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Wednesday 6th October 2004
RAF dreams turned into coal dust
Warwick Taylor
Warwick Taylor has mixed feelings about his time at the South Wales colliery

Warwick Taylor's experience of the war was not quite what he had been anticipating.

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FACTS

Memories of war time Britain are being re-lived in Hereford this week, as former World War II miners gather in the city for their annual reunion

The so-called "Bevin Boys" either chose or were conscripted to work down the coal mines as an alternative to joining the forces

48,000 were recruited into the industry to meet the huge demand for coal created by the war

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As a keen schoolboy Warwick Taylor had signed up for the Air Training Corps, and served three and a half years in preparation for joining the RAF.

But in 1943, aged 18, his number came up in a government ballot that meant he was sent to work down a South Wales mine for two years.

Warwick Taylor has mixed feelings about his time at the South Wales colliery.

Mr Taylor, now aged 77, was one of nearly 50,000 'Bevin Boys' called up to help produce enough coal to keep the war effort going.

"I had wanted to be in the Air Force, then this wretched scheme came along," said Mr Taylor, who lives in Dorset.

A critical shortage of miners had resulted in desperate measures from the then Minister of Labour and National Service Ernest Bevin.

After the government failed to prevent experienced coal miners being called up to serve in the armed forces, Bevin resorted to putting numbers in a hat every two weeks and drawing out two digits.

quote I don't think, at the time, we really felt like we were making a contribution quote

Warwick Taylor

All men whose National Service Registration Number ended with that digit were sent into coal mining, and any refusal to comply meant a heavy fine or imprisonment.

"I was very fed up and cheesed off about it," said Mr Taylor, who has an MBE and is vice president of the Bevin Boys Association.

"Any appeals we made fell on deaf ears."

But their work formed part of the Home Front effort, the celebrations of which have this week been given a boost with lottery cash.

'Initiation drop'

With no experience of mining, the men were sent to one of 13 training camps for four weeks.

Mr Taylor and hundreds of others were put up in a purpose-built hostel.

"The first time we went down the mine was called our 'initiation drop'. There was a regulation speed in mining of 30 feet per second. They let us drop at 70 feet per second.

"It was horrible. I kept thinking the rope was going to snap."

Bevin Boys reunite
The group has regular regional and national reunions for old Bevin Boys

The eight hour shifts down the mine were physically demanding and mentally tough.

Some men suffered from terrible claustrophobia and were discharged, he said.

Mr Taylor had an illness of his own to contend with.

"I contracted double pneumonia three weeks into the training course.

"They sent me in a taxi to Newport hospital, and on the way the driver said we had to pick someone else up.

"A young woman got in - she was in the final stages of labour. I couldn't do anything because I was drifting in and out of consciousness."

After six weeks in hospital and a life-saving dose of a new drug - penicillin - Mr Taylor was sent back to the colliery where he stayed until after the war ended.

"I played up a bit. I said I'd had enough because the war was finished and we were still there.

"They said I had to complete my national service, so I eventually made it into the RAF."

With hindsight, says Mr Taylor, the part played by those who stayed in the UK was a vital one.

"I don't think, at the time, we really felt like we were making a contribution, but now I'm glad I went through what I did.

"It was an experience and it taught me a lot, especially about the miners."

His work with the Bevin Boys Association has taken him around the country, giving talks and holding reunions.

He has also written a book on the subject, the Forgotten Conscript, and it has helped him appreciate the fate that could have befallen him.

"When I was recovering in hospital from the pneumonia I was in a ward with five other soldiers who had been critically injured in the fighting.

"I remember thinking that could have been the outcome for me."

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