Memories of World War II in words and music

As the heroes of the Second World War were saluted this month on the 80th anniversary of the Battle of Britain, our Amesbury Abbey resident Kathleen (Helen) Reynolds has been remembering her own war years.

Mrs Reynolds spent time working in the secret Spitfire factories in Salisbury’s Castle Street and was also at the Corsham underground factory, which worked on Rolls Royce engines.

At Corsham, she was inspired to write Underneath The Surface, a song the factory girls sang to the tune of Lily Marlene to brighten their working days.

Read her account below to find out more.

My War Years By Kathleen (Helen) Reynolds

At the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939 I left my home in Amesbury to work in Swindon at the Great Western Railway site in a warehouse owned by Short Brothers who made parts for aircraft. For the first year I worked on the benches and then I went to the Bristol Training School at Filton for about two months to learn about aircraft fittings. I was billeted with another girl at a house in Swindon. Up to then I had always been known by my middle name, Nellie; however, as both us girls were called Nellie, to avoid confusion the landlady decided to call me Helen, a name I have since adopted.

Following this training I went to work for Vickers at their Blunsdon shadow factory as a riveter on the fuselages of aircraft. I was teamed with another girl called Mary. The two of us worked well together earning between two and three times our basic salaries on piecework and we were consistently the top two performers. We mainly worked fitting windows on Lancaster bombers, but also worked on Spitfires, Wellingtons and Stirlings, until the Stirlings were later scrapped.

One morning when I was running late for work I narrowly missed a bomb attack on the factory.

During the last year of the war I worked at the Corsham underground/shadow factory on Rolls Royce engines that were tested on site behind soundproof glass. While working at Corsham I wrote a few verses of this song to the tune of Lily Marlene, which we factory girls sang together at times to brighten our working day:

Underneath the surface

Underneath the ground

There’s a shadow factory

But now it’s closing down

They sent us here from everywhere

To shirk from work

We did not care

In this old shadow factory

Down underneath the ground

 

Sir Stafford came to see us

And tell us we must go

To find another job he said

To carry on the show

And when this blinking war is won

We’ll have some fun

On gin and rum

In this old shadow factory

Down underneath the ground

I then returned home to work in Salisbury at one of the Secret Spitfire factories in Castle Street. I never saw a completed Spitfire at this factory as we only worked on small components that arrived in boxes measuring approximately 30” long by 10” high. I had seen the fuselages of Spitfires at Blunsdon with the wings standing to the side, but the only time I had seen the completed aircraft was at Wroughton.

During the war years I came home as often as I could to see my family. I always gave Mum some of my wages to help with the household bills. I was earning good money on piece work as Mary and I were the fastest and most efficient team. My weekly pay was 13 shillings which annoyed my sisters, Rosa and Ethyl, as they only earned 9 shillings a week in the WRENs! My earnings meant I could afford tailor made suits from Burtons of Salisbury but I also made my own dresses.

Throughout the war years I enjoyed going to dances some of which were here at The Abbey. At one dance I met a young American soldier called Carlton. Our courtship lasted for several years but at the end of the war he wanted me to go home with him to America and I could not bear to leave my family and Amesbury so we sadly parted.

After being made redundant from the Salisbury factory I managed to get a job at the firework company, Paynes Wessex, based at High Post. However, I only stayed there a few months as the gunpowder burned my skin – I had a severe allergy to it.

I next found work at the NAAFI warehouse packing groceries at first, until I was transferred to the offices as a clerk doing figure work.

Around 1947/48 I lodged at the Greyhound Public House and occasionally helped behind the bar in the evenings. On one of those evenings I first met my future husband, Rex. He had been demobbed from the RAF just before our meeting and was living in temporary lodgings opposite the Greyhound. He was planning to return to his hometown in Gloucestershire the next day and popped in for one last drink before his departure. I had already made date with another serviceman earlier that evening but I couldn’t turn down this dashingly handsome young man when he asked me out too. It caused a bit of bother when the other lad found out but only verbally; thankfully no fists were raised!

The landlady, Mrs MacDonald (Mrs Mac as I called her) later said I had picked the right one! The many years of happy marriage that followed are proof she and I were right.