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My Life My War - Chapter 1

by actiondesksheffield

Contributed by 
People in story: 
Bernard Hallas
Location of story: 
City of Manchester
Background to story: 
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
24 May 2005


Bernard Hallas

Chapter Title Ref. No.
Chapter 1 An Escape from My Old Life A4112371
Chapter 2a May 1935, The Birth of a New Life A4112452
Chapter 2b May 1935, The Birth of a New Life (Cont.) A4112515
Chapter 3a To the ‘Killing Fields’ A4112614
Chapter 3b To the ‘Killing Fields’ Cont.) A4112678
Chapter 4 Eager to be off A4112731
Chapter 5a My First Big Ship A4112759
Chapter 5b My First Big Ship (Cont.) A4112768
Chapter 6 Back to the Grime A4112902
Chapter 7a I Meet my Future Wife A4112948
Chapter 7b I Meet my Future Wife (Cont.) A4112975
Chapter 8a A French Catastrophe A4113028
Chapter 8b A French Catastrophe (Cont.) A4113073
Chapter 9a The Taranto Victory A0000000
Chapter 9b The Taranto Victory (Cont.) A0000000
Chapter 10a The Catastrophe that was Crete A0000000
Chapter 10b The Catastrophe that was Crete (Cont.) A0000000
Chapter 11a Heaven over the Horizon A0000000
Chapter 11b Heaven over the Horizon (Cont.) A0000000
Chapter 12a Back on Board A0000000
Chapter 12b Back on Board (Cont.) A0000000
Chapter 12c Back on Board (Cont.) A0000000
Chapter 13a We Bombard Salerno A0000000
Chapter 13b We Bombard Salerno (Cont.) A0000000
Chapter 13c We Bombard Salerno (Cont.) A0000000
Chapter 13d We Bombard Salerno (Cont.) A0000000
Chapter 14 I “Find my Brother” A0000000

This is not and was never intended to be a work of fiction. It is a true compilation of a sequence of events drawn from the life of the author who was born in the poorer quarter of the City of Manchester in the year 1918 and was brought up in the catastrophic aftermath of the Great War 1914 / 1918. When he arrived at an age of responsibility, which he had decided was 17 years, that enough was enough and walked away…

Chapter 1 — An Escape from My Old Life

To the Post War population poverty has never been experienced to the same degree as it had been in the twenties and thirties; to the majority of the unemployed, life was merely an existence and acts that today would be considered degrading were every day occurrences.

To those who fell foul of the habit of smoking, it was not considered out of the ordinary to wait outside cinemas at the end of each performance and as the emergency doors were thrown open, to fight their way through the outgoing mass and once inside run along the rows of seats emptying the ash trays of their contents before they were caught by the cinema attendants.

It was then off to the city centre to wait outside the various hotels and as the ‘Toffs’ stubbed out their smokes before entering their transports home, become engaged in scuffles to retrieve the much valued ‘Fag ends’ from the gutter. Cigar butts were an extra dividend and a much-prized commodity. It was then home where the proceeds of the night’s activity were carefully shredded and rebuilt with the help of the faithful Rizla cigarette rolling machine, after which it was a case of selling them off to the highest bidder after retaining some for home consumption.

On the food line in the larger green grocers such as Allendales, it was the normal practice to “Top and Tail” the vegetables, this comprised of chopping off the dirty root end and the unwanted top leaves, these were discarded into a corner bin and sold at a very meagre charge to the poor of the district under the exalted title of Pot Herbs. Mixed with a variety of bones from sympathetic butchers they produced a substantial meal for the ever-hungry family.

At week ends an added luxury was the unsold cakes that would be un-saleable by the Monday. These were bagged by the local bread shops and once again for a very small charge distributed to the poorer elements of the local population.

As I have explained, with no social security in existence, cash was in great demand and it was not uncommon to see the “Ragamuffins” waiting outside the various train and bus stations with broken down perambulators, offering to carry suitcases for a copper or two. The older boys of the family would ride their old ‘Boneshaker’ bicycles around the city selling the current daily newspaper. For every thirteen copies sold they were rewarded with the princely sum of one and a half pennies; that was the old penny at two hundred and forty to the pound.

Besides being fed and watered, the family had to be clothed and for many that was the last consideration. Under clothes were practically unknown and with holes in the seat of their pants it was common practice before getting fully dressed in the morning, to pass the longer tail of their shirts between their legs and pull it up at the front to at least give some degree of modesty to the wearer.

On the sanitation side what is now considered a necessity was in fact non-existent. As far as a certain section of the community was concerned, toiletries had not been invented, even public conveniences did not supply them as they were stolen so quickly. Toilet paper had to consist of what was readily available, i.e. magazines, newspapers, paper bags etc. There was never a shortage of substitutes. Soot from the back of the fireplace cleaned your teeth, burnt ash from the embers of the fire were used to scour the dirty pans and in many cases thick cardboard was cut to shape to provide insoles for shabby shoes that let the water in. All this lack of sanitary products had of course its backlash.

Vermin increased in the poorer quarters and living in overcrowded conditions did not improve matters. Head lice was a common complaint and having been discovered by the “Nit Nurse”, it was not unusual for the guilty party to have to suffer the disgrace of having his or her head shaved. In the very poor quarters, “The Slums,” body lice was also a major problem and the structure of the buildings themselves were contaminated by colonies of bed bugs, which were reputed to come out at night and live on the blood of their victims, and then retire to the crevices in the plaster walls and the frames of pictures (if these had not already been burnt to provide warmth). One could go on and on describing the deprivations of the poor and still not cover everything that they had to suffer. All this was taken as the norm.

The “War to end Wars” had been over for some time, we were in the late twenties and thousands of now unwanted ex service men had returned home to a life of unemployment in their native cities. There was no such thing as social security, if you had no job you had no money, it was as simple as that. Eventually the government was forced to take some sort of action to alleviate the suffering and the hardships of the ordinary men and women of a much increased population, caused no doubt by the return after many years of military service and the deprivation of the normal family activities.

Under the infamous disliked title of the Means Test, it was considered right and proper for the already deprived and starving families to have their belongings inspected and then ordered to part with anything in excess of their requirements and to sell them and live on the proceeds, after which they may possibly receive food vouchers. Accommodation was at a premium for all of the poorer classes, mixed sexes sleeping together in over crowded beds leading to a certain amount of promiscuity.

Incest was not unknown amongst families, young girls were forced into prostitution and more than a fair share of them were put into “Service”, living in the houses of the really well to do families and working long hours for food and lodging and a very small pittance. Obviously, even this had its drawbacks, some of the girls were treated quite well, and others unfortunately were treated like slaves.

The returning armies were of course the main part of the poorer classes and the young were only too eager to try all in their power to extricate themselves out of the filthy morass that threatened to engulf them. I was no exception; my Father had been badly crippled and was unemployable. Out of our large family, the girls chose going into service and the boys unable to find decent employment, were only too keen to go into the various armed forces, if they were eligible.

Obviously with an Irish Mother and an Irish background, we had to be Catholic and attend a Catholic school. The school of our area was St. Aloysius’s or something near to that, “I was never all that religious”. On one particular morning I was sent to school after a short absence, with a note, explaining that I had been really unwell, the Mother Superior decided that this was an untruth and promptly bent me over a bench and was in the process of giving my backside one or two holy strokes, when who should walk into the class room but a very irate Mrs. Hallas, nee McGarry?

Now Mrs. Hallas was a very hefty washerwoman, all fourteen stone of her and it was her religious belief that no one, but her, chastised her children. The Mother Superior finished up on the other side of the desk, on her back and I and my half brother Albert were marched out of the building and down to a Church of England school where we were enrolled as Anglicans, and so remained to the end of our days.

The local priest almost lived on our doorstep, but to no avail. He pleaded and pleaded but our mother was adamant. It was however an expensive exercise. My mother was summoned to attend the local court in Minshull Street Manchester, for assaulting the Mother Superior and was fined the sum of five shillings. There was no difficulty in paying the fine; a street collection raised more than enough to pay it off. It was not every day that a Mother Superior was given a good hiding.

We had no complaints with our new religion and the school was small enough to concentrate on giving its pupils a reasonable education. St. Paul’s, Brunswick Street Chorlton on Medlock was a lot smaller than the Catholic Church school and had only two classrooms and two teachers. One, Mr. Slater was a sadist who kept his Malacca canes soaking in water in a pickle jar and enjoyed taking them out every ten minutes or so to bend them. Tall and cadaverous, he was disliked intensely. The other, Mr. Hewitt was short and tubby and most sympathetic to his charges, he very often brought articles of clothing, donated by his well off neighbours and distributed them among the most needy in the school. I shall always remember Saint Paul’s.

The building itself was built on the corner of a row of terraced houses. As you entered the front door there was one classroom on your left and directly facing you, a flight of well-worn stone steps. This was repeated on the next floor, after which there was a small playground on the roof surrounded by a high wall and a tall iron railing. It was supposed to be high enough to prevent a ball from going over but it was usually ineffective. It was within its walls that I first discovered the meaning of humanity, even the poor went out of their way to share what little they had with those who were less fortunate.

After leaving school I worked as a plumber’s mate, a grocer’s boy and as a very young receptionist in a dance hall in Oxford Street. This was my training ground for the tricks of the trade. The Plaza came to life at the weekend, and I was responsible for escorting the customers to their tables. It was the common practice to reserve most of the popular tables near to the band in my own name and then make pretence of being extra generous and allow chosen couples to be seated at the tables after I had made a show of removing the ‘Reserved’ ticket. This invariably resulted in a rather generous tip, as I explained before I was now beginning to see the other side of life, and I was also determined that I was going to have my share of it. This was one of the most popular ways of supplementing your week’s wages.

After a few months I decided that I had to make the final effort and leave home, I knew that it was not going to be easy and that I would have to make a really determined effort to make the final break that would entail leaving my family, and at the same time robbing them of the only breadwinner that they had. I knew that it would hit them hard but I knew that it had to be done, but when? I decided that it would have to be on my seventeenth birthday. I would have to make a clean break, get as far away as I possibly could and then write and try to say what had been on my mind for a very long time.

At last came the day that I had been waiting for so long. Tomorrow I would be seventeen years of age, I could not as yet envisage my future, I could only look back at my past and it was not a pretty picture. Living in squalid conditions, listening to the family arguments and sometimes, vicious rows that were made more vicious by the demoralisation that had been created by suffering the extremes of poverty that I had endured for most of my childhood. Was now the chance to end it? It had to be; I had to cut the ties that had held me in bondage for so many years.

It was a lot easier than I had ever imagined. Waiting until everyone had gone to bed I left the large bleak house in which I had existed for more years than I care to remember. I walked through the night, listening to the patrolling policemen tapping their signals with their nightsticks on the stone kerbs. More than once I attracted their attention as I walked through the dark rows of shops in the city centre. I always gave the same answer, “I’m going to join up sir, and I’m going into the Navy.” I had no idea whether or not they believed me but they all pointed me in the right direction and wished me luck.

By the time I arrived at my destination, dawn was already creeping over the roofs of the towering office blocks and the early risers were already opening up and getting their places of employment ready for the day’s business. It was here that I had my first taste of kindness from my fellow human beings. As I sheltered in the dark doorway of the recruiting office, I was offered mugs of hot tea from those who were fortunate enough to be in full employment. I had not yet learned that this was the code of the day in those dark days of the thirties.

Eventually the heavy doors were opened and I was invited to enter and take a seat. I was not impressed, it was dark and dismal and the walls were covered with posters of far away places. There were two desks, occupied by two totally different people. One was short and tubby and dressed in a navy blue uniform with a white shirt and black tie. The other appeared to be taller, also in a blue uniform but buttoned up to the neck and with the buttons brightly polished, he also had a fair share of gold badges on his sleeves. When he spoke, his voice carried just that amount of authority that commanded an immediate response, but at the same time there was a hint of kindness in his voice. It was a strange voice, firm but gentle, I decided then and there that this was a person in whom I could place my trust. I remember thinking to myself, perhaps he too had run away from home and from that moment on, I was quite prepared to put my future in his hands and to do exactly as he said.

As later events proved, it was a wise decision and one that I was never to regret. As my parents had refused to sign my enlistment papers, it was necessary for the Recruiting Officer to engage the services of the local J.P, who, after questioning my reasons, signed the papers in their absence and after receiving the King’s Shilling I was duly enrolled. I took a solemn oath to serve my King and Country for twelve long years (or more) and became a recruit in His Majesty’s Royal Marines. I was already “Walking Tall”.

After a cup of tea and a corned beef sandwich, I was escorted to the main line railway station and supplied with a free warrant which would entitle me to travel to some hitherto unknown place named on my papers as Deal in the county of Kent. It did not take me many days after my arrival to realise that this small town on the South coast was the “Mecca” of all Royal Marines. I start my new life from here.


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