Peter Poland

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Peter Poland joined the Royal Navy as a Cadet, in January, 1946. As a Lieutenant, he served 2 1/4 years with the Royal Australian Navy returning to England in 1957 married to a 6th generation Australian. In 1968, he commanded the frigate HMS Zest which visited Sydney. Leaving the Royal Navy in 1971 he and his family migrated to Australia where he worked in the retail industry until 1987.

Peter (far right) with (from left) his mother, brother Patrick and father Commodore A L Poland
Peter (far right) with (from left) his mother, brother Patrick and father Commodore A L Poland

[This recollection is an extract, reproduced with permission, from 'As I remember : recollections of World War II by members of the Woollahra History and Heritage Society and the Eastern suburbs division of the Legacy Club of Sydney', published by the Woollahra History and Heritage Society (WHHS) in 1995.]

For someone who was a small boy - 7 to 13 years old - in England at the time, World War II brings back a myriad of memories. When war was declared in September, 1939, my family was on holiday in North Devon, not far from the home of my father's mother who was 82 at the time. Leaving my brother, me and our nanny with her, my parents raced back to Kent and packed up the rented house we lived in near Chatham. They were sure Chatham, being a large naval port would be heavily bombed.

Soon afterwards, my father went off to war - he was an officer in the Royal Navy and had fought in World War Ii. From late 1939 to early 1946, I only saw him for a total of about five months. My mother rented a house for us in the next Devon village to my granny's. Soon both of my granny's came and lived with us there - my father's mother because of her age and my mother's mother because she lived in Portsmouth, another naval port, which the Germans started bombing.

I spent the war years either in North Devon or at  boarding school in Cheltenham, Gloucestershire, apart from a few months in 1943 when I went on school holidays to the Isle of Man. My parents lived there for a year when my Dad was in command of a naval training establishment which had taken over a former holiday camp.

Time during those six years is a bit of a blur but themes and particular events can still be easily recalled.

Boarding school

When  I started  in May, 1940, the school  had been evacuated to a stately home in the Cotswolds but soon  after moved back to Cheltenham. Being near Bristol and Gloucester, we had a lot of air-raid warnings, mostly at night. The school had built bunks  for us boys in the basements amongst the central heating pipes and when the sirens went we all trooped down there from the dormitories carrying our gasmasks.

The only bombs that dropped near the school were incendiaries - we used to race out to the school grounds in the morning to try and find their unburnt tail fins. These and things like chunks of shrapnel and bullet cases were great 'swops'! I was in the sick bay - scarlet fever or measles, I think - on the only occasion when Dad was able to come and see me at school.  I was really proud of him in his uniform. Only later did I learn he had just brought his ship HMS Black Swan, back from Norway where a bomb had gone right through the stem of the ship without exploding but making a large hole in the hull, luckily missing the propeller shafts.

Travelling to and from school

This was done by train, sometimes on my own. The trains were always crowded and usually ran late. I remember sitting in one for hours outside Bristol, delayed because of heavy bombing there. Travelling from Cheltenham to the Isle of Man in 1943 was an adventure. Up to London by train - escorted from Paddington to Euston stations by a favourite uncle - changing trains at Preston, Lancashire at 9 pm - finding oneself alone in a deserted part of the blacked out station - panicking about missing the train and the steamer - at last a porter - a night in a hotel at Fleetwood - to sea the next day - violently sea-sick crossing the Irish Sea - hope to die - home with Mum and Dad and brother Patrick at  last.

The wireless

I do not remember listening at school - too busy doing preps, I suppose, but it was a regular feature at home. We always listened to the news, sometimes good, sometimes bad. Then there were the King's Christmas speeches, Mr Churchill, laughing about Lord Haw­ Haw's latest lies and the wonderful variety programmes, particularly Tommy Handley's ITMA (It's That Man Again) with "Zis is Funf (the spy) speaking"; Colonel Chinstrap, "I don't mind if I do" and Mrs Mop "Can I do you now Sir?" and signing off with TTFN (Ta Ta for now). At least we could laugh.

The campaigns

'Five inches of Bath water' to save fuel; 'Dig for Victory' - most autumns, I collected conkers (horse chestnuts) for pig food and once spent a weekend from school picking up potatoes on a farm - never again! 'Warships Weeks' and 'Wings for Victory' - the National Savings Campaigns and the posters of the horrid swastika covered 'SQUANDER BUG'. 'Careless talk costs lives - be like Dad, keep Mum'. The face on the wall (Chads) with the words below 'Wot - no bananas?' And the salvage drives. They would make today's recycling look pathetic. Everything was salvageable - paper, clothes, old tyres, saucepans, you name it, it could be used. My mother, who was the area head of the Women's Voluntary Service (WVS) ran a salvage shop where people brought things. I used to help sometimes when on school holiday and I remember her debating whether a pair of really beautiful, and probably valuable, bound books should be sent off for pulping.

Rationing and the precious coupon books

I do not remember ever going hungry but some foods like butter almost disappeared. Sweets and chocolate became a great treat. Fortunately, we had a large garden and grew lots of vegetables and fruit and the hedgerows were full of wild blackberries. Mum made lots of jam. One time she ran out of jam jars so I volunteered to find some. She was horrified to learn, after she had filled them, that I had taken them off the graves in the churchyard. My Mum was too resourceful to throw them out so we still enjoyed that jam! How she coped with two growing boys and with clothes rationing, I have no idea. We got into real trouble if we lost or tore anything.

German aeroplane

Near our home in North Devon was a RAF aerodrome used by Beauforts attacking German ships and submarines in the Western Approaches . One night we heard this plane circling and circling. German aeroplanes had a different engine noise and this noise was not a usual one. We all wondered when the siren would go or the bombs start dropping but nothing happened and the noise eventually died away. We learned later that there had been a heavy raid on Cardiff, Wales and this plane had lost its bearings. On his return flight, thinking he had crossed the English Channel rather than the Bristol Channel, the pilot landed on what he thought was an airfield in France and was surprised to find his plane surrounded by armed RAF airmen.

The Isle of Man

It was like a holiday from the war except that all the seaside boarding houses and hotels were surrounded by high barbed wire fences and full of German and Italian internees. We used to walk by to get a glimpse of these 'enemies'. One glorious sunny day, I bicycled around the Manx TT motor-bike route with some other boys. We imagined we were roaring down the hills. Fortunately there were hardly any vehicles on the roads because of petrol rationing.

Food and other parcels

One day, we got a food parcel from Australia. Amongst the welcome tins was a large one marked 'Custard Powder' (Yuk!). Because Mum felt the war and rationing would last a long time she had created a hoard of tinned and other foods for 'a rainy day' - the custard powder joined them. After rationing ended, she needed some custard powder so she opened the tin to find that it was full of dripping which had been like gold during the war!
Another parcel full of thick, blue, woolly socks, gloves and scarves knitted by a group of naval wives in Adelaide arrived. When Dad saw them he said, "Oh dear, what am I going to do with them, I'm off the Mediterranean". I think he sent them to one of his friends serving in the North Atlantic.

The American invasion

Suddenly there were American soldiers everywhere - the North Devon beaches were ideal for invasion practice. All the kids in the village greeted every GI they met with "Got any gum, chum?" On Sundays in Cheltenham, we collected what was to us a fortune by cycling round to all the public 'phone boxes and pressing the refund button B - the Americans telephoning their girlfriends  did not bother to collect if their call was not answered.

Planes, tanks and guns

Most of us boys became expert at identifying planes, tanks or guns but sometimes we were baffled. Playing sport at school one day an aeroplane flashed overhead making an incredible noise. We stopped playing and stared,  one boy  calling out, "Its got no propeller!" Little did we realise we were witnessing aviation history - Frank Whittle developed the jet engine at the nearby Gloster Aircraft Factory and this was one of its early flights.

News from Dad

Letters arrived spasmodically but to great excitement. Mostly they were funny little photo-reduced Airgraphs addressed from 'At Sea· or 'In the Desert' - Dad was in Tobruk all during the 1941 siege in charge of the ships running in supplies and reinforcements . Because of censorship, he could tell us very little of what he was doing and it was only much later that I learnt the full  extent of the action he saw. On his way to Suez via South Africa, he sent us a parcel from Mombasa with, of all things, fresh limes in it. By the time it reached England, the over-ripe limes had obliterated most of the address so the parcel travelled the land before reaching the right place. The contents were mostly useless.

My proudest moment of the War

One day I was promoted from the Village ARP (Air Raid Precautions) Messenger Boy to First Stirrup Pumper when they found, during a practice, that I could pump water higher than anyone else. What they did when I was away at school, I do not know.

I was fortunate. Britain was not invaded. I was not bombed or evacuated nor was anyone close to me killed or injured. Because both my parents had no siblings, the only member of our immediate family who was in real danger was my father and because the Navy was his 'job', it probably had less impact on us than others. When I learnt later of the horrors that some had to endure, I realised how lucky I had been. Even so, I still feel a surge of pride when I hear recordings of Winston Churchill's speech which ends with the words "this was their finest hour". In my small way I was there.

Peter Poland, a WHHS member, joined the Royal Navy as a Cadet, in January, 1946. As a Lieutenant, he served 2 1/4 years with the Royal Australian Navy returning to England in 1957 married to a 6th generation Australian. In 1968, he commanded the frigate HMS Zest which visited Sydney. Leaving the Royal Navy in 1971 he and his family migrated to Australia where he worked in the retail industry until 1987.

i Read more about Peter's father here:  Albert Lawrence Poland - My father's World War 1