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15 October 2014
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LEICESTERSHIRE AT WAR

by CSV Action Desk Leicester

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Archive List > Childhood and Evacuation

Contributed by 
CSV Action Desk Leicester
People in story: 
DAVIDRICHARD WILLIAMS (SCHOOLBOY)
Location of story: 
WESTEND AREA OF LEICESTER
Background to story: 
Civilian
Article ID: 
A7785426
Contributed on: 
15 December 2005

This story has been used in Schools, when children of a similar age to myself in this story (ten to eleven years of age) have been learning about World War 2. I hope you enjoy reading it.

My account of Leicestershire at War will perhaps be different. I was just ten years old so it is a sort of child’s eye view. As children we did not realise all the horrors of war, the loss of life and property and the total destruction of people’s plans for the future.

Instead, to us, things were different. Many changes took place in fact it was quite exciting at times.

I remember the first day when war was declared. It was a Sunday. My sister and I wanted to go out in the afternoon and my Mother insisted that we took our gas masks; I think she thought air raids were imminent. The gas masks had already been issued to us and what a nuisance they were! We had to take them everywhere and if we forgot to take them to school we had to go home again to get them. The shops suddenly had gas mask cases for sale made of canvas or rexine because the issued cardboard box soon got a rather battered look.

Some of the buildings in town suddenly had sandbags in front of them and all the windows were criss-crossed with stickey tape to prevent flying glass. Static water tanks appeared connected by large pipes along the gutters. I lived in the west End and went to Shaftesbury Road School where the playground was dug up and an underground shelter put in. After a night raid two or three lads had to go to the shelter and ventilate it using a large wooden hand operated fan. We would find empty beer bottles left there and bottles always had 1d or 2d return on them - a quick way to increase our pocket money.

There were guns and search lights in a field near the Western Park. All the big open spaces like Braunstone Park and Western Park had concrete sewer pipes dotted across them to stop enemy aircraft attempting to land.

All the tramcars and buses had blacked out windows, the glass being painted with a kind of dark blue paint and the few cars and vans on the road had headlight cowls, with just little slits for light. Some of the buses towed a trailer with a gas making device to power the bus, saving petrol, but they frequently ‘conked out’ trying to get over the Upperton Road Bridge.

We went everywhere by tram, the no. 2 down the Narborough Road into town. The tram conductors disappeared for active service and women began to be conductresses. I remember how dimly lit these trams were at night and at places where tram tracks crossed, like the junction of Narborough Road and Hinckley Road, there was a network of wires that would flash and spark as the trolley poles went over them. These connections had covers put over them to prevent enemy aircraft seeing the flashes.

We were of course rationed for food, although this never seemed to worry us. As children we always had enough to eat but I know it was difficult for mothers. Some days we would be sent to the Maypole shop on Winchester Avenue, hopefully to queue and get half a pound of margarine. If we were successful Mother was very pleased. We did try having our sugar ration in separate jars and I would hoard mine and make my sister mad but I would often give it to her or to Mother to bake something.
The Leicester Mercury had a Spitfire Club and most of the children were members and had a badge with a number on it. If your number was printed in the paper you won a prize - mine was a packet of sunflower seeds! The sale of badges helped to raise money to buy a Spitfire.

One day some men came along and started to collect all the cast iron railings from outside the terraced houses to help the war effort.

Victoria Park and others were dug up to make allotments. Posters told us to Dig For Victory and people made their gardens into allotments to grow food. Other posters warned us to be ‘like Dad — and keep Mum’ because ‘careless talk cost lives’

My father served in the First World War and was too old to be called up but being patriotic he became an Air Raid Warden so our black-outs had to be good, no chinks of light showing. This later became quite an advantage to me and a friend because as the war went on, being a little older, we started developing and printing photographs so we had a ready-made darkroom.

We played in the street at night in the black-out. Hide and Seek was very easy in dark streets and air raid shelters. Luminous badges were sold in shops for a few pence and people wore them to stop bumping into each other. We had them as kids but soon stopped wearing them as the girls could see us coming. We nearly all had a torch and would light up our faces to scare the girls.

We often went down to the corner of Beaconsfield Road and Browning Street to the chip shop, Mrs Smith’s. Mr Smith was a small quite man and his wife was very big. We would buy 1d or 2d worth of chips and ask for the scratchings off the fish and Mrs Smith who was very big was also very kind and generous to us.

One night on the way to the chip shop my mate Dave Merry and I decided to lie down on the pavement and let the girls fall over us. Well, it didn’t quite work like that, a man fell over us shouting and swearing at us as we very quickly evaporated into the black out.

A brick surface shelter was built in the street right outside our house, 120 Cambridge Street. Later it had lights at the ends to warn traffic but before they were working I remember the local bobby who lived at the top of our street riding into it on his bike and I remember how my mate and I laughed as he swore and extricated himself from his bike. He was annoyed with us too, for laughing.

Another night whilst playing in the street, hiding in the dark, we heard strange foreign voices. ‘German’ we thought. Spies! Our boyish minds started to work overtime. It turned out it was a man who taught German at one of the boys’ Grammar Schools and although he was foreign he was quite bona fide and harmless. But this fuelled our thoughts for some time as they moved into the house near to us.

My Mother became a Billeting Officer for the evacuees or ‘vaccies’ as we called them. As she was a Billeting Officer we just had to have an evacuee and out of the blue another girl came to live in our house and her brother lived with the people next door.

Everyone became very united in the war effort and householders were issued with a stirrup pump to keep with a bucket of water at their front door. The ARP wardens would demonstrate how to fight incendiary fires. Someone in my street put a large tank of water on the forecourt of Widdowsons garage where the builder kept his lorry. Dave Merry and I would spend hours playing a game we invented called Tapping It In with a tennis ball; we would dribble it up to the tank and very adeptly kick it in.

My father was not only an ARP warden but part of a rescue team at work so he had two steel helmets and I remember how he would remove the ARP one from his gasmask and put the Rescue one in its place. Hurrying to catch his bus one morning the screw on his Rescue helmet came undone and bits and pieces rolled around the street. He had to dash back to get his ARP one and I was given the job of re-assembling the other one.

If the aid raid siren sounded and he wasn’t already at the ARP Post, he had to run up to the Post blowing his whistle. I remember him coming back from one alert saying he couldn’t blow his whistle because he’d got it in his mouth the wrong way round! So these trivial things amused us as children whilst the seriousness of war passed over us.

My father would sometimes ask me and one or two other lads to be a ‘casualty’ fir a First Aid exercise. The volunteers would be found ‘injured’ somewhere, picked up and transported to the Holy Apostles Church Rooms where there was a First Aid Post. You would then probably spend what seemed like all Sunday morning on a stretcher. Then we would be given a cup of tea and a sandwich before being sent home. But what was fun for the lads was quite serious for the adults - these practices and excercises would one day be useful.

I remember the formation of the Local Defence Force, designed to help stop the enemy should there be an invasion. It was called the Local Defence Volunteers (LDV). The volunteers had army uniforms, but to begin with no weapons, only pick handles and staves. They were nicknamed Look Duck and Vanish - it was probably a radio joke that started this. Later of course they became the Home Guard and a more serious training programme started.

One thing that stopped in the war was holidays but this didn’t seem to matter. During the simmer we played out all day and all evening; the Government introduced Double Summer Time to help the farmers harvest the crops, so it was often light until 11 o’clock. The local district ran a scheme called Children’s Shelter and if there was ever an air raid you could go to a house with a sign ‘CS’ where you would be looked after until the raid was over.

We did not get many daylight raids but I do clearly remember the one when the bombs were dropped on Cavendish Road. I still think that some of the boys and I actually saw the German planes go over as we were all keen aircraft spotters. The night raids never seemed to frighten my sister and myself; perhaps we didn’t understand, but Mother didn’t like it as Father would be out with the ARP. We used to lie under the dining room table.

The raids on Coventry and Leicester were really very bad but again, perhaps we were too young to realise the enormity of this. One night a stick of bombs was dropped, one at Hinckley Road/Fosse Road crossroads, one on a house next to my school playground, one on Squire Bakery at the corner of Roman Street and one on the Tigers Ground. It was very exciting the next day looking at the craters and the damage.

We all had cycles and would go everywhere on them. In the country all the sign posts were removed; this was to confuse the enemy should they land but we knew most of the roads and lanes on our side of the county. We would often cycle out to Desford Aerodrome, a piece of land near to Peckleton, where we would watch Tiger Moth aeroplanes taking off and landing. I wonder if anyone else remembers this.

Due to the influx of evacuees and the different uses school buildings were being put to, we started to go part-time to school; alternate weeks of morning and afternoons. We loved this but it didn’t last long, worse luck! I then left Shaftesbury Road School and went to Gateway. During the early years of the war some of the younger masters were called up and a precedent was created by having women teachers, some we loved and some we hated.

Towards the end of the war we would stand for hours watching convoys of troops and equipment going south along the Fosse Road. I now realise these endless convoys were amassing troops ready for the great D Day Invasion of Europe. I can remember how on some Sunday nights we had to be quiet whilst Mother and Dad listened to the stirring and morale-boosting speeches by Winston Churchill.

So much of my later childhood was spent at war in the West End. The war ended for us on VE Night, and then in our teens we danced round the Clock Tower and Town Hall doing the Hokey Kokey.

I now realise what war is all about. Later I was called up for Nation Service in the Army and although hostilities had ceased the nations were still in turmoil and I had my demob postponed because of the Berlin Air Lift.

The war had brought people together, uniting them in a common cause. We became a proud nation, perhaps our finest hour. What a contrast now when we are sometimes almost ashamed to be called British when we travel abroad.

This story was submitted to the People’s War site by Diane Marsh of the CSV Action Desk on behalf of David Richard Williams and has been added to the site with his permission. The author fully understands the site’s terms and conditions.

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