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The Home Front in Nottingham, Manchester and Portsmouth

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09 April 2004

Ellen Taylor

NOTTINGHAM, September,1939

The Ministry of Health was taken over by the Ministry of War. My department was seconded to Nottingham. We girls stayed at the YWCA in the centre of the city. My best friend Hilda was an orthodox Jew.
One evening the Matron called an assembly. She told us that a party of young ladies had escaped from the pogrom in Germany carried out by Hitler against all Jews. These ladies were on their way to Liverpool. As soon as passage could be arranged they would sail to America where Jewish families were waiting to receive them (in 1939 America had not yet entered the war).
My friend Hilda spoke fluent Hebrew though she had no German. Hilda and I were assigned a girl of about 19 years of age. She had no English. She had been travelling for many weeks, walking overland through Switzerland and Spain to Algeciras, where a fishing boat had brought her to England. She was exceedingly dirty, her clothes were torn — she was filthy and smelt worse. The matron provided clean clothes and requested us to give the girl a bath.
A dreadful scene then took place. The girl refused to take off her clothes. Hilda and I managed to do this, all except for her knickers. She turned into a wild cat, fighting, kicking and biting. We gave up and pushed her into the bath wearing them (years later we heard that refugees sewed jewellery into their underwear). With towels we rubbed her dry, still wearing her knickers, and dressed her in clean clothes.
During the day she rarely spoke, just sat staring into space. At night we soon learned the onset of the heeby-jeebies. Her face would freeze, even her eyes, then the screaming would start. We would rush her up the fire escape onto the roof, where we paced a deckchair by the chimney pots. It was very quiet up there; the vast starlit sky, the silver of the moon, the space all around seemed to have a calming effect. She would begin to shiver and shake. We wrapped her in blankets, sat her on the bed in our own room and cuddled her, trying to give silent love and sympathy. Only after the war were the full horrors of the holocaust revealed. All refugees of whatever race, colour or creed command my respect.
Soon afterwards, Hilda was granted special permission to return to her family in Manchester. The difficulties of finding kosher food were too great. We corresponded fitfully, then lost touch with each other.

MANCHESTER December,1940

My friend Sarah and I had been transferred to Nottingham. This was a reserved occupation. Hush-hush. It was nearing Christmas — December 23rd. I had been granted leave. Sarah would take leave at Jewish New Year. After work I boarded the train in Nottingham to take me home to mother.
As the train neared Manchester, we could see a red glow in the sky. Travelling north the whole sky became filled with colour; red, orange, yellow. The city was on fire.
The train went on, slower and slower. Then it stopped at a suburban station. The engine driver shut off the steam. The station master ran along the platform, shouting:
‘Everyone off the train! Take cover! Go to the air raid shelters behind the station.’
I was almost the last person to get off the train, being hampered by my heavy suitcase filled with Christmas presents, my high-heeled shoes and my long suede overcoat edged with four inches of fur.
A man ran up and said: ‘Let me help you with your suitcase.’ For some hours we sat together on a wooden bench in the air raid shelter. He told me that pre-war he had been a steeplejack. His work was the repair of mill chimneys, church towers and tall buildings. Now he was employed to demolish similar buildings made unsafe by enemy action.
The ‘All Clear’ sounded. We returned to the station platform. The station master announced that no trains were running. Passengers would be taken by bus to Victoria Station, where buses would take them to various suburbs. The bus took a roundabout way to the city centre, lurching over holes in the road and passing many buildings on fire.
We Northerners were often told that our civic buildings did not compare in architectural splendour with those in London. But when I saw our Exchange on fire I was filled with passionate hatred against those had the temerity to destroy what was ours.
Eventually, the bus arrived at Victoria Station. The smell was breath-catching. Nearby, the cheese warehouses in Shude Hill were on fire. The smell of burning cheese mingled with the smell of the drains. Steel hose pipes attached to the mains water supplies were going full belt. In this emergency, old rubber hosepipes had been found. Rain water was being pumped up from the drains. The rubber hoses had holes in them and small fountains of filthy water were spraying out.
Inside the station, on the concourse, people were standing in confused huddles. The glass roof was on fire. Globules of melted glass were falling in great strings of pearls onto the railway lines. The station master was shouting done a loud hailer (there was no Tannoy system):
‘All women and children go to the Tea Room. All able-bodied men go outside to help move the hosepipes.’
My friend Tom took me to the Tea Room. He gave me his suitcase and said:
‘I will be back.’
The Tea Room was packed with luggage, women, crying children, prams and squalling babies. The station staff were on duty and served tea and buns. Dawn came early. The Government had decreed double summer time.
Tom returned. In these few hours he had aged ten years. He was very tired, unshaven and dirty. He said:
‘I’ve made enquiries. I will take you to Withy Grove. Lorries will be taking the newspapers to the suburbs. I will try to get you a lift on one.’
We set off. He carried the two suitcases. I clung to his arm. The narrow streets were ankle deep in broken glass. We clambered over wet webs of hosepipes.
I believe God sent this stranger. Without his help, my life could have been very different. I pray that he survived his dangerous work as a steeplejack.

Finally I reached home. Mother had sheltered in the cellar all night. She had not slept. She was worried about me, knowing that I was on the train. We had no telephone. She was overjoyed to see me.
Later in the day, my sweetheart called at our house. He was on five days’ leave from the Navy. He had received his posting to a minesweeper. He gave me his signet ring. He said:
‘Wait for me.’


Mother moved to Nottingham. She bought a house in West Bridgford near the River Trent.
For the first time in history, civilians living in the provinces were subject to modern front line warfare. Sixty years on, my heart still races as I describe the nights. First we would hear the big guns at the Ordnance Factory at Chilwell: boom-boom-boom. Then we would hear the smaller guns along the river: boom-boom-boom. In the criss-crossed searchlights we could see and hear the roar of the German planes flying in formation up the river, swastikas on the side, bomb rack underneath. Then the machine guns on the roofs of factories by the river would start: tat-tat-tat. Fire engines would draw up on either side on the bridge. The men would ring the bells. No sirens then. Air raid wardens would run down the street, shouting down every letter box:
‘Every light out! Take cover!’
The noise was horrifying. I was still afraid of going underground, a legacy from a trip down a coalmine. Mother and I ran down the garden and crouched in a small brick outhouse holding the lawnmower and the wheelbarrow.
In the morning we heard on the wireless that Coventry had been bombed.

It is incredible that, at this time, class distinctions were being observed. My sweetheart arranged to meet our old friend Norman in the bar of the Adelphi Hotel, Liverpool. Norman’s parents had been killed on the raid on Coventry. Both men were wearing uniform: Norman, a lieutenant in the army, my sweetheart in his sailor’s uniform. The barman refused to serve my sweetheart. He said:
‘This bar is for officers only.’

One night I was on fire duty at the office. The office was situated on Middle Pavement next to the lace factories. When the alert sounded it became clear that this night the enemy planes would not be just flying over. The Major was in charge. He ordered that the women take the Ministers’ Red Boxes down to the cellars. These were over the railway tunnel. Steam trains were sheltering in the tunnel. Their hiss and chortle echoed eerily off the brick walls. Next we were ordered to take buckets of water to the roof; there was a ladder on the top floor. Women were not allowed on to the roof. The men were working stirrup pumps. Debris was falling from the burning lace factories.
The Colonel arrived. He ordered our messenger, a sergeant, to take the women to the air raid shelter in the square. He ordered my friend and I to go first. We were the youngest. Fred, our messenger had lost an arm at Dunkirk. He said:
‘ Tighten the straps on your tin helmets. Now, put your arms around my waist. If one of us falls we all fall together. No-one gets up until I say so. Now run!’
Once again the criss-cross searchlights, the ankle-deep broken glass, the tangled hosepipes and the NOISE. We arrived at the shelter. The entrance was a portico of sandbags. There was a steel door, steps and another steel door.
Someone had locked both doors against blast. Fred raised his boot and savagely kicked the door. He shouted:
‘Open this door, you f****** bastards!!’
Daylight came. I cycled home. I asked mother the meaning of those words. Mother was deeply shocked. She said:
‘That is barrack room language. No lady needs to know.’
My sweetheart came on leave. I asked him the meaning of the words. He was still laughing the next morning when I went with him to the station.


We were tired of waiting for the war to be over. His minesweeper, HMS Sidmouth, was due for a re-fit. The ship would be 13 weeks in dry dock. He would have shore leave. We planned to marry. The banns were read.
He did not come. The Battle of the Atlantic was going badly. Our shipping losses were horrendous. Finally in January 1942 the Sidmouth had to go into dock for a fast boiler clean. We were married. We had 48 hours.
The crew returned. At morning service, the crew added their own intercession: ‘Please, God, send our ref-fit.’ On April 23rd, I received a telegram. The ship was in dry dock at Portsmouth.
I was granted five days compassionate leave. I took the train from Nottingham to Portsmouth. My husband would spend each night ashore. He had arranged for us to stay at a boarding house by the docks. The house was owned by two sisters. They catered for the wives of sailors.
That night, April 23rd, we were in a pub by the harbour having drinks with his friends. The landlord called for silence. The Prime Minister was to speak to the nation. Mr Churchill announced the Fall of Singapore and the loss of the battleships Prince of Wales and Repulse. There was a stunned silence. Then the doors of the pub burst open. In marched a naval lieutenant and a party of Marines — very smart in white gaiters — truncheons at the ready. The lieutenant shouted:
‘All leave is cancelled. All servicemen are to return to duty immediately.’
There was much shouting and fighting. Outside in the street were more Marines. My husband was marched away. I returned to the boarding house.
The two sisters were distraught. Both their husbands were on the Prince of Wales. Already they had decided to return the next day to their parents’ home in Plymouth. They would spend the night clearing the house and packing to leave. I went to bed.
I was asleep when the first shell landed. This was followed immediately by the firing of rocket guns on the harbour. I had never heard of rocket guns. I thought rockets were fireworks for Guy Fawkes Night. I was terrified. The room lit up bright blue through the thick blackout curtains. I jumped out of bed, raced along the landing and leapt the full flight of stairs.
Fortunately the ladies caught me. They were standing in the hall at the foot of the stairs, preparing to come up to me. I was wearing only a thin nightdress. They bundled me into a mackintosh from the hallstand and stuck my feet in Wellington boots. Then they opened to front door to go to the air raid shelter in the street. An air raid warden was sheltering in the porch. He said:
‘Take cover. Go back inside. You cannot go out.’
Outside was brighter than day, more magnificent than any firework display. Searchlights criss-crossed the sky. Every ship in the harbour was firing Verey lights, green blue and yellow. Red sunbursts of gunfire shed a thousand stars. Shrapnel was falling like silver rain.
The ladies closed the door and led the way down a long flight of stairs into the cellar. On the brick wall was a huge wooden cross made from the beams of a house nearby which had been bombed. There was a stack of deckchairs left from happy summers. We sat down. The ladies handed me the Book of Common Prayer. In unison we to read the Compline:
‘Lord, deliver us from all the perils of this night.’
Then we started on the Psalms, reading aloud, one verse each. I fell asleep. I have no recollection of the next few hours. I woke up in bed. Someone had drawn the curtains. It was morning. The sun was shining.
It took a long time to dress, I was shaking so much. My spectacles fell from my hands. Both lenses smashed on the lino-covered floor. Somehow I got downstairs. The stair-rods had been removed, the carpet rolled up. Pictures were stacked against the walls, the furniture covered in dustsheets. I said to the sisters:
‘I must go home. Mother will be worried. She will have heard about the air-raid on the wireless.’
I could not eat. The cup fell from my trembling hands. The sisters poured the tea into the teapot and helped me drink from the spout. They were so kind.
I set off for the station. An optician was sweeping up the glass from his shattered window. He handed me a box of spectacles:
‘Take any pair when you can see someone across the road.’
He refused payment. He was so kind.
In London I had to change trains. I tried to put sixpence into a slot machine to buy a bar of chocolate. The money kept falling out of my trembling hands. A sailor noticed the Navy brooch on my coat. He helped me and took me to the Nottingham train. He was so kind. In Nottingham a Jewish gentleman helped carry my suitcase to the bus for West Bridgford. In those days everyone was so kind.
I had a splitting headache and could scarcely see. Mother put me to bed. I slept for three days. On the third day, a telegram arrived from the Ministry of War:
‘Return to duty immediately or you will be considered absent without leave.’
I got dressed and returned to work. Otherwise I would have been seconded to the Army.
Mother had been diagnosed as suffering dropsy. In those days there was no cure. The doctor said that she had less than a year to live. I could not leave her. After a few weeks I received a letter from my husband. The morning after the raid he had begged his captain to grant him shore leave. He had one hour. He had run to the boarding house. The ladies were packed and ready to leave for Plymouth. I had already left for the station. It was to be many months before we were together again.


The Americans arrived in Nottingham. Young fresh faces mingled with those of a pale harassed people. They wore beautifully tailored uniforms of smooth pale cloth, in contrast to the thick, shabby khaki of our men.
Mother had friends in America. Their sons came to call on us. They had never before seen an open fire in a house.
‘Is it safe?’ they asked.
Coal was rationed. We were burning old railway sleepers. Tar spluttered, sending sparks onto the hearth rug. They brought a two-handled saw and cut the sleepers into a great pile of logs.
They were appalled at our rations: six ounces of sugar, four ounces of butter per person, per week. They brought big tins of apricot jam and peanut butter. This tasted peculiar to us but we were ready to eat almost anything.
Clothes coupons were saved for winter clothing. I made a skirt from grandmother’s Paisley shawl, a yellow blouse from cushion covers. There was no make-up (lipstick is made from fats). I hunted round the second hand shops and found old tubes of theatrical greasepaint. I painted my pale cheeks and lips. We went dancing. There were new dances, the palais glide, bebop, the jive. No more Viennese waltzes. On the wireless, there was new music. Raw young voices singing of vast open spaces:
‘Home, home on the range…’ Mother preferred Kathleen Ferrier.
There was hope. We were winning.

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Posted on: 01 May 2004 by Peter - WW2 Site Helper


Just a line to say that I very much enjoyed reading your very interesting story.


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