- Contributed by
- People in story:
- Eunice Edwards, Stanley Edwards, Laurie Lane, Ray Edwards, Cyril Jones
- Location of story:
- Birmingham (Midlands)
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 06 November 2005
Birmingham at War - As I Remember It
We depended greatly on the wireless in the war. Churchill’s speeches did so much to keep up our morale. Other people broadcast too. I can remember J B Priestly gave talks and there was the Radio Doctor after the morning news telling us how to look after ourselves, always with a joke at the end. It was during the war that the newscasters identified themselves at the beginning of each news bulletin. I can only recall Bruce Belfrage, John Snagge, Richard Dimbleby and Alvar Lidell now. We also began to know the news correspondents with the troops, Wynford Vaughn Thomas was one, Stanley Maxstead (he was a Canadian) another and he broadcast from Arnhem, Netherlands. Of course, everybody heard of the German broadcaster, Lord Haw-Haw, who tried to strike fear into us by foretelling the next bombing raid. He did not succeed and was executed after the war. I think he was an Irish man working for Hitler — he certainly was not German!
Referring back to our broadcasters, I felt sorry sometimes for those who had to pronounce such peculiar (and new to us) foreign names. When Hitler was advancing through Russia, they had to grapple with names like Novgorod, Smolensk, Novorossiisk and Dnepropetrovsk!
Towards the end of the War, about the beginning of 1944, the Government was running short of money, so everyone had to pay more income tax, but this extra amount would be refunded after the war, that is Post War Credits. I had to pay another ten shillings (50p). As I was already paying ten shillings out of my £5.10s (£5.50) salary, this was quite a big amount. However, everybody was in the same boat. After the War, repayment was made, but older people came first. My dad was repaid quite early, about 1950, but I had to wait until about 1965, but no interest so it had lost its value.
It’s amazing how everyone got use to wartime life with all its restrictions. Those who weren’t called up to the Forces, were directed into wartime jobs. Married women went out to work, almost unheard of before this. Men were called up and boys of 17 took over their jobs. Lads of 16 or 17 did fire watching all night after work. Girls manned telephones all night. We got used to the ‘bombage’, great holes filled with masonry where shops and houses had been. Soon it was hard to recall what shops had been there before it was bombed. At the corner of High Street and New Street, where Lyons Corner House and the Co-op had stood and other shops, the debris was all removed and a huge marquee was erected over the site. This was ‘The Big Top’ used for dancing and much frequented by the troops — mostly American. I didn’t fancy it myself, but I suppose it filled a need. We got used to ‘make do and mend’, as far as our clothes were concerned, but we always looked smart.
We managed to get to theatres and the cinema. We lost some theatres and pictures houses through the bombing, but those that were left put on some good shows. I saw Ivor Novello in ‘The Dancing Years’, Ann Zeigler and Webster Booth, and the opera Hansel and Gretel with Amy Shuard. We had lots of good films — ‘In Which We Serve’, ‘Dangerous Moonlight’, ‘Mrs Miniver’ and so on. Also the early Road films with Bob Hope and Bing Crosby.
We were so lucky that we weren’t invaded. Our privations amounted to nothing when compared with what Occupied Europe went through. Winters were cold, but we didn’t suffer like the people of Leningrad, who starved to death in freezing conditions. We didn’t have the Gestapo to deal with and those awful concentration camps. There were terrible low times when things weren’t going well for our troops. We held our breath when we retreated in North Africa. The battle for Monte Cassino, the evacuation of Crete, the defeat at Singapore, the battles at Arnhem and Stalingrad, the landings at Anzio, were all subjects for worry. It was like watching an everlasting newsreel.
However, we still snatched short holidays — but mostly went into the country. Nearly all seaside places were shut down. The beaches were all mined and the towns full of troops. I once went to Brecon in Wales and another time went cycling in Derbyshire. A farm near Ludlow was another nice place, but mostly I went to Harvington near Kidderminster — only about twenty miles from Birmingham.
A lot of black-market selling went on. Men who carried on this activity were called spivs. I never met one myself. Cigarettes were in short supply, also whisky — so these were the sort of items the spivs dealt in. If you were a smoker, you generally used your local shop and the shopkeeper quite often put cigarettes ‘under the counter’ for regular customers. If you weren’t known in the shop you might be refused. Another bugbear was having to provide your own shopping bags. Before the war most shops could provide a paper bag in emergencies, but now everyone had to bring their own bags. We always kept an old bag for potatoes and vegetables. Nothing was pre-wrapped then and the vegetables were better for it. Now that they are wrapped in plastic and pre-washed, they go rotten sooner.
Although ration books weren’t issued until January 1940, shortages occurred long before that. Sweet biscuits disappeared very quickly, cream crackers only were available. Other things were in short supply as factories were turned over to war production. Cadbury’s produced very little chocolate for civilians; definitely no Easter Eggs. I gather they were on more important things. I do remember, however, that my uncle, a supervisor at Cadbury’s, did manage to acquire some lumps of chocolate and borrowed an Easter egg mould so that he could make chocolate Easter eggs for his two young nephews, who had never seen such a thing in their lives.
The wireless, of course, was our lifeline. When War was declared, or early on in the War, the 9o’clock news was followed by the chimes of Big Ben, and then the National Anthem, then as more countries were brought into the war or fought on our side, their national anthems were played too. So we heard Polish, Russian, Czech, etc, until there were too many to represent. I can’t remember when this practice stopped. Sometimes we could tune into a German Station and once I heard Hitler ranting away.
During the War, classical music became very popular. Lots of wonderful artists gave concerts in aid of the war effort and entertained the troops. Beethoven’s 5th Symphony with its ‘V’ for Victory phrase was well known, Chopin’s Revolutionary Study became popular. I heard people whistling ‘Serenade for Strings’ in the office. So lots of ordinary people began to enjoy music they had never heard before. ‘Stage Door Canteen’ was an American film with a load of well known artistes. I shall never forget Deanna Durbin (about 13 years old) singing Mozart’s ‘Halleluiah’ in ‘100 Men and a Girl’.
Of course there were many dance bands and popular songs, Glenn Miller being notable. With London being bombed a lot of shows moved out of London - that's how I came to see Ivor Novello in the Dancing Years in Birmingham as well as Ann Zeigler and Webster Booth also came to Birmingham. They sang so beautifully. We had lots of talented refugees who were wonderful musicians. Rawitz and Landaur played the piano and had programmes on the wireless.
To keep up our spirits, we had lots of comedy shows. One was ‘Garrison Theatre’ which was always good for a laugh. Arthur Askey and Richard Murdoch did their bit. Best of all was ITMA (It’s that Man Again) with Tommy Handley, Dorothy Summers, Jack Train, Hattie Jacques and many more. It was nothing but topical nonsense and catch phrases that passed into normal speech — our weekly pick-me-up. Bebe Daniels and her husband, Ben Lyon, were living in Britain when war broke out. They did not go home to America when they could have done, but stayed on here to entertain us. Bebe was quite a famous American actress and her husband was also, but they went on the wireless with their famous “Hi Gang!” Show. They broadcast from the middle of London during the Blitz. Vic Oliver (who married Sarah Churchill), joined them. They continued to make us laugh after the war with “Life with the Lyons” when their two children joined them.
VE Day came at last. So long waited for. On 8th May, which was a holiday, I stayed at home with Mother. I think the strain on her had been awful and all she wanted to do was to be quiet and relish the relief. It never occurred to me to go into Birmingham to join the celebrating masses. I did not know there were any! We waited for phone calls from my brother and sister (who were both in the Forces) to rejoice with them. After tea, I met up with my dear friend Laurie (Lane) and my cousin (who was in a reserved occupation) Ray (Edwards) who escorted us girls to the fair which was in Kings Heath park. It was a jolly evening. Everybody was in high spirits. It was wonderful to walk home at night with all the streets lit up. The spring leaves in the trees looked magical with the lights on them. The blackout had been taken down and all the houses were bright again.
We soon returned to work, but it was very unsettling. I had been called up to the Civil Service and (although I did not know it at the time) had been helping to provide materials for all sorts of military buildings and camps. But as the war drew near to its end we had switched to civilian buildings, such as new houses and mostly the wonderful ‘Prefabs’. However, I was only temporary so I took a Civil Service exam which, as I passed, would have entitled me to a permanent job. In the end, however, I decided to return to my old job in Birmingham local government, but it was not until later in the year that I went back.
In the general euphoria, people almost forgot that the war was not over. The conflict in Burma and the Far East still went on and would have gone on much longer if America had not dropped the Atom Bomb. I remember vividly the day they dropped the Atom Bomb on Hiroshima. I was having my breakfast when the announcement was made on the 8 o’clock news. I knew this was something quite momentous as my brother, when quite young, had talked about splitting the atom as a huge scientific achievement. I shot upstairs to tell my mother and father, who were still in bed, all about it. Of course, when we saw pictures in the paper and heard more about it on the wireless, we were absolutely stunned. The second bomb was dropped on Nagasaki — the war was truly over and Stan’s friend, Cyril Jones, that is my husband-to-be, would be returning home. Sometime during the autumn, both my brother and sister were discharged from the Forces and Cyril appeared unexpectedly in November. Being in the Air Force he had cadged lifts by plane in various places to get home quickly as soon as he had his discharge. He arrived on his mother’s doorstep in the middle of the night. After he came back, he told us what the war in Burma had been really like — the ‘forgotten’ war of the Far East was truly horrific.
During the war, the general public knew nothing about the systematic extermination of the Jews. We knew about the concentration camps from refugees, but these had come to Britain before the war, and though they knew that people died in the camps and the conditions were terrible, wholesale slaughter wasn’t thought of. Horrific stories began to peter through as the war went on, as reprisals were carried out on little towns for acts of sabotage. Lidice in Poland was one village in which everyone was wiped out. The other which stands out in my memory is Oradour-sur-Glane in France. The Nazis herded all the civilians into the church and set fire to it, and then waited for the trams bringing home the workers from a neighbouring town and killed them too. At the end of the War after our troops got to Belsen and Auschwitz, the truth became known of the fate of the inmates of the concentration camps. Very soon a film was made showing what our soldiers found. This film was shown all over Britain. My mother and I went to see it and came out shocked. A similar film (probably the same one) was shown in Germany and people were rounded up and forced to go and see it. Seeing the film brought home to us why the war had been so necessary, and to ponder what would have happened to us if we had lost. We owed so much to all those who had died. Only one woman MP went to see Belsen when it was opened up. She was Mavis Tait, and I think she was really brave to go.
Gradually service men and women came home. Longest serving people came first. Although rationing went on for a long time (until 1952) somehow we managed home coming parties. Some luxury food trickled through. I remember tasting Danish blue cheese for the first time in six years and thought it delicious. Oranges and lemons began to appear - some children had never seen them before. Yet Europe was starving so we still had only basic rations. Even after the war we were eating ewelamb, the old mother sheep. Then America started the Marshall Plan to feed Europe so that helped. The first thing that came off rationing was clothes. The New Look was introduced in women’s fashion — longer skirts — designers went mad. The Edwardian style came in — and even the bustle.
Everybody had longed for the end of the war — to come home and to get back to normal. Alas no-one could go back to 1939. Everything had changed. Some people had married and wanted new houses; some had lost loved ones and could not rejoice. Friends had moved away and lost touch. Some people did not want their old jobs back. Some people got married after long separations and others got divorced as soon as they could (taking advantage of the Government’s legislation to meet the situation). Other people emigrated; one cousin of mine and her husband went to Australia. You could go for £10 under a government scheme. Australia welcomed new comers. Some girls had married soldiers from America and Canada and went away to start new lives. So it was a case of new beginnings for most of us. However, people weren’t willing to work for a pittance anymore. So wages rose, especially for manual workers. Trade Unions became powerful.
All the ‘bombage’ had to be cleared and new houses built. Lucky were the people who got a prefab. In Birmingham the Council houses were allotted on a point system according to war services, health, etc. When I got married in 1947 we registered for a council house but our number was over 43,000 and something. We lived with relations for three years but in the end managed to buy a house. In order to do this we had to get a licence. Our builder obtained the licence but we still waited two years for the house and location was dependant on where the builder could get the land. Life was still tough for although wages rose, so did the cost of everything. Houses were dear. Our new house had a kitchen sink but no draining board, no fitted cupboards. We had to fit our own window sills as well, but we soon made it into a home. Also regarding household goods, it was best to buy things with the Utility Mark on them, certifying they were good quality. Some goods appeared attractive but were shoddy so it was best to avoid them. I still have a woollen blanket bearing its Utility Mark and my Utility dining suite and bed.
Lots of goods in the shops had small defects. This is because the best things were exported. England was almost bankrupt after the war and it was a case of export or go under.
This is not a tale of heroics or great deeds, but of how life went on in Birmingham during the war. We learnt how to be happy in spite of restrictions and shortages and to value our relations and friends.
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