A converted Nissen Hut.*
The camp was situated on Chobham Common; the date it was built is not known. I can only assume that the Ministry of Defence built it in the late 1930s or early 1940s. We do know that prior to 1945 the Canadian Army were in the camp. It was made up mainly of large numbers of Nissan Huts. These were huts with a tin roof, timber frames at each end, and at both ends, two windows and a front rear door whichever way you looked into the hut. The windows were reinforced wire with glass. The interior consisted of one round iron fire with a stack going upwards through the roof. This was mainly a billet for a number of troops, i.e. 20 in all. There were mess halls, built of the same construction, and also concrete huts with proper roofs; these must have been for officers.
At the Brickhill end of the common was a smaller camp and a football pitch. On the hill to the base of the camp was a large water tank that overlooked Brickhill. Electricity, water mains, roads and pathways ran to all huts on the camp, and the main road ran through the camp from Windlesham to the main road leading from Chobham Village to Sunningdale. Down in Brickhill was a small shop that sold most things, mainly cigarettes and tinned foods and vegetables. Chobham village was about two miles away and Sunningdale the same distance. And of course there was Windlesham village, which could be walked to.
The Camp on Chobham Common. Map by Patrick Rolinson.
My story of Chobham Camp begins after the Canadian Troops had left the camp. The site then became a goldrush for so many families who needed accommodation. I would have been about eight years old, and with my mother, elder brother Jeffrey and my younger sister Mary, we were one of many families that required a place to have of our own.
Mum was informed by her brother Brian that he would go and find us a hut. And he did. He stayed there for several days, keeping guard on the hut until we could get there. It was the middle hut of a group of six, not far from Sunningdale Golf Course. With few possessions, we entered the hut. It was just one big empty space with just a round fireplace, the stack reaching up through the roof.
From this point it was home, but alterations had to be made, such as partitions built with timbers we needed to find. There were several iron beds, so that was a start. We erected the partitions so that there was a room for us boys, one for Mary, and one for Mum, which was where the fire was and where we ate, washed, and if it is the right word, relaxed.
The Nissen Huts on Chobham Common. Diagram by Patrick Rolinson.
We were not alone. The camp was filling up with families and many children of my own age. We, like everyone else, assumed that our stay there would be short-term, but it would not be many years later that we left. No one in authority prevented the families moving in. To us all it seemed we had been given permission. One thing people noticed was that two compounds at the camp were being guarded by British soldiers, and restriction signs were posted for all to see, one by the main Chertsey road above Brickhill and the other next to the main road leading to Sunningdale. Fences were erected, plus some barbed wire, there were entrances that were guarded with sentries and rising pole barriers, and it was not long before we realised why. Large trucks started arriving at the camp, and it was not long before those on board started to disembark. They were lined up on the parade ground, and still more lorries continued to arrive. It was not long before word got round that these were German Prisoners of War. This was a tense moment for us all. One moment we were listening to broadcasts on what we then called a wireless about the war and the terrible things that were happening, and next we had the same people as neighbours.
The Camp on Chobham Common. (Image courtesy Surrey Heath Museum.)
The area depicted on the camp diagram is the landing strip, which is now, in 2010, a picnic area. It became busy with light aircraft landing and taking off. Some passengers looked very important. The runway in those days was very short but that type of aircraft was capable of landing on it. To us young ones, this was great fun.
We were known then as Camp Squatters, and we all got on very well. If you had it, you gave it to those who did not, a bit like the old Eastenders. Life on the Camp was hard but you made the most of it. Schooling was first at the local school, Valley End School, about a mile away. As we grew older we went on to Chobham St Lawrence School, which was a much longer walk. You would start walking to school in the morning, get to Round Pond Woods, and suddenly hear the school bell ringing. With about two more miles to go, you knew you were going to be in trouble. Walking home, especially during the winter months, it was dark, and you still had to walk through Round Pond Woods collecting firewood for the hut stove on the way.
Round Pond. (Photograph by Roy Smithers, image courtesy Mark Stroud.)
Every day our mother would cycle from the camp to a place called Kettlewell Hill just outside Woking, to her job as a domestic servant. The job gave her a little money to help keep us clothed, but it also had its perks, such as food left over by her employers, and not forgetting a small bag of coal she brought back each day for the house. How she managed the trips home in the dark we will never know. I suppose you would say because she was a mother.
I shall always remember one particular night she was returning home. It was very dark. Snow was falling. She approached Round Pond Woods, and had to get off her bike and push it up the hill, head down to avoid the snow. Suddenly a pair of hands grabbed hold of the handlebars. Looking up, petrified, she saw a man dressed in some form of uniform, which she recognised as that of a PoW (Prisoner of war). At that moment a small car arrived, driving up the hill, lights flaring, and the man ran off. The car stopped and the driver asked if she was all right. Shaken, both of them continued their journeys home. Mother’s first thought was to ring her brother in law, Sam, who was on leave from the RAF, and who lived in Chobham. Sam came round and contacted the commanding officer of the PoW camp. He in turn said that the PoWs would parade the next morning so that mum could identify the man.
Next morning, mum, along with Sam, who was dressed in civvies, spent some considerable time walking up and down the men lined up in front of her. But she could not identify anyone. Her words were, “They all look the same.” Sam’s response was to say to her, “pick anyone.” I suppose this was the response of a military man in the RAF who had been fighting these people. Mum refused to do this and that was the end of the matter.
Nissen Huts on Chobham Common. (Image courtesy Surrey Heath Museum.)
Returning to life on the camp: during the last few years I have returned to the camp on several occasions, and found I remembered the layout of the camp very well from all those years ago. I knew where huts used to stand, the roads leading to them, where the pathways and parade grounds of the PoWs used to be, where mess halls used to stand, the communal toilets and bath areas, football pitch, water tower, right down to where eventually the red telephone box stood. They are all there if you know where to look.
Our second hut on the camp was situated on the Chertsey Road end of the camp, approaching the roundabout, which in our time was a crossroads. Approaching today’s roundabout there is a large road sign indicating roads to Sunningdale, Chertsey and Chobham. Right opposite this sign is where we lived all those years ago. The small, but well-worn bridge over the ditch is still there; remove the moss and leaves and you are standing in the rooms as you did many years ago. When my grandchildren were shown this they showed disbelief that this was our home. It is easy to spot where the homes were: on areas where trees cannot grow, just leaves and moss. Some areas are hard to get to now, but when you do find them, you also find the friends that used to be there.
Looking from the “small, but well-worn bridge over the ditch” to the site of the Rolinson’s second hut.
Going back to those days; the football pitch as we knew it is still there today, unchanged. It is at he Brickhill end of the camp, just to the right of the Chertsey road. The only difference is that there are now a couple of iron bars over the entry-places to stop high vehicles getting in. Here we watched the PoWs and guards play football. The pitch was comprised of shingle, and today if you move a clump of grass you can still see the shingle…
1947 was the year of sunshine and snow. The summer was so hot. But the winter was so bad with snow it was six feet deep in places. This made it very difficult to get to the toilets and washroom. At times we would collect snow in a bowl or bucket, melt it, and use it for washing, cooking and even drinking when the pipes froze. One morning I came into mum’s room to make a cup of tea for her and found that due to the warped door, snow had drifted through the gap. I found mum asleep with a huge drift of snow on her and the bed. And so for a few weeks we called her Snow White.
Christmas was upon us. Paper chains we made ourselves. For presents there were apples, oranges, perhaps a book. And then there was the biggest present ever: a knock at the door and we opened it and standing there was a guard and two prisoners with small parcels wrapped in newspaper with pieces of string. In broken English they wished us a happy Christmas. Times like this you wish you had a camera. Mum had a brooch made from some sort of Perspex, the girls rag dolls, and us boys a jigsaw, all made by the Germans. Well, I suppose they had plenty of time to spare, but it was a lovely gesture, a moment never to be forgotten.
Things began to change within the PoW camps, especially the camp on the Sunningdale road. With a guard escort, we were invited into the Mess Hall on several occasions to eat with the PoWs. We were shown photos of their own families and children. When the time came, many of these prisoners remained in the UK, eventually marrying local ladies and finding work as bus drivers. Many years later, we would meet up with these people, either in the village of Chobham or in Woking.
A Nissen hut at Brick Hill. (Image courtesy Surrey Heath Museum.)
Another activity we used to engage in was swimming. Where? Well, also built on the camp, at the Brickhill end, was a large water tower. It was located on the highest part of the camp, overlooking the football field and the smaller PoW camp. As shown in the diagram a ladder was fixed to the outside of the tank leading to the top and a hatchway which could be lifted, with a smaller ladder inside which we would climb down and swim in the clear waters. No health and safety in those times! If we did not swim here we would walk over to Sunningdale golf course where they had a small lake on one of their fairways with a walkway made of timber through the middle which would become a diving board into the water. This is still there today.
Other things made life at the camp easier for us all. For example, a fish and chip van would call round on certain evenings, and a vegetable van as well during days of the week. This made life a little easier for our parents.
One of the roads through the Camp, still to be found opposite Brick Hill.
I suppose if there was a tragic moment in those days it was when we witnessed a large wartime aeroplane crash in the fields above Woodlands Lane, Windlesham. …
Our time in the camp was coming to an end. Many of our parents were rehoused at Brookleys Estate, Chobham, where today many of the children of those parents still live, or even their children. My mother and us children were also rehoused at Brookleys Estate at the end of the road Oakdene. Uncle Sam, whom I mentioned earlier helping mum at the camp, lived with his family in Elm Drive, and another of mum’s sisters lived in Brookleys. My grandparents lived at Little Heath.
Come the summer of 2010 I shall, God willing, go back to the camp…I will once again explore the camp area as in the past, and reminisce at the football ground. Those were the days.
The kitchen in a completed temporary house converted from an army Nissen Hut. (Image courtesy of IMW.)
*Nissen Hut, Cultybraggan Camp. (Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.)
With many thanks to Pat Rolinson.
Also with thanks to Surrey Heath Museum.