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Memories: A Wartime Childhood in Ripon

by skypilot

Contributed by 
skypilot
People in story: 
Bruce LeG. Petfield
Location of story: 
Ripon, West Yorkshire
Article ID: 
A2041606
Contributed on: 
14 November 2003

A Child’s Memories of Wartime
My earliest memory of WW2 was, I suppose, when I was 4 years old. It must have been early summer and one of my older brothers who would have been about 15 years old at the time took me to a big house not too far from where we lived in Ripon, Yorkshire. This house had been turned into a depot where gas masks were being issued.
I can't say that I recall understanding at the time why they were being given out. That came later when I started school in September 1939 and now that we were at war with Germany it meant that we had to carry our gas masks everywhere we went.
At first we did so in the strong cardboard boxes in which they were issued complete with string to help us carry them. Later on an extra filter had to be added to all gas masks to make them safer (in case, I recall, arsenic smoke bombs were dropped). The extra filter made them too big for the original cardboard boxes.. I remember then having a blue tall cylindrical tin for my mask, The gas mask neatly fitted into the tin and it only took a second to take off the lid and take out the gas mask.
In addition to the gas mask we were also told to carry some cotton wool to put in our ears and a piece of rubber to place between our teeth. This was necessary we were told to avoid concussion and damage to our ears although I don't know how true this was. I suppose I carried my gas mask until I was about 8 years old by which time the scare of the Germans using gas to attack us had disappeared.
The war did not concern us much as we were very young and didn't really understand what was really happening and , in any case I think my parents deliberately didn't tell us things in case we became frightened. I have a vague memory of my eldest brother coming home in uniform with his rifle and ammunition. I didn't see him again for five or six years. I remember too going to the railway station to see two older brothers going off to join the Services as they became old enough to volunteer. Mother used to cry especially when she thought no one was looking. She had three sons away and obviously worried about them.
School life was normal, I suppose, for those times -learning to read and write and do sums and play. We also
had to learn about air raids and what to do when the air raid sirens sounded. The sirens made a loud wailing noise to warn us that an air raid was possibly coming. Then, after a while, the All Clear sounded and I do remember feeling relieved.
When the siren sounded we had to stop what we were doing and, if at school, we crawled under our desks and put the cotton wool in our ears and bit on the piece of rubber (usually a pencil rubber) and then put on our gas masks. The desks wouldn't have saved us if the school had received a direct hit but we would have been protected from flying glass even though all the windows had, by this time been crisscrossed, with brown sticky paper.
If we were at home when the sirens went (which was generally at night) then we came downstairs and sheltered in the large cupboard under the stairs. Some families built Anderson Shelters in the garden.
Ripon was never actually bombed although I remember there was talk of incendiary bombs being dropped. I do remember my father carrying me to the back door of the house on a moonlight night and seeing what I think must have been a German Dornier bomber flying over. I remember it made a strange thrum thrum sound.
Life for me was clearly affected by the war but I was very young when it started and only had dim memories of what life had been like before it started. We accepted it because it was all we had really known. I remember being frightened at the thought of the Germans invading us. There were posters at school which had pictures of German soldiers and their uniforms. Big blocks of concrete appeared on bridges which were supposed to stop tanks using them if invasion came.
There were no sweets to be bought although mother used to make homemade mints and "walking sticks" from National Dried Milk and peppermint essence. The sort of food we ate was very basic. Food rationing meant that meat and butter and eggs were in short supply. There were schemes at school to collect waste paper.
I remember the railings around gardens and parks being taken away to be melted down. There was a great bronze canon which stood on a plinth near the Cathedral and which had come from the Crimean War being cut up with oxy-acetylene torches. There were posters that warned us about careless talk costing lives. We were urged to save National Savings stamps that then could be used to buy Savings Certificates.
One time there was a German fighter (a Messerschmitt I think) standing in the Market Square and people stuck National Savings Stamps on it as a way of giving money to what was called the War Effort. There was much stress on National Savings, Digging for Victory and avoiding careless talk -which cost lives so the posters warned us. There might be spies about.
I remember from before the war a man used to come round to light the gas street lamps. With the start of the war there was no street lighting at all. Cars (the few that were about in those days) had special light guards on their headlights. It was known as the "blackout' and no lights at all had to be shown at night. It was really pitch black if you were out at night but people in those days were really friendly and helpful and going out at night wasn't the sort of frightening experience it can be today.
Ripon was a garrison town and so there were always soldiers to be seen marching and undertaking exercises. There were also Airmen from the nearby aerodromes. There were Canadians and Americans I remember as well as our British soldiers. Army lorries and tanks and Bren gun carriers were also often to be seen. We used to swim in the River Ure and the army engineers built large concrete ramps on either side of the river so that tanks could practice river crossings.
All along on the field side of the hedgerows along the country roads there were r corrugated iron shelters in which ammunition and army stores were kept. These appeared later in the war.
There was a big old building near where we lived which had, at one time been an orphanage for girls. It was known as the Girls' Home. This building was used to train soldiers in the setting of booby traps and house to house fighting.
At school we were always being warned not to touch strange objects we might find because it was thought the Germans dropped them from aircraft during raids and they exploded if touched or picked up. They were called booby traps and usually appeared as ordinary objects e.g. a thermos flask that would explode if picked up.
Massive water storage tanks started to appear in any available empty places amongst the houses. They were meant to be used as emergency water supplies in case of fires started in air raids. As we were never seriously bombed they became places for wild life and could be unpleasant..
At home we had a notice in our window that read "Stirrup pump kept here". I remember my father using it to water the garden that was now used wholly for vegetables.
One day early in the war I recall seeing a number of children with their gas masks and little suitcases or carrier bags with big labels tied to them. They were refugees from big cities who were being taken to houses where there was room for them to stay.
At the top of the avenue in which we lived there was built what was called a blast shelter. This was meant to be used in air raids to protect people from the effect of bomb blasts. They were built of brick with flat thick concrete roofs. They didn't have any doors and were just bare brick constructions with no windows and small emergency escape openings that were filled with four concrete blocks that could be pushed out in an emergency as they weren't cemented in. The shelter near us was never used and they generally became dirty damp and smelly places.
At school when the teacher told us that the invasion of Europe had started. I didn't know at the time but one of my brothers (who had taken me for my gasmask) was then in the army and was in the assault battalion on Sword Beach in Normandy.
At the end of the war we were all taken to the cinema to see films of some of the German concentration camps where millions of people were killed and that is something I will never forget - especially the ovens where the bodies were burned and the piles of shoes and spectacles and hair which had been taken from those being killed. The names of the camps - Buchenwald, Auschwitz, Dachau and Belsen still are names that are clear in my memory. Even in films German soldiers in field grey still cause a reaction.
Christmas times were certainly not remembered for the presents we received! We had to be content with very little. Quite a lot of the time we amused ourselves. There certainly was not the abundance of food and toys which children have today. I do not recall being miserable once we knew that we were going to win and the threat of invasion had passed.
Towards the end of the war there were the occasional bananas to be had - but only on green ration books.
Setting all this down has brought back several half forgotten memories. I have just remembered being taken by my older brother to see a Whitley bomber which had crashed trying to land at nearby Dishforth airfield having returned from a raid over Germany - probably dropping leaflets rather than bombs.
I also have just remembered one evening counting over 60 flying fortresses on their way to bomb Germany. When I went to the Cathedral Boys' School I began to go each week to the British Restaurant (which had been a former Methodist Chapel) for my lunch on Fridays... For 6 old pence you could obtain some soup and a main course. Puddings were 3 old pence. We bought plastic tokens for each course and, if we didn't like what the menu offered for the soup and main course we had two puddings!
Every October we had a week's holiday for potato picking (“taty scratting” holiday). We were also encouraged to pick rose hips which were made into a drink.

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