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The Red Cross and GIs: Wartime Memories of Leamington Spaicon for Recommended story

by Researcher 240879

Contributed by 
Researcher 240879
People in story: 
Eva Coad
Location of story: 
Leamington Spa, Warwickshire
Article ID: 
A2205848
Contributed on: 
15 January 2004

I was 11 years old at the outbreak of war and I don't remember feeling any sort of emotion at the time, except perhaps a bit of excitement. I do remember my father, who was a soldier in World War One, calling the Germans all the names under the sun - the most suitably repeatable one being ‘warmongers’. He also said a few unkind things about Atlee.

I remember my Dad making wooden frames to fit inside all the windows and my mother covering them with blackout material. These we had to fit into the windows every night when it got dark enough to have to light the gaslight. We also were told to put sticky tape across all the panes of glass in the windows - these were placed from corner to corner usually in the form of a cross and we were told that this would prevent the glass splintering and flying into people's faces if we ever had a bomb fall in the near vicinity.

War was declared in September and as the days shortened it was very strange to see the transport of the time with the windows all blacked out by a sort of blue paint, and the headlights with a cover over them, which had just a slit to allow the minimum light through. It was very difficult to see them from a distance, especially in bad weather, so I suppose there must have been quite a few accidents, although I don't remember hearing of any.

War and senior school

The outbreak of war also coincided with my starting at senior school, Clapham Terrace. We had to carry our gas masks everywhere we went. Once a week we had a gas mask drill, which involved the whole school being taken into the hall and us taking the masks out of the box in which they were carried. Then we all had to don these horrible things as quickly as we could. I didn't like them very much as I felt I was going to suffocate, but we had to hold a piece of card over the bottom of the mask and breathe in. The result was that the mask tightened around your face and that was supposed to show that it was a proper fit. The boys in the school loved to breathe out in such a way that they made a rather rude noise and set everybody giggling.

In the early days of the war we weren't allowed to stay in school for lunches, so we always walked home to Rushmore Estate by way of the ‘ladder bridge’, which crossed the canal by Flavels Foundry. One day, there were four of us going home at lunch time, and as we crossed the ladder bridge we could see an aircraft with German markings flying down the railway line and turning towards Flavels. As the plane got closer, firing started. We were frightened to death, and flew down the steps and hid under the arch until the plane had gone. This sticks in my memory for more than one reason - one of the girls with us started screaming and crying and I thought she was hysterical. I remembered that I had read somewhere that if someone was hysterical the best thing to do was slap them across the face – so I did! Well, it worked, but the thing was that we had an irate mother knocking on our door telling my mother that if I hit her daughter again she would come and hit me!

We had very few cases of Enemy Activity in Leamington in comparison with places like Coventry and Birmingham, but there was a time that a bomber dropped a series of bombs across the town - one fell very close to our house. There was a direct hit on a house in The Close, off LLewellyn Road. We were sitting under the stairs - because that was supposed to be one of the safest places to sit in an air raid – and it felt as though the bomb had dropped in our garden. My sister and her friend were just turning into Llewellyn Road on their way home from the pictures and they were blown off their feet. She rushed into the house with a face as white as a sheet.

Coping with rationing

My mother was a wonderful manager as far as food was concerned: I don't ever remember going hungry. Mind you, I'm sure she often went without to make sure we were OK. She was very clever because, as there were six ration books in our house, she registered with two grocers and two butchers - three books with each one - and that way, when she wanted meat, she was almost sure to get a little bit extra because the butcher couldn't always weigh out the exact amount we were allowed. The same applied to things like butter and bacon.

We were always given some money when we went into town and if ever we saw a queue outside a shop we would stand in line and get whatever was going. Sometimes it would be sausage at the port butchers or perhaps the greengrocer would have some rabbits.

Carrots and potatoes came into their own during the war too. If what they say about carrots being good for the eyesight is true, then the wartime population must have had 20-20 vision all round as we used carrots grated up in cake and biscuit recipes and we were encouraged to drink carrot juice too. It was the same with potatoes.

Clothes rationing was difficult too but, as I was tall for my age and had large feet, I always qualified for some extra clothing coupons, which made it as bit easier for my Mum.

As the war churned on rationing bit very deeply, and sometimes the rations were cut to incredibly small amounts, even to half an egg per person each week. That was a challenge to the shopkeeper!

War weddings and catering

We were given Woolton Tips. Mr Woolton was the food Minister, and every week he would come on the radio with different recipes to use things like carrots and potatoes in place of flour and dried fruit. Dried fruit was in very short supply because we had to import it from abroad, and the navy and merchant ships were more concerned with getting more important things into the country than that. Occasionally there would be a consignment brought into the country and the shops would ration it out to their ‘regular’ customers, but it would probably be only about a quarter of a pound of currants.

Those poor girls who were going to be married and wanted to have a wedding cake had to try the black market and do some swapping with other people who didn't want their dried fruit and would exchange it for some sugar or a few eggs. In that way they could build up enough to make a reasonable cake for the occasion.

Some mothers made the wedding cake, which would in all probability be quite a small one, and would then make an artificial cake from card and decorate it to look like a wedding cake and slip that over the real cake for the table at the reception. Then, when it was time to cut the cake, it would be carried into the kitchen or wherever and the real cake would be cut into minute portions to be distributed among the guests – nobody was any the wiser.

Future brides would also try to find someone who somehow or other had got hold of a parachute - they were obtainable. Don't ask me how, but they would then use the material (because they were usually made from silk) to make their wedding dresses.

Convalescent

At 14 years of age I left school and went to work at Lockheed in the aircraft section in the progress office. Unfortunately I hadn't been there very long when I was taken to hospital with rheumatic fever, which my mother thought was caused by sitting in very damp air raid shelters in the Eagle Recreation ground during the bombing of Coventry. My father would insist that we went there for safety.

I was in hospital from April to August 1942, and while there I saw a German bomber fly low over the hospital before we heard some loud explosions. I later learned that he had targeted the Lockheed factory.

Anyway, in August the doctor told me that would be moved to a convalescent home in Kineton because the hospital needed to accommodate some patients from Birmingham who had been bombed out. So in about 12 hours I had to learn to get out of bed and walk, which was difficult because I had been lying flat for the past five months.

Volunteering for the Red Cross

I think it was at the age of 16 years that everyone had to volunteer to aid the war effort, and so I joined the Red Cross. I was attached to Detachment 507, and we used to meet at Dale Street Church rooms for our training. Our commandant was Miss Irene England, who much later became Mayor of Leamington. We had a very thorough training in nursing and had to do a certain number of hours’ work at the Warneford Hospital as part of that training. My stint was done on Victoria Ward and one of our examiners was Dr Clayton.

We really thought we were something special when we were dressed in our uniform, and we were very proud of the red cross on our aprons and our flowing headdress. We were asked to form a guard of honour on the steps of the Warneford Hospital when the Princess Royal came on a visit. Our detachment also took part in a parade in Leamington, probably to celebrate the end of the war. I had a fit of giggles during the parade because our detachment was placed with an American band behind us and an English one in front of us, so that the front ranks were marching to a strict military beat while those of us in the rear ranks were being treated to a Glenn Miller type march. Goodness knows what it looked like but my word didn't we feel proud!

We were sent as a detachment to meet the trains on Leamington Station when the repatriated troops were sent home, travelling by train to their various destinations. We greeted them with cups of tea and coffee and sandwiches. I remember how tired and gaunt a lot of them looked - it made me feel very sad and think how futile war is.

Miss England was sent to Germany and was at Auschwitz concentration camp to help with the release of inmates there. She looked so ill on her return. I think it took her a long time to recover from some of the awful sights she saw there.

New friends

On a lighter side was the arrival of the GIs. Because there was an American hospital at Stareton outside Leamington we had quite a lot of the walking wounded in town, and the girls thought they were wonderful. I think we all thought they lived in huge houses with swimming pools and big cars, just like in the films, but they certainly were attractive because their uniforms were so much smarter than the English Army outfits. They had that certain air about them too.

At that time I used to go about with a group of friends and we met three very nice young ‘Yanks’, as we called them - Johnny, Clive and Willard. Johnny was my friend and he was very nice, but he had a girl back home in the States, and I think he and the others just wanted to make friends. They’d had a bad time in the fighting on the Second Front, and had suffered injuries. They were being treated at Stareton before being sent back to Germany again.

I took Johnny home and he got on like a house on fire with my family. We were very grateful to him because he would often come to call with gifts of tinned peaches and tinned ham. The Americans seemed to cater for their soldiers very well. I expect it was illegal for him to bring these things to us but they tasted good! He went back to Germany and I never heard from him again - who knows what happened to him?

VJ Day escapades

On VJ Day, which was in August 1945, the hospital at Stareton held an open day for anyone who wished to go. They organised buses from Leamington and all the surrounding areas, and of course myself and friends went. Well, it was a wonderful time because they had a rodeo and various side shows all with an American flavour. Best of all, they had a refreshment tent and, to those of us who were still rationed, the sight of peaches and real cream and ham, sausages, burgers and so on was sensational. We all tucked in and had a great time.

When it was time to go back home we joined the queue for the bus to Leamington. We waited and waited and no bus. So we asked a GI, who had been cycling round the park, when the bus would be coming to take us home. He said he would go and enquire and within a matter of minutes he was back driving a military type bus and we were all piling in. As we had been waiting for quite a while the queue had got very long, but he crammed us all in so that we were sitting on each other’s laps, as well as standing in the aisle.

All went well at first, but all of a sudden the bus veered off the road, mounted a steep bank on the opposite side, and came to a halt. Well, by that time I, who had been sitting on my friend's lap, was now sitting on the floor in the aisle with a sheet of metal across my feet. Everybody was trying to get out but it was very difficult because of the angle that the bus had come to rest at. One lady had sprained her ankle because of the drop from the step of the bus to the ground.

We all got out and were sitting on the bank feeling a bit shocked when an American ambulance pulled up. The medical staff got out and ascertained who had been injured. One of the staff came to me and said, ‘Are you alright?’ I said, ‘Yes, thank you,’ and he said, ‘Does your foot hurt?’ When I looked down, I realised my foot was covered in blood. The sheet of metal that had been laying across my foot when I came to rest in the aisle of the bus had been the base of the seat that we had been sitting on and it had cut into my foot.

Anyway, all the injured were taken home in an army ambulance. I was mortified when we pulled up outside our house, and people in the street stared and wondered what was going on. It took quite a while to live that down.

Neither of my friends were hurt, fortunately, and they were taken back to Leamington by the usual transport. Afterwards, we found out that the driver of the coach was in hospital recovering from malaria, and shouldn't have been driving at all – evidently, he had an attack while driving the bus.

Looking back

There were some very sad times as young men, who lived in the area, were sent off to war and were killed or taken prisoner. One of our close neighbours lost a younger brother in the navy, and I remember a boy, who I had been at school with and had joined the Merchant Navy, whose ship was sunk and he was in a lifeboat at sea before being rescued.

I also remember a friend of mine whose brother was in the army and who, because he had been in the Territorial Army prior to war, had been among the first sent to France to fight at Dunkirk. He was taken prisoner by the Germans and spent the rest of the war in a prisoner of war camp. I remember how pleased my friend was when her family received the very occasional letter from him. She proudly brought one of his letters to school to show everybody - how strange the address looked and sounded. If I remember it correctly it was something like Kreigsgefangannapost, whatever that meant, but she didn't see him again until they were repatriated after the war ended.

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