World War 2 Stories for Sheffield

                             Bill Ross 

The Testimony Of A BBC People's War Story Editor

By actiondesksheffield

People in story: William (Bill) Ross
Location of story: Sheffield, England.
Background to story: Civilian

 The Award Presentation at Sheffield Town Hall, 10th of November, 2005. Left to right are: Margaret Walker (BBC), Andy kershaw (BBC), Roger Marsh (Story Editor), The Lord Mayor of Sheffield, Jo Thomas (Volunteer Co-ordinator) and Bill Ross, (Story Editor).


This story was submitted to the People’s War site by Bill Ross of the ‘Action Desk – Sheffield’ Team on behalf of himself.

My involvement with the People’s War project began in early 2005, when I, along with several others, enrolled as a volunteer at BBC Radio Sheffield Open Centre.

I’m often asked, during unrehearsed interviews, why I started this project, a question that is inevitably coupled with, “What’s in it for you?” I’ve never been content with any of the ‘off the cuff’ answers that I’ve given, which were mainly submitted in an instant without having the time to think of the true reasons. Clearly, when one is on live radio, it’s extremely difficult to muster all the right words in an instant, knowing that the audience is out there waiting for a rapid response.

There’s a saying here in Yorkshire that goes: “If ever tha does owt for nowt, allus do it for thisen,” which when translated into English means, “If ever you do anything for nothing, always do it for yourself.” I have to say that I don’t subscribe to this adage and I never will, although I am a Yorkshireman by birth.

I believe we all have a purpose in life and I doubt that the purpose entails watching daytime TV soaps all and every day. Some of us fulfil this purpose, others do not. When people would ask me what I do for a living, I would jokingly say, “I’m a professional parasite,” that being based on the fact that I was doing nothing and by claiming benefit, was being paid for doing nothing.

I have a sticker on the dash of my car, it reads, “Bloom, where God plants you.” I believe God, in answer to my prayer, planted me into this project. I’d frequently prayed for a purpose to be added to my otherwise meaningless life. I knew that I was capable of more than I was doing. Gainful employment was a constantly decreasing option due to my age and disabilities, merged with potential employers’ inability to see beyond the negativity of the questions on application forms and the answers given to psychologist pre-composed menus of questions at interviews. But, despite my being of the belief that if I could do anything at all, it was because it was so simple that anyone could do it, I knew that I had some skills that someone could put to use. My childhood dream of becoming a concert pianist had passed me by, primarily because of my own adolescent stupidity, laziness and unwillingness to work hard. So now, if I wish to hear Chopin’s Fantasie-Impromptu in C Sharp Minor, Opus 66, played on a Steinway Model D, or a Bosendorfer 290, I’ll have to be content with listening to the likes of Freddy Kempf or Daniel Baremboim playing it. I’ll stick to the simple stuff. However, I’d always enjoyed writing, so transcribing and proof reading of the project stories were jobs tailor-made for me.

At first, I thought my volunteering role would take care of the required four hours a week, that I’d been told I was required to work. It would not be too daunting, not too difficult and not too much of a drain on my leisure time. I had absolutely no idea what was to develop. Before too long, enthusiasm was spawned and it began to grow. I found that I was working far more than four hours a week. I went into the BBC station one day a week, for about 8 hours, but I would spend far more than the eight hours working at home. I had access to the Internet at home, so I could add stories from there. Then I was blessed with the very time consuming (but greatly rewarding) task of proof reading and correcting (grammar and spelling etc.) of all of the stories that we in Sheffield had added to the site. There were hundreds of them and some of them were 3,000 words each. I thought I would never catch up because there was a huge backlog at the time.

I found by this time that I was working not only all day, but through the night and into the small hours. It would have been difficult, if not impossible to calculate how much time was spent on the project each week. I would think that if I had spent time working that out, I would be wasting time that otherwise could have been spent on the project.

In the middle of August of 2005, I lost the use of the Internet at home, so I started to go into the station on a daily (Monday to Friday) basis, but still doing work such as proof reading, scanning photos and transcribing from tapes, at home in the evenings and early mornings.

In addition to this, I attended and served at the external exhibition events from where we did outside broadcasts on the radio. At these events, we would be able to gather more stories from the public.

I don’t think I’ve addressed the question, ‘what’s in it for me?’ very thoroughly yet. Well, in addition to ‘blooming where I’m planted’, I feel that there is a need for a job to be done and done well. Much of the work that is done by volunteers, were it not for the volunteers, would never be done at all, mainly due to the cost. I heard it mentioned recently that volunteers save the taxpayers of this country, many billions of pounds per year. Moreover, a job done by volunteers can be honed to perfection because unlike where paid employees are deployed, time is not money, so nobody is watching the clock or the budget.

Now that I have read these stories, I believe that this is a job that needed to be done and the veterans need to leave their legacies for generations ahead, so that people will learn of the true uncensored accounts of the war, a phenomenon that never existed until this moment in time.

I don’t need, nor do I want or look for material rewards. Some contributors have tried to reward me with offers of bottles of whisky or other products, but I needed to teach them that there are other ways for people to be rewarded, ways such as seeing the joy in their eyes as they say, “Thank you.”

Sometimes, when looking at what seemed to be a mammoth task, especially such as the taped interviews and stories, and the illegible diaries, the task ahead seemed hopeless, and the temptation to give up was very powerful. But, armed with the axiom: “Winners never quit and quitters never win”, I’d decided to get started and just do a bit at a time, and maybe convince myself that it didn’t matter if it didn’t get finished. But I always knew that it did matter because I’m a firm believer in the concept that if the end of a story isn’t included, the truth of the story isn’t revealed. I believe the end of every story is the most vital, so I would plod on with that in mind.

One great benefit that one gleans from a project such as this is the ability to take a look at oneself and one’s personal circumstances, moods and behavioural patterns. There are without doubt, some harrowing details in these stories and when one couples this with those seen on the BBC documentary series about Auschwitz, and then the movie “Escape From Sobibor”, which is based in a mass killing factory in Poland, one is filled with disbelief at the level of evil. Some of this evil is so incomprehensible, that it’s difficult to imagine how human beings can even engineer it, let alone accomplish it.

We hear of torture, starvation, extreme heat, extreme cold, deprivation of basic sanitation, prisoners of war being forced to wear one set of clothing until the clothing rots and falls from their bodies because of sweat and filth, prisoners of war being deprived of washing facilities for months, even years. It’s almost impossible to imagine not having a wash or shower for a year, whilst being forced to endure and work in extreme heat and humidity whilst wearing the same filthy clothes.

When we hear of these conditions that have been survived by the veterans, when we hear of how they ate rats and drank the juice from a blade of grass in order to survive, we tend to look at how easily we become upset in this relatively luxurious lifestyle that we enjoy in the year 2005. Suddenly, the cost of petrol for our luxury automobiles doesn’t seem to be much of a problem any more, neither does being cut up by another driver on the roads, nor also does the fact that it’s cold outside, the dark nights are upon us in winter, the British weather, the government, the rubbish on TV tonight, the latest computer game that someone else has but we don’t; in fact, this war makes even the modern day terrorism pale into insignificance in comparison. One wonders how big an impact the destruction of buildings such as the World Trade Center would have had during the nightly bombings of the east end of London throughout the blitz. They would have simply been two of many buildings destroyed, and would not warrant a specific mention of their own.

Whenever disasters strike, such as earthquakes, hurricanes, tsunamis and terrorist incidents, it becomes easier for those who refuse to believe in God, to fuel their arguments of disbelief. I have no difficulty suppressing their contentions because I believe that we humans were given a free will and are responsible for our own actions. We should not be blaming God for what we do. We should not be blaming God for what the Nazis did. We should not be blaming God for what the Japanese nips did. Nevertheless, I would be less than honest if I did not admit that such thoughts crossed my own mind when I studied reports of the mass slaughter of disabled children by the SS, and when I hear about how the SS complained about the cost and effort required to carry out these genocidal killings, and how they pioneered cheaper and more efficient ways of performing the mass murders. I hear of how doctors were given documents containing details of the ailments of sick and disabled children whom these doctors had never met or seen, yet these doctors are the ones who had to put a red cross on the document, which told the SS which children were to be slaughtered and which could continue to live. I ask myself, “Did God really make these people, and if so, why did He do that, why WOULD He do that?” I also ask, “Did God make those two hundred lice that cover every square inch of the the clothing and bodies of the men in the trenches, and did He make those rats that ran over the men’s faces and bodies as they slept in those trenches? I have to suspect that Satan had his own children amongst us and they were recruited into the SS. I reckon even the rats and lice bore swastikas on their bodies somewhere. Whether or not that is the case, I am happy to believe that it is.

Now, the question of what was in this project for me will always be there. There is still, inevitably the belief that nobody does “owt for nowt.” This belief probably exists because most people do not do ‘owt for nowt’, so it becomes difficult for them to accept that someone does. This can be born out by the attempts in London and Liverpool, of certain individuals, to give away five pound notes to people at random in the street who were simply passing by. Most of the people refused to accept the gifts because they, being suspicious, thought that they were being duped into something sinister that they would rather not know about. There’s always a catch, nobody just gives us something without expecting a return on their investment ……do they? After all, nobody just gives money away, do they? But some of us are happier giving than receiving, although it is important to know how to receive as well. I had to explain this one time to a couple of aforementioned contributors who were trying to reward me for having transcribed a roughly handwritten autobiography of a deceased loved one, into a nice pleasantly presented book. I explained that if she would receive that from me, she would be rewarding me by a far greater amount than a bottle of whisky could ever accomplish. However, it was really nice to receive the ensuing ‘Thank You’ cards. A

nother satisfying occasion came when I received an email from a gentleman in Plymouth, who, as a result of my work, had been able to make contact with one of his navy colleagues whom he had not seen for over 60 years. He wrote to tell me that they had been chatting on the phone over old times, for a considerable period.

In November 2005, another volunteer, Roger Marsh and I each received a medal, struck by the Royal Mint. They were presented to us by the Lord Lieutenant, the Queen’s representative, in the presence of the Lord Mayor of the City of Sheffield. It would be foolish, even if prudent, of me to try to deny that I was pleased by this. It is a great honour and a token of appreciation for the effort that has been tendered to the project. Whilst I had not been paid fiscally for my work, it gave me a lot of comfort, knowing that I was able to be useful, instead of sitting at home watching daytime TV all and every day. The project gave me a purpose; work well done is a reward in itself and it gives value to one’s existence. On the day of writing this story, I have been discussing the project on BBC Radio in Sheffield, and yes, that too is rewarding. I don’t have a crystal ball right now, so I’m not sure what is in my future, but for the present, I am happy that I have bloomed where God planted me.