- Contributed by
- People in story:
- Jean M O'Rourke
- Location of story:
- Oswaldtwistle Lancashire
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 11 August 2004
The Quiet War
In 1939, I was seven years old and lived in Broadfield, Oswaldtwistle, Lancashire. I thought the war would be very exciting and was delighted when we were given gas masks. We ran through the field into the town screaming with laughter as we chased each other. However, we were careful to put them into their boxes before we reached school. After some months the gas masks were hung under the stairs until the end of the war. Oswaldtwistle was obviously not very high on Hitler's hit list. The activities of the rag and bone man attracted our attention. During the war, the ringing of church bells was forbidden. Bells were to be rung only when the invasion of Britain started. Our rag and bone man, patriotic to the end, gave up his hand bell for the greater good and found himself a bugle to announce his presence to the housewives. The instrument was ancient, battered and green with neglect. He never did learn to play the same note twice and it emitted the most appalling screech. We children called him 'Little Boy Blue' or 'Gabriel'. The men working night shifts at the munitions factory had more colourful names for him when he disturbed their sleep on Monday mornings. It was suggested he should be sent to the fornt line where he could put the fear of God into the enemy. The boys used to follow the cart shouting 'Come on Gabriel blow your horn before Hitler gets you,' hoping to be chased.
In the war everything was rationed. I remember my mother not knowing whether to be pleased or mad when my father used all the sugar ration to make blackberry jam. No food was ever wasted. If food was occasionally left, it was put into the pig bins. I can never remember disliking anything I was given. In the unlikely event of food being refused, nothing would be offered as an alternative. It was that meal or nothing. There were also programmes on the wireless about how to save and prepare food and how to 'make-do and mend'. The women who gave these talks were obviously from the upper middle class and thought they were doing their bit for the war effort. They took themselves very seriously indeed, much to the amusement of my mother and father , who, like all working class people of that time had been 'make-do and mending' all their lives. My mother enjoyed these programmes, which she regarded as not so much informative as entertaining and would roar with laughter at the solemnity of the broadcasters.
Sweets and chocolate were rationed too and regarded as luxuries. One day an American airman arrived at school. He was a distant relative of one of the staff. He came unannounced and, he claimed, unofficially. He gave us chocolates and chewing gum. He said he had landed his plane on Oswaldtwistle moors and we were thrilled. We thought he was Errol Flynn, or at least, a near relation.
Toffee rations were saved a few weeks before Christmas so we could celebrate properly. One year an uncle arrived from down south at the beginning of December. He gave us all a half crown each, which was a great treat, but best of all, he gave us a big parcel which contained chocolate biscuits. We children couldn't wait for Christmas to come. The gifts of the wise men were not received with more delight. My sisters and I still laugh about those Christmas biscuits.
At school, we were taught patriotic songs. We were all girls but I remember singing 'Come cheer up my lads 'tis to glory we steer' and 'Who were the bowmen of England?' We were taught an English version of the French National anthem too. We all sang with great enthusiasm and thoroughly enjoyed it. We sang other songs too, songs learnt from the wireless.
'When the Fuhrer says 'this is the master race' we just Heil Heil right in the Fuhrer's face.
Not to love the Fuhrer is a great disgrace so we 'Heil, Heil' right in the Fuhrer's face.
There was a song about Mussolini, early in the war:
'Oh what a surprise for the Duce, the Duce, he can't get it over the Greeks,
Oh what a surprise for the Duce they do say he's had no spaghetti for weeks.
His troubadors advance with roars, 'La Viva, La Viva'
In armoured cars they strum guitars
While frilly white skirts play the duce with black shirts.
Oh what a surprise for the Duce,' etc.
That was when the Italians were fighting the Greeks.
The highlights of the year remained unchanged for us children thanks to the efforts of our parents. The first Sunday in May was always celebrated by procession. White frocks were handed down from older sisters to younger and the ladies who spoke of 'make-do and mend' would have approved of my mother who produced an under skirt from two pillow slips. Hitler in fact seemed rather a comical figure to us. One boy achieved hero status by going into the pulpit at church and shouting 'Heil Hitler'. He then decided to be Lord Haw Haw, a German who somehow could some times interrupt the BBC broadcast and give German propaganda over the air. The young boy held his nose and bellowed in a nasal accent 'Germany calling, Germany calling' until the priest heard the laughter came in and soundly clouted him before chasing him away. Having no knowledge of political correctness in those days, the clouting was accepted as fair exchange for such marvellous entertainment. Nobody needed counselling.
On the other side of Oswaldtwistle, was a prisoner of war camp. Initially, there were Italian prisoners and they would march down the main road to a small cinema. There seemed to be no desire to escape on their part and no fear of them fleeing on the part of the guards. Later in the war, the camp held Germans, but they did not seem quite so exotic.
Now I realise how lucky we were to live in such a quiet backwater. The war seemed a long way off. We did have evacuees and we all played together, but the interesting thing about them for us was that they did not know what tadpoles were. These children might have come from another planet for all we knew. They came from Coventry. We were aware of some sadness. The girl next door spent weeks red eyed and weeping when her fiance was killed. We were told not to upset her and be quiet, to be respectful and pray for the dead soldier. Then a cousin's plane was shot down over Germany and all crew members were killed. We were aware too of the men in the street who carried huge kitbags. They seemed to be very heroic to us, and we bribed one boy to let us look through his kitchen window to see his uncle who had been wounded.
The blackout which was a nusiance toall adults was an adventurous for us. in the winter evenings we played cowboys and indians and war games where the girls had always to be the German enemy, so allowing the boys to win. It seems strange now to think we ran about dark fields and street and never thought of any real personal danger. At the end of the war there was big bonfire at the top end of the street.A couple of neighbours, full of patriatism and stout threw their backyard gates onto the fire to make a good blaze, giving a new meaning to the phrase,'Keep the home fires burning'. Peace may have come to England but there were some very war like sounds coming from two houses in the days that followed.
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