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by John Kelly

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John Kelly
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Location of story: 
Newcastle on Tyne
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Contributed on: 
03 November 2003

Victory party 1945 Thorne Terrace Walkergate Newcastle

Newcastle at war:

I had no memory of the war starting. For me and my friends there had always been a war. Total blackout was normal for us, though I did wonder about those curious street-lamps that seemingly had lit up the evenings ‘before the war’. Had it really been ‘just like daylight’ as my father always claimed? I loved the familiar darkness and the special war-time sight of billions of brilliant stars. And I loved finding my way to the fish and chip shop at night by the light of my little torch. It had been my best Christmas present of 1943. Without a flash-light one could see absolutely nothing unless there was a moon. Not a chink of light shone from any house or shop. We were warned though not to shine our torches up into the air. The Germans might see the light and know where to drop their bombs! Despite all that we usually felt safe, and played outside happily with our friends every dark night . We marvelled at the magnificent search-lights that sometimes broke into the darkness practising their sweeps across the sky as they tried to trap a decoy aircraft in the centre of their criss-crossed beams.

The weird wail of the siren always brought a touch of excitement tinged with fear. We would be dragged out of bed, wrapped in our ‘siren-suits’, and pulled downstairs and across the road to our neighbours who had an anderson shelter in their back-garden. Soon there came the thumping and the whistling of bombs as the enemy raiders tried to get the Tyne ship-yards only a quarter of a mile from our house. ‘That’s Big Bertha’ my mother would say when we heard the boom of one of the big guns that lined the river banks. Before shelters were built we used to crouch in the cupboard under the stairs with a candle. We were always relieved to hear the ‘all-clear’ and emerge to find our cosy terraced Victorian house still standing.

On the way to school the following day we would survey the damage — once two semi-detached houses at the bottom of the road had been hit and demolished. Once a nearby 1930s semi had collapsed leaving its other half still more or less intact. When they hit the goods station in town, our dark sky glowed for a week. One day when we were told to expect a really big raid some neighbours who had never before left their beds for any raid decided to break their custom and go the large communal air-raid centre at Stratford Grove, Heaton. They were all killed when the shelter sustained a direct hit from a land-mine. It was truly horrific yet such deaths did not affect us children and we went out each day eagerly collecting shrapnel and hoping against hope that our Junior School, right behind our house, had been totally destroyed. It never was, though they hit the Grammar School demolishing its dining hall.

The seemingly endless war did end as I approached the age of ten. It had made an enormous impression and memories remain vivid. Who could forget that barrage balloon which ‘escaped’ from time to time and went lurching over our heads, enough to terrify any German pilot? And there were all those notices asking if our journeys were really necessary or warning us to beware of the squander bug or to save our salvage. We knew that if we wasted food Lord Woolton of the Food Ministry would surely get us! And we had to be careful because ‘walls had ears’ and spies were ‘everywhere’ and we were convinced that at least one elderly man in the neighbourhood was a spy even though my mother assured us he was in truth a retired butcher and a ‘very nice man’. We followed him from time to time to see what he was up to and we carefully watched his house at night to see if he was signalling skywards with his torch. We pestered soldiers from the local barracks calling out cheekily: ‘any badges or buttons soldier?’ And often we got some badges and occasionally some chocolate. We ate few sweets which like just about everything else were rationed but we learned to enjoy apples and raw carrots. We all carried our identity cards. We ‘dug for victory’ on our allotment and took money to school for the ‘cot-fund’. Amazingly, like little refugees we sometimes got food-parcels at school from America, and tins of sweetened cocoa. And we played endless war games like ‘commandos’, firing off our toy ‘tommy-guns’ at the ‘Germans’ whom we absolutely hated. We were not sure who the Germans were but we knew we lived on an island and they lived in Europe and were trying to get into our country, sending planes over to bomb us. Our soldiers were ‘over there’ somewhere fighting, and of course, we were winning! At the beginning of the war some of our children had been evacuated to the Lake District and I recall the long queue of youngsters at our local railway station though I was too young to go. Towards the end of the war, when the doodle bugs were dropping on London we actually got some evacuee ‘cockney’ kids into our northern school. They talked in a very funny way, and we could scarcely understand a word they said. When we were convinced that they were not actually Germans in disguise we became quite friendly towards them but they always seemed foreign.

The radio was all-important especially ‘Children’s Hour’ and ‘Toy-town’ and Uncle Mac, but we also listened to the News which always seemed to begin withsomething like: ‘Here is the News and this is Alvar Liddell reading it: yesterday one hundred allied bombers raided Germany, three are missing……..’ And there was Workers’ Playtime with Bill Gates and Music Hall and funny comedians like Vic Oliver and Rob Wilton whose jokes always seemed to involve ‘the foreman’ or ‘the sergeant’. And there were of course all those lovely sentimental wartime songs about bluebirds being over the white cliffs of Dover. Sometimes we had a good laugh listening to Lord Haw Haw.

We were very patriotic. England was best. And it was indeed England then, and certainly never Britain. We did not need the Test matches or the World Cup, we had the war! England was winning of course, helped by our friends in Scotland, Wales, and America. And the sense of community was warm and palpable. Crime seemed non-existent despite the blackout.

Eventually VE day and VJ Day arrived and we enjoyed happy street parties and bonfires. It was all over. And we had definitely won as we always knew we would! In time the lights did come on and the black-out curtains came down and we all got back to ‘normal’ but in an odd sort of way, for people of my age who did not remember when there had not been a war, war had been’ normal’. It took a bit of time to learn to live with the abnormality of peace.

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