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- Ken Bayley
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- 11 November 2003
Memories of the War 1939-1945
BY K. H. BAYLEY.
When the war started I was 12 years old. Of course, I did not understand what it really meant to be at war. I think the first affect it had on my friends and I was when the schools closed and we were all organised into small groups and went to people’s houses for lessons. I remember on one occasion, a boy who lived at one of the houses had a tame mouse, which he insisted on showing to the class. The teacher, who was in her mid twenties and who seemed very old to us, was not at all amused and she was even more horrified when the mouse escaped and was running around the room. Of course, we all thought it was great fun trying to catch it, so there wasn’t much learning done that day.
The next thing I remember, horror of horrors, was sweet rationing - ye gods!! I dare say in truth it probably did us all a favour health-wise.
After the declaration of war, the first significant incident was when a German U-Boat slipped into the Royal Navy’s anchorage at Scapa Flo and sank the battleship Royal Oak. Of course, only a sneaky, dastardly German would do such an underhanded act, it was not the act of a gentleman but it made us realise what crafty devils we were up against.
Gradually, things got back into some sort of routine and the schools reopened, although some teachers were missing having been enlisted for military service. We then had a period of several months that were called the phoney war, as I suppose the allies built up their forces and the Germans were subduing the Poles.
Towards the end of 1940 the air raids, I recall one of the first places to be damaged was the Jolly Miller pub on Queens Drive. The next day my mates and I all walked to the pub, about 2 miles distance, to have look at the damage, but the pub was still standing and the damage was only minor and was not worth the curiosity-fuelled walk to see it.
When the sirens sounded we would go to the local school and shelter in the basement, sometimes there was a party atmosphere and we would have a sing song, but sometimes bad news would be passed on by people coming to shelter from the raid, like the time a man came in and told us Mill Rd. maternity hospital had been bombed. A friend lost his mother in that incident.
When we were in the shelter all we had to sleep on was a blanket on the ground. I don’t think Billy Jo Spears was around then. Next day, we would go out looking for shrapnel and sometimes you would find a nose cone from an anti aircraft shell - what a treasure that was. Likewise, if they had been dropping incendiary bombs you might find the metal tail fin. On one occasion they dropped a cluster of incendiaries, which landed on Sheil Park, so next day there was a rich harvest to be had.
When the war started we had all been issued with gas masks in case the dastardly Germans resorted to gas attacks. In order to show us how to use them, a van was brought to the school and filled with tear gas and we walked through it. Then for some reason, which was not clear to me, we had to go in the van and take our masks off. We were in and out pretty quick I kid you not.
The air raids were spasmodic until May 1941 when we had 9or10 nights of very intense bombing. My family and I were now going to St. Georges Hall, in the dungeons beneath the hall. I remember walking home after one raid and the shopping area had been very badly damaged. Lewis’s was gutted and a lot of other shops were totally destroyed. The trams had stopped running so we had to walk home, and we would have to go through the same routine for the following few days. I think it was one of those nights when a tram stopped, because of an air raid, and all the passengers went into the basement of Clint Rd. school, which received a direct hit. Something like 170 people were killed. On these nights you could look towards the river and the sky would look like Dante’s Inferno because of the fires at the docks. Another incident, which took place during the May Blitz was when an ammunition train, which was parked on a railway at Townsend lane, was set on fire during the raid and the trucks which were loaded with bombs and shells exploded one after the other. This went on all the next day and the explosions could be heard many miles away. The house where I lived was about three miles away but we could feel the vibrations as the trucks exploded. During one explosion, the window in the front bedroom fell into the bedroom, frame and all. My mother had just put our Sunday joint on to the kitchen table and a huge great piece of plaster fell away from the wall, landing directly onto the meat!
Pieces of the trucks, such as wheels and couplings were found hundreds of yards from the train. I went to Townsend Lane a few days later to have look, and all of the houses were draped in gun cotton.
At the back of where I lived was Sheil park, and the army sent barrage balloons up in the air here. These were huge silver balloons filled with hydrogen and they were tethered to the ground by steel cables. I guess they were about 5000 feet high. They were launched to stop low flying bombers. One night we had an electrical storm and the balloons were being struck and bursting into flames, what a sight that was, these huge balloons falling to the ground in flames. Luckily, they were tethered on open ground so I don’t think anyone was hurt. I think they put lightning conductors on them after that.
Around this time my father thought it would be a good idea to get some hens to supplement our diet with eggs. He organised all the children in the street to bring him floorboards from bombed buildings and he built a hen house and a run in the back yard. The eggs were very welcome as we were only allowed one egg a week on the rations and when the hens stopped laying they made a very nice meal. I remember on one occasion one of the hens had got out of the run and was in the back yard when my sister went down the yard to the toilet and she frightened it. It flew into the house landed on a bowl of eggs. They tipped onto the floor and smashed on the carpet. It then flew into a bowl of trifle flapping it’s wings, so we all got a bit of trifle. It has always been a mystery to me how my mother could get the ingredients to make a trifle. I think a lot of children were insulated against rationing because parents would do without to try and see their children had enough to eat, in fact a lot of wives did wonders with what ever rations we were allocated.
In midsummer 1941 the air raids had petered out and I left school at 14 and got a job. M, my first was at an electricians for the princely sum of 9 shillings and two pence for a 44-hour week, which is the equivalent of 46p present money. I was only there a week because something better came along as an office boy in a shipping office at a pound a week. My job was to take bills of lading to the various shipping lines. We would not be told when the items would sail as this info was hush hush in case the Germans found out.
I would also on occasions go to the docks on the Docker’s Umbrella (the overhead railway) and I would see the devastation. Some buildings were still smoldering even though it was several months after the May Blitz.
About this time I started to realise girls were different to boys. My pals and I used to go out in the blackout looking for girls and if we were lucky and we clicked, we got a kiss and a cuddle and we thought it was our birthday. There was no question of staying out all night, in fact I had to be in by about 10 o’clock or the bolt would be on the door and I would have to knock my dad up, and he was a very angry man when his sleep was interrupted.
In December 1941 America came into the war due to an unprovoked attack by the Japanese, who must have been out of their minds when you consider how the might of American industry could be turned onto making weapons and munitions, and the manpower they had available. Of course, we were delighted we had been gifted such a powerful ally. About this time, the war was slowly starting to go our way and the Americans began to make their presence felt by sending masses of materials and men for the war effort. They were very popular with the girls as they had plenty of money to spend, but of course this didn’t go down very well with our boys and there were fights between them. One place in particular was the Eagle and Child pub on Prescot Rd. It is no longer there, but the Yanks used to come there from Burtonwood and there would be fights galore.
By the time we got to 1943, the war was definitely turning our way but there was still a long way to go to finish off the Germans and their allies
June 6th 1944 saw the allied invasion of Europe, which was the beginning of the end for Nazi Germany. The next milestone in my life was to report for my army medical in 1945, which to my astonishment I failed due to a perforated eardrum. Of course my mother was delighted, as she did not want me to go in the army. When I was 18 in 1945, the war ended and the celebrations in the streets were marvelous. Somehow or other, people scratched together food to have parties and a great time was had by all, and as I was 18 I could go in the pub to celebrate. I think a pint of beer at that time was about 1s 4 pence the equivalent of 7p in to days money.
I hope these memories will give some insight into my experience of the war years
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