- Contributed by
- Sutton Coldfield Library
- People in story:
- John Field
- Location of story:
- Sutton Coldfield, Birmingham
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 23 August 2004
This story was submitted to the People's War Website by Sutton Coldfield Library on behalf of John Field and has been added to the website with his permission. The author fully understands the the sites terms and conditions.
A la Recherche du Temps Perdu is possibly accurate here because, although it may be of interest to others to read about other people’s memories, it is not now possible for me to remember the exact dates on which events occurred — even though they should be seared into my memory.
The one thing that I am certain about is the day war broke out, because I suspect that my parents realised that conflict was inevitable and my mother and I had gone down in that September to stay at my aunt’s in Bexhill-on-Sea for one last holiday. That day my cousin and I were playing “pirates” or some such innocuous game in the garden and — for some reason or other — my post was on top of the garden shed. We had already heard that war had been declared, and (as did so many people around the country) we heard the air raid siren go. At that point, my dear cousin (who, even in this politically correct age, I must record was a girl) whipped the ladder away from the shed to leave me stranded. It seemed a hell of a long way to try to get down to the ground. She did, eventually, take pity and restore the ladder but it left me all shook up for a bit.
After that, memory becomes a little clouded. Rationing, for example, is but a blur — although it is clear that my mother managed to cope for the three of us. Perhaps at this point I should comment that what feelings my father had about the European situation were unknown to me, very possibly because he had volunteered 25 years earlier for the Birmingham Pals Battalions and (so I suspect) had a rude awakening as to the life of a volunteer soldier once he and his mates arrived in France. For the record, he was wounded in one of the later battles of the Battle of the Somme in 1916, and served the rest of that war in the Royal Military Foot Police in Portsmouth. He kept stumm in family circles about this period in his life, as did most ex-WWI soldiers. However, he did join the Civil Defence organisation in 1939 or 1940, working in the Control Section.
One of the very few times that he showed loss of temper with me was probably in 1940. At the time I was attending the Central High School on South Parade in Sutton Coldfield (the site is now taken up with a McDonalds), and my father had the offices of his business in the accommodation of the railway station in Sutton (the main station - not that in Midland Drive which was constructed by a different railway company). One mid-day I was pottering around the offices when the air raid warning sounded. then nothing, and nothing more …… and I got fed up and decided to go to school. On arriving there, there was no-one about, but the head (the Rev. H.H. Keyse) must have heard me and called me into the school’s air raid shelter which was situated underground next to the school. There — to my surprise — were the rest of the pupils. Everyone looked at me in a strange sort of a way and, to give him credit, the head (who had a notorious way of looking at one of his charges when they had overstepped the line) just told me — quietly — to sit down on one of the benches. Then we heard the “All Clear” sound. At tea-time that day, my dad reprimanded me in — for him — no uncertain terms about the stupidity of leaving the office before the “All Clear” had gone. He was dead certain that he could hear the enemy aircraft flying around all the time. I didn’t think that that was the case. But who was I to have a mind of my own?
Later, I passed the entrance exam to Bishop Vesey’s which at that time ran a school company of the Junior Training Corps (this was the school equivalent of the Officer Training Corps that was found in universities) and it was pretty well compulsory to join. It appears to me — looking back on it — that my father was not too keen on my joining; perhaps because of his own experiences in the trenches. But it was lonely being one of the very few lads kicking his heels on parade days, and eventually I made a decision for myself — and joined. There seemed to be some pained surprise in my parents’ faces when they were advised of this; I was quite proud of myself.
At that time our uniforms were sort of hand-me-downs. Instead of gaiters we had puttees. It was a source of satisfaction when these were wound neatly and in properly-overlapping steps up the shins. We also had not berets but forage caps (known colloquially as c**p hats) that were the headgear of the army and air force of this time. And, of course, there were brass buttons to polish. When we got to learn the rifle they provided us with the .303 (inch — no disgusting metric rubbish in those days thank goodness) Short Magazine Lee Enfield which because of its initials “SMLE” was generally referred to as the smellie. Later on, we received instruction on the Sten and Bren guns; and, of course, we received gaiters and berets.
The school had its own outdoor .22 shooting range which was situated just about where the car park now is between the school and the railway embankment. There, we practised grouping, application and snap-shooting and I managed to qualify for the First Class badge. Being attached now (2004) to the Air Training Corps and seeing how rigorous safety precautions are, what we did in those days was (while being strict) somewhat more primitive compared with what is required of a Range Controlling Officer of today. (By the way, I’m not one of these august demi-gods, thankfully!) Looking back, the worrying thing that occurs to me is that while the target area was backed with a high and substantial-looking brick wall, if it had fallen down we cadets would have been aiming directly into the front rooms of the houses in Boswell Road ……..
The Boy Scouts also kindly took me on as a member; of this period only two things stood out. The one was that on one occasion we were being tested viva-voce on first aid and the patrol leader doing the testing pulled me to pieces for apparently answering one question incorrectly. When I checked it in the book it was clear that I was right: in this way was the learning that if you are holding the top position then you could get away with murder.
One of the outdoor exercises that we scouts engaged in was what was called “Wide Games”, in which exciting things such as tracking and so on were practised. The Park was a useful area for this activity. On one occasion the Scout Master ordered me to crawl (through some uncomfortable heather, of course) to spy out the area to our front and report back. This crawling went quite well until I almost crashed into a couple snogging in the heather. Being a polite lad, the only decision one could make was to turn around pronto and get back to the group. Fortunately (or so it appeared) the Scout Master had moved off to check on another group, so that when I told ‘our’ lads what had happened they promptly crawled off as rapidly as they could in the direction I had gone. Well, one would, wouldn’t one? Then the dratted Scout Master re-appeared and for some reason quite beyond my understanding enquired as to the whereabouts of the patrol. For once in my life, quick-wittedness came into operation and I explained that I had surveyed the area, that all seemed to be clear, and I had ordered the patrol to crawl forward to the attack.
Well. Would you have believed me? For some reason, the Scouter looked quite, and unnecessarily, doubtful.
This Scout Troop met in the premises of the Methodist Church in South Parade, and it was in the large hall that Sutton Coldfield’s BR (British Restaurant) was set up. This was a nationwide series of national restaurants set up by the Ministry of Food, which provided a useful standard of cooked food to supplement what we could get from the rationing system. The boys from Bishop Vesey’s were strong supporters, and a not-too-bad meal could be had for a not very large amount of money (perhaps one of the readers of this piece could elaborate on this). At this point I should record that the school meals provided for us day-boys at Vesey’s round about 1941-42 were managed by Boss Jones’ wife; she did a remarkably good job thinking back on it. As far as the BR went, I was quite happy although on one occasion a significant portion of a cooking-pot scouring brass mop was found in my portion of Shepherd’s Pie. It must be admitted that it was very clean; in any case we just didn’t complain, of course; we were just happy to get some nosh inside us.
One other thing in regard to rationing was that, later in the war, those of us who had grown more than average could become eligible for extra clothes ration coupons. We had to have out height measured, and our weight measured, and our feet measured and — possibly, but I am not sure about this — provide evidence of extra physical development by carrying out a series of fairly simple gym exercises. One of these was performing a standing long jump. Fortunately for my mother I got through — what the extra coupons were used for I know not. In later years, my cousin (that’s right, she of the ladder incident) was heard to complain that she was “one of those with big feet!!!” But of course, she was a female teenager and such an unfortunate accomplishment was a bit iffy.
During the war we were, of course, subject to press censorship. Main events were reported and the three that I remember especially were the Second Battle of Alamein, the Bombing of the Ruhr Dams, and the Russian breakthrough at Stalingrad. In regard to the first we were, quite naturally, all cheering “Monty, Monty” (General Bernard Montgomery as he was then). It was not until much later that history books and articles recorded that had it not been for the work of General Wavell (who fought skilfully against the Afrika Korps - but not skilfully enough for the prime minister Winston Churchill), General Auchinleck (“The Auk”, who fought a number of masterly holding battles during the retreat to El Alamein, and who actually brought the Korps to a standstill at the First Battle of Alamein and prepared for the eventual breakout) that Montgomery was able to launch the famous attack that made us cheer. By the way, Wavell became the Supreme Commander in South-East Asia, and Auchinleck became Commander-in-Chief in India.
Another commander whom I feel has been underrated and vilified is “Bomber” Harris, who attracts this unfortunate reputation mainly because of the heavy bombing of Germany, and especially of the air raid on Dresden late in the war. This, one can understand, caused some feelings of doubt when it was all over, but to my mind we were only giving retribution to the nation that had used its air force strongly against our own land (not just London: Norwich, Sunderland, Plymouth, Birmingham, to mention but a few) when they had the ability to do so, and before they turned their attention to Russia. Recent research shows that the attack on Dresden was justified. Bomber Command should have been given its own medal.
As regards our own personal safety, at the beginning of the war we at first used the cloakroom under the stairs when the sirens went. Later, dad decided to use the garden shed as a basis for a (World War I dugout?) construction in depth in the garden. So a lot of soil was moved to one side, the shed was re-assembled in the bottom of the hole, and soil replaced on top and round the sides. The inside contained shelves — that is, benches for sitting or sleeping on; the access was by way of steps protected by another mound of earth. Sometimes, my father would stand outside with his elbows on the top of this bank of earth. Whether he was escaping from my mother’s nagging about whatever, or whether he was reliving his time at a redoubt in World War I, is unknown to me.
The next shelter that we had was one of the Morrison type, which was set up in a downstairs room of the house. This was a well-thought out construction, which was in the form of a table. The top was sheet steel, and the sides carried wire mesh. It was put together using nuts and bolts: the bolt-heads, of course, stood proud of the surface of the tabletop. The tabletop was somewhat higher from the ground than you would get with a normal table, but it was still good for playing Ping-Pong on. (Oh, for the modern generation, Ping-Pong was the name we used then for what is now Table Tennis). There were many fearsome games played in this way — the fearsomeness arising from the fact that if you were clever in your aim when returning a ball it would hit one of the bolt-heads and ricocheted at an unsuspected angle. My cousin (yes, that’s right — that one) used to complain bitterly ’cos I was quite good at this devious tactic.
On this matter of bombing, a cousin (not the one from the ladder incident) told me recently that he believed his father, who was in the Royal Air Force, had spent some of his time manning a decoy site in the Liverpool-Manchester area during the war. For those who might not know, a decoy site was one in which exploding bombs and the resulting fires could be imitated, the fires of shunting engines in sidings could be replicated — all hopefully to draw enemy bombers away from the real targets. It is a fascinating subject, and one which has had a detailed history written in recent years. So, you may be asking, what had this to do with the area around Birmingham — especially with the area of countryside north of the city? I know a little, but would appreciate it if someone could provide some details.
It’s good to be able to look back with hindsight and thus to re-evaluate some things that just seemed to have happened.
Dunkirk was one of these. At the time we were expected to congratulate ourselves that some 340,000 French and British troops had been evacuated. More recently, as events have been re-evaluated and the pressure from the powers-that-be to see the bright side have been removed, we can appreciate that the Allied Forces in northern Europe in 1940 were not sufficiently well equipped and that, although they fought very bravely, the whole retreat was a debacle. The Miracle of Dunkirk was, thanks to good planning in extraordinary circumstances, and notwithstanding the losses in men and materiel, an event of which to be thankful and proud.
The affair of the landing at Dieppe in 1942 still remains something of a puzzle to me. At the time it was reported but in a somewhat hushed-up sort of way, later it was written-up as being a gallant attempt to try out an attack by combined forces to learn for the future. Certainly, the lessons learnt contributed to the success of the D-Day landings two years later but there is still some question in my mind as to why the landing really took place.
Having come on to ‘those things that the ordinary person did not know at the time’ we should not forget the work of the ATA (Air Transport Auxiliary, who ferried aeroplanes to fighting squadrons) the SOE (Special Operations Executive, who worked secretly in Occupied Europe to disrupt the enemy’s plans and movements) and all those who supported the British war effort in so many ways which for years we did not know about. Nothing about the Royal Navy and Merchant Marine? Well, what about the Arctic convoys to Russia, the losses to submarines in the Atlantic, and of course, the true story behind the capture from a German submarine of the highly secret Nazi Naval Codes.
There is so much, and so many people, that we might forget. We must remember them all.
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