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15 October 2014
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The Berwick Home Fronticon for Recommended story

by Angela Ng

Contributed by 
Angela Ng
People in story: 
Alison Fleming
Location of story: 
Berwick
Background to story: 
Civilian
Article ID: 
A4435346
Contributed on: 
12 July 2005

I am a pupil from Prudohe Community High School, Northumberland, entering Alison Fleming's story onto the website, and they fully understand website terms and contitions of use.

Berwick has always been a garrison town and all through the war military units where stationed here I do not remember the day the war broke out as I was only 6 when the war broke out but I vividly remember squads of soldiers being drilled on any open ground by loud barking sergeants and marching in precise formation around the narrow cobbled streets. The British Honduras, billeted in out town, where the first caloureds we had ever seen, they built a swing in our park to say thank you to the community and for the children.

Blackout was extremely important at nightfall. Wardens would forever patrol the streets and if even a chink of light were showing from one of the many houses, there would be a strict bellowing of: “Put out that light!” went up and a thunderous knock would be heard on the door. The command would be issued immediately in fear of the deadly bombs.
Blackouts where made by a thick black material, stretched over shutters, which where made to fit the window frames, others used blinds used from the same material. This was crucial to prevent the light from escaping. The windowpane itself had adhesive strips criss-crossing each pane, to contain the glass in the event of an explosion.

During the war we lived by the river tweed, very near the royal border bridge, which was but constant target for enemy aircrafts, because it was an essential rail link between England and Scotland so it was more than necessary to disguise the town during a blackout by darkness of night. The tops of pillar-boxes were painted bright green and yellow; the tops of pillar-boxes were painted bright green and yellow, I was told this was to tell if the deadly mustard gas was in the air. I was told this was to tell if the deadly mustard gas was in the air.
We children did not really regard this as sinister or a hardship; we did not really understand the situation at its full, and despite the number of soldiers around crime was at a minimum, rape being unheard of. We of course were never allowed out unaccompanied after dark.
Our garden was dug over and vegetables were planted to supplement out diet as food and clothes where rationed. We never went hungry, as country relatives were generous with eggs and rabbits to eat the rabbit skin even made warm little gloves. Our wrought iron railings where taken away to make munitions.

Mother was a good manager; it must have been very difficult for housewives. She would make us cinder toffee and mock banana spread from parsnips of course we didn’t really know what bananas tasted like so we assumed the spread tasted fine, it wasn’t until uncle George, who was in the Navy, went away with the north Atlantic convoy, an extremely dangerous job involving submarines. When he came home he brought us a banana each, a small luxury. I took mine to school to show the others, but I left it in the classroom and when I came back it had disappeared I asked what had happened and it had been thrown away because no one knew what it was! Luckily my brother game me some of his to try. Mother would make these wonderful things to supplement our meagre sweet ration. We had small ration books, which contained points, these were cut out, when needed and exchanged for rations of meats, bacon, fat, sugar, fruits and sweets. My young brother had a very sweet tooth and visited relatives regularly with his “hard luck” story and was given extra sweet coupons!

My mother’s contribution to the war effort being a tailoress was to sit at a sewing machine and churn out gas mask cases, we were lucky in our family to have well made and what could be called “trendy” cases for our gas masks, mother must have made hundreds. The gas masks them selves where burdens but of course life savers. Children where persuaded to wear masks by creating novelty ones. The most common of these was the red and blue “Mickey Mouse Mask”. We discovered if you blew hard, the air rushed out a hole at the side and made a very loud noise, if anyone ever did this there was a punishment. There was also a pram gas mask for infants; this looked more like a coffin than anything else. Every one carried their gas masks, by law especially school children as of course in the First World War gas was an important, lethal weapon. We hadn’t a clue at the time but so-called progress would end this war by implementing nuclear warfare and atom bombs.

My dad was away in the army; he was lucky enough not to be stationed abroad, he was in the royal core of signals and managed leave sporadically. It was always a joy to see him but the parting was not easy; it was a sad time for the whole family. It broke my heart watching him leave. I was so scared he would not return, I would lie awake crying, even though I knew he was not in immediate danger. Mother of course was left to raise two lively youngsters on her own, which she did as many other woman had too with a firm hand.

One of my most vivid and terrifying experiences happened one day on the way back from school, I was walking home along the bank of the river on what seemed a perfectly normal day coming home from first school. When the air raid warning began to wail out its sinister, waving, whine, sending a panic across my mind. I can remember my heartbeat starting to race as I looked up towards the sky and saw a plane, embellished with a sinister swastika, rapidly peer low over the river, its engines roaring, machine gunning its way up stream in thunderous gunfire, towards the royal border bridge, with me in the way. I stopped transfixed, so frightened, my legs turned to stone and disobeyed the command to move, and I just stood motionless barely breathing. All I can remember thinking is “this is it…” Luckily kindly hands grabbed me out of harms way and I was dragged to cover in our local cooperative store. I was kept their, crouching in silence, in ragged breath until the all clear rang out in its steady tone. The people asked me where I lived and I was told to run straight home, I did, as fast as I could, scared at the events that had just occurred. Secretly I felt slightly disappointed at the absence of the plane, the tranquillity of the river and the solidarity of the bridge, it was as if I had imagined the whole thing, but the deadly roar of the engine still pounding in my ears and my thumping heart told me otherwise.
Another memory, which has also been quite historical was when Rudolph Hess, an important German’s plane crossed the North Sea, and subsequently passed over the sea and coast line beside Berwick on his way to present papers to the government we held our breath, this was a mystery and he was interned for many a year.

Despite the war we were not greatly unhappy at this time, a few of my aunts and uncles where serving in the forces and there where party’s when they had leave, to welcome their return home. There was dancing to “Begin The Begin” and “Bing Crosby” and I also remember “Louis Armstrong” singing “blueberry hill”. “Jo loss” played “in the mood” while the family had fun and tried to forget the pain, the suffering and the war raging in the world around them. We were allowed to stay up late and join in. Friends from the commonwealth had been invited home to my gran’s, she was a sociable woman and played mother to them all, this is where we met New Zealanders and Australians of their own air forces as well as people serving in our own country. One of my aunts married a young man from New Zealand involved from scampton in the dam busters raid, while another married a sailor from Devon.
We used to have concerts, for funds for the forces. They where usually held in the back of anyone’s house available, coal boxes behind out houses or in garden sheds. I loved the parties but equally I loved being cosy at home, the blackouts up, snuggled in a blanket, listening to “Tommy Handly” in “ItMa” (a comedy show) on the radio and roaring with laughter with the various characters involved. I enjoyed sipping my concentrated orange drink, laced with vitamin C, supplied by our ministry of food. In our spare time we used to knit colourful squares which where sewn together and sent to the forces for their comfort. At one point in school we only attended lessons for half a day, as the school was taken over by evacuees, billeted on local families. As you can imagine there where no complaints there!
I can remember the fashions too! Clothes where on rations so material was scarce, skirts then where short and shoulders wide, it was about this time that slacks, were worn by woman. Hair was long but swept up at the sides and front, and contained in an elastic band in a tidy roll at the back, turbans where sometimes worn by woman too! All of these fashions where originating, strangely enough, from factories manufacturing munitions, where machines where lethal, and flapping skirts and flowing locks where a hazard. The design “Norman Hartnell” introduced the new look soon after the war, the skirts of course where generous and flowing, not like the austerity of our war clothes.

I must mention Christmas celebrations, where every effort was made to make my brother and I happy. There where no expensive presents, of course. I loved dolls and previously had received a new once each year, but this year of course I would not get one. But war demanded my mother be an expert with a needle, she made me divine new outfits for my old dolls, a very special present I remember with delight was a new coat. Mother had made it from a blanket, it was white and fluffy, stitched beautifully and fitted to perfection. I was so proud of my coat, and would spend hours in it, and was much admired.
Boys where not so fortunate, and could not really be given dolls clothes or fluffy coats. War toys were popular, but many of the able bodied men where out at war. We were lucky enough to find an old man who made wooden toys, my brothers pride and joy was a wooden machine gun, with an efficient sounding ratchet for the rat-ta-tat. Wooden aeroplanes where prized, and my brother received one at Christmas time.
Our tree was artificial and was lit by candles, which gently flickered, effectively round the tree ornaments, it was magical. Though there was immense sadness going round the world and no elaborate presents Christmas time seemed to have more meaning to it. As if it’s true meaning was uncovered. Other siblings and gran would always visit on Boxing Day, when we would have our Christmas dinner, we were glad of their company as dad was away for most Christmases. Tins of Spam on the odd one of ham where dug out the cupboards, they had been put aside from the rations for this occasion. We helped to make vegetable salad to accompany the meat. Cooked beetroot, turnip and carrot where diced and peas where added for colour and the whole was mixed and flavoured, looking very attractive. W had sherry for the adults and ginger wine for us and we toasted amen for the crusaders of the war. After tea we had music, carols, games, charades and my favourite consequences. We missed dad so much so Christmas was bitter, sweet and although things weren’t normal we were surrounded by love, warmth and laughter.

When the war ended many things happened. The men came home in their striped war department de-mob suits, and tried to fit into domestic life, some where still appalled by the things they had seen and done, it took them some while to settle. I remember when dad came home there were tears of joy, hugging and great celebrations. Every one was happy and relived that most of their loved ones had come back safe, others where not so lucky. At cinemas, most films where of war. Pictures of maimed bodies, fighting, the horror of relived concentration camps. There where no age classification of the films, it was watched of course by all age groups, a constant reminder of the horror the war had released. Some British warships fired their guns in celebration. There where enormous street parties, celebrations and no gas masks or blackouts ever again. There was a great uplifting feeling, like a weight had been released, happiness swept the land. It was a great feeling. But at the same time there was also sadness, for all the millions of people who lost their lives, grieving was consistent \and they will never be forgotten. Surrounded once again by safety, I did not have to look up the sky again in fear of bombs, planes and Germans. I was safe with my family, we where all together and too me that’s what mattered.

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