WWII Memories
Personal Histories of World War Two

Life in the Land Army (Timber Corps)

This memoir was written by Mrs Ellen Spofforth, in 2009, and published courtesy of Patrick Hunter.

Available from this page...

Memoir by Mrs Ellen Spofforth


In 1943 I was seventeen-and-a-half and was working in the offices at Rowntree's chocolate factory in York.

I had tried to join the WAAFs, ATS and Wrens but as soon as I enrolled my mother had torn up the forms and would not allow me to join.

My friend, Mary Hamblett, had just joined the Land Army and told me all about it which made me think of joining.

After talking with my mother, she said that as Mary was based in Yorkshire and was not far away then I could join.

So I applied and was accepted.

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I had tried to join the WAAFs, ATS and Wrens but as soon as I enrolled my mother had torn up the forms and would not allow me to join.
Ellen Spofforth

In a short while my uniform arrived, together with a travel warrant to my new posting - Lewdown in Devon, not quite in Yorkshire!

The day arrived for my departure and my mother took me down to York railway station at eleven o'clock at night (very late for a young girl to be travelling) to catch my train.

On the platform were three other girls wearing the same uniform that it turned out were also going to Lewdown.

Without further ado my mother attached me to these three girls and off we went.

These three girls were to become not just workmates but also lifelong friends, they were Doris Cordukes, (alas now deceased), Irene Haw, (also now deceased) and Gladys Hodgson.

After nearly twenty four hours our train finally arrived at Lewdown in Devon,where we were taken in a lorry to our new home.

We were billeted at a lovely old country house owned by a Russian lady.

At, rather than in, the house, as we slept in Nissen huts in the grounds of the house.

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We used the kitchen and what I thought might have been the ballroom in the house for our meals.

We had a 'Matron', a Mrs P., who looked after us, in her own fashion.

The huts had been given names.

One called 'Hatter’s Castle', one called 'Crazy Cottage' and one called 'Hell's Angels'.

Each hut had thirteen beds and there were ablutions attached to each hut.

Although I'd never been away from home before, I soon got used to communal living.

I made friends there with people who have remained so for the rest of my life.

We had arrived just as the girls were returning from work and we soon sat down with them enjoying our evening meal.

The next morning we were up at five-thirty ready to be taken to the forest in a lorry, with our foreman who was called Jack Boyce.

He was a very kind-hearted Cornishman with a very dry sense of humour who became like an older brother to us.

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There was none!

On the first day Jack showed us how to fell a tree by putting a dip in the trunk and then sawing using a crosscut saw until the tree fell.

We then had a go, our first attempt causing Jack to be somewhat dismayed at our apparent hopelessness.

However he soon put that right!

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Mrs P. was our matron and was in charge of food, meals and accommodation.

Her job was to 'look after us' but her idea of what that meant was certainly not shared by us.

Breakfast - dried egg on just one piece of toast, no cereal or fresh milk in our cup of tea.

Lunch (pack-up) - often a beetroot sandwich or, on Tuesday, a Cornish pasty - but after one of the girls found a large blacklock in her's we never ate them again.

Evening Meal - not too bad really a main course and pudding.

We often used to 'find' potatoes on our way to the forest which we would then roast on our fire at dinner time to supplement our very meagre pack-up.

To brew our tea we boiled big dixie over the fire.

The water had to be brought from a nearby farm and when it was my turn to get it I and another girl went with the dixie between us, carried on a branch.

When we got to the farm house the kind farmer's wife made us both a bacon sandwich with large rashers between freshly baked bread.

This was followed by a baked apple with clotted cream.

After the beetroot sandwiches and meagre breakfast it was fantastic.

When we returned to the work site it was not long before the other girls got wind of our amazing treat and thereafter there was a strict roster in place for going for the water!!

There was considerable ill feeling with regards to our rations as we found out later what had been given to feed us and what we received, was not the same at all.

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Daily Routine

Up at five thirty and breakfast, then at six am we were taken by lorry to the forest.

Although we were transported there and back once we were dropped off we often had to walk three or more miles to the section of the forest where we were working.

Then we felled trees until it was too dark to work, which often meant twelve hours or more of strenuous physical work with only a break for lunch.

There were no chainsaws in those days, billy hooks to clear the site, axes to make a dip in the tree trunks and then crosscut saws to cut through the trunk.

After felling, billy hooks once more to clear the branches and then crosscut saws to cut the trunks into six foot lengths for pit props.

This was done entirely by the girls with only Jack to supervise our labours.

The sawn wood was then loaded by us onto lorries which took them and us to the local railway siding at Bridestow.

We then unloaded the props into open railway wagons using 'skids' - the first time I did that I skinned my nose!

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Jack soon christened me "The Cat with Nine Lives" as I always seemed to be getting into scrapes and escaping with only slight injuries, these included nearly cutting my thumb off and also similarly my foot!

On each occasion jack took me to the local hospital on the back of his motorbike, me never ever having ridden on a motorbike before and leaving a trail of blood spots in our wake.

The narrowest squeak I had was when Jack was asked to remove a very large oak tree overhanging the main road to Plymouth, which was hindering the American forces as they made their way to the port prior to D-Day.

Jack took twenty of us girls to help.

To make the tree fall away from the road he had us pulling on ropes as he felled the tree.

He told us that when he shouted 'Run!' we were to do just that as the tree would come crashing down.

On the command 'Run!' I did just that, but in the wrong direction, the result was being knocked out cold, and whilst suffering a quite severe concussion being driven once more to the hospital on a rather swaying Jack's motorbike.

"Another life", said Jack.

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Social Life

As we were so isolated our social life was a little limited, however we hitch-hiked to the nearest town or village and also a local American Army unit, 'F Group' who were stationed at Bridestow came to dances to our camp.

We really enjoyed the GIs' company - the dances were quite amazing not only for the quality of the dancng - but also the generosity of our guests.

They brought with them what we regarded as untold luxuries, in the form of long-forgotten foods such as baskets of real hard-boiled eggs, tins of Californian peaches and tinned meat known as 'Spam' all of which was very welcome considering our own very meagre rations!

These dances led some of the girls to become very fond of the GIs, and romances blossomed, which resulted in marriages, the girls returning with their husbands to the United States after the war.

I was a very keen dancer myself and befriended a very good dancer called Gary who was, unusually amongst the GIs, a very good ballroom dancer - English style.

He was married and became both dancing partner and good friend in the true sense of the word at that time.

He once took me to a big dance in Plymouth which entailed an overnight stay and he made sure that we stayed in different accommodation so that no tongues could wag!

I also became very attached to a Staff Sergeant called John Zayjack from Haverstraw, New York.

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Amazingly his mother came from Market Weighton a small town near York where I lived.

She had married his father in WWI and had become a very early GI bride.

Our attachment grew but alas he was posted to fight the Japanese where unfortunately he perished.

I still have very happy memories of us together.

Apart from the dances, the cinema and local pub, the Harris Arms, were also popular.

The nearest cinema was in Launceston, and the Harris Arms was on the then main Exeter Plymouth road and I remember it especially well for a very memorable twenty-first birthday there - mine.

We used to hitch-hike to the local town to visit the cinema and one occasion after the 'pictures' four of us were sitting on the market cross in Launceton, waiting for a lift back to camp.

One of the girls was singing a popular song of the day to entertain us the, words as I remember included, "Sometimes I wonder why I spend the lonely nights", when we heard a sort of 'ping, ping' noise.

We thought it must be fireworks of some sort and wondered what was going on.

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Suddenly an American GI policeman ran up and literally grabbed one of the girls called Doris and pushed her under his Jeep and then grabbed us also - a tight fit four of us and the policeman under a Jeep!

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...those 'pings' were live bullets fired by disgruntled black GIs who had mutinied and were shooting at just about anything.
Ellen Spofforth

He told us that those 'pings' were live bullets fired by disgruntled black GIs who had mutinied and were shooting at just about anything.

Looking back we must have been in real danger.

Shortly afterwards a British Army Officer, although under fire, ran out and escorted us into a hotel where we sheltered until the fighting was brought under control.

The incident was reported both in local newspapers and in the national 'News of the World'.

When my mother read about it she had said, "Oh, our Ellen won't have got mixed up in any of that".

Little did she know!

We eventually got back to camp at three o’ clock in the morning much to the dismay of Mrs P. the matron, who then put Launceston out of bounds to all the girls, the only exception being Rene and myself who, as Roman Catholics were allowed to attend mass each Sunday.

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We were only given two railway warrants a year allowing us to travel home for seven days, (including the travelling), which only gave us about five days holiday.

My mother once sent me £5,(a lot of money in those days), to pay my rail fare, but instead I bought my family Christmas presents which I packed up in a parcel in which I also enclosed holly and ivy that I had taken from the forest.

I did have a couple of weekends in London with a new friend called Violet Coates who we called Blackie.

She lived in London and we stayed in her father's flat.

During these weekends he took us to the Palladium where we saw Glenn Miller and his famous orchestra.

Blackie came back to York with me for a short stay and thoroughly enjoyed our city.

Eventually the war came to an end and the time came for the camp to close and the girls to return to their civilian occupations.

We were offered further work with the Forestry Commission in Germany but none of the girls took up the option.

So the time came for us to depart and go our various ways however we did keep in touch and over the years, some of us still contact each other by phone and letter regularly to this day.

When I arrived home, very fit but only weighing eight-and-a-half stones (119 lbs) my mother burst into tears, whether it was my physical condition, or just pleased to see me, I'll never know.

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