Braintree District Museum holds varied collections relating to both World Wars and their impact on Braintree District. This includes an archive relating to the vital role of Crittalls and the East Anglian Munitions Committee during World War I, photographs of bomb damage in Braintree during World War II and medals, identity cards and evacuee certificates beloning to local residents as well as many more artefacts.

First World War

11th November 1918 marks the armistice which ended the horror of the trench warfare of the First World War. Braintree and Bocking contributed greatly to the war effort, not only did men enlist rapidly in the army, but Crittalls and Lake and Elliott among others participated in the production of munitions employing many women to replace the men serving in uniform.

Deaths at home and overseas were to be expected however the scale of the war came as a surprise to many who expected a short conflict. By the armistice several local residents had died from aerial bombing while over two hundred servicemen had died on land, sea and in the air.

Lance Corporal Frank Herbert Rankin from Bocking Church Street serving with the 2nd Battalion Essex regiment was the first local lad to perish during the withdrawal after the fighting at Le Cateau on the 26th of August 1914. He was 25 years of age.

One of the last to be killed in action was Private William Arthur Ratcliff from Panfield Lane. The one-time saw mill labourer joined the Essex Regiment transferring to the 18th Bn Machine Gun Company and fell during the last ‘Hundred Day’ as the allies pushed the German forces towards the armistice. William was killed on the 8th of November, three days before the armistice as they attacked the Forest of Mormal.

Between the end of the fighting and the beginning of the Second World War on 3rd September 1939 men continued to die from wounds, disease and stress which began during the conflict. These remain unknown to all but close relatives and friends.

Second World War

With the declaration of war and the invasion of Poland imminent, it was feared that German bombing would cause significant civilian deaths so from 1st September 1939 over 1.5 million children were evacuated from cities to rural communities. Many children from London were evacuated to Braintree and the surrounding area. Pupils at Manor Street School made room in their classes for children from Edmonton, North London. A more rural town then, Braintree would have been a stark change for some of these evacuees. You can listen to the memories of one evacuee John White, below.

Although Braintree was not a considered a major enemy target and was certainly safer than London during the Battle of Britain, nevertheless throughout the war 6,378 bombs were dropped on the town and eight lives were lost. The most destructive raid was on 14 February 1941. A direct hit on Lloyds Bank and another bomb opposite Braintree High School caused considerable damage to Bank Street and the nearby area.

As with other towns across the country local men signed up to the Home Guard. Braintree Home Guard had 200 volunteers, which met at the Drill Hall on Victoria Street and there was also a Signals Company based at the Post Office on Fairfield Road.

When the Americans entered the war at the end of 1941 America G.I’s soon began to arrive. About 3 million came bringing with them food, entertainment and in some cases romance. Many were stationed at quickly built airfields across Essex and East Anglia as they began to work with the RAF. In this area, six airfields were constructed at Ridgewell, Great Saling, Wethersfield, Gosfield, Earls Colne and Rivenhall; Marks Hall was used as the Headquarters for the 9th U.S. Army Air Force. A Military Hospital was built in the grounds of White Court along London Road. At first it treated American airmen from the local airfields. After the Allied invasion of Europe 13 hospital trains arrived at Braintree Station with soldiers from the battlefields and they too received treatment at White Court Hospital.

Many of the District’s large companies were involved in war production. As early as 1936 Crittalls were asked if they could produce ammunition and as the country prepared for war, they also made shutters so that factories and homes could meet blackout restrictions. Window construction continued for war department buildings, new airfields and defence structures. The company’s greatest contribution was the construction of Bailey Bridge components, which utilized the whole of Braintree’s production capacity. Bailey Bridges are a temporary bridge designed for rapid assembly from prefabricated standard parts and they significantly supported the Allies’ advance across Europe. Lake & Elliot made components for tanks, trucks, transport cylinders for aero engines and bomb casings, but they are most recognized for the 540,000 vehicle jacks they made during the war. A Lake & Elliot jack was a standard part of Army kit and every vehicle that took part in the D Day landings in June 1944 had one on board. They were so commonly used they are still dug up on WWII battlefield sites today.

The supply of silk, rayon and cotton was restricted at the outbreak of the war affecting both Courtauld & Co and Warner & Sons. Courtauld & Co manufactured parachute silk and by 1944 in Braintree and Halstead mills sixty per cent of looms and half of all staff were focused on war production, the remaining looms were used to create utility fabrics. At New Mills, Warner & Sons focused on silk and nylon parachute silk as well as cartridge bag cloth, material for shell covers, cap bands and arm badges for the Royal Navy. They also produced four of Enid Mark’s designs for Utility furnishings.

Second World War Oral Histories