Memoirs of Phyllis Day née Wilson
Transcribed by Geoff Gonella
The following account was found tucked into the Memorial Folder at St. Mary's church. It was in the form of a typed manuscript, marked-up with a note that it was an extract from the author's memoirs, the author being the daughter of Rev Wilson, the Rector of Peldon in WW2.
'Mangelwurzel' is a German word for a variety of beet used for cattle feed.
THE WAR YEARS - PELDON
Dad was instituted to Peldon on Feb. 14th 1939. He was to be there 8½ years, retiring in Oct. 1947. The Rectory was a gigantic 3-storey place, with outhouses and a huge garden and orchard. There was a lawn in front of the house and there were three majestic trees: a fully-grown Ilex in voluminous splendour of evergreen leaves, a small specimen of a Giant Redwood, and a magnificent, brawny-limbed Cedar. It was while at Peldon that my interest in birds developed into an all-consuming hobby. Every year there were new wonders to discover, as many different pairs of birds nested in the garden. Some, like the Spotted Fly-catcher, nested in the same place each year. Below the Rectory, across a field, was a small copse which was home for a large Heronry, which provided some intriguing watching of some of those gawky, fishy creatures.
The lower edge of the parish merged into great stretches of saltmarsh which lay behind the main sea dykes. They were ideal for bird-watching, and I spent very many hours crawling in the coarse marsh grass observing the wonders of the bird population in that solitary, wind-blown waste. On the other side of the parish was the yet unfinished Abberton Reservoir. It was 11 miles round its concrete sloping sides, and in winter huge flocks of water fowl could be seen there. It was truly a thrill of the highest order to set off down there, armed with binoculars and bird book, to creep up behind the low wall that ran round the edge, and come upon a floating mass of ducks, grebes & divers of all kinds.
To get back to the house, there were 5 servant's rooms on the top floor. On the middle floor there were three large bedrooms and a bathroom and a toilet. There were two staircases, one for servants and one for the family. Halfway down the servants' stairs was a truly ancient loo. The thing was all boarded in and the pan was like a funnel. When the chain was pulled, the water went down with a great roar causing a spectacular whirlpool ! On the ground floor there was a large study, a dining room, a very ample sitting room and a huge kitchen with scullery, larder, coal shed etc. There was also a large room called the Rectory Room, used for Church functions. Below this was a huge cellar, which was always flooded.
I am afraid we were not able to live up to the style expected of us, as my parents were only poor missionaries ! We just about managed to get curtains for all the used rooms, a few carpets and mats for parts of the floors and the furniture largely came from my Aunt Lydia, who moved in to be with us. It was impossible to heat it properly in the winter, so we huddled round a cosy stove in the sitting room. To me the house seemed full of ghosts - creepy, cold and unattractive.
My brother David had left Weymouth College, Dorset, at the age of 17 to train for the Merchant Navy. He went to sea as an apprentice on 15th April
1941. With the war on we were naturally anxious about his safety. He mostly plyed the Atlantic route, but of course the movements of ships were
secret, so we never knew where he was. Our worst fears were realised when we received word from his shipping company that his ship, the
S.S. WILLESDEN, was missing with all hands. It was an extraordinary thing that at the precise moment that the postman was walking up the drive with the telegram giving news of David being posted as missing, our old cat, Tiger, was breathing his last on the carpet in the sitting room. I can see the scene vividly to this day. Tiger made a blood-curdling yowl and proceeded to go into a dreadful spasm, twisting about in a horrible way, and then died. Dad threw a cloth over him and went to the door. We stood there, with Tiger's corpse at our feet, trying to absorb the shock of the telegram.
It was a long-drawn-out time of anxiety and tension for all of us. After a year the Shipping Company wrote again, saying that David was presumed dead, and there had been no trace of the ship. Mum held on and would not accept that David was dead. Dad decided it was best to face the fact that he was gone and to get on with life as best he could. Appalling losses were being suffered at sea, and the possibility of David being alive was daily becoming more remote. Imagine the relief when on June 7th 1943 we received a postcard from David from a P.O.W. camp in Japan. There was great rejoicing and a lifting of the terrible sorrow and worry of the past year. It was not until Christmas Day 1943 that we got official notification that David was a P.O.W. The S.S. Willesden had been sunk by the German raider THOR in the South Atlantic on April 1st 1942. The majority of the crew were picked up, thanks to the humane Captain Gumprich. Some of the crew had been killed in the attack. Together with the crews of other sunk ships, they eventually landed in Japan where all were put to work as P.O.W's till the end of the war. Some from his ship died or were killed in the American bombing. But that is another story, hopefully to be recorded in the full by my brother.
The war with Japan ended abruptly on August 14th 1945. I remember the announcement over the radio while on duty at the hospital in Cambridge, and the wonderful joy and relief that the war was over at last, and that David would be coming home. It was not until October 28th that the 'Empress of Australia' brought the P.O.W's home. We met the boat train at Euston, it was an experience of a lifetime. The train came in, and soon there were hundreds of tearfully emotional little family groups, each welcoming a son. husband or brother - the emaciated survivor of some ghastly prison camp. Each was a miracle of God's deliverance.
In connection with this part of the story, there is a hymn I shall always associate with Peldon Church during the war. At the end of every Sunday evening service we used to kneel and sing all the verses of the hymn that begins:
Gracious Father, in Thy mercy
Hear our anxious prayer,
Keep our loved ones, now far distant,
'Neath Thy care.
When in trouble, when in danger,
When in loneliness,
May Thy love be near to comfort
It was always a most poignant moment, as others in the congregation had sons in the Forces, and one of these had their son, John Scales, missing over the jungles of Burma.
There are many memories of the war years at Peldon. Alice, my older sister, joined the Land Army early in the war. After a time in training she worked on a farm down in the West Country. Later she left the Land Army and joined the W.A.A.F. While there she met her future husband, Jim. The wedding took place at Peldon on Sept 8th 1941. About that time we had a Garden Party and an Australian pilot crash-landed his Hurricane on the marshes. In typical fashion, my Mum got the poor bloke to make a speech at the party on the rectory lawn ! I wonder how the story came out when back with his mates !
During the war Mum marshalled the women of the Mothers Union into enormous efforts on the land, pulling up mangelwurzels, hoeing fields and giving a hand with all sorts of jobs. The term that came to be applied to this bevy of women was "Mrs Wilson and that lot." Apparently one woman had the distinction of 'capturing' a German airman who arrived by parachute in the middle of a field !
In July 1940, after Dunkirk, things were very tense. The old country was poised for invasion; Churchill made his famous speech; the nightly throb of bomber formations sent a chill down the spine; searchlights stabbed the night sky and Ack Ack barked its death to the destroyer. During the day 'dog fights' frequently broke out right overhead, with bullets showering down on the village. We had a Company of the Somerset Light Infantry billeted in the Rectory and the nearby field. All five of the officers lived in the house and they used the Rectory Room as headquarters. The men were under canvas. There was one particularly tense night. One of the officers had accidentally got killed by a mine on Mersea beach that day. Then a dispatch rider came roaring up the drive that night with the order: 'Be ready for action in 15 mins'. The men were really unnerved by then. We didn't know what was going to happen. There was this heavy sense of fear and foreboding, as though the stage was set for something dreadful to happen.
Mum and I had got the officers to show us how to fire a rifle. We imagined we would do our bit to repel the invaders. Thank God it never happened. What good would we have been if they had come?
I remember a funny incident relating to our donkey, Faisie. At the time when the Rectory Room was being used as Company HQ, Faisie spotted the open door one day and decided to stick her head in and make her presence felt. Her bray was in full throat when one of the blokes chucked a bucket of water at her. The tail end of the bray sounded like a gargling elephant !
Twice I witnessed the awesome spectacle of a German bomber crashing. One was hit directly overhead - shot down by fighters. It came spiralling down in wide circles, two tiny blobs of white appeared high in the sky as two airmen jumped out. It crashed with an almighty explosion on the north edge of Abberton Reservoir. The other bomber was hit high over Langenhoe marshes. It nose-dived, with all engines full throttle, and exploded on the marshes. I can hear the death-throes of that bomber to this day. Two escaped by parachute, one man coming down in the sea at the mouth of the Colne. I went to see the place where that plane had crashed. There was nothing to be seen but a patch of burnt grass. The thing had disintegrated into such little bits that there was nothing of that mass of machinery and metal left.
I had never in my life been to a dance, but we had learnt a bit of ballroom dancing at St Michaels surprisingly ! The officers in the Rectory persuaded me to go to one of their dances at Abberton. Strange to say, I really took to it. From then on I went to every one that I could, and got thoroughly hooked on it !
At the time of Dunkirk I had an unfortunate rift with Dad. I was home on leave as also Alice and Jean I think. We kept our 14ft dinghy down at the head of Peldon Creek all through the war, and it gave us the idea that we should go over to Dunkirk to join the flotilla of little boats in the evacuation of the BEF. I would have gone like a shot, but Dad flatly refused. There was a lot of heated argument and Dad really burst out in an uncharacteristic reaction of anger. I was furious with him. Heroics were in the air and I was itching to be in on the evacuation. Later I could see it was a foolhardy idea, and we would not have been any use with our little 'Sheldrake'. Through that incident our relationship suffered a severe blow and I was sore for weeks afterwards.
It was at this time that Mum caused a considerable stir in the village. She had got it round that she suspected a certain woman of collaborating with the enemy ! This particular soul was a lady of considerable standing and education, and in a slightly higher strata than the average Peldonian. Things became exceedingly difficult for my father and there were some unpleasant confrontations between my parents and her. I don't think they ever lived that one down !
Peldon History Project
The Peldon Rectory
David Wilson Merchant Seaman - The POW's Story (Phyllis's brother)