- Contributed by
- People in story:
- Eunice Edwards, Marjorie Price, Miss Raby, Mss Cowan, Miss Solomons, Stanley Edwards, Evelyn Edwards
- Location of story:
- Birmingham (Midlands)
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 06 November 2005
Birmingham at War — As I Remember It
Eunice Jones (nee Edwards)
It was a beautiful sunny morning when war was declared on Germany at eleven o'clock on 3rd September, 1939. Almost everyone in the country heard that wireless broadcast by Neville Chamberlain. We, that is my family — mother, father, older brother and younger sister - had to leave home to go to an old lady (friend of the family) who was dying. As the old lady's life was drifting away, our thoughts were preoccupied with the future. The elderly people in the house had already lived through the Great War and were naturally apprehensive. The younger folk felt excitement and the boys wanted to settle Hitler's hash once and for all. I knew that life was about to change, but what would happen to us all? I remember quite clearly that my mother looked so sad. Up until that point I, like many, had thought we had fought the 'war to end all wars' in the Great War and did not believe that another war like that could ever happen again.
The next day everyone went to work as usual. Nobody seemed inclined to work, as the whole office discussed the matter. It seemed everyone wanted to fight. We had just got to show the Germans they couldn't go on bullying everybody. Then we noticed an elderly lady in the office was in tears. She was a Miss Solomons. "You don't understand," she said. "You've no idea what it will be like." Then it dawned on me that she was a Jewess. We had lots of Jewish refugees in the country — with stories of persecution. The Jews would suffer most if they invaded England. It then became clear that we had other Jewesses in our midst - a Mrs. Raby and a Miss Cowan. Mrs Raby had fair hair and a lovely pink complexion, and Miss Cowan had light brown hair. The name Raby and Cowan had obviously been changed from Rabi and Cohen. However, they were our workmates and it had never occurred to us that they were different to us. We tried to comfort Miss Solomons, but I don't think we did much good.
The first thing that happened was that the Territorial Army was called up. In the office were two boys who were Territorials and they left immediately. One of them never came back — he was reported missing at Dunkirk.
My young sister and I went to our local school to collect our gas masks. It was the only time that I felt like crying when I saw her trying hers on. I had taken her to school when she was five years old and it seemed terrible to be going to the school fourteen years later for this purpose. The masks were in cardboard boxes with cords to sling them over the shoulder and we were expected to have them with us at all times. There were special cradle-like containers for babies. (After the bombing eased, people gradually left their masks at home.) Eventually, as no bombs started to fall on us, we carried on with our daily lives, going to work as usual.
"A town in the West Midlands was bombed last night." That was how Birmingham was referred to in all the news bulletins during the War. No one could understand why. We all knew when Plymouth, Coventry or London had a raid, but Birmingham was never mentioned. Nobody has ever told us why. We Brummies all knew we had been bombed, I'm sure the Germans knew it too, but the BBC kept it quiet. No casualties were ever announced, but I think we had over 2,300 people killed and over 70,000 injured.
The first raid we had was quite near to where I lived and the target was the Rover factory in Acocks Green. Also, the main London railway line ran at the bottom of our garden. I think this was in late August 1940 and about midnight. When the siren went off, I was in bed. I slept in the attic. I shot out of bed and grabbed my dressing gown and started down the stairs. We were supposed to lie flat but how could I on the stairs? I continued down and shouted to the rest of the family until we had all reached the cellar. We heard an explosion, but the raid did not last long. One bomb dropped in Cottesmore Close, near to the Rover factory which was built at the bottom of the Close. I knew one house in the close was badly damaged and the householder had put a bucket by his front gate with a notice saying "All contributions gratefully received".
My sister and I joined the crowd of sightseers next day and, as I looked into the bucket and the few coppers and sixpences therein, I wondered what on earth the poor family were going to do. Evidently, a stick of bombs had been dropped. I didn't go to see any other bomb sites after that. Life carried on, but soon the raids began to be more severe after the Battle of Britain finished. The sirens began to go off regularly and we had to get out of bed at all hours of the night. Women took to wearing warm trousers to slip on quickly, to go down to the shelters. We had a cellar, a rather grim and spidery place. As the evenings got darker, the bombing started earlier and the sirens were going as early as seven o'clock. This meant having arrived home from work, we only just had time to eat our evening meal, take the dog out for a run, and get back in time to go down the cellar before all hell let loose.
Down in the cellar, mother and father slept in deck chairs — these proved terribly uncomfortable for long periods — while my sister and I slept on big wooden boxes (crates) with blankets to cover us. Our red setter dog, Leo, slept between us lying full length. This was very comforting, but occasionally disconcerting when, in the middle of the night, Leo stretched and his furry paws found our faces. Leo was never distressed by the bombing raids — he seemed to think nothing would happen to us — we were all in it together! In her deckchair Mother never complained even though she must have been very frightened. She just sat there with her eyes shut, but I think she was expecting to die at any moment.
Leo was really my brother, Stan's, dog and was deeply attached to him. When Stan was called up in the summer of 1940, the dog then became distressed. His eyes became red, his eyelids dropped and he looked very woebegone. We took him to the vet thinking he was ill and the vet said that he was pining for his master. So we undertook to take Leo to Warwick, where my brother was stationed. We arranged to meet in a public house at midday. We got there first with the dog and were sitting quietly when the door suddenly opened and Stan walked in. Thereupon the dog shot across the room, scattering chairs and tables as he flung himself upon my brother. He was so overjoyed to see him. After that the dog became quite well and got used to seeing Stan whenever he came home on leave.
Eventually, all offices and businesses began to close at 4 pm to allow folk to get home before the bombing. Can you imagine what it was like, everybody rushing to the bus terminals in Birmingham? Dale End was a narrow street in the centre of Birmingham and was the terminus for four or five different buses. Thousands of workers were struggling to get on the buses. I was so frightened, not being very tall. I would get squashed between all these thrusting bodies. On one occasion my arms became trapped against my body - I could not move them. I was trying to hold on to my handbag and gas mask. I was alarmed at this. Luckily, I got into the right queue and on to the right bus. After that, whenever in a crowd, I never walked with my arms down but always up in front of my chest and with my elbows stuck out.
The bombing raids got worse and worse. Sometimes the "All Clear" did not sound till six o'clock in the morning. We would then go to bed for an hour or so, because it was heaven to get undressed and put on nightclothes — even for a short time. About eight o'clock we would get up and have cup of tea and some toast (providing water and gas were still on) and go to work. We never knew what time the buses would come, but generally one did, although we were sometimes dropped short of our destination and had to walk the rest of the way.
I can remember walking up New Street, Birmingham — a sight of sheer devastation — wrecked shops everywhere: Lyons Tea Shop, Marshall and Snellgrove, the Dolcis shoe shop, many others were just rubble. The fire engines were still playing their hoses over smouldering debris. The fire hoses were all over the road like intertwined snakes. I picked my way gingerly over them, as there were lots of little holes in them squirting water up my legs.
Eventually, I would arrive at the office and meet up with my colleagues. We were so pleased to see each other, to know we had survived. Somehow, in spite of our traumatic nights, all of us turned up neat and tidy. I worked for Birmingham Corporation and, as we were paid by the rate payers of Birmingham, we never had a morning or afternoon break for a cup of tea. So we worked till one o'clock when we had an hour for lunch, and then till five. So we were a bit hungry by lunch time. When we began to leave at four o'clock, all the typewriters were carried down into the basement for safety before we left. The porter did this job and brought them back in the morning. Once we arrived at our office (in Summer Row) after a bad raid and found our office filthy. There was no bad damage but the fire watchers had evidently been tramping through and there was water everywhere and dirt all over the floor. Everybody set out to clean up. I spent the morning cleaning the floor with another typist. It was about forty feet long by twelve feet wide, so it was quite a job. When all was clear we started our daily work.
Two raids particularly stand out in my mind. November 20th was a dreadful night. The bombing was more intense: it was so near to us — all of us were frightened, except the dog. It was so bad that Ev and I chose to rest in deckchairs rather than lie on our customary boxes. Suddenly there was a terrific explosion. I thought we had been hit and waited for the ceiling to come in. Mom, Dad and I gazed at one another, shocked and terrified, and then at my sister who was sleeping in a deckchair. "Ev, are you all right?" we asked. No reply. I shook her — no response. We called her name. I thought she had died of shock. Suddenly, she opened her eyes. "What's the matter?" she asked. "Are you all right?" we chorused. "Of course I am. What did you wake me up for?" Evidently she was so exhausted that she had not heard this awful bomb. We were in the cellar ten hours that night. I think this was the night the BSA works in Small Heath had a direct hit, killing many workers.
December 11th (I think) was worst night of all. The warning had gone off at about six o'clock. We had gone into the cellar with our flask of tea and some cream cracker biscuits. The bombing was incessant and deafening. With the loud explosions there was a new juddering, shuddering element as though large buildings were collapsing. It was petrifying to listen to. We learned after that the Germans were dropping land mines. We thought they were on top of us, but the next day I was surprised to see most of our area intact. The all clear went at seven in the morning - we had been in the cellar thirteen hours. We discovered lots of our windows broken and after our tea and toast, we set about sweeping up the glass. I went to work about half past nine and found the road to my office cordoned off. There was a parachute mine hanging on one of the buildings waiting for the bomb disposal people. I went round to the main Council House and found some of my fellow typists, and also our supervisor, ordinarily a strict disciplinarian, who hugged me and said, "So glad you are all right". Upon that, she said we could all go home for the day.
We never had another night as bad as that one. We had some friends in Romsely, near the Clent Hills, and we slept there for about three weeks as our house had lost windows and doors. As the last days of 1940 passed, the raids got less. We quickly moved to a house in King's Heath. There we had no cellar so we just sat downstairs in the kitchen during the raids, but they were of short duration. I always managed to put in my hair curlers so as to be smart for work the next day.
When the men began to get called up, younger folk were promoted to their jobs. I was surprised how they rose to the occasion and took on responsibilities for which, in peace time, they would have waited years. Moreover, they volunteered for fire-watching and ARP duties, and so on. Dennis in our office, at seventeen, was such a lad — promoted when the Territorials were called up. He slid into the job effortlessly. He lived in a part of Birmingham that was badly bombed. One night, there was a terrible raid and his road was badly hit. Most of the men in his road were unavailable at the time and Dennis was asked to go the next morning to identify his dead neighbours, which he did. What a job for a boy of seventeen!
In Birmingham after a severe raid, lists of casualties were issued and posted up on prominent places in the affected area, detailing fatalities and the injured and if known, to which hospitals they had been taken. One of my cousins was on such a list yet thankfully his injuries were minor.
As the war progressed, single women were called up for war work. The age range was from twenty-one to twenty-four years of age. Of course, anyone could volunteer at any age. My sister, twenty one in 1941, was directed into the ATS. By the time the twenty-four year olds were called up, the forces were full and we, including me, were directed into other sorts of war work — nursing, factories, delivering milk (horse and float) or office work.
As I was a short-hand typist I landed up in the Civil Service. I was sent to the Directorate of Emergency Works and Recovery. I didn't have much idea what this meant. We had a suite of offices in Birmingham and our boss was a Brigadier from WWI. Off his secretary's office was a Map Room — always kept locked — and none of the other staff ever got a look at it. I realise now our work must have been the upkeep of army camps, air force bases, POW camps, and the recovery of all scrap. We typists never new much about what we were doing. We typed hundreds of what we called Shortage Sheets, but everything was in numbers and we never knew which particular camp was in need. It was long after the war was over that I realised what I had been doing.
Nearly every factory was put on war production - The BSA in Small Heath, the car firms Rover and Austin, and Cadbury's, just to mention a few. New factories were built to meet wartime requirements and these, as well as all the big factories I knew, were camouflaged. Such factories were called 'shadow factories'. There was no shortage of employment.
So many things were in short supply during the war. If you did go on holiday, you had to be sure to take everything you needed with you. You couldn't just pop into a shop and buy underwear and stockings if you had no coupons; even ordinary things like hair curlers, lipstick, nail files, soap and face powders, all were in short supply. I used pipe cleaners for curlers. Paper was in short supply. Wrapping paper was always in demand for sending parcels to the Forces. String was another problem. We hoarded every piece of string and paper. Plastic wrapping did not exist nor rolls of sticky Sellotape. Envelopes were used twice by using sticky labels over the old address. Should there be a tiny baby in the family, terry napkins were in short supply so mothers bought rolls of surgical lint and used this instead. Small children had one bottle of milk a day for twopence. Adults had half a pint per day for four pence a pint. Milk was still delivered by horse-drawn float. We drank lots of watery cocoa, and Camp Coffee — no Nescafe in those days. My friend Marjorie Price used to pop in each evening for such a drink before she went out to her first aid post as ambulance driver.
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