"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
"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
"I would not know about that I am Church of England
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
"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
"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
"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
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
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
That evening Geoffrey spoke to Kenneth. "If Billy
joins the RAF and flies a plane over Germany do you think he will be
"Yes, Geoffrey I do."
"When you are old enough will you join the RAF as
"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
"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:
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
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
"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.
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
"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
"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
"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."
"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."
"Billy will be leaving school very soon and he has no job to go to.
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
"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
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
"How old are they ?" Lily asked without really knowing why she had
"Joyce is a little bit older than Geoffrey and Margaret is a year
"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
"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
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
"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
"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
A German aircraft was caught in a spotlight. Guns fired repeatedly on
"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.
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
"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
"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
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
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
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
"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
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
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.
then put the words out of her mind for the rest of the day.
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.
is mother listening to that song ?" Kenneth said.
have no ideas," Billy replied.
played it again for a second night in her bedroom.
wish she wouldn't, she has woken me up. What time is it ?"
reached for the torch he kept beside his pillow. "Half past two.
I've only just coe in from patrol. What is she doing ?
past two in the morning for goodness sake. Why does she have to listen
to the record now ?"
now knew the words of the song by heart. It was her heart that demanded
she listen to it so many times.
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."
you mean that Henry ?" It sounds very grand."
so grand as you will be when we are married."
feigned a bow. "Lady Lily Wilton, the Countess of Tadwell."
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.
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
played the record one more time then turned out the light and fell
"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
"Are the boys up yet ?"
"Lord Kenneth and Lord Geoffrey are in the
"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."
"Cook asked me if you would like strawberry
or raspberry jam, My Lady ?"
"For the scones when Her Grace comes to tea
"The Duchess of Bedford, yes. Strawberry I
"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
"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
"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,"
"Come on Margaret," Joyce said. "They are
"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
"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
"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
"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.
"Then I hope you will lead everyone in the
"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
"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
"We have heard about the singalong your son
Billy is organising," a customer in Doris ward said.
"My husband and I will be there.
Kingstanding is a two mile walk from where we live but we would not miss
"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
"Yes, Mother, of course."
"I will give you the money if you can get a copy
"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
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
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
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
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
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
"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
"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
"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.
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
"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."
"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."
"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
"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
"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
"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
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
"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."
"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
"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
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
"I wondered why you had used your leave to come all the way here to
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
"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
"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
"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
"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
"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
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
"Your brother who is one of the bosses at Whittaker Ellis, the gas pipe
"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
"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
"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
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
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
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 ?
didn't know my Dad all that well. He died in 1934 when I was still a
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
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 ?
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
Such as ?
I would like to have been a politician.
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.
can see from the recognisance photographs we had at the briefing
there was not a lot of defence, we were not anticipating any
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
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 ?
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
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.
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 ?
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
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
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
Yes Billy and there is something else there which you
may care to see.
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
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
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.
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.
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 ?