World War 2 Stories for Sheffield

                        Jean Barber 

A Child’s View of War

By Actiondesk Sheffield

People in story: Jean Barber
Location of story: Sheffield, 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 Jean Barber.

A Child’s View of War
Jean Barber

Viewed through the eyes of a 5 to 10 year old child, life passed off uneventfully, food appeared on the table, birthdays and Christmas produced presents, and the yearly holiday taken at the seaside - generally Blackpool where my father, a commercial traveller amongst other things, took Mum and myself, sometimes by car - he combined our holidays with his travelling, and at other times joining him by train when he was already in the area. The only eventful thing that happened were stray bombs that fell in Stannington, the blast from the valley brought the ceiling down in the front room of the house which overlooked the Rivelin Valley in Crookes.

My Dad built an air raid shelter, he dug into the bank at the back of the house which was built on a hill near the Bolehills. The walls and roof were brick and concrete reinforced with mesh, the garden which was terraced was re-instated on the roof of the shelter. You could not tell a shelter was there as the garden hut was in front with just a small passage at the side leading to it. I know that the shelter was still in place in the 1980s, as it was used as a garden store and shed. The whole thing was immensely strong and equipped with bunk beds - always ready, and an off-heater capable of brewing tea and battery lights. The elderly couple who lived next door used it as well, as it was pretty big.

My Dad was in a reserved occupation in a small tool and engineering firm in Sheffield, switching from the office when men were called up for the army. This resulted in him being able until he retired to sort out any problem that came up, he could work out most things and finish the job. I have a copy of a painting done by one of the work people of Dad at his bench, working an a job. He started the war as an A.R.P. Warden switching to the Home Guard, however, because he could drive, he was seconded to the Auxiliary Fire Service to drive the fire engines based at Division Street. He attended the fire at Walsh’s department store and said it was not the result of a bomb, but from flames from else where. The fires could not be extinguished as there was no water supply, the fire fenders having an inadequate supply of water for the amount needed. It was only when I grew up that I understood the danger he was in as he worked through the blitz with the A.F.S., combining this with his job at the firm. The firemen had a reputation for making huge sandwiches at that time, this I can verify, having tried to eat one, they were big!

My Mum's brother and sister were also with the fire service, my aunt was on the switchboard in Division Street throughout the war. My uncle was full time in the A.F.S. He had a posting to London through their blitz and I remember overhearing Mum say that one of his jobs was to go out with a basket and retrieve human body parts - to a child it seemed unthinkable.

The flourishing Black market operating at the time produced a steady supply of food and materials for clothing. The proprietress, of the hotel we stayed at in Blackpool had quite a few farmers among her clients, when they came for their holiday what their suitcases contained was anybody's guess, but we always ate vary well and the proprietress was generous to her regulars and supplied them with food when they went home. The Christmas turkey came from the vale of York, where there were contacts, Dad hiding it well in the back of the car along with other goodies.

I remember at my grandmother's my aunt sat making underwear out of parachute silk. Also my Mum, making clothes from material she obtained from an old friend who kept vast amounts of various materials under her bed, wool blankets made very good coats. Mum also got some mock fur which she made into a siren suit for me. In the shelters they were invaluable to keep you warm.

When V. E. was declared we had moved to Crosspool, where at the top of the garden was a field with allotments: Dad built a bonfire to celebrate: However the most memorable time was V.J. Day.

We were on holiday at Blackpool and when the news of the surrender came through, the whole town went wild. The Fylde coast had huge bases of American and British air force and troops. Along the front at Blackpool, if it could be moved and burnt it went on a bonfire.

There were bonfires and parties every few yards - dancing - drinking - celebrating, it was mind blowing to a just 11 year old participating, and eventually hauled off to bed and watching from the bedroom window: Blackpool eventually slept the next day. Walking along the front the following day, you could see the remains of all the bonfires and service men and women asleep on the sands. I will never forget, at 70 it is still fresh in my mind.

Towards the end of the war when at Crosspool, the Italian prisoners of war used to come walking found the area. At that time things were quite relaxed regarding these men, they used to work on local farms and were based at the Redmires prisoner of war camp near Lodge Moor. When Dad saw any, he used to invite them in for a cup of tea. They were always friendly and occasionally lost, Dad somehow managed to give them directions even if the language posed a little difficulty.

In 2002 I managed to Get my uncle Albert, my aunt's husband, talking about his experiences at Dunkirk. He was with the Royal Engineers but was seconded to the medical corp at the time of Dunkirk. He described picking up the injured on stretches with his partner, wading into the sea and trying to load them onto the boats to bring home. As we know, the boats were all shapes and sizes and rocking violently with all the activity in the water, they had quite a job trying to get them on board without disturbing the injured too much (or losing them in the sea). We all know what a great job everyone did at that time. The medics were of course the last to leave. My uncle described running from obstacle to obstacle on the beach, dodging bullets from the German planes and eventually throwing themselves onto a boat. He recounted his story of the beaches with humour and a little laughter particularly dodging the bullets. I believe he spent the rest of the war in the Middle East fairly uneventfully.

I hope the above will be of interest. I was lucky, many were not. My war passed with the love of both my parents and we came through it together with my family complete, many were not so lucky and we owe a great debt to them. My grandfather lost his younger brother in the 1914-18 war and his body was not recovered until 1936. A farmer was plowing a field at Mouquet Farm in France not far from the Belgium border and my uncle's remains came to light. He was reburied in the war cemetery at Longville in France, near to Belgium. I have been to see his grave with my daughter and the sight of all the rows of graves is the most moving experience, the song containing the lines "When will they ever learn?" comes to-the mind. As my great uncle was serving with the Canadian Seaforth Highlanders, his name is also recorded at the magnificent Canadian war memorial at Vimy Ridge in France and I had the privilege of seeing his name an the memorial and also at the memorials in Edinburgh. I hope to take my son someday. I had the pleasure of going with the King's Own Yorkshire Light Infantry, who visit the World War One battlefields and war graves every year. It is a moving experience. The Last Post Ceremony held every evening at the Menin Gate in Ypres by the local Fire Brigade and residents is truly a thought provoking time, the sounding of the Last Post and the wreath laying ceremony makes you think of the infallibility of life. Alas, when will we ever learn? Today brought back all the negative feelings of war with the bombing of London – 7 July 2005!

My Mum, what was her contribution? She was like so-many other mothers and wives, quietly getting on with life, making sure her family were fed and clothed, the power and the backbone of the country on which life hinged in spite of the higher profile of the forces and home work force. Without them, life would have been so much harder for everyone. Their role is often very much underestimated by everyone who lived through those times. As a wife and mother I understand the amount of work that we do and the truly momentous efforts our mothers must have put in to look after us.

Jean Barber nee Ward.