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Wakefield and WWII

by CHDrake

Contributed by 
People in story: 
Charles Henry Drake, Lily Drake
Location of story: 
Wakefield, West Yorkshire
Background to story: 
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
17 May 2004

‘By 1938 there was a real fear of war, and a collection was made at school (Wakefield Girls High School) for Czechoslovak refugees, but despite the international situation, Miss Maris took a part of girls to Switzerland.

August for an 11year old appears to have been a string of hot days spent cycling to Coxley Valley for picnics, swimming and playing tennis.
Parents spent much time, as many would later, listening to the news bulletins and talking about the German invasion of Poland and the Baltic area- Danzig and the corridor were a major worry. All at school were advised by Miss Maris to carry on quietly in school and with their own business in a normal away as possible. The Friday night (1st September), was spent lying with her sister and friends on the lawn of the family home watching a lone single engined plane fly over, which had to be a Spitfire even then! The last minutes of peace ticking away.
From then on the excitement rose, but parents became sadder and more resolute, they remembered and fought in the Great War, the War to end all Wars, and their memories were horrendous and now it was happening again ‘twenty years’ was repeated again and again. The family had no sons, but cousins who were of an age to go, indeed one, Eric Bradley, had been called up with the militia twelve months earlier.

The Saturday passed and nothing. No Chapel on the Sunday morning added to the gloomy atmosphere of suspension.

The wireless was turned on about 10:50 and all sat down to wait out the last few minutes, an experience that many do not want to repeat. Then Neville Chamberlains serious voice came on the wireless tell us and the world that the last hour of the ultimatum had passed and that we were therefore at war with Germany and her Allies. Life for many seemed to stop that day as though no one knew what to do next. In a way the news was a relief. The war began less with a bang than a whimper of apprehension.

The blackout had come, and we were told to that in the event of an air raid we must ho under the table —a large sturdy oak affair- or under the piano- a boudoir grand with enormous legs. Later, the cellar was emptied out and the marble slabs were equipped with blankets and pillows, reminiscent of a morgue!

That night the air raid siren sounded nearly all over Britain, but it did not last long. An elderly aunt, Ruth Harvey, lived alone on Dewsbury Road, and during the raid one of her neighbours went to see that she was alright to be very startled by just her head appearing round the door in its gas mask!

Autumn Term at School started again in the second week of September, on the 14th, to find that the greatest sin on the calendar was not having your gas mask with you at all times. For a while every lesson began with a gas mask check. Later it became a registration ceremony which lasted until the last days of the war. If you had forgotten it, you were sent home to retrieve it. Gas Mask drills- putting them on, chin first and the straps over your head, staff in theirs checking straps- They smelt horrible, puffing and blowing to see that you had a good seal, moving around a little to get used to wearing them, became part of the timetable. Miss Frampton was always meticulous. Sticky white paper criss-crossed the windows to prevent flying glass.
During Air Raid Drills, when we were asked to get our gasmasks, became a welcome timetable break; all had to line up at the door with their gasmask and walk quietly and silently to the schools cellars, which eventually had benches to sit on, for those who did not have a cellar peg, had to use the corridors, boiler rooms and storage areas of the school. The pupils went in to the cellar in lesson ‘divisions’, full forms for humanities and for sciences, languages and mathematics groups consisting of roughly one third of each of the two parallel forms The relevant member of staff would take the register of her group she had been teaching. This all became, as intended, routine but at first there were some girls at the school who would become hysterical, but received little sympathy. The cellars had numerous pipes crossing it and the staff where worried about their fracturing in the event of the school being hit. If the girls were in the cellar during an air raid and the gas and hot water pipes were broken there could have been a disaster!

The first thing taught in the first War Time French Lesson was of course to learn the French National Anthem. Once the initial excitement had died down, all these things became a matter of routine, and were never carried out in anger. Life settled down to normal, for an 11year old sitting in class and daily watching the flags move around a map of Europe the war virtually died until Dunkirk came and the Battle of Britain started. After Dunkirk Wakefield rapidly filled with battered wrecks of men, all highly nervous, and it was not advisable to come up behind the, quietly. Pemberton House and Vincent House, on Westgate near the station, were full of men- often leaning from windows and calling out.

The Lupset estate, and certainly others, all had men billeted on them and the hospital blue pyjamas of the wounded men from Pinderfields became a common sight around the town. About 180 evacuees arrived from the Channel Islands and Miss Maris put them up in the Jubilee Hall, pending the finding of permanent homes. The only difficulty was, where would they go in case of an air raid or emergency.

Then came the bombing of London, Birmingham, Coventry, Manchester and Liverpool and that unnamed east cost town ‘Hull’ and of course the all embracing South Coast. Somewhere amongst this came Sheffield, when for several hours for two nights, Wakefield citizens could see the reflection of the burning city in the sky, and could hear the bombers circling, and the local searchlights, one being at Snapethorpe school, quartered the sky looking for them. The skies would dull, the flashes of bombs exploding would be seen and the dull crump, crump crump, of the explosions heard and the sky flare up again’. Drake & Warters, part-owned by Mrs Cresswell's father had men working in Sheffield, and they told stories of going into the shelters at night and coming out in the morning to find the town around them literally gone; just piles and piles of smouldering rubble and worn out air raid wardens, firemen and ambulance drivers coping as best they could. Within three weeks, Mrs Cresswell went to Sheffield, and saw the unbelievable devastation, piles of rubbish with narrow roads cleared between them, and the smell of fire still everywhere.

Leeds and Wakefield were very lucky. The chief designer of Drake & Warters, Hayden Suthill, was not frightened but terrified of being called up, and as he was an essential member of staff, Mr Drake moved heaven and earth to have him reserved. He was only to die some weeks later outside is own gate in the raid on Thrones Road on the night of Friday March 4th 1941. The explosions killed five other people, ranging from a two year old child to an 80 year old man, 15 were injured, 5 seriously. Hayden Suthill was replaced by Pete Mundy. Fate is far more important than fear or planning.

Leeds was indeed bombed, but not in the concentrated way of Sheffield. An ancillary diversionary town was built for Leeds to the right of the A64, where roads and lights were put in and straw bales burnt to confuse the bombers.

The people of Wakefield would hear our bombers going out, hundreds collecting up from local airfields and going out in the early evening, a heavy growling prophetic sound, which would be somewhat lighter on their return in the morning.

At the Girls High School, Fire watching was organised. Each night two members of staff and two members of the sixth form would be on duty. Later on, anyone over 16 did fire watching, which involved sleeping at the school about once a month, making coffee for the staff on duty and actually sitting in the staff common room when homework was finished. Every one did their turn of fire watching at their office or factory. Wakefield was bombed on 17th September 1940, when 10 high explosive and 40 incendiaries were dropped, falling on Alverthorpe, around Westgate Station, Ings Road and Kirkgate Station. Bombs hit the timber store of Drake & Warters, and nearby Williams and Womersleys foundry, both off Ings Road. The prompt action of Drake & Warters ARP wardens saved the store. If the store had gone up, then the surrounding area would have been destroyed due to the amount of timber stored. The City had a remarkable escape, the only casualty being a fireman.

An incendiary bomb could be easily put out if someone was there to raise the alarm. An unwatched building may well be alight before an alarm was sounded. There were alarms at night and air raid warnings but fortunately none were near to Wentworth house. The watchers were either left to listening to eerie cracks and groans of the empty school or trying to sleep, the girls in a lecture room, the staff in the staff room or any corner which was more convenient. In the raid on Thornes Road, one of the girl’s homes was damaged but not destroyed. Mrs Cresswell was tending her pony at Lupset farm when the raid started.
The sirens rarely sounded during 1942, and even less in 1943, as the war was taken to Germany and away from Great Britain. The sirens last wailed their lonely lament across the city on March 17 1945.

The war really affected everyone, in one way or another.

School activities had to be curtailed because of the war, primarily the black out. In the Spring term of 1940 a lecture was given by the society for the propagation of the Gospel and the only event was the Hockey Team Party. The dinner was shortened so that the girls could get home before dark. The bus services were irregular, and the journey home could be an ordeal of there was no bus. As much as possible was fitted into the shortened dinner hour, choir practice, discussion groups, Guide Meetings, and working parties. Dorothy Chatfield was the daughter of the vicar of St Mary’s Primrose Hill, Wakefield, and as Mrs Cresswell was a trained pianist, asked if she would play for some services at her father’s church due to the absence of an organist. A great emphasis was placed on music and sport at the High School, the basic annual fee for piano tuition was about £12, in addition to singing lessons.

In 1939 very few people were lucky enough to have a car and most travelled, and usually not very far, by either bus, tram or steam train, (indeed some still travelled by horse bus or pony and trap due to the restrictions on petrol). The fuel for these became scarce as it was rationed. Bus windows were tapped or netted to prevent flying glass and the lights were always very low, so much so one could not read the bus ticket.

The services were reduced the buses very crowded.
Private cars had a small ‘basic’ allocation of petrol and eventually you had to prove your need for that, there were greater rations for essential work, but woe betide you if you were found outside your immediate area or latterly running on Red petrol, which was regarded as a crime. Most cars were ‘moth balled’ for the duration. The black out of course affected everybody, and ‘turn that light out!’ became a regular yell from Air Raid Wardens. Fines were heavy for people not maintaining a strict blackout. This applied to cars whose head lamps had to be masked with just three slits on each light, and of course after 1940 all sign posts, and in some cases street names, town boundary signs and anything that could give you an idea of where you were, were removed in case of invasion from the air. With only a torch covered with a mask to help you find your way about, life became to say the least difficult. ‘Got your tin hat? Got your gasmask? Got your gasmask? Got your torch? Goodnight!’ became a ritual saying and was heard virtually everywhere.

Fuel of all sorts was valuable and every effort was made to save it. Coal was rationed, but gas —except for reduction of pressure- and electricity could not be, so in came the rule if possible one bath a week, and only 5” of water, that did not mean 5” of boiling water to cool off with cold, 5” maximum. Many people measured a five inch mark, and painted it on their baths. So ‘Save Fuel, Save Lives’ became a slogan. The war was full of slogans.

Food of course was rationed and difficult to come by, all queued for every thing from onions, fish, sausage, liver and even nylons. Anything that was not rationed had to be queued for. The smallness of rations did not affect everybody, as you ate what you were given. Fat ration was 4oz a week, as was sugar. Meat was 1/- worth (1 shilling = 5p), half an egg a week. Some things like dried fruit, dried milk, dried eggs and certain tinned foods were on ‘points’. Each item was allocated a number of points and everybody was allocated so many a week, which could be used as you wished, always providing that anything was available, queues depending. Life was very difficult and very unfair for many, anyone who had anything to exchange could usually have a barter system somewhere, and the black market was always there for anyone who had money. At and before the beginning of the war, people were encouraged to stock up on food as far as they could because shops could not carry very large stocks. Butter was preserved in crocks of saline solution, eggs in water glass, tinned stuffs bought along with many other essentials. The older people who had been through the previous war were of course keener to do so than the ‘war will be over by Christmas’ people.

The real unfairness came when what had been a patriotic duty became regarded later as unfair and unpatriotic, and hoarding became almost criminal. It affected the middle classes more than the working class, many of whom did not have the resources to stock up, ‘why should we go without when they have something’ became a mind set for a lot of people.

The diet may have been restricted, but it was a healthy one, they were very few over weight children, and in some cases improved the diet of some families, and the children of the real poor were better fed than they would have been without the war, except in the cases, of which there was a number in Wakefield, where mothers sold their ration books.

Rationing meant that more girls stayed at school for dinner, before the majority had gone home in the long dinner hour before this, but now school dinners could be bought in addition to ones normal ration, so with the stringency of the rationing in 1941, when the meat ration was reduced to a schillings worth a week, even girls living nearby had dinners in school to obtain the extra food.

In place of the school trips and outings, some girls went each year to a harvest camp. In 1941 it was fruit picking in Huntingdonshire. In 1943 school was closed for a week in October while a party of V Uppers and VI Uppers went to camp. The V Lowers and VI Lowers had been the previous week, so got their holidays at the expense of the uppers. The work was either picking potatoes or pulling sugar beet. The girls slept on palliasses and got up at 6 in the morning, and still enjoyed the recreations of tennis, table tennis, dancing and walking. Another group at the same camp at Walton near Boston Spar, Lincolnshire, forgot to get up in the morning to go to work! The last camp took place in October 1945.

Clothes were also rationed. Many service men came to back to very reduced wardrobes where their trousers had been cut down for their sons or made into skirts for daughters. Fashion basically went out of the window as clothes were turned, many clothes were turned inside out and back to front and made up on the other side at least twice and of course lengthened became short and shorter.

One of the features of the war years was the savings campaign when many saved money for themselves by buying War Savings Certificates, and at the same time helped to raise money for the war effort through their purchase. In 1942 War Ship week was held, only a few weeks after a previous Weapons Week. An Ambitious target of £2000 was set. An open day was held, where the minimum admission was a six penny savings stamp. On the stage was a model of a destroyer showing what total had been raised so far.

There were fewer journeys for many outside of school, but entertainment came to school instead. In 1942, two concerts were given by the Northern Philharmonia Orchestra in the Jubilee Hall, and 110 girls went to see the London Philharmonic at the Unity Hall. In February 1942, the women of the ATS gave a marching display in Jubilee Hall. As the war progressed, school activities went back to normal, though there still was no dramatic competition or sports day.

Evacuation was a big thing, Wakefield was lucky as it did not see the wholesale removal of children that London, Hull and other places saw. The emotional stress and strain was colossal, but people were stronger, there was little moaning, and most weeping was done in private, people had their families close and supported each other.

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These messages were added to this story by site members between June 2003 and January 2006. It is no longer possible to leave messages here. Find out more about the site contributors.

Message 1 - Wakefield and WWII

Posted on: 17 May 2004 by Peter - WW2 Site Helper

Dear CHDrake

This is one of the best accounts I have read of civilian like in Britain in WW2. It iw well written and full of intersting information.



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