- Contributed by
- BBC Scotland
- People in story:
- Elsie MacKenzie
- Location of story:
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 10 August 2005
This story was submitted to the People’s War site by Claire White of BBC Scotland on behalf of Elsie MacKenzie and has been added to the site with her permission. The author fully understands the site's terms and conditions.
When it became apparent that war was inevitable, certain preparations were made. Air-raid sirens were erected and tested, also searchlights were set up, but these were mostly in the countryside. A friend and I went back to school some nights, to assemble gas masks.
Despite much careful planning, certain shortages emerged during the first few months after the war started on 3 September 1939. Empty hotels and even private houses were commandeered for use as billets for the services. It was a common sight to see soldiers on guard at the gates of these premises with wooden replicas of rifles.
Everyone was issued with a gas mask in a small cardboard box with a carrying cord. It was possible to buy shaped bags in which to carry a gas mask, but I'm afraid that we young girls used them as handbags. This was against the rules of course, as gas masks were supposed to be carried at a all times. We were also issued with identity cards and these we did carry always in case of 'spot' checks.
When not in use, cars, vans, etc. had to be immobilised. This was achieved by removing the rotor arm. Petrol was, of course, rationed but then very few people owned cars. All the brands of petrol were amalgamated into one brand called 'Pool' and the road tankers carrying this were painted grey.
All place names were removed from railway stations, making travelling difficult. The guard would shout out the name of the station, but sometimes, it was hard to make out what was said. From the start of war, blackout regulations were strictly adhered to. Doors and windows were covered so that no light showed outside. Blackout material made of strong black cotton was made into curtain linings and also hung at doors.
All vehicles had their headlamps masked with just a narrow slit of light showing. Bus windows were also masked, leaving a very small rectangle clear. This had a dual purpose because in the event of a bus being near a bomb blast, the black paper might prevent the window from shattering.
Large circular tanks, called Static Water Tanks, (approximately 5 metres in diameter and 1 metre deep) were placed at strategic places such as waste ground or even in the centre of large traffic round-abouts. These, as the name suggests, were kept full of water in case of emergencies. Also pails or tins of sand were dotted around, in shop doorways or any convenient corner to be used to douse incendiary bombs. Since most men were in the forces, youngsters were conscripted to work in the coal mines. These young men were known as 'Bevin Boys' after the creator of the scheme.
The blackout, as well as being inconvenient, with no street lights to guide, could at times be dangerous. It was, therefore, an unwritten rule that when walking along the pavements, it was safer to walk on the left. Occasionally, some man could be heard shouting "keep to the left". It was permissable to carry a small torch, which could be used with discretion. As umbrellas were lethal, no one used them during the dark nights.
One day, a friend and I decided to spend a day in Hull, a seaport with much heavy industry and about 60 miles from home. When we arrived, we were shocked by the amount of devastation. The remnants of large stores amounted to just a heap of rubble with enormous steel girders lying twisted like straws. Later when we were getting on the bus for home, the air raid sirens sounded, but we decided to carry on. We were sitting on the front seat of the upper deck when suddenly came the rat-tat-tat of machinegun fire (as we thought) and we were frozen with fear. Soon though we realised that it was only the sound of low hanging branches striking the roof of the bus!
Reality came through a few weeks later, when my father was returning home by train at 10pm after a long hard day helping to build an aerodrome near Hull. Suddenly, a lone enemy plane swooped down and machine-gunned the train. The passengers had to scramble out and find what shelter they could in ditches and hedges. Thankfully no-one was injured but this was a nasty experience for these elderly men.
In the Spring of 1940, came the tragedy of Dunkirk, when thousands of men who made up the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) were trapped on the beaches at Dunkirk, with now way of escape except the sea. As well as numerous naval ships, hundreds of private motor boats evacuated the stranded men back to Britain, under constant enemy attack. The husband of one of my sisters lived through this nightmare, and on return to this country, he was stationed for a while in Auchterarder. My sister and 18 month old nephew planned to visit him for a while, and she asked me to accompany them to help care for the baby. The lady we were staying with, one day took us for a walk and we came to this mansion being used as a convalescent home for the services. This turned out to be the now famous Gleneagles Hotel.
Rationing and Shortages
Rationing did not begin immediately, so people with plenty of money stocked up with anything they could get. Even after commodities were rationed, some of these people still lived comfortable lives. For instance, some shop-keepers who sold sweets and cigarettes, traded these to the grocer, butcher, fishmonger, etc. So the phrase 'under the counter' evolved.
Of course, when rationing did gradually begin, life was difficult and unpleasant, but we had to buckled down and do the best we could with what was available. The coupon free blackout material made strong overalls and even the lining for coats was made from army blankets which were drab but warm. Knitting wool was rationed but sea-boot sock wool, which was very oily was not and this when washed made soft warm vests for the children and also made good socks. Hanks of darning wool were not on ration but consisted of cut pieces about 60cm in length. Some women patiently spliced these lengths together and knitted Fair-Isle gloves.
Basic clogs (unrationed) were made of unlined black leather which was fixed to thick wooden soles with brass studs. These with the aforementioned socks were wonderful, as for a time, my war-work meant working outside in rain and slush. When available, barrage balloon material made very necesary and substantial aprons. Some girls made underwear and even wedding dresses from silk parachute material.
To save our precious sockings, which were on clothing coupons, we used Permanganate of Potash crystals, which when dissolved in water and painted on our legs, looked very much like tan stockings.
Coal of course was rationed, but an illness such as bronchitis ensured an extra allocation on production of a doctor's certificate. With all the shortages came the "Spivs", those wide boys who could produce anything at a price, (nudge nudge, wink wink, ask no questions). Private Walker in Dad's Army was a perfect example I understand although I never met one.
Although we had five cinemas in the town, these always had long queues no matter what the film was. With so many service people around, they naturally looked for somewhere warm and dry to spend a few hours. After a long wait, a few people at the time were allowed inside and had to queue again, but at least it was warm. Eventually we arrived at the kiosk and purchased our tickets. Great, this was it!! No such luck as we had to stand at the back of the auditorium, sometimes for the rest of the evening. The amazing thing was that no one grumbled or complained, after all "there was a war on".
The Odeon cinema organised a scheme whereby families invited lonely servicemen into their homes. We did this and our visitor was a very pleasant soldier who soon became part of our large friendly family. When his duties took him overseas, he regularly corresponded with my mother and invited her to his wedding. Children were evacuated from large cities subjected to air raids to quieter areas. My sister took three little girls from Hull into her home and kept in touch after the war when she attended the wedding of one of her flock.
Firewatching groups were organised, in ordinary streets and business communities where a rota ensured that someone was on duty every night. The group I was in held dances regularly in the local church hall. These were well attended by locals and service people.
Air Raid Shelters
There were different types of shelter. One was called a Morrison shelter and was a sturdy steel structure, which was erected in a corner of the living room. It was about 3 metres by 2 metres and about 1 metre high with a strong steel top. Apart from a small space to enter, the sides were of steel mesh. Many families slept in these shelters at night, but some were just used by children to play "houses" in.
Another type was an Anderson shelter. This was constructed of corrugated steel and shaped like a bread loaf. These were for use outside and were partially dug into the ground with a thick layer of ground on top. After the war, we were fortunate to be allocated a prefab and the garden shed was an Anderson shelter. My husband built a scale model of the prefab as a doll's house for our daughters. Most of his work was done in secret in the shelter. The dolls house is now an exhibit in the People's Palace Museum in Glasgow.
In some streets, brick shelters were built and just placed beside the kerb. These were about the size of a single garage, the walls being of brick with heavy concrete slabs for a roof. Entry was at each end of the short sides and there were no seats provided inside. These shelters were not at all popular and very seldom used. A number of large public shelters were built, where it was deemed safe, these being under bridges or road tunnels, with entrances reinforced with sandbags. The placing of long rows of park benches provided seats. In London, the Underground Stations were used as communal shelters and thousands of people spent every night there.
We were very fortunate because as we had no heavy industry or ship building in Scarborough, we got very few air raids. The ones we did have are forever embedded in my memory.
One summer's night my sister and I went to bed at about 10pm and stayed there even when the air raid sirens sounded. We heard some sharp noises, but dismissed these as being a car back-firing in the adjacent car park. At about 11pm my sister's friend called to tell us of the great excitement we had missed. Apparently, an incendiary bomb was lodged in the doorpost of the house, but was promptly dealt with by the local fire fighters. This attracted a large crowd, including a grocer from across the way. Suddenly someone said to him "don't know what you're standing here for, your roof is on fire". The noises we had heard must have been the bombs and it was sobering thought to realise that if the one in our door had been a couple of metres away, my sister, the children and I could have been killed or injured.
One dark night, while staying with the same sister, we did have a "mini-blitz" and we spent the night with her two children in very cramped positions under the stairs. Sometime in the early morning, the children were sleeping so my sister and I decided to sit on the stairs for a whlie. Suddenly, we heard the loud whistle of a bomb and we were sure that "this was our lot". Without a word we just hugged each other, bent our heads down and waited and waited. Nothing happened and we could not believe that we had been lucky for a second time. We heard later that it was a time bomb, which had landed in the grounds of a church about 100m away and was safely defused. Although it was a comparatively small raid, three of the people killed had been my friends. My sailor brother was on leave at the time and he said he would rather be at sea during a bombardment as the water cushioned the effect of the blasts. He was speaking from experience, having taken part in the "Battle of the River Plate" off Motevideo, Uruguay. At the time, he was serving on HMS Ajax and along with cruisers Exeter and Achillies they engaged the German warship Admiral Graf Spee which was scuttled four days later.
On another dark night, I was walking with a friend near town, when we heard a loud roaring sound, just like a train engine. We soon realised that although we couldn't see it, what we were experiencing was a very low flying German plane flying overhead. Later came an ear-splitting explosion which turned out to be a land mine. As these were dropped by parachute, planes could fly low to achieve their targets.
I volunteered for "war work" and for four years worked in a local factory as a carpenter. This was a job I very much enjoyed and I was happy working with hundreds of others mostly women. My task was helping to build crates and boxes of various sizes for plane wings, engines, etc. One winter's night, the factory went on fire (not through enemy action). Because of the contents of wood, paint, felt and creosote the fire was very extensive. As we just lived about a mile away, we were scared in case some stray enemy bomber might see the fire and use it as a target. However, we were lucky and all stayed quiet. When reporting for work next day, all that was left was a pile of smouldering rubble. Work had to go on and it did in an assortment of sheds around the place, nonve veyr large and some with just a roof for protection. Gradually production started again and as a new factory grew up beside us and spring days were ahead we soon forgot the misery of working outside in rain, snow and bitter cold. Thinds did not seem so bad after all. Eventually when the war ended, the factory reverted to its peacetime occupation, which was coachbuilding. The name of the factory was "Plaxtons" and I still get a thrill when I travel on or see many of the hundreds of coaches bearing its name.
Continued as Scarborough in wartime: Part 2
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