Aldbourne Heritage Centre

So much has already been written about the history of the unit there is little to be gained by repeating those great books, so what’s here is more of an Aldbourne view of the 101st’s time here.

The 101st came to Britain aboard the RMS Samaria which was a converted India mail liner, There were 5000 men from the 506th aboard. Prior to her conversion she had taken children to the US as part of a scheme by the Children’s Overseas Reception Board. Conditions on board were nowhere near as pleasant as the Canadians seem to have had. The ship docked on the 15th of September at Liverpool, and travelled south by train the next day to Ogbourne St. George, then they were carried for a way by truck, and marched the last mile and a half, by torchlight – it was already dark and Blackout was in force. It was a frosty night. They went to their huts at Farm Lane and the stables at Hightown.

The 506th HQ was at Littlecote, and the Divisional HQ was at Greenham Lodge, just south of Newbury. Aldbourne hosted companies A & B of the 1st Btn and the entire 2nd Btn – the majority of the 506th. Most of Company A were in Hightown Stables, with four men to a stable in 2 sets of bunk beds, NCOs were billeted in private homes in Lottage Road. The rest of the enlisted men including the 2nd Btn were at Farm Lane Camp, in a mix of Quonset huts (similar to Nissen Huts) and bell tents. Farm Lane Camp also included a Cook House (the only building which now remains), shower blocks, latrines and medical buildings. The more senior officers were quartered in the Old Rectory, with some also billeted in other private houses.  One of the Platoon Headquarters was Stone Cottage (now Kays Cottage), where some of the troops including Norman Sandefur were billeted. The Officers Mess was at Hightown.  A company command post was in the half basement of The Crown.

There were 5 pubs in the village at the time, the Officers banned Other Ranks from the Blue Boar so they could have it to themselves. Although the landlord did not enforce the ban if officers were not present, letting them in through the back door.

Aldbourne was by no means alone in hosting American paratroopers; others were scattered in the area at places including Ramsbury, Chilton Foliat and Lambourn.

Williams of HQ company described the Quonset huts “double-deck bunks lining both sides. The hut was of corrugated iron construction and not insulated. We were issued a mattress cover and shown a pile of straw with which to fill them. I got into bed, dog-tired, and could not stop shivering. The cold air came up through the mattress and it was impossible to sleep. I found some old newspapers and put them under the mattress, which made things marginally better.” The troops also had to shave using cold water, and the latrine was a “honey bucket”.

David Webster wrote that the next morning he was astonished by the village, thinking it like a Hollywood movie set. Also that it looked like the England of a nursery rhyme and children’s story, with thatched roofs and roses on trellises.

Jackie Sauls was billeted at the stables, when he made his way to the Mess in the morning he saw Kathleen in the butchers shop (in The Square), falling in love instantly, eventually they were married.

When the 506th arrived Dick Winters held the rank of 1st Lieutenant, it was his first time away from the States. He was not one for drinking or smoking, one day he went for a walk and ended up on the bench at the top of the Churchyard. He watched as a couple arrived and placed flowers on a fresh grave. They walked over and sat with him. A conversation started and they introduced themselves as Francis and Louie May Barnes. Very quickly they found they got on well. They told him that the grave was that of their late son Leonard, who had been killed while serving with the RAF. They invited him to stay with them while in the village, which he gladly accepted. He and Lieut. Harry Welsh shared a room above the shop (top left when viewed from outside). As with other troops he spent much of his spare time with the family. He also attended West St Methodist Chapel.

At least one enterprising lady in the village managed to earn some extra money by taking in and doing the washing of some of the troops.

John Hunt recalls standing near the Blue Boar with some Americans during the war when they were arguing about whether anyone could hit the cockerel weathervane on the Church, one went and fetched his rifle, and did manage to hit it. It stayed up on the tower until the 1990s, it has been kept at Wiltshire Museum and still has the bullet hole.

Tom Barnes remembered: There would literally be endless streams of C-47’s flying from the direction of Upper Upham, right across to Ewins Hill and Pentico Woods, and they would be dropping paratroopers in their hundreds throughout the entire area.

The troops used Pentico Woods for more than just a landing zone, they also practised with rifles and bazookas there (finally destroying a barn with the latter). Route marches were also common, 25 miles not being unusual.

This is from the Oral History Project, and is part of an interview of Carol Prentice and Guy Wentworth:

Guy: The other thing that I can, such a vivid memory as well Mike is that the parachute training drops that happened over, because the farm was right on the edge of the dropping zone and that dropping zone went from almost Stock Close Farm to Ewins Hill Farm and  then right down to Hilldrop Farm near Ramsbury, and you got a multiple colours of parachutes. Anything up to a thousand parachutes coming out at a time from being discarded from either gliders or from Dakotas DC3.  There were the occasional bomber conversion such as the Stirlings and the Halifaxes that were towing gliders as well, but the sky used to be covered with parachutes.

Carol:  I used to drag Guy along to see if we could get to a parachute before the Americans could, so that we could get hold of them, so that my mother could make underwear out of them. And another thing I can remember my father always warning us not to go outside too much or too far from the farm when they were doing these drops, particularly with gliders because having let the glider go as it were, they would then drop the hawser, the tow rope, yes, and I think Dad found a couple didn’t he?  But it was you know…

Guy:  It was a very thick rope.  It was probably a good two and a half nearly three inches in diameter, and then probably the best part of you know about 200 or 300 feet long, so it was a very substantial weight to it as it were, and then clasps on either end obviously…

Interviewer: Presumably they came round and recovered it?

Guy: Oh yes,  they did, would soon be round picking up any, or attempting to get any parachutes that had landed in trees, because the colour coding of the parachutes reflected on what, in theory, was in the bag beneath, it was probably only about one parachute in ten was personnel..

Interviewer: Right, they were dropping ammunition and all sorts….

Guy: Yes, food, in theory, yes, so a lot of it was practise dropping, not only for personnel but  to find out the wind variation, the drift on the parachutes, you know, how to recover them from trees, all this sort of thing as well..  Yes, it was important.  The other thing which was almost a forgotten thing as well Mike was that in the hedgerows they used to put cardboard cutouts.  These cardboard cut outs could represent an enemy, but the thing was never to stand near one, or if you saw one, then to walk fairly quickly past because they were used as long distance target practice by sniper rifles and so that was the other thing, and there were quite a few of those sort of planted along the roadside, as I say a sort of practice shot tactic as much as anything because people would walk upon them, suddenly see the sort of cardboard cut out shapes in the hedge and that was what they were designed for.

The parish council, who had previously been quite exercised by the parking of tank transporters on The Green, cannot have been pleased with the American lorries parked nose to tail there.

The American military paid for the replacement of the Memorial Hall floor after the war due to it having been damaged by the soldiers having danced so much! But that was not the olnly use they made of the hall, sexual health instructional films were also shown.

Shortly before the 506th first left Aldbourne, on 26th May 1944 there was a fire, the lorry was an American one, the following is from the villages fire brigade log:

Fire call received at 11:15 AM. A.V. Jerram and  WHP Humphries arrived upon the scene in a few minutes. Connected hose up to the two nearest hydrants, displayed master jets on surrounding property and then on to the blazing lorry the fire was got under control in about 15 minutes, but unfortunately at this time one of the petrol tanks exploded near where AV Jerram was working with fire branch, causing shock and burns to his face, neck, and hands. Other helpers received slight injuries.

Marlborough Fire Crew were sent for and arrived in good time. The flames were extinguished and a more serious fire averted. The remaining firement in Aldbourne appeared and carried out the following work. Cleared away wet hose and equipment after fire, left hydrants in order and assisted to make room for new motor unit when same arrived.

The fire had occurred when the Americans were filling petrol cans at Lunn’s garage. Apparently some of the burning petrol spilled into the drains, causing fires to show at multiple locations.

The US troops stayed here training and preparing for the invasion of France until the majority left in the last week in May 1944 to airfields to be flown over to their targets in Normandy. On 3rd June, part of the camp at Aldbourne was returned to the British. However, on 16th June the camp was reopened with an influx of new troops and those returning from hospitalisation.

Which troops were in the stable and camp changed on their return after D-Day, with E company occupying Hightown Stables (the 1st Btn. had moved to another village).

Some people used to cadge petrol from the American and store it in their garage, one lot had to be moved to avoid it being found by the village Bobby and ended up being hidden under some carpeting in a house, which was then visited by some American officers, who were unwittingly sitting on a stor of their petrol.

A few village young women became ‘G.I. Brides’, including Winifred Hawkins who married Sergeant Leo Boyle and after the war settled in Oregon.  Kate Liddiard married an American serviceman, emigrating to the U.S.A. After 40 years of marriage he passed away, and she returned to live in Hungerford. Ronald C Speirs married Margaret Griffiths on 20th May 1944. She was not from the village but was also in the services, she was a private in the ATS. He had met her in Winchester

On 17th September 1944 the troops flew out again to participate in Operation Market Garden and the camp was emptied apart from a basic guard. Some villagers felt the village had become strangely quiet.

The Americans were remembered for being well behaved, friendly, and very generous with chocolates, cigarettes and other luxuries. Children were also given doughnuts fresh bakes from the Cook House in Farm Lane (karmic balance was maintained by locally made Lardy Cakes being very popular with the troops). Childrens were also paid on occasions to run unofficial errands for the troops. Don Harms and Bob Mann sang solos in the West St Methodist Chapel. A number integrated with village families spending much of their spare time with them. They were of course also popular with village girls. Dances were held in the Memorial Hall, which are remembered as being lighthearted fun with camaraderie, very similar to a Youth Club. Some of the troops from Membury airfield would also attend. In an early Dabchick edition Con Liddiard recalled that the troops stationed in the Parish during the war added zest to social life. There was a canteen in the Church Room (on Marlborough Road), and Church Parades on Sundays.

Two members of the 506th are recorded as having died in Aldbourne:

Private Rexford A Fingeroos, aged about 25, on 1st March 1944, the American records give the cause of injury as “Land mines and booby traps (own)”, he died following injuries.

Private First Class Lloyd Wayne Green. aged about 25, on 20th May 1944, the American medical records say the cause of his injury was a vehicle accident, he died of his injuries.

The camp in Aldbourne was officially returned to British hands on 15th October 1944.

It’s worth noting that Aldbourne was not used in the filming of Band of Brothers. But it’s a rare year that doesn’t see modern reconstruction groups visiting the village, or before the pandemic, coach loads of American tourists following the Band of Brothers trail around Europe.

By the end of the 20th Century the stables at Hightown were no longer in use and a plan to ship them to Currahee Military Museum in Toccoa, GA was developed, with the generous agreement by the owner, Michael Steadman.The careful dismantling was done by Keith and Stephen Sowerby plus Tim Green and Sam McCallum of Hartwood Oak Buildings. Each piece was numbered so that it could be reconstructed exactly when in the museum. The stables were shipped over by the Mississippi Air National Guard in 2004. It was reassembled in a new dedicated 10,000 sq. ft. building, which opened in October 2006. One stable was moved to Littlecote House and is now part of the Kennet Valley at War Trusts’ museum collection.

During the dismantling a few items were found including letters from Denver ‘Bull’ Randleman, and some underwear used to plug a draughty gap!