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The Royal Arsenal and the Light Rescue Squad Volunteers

This story was submitted to the People's War site by Chris Foord of the Greenwich heritage Centre on behalf of Len Thynne.

I started my apprenticeship (1938) in the Royal Arsenal, Woolwich, in the Carriage Department. (RCD). I had done a spell in the ‘New Fuse’ factory E81, then as a store boy in the RCD. It was good groundwork for what was to come. It was 1940 and I was in the second year of my engineering apprenticeship at Woolwich Arsenal. I was 17 years old. It was the year of the Battle of Britain and a fellow apprentice named Ted Spencer, who suggested that we cycled to the RAF fighter station at Hornchurch (not far from the north side of the Woolwich Free Ferry).

To get to the airfield meant going across a cabbage field, there was nobody guarding the aircraft. Because the Spitfires and Hurricanes were placed on the perimeter we were able to climb into the cockpits, the pilots had left goggles and gauntlets etc. in the open, I repeat, nobody was protecting the aircraft!
On the next visit, the Canadian troops were guarding the airfield, but they were complaining about being here to fight the Germans!

The next thing I heard about the Canadians was the battle for Dieppe! This attempt to land in France was a total disaster. This Dieppe raid was in 1942.
My early days in the Arsenal ‘Royal Carriage Department’ were spent erecting the 9.2-inch coastal defence gun carriage. Early in the war riveting was used to join all the parts of the carriage together. If you can imagine the noise in a confined space of the riveting hammers! It was not long before electric arc welding became the means of joining steel to steel. Labourers were recruited to do this work.
I attended the Woolwich Polytechnic to study for the English National Course (ENG). Because of the air raids in the evenings we had three, two-hour, classes on Sundays, mathematics, mechanics and drawing.

Most evenings were taken up learning St. John First Aid. Doctor Remington (Woolwich Police Surgeon) was our tutor. Timbercroft Infants School, for the wartime, was used as a First Aid Post (FAP) and an Auxiliary Fire Service (AFS) station. It will be remembered that the school children had been evacuated to the country — away from the bombing of the main towns.

My first introduction to the First Aid Post was when an alert was on, both AFS and FAP had squads on call, but, those not on duty, were playing a badminton match against each other in the main hall on the AFS station. I received two pass certificates in St. John First Aid.

We slept in two-tiered bunks in the classrooms. In the hall of the First Aid Post, on some Saturday evenings, a fireman named Duffield, would play the piano, so that we could have a dance. His signature tune was 'I don’t want to set the world on fire'. The only person I know who is alive today is Olive Tarr, last living in Meopham. We never took any photos for memory sake. Pity.

It was 1942 when we were asked to be Light Rescue Squad Volunteers. We were issued with dark blue battledress type of Uniforms by the Woolwich Borough Council and were taught to drive some old pre-war London taxis, which had been retrieved from the Crystal Palace dump. They were the Beardmore type, with the gate change of gear; their main trouble was that the batteries were worn out. They were used to stow rescue equipment and I used one to carry injured people from a bomb site, at Smithies road, Abbeywood, to St. Nicholas' Hospital, a VI had killed 6 people on 18th June 1944. On Sunday mornings we would practice, on Barnfield Gardens bombsite, the method of lowering a stretcher with a volunteer strapped to it from the roof. This was to practice our knots and use of a tripod.
The two women in charge of the Timbercroft Lane FAP were Miss Wright and Miss Little. They were both qualified nurses. There was a daytime staff, who were mainly nurses and Conscientious Objectors (C.O.s.) — these were people who refused to join the armed services because of their religious or pacifist beliefs. In the evening we were on standby for first aid or stretcher bearing. We slept in the classrooms in bunks, one above another. We played badminton and Harold Tarr (Hank) became good enough to represent Kent, and he was the local men’s singles champion. He was also an engineering apprentice in the Woolwich Arsenal.

Although there were many bombing incidents in the Plumstead Area, the worst casualties were caused by the land-mine that dropped on Alabama Street; it was 20 March 1941. At 8.45 that evening we were at a First Aid lecture, given by Dr. Remington, the classroom being used was at the corner of Flaxton Road and Timbercroft Lane. When the window frames and curtains were blown in we knew we were needed. My aunt Nancy Thynne was killed in this incident. It was the night she decided not to use the Town Hall Air-raid shelter that she bought it. It is distressing to know that not a piece of her was found. I was on the scene within minutes of the explosion as a first aider and stretcher bearer. There were people calling for help from the houses on the right going up Cardiff St. The firemen were putting the fire out in the house opposite, (their job was to ignore calls for help) luckily, although the house was demolished, the occupants had been found sheltering under the staircase and were unhurt. They were sent to a Rest Centre. On proceeding to the site of the explosion, what with the calls for help, the smoke, dust and general confusion, the person we had on a stretcher, with a sever leg injury, had a delay, because the ambulance driver did not know where his ambulance was! The number killed was 23, and injured 42.

During the course of the war some of the First Aid Squad got called up. There was one chap who was in the RAF and he would look in of an evening. He mentioned that he was on a Pathfinder flight over Berlin. We never saw him again!

Uncle Tom was killed by a V2 rocket, he was a Painter and Decorator and was working on a house in Duncroft (a road off Swingate Lane). 13 killed, 87 injured. It was the 26th February 1945.

During the course of my apprenticeship I worked in the “Heavy Gun Shop”, this was where Naval guns were manufactured. I was asked if I would enter the breech end of a 15-inch gun barrel on a “skate board” to remove some burrs where the chamber meets the rifling. I was pulled into the gun by means of a rope attached to the “skate board” from the muzzle end. When I had performed this task I had to be pulled out of the Gun! When George Pine called out “Its time to go to lunch” leaving me stuck up the middle of the gun. I am pleased to say it was just a workshop prank, but not for me.

Another occurrence was when the newsreel crew photographed a young lady taking the place of “Jarvo” Hyde, the skilled turner at the lathe, appearing to be the operator for 'propaganda' purposes. Guns I worked on in the light Gun Factory were 4 inch Mk21, Naval Gun, 5.5 field Gun and the 25 pounder.

An incident I recall: It happened midweek in the Arsenal. A bomb had dropped on the Tailor Shop, the girls who did the sewing had decided to work through the raid, (they were on piece-work) and consequently there were a number of casualties. We put a rather big girl on to a stretcher and carried her to the nearby “Edith Cavil” First Aid Post. I asked as to where I should take her. The reply was, “At the back with the rest of the stiffs”. I had not noticed that her fingers had been cut off and no blood was seen.

It was Saturday 1st July 1944 at midday at the Light Gun Factory. Bob Wiltshaw and I had a look outside No. 1 bay when we heard a VI (buzz bomb) overhead. It exploded on an air raid shelter near the pipe fitters shop. About 30 yards around the corner the thick roof had collapsed on the people inside, many were killed. I saw a fellow with his brains exposed. We used doors as stretchers - it was carnage.

This week (6 July 2004) I was speaking to Harry Tarr who was working in D42 (Storehouse) when a bomb dropped nearby, severely injuring him and killing 23. He remembers a locomotive being thrown on top of a factory. He was transferred to Blackburn.

It was a seemingly nice quiet day on Saturday 9 September 1941, so we had decided I, Alec Bradley and two young ladies, to go to the West End to see a film, it was called “Champagne Charlie” with Tommy Trinder. Halfway through the show we understood there was a bombing raid and we could move back in the stalls to be under the circle for better protection. Little did we know that this was the day the Germans were going to try and blast London off the map. We got a train from charring Cross but, at Maze Hill, we were told the railway line had been blown up, so we started walking. The others all lived in different directions; I managed to get to Woolwich Common, but was told not to go further because of an unexploded bomb. Later, I chanced it, walking through the length of Plumstead Common with a continuous rain of incendiary bombs falling.

The lady living in No. 26 Ravine Grove was killed by a dud AA shell going straight through the Anderson Shelter. I lived at No. 30. The AA guns must have been pointing in the same direction because the top of Lakedale Road attracted a lot of falling shrapnel.

Towards the latter part of the war we were moved out of Timbercraft School to the council yard in Chestnut Road, and stayed there until the end of the War, as a Volunteer Light Rescue Squad (unpaid) for the borough council.

'WW2 People's War is an online archive of wartime memories contributed by members of the public and gathered by the BBC. The archive can be found at bbc.co.uk/ww2peopleswar'

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