Christmas 1939 brought my fifth birthday and, with the new January term, my school life began in 1940. The country was at war and for the next five years my childhood was sharply influenced by its effects.
In preparation for the expected German bombers over our towns, the school which I was to attend had been evacuated to what was then a country village. I lived on the outskirts of Bradford so evacuation to the country meant a daily bus ride of less than ten minutes. Here, we shared a school with the local children. One week we were taught each morning and then went home for the rest of the day. The local children then attended in the afternoon. The process was reversed on the following week.
School milk, which had to be paid for in those days, had already been stopped. For our milk money, we were given Horlicks tablets at playtime. Paper had to be saved so we were given exercise books used previously by other children. We had to fill up the lines they had left at the bottom of a page or at the end of an exercise. This early period, known as the ‘phoney war’, brought little activity from the Germans. The immediate panic ended quickly, and we were allowed to go to the school we would normally have attended. It was perhaps a ten minute walk away from home.
Other measures which were taken lasted throughout the war. Blackout was brought in and, as our main living room was furnished with curtains running on a pole across the top of the window, a huge shawl was thrown over the top of them each evening to block out the light. One evening the shawl must have slipped and an air raid warden knocked on our door to tell us that we were showing a line of light above our curtain. This had to be put right immediately as enemy aircraft could be guided by it. Showing a light after blackout could result in a heavy fine. Lights on all road transport, including bicycles, had to be shaded. Pedestrians carried torches as the street lamps were not lit.
We were all issued with gas masks, which had to be taken everywhere with us. These were brought up to date at intervals when it was thought that some new kind of gas might be used. We had practices in school so that we would get the masks on quickly in a real emergency. They were uncomfortable appliances. Mine made a bright red mark under my chin.
There was rationing which became more stringent as the war went on. As a child I noticed particularly the very small ration of sweets we were allowed. We always went to the same sweet shop, however, and the owner worked out a special way of keeping within the ration but allowing us a few Quality Street of which I was particularly fond.
Our ration books had to be taken to the same grocer’s or butcher’s each week. We would be told when an allocation of tinned fruit or some other treat was to arrive in the shop. Early on the day of its arrival, a queue of determined housewives would form outside the shop door. Sometimes the allocation would run out before the end of the queue and there was much ill feeling. Frustrated housewives or shopkeepers could easily lose their tempers in war time, but generally this was not taken too seriously. I remember my mother telling us about such an occasion when she was in the butcher’s. A woman in front of her in the queue was really angry with the butcher for not serving her as she wished. He stood listening as she verbally tore into him. When she had finished, he said quietly, ‘You know, I like you better in your other hat.’ Although food was basic and tightly controlled, I never went hungry. There were occasional treats and a clever housewife could adapt and turn out reasonably palatable meals. My worst memories are of dried egg, which was revolting, and of the cheese, which was mousetrap. I thought I didn’t like cheese until well after the war, when things went back to normal. I then discovered its delights.
Clothes were also on coupons, and a new dress for a special occasion had to be hoarded for and sacrifices elsewhere had to be made. I was lucky in having an older sister whose clothes were passed on to me. She was lucky in having some of my coupons passed on to her.
We rarely saw oranges or foreign-grown fruit, and bananas disappeared for the whole of the war. I was in my first year at High school (as they were then called) before I saw their return. We had a green grocer’s daughter in our class and she brought a banana from the first consignment after the war. Our teacher said to her, ‘Hold it up, Janet,’ and to the rest of us, ‘Janet’s got a banana. Don’t all make a rush!’
There was great encouragement to help in the war effort, the civilian effort being known as ‘the Home front.’ My father had lied about his age
to get into the First World War and had been in the trenches in some of its worst battles. He was therefore very relieved to be just too old to be called up. He was, however, in this Second World War, in the Home Guard and spent Sunday mornings ‘on manoeuvres.’ He caused much amusement to us as he described the entire platoon crawling through the nearby woods with twigs and leaves camouflaging their tin hats.
My mother also did her bit. A neighbour was in the St John’s Ambulance Brigade and held first aid classes for housewives who wished to attend. My mother practised bandages and splints on us. The neighbour’s husband owned a confectioner’s shop. At the end of the first aid course he produced a meat and potato pie supper for all the ladies, and I think they all enjoyed themselves thoroughly.
My sister’s class at school knitted khaki scarves or gloves for soldiers. At the beginning of the war I was too young to do this, but as we got into the Junior school we children became more aware of what was going on. Our first contribution to the war effort was probably on our way to school or in the play ground when we sang,
‘It’s raining, it’s pouring,
Just like silly old Goering,
Who went to bed with a bullet in his head,
And didn’t get up next morning.’
I suppose this is an early sign of how war brings out the worst in people. At a later stage in the war, I was in my Sunday school class and we were told that if a German airman crashed into our garden, we should help him and offer him a cup of tea. One girl of about eight said, ’I wouldn’t. I’d throw it over him.’
I remember hearing Lord Haw Haw on the radio with his ‘Charmany calling.’ He was, I believe, shot for treason after the war. In contrast to Lord Haw Haw’s efforts were Winston Churchill’s speeches. I remember
listening to his rousing, ‘We shall fight on the beaches. We shall fight on the landing grounds. We shall fight in the fields and in the streets. We shall fight in the hills.…. We shall never surrender!’ The Battle of Britain was in 1940 as was the evacuation from Dunkirk. I knew of them, but I very much regret that I was too young to realise their significance and their historical meaning. I was very much aware of Churchill. He was affectionately known as ‘Winnie’ and, in the cinema, as he made his well known Victory sign on Pathé news, a cheer would go up from an appreciative audience. Propaganda was spooned out to us. There were slogans such as ‘Careless talk costs lives’ posted on the hoardings. We were urged to ‘Dig for Victory’ and to ‘Lend a hand on the land’. Many people grew vegetables in their gardens, and allotments took on a new popularity. Keeping healthy was paramount and we were advised, ‘Coughs and sneezes spread diseases.’ To save on buying clothes we were told to ‘Make-do and mend.’
As we got older, we children were able to take things more seriously. We were encouraged to save with National Savings and there were class competitions to see which class could bring the most money. We had targets to try to reach. One was a big picture of a soldier. Every time a certain amount of money was collected, his arm could be raised a little. By the time we had reached our full target, he was giving the British salute. I think that National saving stamps were 6d each. When fifteen shillings had been saved, a certificate was given and the certificate earned interest.
Every Friday afternoon we had a class auction. We all brought things from home which were then auctioned off by our teacher. I remember bidding something like 2d for a lemon which was terribly old and wizened. I gave it to my mother as a luxury and she looked rather surprised. There was a strong feeling of patriotism and a corporate spirit. A friend and I held a Red Cross sale outside my house. My sister painted a large red cross on plain white paper and we attached it to the front of a card table. Our mothers produced bits and pieces for the occasion and the neighbours were very good at buying from us. We made five shilling and it was announced in school. A girl in our class copied our idea. She lived on a busy main road with plenty of people passing by. She rather stole our thunder by making seven and six.
Although the situation in the early days of war was desperate, we were encouraged to take some time for relaxation. A ‘Holidays at Home’ scheme was developed where entertainment was provided in the parks during the summer months. There were brass band concerts, talent competitions, and variety shows were put on. Songs such as ‘Hey little hen, when, when, when will you lay me an egg for my tea?’ helped to bring some humour to the food shortage situation. ‘We mustn’t miss the last bus home’, although treated comically, held the message that fuel was in short supply and if you didn’t get the last bus, you walked.
Transport was badly disorganised during the war and I remember being on a train from Leeds to Bradford one night when the sirens went. The train stopped and all the lights went out. There we sat until the All Clear sounded, when we were allowed to finish our journey.
‘Itma’ was on radio and was another powerful weapon in raising morale and providing humour. Most of Britain tuned in on Thursday night at half past eight to hear the signature tune of ‘It’s that man again, yes that man again. Yes, that Mr Handley is here…’ I rather think Tommy Handley invented the catch phrase and whenever possible people said, ‘Can I do you now, sir?’ in imitation of Mrs Mop, who was in each weekly programme. One of my favourite characters was Funf, who rang, presumably from Germany every week. His opening line was, ‘This is Funf speaking’ and was enough to send the family into shrieks of mirth. He was played by Jack Train, who also played Colonel Chinstrap, a supposedly army man and a heavy drinker. Again, his catchphrase, ‘I don’t mind if I do,’ was used by the public on every possible occasion.
Vera Lynn sang such songs as ‘There’ll be blue birds over the white cliffs of Dover’ and ‘We’ll meet again. She would go to war zones abroad to give concerts for the troops. A family friend who was present at one of these concerts told us of the morale raising effect which she had on these men who knew how near was a terrifying death.
Bradford was never a particular target for the Luftwaffe. The Germans were more interested in ammunition works and docks. We did, however, have one night when bombs were dropped on the town. It was said, whether rightly or wrongly, that the bombs had not been dropped on their intended target and were being disposed of on the homeward flight. My sister and I were left in bed and did not wake up during the raid. My mother and father, with most of the neighbours, were later told off by the A.R.P. warden as they had stood outside watching the bombs drop instead of taking cover. I remember that Lingards, a department store in Bradford, received a direct hit. My mother, when shopping in the town, sometimes went to the Sundown café in Manchester Road for a cup of tea. Shortly after the raid she took us there and we were able to see the hole in the Odeon cinema roof where another bomb had fallen.
The war dragged on from the start of my Infant school days until I was ready to leave Junior school after the scholarship. Its end was celebrated first on VE Day and then on VJ Day. We had classroom parties at school to celebrate VE Day with as many delicacies as the war allowed. I believe there were street parties but I have no recollection of any of them.
Hitler and his Nazis certainly changed my childhood, and although the war was over, austerity and rationing were to last for some time. It was in this atmosphere that my secondary education began.