Interview with Gordon Atkinson


Interview with Gordon Atkinson


Gordon Atkinson lived in Flixborough, Lincolnshire. As a young boy he recalls seeing aircraft gathering over the River Humber in the evenings ready to fly out on bombing operations. In the morning he watched them come back, some with bits dropping off them and others flying on fewer engines. He also described seeing the red sky at night after Hull had been bombed. V-1s were sometimes seen and heard. He says that at times it was quite frightening, but you had to get on with life. During the build up to D-Day in 1944, thousands of troops were seen in the area practising for the landings, and later for the advance across Europe. His mother had three Canadian cousins, who came over during the war. Two were in the British army and one in the Royal Air Force. Arthur Lesley served as a wireless operator/air gunner in Halifaxes from RAF Linton on Ouse. The two army cousins survived the war, but Arthur was lost over the North Sea returning from an operation. Gordon describes life in the village during the war with plenty of fun around the farms, rabbit shooting to add to their food rations, and the VE Day celebrations in the village hall. Only about half the houses had electricity and most had outdoor closets which were emptied at regular intervals. After the war he completed his education in Scunthorpe before going to Riseholme College to study agriculture. After undertaking his 1958-59 National as a tank transporter driver, he returned to farming as his lifelong career. He also describes the explosion of the Nypro plant at Flixborough in 1974 and the effect it had on his mother’s house and the farms in the village.




Temporal Coverage





00:24:42 audio recording


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DE: Right. So, this is an interview for the International Bomber Command Centre with Gordon Atkinson. My name is Dan Ellin. It’s the 2nd of August 2018. Gordon, again can you tell me a little bit about where you were born and brought up and your early life please?
GA: I was born in Flixborough in 1938. August 1938. My parents worked in the steelworks. Well, my father did. And we went to school in Flixborough village school, Church of England school and was brought up there and lived there. Grandfather was a keeper and you know there was a [pause] where we, my memories of the war time were seeing the aeroplanes coming over. And my parents took us out to watch the red sky in the north east from us and it was Hull that had been badly bombed and was on fire in the evenings and such like and it was frightening times in some respect but we got on, and had to get on with it. And —
DE: What else did you see?
GA: It was, it well when I got a bit older and seeing things you know when I was three or four or suchlike you remember things better then. And it would be later on, just before D-Day when there was thousands of troops in the area probably practising for the D-Day landings. And my mother had three cousins from Canada that came over. Two were in the army and one in the RAF. And it was probably in 1944 when I was about five years old that they must have had a weekend pass and, not at the same time but one, he with the soldier he came and visited us. And then Lesley. We knew him as Lesley. Arthur Lesley came over. He was based in Linton on Ouse in the RAF. He was a wireless operator/air gunner. I think on Halifax bombers. And he came over one weekend and, to stay with us and that was the last time we ever saw or heard from him. And it was later on that we found out that he’d perished somewhere on a mission coming back from Belgium and presumed lost in the North Sea somewhere. And it was his parents who emigrated to Canada in about 1913 on the Empress of Ireland and it got sunk in the Gulf of St Lawrence in a fog patch when it crashed with a Norwegian collier ship. And it was some six months after it had sunk that my parents found out that he’d, that they’d arrived safely when they got a postcard to say that they’d arrived safely. So that had been a worrying time for them. And they had three sons and a daughter and it was my mother’s cousin who corresponded the rest of her life with my mum and kept her informed with what had happened and where they were. And that was sort of the war for us. When we used to go out, did I say that before that the bombers coming over about a, probably a thousand raid bombers they used to come up from South Lincolnshire and Suffolk or whatever it was, congregate out over the Humber and probably waiting for a fighter escort and coming down from the north. Newcastle and Northumberland and all such as that. And then in the morning you’d be able to go outside and see them coming home with their engines failing and bits dropped off and everything like that. Coming home on a wing and a prayer I think they called it. And that’s some of the, some of the biggest memories that we’ve got of the war. Occasionally we saw the odd Doodlebug passing over and most of them went over the Trent and probably heading for Sheffield or Rotherham or somewhere in the Midlands and such like which was a frightening sound which you never forget. Like you never forget the sound of a Lancaster and that. It still you know, puts the hair on the back of your neck up somehow. I don’t know why it does that but it still does to this day. But the other year when I was getting excited seeing two bombers flying together. I said to myself well, get some time in, you know. We’d seen them a thousand at a time.
DE: Yeah.
GA: Hope they never return but it was an exciting time seeing all these amphibious vehicles crossing the Trent practising for when they got over to Germany across the bigger rivers of the Rhine and such like that they would have to pass over.
DE: So what was that like?
GA: Well, to kids at that age it was very exciting seeing all these churned up roads that these track vehicles had churned up and everything. And the soldiers. He was, I think he was in the Canadian artillery. We’ve still got three letters he wrote to my mum thanking her for, for small food parcels and cigarettes and tea. And he asked on one occasion that rather than send sugar would she send saccharine because they were on the move all the time. And he said at Christmas, at New Year he was, the letter came from Holland. And then it came from a bit further in Germany about three or four weeks later. And then a month later than that he said, ‘We’re on the move every day,’ sort of thing, ‘We don’t know who is going to get there first. We couldn’t care less. But it’s probably the Russians who will get to Berlin first.’ So in a matter of a month or two he’d travelled through Holland and through Germany to get in striking distance of Berlin. That was in ’44 sort of thing. Towards the end of the war.
DE: Yeah.
GA: And he made, the two soldiers made it home safely but poor Lesley didn’t sort of thing.
DE: Yeah. And those are some of the photos that you’ve got of him.
GA: Yeah. Yeah.
DE: Yeah. The photo of Lesley’s got a shotgun under his arm hasn’t it?
GA: Yeah. Anybody, came to our house that was from out of the town or city they would really looked forward and loved being able to go out and shoot themselves a rabbit, you know. And we had access to that being [paused] Well, my father was a rabbit catcher for a one or two of the farms and my grandfather was a keeper down on Normanby Estate, he was, sort of thing. All his life. So we was never really starving but we ate rabbits in every way you could think of. You know. Rabbit pie, rabbit stew. Rabbit. Yeah.
DE: So what was life like in the village growing up then?
GA: Well, we, it was fun. I mean the farm yards was our playground. You know, you’d walk a mile to ride back on a horse and cart or something like that. And it’s, in the summertime you all congregated in the harvest field and there was a butcher’s or anybody there with a shotgun shooting rabbits because it was desperately needed in the town. The steelworkers were short on meat rations and everything like that so everybody was really appreciative of, of a rabbit or anything like that they could get as extra. And it was basically all. That was what you made your fun out of sort of thing. You helped where ever you could and you know even at a young age, not at five I don’t mean but you know as you grew up and that and lived and worked on and around the farm. I mean most of your schoolmates were farmer’s sons and things like that so it was a way of life. Has been all my life sort of thing so, which I’ve enjoyed anyway.
DE: Yeah. Was there electricity in the village?
GA: There was just beginning to get. Half the village. There had been a few new houses built just before the war and such like and I was fortunate to be born in to one and, but a lot of the other farm cottages still had no electricity and earth closet toilets that they emptied once a week. The dilly man used to come around and empty the slops out of those and such thing. Which wouldn’t have been a very pleasant job but somebody did it. So that’s sort of how you remember that. And most of the implements was horse drawn. There was one or two tractors beginning to get into the village but not many. But every farm still had the horses and such like. You used to get to ride on them coming back from the field. And things like that were the highlight of the day.
DE: So what was, what was school like?
GA: Flixborough School I quite put up with it. I enjoyed it sort of thing and, you know it was, it was sort of one small classroom with about five or six different years in. There was four in, four in our age group and then there’d be maybe one younger and one older. There would be four or five or six or seven depending on just how it fitted. But we was all in the same thing and we were given different work rotas to go on. Miss Hall was the teacher who looked after us and there was one for the two, the really young ones. There was a Miss Morris with a wooden petition between, in the room. And I think one thing we remember we’d be nineteen [pause] it would be just after the war but we had a really really bad winter in 1947 and Miss Hall used to come from Burton on the school, on the service bus every morning. And we was waiting to go into school there this particular morning and the snow was falling and very deep and it had been drifting. Anyway, Miss Hall never turned up off the, buses couldn’t get through so we all had a slide down the footpath like a sheet of glass and everything like that. About 10 o’clock Miss Hall turns up. She’d walked all the way from Burton. Two or three mile. And she’d dropped down off the road where the drifts were about five or six foot deep and walked through where there was a long wood between Burton and Flixborough and she’d walked there. And there was a pot bellied stove in the centre of the room and that was the only heating with an iron guard around it. And we sat there all day with Miss Hall’s bloomers steaming in front of this pot bellied thing [laughs] because she’d been wet up to her waist nearly. It amused us lads which you can imagine. Lasting memory of Flixborough School that.
DE: Right.
GA: She got through and, we didn’t like her at the time but I must say that she did more for my education than any other teacher did when I amazed everybody by passing my eleven plus and went to Scunthorpe Grammar School. I didn’t do much good there. It was Latin and algebra. I still haven’t found much of a use for it and but then I left there and started on the farm and did a course at Riseholme which I enjoyed. Did my National Service and I’ve been on the farm ever since. So —
DE: So what was it like at, at Riseholme?
GA: Well, I’ve, I enjoyed it because I knew from when I was three or four years old I wanted to be farm working or a farmer and such like and that’s all I was ever interested in. And anything to do with farming I would absorb it. But all this other stuff it, it’s just beyond me. So when I came back to Riseholme and we learned about all the different livestock procedures and the arable and all the new technology that was coming in because in those days the world wanted us to get us off rationing and produce all the food we could. You know. Plough every bit up you can. And, and it’s gone from one extreme to the other. Now, they pay you to grow rubbish, you know with these different set asides and things like that and so called environment things. I don’t know how much land is down to environmental different ways of doing things and there’s still no livestock.
[recording paused]
DE: Just paused and we’re back recording again now. So after, after your time at Riseholme then what happened?
GA: I did my National Service which was everybody did that in those days. And I had no option where I went. I just put down my preference and I was fortunate I got in to the RASC rather than an infantry regiment. And I did driver training after a fortnight in Aldershot I didn’t, I got posted then to Yeovil and we did driver training there and square bashing half a day and driver training all around Somerset and North Devon which was quite enjoyable. Then I was posted up to Retford to train as a tank transport driver. And we did a course there learning how to handle bigger vehicles. And then when the list went up to where you were going to be posted to two thirds of them went to, I think it was Paderborn in Germany. And I was posted to 19 Company which is still, it is now a prison camp between Retford and Worksop but that was 19 Company RASC in 1958/59 when I was there. And we got detailed out. You got a detail and you went out with a Diamond T tractor on a Dyson trailer and to go to either Tilbury or Manchester or Liverpool docks and pick up a tank and then move it to, they called them Central Vehicle Depots. And they were enormous set ups with thousands of vehicles and that. Some, there was Ashchurch and Tidworth on the Salisbury Plain. We took a lot of stuff down to Tidworth and Ludgershall on the Salisbury Plain. It was quite enjoyable. You only did a twenty five mile an hour and so you did about sixty mile and you went from one town to another and lived out of transport cafes and slept in your vehicle and you know you was a free range heavy haulier. That’s what it was and quite enjoyable. And if you thought there were some parades going on in camp that you was going to get back for you broke down so that you didn’t get back in time [laughs] You learned to work the system. But, yeah we did quite a bit of training in Sherwood Forest recovering tanks out of ponds and things like that as part of the training in those days. And then after I came out of the army I started with a young man who’d started farming in Flixborough. Then he got another farm in Waddingham and I’ve been with him ever since. I’ve got my gongs for long service from Lincolnshire Show. I think fifty years service. Fifty five or something like that. So, and even now I just go cut his grass in the orchard once a week and things like that.
DE: Right.
GA: So yeah it’s a life I’ve enjoyed. I would do it again but it would be totally different now.
DE: Yeah.
GA: With the technology that’s took over now.
DE: Yeah. I imagine. Yeah.
GA: Yeah.
DE: So how come you you’ve come here today with, with Helga?
GA: Well, we tried to trace Lesley’s, when the IBCC was opened up we heard it on Radio Lincolnshire and so we thought we’d have a ride over and see if we can locate him. And with the help of the very helpful staff there they found that he was Arthur Lesley rather than Lesley as we’d always known him and they found which tablet he was on. And we went there and put a poppy on it. And while I was there I told the lady there that Helga was at the other end of where all this was setting off from. And she seemed very interested and would Helga give her an interview? And that’s where we started from. How we’ve ended up here.
DE: Okey dokey. Smashing. I’m just thinking is there anything else that you’d like to tell me while the tape is still, still going?
GA: I can’t really think of anything in particular but unless you can prompt me anyway.
DE: No. It’s totally out of sequence because we’ve just been talking about last week but what can you tell me about your memories of VE Day?
GA: It’s, it was a big party in the Parish Hall at Flixborough and everybody’s mums and aunts and uncles they all produced some sort of food, you know. And there was a table full of food and drink and everything like that and it was a joyous celebration for everybody and that would be the Parish Hall in Flixborough where anything that happened in Flixborough was in the Parish Hall or the pub, sort of thing. The pub was open. That was before my drinking time but occasionally they used to put a film show on in the, in the Parish Hall occasionally. There was that one, “Ol’ Man River.” Was it, “Sanders of the River.” I can remember seeing that film. I can’t remember his name. Paul Robeson sung that, “Ol’ Man River,” and that and I can remember seeing that there and one or two other films over the months or years sort of thing and that was the heart of the activity. And it, you know it’s just a small isolated village like all villages were you know and news spread slowly between one village to the other. There weren’t many vehicles about and that. Pushbikes was one of the main means of transport.
DE: Before we started recording you were talking to me a little about the explosion.
GA: Oh yeah. That would be, was it ’73/74? It was when Nypro blew up. I was living and working on the farm at Waddingham as well as looking after the farm at Flixborough, the arable side. But we was chopping sugar beet out at twenty miles away at Brandy Wharf on the Ancholme Bank and we heard this rumble and we thought it’s going to be a thunder storm. Anyway, we carried on there and then when I went up to the house I had a landline telephone in those days and I got a phone call and said, ‘Did you know Nypro had blown up?’ I said, ‘No idea.’ And he said, ‘Is your mum all right?’ And I said, ‘No, I don’t, I’ve no idea. I shall have to try and find out what we can find,’ you know, ‘What’s happened.’ And anyway I did a few phone calls. Then I found out that my mother had gone, my cousin from Winterton had been down and fetched my mother who would have been eighty. Yeah. Eighty years. No. She, well in her seventies anyway and she’d been set in the front of the fire. I think she was watching snooker on the telly and that and all of a sudden the soot all came down the chimney and covered everything. And so she went out and got a shovel full of sand and put on the fire and then found out the front door was at the top of the stairs and the kitchen window was laid out on the lawn. And in a bit of confusion and I don’t know just how she sorted it out but sooner or later she got picked up and took up to Winterton to my cousin. But, and then on the Sunday we were allowed in it was, I don’t know it’s something you’ll never ever see again but the sky was black and there was curtains blowing out like a ghost village. You know. There was curtains blowing out of broken windows and everything. Because on the farm where I worked like there was hundreds or a thousand pigs in one place or another and we knew they hadn’t been fed on a Saturday evening so we went down to try and sort something out. We had a generator that we could put on because we’d no electric because we needed that to work the feeding system for the pigs. A liquid system it was with the, the fattening pigs. And these pigs was all up and down passages. There weren’t many dead pigs I don’t think. Maybe some of the very very small ones had got perished because of the infrared lights going out but the bacon pigs and anything reasonable was all running about. But the walls were down and they was all mixed and muddled up so we hadn’t any way to, we just poured this food on to the floor anywhere and everywhere we could and let them help themselves. So it was a terrible job. All the tiles was mixed in with the grain and so you couldn’t grind the next crop to feed up because we did all the milling and mixing. And so there was no electricity. We had to buy in food ready made sort of thing for them. And a lot of hard work to try and get things any, back to any sort of normality. And then it took months and months to get finally sorted out. And Mother’s house, the blast lifted rooves and put them back wrong and all the windows had blown in or blown out and it was, can’t believe what devastation it was you know.
DE: So how far away was the explosion from your mother’s house?
GA: It was just down the hill from my mother’s house. You know. Less than a mile sort of thing. And when you imagine the damage was happening four, five, six miles away and the row of houses that was downhill it devastated them. You know, not structurally, the walls hadn’t collapsed but they was beyond repair sort of thing. They didn’t think it worth repairing them. And I say it took absolute months to get, everything had to be redecorated and all the windows put back in and rooves re-roofed and it took terrible, terrible, months, years anyway to get sorted out again. And on the farm and that it was the same with all the farm buildings and that needed all re-roofing. And it caused a lot of work and worry. I think it was the largest peacetime explosion there’d been wasn’t it? Yeah. Then they knocked it all down. Cleared the site and rebuilt it. And then it was redundant in a few years and they knocked it down again. That was progress for you wasn’t it?
DE: Well, smashing. I think they’ve finished next door so we’ll wind that up. Thank you very much for —
GA: Right.
DE: For giving us your time.
GA: Of interest to somebody then.
DE: I’m sure it has. Thank you very much.



Dan Ellin, “Interview with Gordon Atkinson,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed April 13, 2024,

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