- Contributed by
- Braintree Library
- People in story:
- Patrick E. O'Toole
- Location of story:
- Birstall, Leicestershire and Hove, Sussex
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 04 November 2004
My first memory of WW2 was on day 1, 3rd September 1939. I was 9 years old and that morning had been sent to a shop next to Norbury Station. In those days very few shops opened on a Sunday and then usually only for a short period of time. I can’t remember what I had been sent to buy as just before reaching the station an air raid siren sounded the “Alert” and I immediately set off for home and was met en route by my concerned father. Whether it was a false alarm or a practice I can’t say because no enemy activity took place (and the “All Clear” sounded soon afterwards).
A few months later my younger sister, mother and myself were evacuated to Hove where we lived in a large house that had been converted into flats and was situated quite close to the sea front. It had a large half moon drive and one morning before we had risen a bomb exploded at the bottom of the drive uprooting a tree, blowing out all the windows and demolishing some masonry. Fortunately for all concerned the bombs in the early part of the War were somewhat smaller than those used later. It was thought that the German plane had failed to reach its target and was merely discarding them before crossing the coast on his way home. Only one person was killed — a postman passing by on his bicycle.
After the mess was cleared up and temporary coverings made at the windows, we continued to live there only for a short time and then we were rehoused. My mother and sister remained in Hove and I was sent to nearby Portslade. We did however keep in contact most Saturday afternoons. It seemed to me in retrospect that Hove was a strange place to evacuate people to, being on the South coast and not that far from London.
We were next evacuated to Birstall (a large village 3 miles from Leicester) but arrived by train to Leicester quite late in the day. After being fed we slept the night in the de Montfort Hall which had an immense organ and I still remember its large pipes towering over us as we settled down to sleep. The next day we travelled to Birstall, my mother and sister being billeted at one address and me at another. My mother had become at that time the Billeting Office, but presumably accommodation was not available to house all three of us under one roof.
The people I was initially billeted with were quite wealthy as they lived in a large house with a garden to match and a wood beyond (not theirs as far as I know). It is hard to believe now that at this stage of the War there were 3 cars at the house — a Bentley (subsequently sold to the local Police), a Morris and an American Hudson. The husband ran or owned a cardboard company.
This billet was my first introduction to country life. Foxes visited the garden and it seemed quite the normal thing to do when we caught rats in a cage and put it in the water butt to drown them. I remember watching the bubbles until they stopped. Wretched child! Other pursuits included accompanying the husband occasionally on fishing trips and to gymkhanas which the next door neighbours competed in.
These neighbours had an orchard in their grounds and one Sunday morning before going to church, their two lads and myself were chasing each other between the trees in the orchard. On the previous day, on my weekly visit to Leicester with my Mother, she had bought me a light grey suit. I dread to think how many clothing coupons were used, but probably not just those allocated to me. However, back to the orchard, where I was cycling in my brand new suit, a branch caught the back of the coat and a large “L” shaped tear appeared. You can imagine my horror, I might even say terror and I lived in the dog house for some time to come. It was of course by necessity mended but could never be perfect.
At 12 years old I moved to a new billet which was much closer to where my Mother lived. The house was called “Kulochleven” and was somewhat smaller than the one I had left. The husband and wife had no children. They were both devout Salvation Army soldiers and he played a trumpet in the band at the Leicester Salvation Army Hall to which they took me most Sunday evenings. As I attended my church (C of E) on a Sunday morning I had a very religious day.
This change of billet almost coincided with my becoming a pupil at Quorn Grammar School situated between Birstall and Loughborough. The journey was some 6 miles and on the way home used to do some of the daily homework. I can still remember the numerous bus services existing in the area. Quite surprisingly really, given that there was a War on. There was Midland Red, Boyers (painted yellow), Allens (blue), Kemp and Shaw (maroon) and Trent. Some of the buses had utility seats which comprised wooden slats with small gaps between each one. As I recall they were not very comfortable and more appropriate to curing “broody” hens.
On Saturday mornings I worked for a local market gardeners and amongst other things delivered produce on a bicycle to customers in boxes on a carrier fixed to the front of the bike. It was hard work going up hills. For a while I had a weekday paper round for which I got a pittance by today’s standards. On Saturday afternoons my Mother took my sister and me to Leicester by bus and after looking around the shops and the market, had tea at a small restaurant before returning to Birstall and going to the local cinema. This was called the “Lawn Cinema” and has since been demolished. We always made sure we had enough sweet coupons left for watching the films.
Musicals were very popular at that time — a happy distraction. They starred amongst others John Payne, Caesar Romero, Alice Faye, Jack Oakie, Carmen Miranda (the Mexican bombshell with a headgear of fruit) and of course Betty Grable whose legs were said to be insured for one million pounds. After the film show ended we said our goodbyes feeling quite refreshed for another week.
At school when the potatoes were ready for harvesting, school parties were organised to help the farmers by picking up the “spuds” and other times picking peas. I don’t recall us receiving any payment for this work but possibly money went to school funds. It was just part of the War effort. We also had school allotments which entailed doing a lot of digging.
At 13/14 years old I joined the school Army Cadet Force which met mostly after the school day had ended. We learned most of the things taught in the Army and we were introduced to guns for the first time, but I only got to fire a .22 rifle. We drilled with a .303 rifle and learned to dismantle and reassemble the magnificent Bren gun.
Whilst at Quorn Grammar I learned to swim in Loughborough Baths by a Madame Swann. The name is the gospel truth! She must have been at least 16 stone-and-some and always wore a swimming costume, although I never recall seeing her enter the pool. Her method was to encircle the learner’s waist with a rope, the end of which she held at the poolside so that one felt quite safe when swimming towards her.
Reverting to the Army Cadets…one week during the holidays we went away to camp where amongst other things we had to crawl through ferns to a target and see how close we could get without being detected, not easy. We slept under canvas on mattresses filled with straw and I remember a tug of war contest we organised on a nearby rugby field. However, one team (not mine Guv!) unknown to us, tied the end of the rope around the bottom of a post. The inevitable occurred and it broke, tilting the posts at an unseemly angle. Needless to say the field emptied as if by magic. On the last night just as we were settling down to sleep we were “attacked” by those in command with thunderflashes and apart from very bright flashes make one hell of a noise and left us disorientated for a few moments. We were never given the opportunity to even attempt to get our own back.
At the beginning of my stay in Birstall there was much talk of a local hero who was awarded the Victoria Cross. I remember he was an airman by the name of Hannah who had fought a fire on his plane and was badly burnt. I have since learned that John Hannah was Scottish, aged 18 and a sergeant. In September 1940 after an attack on barges at Antwerp, Belgium the bomber in which he was both a wireless operator and air gunner was hit as a result of heavy anti aircraft fire. A fire started and spread quickly. The rear gunner and navigator bailed out and John Hannah could have done likewise but chose to remain and fight the fire, first with 2 extinguishers and then with his bare hands. H e sustained terrible injuries but put out the fire and the pilot was able to bring the badly damaged aircraft back to England. John Hannah contracted TB only a year later brought on by his weakened condition following his severe burns. He was discharged from the RAF in December 1942 with a full disability pension but was unable to take up a full time job and his health ultimately deteriorated and he died in June 1947 in a sanatorium in Leicester.
To finish I will mention briefly a few further memories:
Chasing rabbits escaping a cornfield being cut in an attempt to supplement our meat ration -great fun but not very successful for me.
Collecting rosehips for the local chemist - reward a few coppers
My first banana for some three or four years after the War began. It was dehydrated and needed to be reconstituted by immersing in water.
Powdered eggs and Spam — these were very acceptable given the situation and I don’t remember anyone complaining.
Cycling quite a way to obtain butter from a lady with a large family. - I have no idea how she was paid.
Trying nettle and potato wine which was part of the increased activity during the War of home brewing. I never tried it again. Most unpleasant but in those days I would have said the same about whisky.
Scrumping whenever the opportunity arose
Whether the above will be of any interest to anyone else I don’t know but have enjoyed myself having rekindled some memories which have been dormant for a long time.
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