- Contributed by
- Jim Dillon - WW2 Site Helper
- People in story:
- James Edward Dillon
- Location of story:
- Liverpool and Huyton-with-Roby
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 01 November 2003
War for a junior, 1939-41
The day war broke out we all missed mass, thus embarking on the greatest conflict of the century in a state of mortal sin. That is the way I saw it but it is not sound theology. We lived about two miles from the Liverpool docks and factories, too close for safety. All five of us went by tram (street-car) to Nanny's (Nanny was my maternal grandmother) house in Roby, about five and a half miles from the Mersey. I was nearly eight and we were waiting for "the balloon to go up" (slang of the time for "The war to begin", as I discovered later).
Balloons were already up everywhere, light-grey, elephantine, barrage balloons, but another was apparently awaited. At 11.15 the first siren howled, the 10b tram car stopped and we piled into a brick and concrete air-raid shelter at the entrance to Newsham Park.
Everybody knew what to expect from bombing, films from Spain and Nanking had shown entire walls collapsing, fire sweeping through the cities no matter how much water the firemen poured on them, refugees fleeing in panic with prams, carts and bicycles loaded with bundles and dead bodies lying everywhere in unnatural postures. A solitary aircraft, probably a Handley Page Hampden, the least threatening of bombers, had flown down river as Mr Chamberlain (Prime Minister at beginnig of war) finished his broadcast. It panicked the entire North-West.
At Nanny's "South of the border (down Mexico way)" was on the wireless and there was something about being in a state of war with Germany. The balloon had gone up. "Be over by Christmas", said Grandad.
We stayed in Roby while the ‘Admiral Graf Spee’ (German 'pocket' battleship) was sunk and ‘Warspite’ (WWI British battleship) saw off a large number of German destroyers at Narvik (Norway) but nobody hung out the washing on the Siegfried Line ("We're going to hang out the washing on the Siegfried line, have you any dirty washing, mother dear", popular song). The greatest excitement was seeing the villain, possibly Robert Newton, fall out of the crow's nest of a ship in "Jamaica Inn".
By spring we were back home in Mozart Street, next to Handel Street and down the main road from a cluster of streets with Lakeland Poet names, the working-class had culture in Lodge Lane, but only one tap only per house, an outside lavatory, frightening in the blackout, and no education system other than what was needed to man the docks, the ships or the shipping offices.
The Germans invaded France. My sister Jean arrived noisily very early on 3 June 1940, the day before the end at Dunkirk, and thereafter was teased for being a French refugee. Poor Jean never saw a banana until she was six. Then she did not know what to do with it although she soon got the hang. Mrs Whittaker came in to help and taught me to scrub my face. She, as much as the grape, is responsible for its present condition.
Within weeks ‘Jerry’ (German Air Force) was over regularly, accompanied by loud explosions and flashes, beginning the work of slum clearance later taken up by Jack and Bessie Braddock (city councillors). The street shelter, brick and concrete, stood on the bare tarmac of the street.. It was no place for a baby in a cradle made from an orange box: "No cots, don't you know there's a war on?" Judy Garland sang "Somewhere over the rainbow" but we had more on our minds than "The Wizard of Oz".
So it was back to Nanny's, one of the excellent neo-Georgian houses from Mr Keays's stint as Director of Housing for Liverpool Corporation, double-fronted, hot water, bath and separate lavatory, luxury for 16/4d per week. In the garden we had our Anderson shelter (made of sections of curved corrugated steel bolted together, we also had gas-masks), well dug in and sand-bagged, 1914-18 Western Front fashion. At full strength we were eleven. My grandparents looked after a cousin, definitely their favourite grand-child, and had two sons, Andy and Georgie, who were "at sea". When they came home they brought suitcases padded out with Hershey bars and Spam (from Boston, New York, Baltimore, Savannah, New Orleans or Galveston). Except, that is, on seven occasions when they arrived in the small hours, bombed, mined or torpedoed, kitted out in whatever the slop chest of the escort ship which had picked them up could provide (sometimes no more than pyjamas, sneakers and a coat of some sort).
There was a vegetable patch with potatoes, cabbages and radishes. We kept about a dozen chickens which regularly escaped from their prison camp and were chased, Grand National style, over the neighbours' fences. Nanny, five feet tall and five feet wide, was not built for that sport. We murdered the hen we thought wasn't laying and found it full of eggs, plenty of eggs but no shells. It ran around looking over its shoulder after Georgie had botched wringing its neck. Even after its head had been chopped off it still ran about. Rasputin couldn't hold a candle to that bird. But it was delicious and pure joy when food was rationed and meat very hard to come by.
I remember that we had to take half of our meat ration in Argentinian corned beef. Each tin had a small amount of meat surrounded by a mass of virulent yellow, hard grease. I have had no time for anything Argentinian ever since. The bread was a dirty grey because husk was included in the flour. Nanny lusted after white bread and would bake her own after sieving the husk-laden flour through a silk stocking. There was very little butter and the margarine was standardised, a horrible, rancid, yellow fat – brands, like ‘Stork’, had ceased to exist. Sugar was short and sweets were rationed to eight or twelve ounces a month. All the chocolate was the same, neither milk nor plain, no fillings, no nuts. The bacon ration was about a rasher a week. Thank God there were plenty of potatoes. Many a time I was sent to Waterworth’s or Anakins for five or ten pounds. They cost a penny a pound – ten pounds for 10d, about 4p. The money was pounds, shillings and pence - £-s-d. There were 12 pennies to the shilling and twenty shillings to the pound. We are now told it was very difficult but people generally had it figured by the time they were seven or so.
My first wartime contact with a school was in the autumn term of 1940. I loved having a year off. The summer was marvellous. I wandered for miles, got an eye for country, scrumped apples at a Beecham house (“Hark! The herald angels sing, Beecham’s Pills (laxative) are just the thing” – those Beechams) near Huyton station and baked potatoes in a fire in the shrubbery on the point between Dinas Lane and Ashover Avenue. Meanwhile 11 Group of Fighter Command was holding off the Luftwaffe. We read the “Daily Express” and got the scores for each day of the battle, like cricket. Every boy wanted to be a fighter pilot, my best friend made it and was killed in a flying accident in 1956.
A nightingale was alleged to be singing in Berkeley Square but with the bombing of London I wondered how anybody heard it. In case we lost the Battle of Britain and Hitler decided to invade pill-boxes and anti-tank defences were built everywhere. Open fields had tree trunks and drain pipes fixed in them, upended, to inconvenience German parachutists and gliders.
I read my father's books on Slocum and Alain Gerbault, the great yachtsmen. I read about the Battle of Coronel where von Spee’s squadron slaughtered a British squadron off the coast of Chile in 1914. I enjoyed the Battle of the Falklands more, relishing the moment a few weeks after Coronel when von Spee’s lookouts, just as he was about to close in and bombard Port Stanley, spotted the tripod masts of two British battle-cruisers getting up steam. Later that day the German squadron was shattered. In the dark nights I went through Nanny's Sidney Horler, Leslie Chatteris and Edgar Wallace. I met ‘The Saint’ and Dr Fu Manchu. There was a copy of "Uncle Tom's Cabin" and I later read a great deal of U.S. history.
Mama and Nanny listened to plays on the wireless and knitted. They produced bizarre socks when the play was so exciting that they forgot to turn the heels.
The Italians ineffectually invaded Greece, provoking the song, "Oh! What a surprise for the Duce, the Duce, he can't put it over the Greeks". The author should have been hanged for it.
On Saturdays Dad and I would go to Mozart Street to pick up bits and pieces. In August or September 1940 we got off the car at the bottom of Park Lane and walked past the Custom House in Canning Place. It was early evening. A copy of the "Echo" lay there with a headline about H.M.S. Thetis, the submarine built at Birkenhead which had sunk on her trials just before the war, drowning all but four of those on board. We caught a car for Roby at the Victoria monument.
A couple of hundred yards short of Dovecot the air raid warning went. The tram stopped. We ran for the shelter. There was a bang and a warm hand picked me up and deposited me over the hedge lining the tram track – blast. We stayed put until it was clear that Jerry was interested in something else.
At that point he was hammering where we had been half an hour before. Cleveland Square was flattened, leaving a bath upside down on the air-raid shelter for years. Paradise Street caught it. Incendiaries fell into the Custom House, within sight of where I was born. The pitch pine floors, polished for over a century by generations of cleaners, burned furiously and only the stone shell was left. Jerry came down that night and machine-gunned the firemen, the father of a friend of mine, now a priest, was one of those killed.
Tin Pan Alley encouraged us to "Put your thumbs up and say 'Tickety-boo'". This must have frightened the pants off Hitler: “Mein Führer, ze Englanders are puttink up zeir thumbs und sayink ‘Tickety-boo’.” “Donner und Blitzen, vot vill zey zink off next? Ve had better make peace before zey attack mitt ze ’Mairzy doats und dozy doats und little lambsytivy’.”
Through autumn and winter 1940-41 we were bombed: "Half-past nine, Jim, he's late tonight," said Grandad to Dad. "He" didn't take many nights off. The sounds of bombs and anti-aircraft guns, the whine of shrapnel became familiar as we lay in the Anderson shelter. In the mornings we looked for shrapnel to play with. We were so used to the drill that we made our way from bed to the Anderson still half asleep. Nanny often objected saying that she would rather be bombed in the comfort of her bed. Two of us lay down once and slept on the lawn between the house and shelter.
One noisy night Dad leapt on to the top of the hen-house, "We've got one of the b…….!" I felt no pity for the crew of the burning Heinkel, they and their mates had been trying to kill us for months. The wreck was displayed on St George's Plateau a week or two later, with a yellow-nosed Me 109.
An air-raid shelter under Clint Road School got a direct hit. It was full and too badly wrecked for the bodies to be recovered so the authorities had quicklime dumped in and sealed it with concrete.
Our very own incendiary landed in the garden hedge. Dad and Grandad put it out with a sandbag, as they had learnt from the Middlesex Regiment when they combined fire-watching with the night-shift at the Mill. As the bombs began to burn they tipped them with long shovels from the roof into the street six floors below. The Middlesex boys darted out of the doorways and smothered them with sandbags. If there were no sandbags they used their tin hats. They sang rude words to "Colonel Bogey". Who doesn't? ("Colonel Bogey" is the march in the film, "The Bridge on the River Kwai", there are numerous sets of words: "Don't turn the light out, Mabel, wait till we get in bed......."; "In walked the Colonel's daughter, dressed in a ha'penny stamp". Which would not be very much at all. None of these, as far as I know, has a second or subsequent lines but the chorus is abusive as was General McAuliffe at Bastogne though he used the American idiom.)
Our bomb was reported to the A.F.S. (Auxiliary Fire Service). Disappointed to find the fire out they removed the sandbag and got a satisfactory blaze going which destroyed much of the hedge. Then they put it out again, with a sandbag. Pure Rob Wilton (comedian who had a sketch in which as a fireman he asked a telephone caller to keep the fire going till he got there). We had the polished fin of the bomb on the mantelpiece for years.
Uncle Andy who loved Bing Crosby and sang "Home on the Range" in the bath didn't care for the bombing. Home during the May blitz after being sunk, he shipped out early saying that it was safer at sea. Those raids in the first week of May 1941 were the worst we had. We watched Liverpool burning from end to end, seven miles of docks and factories. Bryant and May’s match factory went up in multiple explosions. Davidson’s paint works was hit. Barrels of oil, varnish and paint were thrown hundreds of feet into the air where they exploded into huge balls of flame. In Huskisson 2 Dock S.S. 'Malakand', a ship with 350 tons of bombs on board, blew up. All that was left of the dock was a hole which was filled in and paved. Bits of the ship were found half a mile away. After that Guy Fawkes Night (fireworks displays to celebrate "The Gunpowder Plot" of 1605) is always a bit of a letdown.
Dad was fire-watching on the Saturday night of the May blitz. He left the Mill at seven on Sunday morning and arrived home at ten. He had spent three hours on a bicycle ride of no more than thirty minutes. That was because the streets were blocked by rubble or roped off because of unsafe buildings or unexploded bombs. He had passed two bodies, men apparently unhurt but killed by blast. He was exhausted and black with smoke and dust.
That was Hitler’s last attempt to knock us out. The following month he turned on Russia and we learned about ‘Uncle Joe’ and ‘our gallant Soviet allies’. Incidentally, under the terms of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact the Soviets supplied the oil for Hitler's Air Force and food for Germany. Churchill hated the Soviets and when questioned about their being our allies said, "If Hitler invaded Hell I would at least make a favourable reference to His Satanic Majesty in the House of Commons".
From autumn 1940, just before I was 9, I was by day enslaved in school, nine o’ clock till twelve and one-thirty till four. A third of a pint of milk a day cost tuppence ha’penny a week, school dinners, fivepence a day, cost two and a penny a week – just over 10p in today’s money. We were all classified as 'malnourished'.
Sometimes there were "Alerts" and we had classes in the shelters. Those raids never amounted to much, probably single aircraft checking on the damage of the night before. I heard machine-gun fire once, like a kid scraping a stick along railings. The Poles shot down one of the Germans we heard later.
They had to decide what class I was in. I started in 4c, then I was demoted to 3b. I ended up with my own age-group in 2a, fifty of us. I could read and write and knew bits of geography from following the war maps – Mersa Matruh, Sollum, Sidi Barrani, Bardia, Tobruk, Derna, Benghazi, El Agheila, at which point the other side counter-attacked and chased us all the way back to Egypt. We knew much about Greece and Crete and eventually found out where Smolensk, Kiev, Voronezh, Tula, Orel and Velikie Luki and Stalingrad were. ‘Free French’, Poles and Canadians were all about.
I love the Candians still because they sent us boxes of apples. I love, too, the Yank longshoremen who put canned food and clothes in the bags of rice my father milled.
The Poles visited the school and we learned their National Anthem: “Poland yet shall rise from sorrow, Polish blood is flowing.”
However, the school was more concerned that one should come to an arrangement with "times tables", a deeply unpleasant business. The other side of the negotiation was in the hands a thin-lipped woman who lacked the softness of a redeeming, feminine curve anywhere in her anatomy. Her main educational aid was a thin, whippy cane which she enjoyed applying liberally to small boys. Whether they had ever even heard of the “times tables” did not matter to her, not knowing them made you bad and you had to be made to feel pain. I had never seen a cane in school till then and was by nature a timid, pretty law-abiding sort. It did not save me.
Nothing she beat into me had it had the slightest use till "Countdown" (TV show about anagrams and numbers) but she did teach me to hate. Her mainly. Schools generally. Worse still, she introduced me to appalling reading matter, I cannot bring myself to call them books. I recall the idiocy of "Rumpelstiltskin". Then there was "The Water Babies", Charles Kingsley trawling for the souls of the proletariat, and emetic with it. The troops of the ethnic relations industry would have had his tripes festooning Trafalgar Square these days but where were they when we needed them? There was no end to the cruelty of that woman but she was merely the first springtime of an overlong and miserable decade.
English folk songs were stuffed into us, Cecil Sharp stuff. Urban children from Manchester had "nymphsed" and "shepherded". On record. We downtown scousers (Liverpudlians) had to "hilly" and "holly", "trip so neatly, smile so sweetly, down the meadow and back again". We also ‘Rufty Tuftied’, ‘Old Black Nagged’ and “Dashing White Sergeanted” in galumphing, bucolic dances recalling some rural idyll which for us had never existed. (England had been over 50% town-dwelling since 1851.) We lived in 1941 on a housing estate, taking refuge from a downtown landscape we knew was disappearing night by night, violently. It was far from pretty, we didn’t care much for it, but we did not want to go the same way.
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