- Contributed by
- People in story:
- Bill Taws
- Location of story:
- South Shields, Tyne and Wear
- Background to story:
- Royal Air Force
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 21 June 2004
This story was written by Bill and posted by the BBC Radio Newcastle Bus team on his behalf.
My name is Bill. I was born in South Shields county Durham in January 1935,(the same month and year as Elvis Presley). We both did National Service for our respective countries, he in the well paid and affluent American army and me in the underpaid and impoverished Royal Air Force. We both spent the majority of our service in Germany and there the similarity ends, unfortunately.
Most of my earliest recollections concern playing in, on, or around water. Water seemed to hold some strange fascination for me, and though I never was able to swim, not
for the want of trying I might add, this did not deter me from trips to streams, ponds, pools, rivers, or beaches, wherever there was water, I was happiest. It was this delight in things aquatic that drew me many times to the local beach which was about a mile or so from my home and although I was a very tender age, I always managed to find my way there and back accompanied or otherwise.
I remember well on one occasion, it must have been in the summer of 1939 just before the outbreak of war,it was a very hot sultry summer. Summers seemed to be hotter then, that may just be imagination, but experiences in those early years always seemed to be in very warm weather.
On the occasion in question I had spent the day on the beach with some friends. We had done everything. We’d built sandcastles with large moats around that filled with water when the waves washed up the shore. We’d caught crabs and other small sea creatures in rock pools, had played pirates and smugglers in the small caves set in the cliff face and waded and splashed in the waters edge to our
Hearts delight and now it was time to go home.
My reddened sun tanned legs dripped sand and water as I ran to the place on the beach where hours before I had buried my shoes and socks for safety. I had decided this course of action, because twice previously I had lost my footwear on visits to the beach, so I had buried them and marked the spot. I begun to dig, I dug and dug and dug in ever widening circles. I seemed to be digging that golden sand for hours, I was sure this was the place, and yet---.
Gradually the awful truth dawned, I’d done it again,I’d lost my footwear, my friends had left for home ages ago, tired of waiting for me, my fear of going home once more bereft of shoes and socks, fought a losing battle with the ache in my stomach that told me it was well past my dinner time.
Dinner, main meal of the day was served around six at night,not through any pretensions of grandeur, It would still be called dinner if it had been served at twelve noon, which it was on Saturdays and Sundays,but because that was the time my father came in from work at the shipyard.
I trudged wearily home, the stone pavement still felt warm under my bare feet. I tried to think of some story to explain the loss of my shoes and decided the best course was to tell the truth. .I mused on the possibility of being home and in bed before my dad was home and decided to try and sneak in and up to bed before they knew I was there .I crept stealthily down the back lane, through the yard door and into the back door of the terraced house at the end of the row.
‘ Is that you wor Billy?’ my mothers voice from the kitchen. These were the days when sitting rooms, lounges and parlours were in the domiciles of the affluent, the working man had a place to cook, the scullery and a place to eat, the kitchen and very often they were one and the same place.
‘Yes mam ‘ I answered as I tried to slip past unseen to the staircase.
‘Have you lost your shoes again wor Billy?’ the voice an angry accusation.
‘Mam a buried them in the sand for safe keeping while a plodged and somebody must hev seen us dee it and pinched them cause the weren’t there when a went back for them.’
‘Aye wor Billy, your in for a right towsin when your father comes in, this is the third time in as many weeks. Ye’d better get yersell weshed and into bed quick before he gets home.’
I needed no second bidding, within minutes I was in bed and feigning sleep when my dad came in after a half shifts overtime at the shipyard.
,Far away in Nazi Germany, Hitler’s war machine was beginning to rev its engine, but for one little boy the rumblings were all in his tummy for the moment, little did he know what pain those war machines had in store for him.
My brother Stanley, of whom my memories are very sparse, was born and raised during the depressed years of the 1920s. An era that saw the Great Wall Street Crash, the Jarrow Hunger March and the dark days of depression prior to the outbreak of World War 2. Lack of work prompted him to join the Royal Air Force. Before the outbreak of hostilities he persuaded our father, after whom he was named, to sign the enlistment papers to allow him so to do, an action from which subsequent events would transpire that my father never forgave himself.
My most prominent recollection of Stan was of him coming home for Christmas 1939, resplendent in his air force uniform. He’d brought me a toy aeroplane that wound up and ran across the floor it’s wing and taillights flashing. Though I must have received other presents and toys in my childhood, I can’t remember any of them other than this tinplate toy, I thought it was fantastic.
In March of 1940, according to the records, my brother went with his squadron, No 98, from RAF Finningley, in Yorkshire, to France via Southampton and Cherbourg to an airfield near Nantes. The units stay here was very brief and it suffered heavy losses trying to pit its obsolete Fairy Battle aircraft against the superior firepower of the German Meschersmits and Stukas. After the fall of Dunkirk, the Squadron was ordered to retreat from the advancing Nazi army. They boarded the R.M.S Lancastria.She was lying offshore from St.Nazaire.She was a converted cruise liner and the captain had been ordered to take on board as many refugees and forces personnel as possible and to ignore any international laws on passenger numbers. This was on the 17th of June 1940.Thirteen days after the beaches of Dunkirk had been cleared of all personnel. The Chief Purser was counting the passengers aboard, he gave up after the numbers exceeded 6000.
The majority of Air Force personnel, about 800,were housed in number 2 hold. It was this hold that took the first bomb from a flock of attacking German Dornier aircraft which came in just as the Lancastria was about to get under way. The second bomb was reported to have gone down the funnel blowing the engine room to smithereens and a third hit No 3 hold releasing 1400 tons of fuel oil into the sea,the fourth landed in the sea alongside the Lancastria blowing a large hole in her side.The ship started filling with water and capsized throwing 6000 plus personnel into an oil covered sea which the Luftwaffe proceeded to set ablaze with incendiary devices.It is estimated that over 5000 souls were lost and thus it became the single greatest loss of life in any maritime disaster. Prime Minister Winston Churchill imposed a’D’ notice on the reporting of this event,and the official reports won't be available until the year 2040. No one knows the reason for this secrecy.Suffice to say our mother Clara received a telegram from the war office informing her that regretfully her son was ‘missing in action’. She went to her grave never knowing what had happened to her beloved son. Like many others he has no known grave but his death is commemorated on the Runnymede memorial at Egham near Staines, Windsor. it reads L.A.C. Stanley Taws No.614845 98 Squadron RAF lost on SS Lancastria 17th June 1940.
We rose early that grey wet March morning and I went through the ritual of washing and breakfasting as though this was just another day. Yet young as I was I knew that soon I must face the unknown I was to take my leave of everyone loving and caring and venture out with strangers and to strangers.
We stood in long queues along the station platform, escorted by strange schoolteachers. Each of us a brown cardboard gasmask box, slung on a string around our shoulders and a blue label with name and address of destination, tied to a convenient buttonhole.
After seemingly endless hours of apprehensive train travel, we arrived at our destination, a grey dark ,damp Cumbrian railway station with the legend ‘WORKINGTON’. Hear we detrained and were herded onto buses to be scattered throughout this dark wet countryside. After another interminably long journey with frequent stops at which two or three of us at a time were decanted from the bus, I arrived at my destination. There was by now only two of us left on the bus, we climbed down onto the roadside with the one remaining teacher.’Come along and meet the people you are staying with’. We crossed the road to a small cottage one of three standing side by side. The teacher spoke to the lady from the cottage.’This ones yours,’ pointing to the other boy,’The others for next door’.
‘Would you like to come with me?’ A soft kind voice from behind. I turned and standing there, hand outstretched toward me, stood the most beautiful, kindly faced, smiling lady I have ever seen. I immediately felt a bond between us and wanted to rush over to her and bury my frightened five-year-old face into her lap. I glanced toward the teacher, she nodded, and I rushed over and grasped the outstretched hand. We turned and walked into the house next door, she uttering soothing phrases and me knowing that at last I had found a friend I could trust.
I was enrolled in the local infant school that was about a mile and a half from my lodging and to which I walked there and back daily. Food by now was rationed and very scarce, sweets were virtually unobtainable, as were exotic fruits like oranges bananas and coconuts. This didn’t bother me I was living in a land of plenty. The fields were full of potatoes, turnips, carrots and kale. The woods were full of blackberries, crab apples, hazel nuts and wild strawberries, the local gardens produced apples, pears, plums, red and black currants and rhubarb. When not in school I spent my time exploring the countryside, the woods, the rivers ponds and streams to my hearts content, and sometimes I would accompany the farmer on hunting trips for rabbits to supplement the meagre meat ration. Life was good.
Air raids were virtually unknown in this country area, there were no shelters,either brick or earth built as there were in the towns. Occasionally a stray aircraft found its way over and the local siren would sound warning the population. For some strange reason, which I have never understood, the farmer his wife, son and I would grab some warm clothing and vacate the house. Just across the road there was a field belonging to the farm. This field, as well as cows, held a large barn and three hen huts, each about the size of a large garden shed. We would all trek across the field and into one of these huts, standing there among the protesting hens until the all clear sounded. We would then wend our way back to our warm beds. I have often wondered about the reasoning behind this excersise,I can only imagine that the farmer thought it unlikely that a German pilot would want to bomb a hen hut.On the other hand if a stray bomb had found its way onto this strange ritual how would the local paper have explained it? Imagine the headline Germans bomb hen house, four killed.
My Mother and Family.
As well as my brother Stan, killed on the Lancastria, my family comprised of a sister, Vera, whom I never knew as she died at an early age of Diptheria.This disease was prevalent in the 1920s and 30s as were Tuberculosis and especially in the South Shields area Scarlet Fever. Thank God for immunisations and the National Health Service. I also had two other sisters Margaret who is three years older than me and is still alive and Clara, who was older than Margaret and again of whom my memories are sparse.
Sick of the interminable spells of unemployment, my father Stanley volunteered for work with the Forestry Commision.This industry, like coal mining, farming, ship building and repair and steel manufacture were all essential to the war effort and were reserved industries. It’s workers being exempted from National Service with the armed forces. My father was posted to Scotland and was set to work in the forests around Aberdeenshire
My last recollection of my mother was when she came to visit me at my lodging at Christmas time 1940. By this time my brother had been missing for six months, my mother, I’m told, wept every day as she dusted his photograph. All this drama and heartache eluded me, as I was never told about these and other tragic events that were to follow.
My sister Margaret, being older than I, had been evacuated before I was and had gone to a different destination. It wasn’t long after my mothers’ visit that Margaret arrived and was lodged with a family just a few hundred yards along the road from me. Whether this was engineered or not I do not know but I suspect It may have been.
My mother, I’m told, didn’t use the air raid shelter. She preferred to stay in the house and shelter In a cupboard under the stairs. This was fairly common practice during the war years and It was considered to be as safe as the shelters to anything but a direct hit. Unfortunately this is exactly what happened. On the night of 9th/10 of April 1941 there was a massive air raid on the river Tyne, targets hit in South Shields were the Market Place, the Railway Station and our house in Harper Street. My mother, sister Clara and a baby of whom I knew nothing, were all killed. My father, who was in Scotland, received a telegram saying only ‘COME HOME CLARA HURT. I don’t know who sent this telegram probably my grandmother or one of my aunts.My father told me he raced home as fast as a wartime rail service would allow, he ran to the bottom of the street,only to find a massive pile of rubble where his home had once stood and there lying in the gutter was the babies Teddy Bear.
I was never told officially by anyone the tragic events surrounding my family, and lived out my gloriously happy but short years with my beloved Nan.Some vindictive pupil at school once teased me by saying my mother was dead but I didn’t believe him, what did he know?
It was around 1942 that Nan begun going missing for short periods. During these times, an old witch of a woman used to come and look after the home and cook for the farmer his son Tony, and myself. I didn’t like this lady as she blamed me for many things that happened around the farmhouse for which she herself was responsible. I was to learn many years later that Nan was dying of cancer. I assume these periods of absence were due to times of hospitalisation.
I was returned to South Shields in 1943 when Nans illness became worse. I was billeted with an aunt and attended Mowbray Road Junior School. I remember very little about this school but do recall the brick built air raid shelters into which we were frequently herded as air raids were still prevalent
One incident I do remember, I used to love to go fishing for Sticklebacks in the pond in Marine Park.I would get a length of cotton, tie a matchstick about eight inches from one end for a float and tie a worm to the end. Holding on to the other end I would cast float and worm into the water. The unsuspecting fish would swallow the worm, causing the matchstick to dip under the water. On this signal the fish was pulled out of the water, the worm taken from its mouth and the fish popped into a jam jar full of water.On reflection this was a cruel sport but one which was very popular with the boys at the time.
Anyway, worms were hard to come by for this activity, so one day armed with a shovel I went to a piece of waste land and begun to dig for them. I caught quite a number of worms and put them in a small tin box that went neatly into my pocket. I carried these worms around with me for a few days and by this time they were getting a little bit ripe. Eventually this was noticed by a teacher and I was made to turn out my pockets and open the tin in front of the class.You can imagine the uproar this caused.This was in the days of the cane, and I was suitably admonished.
The aunt, with whom I was staying, had three sons all older than me. Her husband was in the navy and at sea, my aunt enjoyed herself in his abscence.I wasn’t long in this household and war was still going on
when I was once more uprooted.Aged about nine years I was packed of like’ Dick Whittington’ with my worldly possessions in a bundle over my shoulder. I was placed on the small, pedestrians’ only, ferry that ran daily between North and South Shields.
Barrage Balloons festooned the river’s banks. Ships of every size and shape both Royal and Merchant naval were moored in the river The black oil covered waters told the tale of the once prevalent industrial activity of this proud area. An ear-splitting cacophony of sound of welding, drilling and riveting blasted from the ship building and repair yards. Yet all these distractions could not lift the leaden feeling of apprehension that once more permeated my mind as I disembarked the ferry and walked up the wooden gangway. An aunt of my father with whom I was to live met me and escorted me to her home. She lived with her husband three daughters and son on the now notorious Meadowell Estate, then known as the Ridges Estate. This estate had a bad name even then, but I remember it as a time when virtually every house had its key hanging on a string behind the letterbox of the front door, for ease of access. A situation, which could never exist in today’s crime infested society.
I was enrolled in the local Queen Victoria Junior School and was taught by an elderly lady teacher that I swear was trained at Dootheboys Hall.This lady seemed to think that the only way to get through to some pupils was to hammer knowledge in with a stick or ruler. If she had taken time out to try and understand their background she may have had more sympathy, if not success. ‘ You’d better pull your socks up or you’ll never pass the eleven plus’. She was right of course, I failed miserably, which I believe was hardly surprising.
V.E. day (victory in Europe) and V.J. day (victory in Japan) came in 1945. They were celebrated with bonfires and street parties, I was ten years old. My father who was still working in Scotland had remarried,and in this year came back to North Shields to live. Houses were in very short supply at this time, probably due to the bombing and lack of building work being done during hostilities. So it was that I lived with a succession of relatives until I was twelve or thirteen years old.Eventually my family obtained a
council house on the Meadowell Estate and I had a permanent home for the first time in eight years.In these days of counselling being sought for everything from a broken fingernail to the demise of the family budgie.It makes one wonder how the modern generation would cope under the traumas that were suffered daily by a wartime generation. Suffice to say that the tragedies and deprivations of the war years marked me for life and I pray to God this world never sees the like again.
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