Boogie woogie and jazz, they built an airbase, they opened a hospital - how the Americans took over East Anglia in wartime

PUBLISHED: 14:00 17 May 2020

Judith Rich who remembers the Americans and the Italians in wartime Newport

Judith Rich who remembers the Americans and the Italians in wartime Newport

Archant

“The most amazing thing was that Newport had an Italian prisoner of war camp at one end of the village and an American hospital at the other.”

Judith Rich as a girl playing the piano in wartimeJudith Rich as a girl playing the piano in wartime

It was 50 years before schoolgirl Judith Willmore found out what happened to the American.

Here with the US Airforce during the war, he had promised to teach her jazz piano. Judith didn’t find out what had happened to him until 1994 when President Bill Clinton visited the American Cemetery in Madingley near Cambridge.

Judith, by then Mrs Judith Rich, said: “My son Jonathan and I were the only English people there.

“John Major and Mrs Major walked up on a red carpet and three minutes later, the president’s helicopter arrived. They were playing Glenn Miller.

“Clinton had amazing charisma. He said they were grateful to Cambridge University for giving them the land.

“He said the skies were never still when the Americans were here and they weren’t. It was tear-making.

“It was a tremendous ceremony, We were right at the front because we had gone there early.

“There were hundreds of tombstones. We went to look at them, and I saw the name Matt McKinnon. He was a medical student. He said: ‘I’ll come back tomorrow.’”

Judith was eight when the war started and her quiet village of Newport was woken up with a zing when American airmen arrived.

“Not just Newport - the whole area. The most amazing thing was that in Newport we had an Italian prisoner of war camp at one end of the village and an American Hospital at the the other.”

Her father, Maurice Willmore, was headmaster at Newport Grammar School, so the Americans visited their house and the school was allocated an Italian prisoner of war called Serenelli as a gardener.

“I was allowed to take Serenelli a cup of coffee.”

During peace-time, many of the American medics had been musicians; some played for the Boston Philharmonic.

They were glad of being able to use the school’s pianos to practice and gave impressive impromptu concerts.

“The Christmas before D Day, they played with the school orchestra. They really enlivened it.”

She said: “There were Americans at Debden before Pearl Harbour, they were visited by fascinating people including Eisenhower.

“They just took over. They built a massive runway at Stansted. It was the biggest American air base in East Anglia and the runway is still in use today because it was so well built.

“We had an early searchlight. You would listen for the sound of the planes- the German ones sounded different to our Hurricanes and Spitfires.

“You listened to hear if it was one of our planes or a bomber heading for the East End.

“We had pill boxes because they expected an invasion. All the finger signs (signposts) were removed and half of them were never put back.

“All the shops were repainted so instead of saying Newport Co-op, it would just be the Co-op because we didn’t want the Germans to know where they were.

“There were Nissen Huts along Chestnut Avenue, near Audley End with ammunition in the them and it stayed there for ages. That was wartime, darling.”

During the war, Judith was sent away to Roedean boarding school, Usually based in Brighton, it was evacuated to Keswick after the school’s buildings, on a clifftop on the Sussex coast, were requisitioned by the Royal Navy.

So Judith was in the Lake District on VE Day.

As a schoolgirl, she drew a picture of the beacon lit on the night.

She remembers “We had each carried one log to the top of the mountain, Latrigg the lowest mountain in the Lake District, to make the bonfire, which in the end was massive.

“It was an exciting evening and Keswick Station was decked out with bunting and the flags of the Allies.”

She married a war veteran, Lieutenant Colonel John Rich and they had two sons. Judith has seven grandchildren.

John died in 2000.

By coincidence, John’s father was Edmund Milton Rich who was the chief education officer for London and one of the people responsible for planning Operation Pied Piper, the evacuation of nearly a million of London’s school children to safe places around the country.

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