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15 October 2014
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An Angel’s War

by culture_durham

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Archive List > Childhood and Evacuation

Contributed by 
People in story: 
Vera Barber
Location of story: 
Bishop Auckland, Aycliffe Munitions factory
Background to story: 
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
08 November 2005

This story was submitted to the People's War site by Durham Clayport Library on behalf of Vera and has been added to the site with her permission. The author fully understands the site's terms and conditions

In 1939 I spent the end of my summer holiday at Bedlington in Northumberland with my maternal grandparents. The newspapers were forecasting that war with Germany was imminent so on the 1st September my Grandad decided that I should go home and took me to Newcastle and put me on an OK bus to Bishop Auckland.
I remember the 3rd September, Sunday morning and the wireless being on and hearing that we were at war. I was 14 years old and it didn’t mean a lot to me but I could tell my parents were worried, my Dad having served in the First World War in France. Being at the Girl’s County School (Grammar School)I still had to go to school until I was 16 years old. We were issued with gas masks and life continued more or less as normal.
We lived in Hall Terrace which was next to the Edgar Hall and troops arrived; first the 6th Durhams and then the 52nd Anti Tank Regiment and were billeted in the Hall. Our house had a bathroom and hot water so every evening we had 5 or 6 of the soldiers arriving with their buckets for hot water to wash in. a favoured few were allowed to have a bath in our house.
Later we were issued with ration books but never went hungry and Mam could always give meals to one or two of the homesick lads, or my boyfriends.
When Tyneside was being bombed, Gateshead Grammar School pupils were evacuated to Bishop Auckland and we shared our school. We went in the mornings and Gateshead in the afternoons.
My brother volunteered for the Royal Air Force and we had an evacuee, Kathy, from Gateshead.
As soon as I was 16 years old, I left school and one week later started work at S.E. Taylor’s the photographers. I did bookkeeping, serving customers, working in the studio, changing films in the darkroom and taking photographs. They were mostly soldiers in uniform to send pictures back to wives or parents, or children o send to fathers serving in the war. Film was rationed so we were only able to take a minimum amount, even of weddings.
We coped very well with the blackout and I don’t ever remember feeling nervous in the dark. Nor did Eva brown and I feel nervous at 16 years old when we did fire watching at the top of a block of solicitors offices in North Bondgate overnight.
In 1940 bombs were dropped over Toft Hill, Etherley and Bishop Auckland. Our family took refuge in the cupboard under the stairs. When it was over I visited my Aunt at Etherley and panes were broken in her greenhouse and I retrieved a piece of shrapnel from it and I still have it.
In 1943 I went to work in the munitions factory at Aycliffe. I worked in the Progress Department in the offices on Group 3 where we made fuses and detonators for shells. The detonators were very fragile and many lost fingers handling them. My memory is of hearing a bang and then the office and shop managers would put on their hats and go to investigate. My only danger was of getting a rash from the powder on the paperwork which I handled. I still have my book of Danger Rules because most applied to us as well.
When we arrived on the Group, having travelled by train from Bishop Auckland to Heighington and then on a Tilly bus to the Group, we had to go in through the shift house which was divided into two. One side was dirty where contraband (cigarettes, matches, hair grips, jewellery or anything metallic) had to be left and we had to leave outdoor clothing and shoes. Then you crossed over to the clean side where shop workers had to change into their overalls and shoes and I had to change into my “clean” shoes which were made without nails and were rubber soled. We walked to the shops and office along cleanways which were raised from the ground and railed on both sides.
Some of each batch of fuses were taken to the firing shop to be tested and one day when I was in there the men let me press the buttons to fire two and gave them to me to bring home. I still have them.
We had entertainment in some of our breaks in the canteens and I still have a Workers Playtime ticket which a broadcast on the radio each day from all over the country.
To conserve materials, “Material Utilisation” was introduced to the factory and I was the first one to introduce it on Group 3 before it went to the other Groups.
In 1945 we celebrated the end of the war in Europe at ROF Aycliffe. In June of 1945 I was given notice that the factory would cease to operate about the end of August and my employment would terminate on 31st August 1945. I still have that notice.
When the troops who had been prisoners of war in Europe came home, some came to the hospital in Sedgefield before going home and we put on parties in the canteens at Aycliffe for them. Work was very slack and we had a very quiet time before we closed. We had Group photographs taken and we said our goodbyes before leaving and over the years have only had contact with very few.

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These messages were added to this story by site members between June 2003 and January 2006. It is no longer possible to leave messages here. Find out more about the site contributors.

Message 1 - An Angel’s War

Posted on: 08 November 2005 by Peter - WW2 Site Helper

Dear culture_durham

Would you please tell Vera that I was very interested in her story. It highlights the danger that young women faced in working in munition factories during WW2.


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