BBC HomeExplore the BBC
This page has been archived and is no longer updated. Find out more about page archiving.

15 October 2014
WW2 - People's War

BBC Homepage
BBC History
WW2 People's War Homepage Archive List Timeline About This Site

Contact Us

My Wife Irene’s Wartime Story By LEONARD J.SMITH

by Leonard J Smith

Contributed by 
Leonard J Smith
Location of story: 
Birmingham
Background to story: 
Civilian
Article ID: 
A2615816
Contributed on: 
09 May 2004

I was Eleven in the October, as War was declared in the September, I had just reached the stage at school when I had to transfer to the senior school. My parents were in dispute with the Education Dept.as they did not want me to go to Bierton Road School, they considered it to rough and to far to go, the school was some distance away and quite some distance to walk, as the bus service only ran morning and evenings mainly for the convenience of Lucas workers. The school they chose was Yardley Senior School at the Yew Tree a much better class of school, also by walking to the top of our road I could catch the outer circle number 11, bus which would drop me at the gates of the school, but because I lived the wrong side of the boundary line it had to go before a committee to decide. So you see nothing has changed, we had the same problems then as you do to day.

War being declared, did not mean much to kids we did not really understand, all we knew was all the schools had been closed down and we were on what seemed a permanent holiday, While every thing was in chaos and every one was panicking we just ran wild. Our favourite pastime was to take some sandwiches and a bottle of lemonade and go up Spyion Cop this was a huge piece of land, which fronted Station road where the Swimming baths are today, and rose steeply up to Old Yardley at the top with Manor Road running along the left hand side. The ground was cut away in cliff like terraces and was composed of sand and clay, there were miles of brambles on there from which we could pick our fill of blackberries and wild raspberries, hours were spent playing cowboys and Indians and numerous other games

There was a call from the government for the children from cities to be evacuated to the country for safety, but mom and dad decided against it and we did not go, my best friend at school Rita Boston was evacuated to Cleobury Mortimer, I missed her very much. One day we had to go with mom to collect our gasmask, each one had to be fitted properly, I can still remember that horrible smell of rubber, the man fitting them told you to breath in and put a piece of card over the filter end to test it, at which it made a horrible sound, I just hoped I would never have to wear it. The next step was going with mother up to a church hall in Washwood Heath to collect our Ration books, for food was to be rationed, and horror of horrors so were sweets, later on we had to go to the Council House Offices in Broad Street by the hall of memory to collect our Identity Cards, who’s number I can still remember today, from then on the whole pattern of our lives changed .

Finally it was decided to open up the schools again much to the disgust of us kids .The Education Committee informed my parents that I had to go to Bierton Road Girls School, the irony of this decision was that I spent every Monday the whole day at Church Road School, Yardley for cookery and laundry lessons. In the mean time while we had been absent, huge brick and concrete air raid shelters had mushroomed in all the playgrounds. It was with much trepidation I arrived at Bierton Road, on my first day I was assigned to a wooden hut class room in the boys play ground, see nothing changes! We were Instructed that we must carry our gas mask at all times and a box containing emergence rations in case we were in the shelter for any length of time, It was suggested that the box should contain a piece of cheese some chocolate and raisins and any thing else we could squeeze in, mine contained a pack of maltesers and some cheese triangles, I wonder why maltesers don’t taste like they did then! mind you they had only just come out on sale then. Bierton road school was a school split in two, boys in one half and girls in the other half and in theory never the twain should meet, but it did not quite work out like that as our tempory class room was in the boys play ground, when the teachers back was turned they would take every opportunity to chat us up. The first time the siren sounded while at school was quite a surprise, we were all marched into the shelter where we sat and waited for what seemed like an eternity for the all clear to sound, and in the mean time most of us had eaten our emergence rations. Of course at that time none of us had experienced a real air raid and had no idea what was in store for us.

Every house in the country with a garden had been issued with a Anderson Shelter an igloo type of shed made out of corrugated galvanised metal sheets and named after the man who invented it, ours was in the top half of the garden and buried deep down into the soil with a covering of soil over the top, In later years the site of the shelter was made into a fish pool. The first experience of an Air Raid, was really frightening, one minute you were in your nice warm comfortable bed, next you was being woken up out of a deep sleep to be urged to dress quickly and get down the shelter you soon learnt to recognise what the siren meant, a wailing sound for an Air raid and one long note for the all clear. With the siren wailing full blast you hurried in the pitch darkness, down the yard under the rose arch into the garden, where you scrambled into the shelter, there you sat in the cold and damp, when you suddenly heard the drone of planes over head. Then all hell would break lose, the horrific noise of bombs falling and the explosions which followed that rocked the ground. Added to that din was the sound of the ACK, ACK guns firing on the Aeroplanes from the railway sidings, it was a most terrifying experience and everyone was very frightened. In the years ahead we were to experience this over and over again. If anyone had told me that I would grow accustomed to this noise I would not have believed them, but some how you adjusted to it.

After a while it was decided as we got deeper into winter to stop going down the shelter and to go into the butlers pantry under the stairs at least it was warm and we could have candle light. Every window in the house had wide bands of brown sticky tape criss crossed over them, this was in case of bomb blast to stop the glass from showering on you all the windows had thick blackout material curtains, which was most depressing. You were not allowed to show a pinpoint of light. The Air Raid warden’s precautions officer patrolled the road to make sure no lights were showing.

As the war progressed there was a shortage of food and we had to queue for nearly everything, even potatoes were rationed, they were very tough times we were well into the nineteen fifties before rationing ended, no oranges, bananas, pineapples, grapefruits, only our own grown fruit and vegetables, yet we survived.

Once we got into the 1940s the raids got really bad, the Bullring was bombed quite badly, and a great favourite of mine the market hall was bombed to the ground and with it a very special clock that was a focal point of the hall, it had figures which moved on the striking of the hour, that clock would have been worth a fortune today.

No More the pet stall with tiers of cages from floor to ceiling containing all manner of cage birds of brilliant hues, the numerous cages containing, kittens, puppies, rabbits tortoises and ferrets. The hall was also home to the fish market stalls selling all variety’s of fish and shellfish, china stalls were stall owners entertained you by juggling plates and with the performance went the patter to convince you to buy their wares. A café where you could buy a mug of tea and a bacon sandwich, and numerous other stalls were you could buy almost anything.

This place was much loved by Birmingham people and the bombing of the bullring and the market hall made people very angry. The bullring was a very special place with a special atmosphere of its own which was lost for ever, out side the market hall used to be flat-topped barrows with Barrow Boys selling fruit and vegetables and day old chicks, at the bottom of the bullring in front of the church we had people standing on soap boxes preaching on politics, religion, and allsorts of subjects, men parading around with sandwich boards advertising local shops and sometimes informing us the world was coming to an end, the escapologist who enclosed himself in a sack bound with chains which was then padlocked, the Salvation Army with their brass band recruiting people to their ranks, with the bombing that night we lost that entire special atmosphere never ever to return. When the raids were at there height we lost so many of our city buildings, the look of Birmingham would never look the same again, so many historical buildings lost forever.

In one of the worst raids in September 1941we got bombed out of our house in Frederick Road, a landmine fell on the railway lines, because of the embankment our house did not get the full blast, mom, gran, and my brothers were sheltering in the butlers pantry under the stairs, granddad and I lay on the floor in the hall, and dad in the kitchen, we could hear the bombs dropping all around us, then suddenly every thing went like black treacle and the air seemed to be sucked from the building, ceilings came down, the doors and windows blew in the miracle was every one escaped unhurt except granddad who had his head cut open by falling plaster. The next day dad decided to go and check if his parents were all right, grandma and granddad Bessey, when dad returned he told us we would all be moving to Waddington Avenue, Great Barr, his brother and his wife’s home till our house could be repaired, I don’t know how we all fitted in because, besides us there was granddad and granny Bessey, aunty Poll,(granny Besseys sister)and aunty Maggie my dads eldest sister, 14 persons in all.

To complicate things my mother was pregnant with my sister, my mother was terrified of the raids and to get to the shelter we had to navigate a field of sprouts in the pitch black, very often mom would get into a blind panic, My sister was born while living at Great Barr on December 22nd 1941the shortest day of the year. It was to be many months before any work could be carried out on our house and we were allowed to return home. That winter was a very bad one with very deep snow which froze over for weeks. Gran and I would make regular trip over to Stechford to check on the house, I can remember very vividly melting snow and boiling it on the stove to wash nappies because with so many people in the house it was impossible keep on top of the washing, all the water had been cut off at our house.

What a relief when we were finally allowed back home and I had my own bedroom back to myself. Many of my friends were killed in the air raids; the girl who always stays in my mind is Barbara Rodgers she lived in a council house almost opposite the Y.W.C.A.in Richmond Road corner of Bordesley Green. Barbara was in my class at school, the only member of her family to survive was her mother who was left crippled, the house was just a heap of rubble and they had to dig them out, my friend Rita and I used to visit her grave to put flowers on.

The night Bordesley Green got bombed was a very bad raid, when we came out from the shelters the following morning it was carnage up Bordesley Green, with dead bodies every where and so many properties badly damaged including the fever hospital now re-named the Heartlands, there was a huge crater in the grounds where a bomb had just missed hitting the hospital, I know of this because my sister had caught Hooping Cough off my brother , she was still only a young baby so was taken into the hospital there as it was an infectious disease in those days and she was very poorly with it.

The family when we came back from Great Barr had started using the public air raid shelter on the station road, it was a reinforced shelter under the butchers shop on the corner of Station road and Lindon road, as the raids were quite bad dad would not let us risk sheltering under the stairs again. The shelter was quite spacious with rows of bunk beds on which to rest as the raids sometimes went on for hours, soon after tea each evening the siren would wail out. All important papers such as insurance policies, birth certificates, marriages lines, ration books and jewellery were always kept in a bag ready to take with us to the shelter in case the house was not standing when we returned from the shelter, I would wrap my patchwork quilt around me and a scarf wound around my head like a turban to keep me warm, there was no heating in the shelter, then hasten up the road as quickly as possible for it was not unknown for the planes to swoop down and machine gun you. If it had not been for my family going to the shelter I would not have met my husband Leonard, his family had also been bombed out of their home in Morden Road and like us had to leave their property and were re-housed in near by Manor Road, so therefore used the same shelter, I never took much notice of him till one night when I had gone outside for a breath of fresh air he asked me for a date and I turned him down, then one night in a scramble to get out of the shelter with all our blankets and possessions, a gas mask got left behind and Leonard brought it to our house so we got talking and became friends so the war played a large part in the shaping of my life.

I would often during a lull in the raids nip down home and make a jug of cocoa to take back to the shelter. One night there was a very heavy raid on Parkinson Stove Works and we all had to evacuate the shelter as the A.R.P. considered it unsafe to remain in the shelter, often in the raids they would drop loads of incendiary bombs on us which would set fire to buildings, I myself have helped to put these out when they fell in the road outside the shelter.

Every one during the war had to carry Identity cards the police would swoop at regular intervals at public places and check everyone’s card; they did manage to catch spies by doing this. All ethnic people had to register during the war and report to the police station every week. As the war went on and things got very tough, every one was called upon to give up their railings and anything else made of metal such as saucepans etc. so they could melt them down to make war weapons. We have in our possession a teapot specially commissioned by Dyson & Horsfall Ltd. to commemorate the handing over of such items, we were also encouraged to keep poultry to help feed ourselves, we kept poultry at the bottom of our garden and to do this we had to give up part of our egg ration in exchange for coupons to buy feed for the poultry, all our vegetable scraps were boiled up including potato peelings and outer leaves of cabbages etc: and made into a mash with Karswood spices added, nothing was wasted, the job I hated was dusting hens with D.D.T. powder to get rid of the mite, (DDT) is now banned as it is a dangerous substance.

I worked during the war, first at Allen’s a fashion shop on the corner of Carr’s Lane and High Street in Birmingham city centre and though I was only 14 years old I had charge of the keys to premises. In case of damage to the property from air raids the police and wardens would call me out. In my job as a cashier it was me that had to take the takings to the night safe, on occasions the sirens would go and believe me Birmingham city centre was no place to be with a raid going on.

I always had my dinner at the British Restaurant this was set up by the government where you could get a cooked meal without giving up any coupons, it meant one less meal for them to find at home from our very limited rations. Clothes, Blankets, Furniture in fact very little were not rationed. All the factories were busy making weapons, vehicles, munitions, uniforms and all kinds of merchandise and items for the troops, every one who was not in the forces, fire service or an exempt job had to register for work, it was a very tough time, no dodging of work if you had been up nearly all night because of an air raid.

I found a shop in Birmingham that sold cot blankets, these were exempt from coupons, I used them to make into short coats for friends and myself. Leonard’s brother Sid was in the Para Troop Regiment and he brought me home a white silk Parachute and from this I made some underwear, sheer luxury! To buy stockings was very nearly impossible as they were made of silk (before Nylons were invented) so we used to paint our legs with gravy browning or sand and draw a seam down the back of the leg with a pencil. From typewriter fluid we made nail varnish, make up was like gold dust it was very hard to buy. I remember once when walking to the Ice rink down Spring Hill we found this small shop selling Brandy Snaps, we could not believe our luck, how they managed to obtain the ingredients I cannot guess for they made these on the premises and we did not have to give up any coupons, we became regular customers for quite a while.

© Copyright of content contributed to this Archive rests with the author. Find out how you can use this.

Archive List

This story has been placed in the following categories.

The Blitz Category
Childhood and Evacuation Category
Rationing Category
Birmingham and West Midlands Category
icon for Story with photoStory with photo

Most of the content on this site is created by our users, who are members of the public. The views expressed are theirs and unless specifically stated are not those of the BBC. The BBC is not responsible for the content of any external sites referenced. In the event that you consider anything on this page to be in breach of the site's House Rules, please click here. For any other comments, please Contact Us.



About the BBC | Help | Terms of Use | Privacy & Cookies Policy