The Second World War in St Neots
Local historians, Charles Tebbutt and Rosa Young, have published extensive research into St Neots’ history. What follows has largely been gleaned from their work.
With the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939 there was a great demand for men and, for the first time, women in the armed forces – navy, army and Royal Air Force. Local men and women enlisted in the Bedfordshire and Huntingdonshire regiments and were sent for training and then combat in many parts of the world.
The proximity of the Great Northern Railway Line, the coal-fired power station at Little Barford and local airfields at Great Staughton, Kimbolton, Great Gransden, Graveley, Toseland and Tempsford led the local authorities to expect German air raids.
Among the first bodies set up were the Observer Corps and the Air Raid Precautions unit (Dad’s Army). They made preparations to defend the country from invasion. The ARP used to meet in the Court Rooms on New Street (what is now the St Neots Museum).
At Eaton Socon an Invasion Committee was set up in 1941 to organise Civil Defence, fire-fighting and food distribution.
Large concrete blocks called tank traps were placed in readiness beside the road across St Neots Common.
A pill box was build on land in Ware Road overlooking the common.
Large concrete circles were laid on which anti-aircraft guns were placed to shoot down enemy aircraft.
The invasion did not happen so the various local bodies spent a lot of time in training and practice sessions.
The only bombs that fell in the area are thought to have been dropped by a lone German bomber getting rid of excess weight as it flew back home after a raid on the Midlands. High explosives fell in a field to the north of Mill Lane. One lady who lived in a house which backed onto the field reported that she was glad she had just called her cat in before the bombs fell!
Several incendiary bombs were dropped further east in a farmer’ field, now built over with the Longsands estate. No-one was killed or injured. The only damage was to the crops.
The only damage to houses and property was caused by plane crashes. An aircraft attempting to land at Toseland hit a house and crashed. Another crashed at Crosshall.
A fight between a German bomber and a Hurricane resulted in the enemy plane crashing onto electricity lines from the power station in fields in Eaton Socon. A policeman who tried to put out the fire was electrocuted and killed.
A major change in the rural town of St Neots was the number of evacuee children from London and other towns and cities. They were sent by train to country areas, like St Neots early in the war. From the station they were taken to the playing field in Eaton Socon where they lined up to be chosen by local men and women willing to provide them with temporary accommodation.
A second contingent arrived in 1944 because parents were worried about the V1 Flying Bombs (Doodlebugs) which were threatening most large urban areas.
With the enemy attacking and sinking many of the merchant navy ships bringing food to our country from our overseas colonies, rationing was introduced. Families were issued with coupons allowing them small amounts of butter, bread, cheese, milk, meat etc. Petrol was rationed too.
The experience of leaving home for the first time must have been traumatic for the young boys and girls. One news report stated ‘the pathetic sight of these mites … standing with their few possessions in the midst of strangers, bravely trying to keep a stiff upper lip, moved to tears a number of W.V.S. ladies who were looking after them.
The Women’s Volunteer Service was made up of local women who wanted to provide help for any members of the armed forces on home leave and people in need of assistance.
Some of the children settled down to rural life quite well but others returned home, either their parents missed them or they were homesick. The child population changed regularly as more evacuees arrived.
The end of the war in 1945 was celebrated with street parties and fireworks. There were similar celebrations when Japan celebrated.
Many names were added to the local war memorials but not as many as during the First World War.
(Young, R. (1996), 'St Neots Past', Phillimore, pp.118-120)