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Wartime Memories

by Ben Rudden

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Contributed by 
Ben Rudden
People in story: 
Ben Rudden
Location of story: 
Newcastle upon Tyne
Article ID: 
A2108729
Contributed on: 
04 December 2003

War Memories M.N. (Ben) Rudden

I was born in Gosforth on December 25th 1937 – and as my mother told me it was snowing heavily! I played an early part in the “preparations” for war, and was apparently the “demonstration “ baby at Woolworth’s (still there!) in Gosforth High Street for the baby gas mask a large box in which the infant lay whilst the parents apparently operated a set of bellows. Clearly I do not remember the actual breakout of war, but my earliest recollection was standing with my parents at the back bedroom window of 97, Park Avenue looking at the sky having heard the siren (which was at the fire station just along from the Royalty Cinema at the end of Salter’s Road). I do not know when that was – it might have been during the phoney war period – but do remember my mother telling my father to put out his cigarette because the German pilots would see it and bomb us! He had joined the RAF immediately at the outbreak of war, since it was rumoured that if you did that you wouldn’t be sent anywhere dangerous! By this time I had a Mickey Mouse gas mask which had large goggles over the eyes and a small bit of protruding rubber (orange) I think which looked like a nose.

My father was initially stationed at Disforth and became a military policeman, but shortly afterwards was posted to Dyce near Aberdeen. We joined him there for six months and live in a little cottage in Portlethen, a small fishing hamlet. For a little boy it was a splendid place to be and it was a glorious summer. I had lots of friends of the same age who took me to interesting coves and inlets where we spent may hours looking for shellfish and crabs and watching war ships sailing along on the horizon. I was known as “the wee English laddie”. There was no running water and we had to get it in buckets from the village tap. In fact, I once left it running and the water was gushing down the main street – and in terror I hid under the bed when I heard voices outside shouting “it was the wee English laddie!”

We used to meet my father when he came from the aerodrome on the little train which came from Stonehaven, and that was a real treat, and the signalman once took me into the Box and let me change the points.

However, the idyll couldn’t last, the posting papers came and he left, as it turned out for North Africa. I can only remember him saying “Be a good boy and look after Mammy for me”. They had worked out a personal code using family names so that when a letter came saying something like “Have you seen Tom recently?” it would mean North Africa, or whatever.

So, as an only child, I was the “man of the house”. I realise now it must have been very difficult for mother, although I never realised it. I do recall that she used to criticise the men who had exempted occupations and remained at home. One of them was Mr Waugh (Uncle Billy) who lived next door, and was an engine driver on goods trains to Carlisle; obviously, a vital job. However, they had an Anderson shelter, whereas we had a large brick construction with a concrete roof (I think if your income was above a certain level you didn’t get the shelter free- but I’m not sure). When the air raids came therefore my mother used to carry me into their shelter, which was underground with soil on the roof, and I have to say it was very exciting. I suppose the main air raids were in 41/2(?), but I recall vividly looking out the back window at the searchlights over the fields behind us – now Gosforth High School – and once seeing a German plane highlighted in the cross beams. They said (but then rumours abounded) that a pilot had parachuted down and had got into some electricity pylons and had been electrocuted.

I do remember one raid and hearing tinkling as my mother carried me to the shelter. The following day the path was covered in shrapnel (I still have a piece). I now know that that was the day that the Goods Station at Manors was bombed, and our milkman “Mattie”– was killed when a bomb fell on his house on Matthew Bank. My mother and I and many others went to see the smouldering Goods Station, and the occasion was marked for me because a lady gave me my first plum!!

We always used to listen to the drones of the Engines and knew when it was the German ones – deeper note and more sinister. Everyone was issued with earplugs and I was very concerned about Teddy who didn’t have any. My mother therefore sewed over the flaps of his ears so he survived the war, and moreover he is still in the loft today with his muffled ears.

I went to La Sagesse School Kindergarten which was run by the order of nuns who wore large white wimples with floppy “long ears”. I was the only boy in a class of 10 girls. We had to carry our gas masks in square sided cardboard boxes. My mother used to take me on the tram from the Park Avenue stop and we got off at the stop before the Blue House on the Great North Road, and walked what seemed a long way to the school at the top of Matthew Bank. In daytime you couldn’t see out of the tram windows, because they were painted black to stop light escaping when it was dark. Two incidents I do recall at school. My father sent letters virtually everyday, and there was often a primitive photocopy of one for me. He was a great storyteller and at one stage told me was sharing his tent with General Eisenhower. Needless to say I told everyone at school about that, which was greeted with mirth by the pupils and obvious disbelief by the nuns. Good Mother seemed to have lots of feast days. She sat on a high chair – which to us looked like a throne – and received gifts for “poor soldiers and airmen. We were told to bring sweets and goodies for her – which of course were hard to come by and meant using up your precious sweetie coupons. Once, when it came to make my presentation I repeated what my mother had said to me and I told Good Mother that my Daddy was a poor airman and that I wasn’t going to give anything.

There was a railway station near where the Regent Centre is now, which was mainly a goods line. However, passenger trains did come in and certainly towards the end of the war and unloaded POWs. It was then that I saw my first Germans. They all wore blue overalls with yellow patches on. As it happened at the cinema we were constantly exposed to food and hygiene propaganda films, and “washing your hands to get rid of germs” warnings. “Germs spread diseases.” In my young mind Germs and Germans were one and the same thing – hence my terror at seeing the “germs” getting off the train. They were marched to the Dog Stadium, presumably to be dispersed into the local countryside.

My mother took me to the pictures at both the Royalty and Globe twice or more times a week. There I saw “Bambi” and cried and also “Gone with Wind”, and of course the Gaumont British News – (Lionel Gamlin reporting)

There were quite a lot of holiday at home events held. I remember a big exhibition in the Exhibition Park, and recall vividly the parachutist, who accidentally landed on the bridge which used to run over the lake and sitting in the rear gunner’s seat in a Wellington bomber. The bullet holes through the fuselage were pointed out to all the kids who gazed on them in awe. In the summer of 1944 there was a “go as you please” in Gosforth Central Park, which amazingly I won singing the “Holy City”. The second place was an Andrew sister look-alike singing the “Love Bug will get you if you don’t look out”.

Christmas was a special time since that is my birthday. However, since my parents came from Carlisle, after looking at my presents - including the army sock with the orange at the bottom and a rolled up drawing book - and going to Mass at St Charles’ (Fr McElduff was the parish priest) where I loved the crib and the little angel that bowed its head when you put your penny in – we set off for Carlisle on the train on Christmas Day, which took about 2 hours. It was usually cold and sometimes snowing, and the journey seemed endless, but my Nanna’s house was warm and welcoming. It was a big family – 9 siblings and since my grandfather had died in 1939 – my Nanna had quite a job with my uncles and aunts. But they played lots of games – spinning the trencher, hide and seek (it was a large 4 storey high terrace house), charades – simple fun. Then we went up two stories to the “best” room where the piano was, and had fantastic singsongs. All the old favourites; Stephen Foster, John McCormick etc. We stayed in Carlisle for a week and returned on New Year’s Day, and it was Christmas all over again, as I hadn’t had time to really look at my presents on the day itself. One thing I didn’t like about my Nanna’s was going down the long back yard to the “netty” which was lit by a “tilly” lamp, (there were also lamps under the pipes to stop them freezing) and the paper was carefully cut up squares of newspaper.

One other Christmas memory was one year when I went to see Santa in the Grainger Market I was shocked to see that “he” was a woman! Presumably there weren’t any suitable males around.

The wireless played an enormous part in my war. We had a “Cossor” Radiogram with exciting names on the dial like Hilversum and Athlone but it mostly was the Home Service to which my mother obviously listened for news of what was happening, and I remember her concern when certain things were mentioned – like the landings in Sicily. The V for victory signal “Short short short long” Germany calling, Itma with its catch phrases, all were part of everyday life. But most of all “Children’s Hour” and its fantastic plays. “The Box of Delights” by John Masefield has remained with to this day, and of course was particularly significant at Christmas Time. Occasionally you hear the incidental music “A Carol Symphony” on the Radio, and it still gives me goose pimples, and I am back in our front room, the blackout blinds up, and the flickering fire lighting up the tinsel on the Christmas tree. At all times it was reassuring to hear Uncle Mac saying “Good Night Children – Everywhere”.

When the war ended, we all went out in the street and people produced bottles from everywhere. I remember someone saying, “go on give the little boy one”, and Mrs Waugh gave me a glass of a brown liquid which I downed in one. I remember everyone laughing (probably except my mother) and I felt giddy. But then that is what port does!! Down at the end of Park Avenue on the North Road, someone had a harmonium out and everyone was dancing and singing – including Vera Lynn favourites. On the official VE Day, .we all went to see the big bonfire on the Town Moor, and a large effigy of Hitler being burnt. There was also a “pantomime” at the theatre Royal, in which the “villain” was Hitler, and everyone cheered when he was overthrown.

So the war was over – but it was many weeks before my father came home. He had been in Rome at the end of the war and it had involved a long journey on the train and boat. I think I was awake when he came home in the middle of the night, but I went back to sleep. The following morning and there he was sitting at the table still in his airforce uniform, and my first impression was of the stale smell - days on end on the journey had left their mark. He sat me on his knee, and I remember how coarse the material of his trousers felt on my bare leg. It must have been just as strange for him it was for us. Four years was a long time.

It had obviously been a distressful time for the adults, but for a child of my age it was a happy time, since I had nothing with which to compare it. The summers were fine, there were treats like the ice cream man coming on a bike which had the cool box at the front, feeding the horse which pulled the Rington’s Tea cab. We went for walks along the bridal path; I regularly helped my mother to make scones and other tasty bites using the Bero cookery book recipe; and we ate dried egg – which I quite liked - and I puzzled at pictures of small round discs which I was told were bananas. It was several years before I saw the real thing, and I couldn’t believe those yellow things were bananas. The age of innocence was over!

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