In September 1939 when Britain declared war on Germany, the regular soldiers of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment based at Budbrooke Barracks mobilised, and more men were recruited. The 2nd Battalion was despatched to join the British Expeditionary Force in France. The cavalry of the Warwickshire Yeomanry went to the Middle East, where during the war their horses were replaced and they became a motorised infantry regiment, and then a tank regiment.
Preparing for bombing raids
Back home in Warwick the blackout rules were strictly enforced by the ARP (Air Raid Precautions) wardens, even though the town was not regarded as a primary target for the Luftwaffe. Most of the ARP wardens were volunteers and a sixth of them were women. In the ‘Phoney War’ period the blackout was unpopular, not least because of a sharp rise in road accidents at night. A pedestrian was killed on Portobello Bridge in the pitch darkness, another died after being hit by an ambulance in Smith Street.
Air raid sirens on poles were erected around the town, for example in The Butts and Saltisford. Anderson Shelters made of corrugated iron were issued free to families earning less than £250 per annum; others had to pay £7. Many preferred the cupboard under the stairs or the cheaper indoor Morrison Shelters.
Warwick Borough Council constructed public shelters for those who could not get home in time if the sirens started. The arch under the Westgate was converted into a shelter with sandbags and other shelters were built in Castle Street, St. Nicholas Park, Priory Park, St. Lawrence Avenue, The Butts and the Tink-a-Tank. The council provided 84,000 sandbags and shelters for the town’s schools, and all the children were issued with gas masks that had to be carried at all times.
Searchlights and anti-aircraft batteries were installed around the town centre – the locations were not reported in the newspaper for obvious reasons.
Hundreds of evacuees from London, Birmingham and Coventry – mainly children – were soon arriving at the station, many to stay with relatives, but others rather randomly housed with local families willing to take them in. Kings High School was the main reception area where the children were allocated to households. Tony Talliss was 5 years old when the war began. He recorded his memories for the BBC’s ‘People’s War’ archive. “At the outbreak of war my two girl cousins from Kent came as evacuees to my grandparents in Millers Road. In 1940, when no bombing had occurred at all, they returned home. They were soon back when the raids started! and stayed until 1945. Westgate Arch was sandbagged as a shelter and trenches were dug in St. Lawrence Avenue. There was an Italian prisoner of war camp on the racecourse; they wore a yellow circle on the back of their brown jackets. There was a German PoW camp at the corner of Myton Road and Banbury Road, where the prep school is today.”
In March 1940, rationing of food, petrol and coal with a coupons system was introduced, and became more and more severe as German U-Boats attacked shipping bringing food supplies across the Atlantic. Food retailers had to obtain licences from the Court House. A committee based at 22 Northgate Street addressed the problem of a shortage of vegetables. All areas of rough ground in the parks were planted with potatoes, and the council decided that grass verges should also be used for vegetables. Schoolboys were regularly excused lessons to go on potato-picking days. Many people with big enough gardens kept chickens or pigs; the court records show that there were plenty of BM (black market) offences to be dealt with.
After the Battle of Britain in the summer of 1940, when the Germans had failed to defeat the Royal Air Force, mass bombing raids on our cities became the new German tactic designed to force Britain into surrender – The Blitz. German bombers began to fly over Warwick on their way to the factories in Leamington and Coventry. It was feared that St. Mary’s Church tower was being used as a prominent ‘sighting landmark’. Nearby ‘ack-ack’ anti-aircaft batteries were frequently in action at night time when the British fighters were not in the air. Some said the ack-ack shells falling on the town caused more damage than the Luftwaffe. Shells fell on The Butts and the Castle grounds, damaging the clock tower. Nora Slater, a teacher at Coten End School, kept a diary throughout the war. She records that the sirens and the ack-ack would often keep them awake at night. “May 16th: gunfire terrible until 4.30am”
On the evening of November 14th 1940, the target of a massive raid was Coventry, eleven miles to the north of Warwick. Residents could hear in the distance that an enormous raid was taking place and see an orange glow in the sky. Nora Slater wrote, “The barrage started at 7.15pm and continued until the All Clear at 6.15am”. The Nazis called it ‘Operation Moonlight Sonata’. More than 500 bombers dropped thirty-six thousand incendiary bombs and five-hundred tonnes of high explosives on Coventry city centre, most of which was destroyed – including the medieval cathedral. Nearly 600 people lost their lives that night.
Two deaths in Warwick
Warwick didn’t escape entirely unscathed during WW2, as local resident Patrick Rafferty recalled. “My grandfather Harry Marston, serving in the Royal Warwickshire Regiment, had survived the Battle of the Somme in the 1914-18 conflict. But he became a rare casualty of enemy action in Warwick during the Second World War. Harry, by then a reservist, was walking home on St. Mary’s Common in May 1941 when a German aircraft dropped a stick of bombs. He was killed instantly along with his friend, James Hiatt”. The bombs had fallen on ‘Lammas Field’ at the bottom of Linen Street, throwing up a huge mound of earth. It’s thought the German plane might have been targeting the nearby gas works. Marston was 49 and lived at 21 Linen Street. Hiatt lived at 20 Mill Street. He worked at Warwick Aviation and was a volunteer ARP warden. He had a wife and two children aged ten and eleven. Both men are commemorated on the war memorial in Church Street. In April 1941, bombs also fell beside Birmingham Road near the canal, shaking nearby houses, but with no casualties. The newspaper reported that a girl in her house was hit in the leg when a German plane machine-gunned her street – the location not given.
Despite their hardships, local people donated extraordinary amounts to the various funds set up in the war – Warwick and Stratford’s Spitfire Fund raised £15,000, enough for three aircraft apparently – the Warwick Cinderella Fund provided shoes for needy children – and the Warwick District raised nearly a quarter of a million pounds during national War Weapons Week. There were also appeals for prisoners held overseas. Warwick raised over £20,000 for the Red Cross PoW Fund. And in ‘Warship Week’ 1942, the town raised £280,000.
After Dunkirk, the town was said to be crowded with evacuated soldiers. Red Cross trains brought the wounded to the Cape Road sidings where local people greeted them and gave them fruit. Ambulances took them to Warwick Hospital. In June 1944, 75 wounded from the D-Day landings arrived, again to be greeted warmly by local residents. The men who did not have to stay in hospital were issued with special blue uniforms, partly to show that they were not avoiding military service, and partly because they arrived with nothing but their military khaki.
Victory in Europe
In May 1945, when German radio announced that Hitler was dead, the German forces in Berlin surrendered to the Russians, to be followed by the surrender (to Field Marshal Montgomery of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment) of a million Axis troops in North-West Europe. On May 8th, news came through that all German forces had capitulated and celebrations broke out across Europe and America. It’s said that the whole population of Britain gathered round their radios to hear the King overcome his stammer to announce the victory. “Germany – the enemy who drove all Europe into war – has been finally overcome”.
The people of Warwick needed no second invitation to join-in with the celebrations. St. Mary’s church tower was floodlit and there were bonfires and fireworks. According to the The Advertiser, ‘Victory-Day worked a wonderful transformation in the county town. From heaven knows where, flags and bunting and streamers and ribbon appeared and almost hid the familiar landmarks from view. Cycles, prams, cars, buses – everything on wheels had some adornment’. Street parties were quickly arranged all over Warwick, made possible by many ‘willing housewives’ who donated their ration points.
The Advertiser quoted one resident: “We made cakes, jellies and other niceties which are so appealing to children. Music was provided by a piano played by one of our soldiers. And we must pay tribute to those neighbours who parked their cars at each end of the street, and illuminated the dance floor with their car headlights”.
It’s reported that there was a huge crowd in the Market Square for a United Act of Thanksgiving. The Vicar, Canon Littler, sought to capture the mood and appealed for unity. “Can we win the Peace, the Peace that has been won for us? It depends on you: the people. If ever you see any public man, of any party, adopting a policy which appears likely to disturb the unity of this country, sweep him out of public life for ever!”
That evening there was dancing in the Market Place until well after midnight.
World War II proved to be the deadliest international conflict in history, taking the lives of 60 to 80 million people, including 6 million Jews who died in the Nazi death camps. Civilians made up an estimated 50-55 million deaths from the war. Millions more were injured.
You can see details of the 112 men from Warwick who died in the conflict in our section, ‘The Fallen’, and there are ‘Personal Memories’ from those who are old enough to remember WW2 in Warwick.