Untold history of St Albans during WWII revealed in new book

Sylvia Hurcomb's father Charles Coombs.

Sylvia Hurcomb's father Charles Coombs. - Credit: Sylvia Hurcomb

A St Albans author has taken a look back at her childhood growing up during the Second World War for her second book.

Sylvia Hurcomb penned Memories of the 1940s and 50s in tribute to her dad Charles Coombes, using recollections of those times seen through her eyes. It conveys the horrors, the community and the humour of those days and the years that followed.

"I used my time during lockdown to put my recollections to paper for the benefit of future generations, and reveal some of the untold history of St Albans during the war years.

"My father lived history – evacuated from France in 1940, returning to that coastline four years later in the Normandy landings and finishing the war in Arnhem, Holland.

"This is a tribute to my dad, who came back, and to those who did not make it."

After leaving school, Sybil worked for 10 years as a shorthand typist and secretary, before raising a family. After her eldest child died, she published a book of poetry to learn to live with grief and help others. Subsequently, she has had several history articles published in magazines.

Memories of the 1940s and '50s by Sylvia Hurcomb.

Memories of the 1940s and '50s by Sylvia Hurcomb. - Credit: Matador

Sybil recounted some of the stories featured in the book: "Dad sent mum a telegram to tell her he had been rescued from France [May 1940] and was safe. When he was back in an army base on the 26th May he wrote her a hand-written letter but with no English coinage he had to post it without a stamp. The post office had the cheek to charge mum double because it had been unstamped. 

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"Sometimes at weekends or on school holidays, mum and her friends would round up the children for a walk to get some chips. We all knew what they meant, and we had a lovely time playing in Verulamium Park, where we fed the ducks and swans and paddled in the lake.

"All the mums meanwhile were filling their shopping bags with the wood chips left behind after a woodsman had pruned a damaged tree or two. These scraps of wood were a necessity to all of us to help keep the home fires burning. 

"We also had to take care of our shoes because our excellent shoe factories had to be part of the war effort, making more army boots than shoes for civilians. When you had walked a hole in the sole of your everyday shoes, they had to be repaired with new soles stuck on; or maybe you needed new heels nailed on.

"We were pleased to have a man who repaired shoes living opposite us with his family, so mum was able to pay him, maybe in cash or maybe in jars of jam. He was a bit too old for the army but his 21-year-old son had been called up. After a few months abroad, he was shot in the neck by a German bullet. Fortunately, he survived and was discharged from the army. 

"We had good basic lessons in reading, writing and arithmetic. Our organised exercise was country dancing in the playground to music from a wind-up gramophone.

"Sometimes we would be part-way through a lesson when the siren started to wail, so we had to pick up our gas masks and all walk to the central lobby of the building - everyone in every class - and all sit on the floor. The teachers had to make sure that each of us could be accounted for. We just hoped the building would not be hit. 

"I had just had my ninth birthday near the end of 1944 and can clearly remember what a bad winter it was, in England and across Europe, with cold winds and heavy snowfalls. When we came out of school each afternoon, we would see lots of young men dressed in grey uniforms, clearing the snow from the paths and roads.

"They showed great deference to us as we passed them, moving out of our way quietly. We could not understand them when they spoke to each other. Of course, they were German prisoners-of-war and I think they were pleased that for them the war was already over."

Memories of the 1940s and 50s is published by Matador on November 28, priced £8.99.


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