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- Jen Ainsley
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- 21 October 2004
I was working in the Co-op laundry in Wallsend when war broke out, so that’s where I stayed because this was classed as a reserved occupation. I was there from 8 am to 8 p.m. My job was involved with the ships — the Greeks, the Free French and the Bretons. They all hated each other — I can remember there were a couple of murders in Wallsend (which we quickly got to know about unofficially), involving, I think, some Greeks and Free French. Lord Louis Mountbatten was on the “Kelly” and I looked after his stuff. The only difference between his clothes and anyone else’s was that his pyjamas and handkerchiefs were monogrammed. Although I never actually met him, I felt as if I knew him through his batman and I thought he was a wonderful man and leader. When his boat was in the harbour, he always let everyone come ashore on leave, other than a skeleton crew. It was very upsetting when you got to know the lads and their ships were subsequently sunk. Some of the Poles, as well, had had a terrible time: I remember one whose sisters had been taken away and he never found out what had happened to them.
Once a fortnight, I had to take my turn in fire watching, which meant a camp bed in the boardroom with my own food, and learning to use a stirrup pump. The men were very good, because when the sirens went, they sent all the girls down into the shelters and said they would keep watch. I can also tell you that there were a few “dirty deeds” went on in the big airing cupboard where the blankets hung — we all knew what was going on!
Generally, Wallsend escaped the worst of the bombing. The Tyne was quite hard to hit because of the mist over the river, with it lying in a valley, and people set the rubber on fire around the shipyards to prevent the German pilots seeing their targets. That was why North Shields got hit so much because the German planes dumped their bombs on the coast as they were leaving. Mind, my cousin got a bomb down the chimney of her house in Wallsend but it rolled on to the carpet and they were able to get rid of it (though it didn’t do much for the carpet). Anyway, in 1941 or 42, incendiary bombs dropped on the laundry in Wallsend and the staff were transferred either to Neville’s Cross (in Durham) or to Stockton, which was where I went. In Stockton, there were sirens almost every night because the Germans were trying to hit the ICI works at Billingham. I remember one time, a group of us were walking along the street and a German plane came so close we could see the pilot really plainly. We stood back against the wall at first, watching him and then we turned and ran like hell. I stopped in lodgings with 2 double bunks and a commode in between them.
My war wasn’t too bad and we managed to live through it. A bomb blew me out of bed one day, but I still had to get to work. Of course, there were some bad things. If you saw the telegram boy or the police coming up the street, you used to pray — “please, go past our door”. But there was also a lot of sharing and I would gladly return to the comradeship of those days. We gave our sweet rations to a neighbour’s child and there was no waste — we had a bin for the potato peelings and swill for the pigs at our back door. There was no need to worry about keeping up with the Joneses — you only had your clothes for the week and your clothes for best.
When war broke out, my brother was up at the recruiting office the next day. Within a few days, he was out in the Middle East where he spent the next 4 1/2 years without leave. He got the BEM eventually, I’m not sure what for, and I was at Buckingham Palace to see him get it.
This story was written by Jen Ainsley of Wallsend
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