- Contributed by
- BBC LONDON CSV ACTION DESK
- People in story:
- James (Hamish) Cameron (Writer), Jimmy Cameron (Father), Jean Cameron (Mother), Elspeth Cameron (Sister)
- Location of story:
- Ayr, Ayrshire, South West Scotland
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 31 January 2006
This story was submitted to the People's War site by Helen Avey of the BBC London Team on behalf of Hamish Cameron and has been added to the site with his permission. The author fully understands the site's terms and conditions.
The Second World War was, without doubt, the most important thing in my childhood - it dominated everything and affected everyone in a manner that must be incomprehensible to anyone who didn't live through it.
I was ill in bed at the time of the Munich Settlement of 1938 and I remember Mum coming into my bedroom and saying 'It's alright, there isn't going to be a war, they've patched it up', or words to that effect. Even at eight, I was an avid reader of newspapers and I had a fair grasp of the events in Czechoslovakia and the real danger of war, an although I had no idea what war was really like, we were still close enough to The Great War 1914-1918 to know lots of people, (including Dad) who had actually been in it, had heard their stories and realised that it was not a good thing.
War broke out on 3rd September 1939 at 11am. I didn't hear the Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain's famous broadcast because we didn't have a radio (or wireless as we called it) and also because Dad, Elspeth and I were at church. Dad told me that the Minister, Mr Gillison, announced it from the pulpit. Strangely enough, I have no recollection of this but I certainly knew, because I remember coming out of the church feeling that everything should be different and being mildly surprised to see that Fort Street looked just the same as it had done an hour ago, when we were at peace. I don't know what I expected - perhaps soldiers parading as at the Coronation, or German aeroplanes dropping bombs as we had been warned would happen. By the summer of 1939, even I, as a child, knew that war was coming despite optimistic newspaper headlines. Dad had been in the A.R.P. (Air Raid Precautions), where he was a warden, for some months and we had all been issued with gas masks fairly recently.
The first impact of the war came next day, Monday 4th September, when we stood at the close mouth and looked at long lines of children evacuated from Glasgow, streaming along Fort Street en route from the railway station to Ayr Academy, which was a reception centre, before the evacuees were distributed amongst families in Ayr. I have no idea why no evacuees ever came to 49 Fort Street because it was a big house - perhaps it was because at that time we lived as sub-tenants on the top floor, the remainder of the house being occupied by a Mr & Mrs Black, who, I think, may have had other sub-tenants in some of the rooms. That is the only reason I can think of because the Billeting Officer had inspected the house and, when my parents took over the tenancy of the whole house after the Blacks left, we very soon had soldiers billeted on us, but this was not until early 1940 by which time all the evacuees had been accommodated.
I think the schools must have been closed for the first few days of the war as many (as I found out later) were, like Ayr Academy, used as reception centres. I remember being appalled by the sight of those children. All were carrying bundles and, of course, gas masks, but many of them to us, looked dirty and many appeared to be in rags. We were not rich and wore patched jerseys and shorts, but that was my first glimpse of real poverty. Even the Lochside element at Newtonhead were much cleaner and better clad than those evacuees. Years later I learned that they came from some of the worst slums of Glasgow where conditions were beyond our imaginations. When we went back to school we had to take our gas masks and, in fact, for the first few months of the war we never went anywhere without them. At school we were immediately taught air raid drill, which meant that when the school bell was sounded, we all donned our gas masks and lay down on the floor under our desks, which were not the flimsy plywood and chipboard ones of today, but solid oak and iron, shared by two. They would possibly have protected us, to some extent, from flying glass and falling rubble but, fortunately, it was never put to the test in our case. Slight as the protection may have been, it was amazing the sense of security I felt with the desk above and my gas mask on my face. The major drawback was that the celluloid visor of the gas mask soon misted up and before long all that one could see was a grey mist. The school bell was a large cast iron one mounted in a small belfry and rung by a rope that came down into the hall. The only person allowed to touch this rope was the janitor, Mr Graham. This method of warning couldn't have been used for very long, as the government ordered that all tolling bells be silenced and only rung in the event of a German invasion. I have read in, I think, The People's War by Angus Calder that they were rung in October 1942 to celebrate the great victory of the 8th Army at El Alamein in Egypt and then not again until 8th May 1945 at the end of the war in Europe.
At first, apart from carrying gas masks and hearing the Air Raid Sirens sounding for practice at set times, nothing much seemed different but gradually food and sweets started to be more difficult to get, although for some time Elspeth and I were still able, on a Saturday afternoon on our way to Green's Picture House, to buy for one penny (0.40p) a dumbbell (i.e. a double ended lollipop), a buttermilk dainty (a large creamy caramel) and a liquorice strap (a roll of liquorice with a small coloured sweet in the middle). We each got pocket money of 6d (2 1/2p) per week and usually spent 1d on sweets as above, 3d on the pictures on a Saturday, leaving us 2d for the rest of the week. We usually bought a 1/2p poke (a swirl of old newspaper) of puff candy from a wee shop in New Road, which we passed on our way to school until the shortage of sugar and rationing put a stop to it.
Rationing came in slowly and surely but soon we all had ration cards for all essential food - meat, bacon, eggs, sugar, butter, margarine, milk and tea amongst others. Those things not on the ration e.g. tinned beans, peas and fruit, could be bought only by using 'Points' of which everyone had an allocation as a supplement to the regular ration book. Points were used largely on the basis of what was available, as often the shops had little on which it was possible to use 'points'. Bread, strangely enough, was not rationed until the very austere period immediately after the war. I was well aware of this, as I did a lot of the shopping for Mum who, by now, seldom got out on account of the soldiers and others billeted on us and for whom she cooked, cleaned and washed from early morning and until late at night when we had theatre people, but more of them later.
I also took messages fro Miss Taylor, a crippled lady who lived in Fullarton Street and who took in boarders for a living. Despite being crippled, she was an Air Raid Warden and manned the telephone at the Warden's Post, which was behind her house. She was in the same post as Dad, which was how we came to know her. She was unable to go shopping, so on Mondays and Wednesdays after school, and on Saturday mornings, I did her messages. I did this for about three years until I was ill. She paid me one shilling and sixpence (7 1/2p). For this, for the time, reasonable rate of pay, I did about 6-7 hours per week. I learned the amount of the ration of all the basics: tea, sugar, butter, milk, bacon, meat, coal and eggs (1 per week per person). I also knew the number of 'points' required for any 'off the ration' goods such as tins of peas, beans, spam and fish, when available. Tinned fruit was also, in theory, available on points but was very seldom to be had. Fresh fruit, except apples and tomatoes in season, was virtually unknown, although not rationed. Whenever rumours were that any scarce items were to be had, huge queues formed until everything was sold.
Dad managed to get an allotment which, thanks to his untiring efforts, meant we always had plenty of fresh vegetables and so often had soup, as Mum's butcher, Mr Taylor of Sandage, knowing the number of people she had to feed, was good at letting her have the bones. Of course, the soldiers and other lodgers had ration books, which they gave to Mum and she could therefore buy in greater quantity, which was less wasteful. Each family had to be registered with a food supplier, which meant they could only buy their rations from a named shop. Points could be used (in theory) at any shop but, in effect, the shop usually kept their points goods for regular customers. Sometimes shops would have spare points goods (not everyone could afford to buy their full entitlement) and when word got about, long queues would form until stocks were exhausted. Thanks to Dad's allotment and the large number of ration books in use, we never went hungry, as the bones and vegetables meant that there was always plenty of soup. Sausages were available on points, but as the war went on these became so unpalatable that I would not eat them even when there was nothing else. They left the mouth coated with grease and were made mostly with fat, odd scraps of meat and breadcrumbs. Radio comedians used to joke about eating them with jam instead of HP sauce or tomato ketchup.
What I really missed was fruit and, especially, bananas which just disappeared for the entire duration. I had a friend at Ayr Academy whose sister worked at Prestwick Airfield where, later in the war, planes (mostly 'Liberators') arrived in Britain from the USA, flown in by ferry pilots who wore blue uniforms and were a common sight in Ayr. My friend's sister was friendly with one of the Ferry Pilots who, on one occasion, gave her a present of a banana. She halved it with my friend, who gave me half of his share, which I took home and cut in four, making a bit for Mum, Dad, Elspeth and me, and that sixteenth part of a banana was all we tasted of them until well after the war was finished. We were not obsessed with food, but it, and the possibility of a lack of it, did occupy quite a bit of our thoughts.
I took a very keen interest in the progress of the War and followed the maps which were printed in the papers and listened to the wireless set which we acquired early in 1940, for the major news bulletins which were at six and nine pm. I remember hearing of the defeats in May and June 1940 and the announcement that Marechal Petain, the victor of Verdun in 1917 had taken over the Government of France. I remember Dad saying that now that Petain was in charge, France would continue to fight and that, until the, he (Dad) had been afraid France would surrender - which in fact, it did just a few days later. The Dunkirk evacuation followed, which we were told was a great victory but, from what Dad said and the stories and rumours about the state of escapees from Dunkirk, I suspected that it was nothing of the sort and Churchill's speeches seemed to confirm this.
That summer Elspeth and I spent our summer holidays in Greenock with Granny and Grandpa Waller and Aunt Bess and Uncle Alex. My memory is of a lovely summer and wandering on the moors above Greenock, having picnics (with my cousin bobby Waddell and his friends) and damming the burns. The war seemed to be remote apart from the sailors, some French, about Greenock and the huge number of Warships and other ships lying at the Tail of the Bank, which we could see quite clearly from the hills. No doubt so could German planes, for suddenly one day we saw 3 planes, which were clearly German, high above us, closely followed by 2 smaller planes, clearly ours, because we could see them chasing and firing at the fleeing Germans. That was my first experience of war and the only 'dogfight' I ever saw. The German planes had obviously done their job because, during the rest of our stay in Greenock, we had several air raids.
I remember the first quite clearly because we were wakened by Granny and told to get our dressing gowns on and get downstairs quickly. All lights, of course, were out, even though the thick blackout curtains would not let a chink out, but during the raid you took no chances and used only torches. We joined the others on the lower part of the stairs, which was considered the safest part of the house as, at that particular part, there were two walls on either side, and that is where Granny and Grandpa were a year later when they were bombed out, and which probably saved them. We sat on the stairs for several hours, mostly in the dark, playing word games and inventing tortures which we would inflict on Hitler after the war, which, even then in its darkest days, we never doubted for a minute that we would win. This was repeated several times before we went home but we never heard any bombs, although buildings were destroyed in parts of the town near the docks, and people were killed.
The Greenock Blitz occurred in the spring of 1941, when much of the town was destroyed, including Granny's house, and many people were killed. I remember that spring well as there were almost nightly air raid alarms as the Luftwaffe pounded Greenock, Clydebank, Glasgow and Paisley. The noise of planes flying over and the banging of anti-aircraft guns were very loud as the German planes passed over Ayr during their journeys. Mum used to get us up to sit in the shelter under the stone spiral staircase which went the full three storeys of the house, and which Dad said would probably hold up if the house was hit by blast. He never mentioned a direct hit but we knew that if that happened it was unlikely to be of much use. Mum had provisioned the space with tins of food, candles, blankets and buckets, one with sand and one with water, and there was a chest (my Great Grandpa Allisons' sea chest) with spare clothing and other items she thought would be useful if we had to stay for some time which, fortunately, we never did. After several nights with no bombs in Ayr, Mum just left us to sleep which we did, despite the racket, but one night I woke up and went downstairs to find Mum in the dark, with the blackout shutters open standing at the sitting room window looking out at the red glow in the sky - Dad and the Commandos were all out on duty, as they always were during a raid. I knew how dangerous it was to stand at a window during a raid so I knew she must be worried. I joined her and I remember her putting her hand on my shoulder and saying 'some poor souls are getting it bad tonight'. I could see the great glow in the sky which, as we discovered later, was Greenock burning. I think Mum maybe guessed that it was Greenock and was thinking of her parents. When Elspeth and I got home from school next afternoon, Granny, Grandpa and Aunt Bess were in the house, and they stayed with us for several months. Uncle Alex stayed in Greenock, I don't know where, and Aunt Bess soon went back to be with him, but Granny and Grandpa stayed until their house was made habitable.
Although Ayr had many air raid alerts, about which we became quite blasé, there was only one real raid and it came without warning. It was late on a Saturday night in the middle of September in, I think, 1942 or possibly 1943. It was the last night of the summer show 'The Gaiety Whirl' which ended in September and, as we always had members of the cast staying with us, as a special treat we went as a family to the second house, starting at 8.45pm. The last show of the season was always a bit of a party and the show ran late so, although we lived near the Gaiety, by the time we found our way home in the blackout (because there was no street lighting and most people carried shaded torches which were not very efficient, with the result that collisions with other people were not uncommon) it must have been approaching midnight. We were sitting in the kitchen (Elspeth and I in pyjamas) having a cup of tea before bed when, suddenly, there was the loudest bang I have ever heard, or ever wish to hear. The whole house seemed to leap in the air. Dad shouted 'Good God, a bomb' and laid his cup of tea on a non-existent table (it fell on the floor), and rushed out to his warden's post.
We put out all the lights and went down to our shelter under the stairs, where we stayed, trembling in the dark for some time. Mum lit a couple of candles and gave us a biscuit. I think we also had team, in which case she must have gone back to the kitchen to make it. After several hours, Dad came back and told us that it was all clear and that a landmine had been dropped but that it had fallen just outside the harbour mouth and that no one had been killed as far as he knew. Shortly afterwards, the All Clear siren sounded and we went to bed. The Commandos must have been out as I don't remember them being there and, of course, as during a raid you stayed off the streets, the theatre people were kept there. For the next week everyone talked about 'The bomb' which made me realise how lucky we were in Ayr compared to other places which were bombed regularly. The air raid alerts became fewer as the war went on and why Ayr was not bombed I never understood. Ayr was a busy harbour and had a huge naval training base HMS Scotia, at the Heads of Ayr, and Prestwick Airfield was the main gateway into Britain for supply planes from North America. All of these, plus Ayr's heavy engineering works, would have been worth bombing, but fortunately for us either the Germans didn't know about them or considered them too far away for sustained attack.
I remember one alert in particular. A friend and I had gone to the Odeon Picture House straight from school because, on account of the blackout, unaccompanied school children were not allowed in after 4.30. The film was 'the Great Dictator' starring Charlie Chaplin, a satire on Hitler. In those days a night at the pictures included a 'B' picture, a cartoon, a newsreel and, sometimes, a war propaganda short, as well as the main feature, so I had told Mum I would be home about 7.30. Just before the big picture, the Manager came onto the stage and told us that there was an air raid on; that everyone was to stay in the cinema until the All Clear and that the films would run all night if necessary. This worried me as I was expected home but I waited. When the show was starting for the third time I determined to risk the Air raid and go home. I ran as much as the blackout allowed and got home very late, nearly 11pm I think. Mum was about frantic, as Dad and the Commandos were all out and she didn't know which cinema I was in as 'The Great Dictator' was showing in another one as well. My cousin, Joe Waller (Uncle Bob's eldest son), was home on leave from the Army and was visiting us, so Mum sent him out to look for me, an almost impossible task, given the blackout and the number of picture houses in Ayr. I don't remember getting a row for being late but I expect Mum understood and was relieved to see me. This must have been in the winter of 1942/43 because I was in the first year at Ayr Academy.
Despite the war, Elspeth and I had a happy childhood. We were fortunate that Dad wasn't away in the Forces because he was too old (he was 45 when the war started) and that we had (by the standards of the time) a comfortable home. We played in the streets, (football, cricket and lots of children's games including my favourite Leavo and Bar the Door), quite safely as there was virtually no traffic. We also wandered far and wide, along the beach to Doonfoot, to Alloway, to have picnics on the Carrick Hills and, on one occasion, I walked along the Carrick Shore to Dunure and back by the road. We played in Craigie Park which was an Army Assault training Ground and was strictly out of bounds, but that made it all the more exciting as there was always the danger of being caught (we never were). The same applied to Boswell House in Sandgate, which was a Post Office store, but was huge and made a wonderful playground where we were always on the alert for people coming in, and then we rushed to shelters we had made amongst the mail bags and hid there until the men went away. On reflection this must have been dangerous as we burrowed deep into the piles of bags, which, had they ever collapsed, would have crushed and suffocated us, but this never entered our minds.
Now the Craigie Assault Course is all built over, partly houses, and partly Craigie College. Boswell House (Officially Sandgate House) had been the town house of the Boswells of Auchinleck and was demolished many years ago and the site is now covered by the Post Office, as is Dad's last allotment which was in the garden.
Over the early war years, 1940/43, we had a total of twelve soldiers billeted on us. The first was Regimental Quartermaster Sergeant Palmer, with his wife and daughter Jessie, who was slightly older than me. He was about Dad's age but was a regular soldier in the RSF (Royal Scots Fusiliers, 21st of Foot, the local regiments) and was not long back from the garrison duty in Egypt. They didn't stay very long, but Dad and RQMS Palmer got on very well and Jessie, a tall red-haired girl, played with Elspeth and me. We were sorry when they left. We were a bit in awe of Jessie at first as she seemed so far travelled, but we got on well.
The next two were officers, two lieutenants of the Honourable artillery Company and with hindsight; I expect they were University OTC graduates. We called them Mister, as it was not considered polite in those days for children to address adults by their Christian names. This changed later on and subsequent soldiers and chorus girls were soon addressed by their first or, sometimes, nicknames. Of the two officers, the only one I remember was Mr Harris, who was Scottish, and, long after he used to visit us when on leave and after the war came once with his wife, shortly after they were married.
Next came three troopers (they were called that, not 'private') of No. 12 Commando. Dennis, who was Welsh, and Harry and Alf who were English. They were with us for a few months and were all in the first ever Commando Raid which was to the Lofoten Islands off the coast of Norway, and was designed to cover the retreat from Narvik at the end of the Norwegian Campaign in the summer of 1940. All three survived and came back to regale us with tales of the raid, one of which was the capture of a lighthouse just as its German occupants were about to eat their dinner, which was eaten by the Commandos instead while the captive German soldiers looked on. Harry was tall, and on guard duty always got 'The stick'. He was considered the best turned-out soldier of the guard and was excused all but nominal duties for 24 hours. Dennis who was small and dark was our favourite and we were sad when he suddenly got RTU i.e. Returned to Unit which, in his case, was the Gloucestershire Regiment. They wore two cap badges, one at the front and a smaller one at the back, to commemorate 'The Battle of the Nile' in 1798, when, being reduced in numbers, they fought back-to-back. All three '12 Commandos' were originally Gloucester's and, as it was before the Green Berets, they still wore their Gloucester caps. RTU was considered a punishment and Harry and Alf would never tell us why it happened to Dennis because, unlike Harry and Alf, he did not go drinking, or cause any trouble. Mum always maintained that he was too gentle to be a Commando.
About the end of 1940, No. 12 Commandos were moved to be replaced in Ayr by No. 2 Commandos and our allocation was five troopers; Arthur, Bert, Reg, Fitz (a nickname), Horace (called Gordon because he hated 'Horace' and we only discovered his real name when his mother came to spend a holiday with us and referred to him all the time as 'Our 'Orace' - much to his chagrin. We continued to call him Gordon). All were English. Our favourites were Gordon, who was full of fun, and Bert who was very gentle and spent hours playing the piano in the sitting room. They were with us a long time and became members of the family.
They spent many evenings' playing cards with Dad and Charlie Sheldrick, a regular in the RSF who was stationed in the Churchill Barracks and who visited us regularly. Charlie was in Naples in 1944 when Vesuvious erupted and sent us a photograph of this, which I still have. We went for walks with them along the shore on Sunday afternoons and they taught me to dismantle and re-assemble a Tommy gun and were going to let me fire it out to sea until Mum and Dad found out and forbade it - much to my disappointment. Gordon and Arthur came with us to Greenock to visit Granny Waller as they had got to know them while Granny and Grandpa lived with us after the Blitz. Arthur's Sister Gwen, who was in the ATS and his wife Doreen, came and spent holidays with us. In March 1942 No 2 Commandos disappeared suddenly. The boys, as we called them, collected their gear and went. By that time in the war we knew better than to ask where they were going. We soon found out, when the news of the raid on St. Nazaire was announced on the radio, and the fact that it had been carried out by the Commandos.
Some time later, the boys returned but said nothing and we didn't ask. Gordon was not among them and we thought he must have been killed but he eventually turned up. He had got separated in some way and had been at sea in a rubber dinghy for some time before being picked up by an MTB. Although all our boys got back, many of the No 2 Commandos didn't, including Captain Burnie, our boys' Troup Commander, who was killed. In 1997 Jean and I visited St Nazaire and went to the Commando memorial and saw the name of Captain Burnie, along with one or two others whom I recognised as being friends of 'our boys'. Mum and Dad kept open house and we knew many of the Commandos who were billeted elsewhere. The boys never said much but were affected by the death of Captain Burnie, whom they all liked. There was a very close relationship in the Commandos between the officers and other ranks. Captain Burnie was replaced by Captain, The Duke of Wellington, known to everyone as 'Dook'. The boys left us sometime in 1943 and we had letters from them for a time from Gibraltar, then silence. Early in 1944 we heard on the radio that the Duke of Wellington had been killed at the Anzio landing in Italy and we knew then where the boys were and why we hadn't heard from them. Gordon and Bert kept in touch with us for a long time and Gordon wrote at the end of the war that he was married and coming to see us with his wife. Mum prepared a room for them but they never came and Mum's letters went unanswered, so we never knew what happened.
The last of our soldiers was quite different from the rest, and the only one I actively disliked. He was Sergeant Samuel Sopp of the Intelligence Corps. He was older than any of the others and laid claims to being an intellectual. He told us he was a great reader and Dad, generous as ever, told him to avail himself of any of the books in the house (of which Dad had a fair number, mostly classics). He told Dad he only read Philosophy, biography and history. We never found out if this was true as none of us ever saw him read a book, and Elspeth and I always had to wait for our comics until he had finished reading them. He was always in early the day that the comics arrived. He always sat in Dad's seat when he was out, and even when Dad came in he had to wait for his seat, as Elspeth and I did for our comics. Trixie, our fox terrier dog, hated him and used to growl when he came in. He annoyed Mum because, on paydays, he never arrived for his meals but went out drinking. He also had a source of sweets, although they were rationed, and used to eat them secretly and only occasionally offered us one. On one occasion he had a large poke of pan drops and took out two with his fingers and gave one to Elspeth and one to me. He must have seen the look on my face, and said 'I suppose you would like more' and then bet me that I couldn't hold five in my mouth.
The stake was the shilling he paid me each week to clean his shoes. I kept my mouth open and managed to accommodate 13, much to his amazement, and I nearly choked but I was determined to get as many as possible and beat him. I spat them out, dried them, and ate them over the next week. Dad, who saw the whole thing, was delighted. Sammy (that's what Elspeth and I called him in private, but we always called him Mr Sopp to his face) brought his wife from Southampton after one of his leaves. Mum and she didn't get on as she talked to Mum as though she was a servant and never offered help of any kind, unlike most of the visitors to Fort Street. He also claimed to be a linguist and told us he spoke several languages. Including fluent German. We were in no position to doubt this, until one time when Dickie Pather (one of the theatricals of which more later), who had worked for years before the war in a German Circus and where he had learned his skills, was eager for the chance to speak German again. He started a conversation with Sammy in that language, which didn't last long. Dickie told us later, that Sammy's German didn't amount to much so, fairly or unfairly, we doubted his other claims to intellectual superiority. Sammy was with us for about a year and when he left we were pleased, unlike the sorrow we felt when 'the boys' left.
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