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It was three months since William's death. Lily had never felt so much anger in her forty-four years of life.  How dare she ? How dare a friend do such a thing ? It was now a full day since Billy had told her what happened, it would be another day before Jessie came to visit. Another day before Lily could leave the boys in her sister-in-law's care. Another day before Lily could vent her anger. Another day for that anger to boil and increase. How dare a friend do such a thing ?

"Violet McDonald the peacemaker," Lily said with a heavy note of scorn in her voice.

"Dorothy does not know I am here," Violet tried to explain. "When she told me what she had done I thought it was wrong so I just had to come to see you."

"So you do know what Dorothy did ?  She told you ?"


"You didn't see her take my sons to look at the orphanage ?"

"No, I was off duty at the time. I don't think Dorothy planned it to happen the way it did."

"She planned something !" Lily was angry, not angry with Violet McDonald but she was angry. "She said she would take my sons to look at the farm at Princess Alice Orphanage so they could take some ideas from it to use in our garden.  Then, then she asks them if they would like to move and live in the orphanage. She told my sons that living in Princess Alice Orphanage would make things easier for me !  What things ?  That is what I would like to know !"

"She should not have done that,"  Violet said.  "I am sorry for what she did."

"You have nothing to be sorry for, Violet.  It wasn't you who wanted to take my sons away from their mother. My sons are not orphans Violet, they have me."

"Dorothy Albon is a formidable woman," Violet said.

"I am surrounded by formidable women !  My mother in law, my sister in law and now my friend !"

Violet laughed. Lily could not help but laugh herself although she had not intended the words to be a joke. . She was cross with her friend and fully intended to give Dorothy a piece of her mind. It would be unlikely that Dorothy Albon would apologise but Lily did wonder if she had perhaps, just perhaps,  some good intention behind her actions.

"Are you sure Dorothy did not send you round to apologise ?"

"No, of course not."

"Not even to smooth a way forward for her ?"

Violet McDonald smiled.

The following day saw Lily a lot calmer. She was still angry with Dorothy but her anger was now anger with Dorothy for making her angry in the first place.

"Dorothy Albon, I will say this just once. Please do not ever again give me cause to reprimand you.  There are things you are not to talk to my boys about.  Their father is dead but I am not.  I am here to take care of them. They do not need you to find beds for them in Princess Alice orphanage. Dorothy Albon, my sons are not orphans !"

Dorothy made to speak but Lily held up her hand, silenced her and closed the subject. Closed it for ever.

The War had left many women without husbands.  There were wives who had lost their husbands but there were many for whom the shortage of men meant they never would find husbands. Violet McDonald may be lucky and find someone to love her but Dorothy Albon would grow old as a spinster. She may have many children at Princess Alice Orphanage to care for but she would never have children of her own to love.

Lily had loved two men in her life and known their love. She had that love cruelly taken away from her twice but it was more love than Dorothy had ever had or would ever know.  Lily had three fine sons, Dorothy would not even have one.

Sister Sullivan had come to Birmingham for William's funeral and had written to Lily every week since.  She was someone else who fate and the Great War had conspired to deny her the love of a man.

Lily had always loved her sons, the loss of William doubled the love as she had to become both a mother and a father. She would not have the daughter she had longed for but in time there would be granddaughters. Three sons, if each had three children as she and William had that would be nine grandchildren. How many would be girls ? Lily needed just one girl.

"Do you think you would want to be a farmer when you grow up Billy ?"

"I don't think so," Billy replied.

"What would you like to do ?"

"Drive trains like you did Grandpa."

"That was a long time ago Billy. I only drove goods trains pulling trucks of coal, I did not drive The Flying Scotsman or Sir Nigel Gresley's Mallard."

"Perhaps I could fly aeroplanes." The idea of being a pilot suddenly came into his head.

Billy thought about that idea for two days before telling his mother.

"Mother, when I am older I think I would like to fly aeroplanes."

"Do you Billy ?"

"I have been reading all about it in my Boys Own Paper.  I think I would like to join The Royal Flying Corps."

"It is called The Royal Air force these days."

"It's the Royal Flying Corps in Boys Own Paper, that is who Captain Biggles flies with."

"There isn't a Captain Biggles, Billy, it is just a story. What do you want to do when you are a big boy Kenneth ?"

"What did father do before he became ill ?"

"He was a tool maker. He and his father had a small factory that made nails."

"Nails ? That does not sound very exciting."

"Life is seldom exciting Kenneth. What do you want to do Geoffrey."

"I will make nails,"  Geoffrey replied. "Then Billy can drop them on the Germans, he can throw them out of the window in his aeroplane and stick them into the heads of the Germans."

Lily prayed there would never be a war again, the country could not lose another generation of its men, a generation which now included her three sons.

"I have got some news to tell you," Lily said, changing the subject.

Kenneth wondered what his Mother's news was, Geoffrey hoped it was something exciting, Billy doubted it would be exciting.

"I am going to get a bike for myself to ride."

"A bike Mother !  What ever do you want a bike for ?"

"To ride," Kenneth suggested.

"I want a bike as well," Geoffrey said. "Can I have a bike ?  Please ?"

"Mrs Brock," Lily started to explain but was quickly interrupted by Geoffrey.

"Who is Mrs Brock."

"Mrs Brockelhurst," Lily explained, "has said I can do all of the alterations work for the Doris Ward Dress Shop. Each morning I will cycle to the shop and bring home the work. The next day I will take it back and collect more.  Mr Brock is going to pay for the bike."

"You would be better with a car like Uncle George has," Billy said.

Lily smiled.

"Does Mr Brockelhurst have a car ?" Kenneth asked.

"Yes he does."

"Perhaps he could teach you to drive then you could have a car instead of a bike."

"Uncle George has a car,"  Geoffrey said. "I like it when he takes me for rides in it."

George, Jessie and Frank visited 294 Kind Road every Sunday afternoon.  Even though Lily baked her own Jessie always brought a cake for tea.

"Do you remember when we had the Ashford Bakery ?"

"Of course."

"Lewis's is not the same without the bread pudding," George said.

Billy and Frank were good friends even though Frank was older. Each week Billy looked forward to showing his cousin what had been growing in the garden and what more there was since his last visit.

"I am going to open a stall on Hawthorne Road Market," Jessie said one week.  "Every Wednesday and every Saturday I will be there selling pots and pans for people to put in their kitchen."

"She thinks she is going to put Lewis's out of business."

"Don't be silly George."

"But you live on the other side of Birmingham," Lily said, "so how are you going to be able to have a stall here in Kingstanding on Hawthorne Road Market ?"

"George has said I can use the car and he will teach me to drive."

"There you go Mother, if Auntie Jessie can learn to drive so can you."

Saturday afternoon was when Dorothy Albon came to see Lily. Lily always made sure the boys were not around for her time at 294 Kings Road. Lily had never completely forgiven Dorothy but had repaired their friendship.

"A new church is going to be built in Kings Road,"  Dorothy said. "A Methodist Church. I think I will join when it opens.  I do not like the Baptist Church where I go on Sundays, all that pushing people under the water - it is not natural and it is certainly not healthy."

"I would not know about that I am Church of England myself."

Joseph had always taken his family to Madeley's All Saints Parish Church. When she had lived with William's family in Aston she had been an occasional worshipper at Holy Trinity Church. Perhaps she would try this new Methodist chapel when it opened.

Emily Ashford was a god fearing woman who never missed a Sunday service. If, however, God and Mrs Emily Ashford ever came face to face it would be God who would stand in fear. Emily's visits to Kings Road happened every Friday evening. The end of the week was a time of heightened tension as Grandma Ashford's visit approached.

Glad lived half a mile away. Never on the same day each week but always once a week she would walk to see her sister. When he was not at school she would bring Derek with her. Those walks were slow and painful experiences for Derek.

1934 was a good harvest in the gardens both at The Bridge House and at 294 Kings Road. As the season came to an end Billy's visits to Madeley and Joseph coming to Kingstanding changed to once a month.  Lily thought her father was starting to look frail.

In December a headstone was added to William's grave in Birmingham's Witan Cemetery. It was a grand stone for a simple grave but Emily Ashford insisted on nothing less.  She paid every penny for it herself. With the New Year of 1935 Lily took the boys once a week, every week, to visit their father's resting place.

"You are too young, Billy. Far too young."

Billy would hear none of it. "I will give you half of what I earn, you can use the money to help run the house.  Each week I will buy something for Kenneth and for Geoffrey. Only what is then left will I keep for myself.

"You are very young to be doing a paper round," Lily said. "I am not sure it is even legal at your age."

"Mr Stone says I can have a round if you will let me.  In the morning, before school, I will deliver the daily newspapers then in the evening I will take round to the houses The Birmingham Mail."

"Mr Stone is a good man, he has owned the newsagent shop for as long as we have lived here."

"Then say yes Mother. I want to be a paperboy."

Lily was warmly proud of her oldest son. he would grow up to be a great man but she did not want him to grow up too quickly. At the age of ten years he had the right balance of mischief and hard work, of love and understanding.  Billy loved his mother and missed his father.  He would honour his father's memory, since the day of his death Billy had never puffed on a cigarette no matter how many times his friends offered him one.

In  May the headlines on all the newspapers Billy delivered were full of the government's plans to increase the size of The Royal Air Force by three times. Every new aircraft would need a pilot,  when Billy was eighteen years old he could become one of those pilots.

"It just does not make any sense to me," George said.

"What doesn't George ?"

"He is being silly Lily. He thinks the government wants to force motor cars off the road."

"In these hard times the government should be trying to build up our country not squash it down. Typical of socialism !  First of all they introduce a speed limit on the roads then they say all drivers have to pass a test. Now they want to put bits of glass into the middle of the road, they call them cats eyes. How silly. These measures will hit the shops, you mark my words.  It will put up the cost of goods being delivered into Lewis's, that's for certain. What ever next will they think of ?

You won't have to pass a test for your bicycle will you ?" Geoffrey asked.

Around the world money was becoming an increasing issue for many families. Jobs were disappearing and men left without work and the ability to feed their love ones.  Firms were going out of business but at 294 Kings Road these effects were not being felt.  The middle-class ladies of Sutton Coldfield were not cutting back on their spending. Doris Ward Dress Shop was as busy as ever and every day giving Lily lots of sewing alterations to do. Lily had her widows pension, Billy had his paper round and crops were being prepared in the garden for the spring planting.

As the country prepared for the Silver Jubilee of King George V Lily reflected back on her own life and how it had changed since the king's coronation. She was a different person but a happy person. There was not a minute, there was not a second in any day where she did not miss William.  They had not been blessed with their much longed for daughter but their sons were a constant blessing.  Lily hoped that William was able to look down and see Billy's mischief and his kindness, Kenneth's solid approach to life and Geoffrey's childlike naivety. Lily did wonder how much of Geoffrey was an act put on for hers and his brothers benefit.

There were tensions in Europe but nothing like those which gave way to The Great War. Lily did worry that her sons and their generation would have to face all that her generation had but did not think the world could be so foolish again in such a short space of time. Major George Haddock was not so optimistic.

"I lost one leg in The Great War," George said, "if the Germans want trouble again I will give it to them and they they can take the other leg if they damn well want to !"

"And I will fly a plane in The Royal Air Force," Frank said. "I will drop bombs on them."

"So will I," Billy added.

"I will pray," Emily Ashford said, "that it does not come to that."

"Pray hard Mother," Jessie said. "Please pray very hard."

"Kenneth, Geoffrey," Billy said the next day. "Do you want to have some fun ?"

"Oh yes," Geoffrey jumped up and down. "What are we going to do ?"

"Mother still has the pram from when we were babies."

"She keeps it in the shed in the garden," Kenneth said.

"Mr Stone has brought the greengrocers shop next door to his newspaper shop. I have asked him if we can have some of the wooden boxes the cabbages are delivered in and he says we can."

"What for ?"

"We will use the wheels from the pram and the wood for the boxes to make a car."

"Will it have an engine Billy ?" Geoffrey asked.

"Yes, you will be the engine when you push it."

"When are we going to make it ?" Kenneth asked.

"Mother says there is so much sewing work to do she is going to have to go to Doris Ward on Saturday morning. We will not be at school so we will be at home and can make the car for her as a surprise. We can have it finished for when she comes back."

As well as the old pram in the shed there were the tools William had and a small box of nails. As soon as Lily peddled her bike away  the boys set to work.  Boxes were collected from Mr Stone and The Kings Road Motor Company set to work. Mr Rolls and Mr Royce would have been proud of the bothers efforts.

Billy took charge, Kenneth did most of the building work while Geoffrey danced about excitedly.

"We are running out of nails," Kenneth said. "We need to find some money to go out and buy some more."

"I have a better plan," Billy smiled. "We can use some of Mother's sewing pins."

They used all of the pins.

"Do you think Mum will like it ?" Geoffrey asked.

"Let's go and find out.  You sit in the car, Kenneth and I will push you up the road to meet her. She must be on her way home by now."

Lily was indeed impressed with The Kings Road Motor Company's Mark One Vehicle. She was not so impressed when she found the boys had used all of her dressmaking pins.

"It is a miracle Geoffrey has not been stabbed all over," she said smiling. "Look at the pins sticking out."

Lily had just passed her eleventh birthday when Queen Victoria died. When King George, Victoria's grandson died on Monday 20th January 1936 she was forty-six years old. She had been a widow for almost two years.

"There is an Air Training Corps opening in Birmingham," Frank explained to his cousin. "You have to be thirteen years old to join but if you were to lie about your age they would never check up. Shall we join ?"

"Yes," Billy replied, "and of course I will lie about my age."

Junior Air Cadet Haddock and Junior Air Cadet Ashford proudly showed off their new uniforms.  Once a week after school each took a Birmingham Corporation bus into Belmont Row and the city's Air Training Corps Headquarters. Billy was taking his first step towards becoming an RAF Pilot.

Lily, Billy, Kenneth and Geoffrey did not have a telephone in their home at 294 Kings Road. George, Jessie and Frank did have a telephone in their home.

"It's great," Frank explained. "You dial TIM, T-I-M, and the speaking clock tells you the time. "At the third stroke it will be nine thirty-two and fifteen seconds.....pip, pip, pip.  Next time you come to our house I will show you how it works."

"A speaking clock on the telephone,"  Billy replied. "What good is that ?  You can't carry it round with you like a watch."

"No but you can check your watch each morning and see it is set to the right time."

The newspapers Billy delivered spoke of growing tension in Europe, while the word war was seldom used every reader believed it would come no matter what.

"Kaiser Bill may be living in exile in Holland but his evil influence is still there,"  Jessie suggested.

At the end of the year there was only one story in the papers and any thoughts of a war had been pushed aside by the abdication of King Edward VIII. In a letter to Lily Sister Sullivan spoke of her shock and horror that a man who was born to be king could set aside his god-given duty in such a way.

"If a woman, and an American woman of all things, could influence the man to such an extent that he would betray his birthright he could never have been a good king anyway,"  Dorothy Albon said in judgement.

"For once Emily Ashford kept her own counsel but everyone knew her loyalties were not with the king who had brought shame on himself.

Billy did not care who the king was, when the time came he would fight for king and country.

As the date of the coronation in May neared teachers in school talked a lot about the country's new royal family. Geoffrey came home one afternoon and announced, "I think I would like to marry one of the princesses, perhaps Margaret she is the prettiest of the two."

"Don't be so silly Geoffrey,"  Kenneth said.

"Royalty do not marry common people like us.  They marry members of other royal houses.  Our new king married the daughter of the Earl and Countess of  Strathnore. Princess Margaret is not going to marry a council estate boy from Kingstanding."

"So if Mother was a countess, if she had married an Earl instead of Father then I could marry Princess Margaret ?"

"Do not be so silly Geoffrey !"

The door to the kitchen was open. Lily heard her sons talking. Before she want to bed that night she found where she had hidden the ring Lord Henry Wilton had given to her, it had not been out of its box in twenty-five years. The next morning Lily set off early to cycle to Doris Ward. She cycled through Sutton Park and stood at the edge of Powel's Pool. With all her strength she threw the ring and the box out into the lake.  She stood staring at where it hit and sank through the water to the mud at the bottom.

Joseph Bedson knew he was now an old man. It was a long time since he retired.  He began his life as an engine cleaner, was promoted to fireman and eventually became a driver.  Joseph wondered if he could remember how to drive a steam engine. He certainly could not stand up all day in an engine cab and the heat from the fire would be far too much for him.

From train driver Joseph moved to become transport manager and then colliery manager for The Wilton Mine.  Finally Joseph Bedson became de facto head of the entire Wilton business empire.

On Friday 2nd July 1937 a fire caused an explosion in nearby Holditch Colliery where thirty men died. Joseph's heart went out to the families of those men.

In May the following years seventy-nine men lost their lives in a similar mining disaster at Marckham Colliery in Derbyshire.  There could never have been a disaster like that in a mine where Joseph Bedson had been the manager. There could never have been a disaster like that in a mine owned by Lord Henry Wilton.

On Monday 9th May 1938 Joseph Bedson died in his sleep. He was seventy-five years old.

Lily closed up the house at 294 Kings Road and took the boys to the Bridge House in Madeley.

"You can all come and live here,"  Emma said.  "There is plenty of room for everyone if you would like to make The Bridge House your home."

It would be good for the boys to live at The Bridge House.  It would be good for them all if they moved away from Birmingham.  If war came Birmingham would be a target but moving away and back to Madeley would take the boys away from their school and it would take Billy away from his Air Training Corps. Lily would not see Glad, Jessie and Dorothy every week. It was not an easy decision to make. After two weeks at The Bridge House Lily, Billy, Kenneth and Geoffrey returned to their home at 294  Kings Road.

"Look at what the spastic has done to my garden !" Billy exclaimed on their return.

"You shouldn't call Derek as spastic,"  Kenneth reprimanded his older brother.

"Well he is a spastic isn't he ?  The chickens are alright but just look at everything else.  He has obviously watered the weeds, they are doing very well but what has he done to the peas, the beans and the potatoes ?"

"It is not easy for him," Kenneth defended their cousin. "He has those metal rods on the side of his legs."

"Just because he is a spastic does not mean he doesn't have a brain in his head !"

In July gas masks were given to all civilians. Lily, Billy, Kenneth and Geoffrey had theirs. Lily considered the government would not issue gas masks to everyone if war was not certain. The government, surely, would not have spent so much money had it not been convinced the evil gas that was used in The Great War was now to be a weapon turned on civilians.  Perhaps Lily should move the family to Madeley after all.

"Mother I have an idea."

"Another one Billy ?"

"Can we invite Grandma Bedson to come and stay with us for a week ?"

"That would be nice.  I have been thinking about that myself, Billy."

"I can go up on the train and bring her back down. Then we could have a big family picnic. You, me, Kenneth and Geoffrey.  Uncle Bert, Auntie Glad and Derek. Uncle George, Auntie Jessie and Frank. We will have to ask Grandma Ashford I suppose. You could also ask Miss Albon and Miss McDonald. What do you say Mother ?"

"I say that is a lovely idea Billy. Where do you think we should have the picnic ?"

"Sutton Park. How about Powel's Pool."

"Not Powel's Pool Billy," Lily said quickly. "We could go to Longmoor Pool."

"Yes Mother, Longmoor Pool will be prefect."

The weather was not at its kindness for August but the rain held off and Billy's family picnic was a great success."

"We should do this every year Billy, well done you for thinking it up."

"That would be good Uncle George," Billy replied, "but when war comes I may be away in the Royal Air Force."

"You are only thirteen Billy."

"I can lie about my age Uncle, I can lie about my age."

That evening Geoffrey spoke to Kenneth. "If Billy joins the RAF and flies a plane over Germany do you think he will be killed ?"

"Yes, Geoffrey I do."

"When you are old enough will you join the RAF as well ?"

"Yes Geoffrey I will."

"Do you think you will be killed as well ?"

"Yes Geoffrey, I think that may well happen."

"I do not want my brothers to be killed."

Emma still hoped that Lily and the boys may decided to live with her at The Bridge House. When the war came it would be so much safer to live in a village than on the edge of Britain's second largest city. She asked Glad to move in and to bring Derek but her youngest daughter would not leave her fireman husband Bert.

"If you do not want to move back to Madeley and The Bridge House," Emma said, "bring the boys and stay with me for Christmas."

"That would be nice Mother, thank you for the invitation, we would all like that."

"Kenneth, I think you should join the ATC."

"What about my age ?"

"They don't care about your age providing you look old enough. They want boys to join the band, they want drummers. You could do that."

So Junior Air Cadet Ashford - K joined Junior Air Cadet Ashford - W and cousin Junior Air Cadet Haddock - F in Birmingham's Royal Air Force Training Corps.

Belmont Row and the ATC's Birmingham Headquarters were very close to Lewis's Department Store in Bull Street. If war came, when war came, Uncle George and Lewis's would have an important role to play in the defence of the city. The plans were top secret but Major Haddock would be coming out of retirement to assume the rank of Colonel,

As Christmas approached everyone expected it to be the last in a country that was not at war. Next year where would they all be ?  Lily was not looking forward to her birthday. The Bridge House had memories of her childhood and years as a young woman, some she fondly cherished while others she shut out into the darkest corners of her mind. In January 1939 Lily would be forty-nine years old, one more birthday after that and she would be an old lady. 1939 - Billy would reach his fourteenth birthday, Kenneth would be thirteen and little Geoffrey who was not so little any longer would be nine years of age.

Billy watched the headlines of the newspapers he delivered every day. When his paper round was over he returned home and reported everything to his mother and brothers.

At the end of March Britain promised to support Poland if it were invaded by German forces. In April The Womens Royal Naval Service was brought back into action. Later, in June, The Womens Royal Auxiliary Air Force was created.

When The Military Training Act came into force introducing conscription for men aged twenty Billy cursed that he was only fourteen years old.

Nobody took seriously last year's claim by Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain of Peace In Our Time. War was going to happen, everyone knew that.

At the beginning of July The Womens Land Army was reformed and Billy wondered if a lady or two could perhaps come to work in his garden at 294 Kings Road.

Dorothy Albon made a visit to her friend Lily.

"When the war comes," she explained, "every spare piece of ground within Princess Alice Orphanage is to be turned over to food production. The playing fields, the grass in front of the buildings will all be ploughed up to grow food."

"That is very sensible," Lily replied.

"Princess Alice is also going to become a major centre to house evacuee children."

"Surely the government would not evacuate children into a city, into Birmingham."

"Princess Alice Orphanage is not in Birmingham, it is in Sutton Coldfield."

"I do not think that Hitler and his bombers will observe the distinction."

"Sutton Coldfield is on the edge of Birmingham, as is Kingstanding. There is nothing here for the bombers to target."

"I hope you are right Dorothy."

294 Kings Road was only a little more than a mile from Princess Alice Orphanage. Did that mean their home would be safe from the German bombs ?  If it was then why had the corrugated sheets of iron to build an air raid shelter been delivered to every house in the road ?

"If the government has handed out gas masks to everyone then surely we are all in danger."

My Dear Friend Lily

I am so sorry it has been so long since I last wrote to you. We have been so terribly busy here in the hospital as we prepare for war. I can not tell you what we have been doing as that is secret.

I would like to come to Birmingham to see you before the war starts but I fear that may prove to be impossible.

I just want to send you and the boys all my love and best wishes. I think of you all the time.

Your friend and sister,


George Haddock was arriving daily at work early and leaving late. The extra hours were not a part of his duties in the Lewis's Department Store but preparing for a government  initiative which would be announced shortly after was declared. George was still Major George Haddock, retired but the moment hostilities commenced he would become Colonel George Haddock, once again on active service.

At eleven o'clock on the morning of Sunday 3rd September 1939 Neville Chamberlain made his announcement: 

This morning the British Ambassador in Berlin handed the German Government a final Note stating that, unless we heard from them by 11 o'clock that they were prepared at once to withdraw their troops from Poland, a state of war would exist between us.

I have to tell you now that no such undertaking has been received, and that consequently this country is at war with Germany.

Lily was at home working on dress alterations. Billy, Kenneth and Geoffrey had not started back to school after the summer so were all at home and heard the announcement on the radio.

George Haddock immediately assumed the rank of full colonel but it was another five weeks before The Local Defence Volunteer Corp was announced.  Colonel George Haddock would head The Birmingham Division of the Central England Battalion. George had his strategy in place with platoons to open across the city. Billy presented himself to the Kingstanding Platoon with its headquarters in Kings Road Methodist Church.

"I will soon be fifteen," he protested, "and I will kill any invading German as good and dead as any man."

The volunteer who had been delegated to sign up other volunteers looked at Billy and agreed he probably would be a lethal force in the face of the enemy. Private Ashford was duly enrolled.

"My service can only be temporary,"  Billy explained. "As soon as I am old enough I will be flying a bomber over Germany."

"I have no idea how he does it all," Glad said to Lily. "The paper round, LDV and the ATC. On top of that he has the garden and all the food he grows. Then he still has to go to school."

"I do not think that school is a high priority for him," Lily smiled. "Billy has put Kenneth in charge of the chickens and Geoffrey is old enough to work in the garden."

"You are very lucky with your boys Lily."

"I know I am."

"I have decided," Lily continued, "we re going to get a dog. It can be Geoffrey's job to look after it."

"A dog ?"

"Yes Glad. Then if the Germans do come the dog will defend our home."

Colonel Haddock's Local Defence Volunteer Headquarters was in two large sheds erected on the roof of Lewis's Department Store. As well as co-ordinating the many platoons across the city it was the base for the Observer Corps and from where fire watchers constantly scanned the city.

There were no fires. There were no bombs. There were no invading Germans.  Now that war had eventually arrived it was all a bit of an anti climax. The blackouts, the rationing and all the security measures, although nobody objected to them had little point. If this was war then it was a phoney.

The new resident at 294 Kings Road was Black Knight. He was abbreviated to Knight and then to Blackie. He was jet black and a crossbreed from every canine strain known. The bys loved him from day one, even Lily had a soft spot where the animal was concerned. Protect the family from invading Germans ?  Blackie was far too soft for such a mission.

Billy refused to be away from his duties over Christmas so Emma Bedson joined the festivities at 294 Kings Road rather than Lily and the boys travelling to the Bridge House. Although meat was in short supply Billy, Kenneth and Geoffrey's garden provided everyone with full dinner plates.

"I really think I should move in to live with you all," Emily Ashford suggested.

"No Mother !" Jessie was firm. "If you want something to fill your time you can help me on the market."

"I am not sure how much longer you will be able to claim a petrol ration," George said.

"But you get coupons from the army for everything you need."

"That is for my duties as LDV Divisional Commander."

It was a bitterly cold winter but Private Billy Ashford never missed a turn of duty. Four nights a week he patrolled a triangular area formed by Kings Road, Rough Road and Chester Road North. He was there from eight o'clock until relieved at four in the morning. He the slept until it was time for his paper round and then for school.

"This is a little embarrassing Captain."

"I do not see why Colonel, he is my top platoon member."

"You know he is my nephew ?"

"Of course Sir but Private Ashford should become Lance Corporal Ashford."

"You also realise he is under age ?"

"Only in years Sir.  If he were sixteen I would be asking you to allow me to promote him with two stripes and make him a full corporal."

"Many of the evacuees we had at Princess Alice have gone home," Dorothy said. "My sister Ethel in London has taken her two daughters home again."

"I didn't know you had a sister, Dorothy. All the years I have known you and you have never spoken about a sister."

"I have two, one is unmarried like myself and Ethel has two daughters."

"Do you have any brothers ?"

"Yes, two. Charlie has a daughter and twin boys. George has a son. Charlie lives in London but George lives in Sutton Coldfield."

"Sutton Coldfield ! You have never spoken about your family Dorothy.  I thought you were an only child."

"You don't talk about your brothers and sisters very much Lily, only Glad."

"They belong to a life I had in Madeley which is not the life I have here in Birmingham."

Dorothy decided not to say any more. She ran the years through her mind: 1912 to 1940, twenty-eight years. Was it really that long ago ?

Any thoughts of a phoney war were over soon enough. When the government announced on Moday 1st January 1940 that conscription would now include nineteen year olds Billy hoped the age would soon be lowered even further. He would not wait until he was conscripted, he would not wait to be called up, the moment he was old enough he would volunteer to train as a bomber pilot.

By Spring the British Army in France was in full retreat, the country had a new prime minister and fortunes did no look good no matter how much the words of Winston Churchill tried to offer inspiration.

"Jessie My Dear," George began, "I need to tell you something."

"And I need to tell you something as well but you go first."

"I have resigned  from my job at Lewis's. I was on one quarter pay as Colonel commanding the Local Defence Volunteer Division, working full time as the job now demands I will be on a full colonel's salary.  Jessie, my dear, will you support me in this ?"

"Of course I will. Will you support me with something I am considering ?"

"What is that ?"

"I think I should close down the market stall until after the war.  Hardly anyone is buying anything and with the government appealing for unwanted pots and pans to melt down and build Spitfires it is a bit silly for me to be trying to sell new ones."

"That does make sense and we do not need the money you make but what will you do with your time ?"

"I am going to join the WVRS."

"That is first class. Well done you."

"Thank you."

"Now can I talk to you about Billy ?  Our nephew Billy ?"

"What about him ?"

"Our own son, Frank, has his job in the office at the HP Sauce Factory in Aston and we both know well enough he is only working there until he is old enough to volunteer for the RAF."

"Yes Dear."

"Billy will be leaving school very soon and he has no job to go to. He has this notion in his head that he can sign up and lie about his age. He is only fifteen. His platoon captain would like to promote him to be a sergeant but how can a fifteen year old boy be the sergeant in charge of men four times and more his age ?"

"My brother would be very proud of him were he alive."

"That is the point, your brother is not alive.  Billy does not have a father to guide him. As well as being his uncle I am Billy's LDV Colonel, I feel a responsibility and a duty to step in and help guide the boy."

"Best talk anything over with Lily first.  She can be very protective where her boys are concerned."

"Yes, you are wise in what you say."

"Speak to Lily."

"Lily, the man who owns the newsagent shop where Billy has his paper round," George started to explain his idea, "is a member of the same LDV platoon as Billy, the one based at the Methodist Church up the road."

"Mr Stone, yes," Lily said.

"I am going to allow Billy's platoon captain to promote him to corporal. Stone is a private."

"That is a bit awkward," Lily smiled.

George laughed. "With your permission I would like to ask Private Stone to give Corporal Ashford a job when he leaves school in a few weeks."

"Billy would be perfect for something I want to do in the shop, something new," Stone said. "And come to think of it there is something else he could do. Yes, he would be perfect for that and it would make my life a lot easier. Thank you Colonel, thank you for suggesting Billy to me."

On Sunday 23rd June 1940 the BBC Forces Programme began broadcasting Music While You Work. The BBC's board of governors saw music as a way to raise the morale of both the troops and those at home. The moment he left school Billy Ashford was placed in charge of Stone Newsagent's record and sheet music counter. He no longer delivered newspapers but was in charge of all the paper boys and was responsible for putting the papers together for each delivery round. One of Billy's paperboys was fourteen year old Kenneth.

"When you are eleven Geoffrey I will give you a job."  Billy paused for a moment. "When you are eleven Geoffrey I will not be at Stone's any longer, I will be flying a Lancaster Bomber and attacking the enemy but I will see that Mr Stone gives you a job."

This time she would hear no argument, not even from her formidable daughter Jessie Haddock. When the Luftwaffe bombed Birmingham on Friday 9th August Emily Ashford moved out of Aston to live with her grandsons and daughter-in-law at 294 Kings Road, Kingstanding. On Saturday 10th August 1940 two bombs fell on the road where Emily had lived. One was a direct hit on her house.

On Saturday 24th August Hitler left Birmingham alone and turned his attention to London. As Billy each day prepared the newspapers for delivery he read of the terrible bombing raids on the capital.  Those reports made Billy angry, he could not wait to get back at those who were nightly killing families and destroying their homes. The Germans had come close to killing his grandmother, he had been obliged to move out of his bedroom and into the one shared by Kenneth and Geoffrey but at least his grandmother was still alive. She was welcome to his room, he would not be needing it for much longer.

"My sister Ethel has decided to evacuate her girls away from London again," Dorothy Albon explained. "They will be coming to stay at Princess Alice."

"How old are they ?"  Lily asked without really knowing why she had said it.

"Joyce is a little bit older than Geoffrey and Margaret is a year younger."

"They can come and stay here, they do not need to stay at an orphanage. They are not orphans, they can come and be a part of our family."

"But you already have your Mother-in-law staying with you. You don't have room."

"Yes we do. the two girls can have the front room as a bedroom, we do not use it very much."

"Lily, are you sure ?"

"Perfectly sure. Write and tell them. make the arrangements. What did you say their names were ?"

"Joyce and Margaret."

"Joyce and Margaret will come to stay at 294 Kings Road. It will be good to have two little girls about the house."

Arrangements were indeed made, Dorothy would meet her sister and the girls at Birmingham's Snow Hill Station on Friday 13th September. The girls could settle in to their new home then Ethel, their mother, would return to London.

"Girls !"  Geoffrey said. "What do we want girls for ?"

"You will find out when you are older," Billy smiled.

"Do you have a girlfriend Billy ?" Kenneth asked.

"Cousin Frank does but don't you dare tell Auntie Jessie."

"I didn't ask about Frank," Kenneth said, "I asked if you have a girlfriend."

Billy shrugged his shoulders and smiled. "It is something I am working on. Ask me again in  say two weeks time and I may be able to give you a more definite answer."

"They say that Friday The Thirteenth is unlucky corporal."

"Yes, Mr Stone."

"You should address me as Private Stone or just Stone when we are on duty together, Corporal."

"But you are my boss, you are my employer."

"And you are my NCO, my Corporal."

It was a dark night, it was raining lightly and the enemy had returned to attack Birmingham. Nothing was happening in Kingstanding but to the South Corporal Ashford and Private Stone could see the tracer fire as ground troops sought out the enemy bombers. Search lights criss crossed the night sky.

"I just wish I was up there in a Spitfire,"  Billy said. "I would give them hell. I would make Friday the Thirteenth a memorable night for them."

"I thought you were planning to be a bomber pilot not a fighter pilot."

"I am, it is Cousin Frank who wants to join Fighter Command but right now I would give anything to be up there in a Spitfire."

"With that ground fire you would be hit by your own side's guns."

"There would not be any need for those searchlights and guns if I were up there in a Spitfire !"

"Looks like Aston is being hit."

"Mother's friend, Dorothy Albon, is in Birmingham. She is meeting the evacuee girls and their mother at Snow Hill Station. You know, the two who are coming to stay at our house."

"I hope they are alright. It may not be a heavy raid but it is a raid nonetheless."

"I would not fancy any German's chances against Miss Albon," Billy laughed. "She runs the orphanage at Princess Alice. I am glad I do not live there. She wanted us to go there you know.....God look at that."

A German aircraft was caught in a spotlight. Guns fired repeatedly on it.

"Got him !"

"Another of Slap Happy Herman's beautiful aircraft bites the dust."

The sky over Central Birmingham may have been bright with gunfire and spotlights but in Kingstanding the night was dark. That was until two white forms began to descend slowly from the sky. A flash of orange from below one and Private Stone yelled out in pain.

"The bastard, he hit me. He shot me. How the bloody hell did he manage to see us in this dark ?"

"Are you alright ?  Is it bad ?"

"It's not bad, I am alright I think. I have been hit in the shoulder but that is all."

Billy returned fire with his rifle but had nothing but darkness below the parachutes to aim at. There were two more orange flashes, this time Billy could hear the gunfire but the bullets went wide of where he and wounded Private Stone stood. Billy stared and tried to estimate where the parachutes would land. He thought it would probably be where the 'buses turned round in from of Mr Stone's shop.

"You stay here, I will, deal with this Billy ordered."

"Sorry Corporal but I am coming with you."

Billy was right. One German landed and rolled over on the road before standing up. The other actually landed on his feet. As they began to pull themselves free of their parachutes Billy called to them.

"Halt ! Hande hoch !"

It was still raining a fine drizzle, it was dark but Billy's senses heightened and he could see clearly. The German who had landed on his feet fired a pistol and Private Stone was hit for the second time. Billy raised his rifle, fired and the German who instantly fell to the ground. The other raised his hands in surrender. The sound of gunfire brought the platoon captain and five others racing down Kings Road from their headquarters in the Methodist Church. A policeman and an ARP Warden were also soon on the scene.

"Private Stone is injured,"  Billy said. "He needs a medic. The bastard shot him."

"Who shot him ?"

"The German. Not this one, he is my prisoner. The one on the ground. I have killed him."

Billy had not killed the German. Although his wound needed attention he would live to spend the rest of the war with his friend in a prisoner of war camp.  His wound was more serious than Private Stone's. Billy wished he had done a better job.

It was gone midnight when Dorothy, her sister and two nieces arrived at 294 Kings Road.  The siren had sounded but the raid was not close so Lily did not go into the Anderson shelter. Emily Ashford insisted that she, Kenneth and Geoffrey seek safety beneath its corrugated sheets.

"The train was held outside Snow Hill because of a raid," Dorothy explained. "Then the 'bus could not drive into the terminus, some kind of incident with German parachutes so we had to walk."

On Monday 23rd September King George announced in a radio broadcast the creation of The George Cross. Colonel Haddock hoped that Billy may be awarded one of the medals for his bravery. The Birmingham newspapers applauded Billy as a local hero.

"My father's cousin, Thomas Ashford, won The Victoria Cross," Jessie explained. "It is right and proper that Billy be awarded this new medal for his bravery."

"I agree, but at the end of the day he was only doing his duty."

Billy was not awarded The George Cross but Colonel Haddock did agree to his promotion to the rank of sergeant. The Local Defence Volunteers was renamed The Home Guard. With his new responsibilities Billy left the ATC to concentrate all of his efforts protecting Kingstanding from further Germans falling from the sky.

Margaret Robinson was unhappy being away from her mother and father in London.  He father worked on the railway at Nine Elms by day and was a member of his local home guard platoon in the evening. Joyce who found she liked Birmingham and going to school in Kingstanding tried to comfort her sister.

"Remember what Princess Elizabeth said to evacuees when she spoke on the radio."

Billy made sure that he personally patrolled one particular road each night. He never left it to another member of his squad. He always passed a certain house at exactly the same time. A special young lady was always at her bedroom window to wave at him and more recently to blow a kiss.

Jessie threw herself into the WVS and never could be seen out of uniform. She tried to recruit Lily but with six persons to take care of and with more sewing than ever from the Doris Ward Dress Shop she had little time to call her own.  Kenneth had now assumed charge of the garden's cultivation and Geoffrey was responsible for the chickens. It was a busy house.

"Rationing has slowed sales of new dresses," she explained, "but with make do and mend we have many people bringing things in every day for me to sew."

Nobody had been to visit Grandma Bedson at The Bridge House in Madeley for many weeks. Lily felt guilty but the train journey was just not possible. Yes, Lily felt guilty but what could she do ? Twice a week she wrote to her mother. Once a week she wrote to Sister Sullivan.

Frank Haddock tolerated his job in the office of Birmingham's HP Sauce factory. He knew he could not join the RAF to become a fighter pilot just yet but unlike his cousin he showed patience.

Bert never worked lass than a fifteen hour day. Glad spent all her time at home looking after Derek.

Billy from time to time thought about the two German airmen he had taken as his prisoners. He was sorry the one he had shot was not dead. He should have taken better aim.

Private Stone's injuries were only superficial. He was soon back on duty and promoted to the rank of Lance Corporal and back behind the counters of his shop.

Billy started taking his mother a present every Friday when Mr Stone paid him his weekly wage. He would buy her a record from Stone's and a bottle of stout from The King Charles Public House. Billy was under age to buy alcohol but he was, after all, a celebrated local hero so the landlord turned a blind eye. One Friday Billy brought home a record for his mother, Vera Lyn singing A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square.

As Lily listened to the record, as Vera Lynn sang, a shiver ran down her spine.


"Yes Mother."

"You sell printed music for the records at Stones ?"


"Do you have a copy for this song ?"

"Yes Mother, six pence a copy."

"Take six pence from my purse and buy a copy for me."

"This is sheet music, Mother, you do not read music do you ?"

"It's the words I want Billy."

Lily took the record player to her bedroom and played the song over and over and over again before she went to sleep.

The next day as Lily cycled to Doris Ward to collect the make do and mend sewing the song filled her mind. Throughout her busy day it was always there. Billy came home at the end of the morning and handed his mother the sheet music version of A Nightingale Sang In Berkeley Square. Lily stopped sewing the hem on the dress she was working on to read the words.

When two lovers meet in Mayfair, so the legends tell,
Songbirds sing; winter turns to spring.
Every winding street in Mayfair falls beneath the spell.
I know such enchantment can be, ''cause it happened one evening to me:
That certain night, the night we met,
There was magic abroad in the air,
There were angels dining at the Ritz,
And a nightingale sang in Berkeley Square.
I may be right, I may be wrong,
But I'm perfectly willing to swear
That when you turned and smiled at me
A nightingale sang in Berkeley Square.
The moon that lingered over London town,
Poor puzzled moon, he wore a frown.
How could he know we two were so in love?
The whole darn world seemed upside down
The streets of town were paved with stars;
It was such a romantic affair.
And, as we kissed and said 'goodnight',
A nightingale sang in Berkeley Square
When dawn came stealing up all gold and blue
To interrupt our rendezvous,
I still remember how you smiled and said,
"Was that a dream or was it true?"
Our homeward step was just as light
As the tap-dancing feet of Astaire
And, like an echo far away,
A nightingale sang in Berkeley Square
I know ''cause I was there,
That night in Berkeley Square.

She then put the words out of her mind for the rest of the day.

Kenneth spent his day working hard in the garden. Geoffrey cleaned the hen house. Joyce and Margaret helped him. Emily decided it had been too long since the family had eaten bread pudding. She was alarmed to learn that neither Joyce nor Margaret had tasted the delicacy so took a large proportion of the family's sugar ration to make a batch.

"Why is mother listening to that song ?"  Kenneth said.

"I have no ideas," Billy replied.

She played it again for a second night in her bedroom.

"I wish she wouldn't, she has woken me up. What time is it ?"

Billy reached for the torch he kept beside his pillow. "Half past two. I've only just coe in from patrol. What is she doing ?

"Half past two in the morning for goodness sake. Why does she have to listen to the record now ?"

Lily now knew the words of the song by heart. It was her heart that demanded she listen to it so many times.

"Tadwell House, Berkeley Square, London," Henry said. "That will be our town address. The Earl and Countess of Tadwell residing at Madeley when in the country and Berkeley Square when in Town."

"Do you mean that Henry ?" It sounds very grand."

"Not so grand as you will be when we are married."

Henry feigned a bow. "Lady Lily Wilton, the Countess of Tadwell."

Lily had never stopped loving Henry Wilton and she never would. He was her childhood sweetheart so cruelly taken away from her in April 1912, Lily was twenty-two years old. As Henry spoke to her of Berkeley Square her future was before her. The past now gave her a different future. Aged fifty and living in a council house in Birmingham she was a million miles away from that twenty-two year old and Berkeley Square.

Lily had not spoken of Henry Wilton in twenty-eight years but that did not mean she had stopped thinking of him and it did not mean she had stopped loving him. It did not mean she did not love William Ashford and it did not mean she had stopped loving him when he too was untimely taken from her.

Lily played the record one more time then turned out the light and fell asleep.

"Are you awake My Lady ? I have run the bath for you."

"Thank you Sullivan. has His Lordship left ?"

"Yes, My Lady. He said he would be back by twelve."

"Are the boys up yet ?"

"Lord Kenneth and Lord Geoffrey are in the dining room."

"Lord Billy ?"

"He is with his father My Lady."

"Yes, of course he is. I am sorry I am not properly awake yet."

"Of course, My Lady."

Lily smiled.

"Cook asked me if you would like strawberry or raspberry jam, My Lady ?"

"Jam ?"

"For the scones when Her Grace comes to tea later."

"The Duchess of Bedford, yes. Strawberry I think."

"Very good My Lady. Cook made the jam from the strawberries Lord Billy grew in the kitchen garden at Tadwell Hall."

"I think," Lily smiled that we may take tea outside."

"In the garden, certainly My Lady."

"No Sullivan, I think we will go out into the park of Berkeley Square. Ask Cook if she would please pack a picnic and tell Higgs to find two footmen to serve."

"Certainly My Lady."

"Are you awake ?" Emily knocked on the bedroom door. "Kenneth has brought in eggs from the hens.  I am going to do scrambled eggs for everyone. Scrambled eggs on toast."

Lily stirred. She must have fallen asleep. Why hadn't Sullivan woken her ? The bath water would be cold.  She hoped that Sullivan had told Cook to prepare the food for the Duchess's visit as a picnic. Were the footmen ready to put everything into Berkeley Square ?

"Are you alright ?"

Lily was alright so why was her mother-in-law asking ? She would have some breakfast then cycle to Doris Ward, return yesterday's sewing and collect today's made do and mend.

War !  Lily had been born into a country fighting The Boer War. She had loved through The Great War which eventually took her husband away from her. Now war was happening again, not only away in Europe but in the lives of every family and in every home up and down the land. Each war was more terrible than the one before. Where and when would it end ?  If only the clock could be turned back and the terrible mistakes of war removed from history.

There were angels dining at The Ritz and a nightingale sang in Berkeley Square.

Lily was sitting down to eat scrambled eggs on toast in a Birmingham council house for which she paid rent every week. She had never dined at The Ritz. That terrible night in April 1912 tore her life apart.  Had it not then, no doubt, she would have been a regular guest at the Ritz and every other grand restaurant in London.

"Did you capture any Germans on patrol last night Billy ? Geoffrey asked. "Did you shoot anyone ?"

"No, it was a very quiet night."

"How are you feeling this morning Margaret ?" Emily asked. "You are not eating your eggs."

"I'm not feeling very hungry."

"The chickens laid them specially for you," Geoffrey explained.

"Come on Margaret," Joyce said. "They are very nice."

"There are not many girls who can sit down to breakfast and eat scrambled eggs," Emily said. "Our garden takes the edge of rationing so eat up."

"I will try Mrs Ashford."

Angels were dining at The Ritz and a nightingale sang in Berkeley Square.

Did the Ritz serve breakfast ?  Lily wondered what those in its grand dining room were eating right then. If a person had enough money to be able to afford a restaurant meal, providing that restaurant could source the food, rationing did not apply.

"Mr Stone and I are going to orgaise a party,"  Billy began. "This Sunday outside the shop."

Emily looked up from her plate of scrambled eggs on toast.

"Have no fear Grandmother,"  Billy smiled, "it will be after church so the Almighty has given us his permission. There's an old piano in the store room from when he and Mrs Stone used to live in the flat at the shop. We are going to wheel it out on to the pavement and have a singalong.

"I can play the piano," Joyce said. "Dad taught me."

"Wonderful !  You can take a turn tickling the ivories."

"I do not play as good as Dad does," Joyce replied, "but I do not mind having a go."

"Wonderful again !  I do not sing as well as George Formby but I plan to have a go,"  Billy said.

"I like George Formby," Geoffrey said.

"I do not !" Emily was emphatic. "That man is rude and you, Geoffrey, are far too young to listen to anything he sings. I trust, Billy, you do not intend to sing songs from his obscene repertoire !"

"This singalong," Lily cut in, "sounds a nice idea Billy. So you and Mr Stone are going to have the singalong to raise morale ?"

"I do not see morale being raised if you sing any George Formby songs."

"As you wish Grandmother Dear." Billy lied.

"Joyce, you and Margaret are from Lambeth in London ?" Kenneth said.

"We are."

"Then I hope you will lead everyone in the Lambeth Walk."

"If you will dance with me," Joyce smiled.

Emily made to speak again but Billy stopped her. "Doing the Lambeth Walk - Oi !" He punched his hand into the air.

Again Emily made to say something.

"Before you say anything Grandmother It is a well known fact that when the King and Queen hear The Lambeth Walk they are the first to shout Oi."

Were they ?  Lily had no idea what kind of people King George and Queen Elizabeth were.  It was the king's grandfather Lily had known. he as a kind man. She was sure the present king was a kind man but she would never meet him let along know him as a person. She smiled as she remembered King Edward and his passion for bread pudding.

Breakfast over, Emily took charge of the washing up, assisted by Joyce and Margaret. Lily rode her bike to Doris Ward's dress shop. Along the way she smiled and waved to those she saw.

"Good morning Your Ladyship," she could hear them saying.

Would the Countess of Tadwell have ridden a bike ?  Would The Countess of Tadwell taken in make do and mend sewing ?

"Enough !" Lily said aloud. "You are not the Countess of Tadwell. You are not Lily Bedson engaged to Lord Henry Wilton. You are Mrs Lily Ashford widdow of William Ashford. Stop this nonsense."

"We have heard about the singalong your son Billy is organising," a customer in Doris ward said.

"Really ?"

"My husband and I will be there. Kingstanding is a two mile walk from where we live but we would not miss it."

"May I ask how you know about it if you live so far away ?"

"Mrs Ashford, your son is a hero. he captured two Germans. What he does is widely talked about. You must be very proud of him."

"I am," Lily said.

The Birmingham mail sent a reporter to cover Billy's singalomg party. the editor hoped he would be able to syndicate the story to the nationals. It was a good story, a fifteen year old Home Guard sergeant who had captured two enemy fliers now organising a morale boosting party for his neighbours. The reporter estimated five hundred people turned up. Keeping the nation's morale high was an important duty the newspaper industry took seriously, the Birmingham Mail was no exception.

Mrs Stone placed herself in charge of the piano, after all it was her piano, but she did allow Joyce to play when it was time for the Lambeth Walk. Everyone kicked a leg and raised a hand as they shouted "Oi" on the last note.

"I wanted to dance the Lambeth Walk with Joyce," Kenneth said.

"I am sure Mrs Stone would not object to playing it so you can."

"Get her to play it twice."

Any time you're Lambeth way,
Any evening, any day,
You'll find us all
Doing the Lambeth Walk.

Every little Lambeth gal,
With her little Lambeth pal,
You'll find them all
Doing the Lambeth Walk.

Everything's free and easy,
Do as you darn well pleasy,
Why don't you make your way there
Go there, stay there.

Once you get down Lambeth way
Every evening, every day,
You'll find yourself
Doing the Lambeth Walk.oi!


"Billy do you have The Lambeth Walk as a record in Stone's ?"

"Yes, Mother, of course."

"I will give you the money if you can get a copy for me."

"Mother, it will be my gift to you." Providing you stop playing Berkeley Square, Billy thought to himself.

Lily never played that record again.

"There is a strange look in the sky tonight, Sergeant."

"Yes, Mr Stone."

"You should not call me Mr Stone when we are on duty.  You should address me as Private or Stone."

"When I am a real sergeant in the RAF, a flight sergeant then I will use my rank and even my olders and betters can address me by my rank, besides then I will be a Flying Officer, Flight Lieutenant, Squadron Leader or even Wing Commander !  Now I am just Billy who works in your shop."

There was a strange glow in the sky to the South, a bit like a sunset but Mother Nature does not display sunsets so late in the year and there had not been any sun during the day to set.

"What time is it ?"

"Ten past eleven."

"Too late for a sunset even in the height of summer."

"What can it be ?"

"Has to be a raid but it is a long way off and there have been no sirens."

Jerry must have become bored with London, either that or the  capital's defences were proving to be too heavy for him. Slap Happy Herman decided Coventry would make an easier target. That was the glow in the sky on Thursday 14th November 1940. Over the coming days the Luftwaffe hit Birmingham, West Bromwich, Dudley and Tipton in the Midlands. Before the month was out attacks were made on Southampton, Bristol and Plymouth. In December Manchester, Liverpool and Sheffield took their turn in the enemy's plan of evil.

"I come here not as a family member although, yes, Lily a cup of tea would be nice. I am here Sergeant Ashford as your commanding officer."

Billy was confused.

Colonel George Haddock smiled. "I have an early Christmas present for you Billy."

Billy looked at his uncle who did not appear to have anything with him that could be a gift. Colonel Haddock then took an envelope from his pocket and tantalisingly waved it at Billy.

"Their Majesties King George VI and Queen Elizabeth are holding a reception at Buckingham Palace for Home Guard members who have done something special within their duties. Your presence is requested at the big  house to be found at the end of The Mall, Friday next week.  Here is your invitation and here is your travel warrant. Congratulations Billy.

Lily, who was in the kitchen making a pot of tea, heard the conversation through the open door and glowed with pride. Both Kenneth and Geoffrey looked at their older brother with both envy and a great sense of warmth. Joyce and Margaret could not wait to tell everyone at school about their war hero friend in whose house they lived.

"London !" Emily Ashford exclaimed. "There are some bad things in London and I do not mean the German bombings !"

"We come from London," Joyce said.

"You are good girls who come from a good family," Emily explained. "You come from the working district of Lambeth, I mean the sinful things that go on night after night in the West End !"

"I have no idea what you are talking about Grandmother. No idea at all."

"You just mind that you are a good boy while you are in Sodom and Gomorra !"

Billy had no intention of being a good boy and he had every intention of visiting The Windmill Theatre before he used his travel warrant on a train back to Birmingham.

"How old are you son ?" The doorman asked.

"It's Sergeant to you," Billy snapped in reply.

"You are only a Home Guard Sergeant."

"Which is more than you are. Next week I commence pilot raining in the RAF Bomber Command," Billy lied. "Do you know why I am in London ?"

"Do not have a clue."

"I have spent the afternoon at Buckingham Palace where I received a commendation fro the King, got one of those yourself have you doorman ? Now stand aside and let me in."

This was either a very arrogant youth posing as somebody he was not or a young man who must have done something special. If he was the former then surely he would not try to pass himself off not as a Home Guard NCO but something rather grander.

"Do you want to see my commendation I received from the King doorman ? I have it here in my bag."

"That won't be necessary Sergeant, enjoy the show."

When Billy's train finally pulled into Snow Hill Station the early edition of The Birmingham Mail was on sale. FIFTEEN YEAR OLD WAR HERO HONOURED BY THE KING the headline ran.

I am very nearly sixteen, Billy thought. He hoped the doorman at The Windmill Theatre did not get to see the paper.

When Billy got off the number 33 'bus outside Stone's Newsagent Mr Stone rushed out to greet his platoon sergeant and shop employee.  He delayed Billy just long enough for Mrs Stone to spread the word among the eagerly awaiting neighbours enough. As Billy walked home to 294 Kings Road everyone was out in the street applauding him.

"I will cook you some breakfast," Emily said. "A breakfast fit for a hero. Kenneth are there any more eggs in the hen house ?"

Everyone had a question to ask Billy. They burst out in a race to see who get their answer first. However, Kenneth kept his question until he and his older brother were alone.

"At that moment he just said well done Sergeant, your country is proud of you,"

"What was the Queen like ?"

"She was very kind. She asked me where I lived and wanted to know about my family."

"Did you tell her about me ?"Margaret asked.

"Of course I did and I told her you had a sister who could play The Lambeth Walk on the piano."

"Did the King speak clearly or did her stutter and stumble over his words ?"

"He spoke very clearly Grandmother."

"Were the princesses there ?" Geoffrey asked. "If only our father had been an Earl and not someone who made nails I would be able to ask the younger one to marry me."

"Geoffrey you can be so very silly at times."

Emma agreed with Billy. "Did you bow to Their Majesties ?"

"No Grandmother, I saluted."

"Did you ?"

"Yes, and the King returned the salute."

Lily had a hundred questions but would not ask any of them. Her mind was resting in the times when she had known the king's grandfather. She had determined that part of her life was over and she never spoke of it. She tried to block it from her thoughts but occasionally the memories were too powerful.

"Uncle George will want to hear all the news," Emma said. "You have brought credit on his entire command. My grandson the war hero."

"So tell me," Kenneth said later, whispering, "did they actually have no clothes on ?"

"None at all but they hid behind feathers and things. The lights were set to cause shadows so it was hard to see anything very much."

"But did you see, did you see anything ?"

"A little,"  Billy smiled as he teased his brother. "You would have liked it Kenneth."

"Next year, in 1941, when I am fifteen years old, will you take me to The Windmill Theatre in London ?"

"Kenneth, I promise you if I ever go to The Windmill Theatre again I will take you with me."

Heavy bombings at the end of the year saw three hundred killed in Liverpool, three hundred and sixty-three in Manchester and another one thousand, one hundred and eighty three wounded. On Sunday 29th December bombing caused the Second Great Fire of London. The Guildhall was among many buildings badly damaged.

Dear Lily,

This war is so terrible, it is far more terrible than The Great War. That was supposed to be the war to end all wars so why is this happening ?

Our hospital is taking patients from Manchester, we are short of staff so on many days I work double shifts.

Do you think America will join the war ?  I hope they not be as late as they were last time.

Your friend and sister

Sister Sullivan


Dear Sis

I think about you every day. I do envy you your important job.  All I do is to sew dresses for rich ladies.

294 Kings Road is busy but a happy house.  My mother-in-law can be difficult but she does mean well.

In another year Billy will be seventeen years old. There will be no stopping him joining the RAF then. he hand his cousin, Frank - he is older than Billy, plan to sign up as soon as Frank reaches his eighteenth birthday.

I do so hope, I hope so much that this war will be over before Billy is old enough to fight but some how I do not think that will happen. Do you ?

Your friend



Every day as Billy prepared the newspapers for delivery he read with care the reports.

Thursday 13th March - Clydebank bombed. 528 killed. 617 seriously injured. 35,000 made hoemeless.

Saturday 15th March - Plymouth bombed.  363 people lost their lives. 

Tuesday 15th April - Belfast bombed. 900 killed. 1,500 injured.

Tuesday 6th May - Greenoch in Scotland bombed. 280 killed. 1,200 injured

Saturday 10th May - The House of Commons was damaged in a raid.


"They should hang him if you ask me. Dangle him on the end of a rope."

"Hang who Grandmother ?"

"That Hess man, Hitler's deputy. He was never on a peace mission. Do you think Hitler wants peace ?"

Everyone in the country agreed with Emily Ashford's assessment but for what purpose had Rudolf Hess really parachuted into Scotland ?

On Saturday 16th August the papers reported that German spy Josef Jakobs had been executed by a firing squad in The Tower of London. He had broken his ankle when he parachuted into England at the end of January. There were few who did not think Rudolf Hess should also face death.

When America did enter the war there was a general sense of relief but Britain was now fighting on a new front with Japan also as an enemy.

Exactly as they intended, on the date they had planned, Frank and is seventeen year old cousin presented themselves to the Royal Air Force.

Emily was immensely proud of her grandsons. Lilly was worried. Frank was accepted for pilot training but until he was eighteen years old Billy would be trained to work in an operations room. That eased Lily's mind but frustrated Billy. Mr Stone lost a valued employee and The Home Guard lost its war hero sergeant.

"You really should join the WRVS."

"Jessie, with two sons still at home, two semi-adopted daughters, chickens, a dog and my mother-in-law to care for I am doing more than any servant in any house or palace in the land. There is no time in my day for any voluntary service !"

"I do sometimes wonder what it is like to live in a grand house and to have servants.  You would think that as the wife of a colonel I could at the very least have someone to help me with the cleaning."

Lily said nothing.

Dear Mother,

I am here. I am now a member of The Royal Air Force Bomber Command.  All my life I have wanted for this time to come. I will not let you down, I promise you that.  Both father and yourself will be proud of me. Wait and see.

Make sure Kenneth and Geoffrey take care of the garden. Say hello to Joyce and to Margaret for me.  I will write very soon to Grandma Bedson at The Bridge House. I will try to visit her when I am home on leave. Tell Gramdma Ashford I will drop a bomb on Hitler just for her.

Your devoted son


Billy wrote another letter. He wrote to Patricia Anderson of Dyas Road, Kingstanding. When he was on leave as well as going to Madeley he would introduce Miss Anderson to his mother.

Billy did not drop any bombs on anyone. After basic training then signals training his first mission was assisting experienced wireless operators on the night of Saturday 30th May 1942 when one thousand bombers attacked Cologne.

On Sunday 13th September Billy was in charge of ground signals as the RAF attacked Bremen for the one hundredth time.

Billy did meet his grandmother at The Bridge House in Madeley when he was home on leave. He travelled proudly in the uniform of Flight Sergeant, those on the train looking at such a young man with three stripes on his arm. Captain Horton, head of signals at Billy's station, called him Flight Sergeant Midas, everything this talented youngster touched turned to gold.

"Flight Sergeant William Ashford," Emma said. "Just look at you. Turn around so I can see all of your uniform."

Billy did a twirl then made a bow.

"I am a flight sergeant," he said, "but I do not fly. I am ground staff. That will change as soon as I am eighteen years old."

"Will it ?"

"Oh yes !  I will become a pilot officer and train as a bomber pilot. There is only one wing on my uniform at the moment but then I will have two. That will just be the start, flight lieutenant, squadron leader and I plan to be a wing commander by the time I reach my twentieth birthday."

On his eighteenth birthday Billy started to put his plan into action. He was on his way to becoming a wing commander. It was a wing commander who sent for Billy.

"Cigarette Flight Sergeant ?"

"No thank you Sir, I do not smoke."

"Sergeant, Billy, I have some bad news for you. You have failed the medical for pilot training."

"No Sir, that's impossible Sir, there must be some mistake, I am perfectly fit."

"No mistake Flight Sergeant, it's your eyes."

"I don't wear glasses, I can see perfectly well."

"I am afraid the tests show you are just a little bit colour blind so the pilot's seat is not for you."

Billy was devastated.

"You will fly though. You will fly with me in the lead aircraft. I want you as the wireless operator on my wing aircraft."

Billy never did fly with Wing Commander Michael Tebbit. That night his aircraft was shot down and the wing commander taken prisoner of war.

When the news broke in May of 617 Squadron's Operation Chastise in the Ruhr Valley Billy was envious.

"All I get, Kenneth, are rookie pilots to work with, wet behind the ears, pilots whose jobs I could do in my sleep. I am not colour blind, I could fly a Lancaster Bomber if I were given the chance.  Look at me, I am still a flight sergeant."

"When are you going to tell Mother about the lady in Dyass Road ?"

"Probably tomorrow before my leave is up," Billy smiled. "She does need to know now that we have become engaged."

"Billy !"

"And when, Brother Dear, are you going to make your move on Joyce ?"

"I will be eighteen in January and she is only just fifteen."

Billy smiled.

"I will let you tell Mother your news first, I will save what I have to say until later," Kenneth said.

"And what news might that be ?"

"I m not going to risk being a Bevan Boy, I am going to London for my eighteenth birthday in January and will sign up for the RAF while I am there. I thought I would go along to The Windmill Theatre while I am there. perhaps this Ashford Boy can become a pilot."

Kenneth respected his older brother, he loved him dearly but all his life he had been in the shadow of Billy's charisma. That needed to change.

"You don't want to be a carpenter any longer then ?"

"I am not a carpenter, I just screw boxes together. there's no skill in that."

"You realise that Mother's chances of having two sons return from active duty in Bomber Command will be slim."

"I am not going to join  Bomber Command, I want to be part of Fighter Command."

"Are you sure ?"

Kenneth did not answer but changed the subject of their conversation. "Does it worry you when you are up there in the sky ? Do you sometimes think you may not come back ?"

Billy paused as he assembled his thoughts. "When we are flying out to a raid everyone is so fired up with what they have to do there isn't any time. The bigger the raid the better. I have been on several raids and you feel invincible among so many aircraft. It is when we come in to attack the target I feel scared, yes we are all scared at that point."

Kenneth had never considered his brother could be scared of anything.

"Our bomb aimer is useless. He is too good and that makes him useless if you know what I mean."

Kenneth did not.

Billy explained. "Unless we are exactly over the target and at the precise height he wants he has us go round again and again ! Inside I am screaming drop the bastard bombs and get the hell out of here !"

I want to be a fighter pilot," Kenneth said.

"Good luck to you. They are not looking fir many pilots in Fighter Command these days. The war is coming to an end, the bigger fights are with Bomber Command as we flatten the enemy. he does not put up much of a fight back."

"When the bluebirds fly over the White Cliffs of Dover I want to be up there with them."

"Kenneth how poetic !  I did not know you had words like that within you. You would be better flying with me over the dark ruins of Berlin, dropping bombs and sending the cursed place to Hell where it belongs."

Lily took the news her two sons shared with her better than either had expected. There was other news she did mot take well, did not take well at all.

"We are on the telephone," Jessie explained, "of course we are because of George's work but they did not telephone. When the two policemen knocked on the door I thought it was bad news about Frank but they send telegrams don't they ?  I then thought something must have happened to George but I never for a moment thought what it was."

Emily Ashford was dead.

She had decided she would join the Womens Royal Voluntary Service as set off to talk over the idea with her daughter.

"We had tea," Jessie explained. "I told her what she could do and where to go to sign on. She could not join my unit on the other side of town so I told her where the local branch was. She was happy when she left."

"And now she is dead ?" Lily could not believe all she was hearing.

"Stepped in front of a lorry and was killed outright."

"How terrible."

"It was an army lorry so I am sure my mother would claim she was a casualty of war."

"I can not imagine a world without Mrs Emily Ashford in it," Lily said.

"I doubt the world will be able to imagine its future without my mother," Jessie smiled.

Lily was not sure if her sister-in-law was making a joke or being serious.

"I am certain of one thing," Jessie continued, "and that is The Almighty will need to make some changes in Heaven to accommodate her."

Billy was given compassionate leave to attend the funeral as the wider family gathered for a service at Kings Road Methodist Church.

"I remember the first time we met her," Glad said. "When we were billeted with the Ashford Family. That was a long time ago when we became munitions workers."

Emma left The Bridge House in Madeley for the first time in several years to come to Birmingham for the funeral. It was Geoffrey who went up on the train to bring his grandmother to Kingstanding.

Joyce and Margaret's mother, Ethel, came up from London to pay her respects. "I am sorry Fred could not come as well," she explained, "but he is so busy with the railway. Nobody is supposed to know what is happening but we do, of course. I just hope nobody tells Mr Hitler !"

When Ethel returned to London she took Margaret with her. Joyce wished to stay in Birmingham , she wanted to finish school then go back to Lambeth.

With Emily Ashford in her grave, Billy bombing Germany night after night, Kenneth away on his basic training and Margaret in London 294 Kings Road felt empty. Doris Ward's dress shop was as busy as ever. Each morning Lily cycled to collect the work for the day, work which often kept her busy late into the evening. Geoffrey was now left on his own to manage the garden, look after the chickens and care for the old dog. 294 Kings Road was a shadow of its former self. How long before Geoffrey also left home ?  Joyce would be returning to London. Lily would be alone. Alone and spending the rest of her life as a lonely widow lady, a lonely widow lady like her mother at The Bridge House in Madeley.

Billy was engaged, after the war he and Patricia Anderson would be married. In time Kenneth and Geoffrey would find wives and Lily could look forward to being a grandmother. She and William never had the daughter they longed for. It had been nice having Joyce and Margaret  to stay at 294 Kings Road but they were not her daughters nor even, as she had once spoken of them, as semi-adopted daughters. More than forty years ago The Dowager Countess had fashioned affection around Lily as a compensation for not having a daughter or granddaughter of her own. For her there had been no daughters, but there would be granddaughters, Lily would wait in her life for the real thing.

"So basic training was a success ?"

"Yes, I passed out at the top of the squad but I need your advice on something."

"I wondered why you had used your leave to come all the way here to Lincolnshire."

Kenneth had always respected his older brother, now he needed him to tell him what to do. It was not always easy for Kenneth to follow behind Billy and there were many times when he was jealous.  Billy was the charismatic one, the brother for who success came natural.  Kenneth worked hard and methodically through all he did but he could never match Billy. What would Billy do if he were faced with the choice Kenneth now had ?

"They have offered me officer training."

"Go for it Ken, grab hold of it with both hands. You lucky person."

"It is not that easy.  I have signed up for the duration of the war or for two years if longer. To train as an officer I have to make the RAF my career, my life."

"Is that such a bad thing ?"

"That is what I am asking you."

"I am in the RAF for the duration,"  Billy explained. "When the war is over, and it soon will be, I will not be leaving. When this present tour is finished I will receive automatic promotion to Flying Officer  and spend a time training new recruits. I am sticking with the RAF, should make it to Group Captain by the time I am thirty."

"Thirty, Billy, that is a life-time away."

"It is but I will have a secure job for life and good pay. Pat and I will live a happy and prosperous life."

"I am undecided Billy, that is why I need your advice. tell me what to do."

"What is the alternative to officer training ?  Have they given you an alternative ?"

"Kind of but it is all very shady."

"Shady ! That sounds exciting. What do they want you to be ?  A spy ?"

"I don't know. Perhaps. They said I would have to sign The Official Secrets Act before I could be told any more. They did say my posting would be to Buckinghamshire. There are no spies in Buckinghamshire."

"Bletchley Park,"  Billy said softly.

"Yes, that was the name of the place. That's where they said I would be posted."

"Bletchley Park, Bletchley Park, my brother is being sent to Bletchley Park. God Kenneth they do want you to be a spy."

"You are not teasing me are you Billy ?  I can tell by your voice."

"We should not be having this conversation Kenneth even if you are my brother."

"But -"

"By rights I should not know anything about Bletchley Park but I do.  I know that some of the intelligence we get to plan raids comes from there. Sometimes last minute changes are made because of things the Boys at Bletchley have told us. I am not telling you this but Kenneth if you are being offered Bletchley Park I think you should accept it."

Two days later Kenneth reported the the adjutant's office.

"So Ashford, can I put you forward for officer training ?"

"No Sir. I think I would like to take the alternative."

"Good man !" The adjutant stood up and thrust out a hand towards Kenneth. Confused, he accepted it and gave it a nervous shake. "The Group Captain will be delighted. I will take you straight through to him."

"The plan worked Sir. Ashford has said he will go to Bletchley."

"Excellent. We would have let you become a Flying Officer, Ashford, without needing to sign your life away. That was just to nudge you in the right direction. You can still become an officer. Not a Flying Officer, you will go to Bletchley Park with the immediate rank of Flight Lieutenant."

Kenneth did not understand.

"Don't ask me what they do at Bletchley Park, it's far too secret for a humble Group Captain. I was just ordered to send my best recruit. Once you have signed The Cloak And Dagger Act, I mean The Official Secrets Act, no doubt someone will tell you what this is all about."

"Jessie Dear," George began. "They will soon be standing down The Home Guard so I will be retiring. There is no need for us any more, the only invasion now will be The Allies invading Berlin."

"Oh George I am sorry to hear that. I hope all Home Guard members are given a medal."

"I will be on a full colonel's pension so we won't be short of money. I do not need to go back to Lewis's."

"My work with the WRVS is actually getting busier." Jessie explained. "Will you be alright on your own at home when I am not here ?"

"Of course I will, My Dear."

"I should be spending more time with my brother's wife, Lily must be lonely in that empty house. I just have so much happening with the WRVS."

"She isn't alone, she has Geoffrey and that girl from London. You visit her every week."

"I do but I would like to see more of her."

Lily liked her sister-in-law, she liked her a lot and always looked forward to their weekly meetings and times for a gold old fashioned natter. Lily did find 294 Kings Road strange with two sons away, Margaret back in London and Emily Ashford resting in her grave.  Lonely was not a word Lily would have used to describe her situation and her emotions but she did miss the atmosphere so many people living together created.

Make do and mend sewing kept Doris ward and Lily busy. The money apart she wondered what she would do without the work to keep her day occupied. When Joyce left school what would she do for work ? Lily o hoped he would stay in Birmingham and not return to London. 294 Kings Road with just Lily and Geoffrey living there would not be good.

"I am sure my brother could sort a job for her, she is his niece after all."

"Your brother who is one of the bosses at Whittaker Ellis, the gas pipe people ?"

"Yes, I have told you about him haven't I ?"

"Once or twice, several times."

The guard on duty at the gate saluted and called Kenneth Sir. Strange. The guard was an army corporal and at least ten years his senior. Kenneth was a junior RAF volunteer serviceman. The guard picked up a phone and made a call. "Flight Lieutenant Ashford is here to see the Wing Commander."

"Send him up."

"Very good Sir."

"Walk straight along the path Sir." The guard said. " Ignore the huts, the house is about two hundred yards on the left. You can not miss it, the architecture is quite hideous. The Wing Commander's secretary will meet you at the front door. You can't miss her, her architecture is equally as hideous. Here is a temporary pass to get you to the house, you will be given proper papers in due course."

Nobody asked to see Kenneth's temporary pass. There were few people about. He offered it to the fierce looking lady who was waiting for him at the open door of a large, and as the guard had said, hideous looking house.

"If you would care to follow me Flight Lieutenant."

Flight Lieutenant ? Kenneth felt as if he was in a dream.

Lily so often felt as if she was in a dream. Reality could be remote and far away at times.  When the house had been full it was different but now - ?  She hoped that Dorothy's brother would offer Joyce a job so she would stay at 294 Kings Road.

Billy's dream was a nightmare.

On Friday 5th January 1045 Billy's squadron was part of a one thousand bomber raid on the German city of Hamburg. Three aircraft from that squadron were lost. Billy wondered how many of his friends were dead and how many had been captured by the enemy.

On Sunday 7th January there was another one thousand bomber raid on Hamburg.  From that one thousand thirty aircraft were lost, one was from Builly's squadron.

On Monday 8th January 1945 Billy did not fly but had the most troubled nightmare. He dreamed he was being interviewed by a reporter from The Birmingham Mail about the night his aircraft was hit by enemy fire.  His dream went back in time, Billy was delivering newspapers from Stones and read the headline announcing his own death.  He always wrote to his mother on a Friday but did not wait until the end of the week.

Lily received Billy's letter on Wednesday. She eagerly ripped open the envelope then sighed with relief. Her son was still alive.  She too had a nightmare. She dreamed that Billy had never been born. In her dream she had no sons. No Billy, no Kenneth, No Geoffrey, no children at all. She was an elderly lady who had never married who lived a sad and lonely life. She was still living with her parents at The Bridge House. Life had passed her by without offering any of the joys it gave to others. Life had not handed her anything from its store of happiness only sorrow. In her dream there was the usual newspaper on the breakfast table but this was an edition of The Birmingham Mail.  Its lead story told of the death of a Flight Sergeant Billy Ashford. The newspaper was not from January 1945 but decades into thee future.  Lily looked at the date on the paper, she was one hundred and twenty seven years old.

Billy, if I can start by saying thank you for agreeing to speak to us all and for taking part in this interview.

That's fine, it isn't as if I have a lot more to do.

So, Billy, if you were still alive you would be ninety-three years old.

Scary isn't it ?  Sometimes I think it was better to have died young and not to have grown old.

You were Killed on the night of Thursday 8th March 1945, just nine weeks short of VE Day.

Yes, bugger aint it ?

I am right in calling you Billy aren't I ?  Not William ?

Yes. My father was William so I was always called Billy to avoid confusion.

I see. I'd like to ask you about your Dad in a moment but first let's explain to everyone what you did onboard NG-417. That was the number and call sign of your aircraft.

Yes, Lancaster Bomber NG-417 from 189 Squadron crewed by myself and six others.

Your job was wireless operator ?

Yes, I had to keep in contact with base and with other planes on the mission. I was usually kept busy.

Can you tell us how you came to join the Royal Air Force ? Your Dad was an army man wasn't he ?

He was, in his day there was no RAF, just the Royal Flying Corps.

So what made you want to be a flier ?

Boyish thrill I suppose.  It was more exciting than being a soldier.  As soon as I was old enough I went with my cousin Frank and volunteered to join the RAF.  We both wanted to become pilots. My eyesight, so they said, was not strong enough to be a pilot.  Frank was accepted while I had to content myself with the job of a wireless operator.

Just to get the background can you tell us a little about your father, William ?

I didn't know my Dad all that well. He died in 1934 when I was still a young boy. He married my mother in 1923, I was born in 1925. There is a picture of Mother and Dad with myself and my brother Kenneth, my brother Geoffrey had not been born when it was taken.

You can see in both of these pictures that he does not look a well man.

When he was a boy at school he was awarded a silver medallion for five years perfect attendance. No illness, no days off.

Compare these pictures with one of him when he joined the army at the outbreak of the Great War. It's not the same man is it ?

He was discharged with honour from the army in 1915 suffering from Tuberculosis.  This terrible illness started in the wartime trenches and haunted him all his adult life until he died.

My grandfather owned a small manufacturing business, making nails. Dad was a toolmaker in the business.  They were working people but not without money to buy the comforts of life.

My mother came to Birmingham as a munitions worker at the outbreak of war and was billeted with Dad's parents.

I can remember him being ill, my mother having to care for him as well as bringing up three young boys. I did not want the same thing to happen to me so a thought of joining the army never entered my head.

It was The Royal Air Force for me.

Thank you Billy for sharing that. It must have been a very hard tome for your mother. Perhaps you will allow me to ask you more about her in a moment. For now can we go back to NG-417 and 189 Squadron Bomber Command.

What would you like to know ?

Can you tell me about the crew who flew with you.

Of course.    The Skipper was Frank Abbott, Flight Lieutenant Abbott.    Co-pilot and Flight Engineer was Harry Henderson, Flying Officer Henderson.    Jimmy Charlton was our Navigator, he was a Flight Sergeant the sane rank as myself.    Our bomb aimer was Flight Sergeant Jack Rowan    and gunners Pilot Officer Jonny Oberneck    and Flight Sergeant Kevin White.

Skipper Frank, Harry, Jimmy, Jack, Jonny, Kevin and Billy. We were quite a team.

Would you say you were all close friends ?

Oh definitely, yes.  When you face what we did every day you could only work together if you were the best of friends. That's not to say we did not have differences of opinion of course. Jack Rowan, for example, our bombardier, he used to make me so angry. He was too good at his job.  If we were not one hundred percent over target and at the right height he would tell the Skip to go round again.  We would all groan when we heard him say that over the radio, curse and think just drop the bloody things and let's get out of here.

When you dropped your bombs did you ever think about those below and what happened to them ?


That's a short answer Billy, would you care to elaborate ?

You don't have time to think about that. It's fly there safely, drop the load then get the hell home again. They are the enemy, they would do the same to you. Every bomb we drop and every enemy we kill brings victory nearer.

You've slipped into the present tense there Billy as if we are still at war.

I am I guess, still at war I mean. I am twenty years old, I am Flight Sergeant Billy Ashford not nonagenarian Mr William Ashford OAP>

I see.  Well here's a bit of an academic question for you.

The atomic bomb was never dropped on Germany, the war ended before the Americans used the weapon on two cities in Japan. If you and NG-417 had been asked to drop a nuclear bomb on a German city how would you have felt ?

First of all we would not have been asked, we would have been ordered. I doubt any of we seven would have considered it any different to any other mission. NG-417 carried twelve thousand pounds of bombs, many a time we were part of a one thousand bomber raid so we are talking twelve million pounds of explosive. What's the difference ? America dropped two atomic bombs and we bombed Germany night after night, if we had been able to use the atomic bomb then perhaps many lives would have been saved.  How would I have felt ?  No different to the way I felt on each and every raid.  They were the enemy, destroying the enemy brought victory closer.

Is that do you think the way all of the crew of NG-417 and 189 Squadron as a whole felt ?

Certainly, every serving member of Bomber Command would have taken exactly the same view.

The life expectancy of a crew within Bomber Command was not good, of the three services life in the RAF was the most dangerous. How did everyone cope with that ? Were you permanently under stress ? It is difficult for us today, so many decades later, to have any comprehension at all of what life must have been like.

Life is life isn't it ?  You just get on and do what you have to do. We had a job and just did it. I learned how to shut out everything when on a raid, what we did in the hours before the briefing and take off were not taken into the aircraft. In the same way when we landed safely and went off duty we moved into a different vein, we went to the pub and had a good time. Of course when we were in one part of our lives we knew what was in the other but never did we allow the two to mix. That would have been very foolish.

We have spoken about your Father, can we now speak about your Mother ?  I am interested to understand how she felt knowing her son was out over enemy territory night after night risking his life and wondering if he would come back.

My father's family was not rich, neither was it poor. The same could be said for my mother's family. My father had his own business but still made his living by getting his hands dirty every day. My mother came, not from a city as my Dad did, but from a village near to Crew in Staffordshire. Her mother was the village schoolmistress and her father a train driver. To be a train driver at the start of the twentieth century was to occupy a higher and very much respected place in the working community.

My mother came from a large family, she would not have been expected to go out to work, women of her time did not do that although her mother did work as a teacher.  If it had not been for the war in 1914 she probably would never have gone to work. I think her becoming a munitions worker must have shaped her character. She was a very strong woman. When she married my father he was not a well man and she must have known what she was taking on. Three young boys in fairly quick succession, my father's health deteriorating and then his death took a very strong character to have managed life.  When my father died she had to work and I can say neither of my brothers not I ever wanted for anything.

Mother supported me when I joined the RAF, I was a volunteer not a conscript, and was proud of what I was doing. She would have been concerned for my safety, she would have been worried but she would never have shown it.

People living today really do not understand what life was like in the war. The way everyone pulled together, cared for one another and supported everyone. We were one nation. If you did not live through those times you can never really understand the way it was, the way people thought, what they did.  My mother was a very special lady but she was no different from all the other mothers who had sons fighting.

Thank you Billy. It is a bit hard to follow that but I would like to try to learn more of what your role was as the wireless operator on NG-417. Where was your position onboard ?

Skipper and Harry Henderson were at the front, flying the plane. Navigator Jimmy and I sat directly behind them. It was noisy and it was cold. We always flew at night so it was always dark. On the way to the target the cold, the dark and the noise filled the aircraft but once we arrived that all changed.  The flying helmets shut out the noise as our earphones overflowed with operational chat, we stopped noticing the cold and all too often the flak gave the sky its own evil light.  As Skip banked the aircraft to turn for home from my seat I could see the fires below where our bombs had done their work.

My job was one of long periods where inactivity ruled then furious incoming and outgoing messages as we reached the target. I had to keep in contact with the operations room back at RAF Fulbeck, report bombs away and report any casualties we became aware of - too often an aircraft would have brought it.

I would like to come back and talk about that aspect of Bomber Command but before then can we chat about some of the icons of the time.

Icons ?

The Prime Minister, King and Queen, Air Marshall Harris, Vera Lynn.

Oh yes, I see what you mean.  I never met any of them but felt as if I knew them all well.  I doubt victory would have been possible without them.  Mr Churchill, I bet the enemy were more frightened of him than of any bombs we dropped.  What a man, what a leader. Their Majesties, leading the nation from the front, they understood what every one of us was going through in our jobs - amazing people. Bomber Harris, he was the father of every crew member. Vera Lynn, our Forces Sweetheart, we all loved her and played her records.  I had a wind-up gramaphone and all of her songs.

Really ?  Which was your favourite ?

The White Cliffs of Dover, it has to The White Cliffs of Dover. You talk about icons.  Those cliffs, I flew over them many times, were icons representing England and the freedom we were fighting for. There'll Always Be An England, we all loved that song. Wish me Luck As You Wave Me Goodbye, We'll Meet Again. Those songs are always there somewhere in my mind.  Every one of us knew all of he words. I can still remember them.

Billy, can I take you back to your childhood and see what you can remember from then ?

Oh dear !  If you must ?

I am wondering what would have happened, what you would have done with your life, had the events of 8th March 1945 not transpired. I am interested to find what there is within your childhood that shaped you as Flight Sergeant William Ashford and what there is you could have used in a different life.

I believe there is a story your mother used to tell of you making a cart and fastening it together using her dressmaking pins.

Oh, no - not that ! Yes, I remember it, of course I do.

My mother worked doing alterations to garments in a rather posh ladies outfit shop, she was good at sewing and seldom could be seen without some fabric, needle and cotton in her hands.  I collected some old wood and found a set of pram wheels. My brother Kenneth and I then made a cart which we nailed together using Mother's pins.  When it was time for her to come home from work Ken and I put our little brother Geoffrey on the cart then pushed him to the 'bus stop to meet her.

Mother was not impressed with our using all of her dress-making pins and was amazed that Geoffrey had not impaled himself on the sharp pints sticking out everywhere.

I note you call her Mother, not Mum.

Yes, that the relationship we had.  Mother and her three sons. She was incredibly strict but oh so loving and devoted to we boys. There was nothing she would not have done for any of us if she thought it would have made our lives better.

It must have been hard for your mother bringing up three boys on her own.

It was but she would never have admitted it.  My father's older sister, Auntie Jessie, used to help out even though she had children of her own to care for. It was her son, my cousin Frank and best friend, who went with me to volunteer for the RAF. I envied him becoming a pilot - I would so much have liked to do that

As the oldest son were you able to support your mother ?

Oh yes, I tried as much as I could. We all loved her so much, my to brothers and me. I had a paper round and would give Mother some of the money each week. When I was in the RAF I always sent part of my pay home to her.

Your mother wasn't your next of kin though was she ?

Legally she was but on my service record I named my fiancÚ, Patricia. We had to name someone to be informed if we became a casualty or were taken prisoner of war.  I did not want my mother to have to deal with the telegram when it came so I put down Patricia.

Sadly, Billy, for you, the telegram did come.

It did, yes it did.

But had the events of 8th March 1945 not happened what do you think you would have done with your life ?  You were just twenty years old, a flight sergeant and a war hero.

I don't know about the war hero bit !  I think I would have remained in the air force, if they let me of course. My promotion to Flying Office was pending, I was due to take up a position training new recruits.  I would have liked to climb the ranks, who knows how far I could have made it ?  Air Chief Marshall Billy Ashford, I could have taken over from Bomber Harris. Bomber Billy.

But after VJ Day there wasn't anyone left to bomb.

No, shame about that !  I don't mean that seriously.  I was part of a team who dropped bombs on the enemy night after night but to be the one in overall charge of every aircraft dropping every bomb would have been an awesome responsibility.

Would you have wanted to return to civi street ?

That's probably where I would have ended up, there would have been a peace-time job for me in the RAF.  I would have drifted into something to do with radio or telephones but if I had to leave the RAF I think I would have liked to do something completely different.

Such as ?

I would like to have been a politician.

Really ?

A boy I went to school with was elected to parliament. I could have done that.

Which party would you have been an MP for ?

Conservative of course. My mother would have disowned me if I had joined Labour !

Billy, we are drawing towards the end of our chat but have first to discuss what I know is a very hard subject for you. We need to talk about what happened on the night of Wednesday 7th/Thursday 8th March 1945. I know you have agreed to talk about this but, please Billy, if there is anything which you prefer not to discuss I will understand.

No, it will be fine. Honestly it will be.

So can you tell us exactly what the mission was ?

There's irony here, this was not a major or dangerous raid.  The raid target was a series of oil production facilities at Harburg, a district of South Hamburg. We had been there before, this was just a finishing off operation.

The war was all but over, Germany was facing certain defeat, it was just a case of how soon Hitler would surrender.  Cutting off supplies, in this case oil, would bring the end closer.

We were joined by other aircraft from 189 squadron: 44 squadron from RAF Spilsby, 49 squadron from RAF Fulbeck, 61 squadron from RAF Skellingthorpe and 619 squadron from RAF Strubby.

You can see from the recognisance photographs we had at the briefing there was not a lot of defence, we were not anticipating any problems.

The briefing was at sixteen hundred hours then at eighteen fifteen we took off.

Spirits were high, another mission to record in the flight log and another mission before I received my promotion and came off operational duties. I would miss the flying and would have been sorry to no longer be working with my friends but I was proud I was going to become an officer in The Royal Air Force. My father would have been very proud of me and my Mother most certainly was.

The flying time to the target was filled with laughter and joking as one voice after another filled my earphones. Yes, it was cold and dark but we did not care. If I am honest we were a bunch of overgrown schoolboys on an adventure.

We were about seventy miles away from the target when the trouble started. We had passed Bremen and were descending towards the target when guns from the ground opened fire. Immediately an aircraft to our right was hit and exploded.  Skipper called for me to contact RAF Fulbeck but I was already calling to report the loss and the fact that we were under fire.

"Another's been hit," Skipper Abbott called and I began to report that back to base.

My radio stopped working, the aircraft lurched to one side and I could see both of our port engines had been hit.

"Skipper,"  I yelled. He could not reply, he was dead. The flames from the engine lit up the cockpit and I could see that Harry Henderson was injured. He was calling out in pain. There was nobody flying the aircraft.

My seat was directly behind the Skipper with Navigator Jimmy Charlton to my right and behind the co-pilot's seat. The engines to my left were blazing. Jimmy and I tried to climb over to the front of the aircraft in an attempt to push the pilots out of their seats then try to pull us out of the dive. We were both thrown violently forward as one of the engines, I do not know which, exploded. I fell against the cockpit window then instinctively moved to push myself backwards.

We were at a low altitude, we had been descending towards the target, so I knew what Jimmy and I were trying to do was never going to work. It flashed through my mind that I would be a prisoner of war. Then everything went into slow motion, events which took less than a minute extended to at ore than an hour.

For a lot of that time my mind was filled with being a prisoner of war. Where would I be taken ?  How long before Germany surrendered and I could return home ?  How would I be treated ?     Would I be able to escape ?

I thought of Mother receiving the news of my capture. How would she take it ? Would she be able to write to me ?  Would I be able to write to her ?  How long before I saw her and my brothers again ?

But it would not be Mother who received the telegram would it ?  It would be my fiancÚ, Pat Anderson. How would she be able to tell Mother ? Had I given her too heavy a burden naming her as my next of kin ?

Nobody had given the order to bail out. I yelled for the crew to abandon the doomed aircraft but nobody heard me. I had yanked the jack from its socket when I lurched forward to try and take control of the plane so I was not connected to the crew earphones.  My radio was not working and probably the crew communication system was also gone.  Even if anyone did manage to jump out we were far too low for a parachute to open and save the life of its wearer.

The two port engines needed to be shut down, we could still fly on the two starboard but we had no pilot, if I could pull us out of the dive would I be able to limp us all home ?  I had watched the Skipper enough and knew what had to be done. Could I do it ? Skipper was dead and Harry was injured.  The rest of us were alive, could I save us from being prisoners of war ?

You need to understand that all of this was happening in seconds, in so much less time than it has taken here for me to tell it to you.

I wasn't going to be able to turn the crippled aircraft around, we were not going home. The ground was rushing up to meet us, I could not see anything and did not clearly know in which direction I was looking.  I had to land the aircraft but that was going to be impossible. The most experienced and skilled pilot would not have been able to pull us out of the dive we were in. The crash was inevitable and none of us would survive.

The very last thought before we hit the ground, before the end came, was something from my childhood. Every November my father's older sister, Auntie Jessie, would buy three poppies and give them to my brothers and myself to remember our Dad.  You could buy a poppy for a shilling or there was a more expensive one costing half a crown, Auntie Jessie believed The British Legion had not done enough to support Mother so always got the one shilling poppies. As we hit the ground I wondered what kind of poppy she would buy to remember me.

Thank you Billy. That has taken tremendous courage to tell us all that part of your story. Thank you.

That is a kind thing to say but I was only doing my job.  I know that all of our crew, all of us, did not return to RAF Fulbeck. Do you know how many others copped it that night ?

The records show that six aircraft were lost with twenty-five killed and seventeen taken prisoner.

The losses weren't particularly high then.

Billy, ahead of this interview I drove over to RAF Fulbeck to see what remains of your former base.  Some of the buildings still stand, I wonder if you recognise any.


Oh yes !  Those first two are the control room and the other is a hangar. They are still there after all these years ?

Yes Billy and there is something else there which you may care to see.

At the entrance to what was RAF Fulbeck a memorial has been placed to celebrate the lives of the airmen who flew from the base and did not return.

A list which sadly, Billy, includes yourself.

I hope, Billy, that all those young lives will not ever be forgotten. My generation and those who follow will never knew war and for us it is difficult to understand what you lived through.

But our story, your story, is not finished yet. For you it all ended in the early hours of 8th March 1945 but for others it was just beginning.

When Pat received the telegram she raced round to your mother's home. The telegram said you were missing in action, your mother assumed you had been taken a prisoner of war. She immediately began writing letters. Many, many of them and to anyone she could think to contact, demanding to know where you were being held.  Europe was in chaos, communications across Germany were broken so news of what happened that night was very slow to filter through.

Your Mother never gave up hope.

That would be like Mother.

Until today and this interview the full facts have never been told but eventually the loss of your aircraft, NG417, became known and your mother received a letter from Buckingham palace.

Mother did, not Pat ?

Yes, Billy I do not know what became of Pat.

Later it was to your mother that your medals were sent.

They gave me medals ?

Yes, Billy. You mother treasured them until the day she died. They then passed to your brother Kenneth and will remain in your family for ever.

I never knew I had received any medals.

You were taken, Billy, to a place called Becklingen and placed to rest in a Commonwealth War Grave Commission's cemetery. Before she died you mother made the journey to Germany three times to visit you. When she died in 1984 she left instructions that your name was to be inscribed on her own grave as a memorial and sign that she had never forgotten you.


Billy was dead. William was dead. Emily Ashford was dead. Joseph Bedson was dead. The dowager Countess was dead. Lord Henry Wilton, Earl of Tadwell, was dead. Had any of them ever existed or were they nothing more than dreams ?