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15 October 2014
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War Memories - with a song and dance and a huge explosion

by Hitchin Museum

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Archive List > Childhood and Evacuation

Contributed by 
Hitchin Museum
People in story: 
Jonne Heath
Location of story: 
Burton upon Trent, Staffordshire
Background to story: 
Civilian
Article ID: 
A6370698
Contributed on: 
24 October 2005

I had become aware that during the long summer holiday of 1939 that a great air of gloom had descended on the grown-ups. There was talk with a bitter tone of “crisis” and reference to something called “the Munich Agreement” of the Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain and Appeasement, and of how people were feeling let down.

We children were not taken into the discussion — our plays and pastimes continued — but it all sounded very scary. When I did enquire as to what the word “crisis” meant my mother explained that it had been a time of uncertainty but soon the country would again be at war with Germany; she had hoped not to see another war in her lifetime. When the First World War broke out in 1914 she had been exactly my age and she remembered vividly all the hardships through which they had lived; how short of food they were at times, the terror of the airships overhead and how it was a matter of endurance.

When the “crisis” was over and war had been enjoined there was much to do. Straightaway a “black out“ had to be achieved, no clink of light must escape and thick black curtains were fixed over windows at dark. Across the window panes special tape was laid to secure against glass splintering in the event of bomb blasts. War must have begun in a period of cloudy nights because I can remember long puzzling as to how it was that the moon could have been blacked out!

We were soon fitted out with gas masks; the mask came in a little square box and was taken in a carrying case everywhere to begin with — if anyone appeared minus gas mask in school they were sent home to get it. The air filter piece was chunky, oval tin and covered in perforated metal and stuck out just below the chin, and apart from the eye section the rest was of a vile smelling rubber with adjustable straps worn fastened over the back of the head. Soap rubbed over the inside of the eyepiece was supposed to stop it from steaming up; breathing in hard drew in the sides but such novelty soon wore off. A container—type van appeared in the school playground and people were invited to step inside wearing their mask to check that there was no leak, and to pull aside a small gap in order to smell the gas so it would be recognised if gas bombs were dropped. Wearing the mask had a horrid suffocating feel to it and if necessary for any length of time it would have been a nightmare.

Soon my junior school was closed for what seemed like months, as it was equipped to be the Air Raid Precaution Headquarters. Humps appeared all over the tarmacadamed playground where shelters had been dug below ground for use during air raids. An air raid practice was one of the frequent diversions of our schooldays, when we would all grab our masks and troop out into the schoolyard and go down below. For many, it was not just practice but had to be in earnest. In my secondary school gardening on top of the shelters was one of the activities on “free activity” afternoons, popular mainly because from the top of the shelters we could look over the wall into the boys’ playground.

In my part of the world — Burton upon Trent in Staffordshire — air raids mainly occurred at night. To begin with when the sirens sounded our hearts felt as if they had ceased to beat and we would troop downstairs into a room which was considered the “safest” area, and we would sip endless tea until we heard the “All Clear “ sounded. Then at each end of the street static water tanks were erected, followed by flat-topped brick and concrete bunkers which were placed halfway across the pavement and butted into the roadway, all the way along the street. These were intended to resist anything which Jerry might send but, fortunately, they were never put to the test.

Although a few bombs descended on the area most of the raids were intended for the Rolls Royce factory twelve miles away, but as we were en route we had many disturbed nights, with the feeling that until we heard the “All Clear “ we were still at risk; a Jerry pilot would off-load any bombs before heading back. Gradually we stopped the practice of getting up but lay waiting and hoping for that “All Clear” siren.

I think ration books for essential foods must have arrived quite early on to ensure that scarce supplies were fairly distributed. We had access to a supply of eggs from a neighbour and as we did not eat much meat but did consume lots of tea, the surplus meat coupons were traded for tea coupons. Sweets were also rationed so we resorted to little, hard black “imps” intended for sore throat treatment and, occasionally, chewy, fibrous stick liquorice which only faintly tasted any good.

When I moved to my secondary school, a “co-ed” school as it was then termed, and something of a novelty, a lot of the men teachers had gone to war, and retired teachers, many of them elderly ladies, had come back to school, and were unused to teaching boys. For science subjects, my form was taught by a P.E. teacher who had little experience of science subjects. Our one and only experiment in chemistry was to prove that “copper sulphate crystals contained water” (if I remember correctly). There was a handkerchief size piece of material offered for use in the needlework class and cooking lessons were limited.

It was a regular happening for small girls to create song and dance concerts, which were performed with great elan in back yards and pennies were collected for Red Cross funds. There were many budding Judy Garlands, Deanna Durbins and Betty Grables! As a student in speech and drama class I took part in a musical called “No Nanette” produced by the teacher. The cast included adults and we teenagers performed as dancers and sang in a chorus line. I was one of the four dancers and I also took part in sewing the costumes. In seeking fabric which wouldn’t take up precious clothing coupons the producer came across some plastic material. We made for the dancers and chorus; probably the first time that plastic material dressed the performers on stage! It was, however ready to break at any time in the stitched seams. The music was provided by May Clark and her all ladies orchestra; I’m not sure whether of design or necessity.

On two occasions the show was put on by request for the personnel at the R.A.F station at Fauld, about six miles away. The cast were collected and taken over in the back of R.A.F trucks. We conveyed all our finery in our arms in the hope it wouldn’t get creases! My impressions were that the station personnel were not all that entertained by the show, though they were probably very war weary at that time. To celebrate the last performance of the show the producer, despite rationing, managed to create a party in her flat and the school principal was in attendance. The party ended sometime around 11.30 p.m. but somehow it became a ‘cause celebre’ because we school attending teenagers had been allowed to be present and stay so late! May Clark's Orchestra disbanded, it was rumoured, because she didn’t like her orchestra being involved in any adverse criticisms.

Although we got off lightly as far as direct bombing raids were concerned the biggest explosion of the war occurred practically on the doorstep. What has been described as the ‘biggest unnatural explosion on earth until Hiroshima’ happened at 11.11 a.m on 27th November 1944 when 90 feet below the fields of Hanbury, in underground gypsum caves, 3500 to 4000 tons of bombs blew up. This was the R.A.F Depot at Fauld where we had performed our musical. The blast was heard in London 135 miles away, and in Geneva it was recorded as an earthquake.

In the area of explosion the earth moved! A 300-acre farm including people, animals, tractors, carts and buildings was completely blown away. The entire topsoil from a square mile of land went up and came back to earth up to 11 miles away. One man who survived had been cutting a field of roots on the edge of a wood; he reported that he watched as an entire 2.5 acres of woodland went up into the air and out of sight. Some trees returned to earth, being hurled so deep into the ground that farmers ploughing their land came upon them roots first. One man when he came to, did not know where he was because not a single landmark remained to remind him of where he grew up. In Burton chimneys toppled and buildings cracked.

Bombs had been stored in the mines since 1938 but during the months before the explosion, in the all-out war, 20,000 tons of bombs were being moved each month but in the underground chambers already piled high with other bombs repair work was going on. There was a staff shortage - a senior appointment had been vacant for twelve months — and (incredibly) 194 Italian P.O.W.s men of no experience had been drafted in. The cause of the explosion is still a question mark but one possible cause was noted by an armourer who survived because he had left the mine: he said that he had seen a colleague remove a broken detonator from one of the bombs with a brass chisel. Such an act was expressly forbidden.

Seventy people lost their lives. Twenty-seven men who had survived the initial blast were then drowned in mine buildings on the surface when the 6,000,000 gallons of water spilled out of the reservoir on the ridge. Eighteen people were never found. (I am indebted to the January 2004 issue of the Saga Magazine for some of the details). Try as I might I cannot recall my experience of the blast but only consternation afterwards. The crater still looks immense. It is bounded by a wire fence and M.O.D. notice boards warning of unexploded bombs - which is strange because until quite recently it was not prohibited to wander down the 300 to 400 feet to the bottom. Birches and pines grow stepped down the steep slopes and in June and July wild orchids flourish.

A memorial service is held every year when the church service is joined by an Italian priest. Although on the next day the Burton newspaper carried the report, in Britain it seems to have been the least noted ‘Big Bang’ ever. It was reported on the continent that a huge explosion had occurred and a prisoner of war (a local farmer) told his wife that when he heard that piece of news although the place wasn’t revealed he knew straightaway where it must have occurred. It has been in the news recently (2004) because Staffordshire County Council have estimated that the big crater — 12 acres by one quarter of a mile wide — would take twenty years of waste / refuse. Local people reject such a use.

When V. E Day dawned it was greeted with an enormous sense of relief; street celebrations ran on into the night but we had to bow to parental demand and leave the junketing at 9.00 p.m.!

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