World War 2 Stories for Sheffield

                            Alan Rowles 

By Actiondesk Sheffield

People in story: Eric Tranter, T. Hardwick, Wilf Walker, Denis Mellors, Sam Haywood, Ken Morley, Homes, Johnny Warrington, Cyril Thorpe, W. Garner, Bill Levesley, F. Fidler, E. Brown, W. Levesley, Herbert Briggs, Len Keeton, Bill Hazard, Alec McQueen, Sid Lewis, Walter Little, Fred Jennings. Bill Tiler, and Harry Wheeler
Location of story: Birley East Collieryin the Shirebrook Valley between Woodhouse and Hackenthorpe near Sheffield
Background to story: Civilian

 The 63rd West Riding Home Guard unit which was based at Birley East Colliery from June 1940 to October 1943. This photograph was taken at their last parade at the Wesley Chapel in the Summer of 1944

The articles on the Home Guard and the Bevin Boys plus its follow up chapter The Overseas Volunteers are from ‘Winding Up’ a history of Birley East Colliery by Alan Rowles.

The pit was situated in the Shirebrook Valley between Woodhouse and Hackenthorpe. Opened in 1888 and it ceased coal production in October 1943. From then until 1948 it became a coal mining training centre for ‘Bevin Boys’ and Overseas Volunteers.

Tragedy at Beighton is an article written by Alan Rowles about the hushed up railway disaster which occurred at Beighton in February 1942. The article was written for the Forward magazine of the Great Central Railway Society in Spring 2004. The photographs are at the courtesy of the Sheffield Star, M. A. King and Alan Rowles.

Chapter 1 - The Home Guard
During the early months of the Second World War life at Birley East went on very much as before, until that is, the colliery was designated as the base for a unit of the Home Guard. Until that moment in time, the war had also made little impact nationally, indeed the period was depicted in the tabloid press as the "phoney war".

Despite the fact that Germany had already invaded Czechoslovakia and Poland, and that a state of war had existed throughout the winter, the possibility of an all out conflict, still seemed rather remote. After all the French army was, we were reliably informed, the equivalent of anything that the opposition had to offer, and backed by the British Expeditionary Force consisting of well over 400,000 men, the situation seemed under control.

In April 1940 Neville Chamberlain told the Conservative Party:
"After seven months of war I feel ten times as confident of victory as I did at the beginning." Unfortunately the Germans had not read the script, and just days later in a surprise attack they invaded Holland and Belgium. The 'Blitzkrieg' was unstoppable. By May 10th both countries were in enemy hands and German armour had penetrated deep into France. On the same day Winston Churchill became Prune Minister in the wake of Neville Chamberlain's resignation.

As German columns drove swiftly through Sedan, bypassing Flanders, outflanking the much vaunted Maginot Line and cutting off the British Expeditionary Force in the country behind Dunkirk, the Foreign Secretary, Anthony Eden made an impassioned speech to the British people. His radio appeal was simple and to the point. Britain now stood alone facing a German-occupied Europe, and for the sake of King and country it was essential that all able-bodied men joined the Local Defence Volunteer.

Response was enthusiastic, and in the first twenty-four hours the. appeal raised over a quarter of a million troops. On May 14th the L.D.V. officially became the Home Guard, and the volunteers continued to pour in. Indeed by the time France capitulated on June 17th, nearly two million men had joined the part-time unpaid, volunteer force.

Throughout the country Home Guard units were deployed at strategically important paints, and for this reason Birley East Colliery, with its workforce of around 800 men, was designated as a base. The unit was formed in June 1940 and despite the fact that training and guard duties had to be carried out in the men's own time, often after an arduous day's work, there was no shortage of volunteers.

The farmer surveyors office alongside the bottom of full weighbridge was adopted as the unit's headquarters, and it was from here that Albert Crafts, who commanded the detachment operated. Albert was formerly an officer in the regular army as was his second in command Fred Jennings. Bill Tiler from Normanton Springs, an ex R.S.M. took charge of drilling along with Bill Hazard, and Harry Wheeler with his office experience, was given the responsibility of organising the clerical side.

Initially the vast majority of Home Guard units were poorly armed and badly organised. Indeed had the Germans invaded immediately after France capitulated an June 17th 1940, they would probably have only encountered limited resistance. As it was by 1941 the part timers had welded together to produce a force to be reckoned with, capable of strong opposition for at least a short period of time. For some weeks after formation the Birley detachment hardly had a uniform to its name, and was the proud possessor of a couple of rifles and little or no ammunition, but such was the threat of invasion that within a relatively short period of time they were fully fitted out and well armed with quite modern equipment.

Training, particularly in the early years, was taken extremely seriously, and despite the
problems created by shift work, the volunteers met regularly for the likes of drill practice and lectures. The old surveyors office was a regular meeting place but the venue varied with the room above the Cross Daggers one of a number up in the village which were pressed into service. Lectures were generally given by regular, or ex army officers who spoke and gave demonstrations on a wide range of topics aimed at producing a more effective and well disciplined fighting unit.

Once the unit had been adequately supplied with arms and ammunition, firearms practice was organised on a regular basis. Training took place in the first field on the left alongside Stone Lane and from here rifles were fired in relative safety at targets positioned in front of the spoil tip. The site proved ideal and as a result a local railway Home Guard unit also made use of the facilities from time to time. Led by Mr. Footit who lived in the first house on Junction Lane the detachment consisted mainly of men employed in and around the L.N.E.R. goods siding at Woodhouse Junction. The Birley volunteers in turn also made visits to the firing range at Totley and on at least one occasion spent a weekend based at the Dore Moor Inn.

Guard duties were implemented on a fortnightly rotation and each squad usually consisted of one officer and two or three men. Harry Wheeler was responsible for preparing the duty rota, which on completion was pinned on the notice board in the units headquarters. Each evening a squad, usually in the charge of a corporal would patrol the colliery and its railway network as well as a limited section of the surrounding area. An eye was also kept on the tip just in case the old problem of spontaneous combustion manifested itself and thus acted as a beacon for enemy aircraft.

At night the colliery as well as the village had to come to terms with the problem of the blackout, and people floundered about in the unaccustomed darkness with only the momentary flash of a torch to provide illumination. Everywhere there was evidence of invasion. Signposts were removed and the Handsworth and Woodhouse Co-operative shop at the top of Chapel Street even had its commemorative plaque hidden from view to confuse the Germans if and when they came. In reality only motorists and their likes were confused by such actions and the man in the street was more at risk from the blackout than he was from air-raids. Between September and November 1939 deaths in Britain from raids were nil whilst three thousand people died as a direct result of air raid precautions. Yet in Woodhouse as elsewhere, the discipline held everyone in its grip.

To help prepare the Home Guard detachment for the 'real thing', the powers that be organised manoeuvres. Harry Wheeler rememb6rs one such occasion when they were called upon to defend the colliery against a mock attack by a unit based at nearby Beighton. Led by Alec Kiddle from Brookhouse the offensive group had a simple brief - to capture East Pit and immobilise its defenders. The exercise was taken seriously, and despite inconvenience to the general public the Birley lads set up road blocks and even erected concrete barriers across the railway bridge on Cliff Wheel. Throughout the day's activity the emphasis was on realism, and referees assessed the progress of each side as they battled to gain supremacy: When a halt was finally called to the proceedings the end result was rather inconclusive, but the exercise was deemed in retrospect to have been of value to both units.

Remembrance day saw the detachment join forces with, amongst others, local units of W.V.S., British Legion, A.R.P., and Scouts to march through the village, prior to participating in the annual service at the war memorial. Reputedly one of the best bands of its type in the Sheffield area, the Woodhouse Scout Band was given pride of place at the head of the procession as it wound its way from Normanton Springs, along Sheffield Road- and down into the village.

The village queen also played her part in the war-time Armistice day parades. Riding on a horse-drawn carriage Barbara Rowbottom certainly looked the part as she was transported from her home village of Normanton Springs down into Woodhouse. Birley East held tragic memories for Barbara. It was there just a few short years earlier that her father had lost his life in an underground accident.

When the colliery ceased production in October 1943 the Home Guard unit was transferred up into the village, its new base being the scout hut at the rear of Wesley Chapel. Here drill practice took place out on the tennis courts and grassed area as well as indoors. By now the threat of invasion had receded and with it the necessary enthusiasm of men to give up their free time in order to help in staving off such a threat. It was therefore not too surprising that absenteeism increased the closer our armed forces came to the inevitable victory.

By the winter of 1944, the writing was on the wall for the Home Guard, not just locally, but nationally. The war had reached its final phase and despite a determined counterattack in the Ardennes, it was beyond the realms of possibility for the German army to stage a full scale recovery. As a result the Government came to the conclusion that our home defence force no longer served any real purpose, and so, on December 4th, after a short but eventful life, the Home Guard was disbanded.

The names of the people on the photograph above:
Eric Tranter, T. Hardwick, Wilf Walker, Denis Mellors, Sam Haywood, Ken Morley, Homes, Johnny Warrington, Cyril Thorpe, W. Garner, Bill Levesley, F. Fidler, E. Brown, W. Levesley, Herbert Briggs, Len Keeton, Bill Hazard, Alec McQueen, Sid Lewis, Walter Little


 The Overseas Volunteers at Birley East Colliery

By Actiondesk Sheffield

People in story: Mr. W. Hindmarch, Mr. Rida, Alexander Theodorowicz, Kazik Sobieralski
Location of story: The Shirebrook Valley between Woodhouse and Hackenthorpe near Sheffield
Background to story: Civilian

                                       A social evening at the training centre on Beighton Lane. the men are mainly Polish volunteers

Chapter 3 - The Overseas Volunteers

Initially almost all the occupants of the semi-circular Nissen huts on Beighton Road were
British conscripts brought in by Ernest Bevin’s recruitment policy, but despite being bolstered by imported Irish volunteers, the mining industry generally, was still substantially undermanned. Fortunately though, solutions to the problem were on hand.

Following V.E. day a considerable number of men from the armed forces of our North European allies found that for various reasons they had no wish to return to their homeland, so when the British Government offered them resettlement, many jumped at the chance. Remaining in this country on a permanent basis was dependant on the condition that each person took up employment in designated industries such as farming or mining.

Homeless European civilians were also permitted into the country to take up work. With the cessation of hostilities parts of the continent, and in particular Germany, had become giant camps for what in official circles were known as Displaced Persons. People who no longer had homes, people who no longer had relatives, people whose country no longer wanted them, people who no longer wanted their country, people who mistrusted the Russians even more than the Germans. All seemed open to offers, and so with the stroke of an official pen the Government took advantage of the situation and used it to further strengthen the nations depleted workforce.

Many of the recruits from the continent brought few possessions with them and as a result each man was provided with boots and overalls in addition to his board and lodging. Most of the Poles had still not officially been demobbed and continued to wear their uniforms for some considerable time.

To overcome problems imposed by the language barrier the manager Mr. W. Hindmarch incorporated English lessons into the curriculum to allow students to understand a few useful phrases and more importantly, comprehend basic pit terminology. He also relied heavily on the experience of his staff, in particular his Estonian liaison officer Mr. Rida, who spoke quite a number of different languages.

Despite the obvious language difficulties most new arrivals soon settled into life at the hostel. Many had suffered great personal hardship during and immediately after the war and in numerous instances their experiences warrant books in their own right. Alexander Theodorowicz's story is no exception.

At the age of 16, and along with many thousands of his fellow countrymen, he was taken from his native Poland and imprisoned in Siberia. Eighteen months later, in the Spring of 1941, the. German invasion of Russia necessitated their subsequent release, and Alex, along with many, of the former internees, eventually found his way to the middle eastern theatre of the war. Enlisted in a Polish unit, his first taste of action was at Torbruk, but it was at Monte Casino in Italy that he was to encounter warfare at its most brutal. Six months of almost continuous fighting, plus two major battles, saw the allied advance brought to a halt by stubborn enemy defence. Despite numerical superiority and mastery of the skies, they were continually driven back as they fought their slow and bloody way up the mountain.

The third and final battle in May 1944 saw allied strength finally win the day and twenty one divisions made up mainly of American, British, French, Canadians and Poles at last forced the German 10th army to retreat. The enemy held on for four days inflicting heavy losses, but
were eventually forced to surrender the high ground, and Alex remembers with justifiable pride that it was the Polish corps who were first to raise their flag at Monte Casino.

When at long last the war drew to its inevitable close a considerable number of men serving with the Polish armed forces were rightly given the chance to start a new life in Britain in preference to returning home: It was though many months before the first of these new immigrants began to arrive on our shores, indeed Alex did not land at Liverpool until 1947.
Most of his unit were given the option of a career in either mining or farming, and although working underground did not appeal to Alex, he followed the majority of his pals, and against his better judgement, chose mining.

The Polish immigrants were in most instances still members of the armed forces and Kazik Sobieralski, a tank crewman, recalls that it was not until after the completion of his training that he was officially demobbed. The son of a railway worker, Kazik had been just 15 years of age when the Germans crossed the border 26 kilometres away and following a number of hair-raising experiences he eventually, like Alex, found his way to the middle east to fight alongside his fellow countrymen.

Forty years on and Kazik still remembers his short interlude at Birley. Underground visits were centred on the day shift and training consisted almost entirely of watch and learn brief. By 1947 underground tuition had expanded to include coal cutting and shot firing as well as packing and haulage, and to enhance the training environment some areas were even whitewashed. Incursion by water was, even in the late 1940s, still a major problem at Birley and Kazik clearly recalls the "canals" running alongside many of the roadways and the fact that they were always kept fully employed.

Kazik and Alex both left Birley to continue their training at Sheffield Nunnery, where, after a further three months they were offered full time employment. Here, although working conditions were not entirely to their liking, they had the bonus of their weekly income being almost doubled. Pillar and stall had not as yet been superseded by longwall and much of the equipment was almost prehistoric when compared to that at Birley East. Nevertheless, like most of the others, the two trainees soon settled in to their new surroundings and Alex, who was eventually to change his surname to Carson, remained at Nunnery right through until its eventual closure.

Although most local collieries readily accepted foreign recruits this was not necessarily always the case. Whilst the likes of Brookhouse, Dinnington and Sheffield Nunnery all employed quite a high proportion of immigrants not all establishments were quite as enthusiastic, indeed some were quite openly hostile to the idea. Orgreave and Maltby for example appeared to have an unwritten policy of not employing foreign labour.

Back at Birley the intake of trainees was gradually intensified, reaching its peak during the latter months of 1947. The number of English recruits continued to fall, but the catchment area was now wider than ever with Irish and Scots volunteers supplemented by an ever increasing number of European immigrants. An Indian mine owner even enrolled his son at Birley in order to avail him of what in his considered opinion, would be the best professional tuition.

Having completed their training and found permanent employment in the locality, a number of the men returned to Woodhouse to take up board and lodging and along with the residents of the hostel they were generally well accepted by the locals. Occasionally the peace was disrupted but this type of occurrence was usually of an insular nature and often came about as a direct result of over indulgence at the village pubs.

One source of disharmony centred around the fact that the Poles did not, to make too fine a point of it, rate the Irish a11 that highly, and on more than one occasion this source of friction boiled over into violence. In one major incident outside the Stag Inn the fighting was of such magnitude that, in the interest of self preservation, the local constabulary simply stood by and looked on as the warring factions knocked seven bells out of each other.

By winter of 1948 coal production nationally had reached adequate levels and the number of recruits entering the industry began to be scaled down accordingly. Government objectives had been achieved and the mining industry was now no longer undermanned. As a result there was now little need for training centres and consequently it came as a surprise to no one when, in 1948, the National Coal Board decided to close down its operations at Birley East.

In retrospect whether the establishment served a worthwhile purpose or achieved its initial aims is open to question. True, in the case of foreign recruits the period acted as a buffer zone between their arrival in Britain and starting full time employment. True also that it helped improve the men's physical fitness and in a limited way overcame some of the language difficulties, but the consensus of opinion clearly indicates that most former trainees believe the four weeks introductory programme could have been dispensed with at no great loss.

In a nutshell, the training accustomed men to going below ground, but as far as practical experience of coal mining was concerned, the trainees were almost as ignorant at the end of the four week session as they had been at the beginning.

So, at the stroke of an official pen, Birley East was closed down for the second, and as it transpired, final time. Within a few short weeks of receiving its notice of closure the pit's machinery stood silent, its buildings empty and forlorn, awaiting their fate at the hands of the demolition men. For the hostel though, a more secure future was in store. Despite their enforced redundancy and the fact that they were only temporary structures, the Nissen huts were to survive for a considerable period of time.

As Woodhouse Industrial Hostel, the camp soldiered on for a further five years before it finally closed its doors to the public on the 27th of June 1953. Then, after a period of uncertainty, during which the buildings were unoccupied and demolition seemed imminent, some of the huts were commandeered to form part of a mushroom farm. About this time, Sheffield City Council took an interest in the establishment, eventually purchasing the property and much of the surrounding land, and ever since the site has played host to a resettlement hostel for homeless men.

Many of the original buildings survived for nearly three decades before being systematically replaced by more permanent structures, and it was not until May 1973 that the last three Nissen huts, along with the brick boiler house, were demolished. Purpose built accommodation now covers the complex, and living conditions are almost palatial when compared with those encountered by the trainees back in the 1940s. It does not take much imagination to conjure up what it was like living, albeit for just a few short weeks, in an un-insulated corrugated tin hut during a winter the likes of which was encountered in 1947.

The last of the Nissen huts has now long since gone, but for the thousands of men who passed through their portals, and in particular the handful who still live in the area, the memories of their brief interlude at Birley Training Centre still remain.