- Contributed by
- Elizabeth Lister
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- Contributed on:
- 27 November 2005
A Yorkshire Girl's Reflections.
When the war broke out I was living in Dewsbury, West Yorkshire and was not quite 6 years old.
I have no recollection of having been told about it. However , I do remember things that we began to do at my Primary School. We had to keep at school a tin box containing sweets and biscuits which was sealed with elastoplast to make it airtight. We had to take it with us into the air raid shelter when we had our regular practices. Every week we had to try on our gas masks for the teacher to check if the rubber edging was well sealed. She used to put a piece of paper under the air vent and we were asked to take a deep breath. If the mask was working, the paper clung to the vent. I was always glad that we did not have to wear them for too long because it was very uncomfortable. We had to carry the square gas mask boxes everywhere and some of us made fancy covers for the boxes to make them look more like handbags. School normally started at 9 a.m. but if there had been an air raid the previous night, school started at 9.30 a.m. the next day.
My Father had polio as a child which resulted in a gammy leg, making him exempt from the services. However, he was Manager of a Woollen Mill making khaki cloth and army blankets and this was deemed to be essential work. Because of this and his disability, he was allowed to continue running his car for essential use and as a part-time Special Police Constable. He looked very smart in his uniform. When the sirens went, he had to go out in the car with dimmed headlights looking for blackout leaks and to be on call if any bombs were dropped in the area. He was also seconded to go to Leeds Railway Station late at night to pick up homecoming servicemen and taxi them home. One of them gave him a banana for me. It was a rarity by then but it was sadly black, bruised and uneatable. For all of this my Father had special petrol coupons but the car could not be used for the family.
My Mother was at home and busied herself with the WRVS. She always seemed to be knitting. Every week there was a Knitting Circle at the local Working Men's Club where she collected the wool. She spent hours and hours knitting anything from balaclavas, jumpers,gloves and scarves in khaki, mid-blue and navy blue and hip length stockings in smelly ,oily wool for sailors. She offered to have an evacuee but we were never given one. In fact there were only one or two evacuees sent to our area. One childless family gave a home to a young girl and wanted to adopt her, but it never happened.
Dewsbury was en route for German planes crossing the country to bomb Liverpool and the west coast. Every night my Mother put her moleskin coat and my green woollen siren suit over a chair near the back door. At night the sirens used to go 2 or 3 times a week and my Mother and I used to go into the shelter which was sunk into the garden at the back of the garage. It had an electric light and two concrete bunks. In the corner was a sump where excess water collected and there was an escape hole into the garage. It was cold and damp and the door rattled when the Big Bertha Gun fired at the overhead planes. We were very lucky as there were only a few occasions when left over bombs were dropped on the mills as the planes flew back over us on their way home. Then the All Clear would sound and we would dash back to the house looking up at the stars and hoping that was all we would see in the sky. We listened to the radio a lot, especially the News and news bulletins
and there was talk of somebody called Lord HawHaw that was worrying everyone.
I don't particularly remember being deprived of food, but meals were plain and simple and every scrap was used up. Anything left over from a tiny roast was minced up with onions and made into rissoles. Fruit was mainly limited to local apples. We went blackberry picking and my Mother made jam. She pickled eggs in isinglass and we made sweets from powdered milk. We once had a side of bacon in the pantry as a friend of my Father's had reared a pig and cured it. Fuel was scarce for the open fire and the local pit made briquettes out of coal dust and cement. You could only buy a few buckets at a time.
Although my Father stayed at home , I had 4 uncles who went to war and as we were a close family I was very aware of this and affected by it. One of them was in the Military Police, another in the Marines and the other two in the REME. The first two were away for several years at a stretch — one in Egypt and the other in Sierra Leone. The two REMEs were in Europe working behind the fighting lines repairing equipment. I remember going to the station with one of my aunts to wave good-bye to her soldier husband, lumbered with his massive kitbag,and not knowing when they would be back together again. He tried to keep a stiff upper lip and joke and smile in his usual way but we cried together as the train pulled away. It was hard times for the wives left behind working long hours on essential jobs like weaving in the woollen mills. Years of getting on with their lives without seeing their husbands, infrequent, censored letters, those from Egypt being micro copied.
Before going to Egypt, my MP uncle was allowed compassionate leave to try to conceive a baby but it didn't work and they never did have children. I was very close to this aunt and often stayed w it her for company at a weekend. On her pantry shelf she had a lone tin of Heinz Tomato soup and we would debate whether or not to open it as a treat but it always seemed to be put back for another time. I don't think we did ever have it !
Life just seemed to plod on with little of the fun of family holidays and gatherings I had known as a very small child. Then at last came the excitement of the VE celebration followed eventually by the VJ one too. They both had the same format — a huge bonfire in the Church School yard. Mums and Dads stood around with a drink in their hands whilst we kids raced around the playground enjoying the fact that we were allowed to have lights at night.
I didn't realise it at the time, but I was one of the lucky ones who did not lose any member of my family in the war and I had my Father at home with me. Although we had experienced frequent air raids, we did not get bombed out. It took some time for the uncles to return and we laughed at their demob suits but when talking to my aunts when I was older, I realised there were big adjustments to be made after the excitement of the soldiers' return. By the time the war was over, my aunt was too old to conceive and blamed the war. Another aunt produced two children very quickly which terribly upset the first child who had spent the first 5 years of his life alone with his mum. He felt very much pushed out and never built up a good relationship with his dad who in fact was a wonderful chap. Melvyn Bragg's novel 'The Soldier's Return' echoed his story.
Looking back I realise that my life was not disrupted as much as those living in cities that were badly bombed or who lost their Dad in the war. I think too that I was also quite young and sheltered by my parents from what was going on. Yes, as a war child, I was very lucky compared to many others.
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