World War 2 Stories for Sheffield

                       Peter Barclay 

THE MASKS OF WAR

By actiondesksheffield

People in story: Peter Barclay
Location of story: Timperley, Cheshire
Background to story: Civilian Force

 

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

THE MASKS OF WAR
By Peter Barclay

”Piddle into a towel or a handkerchief and hold it to your face. It's better than nothing in a gas attack,” my mother smiled trying to reassure me. Weeks later the rubber gas masks arrived in their neat cardboard boxes. We learned to duck our necks in first and then pull the masks over our faces. Within minutes, the plastic window clouded up, but it all seemed fun and as gas attacks never happened, masks lay in the back of cupboards until the end of hostilities.

It all seemed a bit pointless, the Germans seldom raided us in the North West. True, we said goodbye to bananas and oranges, essential food was rationed. The news on the wireless was not too good, but we sang songs about The Lambeth Walk and Washing on the Siegfried Line and the fun remained for a further year or so, yet imperceptibly the stage was turning. When air raids on Manchester intensified, attitudes changed. My parents put on a good face and led me in the middle of the night down to the dining room where the table was pushed against the wall. We waited and listened. There was the guffaw of anti-aircraft fire, the crunch of distant bombs, the steady hum of our own aircraft then........ ”It's one of theirs, you can tell by the chugging of their engines.” At last, the all clear siren and a sleepy return upstairs to bed.

As raids intensified, my dad decided to move the beds downstairs. At first it was a bit of a laugh, the three of us in the same room. He spent his weekends designing new blackout and would arrive home from the hardware shop with the latest supply of wooden laths, thick black paper and eventually the latest in roller blinds. I regarded my father as King of the Night, until I found that Britain was full of them, DIY men before that term was actually invented. Over our new bedroom window, he carefully glued sheets of muslin to protect us from bomb blasts. All we could see through the garden windows was a sea of pale white, which rapidly turned to sickly green as mould formed between fabric and thin plate glass.

It was safer to sleep on the floor beneath my bed, a bit like camping. I woke one winter morning to find my parents still in bed. “My comic arrived?” I wondered vaguely why dad hadn't gone to work. Mum pulled back the kitchen curtains; the nearby privet hedge and side of the house were plastered with thick sickly looking clay. After breakfast we wandered outside to collect shrapnel, those shiny bits of distorted shells that had rained down from ack-ack fire. The house next door but one, had a massive hole in its roof where a huge lump of boulder clay and grit had penetrated the bedrooms and living room. Fortunately the two elderly owners survived unharmed. Not so fortunate the occupants of a house five minutes walk away. Later my father came home with the news, “Manchester's been blitzed. A German aircraft hit by gunfire, knew he was going to crash, he off loaded his bombs. It struck that house by Stoney Path. Everyone was killed, it could have been us,” he added. For once my mother looked really worried.

With Allied successes at Stalingrad, El Alamein and Anzio the tide was moving in our favour. The Americans had joined the war, a food parcel arrived in the post unexpectedly. It was from our relatives in New York. There were gifts of candy bars and garish tee shirts, one or two crazy comics and a small book on American birds that I kept for years after. A strange uniform appeared in town, Polish servicemen were in dark blue, neatly tailored outfits were on the American troops and airmen who were flush with money. Inevitably, girls flocked towards them, becoming the first GI brides after the war. They brought their crew cut hairstyles, doughnuts and Glen Miller music. Britain was never the same again.

Towards the end of the war, strange faces appeared in the fields; good looking men with black hair and strange accents, Italian people, used to farm life. I stood by a roadside and watched a team of muscular, fit looking men with an officer in charge, engaged in a drainage scheme. I liked the ingenious way they smoked their fags in home made cigarette holders with a little pipe at the end. I had never seen men work harder. They were German prisoners of war. Where were the Giles cartoon figures of block-faced troops with blonde cropped hair and brutal intent? These men looked all right to me. Was this another mask I needed to discard? Times were changing rapidly. Months later the German prisoners wandered around the shops unhindered, they merely wanted to get home and out of uniform for good.

As young teenagers, the lads I went around with enjoyed exploring the lanes on bikes or walking in the Derbyshire hills alone. We could map read and liked doing our own thing. When peace was declared, I don't remember any street celebrations. Neighbours met casually in the road, enjoying the splendour of that summer evening. Trees were in full foliage, roses were in bloom and the air balmy with success: it seemed enough. That revolving stage had turned again. When I looked at my parents, I seemed to see them for the first time. Gone were the young folk of the thirties, masks were off revealing the tired careworn faces of a middle-aged couple. They'd coped with raids, rationing and constant queues, plus Home Guard and ARP duties for five long years. Peace was with us again, but a different peacetime now that the Masks of War had finally disappeared.


Pr-BR