World War 2 Stories for Sheffield

Muriel Brown 

The Morning After (Sheffield 'Blitz') – Part 1

By actiondesksheffield

People in story: Muriel Brown
Location of story: Sheffield, Yorkshire
Background to story: Civilia

 

 

This story was submitted to the People’s War site by Roger Marsh of the ‘Action Desk – Sheffield’ Team on behalf of Muriel Brown.

The Morning After
By
Muriel Brown

The morning after the first Sheffield 'blitz' on the night of 12/13th December 1940, my father, after a sleepless night putting out the small fires which sprang up down the street where incendiary bombs had hit the ground, drove off to work in Sheffield as usual from our home in Chesterfield. He must have been apprehensive, as he had watched the red sky reflected from the burning buildings in Sheffield throughout the night.

At the edge of the city, he was stopped by the police who were only letting through the essential services. He had to leave his car and walk the remainder of the way to his factory which was in a street near St. Phillips road in the centre of the city. By the time he got near, it was lunch time and he was so tired that he went into a small cafe where he often had lunch. At the next table were two workmen and he could overhear their conversation.
"Aye, it's a pity. We could ha’ saved it if there 'ad been watter". The other agreed, “Three int' morning and t'firemen could do nowt." From the subsequent chatter, my father realised that they were talking about his cutlery factory. He knew what he would see when he turned the corner, and, sure enough, the site was devastated.

Part of the U shaped brick building had received a direct hit from an incendiary bomb on the cellulose store. Situated in the middle of the yard, away from the main buildings as it was highly flammable, cellulose was used for making knife handles and had, by law, to be kept in a separate compound. Flaming pieces had been flung across the yard and the buildings on three sides had been set alight. The fire service was stretched to its limit all over the city and were unable to find any more water, especially as a nearby hospital was on fire.

The office clock, later found in the rubble of the smoking ruins, had stopped at 3.08a.m. and there seemed to be nothing else at all left. He had no time to think, as his workforce were straggling in, having walked from their homes. They offered to help but nothing could be done, so my father had to dismiss them there and then, as, at that moment, he could not foresee any future for them.

Dazed and depressed, he was told by people in the street that they believed that there was still an airspace in the basement, but as the fallen timbers were too hot to approach, he decided to walk back to his car.

His route took him through the city centre, and there he could not believe his eyes. The familiar streets were blocked and fire hoses snaked everywhere. Most of the fires were still burning and there were unexploded time bombs which people had to walk over. Rubble, bricks and glass were everywhere and one nurse, on her way to day-duty at the Children’s Hospital, said she had to pick her way between what she thought were bundles of burned carpet, but then discovered were unrecognisable bodies.

In High Street, the biggest store in Sheffield was a ruin. Walsh's had been dressed for Christmas, and the remaining luxuries from before the war had been on display. Two of the show windows were filled with huge giant pandas, the theme that year, and, only a few weeks before, we children had been for tea in the smart restaurant where a trio of ladies in long black dresses had played the latest musical comedy hits, surrounded by ornamental pots of palms.

Apparently, Walshs had survived until 4.30 in the morning when sparks from nearby buildings flew through the shattered windows and set the flimsy goods inside alight.

My grandmother always bemoaned the fact that she had taken a set of silver-backed hairbrushes to be repaired by Walshs and they had perished along with much more valuable items. My father told her she was lucky, and compared with the losses of others, she was.

Some streets were completely wiped out, and in the Moor, another main shopping street, there was a holocaust. The long straight road was a mass of flames on either side, and at intervals, where there was some big store such as Atkinsons or Roberts Brothers, the bigger, brighter glow of a greater individual fire could be picked out.

Walking down High Street and seeing trams which had been blown on top of each other, opposite the white hot twisted girders, which had once been Burton's store, my father came across a desperate crowd of men trying to locate and save the many people trapped in the ruins of Marples Hotel, which had received a direct hit from a high explosive bomb. One person was brought out headless while he was there and very few people survived. My father was affected very much by this and at times cried in his sleep for months. Counselling was unheard of and people had to get over the sights they had seen and the losses they had endured as best they could.

So, very weary by now, my father joined the dazed people wandering, about, and eventually got back to his car some miles away. He was then allowed to drive back to the factory to see whether there was anything he could salvage.

It was pure chance that the steel safe was still there, fallen into the basement, but it could eventually be opened, and the badly charred papers inside retrieved. These were the firm's accounts and addresses of customers and some cash.

Arriving home in the evening, he came into the kitchen. One look at his face told my mother that something was very wrong. He sat on green kitchen stool and drank a cup of tea and told what he could, although he was still in shock. We two children were too young to understand the full importance of that day, but, when we were told that there would not be many presents for Christmas, twelve days away, we realised that we too were involved in a family crisis.

For months after the first Sheffield blitz, the once-familiar shops and factories were heaps of rubble and no one could quite keep track of where these firms had been relocated. Cockaynes, Coles, and Atkinsons, the best-known of the Sheffield stores, had divided their departments in small locations around the city, in cinemas, office blocks, in basements or wherever space was available, but their stock was depleted, so they needed less space than formerly. Walsh's took over The Mount in Broomhill, a splendid looking building a bus ride from the city centre, but inconvenient and badly cramped for space inside, so that one had to go from one small room to another in search of an item.

At home, we were also short of space, and gave up the dining room for an office to be set up as the firm's temporary address, with my mother as secretary. The recovered safe was forced open and found to be full of half singed papers, and books containing the names of customers. It says much for the honesty of people all over the country, that, even though they themselves were struggling with financial difficulties because of the war, every pre blitz customer paid his accounts. One shopkeeper, from the Elephant and Castle area of London had himself been bombed out, but somehow managed to send small parcels and letters of support. He never knew what a magnificent morale booster they were to the family, though we wrote to thank him. He was himself killed in a later attack on London.

My father, undecided as to how to carry on business, volunteered for the Air Sea Rescue Service which manned launches in the English Channel. They were fast craft designed to race to where an Allied airman had baled out of his plane and landed in the sea, hoping to pick him up before the Germans realised that he was there. Father was disappointed when he was turned down as being too old at forty, so he turned his whole attention and time to building up his business contacts again.

On the 'Home Front', people gradually adapted to shortages and rationing, and ingenuity began to show itself in the way women 'made do and mended'. Sheets were turned sides to middle, cuffs were turned inside out, children’s clothes were washed and pressed, and a full box was sent round the neighbourhood for each family with children to take out what they wanted and put in something that they had outgrown.

My sister was at a great advantage as she was sent American dresses by the family of an American airman, stationed at the huge U.S.A. airbase at Burtonwood, near Liverpool, who married a friend's daughter and eventually took her back to the States as a G.I. bride. The clothes were so glamorous compared with our utility outfits which were allowed no pockets, no deep hems, only the minimum number of buttons and no trimming. Men’s trousers were to be made without turn-ups.

From the same source, we received copies of the 'Saturday Evening Post' with Norman Rockwell's amusing paintings on the front page. As all British magazines were thin, and on poor quality paper, printed in black and white only, the coloured advertisements were something to be wondered at, and we could only imagine what it was like to own washing machines and refrigerators, and have the choice of rich food. Newspapers were smaller than pre-war ones and some articles were printed in the spine area, where the paper was folded, to use every inch of space.

Rationing was beginning to take its toll, but school children had plentiful meals at school, even if they were dull and uninspired. There are only so many ways to cook rabbit! Puddings were invariably baked jam roll (known as 'Dead baby'), rice, or semolina ('Frog Spawn'). We-were seated at long tables in the school dining room, each with a prefect at the head, and Grace was said before the meal. We had to eat up and be out of the room again in half an hour for the next sitting to begin.

In spite of all the air-raid precautions in place in the school buildings, the war itself was hardly mentioned in lessons. It may have been a deliberate attempt to keep our young lives as normal as possible in a shifting situation, but even school reports of the time do not reflect the far from normal home life we were living with little sleep sometimes, and with parents under stress and working very long hours. Many friends had relatives in the Forces and some fathers were Prisoners of War. A close friend had two brothers who had been shot down on separate bombing raids over Germany and whose bodies were never found. All the same, the stern headmistress expected, and got, good examination results.

It might have been thought that the war situation would have been used in Geography or History to learn about the unfamiliar places we heard about daily, but we stuck rigidly to the syllabus, and the problems of King Charles and Ship Money were just as real as the Siege of Leningrad.

It is difficult now to convey the intense patriotism that most people felt, and the close community spirit which had grown among a people with one purpose - to defeat Hitler. The British Navy was invincible in most people's eyes, even after it became clear that, without air superiority, ships were as vulnerable as any other target.

The British, who had been supported by men from the colonies and from all the areas coloured pink on the map of the world, could never have believed that there would come a day when such countries would want independence and that British rule, which we thought to be benevolent, would be considered as oppression and exploitation. We believed that we were in a partnership that was beneficial to all.

Queues were a part of life. My mother encouraged me to join a queue if I saw one on the way home from school, even if I didn't know what was being sold at the front of it! It might be oranges or stockings (not nylon - these arrived with the G.I.'s), and one day I was one of the chosen six people in the queue to get a chance to buy some ballet shoes from Switzerland. That was an unbelievable luxury as they were well made. A shoe shop, whose windows were entirely blacked out, except for a small square in the middle, had displayed a sample of these delectable shoes for a week, and there was a notice saying that six pairs only were available at a certain time on Saturday next. It had been a snowy week and comparatively, few people had passed the window that week, so, by getting up early and being the third in the queue, I got to try the shoes on. They were too small! The disappointment was intense.

Years later, the first salary I earned went entirely on high heeled shoes to make up for the frumpy shoes I had had to wear throughout my teens until they became more plentiful and styles were more attractive.
There was little choice, but girls did not know what they were missing.

The summer term of 1944 was the last summer without major exams for me and my particular friends, Nancy and Jean, and we were not taking school life very seriously. We scorned those swats who came top, but, on the other hand, did not want to be counted as no-hopers like those at the lower end of the marks list, so our school reports usually suggested that we could do better and needed to pull our socks up before the following School Certificate year.

As the term neared its end, the headmistress asked for volunteers to help the hard-pressed farmers. When we heard that the farms involved were in Lincolnshire some sixty miles away, but on another planet, we put our names down, only to discover that if the school let us go during the last week of term, we had to give up a week of our own holidays.

We could not back down, so we met at the end of May 1944 with about twenty fellow volunteers and two teachers, and took a train to Lincoln. From there we had an army lorry to take us to what had been a previously deserted farm house. On first sight, it seemed to be in a quiet corner on the edge of a small village in a very boring landscape, but, when night descended, things were very different. The noise of aircraft engines revving and taking off on bombing raids over Europe drowned the whispering night noises and it didn't take much to discover that we were in a triangle of fields, surrounded by the most active bomber bases in Britain.

Our official employer was the Lincoln and Kesteven War Agricultural Board, who had the authority to tell the farmers what crops to grow and in which fields they should be grown, but, shortage of men had made the farmers desperate for more hands to do the labour intensive jobs, so they enrolled the help of schoolchildren and prisoners, including Italian prisoners of war who seemed relieved that the fighting was passing them by. Many of them had been agricultural workers at home in Italy and, on our farm, they were good workers with a calm way with the horses which had been brought back into service as there was little petrol for tractors.

Our particular job was singling sugar beet on hands and knees, a task done in a few hours today by machinery, but we had to crawl up and down the fields, pieces of used tyres bound to our knees, taking out one green shoot in every group of three, to allow the other leaves to develop. The fields were longer than any in our own hilly part of Derbyshire and, on wet days our fingers were numb. When the beet was fully grown, it was taken to the sugar beet refining factory in Newark and the resulting sugar arrived at the grocer's ready to be weighed into two ounce portions and exchanged for ration coupons. Imports of sugar were almost non existent at that stage in the war, and many lives had been lost by merchant shipping sinking, so it was impressed on us that the beet grown in Lincolnshire was an important substitute for sugar cane.

Some of the women from the village nearby joined us in the next task of potato picking and we formed a long row across the width of the field slowly moving forward throwing the potatoes into sacks as we went.

On the surface of the soil were strips of silver foil, each about a foot long, lying haphazardly with smaller silver coloured sheets from which sequins may have been stamped at some time. We were warned by the men never to touch these. They were referred to as 'Window' and were not dangerous to us, but they were there to foil the enemy radar by confusing the signals from the nearby air bases.

One morning at the beginning of June, we were settling down to work when we could not help noticing much more noise than usual from the air base in the next field whose perimeter fence adjoined our field. There was much revving of engines and suddenly, above our heads a huge troop carrying plane towing a glider rose slowly into the morning sky, gradually gaining height. Then another, and another, until the noise was almost unbearable and the sky seemed black with these monsters.

They were so low that we could see the faces inside and we waved enthusiastically as this was clearly an unusual moment. They may have waved back, but, presumably they had just been told of their destination which would have been secret until they were aboard, so that they were probably too apprehensive to think about anything apart from the task that lay ahead of them. Over a hundred miles away, my future husband, a young man playing cricket at a public school, paused to wonder at the sight of so many gliders, the other end of the amazing armada, knowing that his turn to join the army was fast approaching. The next day our group of young farmers were given a day off. Nancy, Jean and I decided to cycle to the nearest town, Newark, and, as we knew no one else there, Nancy decided to visit her elder brother who had recently taken up a post as a junior doctor at Newark Hospital. Finding the hospital was easy as we followed a convoy of Army ambulances and, discarding our bicycles, we walked up the path to a door at the centre of the U shaped building and into a deserted entrance hall. We were just wondering where to go when a surgeon, in operating theatre green and rubber boots, strode through the lobby. He looked harassed and rather brusquely asked us what we wanted. When Nancy asked if she could see her brother, the surgeon put out his hand in a rather fatherly way on her shoulder and his manner changed. "Not today my dear," he said softly, "not today". So, accepting his advice we left, but walking back down the path, we could not help being aware of soldiers at the windows of the wards on either side of the path trying to attract our attention by whistling and waving. It certainly wasn't unusual for girls to be whistled at by soldiers but this was something over the top!

Walking down the street, afterwards our attention was drawn to a sheet of newspaper blowing about. We just caught the dramatic headline 'D Day At Last, Allies Invade Europe'. It was only then that we could explain the armada of gliders, on their way to Normandy landing beaches, and the relief of the men in the hospital who had survived the hell on the other side of the Channel in the first wave of landings the previous day, but been wounded, and, on D-day +1, had been quickly evacuated home for treatment.

Now we knew that we were probably the last girls that some of the airbourne boys ever saw, for many of the gliders crashed on landing, and that the doctors were still fighting for the lives of the seriously wounded, with more coming in all the time.

Without knowing it, we were watching history being made, and it was no time for frivolous visitors.

As the war went wearily on with its inevitable losses, at home everyone, men, women and children became more involved in helping to beat Hitler. For women, it meant a daily struggle to feed and clothe the family and to keep things as normal as possible. For the men in factories and farms, it meant long hours of hard labour under dangerous conditions.

My father had begun to build his work-force again, though in cramped premises in Sheffield, and our home was once more our own. The War Compensation Scheme to enable those bombed out to start again was not paid until after the war was over! However, Government contracts began to come in and, because the war was continuing fiercely in the far east against Japan, and curved knives for clearing jungle were essential to the progress of our army, the order books filled again and, with some reorganisation, the cutlery industry began to recover, almost entirely on Government work.

The bombing raids still took place, but were on other cities, and eventually gave way to V1 and V2 rocket raids which mostly affected the south of England and were very much feared. No reconstruction took place in Sheffield until after the war, and even then, shortages of men and materials meant that its progress was very slow. Permits were needed for any work on private buildings which had not been war damaged, and there was a strict limit on the amount that could be spent on improvements.

As no civilians could travel during the war, our holidays were non-existent. The trains were crowded with troops, and were often late or cancelled, there was no spare petrol, and all the seaside holiday resorts within reach were training centres for the troops. The sands had coils of barbed wire along them and some were mined. Troops were billeted in all the hotels and houses along the front, and the general effect was of shabbiness and neglect which lasted long after 1945.

Entertainment was provided by the 'Holidays at Home' weeks, organised by the local council, and varied events took place in Queens Park in Chesterfield. All sorts of athletic events, concerts, dancing and competitions took place and were enjoyed by all. It was unsophisticated but we were happy to be there at all.

The Red Cross organised a 'Mile of pennies' - a trail of white paint on the edge of the pavements in central Chesterfield, on which one was asked to lay pennies edge to edge. The result must have been quite rewarding, and we were told that the money was for parcels for our prisoners of war in German or Italian hands. After the war, it was realised how important those parcels were in keeping up morale, and how useful even the packing was in making ingenious items to help escape plans.

As Chesterfield was designated a 'Garrison town' there were many soldiers about, centred on the Drill Hall in Ashgate Road. Dances were held there, but I was not allowed to go, as I was considered too young. Some of the nurses went to dances at Matlock Hydro (now County Hall) where the Intelligence Service was stationed. Later some of the men there were dropped in enemy occupied France to spy on the Germans.

One arrived back from a secret and dangerous mission and reported to the War Office. There was Winston Churchill, who poked the man in the chest and growled, 'Why are you not in France, young man?' When it was explained that the man had been picked up from a secret location in France by Lysander that morning, and had just arrived with important information, Churchill apologised - a rare event indeed!

This man married the hospital sister whom he had met at Matlock and became a diplomat in Paris after the war, but continually suffered from the injuries caused by frequent parachute landings.

In May 1945, the war in Europe ended, although it dragged on in the east against Japan until the dropping of the Atom bomb. On that day, although there were celebrations in London, there was very little rejoicing in other places. People were very tired and they had lost so much that they could hardly celebrate. In fact, had they known that the shortages would get worse, not better, and that the victors would suffer as much as the defeated Germans, they would have been very depressed.

May 18th, the day of Victory or VE Day, was fine for some, but I had to take my French Oral examination, part of my French School Certificate.

I had been learning French with no hope of ever being able to use it, as France had been in enemy hands for years. The panel of interviewers, on the other hand, had, before the war, been to France, and, to them, the prospect that now opened up of being free to go back again was thrilling and they were in a good mood! I think that they would have given top marks to anyone that joyous day, and so, with amazing ease I was given marks which only a native born Frenchman could achieve!


Pr-BR

Part 1 of this story can be viewed at www.bbc.co.uk/dna/ww2/A7240736