Histon and Impington Prepare For World War II

In September 2019 our country commemorated the start of the Second World War. In May of this year we commemorated Victory In Europe Day. The War did not just happen and Cambridgeshire, in particular, made efforts as early as 1937 to prepare to protect itself. Information compiled from Histon Parish Council minutes and CCC Archives, now based at Ely.

In January 1937 Histon Parish Council discussed the prospect of another war with Germany. They were so concerned that they instructed their then clerk, George Grimwood, to inquire about what was being done with regard to air raid precautions. Since the Zeppelin bombing raids twenty years before, the range and sophistication of war planes had increased considerably. Gas attacks on the populace were also a possibility. In September a move to start a National Fitness Campaign was keenly supported. Many remembered the problems caused by the poor health of conscripts during World War I. The depression years of the 1930s threatened the fitness of potential recruits, though thankfully our area was a place of high employment.

1945 Histon and Impington Air Raid Wardens at Impington Village College.

By May 1938, Air Raid Wardens had been appointed and they were attending lectures on anti-gas precautions. Early on, it had been decided that the whole population would be issued with gas masks and Histon and Impington were amongst the first in the county to begin a house to house census on the number of gas respirators required. Essentially, you breathed through a simple carbon filter, while your eyes and mouth were protected by the mask.

Shortly after the respirator census was completed, Histon Parish Council finalized arrangements with their electricity suppliers to be able to extinguish street lights independent of homes.

By the end of 1938 a large number of local young men had joined the Territorial’s. The Observer Corps and Anti-Aircraft units of the Territorials were brought into a state of readiness that September. In addition a mobile First Aid Party, under the leadership of Dr Dwyer-Joyce, was formed in Histon. The Red Cross, based in the old administrative and operation block of the VAD hospital (since demolished) behind the halls on School Hill, gained more recruits.

This was under the direction of the 1914-18 Matron of the hospital, an elderly Miss Mildred Rowley MBE, who died in harness, three years later.

On September 3rd war was declared and black out regulations were immediately applied. The opening of Impington Village College was delayed for ten days. The official ceremony never took place. Unlike Impington Hall, the school avoided being commandeered by the War Office. Its lack of mains sewers were cited as the reason for its unsuitability. At the first war meeting of HPC the following was recorded in the minutes.

Notice was given … that at the next meeting of the Council it would be proposed that smoking be allowed.”

The rest of the month was incredibly busy. Air Raid shelters were built. In October, plans were made to accommodate those made homeless by air raid damage. Histon School, New School Road could feed one hundred and sleep two hundred and fifty. Air Raid shelters were to be erected on the school field as well as elsewhere.

Chivers’ Factory had a siren to warn of air raids. The suggestion to allow the schools to have sirens linked to the observation post at Chiver’s factory caused debate. The idea was shelved when the Ministry of Information deemed it unpatriotic for some schools to have the benefit of such a warning but not others. A scrap iron dump was planned to be created by the Memorial which was conveniently on the Impington Histon boundary. In the event of severe structural damage, demolition squads were to be created. To avoid accidents in the blackout, kerbs were painted white and street light standards gained white rings. A host of new regulations had to be explained to an anxious populace. But not everything had been covered as another extract from HPC minutes reveals.

HPC viewed with serious alarm that in the event of a fire they had hydrants, an auxiliary fire brigade but nothing for them to use!” Two standpipes and seven hundred feet of hose were “…urgently required… ”.

1942 Church Street Histon.

On the onset of the war, in the September, there was a “…considerable influx of evacuees, though not all the 360 places offered in Oct. 1938 were taken up..

And so began those early months before Dunkirk and the loss of Singapore, what became dubbed ‘The Phoney War’.