World War 2 Stories for Sheffield

                         Gordon Levers

Wartime Childhood in Sheffield

By Actiondesk Sheffield

People in story: Gordon Levers
Location of story: Sheffield South Yorkshire
Background to story: Civilian

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

My name is Gordon Levers and I am reflecting on my memories of life as a youngster during the early years of world war two.

When war was declared on the 3rd September 1939 I was almost ten years old. I lived with my parents, my brother and sister at the top of Evelyn Road in Crookes, on the western side of Sheffield. Nearby in Lydgate Lane was a distinctive old house with a square box shaped castellated tower known as Mount Zion. This was the highest point in Sheffield before the city boundaries were extended many years later. So living here gave us an elevated panoramic view over a large area of the city in the valley below.

We were all given a National Registration Identification Card, which gave our name, address and an identification number. It had to be carried at all times as the Police or members of the Armed Forces could demand to see it. We were also given Ration Books which we took to the grocery shop for the weekly meagre food supply. I remember going to the Co-Op on Crookes and watching the book being marked off or coupons removed for each individual item of food.

I attended Lydgate Lane School, which adjoined Mount Zion, so the school buildings were considered at the time to be very exposed to any aerial enemy attack. All the classes in the school were split up into smaller groups; they called this 'home service schooling'. These groups were given tuition in several homes scattered around the area, so should an air attack be made on the school buildings, the casualties would be minimised. I remember just four teachers, Miss’s Maskell, Bennet, Wagland and Mr. Bill Bailey. The classes were usually held either in a morning or afternoon, which obviously affected our education.

When not at school we used to go round the local area collecting old aluminium pans and bowls which were taken to be melted down for making parts for aircraft. Many of the terraced houses had small front gardens with low boundary walls with decorative railings on top, these were all removed except the ones which gave protection against dangerous situations. We thought that these railings were all melted down for making armaments, although I remember at the time there was a rumour that they were not suitable for this purpose.

We were all issued with gas masks which were not very nice to have on the face. They were made of rubber with a small clear perspex window in the front, and adjustable straps at the back, which held the mask tightly around the face. On the bottom was a small filter canister to purify any contaminated air. The gas mask had to be taken with us at all times. I was asthmatic and had great difficulty breathing when we had a gas mask drill At the top of the road was a small feeder reservoir and within its grounds, a Royal Air Force contingent had a small "Lewis" gun and a powerful searchlight which illuminated the sky at night when searching for enemy aircraft. On a small plot of land at the bottom of Lydgate Lane was another R.A.F. group manning the barrage balloon station. The balloon was a large ugly bulbous thing with three fins at the back to stabilise it. After dark the Army would bring several mobile anti-aircraft guns along the top of our road. Having so many military units around made it very frightening and put our area at greater risk from enemy attack. During an air raid the sound of the guns was deafening and the vibrations they created shattered many a window in the houses.

What really brought home to me what war was all about, was seeing and hearing a neighbour, Mrs. Thompson on receiving a telegram in June 1940 that her son, Sam, was reported missing at Dunkirk in France. She walked blindly around the yard screaming and flinging her arms around in desperation. It was a haunting experience which I will never forget, neighbours tried to calm her down but to no avail. She did receive notification later that he had been taken a prisoner and collections were made to send him Red Cross goodies. Sam returned home after the war, a dejected and crippled man who suffered great pain from the trauma of those years in captivity.

My most vivid memories were two particular ones, the 12th and 15th of December 1940,the nights of Sheffield blitz when bombs were dropped on our city by the German Luftwaffe. On the 12th it was a beautiful night, with a full moon and a crispy frost in the air. My father was at work, as he worked on a three shift rota and was on his afternoon shift. It was around seven o’clock when we first heard the wail of the sirens, just after we had snuggled down into bed. We quickly got up, dressed into warm clothing and then made our way down to the air raid shelter. My Grandma Clarke lived nearby. She used to come and shelter with us. We had no sooner settled down when there was the unmistakable drone of the hit and miss engines of the aircraft, wave after wave of them. Soon we could hear the naval guns situated in Wood Lane at Stannington, Whoof, then there was a pause before another Whoof, this being their very distinctive reverberating boom. The lighter mobile guns with their rapid rap, a, tat, tat followed the searchlights beam scanning the skies. We sat huddled together as the deafening screeching whistle of the bombs fell, hoping and praying we would all come out of this unscathed. We closed our eyes and put our hands over our ears to deaden the noise, but to no avail. I remember my mother as she comforted us, my younger brother and sister screamed and cried as the noise became unbearable. The raid went on for many hours and as day was breaking, we were relieved to hear the all clear siren. As we climbed out of the shelter, I can still recollect the picture which greeted us and has been imprinted on my mind for over sixty years. Being on top of the highest hill and towering over the city, I looked down on a mass of fiercely burning buildings, the sky glowed with reds, oranges, and black bellowing smoke to produce an eerie mixture of many colours in the sky, Sheffield as we knew it was being destroyed. My father arrived home, looking shattered having walked from the east end of the city due to the transport system having been put out of action. He said it was chaotic in town with burning buildings, burnt out trams and water gushing all over the place from burst water pipes. He had been stopped by the police several times and redirected due to the dangerous condition of properties which were either on fire or in a state of collapse. He said walking up High Street, he found it scary when he was confronted by lots of arms and legs scattered in the road but on taking a closer look he realised they were the dummies arms and legs from the C&A window display. My father told us that he had spent part of the night in the works shelter, but had found it terrifying, as each bomb dropped, the heavy steel doors were forced open and the draft caused by the bomb blast would pass through the labyrinth of corridors in the shelter at a terrific speed, and then the doors would clang back into their frames again until the next explosion.

The second air raid on the 15th December was much the same but my father was on nights this time. Again it was another night of bombardment by enemy aircraft which left the city in disarray. Once the furnaces had been tapped and replenished with scrap, they would be left for the morning shift to continue with the continuous steel melting process. The night shift had tapped and replenished the furnace, when they were instructed to go into the shelters, but my father, having had the traumatic experience of the previous air raid, decided not to go but to make his way home. He told us that he had had to make several detours as before in what he said was a horrific journey, and believe me we were pleased to see him safe and sound.

A lot of debris from these two nights of bombing was dumped in a quarry (now a children’s play area) at the top of Lydgate Lane. In Fitzalan Square, there used to be a hosiery business called, D.Hemmings, and when these premises were blitzed the rubble from the site was brought to the quarry. There were hundreds of hanks of navy blue, airforce blue and khaki wool deposited in the rubble. It was not long before the locals found out about it and soon they swamped the site to collect it before it was buried deeper. When it was washed, it came up just like new. I remember it quite well because I fetched some for my mother to wash. I was taught how to knit and my first article was a navy blue balaclava which I was really proud of. It was not long however before lots of people in the area were soon displaying military coloured winter woollies.

My father's pride and joy was his allotment garden at Hagg Lane, which he had had for many years. He was able to provide our family and neighbours with all the vegetables they required, but was distraught when a German parachute bomb landed two hundred yards from it. The whole area was flattened, sheds, greenhouses, the lot. The bomb crater was huge, it was large enough to put two double decker buses into it. Whilst it was upsetting to have caused so much damage to the allotments, it was better here than in a built up area where it would have been more catastrophic with a possible loss of life. I found a long length of rope from the parachute, it was made of twisted strands of green and white pure silk, approximately one and a half inches in diameter. We considered untangling it and letting my mother knit it into a garment, but my Aunt Marjorie saw it, claimed it and said it was just what she was looking for; a large skipping rope for the church youth club she ran, so that was the last we saw of the silk rope.

We used to go down to Myers Grove Lane at Malin Bridge on our bikes to collect salvaged wood to rebuild my dads greenhouse. Lengths of timber would be secured to the cross bar of our bikes and then it was the long trek along Rivelin Valley Road and then up the steep Hagg Lane to the allotment. It was not long before the greenhouse was restored like many more on the site.

I was a member of the 79th St. Timothy’s boy scout group in Slinn Street at Crookes, and every week, several of the troop, I can recollect three other members, Cyril Smith, Peter Wragg and Peter Mills, would go down to the Royal Hospital on West Street and put the blackouts up to the windows. When we had finished, we would go into the central courtyard to make sure all the windows had been blackened out, yet there was always the same one missed at the top of the building, it was near the operating theatre, I often wondered if that was the reason. It was a long trudge up the stairs to the window as we were not allowed to use the lifts because they were out of bounds and left available in case of an emergency. Many patients looked forward to our weekly visits, especially in the Bernard Wake ward where the ladies spoilt us by giving us some of the goodies which had been left for them by relatives and friends. They were real luxuries. I remember there was one ward I didn’t like visiting and that was the Edgar Allen ward. It was a surgical ward where some patients were covered from head to toe in bandages, and there always seemed to be a lot of blood around which I found distressing and quite frightening. For this service we were presented with a National Service breast badge, it was red with capital gold lettering across it, a capital N, then a crown, then a capital S. We were very proud and honoured to wear that badge.

I remember going on a long weekend fishing trip with my father, brother and a work colleague of my fathers, Mr Roberts, to Sutton on Trent. We had had a good day's fishing and had called at a local hostelry before making our way back to the cottage, where we were staying, when we heard the droning of a low flying aircraft overhead. There were many airfields in the vicinity and it was not unusual to hear and see many bombers in the sky either going or coming back from air raids over Germany. The noise of this particular one was rather different, and looking up we could just make out in the darkness, its outer engine on the starboard side was on fire. It was a four engine Stirling Bomber and the flames were quite fierce as it slowly came towards us, then suddenly the flames went to no more than a flicker. " Look the fire is out, she’ll make it back to base," we shouted.
There was a pause, then whoosh, the second engine burst into flames. The remaining engines were given full throttle. They roared as the plane began to climb, with flames trailing from the wing, the dark sky was aglow, then one after the other we could see the silhouettes of the seven crew members parachuting down from the plane. There was a terrific explosion as the aircraft crashed to within three or four miles from us. We learned the following day that the plane was not high enough for the safe evacuation of the crew and all personnel were killed. At night the local pub was always full of aircrews. There was always lots of laughter and from what we saw the night before, no wonder, it was a matter of enjoy today for you never know what tomorrow holds.
For the later years of the war, I cannot remember much happening, there was the occasional air raid warning when raids were being carried out on other cities, so on occasions enemy bombers passed over Sheffield.

In 1943 I was successful in passing my entrance exam as one of the first entrants to the Central Technical School of Building. The school was in the centre of town, but I cannot remember ever being troubled by air raids.

I remember both the Victory in Europe night and Victory in Japan night when hundreds of people celebrated, bonfires were lit all over the city. I spent these two occasions with local teenagers on the Bole Hills at Crookes. We had a great time when we were able to light up the skies, dance, sing and be merry.

It was a number of years later, in February 1985 to be exact, when I was involved in the removal of a large unexploded bomb dropped on the 13th December 1940, which was found on a building site in Lancing Road. Being the Principal Surveyor for public safety in the Building Surveyor's Division of Sheffield City Council, I was the co-ordinator to give whatever assistance was needed to Major Alistair Craig of the 33rd Engineer Regiment (Explosive Ordnance Division). The bomb was very difficult for Major Craig and his team to deal with; the weather was extremely cold, the fuses on the bomb were not easily accessible and it was with great relief that after over 36 hours, the mission was accomplished. In the original records of bombs dropped on Sheffield, it showed that a bomb had been dropped in that area but not found. So what was special for me was being able to complete the record on the 11th February 1985 that this bomb was finally defused. There were many countrywide requests for the bomb, but I made sure it stopped here in Sheffield as a memorial to all the suffering bombs had caused to so many families, and as a reminder to young people the horrors of war.