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A Child's War: In Coventryicon for Recommended story

by Peter Cox

Contributed by 
Peter Cox
People in story: 
Peter Cotterell Smedley Cox
Location of story: 
Coventry, briefly Westmoreland and then Staffordshire
Article ID: 
A2097317
Contributed on: 
01 December 2003

A CHILD’S WAR

I was an eight-year-old child living in Coventry when war was declared on Germany in 1939. I had heard about Germans from my Teachers at my Council school in Coundon Road, when we children were asked to bring whatever cast-offs and spare toys we had into school. It was to help the children in Spain who had been bombed by them and had lost all their own toys and clothes because they had been destroyed when their houses were blown up. I remember thinking how wicked that was and rushing home that afternoon to tell my parents the terrible news. Bless them, they did not say that they already knew and the next day, as I proudly clutched our offering on my way to school, I was trying to imagine what it must be like to be bombed, and what sort of people would want to do such a thing to children. One thing was clear; I was very lucky to be living in England, safe from anything those naughty people could do.
It did not take long for the immediacy of childhood to fade away those painful thoughts, Spain was after all a long way away, and we were soon back into the rhythm of lessons under the warm smiles of Miss Linehan and Mrs Howarth; not forgetting the forbidding presence of Miss Clarkson, the Headmistress, who had the same effect on pupils and teachers alike. It therefore came as a terrifying shock to find that the reason for the cries of “Extra!” “Extra!” from the newsboy in the street, heralded the declaration that now England was at war with Germany. All the images of those poor children flooded back, coloured now by the fear that we were next. I can remember the strange empty atmosphere of those early days. There was a new tension in the air and people appeared to move about in slow motion, casting unspoken questions at each other. It was as if some strange spell had been caste over the whole neighbourhood.
Sometimes it was shattered by a frantic burst of anti German diatribe which having been released returned its speakers to their silent thoughts.
We children now gave the Indians a well earned rest even though the idea of being perpetually dead as a German was something we had to share out very carefully. Well no one wanted to be a Nasty Nazzy. Hitler though was great fun and we Goose Stepped up and down our street, with our left index finger stuck under our noses and our right arms rigid at the slope in front of us, hooting with laughter as we convinced ourselves that anyone who looked so stupid and made his soldiers march in such a ridiculous fashion could not be a serious threat to anyone.
How wrong we were. Soon came the news that our expeditionary force had only been saved from annihilation by the incredible courage of the Royal Navy, the RAF and the brave small boat owners on the South coast. Then we started all the boring air raid practices relieved only by making farting noises through our gas masks. A whistle was blown or someone would ring a bell and we left the building in “an orderly fashion” to be herded into the shelter. Why we were deemed to be safer in a brick shed in the school grounds rather than in the school itself defies reason, and yet we did feel safe and perhaps that was the idea. I felt safe enough to take up knitting to occupy my time and so I was able to invent a scarf that could be worn in a number of different ways as it had holes along its considerable length big enough to put a head through.
Then came the real thing and somewhere in the City was bombed every night. This time the wail of those sirens was for real and we took to whatever shelters there were in the district. The main one was deep in the large cellar of the local Catholic School where again we felt safe in spite of the fact that it also housed a large boiler. If that building had been hit the injuries would have included scalding! Then one of our neighbours bought an Anderson shelter and as my Father helped to dig the hole we were able to share it. That really did feel safe and since it was fitted with bunks, sleep could at least be attempted. It was really quite exciting in that earth smelling atmosphere drinking hot tea or milk and listening to the planes overhead. We would play a guessing game as they approached to see who could identify friend or foe. The idea that the laboured throb could come from anything other than the engines of a heavily laden bomber was wishful thinking soon to be blown apart by the whistling of the bombs as they fell on their targets and exploded. This eerie whistling certainly had the desired effect, as its message was clearly stated, “This could be the last sound you will ever hear!" There were many sounds driven into our child minds during those raids, and we learned to imitate them all with uncanny accuracy in the games we played.
There was the rapid bursting of a stick of bombs strafing the target, the enormous crash of a “landmine” (or so we called it) as it could completely demolish a whole street and most terrifying of all, the one which landed with an terrific thump and then appeared to shudder its way into the earth beneath us. This was the delayed action aerial torpedo, which we of course believed to have stopped directly under us! Then there was the hollow boom of the Ack Ack guns in their futile attempt to return fire. One of these was sighted in the Bablake playing fields at the end of our road but it presented more of a threat than a ray of hope. What really excited us was the stutter of machine gun fire from those few fighters scrambled to try to disrupt the raiders. Unhappily it was only a few and sometimes none at all but we knew that those brave flyers were doing their very best to save us and cheered like mad hoping that they could hear us. Sometimes I was allowed a peep and was fascinated by the glow of tracer shells as they pursued their targets in fidgeting curves across the night sky. This did not happen often and only after a wearing set of “pleases,” as many had been killed by this gunfire or flying shrapnel.
Our spirits were never broken but our lack of sleep night after night began to take its toll. At the very sound of sirens I would begin to cry until I was “safe” in the Anderson next door. Then two things happened which really frightened me. The first was a daytime raid and bombers had somehow got through before the warning could be given. They were coming straight for us, or so I thought as I saw the bombs falling from the planes. The second occurred a few days later. I was at a friend’s house, a few streets away, when the sirens wailed and ignoring the protests of his parents rushed out, leapt onto my bike and furiously pedalled home. I had just closed the door when a lone German fighter plane flew low with his guns blazing into the road I had just left. As he soared back into the sky it seemed as though everyone came into the street to watch him try to make his escape. You can imagine the cheer that went up when a Spitfire began to attack him. We watched that dogfight, fascinated as the two planes swirled and swooped in great loops above us and snarled our cheers when the 109 (we knew our planes!) burst into flames and dropped out of the sky. It was another incident to fuel my growing feeling of hatred of a people who wanted to do these things. I felt no pity for that pilot, He had tried to kill me, so why should I?
From that moment many from Coventry took to driving out into the country to sleep in their cars. Night after night the roads were packed with streams of people looking for anywhere flat at the roadside on which to park for the night. We would take flasks of hot tea - we didn’t drink coffee!- and sandwiches, have a picnic supper and settle down as best we could in our 1935 Hillman Minx.
Four of us; Bessie, my Mother, Fred, my Father, my Aunt Pat and me. Sometimes just before we settled down, as best we could, for the night we would look into the sky above Coventry and our Sister City, Birmingham to see which of them was burning brightest. This was no competition, we had to know where our prayers were needed most.
Then the people who lived in the country saw a way to help and offers of accommodation began to appear in the paper. To be fair many of these people were motivated by genuine concern but others saw it as means of making money by charging large sums for space and a bed with a mattress on it; nothing else. I have a distinct and clear picture of my Mother coming back to the car with the message, from the Farmer’s Wife, that we could stay in this huge farmhouse, but only in one room. She would put in extra beds but there would be no breakfast included and we must bring our own bedding! Also we could not arrive before 9pm and must be away by 7am. We had to accept and with intense pride I recall the morning when my Mother, in quiet tones which would have turned back an army of killer ants, said to the Farmer’s Wife “Are you really trying to tell me that you cannot spare a glass of milk for my Son?” The Farmer himself answered and I was led into the Byre with a glass to be filled, straight from the cow. Ever after that there was a glass of full cream fresh milk on the table waiting for me; a far cry from the impostor which now parades on supermarket shelves.
Our own neighbourhood remained untouched throughout in spite of the local Ack Ack battery but there was plenty of damage from which we children derived some obscure delight as we viewed other peoples’ shattered houses. This curiosity led to a number of children being killed or severely injured as they clambered over the ruins and were crushed under falling masonry. It was something I could not do, not because of the danger, but I felt that this was an intrusion which went a step too far. Urgent warnings were issued through the schools to try to eliminate these self-inflicted tragedies but they continued to go unheeded. Sometimes it was not children playing their adventure games but adults with an entirely different purpose. We all learned a new word, LOOTING!, and we callously dismissed their pain and death when accidents occurred.
There was one day when a ring of us were peering down at the body of a disembowelled cat which lay on the grass verge in a street where there was no sign of any other damage. Our imaginations soared over the roofs of the surrounding houses to guess from which direction an incredible explosion had blown it clean through the air to where we had found it. Poor puss, we left it, the mystery unsolved, to continue our search for shrapnel or any other form of twisted metal. Sometimes we found unexploded incendiary bombs, which our group left alone. Unfortunately for others it was too tempting a prize, for which they paid dearly with their lives. The incendiary was a strange device. It was small, easily carried and some adults even used them as ornamental trophies but this type of bomb delivered airborne arson and was responsible for the total destruction of The King Henry VIII Grammar School and the beautiful Coventry Cathedral- St. Michael’s. Ironically each of these events followed closely my acceptance within the walls of these establishments as pupil and choirboy respectively. Even today I wonder at the hidden messages! Both buildings had escaped the high explosives which levelled much of the City centre and were left to the ravages of fire for their fate. In those raids we lost some wonderful examples of Mediaeval architecture and I still miss walking through Butcher Row and particularly Pepper Lane which housed the Library from which I had borrowed my first books on wild flowers and birds. Gone forever their image stored in resentful memories. Crowds would flock to the centre to stare in disbelief at the remains of their lovely City; they were the new Peeping Toms, and it was a taxing enough ordeal in itself. Even Owen Owen’s the huge department store had been reduced to a steel and concrete skeleton.
One day this became the focus of a military exercise, the purpose of which was to prove that our home guard could repel, or at least hold up an invading force. Unfortunately the “enemy” were soldiers from the Polish army and our lads were about as effective as our own finger fired bullets against these battle hardened survivors. It was amusing to watch and the audience joined in at times with comments rather like those one hears in a Pantomime. “He’s behind you!” “ Oh no ‘e isn’t!” “ O yes ‘e is!” “BANG!!” It was all over in a matter of hours as they mopped up the resistance and both armies marched off together joking. Two nations together, united against this hated enemy, the Polish with an even greater reason than our own.
Next came the news that the Daimler, required an engineer to organise their relocation to requisitioned factories in Leek and Burton on Trent in Staffordshire. My Father applied and he was given the job!! We couldn’t believe our luck and prepared for this new adventure.
Whilst the move was planned I was packed as an unofficial evacuee to my maternal Grandma’s house at 48, Latona Street on Walney Island. It was a long way from Coventry but very close to the Vickers Shipyard in Barrow which miraculously escaped any significant attacks. Walney certainly appeared safe but I learned nothing from the teachers at the school at the bottom of the road, except perhaps that they could be amazingly unfair. I had been forced to defend myself against the school bully and after he ran screaming to his teacher with a bloody nose I was regarded as a thug from a Midland city. Her very words “ You horrid little bully, he’s smaller than you and you shouldn’t hit boys smaller than you!” It was useless to explain that he had come at me with fists flying. He was indeed smaller than me but I couldn’t believe that I should have allowed him to hit me. Still it wasn’t for long and after fashioning a “fairly” realistic model of a 303 rifle- with fixed bayonet- from some timber in the garden shed, I was admitted to the ranks of a gang of local “lads” and taken to their den. This was a shed staggering on the slopes of a slagheap and once inside I felt myself being appraised by half closed eyes in expressionless dirty faces staring at me through the gloom as they reclined on collapsing couches. Fortunately I was accepted and asked to regale them with gruesome stories from the blitz.
Not long after I returned to Coventry ready for the move and this phase took us, as if through the looking glass, to another world where the war was a small chapter in an adventure book. Leek, where we settled, was a market town nestling in a sheltered hollow fifteen miles north of Stoke on Trent and we soon made many new friends. There was of course rationing but Maskery’s, a local confectioner in St. Edward Street made beautiful chocolates and Mr Deville, the pork butcher in Derby Street made superb pork pies. It made the shortages suffered by the people of Coventry even worse and we sent what we could afford to our friends. It wasn’t much but we had to do something as it brought back into our minds in sharp focus a terrible feature of mans behaviour when during the April raid, all services were destroyed along with shops and food stores. There was no gas, no electricity no water and very little food. Emergency supplies of butter, bread and milk were delivered to distribution points in the centre but hardly any of these supplies reached the residents as people from the outlying districts flocked in to collect it for themselves. The thought still rankles.
Almost at the same time my Uncle Joe left Cadbury’s in Bournville and moved to Broughton Beck, just North of Lile ooson( sorry - Ulverston) as he had taken a job in the shipyard in Barrow. This meant that ALL our holidays were going to be in the Lake District. We had spent some time there before , but not all. It was an amazing period as he soon realised his greatest wish and became a Tenant sheep farmer in the Duddon valley. He was Joe Shaw of Cockley Beck farm in the Duddon Valley and there he settled with his Wife Phyllis and Daughter Jean. Now our holidays were deep in the Lakeland hills and except for the times when I was mucking out stables or haymaking I soared, free as a bird, discovering the secrets of those glorious mountains and learning to climb.
It seems strange when I look back now that though we were now safe from bombs at home and on holiday the sound of a practice siren still made me shudder and I lost none of the hatred I felt towards this enemy who could intrude upon the lives of so many people and who, therefore, must be eliminated. Given a gun and an opportunity, even as a child, I would have shot Hitler. A horrifying thought when you see today, in newsreels, children carrying automatic weapons because of an engendered hatred. It was not until the seventies that this began to fade and I could permit myself to buy anything German. I bought Japanese products which is totally irrational except for the fact that I excused myself because they had not harmed ME directly. What a strange thing is the human mind.
Then came an amazing breakthrough. My Wife Joy and I were running a Guest House in York which enabled us to meet people from all over the world and one of these was a German in his mid seventies. We were talking generally and he asked me what part of England I came from. When I told him it was Coventry he asked if I was there during the war and of course I said yes. I saw the tears in his eyes as he admitted to being a bomber pilot in the winter raids of 40 and 41 and how distressed he had felt as a young man having to perform a terror raid as distinct from aiming at military targets. We spent some time in each other’s arms. And now just recently on a visit to the Life Foundation at Bethesda in North Wales I met lovely German lady who had been born in a cellar in Dresden on the night when we obliterated that City for no other reason but revenge. This time it was my turn to confess and I admitted to being delighted, as a child, when I heard that news and how guilty I had felt for harbouring such thoughts as maturity enabled me to see more clearly.
I give thanks for the gift of a life which has afforded me time to bring these early thoughts into focus and then dismiss them as I realised that the only way forward in this world is for us to stop concentrating on our differences, so skilfully marshalled by those with a different agenda, and begin to rejoice in our shared responsibility. I pray that we are drawing ever closer to the day when our intellect and imagination will enable us to pool the resources of this planet for the benefit of all nations and not just those with the greatest military power. Someone must take the imaginative leap to break the circle of violence within and around which the bloody teeth of vengeance seek their prey. There is nothing clever about my words but I know how I was led to hate and how I learned to face it, move through it and look beyond it to a brighter future. My only regret is that it has taken so long and so am left with the hope that words such as these will lessen the pain and therefore the timescale of realisation for those still on my old path.
For me the words of Edith Cavell, just before her execution are all embracing.

“ Standing, as I do, in the view of God and eternity I realise that Patriotism is not enough. I must have no hatred or bitterness towards anyone.”

Peter Cox. Born Coventry 1931.

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