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15 October 2014
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I Was an Analytical Chemist During the War

by cambsaction

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Archive List > Childhood and Evacuation

Contributed by 
People in story: 
Pegi Bailey
Location of story: 
Glamorgan, South Wales
Background to story: 
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
24 November 2005

[This story was submitted to the People's War by a volunteer from BBC Radio Cambridgeshire on behalf of Pegi Bailey and has been added to the site with her permission. Mrs Bailey fully understands the site's terms and conditions.]

In 1939, I was 16 years old and in my last year of school in Wales, and I had never been to England. When War was declared, I was in Pembrokeshire, listening to Neville Chamberlain on the radio (we did not have television) at 11.00 on Sunday, September 3, with Big Ben ringing in the background. On 2 September, Germany invaded Poland, so we went to War—for no other reason. We knew about Hitler, Churchill and Roosevelt. Immediately, all young men joined up. [My first husband, whom I had not met yet, was at Oxford then,joined up, too.] All the young men in my school volunteered, most of them into the RAF. Some went to America, Canada and South Africa to train as pilots—to get their wings. [My husband went from Oxford to America then.] I started writing letters to these young men who went off to war.

In my case, I was due to go to University, but I, along with many others, could not go. None of the girls went—we all did War work and were pleased to do it. With a good education in maths, physics and chemistry and biology, I went straight into the local steelworks which was the vast Port Talbot Steelworks, in South Wales. I worked all through the War, analysing steel, tin, aluminium and duraluminium. Each day, after my shift was finished, I would study; later, I did my exams at Swansea College. I lived at home and cycled to and from work—three miles a day—in the winter, even in the snow. Nobody had a holiday—not even on Christmas. So that was my lot.

We had a Land Army. Every woman living in Cambridgeshire, for example, had to drive tractors, plow fields and milk cows. We in Britain grew our own food. We couldn’t have done without the Land Army girls.

My father, who had been in the Great War, immediately joined the Home Guard and other men, the Observer Corps, they were the men who observed the coastline of South Wales to watch for U-boats refuelling in Southern Ireland. Every beach was mined and covered with iron and concrete—obviously, nobody walked on the beaches.

Everything in life literally came to a halt. Every factory went over to making ammunition, aeroplanes, tanks, and uniforms. We had no clothing, little food, few luxuries and many boyfriends. However, nobody had much leisure and we listened to the radio all day, every day. We had newspapers but there wasn’t much in them.

Luckily, the Americans did not get to Wales. We had a lot of people from Europe to join up in the UK and went to fight. We had the “free” French and the “free” Dutch—they were really refugees—they were super. They came to join the Army, the Navy and the Air Force. The Poles were the best air crew in the world—they had their own squadron in the Royal Air Force. They were in the Battle of Britain. The Dutch were mainly soldiers and were also in the Royal Navy.

All the trains in the UK were steam trains and many ships were coal-boilers, so we needed more men in the coal mines in Wales and York. The government decided that some would be in forced labour and they had to work in the mines. Bevan boys were named after the Minister of War, a Welshman who was the Welsh equivalent of Winston Churchill and who was an influential minister during the War who organised the collection of coal. These boys worked in the mines. These were British youngsters—conscripts-- who were conscripted to work in coal mines instead of joining the armed forces. This was the only aspect of the war that was compulsory; this was forced labour. These boys had to learn Welsh, and we had to look after them. The work was very hard, they went down at 5 am in the lift shaft and came up at 4 pm, 7 days a week. Those young men were filthy—they had nothing. The colliers , large complexes, had to take them in, so the Bevan Boys were living in digs with Welsh families--not at home. My father also took in some Bevan Boys. The experience of working in the colliers fixed them for life. They were essential to the War effort, but nobody talks about them; the Bevan Boys, however, are proud of what they did.

Little by little, people started getting married. We had no food, and no coupons—no wedding cake, no wedding dresses—men were married in uniform. People had a 24-hour marriage licence. Men would come home, get married, and then go back to fight and most of them died.

At a place called Bridgend in South Wales, there was a POW concentration camp for senior SS officers. It was guarded by the Home Guard and my father was thrilled. We guarded the place like the Tower of London. Bridgend had the ammunition factory which made the powder for the guns. For 5 years, the girls and women made the powder. Their skin became yellow, and still is today.

I would like to talk about something not directly related to the War itself, but it is connected. The father of the actor Richard Burton (Jenkins) was a coal-miner and could not read and write. His son, the young Richard Jenkins, grew up in the village near me and came on the train each day to school. Our English master, Mr Burton, was also the BBC representative in Cardiff. Richard, from a very poor family, was one of seven children (their mother had died); he was adopted by Mr Burton and then became Richard Burton. He lived with Mr Burton, who recognised Richard's special talent. For example, at age 11, Richard played the lead in Macbeth and even at then, he could throw his voice around a classroom and in a theatre. He was a very good rugby player, he was a tough bloke with a terrific personality, but he was not a brilliant student. He left school at 15 and worked as a labourer until he was 18, when he joined the RAF and went to Oxford at the end of the War. He worked with Williams at Stratford-Upon-Avon. If Mr Burton had not taken on Richard, this boy would probably never become an actor at all. By the way, the actor Anthony Hopkins, who has the same speaking voice, grew up years later on the same street as Richard Burton, but that is another story.

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