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Personal Experience in World War 2 (Part 1)

by Sutton Coldfield Library

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Archive List > Working Through War

Contributed by 
Sutton Coldfield Library
People in story: 
Patricia McGowan, General Charles de Gaulle, Bob Price, Oliver (Jim) Byrne
Location of story: 
Birmingham and Sutton Coldfield, West Midlands
Background to story: 
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
04 August 2005

Patricia, taken the week before her wedding in 1943

This story was submitted to the People's War web site by Sutton Coldfield Library on behalf of Patricia McGowan and has been added to the site with her permission. The author fully understands the sites terms and conditions.

I had been working at Morris Commercial Cars in Adderley Road when I was seventeen years old but changes in staff became the cause of my leaving there. I saw there was a vacancy in the drawing office at BSA (Birmingham Small Arms Ltd) at Armoury Road, Small Heath, so I applied. I had been having tuition from a neighbour, Mr Neal, going to his house to become efficient in using technical drawing instruments. From the few samples I did, he took them along to his boss to see and this brought about an interview. I was told at the interview that it would be near enough six months before I could do an actual tracing on linen with Indian Ink, but during this testing period I would be working on charts and graphs. Anyway I must have impressed the Chief Draughtsman because I received a letter the next week to say that I had got the job and I could start on 23rd May 1940. At last I had got the opportunity I had wanted.

I was excited about the job and I would be in the thick of the industrial area. Later on, I did tracings of 'Op Books' which were almost like animation, a small drawing of a piece of metal and then the various processes to it on separate drawings, so that if all the small drawings were flicked through, it came alive, so to speak! They were rather boring to do but later on I worked on the Besa Gun and the 4 Dash. Old soldiers would know what these gun parts represented. We started to get air raids and often it was a case of dashing down to some strangers air-raid shelter when the sirens went off and all this before I reached home. Mr Churchill stressed the need for 'war effort' which involved working longer hours. I willingly agreed to work sometimes to 8 o'clock at night and quite a few times I had to make a dash for the the last bus in operation before they were stopped altogether. My mother, at such times, would be distraught with worry when I was late returning home.

There was a period whilst at the BSA when I moved to the Gauge Control Department and was working on pricing then later on, maps. We had heard that a VIP was to visit the company and everyone was agog at this news. It turned out to be General De Gaulle and one morning he arrived in the Planning Office where I worked. My desk was in the front row and he stopped directly in front of me. My boss was talking to him and explaining things as they walked by but what surprised me was that the General said "Good morning" to me and I replied. Quite a moment to file in one's memory I thought. He was extremely tall, as everyone knew and I had to stretch my neck to speak to him.

When working in the drawing office at BSA I met up with another draughtsman called Bob Price. He was very good looking and used to come over to my board to have a chat. He asked me out and we started to become close friends. At this time he was 19 years old and I was 18. The day we met was October 1st 1940. Our romance was progressing and I had a letter from him every day. Because of the war situation Bob had to join the fire fighting service which was stationed at the BSA itself. His task was pretty gruesome in that he had to stay on the roof of the factory most nights and when there was a raid and bombs had dropped on the building, it was his duty to find the victims and to pull them out of the rubble. He told me that one time he heard this faint cry for help amid the smoke and dust of bricks and mortar. He saw a hand poking out of a pile of bricks. People were working on night shifts during the war years at such factories as the BSA. Bob went to this victim and started to pull the hand…his stomach turned over, he said, when the hand and arm came away unattached to the body. He gathered his wits about him and feverishly, with some help from his mates, pulled all the bricks and rubble away to find a young girl of about 18. She was bleeding profusely from the wound where her arm had been torn off and all she could utter was…"please could someone give me a cigarette and I shall be all right". Later on, Bob found out that her name was Mary and that she had recovered after such a terrible ordeal. He didn't tell me any other stories but said there had been other tragedies like that and the sights often gave him nightmares. Bob would finish his night shift then write me a letter, place it on my board and go home to sleep. I would find it next morning and write back for him to pick up when he came back on duty again. This went on for some time and at last he was taken off the fire duty, thank goodness. Incidentally, our romance progressed and we became engaged on December 24th 1940.

Because of the constant bombing of the industrial area around Birmingham, a lot of folk went into the countryside and even changed jobs if possible. I was one of them! It got so bad at the BSA with the air raids starting before I could get back home, that it was decided I should leave there. For a time I stayed with my sister Evelyn and brother-in-law Mick in Sutton Coldfield. They had moved into a new house in Springfield Road not far from the little pub called The Anvil. It was quite countrified in that area, fairly rural and not many bombs were being dropped there, so I felt a lot safer. Evelyn's next door neighbour worked at Southalls in Birmingham and there was a job going in the typing pool if I wanted it. The plan was I could go with Mr Letts to work in the morning and he would bring me back at night. I used to sleep under the stairs just to be on the safe side! I got the job and stuck it out for a while but I hated it at Southalls. We had a strict Manageress in the pool. If you bent to reach for a hanky, you were wasting time according to her. I played up so that I would get the sack and I did! The raids were getting a little less in Birmingham so I went back home. I rang my old boss, Mr Silver of the Planning Department at BSA and asked if there were any vacancies for a tracer. He said there was, so I went back to the job I liked, commencing on 17th February 1941. I stayed at BSA until 1943 - the year I married, but not to Bill or Bob. I met Oliver Byrne in October 1942 and we married on July 3rd 1943. He was still in the army at this time and demobbed in 1946, then we set up home together and by this time I had a little daughter of two years old.

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