- Contributed by
- People in story:
- Elsie Maull
- Location of story:
- Co Durham
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 17 August 2005
Me and my family - I am seated on the far right - my brother is pictured on the left.
I was 10 years old when the Second World War was declared. I heard the news on the radio at 11 am at the home of a family friend with whom I had been deposited for the day while my brother was being born at home. His birth was a great shock as I had no inkling that he was on the way. At 10 years old it was a greater shock than the outbreak of war, the prelude to which had passed over my young head. However, the war was soon to be foremost in my mind and experience.
Shortly after the announcement, the population of Spennymoor where I lived was told to attend the Town Hall for the issue of gas masks. The possibility of being gassed was frightening to young and old alike. When my mask was fitted over my face, I thought I would suffocate, and I learned that a greater, and deliberate, effort was required to breathe in and out. My baby brother was issued with a special device as he was too tiny for a face mask. This device was rather like an elongated, old fashioned diving helmet, about two feet long, into which the child’s head and body were placed, leaving only the legs dangling outside. At the side was an air pump to be operated by mother, assuming she had survived. When my brother was a little older, he was issued with a ‘Mickey Mouse’ mask which fitted onto his face and had a comical rubber nose piece in a bright colour.
The adult mask was supplied in a square cardboard box with a string strap for carrying on the shoulder. As the mask had to be carried everywhere one went, the box wore out and mine was replaced by a cream coloured cylindrical tin, also with a shoulder strap. Being an active child, it became very dented.
My mother made me a siren suit, a la Winston Churchill, using the material from an old, brown tweed coat of hers. It was a one-piece garment, like a cat suit with a hood. It was easy to jump into and fasten with a long zip up the front when the siren sounded. It was all enveloping and cosy; I loved it and I was reluctant to take it off at bedtime.
One day, a team of men turned up and cut off the railings on the low walls in front of all the houses in the street. Amazed at this liberty, I asked the reason and was told that the metal was required to make shells, bombs and aeroplanes. I was placated, but learned years later that this particular metal was useless for making armaments. I still look with a certain sadness upon the round black dots on the walls around some churches, cathedrals and homes where once the railings stood.
Having a small child in the family meant that we did get, occasionally, oranges and bananas which my brother was, for a while, too small to eat. These fruits were available only on a child’s ration book. The risk to shipping in carrying these non-essentials across the ocean for the general public was too great. Having a small appetite, food rationing did not seem to bother me particularly, but my mother must have had to be particularly inventive to create variety in our meals because of the restricted food supplies. Each person was allowed only a few ounces a week of meats, butter, margarine, tea, sugar, lard, and sweets. Nevertheless, our meals were sufficient and we ailed little. Many people stopped taking sugar in tea during the war and never started again.
There was, quite near to our home, a very small smallholding where a few chickens and, just before the festive season, a few ducks and geese were kept. The ‘off ration’ eggs from here were a welcome relief from the ghastly dried eggs on offer. Dried egg omelettes were like rubber, however carefully cooked. In those days a bird for the table was a Christmas only treat and, during the war, they were available only to those who kept a few chickens in their back garden. Fortunately for us, the smallholding could supply us with a Christmas bird. It had to be plucked by mother and drawn by dad while I looked .the other way, ugh! Very fresh and organic though, and a far cry from the Government published recipes for substitute ersatz chicken. We grew our own potatoes to meet the Government’s urging to Dig for Victory.
My dad, who was wounded and imprisoned in the First World War, was too old for the armed forces second time round, but he joined the ARP (Air Raid Precautions). The members of these local units were supplied with a stirrup pump, with which to dowse a fire caused in a air raid, a steel helmet to keep the head warm when on fire watch my father said, tounge in cheek) and an arm band marked ‘ARP’ to clarify the wearer’s contribution to the war effort. Fortunately, our stirrup pump was never needed to fight a fire but was put to many other uses such as washing the car, watering the garden and cleaning the windows.
Spennymoor must not have been considered a particularly desirable target (despite the fact that we had an iron and coke works), as no air raid shelters were issued to individual households. My Dad decided to build one with my help (he thought I was a boy) in the back garden. It was constructed of brick, sunk about two feet into the ground, and had two doors in case one got blocked with debris when the bomb fell.. It was at that time that I learned to mix cement and lay bricks. In the wall was a recess to hold ‘iron rations’, and there was a bench on which to sit or sleep during a raid. This magnificent shelter was never used, the main reason being that it always had two feet of water in it. Obviously, the water table was quite high. During the only raid I can remember, we all clambered out of bed and sat under the stairs until the ‘all clear’ sounded. It seemed that, when a house was bombed, the staircase was often left standing. Fortunately, the only high explosive bomb dropped that night landed on the cricket field, but the nearby Co-op store was burned out by an incendiary device.
During the school holidays, it was usual for me to visit my aunt living in Newcastle-upon-Tyne. The Tyne bridges were a favourite target for the ‘Hun’ , but I do not think any were destroyed. We knew we were getting near Newcastle when we could see the barrage balloons in the distance right along the Tyne. When I visited the quayside with my aunt, I did see the scars of near misses on the Tyne Bridge though. One evening, during my visit, the siren sounded. My aunt had a corrugated Anderson shelter in the back garden but, for some unknown reason, we did not use it, sheltering instead under the dining table. We learned later that a ‘stick‘ of bombs had been dropped , with wonderful precision, all along the main west road at the end of the street. As we crouched under the table, we heard the ‘clump’ of bombs falling and the shattering of glass by shrapnel. We felt lucky.
At school I remember only two air raid practices. On one occasion when the buzzer sounded, the whole school population picked up its gas masks and trooped out into the large brick shelter in the school yard. It was very dark — no electric light, only torches - and dank. Very spooky for a youngster. We sat on the benches and put on our gas masks. We probably did not stay long, but it seemed an eternity until the signal was given to return to the classrooms amid much excited chatter. A few moments longer and I would have run out screaming because of the claustrophobic situation. On the second practice, to my great relief, we were told to sit under the desks, which were pretty sturdily build of solid oak on cast iron legs. The war was a subject to be illustrated in some way in an art lesson. I remember chosing to paint the RAF roundel with the words PER ARDUA AD ASTRA emblazoned beneath.
My Dad, being exempt from National Service, was able to continue with his job, but this became quite stressful. Because so many of his younger colleagues had been called up, the territory around which he travelled had to be increased. War time regulations required all vehicles to have masked headlights so that ‘Gerry’ in his aeroplane could not follow the track of the vehicle and deduce that there was a road below which it might be useful to bomb. The black metal mask fitted over the headlight, and the forward face had very narrow angled slits which caused the light to shine sharply downward, making it impossible to see very far ahead and requiring a slower than normal speed. This lengthened the day considerably, and I remember his returning home very late each evening, tired and weary after perhaps a journey over the North Yorkshire moors.
Petrol was rationed, but an allowance of fuel was made where the job required the use of a car. There was insufficient fuel to use the car on holiday, so we had to travel to Scarborough on the train. I vividly recall the journey from home to York where we had to change trains. The train to York was packed with service men and women; every seat was occupied and every other space was crammed with standing passengers. York station itself was a heaving sea of khaki, with splashes of navy blue and airforce blue here and there. I felt very small! It seemed as thought the entire British armed forces were on the move, and it was an almost losing battle to cross the bridge over the lines. I was in danger of becoming separated from my parents. Scarborough was slightly disappointing because the two swimming pools were closed and the gardens were somewhat neglected because the younger men who normally worked on Council property were in the forces.
Spennymoor took in some evacuees — mainly from Tyneside I expect — and for a time the town’s school children attended school for half days only until things were sorted out. We were taught in the morning and taken for a walk in the afternoons. The weather always seemed to be fine. Games and nature studies were arranged in the fields to keep us occupied. The interruption to our studies did not seem to have a detrimental effect on our progress; we all came out able to read and write. The change and fresh air might even have done us good.
I left school at 14, and the interview for my first job was held in an office in a brick built factory. I was dismayed, therefore, when I arrived on my first day, to be escorted to a long wooden shed where I was to work in a small office at one end. The shed was a store for the ordered garments produced by the factory. The office was like an oven in the summer, and in winter condensation ran down the freezing walls. It was no fault of the employer; other firms had similar extensions. I learned later that building a brick extension was not allowed during the war as materials and men to make the bricks were scarce. As soon as the war ended a brick extension was built, to the great relief of myself and my colleagues.
Clothing coupons were issued, 15 coupons for some garments and 18 for others. My 15 and 18 times tables were honed greatly as I typed invoices and the number of garments bought had to be multiplied by one of these figures. Some people acquired pieces of parachute silk with which to make dresses. These dresses usually had gored skirts to utilise the ready made triangular panels in the 'chutes.
While I was still 10, but after my brother’s birth, it was decided to have my tonsils removed. After the operation my parents thought a week in our tent in the country would restore my health. The tent, which was white, was pitched among trees at a picnic spot a few miles from home. It was screened by trees because only green tents were allowed so that they could not be seen from the air. During the first night the siren sounded. Dad had gone home to work but I think my aunt must have been with us. Alarmed by the sound of ‘planes overhead, we all left the tent and walked through the woods to a row of cottages some distance away where the people, already
awakened by the siren, took us in. I slept on a wooden settle and my brother snoozed in his pram while the adults discussed the situation all night.
The progress of the final months of the war, while I was still 14/15 , was followed on a map on the office wall, and there was great excitement among the staff as our forces chased the enemy back. In my immaturity, I did not really realise the horror for those doing the chasing. The newsreels at the cinema showed only the forces overcoming the enemy I can understand now that positive propaganda was necessary to keep up the morale of the population, especially at a time when we were close to being overwhelmed. We were euphoric when the war in Europe ended, if a little deflated, but I don’t think I quite realised that it was continuing in the Far East. Before the world became a global village through TV and other factors, Japan seemed a mighty long way away and not such a threat to my freedom.
My mother’s parents and her siblings emigrated to Canada before I was born. Her youngest brother was killed while fighting in Italy. In recent years, while on holiday in Scotland, I visited Fort George near Nairn and was surprised to find there a Book of Remembrance in which I found the name of my uncle recorded as a fallen member of the Seaforths of Canada regiment. Here was someone from Britain who went to Canada but fought to save his birth country where his sacrifice was recorded. It was as though he had come home. It was an emotional moment. We also had a visit from a distant cousin in Canada who was in the Royal Canadian Airforce. I still have a leather brooch, fashioned in the shape of the Trilliom flower, which is the symbol, I think, of Ottawa. This brooch came in a food parcel sent during the war by his parents in Canada to my aunt in Northumberland.
Although the war was a terrible thing, I am glad to have had the experience. It took place during my formative years and it taught me to value the necessities of life - food, clothing, and a roof over my head.
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