Neal Dempsey, My Life Story


The War Years

My younger brother Michael was born in January 1939. In September of that year the Second World War started; my father was a Colour Sergeant in the Irish Guards. The Regiment's home was in Chelsea Barracks literally the other side of the Railway from where we lived. There were a number of Lime Trees the length of the Avenue, and as War was declared, Pad and I were thrilled to see them cut down and work start on building Air Raid Shelters the whole length of the Avenue. The idea was that each shelter would be quartered with an entrance closest to the nearest block of flats, so that each quarter would accommodate the residents in that block. Sadly later on, one or two of these shelters were to become the tombs of a number of the residents. Their construction provided a whole new adventure playground for us with ladders and scaffolding to climb and chase each other around, sand to dig in, unfinished buildings to hide in and climb all over. We made the most of it. There was a period of expectancy, the authorities believing that there would be bombing over London almost immediately; took steps to evacuate as many civilians out of London as they could. The people from our Avenue along with other people from around were evacuated to Rottingdean on the south coast. The weather was fine and everybody enjoyed a free fortnight holiday, and as the expected bombing had not taken place, they all went home again.

Normal life resumed for a while until German Forces arrived in France in 1940 and within easy distance of England, bombing raids began to take place. A more serious effort was then undertaken to move children out of London. On 15th June that year Pad and I were packed off with our school to Cornwall. I can remember quite clearly walking in a crocodile with all the other school children, our gas masks in little square cardboard boxes hanging over our shoulders on string and a label tied to our lapel to say who we were. We were marched over Ebury Bridge, from Ebury Bridge School to Buckingham Palace Road where we were put on buses, which took us to Paddington Station. It was my 6th birthday and we were both so excited and proud to be travelling without Mummy. We were grown up now, so we thought. At Paddington we were shepherded onto the Cornish Riviera, one of the famous steam trains of the time, which again was exciting to a little boy. We really did not understand that we were not going home again, and that it was going to be a long time before we saw our Mothers again. With hindsight it must have been an absolute nightmare for the teachers who were with us.

I can remember we were becoming alarmed when the train journey seemed to take a long, long time. We were becoming distressed and some other children were crying. I had long ago learnt to try not to cry, and as far as I recall we leaned on each other very much for support. Eventually we arrived at Redruth in Cornwall and were marched off the train, harassed adults no doubt rushing about to make sure we all had our right cases and property. We were marched around to a large hall and there sat around waiting for someone to collect us. Ladies came into the room and selected which child or children they would take. Several attempts were made to take Paddy, but as soon as someone took hold of his hand, he immediately took my hand and tried to take me with him. He was immediately abandoned with me. Eventually it seemed everyone had gone except Paddy and myself, there were obviously frantic exchanges going on to house us, but we were not aware of it. Finally a lady came and collected us and took us to her home. She was a Mrs Pengelly, her husband owned and ran the local garage. Mrs Pengelly was a very kind loving lady and treated us as well as our own mother. We were both very happy indeed with her and very soon settled in, I don't think we even missed being away from our home at that time because she was such a lovely person. Fortunately for us she had not been at the original collection because she was heavily pregnant with twins, and she could only take us until such time as a more permanent home could be found.

Several memorable incidents occurred while we were staying with Mrs Pengelly. One morning while we were having breakfast we saw a large Bull from the adjacent field lumber through the garden fence and start eating all the cabbages in the garden. We thought this great fun. On one occasion Pad and I were pillow fighting on the bed (We slept together in a double bed) we were obviously making a lot of noise when Mr Pengelly came in to scold us. He was wearing a nightshirt that came down to his mid calf. It looked to our eyes to be much too large for him. We took one look at him trying to be angry and we both collapsed laughing. He completely lost it; every time he tried to tell us off we went into gales of laughter. He could obviously see the funny side also, and it wasn't until Mrs Pengelly came in and sent him out of the room could she get us quietened down and tucked up into bed. A third more serious incident occurred when the postman came. He too was a kindly man and always had a word for us. He came in a small van, which he parked in the driveway. One day I was hanging onto the side of the van when he slammed the door, trapping my small finger on my right hand in the door. Needless to say I let the whole of the Duchy of Cornwall know about it. I was taken off to either the Hospital or the Doctors surgery I don't know which. There I was given an anaesthetic by the use of a Schimmelbusch Mask over which they poured Chloroform. This must be one of the most horrific forms of anaesthetic ever devised. Even today I can remember vividly the panic I suffered before I became unconscious. My fingernail was taken off and I went home again feeling very sorry for myself and an enormous bandage over my finger, which of course made me feel very important like a wounded soldier. I bear the scar to this day. I think it must have been this summer when Pad and I were allowed to help the local farmer with the Corn Harvest. I use the word HELP in its widest sense. The Corn had been gathered up into Stooks in the fields, the huge Shire horses came onto the fields pulling the hay wagons, and we used to ride on the wagons helping to stack the Sheaves of Corn evenly, climbing ever higher and higher up the wagon as the Corn piled up beneath us. Then we would ride high up on the top of the corn back to the barn where we would help to unload it onto the haystacks in the Barn. I would ride back then on the wagon while Pad would be put onto the back of one of the horses. Pad and I were taken to see the film "Wizard of Oz" at the local cinema. I had an aversion to witches and did not like the film so in the scene when the witch appeared on the blazing house that was enough for me. I created such a fuss; no one was going to enjoy the rest of the film until I was taken out. I was taken home and bribed with all sorts of sweets to calm down until Pad came home at the end of the picture. I still don't like the picture 60 years on.

Sadly our stay with Mrs Pengelly was over much too soon, the wife of the Inspector in charge of the local Police Station collected us. She was the exact opposite of Mrs Pengelly. She didn't want us and wasted no time pointing this out to us. She had avoided getting involved with the "Evacuees" from the outset because of her supposed privileged position as the wife of the Police Inspector and her age. I don't know how old she was; I can't even remember her name. We were in fear of her; she didn't hesitate to let us know if we had infringed any of her rules, which we were always doing. Simply because I don't think we ever really knew what they were. We had to be quiet at all times, to be seen and not heard. We were always shunted out of sight when the Inspector was at home and if we ever saw him, which was very rarely we called him Sir. Well Pad did, I was completely ignored, they didn't even try to understand anything I said. I know we cried ourselves to sleep many a night in that unhappy household. We were not allowed to play together. On a fine day Pad would be sent out into the garden to play while I watched from inside, then after a while we changed places. One of the mortal sins was for a ball to land in the flowerbed; I suspect they were even unhappy when they were alone. During all this time we both had to attend at a local school for half a day. The local children were in the school in the morning and the "Evacuees" were at the school in the afternoon. Even here we were at odds with the establishment, Pad was dedicated to looking after me. I was dedicated to staying with Pad, and no matter how many times we were separated during the school time we always ended up walking into each other's classroom to sit together. The teachers used to tear their hair out trying to separate us, much to the hilarity of the rest of the children who would make it a great game again in the playground. We were both miserably unhappy because when we got into brawls with the other children, I was an easy target for the other children who can be very cruel. We would go home to the martinet, bedraggled and get another smacking then for fighting. There was no chance of any cuddles or comforting here. To her we were incorrigible thugs for whom there was no redemption. Not bad for a 6 and 7 year old. The soldiers may have had their war on the Continent, but Pad and I had our own little war in Cornwall.

This situation seemed to us to go on forever, and unknown to us, my mother was getting all manner of distressing letters from the martinet about our 'bad behaviour' and 'complete indiscipline'. My mother apparently sent us sweets, but we never got them because the martinet thought we didn't deserve them. I assume she ate them herself. My mother finally came down to Cornwall to live and to take care of us herself, about a year after we were evacuated. Mum got herself a small terraced house on Beacon Hill in Cambourne. Just a few miles from Redruth, (now one single town). We of course were moved in with her and moved to a Catholic Church School (St Johns') only a mile from our home. The problem of Pad and I being apart was resolved because the School only had one classroom and although he was in a senior part to myself we could see each other across the room. Now of course, because we were back with our mother we no longer had to depend on each other so much, we each began to become more independent. He developed friendships and I became a loner. Michael was nearly three and moving about sufficient to occupy part of our time and interest at home.

Christmas 1941 was drawing close and my father came down to see us. He came for a few days and left just before Christmas. My abiding memory is to see him hanging out of the carriage window of the train as he waved goodbye. I cried bitterly, so much so that a man, a complete stranger gave me a 2-shilling piece to console me. That was the last time I ever saw my father. He went off to the O.C.T.U. (officer Cadet Training Unit) in India and was commissioned into the Indian Army, where he rose to the rank of Colonel. He survived the war fighting against the Japanese, but I was destined never to see him again. The next few years were contented, the war seemed for the most part to pass us by. There was the black out at night. From time to time there were incidents of German aircraft trying to get to Falmouth or other munitions factories in the Cornish peninsula being harassed by British fighter planes dropping bombs in the vicinity to lighten their load and escape. They didn't always make it but it is noteworthy, the pilots always seemed to unload their bombs away from houses, in the fields. At the time of course this fact was not properly appreciated or understood. We used to love to scramble into the bomb craters to collect shrapnel as souvenirs. Pad and I used often to walk from our home to Portreath beach to play on the sand or the North Cliffs to watch the seals. Our favourite escape was to Pen Ponds woods, and the last conversation I had with Pad when he was dying was about the primroses and the tree across the path in Pen Ponds where we used to play. My mother used to make the most fantastic Cornish Pasties, which we would take with us for our lunch. They were almost certainly quite ordinary, but we thought they were extra special.

Identity cardWe had numerous adventures then and a lot of laughs. On one occasion we were arrested by the Home Guard because we didn't have our Identity Cards with us, my mother had to come and bail us out from the Town Hall where the elite of the British Army were hoarding all the spies! I don't think my mother was too impressed with the silliness of it all, particularly as she had to cart Michael along and it was about a mile and a half from where we lived, and she had to walk. Everybody had to walk except the lucky few who had a bicycle. We were still at the same house until after 'D' Day and I can recall the lines of soldiers sleeping under the hedges in the fields round about, waiting to be shipped over to France. There were soldiers from all over, Canada, America, Britain, thousands of them living in the open air. Then one day they were all gone. A boy who lived next door to us had put his age up to go into the army, he was barely 17 years old. He came home in uniform with his rifle and a clip of wooden bullets to practice with. He died on the Normandy Beaches in the first hour of the Normandy landings. I doubt he even got a chance to pull the trigger on his gun. Even at my tender age I knew he wasn't very clever but he was trying to do something for himself.

In the summer of 1942, mum took the three of us up to stay for a few weeks with Granddad Powis in South Elmsall, South Yorkshire. The train journey started in Cambourne, and it goes without saying, Pad and I were very excited. The German Bombers' were particularly active at that time so it was not possible to travel to Paddington and cross London to Kings Cross to change trains. Which normally would be the obvious route to take. We had to travel further to the West to reduce the risk of being bombed. We travelled from Cambourne through Plymouth to Exeter and Bristol. Outside Bristol the train was held up in a tunnel for several hours because there was an air raid going on over Bristol. The train was further delayed for the line to be inspected to ensure that it was still safe for the train to travel. Trains were vulnerable in air raids because they were easy to spot, and being coal fired, the light or flame from the fires made them obvious to aircraft at night. From Bristol we travelled North toward Manchester, and then after a change of trains we travelled to Leeds and after a second change to South Elmsall,. The journey took 24 hours to complete. The most important part of the journey for Pad and myself was passing over Saltash Bridge. We saw rows of ships four and five abreast in the centre of the river Tamar, East and West as far as we could see. They were bristling with guns. Now my son Simon informs me that it was not possible because the river is too shallow for ships there. I only know what my eyes saw, I will accept that to a seven year old boy the ships looked big. It could well have been that they were either Frigates, Corvettes or even Trawler converted to Minesweepers. All of these ships would have been relatively shallow draught; but see them I did and if that isn't conformation enough the German Airmen always referred to that stretch of water as 'Murder Mile'. Flying over that mass of guns all shooting up at an aircraft must have been a nightmare to those pilots.

Grandad PowisThe train was packed with Servicemen and women of all kinds, in our compartment were a couple of Sailors who kept Pad and I spellbound with their tales of Daring Do. How much of it was true I hesitate to guess. But we were enthralled and when they each took off their Lanyards and gave us both one to wear, we were sold on the Navy as a career. It is an irony I suppose that we both did eventually end up in the Navy. The war seemed even more remote with our Granddad in Yorkshire where we also met my Mothers sisters, our Aunts and Cousins, Mary, George and Jim. The holiday ended all too soon and we had to make the return journey the same way in reverse, this time we were held up at Exeter during an air raid on that city. The round trip being a total distance of 1,000 miles

Life for two young boys at that time was pretty exciting; we sometimes went to the pictures and would see the progress of the war in the Pathe News. We were experts on all the various types of aircraft, both German, British and American. We knew of the Japanese as well but the war in Europe was more immediate to us. At school we had a very sound grounding in the Latin Mass and all boys were expected to be fluent. I had a pure boy soprano voice and although I couldn't speak fluently, I could sing, and I was therefore either serving on the altar or on particularly special occasions singing in the choir.

On one occasion the school had been on an outing to the nearby beach at Portreath, when one of the older girls (10 years) the daughter of the school caretaker, was drowned. She had a full Requiem Mass for her funeral and as she was so well known, the church was packed. The priest (Father Britain) had a pure Tenor voice and what was intended to be a school choir singing the mass ended up as a duet between the Priest and myself with the congregation joining in the hymns.

Pad made a particular point of being tone deaf at school, which he wasn't. He hated singing in the choir. The head mistress a Sister Philomena, believed to be a living saint by the parishioners, used to sweep around the classroom swishing her cane against her skirts and heaven help you if she was close by and you got anything wrong. She was deadly accurate with the cane, which I was witness to on more than one occasion. However in 1944 Pad passed his L.C.C. Scholarship (11 Plus) and in 1945 I passed my Scholarship with the Cornish C.C. Because of the differences in the Scholarship regulations Pad had to stay on at the same School, whereas I had to transfer to the local Grammar School, Redruth County School. I began a new era of Purgatory.

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