Welsh children at war

Wednesday 18 May 2011, 17:16

Phil Carradice Phil Carradice

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Arguably, children - more than any other section of society - should have been aware of the nation's preparations for war during the 1930s.

Children listing to the radio

Children listing to the radio in 1939

They watched the newsreel features, usually pushed in between the first and second features at the cinema, and read comics that told stories about conflict and the bravery of soldiers.

They collected cigarette cards showing things like war planes of the world and Air Raid Precautions. And yet they, like everyone else, were stunned when war finally broke out in 1939.

Welsh children reacted by doing what they did best - they carried on playing. Not, in those days, on computer games or television. Such luxuries lay well in the future.

Games for children, in cities like Cardiff or Swansea and in rural areas such as Pembroke and Ruthin, were invariably what you could make up in your head:

"We had hopscotch and rounders, marbles and 'Mob.' For 'Mob' you shut your eyes, counted to 20 and then you had to find your friends. Indoors, at night, we played games like Snakes and Ladders or Ludo and Snap. We got around by bus or bicycle. Or simply by walking. There was no being picked up by cars... Once a year you might have a real treat, to go by train to Barry Island for the day."
(Sylvie Bailey in Wales at War)

British toy manufacturers soon cottoned on to a growing or developing market. In pre-war days, many of the best diecast toys had tended to come from Germany, from firms like Bing who had been making them for years.

After the outbreak of hostilities such toys or models were no longer available and British toy makers had no alternative but to produce their own.

In the early days of the war a whole range of tanks, warships and aeroplanes were produced, many of them from manufacturers in places like Merthy Tydfil. It was only as the war went on that materials for such luxuries became scarce and from 1942 onwards such toys were in very short supply. Children were forced to jealously guard their old and, by now, rather battered models.

No matter. For the children of Wales there was always the great outdoors. Racing across the fields, building hides and dens, even playing in the wrecks of crashed aeroplanes, these were what mattered. To the mind of a child, the destruction going on overhead or overseas meant very little. The imagination was all-powerful.

Even the impedimenta of war provided the opportunity for play. Gas mask cases made excellent goal posts while the masks themselves were sometimes the source of unexpected fun, as one man from Newport remembered:

"Every now and then the teacher would call out 'Gas,' in which case we had to get our masks out and put them on. We soon realised that by blocking the intake and then blowing, air was expelled from the sides of the mask. And very realistic farting sounds were made. You'd hear the muffled laughter from inside the masks."
(Bryan Hope in Wales at War)

Shrapnel collecting was one of the most popular activities, particularly in places such as Swansea and Barry, towns that - once France had fallen and, therefore, the range of German bombers extended - were heavily attacked on a regular basis.

On the morning after a raid, parties of children would roam the streets searching for the largest or most interesting pieces of shrapnel. Sometimes the shrapnel - the odd pieces of anti-aircraft shells or bombs that were scattered across the place - was still hot. Shrapnel collecting was an activity that both boys and girls enjoyed and long and intense were the discussions in the school playground over who had acquired the best bits.

Many children belonged to organisations such as the Boy Scouts and Girl Guides. During the war years these groups quickly turned their activities towards helping children and young people do their bit for the war effort.

Collecting metal to turn into planes and erecting Morrison Shelters - steel tables in living rooms for people who had no room to build a shelter out in the garden - were just two of the many tasks that the scouts carried out. The creation of the Air Cadets soon offered another outlet for activity and ATC Squadrons came into existence right across Wales.

Above all, however, there was the cinema. During the war years the popularity of cinema going reached its zenith as men, women and children queued around the block to watch the latest Hollywood epic and the cartoons that were universally adored.

To lose yourself in a cowboy film or a classic like Gone With The Wind was an opportunity, brief as it might be, to forget the troubles of the war for a few short hours. It was something that everyone enjoyed.

It would be wrong to say that the children of Wales - just like children across Britain - enjoyed the war years. But they endured them and, quite simply, made the best out of a very bad job.

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    Comment number 1.

    Perhaps I shouldn't sound a jarring note in the midst of this very cheerful discussion, but I do remember one old friend of mine, who would have been about 80 now had he lived, and who was brought up on Haverfordwest's mellifluously-named Pig Bank, telling me that during the years when their fathers were away at war many of the boys of his generation had a fairly wild time by way of practical jokes, horseplay and so forth, most of them of the kind that nowadays we'd probably classify as "anti-social behaviour"!

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    Comment number 2.

    Come on, Robert, you can't leave it like that. What were the jokes, what type of horseplay? It would be wonderful to hear about the type of thing youngsters got up to in those days - the unsanitised version!

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    Comment number 3.

    In fact, my friend Frank was extremely unspecific. He simply said they had "played hell". I do know that a speciality if his in later years was slipping fireworks through people's letter-boxes, but, quite apart from the potentially horrific nature of such a trick at a time of bombings, I doubt if they'd have been able to acquire fireworks in war-time.

 
 

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