Memories Of My Stay At Elveden During WWII
I was a member of the US Army 1092nd Signal Company. On June 1, 1943, we boarded the Queen Mary, which was carrying 23,000 troops, the largest load the ship had ever borne, and headed for the European Theater of Operations. The crossing was quick and crowded and on June 6, 1943 we reached Scotland and tied up at the Firth of Clyde. Upon disembarking, we, as part of the 83rd Service Group, traveled to Boxted, a base near Colchester. Thus was the beginning of our big adventure. It was during this train ride that we first experienced English hospitality. In towns through which we passed, both sides of the track were lined with many people of all ages, saluting us with Victory Sign.
Suddenly reality struck, we had gotten into something big but we felt welcomed! From Boxted we journeyed to Thorpe Abbotts, home of the 100th Bomb Group, where our group was split again, with various elements being sent to diverse locations. Travels of the 1092nd Signal Company ended at Third Bomb Division Headquarters in Elveden where we would be in residence for the next 28 months. For a time after we arrived there were quite a few RAF men and women at the base. I'm not sure but my guess is that they had been performing some of the duties we would assume and were assisting in converting the place to an exclusively American facility.
click here to see the location of the huts on the south lawn.
Makeup of my Outfit
The 1092nd consisted of 100 men whose duties were to provide support for the communications functions of Third Bomb Division Headquarters. We were able to provide operators of radio, teletype and telephone switchboard, as well as special repair and construction of radio and other electronic systems. My duties fell within the last mentioned category. Often, I was in charge of a crew that was assigned to special projects such as investigation of major communication problems in the field. This involved visits to various air bases in our Division. Sometimes we were away from Elveden for weeks at a time. I was charged with possession of a well equipped 2 1/2 ton mobile repair shop which, occasionally served as the crew's 'home away from home'.
Our Company also had special 'Spoofer' duties wherein radio operators would travel about the countryside, transmitting bogus messages in an effort to overload German cryptographers. We possessed two small English vans for this purpose.
Quality of Life at Elveden
Generally, we felt safe, what with the enemy's reduced bombing capability and the distance away from combat activity. Compared to troops in combat situations, we lived in relative luxury. Amenities of the base included cinema, service clubs, fairly comfortable housing, opportunities for social interaction as well as the ability to move about freely to almost anywhere we desired. Sure, there were a few individuals in our little outfit who very much disliked the military but spent most their free time playing cards just to pass the time, they very seldom left the base and didn't bother to become really familiar with the English monetary system. For card playing simplicity, the one pound note was a four dollar bill; the shilling, a quarter (because of size similarity), and so on. What a waste!
My own philosophy was something like, 'I am here and nothing I can do to will alter that fact, so, why not make an effort enjoy it, work at my hobbies and do some travelling in my free time'. I was not very interested in female companionship and my fiancee at home was writing quite often. Several men in our group did develop special relationships with WAC personnel on the base as well as with local English girls. A sizable WAC contingent had come to Elveden shortly after we arrived. Many of them worked in the Signal Section alongside our boys. With over two years of togetherness, what can one expect? After the war, at least a half dozen of our guys married their wartime girlfriends. While there, one married an English lass in Elveden Church and I photographed the wedding.
Personal Impressions of the English People and their Customs
In hindsight, I truly regret not taking the time to become better acquainted with the locals. Generally I found English people to be not nearly so stiff and reserved as I had been led to believe. To some extent, I suppose they had learned to accept the sometimes insensitive and overbearing Americans. In general, my contacts with our distant cousins proved to be rather pleasant. I particularly treasure memories of invitations to share dinner. One of my fondest memories is of the time a family in Thetford generously invited my best friend and me to spend Christmas with them. That was the occasion of my first taste of the traditional brandy soaked Christmas pudding, quite a treat!!
Our initial contact with the natives was in the mess hall where we ate alongside men and women of the RAF. To some of us, they had a curious way of using their tableware, keeping both the knife and the fork in their hands during the meal. After a time, I tried the method and found it to be quite a practical one. Another curiosity, the tea time custom. When driving around the countryside we noticed that road work crews would take a break in midmorning and again in the afternoon, with their teapots hanging over small fires. I would later find this custom to be a personally beneficial and pleasant one. I was sent to an RAF signal school where I spent two weeks learning RAF communication techniques. You guessed it, every day, around 10:00am, 'recess' was declared and we all trouped to the dining hall for tea. This ritual was repeated at mid afternoon. Essentially, we were enjoying five meals per day. I believe studies have shown that personal energy levels are more constant throughout the day if food intake is more frequent rather than simply having three meals per day. Eventually, for some of us, tea became a bigger part of our lives. When we were on an air base there were the little NAAFI tea wagons running round. Even out on the tarmac, we looked forward to their arrival so we could have our tea and cake, for just a few pennies, especially if we had not crawled out of bed early enough to have breakfast in the mess hall.
We had discovered that when on 'detached service', where there was minimal supervision, we could sneak a few extra minutes of precious 'sack time'. Even at Elveden Hall we often had our tea at the Red Cross Aero Club.
Personal Leisure Activities of 1092nd Individuals
Aside from the aforementioned fraternization there were many opportunities to get involved in rewarding pursuits. For those whose priority was athletic sports, there was much to choose from, softball, volleyball, track and such. Competition between Headquarters and the various bomb groups was often intense. I had no interest in sports having had only a bit of basketball in high school and one semester of amateur wrestling at university. Besides that, I had suffered a permanent shoulder injury, playing baseball while still in the States.
I had several hobbies but my primary interest was photography. I had arrived in England with a very inexpensive and unsatisfactory 35mm camera but that problem was soon to be resolved. My closest friend and I uncovered a virtual treasure trove in the used camera market. Readily available at very reasonable prices, were obsolete folding cameras equipped with fast German lenses (Zeiss) and high quality shutters (Compur). In the US, similar lens and shutter combinations could be found only on professional type cameras such as those used by the press. What a find! One feature that put them in the 'obsolete' category was the fact that they required the use of old fashioned glass plates rather than roll film which was rather scarce anyway. We used the readily available glass plates until we could find roll film backs. The film scarcity problem was solved when we devised a way to cut wide 'outdated' aerial film into narrower strips that would fit the cameras. We also fabricated professional type electrical solenoids which provided flash synchronization.
Early on, we had organized a base camera club and the need for darkroom facilities was recognized, even though free film processing was provided by the base Photo Lab. The darkroom problem was solved in a rather unique way. In the wood behind the mess hall, someone had discovered a women's latrine which was no longer being used. After gaining permission, we set about performing a major rehabilitation of the place. The floor plan was most ideal.
There were two large rooms, one at either end of the building, and two rows of stalls in the middle. One room, containing a sink with running water, would be where we mixed our chemicals and processed our film. Printing and enlarging took place in two or three of the stalls which had we adapted for that purpose. The remaining, completely empty, room was made into an exhibition studio, we paneled the walls with packing crate plywood and 'stained' it with a blow torch. I suppose we were a bit overly ambitious because this room never saw significant use.
Another of my 'free time' activities involved the devising and fabrication of various and sundry useful gadgets, as well as modification of existing things. Materials for this activity were easy to come by because my friend had located an aircraft 'junkyard', a place where much crash wreckage was stored. The fuselages had been stripped of useable parts but we found plenty of aluminum, transparent plastic and other items, for use in our little projects. Ironmongers in nearby towns proved to be a great source for good tools. Still another of my passions, reading, especially technical stuff, led me to 'haunt' bookstores in towns and cities. I brought home several volumes that would not have been available in the US.
Upon arrival in England members of our Company were issued very small semiautomatic carbines. These certainly were not combat weapons, for us, a good sign. A few weeks later, after a little target practice, they would be taken from us, never to be seen again.
This event, happily, relieved us of the responsibility of properly caring for them. While in possession of the carbines, a few of us participated in a onetime unauthorized and very foolish act. In a nearby warren, we fired at rabbits from a moving jeep, perhaps pretending to be big game hunters in Africa. Fortunately no one was injured, not even a rabbit.
We occasionally enjoyed special cullinary treats in Hut B24 - late night coffee and fried egg sandwiches is one of my favourite memories. Some had found large coffee pot in Thetford. It was a tapered tin affair - big at the bottom and small at the top - with a long wooden handle sticking out the side. It just fit the top of our single small coke burning stove. We obtained our fresh eggs from our enterprising company mailman who had establised a limited source of supply somewhere in the surrounding countryside - a bit of black market activity there. One resident of our hut was a base cook, hence the source of bread and ground coffee. Our little stove didn't heat the hut very well but it performed this cooking function quite satisfactorily. Another fine resident of B24 was a guy - of Italian extraction - who enjoyed occasionally whipping up a spaghetti supper for a few of his hut mates. He would spend hours making the sauce. Whatever ingredients he could find locally were supplemented by those he had shipped from home.
Occasional game shoots were organized for the officers at Elveden. These events never suffered from a shortage of 'beaters'. On at least one occasion, two of my friends volunteered to provide that function.
As the war progressed in Europe, Germany began sending 'buzz bombs' (V1 missiles) across England. We were not too concerned about our safety if they sounded far enough away. On one particular occasion one of them sounded very close. It was after dark and we were already in our bunks but we immediately ran out of the hut, in our 'skivies', and jumped into the air raid shelter ditch. Due to neglect, the ditch had become a serious briar patch. This was a very humorous but somewhat unpleasant experience. Incidentally, no one qualified for the Purple Heart.
After cessation of hostilities in Europe, activities were organized to keep the troops from becoming too restless while waiting to go home. Also, there was considerable uncertainty relative to the situation in the Pacific. These activities included an enjoyable outing at the beach at Lowestoft. Another was an all day celebration of our 'Fourth of July' complete with ball games and the usual picnic type games such a 'piggyback' and 'three legged races and sack races'.
©2000 Mike Fulkerson
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