Army exercises during the war
A personal recollection of Steeple Aston during the Second World War
The Beeches had been a manicured extension of Rousham Park - mature beech trees with white railings running down the roadside to the river bridge. Horse Chestnut trees lined the bank until the early nineteen-forties - a beautiful, tranquil scene.
In the middle of the Second World War the area was chosen for training troops being prepared for the invasion of Europe. British Infantrymen, engaged in mock battles with a Canadian Tank unit. Ropes were strung across the river from the beech trees to an ash tree standing on the other bank. This allowed infantrymen to cross the river hand over hand, dangling from the ropes. On the Heyford bridge a machine gunner fired live rounds into the water just below the ropes. There were thunderflashes going off all-round.
The Canadians, used to wide open spaces for their tanks, were being taught to fight in the confines of our country lanes, similar to those on the continent. They paid little respect to trees and fences.
Italian prisoners of war were later sent to tidy up the carnage that had been left behind after these exercises - broken branches and fences - but not before we lads had found most of the ammunition and thunderflash grenades left behind by the troops.
When we discovered the first live rounds - 303 bullets - we took them to school to hand them in. That’s when world war three broke out! We were told in no uncertain manner never to bring them to school again. So when we found a box of live rounds, we decided to hide them by throwing the box into the fish pond we all referred to as the lake, which is opposite the traffic lights at the bridge.
The bullets sank into the mud, as there was no sign of the box when the lake burst its bank, losing most of the water, during the snowmelt that followed that terrible winter of 1946-47.
I remember those Italians soldiers, wearing brown prisoner-of-war overalls with bright yellow round Patches. They made their base by the river, at the top of the drive that leads down to Cuttle Mill, from where they went about their tasks, clearing the river and repairing fences and trees to a standard close to that we had known in pre-war days.
Directly across the road, opposite the entrance of drive, stood a platform for milk churns awaiting collection. Immediately behind, in the spinney, and still there today, stands a thicket of Dogwood (Cornus-Spag) - its red bark making it easily recognisable from the road.
The Italian prisoners cut and stripped the bark to make baskets. We lads found customers for them around the village.
Coffee! That aroma! We hadn’t smelt for several years, having survived on bottled Camp coffee or dried, roasted dandelion roots. I can only think it came from their Red Cross parcels, but it was real coffee, made over the open fire in a drum, which had the top cut off, hung, billy-can style. Who ever was cook that day, also prepared the lunch. They would invite us to join them for coffee and occasionally to share their food. We loved it.
A personal recollection of a SAVA team member.