HAROLD THOMAS NORRIS'S STORY
HAROLD THOMAS NORRIS'S STORY
GUERNSEY TO BIBERACH AND BACK
(A VERY INTERESTING MEMOIR ALSO DETAILING THE BEAULIIEU HOTEL (Carlton Hotel) PRE AND IMMEDIATE POST WAR)
I served in India until 1924, and while I was there a Shoeing Smith was posted to our battery from England. He was Harold Hughes and was the youngest shoeing smith and one of the most skilled in the British Army in India at that time. He was in fact chosen, above our own Staff Sergeant Shoeing Smith, to go to Calcutta to fit racing plates on the horses used by the then Prince of Wales, the late Duke of Windsor when he played polo in Calcutta on his visit to India in 1923. When he came back, Harold Hughes and I became friends and went around together and later he was to become my brother in law. He of course told me about his home, Guernsey, and made me promise I would visit it when I was posted home. Up till then I don't think I had ever heard of Guernsey. Promises are easily made and so I promised. He became ill with fever and gastric trouble in early 1923 and was in the British Station Hospital, Allahabad, for quite a considerable while, and at his request, I promised to keep his family posted as to his progress. Replies to my letters came from his sister Violet and from then on a regular correspondence started. At the end of 1923, Harold was posted home to a Royal Horse Artillery Battery with still about a year to serve. I followed towards the end of 1924, my term of service having expired and I proceeded to Woolwich for discharge. I spent one night a the Royal Artillery barracks at Woolwich and the next day I was on my way to Malmesbury Road, Bow, a civilian, shivering with the cold and wishing I was back in India. The adjustment from the heat of India to the cold of England in November seemed to take months. Also at that time I was thrown on to a labour market which was in a pretty awful condition. Looking for a job was hopeless and so in the end I decided to spend some
of my Indian savings and have a week in Guernsey as I had promised Harold. There was also the added attraction of meeting his sister with whom I had been corresponding for so long. Harold still had a few months to serve. I arrived in Guernsey late in November after a disastrous passage on the SS Vera (it did everything but sink) and was met by Violet on the quay at 6.30 am feeling half dead with sea sickness. However a good sleep put me right and it wasn't long before I fell in love with Guernsey and Violet. After tasting the rush and turmoil of London, Guernsey seemed a demi-paradise and I still think so after 52 years.
I had intended spending a week in Guernsey, but stayed nearly a month, arriving back in Bow just before Christmas 1924.
In the meantime Vi moved from Guernsey to London so that we could be together. She first found a job looking after the children of some wealthy persons and also trying to teach them French (among other things). This didn't suit as our weekly half day off did not coincide - hers was Saturday afternoon and mine was Thursday afternoon. This wasn't to our liking and Vi eventually found another job at her own trade - that of cutter and fitter at a firm which supplied John Lewis of Oxford Street with their model clothing for ladies.
In 1925 I managed to find a job in St James Street, and though I enjoyed it I spent a miserable six months trying to keep warm. I seemed to catch every cold that nobody else wanted and in the end I went to our Doctor and asked his advice. I remember him well - an elderly man with grey hair - Dr Summers, and he lived in a big house at the corner of Bow Road and Alfred Street. He kept his own carriage and pair. He told me to clear out of
London - go somewhere where it was warm otherwise I would end up as a TB case. I suggested Guernsey and he said it was the finest place in the world.
It seemed at this time our family was being torn apart - **Winnie had left home to become a social worker and then to train at Dulwich Hospital. Sid had signed on for four years in the RAF and I was pushing off to Guernsey. It must have been a terrible blow to my mother, but that is how I arrived in Guernsey. It is interesting to remember that at that time I bought the last ticket in a raffle someone was running and I came up the winner of £3.00 (which was a lot of money at that time). The return fare to Guernsey was £2.19.0, so after paying my fare and 6d for the raffle ticket, I was still 6d in pocket. It seemed a good enough omen for the future. Vi returned to Guernsey about a week after me.
** I believe while Winnie was doing social work in the East End of London she met Mahatma Ghandi and was asked to join his personal staff. (Winnie could confirm this or otherwise)
Work was pretty scarce in Guernsey too, so I tool anything that came along. My first job was painting the outside of a house and I remember going up a very long ladder set against the gable and it seemed ages before I could take a hand off the ladder and reach for a paintbrush - I was scared stiff. The job was over in about a fortnight and I took another helping to build a greenhouse - surprisingly that greenhouse still stands - I wonder why! My next was a back room job at a pub. The owner used to bottle imported beer and spirits and I learned how to use the bottling machine and how to breakdown spirits to their saleable percentage.
I earned 26/- a week with a promise of 28/- as soon as I learned to drive the van. I took free lessons from a friend in an E Type Ford and drew 28/- the second week. The driving test then was being told by a policeman to " drive up to that lamppost, turn and come back to me" You then slipped him half a crown and he issued your driving license. There were very few accidents in those days, maybe because there was so few other cars to bash into, or perhaps because of the 'severity' of the test. In 1928 I was still working at the pub, when we head that the St Peter Port hospital was looking for a deputy master and matron for the workhouse part of the hospital. Violet and I applied and we got the job, but it was for a married couple ! We got a special license and were married and in the job within ten days. We had about four days honeymoon. The workhouse side was tough - all the scum of the island were there, but we held the job for ten years. It was in 1938 that Mr and Mrs Hughes opened the hotel Beaulieu and on the opening night, which was a grand affair, that Violet and I realized they could not possibly run it alone. So we gave notice at the hospital and joined them at the hotel. The Beaulieu was made a limited company and I was appointed secretary and Violet, Housekeeper and general factotum.
War broke out in 1939 and the Germans arrived in the island in 1940 - they took over the hotel as soon as they arrived, allowing us to stay. Soldiers were billeted in the hotel and we had to feed them until their own staff arrived. We ran the hotel as a pub, soldiers in the lounge and locals in the public bar. It worked quite well for about ten months and we swindled the Germans as much as we could - we sold them Green Peppermint Cordial at Creme de Menthe prices and they didn't know the difference.
The cordial cost us 2/- a bottle and at Creme de Menthe prices in total we got back about 35/-. Eventually the Germans wanted the whole of the hotel and we got our marching orders. I was not sorry, our thieving activities on their stores was becoming a bit hazardous and I could foresee the day when we would be caught red handed. So we moved out Violet and I and our barman and his wife to the Salerie Inn, my other brother in laws place, and Mr and Mrs Hughes to the Farmers Hotel which they still owned. My brother in law Gordon had left for England when war broke out and joined the Royal Engineers and his wife and young son were evacuated to England. Harold Hughes and wife had already gone and he had joined the RAF and she worked in the British Restaurants.
When we were settled we opened the Salerie Inn again and when we didn't want German soldiers as customers we put a notice in the window " Rien de Tout" (out of everything), but we let the locals in the side door. We went back to the green peppermint cordial lark and made quite handsome profit out of the troops until, like food and everything else we needed, the peppermint cordial ran out. After that we sold near beer made locally out of parsnips or rough cider imported from France. The German troops didn't like the Cider, they liked getting drunk slowly and one pint of cider would put them on their backs - but I must give them credit by saying when they got drunk we had no trouble with them. We simply carried them out and stopped the first German lorry that came along and put them on board.
Rumors went round the island that all English born men and their dependants were to be deported to Germany. It wasn't long before it proved it was true and we received our instructions through the 'Guernsey
Press' newspaper. We had to fill in a form in the newspaper and send it to German HQ. It made no difference whether you filled in the form or not - those who didn't were soon rounded up and we all had to assemble at the White Rock for embarkation. We sailed on the SS Minator ( a Cunard tender captured at Dunkirk) at about midnight towards the end of September 1942. As the boat left the harbour we sang all the patriotic songs we could think of - but none of us really felt like singing - but we weren't going to let jerry know that. We arrived at St Malo about 7.00 am after stopping in mid channel and listening to British raids going on in France. This brought about further singing and the jerry’s nearly went balmy trying to shut us up. After a meal of black rye bread and ersatz?? coffee, we entrained for an internment camp at Dorsten near the Dutch frontier. Because of air raids it took us about two days to get there, continually stopping until the raids were over. For the journey we were given a 2 kilo rye loaf between eight persons and a small piece of some kind of German sausage each. This was a 24 hour ration. It was curious, we welcomed the raids and had the daft idea we couldn't be killed by our own bombs, and fortunately none of us were - though they came pretty close. The camp was in the middle of nowhere surrounded by row upon row of barbed wire and one of the most desolate places I've ever seen. There were already some islanders there from Jersey and Guernsey who had been sent over before our batch and they gave us the thumbs down signal as we were herded through the gates. It did nothing to improve our morale. The hutment's were disgustingly filthy and crawling alive with bugs. They had previous been occupied by Polish prisoners of war who had been hurriedly moved to another camp to make way for us. When our camp captain, Garfield Garland, protested, he was told we must have
brought the bugs with us. Our first meal in the camp ( we took our own cutlery and mugs etc) was a thin watery something with cubes of Swede floating in it - it soon got the name of pineapple soup.
If we were lucky we also got a potato boiled in its skin, dirt and all. Meals were twice a day 11.00 am and 4.00 PM and the menu never altered. If we had eaten all our bread from the day before, that was our bad luck. Bread was issued at 12 noon - 8 people to 2 kilo loaf of rye bread. Apparently the Poles had tried to grow some of their own food (I don't know where the seeds came from) and I remember when Vi and I were foraging round the small allotments, we found beetroot about the size of small orange - we were in luck and after scrubbing all the dirt off we ate it raw. We'd have eaten the paint of the doors had there been any. It was a long time waiting for 4.00pm. Real tea was unknown at this time, even to the German people, and we were issued with an 'ersatz' tea made from various herbs and the leaves from certain trees. It was wet and warm and that's about all you could say about it. There was a coffee made from roasted acorns, but we never had a taste of it. ( in Guernsey we made coffee from roasted parsnips and that was far better).
At last the camp settled down and we were all given our various job by own camp captain, Mr Garland. Sweeping the roads in the camp, drawing rations (for what they were worth) - policing within the camp and opening up a school for the children, there were about 200 of them. Vi volunteered to teach them sewing. One man, a Mr Manning, brought a sewing machine all the way from Guernsey. Why, goodness only knows, but it proved to be a very valuable asset and he was quite willing to lend it to the school.
We received a lot of outer clothing from the Red Cross and it wasn't long before they were cut up by Vi and others to make jackets and trousers for every child in the camp who needed them.
Dorsten was situated in a crowded industrial district and every night the towns around were being bombed. Our camp was situated in a dip of ground alongside the Dortmund Emms Canal and we could look up to see the barges going by. It slowly dawned on us that if the canal had received a direct hit our camp would be under about 40 feet of water. We learned afterwards that the neutral Powers - Sweden, America and those not yet in the war, and of course the British Government, strongly objected about the situation of the camp and after about six weeks we were moved down to Biberach in southern Germany. This was a purpose built German barracks mainly built of bricks and mortar and much better than what we had left - but there were still our old acquaintances, the bugs. No matter how much we scrubbed we never got rid of them.
We arrived late in the afternoon and were issued with our usual pineapple soup and men and their wives were allowed to remain together in each others barracks until 9.00pm, when whistles were blown as a signal for men to return to their barracks and women to theirs. I said goodnight to Vi and she set off for her barrack. The next morning we heard that one of the women had fallen into an eight foot air raid trench and broken her ankle. I think we all said ' What a lousy start in a new camp'. About ten in the morning a German Officer came in the room I was in looking for a man named Morris.
He spoke very little English and I had no German at all but I managed to convince him my name was Norris - there were no Morris's in the camp. It was then he told me a women named Violet had broken her ankle. After about an hours delay for roll calls and counting (routine could not be broken and the Germans were lousy counters anyway), I was taken to see Vi. Fortunately at that time there was a British naval doctor, a Lieut. Sutherland captured in Crete, in the camp, and he set Vi's ankle and insisted that the next day it must be x-rayed. Vi was taken down to Biberach Hospital and the x-ray was 'good'. Vi remained in hospital in the camp for about two months. The hospital in camp was simply another barrack staffed by anyone in the camp who had any hospital experience and two Guernseymen who were in the St John Ambulance who volunteered to come with us. Vi walked about on a caliper for some time but she was not discharged from hospital because she proved too useful. It was really a blessing in disguise because we were snowed up waist deep and I was pleased Vi dodged it all.
About this time the camp connected up with the International Red Cross and our first consignment of Red Cross parcels arrived. It is very difficult to describe our feelings after all this time. It is true to say the camp was ecstatic. After the near starvation diet we had been on, the contents of a parcel was worth more than its weight in gold. They came from Canada, New Zealand, the UK of course and many other places, and the contents were everything we had yearned for since we had been taken from Guernsey. The average parcel contained a small tin, about 2oz of real butter, a tin of meat and veg, tin of canned beef hash, a small bar of chocolate, 2 oz of tea, four oz of sugar, tinned jam or marmalade and
condensed milk, either evaporated or like Nestle, and quite a large tin of ambrosia dried milk - there was also a tin of dried egg. It was not possible to restrain gorging oneself from this bounty of food and more than half the camp was down with tummy trouble following a gorge. Our stomachs had shrunk so much they were not ready for this abuse - however we had learned our lesson and were more careful in the future.
The German issue of ersatz tea was now used to scrub our tables clean and the sauer kraut they had started to dish out just blocked up the toilets until the issue was discontinued. The Germans allowed us to mark tins of meat veg with our names and numbers and were then taken to the cookhouse to be hotted up. While we were at Dorsten and for a few weeks at Biberach our guards were military, but Germany was running short of young fit men and they were replaced by much older men, somewhat like our own Home Guard. These were much easier to deal with and were not adverse to accepting a bar of chocolate for half a dozen eggs or something else we might need.
In the camp were quite a number of people from Guernsey and Jersey who had belonged to amateur dramatic societies in their own islands, and they wanted to start up their own theatre in the camp. We were allowed a wooden hutment by the Germans in which another fellow and I set about making scenery and props for the various plays and varieties the groups wished to put on. Musical instruments were supplied by the Red Cross together with scripts for plays and any musical score we liked to ask for. We had talent in abundance and once we got started we put on a different
play or variety every week. All the German Officers and staff occupied the front row, and were pretty quick on censuring anything which they didn't
like. One variety show opened with a scene depicting Britannia complete with shield and trident and a huge Union Jack and backed up with patriotic songs. The jerry’s cam down on that like a ton of bricks and it was a bit dodgy for a time whether we would be allowed to carry on. However we were allowed to carry on provided we kept well away from international politics. The camp theatre was a great success and again I praise the Red Cross for what they did for us.
We soon had a camp orchestra for classical music - Vi was the pianist on a real Beckstein - and a really good Jazz band for dances and light entertainment. In between shows we did all kinds of repair jobs for the people in the camp. The Red Cross supplied us with all the tools we wanted - chisels, planes, spoke shares - everything a carpenter would need. People would come to our work shop with say - a suitcase which had almost collapsed and say " Can you fix this?" and we were very soon known as 'The Fixers'. We made all kinds of things like makeshift commodes for the younger children - a three sided box with a suitable hole in the top and into which a tin could be slid as a "potty". We must have made about two dozen of these for the mothers of children who had no nappies. We made drinking mugs out of suitable tins from Red Cross parcels and riveted handles on to them. We took tins to pieces carefully and hammered them into all different sizes of plates. We even made a Munatic Cup to be presented to the best football team in the camp. The Munatic Cup would be the equivalent to the FA Cup in England. It was really a work of art. One could almost say the camp settled down to the
equivalent to an English Village except the one thing we all wanted - our freedom - and this came suddenly, one late evening - but more of that later.
After we had been in the camp at Biberack for about six months we (that is Freddie Williams and I) were given a radio set, tuned to Stuttgart and the tuning valves sealed in such a way that we could not get any other station. The set was tuned to broadcast the German news in English from a large speaker set in the centre of the camp so that all the camp could hear. Apart from fixing the tuning valves the outside was tied with cord and the knots sealed with wax on which was stamped a special German seal. It certainly looked as if Freddie and I had been stumped, but we felt it was our job to come up with some way of listening to BBC and really get some truth about how the war was going. It didn't take us long to find that by wetting the cord around the set it would stretch just far enough to remove one of the screws holding the back on the set so that we could just look inside. We saw that the vanes were firmly bolted, so there was nothing to do be done there. We also saw a piece of white porcelain with a screw in the centre. Freddie, who recognized this as some kind of fine tuning gadget (he knew more about the inside of a wireless set than I did) said he would try to think up something to get at that screw. After a few days of trial and error he produced a queer kind of screwdriver made from a long piece of wire with a kink in the end. He could reach the screw but couldn't turn it. His idea was by turning the screw he could get BBC without turning the tuning valves. To me that appeared to be the end of a dubious, if not brilliant idea. A few evenings later I returned to our hut after leaving Vi and found Freddie had returned the set to normal (in all this time the usual German news had gone out on the loud speaker outside) but while I was
away he had drilled a small hole in the side of the cabinet of the set. I couldn't find the hole and told him so, and he said that was because he had filled the hole up with a mixture of biscuit crumbs and golden syrup
coloured the same as the outside of the cabinet. At an ordinary glance it was not noticeable. To cut a long story short, by removing the plugging he could get his now straightened screwdriver straight in the screw in the white porcelain. I asked him if he could get BBC and making sure the outside speaker was disconnected, he gave his screwdriver a few twists and there was the BBC. He then removed the screwdriver and plugged the hole again. For obvious reasons we could only listen to the midnight news from the BBC when everybody else was tucked up safely in bed and we found out exactly at what time the solitary sentry in our section of the camp, passed out hut.
Everything seemed OK and each night we listened to the BBC sitting in the dark - the next day we would drop little hints regarding the news to the people in the camp we knew we could trust. The Germans were artful and any new face that appeared was immediately suspect. The Germans were very fond of putting stooges in the camp just to find what was going on. However everything went fine for quite a long time until one night Stuttgart was bombed and went off the air. Then it suddenly dawned on us we had no way to tune back. I nearly dropped dead on the spot. What Freddy's feelings were like I had no idea. We were in the dark and perhaps it was just as well, I couldn't see his face, otherwise I might have dropped dead. Our guardian angels must have been around that night for Stuttgart came back on the air just before dawn and we were all able to tune back
just in time for the German news on the outside loudspeaker. It took us about ten days to get over this shock and try again - people must have
wondered why their flow of information had suddenly ceased. Freddie and I made a rule then that as soon as we heard the bombing get closer we
would immediately retune. Some nights we only got headlines, at other times we got the whole lot - but it was a dodgy business and we had to be super careful until, sometime after VE Day we didn't care a damn and put out the BBC on the outside speaker for everyone to hear. We could hear gun fire and bombing getting nearer to the camp, and our guards couldn't do anything about it and we could see them getting more and more jittery. The, our own Commander, Mr Garland, stepped in and told the German Camp Commandant that from there on he, Mr Garland, would be responsible for the safety of the people in the camp.
The guards were to patrol as usual and our own appointed police would ensure the safety of those inside. It was a good arrangement because there were quite a number of hotheads who wanted to make a mass break out. This would have been disastrous because in the woods outside there were a lot of groups prepared to make a do or die last stand.
Late one afternoon we could see Algerian troops, tanks and a crowd we later found out to be a Foreign Legion Battalion just outside the wire of the camp. They handed in bottles of wine and iron rations. It must have been at least four weeks before all the groups of resistance were rounded up and then we saw thousands of German troops, all disarmed, being marched past the camp - for them the war was over and they were on their way to prisoner of war camps - in their own country. Then we were allowed out of the camp and Vi and I used to make picnic lunches and explore the
countryside, staying out all day and making sure we got back to the camp to sleep before darkness fell. We had no great fear of being molested - the German troops** had suddenly become very friendly. The countryside
around the camp was really beautiful and the snow capped mountains in the distance were certainly worth looking at again and again.
** the safety of the German guards was guaranteed by Mr Garland - they had been good to us as far as possible and could have made our lives much tougher had they stuck to the rule book.
This went on for about a month or so and we thoroughly enjoyed every minute of it. After our month or so of comparative freedom was up, orders came through that we were to be flown back to England.
We were taken by lorry to a German airfield near Mindon (I think it was called) and flown to Stanstead in Dakotas, each plane had 60 on board plus all our luggage. Vi and I sat together - we were grossly overloaded and I began to wonder if the pilot would ever get tail wheel off the ground. We seemed to fly for miles just above the treetops before the plane could make any height. I reckon the pilot and I were the only ones who could breath properly after about fifteen minutes of flying - nobody else seemed to worry - they were singing to the top of their voices. I never expected to see Stanstead, but we made it otherwise I wouldn't be here writing !
The following day all who had homes to go to were given a railway warrant and five shillings for a meal on the way and released to go wherever they wanted. Vi and I went to Les at Loughton and there were overfed, our stomachs were still not quite used to good food - we spent
two weeks there and to spread the load a bit we moved on to May and Jo. With bus rides and walks there couldn't have been much of Surrey we didn't see. After another fortnight we moved to Bookham where Eileen and
Billie Towers were living (Eileen had phoned almost everyday to ask when we were coming to stay with them). We really enjoyed Bookham, at that time it was really deep in the country (what it is like now I don't know). It was a mere step to Ascot and of course we made up a party to go - It is my everlasting shame that neither Vi nor I saw much of what went on. Neither of us was strong enough for this kind of life. I still retain vague flashes of deafening noise, flashes of colours going by and horses. In between we just lay down on the grass and slept. It was difficult enough to keep awake to enjoy the picnic lunch Eileen and Billy had brought with them for the four of us. But we did enjoy going to Ascot especially the sleeping part.
It was while we were staying with Eileen and Billy that our permits to return to Guernsey came through together with free travel warrants. Only a few - say up to 200 - were allowed back at any one time because of the food situation - the shops had not been stocked up yet - and of course there were all those people, roughly half the population of the island who had evacuated to England. If they'd all come back at once we would have had to alter our brochures from Sunny Guernsey to Starvation Island. Luckily there was plenty of our own fish being brought in and some of us threatened to develop gills. Never the less we were grateful, not having tasted fish for almost three years. Our biggest shock when we landed was to see Vi's mother and father. Mother weighed something just over thirteen stone - she was now reduced to just over seven stone. Dad's
clothes hung on him like those on a scarecrow. He was down to just over eight from about twelve stone. It took some while before we all got back to our normal weights. In the camp we had lived off Red Cross for about two years, but here in the island they had simply the vegetables they could
grow without them being pinched and a few Red Cross parcels in the last few months of the war. We, in the camp, were far better off than those poor folk who were left behind.
Thus we came back to Guernsey and the task of getting back to normal had only just begun.
© Peter Norris & Mike Deane 2018 -- NO PART OF THE ABOVE TO BE REPRODUCED WITHOUT PERMISSION.