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15 October 2014
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Leeds and Aberdeen: Cities of Contrast

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Contributed by 
People in story: 
Alan Birch
Location of story: 
Leeds, Aberdeen
Background to story: 
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
07 September 2005

This story was submitted to the Peoples War site by Jonathan Plant of the CSV BBC Coventry and Warwickshire Action Desk on behalf of Alan Birch and has been added to the site with his permission. The author fully understands the sites' terms and conditions.


At the beginning of the war I was a ten year old boy living in Leeds, Yorkshire. The clouds of war had been gathering for some time and when in early September 1939 a lone German bomber approached the North East coast, sirens sounded and we took shelter. My father had made a shelter in the garden with abit of help from my younger brother, which consisted of a trench with a concrete floor and a corrugated iron roof, covered with earth and paving slabs. As it was damp inside we had to pump out any water with our stirrip pump. One of our neighbours had a superior shelter with gas-proof curtins; my father didn't see sense in gas proofing, just to give an hours extra life.

As time went on we became more blase, and by autumn 1942 we had replaced our origional shelter with an Anderson, but were keeping hens in it.

We used to hear the German planes overhead, but knew they were most likely following the River Aire on their way to Liverpool or Manchester. Leeds did have raids though and during one of them the main telephone exchange was put out of action, but worse still for me, the museum that I enjoyed so much was gutted. This was the nearest I came to at that time to being really concerned about the war, as my contempories and I had no real worries as long as we were with one of our parents.

My father was a Post Office planning engineer, very involved with civil defence networks, and he even took me into his Leeds office the day after this raid, and I was with a group of engineers sorting out the restoration of the telephone service. Fortunately, the high explosive bomb hit a main roof girder of the exchange building where it exploded, so only the top floor where the pre-selectors were, was destroyed. This lucky chance allowed vital numbers to be connected to selectors directly without pre-selection. Many other subscribers were, over the next few days, connected via junctions to outlying exchanges.

Before I leave Leeds, a bit about food:
During the war nobody starved but the winter months of 1941 were rather dire; even fruit and vegetables were difficult to come by, so being resourceful like most others, we looked after ourselves by renting an allotment, joining the poultry club and ordering some hens. However, it takes time for food to grow and it wasn't until months later that we had four Rhode Island Reds producing eggs and the allotment producing vegetables. Neighbours without hens were happy to give us vegetable scrapps to mix with the hens meal, in return for eggs.


In November 1942 my father was posted to Aberdeen as a Telephone Area engineer. The area covered the whole of the north of Scotland including Scapa Flow Naval base. He used to travel to the Islands of Orkney, Shetland and Hebrdies by air; the aircraft he flew in were De Haviland Rapides. This annoyed me in 1944 when he banned me from flying with the Air Training Corps because of the very remote possibility of being shot down. Aberdeen, like everywhere else, suffered shortages. Batteries for instance,
by 1942 were in short supply and no longer had cardboard covering the zinc, so we had to supply our own insulation. Pre-war manufactured goods were wearing out, but we 'made do and mended.' Even the middle classes had patched clothes!

The danger of enemy air attacks was receding; at irregular intervals a lone German reconnaissance aircraft's vapour trail would be seen as it spyed on shipping in the harbour. We only had one air raid whilst we were in Aberdeen between November 1942 and April 1945 (when we moved to London). That raid occured in late 1943 (I think) when about 33 Junker 88s came over from Norway at very low level, so avoiding radar and anti-aircraft rockets. The enemy made just one sweep of the city. We were in bed and the first we knew was a mighty cacophony of of sounds-the roar of planes at roof-top height, machine guns rattling and bombs exploding. We shot downstairs in the dark to the shelter and afterwards from our house saw a number of fires burning in the city. By good luck, because the planes were so low, many bombs failed to explode. The only damage was the loss of a few roof tiles.

By 1944 we felt pritty safe in Aberdeen, whereas southern England was suffering attacks from V1s and V2s. We followed the progress of the war closely by radios and newspapers.

In contrast to Leeds, food was plentiful in Aberdeen because so many people had farming friends and relatives. When my mother went to the butcher's with her ration books , he said they were not needed. My father was offered half a sheep, but how he could have brought it back on the plane, and how my mother could have kept it, before the days of freezers, we just didn't know.

A final thought:
During the war we could cycle anywhere with hardly any traffic outside the towns, just the odd bus, lorry or tank (made at Fowlers in Leeds). Even at the ages of eleven and twelve my brother and I roamed the countryside at will; we felt, and were, completelty safe.

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Message 1 - Leeds and Aberdeen: Cities of Contrast

Posted on: 07 September 2005 by Peter - WW2 Site Helper

Dear Alan

I enjoyed reading your memories of Leeds during WW2. I was born in Leeds and lived there until 1940, returning in 1946.

I too enjoyed going to Leeds museum and I particularly remember the huge stuffed tiger and the gorilla skeleton; they both fascinated me and I went back to see them again and again. In 1946 the museum was still damaged but partly re-opened and I was happy to see that the tiger had survived the war and was still intact.

I remember that the main telephone exchange was with the Post Office in City Square, near the Majestic picture house. I did a few jobs there in 1956 when I was a Post Office telephone technician. Happy days!

Peter Ghiringhelli

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