World War 2 Stories for Sheffield

Peter Kendall

By Actiondesk Sheffield

People in story: Peter Kendall
Location of story: Kirkham, Wakefield
Background to story: Civilian

 


The Life of a Child on the Home Front – Part 1

by
Peter Kendall

Just before the War started, some people that we knew came round the area, fitting us all up with gas masks. I thought these things were awkward to use, because the eye-pieces misted up so quickly. I was never able to keep mine on for more than 5 minutes! We had to carry our gas-masks at all times, so all sorts of cases were designed to carry them in. Some were like handbags and some were like round tea-caddies, in which the gas-mask just fitted. Some of the lads at school used to play football or conkers with them and the cases got so dented you couldn't get the gas-masks out!

The day I was told about the War, was a lovely warm day in September. I came home from school for my lunch and sat upon a chair-arm in the kitchen, whereupon my mother told me the news. We were at War. We had neither TV nor radio and the newspaper didn't say much that I could understand, and my mother couldn't or wouldn't say much to me either. I suppose she didn't want to frighten me about events which could happen in a War, as I was only 8 years old.

That same night the Air Raid alarms went off. There were lots of mills and factories in our area, so we could hear quite a few, which meant that we a11 jumped out of bed, grabbed a few clothes and went down into the cellar, the dog included. It was cold down there after a warm comfortable bed, and we sat shivering, just wondering what was going to happen to us. However, after about an hour the All-Clear went, so we went back to bed.

We had 3 more days back at school, when we were all assembled and told by the Headmaster to go home, as the school was closing for the time being and we would be told when to return. We had just had our summer holidays and being sent home again sounded great stuff to us!

Then things started to happen. All the important buildings had sandbags built round their doors and windows. A11 the street lights, (which were gas in those days), were not lit at night any more. Everyone had to have good thick curtains up at all their windows to stop any light getting to the outside. Cars were taken off the roads because people couldn't get any petrol, but worst of all, we all got Ration Books which meant there was only a small amount of food for everyone each week.

My father was in the Prison Officer Service at Wakefield Jail. My mother was a housewife at home. My sister worked in Supplies in the Education Department, my brother was a joiner and I went to the Village School. That is when I learned to do the shopping. I was given a list of items each week, and away to the shop I went for the goods. I say shop, because we had to register with just one shop, and could only get our groceries from there. It was near to where we lived, because everyone did the same, and of course, there were no big grocery shops, and Supermarkets weren't even thought of then.

The shopkeeper would look at the list and assemble the items on the counter one at a time, while everyone else waited in a queue. Shopping took a long time in those days. I used to go to town with my mother on a Saturday to see what was available from the market, where there would be queues at almost every shop and stall, and all that was available was mostly locally grown produce. There was nothing from abroad.

I was hungry. I was always hungry. Hunger seemed to be my main preoccupation in those days. I would stay at school for a lunch which cost 4d, (that's about 2p today), eat all I could, (sometimes 2 or 3 helpings), and then I would go home for some mare; that's if there was anything available. I remember scraping the jam out of a jam tart and spreading it on 2 slices of bread. It wasn't much, but at least it was a little taste of jam.

People used to swap items of food, such as those who didn't use sugar, or never used their jam ration. My mother could do alterations to clothes, (which were also rationed), and she often got paid for her work with a bag of sugar, or ajar of jam. The odd extra item of food like that was a feast to us.

When our school was re-opened after about $ weeks, we returned to a fortress. There were sandbags built up everywhere. I was a tall lad for my age, so I was selected to help the teacher, who had to glue a piece of muslin, (like bandage material), on every pane of glass on the inside of the building. This was intended to stop glass flying around if ever we were bombed. Thank goodness it was never put to the test, but it was my job to go round the school every week, to check that all this muslin was still well stuck to the glass.

In our classroom, we had hooks screwed into the walls, so that our coats and gas masks were handy, just in case we had an Air Raid and had to go to the Air Raid Shelter, which was on a piece of land near to the school. In addition we had 4 little folding beds, bottles filled with fresh water every day, several jars of barley-sugar sticks, toilet paper and a First Aid kit. These items had to be transported by boys and girls to the shelters, just in case we had to stay there for any length of time. An Air Raid practice was always an exciting time. Someone got us some small boxes of bars of chocolate to take with us, but the mice ate them first!

Our Christmas parties were a class by class affair, held in our own classrooms. We all took something to eat or drink, which the teachers set out for us, so that after a few games; starting at 2 o'clock in the afternoon, (because the school had no black-out), we devoured every crumb of food. Nothing was wasted. There were no party or fancy clothes, no decorations, no music, just ourselves and any songs that we could sing. We all seemed to enjoy ourselves and went home in a happy mood.

At night the Black-out was total. One night the moon was brilliant and the stars really did twinkle in every part of the sky. The silence was unbelievable. Some men wore clogs as footwear and as they walked down the road, they could be heard half a mile away. Any vehicle had its headlights masked, which directed the light onto the road only.

The start of the War meant that everything was directed towards the War Effort. Most shops closed at 5.30 pm or 6 o'clock and they closed even earlier in winter to save electricity. The markets outside had only torches if it was dark. To help with daylight we had Double Summer Time and it was almost dusk until midnight. We also had staggered hours, when some workers started very early in the morning and finished early in the afternoon, whilst others started much later in the morning, but finished in the evening. All this was to spread the industrial demand for electricity. We at home were cut off anytime with no warning. Thank goodness we had coal fires, an oven and candles, so we could keep the home going.

We had recently moved to a larger house and were only just getting used to this new "electricity". In the kitchen was a black-leaded kitchen range which consisted of an open fire with a back boiler for hot water arid an oven. My mother did all her cooking and baking in the oven and used the open fire for boiling the kettle, and cooking the vegetables in saucepans. The tire made lovely toast, using our home-made toasting fork and we used to cook "cheese and cinders" underneath the fire. It was so tasty.

My mother worked very hard looking after the family and the house, and later an she had to register for outside work as well. This was to help with the "War Effort". She was allocated a job at an Air Ministry Supply Depot where she used to pack socks, shirts, shoes and garments for the men in the RAF. She was given the choice of either taking in 3 or 4 evacuees or working. I don't think she felt she could cope at home with looking after any more people. If we had taken in the evacuees, the children would have slept in our living room and we would have had to live in the kitchen as there were only 2 rooms downstairs. We had 3 bedrooms, but there were 5 of us already and my mother was barely coping with all the extra tasks which the War had brought with it. If she took a job at least she would be bringing in some extra money.

All the washing was done by hand in those days, as there were no washing machines then; we only had a scrubbing brush, a washboard and a mangle. Mother had a "peggy-tub" to do the washing in, and pounded it up and down with a "posser". She had a "ladling can" to transfer water in and out of the tub; a bag of "dolly-blue" to put in the rinsing water to make the washing look whiter, and an indoor creel to hang the washing on when it was raining outside. It was hard work scrubbing working shirts and overalls by hand as they got very dirty indeed. Then they had to be rinsed, put through the wringer and hung out. We even had to make our own clothes pegs. We were surrounded by steam trains, factory and mall chimneys, so the air was usually full of soot, and sooty smuts often landed on the washing, or blew through ill-fitting windows into the houses, which meant extra work trying to keep the house clean. Furniture and carpets were available, but were all second-hand. Even new things which were available were of poor quality and most people had very little money, so you had to look after what you'd got, or "make do and mend".

Most people got into the habit of saving everything they found, or were given, in case it would come in useful. The deprivation was so bad that these habits became ingrained and this is one of the reasons why old people who lived through the War have a tendency to hang onto things and never want to throw anything out! My mother used to take wrapping paper off parcels very carefully, iron it and use it again and again. We used to take all the knots out of string and re-use it because everything was in such short supply. My mother even used to unravel old knitted jumpers, wash the wool, and then knit a "new" garment with it!

My mother was a very thrifty person, she had to be. She made use of food from the garden, hedges and trees and made bought food spin out, so we all enjoyed it as much as possible. Mother's day started very early. She was always up first and had to light the fire before she could even start cooking the breakfasts. We used to have toast with butter, margarine and sometimes dripping. We got dripping from the small joint of meat, or from a boiled-up bone which we could buy from the butcher, off ration. Sometimes we had fried cheese, or half an egg, which we shared, or some dried-egg mixed with water or milk. Mother would
make fish-cakes, with much more potato than fish, beans on toast, some fried tomatoes, really anything we could get. We drank tea or coffee

 

My mother saw to it that we had clean clothes to wear and some money to pay for anything we might need. I had my dinner money, and in case I had to call at a shop or get something for my bicycle I was given enough. I stayed to school dinners to help with the rations - I was the only one who did this.

My mother could sew, alter garments, make new ones, and make new ones out of old ones. Lots of her friends had children and she did lots of sewing for them, but instead of taking money for payment, she would take food. Even if we didn't eat the food, mother would take what was on offer and exchange it for something which we did eat. This was called "bartering". It was legal, not like getting things on the "black market"; We used the fish and chip shops quite a lot, but the fishing boats could only use the waters off the West coast, so even the fish and chip shops were shut for several days each week. One meal we had quite often was a bought fish, mashed potatoes, a tin of peas and some parsley sauce.
Again, we had what we could get for tea. Sam and bread was a11 we had on many occasions. So mother had a continual problem with food arid how to feed us all.

At one time we kept some hens so we could have some fresh eggs. We exchanged our egg ration for same meal to feed the hens. I went vegetarian and gave up my meat ration so I could get more cheese. I wasn't too keen on the meat in those days. It was often fatty and gristly, even the tinned corned beef, or bully beef.

As a nine year old I didn't realise the full implications of the War and what it meant. The way events in Europe moved didn't concern me - I just couldn't understand what it was all about. But life on the "Home Front" as it was called did concern me. I was the youngest member of the family and whilst at home I helped mother around the house as much as possible. T was home soon after 4 O'clock. I learned to fold sheets and towels and other washed linen. I helped get sticks and coals ready for the fire. I helped mix cakes and puddings, and at times kneaded bread. If mother managed to get some extra sugar she made some jam, especially if it was blackberry season, when apples were available too. Mother was busy all the time.

Not long after the War started, my brother had to go to work as a "Bevin Boy" in a coal mine. He went as an engineer, looking after all the machinery. This meant that he started work at 6 o'clock in the morning, so he had to be up early to get there. He was a bit useless at looking after himself, so mother had to get up first, get his breakfast, pack his lunch, then see him off. He refused to use the works canteen. This put a lot of strain on mother, but she managed to cope. Later on he got a little motor-cycle which eased the time somewhat But getting him out of bed on a morning was a real drag for her - he wouldn't move until the last possible moment. He was allowed about 2 gallons of petrol a month to get him there and back. That was all the petrol our family was allowed.

Soon after my sister had to go into the ATS, so we didn't see her except when she was on leave. She was sent to Oswestry to work on something new called RADAR We didn't know what RADAR was, and weren't allowed to talk about it even if we did! All we knew was that it was very important. Later on she was posted to Clyde Bank and Berwick-on-Tweed. These places were so far away from Yorkshire, they seemed like the other side of the world to me. We only had bicycles and travelling any distance was difficult far us. Just getting my brother to the pit at Crigglestone, a distance of 4 miles, was hard enough!

My father was on duty 24 hours on and 24 hours off, so he couldn't be in the Home Guard. He was sent to set up a new Prison Camp just outside Wakefield called New Hall. In those days it was for "trusted prisoners" only. It was simply some huts in the middle of a wood, with no walls or fences, just a splash of paint on a tree to mark the boundary. They had pigs, hens and soft fruit trees, strawberries and some fields of cereals. They supplied other prisons with what they grew. One good feature about this job was the fact that we could buy prison bread. It cost 3 halfpence a loaf, or 2 for 2 pence halfpenny. Not only was it cheap, but it was freshly baked and very nourishing. The bread tasted delicious with just butter on it alone.

I felt that by doing what I could to help mother, like running errands, eating out and doing jobs around the house, her task of keeping the household running would be much easier for her. She was seldom unwell, but occasionally she would get a severe headache. She worked so hard for us all, I am sure it was the strain of everyday life and all the extra jobs she had to do. Mother would have to go to bed with a cold flannel on her forehead in a darkened room. Sometimes she was sick, and could take neither liquids nor solids. The next day she would usually feel able to eat half a slice of toast and drink a cup of weak tea; then gradually, as she felt better during the day, she would consume a little more. I know exactly how she felt, because I have experienced the same migraines myself over the years.

Whilst all this daytime activity was going on, German Air Raids had started. We used to get out of bed and go to the shelters when the sirens went. We would sit there talking or dozing until the All-Clear went, when we would stagger back to bed and fall asleep. We were allowed to turn up at school at any time next morning if we had had a night's sleep interrupted by an Air Raid. We did have some bombs and land mines dropped near us, which made the whole house shake and the windows rattle.

A lane ran down the side of our "new" house which led to several large fields with ponds. One day 3 small tanks appeared on the scene, which were kept in the grounds of an old building 200 yards up the road, known as "The Old Hall". These tanks were in the field at once, ploughing arid churning the fields up and crashing through the dividing stone walls. These didn't stay very long though and the place was taken over by the Bomb Disposal Squad. This unit was quite active in the early part of the War after Air Raids in Hull, Sheffield, Leeds, anywhere where bombs had been dropped.

One large bomb landed in HM Prison at Wakefield in an old disused gas holder, which had to be made safe. Once these bombs were made safe, they were brought up to the Bomb Disposal Squad at "The Old Hall" where the TNT was steamed out. Some of these large empty bombs used to appear in city centres as collecting boxes far donations towards hospitals. The soldiers in the unit, who were mostly from London, gave us some incendiary bombs as souvenirs, but we used to throw them onto garden fires to watch them burn.

One incendiary bomb proved to be different from the others. I took it home and with the aid of my older brother we unscrewed the base. Then we found the way in blocked by something else. He suggested knocking a screw into what appeared to be just a little hole, screwing it in, then extracting the bits with a pair of pliers. So the bomb was firmly fitted in the vice, which we had on a workbench in our cellar. The screw was held in position by my brother and then whacked with a hammer. Bang! It was the loudest bang I have ever heard. He had hit the detonator and that was it. Fortunately the contents failed to ignite, but my ears were left ringing for hours afterwards. The bomb spent the night in the garden and the next day we lit a fire and allowed it to burn out harmlessly, but I think we had a very narrow escape.

Later, after the raids had eased off, the BDS moved away and a local haulier took over the fields to graze his horses. The horses were used around town to distribute goods on short journeys from the railway yards to factories.. Between 5 o'clock in the afternoon and 8 o'clock in the evening, these large Shire horses would be walked from town to the lane next to our house and released into the fields, up to 100 at a time. Next morning at 5 o'clock, men would start to round them up again for the day's work. These periods with the horses coming and going were always noisy with the sound of large clomping metal horseshoes and shouting men.

Occasionally, we would receive a parcel from North America, thanks to some distant relative. These were always very much appreciated. It was like Christmas morning when we opened one, as they usually contained items of food or goods which were in short supply here. One day we received a parcel from the relative's neighbour, which they had kindly sent us. But what a disappointment! When we opened it, all it contained was a bottle of saccharine tablets and some pan scrubbers. However, my mother managed to barter them for something else which we did need.

Not only was shopping a nightmare, but public transport was always so crowded. The buses to our village had 3 possible routes, which started from town in 2 different places. Then getting on the bus with baskets and bags was yet another ordeal. Whenever possible I would meet my mother in town, help with the shopping, then carry as much as I could home on my bicycle, Taxis were out of the question, because of the expense and the shortage of petrol. We could actually get a train to the village; it was only one stop, but the stations were not convenient when carrying bags. Someone once compared my bike to a removal van! We a11 had bicycles in those days and used them all the time; for going to work, to school, for errands. Sometimes we used to cycle into the countryside for a picnic, or just for enjoyment to take our minds off the War.

My mother used to disappear on her bicycle from time to time. She would just say she was "going to see someone", but it was her return that was welcome, especially if she brought home a pot of jam, or a tin of treacle, something to put on, or eat with bread, which would fill the tummy. Sometimes she would bring a garment to make, or one to alter, but you could bet your last shilling some food would be involved somewhere along the line, knowing my mother. She would go to any lengths to get us food: She even rented an allotment on the railway sidings so that she could grow some vegetables. It was a really big problem, but we obviously got through it and survived.

The whole country was trying to survive and money raising weeks for towns and cities were organised; events like War Weapons Week, Wings for Victory and Warships Week. I remember Warships Week very well, because a picture of a galleon I painted won me 2nd Prize in a competition. The prize was 3 two and sixpenny savings stamps - a fortune in those days.

Some of these events sound interesting and exciting, but the War was an experience I would not want to go through again. What I have learnt is that war and conflict pre to be avoided at all costs. We must all try to make the earth a beautiful, peaceful place in which to live.