Memories recalled by Royston Ball
In 1939 the year war broke out, I was 11. Just gone up to the Swinnerton Senior School and the War started. Before writing any thing about this period, I must say on looking back from now to then. What a marvellous job my Mother and Father did in bringing up a family, there was Rationing, Shortage of everything, Air Raids, and the not very good news from the War Front. But we as children did not feel anything, to us it was a great adventure, we never considered that we might lose the war. There was always enough food, no matter how short it got. Mother worked miracles, we never went hungry, and everything was used to make filling meals. I remember Suet puddings, Jam Roly-Poly, Spotted Dick, Bread puddings, and any left-over meat or vegetables was mashed up with potatoes and fried in a big pan over the coal fire, it was delicious. I can still taste it now, 60 years on.
We were issued with Gas-masks just after the start of the war. Every one had to learn how to put them on as fast as possible. The only bugbear was, that there was a solid cardboard collar fitted inside the bottom of the Gas-mask, to keep the filter clean, which you had got to take out before putting the mask on. The school alarm would go off for practice, and you would race to get your Gas-mask on, and was forbidden by the teacher to take it off till she said to you could. So after a little while you would start to gasp for breath, and thinking it was only you, that was not used to wearing the mask. You would struggle on until nearly collapsing, and then remember you had forgotten to take the cardboard collar out, it happened to everybody at least once. Babies were given a Gas Mask, that was large enough for them to lie down in, but required a grown up to keep pumping by hand, so that they could breath. Seemed a bit queer, if anything happened to the pumper, the baby had no one to help them. We all had a cardboard box to carry the gas mask in, with a string sling to go over your shoulder, and you had to take it everywhere you went, Toilet, Bathroom, Bed, Work, School, or Play. It became second nature, you never forgot, you would try to get your mother to buy you a small army haversack, from the Army & Navy Stores. Into which you would put your gas mask (without the cardboard box) and all the other things that were necessary for a lad to have on him. It also meant you were a little bit better off, than the cardboard box carriers. Also issued by the government were Anderson Air Raid shelters. These consisted of corrugated tin sheets, curved at one end. Dad dug a four-foot deep hole in the side garden, and bolted the curved sections of the shelter together, with a flat tin back, and the same at the front. “except for a three-foot entrance” for you to struggle through. The lot was then lowered into the hole with just the top showing two-foot above ground. The complete shelter was then covered in sand-bags, (filled with garden soil) so it resembled a large mushroom in the ground. A series of steps were dug down to the front entrance, at an angle to let you get in. The doorway was protected by a blast wall, made up of wooden boxes filled with earth or sand. As the war went on, the sandbags on the roof of the shelter would rot, and any turfs of grass, we dug up while planting vegetables in the garden, would be patted down onto the shelter, to bind it together. This gave us our own green hill to sit and play on, (if Dad didn’t spot us). Every bit of spare ground was dug, and sowed with what ever seed you could get, to help out with the rationing. Potatoes being the main crop, because of the many different ways you could use them. Back, side and front gardens were all used.
No one had a lawn or flower bed any more, we all followed the slogan “ Dig for Victory!.” Nearly everyone kept chickens, for the eggs if you were lucky?, but mostly to help out with the meat allowance. They were fed on any food scraps and vegetable peelings you had left over. You could get a dry mash that you boiled up, and mixed with the leftovers, “it smelt to high heaven”. But the fowl liked it. We had a chicken that was deformed, called, Humpty’ and would not let any one kill him for food. Humpty had the run of the garden till he died of old age. Killing the fowl was a bit of a pantomime, you would send for Mr. Sedgewick who lived in Middlemarch Road, he had the knack, a quick twist of the neck and pull, and the bird was ready for plucking. Dad decided once that he had seen it done, and he was ready to try. So bird under the arm to stop it struggling grab the head twist and pull. But he pulled to hard and the head came off in his hand, he drop the bird onto the backyard, and it kept running around in circles, before keeling over. I don’t know who was more shocked, the bird or Dad. He didn’t ever try that again. Two doors away they had a go at raising a pig. They contacted neighbours for any food scraps they had, and if you wasn’t rearing any thing at the time, you would join them, and give them any scrap of food or green stuff you could not use. When the pig was slaughtered, mainly at Christmas time, you had a piece of the meat for all your help. We had a series of Air Raids over the war years, The main one was the first blitz on a city, which was Coventry. Very hairy, as no one had ever been in one before, it seemed to last forever. We all sat on two metal bunk beds in the shelter, listening to the whistling sounds of the bombs dropping. Then exploding, and being shaken by the ground vibrations. A lodger had been billeted with us, he was Scottish and came down to the Midlands to work in the Coventry war factories, and make some money without having to join the forces. He was at work the night of the first raid, and on returning to our house after the All Clear. Packed his things and took the first train back to Scotland. (To dangerous to stop near Coventry.) No more were billeted on us. However Joyce’s family had a Scotch gentleman stopping with them, who was of a hardier nature, he stayed for quite a time.
One night my Dad came into my bedroom, woke me up, and said come and look at the Pit coal tips, you could see them from their windows. They were just like two giant Christmas trees all lit up with fairy lights, but the lights were dozens of Incendiary bombs that had landed on them. While watching the sight, plop, plop, plop, and a string of Incendiaries, dropped straight down the middle of the road outside. Down the stairs went Dad at a run, grabbed the sandbag off the front step, (you all had to keep one there) plonked it on the nearest burning bomb. Ran to the next house picked up theirs, slapped that down on a bomb, ran on and grabbed another. By this time other people were up and outside dealing with the other bombs. I can remember one man jumping up and down in rage as someone had taken his sandbag, (it was Dad). There was a lady that came out with a bowl of water, to throw over a bomb, Dad raced to stop her, as water was the very worst thing to throw on an Incendiary. We were lucky that night the stick of bombs dropped by the German plane, landed only on the road or front gardens. Nuneaton had its had quite a few air raids, one night a German plane must have been after the railway sidings at Crewe or Rugby and got a little lost, so we had it. Damage was mainly in town centre. Grandma had her roof damaged, so she and some of her children came to live with us, until the house was repaired, which was not to long. Another time, during an Air Raid. Mother, Jean and I were sitting in the shelter. Dad was standing at the garden gate, as was the done thing for the men of the families, while it was quiet, “to show that they were not afraid of the Germans.” When a whistling noise started, all the men dashed for the safety of the shelters. Mrs. Moore who lived opposite us, ran into the road with her family, as they had not bothered to build their shelter yet. Dad grabbed them and ushered them into our shelter, so all of a sudden a shelter for four, became a shelter for ten. Just enough room to breathe but not to move around. They were encouraged to build their own shelter after the all clear, and before the next raid. One night we were sitting in the shelter, when a very loud noise started, and it got louder and louder till it was shaking the shelter, “worse than any bomb dropping.” It seemed to pass inches over head, followed by a terrific bang.
A German bomber had crashed in the field, a hundred yards away. The crew had bailed out over Rugby, and the plane had carried on flying on its own, until crashing in the fields just over the railway bridge at the end of the road. The next morning, all the boys in the district, were at the crash site, dodging the Police, to try to get a souvenir of the wreck. We also collected pieces of Anti-Aircraft shell or bomb fragments. You could hear them raining down during a raid, you got quite good at recognizing where all the bits had come from. Whether German bombs or English A.A. shells, and did swaps at school for pieces you hadn’t got. Dad being a Coal Miner, was not allowed to join the forces, Coal was very important to keep the factories going. Some troops were sent out of the Army to work down the pits. He still did his bit, he became a Stretcher-bearer, and spent a number of nights each week at the local Hospital. (Which is now the George Eliot Hospital). But in those days was just a number of wooden huts, attached to the Workhouse and erected to take casualties. He wore his own suit and was supplied with a white steel helmet, and a lapel badge with the letters SB engraved on it in white. This was always wore upside down in the coat button hole. He told me some years later it was because when they walked into the local pub. Someone would say, “Aye Up the Silly B*****s have come in”. I joined the ATC. Air Training Corp and spent two nights a week training, and went to a RAF station every year, for one week, I remember RAF Honily and Gaydon as two of the camps, I assume that when I was called up for National Service, into the Air Force I would go, “not a bit!!” The Army, Heavy Infantry, Royal Warwick’s 2nd Battalion, Support Company, 3 inch Mortars. All the years in the ATC a waste of time. Nevertheless, I did manage to get some flying time in. Wellington Bombers to St David’s Point in Wales and back. Arvro Anson all over the Midlands, Tiger Moth Biplanes, and Gliders. Therefore, so all was not wasted.