Much of the information contained on these pages derives from reminiscences written by members of staff, either for staff magazines directly after the war, or for a special supplement to our pensioners' magazine, In Touch, published in 2005. Many are worthy of more than just a brief quote and so are reproduced here in full.
Jersey branch arrangements
Written by Robert Le Sueur of General Accident Jersey branch c1947
After the invasion, when communication with our district office in Southampton was cut off, a dozen or so offices represented on Jersey got together and formed the Associated Offices Central Fund. Regular meetings took place between the managers, many of them quite ancient compared with me.
The premiums received by all offices were called in and used to deal with claims, a small amount initially being deducted to pay office expenses. At first claims were only dealt with in part but as funds grew they were dealt with in full, if possible. Cover provided was mainly fire only on houses and third party and fire on cars, vans and lorries.
Some comprehensive policies were in force but as there were no replacement parts very few accidental damage claims were settled. Only one life claim was received. No policies were issued during the occupation, only a form of cover note.
Quite surprisingly, a lot of new business was arranged...
Petrol was rationed so the staff collected the premiums on bicycles...
Conditions in the office were very poor: no heating or lighting. Staff wore gloves with the fingers cut out and wrapped themselves in blankets to keep warm. If a customer came into the office the staff had to extricate themselves from a cocoon of blankets. We were not allowed any milk for tea or coal or gas for heating. Staff were very rundown as the available food was of poor quality.
Defence of a provincial branch
Published in the Norwich Union staff magazine 1941
The first we heard in Norwich was the official news that the town had been the object of heavy attacks and we were therefore very relieved to receive a wire to say that the staff were all unharmed and the office standing. Letters followed which made it clear that it was impossible to put in writing the almost indescribable scenes of those terrible nights.
The one bright spot was that our own office and an immediately neighbouring office which together formed one small block, remained standing in solitary majesty surrounded by a sea of debris. The large building next to ours caught fire and the three members of our staff who formed our fire watching party on that night, were forced to leave the block of buildings over which they were doing their best to watch, and took shelter in a park on the opposite side of the road.
After some time, when our party had collected together somewhat, one of the ladies missed their chief and went to look for him. As she came outside the park she saw him running to and fro from the building and records and files, having already thrown a lot of property through the holes where the windows had been.
As our building had not caught fire, both ladies and several servicemen joined the manager in saving everything that was easily movable and then retired to the opposite pavement where they saw that the guttering and eaves of our building were just catching fire.
Most of the watchers decided that that was the end of their office: the manager thought otherwise. He dashed back into the building and climbed into the roof where he was just in time to prevent it igniting though he had only two or three buckets of water left and, the water main having been broken, there was no more obtainable. He then procured an axe and hacked away a burning beam, waving to the watchers outside through the slates, his head scarcely a foot away from the raging inferno next-door.
He also had to treat a banister and cupboard in the same way as they were just beginning to catch fire through the party wall. When the ladies eventually left in the early hours of the morning for refreshment and little sleep, their chief was still on the job.
Notes on ARP at Union head office
Written by DIB of Union Assurance 1938
The second basement, normally dedicated to the filing of papers, has been given over almost entirely to protection. The bottom of the lift shaft, and the foot of the stairs has been screened off from the upper world by specially proofed blanket-felt on wooden frames which are bedded in the felt to prevent thee working loose of the material which would otherwise occur.
At the foot of the staircase an airlock has been formed by the construction of what is, in effect, a small room with felt walls, the idea being that any belated worker streaking to safety down the stairs should enter the airlock and close down the first felt wall before rolling up the second and entering sanctuary, thus defeating the pursuing gas.
Inside the refugee will find a room equipped with 175 camp stools arranged in orderly rows, on which his colleagues will already be perched, sitting back to back for comfort, brooding on the Infinite. Incidentally, a thoughtful management has provided packs of cards for those to whom contemplation on higher things is distasteful.
There will be iron rations in the shape of biscuits and ginger beer - but surely, to make the party really go with a swing, there should be something more potent? Our refugee will also observe piles of hacksaws, picks and shovels - presumably in case the session develops into an Irishman's party. In the far corner of the room, he will notice an emergency exit to the basement above.
Piles of electric torches, a complete first aid post, and a tin of luminous paint complete the equipment of this home from home. One of the difficulties to be faced in fitting up the basement was that water is not laid on. Consequently, chemical closets have had to be installed in two separate and discreetly veiled corners of another filing room.
Other amenities include a portable wireless set so that the inmates may keep in touch with the outer world hear the latest football scores and receive early intimation of the declaration of peace. There will also be a direct telephone line to the Avenue exchange, presumably so that the senior official present can inform the exchange that an air raid has started.
There is something fantastic and repulsive in the thought that it should be necessary, in this year of grace, to equip a building in the heart of a civilised city with protection from attack by supposedly equally civilised people - in the words of the Prime Minister's unforgettable speech on September 27 'it is horrible, fantastic and incredible', yet the fantastic has happened and it is appropriately fantastic that the Union, with its roots deep in the leisured past, should be to the forefront with the refinements of this new age.
Evacuation of head office
Published in the British General staff magazine 1939
Then the important question of the removal of the entire head office staff had to be dealt with, and several of the company's officials took part in the search for premises. After some time a mansion was found at Redhill, consisting of 22 rooms and about 15 acres of land, of which the company leased 4 1/2 acres.
On the signing of the lease preparations were put in hand for the evacuation to take place when we considered the international position necessitated the change. After a few months of situation took a serious turn, and in view of the considerable number of documents that would have to be moved it was decided to evacuate one or two departments as an experiment. Accordingly our contract guarantee and life departments were moved to Redhill in August and very soon were comfortably settled there.
When events took a graver turn, towards the end of August, steps were taken to evacuate the remaining departments, and these were moved at the rate of one or two each evening. Needless to say, all members of the staff assisted with this work until it came to the day when war was declared, 3 September. On that Sunday work was commenced at eight o'clock in the morning, and as the last lorry was being loaded at five minutes to 11, news was received that war was to be declared at 11 o'clock.
Shortly afterwards the first air raid warning was sounded and a few members of the staff still at Cheapside, to arrange for the departure of the last lorry, proceeded to the basements. As soon as the “raiders past” signal was given, the lorry left Cheapside. The lorries arrived at Redhill between two and three o'clock on the Sunday afternoon, and members of the staff on duty at Redhill assisted with the unloading until seven or eight o'clock in the evening.
The following morning the majority of the staff arrived early at Redhill, and the task of setting down was achieved in a very short time; in approximately a week, our work is proceeding as though we were still at Cheapside.
After the arrival of all departments it was found, naturally, that there was a certain amount of work to be done, such as black-out arrangements and slight structural alterations. For this purpose the firm of J Hallwood and Co, of Worthing were called in, and work started under the capable management of Mr C Hilton. Every window in the house and outhouses was fitted with shutters to protect against “blast” and also to comply with the blackout regulations.
In the early days of the removal a number of clerks volunteered to dig a trench, but it was decided by the management that rather than give somewhat inadequate protection to the staff it would be far better to erect a proper shelter. Within the space of one month we had, erected by Messrs Hallwood and Co (designer and architect Mr C Hilton), on one of our main lawns, a substantial steel and concrete shelter capable of housing a staff of just over 200.
The foundations of the shelter were laid about five feet below the ground after which the steel framework was set in, with 18 inches of concrete and three feet of earth covering the whole. The interior is electrically lit, having standby batteries which automatically come into operation if the main electric cable should fail. There are seats down each side and lavatory accommodation. Three intake fans were installed, complete with 32 foot high shafts, in which was placed activated carbon, so that the air drawn in is purified and freed from all was gases.
At the two entrances to the shelter are fitted blast-proof steel and concrete doors, and at opposite ends are emergency exits which are reached by a ladder. With the fitting of a Bell sterilising plant, ensuring a adequate supply of sterilised water and the inclusion of First Aid equipment with stretchers and fire appliances, the shelter has been completed.
For the senior members of the air raid precaution staff, who will be housed in the main building during an air raid, a control room has been fitted out in the cellars, so that telephonic communication may be maintained with the outside world and in particular with the local council. There is also telephonic communication with the shelter by means of a telephone extension and it is complete with an emergency exit.
About 14 months ago a member of the staff received training as an air raid precautions instructor and on his return to the office, volunteers were called for, for fire and first aid parties, who are then trained in anti-gas measures. After receiving a full warden’s training they were separated to their respective squads to receive the specialised training in respect of the duties they were to carry out.
We have now, therefore, a fully trained air raid precaution staff of approximately 50 men and women. These comprise fire, first aid, gas detection, and stretcher bearer parties. With the trained squads available rehearsals are held periodically in order to keep their knowledge up-to-date. For the staff, rehearsals are held at intervals and our new home can be cleared in the space of under four minutes. For this purpose a number of the senior staff have been appointed to act as wardens to deal with the evacuation to the shelter.
In view of the risk of fire that is always present in old buildings packed with papers and documents, members of our fire squad take turns to remain on the premises all night. Our first aid squad have been accepted by the Reigate Council to give assistance during an air raid, and for this purpose one squad has been specially detailed for outside duty.
Whilst, of course, our present home is not quite the same as our head office, the staff realise that it is wartime and they have made a good job of setting down to the new conditions in spite of all minor discomfort inseparable from a big removal such as ours. Unfortunately, the weather has not allowed us to lunch on the lawns latterly, but in the first fortnight of staff found their new surroundings a great novelty after the busy thoroughfare of Cheapside.
Our fire and motor departments have found a comfortable home in the ballroom and the remainder have settled down in various living and bedrooms. Even the stables have been utilised for the thousands of files and papers and policy papers transferred from Cheapside.
In order that members of staff should not necessarily have to travel from their homes to Redhill, two large houses have been taken at Caterham where a number sleep and take their meals, only returning to their homes at weekends. These houses are under the excellent supervision of our house superintendent, who moved here from Cheapside.
Owing to the excellent cooperation of the staff of the whole removal was carried out in such a way that at no time was the business of the company dislocated, and when the departments arrived at Redhill they found electric lighting and telephones installed.
Throughout all these arrangements our head office at Cheapside has not been left entirely neglected, as our city branch and the Central Survey Bureau are still carrying on at number 66. In addition, the building has been adequately protected by covering all rooflights with sheet metal and by ARP measures including a night staff and fire squad on the alert in case of air raid warnings and fires.
Written by O McEntyre, Commercial Union 2005
“They also serve who only sit and wait”. Consoling thoughts after sometimes sitting in front of a silent wireless set twiddling knobs for a six-hour watch and not hearing a single signal from your “call sign”. These were altered daily and sometimes we were madly busy for six hours.
I left home for Wrexham Barracks on 24 April 1942 where I expected to do initial training for three and a half weeks and then home for leave. At 10am exactly to weeks later I was on my way (along with eight other girls including Beryl Thomas from Rhyl CU office) to Trowbridge, Wiltshire and we arrived in the late evening.
The cookhouse was closed but eventually we were given tea in scruffy enamel mugs (well chipped). What a start - all day in a very crowded train, little to eat and nothing to drink and so to bed in any hut which had a spare bed! What had I done? I had been in a reserved occupation and had chosen to be conscripted, the reason being that I wanted to be a wireless operator.
After a couple of depressing days we were told we were to be wireless operators. My spirits rose. There followed four months of Morse and more Morse, day after day. Some days in groups of three we would sally forth into the surrounding countryside with wireless sets etc to put our Morse into practice.
After four months we had our first leave and were posted to Loughborough where we learned that we were to become special operators ie intercept operators after another four months. We were sworn to secrecy and so it remained until a book was written about Enigma in 1974. After an eventful and satisfying four years I was demobbed on 11 February 1946 and returned to the CU on 19 April 1946.
'Special' service as a VI
Written by Peter Ives, Norwich Union 2005
Although at the time I did not realise the fact, it all started in the mid-thirties when, as a young teenager I built my first Short Wave radio receiver. The Morse code I picked up fascinated me and I did all I could to learn it and reach a respectable speed. During that period I struck up a friendship with another Short Wave Listener, Sergeant, later Inspector, Ken Dodds of the County Police who helped me become proficient at copying high speed Morse.
War came, and in 1940 when I had just settled down to working at the NU in Surrey Street, fate took a hand and changed my way of life for several years. One day Ken Dodds asked me if I would be interested in doing war work as a civilian but declined to tell me what it was. I had visions of being a young Air Raid Warden or joining the Auxiliary Fire Service so I agreed.
A few days later the arrival at my home of two men who announced themselves to be from the War Office dismissed those ideas. They explained I was being considered for a wartime civilian job, details of which they could not disclose at this stage and proceeded to vet both myself and my parents as to our views on the war, our political outlook and even my father's record in the First World War.
They had a careful look round the house, paying special attention to my radio gear, and as requested I signed a document connected with the Official Secrets Act. They left saying I would hear further. My parents and I wondered what I had let myself in for, but we did not have to wait long for a visit from a Mr Maxwell Nicholson who insisted upon seeing me alone. He explained that I had been accepted as a voluntary interceptor of the Radio Security Section of the War Office.
I still had no idea what this meant until he explained that the radio communications of the enemy, which were in Morse, had to be intercepted and copied. Each branch of our armed forces was concentrating on its German counterpart that left messages to and from the many German agents and Embassies abroad that had to be intercepted by V1s as we were called. He was to be my "Controller" and gave me lengthy typed instructions on how to recognise these messages from the mass of Morse traffic generated by both the enemy and us.
He reminded me of the secrecy of the job and my parents were told I was listening on the radio for signals to do with air raids. He made frequent visits to update me on likely frequencies and times to listen, along with other helpful information concerning suspect transmissions I should be looking for. He also arranged for my home-built receiver to be replaced by a state of the art American set.
At first I was very confused, and although I copied a lot of code that had to be sent to Box 25, Barnet, Herts, it must have been of little use. However, after a few weeks and helped by Ken Dodds, who had been a VI since the outbreak of the war, I began to recognise the stuff I was after. The small slip, which had to be sent off with each log giving date and time, was returned with comments.
I still recall the excitement the first time I received back such a note marked "More of this please", which meant I had scored a hit. Then, after copying the same signal a few times it became fairly easy to pick it out from all the other traffic. This would go on for while until in the interests of security the sender changed frequency and call sign and the hunt would start all over again.
All this sounds fairly simple now, but for me most of the traffic was at night and I was, after all, doing a day job. So I would beat the receiver either late at night or in the small hours after which it was time to catch a few hours sleep, before heading for the office. It required a lot of concentration in the early hours not to mention a reliable alarm clock.
These watches were divided between tuning in to a transmission you knew and recognised by the rhythm and formation of the dots and dashes which makes the sending as recognisable as handwriting and doing a general search looking for stations which aroused suspicion. I, like the rest of the VIs operating in the UK, had no idea what those coded messages meant; we merely copied them onto the special log sheets and posted them to Box 25.
Once there skilled personnel decided if the material was useful and some was sent on to the code breakers at Bletchley Park. This aspect did not reveal itself until the late seventies when the thirty-year rule on the secrecy of information was lifted. At that time VIs could at last answer the question as to what they did in the war.
As to be expected, these nocturnal activities meant there was a very sleepy junior clerk at the office who received several reprimands and social life was practically non-existent. My friends volunteered for the Services and I was told from time to time of the fine job they were doing, but I could not bring myself to follow the advice of my mentor and play the role of a conscientious objector.
There was however one nasty moment when compulsory nighttime fire watching was enforced at the Office in order to reduce the affect of incendiary bombs. I reported the situation to my Controller as such duties clashed with my intercepting schedules. I received a brief note signed by none other than Lord Sandhurst, which stated that I was doing important work for the war effort, and was not to be involved in fire watching.
I was instructed to show this to one person only and maintain secrecy as to what I was doing. I saw the Secretary of the Life Office who raised his eyebrows and had me struck me off the fire watching rota and, to give him his due, he asked no questions.
It would be boring to dwell upon the time spent copying coded groups of letters onto special log forms but there were instances when the signals were too weak for me to copy accurately owing to our living in a river valley. When I knew I was to intercept one of these, or do a general search, I would go to the Police Station beside the City Hall and ask for the key to the Surgeon's Room.
After signing for it I was able to open a door on one of the top floors in the City Hall and lock myself into a room where one of the latest communications receivers had been installed with an aerial that stretched up to the top of the City Hall tower. One night I cycled down to the City Hall only to find everywhere roped off by the Army carrying out some exercise or other. I tried to sneak through but was stopped by the Officer in charge.
At this point I should mention that I had been issued with a pass only to be shown in an emergency, so I produced it. Later I was told that the coloured band across the front indicated the level of priority it carried and it certainly had an affect on the gentleman who called a Sergeant with instructions to take me to wherever I wanted to go.
As the war progressed and Germany swept through Europe the listening periods became more intense, particularly when Agents were sent to our shores. It is often claimed that none penetrated our country but reading official reports you find that at one time several were landed on the South and South East coasts along with their radio gear.
I think this was when Germany was planning to invade but the agents were poorly trained and inefficient, having been in the main recruited in Belgium and forced to do the work in order to obtain the release of their families from the Gestapo. Some of them were rounded up within a few days and others were "turned" and sent disinformation back to Germany.
Nearer home I later learned that a British ex-army officer had changed his allegiance and was in communication with Germany with a radio in an outside toilet in the garden of his cottage about six miles from Norwich. I do not know if I had intercepted any of his transmissions but he was quickly caught.
Eventually the strain of continual night work and trying to do a job at the NU took its toll on my health, so with reluctance I asked to be released from VI duties. I was advised by my mentors to volunteer for the RAF. I feel that the War Office kept a fatherly eye on me as I had a very comfortable time in the RAF ending up as an interpreter and Instructor with the Free French Air Force.
The thought that they kept an eye on me was reinforced when I was demobilised as within a very short time two gentlemen called at our house and it all started again. I assumed the targets were then Russian along with a number of countries which were still sympathetic to the Nazi cause, but that is another story which went on for about a couple of years.
About a year ago I met the German wife of one of my radio ham friends and was surprised at the speed she could read Morse. In our conversation it transpired that during the war she was doing a similar job of interception in her home country.
When I explained our own system she was amazed at the freedom we had to use our own initiative, and the fact that we had a direct link with our decoders, while she was limited by what she called layers of Nazi officialdom. Her work had to pass through several hands before it reached their equivalent of Bletchley Park for decoding and everyone had to sign and put their rubber stamp on it.
There are not many of us left now but we do have an annual reunion at Bletchley Park and as most of us are radio "hams" we meet up now and again over the air. As it was all so very secret we did not expect any recognition for what we had been doing so I was surprised to receive a citation three years ago and a pass giving me the freedom of Bletchley Park.
If you have not already had the opportunity Bletchley is well worth a visit to get an insight of what went on behind closed doors during the war. There is even a small display of the work done by VIs which I gather is due for enlargement.
Working through the blitz
Written by Doris Page, Northern Assurance 2005
I joined the investment department of The Northern Assurance Co Ltd at No 1 Moorgate in May 1941 as a temporary member of staff I was 16 and received a salary of-32/6d) per week. One of the things I remember was when the air raid siren sounded all the staff oil the fifth floor, where we worked, had to evacuate to the basement carrying the company's books with us.
There were three large ledgers - The Day Book, Journal and Cash Book. Four people staffed the department at that time - Mr Newman (Manager), Miss K C Pattman, Miss H W Wright and myself, Miss D M Page.
Office hours were staggered depending a great deal on how severe the raids were and how much the utility services and transport were disrupted. If there was any damage to the building small repairs were carried out by each department, such as broken windows and any small damage to furnishings, sweeping lip and clearing any debris, so we could carry on the business of the day.
At one particular period of the blitz when we were getting frequent warnings during the day, the top floor staff went straight down to the basement and worked there for the rest of the day - this went on for some weeks.
I got to know a great deal more of the city during this time. Depending on how far the buses could take you (one never used the Underground as I could get off a bus if the warning had gone, and if the bombing became heavy l could take shelter) the rest of your journey you had to walk, stepping over hose pipes and rubble and diverted around areas if not passable to get to your place of work.
I had lived most of my life in East Ham and when war was declared my brother was evacuated with his school to Swindon and he remained there until 1942 when he left school. Mother and I were firewatchers for the Civil Defence, my father became a full time deputy district warden for East Ham and my brother became a messenger for the ARP. We lived all through the blitz, the V1s and the V2s.
Our house was damaged many times, and for a short period we had only the kitchen and our Anderson Shelter to live in. Rationing was tight but we never really went hungry, although there was not a lot of variety to our meals. What food we had needed to be stretched with homegrown vegetables of any kind. All the gardens were converted to home allotments. Neighbours shared any surplus vegetables with those who were elderly or infirm. We looked out for each other and helped where we could. Compassion and comradeship was the key to our morale and sanity.
Wartime at head office
Written by J W (Tim) Cheal of North British & Mercantile 1949
In 1939 when head office, London, evacuated to Newland Park, Chalfont St Giles, I was one of the few left at “61” to hold the fort. From nine till five we worked more or less cheerfully in an atmosphere which, to say the least, was rather dreary.
My colleagues were good scouts all: there was Garden - happy, round faced “Smiler” Garden - with whom it was a pleasure to work; Ernie Salter, never at a loss for a word, with his great wealth of personal experiences; Reg Lawrence, who bubbled with enthusiasm over the simplest job; Mr Taylor, “the boss,” as good a chief as you could ever wish to meet; and I mustn't forget Mrs Draper, charming and helpful always.
Others came and others went, but we went on forever! HO inspectors used us as a permanent camping ground, while the refugees from bombed out Stratford and Mincing Lane offices joined us subsequently. The basement was turned into a city corporation air-raid shelter, and in my capacity as one of the official shelter wardens I occasionally met some rum ‘uns from outside. Our duties were many and varied, and believe me we had plenty to do.
There was the twice daily scramble to get the messenger away to Newland Park at 10am and again at 2pm. He took the mail, cash, and other sundries (business and otherwise). We had requests for all kinds of things, ranging from lighter-flints to water softeners. We, of course, had to attend at the counter.
One incident I often recall: a very dignified gentleman came in and I greeted him with a smile and a jolly “Good morning” unfortunately he stuttered, and it was some moments before he was able to return my greeting. We both persevered pleasantly and then he astonished me by asking for a stamp. Assuming him to be a client of the company, and with our motto “Civility and Service” in mind, I took out my wallet to oblige, which surprised him very much.
Yes, he had mistaken us for the post office next door. This was quite a common error during the war!
On another occasion a soldier strode boldly in with a parcel under his arm, but suddenly sensing something wrong, he took a swift glance round and said in a loud voice, “Blimey, the North British. What a ruddy fool I am!”
I remember ferreting one day in the sub-basement for some documents urgently required by a department at Newland Park. Suddenly the office shook, the basement shook, and oh how I shook! Something had fallen close enough to “61” to be rather unpleasant. Without much dignity I bolted upstairs to be greeted by Garden: “Oh, Tim, you heard us knock, then!”
It wasn't all comedy, however. One morning I arrived at the office prepared for the usual cheery greetings and braced for any of the customary leg pulls, but heard that Lawrence, who often arrived very early, had not turned up. I later learned with deep regret that he had been killed in an air raid the night before.
Like our colleagues at Newland Park we had our transport troubles. After a severe bombing, kiosks appeared in the city where patient transport officials gave advice upon “how to get home from here.” I remember on one of these occasions approaching one and enquiring about transport to Tonbridge. The official looked at me and said, “You've had it, chum.” that meant the line had been jiggered up, so that night I slept on a stretcher in the basement at head office and woke to find that cold breakfast, including cold tea, was on offer. The gas main had been hit!
Skeleton in the office
Written by A R Tingey of Yorkshire Insurance city office 1965
This is the skeleton staff describing a day in his life during the blitz. Just before 9am, I diligently picked my way across dozens of criss-crossing fire hoses, unlocked the front door (except, of course, on the occasions when it had already been conveniently blown open).
I then sweep up the glass and plaster from the main office and make arrangements for the front window to be boarded over – this having been blown out (or, rather, in) during the night. After opening and sorting the mail, and then assume my normal role of accounts clerk -before visiting the bank to pay in money received.
Arriving back at the office, I find a woman waiting on the step. “Good morning young man”, she says severely “if all these brave firemen can be up all night it's a pity if you cannot get here before now. I am a busy woman ...” I am just about to explain that I have been up half the night fire watching when the air raid siren starts wailing. So instead I say: “Would you care to come in and stay until the all clear?” The Yorkshire are nothing if not hospitable.
Distant guns (or bombs?) are heard, and by mutual silent agreement we both disappear under a desk - meeting head-on beneath it. Five minutes later the sirens give the all-clear, and customer and clerk emerge with dignity from the opposite ends of the desk.
Before leaving the office, the good woman turns to the matters of insurance discussed earlier. “Well, Mr Tingey, am I covered?” she asks. Resisting the temptation to say, “Yes covered in dust”, I reassure her on this point, get a clothes brush and set to work - all part of the service.
The telephone rings - it is the manager from the office at Chelmsford. “Hello Tingey, I do wish you would ring and report at the arranged time,” he says, “has anything special happened?”
The warning goes and the guns start-up. There is an almighty crash, and the window at the rear of the office gives way. The telephone goes dead ...
Five minutes later the manager is back on the line. “Don't forget to put the ledgers in the safe every time the siren goes,” he reminds me. “Can't stop now, my lunch is waiting.”
I wonder what he is having to eat. I go to the civic restaurant for fishcakes. The afternoon offers no surprises, but it is 6.30pm before the rear window is boarded up. Then it's home for me. But I mustn't forget my fire watching stint (11pm to 2am). If I'm lucky, I’ll reach the front door before the next air raid warning.
Firebomb raid, night of 29 December 1940 on City of London
Written by Dorothy Haines, Northern Assurance 2005
For six long years of the war my two sisters and I travelled to the City of London by train from Harpenden, Hertfordshire (25 miles) to St Pancras Railway and then by tube to Moorgate.
On the Monday following the raid of Friday night the tube was blocked and we were turned out at Old Street tube station and had to walk to Moorgate.
Mary’s office “Cable & Wireless” near Moorgate tube station had been completely “gutted” and as staff arrived they were ordered to report for duty at a building on Victoria Embankment – so she continued her walk.
Bunny and I continued our journey scrambling over debris and fire fighting equipment as the square mile of the city was still smouldering.
We became very dirty from smoke and fumes and eventually reached the Northern Assurance, No 1 Moorgate, building intact and unscathed. Needless to say no work was done that day except to make endless cups of tea for our brave firemen.
Bunny and I worked in the shorthand typing pool of 35 girls. Some were kept in “Reserved Occupations” and Bunny and I were two of them. The others as they reached a certain age or conscription age (21) were called up and could choose which service they went into – we were rather envious!
One thing that stands out in our memories (and quite remarkable considering food rationing) is the delicious hot lunches we had each day in a little restaurant downstairs in Old Jewry Street (very near No 1). Also on the way to the office each day we walked down Cheapside from Moorgate Station and were able to buy a “Chelsea Bun” from Lyons – a real treat.
Reminiscences from Reading
Written by Jeanne Axton 2005
I joined the branch office of Provident Accident and White Cross Insurance Co, a subsidiary of the Northern Assurance Co at 15 Friar Street, Reading on 11 November 1940. The company’s head office, under the management of Messrs Pinkerton and Watt, was at Kinhaird House, Pall Mall East, London, but due to hostilities some of the departments had been evacuated to Daimler House, 31 London Road, Leicester and the remainder to 45 Welsh Back, Bristol.
This was at a time when all the eligible male staff had been called up for active service. Our local offices had been closed and the business transferred to the branch office which was manned by the branch manager – C H W Ridge, one inspector and a chief clerk, assisted by married ladies with insurance experience, who had previously retired on marriage as was the custom at that time.
There were shortages of everything. Envelopes had to be opened with care so that they could be reused with gummed labels; the typists used the reverse side of salvage paper from old files as carbon copy paper. There were no biro pens then, only pen and ink was used or if you were lucky you had a fountain pen. Conway Stewart was the favourite make and we even had to use the ink sparingly.
All policy records were filed in two sets of binders – one in alphabetical order for reference and the other in renewal date order as the renewal premiums were calculated at the branch manually without the use of calculators which were then unavailable. The renewal notices were then typed and issued by the branch.
Due to petrol rationing many private motorists laid their cars up for the duration claiming a rebate for the unused period of insurance. It seemed we had many more motorcyclists then because we had so many callers asking to change cover to a different machine very frequently when they had to pay a small transfer fee to cover the cost.
We were expected to do fire watching duties once or twice each week and that involved staying in Reading after the office had closed and being prepared, when the sirens sounded, to deal with incendiary bombs that were being dropped by enemy aircraft nightly over parts of Southern England and causing serious damage to towns and cities.
We were responsible for the block of buildings in Friar Street, Station Road and Valpy Street. A nightly rota was drawn up made up of staff from all the offices and business in the block. We had our assembly point in the Education Offices Building opposite the old Southern Railway Station, long since demolished in favour of a hotel.
We had to stay in the basement, which was cold and dreary, but usually managed to make something for supper despite all food being rationed, often somebody produced a few sausages, which was a treat; and we passed the time reading or writing letters. There was a blackout in force so we had to be careful not to show any lights.
We slept in the board room because it was carpeted and more comfortable but because it was not fitted with black out blinds we could not put the lights on. The beds were had wooden camp beds and to keep warm we used a pile of old grey ex-army blankets, very smelly because they were in continual use and never had a chance to be washed.
We were however, issued with our own coarse cotton sleeping bags which were able to keep clean. In the morning we cleared up and went back to our own office where we freshened up and made a breakfast of sorts over the small gas ring using an asbestos mat and then prepared to get on with the day’s work once again.
We never did have to deal with any incendiaries thank goodness because I have my doubts about how effective our efforts would have been other than perhaps raising the alarm in an otherwise unoccupied business block in the town centre. We were, however, bombed in Reading by a stray enemy aircraft. It was on 10 February 1943 and a Wednesday afternoon when most of the shops had closed for half day so fewer people than usual were about.
I can remember going to the Nat West Bank in the market place earlier in the day with our banking and chatting with the elderly lady cashier who said she hoped to get away a little earlier that day because it was not very busy. Sadly she was on her way home in the Market Arcade and was killed by the bomb. It was a surprise raid because we had become used to the sirens sound and then the all clear given.
This time the warning had hardly sounded when the drone of the aircraft was heard and the bombs dropped at the Market Arcade end of Friar Street only yards from our office. Needless to say we all shot under our desks for protection only to merge and find all the windows shattered and dust everywhere, but we were all safe.
The town was in chaos that evening because the peoples’ pantry, a popular café, had a direct hit also Hill’s Pram Shop, St Lawrence’s Church, Bland & Blandy Solicitors office ad others in the Market Arcade as well as Wellsteads in Broad Street and the old manually operated telephone exchange in Minster Street were all badly damaged.
There was a sad loss of life and injury for those unfortunate enough to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. As the war progressed it became necessary to call up some females as well as males and I stated my preference to join the Wrens. The company, however, was so short of staff that they applied for my deferment at six monthly intervals so I never did get to join the Wrens but remained with the company for 40 years until my retirement in 1980.
Written by R A Peyer, Northern Assurance 1944
I have been asked to write something about my voyage to Russia, a place that I never reached, thanks to the German navy and air force. It all began in Iceland in October of 1942. I was on a ship going to Russia by the Northern passage.
Owing to the large convoys which were about to go to Africa to begin the advance which proved to be the defeat of the Nazis there, we were unable to get an escort. In fact the MOD required some ships to go out and decoy the German naval forces into the Arctic so as to allow the huge convoys to Africa to get through without being attacked.
All the crew of the ship I was on volunteered to go to Russia on our own without any escort. We sailed out of a port in Iceland on 30 October in nice weather and for the next two days all went well, apart from the fact there was no sun or stars to be seen, so the captain was unable to check our position.
Later on this proved to be our downfall. On the third day there was a German aircraft but it stayed well out of range of our guns; the next day the same thing happened but otherwise all was quiet. Even after these four days the captain was unable to fix a position owing to the constant cloud. By this time the temperature had fallen a great deal as we were heading mostly northward.
Next day, 5 November, the fun began. The ships ahead of us were attacked by aircraft and U-boats, so we altered course to the north. At noon another plane came in and had a good look at us but stayed out of the effective range of our guns. At 11.30 on a pitch black night, with a heavy snow storm raging, we struck. I was asleep, fully dressed of course, and was thrown out of my bunk on the cabin deck.
At first I thought that a torpedo had struck us, but on asking I found out that we'd stuck a submerged reef. As we did were not sure of the position we did not know for certain where we were. The ship in the meantime was taking water fast. In 10 minutes we had 18 feet in the number-one hold, so the captain decided to abandon ship.
This we did with the loss of one man. It was no easy job to get into the lifeboats, as the sea was very rough and the small boats went up and down about 20 feet with each wave.
Once all were in the boats, we pulled away from the ship in case we were sucked down when she sank, but as the small boats were rowed about they nearly got wrecked by other rocks so in the end we all returned to the side of the ship which seem to be stuck on the top of the rocks. All the boats remained thus overnight, that was until 10 AM as there is only four hours’ daylight in the Arctic this time of year.
As soon as the visibility was good enough to set our sails we set out to get away from the reefs as it was impossible to get ashore owing to the rocks. The party consisted of three lifeboats, but as one was small we soon had to take the men out of it and abandon it. Whilst this was being done a German plane flew over as, circled the ship which was still just above the water, and went away again.
A little while later five planes arrived and began to bomb the remainder the ship and it was a very poor effort too – they missed nearly every time. The main thing was they did not bomb us in the boats or even machine gun us.
We sailed on the course due north up the cost of Spitsbergen as we presumed it to be; this was a correct guess too, as we found out later. The object of our going this way was that the prevailing wind and current ran to the north; if you went south there was only Norway, which meant being taken as prisoners of war.
The captain hoped to find someone on the island and the only towns were in the North, 180 miles away from us. The water was extremely cold, in fact there was quite a lot of floating ice to be seen. The lifeboats froze up, which meant we were forced to suck lumps of ice when we wanted a drink and we were very thirsty with the spray blowing all over us. Of course we were all frozen too; often our clothes froze so stiff that movement was all but impossible.
This continued for six days, at the end of which three had died from a cold and many others gone out of their minds; some had drunk saltwater which in all cases proved to be fatal. The third officer who was in charge, as the captain by now was very ill, decided that at all costs we must get ashore as a cold was too much to bear on the lifeboat.
The main trouble now was that all of us were far too weak to do a thing except sit in the boat: it was almost impossible for us to hoist the sail or to row. Several vain attempts were made to get ashore, and each time owing to reefs we could not get closer than two miles. Then in depression the third officer decided to try to go through the reef.
This we managed by the skin of our teeth and came into calm water in the entrance to fjord. Then the darkness overtook us and we were lost, and owing to the reefs were forced to cut down the sail as none of us had the strength to pull it down.
For many hours the boat floated about. We had lost sight of the other boat and never saw it again. I think all of us must have gone into a state of semi-consciousness as the next thing we knew was that there were some lights in sight, but the cruel part was that none of us could hoist the sail to get there.
By now a strong wind had come up and it was getting very rough indeed. We sent up flares, but all in vain, so we all relapsed once again. The next thing I knew was a shower of water all over me and I saw that the boat was stuck on top of some rocks. The next wave instead of swamping us lifted as right off and dashed us on to what we thought to be another rock, but as we stuck there we felt around with the oars and found solid ground.
All of us jumped out intent on getting some snow to eat as we were all mad for thirst but as soon as our feet touched ground our muscles failed us and we fell into the wash of the waves. Three were drowned as they had not the strength to get up out of the water and very few of us could give any assistance.
I, like the others lay in the snow and ate it for quite a long time. Then I heard a shout. A hut had been sighted, so all of us crawled on hands and knees through the snow towards it, only to find it empty; but it was shelter! All of us fell asleep. When I came to it was daylight. All that were able to move set to and found a little coal and wood.
Soon there was a fire going we began to dry our clothes. The main trouble was to get boots off as our feet had swollen; many had to have their boots cut off.
During the next seven weeks we lived in his hut and 15 more died, leaving nine of us just alive; the only ones out of the nine who were able to do anything were two gunners and myself. All the time we lived in this hut, which was only 10' x 12', we were unable to get a proper wash except in snow, and that was too cold for us.
All the water to drink was snow that had to be melted down and the food was only the lifeboat rations, which are supposed to last for a week, and some flour which we found. This latter I mixed with water and cooked.
Often in the nights our clothes froze stiff and in the morning when the fire was lit it was necessary to thaw them out before any movement was possible. Our supply of firewood ran out so we began to demolish the hut. When we were found, the hut was just a shelter as part was gone for firewood.
On 4 January 1943, a party of Norwegian troops on patrol found us and took us to their camp which was only 15 miles away. Many times I had set out, together with the others who were fit enough, to try to find this camp but we had lacked the strength. The next five months were spent with these Norwegians who did all they could for us and were really fine friends.
I reached my home in the middle of June quite fit again and none the worse for it all. Then in the beginning of December the War office informed me that I had been awarded the British Empire Medal (military division) “for great courage and endurance.”
Proctor propaganda pamphlet
Written by Herbert A Proctor, General Accident, February 1942
We put to sea and almost immediately were set upon by 30 odd stukers but these were quickly dispersed by our accurate flak. Following close on this we had a T/B attack by a few aircraft, probably German, while I was having dinner.
Of course, it was rather inconvenient but despite the total lack of service owing to the desertion of the wardroom by all but myself I made a hearty meal, and nonchalantly helped myself to a liqueur with my coffee. My coolness was remarked upon by the whole ship's company for some considerable time afterwards. I suppose it must be in the blood but I never had a moments fear throughout though they say the attack shook even the most hardened campaigner.
Having done my four hours of high-speed, high efficiency work on the cypher office, where I was allocated from the 20 odd cypher officers to do the most secret messages on account of my complete trustworthiness, I swung myself into my hammock and slept soundly throughout the night.
I say hammock, but lest you get the wrong impression, let me explain I had been previously offered one of the best cabins on the ship but had airily spurned the offer with the words “there's a war on and when I'm at sea I like to rough it". Rather sporty, I have no doubt you will agree.
I was awakened by the roar of guns and throwing my duffle coat I rushed up to the bridge and was greeted by the Admiral with obvious signs of relief. The air was thick with planes, reminded me of the rookery on the way to the church at home and let me tell you it was just as dangerous, bombs falling all around.
By superb seamanship the fleet avoided each and every bomb and I noticed the Commander-in-Chief clutched my cool hand on several occasions as a particularly near stick sent spouts of smoky water right over the bridge.
I thought the time opportune to relate one of my witty stories which I did with remarkable effect and raised the morale of the whole company very noticeably. T’was only a little thing but afterwards the Admiral turned to me and said “My lad” - you always calls me that, “My lad”, he said “well done, t’was only a little thing but then it's the little things that count.” I turned to him laughing and remarked I’d seemed to have heard those words before.
The day passed, a boring monotonous day, almost continuous air attacks with an occasional submarine on the starboard or port bow, as the case may be. I amused myself by identifying the aircraft and counting the bombs from an exposed position.
Having witnessed bombing of all descriptions dive, high-level and the dreaded T/B attack I went below to hear the Italian news. I was gratified to hear that my absence from the rue Alan el Dine had been noticed as they announced that the British Commander-in-Chief and staff had put to sea. I had known for some little time there were Italians in the street and my suspicions were confirmed when I was spat on in my car from aloft while travelling down same the other day - disgusting Axis habit.
For the rest tragedy marred the day and all desire to finish this record has vanished though needless to say my coolness, jaunty air and self-assurance was retained under particularly difficult circumstances until I was piped over the side and boldly strode onto dry land - where I belong.