There’ll always be an England - How Colchester supported WW2

Updated: 3 days ago

By Steve Shaw


VE-Day (Victory in Europe) was a very significant day during World War 2 (WW2), marking the end of the war in Europe. VE-Day in 1945 was followed by a public holiday. It is such an important day in British history that we felt that we had to commemorate it. VE-Day was celebrated in various ways in Colchester, including at the garrison, and in the surrounding villages and military airbases. In local neighbourhoods, street parties were held where communities came together.


The Blitz was a sustained German aerial attack, sending waves of bombs raining down onto British towns and cities from September 1940 until May 1941. When air raid sirens sounded, civilians would often be forced to sleep in shelters, either in underground stations running throughout the city or Anderson shelters built at the bottom of gardens in case a public shelter could not be reached in time.


75 years on from that poignant wartime period, we find ourselves amidst a few different war stretching across Europe and other continents. There’s no enemy fire. There’s no bombs. There’s no landmines. We are in a different precarious situation as a deadly virus has claimed the lives of young and old across the country. Whilst Britons today do not have to hide in bunkers or reside in darkness during the evenings, our current government have imposed their own restrictions against the war of an infectious disease. The simple instruction of staying at home has been applied in a state of lockdown. Whilst Colchester has shut its doors and mass gatherings have been prohibited, our Mayor, Nick Cope, has encouraged residents to celebrate at distance in our front gardens and to share memories online. He states in his touching video message “The momentous collective struggle which turned ordinary life upside-down during the Second World War resonates with the unprecedented situation we find ourselves living through today”.


As we face our own time of uncertainty in the modern era, what can we learn about the residents and communities during WW2 some 75 to 80 years ago? How did the people and the places of Colchester support those airmen, soldiers and seamen fighting on the frontline during WW2?


The first thought that springs into your mind would probably be protection from enemy attack. What if the Germans occupied the town of Colchester? How would the town stop them? In 1940, after the evacuations from Dunkirk, an invasion of Britain seemed inevitable. Essex, with its relatively flat, open countryside was seen as particularly vulnerable to an armoured thrust from the coast towards London. After Germany had occupied French territory, a threat to South East Britain was a strong certainty. The British government were particularly concerned about the German tanks. In the path of a German Army driving west from a seaborne landing on the Harwich, Clacton and Jaywick beaches lay Colchester, through which all routes inland passed.


As a result the town was heavily fortified by a 9.5 mile ring of defences, with over 120 pillboxes, anti-tank barriers, gun emplacements and road blocks. This was known locally as the Colchester Stop Line as part of the Eastern Command Line that stretched mouth of the River Colne off East Mersea to King’s Lynn. These field defence structures were constructed by local construction companies under the instruction of the government.


The effectiveness of the `Stop Lines' was never tested. They do, however, survive as testimony to the largest engineering task ever undertaken by the Home Forces. The river alongside the bridge was heavily silted up with a broad sandbank across much of its width, thus providing an easy crossing point for enemy tanks. To prevent this, the defence planners contrived an ingenious solution, the remains of which can be seen in front of you. Back from the river bank, in firm ground, they placed a row of heavy, concrete blocks, each set into the ground with a large footing. Each block weighs several tons. While at the wet stage, two steel cables were embedded in the concrete, one at chest height and the other at knee height. The cables were tightened to present a continuous concrete and steel anti-tank barrier along the river bank.

Pillboxes are reinforced concrete forts from which troops could defend important areas, such as the seashore, anti-aircraft and searchlight positions and potential landing points for airborne troops. In town centres, they were sometimes designed to resemble kiosks, unobtrusively guarding road junctions. Others stood at railway junctions. There were six basic designs, but within that, a wide variety of shapes and sizes, depending on local conditions and what they were protecting. Reinforced concrete was the normal material, though others used whatever was to hand – even scrap metal. A WW2 pillbox in Colchester was the unlikely place where the immortal Second World War song, ‘There’ll always be an England’ was written by Ross Parker, co-author of ‘We’ll Meet Again’, in 1940, while stationed at Roman Way Camp. The camp was so noisy he retreated to the pillbox for quietness while composing his song.

Aside the blockades, barriers and pillboxes, air raid shelters also were evident in Colchester during the Second World War. The Castle's Roman foundation vaults were requisitioned as an air raid shelter and Eric (EJ) Rudsdale became responsible for superintending the shelter and for undertaking firewatch duty at the Castle, in addition to his curatorial duties and his work for the Essex War Agricultural Committee from 1941. Eric (EJ) Rudsdale’s Journals of Wartime is the significant local account of a museum curator, air raid warden and “War Ag” inspector in Colchester during WW2.

The Northeast Postern gate (also known as Duncan’s Gate) is one of the gates through the Roman walls surrounding Colchester and lies halfway down the hill from the Castle to the River Colne, which was a fortified defence line during the war. The gate has been sealed since before the war by metal railings and this corner is sealed off from the public areas of the Park. There certainly was an underground bunker and it even seemed to have an escape tunnel, but the answer came from EJ Rudsdale himself. Before the war, the gateway had been the subject of an extensive archaeological excavation, with the excavations being photographed at the time. Rudsdale had been passionate to ensure they were preserved for display. Of particular note was a Roman drain, with a precisely constructed brick arch roof. Rudsdale helped ensure that in 1929 a viewing chamber was constructed in order to display the remains, and tours were organised to explain the findings. This was a concrete rectangle, centred along the drain, which can be seen leaving one end of the chamber. Rusdale is rather candid about the secrecy in his May 23 1944 journal entry, “Called to see Poulter [Curator of Hollytrees Museum in Castle Park]. He told me that there had been an amusing set-to about the 'secret' place at the North-Eastern Postern [also known as Duncan’s Gate]. Duncan Clark [a member of the Museum Committee] had brought up the matter of repairs to the Roman Gate fabric and Poulter told him that nothing could be done there owing to the existence of the 'secret chamber'. . . . . Apparently the real purpose of the place is as a store of explosives, to be used by 'saboteurs' Colchester has been occupied by the Germans. The Army were going to leave some picked men behind to do this work. The fact that each subsequent explosion would result in the summary execution of several of the inhabitants of the town would worry no one (except the persons executed)”.

During the current COVID-19 pandemic, we see via news sources how British firms are stepping up to the National Health Service (NHS) in the provision of specially designed ventilators, Personal Protective Equipment etc whilst universities, pharmaceutical companies and the like collaborate together to find a cure. Similarly, local companies were also supporting the frontline in their own special way during the WW2 some 75 to 80 years ago.


New Braiswick Park in Tufnell Way is the former home of Woods of Colchester (now known as Flakt Woods), one of Colchester's most prestigious employers, and one of the world's greatest makers of fans. Woods had expanded its workforce to nearly 1,000, including many women operating as a munitions factory during WW2. Woods supplied large quantities of equipment for ships and also wireless and transmitting sets as well as ventilation for tanks.


E.N. Mason and Sons Ltd. developed from a small photographic printing business in Colchester. Ernest Nathan Mason worked at Paxmans in Colchester as a draughtsman and works photographer. While there he developed a method of making photographic blueprints from engineering drawings. Ernest Nathan Mason appears in Kelly's Directory of Essex for 1904 as a draughtsman at the family home, 2 Winsley Road in Colchester. As he continued to be employed by Paxmans the business was run by his wife Bertha Betsey Mason and in directories of 1910 and 1912 it is listed at 1 Queen Street under her name. After Ernest Mason died Mrs Mason and her two oldest sons Conrad (killed in action in 1917) and Bernard went into business in partnership. They were possibly the first company to develop an early form of the modern photocopier, operated by a hand crank. As the business grew it supplied not only printing, but also paper and office supplies for local firms, eventually supplying goods and services for draughtsmen, as well as stationery and office equipment. In 1921 the firm opened the Arclight Works in Maidenburgh Street (the present Museum Resource Centre in Ryegate Road having been part of the works). In 1938 Arclight Works moved to Cowdray Avenue.

During the WW2 Mason's produced paper for maps and blueprints, portable photocopiers for use in lorries, as well as surveillance equipment such as Portable photocopiers for use in lorries, as well as equipment for aircraft reconnaissance and tank landing craft. This included aircraft and ship parts, camera parts, film reels and developers. The biography “the First Lady of Mulberry Walk: The Life and Times of Irish Sculptress Anne Acheson”, talks about her retraining as a precision engineer and draughtswoman in order to do voluntary work during WW2. She was stationed at Masons in Colchester around November 1940. A relative recalled written correspondence from Anne working in an engineering firm which made precision instruments for the Royal Air Force, specifically bomb aiming sights for Wellington bombers, and instruments to help the observers take aerial photographs for military intelligence.


The biography of Anne Acheson also refers to other consumables aside equipment itself. Masons were also believed to provide linen and dye. The Ministry of Supply and Aviation realised the importance of Mason’s technical innovative work and requisitioned them to provide photographic equipment prior to the RAF launching their bombing raids on German locations. Masons eventually developed a photographic method of transferring blueprints and other technical drawings onto Irish linen. During WW2 linen was used in "every operational aircraft made for the RAF" and the production of flax increased fivefold from the outbreak of war. During WW2 the Allied Forces produced more than 3.5 million silk and cloth maps to aid military personnel to escape. These were often sewn into the lining of coats and uniforms to avoid discovery. In 1940, the British military intelligence unit, known as MI 9, started issuing silk maps for use by British aircrews shot down over enemy occupied territory in Europe. The silk maps were intended to assist airman in evading capture. MI 9 also smuggled silk and tissue paper escape maps into POW camps in Germany along with other escape aids to encourage POWs to attempt escape.


You would not normally associate Colchester with marine engineering. It is a pleasant, peaceful town, yet the engines for well over half the British submarines built up to the end of the German war were constructed there. Founded in 1865, Paxman’s had a long association with the Royal Navy going back many years. In-fact the company’s involvement in building diesel engines for submarines goes back to before World War II. It has been said that Paxman manufactured nearly two thirds of all the engines fitted in the World War 2 British submarine fleet. Colchester was responsible for the machinery of almost all of our big landing craft programme; it built thousands of mines - sea and aerial - and played a vital part in counteracting the flying bomb menace. Well over one and a quarter million horsepower of diesel engines alone passed through Colchester's production lines up to the end of hostilities in Europe. Despite Paxman's Hythe Hill factory already working at full capacity, an order for engines for 'U' Class submarines followed by another engine order for 'S' Class submarines. This was on top of existing production of engines for destroyers, cruisers, corvettes and frigates, generating sets for the army, tank sprockets, mines and paravanes. The Ministry of Supply, which controlled all diesel production in the country, therefore leased the Britannia Works in 1941 to provide Paxman with space to build its TP engines. The Company was appointed to manage it and at once started reconstruction work, laying down storage space, test beds, cooling water mains, and generally strengthening the original wooden structure. A derelict factory formerly known as the Britannia works, taken over and reconditioned.

Towards the end of the German war the Colchester firm employed over 2,000 persons in the Britannia and Standard Works. The tremendous war-time growth in productivity called for substantial increase in factory space and certain re-arrangement of facilities.


Hyam & Co was considered the largest English wholesale firm dealing exclusively in ready-made clothing as reflected by their growth. By 1870 the Jewish family business Hyam’s built the large Abbeygate factory works in Whitewell Road, a three-storey brick building, housing sewing machines.

Mark Schomberg was sent to Colchester to do war-work as a manager in Hyams' Clothing Factory which had been taken over to make army uniforms. He was not conscripted into the army when war broke out as his lungs were not considered as being healthy but he was of course fit enough to continue work as a tailor. He had a nasty cough throughout his life and had been a sickly child diagnosed with ''chronic bronchitis''. Years later it became known that heavy smoking affected lungs. He and his doctor, Dr. Wirth, were discussing this when Dr. Wirth began coughing up blood. They both agreed to stop smoking but Mark went on coughing. After living as boarders in a house off Priory Street Mark and Rose managed to get the last house available for rent in Colchester, 23 Abbeygate Street, which was excellently placed for getting to the factory! Mark was in charge of many women workers. Schomberg was too foreign a name for the ladies to cope with so they decided to call him Mr. Mark which became Mr. Marks the Tailor.


With thousands of men away serving in the armed forces, British women took on a variety of jobs during the Second World War. From 1941, women were called up for war work, in roles such as producing munitions, building ships, aeroplanes, in the auxiliary services as air-raid wardens, fire officers and evacuation officers, as drivers of fire engines, trains and trams, as mechanics and, engineers as well as bus conductors and as nurses. On Friday 8 May 2020, at 6.55pm, Town Criers across the United Kingdom would have undertaken a special Cry for Peace Around the World. Colchester’s Town Crier, Robert Needham’s proclamation is worth a listen for reflection at https://www.colchester.gov.uk/ve-day-75/?id=&page=cry--for--peace--around--the--world--by--colchester’s--town--crier,--robert--needham#cry--for--peace--around--the--world--by--colchester’s--town--crier,--robert--needham. One line simply states the women’s role during WW2, “The women left at home did not just sit and wait, they toiled in harsh conditions before dawn to very late”. Women played a vital role on the home front, running households and fighting a daily battle of rationing, recycling, reusing, and cultivating food in allotments and gardens. More than 80,000 women joined the Women’s Land Army, enduring tough conditions and long hours in isolated rural outposts in order to prevent Britain from being ‘starved out’. The women who worked on farms were known as ‘Land Girls’. They were given a uniform and had to live on the farms where they were sent to work. 2,000 members of the Women's Land Army as well as many conscientious objectors worked on the land locally and WLA hostels were set up at Lexden Road, Colchester and at Peldon. The War Agricultural Committee also had a hostel at Layer Marney due to the great shortage of accommodation. Altogether there were 150 girls in the hostels and various billets in the town. Despite any teething troubles, the Women's Land Army ensured food and timber supplies continued throughout the war and beyond. Perhaps not as well-known as the Women's Land Army were the Women's Emergency Land Corps (WELCs), who were said to be earning their badges, local farmers having expressed themselves well satisfied with their help in weeding, thinning and harvesting. The WELCs were usually local women (many from groups like the Womens' Institute or Mothers' Union) who worked as volunteers when they were able, often evenings or weekends. High Woods in Colchester originates from a mixture of woods and arable/pastoral farmland prior to its evolution as a country park in the late 1980s. It is probable that WLA or WELCs helped cultivate the land during WW2.

Colchester also played its part in the evacuation effort from the City of London. Within Eric (EJ) Rudsdale’s Journals of Wartime, he records on 1st September 1939: “Although there is so much gloom all about, there is great bustle and excitement - thousands of London schoolchildren began coming into St Botolph's station this morning and were taken away by "National" buses into country districts. Some, with mothers and babies, are to go to Shrub End and Lexden, but few are staying actually in Colchester itself”. Another important local writer and owner of Essex County Newspapers, Hervey Benham, recorded that “14,000 evacuees including children, expectant mothers and women with babies arrived at St Botolph's railway station in Colchester during the first three days of September 1939 . . . . . . on Sept. 1, 1939, and trains began to arrive as per schedule; the unaccompanied children first in charge of their teachers, and later mothers and young children in hastily organised trainloads. Before being despatched by bus to their new rural homes all were "watered and fed" at one of three schools and issued with 48 hours' emergency rations. The staffs of these three reception schools, Wilson Marriage, St. John's Green and Canterbury Road, had a very strenous time. ... “.

Colchester was well defended during WW2 and there were several military airfields in the surrounding area (RAF Birch, RAF Boxted, RAF Wormingford, RAF Earls Colne, RAF Bradwell Bay). Colchester garrison itself was a very busy place during the war, and a lot of soldiers were demobbed here at the end of the war. Indeed, Abberton Reservoir was used by the RAF's 617 Squadron ("The Dam Busters") for practice runs for the bombing of the German dams in the Ruhr during World War 2 (Operation Chastise). Wing Commander Guy Gibson, the leader of the raid, referred to it as "Colchester Lake" in his auto-biography Enemy Coast Ahead. The reservoir was similar in shape to that of the Eder Dam in Germany which was attacked after the Möhne Dam had been breached. The Layer Causeway, from which the photograph was taken, was used as a substitute for the Eder Dam. Military police closed the causeway whilst the practice runs took place. Lancaster bombers fitted with special bouncing bombs. The last practice flight to Abberton was a full dress rehearsal of the attack and took place on the night of May 14, 1943; the attack on the dams in Germany took place on the night of May 16, 1943.


In closing, whilst we have visited and explored some familiar sites around Colchester that played a large role in the war campaign, and whilst this post has concentrated on activity within our town and not that directly on the frontline, it would be amiss not to mention two former students that attended schools in Lexden Road.


Margaret Alice Rock attended Endsleigh House School in Lexden for a short period around 1914 to 1917. Margaret Rock was born and raised in Hammersmith, London to parents of Frank Ernest Rock and Alice Margaret Simmonds. Her father served in the Royal Navy as a surgeon between 1894 and 1896 while her mother took care of her and her brother. Rock was encouraged by the letters her late father wrote to her, telling her to keep up with her studies and to be successful in the future. Rock passed the London General School Exam in June 1919. During high school, she received honours in the classes of French, mathematics, and music. Rock went to Bedford College, University of London, to earn a Bachelors of Arts Degree in 1921. After college, Rock was employed as a statistician by the National Association of Manufacturers (The Federation of British Industry). In the beginning of WW2, Rock and her mother evacuated London to Cranleigh, Surrey. Margaret quit her old job, wanting a career in a time when the woman's role was primarily to be the wife and stay-at-home mother. She was then recruited for a new job at Bletchley Park on 15 April 1940. She worked for Admiral Sir Hugh Sinclair, who was the Head of Government Code and Cypher School and Secret Intelligence Service. She trained and worked alongside mathematicians and professors to break and decode enemy messages with the Enigma machine.


Phillip Edward Gerald (PEG) Sayer attended Colchester Royal Grammar School. He joined the Royal Air Force on 30 June 1924, being granted a short service commission with the rank of probationary pilot officer and was posted to No. 29 Squadron RAF, based at RAF Duxford. He later became a test pilot at RAF Martlesham Heath, the home of the Aeroplane and Armament Experimental Establishment. On 15 May 1941 he flew Sir Frank Whittle's Gloster E.28/39 (Pioneer) - Britain's very first jet flight that would be used during WW2.


We are able to see how people, companies and communities rallied together to keep going. Previous generations were instructed to behave in a certain way during a time of uncertainty. Many families never saw their loved ones again. Whilst men sacrificed their own lives on the frontline to ensure Britain maintained its freedom, women and families sacrificed parts of their lives to ensure life continued as they waited for the war to end. Today, we have been asked to keep certain instructions to guarantee our future. We must observe that same spirit as past generations. We must be patient. We need to stick together. We need to look out for others in this time of uncertainty.


Colchester's residents and communities are being asked to join in using the internet on Friday. Colchester Borough Council has created a special online area with wartime recipes, instructions on how to make bunting and posters as well as a creative challenge for children set by historian and presenter, Dan Snow. Video messages have also been recorded by Mayor Nick Cope and Lieutenant Colonel Jim McManus AAC, Commander of Colchester Garrison. More details can be found at: https://www.colchester.gov.uk/ve-day-75/


How else can you take part at home?

The Royal British Legion Industries charity launched a campaign asking people to display images of a WW2 soldier in their windows to show their support for veterans. Money raised from sales of its "Tommy in the window" stickers, and other commemorative products, will go towards helping veterans into employment. They also created various online activity packs to inspire people's celebrations - including one teaching the steps of the Charleston Stroll, a popular 1940s dance.


The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport produced a pack with ideas for homemade VE Day bunting, original recipes, games, and educational and creative activities for children.


Some are holding shindigs in the safety and comfort of their houses, such as afternoon tea events. So, grab yourself an English tea and a scone to celebrate and remember those who fought for our victory.


Which National VE events are still going ahead?

BBC One will be sharing a lot of footage in celebration of the day:

10:50 am - at a service in Westminster, Commons Speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle will lay a wreath on behalf of the Commons. Lord West will lay a wreath on behalf of the Lords.

11 am - a national moment of remembrance and a two-minute silence will be held.

2:55 pm - solo buglers, trumpeters and cornet players will be invited to play the Last Post from their homes.

3 pm - Churchill's speech will be broadcasted and people will be invited to stand up and raise a glass in a national toast, saying: "To those who gave so much, we thank you".

9 pm - the Queen's pre-recorded which will be broadcasted at the exact moment her father, King George VI, gave a radio address in 1945 announcing that announce that ‘nearly six years of suffering and peril’ were over.

9:30 pm - Spotlights will light up the sky in Portsmouth to recall the experience of blackouts during the war.