Memories of wartime England. (with pictures)

Originally published on May 6, 2005 in Non-Fiction

It is now over seventy years since the end of the war with Germany. I have decided to re-post this article. Some of you will remember those difficult times. Others will have seen films, read about, or been told tales about them. Up to my teens I cannot remember anything else but things relating to the war. Below are some of my memories. If you have read this article before you will find a number of changes and I have added some pictures.

I remember when the streets were cobbled, so that the horses could get purchase to pull the coal carts, and the dustbin carts. I remember having to walk 50 yards up the street to get to the lavatory. We had no bathroom. Clothes had to be boiled in a coal-fired tub to get clean. We didn’t have a fridge or vacuum cleaner and only hot water if the coal fire was lit. The only way we could cook was with a fire-side oven, or one gas ring. if it was a hot summer day, tough.

There were houses in my street that didn’t have electric, only gas. If they were lucky enough to have a radio it was powered by an accumulator, which was recharged each week. All streetlights were gas lit.

My mother ironed the clothes with a flat iron this had to be placed in the fire to heat it. Once again, if you didn’t have a fire going, tough. In winter we used to take plates out of the oven wrapped in cloths and put them in the beds to keep warm. Only the one room with the fire was heated. Coal was difficult to get, so if you had no coal because you had run out, or had no money, tough. That meant no hot water, no cooking, no heating, no ironing and no bath.

All food was rationed – only a small amount of lard, margarine, meat, bacon, and cheese–and only if they were available. Fruit was only for those who grew their own, things like apples, pears, plums. That meant that most people who lived in the cities never saw any fruit. Milk was not officially rationed but the deliveryman always made sure that most of his allowance went to new mothers and very young children. For the rest it was dried milk out of a can – a revolting concoction. Later in the war a small bottle of milk was given to schoolchildren. Sweets were available but were also rationed. Our sweet coupons were always exchanged for things like tea and sugar. So although there were sweets in the shops they were for the lucky few as you will see later. Although England had television transmissions before the war, this was stopped when war broke out. People had to rely on wireless sets and cinema. The cinema was the entertainment for most people, but you had to be ready to evacuate if the air raid alarm went off.

My memories—

Below is my wartime identity card, even children had to have them. I saved mine. I don’t think there will be many left from this era (pre – 1940).

We would try to jump across the ditches, but mostly we fell in. They were about 6 feet across, about 10 feet long, and about 4 feet deep. Most with muddy water in the bottom. Anywhere that was long enough for enemy planes or gliders to land was criss-crossed with these ditches. That included of course all playing fields. There were no signposts, no city or town signs, and of course no lighting of any kind after dark. All houses had to have black out blinds and woe betides if any glimmer of light escaped. If there was no moon then it was totally black outside. Small torches and subdued lights for vehicles were allowed if there was no air raid alerts on.

Many roads I remember had large concrete blocks across them, or blocks ready to drag across in case of invasion. At night when the sirens sounded we were sometimes allowed a quick peep through the edge of the blinds, the flares that ‘Luftwaffe’ dropped were really bright and seem to hang in the sky for ages. Then it was into the cellars or shelters. We didn’t like moonlit nights, although it was much better for seeing when outside, the Germans pilots used the moon to follow rivers to their destinations. We could hear the guns firing in the small park about four hundred yards away. Mrs. Johnson lived near the bottom of our street and on Saturday mornings I would do some errands for her. She used to give me a white sealed envelope and direct me to the shop over the tramlines at the bottom of the street. This shop was across three main roads; but there was never any traffic on them. I never dared look in the envelope. When I got to the shop I was instructed to make sure there was no one in before entering.

‘Mrs. Johnson sent this’, I said when entering. The grumpy old shopkeeper took the envelope looked inside, grunted, then took something from under the shop counter, placed it in a bag, and told me never to let anyone see inside. I looked of course, and it was always a large bar of chocolate. The number of times I planned to run away to just get that bar of chocolate; but I never did. I always prayed though that Mrs. Johnson would give me a piece, she never did!

When I delivered the bag intact to her house, she would then give me another bag which had cloths inside; and yes–another sealed envelope. This time I had to go to Mrs. Godlove (I can see her now) a kindly fat Jewish lady, who had a greengrocers shop on the top crossing. I handed the envelope over again, after making sure of course that there was nobody in the shop. (Why there should be anybody in the shops I could not imagine, because there was never any goods on display in them!)

Mrs. Godlove opened the envelope as if it was a love letter and always looked surprised. She then did the under the counter trick, and I was sent on my way with the instructions to guard the contents of the bag with my life. I knew what was in the bag of course and always stopped round the corner to look in awe at the contents – 6 eggs. I had no idea how much was paid for this treasure and it has always puzzled me why I was trusted with them, because I used to spend more time on the floor than on my feet! However I always got them back in one piece. I had never tasted an egg, or certainly couldn’t remember, they looked wonderful. Mrs. Johnson took the bag from me as if it was the crown jewels, told me never to tell anybody, and gave me four-pence. We had eggs of course, well sometimes, but they came out of a tin. The texture was something like sawdust. My mother used to mix this concoction with water, then fry it and tell it us it was fried egg. It didn’t matter though because the bread that we had to eat with it was definitely made from sawdust, and it took a saw to cut it.

The highlight of my week was Saturday afternoons at the ‘Bug – hutch’ (our local cinema) courtesy of Mrs. Johnson’s four – pence. This was when we all let off steam. I hope my memory doesn’t desert me now, but I seem to remember seeing – Flash Gordon, The Three Stooges, The Bowery Boys, The Dead-end Kids, Charlie Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy, The Marx Brothers, was it Hop along Cassidy, and Gabby? Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland were very young, as were James Cagney and Edward G Robinson. If we had seen a cowboy film we used to fashion guns out of bits of old wood, if it had been a pirate film we would make swords, it’s amazing what we could make out of bits of wood. Then we would knock hell out of one another; (we were tough kids). We laughed later at the antics of the likes of Jerry Lewis and Danny Kaye but never seemed to laugh with the same urgency that we did during the war.

School was about a mile away, we walked (or ran) four times a day. Mostly in winter there was no fuel for the boilers, so we sat three to a two person desk, and rotated every 15 minutes to keep warm. They were hard cold times. We had ration books for everything, including clothing. It seemed that when we had coupons we had no money, and when we had money we had no coupons. If the boats made it across, we sometimes had Canadian jam. This was in big tins and tasted awful, but we were grateful. I seem to remember living on jam and bread for years. We had some nice hot summers during the war, and sometimes the teachers would risk taking the children to the woods for a picnic. We would get a bottle of water and put a spoonful of Canadian jam in the bottle, then shake it vigorously and pretend it was lemonade! We would then eat our jam sandwiches and drink our coloured water under the trees —       

I remember when there were bombs falling, and anti-aircraft guns banging away, gathering shrapnel in the streets and swapping it at school. Shrapnel was both our toys and currency. After a heavy raid, (we could hear the shrapnel landing on the roofs) we knew we would be in for a treat the next morning. We would be out early and gather the jagged remains of shells and bombs, carefully grading and storing. Later towards the end of the war we would swap army badges, bullets, bayonets, or anything to do with the war. I had a German army helmet with a swastika and eagle on it. Sometimes school lessons were in air raid shelters. I remember being dragged to our re-enforced cellar, when the air raid sirens started at night. It wasn’t possible to sleep. The cellar was cold, damp, dark, and had no beds. We could be there for hours.

We would walk round the bombed areas in the daylight. One night it was our hospital, town hall, electricity station, and local pub that was bombed. I walked down to the city centre in the morning after the raid – incendiary bombs had been dropped and the town was still on fire. Part of the hospital had disappeared. The area where I lived had a tank factory, a munitions factory, an aircraft factory and heavy engineering works, plus a major railway junction, obviously a good target area – but I have to say we escaped lightly compared to some areas. All the kids could tell the enemy planes from our own, by the different sounds of the engines, we could also identify aircraft by their silhouette.
(We were smart kids). I can remember listening to the speeches of Adolph Hitler, Mussolini, and Lord Haw-Haw. (William Joyce) Haw-Haw as he was known, was an Englishman who transmitted propaganda radio messages to England from Germany, telling us we were doomed and that we must surrender. He was caught and hanged after the war for being a traitor.

The battle of Britain ended then in October 1940, (although we still suffered from less heavy air raids) we had fought alone and defeated the Luftwaffe – but only just, we were on our knees. The Spitfires and Hurricanes had performed superbly in the hands of our gallant pilots, and decimated the German bombers. If Hitler had known our true state he would have increased his effort, and the outcome could have been very different. The indiscriminate terror of the V1 and V2 rockets however were still some time away, and these awful weapons were yet to rain down on England.

So the Battle of Britain ended and we were now to start the Battle of the Atlantic.
Hitler’s navy would starve us to death if he couldn’t do it with bombs. His U-boats nearly succeeded here as well; we relied on imports and were not getting any! Our Merchant navy losses were more than we could sustain. 2,800 merchant ships were sunk. It was thanks to the increase in our naval power and the eventual destruction of the U-boat bases, that the Battle of the Atlantic came to an end. Once more we had survived – just…

The cars, which used gas in England during the war, probably used coal tar gas, or maybe methane. This gas couldn’t be compressed presumably at that time, hence the large bags on top of the cars. Petrol was only available to military vehicles, and emergency vehicles. These included police, ambulance, and fire engines. Our doctor even used a bicycle. If you had a car, and were desperate to drive, then you had to be rich enough to have a conversion to gas. Some cars had wood burning steam engines. There were not many cars about.

Gas masks were horrendous things; they obviously had to fit very tight, they had a small slit to see through, which always steamed up. They were extremely claustrophobic, and breathing was difficult because of all the filters in them.
The worst part was having to go through the travelling gas chamber to test them. These large vehicles came round periodically, and every body hated them. We had to put our masks on and walk through a gas filled chamber, nobody knew what would happen if they leaked, and nobody bothered to tell us. Fortunately gas was never dropped, but we wore our gas masks quite a lot, and had to carry them everywhere until the end of the war. Some people refused to carry them, but risked being fined if caught without them.

Small boys love fishing and we were not going to be deprived of it by a war. Large water tanks that resembled swimming pools were everywhere. During air raids water mains were often fractured and these water tanks were the emergency supplies. They were netted over to stop small boys diving in and throwing things in. Being bright boys we fashioned pieces of wood, string, and bent pins and went fishing. We spent hours sat on the sides of these tanks with our strings in the water, waiting for that big catch, which we had been told had been spotted many times. We spoke about Spitfires, Mosquitoes’ and Hurricanes, but we didn’t know we needed worms on our bent pins…

Coded messages on the radio were a real challenge, these went out on normal programmes. We boys were brilliant at decoding these messages.

‘The cows will be sleeping gently tonight’
‘Tomorrow the moon will be silver’
‘Uncle Tom has broken his leg, but will still play’
These are not verbatim, but that’s what they were like. We listened and quickly worked out the codes. I don’t know how we did it because the Germans never broke the codes, only the one’s they were meant to. We were part of the war all right. Spies of course were everywhere, and we boys were experts at spotting them. Anybody who was not instantly recognised was of course a spy. We trailed them for miles. We spotted swastikas on cigarette packets, and Lugers hidden in pockets. We didn’t miss much.

We didn’t see any Americans until a long time after the Pearl Harbour attack by the Japanese in December 1941. We had strict instructions to keep away from them, our parents said we looked like urchins. Well we may have done; but we didn’t know what urchins looked like, so we took no notice, and after school if there were no raids on, we would high tail it to Chapletown. This area was about two miles away, but we soon covered the ground. With our arms out to the sides, and making the appropriate noises we became Spitfires and Hurricanes, complete with machine gun and cannon noises. Many a dogfight took place between our house and Chapletown. Chapletown, I must tell you, was the posh area; we could never understand why the ‘Yanks’ got the posh area to live in.

When we arrived at Chapletown we would work out our strategy, and select our methods of operation. These were only single missions, and had to be executed with great skill. When a Yank was spotted (always recognised by his smart uniform) the elected urchin would saunter casually up, and in his best American would utter the magic words ‘Got any gum chum?’ I have to say we were fairly successful and very rarely returned from mission empty mouthed. It’s a good job because this was the nearest we would get to sweets for a long time.

After the war ended my future wife used to go with her Mother and Father (who had returned from Burma) to work in the fields near a German prison camp, doing such jobs as weeding fields and picking peas, although she was told not to go anywhere near the prisoners (being a normal little girl) she would take no notice and would often go to talk to them. She told me that they were always kind and made a fuss of her. Some could speak a little English. The above picture was taken near Selby in North Yorkshire after the war. The POW camp was only a mile from where we now live. My wife cannot remember exactly where she used to pick peas, only that it was near Selby and the prisoners were working in the adjoining  fields. It is just possible that my wife actually spoke to one of these German prisoners…

I suppose most of those Germans in the POW camp eventually returned safely to their own country and families. But I often wonder how many of the ‘Yanks’ who were destined to cross the channel on D-Day; and who used to give us urchins’ chewing gum in Chapletown, never made it back home?

It may all sound pretty horrendous, but remember I never knew anything different. It was after the war ended before I first went in a motor car. I cannot remember ever going out of our city during the war years. I can only remember going in tramcars and converted busses.

Our busses had to be converted to run without petrol, (there wasn’t any) these devices were behind all our busses. I am not sure what they used! but they worked okay. For most people it was a long time after the war ended before things got any easier, and it was a very slow process.

When I see what children have today; where they travel to, and how they dress, and they still never seem to be satisfied – I must admit my mind sometimes goes back to those days.


Post Script. 6th May 2005.

On the 7th May 1945, although the announcement hadn’t officially been made we knew the war in Europe was over. All the children went to school in their best clothes. I remember mine had patches on them – so had many other children’s clothes. My shoes were badly split at the back, as my feet were growing they pushed the heels out. I don’t know if it was lack of money or lack of clothing coupons but it was a long time before I had shoes that fit me properly. My socks were always darned too. Many children didn’t have any shoes at all, I can remember seeing them walking about in bare feet. A special fund was set up to supply ‘Boots for the Children’. I suppose then that I was one of the lucky ones. We were sent home from school and had two days off – May 8th was declared an official national holiday. We were on double summer time during the war and it didn’t get dark until about ten in the evening. After all the street parties were over, it seemed that every house had their black out curtains removed and all had their lights on – this was quite an amazing sight for me and many others who could not remember ever seeing the streets lit up at night. That day seemed to last forever. On that day I also heard church bells ring for the first time.

Victory in Europe was ours then – but victory in the Pacific was still to be won. I still had relatives out there in the forces and so had many other families. I didn’t know at the time of course but my future wife did not see her father for six years, from being two years old to being eight. She also had an uncle who was a POW in Burma. Many families found it very difficult to celebrate until they knew their loved ones were safe, and many of course could never celebrate.

It was wonderful to go to bed that night and know that there would be no more guns banging – no more bombs dropping, and to know I could look forward to seeing my first banana. Little did I know just how long that would take – or how long it would be before I could even go and buy sweets again.

The war had taken a terrible toll on our country.

Copyright Gerald Finlay 2005



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