- Contributed by
- People in story:
- Michael Ian Page
- Location of story:
- Penarth, near Cardiff
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 01 August 2004
A Wartime Boy in Penarth
My family moved to Penarth in late-1939, when my father was appointed to a senior post with the GWR at Cardiff, the city of his birth. We settled in an upstairs flat in 15 Victoria Road and this became the family home until the 1950s.
As a young lad of eight, the significance of being at war was gradually absorbed, particularly as things like sweets disappeared and second helpings at lunchtime became rare! Schoolmasters were being summoned for military service and many of these familiar faces disappeared for the duration, to be replaced by `Miss`. There were gasmasks to carry, every radio news broadcast to listen to, posters in the shops warned us about careless talk, ration books, ID cards, men in uniform on the bus, the Home Guard practising, the blackout curtains, anti-blast strips of paper criss-crossing the windows, car headlamps obscured, dim street lighting. Metals were required for the war effort and the steel railings outside the houses were removed as were those which surrounded All Saints` Church grounds. Even our aluminium saucepans were collected. Car journeys for leisure purposes were very limited with strict petrol rationing and if people needed to go anywhere, buses, trains, bicycles or`Shanks` Pony` were used. I used to go by train and bus to my school in Cardiff or, if the weather was kind, I would cycle the 8 miles or so each way.
Strict food rationing meant a plain if wholesome diet for growing lads with healthy appetites! We were always hungry! As a result, everyone kept a keen lookout for any extras going — offal and brawn at the butchers were not `on ration` and vegetables and fruit in season were always in demand. Behind Westwood College (now the Conservative Club), there was a large kitchen garden where there were many blackcurrant bushes. We could pick these free of charge, provided the school received half. I have never felt the same about picking blackcurrants to this present day! Household coal was to be used sparingly if we wanted the ration to last the winter and make-do-and-mend with clothing was the order of the day, if our precious clothing coupons were to be spared. There was a `British Restaurant` at the end of the arcade in the town centre, where the homeless or the traveller could get a cheap meal.
The disaster of Dunkirk was brought home to me when the fathers of some friends, who were Yacht Club members, disappeared to crew small boats across the Channel to France. Some of them didn`t return, I heard later.
Everybody seemed to know someone who had been wounded or declared missing amongst the soldiers in France and the conversation in the shops would often stop abruptly, when we youngsters appeared. So, we guessed something dreadful had happened.
I suppose it would have been at the end of 1940 or early-1941, when the air raids started. The prominent position of Penarth, overlooking Cardiff Docks and the Steelworks, meant the town became one big anti-aircraft battery, with searchlights and barrage balloons everywhere ready for action — or so it seemed to me at the time. A major part of the Golf Course became a rocket battery which practised regularly with spectacularly noisy results! Lavernock Point became a sort of fortress with a large AA battery.
The Luftwaffe pilots flew along the Bristol Channel and followed the River Severn as a guide to the industrial Midlands and perhaps because they received such a warm reception from the Penarth defences, diverted some of their attention to the town. At the time, it was said, the town was bombed more thoroughly than the Docks, which escaped fairly lightly by comparison. Having said this, there are probably a number of unexploded bombs still lying in the mud out there in the dock approaches — now the Cardiff Bay!
First of all the air-raid sirens would wail into the night and shortly afterwards, the searchlights, the AA guns and the rocket battery would come to life, fully engaging the intruders. The night would be full of noise — the crash of gunfire, the wooshing roar of rockets, the whistle of falling bombs followed by explosions, the thumping rain of incendiaries, the crashing of broken glass, the fire-engine bells, lights in the sky, smoke and flames and the smell of burning. For a youngster, it was all rather exciting and always disappointing that we should be led away to some dark place of shelter, just as things were getting interesting!
Despite the noise and activity, I never did discover whether the guns ever hit the enemy — certainly he would have known Penarth was awake and ready — and we at least were reassured that we were striking back!
One night in 1941 or 1942, All Saints` Church was hit by a shower of incendiary bombs and was gutted by fire — only the walls remained. I remember climbing inside for a closer look in daylight, to find an almost unmarked pile of prayer books on a charred table — everything else inside the church had been destroyed. At the time, I was convinced the prayer books had been saved by Divine Intervention! (The church was rebuilt after the war and I believe my wife and I were amongst the first to be married there after its reopening, in 1955)
That same night, opposite the church, on the corner of the lane near Cwrt-y-Vil Road, a large bomb had exploded alongside the large house standing there, the end one of a short terrace. A large crack appeared in the wall of the building which was quickly vacated as unsafe. About two weeks later, on a wet Sunday afternoon, as I looked from our front window, I saw the whole house collapse into the hole caused by the bomb! The house has never been rebuilt.
Then there was the man in Archer Road who wondered why the morning was so dark, when he drew his bedroom curtains. His window was blocked by a landmine suspended by a parachute caught on his chimney! Exciting times indeed!
In those days, fishing from the beach was popular but particularly so from the pier — indeed this was often crowded with dozens of anglers, hoping to catch some of the plentiful cod or whiting which were caught freely in the winter months, together with occasional skate, plaice and large conger eel. Some of the fish were too big (up to 40lbs) to raise from the water by rod and line and a large net was kept on the pier as an aid. The cry of `Get the net!`, would go up and a crowd would rush to gather around to help the lucky angler. At that time, we had no fridge at home, so I would try to keep my catch alive in the bath for a day or so!
It was usual to dig for ragworms as bait, on the beach at low tide. One day, a friend found a dead German airman on the beach where he was digging and he was rewarded with 25p for reporting this to the police — 25p was a useful sum to a 12-yr old in 1941! Needless to say, all the local lads kept their eyes open on the beach after that! One of them in fact found another body in the water as he was swimming near the Yacht Club — but it was in too poor a state to bring ashore. Enthusiasm for finding corpses seemed to wane after that!
A familiar sound was the hysterical-sounding `whoop` of destroyers as they sailed in and out of the Docks in those days. The traditional commercial traffic from the Docks had virtually ceased but merchantmen arrived regularly, often terribly damaged and limping towards safety. We often wondered what ghastly experience had produced such damage and how far they had travelled in such a state.
The majority of people everywhere seemed to `do their bit` - even the grocer in the Station Approach had a large sign which said, `This house is not interested in the possibility of defeat`. Local girls would get together on Saturdays in a hall in Albert Road to wind bandages. Boy Scouts would deliver firewood to the needy in wintertime. Air Raid Wardens patrolled the streets at night, raising a stink if they spotted the smallest chink of light! Fire-Guard and ARP duties featured regularly amongst the population. Mr Percy Stephens, the hairdresser in the town centre, was hugely proud of `his` incendiary bomb which he had captured with a bucket of sand! Indeed there must have been many hundred such bombs around the district which did a great deal of damage. A single incendiary bomb through the roof of a house, could make a family homeless in a matter of minutes, if not dealt with immediately, and the fire brigade could not be in a dozen places at once. As much as anything, these things were dreaded and nobody received any practical training in dealing with them — all we had available were stirrup pumps and buckets! (During Civil Defence training years later, I found myself alone with a burning incendiary bomb in a small room with just a stirrup pump — trust me, it`s not easy, certainly not pleasant!)
As youngsters, there was enormous `street cred` in having a large collection of the artifacts of war — shrapnel, bomb casings, bomb fins and so on, which could be found after each raid. You could hold your head high if you `owned` an unexploded incendiary bomb — until your parents found out, of course!
I was already active in the 14th Penarth Boy Scouts but when I was old enough, I also joined the Fire Guard Messengers — much to my mother`s horror. I was issued with a grey helmet, with the letters FGM boldly in white on the front, and an armband saying the same (just in case you missed the hat!) and I was immensely proud that I now could `do my bit` for the war effort. The idea was that a small army of youngsters like myself would report for duty during an air-raid, to carry messages from place to place, if the telephone system failed or was damaged.
The next raid was in fact the last raid of the war to hit Penarth.and, to my great annoyance, my mother failed to wake me in time to report for duty! This deprived me of my only chance to serve `King and Country` during WW2 — something hard to forgive my mother at the time!
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