World War 2 Stories for Sheffield

Tony Windross 

Memories of a Young Schoolboy

By Actiondesk Sheffield

People in story: Tony Windross
Location of story: Wakefield, Yorkshire
Background to story: Civilian


I was born in 1936, the youngest of four children, in the City of Wakefield, and my earliest memory of the war is that of being woken by the sound of ‘Holdsworths Mill Steam Hooter’ being used as the air raid siren, and being lifted out of bed, wrapped in a blanket before being carried down into the air raid shelter in the back garden of our council house, where my mother would nurse me and my two brothers and my sister would huddle close to us for both warmth and safety.

Luckily for us, the area we lived in was of no special wartime significance, so we never experienced any attacks of any kind.

My early years were spent playing out when the weather allowed, and going to the shops with my mother, and it was not until many years later that I realised how much she had to struggle to get food for us, but I can never remember being hungry.

The food was plain but filling and I used to like it when baking day came round and I was allowed to ‘help’. Along with loaves of bread my mother used to make ‘oven bottom cakes’, huge teacakes that filled the bottom of the oven, and we were given one to share, sliced open and spread with margarine or jam, for our tea.

I was always in the house early due to the blackout and the likelihood of a raid, and the four of us would play a wide variety of games to amuse ourselves and by the time I was old enough to go to school, I was quite an accomplished card player.

Due to being born in March, and not allowed to start school until the school year after I was five, I was five and a half when I finally started at the ‘Lawfield Lane Infants School, my mother taking me on the first morning and afterwards I went on my own.

At this time, the war meant nothing special to us except we had to make sure we carried our gas masks whenever we went out, and at school, they were hung on our peg in the school corridor, along with our coats. There was assembly in the hall every morning and the teachers would inspect our hands and face for cleanliness and make sure we had a ‘handkerchief’ of some sort, but no comment was made about the state of our clothes, especially the boys' trousers, which often consisted of more patches than original garment. Occasionally we would have an ‘air raid drill’ when the school bell would be rung. We would all pick up our gas masks, then make our way into the shelters that were built in the school grounds, where we would sit on long benches. The teacher would call out the register, then we were made to put our gas mask on and sit for a few more minutes before going back into school, still in our gas masks, before removing them and going back into the classroom to resume lessons.

The teachers at the infant school were all older women, but they tried their best to teach us and also make life as pleasant as they could. I can remember them organising a school pantomime and also Christmas parties, and most parents would do their best to provide buns and jellies and sandwiches. Even though the fillings in the latter were usually only jam, potted meat or fish paste, they were eaten with great gusto by us. My mother had this special tin which she used to make cakes in, and it produced a cake about 12 inches in diameter and some 3 to four inches deep with a huge hole in the middle (I later learned it was a flan tin). These proved a great favourite at both the Infants' School, and later at the Junior School next door, despite them turning out a bright yellow through the use of ‘powdered egg.’

One thing the whole family did was listen to the news on the wireless and as I grew older, I began to realise something important was going on, and the reports of the air raids on some towns and the fact that soldiers were fighting, began to sink in. I can just remember listening to the reports of the evacuation from Dunkirk but it was a few years before the significance of this was finally realised.

At seven, I moved up to the junior school and there, unless it was raining, we would, every morning, be marshalled into our classes. The boys went into our own playground and the girls into theirs. The two being divided by a tall iron fence at that time, and even after it had been taken for scrap iron, the burnt off stubs still acted as a barrier between us.

Once in our classes, we were ‘drilled’ like a squad of soldiers before being marched in school and we stopped outside our classroom until the teacher told us to go in, and then the register would be called before we were all marched into the hall for assembly. The headmaster Mr Britton played the piano, and thus we learned all the march tunes of the time, from Colonel Bogey onwards.

The teachers at the junior school were mainly men who were too old or unfit for the services, and married women of similar ages and dicipline were quite strict but not too harsh.

One thing that stands out in my memory is that there was a huge world map in the classrooms and every morning, the teacher would point out to us the places that had been in the news and names like Benghazi, Mursa Matru, Constantinople and Timbucktoo, and of course El Alamein were quickly learned and throughout the war. The list grew daily, especially after June 1944.

After the first few weeks of uneventful air raid alerts, we stopped using the shelter and would sit in the bathroom, which was on the ground floor, and quite soon we stopped getting up at all.

Little of any significance disturbed our lives at home and the nearest we got to a raid itself was when a lone German bomber dropped a land mine on a market garden about three miles away. It broke a lot of windows as well as demolishing several large greenhouses but nothing more serious.

Eventually, when I was just turned 9 we were told the war was over and, like everyone else we joined in the celebrations. The street lights came on and every kid around went ‘Chubbing’ for the bonfire we were having to celebrate ‘V.E. Day’, and many hedges and copses of trees were well and truly ‘pruned’ by us as we wielded choppers and saws with great vigour.

And so the war ended. Or did it?

The only visible sign was that the street lights came on at dark, but it was a long time, even after I had gone to Grammar School, before many ordinary items became available in the shops, and even after I had left school and started work, such basic essentials as tea, sugar, butter and also cigarettes were still rationed.

Further wartime memories:

My father was too old for service in the armed forces, but he enrolled in the ARP and by the time I was old enough to know what was happening, he was a Senior Warden. Apparently our house had been used for the distribution of gas masks to the local residents and I, still being a very small child, had made my dislike of these clear, so much by screaming at the sight of people trying them on, that my sister had brothers had to take me out for a walk until everyone had gone.

Once the air raid sirens started sounding my father would quickly put his uniform on, while our mother herded us into the shelter, then he would pick up his whistle, bell and rattle, and after making sure we were safe, go off to his warden’s post further down the avenue. I can’t recall what the bell and whistle were for, but the rattle, which made a great din when swung properly, was to warn of a gas attack and thankfully, other than for practise and demonstrations these items were never used.

Every month or two, the civil defence and other civilian services would gather on some waste ground at the end of the estate to give demonstrations of what to do in an emergency. Incendiary bombs were to be tackled by shovelling sand on them, using a very long handled ‘coal shovel’, and lots of people and all shops and workplaces had buckets of sand placed at strategic places for this purpose.

The Auxiliary Fire Service, civilians trained in fire fighting, would demonstrate the correct way to fight a fire using the stirrup pumps issued to households. I remember the boys especially liked using these pumps, and we would put the end in a bucket of water and pump like mad to see who could send the jet of water the furthest or highest, and if there was someone you didn’t especially like watching, they were ‘accidentally’ sprayed as the one holding the hosepipe ‘lost control of it’ for a second or two.

The civil defence people also brought their ‘gas van’ to these demonstrations. This was a quite large box van and people climbed inside with their gas masks on, then the doors were closed and tear gas was released inside the van. This was to test the gas masks and make sure they fitted properly, and when the van doors were opened, out would come the volunteers and it was easy to see the ones whose masks were not right, for they would be coughing and spluttering, and their eyes running with tears and the wardens and members of the St John Ambulance Brigade would see to them until they recovered.

The father of a friend of mine was in the AFS, and his unit and many other local ones were sent to Hull to help fight the fires caused by the bombing, and I can remember his describing the horror of it and how the streets were rivers of fire as the sugar and such items in the dockside warehouses melted and ran down the streets as they burnt.

My father was as a driver for the Wakefield Co-operative society and worked long hours delivering items to the various stores, and left for work long before I got up for school. Often he was not home when it was time for bed, and sometimes it would only be on Saturday afternoons and Sundays when most of us would see him, and even then only for a short time if the ARP was having a training exercise.

As I have said previously we were in a non-strategic area, so relatively little happened to bring home the horrors of what was happening elseware, and all our news came from the wireless set in the living room. As you will appreciate this was heavily censored, so whilst we heard of the raids on other towns, we did not realise just what was really happening and it was only the people who went to the pictures and saw the newsreels that had any idea at all.

Once the air-raid sirens stopped sounding, so often any spare time my father had was spent in digging the garden and planting it with vegetables to help with the food problem, as did nearly everyone else. Me and other kids would trail round the estate collecting horse manure for the gardens, there being lots of horsed about.

This was also the case at school. The infants and Junior sections were joined by a centre block and formed a letter ‘H’, and the parts in between the legs of the H were lawned garden and flower beds, but these were quickly dug over by the senior boys and planted with vegetables. I can remember clearly the two top classes being knelt down rolling up the lawn at the back of the school prior to it being dug up for planting, and these two areas were still being used for this purpose when I left to go to Grammar school.

My mother, all this time, was busy doing her best to keep us all fed and clothed, and like most wives and mothers at that time, spent a lot of time shopping for whatever food she could get. We had to pay for school milk, a halfpenny per bottle, and every Friday morning, my mother would walk down with me as I went to school, and we would go into the butcher’s shop. She would ask him to lend her two and a half pence and would give it to me to take to school for the following week's milk money. This would be handed over to the class teacher as soon as possible.

Monday was washing day and my mother would have the boiler going from early doors and often, in summer, would have the sheets and pillow cases out on the line before we went to school. I never wondered what time she got up to be able to do this until I was much older.

In the kitchen/scullery, we had a huge mangle with the wash tub underneath it and this would be pulled out on Monday mornings and used for the washing. Often, during the school holidays, I would ‘help’ by twirling the ‘peggy stick’ and later on using the posser and also winding the mangle.

The worst time was if the weather was bad or in winter when the clothes had to be dried indoors around the fire, and the house would be full of steam (whoever said the Scandinavians invented the sauna was never in a small house on such occasions). I usually had to go and play in the bedroom.

During the summer months it stayed light while quite late as the clocks were put forward and when ‘double summer time’ was introduced, it was light until turned eleven o’clock at night, and if we were enjoying a good game, we never gave a thought for the time. As no one had a watch, and the chimes on the town hall clock had been turned off, it was often only when an irate mother would shout out for a missing son or daughter that we realised how late it was and would run home like mad. If it was during the holidays however, it was often that nothing was said for our parents knew where we were as they could hear us quite clearly.

Later during the war, when the huge raids on Germany were taking place, we would stand in the garden and watch the planes fly to their assembly points, and I, many times wished I could be in one. I vowed that when I was old enough I would join the Royal Air Force, but due to my ‘gammy leg’ this dream never happened, although as a member of the ATC a few years later, I flew in a Wellington Bomber two or three times.

One other thing I remember is that we could take money to school on a Monday, and the teacher would collect it from us and it would be put in an account in our name with the Yorkshire Penny Bank. Often, for most of us it would only be three pence or sixpence (2½p) at a time but it still mounted up, and I clearly remember my mother saying she had enough coupons for me to have some new clothes, so she gave me a note for the teacher, asking to withdraw five pounds from my account. That afternoon a five pound note was pinned inside my coat as I left school and I went straight home with it. The next weekend I was taken to the big Co-operative store in town and got my new clothes.

My father, as a driver for the Co-op, delivered the milk to the schools on a morning, and also the school dinners. In winter these were the only times I saw him between weekends, but I never stayed at school for my dinner, they did not smell nice and the smell remained in the building until late in the afternoon.