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15 October 2014
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Memories of the War Years: A Biographical Account

by AgeConcernShropshire

Contributed by 
AgeConcernShropshire
People in story: 
Mrs Pauline Morgan and Sergeant Bert Morgan
Location of story: 
Penzance, Cornwall and Boston Spa,Yorkshire
Background to story: 
Civilian
Article ID: 
A3339588
Contributed on: 
28 November 2004

This story was submitted to the People’s War site by Susan Stefiuk of Age Concern Shropshire Telford and Wrekin on behalf of Mrs Pauline Morgan and has been added to the site with her permission. The author full understands the site’s terms and conditions.

I was nineteen years old when the Second World War began on the 3 September 1939, and living in Penzance. At that time I was employed by a relative, and was living in at my work place, The Star Hotel, in Market Jew Street.

It was not long before there were enemy planes flying over the area at night, often flying low over the beaches and town, spraying it with gun fire and dropping bombs, and on one occasion killing six people. Because of raids, many people went to bed fully clothed. I was woken by the sound of loud explosions very early one morning, and so shocked that I got out of bed, rushed outside, and ran down the street barefoot, until a postman stopped me and said, “Oy, where are you going?”. The explosion had occurred when one plane had dropped a bomb in the middle of the inner harbour, with another landing across the road from the railway station, both very near misses for their targets.

Penzance did not have many air raid shelters like many places, and the safest place to be was in the cellars, or under a metal table. Outside lights would be off, and windows blacked out. We quickly learned to distinguish the sound of an enemy aircraft, from allied planes. Many of the attacks were from planes returning from their raids, releasing their unused bombs of the town before leaving the coast.

Many of the local men had been called up, but in a way we were fortunate because my father and eldest brother were both employed by the railway, one of the essential services. Later on in the war, a disagreement with his boss resulted in my brother being told that his name would be put on the list, and he was called up to join the army. It just didn’t do to argue with the boss in those days!

In June 1940, when the forces were being evacuated from France, my cousin Cecil Thurban, a fisherman, took his small boat from Mousehole, over to Dunkirk, to bring back some of the soldiers.

Penzance is just 25 miles from Falmouth, where merchant shipping and others docked for repairs after convoy runs. Newlyn also took bigger ships and, because of this, minesweepers and torpedo boats worked out in the bay.

Following the evacuation of forces from France in 1940, the area was also used for all types of training by the forces. In October 1940, a unit from the 10th Battalion of the West Yorkshire Regiment, were stationed in the area, and based on St Michael’s Mount. Their roll was to deal with the defences, laying minefields on the beaches, and also to train recruits, and the home guard. Over the next few months, their faces became familiar to us, like many strangers on war service.

It was a regular occurrence in the hotel, to temporarily billet men overnight. They sometimes bedded down in the billiard room, but were just thankful to have somewhere to sleep. One particular unit of 24 men, stayed for a few months.

On 20 November 1940, I was in the Star Hotel when the building next door took a direct hit from a bomb. The blast blew out all the windows and doors, and my cousin was injured, spending six months in hospital. Others were lucky to have escaped with scratches and bruises. The intended target was believed to be the telephone exchange, which had only just opened, and was not far away.

The next incident to occur was when a bomb fell behind the public library on Menaye Fields. Sadly, eleven people were killed, including a doctor’s daughter who had come over with the Belgian fishermen, after Dunkirk, obviously hoping she would be safer in England.

From the rear of the Star Hotel, there was a good view of the harbour. One Sunday, around mid-day, I had paused on the upstairs top landing, and was looking out the window watching the mine sweeper in the mouth of the harbour and, in that split-second, it was blown to pieces, having hit a stray mine.

One Wednesday, in April 1941, I also saw a large explosion, which had occurred when mines blew up on the Eastern Green Beach. Apparently, there had been another mine accident shortly before, in the same spot, killing and injuring four soldiers. The railway into Penzance, ran alongside the beach. Just as this was happening, the train, which my father was a guard on was passing through. He saw the explosion and was thrown violently, breaking his false teeth.

The second explosion was triggered by an ambulance man who accompanied the rescue party. He unwittingly threw the stretcher over the fence onto the minefield killing the rescue party. Soldiers from the West Yorkshire Regiment, including Sergeant Morgan, who I later married, dealt with the task of clearing the remains, and relaying the minefield. As this was a very nerve wracking task, soldiers were given permission to have a drink that evening in the Star Hotel where I was working.

In June there was a long alert, with bombs being dropped in the area, causing a lot of damage. After one raid, the following morning I learned that my cousin, Basil Chiffers, aged 17, who was in the home guard, had been killed during the bombing raid in Newlyn. He was given military honours at his funeral, with my future husband leading the firing party.

Although there were many dangerous incidents, everyone tried to carry on with life as well as they could. I had begun to see ‘the sergeant’, and one of our highlights would be to go to the cinema, taking our gas masks with us wherever we went.

As my future husband’s unit had been given another posting, he was due to leave Penzance. Bert was given a 48 hour leave, and we married by special licence on 9 July 1941, at Penzance Registry Office. It was a typical wedding, but following the tradition of ‘something old, and new, and something borrowed, and blue’. My father gave me away and, Bert’s friend, Sergeant Ryder was the best man. Although it was wartime, we had a meal of roast duck at the Godolphin Hotel, in Marizion, and a simple tea at my parent’s home in Penzance. Unfortunately, due to war time shortages, we were not able to have a photo taken at the photographers.

Five days later, my husband left for duties on the Isle of Wight, and the same day I travelled to Bristol, to train in making aeroplanes. After passing the tests, I was taken on at Patchway, aircraft manufacturers, where I also took turns at fire watching, and did first aid training.

Shortly after this, I visited Yorkshire, to meet up with my husband who had been posted there. While I was in Yorkshire, I was persuaded to apply for a job at an ammunition manufacturer at Boston Spa. With the offer of a post, and the chance of lodging with a relative at Bramham, I decided to stay in Yorkshire.

As section leader, my responsibilities were safety searches, hands on training, quality control, and relevant paper work. I supervised around a hundred women, and there was a feeling of great comradeship amongst the workforce.

By the very nature of the dangerous materials used, there were occasional accidents on site. On one occasion, when a new group of girls were employed, a machine seized up and. Having overheated, it caught fire. A bystander, thinking he had water, unwittingly, threw a dish of white spirit on the fire, and the vapour caught fire and spread to the blackouts. Fortunately, it was soon extinguished, and work went on as usual.

One evening, after completing an afternoon shift at the factory, I arrived back at my lodgings in Boston Spa. I could hear enemy planes overhead and, shortly after, the noise of bombing. I stood on the doorstep watching the sky over York being lit up by the exploding bombs and the resulting fires. I learned the next day that there was great damage around the Merchant’s Hall area of the city.

Around mid-1942, HM King GeorgeVI, and Queen Elizabeth visited the factory. My young sister-in-law, who was a cook in the admin department, made tea for the royal party. Their visit boosted the moral of the workers, adding to the wartime spirit.

Not long after the royal visit, early one morning, my sister-in-law arrived on duty, and proceeded to light the gas ovens for the day’s cooking. Unfortunately, someone had left the gas on. When she lit the match the over blew back, causing her serious injuries. She was admitted to Harrogate Hospital, where she spent several months recovering.

By mid-1942, I knew that I was expecting my first child. I moved out of my lodging to share a bungalow with a friend and co-worker, at Boston Spa. I had bought my own bed, and had brought items collected for my ‘bottom draw’.

We were fortunate to have our main meal at work, because many items were rationed. War time rationing covered fats, sugar, cheese, meat, tea, bacon, eggs and later, sweets and clothing. Each person was allowed small quantities of these items per week. Any extras that could be purchased were always a plus. Everyone that was able grew their own vegetables to supplement their diets. As well as this, in the countryside, people kept chickens and caught rabbits. Meals were often ingenious combinations of the same types of food, to avoid monotony. In spite of this, nobody starved.

For entertainment, I went shopping in Leeds and York, visiting the Minster. I went to the cinema occasionally and on one occasion, I went with colleagues to the pantomime in Castleford. Unfortunately, it was foggy, a real pea-souper, and we were unable to travel back to Boston Spa. We missed our night’s work, and all eight of us slept in one friend’s bedroom. I also went to a dance at Brahmam Village Hall. The music was played by a military dance band, and there were many military personnel at the dance, all in uniform, as well as local girls.

My husband was stationed in a number of places in Yorkshire, spending a few weeks in each one. Whenever I could, I went to Bridlington to meet up with Bert, who was based near Flamborough Head, travelling by bus, via York and Pocklington. On one occasion I also travelled to Leven, near Darlington, where Bert was based, to spend the weekend there.

Daily routine carried on until November, and having made the decision to have my child in Cornwall, I gave up work. I returned to Penzance, breaking my journey at Dartmouth for a few days to visit my eldest sister, who was living there. During my journey, the train was held up at Totnes, due to an incident at the station when a stray bomb caused casualties, and an air force officer was killed.

On arrival in Penzance, I went to my family home in St Michael’s Street. Fortunately, I was able to rent a house, opposite my mother’s and began going to sales to buy furniture.

In mid-December, Bert arrived, having been granted a medical discharge from the army, after serving for thirteen years. It was wonderful to have a Christmas with the family, something Bert had not been able to do since joining the army, having served abroad for many years. He quickly found employment delivering goods to local farms.

My daughter Margaret arrived during the morning of Saturday 2nd January, and we moved into our house three weeks later. We settled down to family life in earnest.

A few months later, like many other families, we accommodated two Land Army girls for a period. My mother also took in two child evacuees; a brother and sister from Ealing. Their siblings were also staying in the town, living with other families. London, the South of England and major cities were being bombed quite badly, and many children were evacuated to country areas, boarding with complete strangers.

Penzance was still suffering from isolated bombing. There had been quite a lot of damage to shops in the town, including Simpson’s Arcade in Market Jew Street. Wherever possible, damage was repaired, but often buildings could only be patched up. Life carried on as normal as possible.

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