- Contributed by
- Les Cartwright-alias east lancs pbi
- People in story:
- Les Cartwright
- Location of story:
- London - Belgium - Holland
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 05 June 2005
At the end of May 1939, at the age of 12, on an 'educational' trip with my primary school to Belgium and Holland, we had a short stop in London on the way. My diary notes are succinctly simple: "Went in Westminster Abbey, and also saw parliament debating about conscription". I also still have the Headmaster's neatly written itinerary of the trip. It includes: Sunday 6-30pm Special English Service- Church Blankenberghe; Monday 7am Coach tour of Battlefields - Arras, Ypres". Though very young, the haunting sight of echelons of thousands upon thousands of graves - white headstones facing black crosses - will never fade from my mind's eye. Nor, at the time, could I have realised how uncannily prescient it was that such terrible, traumatic events were about to be re-enacted in just a few short months, and that the meaning of the word conscription would, in our late teens, be fully 'drilled' in to us.
In September, 1939, and, now aged 13, returning from a camping holiday with the Boys' Brigade, I clearly recall seeing women standing silently in small clusters on doorsteps and at garden gates, wiping tears from their eyes. The Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, had just announced over the radio the sombre declaration of war with Germany. When but just weeks before it had been a reassuring "Peace in our time".
I was above the age consideration for evacuation with many children being sent to locations considered less dangerous. So I remained at home, until called-up to join the army. The reality of wartime asserted itself rapidly with the alarming precautions being officially taken. Millions of gas masks in square cardboard boxes were issued house to house with instructions to carry them slung over the shoulder. Thankfully, no gas attack was made. But supplies of food, petrol, clothing and other essentials, however, were diminishing alarmingly as the result of the German U-Boats sinking, with disastrous effect in the loss of men and materials, our supply ships. Ration books permitted each person to receive: one egg a fortnight; 115g of bacon and butter; and 340g of sugar a week. Fresh fruit, in winter, was almost non-existent. Chocolate was a rare luxury. So was soap (not all that bad for the younger element!). I also recall that some strange food was also eaten - pig's brains, cow's udders, and, by courtesy of the Americans, dried eggs and milk - and Spam. So no one starved.
The threat of air raids. and having to go into makeshift air raid shelters. was particularly foreboding - and soon became a reality. My parents had converted the pantry underneath the stairs as a relatively 'safe' haven. But it was hardly conducive to a sense of well-being. The lighting was battery dim. And it could get a bit crowded. But it was 'inside' and a relative comfort physically and psychologically. Many 'shelters' that were provided had a construction of corrugated metal and were semi-buried outside the home. They were called Andersen. But how safe would they all really be!
Air raids happened mainly at night; and warnings of them came, at relatively short notice, from scary, loud wailing, sirens. I can still remember very clearly a land mine exploding near enough to our house to blow-out the windows along with many others in the neighbourhood. On another occasion I, very daringly, stood with my dad, in the winter of 1940, witnessing from high ground the Salford docks near Manchester being blitzed about 10 miles away from where we stood. The spreading fire glow, with bombs continuing to burst in it, was clearly visible. Searchlights penetrated the inky sky seeking enemy aircraft, and anti-aircraft shells burst, like exploding stars, among them. And I still remember, very well, involuntarily ducking as shrapnel from these shells peppered the barn roof under which we stood. Then, behold, not many weeks later, my parents and I had to be evacuated from our home, at Christmas, until a large land mine hanging by parachute, caught on a telegraph pole and swinging just a few feet from the ground, could be diffused. Apparently an air-raid warden had stumbled into it in the blackout.
It was such happenings, however, no matter how undesirable, that created much legendary wartime humour, and brought out the best of the Bulldog spirit. on my On my 18th birthday, a not very happy conscription card arrived to clad me in khaki. And other wartime chapters of awful wartime memories were to begin.....(end)
If the above is suitable, I could submit other authentic accounts of these front line experiences in Europe as an infantryman - mostly written thrid person.
© Copyright of content contributed to this Archive rests with the author. Find out how you can use this.