- Contributed by
- People in story:
- Geoff Ball
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- Contributed on:
- 30 January 2006
I was born in March 1932, so that made me seven when the war started. Funnily enough I remember exactly what I was doing. I was living in Nuneaton, not far from Coventry. And this particular sunny Sunday morning I was playing in the back garden as seven year-olds do, when I heard the gate at the front of the house open and these footsteps coming towards the back gate, which flew open and in came grandad.
I loved my grandad and he loved me, but this time he didn’t even look in my direction and he went past the kitchen window, into the house and I heard voices — his voice and then Mother saying “Oh no!”. So, always being nosy, I went into see what it was and I said “What’s the matter Mum?” because she had her handkerchief out and she was crying. And she said “We’re at war Geoffrey, we’re at war”. So I said “Oh”, and went out and carried on playing, because it didn’t mean anything to me as you can imagine. Not that I was surprised that it had happened, because in the July I’d been on holiday with my uncle and aunt and cousin — we’d been to Scarborough.
We were only going for a week but after only a few days, we had to pack everything up because my uncle said “We could be at war soon”. All I remember of Scarborough is playing on the beach and seeing this ship going up and down not far from the beach with one solitary barrage balloon up in the air over it. Now what that was supposed to do I just do not know, but it wouldn’t have stopped many aeroplanes coming in. Barrage balloons were simply balloons, oval things with a tail on them so that the wind would keep them pointing in one direction, not bob them all over the place. These were anchored to the ground with a big machine to let them out and bring them down, and they were either full of hydrogen or helium - obviously lighter than air. They used to be let out and the idea was that aeroplanes that were coming in to bomb the ground would find it difficult to do that because not so much the balloons themselves, but the wires were in the way.
Remembering that all the planes had propellers, and you can imagine what happened if an aeroplane tried to fly in between two of these balloon wires — Crash! Bang! Wallop! The only trouble was I think that even before they started using them, the bombing planes could fly higher than the barrage balloons. But however, as I say, we were at war.
The only thing I can think of straight away that made a difference to life was that my mother came home on a Saturday only a couple of weeks later, and she gave my brother Alan and myself a banana and said “That’s the last banana you’re going to get until the war’s over”, and that’s what happened. So, living where we did, my father used to listen to the radio every night to see what was happening, and to start with it’s what now is called the “phoney war”.
Everything seemed to be most peculiar, there wasn’t an awful lot of fighting it seemed, and then suddenly the German troops were winning and pushing our people back through France to the coast. And again I know my mother and father were extremely worried, and talked about how the Home Guard being all that would stand in the way if we were invaded and so on.
And of course there was the whole business of Dunkirk and the troops being brought back — a miracle at Dunkirk really. But all that was just so much that I heard my parents talking about after they’d heard this on the radio. I mean we couldn’t see anything about it because there was no television in those days as you know.
Then we were all equipped with gas masks at school which we had to carry around with us. I do remember being in the centre of Nuneaton when we all had to take our gas masks with us and they set off tear gas canisters, and then we were all told to take our masks off and then put them back on again so we could see what it would be like if we hadn’t put them on in the first place - and it wasn’t very pleasant. And so we all decided that we would all carry our gas masks with us. Every now and again the air raid sirens would go and we’d have to go into the air raid shelters, which there were plenty of. They’d dug these great holes in the playground and we’d go into the shelters. Mind you that was quite nice because you didn’t have your ordinary lessons, teacher used to read to us from interesting books. That was the first time I’d come across Gulliver’s Travels. But we were always waiting for the all-clear so we could come out and go back into the fresh air.
We heard about the German bombers coming over and bombing London and so on and Coventry. It was all just over there — literally just over there, because we used to stand at the end of our garden, which was called Tuddell Hill - and behind us there was this quarry. The German Pathfinder planes used to mark it with flares and incendiaries, so that when they were coming over to bomb Coventry, the “tip” as it was always known, used to look like a gigantic Christmas tree as all these lights were on it. But what they were doing was marking, and from there they would go into the centre of Coventry, drop some incendiaries there to make fires.
Then we used to hear the bombing planes come over and I didn’t find out until years later, that there was a distinctive note about the German bombers, and it was because they took the synchronisation out of the engines, which made them more difficult to spot, not by sight but by sound. They used to work on the sound coming from the aircraft and they would tune their receivers until they could spot the aeroplanes. The spotters would then inform the anti-aircraft guns where they were and they’d just fire into the night sky, hoping that they’d hit something.
I don’t know how many they did hit, certainly a few planes were brought down and a couple of them near Nuneaton and the crews are buried to this day in the cemetery in Nuneaton, but that’s the way it goes. As I said we used to see the planes come over, the searchlight beams would be covering the sky and sometimes we’d see the aeroplanes in the searchlight beam. The planes used to come in at an angle, from the east and would actually turn over the tip. They were then lined up to go and drop their bombs in Coventry.
We knew what it was like to be bombed because before they really blitzed Coventry, there had been a mistake - a mistake that cost Nuneaton dearly. It appears that the German planes used to follow a radio beam from Germany or at least from France, and they used to fly along this beam. They knew they were on it because of the signals they could pick up in the aircraft, and when they reached a certain point, this beam would be crossed by another, which was actually being put out by a German agent living in this country. When they reached this point they knew that that was where they had to drop the bombs. So, clever people said “Well what we’ll do, we’ll cross that beacon beam when it’s in open country before they can get to their target. Then the Germans will drop bombs into open fields”. It sounded very clever; the trouble is that they somehow managed to break the beacon beam over Nuneaton. So we had our real bombing raid that lasted for two nights, which was enough.
This was before we had an air raid shelter and we were advised either to get under the table or go under the stairs. So Mum and Dad decided it was best to go under the stairs, and we had a mattress on the floor under the stairs which was for my brother and me. Mum and Dad used to sit on chairs with the door half open and on this particular night the warning had gone, and so downstairs we went. My brother went in and lay down and I wanted a comic to read. We were standing there in the kitchen and mother was already under the stairs and father was saying “Get under the stairs Geoffrey, get under the stairs. The siren’s gone”.
Father had rigged up a device because you were not allowed to have any light showing out of the house, so you had windows covered in blackout curtains. If you opened the door you had to remember to switch the light off, so what father had done was he had fixed it so that the light went out when you opened the door. Anyway, there was my father and myself — me wanting my comic when there was this almighty bang. The door flew open, which meant the light went out and we were in pitch darkness, and I felt the pressure of something fly past my face. Remember my father and I were about a foot apart. Father pushed the door to, which meant the light came on and he said “Where’s the lock gone?” This was the complete lock that was holding the door to. Then he looked and said “Oh no,” — the lock was on the far side of the room, embedded into the door there. It was that that had gone between my father and myself. If we had been standing just a little bit either way, it would have either ripped his stomach open or just stuck in my head — not nice at all.
As I got older I took a more active interest. We were fortunate as a family because Nuneaton was then very much a mining town, and there were coal mines all around the town. That meant that coal mining - being a reserved occupation, meant that coal miners didn’t have to go off to fight. This was because getting the coal out was important for the industries that were making all the things that were needed so that we could fight. So father stayed at home, he didn’t have to go, which we were glad about but didn’t really understand why. In some ways we were a bit upset that father wasn’t going to be a big adventurer and go off and save the country — but afterwards of course we were very glad.
There were so many things in those days that we could do that children can’t do now. During the school holidays I had to take my brother with me which I wasn’t very happy about. So when I was nine and he was five, a little gang of us (a little bit like Just William) would go off, taking a bottle of cold tea to drink and some sandwiches to eat. We’d leave home after breakfast and we’d go off into the countryside for miles. We used to get back about 6pm — nobody was bothered, because there were enough of us.
It was a great adventure really.
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