Stevenage @ War, 1939-1945

On 8 May 1945 Britain and its Allies celebrated Victory in Europe Day, or VE Day for short. After nearly six years of war, blackout ended, the lights came back on and people took the chance to have a party and put aside the worries of wartime, before the final push to finish the war in the Far East against Japan began.

War is declared

At the outbreak of the Second World War, Stevenage was a small country town of less than 6000 people. As residents listened to the declaration of war on their wireless sets on a sunny Sunday morning in September 1939, could they imagine how much their lives would change? The town had already appointed Air Raid Precaution (ARP) wardens, begun to dig shelters, distributed gas masks and established a branch of the Women’s Voluntary Services for Civil Defence (known as the WVS) before war was declared.

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Staff from Six Hills Nursery dig a trench for an air raid shelter in the High Street

In the first few weeks hundreds of evacuees and their families arrived and were accommodated in local homes and schools and for a short while a warehouse near the railway station was taken over by Billingsgate Fish Market as a distribution centre.

War work

As local men were called up and factories began doing war work, women were called on to do more and more on the home front, taking up jobs in factories and on farms alongside keeping homes running. In Stevenage the Education Supply Association factory and Vincent HRD helped make parts for Mosquito aircraft.

Men who weren’t called up joined the ARP and, from 1940, the Home Guard.

Drill was held on the rough ground by the gas works in Sish Lane. A private car owned and donated by Mr Appleton, the Managing Director of ESA, was converted into an armoured vehicle able to carry three machine guns and a crew of five.

Target practice was held near Six Hills and night manoeuvres were carried out in collaboration with the Hitchin Home Guard who provided mock attacks.

The phoney war is over

In the summer and autumn of 1940 air raids began in earnest. Stevenage was relatively lucky, the air raid siren only sounded 654 times throughout the six years of war, with little damage sustained from the bombs that dropped. In September as the Blitz started, people could see the sky turn red as London burnt and the local fire service volunteers were directed to help fight fires in the docks there.

In 1941 the government nationalised the fire services to better co-ordinate the response to bombing. As well as London, local firefighters were also sent to Norwich when it was the target of a Baedeker raid in June 1942, made in response to the new, more deadly British raids on German towns and cities that began in the spring of 1942.

The Great North Road funnelled plenty of military traffic through the town, and in July 1940 the Old Castle Inn in Middle Row was turned into a forces canteen run by the WVS. As the war went on, one author observed:

“As the tempo of the war increased . . . [the town] began to resemble a modern Tower of Babel, with a floating population of soldiers, sailors, airmen, industrial workers, Indian trainees, land girls, Jewish evacuees, refugees from the continent, American soldiers, girl factory workers from East Anglia and civil defence workers . . . “

Preparations for D Day in 1944 brought more troops and traffic to the town and complaints about the damage caused by vehicles peaked.

“I can remember one very foggy night, there was a hell of a noise outside the shop . . . and we opened the shop door to find a tank coming past . . . he had mounted up the path between the tress and the shop . . . it was so foggy he thought that was the path to follow.”

Although the movement of a convoy was in theory secret, the military authorities generally advised the canteen manager when a convoy could be expected. It was said by one canteen worker that in spite of the secrecy it was generally possible to arrange a dance at the Town Hall in time for the arrival of a convoy! Another recalled:

“The soldiers were coming through . . . we didn’t put them up for the night, they were billeted in Witney Wood . . . we used to cook their food for them . . . the biggest number we had was 1200 in one night . . . [we served] mostly things with chips . . . [and] eggs, cheese, baked beans, sandwiches . . . they didn’t pay very much, just a small charge . . . it was all good fun really.”

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The forces canteen painted by local artist Mabel Culley in around 1943.

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Women from the WVS who staffed the forces canteen at the end of the war with some of the badges from the troops that used the canteen. Over the 6 years they were open they served over 860,000 cups of tea!

Nearby at Aston House secrecy was far more important, there the Special Operations Executive’s (SOE) Station XII worked developing plastic explosives for use behind enemy lines, including the (relatively) easy-to-use time-delay detonators that helped agents and resistance fighters carry out acts of sabotage and other more imaginative explosives like those disguised as dead rats that were added to coal heaps in train depots to blow up when thrown into the furnace of a steam engine!

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Aston House later went on to become the home of the Stevenage Development Corporation until it was demolished in 1961. Its grounds are now the Stevenage Golf Centre.

Victory at last!

Victory celebrations were held throughout the town during the spring and summer months of 1945. A victory parade was held on Sunday 13 May with units of the town’s Civil Defence organisations came together for the last time. Led by the combined bands of the Home Guard and the Army cadets, the parade marched through the High Street to the Astonia cinema to attend a short thanksgiving service.

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The Home Guard lead the Victory Parade
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The Home Guard Band on the steps so the Astonia Cinema

In the same week, the Catholic Church and Rectory gardens in Basils Road, The Cromwell Hotel and the War Memorial were floodlit. There were celebration bonfires at Fishers Green, Whitesmead Recreation Ground, Trinity Road and Longcroft Road and a firework display in Pound Avenue.

Several VE Day dances were held at the Lytton Club in Pound Avenue, and on one occasion it was reported that the dancers left the club and danced around the local streets. 30 members of the club, some of the last of the women war workers still billeted in the town, were invited one Sunday to a party given by the local US 8th Air Force Camp.

During the first week of July the ESA Concert Party presented a revue at the Town Hall entitled “Victory Parade”.

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The ESA Concert Party went on to become the Lytton Players, a local amateur dramatics company that continues today.

Victory parties were held in several streets in the town including Walkern Road, Albert Street and Alleyns Road.

A Stevenage wife and mother recalled in her diary:

“VE Day – Germans unconditionally surrendered – everyone full of it – I went up to London – Len and I in garden – saw lights up and down Street at 11.15pm – boys had a lovely bonfire – went to Thanksgiving Service in Benington.”

In Fairview Road they had their street party in August after Victory over Japan (VJ) Day. Many years later one of the children in attendance remembered:

“Long trestle tables were erected in Fairview Road and all of us feasted on jellies, blancmanges, sandwiches and cakes all hastily knocked up for the occasion, jugs of squash and homemade lemonade quenched our thirst, the sun shone and no one mentioned atom bombs or Belsen or Hiroshima.”

Thoughts turn to the future

After VE Day, the elections were only weeks away in July. Thoughts began to turn to the job of post-war reconstruction and what the future would hold. In 1944 Patrick Abercrombie’s Greater London Plan had identified Stevenage as one of the possible sites for a new town to provide homes for bombed-out, overcrowded Londoners. The 1945 Attlee Government quickly set up a New Towns Commission under Lord Reith to consider how to deliver the plan and a year later, Stevenage was identified as the first of the post-war new towns. A new chapter in the town’s story had begun.

Thanks to John Amess, Margaret Ashby and David Wallis for their work, used to write this post on wartime Stevenage.

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