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15 October 2014
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A TIME FOR STEELE

by clevelandcsv

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Archive List > Childhood and Evacuation

Contributed by 
clevelandcsv
People in story: 
Bernard Steele
Location of story: 
Scarborough, Yorkshire
Background to story: 
Civilian
Article ID: 
A4375181
Contributed on: 
06 July 2005

On the day War broke out, I was 12 years and three months old.

My father was a gardener working privately for someone in Desford, near Leicester. Shortly afterwards he got his old job back at the Ravenhall Hotel, Ravenscar near Scarborough. During his previous spell at the Ravenhall we had lived in the hotel’s annex. After moving back from Desford, however, we lived in a three-bedroomed semi.

The school at Ravenscar was not big enough even for the local children, so when evacuees arrived from Hull, it became a ‘half-day’ i.e. half the day for us and the other half for them.

Some of the evacuees had come with their mothers, and lodged with families in the village. We had some with us for a time. A lot of them moaned about their new lives and I remember a good deal of crying going on. It was only because they missed the hustle and bustle of Hull, which was understandable; after living in a city like that, a remote place like Ravenscar must have seemed like a morgue.

As well as their complaints, the evacuees brought something else equally unpleasant to our village — nits! The school became a war zone in itself. When we locals got to school at noon we had to start by scrubbing everything — desks, floors, the lot — with carbolic. It was no use, we all ended up with head lice. When I got home, my mother would use black soap to wash my hair then run a comb through it. This daily ritual went on for some time. Then, just as we were beginning to see results, most of the evacuees returned home.

The school had a small outhouse. Someone thought it would make a good shelter in the event of an air raid. One by one, sandbags were filled and put on its roof. Unfortunately we put on one too many and the roof collapsed! We then tried building our own shelter, but someone went through a water pipe with a pick and we ended up with a pond instead. There were no further attempts. It may seem ridiculous to some, but even in such an out of the way place, we were not entirely safe from the Luftwaffe.

A searchlight was sited nearby and in frequent use. One night, as my pals and I were watching, it picked out a German bomber. The attendant gun opened fire. The bomber responded by dropping a stick of four bombs. BANG! BOOM! BANG! BOOM! Talk about scatter!

It is not too widely practised these days, but then you called anyone ‘aunty’ or ‘uncle’ who was friendly with your parents. So when the Army requisitioned the Ravenhall Hotel, my father and ‘uncle’, who worked together, suddenly found themselves out of work.

The Army put some guns on the cliff top, pointing seawards. Inquisitive lads that we were, we soon discovered they were wooden decoys! Small use they were against the constant attacks upon the convoys, which regularly sailed by. The convoys would hug the coast as near as possible but this tactic did not deter the U-boats and, of course, the Luftwaffe’s bombers frequently attacked them. The high cliffs afforded us a grandstand view of all the action, which, as young lads, we found very exciting.

My father and ‘uncle’ were of more practical use. They did their bit by becoming coastguards, working 12 hours on and 12 off.

The Army did not maintain the hotel grounds, and it was a shame to see all the hard work my father and ‘uncle’ had put in going into decline. Still, I suppose there was more important work for them to do than trim hedges. Not that they were an unfeeling, uncaring lot. One day a horse fell into the hotel bathing pool (I think it must have been trying to get a drink and toppled over the edge) and the soldiers built a ramp for it using a lot of sandbags, thereby enabling it to get out.

My mother also suffered from the army’s takeover of the hotel. Previously, she had earned a few shillings by taking in washing from the chefs and waitresses. With them gone, she found it very difficult to make ends meet, and I saw her in tears more than once.

We lads tried to do our bit, too. According to the radio, aluminium was badly needed for the war effort and we knew just where to find it in abundance. Off we went to the local tip and gathered up all the pots, pans and cans. Then to the bottom of the cliff, which people used as an unofficial tip. Throwing pots and pans to someone higher up and onwards from him to someone still higher until all was on top of the cliffs. What a job! Sadly all our efforts were to no purpose; the pots and pans were all useless enamel. All we could do was throw them back. Talk about that sinking feeling!

I turned 14 in June 1941 and, as was the custom in those days, left school to face the world. At the end of July, I was packed off to my (real) uncle Charlie’s farm near Bridlington to start work. There I was, six feet three inches tall, weak from the wartime rations and away from home for the first time.

My uncle Charlie was a big, powerful man with a voice to match. I was scared stiff of him. His wife, my aunt Ivy, was the complete opposite. I think she knew how lonely I was and really made me welcome. They had two daughters, my cousins, Margaret and Kathleen. They were still at school and I didn’t see much of them.

One of the most striking images of those times was of the concrete posts sited every hundred yards or so in every direction in every field as far as the eye could see. They had been put there to prevent the Germans from using gliders or conventional aircraft to land troops.

My uncle’s was a mixed farm i.e. he grew crops as well as keeping cows and sheep. I had to take my turn doing all manner of agricultural tasks — and the work was hard! I could not have managed it on the meagre rations with which my mother had to feed me, but there were no such restrictions on the farm. Whereas my treat at home had been black treacle on dry bread once a month, I built up my strength on the farm with — can you imagine — boiled bacon, mountains of potatoes, eggs, home made bread and butter, pie - and if you’ve never had pigeon pie let me tell you, it is delicious.

In November 1941, I went to work for a Mr Coates, who had a smallholding in the Hilderthorpe and Fraisthorp area. German aircraft used to fly overhead and give us a scare. That was, until we realised they were using nearby Flamborough Head as a guide to the eastern side of the country. Their target was very often Hull. I would sit in my bedroom and watch the flashes light up the sky, hear the bangs and feel for the plight of the evacuees who had gone back there to all that. When I went to see the damage for myself, I came away with images that have remained with me to this day.

A year later, I was working for a Mr Welburn on his farm at Harwood Dale near Scarborough. I came down with jaundice. Once he found out, Mr Welburn sent me home to Ravenscar to recover. At home, my mother tried everything from salt tablets to caster oil, without success. After three weeks without a visit to the toilet, there was only one thing for it; with great reluctance, I went to see the doctor. This may seem odd now, but in those days, the treatment for what I had was a gallon of soapy water up your backside in a hospital!

When I arrived at the surgery, the queue was up the path. In the end, I couldn’t wait any longer and went away without seeing him. On the way back home, I got the strongest urge to go to the toilet. The nearest one was at my ‘aunties’, so I made for there. On the way, of all the things, I was stopped by a policeman. “Who are you?” “Where do you come from?” “Show me your identification card.” I stood there bursting at the seams! Eventually he let me go and I made it to my ‘auntie’s’ toilet (although how I will never know.) Talk about relief!

In November 1943 I returned to the Hildersthorp and Fraisthorp district to work on a farm owned by a Mr Kitching. His brother, Eric, and I became good friends. Eric was in the Home Guard, so I lied about my age and joined up too. I was in East Riding C Company, stationed at Carnaby.

An airfield was constructed at Carnaby. It was used primarily by ‘planes (mostly Wellingtons and Lancasters) making emergency landings. To help them, they built a special fog dispersal device called F.I.D.O. there. Its function was to burn the air of fog or low cloud to allow the ‘planes to land.

I enjoyed my duties in the Home Guard.

In November 1944, I returned to work for my uncle Charlie. He moved to another, larger, farm at Hutton Bushel. What a job that was, but we managed. At his new farm, we got the luxury of milking machines, which saved a lot of time. Village life continued much as normal. A stark reminder that a war was still going on, however, happened one day while I was hoeing turnips. A Wellington bomber flew overhead, dived suddenly and crashed about two miles away, killing everyone on board.

I finished the war, by now a strapping lad of 18, working for my great uncle who had a farm about three miles away from uncle Charlie.

When it ended there were celebrations all round.

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