World War 2 Stories for Sheffield

                           Jill Harland 

When I Was Just Five

By actiondesksheffield

People in story: Jill Harland
Location of story: Sheffield
Background to story: Civilian


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

The story was transcribed from audio tape recordings.
I can remember the announcement of the Second World War being broadcast over the BBC when I was just five, and I remember that this was being anticipated because there had been hostilities between Germany and Poland, so everyone felt this anticipation of the war. When the announcement was actually made, I remember my mother bursting into tears and my father putting his arms around her. We were actually sitting in next door’s house listening to the radio. There was this terrific feeling of gloom that descended on everything. My mother was crying because she thought my father would have to go in the army. The next-door neighbour’s wife was crying because she thought her husband was going to have to join up. When Neville Chamberlain said that no undertaking had been received from Germany, they decided that from that moment, Germany was at war with Great Britain. I can feel it now; it was a very poignant moment.

As a child, I was involved with everything that was going on in the war, and thinking about it brings back very poignant memories. I was a little girl who always wanted to sing, I wanted to be a singer and nothing else. During the war, there were always programmes on the BBC with big bands and orchestras. There was one band leader called Henry Hall and he used to emphasize when he would broadcast, he used to say, “This IS Henry hall speaking,” because he was thought to have been killed, actually in a raid, here in Sheffield.

I remember listening to the radio and hearing singers like Vera Lynne and Anne Shelton, who sang songs like, ‘We’ll Meet Again’ and ‘There’ll Be Blue Birds Over The White Cliffs Of Dover’, and all those lovely old songs, and I used to think, “That’s what I’m going to do when I grow up.” There was a bandleader called Geraldo, and he was very famous; he used to do weekly broadcasts. I thought, “When all this war is over and I’ve grown up, I just want to meet him,” and I did. I eventually went to work for him and he became my agent. He said, “You and I haven’t met before have we?” I said, “Yes, actually we have, in my dreams when I was five.” He must have thought, “She must be crazy.”

It was awful to say it, but I loved the war years, because there was always something on – you hadn’t to forget to take your gasmask to school, if you heard a German plane coming over, you had to lie on the floor, put your gasmask on. We had an underground shelter at school, and when there was a warning, we had to dash into the shelter and sing all the popular songs, and forget it. We had things like holidays at home, and lots and lots of memories you could pull from the back of your mind, that you think you’ve forgotten, but everybody pulled together.

Where we lived – I lived in another part of Yorkshire, at the other side of Leeds – we used to see the dogfights in the sky, with the Germans and the British planes, and we cold hear them taking off from the aerodrome near to where I lived. The very interesting thing was, the Lancaster Bombers, which were the big bombers, were partly built at what is now Leeds and Bradford Airport, underground. The Germans were looking for that factory for years and never found it. These aircraft were being produced and the technicians were working underground. I knew about this during the war, because my father used to take us for walks, and he used to say, “Now, under there, is a lot of stuff going on.” It was covered with grass, you couldn’t see anything and the Germans never found it. They did find certain factories in Leeds, which they bombed.

I remember my grandfather worked as an engineer on the night shift, at a place called Kirkstall Forge, a big steel producer that produced armaments for the war. He said, “Something’s telling me not to go to work tonight, I don’t know what. I don’t feel poorly, but I’m not going,” and they blew the place up.

My father was on reserved occupation because he was in the steel business and he used to come to Sheffield a lot, which was why he couldn’t be called up into the army. He joined the ‘Dad’s Army’, the Home Guard. They had the Home Guard and the ARP wardens, and it was exciting. I know it was terrible. But it was exciting, well, for somebody like me who was an observer, I just loved it.

I had two uncles who were taken prisoners of war, one in Germany and one in Italy. They were never the same when they came home. I can remember during the war, going to Leeds. I can’t remember exactly where it was, whether it was a hotel, but my mother took us, and there were a lot of women there and all their relatives were prisoners of war. They used to get together once a month and meet, and exchange news – “Have you heard of so and so?” It was very touching; it was a big drama for me. I have a twin brother and he knew all the names of the Russian generals in the army, every one of them. I used to say to my mother, “When the war is over, what will the news be about?” She’d say, “The weather forecast, and this, that and the other.” Then she’d think, “There’ll be nothing to talk about when the war’s over.”

Our schooldays were geared to drawing posters; it was a creative time for us really. It was based on propaganda but in a positive way. There was one dear friend whom my father lost, I remember meeting this young man; he was a navigator in the Royal Air Force. We met him one Sunday morning when my father was taking us for a walk. He introduced us to him – he was a tall fair-haired good looking lad of about 19. He’d been my father’s office boy. My father said, as we were parting, “Take care Jack, and I’ll see you.” He said, “The next train I go on Reg, I’ll never come back,” and he never did. It was very touching.

There was a wonderful atmosphere, no class distinction or anything. There was a bit of black maketeering going on; my grandma had a pub in Leeds actually. It was incredible – there would be a knock on the door in the middle of the night, and these con merchants would come and say, “Now, do you need any butter because if you look in your dustbin outside, we’ve just put 14 pounds (approx. 6.5 kgs) of butter in there, and there was a black market going on everywhere. It’s an ill wind that blows nobody any good isn’t it?

Generally speaking, I look back on the war with a lot of nostalgia – a lot of amazement and astonishment that we weren’t taken over as a country, because if we had been, that would have been it.

It was at the stage where we thought it was imminent, until the Battle Of Britain happened. We have films now, such as “A Bridge Too Far” and “The Longest day”, they tell the story, don’t they really?

It was so funny, because 5 years after the war, I went to work in Germany and the first guy I spoke to when I got to my destination, was a big German guy who’d been in the war, and he said, “I was a prisoner of war in your country.” I said, “Where?” He said, “Hull.” I thought, “Five years ago, I was fighting with you.”

Yes, I know lots of people had lots of sadness. As a child you see different things. At the end of the war, there were huge celebrations, outside Buckingham Palace, there were street parties – everybody wondered what was going to happen, which government was going to be in, but of course, everyone, no matter what their politics, would have a great deal of admiration for Winston Churchill, because without that positive dynamic reassurance that everything was going to be alright, I don’t think we’d have got through. I know people’s politics changed after that, but he was the right man at the time. Of course there was the war going on in the Far East as well. That went on until VJ Day in August. That didn’t seem to be as important to us; it was a long way off. We heard some terrible stories of what went on, but we were centred around Europe and our own country.