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15 October 2014
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A wartime childhood in South Yorkshire

by Jon Layne

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Archive List > Childhood and Evacuation

Contributed by 
Jon Layne
People in story: 
Jonathan Layne
Location of story: 
Swallownest, Near Sheffield
Background to story: 
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
27 September 2005

When WW2 broke out, I was three. My father, Cyril, having served in WW1, became involved first as Senior Warden and then was asked to take on the role of Invasion Chairman for the parish. One of his immediate tasks was to locate all emergency water supplies, draw up a list of those thought to be a risk in the event of invasion and to commandeer an HQ. For the latter, he visited the local builder who had a large office with telephone. He produced his official authority but the reaction was "Cyril you can have the whole house because as soon as those b*****s land in the south east, I'm off to the north west.

Our house became somewhat quieter for a time since my "bossy" sister Betty,who had just qualified as a teacher,was evcuated with her class from Sheffield to rural Leicestershire. - but she returned after a year.

Although we had no bombs in the immediate vicinity, my father built a very substantial underground air raid shelter in the garden and I had a bunk across one end. There were two major raids on Sheffield but we were under the flight paths to the west and so sirens were quite frequent.

My brother Peter, thirteen when the war started, was a keen member of his school ATC and was also my father's messenger in his dual roles as Warden and Invasion Chairman. On one occasion, he was outside the shelter doing a bit of aircraft spotting when he rushed up the path, down into the shelter and announced that a bomb was going to drop in the fields opposite. The bang was awaited but nothing happened and my mother threatened what would happen if he tried tales like that again. He insisted that it was true and so the two of them ventured above ground to find that a type of parachute flare had been jettisoned by a German aircraft and the fields were lit up like daylight.

Later in the war (Christmas Eve 1944), Peter and my mother were witness to another event when one of the V1s, launched from Heinkels over the East Coast, came over our village and crashed at Beighton in North Derbyshire at 5.40am, one of three that made it to that County.

Like most villages, we had our own Home Guard, presided over by a rather officious ex-Army Officer - probably an early Captain Mainwaring ! I don't think, however,that he was too pleased with his commonly used nickname, FUMF (a character in ITMA). On one occasion, an exercise was being held with regular soldiers attacking the village which was to be defended by the Home Guard. My father had his Invasion Chairman's HQ in the local school but needed to get a message elsewhere so entrusted it to my brother. He was told to keep off the roads but go down the fields behind the hedges etc. When he got to the crossroads, he heard voices and saw through the hedge that the Army had already arrived but, there being no sign of the defenders, had sat down for a smoke, leaving the umpire standing in the road. Then, there appeared a small Home Guard pushing a wheelbarrow up the main road towards the attackers who immediately simulated concetrated small arms fire on him. But he kept on coming.

When he was eye to eye with the umpire, the latter pointed out that he'd been dead as soon as he appeared. His reply was "Dunt tha recognise a tank when tha sees one ?"

I mentioned earlier the list my father had to draw up of those considered a risk in the event of invasion. Well, my friends and I had our own list of two - never found out if they were on the official one. One was a lovely old lady who lived in our road. Before the war, she had been companion to a minor German princess and, for some reason, had retired to our village. She often wore a long leather coat (similar to Herr Flick's in 'Allo, 'Allo but brown, not black) and such garb was not often seen in South Yorkshire mining villages. She was a keen amatuer artist and was often seen at her bedroom window doing sketches etc. But we knew that she was drawing plans of the nearby colliery and coking plant to aid the enemy.

Another character lived in a nearby bungalow surrounded by tall trees; he had a cleft palate which gave him a serious speech defect. However, we were convinced that the defect was simply put on to hide his German accent. He also owned a derelict bungalow which was where he was alleged to keep his secret radio transmitter. As we got older and more adventurous, break-ins were attempted but we never managed to catch him in touch with Hamburg. He was also a very keen gardener and his unpopularity obviously spread beyond "our gang" since, on one occasion, the exercising Home Guard made a special detour to advance through his garden. His shouts of protest were answered by raising of rifles and unprintable "patriotic" retorts.

Another of my father's activities involved fund raising as a War Savings Organiser and, at a more local level, for the British Legion and for our Church. My brother was a skilled model maker and, for "Salute the Soldier" week, he transformed the window of the local pharmacy into a realistic miniature battlefield scene.

My memory, however, dates to a "Wings for Victory" week when I was about six or seven. I came home from school to find a small RAF truck outside our house and, drinking tea indoors, two bomber pilots and their WAAF driver. They'd just been on a PR visit to our local colliery and were off to another about six miles away. Although it was contrary to regulations, I was put into the back of the truck, an RAF greatcoat draped round my shoulders and an officer's cap put over my head (and I mean "over"). Off we went to the next venue.

The pilots didn't get hauled over the coals for that but did get into some bother over a minor matter, reported to the authorities by an officous local politician(see below).

In the evening, my father had organised a dance in the Church Hall with a section of the renowned RAF band, the Squadronnaires. Tickets, including supper, were ten shillings but those who forecast a finacial disaster were proved wrong. The pilots thought it a pity that their driver couldn't attend and so neighbours managed to kit her out in appropriate civies for the occasion. This was leaked back to powers that be and some flak was received by the RAF personnel.

I was taken home early from the dance but was awoken after midnight when the band, having retired to our house for further refreshment, decided to give an impromptu concert in our living room.

Older readers may well remember that BBC news bulletins were somewhat censored and so the locations of air raids were not usually specified exactly. Phrases such as "an industrial town in the north", "bombs dropped at random" or "raids over scattered areas" were often used. I can still picture the lady who delivered our milk - always with a cigarette sticking straight out of her mouth. She frequenly expressed her good fortune that she didn't live in Random or Scatterdarias since they always seemed to be copping it.

At school in the village, underground air raid shelters had been dug in the play ground although I don't recall ever having to go into them during the day because of threatened raids. From time to time, however, we had to don our gas masks to have them tested. Down into the shelters and a small amount of tear gas released - although I bet that many a tear was shed because of having to wear the mask, rather than due to the effects of the gas.

In mid-1944, it was clear from the troop and material movements that something was in the offing. The road where I lived - one of the main routes from the north to the south had a level crossing about two miles to the south. Since the line was a busy one, the gates were often closed and so the many convoys passing south were brought to an abrupt halt outside our houses. This was very exciting for we youngsters - we just didnt realise the dangers and the horrors which some of these soldiers were going to face.

Also, late in 1944, the country (despite the Bevin Boys) was still short of coal and soon all the fields around us were filled with draglines, excavators, scrapers etc. as a massive open cast mine developed (no Public Enquiries in those days!). Work went on twenty four hours a day and the site became a bit of an adventure playground for we youngsters. We used to ride in the lorries which took the coal to the screens near Rotherham and our fathers and elder brothers made us some very realistic open cast machinery models so we had our own system in miniature.

One evening, there was a knock at our door and my father found a man standing there, holding an empty bucket. He announced that he was the night watchman at the open cast site and wondered whether my father could let him have some coal. My father, in rather "unparliamentary" language suggested that since he was on a site of coal production, he had a bit of a cheek. The reply was that the open cast coal wasn't very good and it "won't burn on my b****y fire". Father thought that such honesty deserved a bucket of best nuggets.

In May 1945, VE Day was announced and huge bonfire, complete with an effigy of Hitler was constructed on top of one of the spoil heaps of the open cast site.

I suppose that one confession which I should make was that I was a juvenile black marketeer ! My father was a Co-op grocery manager and, in those days, goods were delivered in bulk and carefully weighed out and packaged by the staff. A small surplus was allowed for wastage and so, if staff were accurate, there were usually small amounts left over. So, I was often given a small package to take to Mrs X, price charged at the controlled price - no profiteering involved. Except, if I did the delivery, there was often a few pence handed over for me !

Given my age, I was not involved in any uniformed organisation, just missing National Service. However, in 1971, I volunteered for the sparetime Royal Observer Corps which was now part of the defence system geared up to any nuclear attack on the UK. In 1976, I was promoted to Group Officer and so donned the complete uniform which I'd worn part of during Wings for Victory Week (RAF Officer's Uniform but with ROC lapel badges and buttons).

Later in my service, I took charge of a new cluster of ROC Posts including Buxton in Derbyshire and this introduced me to a little known aspect of WW2 and Operation Overlord. One of the observers had "Seaborne" flashes on his uniform since he had volunteered in 1944 to serve
as an aircraft identifier on US armed merchant ships involved in the operation. The necessity for such personnel had only been realised a few months before D-Day and there was no time to train new experts.

So, volunteers from the ROC were sought and Bill Deuchar(aged aroung 17) and his brother (16) decided whether the guns in a convoy of five ships fired or stayed silent. The "Seaborne Operation" certainly save many allied air personnel from being shot out of the skies.

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