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MY WAR & SCHOOL RECOLLECTIONS.

  This is my story of World War II as I recall it. When the Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, made his announcement on the radio in a special broadcast to the nation that because Germany had refused to withdraw from Poland, Britain was now at war with Germany.

  At this time I was only five years old, living at “The Grange”, Bishops Castle, Shropshire and had been at school for about eight months. The Grange was the old Bishop’s residence which had been converted into the local Police Station and two houses, our family living in one. The houses, grounds and gardens were huge, so much so that our playroom was the size of a current dance hall. I recall my father digging a forty yard by twenty yard garden in the front lawn to grow vegetables to help the war effort. The back garden was also huge with fruit trees, a pond and vegetable plot and one year when the annual fireworks night was held there I remember my brother throwing an almost finished sparkler away, straight into the firework box, causing bedlam. At Bishops Castle the war seemed of little consequence except that many left to join the army.

  In early 1941 we left Bishops Castle to live in the then Wellington, now renamed Telford, the town at the centre of many industrial villages not far from Wolverhampton and Birmingham, the industrial centre of the midlands. Here the war was a reality with local factories manufacturing items of war, including tanks, lorries, jeeps, guns, etc., being renowned for gun barrels. The most famous item of manufacture was the Spitfire, after a factory was set up at Castle Bromwich, which produced 12,129 Spitfires between June 1940 and June 1945, - this being fortuitous as the Southampton factory was bombed out in 1940.

Slowly a lot of this work was being done by a female labour force as more and more men left to join up. Many of the villages around Wellington, such as Dawley, Oakengates, Ironbridge, Coalport, Broseley, etc. besides being heavy industry manufacturers also produced iron and steel for others, so that Coventry, Birmingham and Wolverhampton quickly became the target of the German Luftwaffe. Even my uncles farm at a village near Shifnal had a bomb dropped in its fields, which quickly filled up to make an excellent wild duck pond.

  By this time the “blackout” was in full operation and usually, to save putting up the blackout shutters to get ready for bed and then taking them back down again ready for morning, we got into bed in the dark after undressing in the light downstairs. Most nights flares would be dropped by the Gerrys to locate targets for their bombs. When this happened we could sit up in bed and read very old comics. Beside the blackout, security was also a matter of great concern and doors and walls were plastered with notices about loose talk costing lives. This also consisted of recruiting posters, the most famous of which was a pointing finger with the slogan ‘Your Country Needs You’. Many police officers were called up but my father wasn’t.

  Should the sirens sound because of bombing we had to quickly don shoes and a coat and go down to the air raid shelters, usually a little brick block building built on the street, and offering far less protection than the house, Here we sat side by side on benches and in winter shivered like mad amongst a load of frightened women knitting socks and things from old recycled, taken apart pullovers, cardigans, etc., dad having had to report for duty. Here it was that mothers gave their children cigarettes to calm their nerves, or more likely parental nerves while the children were more interested in what was going on watching the searchlights scan the sky with the anti-aircraft shooting tracers in the sky, and so it was that I started smoking at seven or eight years of age. The air raid sirens were located at Town Halls, Police Stations, Cinemas, etc. where they could be heard by most, giving a continuous wail for an air raid and an intermittent one for the all clear.

  So I started smoking. Cigarettes were one of the few things that did not become an item in a Ration Book. The cost of cigarettes did not change during those war years, you were charged 5d for 10 Woodbines and Park Drive and 6d for 10 Players, Senior Service, Craven A, or the like. Woodbine3s could be bought in 5s. With our very restricted pocket money we kids used to buy a forgotten name of ladies scented cigarettes at 6d for 20. It must be remembered that in those days 2.4d was the equivalent of 1p today and that the
average weekly wage was between 4 and 5 so that anything more than 5d a week pocket money had to be earned. My brother and sister did not smoke, my mother knew that I did and gave me the odd cigarette. If he found out that I had been smoking my father would cane me with a thin, flexible, bamboo cane.

  Very quickly after the outbreak of war food, clothing, petrol, coal, wood and much more came under rationing with transport and import problems. This allowed for a 2lb loaf of bread, per person per week, with 2oz of butter, 8oz of margarine, 4oz of meat, 2oz of sausage, 4oz of lard, 3.5pints of milk, etc. Not a lot to get fat on but schoolchildren did have a third of a pint of milk at school and a school dinner, with lots of cabbage or carrot and potato or chips for a shilling a week. When it could be afforded two or three of us children would club together to buy a still warm, but illegal, malt loaf direct from the bakery on the way to school for 3d. Fruit became a problem for many but apples were available sometimes in the shops, but a lot of the more exotic fruits like bananas, oranges, lemons, etc being so impossible to come by that a popular song of the day was “Yes, we have no bananas”.

  Leather and cloth were required for the forces and was severely rationed for civilians. For this reason, in families, hand me downs were the order of the day, with underpants, knickers and slips being abolished and mothers being good at alterations and creations for their children and themselves. Parachute and blackout material played a large part in this, although where the parachute material came from was unknown to all but a few. Shoes were very scarce and a lot of kids had to put a cardboard lining in theirs unless they could get them cobbled. In this respect I was lucky as dad was a real handyman.

  Petrol and oil were required for war so that petrol rationing was severe. If you were a registered car owner you could apply for a petrol ration, which was only about a gallon or so a week, so most car owners, about one in fifty of population, laid up their cars in front gardens, etc, with roofs or sheds built around for protection, as very few houses in those days had a garage. Owners would run their cars for a few minutes every week or two to keep the battery charged, etc. The vast majority of people moved around on bicycles to get to work and very few people younger than their teens had one, though some parents bribed their children with the promise of one to pass their 11 plus exam for the Grammar School. The main accidents in those days were car doors being opened and knocking people off their bikes.

  Then in late 1942 the Yanks came and set up a huge camp on the east side of town and a big Polish Prisoner-of-War (PoW) was set up on the other. We children and not a few of the women would talk to the American Forces outside their camp with the children’s favourite saying being “Got any gum chum” to elicit chewing gum and cigarettes, with the women hoping for silk stockings. I must admit the American soldiers were friendly and generous and handed out boiled sweets, chocolate and biscuits as with the shortage of sugar, now being made from sugar beet with imports so difficult, even with rationing they were difficult to come by.
  I believe the American troops were supplied with contraceptives as not many females became pregnant by them, although there were many romances with some eventually becoming G.I.Brides. It was a different story with the Polish PoWs. They had been invaded by the Germans and press-ganged into the German army, but being unwilling conscripts most had quickly surrendered and had to be accommodated over here. They were a friendly bunch and through the wire asked to be learnt English, after making themselves understood. It seems some local women became too friendly and became pregnant through the wire confines while their husbands were fighting.

  One of my saddest memories of that time was at school assembly in the mornings when not only did we pray for our soldiers but were told that “Johnny Smith” was not at school for a couple of days as his father had been killed, shot down, was missing, etc.

  The junior school I attended then was about three quarters of a mile from home by the most direct route and included a hundred yard alley through the Gasworks with corrugated iron on either side. We would run through this with a stick in our hands being a machine gun mowing down Germans. At school we often had air raid practices when we had to quickly vacate the classroom and go to the dug-out shelter at the end of the playground. My teacher was a Miss. Knowles and the head-master a Mr. Allan. Miss Knowles was a superb teacher who made lessons so interesting that you remembered everything, an example of which was that at seven or eight she said that there were rules and laws to everything, especially mathematics, but there were also tricks to be learned as well. Multiplying by 11 was a trick for if, say, you were multiplying 27 by 11 you could add the 2 and 7 together making 9 and pop it in the middle, making 297. This would work for any two numbers, except when added together they came to 10 or more the 1 had to be added to the first number. Considering there were no calculators then and you had your times tables to learn by heart, this was quite a revelation.

  One day going to school with friends walking along the A5 to reach a crossing place, one of my friends found a man hanging from a tree. After calling at houses to find a telephone the police were called and ‘lo and behold it was my father who turned up to deal with it. The mans name turned out to be Ricky, so when a couple of weeks later my father brought home a wire haired terrier dog, it had to be called Ricky.

  I was eight when I first sat my Grammar School Entrance Exam, later called the Eleven Plus, as I sat it in the June and was not nine ‘till July. I was given an interview and told that I was thought to be too young to learn with eleven year olds. I passed again the following year and was allowed to go to Wellington Grammar School. My mother later told me that Mr. Allen, the Wrekin Road Junior School headmaster, had told her that I had attained the highest pass score in the County, but I don’t know if this can be true. With a girl called Iris I had always been top of the class in all subjects at Junior School.

  So in 1943 I was attending Wellington Grammar School with its W badge and yellow hooped cap. Again I was good at all subjects whilst being at least a year younger than most in the same year. The school was about a quarter of the way up The Ercal, the smallest of the two hills at the side of the A5 road and yet another three-quarters of a mile from home. My father and a Sergeant Dyer asked me to take part in a road safety film at this time, which I did, and later in a Police Dog tracking film. In the summer of 1944 my father was posted to Oswestry, which meant that I was transferred to Oswestry High School for Boys, Oswestry Grammar School being a private school.

  My move to Oswestry meant that my school work suffered as Latin, French, Metalwork, Woodwork, Biology and Chemistry were not taught until the third year, as was the Trigonometry element of Maths. The disturbance of changing schools didn’t help either and my position in class dropped to about nine or ten. Here besides football and cricket they also had a term where hockey was played, as I know to my cost having the top teeth on the right hand side of my mouth knocked out or broken, to be removed later. However the war seemed to be much further away as we were within a mile or two of Wales in an agricultural environment. Where I had joined The Life Boys in Wellington there was no such pastime in Oswestry and I joined the Boy Scouts.

  About three or so years ahead of me at this school was John Disley who easily won the Senior Cross Country. The first year at this school I took part in the Junior Cross Country, which I won, and the following year was in the Senior Race of six miles against Disley and managed to come second. I mention this with some pride because Disley was later in the Helsinki Olympic Games in which he won Gold in the Long Jump and came Third in the Steeplechase.

  In 1945 the war in Europe came to an end amid big celebrations such as street parties, dancing in the street and everybody kissing everybody else. After two years at Oswestry my father was transferred to Market Drayton whilst I was at a Scout camp at St. Catherine’s Point, near Ventnor, on the Isle of Wight and, as an eleven year old boy, had to be dropped off at Shrewsbury to make my own way home at the end of the camp. Nowadays this would be difficult, but then seemed the norm. With the Scouts at Oswestry I had also taken part in the first Ralph Reeder Gang Show after the war. As a 1st class scout while on the Isle of Wight, with another scout whose name I cannot now recall, I did ’The Journey’, the final part to being made a Kings Scout. After finishing our journals had to be sent away for assessment. Not long later my Kings Scout badge was forwarded from Oswestry.

  In Market Drayton I joined the local Scouts where I was immediately made a Patrol Leader as nobody had attained 1st class status before. Shortly after reaching Market Drayton there were big celebrations again as war in Japan was finally won. So this was my war and I can only add that although restrictions began to ease after a time the ration book was not finally abandoned until 1955, two years before I married. Again with the move my school work suffered and I again slipped back. At this school all subjects were taught from the start so I was way behind in a lot of subjects. However I was not bad at sports, playing cricket for the school and football on one or two occasions. Athletics was my best sport and I was Athletics Captain of the school and Cross Country Captain of the school, the County and the Three Counties. Eric Twemlow was the school mile winner, being two years ahead of me, and later went on to hold the Army mile record after leaving. I was proud to come second to him and prouder still to be the school javelin record holder. Being House Captain and House Prefect of Hill House I found myself in a bit of a pickle in my final year when only nine ’seniors’ in the 4th, 5th and 6th years remained who would take part in the athletics. I had to enter ten events but we did come second, out of three, in the inter-house competition. My school career then ended.