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- Ruth Hodges
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- 01 November 2003
I was 6 when the Second World War broke out and living in rented rooms with my Mum and Dad in Plymouth. I don`t think there was any great panic at the time. We were all issued with gas masks. Small children`s gas masks were designed to look a bit like Mickey Mouse in blue rubber with a red floppy nose! This was to encourage you to keep it on and I had one of these. You had to regularly do gas mask drill, but it was a very uncomfortable experience.
In the summer of 1940 when I was 7, I caught diptheria – what a good job you are all immunised against this deadly disease nowadays. I was rushed off to hospital, too ill to remember much about what was going on, but as I got better I realised the windows were all sand-bagged up – just a small bit at the top left uncovered. Out of this you could see the oil storage tanks ablaze across the harbour. They had been bombed and great clouds of acrid smoke and flames kept coming out of them for days.
Unbeknown to me, my father, a bricklayer was working on part of the hospital at the time and used to peep in the window to see me. My mum probably came and looked in to see me from time to time, but as it was an isolation hospital, you couldn`t have any visitors at the bedside. I was in there for 7 weeks and when I came home, my mum had embroidered a beautiful set of clothes for my doll, made from a man`s old blue shirt. How glad we all were to see each other again.
In March 1941 the Blitz was really on. My mum took in lodgers to make ends meet. These men were all about the same age as my dad and not eligible for call up yet. They were all in the building/carpentry/painting trades. Between them they sank an Anderson shelter deep in to the garden and covered it with earth. Each evening, whether the siren went or not, we went off to the shelter. We had mattresses on the floor, torches and food and there we stayed all night. My school suffered a direct hit one night and in the morning the roads all around were littered with scorched school papers and books.
That was it! My mum, who was pregnant at the time, and me, said goodbye to my dad and set off for the Railway station. The railway line was a prime target for the Germans and we were glad when the train set off for Cornwall. I know it was after dark when it eventually began it`s journey. To cross into Cornwall the train had to cross the River Tamar by the Royal Albert Bridge (built by Isambard Kingdom Brunel). This bridge was near the Dockyard, also a prime target. We just got across when an air raid began. Trains always stopped during a raid, but fortunately we were at Saltash station when the siren sounded. We were all ordered off the train for our own safety, and as the bombs began to fall, a soldier who had been in the same compartment, pushed us face down on the platform and shielded us as best he could. All this happened in total darkness, but thankfully we were all ok. We all got back on the train and resumed our journey – still in total darkness. You had to listen at each stop for the Station Master to shout out where you were. When we heard “Liskeard, change for Looe” being shouted, we got off. It was in the early hours of the morning by now.
We set off to walk along the dark country lanes for about one and a half miles to my Gran`s. No one had telephones and they didn`t know we were coming, but we were going to the safest place my mum knew. My grandparents were glad to see us even if we had woken them up!
My dad was kept busy all the hours he was awake. When he wasn`t doing bomb damage repairs he was fire fighting. We gave up our rented rooms in Plymouth and my dad travelled to and from Plymouth each day to work. Some evenings, he would be so tired that he`d fall asleep on the train, and find himself at Bodmin or farther down in to Cornwall. Then he`d have to catch a train back the other way!
It was much different living in the country. My mum was a National Savings collector. As, by now, she had a small baby, her contribution to the War Effort was going around the village of Moorswater where we lived, collecting money for Savings Stamps and Certificates. I used to be allowed to go with her and got to know all the villagers. When there were “Wings for Victory” parades, etc., in Liskeard, my mum marched with the voluntary services, behind contingents of the Army, RAF and Navy. These were wonderful fundraising occasions, with bands playing and flags flying and the streets, decorated with bunting, thronged with people.
On the rare occasion that we had an air raid, we all sat in the middle room of the house, and my gran would hide under the big dining room table. It was always covered with a red chenille tablecloth edged with tassels. When the ARP Warden called to see if everyone was ok, she would lift up the edge of the cloth and say “I`m in here, George, and I`m alright!” She used to look so funny!
In the school holidays, I was sometimes allowed to go down to woods near Bodmin in the lorry with my aunty. She was in the Women`s Land Army, and served in the Timber corps. I used to watch them felling trees, and sometimes I would be allowed to rind the tree trunks. You sat astride the trunk as it lay on the ground and with a two handled blade, you drew the tool along the tree trunk just under the bark.
The only moment of panic I can remember was when my baby sister had to have a gas mask. For babies this was like a small enclosed cradle with a see through panel. My mum and dad, aunts and uncles and grandparents took turns pumping air into this contraption. My sister didn`t like being in there and I can remember my mum being worried to death that she wouldn`t be able to keep her alive should the need arise to keep her in the gas mask for very long.
Other sad moments come to mind. We visited my aunty in Tavistock quite often. Once we went to a lovely party for their neighbours, Mr and Mrs Hayes, who lived downstairs. Mr Hayes was a paratrooper on embarkation leave. Within days he was at Arnhem and, like many, he didn`t return. Another time, when we were living above a shop in Liskeard, the lady in the next flat was married to a Captain in the Army. Her name was Mrs Hart, and she had a baby called Mary. One day the telegram boy came with the news that everyone dreaded. Capt Hart had been killed. All the neighbours tried to comfort his widow, and I sometimes wonder where Mary is now.
I passed the 11+ exam while at Liskeard junior school and went to the local grammar school. The school was overwhelmed with evacuees from Plymouth and we couldn`t all fit in, so lessons were taken in any rooms the school could get hold of. Some times we marched in crocodile fashion from school, which was on the edge of town, to the centre of Liskeard and had lessons in the Liberal club or in the basement of the Methodist Church. Materials for lessons were hard to come by. We made new garments out of old in needlework, and in Art and Craft lessons we used dried seed heads, acorns, and beech nut cases to make brooches and ornaments. Geography of foreign countries was taught with the aid of wrappers off tinned food, to see where and how they were produced. These wrappers were eagerly sought after as most tins had their contents printed in black on the tin itself.
Magazines were scarce – what there was, was in black and white on poor paper. My cousin in America sent me some glossy coloured ones. These were cherished. My gran would get parcels of food from our American relatives to share amongst the family. Large tins of fruit were always put aside for Christmas or maybe a wartime wedding. One of my aunties and one of my uncles were married in the winter of 1941/1942, just before the two bridegrooms went overseas with the RAF.
I remember when my mum`s three brothers went off together to Liskeard Railway station to join their regiments, my gran gave them all a piece of “lucky cork”.Then my grandad walked with them to see them off. It was a sad occasion for all the family, but I`m happy to say that although they served in India, Egypt, France and Germany, they all returned safely.
In 1944 we returned to Plymouth and on VE day we had a great street party. The school that I attended then, gave us a day out at the seaside as a treat. How glad we were that life could begin to get back to normal.
REMINISCENCES OF WORLD WAR II
by Ron Hodges
I was 9 when the Second World War broke out and living in London at the time. My mother decided it would be best to go back to her family home in Plymouth immediately, and so leaving my father behind, who was working as a clerk for Pickford`s the removal firm, my mother, my elder brother and myself travelled on the train to Plymouth.
Plymouth, unfortunately, was a target for German aircraft, as the Royal Naval dockyard was there, so not many months had passed before bombs and land mines began falling all around us. The Blitz had begun!
We were all well drilled in what to do when the Air Raid siren went. We had already practised breathing with a gas mask on. They fitted very tightly to your face and were pretty uncomfortable – it made rude noises when you breathed out! You had to carry it everywhere you went in it`s strong brown cardboard box with a string that went over your shoulder. The part of Plymouth we lived in was row upon row of terraced houses. There was a concrete shelter at the end of the next street and as soon as the siren went, usually in the evening, you picked up your gas mask, some food and a few belongings and rushed off for the shelter. There you stayed (and usually slept) until the All Clear sounded. Then you emerged to see what damage had been done to the area during the air raid. Some of us boys looked for shrapnel in the street.
Occasionally there would be aeroplanes coming over during the daytime. You soon learnt to recognise the difference between our RAF ones and the Germans. If you saw one with a Swastika on it, you ran for cover as quickly as you could!
One night a mine landed two streets away, and destroyed the roof and some of the internal walls of our house in Oakfield Tce. We had to move to another house nearby in Cattedown Road. While we were living in this house, a stick of bombs dropped all along the road and that house was unusable. Luckily by this time the roof had been repaired in our own house, and walls (made of brown paper) had been put in, so we moved back again. Not many nights passed before some bombs fell on the houses facing our house. That was the last straw! My mum couldn`t stand it any longer, so we packed our bags and set off for the nearest Railway station, and just got on the train to “anywhere away from Plymouth”. The train took us to the village of Bere Alston in Devon. My mother didn`t know anyone there as far as I know by. She just wanted to get away from the bombing.
At Bere Alston we sat on the platform seats and the Porter (who I later found out was called Bill Hocking) asked where we were going. My mother said she didn`t know – did he know anywhere we could stay? During the War it was usual – in fact the Government insisted – for people with extra rooms to have strangers billeted on them. So Mr Hocking went around the village and found Mr Bill Jordan and his daughter Ada willing to take us in.
Mr Jordan had a medium sized house and we had 2 rooms in it. There was no electricity or gas! He had a Market Garden. Bere Alston lies in the Tamar Valley and is a well known good growing area for strawberries, flowers, new potatoes etc.,. I began to feel quite at home in my new surroundings. I went to the local junior school where I took the 11+ exam. I passed this and for 2 or 3 years I travelled to and from Plymouth to attend Public Central School for Boys. It was generally safe from Air Raids during the day time.
I became quite friendly with old Mr Jordan. He had a big cart horse called Bob. On a Saturday I used to be allowed to go down to the field where Bob was kept and bring him up to be hitched up to the cart. Then Mr Jordan loaded up all the produce he had grown that week, and we set off with the horse and cart for Tavistock Market where he would sell it.
We enjoyed the peace and safety of the countryside at Bere Alston and so both sets of my grandparents also moved out of Plymouth and came to stay nearby. Also my greatuncle Tom and his wife came. Uncle Tom used to catch salmon in the River Tamar at Calstock and I used to walk across the fields to the river to watch him. Not many salmon were caught, but if one was, the money from the sale of the fish was divided up – one share for the boat, one for the net, and one share to each man.
I learnt much about the countryside. How to catch rabbits – a good source of food for the family. We were alright for vegetables living as we did with Mr Jordan. It was such a good area for flower growing that people used to throw their old daffodil bulbs on the rubbish tip. Now and then this tip used to be bulldozed away down a disused mineshaft. Silver used to be mined there at one time. The old daffodil bulbs would often take root and in the spring begin to flower. I used to buy a flower box from the local ironmongers, pick the daffodils and band them in to bunches, place them in the box with tissue paper and send them off on the train to Covent Garden in London. Primroses I also picked from the hedges – they were prolific then and not protected by law from being picked like they are nowadays – 12 flowers and 2 leaves to a bunch and sent them off. In late summer I picked blackberries and sent them off in punnets. Each month I got a cheque for what I`d sent.
I was lucky to have a bicycle. Some days, after school or in the holidays, I would wait outside the Post Office along with other lads to see if any telegrams needed delivering. In those days, anyone needing to send an urgent message sent a telegram, as not many people had phones. The postmistress used to come out, and the first boy in the queue was sent off with the telegram to the address. When you returned with the signed telegram pad to prove that you had delivered it, you were paid – 2d for delivery in Bere Alston and 6d for other villages.
One funny incident I remember was when Uncle Tom got stuck in a water tank! In case an incendary bomb should ever fall in the village, or any other fire start for that matter, the local authority had placed a large water tank in Bill Jordan`s garden. The rainwater collected could then be used for firefighting. One winter it froze and a thick sheet of ice lay on the top. I asked Uncle Tom if he thought it could stand his weight Although he was a dour old man, he was a good sport, and he said “we`ll soon find out”. He got up on the sheet of ice and stood there . The ice came away from the side of this tank (which was about 6 ft cubed) and tilted over so that Uncle Tom slid off the edge and was left standing in ice cold water up to his neck and pinned against the side by the sheet of ice! I thought it was hilarious but Uncle Tom didn`t and it took several people to move the ice and rescue him!
My Dad used to come down every weekend to see us. In London he was in the Home Guard – Dad`s Army. He had served in the 1st World War and been taken prisoner by the German`s soon after he had landed in France. His firm moved out of London to escape the bombing there and went to Guildford in Surrey. I used to go up and stay with him in the school holidays. Guildford was also fairly safe but my mum wouldn`t go up there to live, and so as the War in Europe was coming to an end, we moved back to our old house in Plymouth which by now had been properly repaired. My Dad gave up his job in Guildford and found a clerical job in the dockyard. It was lovely to all be together again!
Our wartime experiences gave us a lifelong interest in the countryside. For children, life was full of adventure and excitement, but it shattered the lives of many families. It must have been a very worrying time trying to keep everyone safe. We don`t remember ever being hungry, but with the rationing of food, it must have been a job to feed us all.
The one good thing war did, was to foster a community spirit. Everyone pulled together looking after family, neighbours and friends. People gave, both in money, goods and time for the war effort. Women knitted socks and mittens for the soldiers etc.,. Men too old to serve were ARP wardens or in the Home Guard. Women worked in factories etc., to take the place of men who had gone to war, and in general you met many more people than you would have done otherwise. A pity the same spirit doesn`t always prevail in peacetime!
By Ruth Hodges
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