World War 2 Stories for Sheffield

W Hindmarch 

Only chapter 3 of this story available

The Overseas Volunteers at Birley East Colliery

By actiondesksheffield

People in story: Mr. W. Hindmarch, Mr. Rida, Alexander Theodorowicz, Kazik Sobieralski
Location of story: The Shirebrook Valley between Woodhouse and Hackenthorpe near Sheffield
Background to story: Civilian

 A social evening at the training centre on Beighton Lane. the men are mainly Polish volunteers

Chapter 3 - The Overseas Volunteers

Initially, almost all the occupants of the semi-circular Nissen huts on Beighton Road were
British conscripts, brought in by Ernest Bevin’s recruitment policy, but despite being bolstered by imported Irish volunteers, the mining industry generally, was still substantially undermanned. Fortunately though, solutions to the problem were on hand.

Following V.E. day, a considerable number of men from the armed forces of our North European allies found that for various reasons they had no wish to return to their homeland, so when the British Government offered them resettlement, many jumped at the chance. Remaining in this country on a permanent basis was dependant on the condition that each person took up employment in designated industries such as farming or mining.

Homeless European civilians were also permitted into the country to take up work. With the cessation of hostilities, parts of the continent, and in particular Germany, had become giant camps for what in official circles were known as Displaced Persons. People who no longer had homes, people who no longer had relatives, people whose country no longer wanted them, people who no longer wanted their country, people who mistrusted the Russians even more than the Germans. All seemed open to offers, and so with the stroke of an official pen the Government took advantage of the situation and used it to further strengthen the nation's depleted workforce.

Many of the recruits from the continent brought few possessions with them, and as a result each man was provided with boots and overalls in addition to his board and lodging. Most of the Poles had still not officially been demobbed and continued to wear their uniforms for some considerable time.

To overcome problems imposed by the language barrier, the manager Mr. W. Hindmarch incorporated English lessons into the curriculum to allow students to understand a few useful phrases and more importantly, comprehend basic pit terminology. He also relied heavily on the experience of his staff, in particular his Estonian liaison officer Mr. Rida, who spoke quite a number of different languages.

Despite the obvious language difficulties, most new arrivals soon settled into life at the hostel. Many had suffered great personal hardship during and immediately after the war and in numerous instances, their experiences warrant books in their own right. Alexander Theodorowicz's story is no exception.

At the age of 16, and along with many thousands of his fellow countrymen, he was taken from his native Poland and imprisoned in Siberia. Eighteen months later, in the Spring of 1941, the German invasion of Russia necessitated their subsequent release, and Alex, along with many of the former internees, eventually found his way to the middle eastern theatre of the war. Enlisted in a Polish unit, his first taste of action was at Torbruk, but it was at Monte Casino in Italy that he was to encounter warfare at its most brutal. Six months of almost continuous fighting, plus two major battles, saw the allied advance brought to a halt by stubborn enemy defence. Despite numerical superiority and mastery of the skies, they were continually driven back as they fought their slow and bloody way up the mountain.

The third and final battle in May 1944 saw allied strength finally win the day and twenty one divisions made up mainly of American, British, French, Canadians and Poles at last forced the German 10th army to retreat. The enemy held on for four days inflicting heavy losses, but
were eventually forced to surrender the high ground, and Alex remembers with justifiable pride that it was the Polish corps who were first to raise their flag at Monte Casino.

When at long last the war drew to its inevitable close a considerable number of men serving with the Polish armed forces were rightly given the chance to start a new life in Britain in preference to returning home. It was many months before the first of these new immigrants began to arrive on our shores, indeed Alex did not land at Liverpool until 1947.
Most of his unit were given the option of a career in either mining or farming, and although working underground did not appeal to Alex, he followed the majority of his pals, and against his better judgement, chose mining.

The Polish immigrants were in most instances still members of the armed forces and Kazik Sobieralski, a tank crewman, recalls that it was not until after the completion of his training that he was officially demobbed. The son of a railway worker, Kazik had been just 15 years of age when the Germans crossed the border, 26 kilometres away, and following a number of hair-raising experiences, he eventually, like Alex, found his way to the middle east to fight alongside his fellow countrymen.

Forty years on and Kazik still remembers his short interlude at Birley. Underground visits were centred on the day shift and training consisted almost entirely of watch and learn brief. By 1947 underground tuition had expanded to include coal cutting and shot firing, as well as packing and haulage, and to enhance the training environment some areas were even whitewashed. Incursion by water was, even in the late 1940s, still a major problem at Birley and Kazik clearly recalls the "canals" running alongside many of the roadways and the fact that they were always kept fully employed.

Kazik and Alex both left Birley to continue their training at Sheffield Nunnery, where, after a further three months, they were offered full time employment. Here, although working conditions were not entirely to their liking, they had the bonus of their weekly income being almost doubled. Pillar and stall had not as yet been superseded by longwall, and much of the equipment was almost prehistoric when compared to that at Birley East. Nevertheless, like most of the others, the two trainees soon settled in to their new surroundings, and Alex, who was eventually to change his surname to Carson, remained at Nunnery right through until its eventual closure.

Although most local collieries readily accepted foreign recruits, this was not necessarily always the case. Whilst the likes of Brookhouse, Dinnington and Sheffield Nunnery all employed quite a high proportion of immigrants, not all establishments were quite as enthusiastic, indeed some were quite openly hostile to the idea. Orgreave and Maltby for example appeared to have an unwritten policy of not employing foreign labour.

Back at Birley, the intake of trainees was gradually intensified, reaching its peak during the latter months of 1947. The number of English recruits continued to fall, but the catchment area was now wider than ever with Irish and Scots volunteers supplemented by an ever increasing number of European immigrants. An Indian mine owner even enrolled his son at Birley in order to avail him of what in his considered opinion, would be the best professional tuition.

Having completed their training and found permanent employment in the locality, a number of the men returned to Woodhouse to take up board and lodging and along with the residents of the hostel, they were generally well accepted by the locals. Occasionally the peace was disrupted, but this type of occurrence was usually of an insular nature and often came about as a direct result of over indulgence at the village pubs.

One source of disharmony centred around the fact that the Poles did not, to make too fine a point of it, rate the Irish a11 that highly, and on more than one occasion, this source of friction boiled over into violence. In one major incident outside the Stag Inn, the fighting was of such magnitude that, in the interest of self preservation, the local constabulary simply stood by and looked on as the warring factions knocked seven bells out of each other.

By winter of 1948 coal production nationally had reached adequate levels and the number of recruits entering the industry began to be scaled down accordingly. Government objectives had been achieved and the mining industry was now no longer undermanned. As a result there was now little need for training centres and consequently, it came as a surprise to no one when, in 1948, the National Coal Board decided to close down its operations at Birley East.

In retrospect, whether the establishment served a worthwhile purpose or achieved its initial aims, is open to question. True, in the case of foreign recruits, the period acted as a buffer zone between their arrival in Britain and starting full time employment. True, also that it helped improve the men's physical fitness and in a limited way, overcame some of the language difficulties, but the consensus of opinion clearly indicates that most former trainees believe the four weeks introductory programme could have been dispensed with at no great loss.

In a nutshell, the training accustomed men to going below ground, but as far as practical experience of coal mining was concerned, the trainees were almost as ignorant at the end of the four week session as they had been at the beginning.

So, at the stroke of an official pen, Birley East was closed down for the second, and as it transpired, final time. Within a few short weeks of receiving its notice of closure the pit's machinery stood silent, its buildings empty and forlorn, awaiting their fate at the hands of the demolition men. For the hostel though, a more secure future was in store. Despite their enforced redundancy and the fact that they were only temporary structures, the Nissen huts were to survive for a considerable period of time.

As Woodhouse Industrial Hostel, the camp soldiered on for a further five years before it finally closed its doors to the public on the 27th of June 1953. Then, after a period of uncertainty, during which the buildings were unoccupied and demolition seemed imminent, some of the huts were commandeered to form part of a mushroom farm. About this time, Sheffield City Council took an interest in the establishment, eventually purchasing the property and much of the surrounding land, and ever since, the site has played host to a resettlement hostel for homeless men.

Many of the original buildings survived for nearly three decades before being systematically replaced by more permanent structures, and it was not until May 1973 that the last three Nissen huts, along with the brick boiler house, were demolished. Purpose built accommodation now covers the complex, and living conditions are almost palatial when compared with those encountered by the trainees back in the 1940s. It does not take much imagination to conjure up what it was like living, albeit for just a few short weeks, in an un-insulated corrugated tin hut during a winter the likes of which was encountered in 1947.

The last of the Nissen huts has now long since gone, but for the thousands of men who passed through their portals, and in particular the handful who still live in the area, the memories of their brief interlude at Birley Training Centre still remain.