yalding, Kent and we parted on the best of terms.

Mrs Pearce came to collect and take me to Yalding where I was to remain for only a week. The home to where I was taken was by the side of a small river, a two bedroom council house; there was the mother and father, six children including a very young baby and looking back now the family reminds me of the Larkin family from the TV Show 'The Darling Buds of May'.

It was here that I learnt about the differences between the male and female form. I made the sixth to join them in a large double bed, 'top and tailed', three boys at the bottom, and the three girls at the top. The eldest girl was 15 and I was the youngest, all in all a happy week although I still wanted to get back home. I learnt a lot during that week.

The father was in the Home Guard and as I was to find out later, he was the only one in his platoon to be issued with a weapon in those early days of war. From my service years I now recognise it to be an early issue Sten gun with a metal stock and he kept it to hand in a locked cupboard in the living room.

For some reason that I cannot remember, the seventh day I was there I came home from school to find myself alone in the house and wonder upon wonders the cupboard with gun in it was open. The magazine, loaded with rounds was on a lower shelf and being curious I decided to see how the gun operated.

Now the Sten gun in my service days was one of the least complicated weapons that I ever came across but then of course, at that age, I knew nothing of such things. I did soon learn how to attach the magazine to the weapon, I didn't however know about such things as safety catches and automatic and repetition fire.

I was lucky that I was alone in the house at the time; the resultant damage to the walls if applied to the human form would have turned the house into a scene of carnage.

Passing very briefly over a very painful period I found myself the next day being collected by Mrs Pearce; her expression when viewing the damage gave me a great deal of satisfaction, short lived by the pain I felt by having my ear gripped between finger and thumb.

'I don't know what I'm going to do with you,' she said, gripping even tighter as I struggled to release myself 'the only solution is to take you myself.' At that my heart sank, being closeted at close quarters with the enemy was something that I neither planned nor wanted.

Her house was large, I had a bedroom to myself, it had been her son's and he was now away serving in the army. I had numerous fantastic toys of his that I could play with and her cooking was fantastic but, still I wasn't satisfied; I wanted home.

I never found out where her husband was, if even he was still alive. I got packed off to the village school the day following my arrival, about which my memory is a complete blank. In fact the next six months or more are completely blank; my mother told me that I had fallen into the village stream whilst walking home from school on a Friday, how she never knew.

The upshot was that Mrs Pearce, to punish me, kept me in the wet clothes until they had dried on me. A police officer called on my mother to tell her that I was ill and that she was to collect me from Mrs Pearce's as soon as possible.

I finished up with Rheumatic Fever, almost nine months in bed at home at 78 Bostall Lane, Abbey Wood with my mother caring for me.

So, I got my wish, not how I would have wanted it but on reflection it all turned out well in the end. I remember the balmy summer days of 1940 with affection albeit spending most of the time in a small bedroom; however when my condition permitted and the District Nurse who came in twice a day agreed I would transfer to an old deck chair in the small garden and gaze up at blue skies with the hazy cloud formations drifting across.

At the bottom of the garden was a double Anderson shelter that had been erected during my absence by my father and this was to be shared, in an emergency with a Mr & Mrs McLeod, an elderly couple who lived next door at number seventy.

For those who do not know of such things the Anderson was constructed of corrugated steel sheets about three feet wide, eight feet in height and curved at the top. The side sheets were connected together with nuts and bolts and then connected to steel sheets at the front and rear; a large enough gap was left at the front for an entrance.

The whole contraption was erected in a hole that had been dug to a depth of about four feet and then covered with the dirt that had been excavated.

My father had also constructed a blast wall along the complete front of the shelter and inside had laid a wooden floor and on this had constructed bunk beds down the sides with a curtained toilet recess in one corner and a wooden door across the entrance.

In essence it was a Nissan hut about 9 feet long, six foot wide with enough room for my father who was 6 ft. to stand with a small head clearance. There was a small pair of steps at the front entrance but one had to either enter backwards with feet going first or feet first facing the front and holding on to the shelter as you entered.

The shelter was warm, cosy and quite comfortable because of the care that my father had taken when constructing it. He had placed it very close to the rear fence behind which were allotments, to which, at this point in time there was no access.

In the September of that year, 1940, this was to change, as too, were our lives and that of many others.

War on the home front was to break out with a vengeance.
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