Crime and Punishment

Recollections of the Second World War in Benfleet

During the second World War, I lived at South Benfleet, an overgrown creekside village in Essex where I was a member of the local scout troop.

The Boy Scout movement today has a very low profile, it even being said that boys are reluctant to go in uniform to troop meetings in fear of ribbing and ragging for being uncool, that’s not to mention the possibility of a dose of “happy slapping”. In my day it was a very strong movement which greatly benefited several generations of youngsters of all social classes. Suffice to say that all my experiences of the Scout movement were positive and served me well through life.

Anyway, our troop was very active and we had a great leader in Stan Fisher the Scoutmaster.  Stan’s wartime role was as an inspector in the Essex Special Constabulary.  Frequently enemy aircraft would jettison their unspent bombs over South East Essex whilst returning from raids on London.  Later in the war it was the V1 flying bombs and the V2 rocket propelled missiles that fell short of their targets.  Part of Stan’s job was to secure these sites and we would help him locate and recover surviving parts for subsequent expert examination.

When the first V2’s arrived, the Government was reluctant to admit their existence because of the feared adverse effect on civilian morale, the official line was that they were exploding gas mains.  They were immediately christened flying gas mains by an all too savvy public.

The first you knew of the flying bomb was the distinctive sound of its tail mounted jet engine. If the engine was heard to stop then it was going to fall in the vicinity. The V2 rockets would pass overhead accompanied by the double bang of a sonic boom.  Those unfortunates in the London target area did not hear the missile coming.  When the first V2’s arrived, the Government was reluctant to admit their existence because of the feared adverse effect on civilian morale, the official line was that they were exploding gas mains.  They were immediately christened flying gas mains by an all too savvy public.

We did other tasks related to the war effort, collecting salvage such as waste paper, metal and rags. An unwarlike activity, but one in which we gained numerous wounds and scratches, was the gathering of rose hips from the wild rose bushes on the Benfleet Downs.  These were centralised nationally to be converted into vitamin rich Rose Hip Syrup, a dietary supplement for children.

One Friday evening meeting we were practicing fieldcraft. Half of the Troop were guarding a flag on top of a hill known as ‘The Warren’.  The remainder were to use cover and camouflage to approach unobserved and seize the flag.  My pal Pete and I decided to use subterfuge – we had a plan. Rushing off to Stan’s nearby house and with the connivance of his two daughters, we attired ourselves as young women and hurried back to ‘The Warren’ so dressed.  Brazenly we walked up the path towards the flag. As we approached we could not understand why everyone was so obviously falling about with laughter. It transpired that although we made passable young women, our manful strides completely destroyed the effect.

Determined to improve upon this performance and perhaps having acquired a transient taste for cross dressing, I subsequently teamed up with another friend, Brian, and we presented ourselves at the Vicarage during a meeting of the Anglican Young People’s Association of which we were both members. After a private and good humoured interview with the Vicar, during which Brian introduced me as his fiancee, we were ushered into the meeting where we fooled no-one but engendered a deal of merriment. What has all this to do with crime and punishment I hear you ask. Have patience dear reader and you will learn.

All this came to the ears of my eldest brother, Maurice. He was at home recuperating having been invalided out of the Royal Navy. He was not going to have any brother of his parade around the village dressed up like some nancy boy! Consequently I was obliged to leave the Scouts and join the Army Cadets.

Now, it came to pass that a quantity of training ammunition was delivered. It comprised a number of the type of cracker you usually find in a Christmas Bon Bon, grouped together so as to make a considerable bang when pulled. A piece of stout string included a loop which passed over the barrel end of the rifle. By pulling on the string, no less than five of these devices would be individually detonated – bang, bang, you’re dead! This led us to chanting in bawdy fashion……

Rule Britannia;
Marmalade and jam,
Five Chinese Crackers up your jumper,
Bang, bang, bang, bang, bang.

That being the more decorous version.

Anyway, a group of us firework starved lads entered the Armoury by way of an unsecured window and helped ourselves to a substantial quantity. For several days it was impossible to open a front door or move a bicycle or enter the front gate without an explosive burst of mock gunfire. Never mind the Germans. The village of Benfleet was under siege from within. Now all this may have been settled internally but for the fact that it was found that two, point 22 calibre rifles had disappeared. It became a police matter.

……the nut who had purloined the rifles panicked and threw them into the pond in Thundersley Glen.

Police Constable Desborough was the law in Benfleet. A big man, he was even bigger and more imposing when wearing his cape and helmet; he patrolled the village on his big police issue bicycle. He knew where to look and who to ask. I was fingered with a number of others and we were duly charged with the theft of a quantity of training pyrotechnics, the property of the War Department. Meanwhile, the nut who had purloined the rifles panicked and threw them into the pond in Thundersley Glen.

We appeared before the magistrates at Southend Juvenile Court. I spoke up and apologised on behalf of all involved. Stan Fisher spoke up for me and said that I would be welcomed back into the Scouts.

Well I was jolly pleased about that, I didn’t really like the Army Cadets, the uniform didn’t fit and the rifle was almost as big as I was. So it all ended happily what with the war coming to an end and we lads having terrific fun sailing the Thames Estuary in the Sea Scouts dories.

The punishment? I almost forgot, the magistrates very sensibly decided to treat the matter as a minor misdemeanour and we were all bound over on our good behaviour.

A small crime? Little punishment? Well, what did you expect?  My name’s Hill, not Dostoievsky!

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