World War 2 Stories for Sheffield

                            Joyce Emms 

Memories of a child in Wartime

By Actiondesk Sheffield

People in story: Joyce Emms
Location of story: Darnall, 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 Joyce Emms.

Memories of a child in Wartime

Joyce Emms

When I was nine years old I didn't understand why so many grown ups were so interested in Mr Chamberlain the Prime Minister's visit to Germany. The first time he came back everyone was happy and kept saying "Thank God for that". I didn't know what they were thanking God for but I was glad they were not still looking so serious.
I was in Miss Hollyhead's class at school, in fact four of us had been in her class for over a year and actually stayed there until we sat our 11+ , which all four of us sat at 10! They had brought the age restrictions in and we were too far ahead for our age group so had to stay put. The only thing I knew about Germany was what Miss H. had told us, she had been there on a holiday, which in itself in those days was rare as people lived and died and never even saw much of this country never mind go abroad. She said it was a wonderful clean place, that if you threw litter on the floor, however small it was the policeman would blow his whistle come over and make you pick it up. This indeed seemed very unusual, but she assured us it was true because she had seen it for herself.

A short time later, in September, everyone was gathered round the radio again, but this time the Prime Minister sadly announced we were at war with Nazi Germany. The women started crying and the men looked very angry saying we had shown them who was boss once and could do it again, that it would all be over by Christmas.

My dad was considered to be too valuable where he was in the steelworks, he had volunteered and wanted to go in the Navy but was rejected. He used to work very long hours, twelve hours with one week on days and one on nights. He volunteered for the ARP. and was made a Sector Warden. Many comical things have been written about this job but you can take it from me it was no joke. The first job we did (I always helped him) was fill in cardboard notices for every house in his sector telling them what to do in an Air Raid, where their nearest A.R.P. Station was and our address because he was the Sector Warden. Then we had to take them round and try to impress on people to read them and keep them in a safe place.

The next thing to happen, which caused excitement to put it mildly was when they tried the Air Raid Sirens out. Everybody said what a ghastly noise they made and even years and years after the war if they were heard on old movies etc. it made your blood run cold. There was no danger of being asleep and not hearing the warning.

My dad's next job was making sure everybody's gas mask fitted properly. He had to hold apiece of cardboard under the front of the mask and when you took a breath the card was supposed to stick to the bottom of the mask, this was to prove it was airtight round your face. We were supposed to carry them everywhere, and soon there was a thriving business in fancy cases to carry them in, a bit like the modern shoulder bags. Needless to say as the war went on the masks were left at home and the cases used for carrying schoolbooks, make-up if you were older etc. etc.
When the sirens sounded the Wardens who were not at work used to have to go to their headquarters to sign on for duty. My poor old dad had it really rough, it seemed as though all the long nuisance raids as they were called, used to fall when he was on days, making it impossible for him to get much sleep before going to work for 12 hours, and the trouble was he never got used to sleeping in the day time when he was on nights. This hard work with little food and rest took its toll on his health and he looked much older than he actually was.
Meanwhile, we school kids had not been having a very happy time. There were no sweets to be had, no fruit only rhubarb if you knew someone with a garden and this had to be sweetened with saccharin a sugar substitute that tasted foul. There were no street lamps so the winter evenings were very long and cold because coal was rationed like everything else.

Clothes were also on rations and everyone guarded their clothing coupons because they had to be used for everything, including towels and bedding, curtains etc. There was no proper wool available and the substitute was like knitting with string and about as warm, it also didn't keep its shape like wool so no matter how nicely you knitted a jumper, after the first wash it looked rubbish.

People got very clever at adapting things. Outdoor coats were made out of army surplus blankets, dresses were made out of blackout material and blouses out of parachute material. I'm not sure because I was too young but I think many of these things were purchased on the black market. The wives of the men in the forces adapted their husband's clothes for their own and their children's use. Necessity was indeed the mother of invention. Even food was adapted to make it more appetising, my mum once put an OXO cube into mashed potato and told me it was dripping. Spam was the most versatile new food, it was put into pies instead of meat, and it was fried instead of bacon with new powdered egg the Government had introduced. Many people didn't like this but I really loved it also something called Colact that was issued to pregnant women at the Welfare. It was like today's Drinking Chocolate and I liked it better than my usual cocoa because it was creamier and sweeter.

In the home things were dreadful when the air raids really started. Everyone had to make sure no lights could be seen at their doors and windows, this meant heavy curtains to the windows and doors and turning the light out before you opened an outside door. My dad was a really clever bloke and he rigged a contraption on our outside door that flicked a switch to turn the light out when the door was opened and when the door was closed it flicked the switch again and the light came back on. Later many gadgets were sold to do the same thing but as usual dad had thought something out for himself.

We had two terrible raids that were called blitzes. During the first a lot of very high explosive
bombs were dropped on the reservoirs that supplied all our water. They used to bring carts round with water tanks on the back and you had to fill whatever you could or you got no water until next day. The second blitz was even worse because incendiary bombs were dropped all round Darnall where we lived because we were surrounded by the big factories at Attercliffe and Tinsley. When the all-clear siren went and we emerged from our shelters it was an incredible sight. Although it was the middle of the night and as I have already said there were no lights allowed, it was like daytime, there was a red circle all around us in the sky.

Dad was at work when he heard Darnall was blazing. The guards on the gate were not supposed to open them but many men lived in Darnall and wanted to get home to their loved ones. My dad told the guard if he didn't open the big gates he was going to climb over them, when the guard saw how determined he was he opened them.

As he walked home through the area that is now the Arena etc. everywhere was blazing and people were crying out because they were trapped in cellar shelters of the burning buildings. Normally my dad would have tried to help these poor people but his only thought was for his own family so he and the other men pressed on for home. When he arrived he was so overcome to see we were safe that he broke down and cried, he only stopped because mum told him he was frightening me.

When he knew we were safe, he went to see if he could help the rescue services. He met an old friend coming up Darnall Hill, his home had been one of the casualties. He had a lot of children who were all crying because they were hungry. Dad told them to stay put, then he came home and put all the new bread mum had made in a bag and took it to this poor family.
The man and his wife always told my mum and dad that it was the best bread they had ever tasted. That night along with hundreds of other families they slept in the schools and churches.

After these two raids the centre of Sheffield was unrecognisable. Large stores were just a pile of rubble and some buildings had to be pulled down because they were unsafe. As if this wasn't bad enough during another raid a landmine was dropped at the bottom of Darnall Hill. It wiped out four streets of houses and damaged property as far away as ours at the top of the hill. We had no windows and no slates on the roof, so we all had to sleep in one room downstairs. My dad slept on the end of a mattress on the floor, mum slept next to him, then my Granddad Bill. They had to sleep like this because the old man had terrible asthma and my dad being a light sleeper, as I have said, would have been unable to get any rest. I was on the three settee cushions under the table. Old Bill embarrassed my mum to death because he told his mates in the local that he'd never been as warm in bed for years.

After this we kids were put on Home Service, this meant we had our lessons in people's front rooms. It was not an ideal way to get our education, the poor teachers had no sooner started a lesson than it was time to pack everything up. One of our classes the teacher in charge got a map out and showed us where the fighting was taking place. It was a most unusual geography lesson!!!

During these years I had developed into a very good swimmer and was entered in a race at Attercliffe Baths. Because the other girl and myself (she was also one of the four in Miss. H's class for so long) were so young there was no suitable race for us to enter. Instead they called us the Water Babies and we just swam the length of the bath. She had only had a very light meal for her tea because of the Gala. I'd had meat and potato pie. They all said l would sink like a stone but instead I beat her and my prize was my first fountain pen and propelling pencil set, it was a Platinum in silver grey and I loved it.

After this event our Headmistress Miss Pound had us all out in front of the school in Assembly and we all showed our prizes. She also said that if our parents would let us, we could share her private swimming lessons at Sutherland Road baths, mum wasn't too keen on my going but one of the much older girl's said she would keep her eye on me and that it would be a shame to miss such a wonderful offer. It was lovely having a specialist teacher and also the pool to ourselves. Apart from taking part in Miss. H's plays (we knew Pinocchio by heart) and being good at needlework I didn't pull many trees up in individual sports. I liked rounders and team sports best.

The four of us duly took our 11+ and despite the break in our Education on Home Service we all passed. We had been constant schoolmates from being four and a half years old when we all started school, we'd never been close friends and apart from myself and my swimming pal we all chose different Grammar Schools so our paths only crossed in rarely in later life. We had shared so much and now we all went our separate ways.

I had to travel on two trams to get to my new school, Abbeydale Grange Grammar School, but there was another girl older than me who lived in our street so we went to school together. Mum nearly had a fit when she discovered the school had been bombed. Because it was such a new building set amongst woods and fields, also it was an unusual shape, every corridor was built next to a garden, they thought it had been mistaken for a nursing home for wounded men. There were no factories or other targets nearby so maybe this was the explanation. Mum was not happy.

After the first year we were put into streams. If we were good at most subjects we were in the "A" group, if not as bright but not bad it was the first of the "B" group, these children did not get to take another language besides French but got extra help with their Maths. If it was thought they were not too bright they ended up a class that taught them Domestic Science instead of any extra academic subjects. The classes were given "A" , "Alpha" , "B" and "Beta". You could choose between Latin or German for the second language after French in the "A" groups.

I chose German, so went into "Alpha". It was funny really looking back because people used to say that Latin was a dead language and that German would be after the war.

I did well at school, but I had one regret, we had swimming lessons after school at King Edwards Bath. It was a beautiful pool, belonging to the boys' school. They used one of our fields for their sports so we used their bath. The friends I travelled home with did not want to go swimming after school so mum would not let me travel home alone. My swimming was never the same, without practice I quickly lost a lot of my earlier promise.

Some of the classes went into Lincolnshire for two weeks to help the farmers with various tasks. We didn't get the first time and they weren't going to send our class the following year so we all objected and went to see the Headmistress saying it wasn't fair that because we were bright pupils it was thought our education was too important. It seemed as though we were being punished far working hard and we didn't think this was right.

In the end she saw our point of view and we were allowed to go. I then had to go home and convince my mum to let me go, dad was on my side saying what harm could come to us in the country. What none of us knew was that we were surrounded by Aerodromes and that D-Day was to start while we were there. We didn't know what was happening and used to stop our tasks on the farms to look at all the aeroplanes flying what appeared to be just over our heads. One of the planes turned when he saw us waving our hoes, it was an American Flying Fortress, as it came down lower over us we all dived into the hedge. The farmer's wife said she saw the pilot waving to us, I'm not actually sure if this is possible, but we were all sorry we'd not stayed and watched this amazing plane. Many years later at a display with my son I saw a Concorde fly over us all and this had the same shock effect, the noise and the size reminded me of the incident when I was a schoolgirl.

The first task, my four friends and myself, were given was hilarious. Our farmer had collected us in a beautiful big car, the others before us had all been on the back of lorries.

When we got to the field, we were miles away from anywhere and the only building was an old barn where the farmer said we were to eat our lunch. The only other thing in the field was an enormous pile of manure and four big forks. He showed us how to spread the manure over the field and then left us. At first we tackled it very gingerly, being so careful not to get too close. After about an hour of this, we were so fed up we just ploughed into the stuff and slung it about with great abandon, Brenda one of my best mates even fell on the pile!!!
We duly had our lunch, carrot and raisin sandwiches (we had sadly got the Science teachers) plus manure relish.

When the farmer collected us he was astounded. His intention had been for us to do the task all our two weeks, ten working days, instead we'd done it in one. After this we worked alongside his wife hoeing the weeds that grew in between the sugar beet, I think he was scared of killing us with work if we worked alone. We were the first group of schoolgirls he'd had.

When we returned to the village schoolroom where we slept the rest of our colleagues were nearly all sick with the stench. The teachers insisted we got into the showers first; they didn't want the hot water to run out before we were fumigated. Before we left the headmistresses study she had told us there was to be no talking to the village boys, most of us weren't interested in boys so we thought this would be no problem. Neither she, nor us, reckoned on the two teachers, they may not have been as good with the food as the Games Teachers but when we started to play cricket the boys who were watching were invited to join in.

Needless to say we all ended up with a beau for the rest of the stay.

One night as we were all asleep, all except Brenda, when an Airman from the village dance tried to get through the window I was sleeping under. She was reading a comic under the blanket and had to pretend to be asleep when the teachers came to investigate. She said that he didn't need telling twice to sling his hook, one look at the teachers in their curlers was enough.

We had a great two weeks; sadly one of the girls broke her foot on the last day. My thumb had been trapped in the door of the train when we had set off, it was ironic really because we were only at Darnall Station. We were standing in a compartment because the corridors were full; trains were always full with servicemen and women in those days. There was a very stroppy lady sitting in our carriage and she complained about the carriage door being open, said she was cold (it was June) so I leaned over to close it just as the guard came up and pushed it. My thumb was wedged in the door and the guard was very upset, "madam" who'd caused it said nothing. It hurt terribly but there was nothing we could do, so one of my friends wrapped her hankie round it, they also told the teacher what had happened but although she bathed it when we arrived at the village there wasn't anything she could do either. The expression "Sticking out like a sore thumb" must have been made by someone in a similar predicament, it got in my way all the time and it was certainly sore.

My dad had come to the station to collect me, and when he saw the girl on crutches he said he dreaded to think what I would have done, because I was always in trouble. When he saw the busted thumb, I think he was really relieved that I'd not done anything more serious. Mum of course went barmy when I told her how it had happened.

My mum and dad started working at the local dance, their friend ran the dance and my Gran's sister was in the ladies cloakroom and he wanted mum to do the gents and dad to be the man taking money on the door. At first I used to sit at the back of the room doing my homework, but eventually one or two of the lads used to say, "Come on young'un" and they taught me how to do the dances. I think they enjoyed dancing with me because I was light on my feet and they could spin me about trying all their new dance steps out. I loved it and it quickly became my favourite replacement for swimming. I learned how to do all the dances but my favourite was jiving, even now I can't sit still when the music starts. A young man wanted me to go to London for the Victor Sylvester Competition for Young Dancers, he was confident we would win, but said I would have to stop jiving because it spoiled your dancing. In the first place I didn't agree with him about either things, I thought it was a bit bigheaded to think we were the winners but there was no way he or anyone else was going to stop me doing something I got so much pleasure from, so that was the end of that.

When the American Forces came to England there were two occasions I remember well. The first was in the Gents Cloakroom, my mum used to take the money for looking after belongings but there was no charge for servicemen. This huge black American Airman towered over her and kept holding all the coins in his pocket out for her, she kept saying it was free and he kept saying three of which coin, in sheer desperation she waved her arms in the air and said "Buck Shee". Amazingly he understood, smiled at us both and said thank you.

The next incident happened at the local vicarage. My friend, who lived next door, and I were talking to the vicar and a black American Airman came into the room, the vicar introduced us. Noreen was introduced first; when it was my turn I took my little white gloves off (we always wore white crochet gloves in summer in those days) and shook hands. I don't know what made me do it because it was customary for ladies to shake hands wearing gloves. The Airman said "Ah a lady" and the vicar smiled too. Poor old Noreen said she felt awful and wished she had done the same.

When the war ended in Europe everyone went mad. As far as we were concerned our days of bombing etc. were over. Although there was still a shortage of food because of rationing it was amazing the parties there were in just about every street. The one I went to in Thames Road was super. They had wheeled a piano into the street and my friend's father who played the sax in a dance band and someone else got on an accordion. We danced and danced until the early hours of the morning.

When the war with Germany was over more food was getting through on the convoys because the ships were not being sunk by U Boats. We queued for bananas at the local fruit shop; oranges were now available to everybody and not just pregnant women. The snag was we weren't used to some of the food because we hadn't had it for so long and I came out in a rash all over both legs caused by something I'd eaten. We tried everything on it but my Grandad said it was what the soldiers got in the tropics called prickly heat. He told mum to make some foul ointment with sulphur and pork lard, it smelled revolting and stuck to my stockings, but it did the trick
The war with Japan finally ended. Everyone knew their boys in the forces were safe now and would be coming home. We could have huge bonfires in the streets and because food was more available huge street parties were held. Dancing of course was obligatory.

We kids were deprived of many things during the war but the people I shall always admire were my mum and dad. They always managed somehow to celebrate Easter, Whitsuntide, Birthdays, Bonfire night and especially Christmas and the New Year. They both did a first rate job of providing as normal a family life as possible and were wonderful parents for a child in wartime to have.