The Portsmouth man who had to postpone his wedding because of D-Day

Tales of Portsmouth’s history have been recorded by a former civil servant who had to postpone his wedding due to the D-Day landings.

Thursday, 9th January 2020, 1:39 pm
Updated Thursday, 9th January 2020, 4:15 pm
Bill on his weeding day in 1944 with wife Joan. The couple had to postpone their wedding due to Bill's invovement in D-Day.

Being attacked by a German bomber, watching legendary centre forward Jack Weddle score a hat-trick to take Pompey to the 1934 FA Cup Final and possible royal connections are just a few of the memories of Portsmouth man William Everitt.

Now in his centenary year, Bill as he is known, has been recalling his life in the city.

He came here in 1922 when his parents returned home following a three-year naval placement in Malta.

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Bill, back row sixth from left, alongside other staff at Priddy's Hard in 1937.

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Bill was two at the time and his earliest memories are of the two institutions perhaps most synonymous with Portsmouth – Pompey Football Club and the Royal Navy.

‘Back then Portsmouth had the largest Royal Navy base in the world and the streets were always packed with sailors,’ he said.

‘In those days uniform was always worn - even on your day off.

Bill while working for the Civil Service in India

‘I remember going to my first trip to Fratton Park and it was a sea of blue and white.’

Venturing onto the packed terrace of the Fratton End was the start of a love affair which still burns brightly almost a century on.

‘Pompey had some wonderful players in the 1920s and 1930s, although my favourite player was a centre forward called Jack Weddle,’ Bill said.

William Everitt as he is today.

‘I remember the crowd shouting his name every time he got the ball.

‘I still follow the results today and hopefully we can get promoted.’

Bill’s early school days were spent at Wimborne Infant School in Southsea before joining Hilsea College in 1929.

‘Schools were very different back then and the teachers were strict. We were well disciplined and I recall being caned after running down a corridor and colliding with the headmaster. However I really enjoyed my school days. We had excellent sports facilities and I loved playing athletics, cricket, tennis, soccer and hockey,’ he added.

In 1937 he left school and followed his dad into the civil service after passing the entrance examination.

At the age of 16 he took up a position at Priddy’s Hard in Gosport as a third grade clerk where he would help oversee the distribution of ammunition to naval ships.

Bill said: I was very proud to get the job - it was virtually part of the Royal Navy, which in those days was regarded to be streets ahead of most other occupations.

‘The personnel officer said “You are a very lucky young man. You will serve in places such as Bermuda, Trincomalee and Simonstown” – three of the few places I never saw.’

Bill said the dress code was very strict and he had to wear a suit every day ‘apart from Saturdays when a sports coat and grey flannel trousers would be acceptable’.

In the inter-war years even getting to Priddy’s Hard was a challenge as workers boarded the array of launch boats ferrying workmen back and forth across Portsmouth Harbour.

‘The launches were lined up abreast of each other and it was necessary to clamber across several to find the Priddy’s Hard launch,’ said Bill.

‘This took place in all weathers and was a bit hazardous. On one particular bitter winter’s day one of our chaps slipped on a boat’s gunnel and disappeared into the icy water.’

While at Priddy’s Hard, Bill crafted his expertise and knowledge of the vast range of ammunition used on warships - cartridges, shells, depth charges and pyrotechnics.

It would be a vital grounding for some seven years later when he played a crucial role ensuring boats departing for the Normandy Landings were adequately equipped.

Bill said: ‘The south of England was a “no go” area at that time except for residents. The countryside was a massive holding and transit area for troops.

‘It was very emotive to see the continuous stream of troop carriers, artillery and tanks depart for France and I was kept busy arranging issue of arms and ammunition to landing craft personnel.

‘Later there were craft returning for further embarkations, some with German prisoners on board.’

With the nation in its hour of greatest need, king and country took precedence over Bill’s own wedding to wife to be, Joan Margaret Raw, who he had met in Cumbria.

‘We had planned our marriage for June 10 1944 but D-Day proved to be June 6 so I was obliged to cancel the wedding at very short notice - my popularity with the family sank quite a lot.’

In the period leading up to D-Day the city would often come under attack from the German artillery onslaught.

‘The Germans fired rockets which flew at about 600mph and were quite noisy in flight,' said Bill.

‘When they reached their target area their engines cut out and they glided down to explode on impact.

‘When things went quiet you knew it was time to take cover. I used to leap from my bed and shelter under the stairs.’

It was not the first time Bill faced the wrath of the Luftwaffe. Having taken up a temporary post in Sierra Leone in 1940, he was returning back to Portsmouth on his 21st birthday following an 18-month deployment.

‘I was given three hours’ notice to embark on SS Volendam, a Holland-American liner serving as a troopship, which had called in to refuel en-route to the UK,' he said.

‘We sailed in convoy with up to 50 merchant ships escorted by destroyers.

‘We were lucky and avoided the U-boats though I slept partly dressed with my life belt alongside me.

‘After various drop-offs we were coming down the Irish Sea when we were attacked by a German bomber. We weaved about at full speed and fortunately avoided his bombs.’

After the war Bill enjoyed a colourful life living around the world as a naval civil servant. Destinations included India, Hong Kong and Gibraltar.

‘My favourite place was Singapore,’ said Bill.

‘I loved the climate, the people and it had a wonderful tennis club. I was sad to leave.’

After retirement Bill always had a burning desire to share his story.

Now 99 and with the help of his son Richard and granddaughter Charlotte, Bill eventually decided to pen his story with the aptly named title An Unusual Civil Servant.

‘During a large part of my career we still had the Commonwealth and I was very lucky to be able to travel and live all over the world,' he said.

‘Most civil servants are now confined to a desk here in the UK,’ said Bill, who retired to Cirencester, Gloucestershire.

Son Richard added: ‘Dad has always felt that everyone has a bit of a story to tell and he wrote his book for his own pleasure as much as anything else.

‘His memory in recent years is not what it was and the book helps him to recall some of the important events in his life.’

While the book chronicles much of Bill’s life, one aspect still remains shrouded in mystery – could there be royal blood running in the family?

In a chapter called The Royal Connection, Bill writes: ‘There is a long standing family narrative concerning my maternal grandfather – a handsome bearded man bearing a striking resemblance to King Edward.

‘His mother was in service at Osborne House, Queen Victoria’s home on the Isle of Wight.

‘Victoria’s son, Bertie, Prince of Wales and future King Edward the Seventh, stayed there from time to time.

‘Rumour has it that Bertie was a bit of a lad and used to have his wicked way with all and sundry whenever opportunity offered. The story is that the conception of my grandfather coincided with one of Bertie’s visits.’

Whether fact or rumour it’s somewhat fitting that Bill will soon be receiving his own royal seal of approval from none other than the Queen herself as he prepares to receive a 100th birthday card from her when he hits 100 on December 6.