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A WARTIME CHILDHOOD

by nottinghamcsv

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Archive List > Childhood and Evacuation

Contributed by 
nottinghamcsv
People in story: 
Keith C. Armstrong (Author), The late Mr and Mrs Armstrong (parents), The late Beryl Orridge (nee Armstrong) sister.
Location of story: 
Jesse Boot Primary School, Bakersfields, Nottingham, and surrounding district.
Background to story: 
Civilian
Article ID: 
A7715270
Contributed on: 
12 December 2005

"This story was submitted to the People's War site by CSV/BBC Radio Nottingham on behalf of Keith C. Armstrong with his permission. The author fully understands the site's terms and conditions"

As our teacher carried a storm lantern through the dancing shadows of the school air raid shelter, counting heads, one boy reached out to touch it. He was severely admonished. Why I should remember that incident over 60 years later, is probably because all my education at the Jesse Boot Primary School on the eastern outskirts of Nottingham, took place during that other memorable event, the Second World War! Britain had gone to war with Germany on my fourth birthday, on September 3rd, 1939, and the European part of the conflict wasn’t to end until May, 1945, when I was nine.
The head count in the dank-smelling shelter had only been an emergency drill, like when we had to show how quickly we could scramble underneath our desks. Yet another drill was to see how fast we could put on our gas masks. Of course, none of us thought for a moment we were in any danger, and the drills simple provided us with the golden opportunity for being as noisy and disruptive as possible. It was soon discovered, for example, that if you exhaled hard enough into your gas masks, the air blowing out through the rubber flanges down the sides of your face made a very rude noise, which had the desired effect of infuriating our genteel lady teachers.
Yet the omnipresent dangers of a wartime schooling were real enough. One morning, on the way to Jesse Boot’s, me and a schoolpal had a narrow escape when a German fighter pilot flew over our Bakersfield’s suburb at rooftop height, strafing the streets with his machine-guns. A brave housewife dashed out of her house, and whisked us both inside to safety.
The German bombers launched their big raid on Nottingham in May, 1941, their engines sounding like a giant heartbeat in the night sky as they laboured under the weight of the bomb loads. I was sitting with my parents and elder sister in our sandbagged, paraffin-smelling Anderson shelter in the back garden of the family home at 46, Rosedale Rd, a short walk from the school, listening to the whistle of the descending bombs. Fortunately, at six years of age, I was too young to equate the sound with the very real possibility of being blown into eternity with the rest of my family, even though one stray bomb did take out a house in the next road just 60 yards away. The school sustained some bomb damage. My father, a disabled First World War veteran, then serving as a part-time ARW (Air Raid Warden) for our road, assuaged any fears I might have had by making a joke of it all. “Here comes another one,” he would say with mock excitement, and as each thin, piping whistle ended with the muffled crump of a distant explosion, I would shout “Bump!” and laugh out loud. Two miles away in central Nottingham another building would be collapsing into a heap of rubble. Boots factory, the Technical College and the Registry Office were all hit.
After school we would search, unsuccessfully, for pieces of shrapnel, or would sometimes wander over to the big prisoner of war camp on the top of Colwick Woods, to chat to the Italian P.O.W.s through the barbed wire perimeter fence. With sweets on ration, American soldiers were pestered with the standard cry: “Got any gum, chum?” The school organised book collections for our own servicemen, and we were awarded pin-on cardboard badges printed with various army ranks, seniority being determined by the number of books an individual had collected.
In those far off days, one was very conscious of the extreme poverty suffered by some boys, who would turn up at school dressed, quite literally in rags. However, every child, regardless of whether their parents were “comfortably off” or poor, had to suffer the indignity of being examined for fleabites and head lice, when the “Nit Nurse” came to Jesse Boot’s. Boys burned with embarrassment on being asked to drop their trousers for another inspection given by a doctor, apparently to check that we were developing as nature intended!
Harvest Festivals at the school were a magical time during the war years. Food was scarce, and we would gaze in awe at the wonderful display of fruit and vegetables piled up in front of the stage in the school hall. It included foodstuffs that often could only be dreamed about, such as eggs and fresh oranges.
Jesse Boot’s was a gem of a school, with its pleasing, single storey design set amongst flower beds and playing fields, although as the war progressed the fields were turned into allotments. The classrooms, which always smelled pleasantly of chalk-dust were furnished with two-seater wooden desks, that had a compartment for books and stationery under their hinged writing surfaces. A small, pot inkwell sat in a hole in the top right-hand corner, into which we dipped the nibs of our wooden-handled pens.
When hostilities in Europe came to an end on May 7th, 1945, me and my fellow pupils at Jesse Boot’s were able to enjoy some of the spoils of war. The War Office released unused stocks of “iron rations” which were pocket-sized food packs carried by soldiers in case they got cut off from their supply lines. They included, amongst other things, barley sugars and chocolate! Some anonymous civil servant, who deserved to go to heaven, had the idea of unburdening these surplus rations on schoolchildren! Yet another prize was sweetened drinking chocolate, unheard of, I believe, in Britain even before the war. It was probably surplus stock from Canadian or American military stores. We dipped our fingers eagerly into this miracle powder, although a few strong-willed classmates did take their modest scoopful home, to be made into a bedtime beverage. Either way, our poor parents never got a look-in. Afterall, even 60 years ago, boys would be boys, and girls girls!

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