The Wartime Memories of Alf and Val Charles for WarGen
Interview carried out by Deb Fisher and transcribed by Zoe Booton
I came to Cowbridge Drama School on my first day the 14th September 1938 the very first day that Edward Reece became headmaster and the day they officially opened the gymnasium and dining hall which they recently demolished, sadly. That was just before the war of course and then in 1939 when we returned war had been declared hadn’t it, September 3rd 1939. When we returned to school the gymnasium was being used by troops as a dormitory as I understand it and they had a field kitchen. The building was shaped like that…like the letter ‘L’ and in the ‘L’ they had their field kitchen but they had their food in our dining hall after we had had ours because prior to that when they build the place the dining hall had a beautiful wooden floor and we had to wear plimsolls to go in there for lunch and then when the troops started using it of course they soon made an awful mess of it and we didn’t have to wear plimsolls anymore so that was…the troops and there must have been several hundred troops here in Cowbridge as a garrison town and would see them marching in columns up and down the street singing usually, ‘Roll out the barrel’ or ‘We’re going to hang out the washing on the Siegfried line’ which were well known marching songs in those days and they seemed in a way to be enjoying it, not knowing what was to come undoubtedly.
I remember one day I was in my Welsh Class upstairs in the old hall where the building juts out into towards the street and the narrow windows…and I was…my desk was in line with this window and I could see this column of troops marching up from the town hall and I was lost. I wasn’t in the class you know and the teacher, Mr Feuderhughes he realised I wasn’t with him and he yelled so loudly the lid of my desk clattered! I jumped so and he sat at his desk in front for the rest of the lesson with his hands over his mouth obviously laughing because I had jumped so loudly and so my classmates were the same.
Then I was travelling to school by train, you know where the station was and no doubt where Milford Drive is now, and it’s an engine and one coach generally the train well on this particular morning as we were getting out the train the station staff are saying, ‘Come on now hurry up, hurry up’. It seemed there was a troop train waiting under the bridge, the bridge that goes over to Aberthin and of course the bridge that goes on the A48 towards Cardiff, there was this troop train waiting and as we walked down the station approach there was this column of troops all the way along the station approach, quite long of course and down the main street past…further down to…where JB the builders were there were these troops three in a line and they as we were walking to school they were teasing us, I mean they weren’t all that much older than us. I often wonder how many of them didn’t return home. Quite a number of them no doubt. However, that was…it was quiet afterwards. The troops had gone.
I recall very early…quite early in the war a little group of us coming from Astrid Owen and Mainely area to the cinema the old Pavilion as was known to…it must have been some special film I can’t remember what…black and white only of course and as we were coming out of the cinema the air raid siren went for the first time as we’d heard it I think and it was blackout of course and in those early days when the air raid siren went traffic had to stop and switch their lights off and this went on for some time…several months I suppose and in came this decree so they could keep going with shaded lights…even the bicycle lamp had to be shaded. However this was a dark night, the buses stopped. We wanted to catch the 10 o’clock bus because it was a good hourly service from here to Talbot Green in those days. The buses stopped and we had to walk didn’t we and we set off in the dark and near where the bypass crosses nowadays by the high school there was a…what do they call it? A barrier crossing…where the troops…the home guard really I think it was…and as we got near there in the dark out came this command of ‘Halt who goes there?’ and some were frightened especially as it was supposed to be an air raid on we didn’t see or hear any aeroplanes that night and the lady said…one quiet lady said, ‘oh it’s my name is Mrs…’, I won’t mention her name, ‘Mrs so and so’ and another lady was a bit deaf and I thinking she recognised the voice of one of the home guards and said, ‘It’s me you fool!’. But in spite of that they let us through and we had to walk home.
As for the air raids, as I said I travelled by train, and one morning there had been an air raid that night and it seemed that quite a lot incendiary bombs had fallen across the railway track near the signal box which was just above where the comprehensive school is now and so the train didn’t run that day but despite the fact that there was a war on they put on a Western Welsh bus and the guard from the train became the conductor.
Where were the Western Welsh buses? I can just about remember were they red in those days?
Yes red buses. There is a Western Welsh bus but the bus from here to Talbot Green was a double decker red but a different red…Ron the transport bus and that ran every hour and it ran Sunday afternoon and evenings.
However, as I was telling you I think the other day I started work in the rural district council offices in 1943 in June and it must have been quite shortly after that there was a message passed along the line that the King and Queen would be visiting South Wales and they would be passing through Cowbridge on the way to Swansea. I think they must have been going to cheer up the Swansea folk after the blitz and so on. Of course you didn’t know what was happening then…they couldn’t give you days and days notice for security it was just an hour so we all waited patiently for the King and Queen to arrive or to go travelling through and as we were waiting here comes…it was market day Monday by the way…a bullock had broken out of the market and was dashing through the town with three or four men chasing it and we hoped against hope that they wouldn’t catch it in time and that the royal car would have to stop but no such luck! These men managed to catch it only a few minutes before the royal car arrived and there they are. They drove through slowly the King, Queen and if I remember rightly the two Princesses. The King and Queen facing forward, big car of course, and the Princesses facing them. How old the Queen be then? 1943 she would have been about sixteen/seventeen of course wouldn’t she? No bit more than that 1936 she was born I’m talking about ’43 yeah she would have been about sixteen/seventeen before she went in the ATS I expect.
Tell us about double summer time what did that mean?
Well during the war there was double summer time which meant that instead of putting one hour forward it was two hours forward and it was darker in the mornings and it was in June/July/August it would be daylight until midnight and go on and occasionally if a farmer was busy especially if there was any suggestion of rain coming because there wasn’t forecasting like there is today we would work out on the…carrying corn and so on until midnight and then perhaps go to the farmhouse and have something to eat and go home and get to bed if it was a Saturday night and then have to get up and go to church in the morning of course.
At what age were you then?
I was about fourteen I suppose in ’41/’42 something like that it would make me thirteen/fourteen/fifteen that age.
Just go back and say that bit you said about the fire station.
Oh yeah during the war there were no fire station as there is now but the fire engine, a very old fashioned one…there was a name for it I forget…it was a well known name what do they call it?… and it was kept in that part of the Lesser Hall which is now the kitchen and I suppose the lounge behind so whenever you passed there… and in those days also the Cowbridge bus station was immediately outside the Lesser Hall and the double decker which operated from here to Talbot Green and also the Western Welsh bus which operated alternately to St Athan and Llantwit Major parked outside the town hall, the Lesser Hall, and noting of course that there was no one way round the town hall then in spite of the buses traffic went both ways. It would be quite a mess today wouldn’t it!?
So of course I remember initially the Local Defence Volunteers they called them in the early… I can vaguely remember seeing them practice…drilling, practising near the market place and they had arm bands ‘LDV’ and later they became the Home Guards and were provided with uniforms and Mr Lowrich Williams the chemist was in command of the Home Guard. Very formidable gentleman was Mr Williams and he was…besides chemist he was the local optician.
Woodstock house opposite The Masons Arms was…the ground floor was the local food office and it was surprising how many mainly ladies worked in the food office and they issues identity cards…I think i’ve got mine, I thought I had my old identity card here somewhere…I’d thought I’d brought it down…yeah but you had to go there and register. I thought we had to register at sixteen but no my first identity card was registered in ’48 when I was, 1948 that is, when I was twenty one so it must have been twenty one but we had to register when sixteen to do something of national importance and in my case having registered I joined the ATC in Pontyclun. You had to do something like that when you were sixteen.
Well as I was saying in March 1945, couple of months before the war ended, there was this great escape from Island Farm, Bridgend, there was quite a programme on television about it recently wasn’t there? And I remember on a…they escape on a Saturday night or Sunday morning and we went to church as usual in Astrid Owen in this case and the vicar said when we got there, ‘I’ve had a message from the Police, they have asked me to ask you all to keep an eye open and ask the farmers to take up their pitchforks and examine their sheds and barns just in case one or some of these prisoners were there’. And then I remember on the way home on a crossroads, a particular crossroads where there was a lovely view of the countryside there was a group of soldiers obviously scanning the countryside for these prisoners and when they eventually caught them a few days I don’t think any of them got back to the continent. One got to the South coast I think but couldn’t get across.
Did you ever see any German planes?
Oh well like today it was very cloudy but see them at night. Sometimes if they were unfortunate enough they’d get in the cross of search lights, search lights criss crossing the sky and apparently if they got in where two search lights crossed it was very difficult for them to get away from it and they would dive down one of the beams and try to shoot up the actual search light. I mean well at the…when they were really raiding this country they…we’d getting these search lights crossing the sky the whole time and I did see planes in where they got caught and I saw a few in the daytime as well. One I particularly remember was…there seemed a break…it was a cloudy day but there was a break and I could hear the planes and he shot across this opening with the German cross on them it wasn’t a swastika it was a cross on it and at night of course, many a sleepless night because they were as I say probably going to Swansea or Cardiff or maybe going up to Coventry from France but I don’t really know or they were doing a (???) route to avoid the defences and you could always tell whether they were German planes because their engines had a different ‘chur chur chur’ noise where our own planes had a straightforward sound and this could go on all night it seemed…lose and awful lot of sleep and when I was doing my CWB they called it 11+…not 11+ what do they call it…like GCSE’s…I remember Mr Owen the Headmaster or the Deputy…yes he was the Headmaster because Mr Edward Reece had been called up telling us that, in the dining hall at lunchtime, ‘Those of you who have exams tomorrow and haven’t got exams this afternoon you’d better get straight home and get some sleep before the bombing…before the raiders start coming’. I think that was actually on my fifteenth birthday when he told us that particularly to get home and get some sleep. I remember Mr Colin Raggart who was our History and Geography teaching us telling us at the time…Hitler signed a non aggression treaty with Russia so it would appear he had no worries from the East and Mr Raggart said, ‘Well he’s signed that treaty he’s got no worries in the East he’ll be here next week’. That was very frightening, very frightening and I had to walk home through the countryside and I must say I was quite nervous at the time in case there were German spies popping out of gateways or something.
Do you remember hearing about D Day?
Yes I think I was at home at the time. I do remember during the way if…especially in the time when it was thought we were going to lose anyway…it would be announced on the radio that Churchill was going to make a speech so whatever we were, although we were very young, we made a point of being home in time to hear him speaking you know when he…I suppose he used to tell the truth to you he told you things how they were that we were up against it in other words although he was a tremendous encouragement I think to people.
What about the other one Lord Haw-Haw did you listen to him?
I can’t remember hearing him but I heard about him… I can’t remember actually listening to him on the radio but other people I heard used to but he had connections with Barry he was born in Barry there was something in the paper about it recently and one of his broadcasts he said, ‘ We know that the town hall clock at Barry is ten minutes slow’ or something just to let them know that the Germans knew exactly what was going on in Barry because Barry was a very important port! Yes I suppose it was still exporting corn I suppose or certainly munitions and that sort of thing.
How did you celebrate the end of the war?
I can’t really remember.
Was is a slow build up, you knew it was coming to an end?
I’m not sure what I can remember an ox…an ox being roasted at the market place behind the market…the Mason’s arms as it was just opposite what is now the entrance to Irene Jones’ house on that area there, there was this big spit thing and this well whole animal it was…a bullock or something…they were turning it and basting it…I can remember that much. I’m not sure if that was for VE day or VJ day but I was certainly came to Cowbridge for that to see that.
Were you at all disappointed that it had ended before you had a chance to…?
Well I was called up between the two…I was eighteen in July, VE day had come in May before so I had to go for my medical to Cardiff and…but they just dropped the Atom bomb when I went for the medical in St John School…there was a St John School in Cardiff in the centre and I said to one of the doctors, ‘Well you won’t need us now the wars over’, ‘oh you’ll be lucky’ he said! That was it because you saw…when you went for your medical you saw six or seven doctors you know looking at various parts of you so ‘oh you’ll be lucky’ he said so I was in the air force for three years but I didn’t go very far.
I never heard you mention the land army, the girls in the land army.
Oh yes you see the land army girls around. You would see them on the land and that sort of thing. There was a hostel for them at Bonvilston I think.
They weren’t local girls were they?
Not really no. Well they could have been from anywhere I suppose.
Because that’s one thing I remember in Cross(???) was the land army girl having lodging opposite us and for a while she ran a little youth club in the village for the children until she was moved on because I don’t remember much of the war at all.
Because some people didn’t have…if the woman had to go because if the man was away and the women had to go and work say in munitions or something then families perhaps had difficulty finding someone to look after the children.
I remember seeing an aeroplane in broad daylight my mother, another lady and a few of us children and I remember my brother was in the pram then and went for a walk and we were going over what we called Barry Bridge, it was bridge over the Pontypridd to Barry line was it where did the train start? Pontypridd I think and we always called this particular bridge Barry Bridge and this plane came and then two others chasing and the one trying to get in front of it and really having a go! One of the women said, ‘Eh that’s a German plane up there we better get down under the bridge’ and we scramble through the wire fence, left the pushchair up on the pavement and we were down there until they went and I didn’t see it come down but they chased it away…trying to get it away from Cardiff I suppose.
So there was that memory and as I told you before the soldiers marching through on this one occasion. I don’t remember how old I was because I was only three when the war started but I remember one night in a light night so it must have been summertime, my mother getting me out of bed to see all these soldiers marching though and other people were out on their front gates watching as well but I was the only child. So it must have been evening time for me to be in bed as well as my brother and one of the soldiers broke rank and crossed the road to my mother and gave her some sweets to me or chocolate I don’t know what it was and then he went scarpering back then to get back into his position to carry on marching.
And that was in Pontyclun?
That was in Groesfaen and they were going from Pontyclun station where they must have disembarked to Rhydlafar Hospital and I do remember some of them had arms in slings and a couple of them…I don’t think it was a crutch it must have been sticks…because they used to disembark at a little holt near St Fagans but for some reason that day they had gone on to Pontyclun and they were marching back to the hospital.
I another thing I remember well about Cowbridge is before D Day I was still working in the RDC offices but every morning, 9 o’clockish I suppose military vehicles would be going through the town. Tanks and lorries and we always assumed and they come back about 5 o’clock as we were finishing work they would be coming back and we always assumed that they were going for practicing purposes to Stormy Down but whether that was the case we never knew because as I said earlier everything was so secretive. You didn’t know what was going on half a mile from you really because the government was constantly saying, ‘careless talk cost lives’ and we had these Chad notices, if you knew who Chad was?
The man looking over the wall?
Yes with the nose over the wall…and ‘be careful what you say on buses’ and that sort of thing so we always assumed that all these military vehicles going though morning and coming back evening were something to do with getting ready to invade the continent.
Did you feel frightened during the war apart from the time your teacher frightened you by saying Hitler was coming next week the rest of the time did you just carry on as normal and forget about the fact there was a war or was there an atmosphere of…?
No you couldn’t forget that there was a war on of course but we…a great deal of the aeroplanes passing over and at night and so on keeping you awake and of course you had to have your ration book if you bought a few sweets the shop people had to take the coupons and the grocer and the butcher so you had to be aware of…and if you bought a jumper you had to give up your clothing coupons so you were constantly aware there was a war on. Couldn’t just carry on as if there wasn’t one and as I said earlier we were expected or asked to go and help on the land when there was carried corn and harvesting.
You haven’t mentioned evacuees?
Oh I remember the evacuees coming I was living in Astrid Owen and that would have been I suppose September ’39 or very soon after. I remember the buses bringing them from…they were dropped off at Llantrisant Railway Station, or Pontyclun as it is now, and I remember being at Astrid Owen and seeing the buses bring the evacuees to Cowbridge where they were met by the people who were to receive them and where they were allocated to say to your house and off you had to go with these couple of strange children and quite a lot of evacuees were in the area…filled the schools up quite a bit until the parents thought it was safe enough in some cases to come and fetch them. A lot came to and after the blitz in London was over a lot of the parents came and fetched their evacuated children or the government sent them back I’m not sure…but then the blitz ended and after a while they started bombing London with these V1 bombs and then the V2’s which were unmanned things of course and terribly frightening apparently and of course they brought children back then.
Did you say some came from Kent?
Oh yes Gillingham, Rainham, Kent most of the evacuees here were from rather…but the V1 and V2 evacuees came from London mainly I think the ones that were here.
Transcribed by Zoe Booton 03/09/2018