More Wartime Memories By Biddy Cull (then aged 97)
from notes by Joan Simmonds.
One of her most vivid memories was of a day in 1941. Biddy was living with a friend while her husband was away in the forces and had the upstairs rooms in a house in Chalvington Road, Chandler’s Ford. She was doing her ironing, standing, looking out through the bay window, when she heard the sound of a plane approaching. It was a German plane, flying at roof level and firing at houses. She just stood there, amazed, and shocked as she watched it pass over. No one was killed but there were bullets in the walls of houses and sheds along the road.
Near the end of the war there was a bomb dropped on a house in Leigh Road, near Brookwood Avenue. Mr and Mrs Hart and their sons were killed. Francis Hart worked in the office at Pirelli’s, where Mrs Cull worked.
Biddy also remembered walking home with a friend from work one evening when Southampton was raided in November 1940. She said, “we saw all these parachutes being dropped, with lights on them, which lit up the sky.”
The day it was announced that war had been declared, expecting that hostilities would break out immediately, she and her friend discussed how they were going to get to work. A Mr Moore, who also worked at Pirelli’s had a car, so they went round to ask if he would take them in. He agreed, and they went with him until it became apparent that there was no immediate danger of enemy action. When raids did begin, they all had to go down to the shelters in the grounds. As their office was on the first floor, they had to go along a long corridor, down an iron staircase, and then be ticked off a list before going into the shelter they had been assigned to.
There was a team of shorthand typists in the office, and they would be told to go to different men each time, some would be hesitant in their dictation and others would go very fast, so the women got used to working at different speeds. Later Mrs Cull was assigned to be secretary to the Director and General Manager, Mr W. Wood, who had come to the Eastleigh Pirelli’s after the Italians, who had been in charge, were interned after Italy entered the war.
Pirelli’s were one of the firms who were manufacturing the pipes for the “Pluto” project. Mrs Cull, who could not understand why these “Cables” had no middle, was let into the secret of what they were for. Normally the men who were the “cable jointers” worked in the factory, but for “Pluto” the pipes had to be assembled at sea. To disguise what they were doing they were sent out in fishing boats. To their dismay they found that they were being shot at by the Germans as they worked, and came back to complain about the conditions they were working in. However, Mr Wood was able to calm them down and persuade them they were needed to continue this important work.
Another problem that Pirelli’s had to deal with concerned the electric cables inside aircraft. These would be coated with rubber to insulate them. But during the war the importation of rubber was impossible, so a substitute had to be found. A scientist was brought in and accommodated in a building outside, whilst experiments were carried out to invent a substitute for rubber. The material needed to be paper thin, in order to be wrapped around the cables. Various materials were invented, initially much too thick to be of use. Mrs Cull saw a roll of this material and asked if she could have it if it was of no use. She took it home and laid it on her floor as a substitute for a mat. Another of the girls took home a roll of the thinner material and made it into raincoats for herself and her friends. The material they invented, when they had made it thin enough, we know as P.V.C.
When Pirelli’s in Southampton was bombed their office staff took over a building in The Avenue, which had formerly been a convent of the Poor Clare nuns. The pace of the work in the offices was often quite stressful. When orders were received, quotes had to be returned the same day, at the prices quoted on the stock exchange for copper and lead. A car would be waiting outside, engine running, while the typists finished typing up the quotes. It was then taken by car to the Post Office in Southampton.