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IIn the summer of 1939 my family, i.e. my parents, my twin sister and myself were in Sheffield saying farewell to relatives as we were on our way to Burma. My father, Colin Edward Gladwin, was a regular soldier and we had been living at Strensall for 1 year after returning from a spell of 2 years in Gibraltar. In June 1939 father left for Burma and we were to leave in September to join him. The start of the war delayed our departure, or at least that`s what we thought. In fact, we were eventually told that we could not go at all. As we had been staying with relatives since leaving Strensall mother decided to find a house to rent until we knew what was going to happen. It was a difficult time for her, not knowing how long it would be for. However, she bought secondhand furniture and we managed with the very minimum of furniture for the remainder of the war.
My father was moved from Burma to India and then to fight in North Africa. He was taken prisoner at Mersa Matruh and eventually was in P.O.W. camp Oflag12B in Hadamar, Germany. We remained in Sheffield and my sister and I settled into school. We were then 7 years old, becoming 8 in August of that year. We had always moved from school to school and this was our sixth school. We watched the little maps that were regularly published in the newspapers of the Allies’ advance into France and Germany; but these were never, nor could be, up-to-date.
On the 5th.April 1945 we arrived home in the evening to find our next-door neighbour waiting at the bus stop for us. We had been visiting an aunt - my father`s sister - and arrived back at 10pm. Our neighbour said she wanted us to go to her house. Mum was immediately alarmed and said:
“What is the matter? Is it Colin?"
"Yes", said the neighbour, "He is at my house".
We ran quickly there, and there waDdad after 6 years absence. It was a very emotional reunion. I remember I was crying and couldn`t understand why, when I should have been smiling with joy. He was very thin, weighing only 6 stones, afraid of dogs and his hair was coming out in patches. We believe his fear of dogs was due to the Alsatians used in the camps. He told us very little about his time as a prisoner but he never again left the shores of Britain. He retired from the army in late 1946 and died in 1977.
Memories of Pudsey, West Yorkshire, where I lived with my mother, father and young brother, Philip, during the war.
Sunlight Soap and Polish Lemonade will always mean the outbreak of war to me. This morning was warm and sunny and Mum and Dad had gone for a Sunday morning stroll leaving my brother and I alone in the house. We were listening to the wireless whilst we washed the breakfast dishes. The kitchen smelled of bacon and toast but the water in the sink gave off the unmistakable odour of Sunlight Soap. We were fooling about until we heard the solemn voice of Mr Chamberlain, the Prime Minister. It took us a moment to realise what he was saying before the message sank in. Our country was at war with Germany!
Immediately Philip rushed to the cupboard in the hall where our gasmasks were kept.
“Do you think we should put them on?” he asked.
We hated wearing these horrible rubber masks, which fitted over our faces and were fastened by elastic straps behind our heads. The plastic window across our eyes fogged up when we breathed and they stank of rubber. We were supposed to practice wearing them daily. The only time we had found them useful was when Mum asked us to help her peel pickling onions. Because were able to finish the task without our eyes watering.
“No, let’s just leave them hanging on the banister where we can grab them quickly if we need them.”
We could hear voices outside. Men’s deep voices calling to each other and the shriller sound of women and children. We peeped through the window and saw most of our neighbours were gathering in the field at the back of our house. The men each carried a spade or a fork. We rushed out of the back door and called to Joyce, the girl next door.
“What are they doing?”
“Oh, they’re going to dig a trench in case the bombs start falling,” she answered.
Philip began to cry when he heard this and my heart began to beat faster. I wished Mum and Dad would hurry home. We wandered into the field with the rest of the kids and watched as the men began to dig. Soon the smell of hay mingled with the damper smell of newly dug earth and the faces of the men became wet with perspiration as they thrust their implements deep into the soil and threw it over their shoulders.
When Dad returned he joined in the digging with the spade that had belonged to his father. Most of the men had removed their jackets and worked in their shirtsleeves, but Donald and Colin , two lads who had just started work at the mill, stripped off their shirts and vests, which made Betty and Mary, giggle. By this time all the local kids were dashing about the field, pretending to be aeroplanes or soldiers and generally getting in everyone’s way.
Philip and I crept forward to see how deep the trench was just as Eric picked up a clod of clay and fired it at Geoffrey. It hit him in the chest.
“Gotcha, you’re dead,” yelled Eric, jumping up and down in glee. Of course Geoffrey had to retaliate and soon clay was flying everywhere and we would have all joined in the battle if Mr B. hadn’t lost his temper.
“Can’t you see we’re going to need that pile of muck to protect us when we’re in the trench,’ he yelled, “not plastered all over the damn field. Just cut it out.”
Fortunately for us Mrs C, a Polish lady, who lives at the top of the street, chose that moment to join us. Mr C. married her when he was working as an engineer in Poland, and they have just come to live in our street. She’s tall and slim with beautiful golden hair. I heard Mum tell Mrs B. that it is that colour naturally and doesn’t come from a bottle. I think she looked like a princess in a fairy tale. She was carrying a basket filled with glasses and a very large jug. She stopped at the edge of the trench and smiled down at the men. They gave up working when they saw and smiled back at her shyly. Her husband climbed out of the trench and took the jug from her.
“My wife wonders if any of you would like a glass of Polish lemonade?” he asked, “She says you have been working very hard and she thinks it would cool you down.” Mrs C. walked along the line of men handing each one a glass whilst her husband followed behind and filled the glass with clear red liquid. When the jug was empty she went home for more.
“By gum,” said Mr B., “that went down well missus, my throat was ‘fair clemmed’, I’m not used to such hard labour.” I don’t know if she understood him, but she smiled sweetly. Both Colin and Donald blushed as they gave her back their glasses. As for me, I edged my way closer to her and tried to see if there was any more Polish Lemonade left in the jug. I was glad Mum was talking to Mrs B or she would have growled at me for being pushy. Suddenly Mrs C thrust a glass into my hand and filled it from the jug. “Please,” she said with a smile. She mimed putting a glass to her lips as I was so busy looking at her beautiful hair that I stood there gob struck instead of drinking. The drink was unusual; it tasted rather like raspberry jelly, if you taste it before it sets. I heard someone say later that perhaps that’s how she’d made it. You know, just poured boiling water over a couple of jelly squares until they melted and then added lots of cold water. I didn’t care. It was lovely.
At bedtime Dad said that this was a day neither Philip nor I would ever forget. He was of course referring to the outbreak of war, but it’s the taste of the Polish lemonade, which I shall remember forever, and that tall Polish lady with the golden hair.
Then came Dunkirk, the British Army retreated from Normandy. The retreat was unexpected and no plans were in place to deal with the huge influx of tired and traumatised men. Exhausted, hungry, and suffering from wounds they were dumped at the southern ports and then despatched by bus and train inland. Which explains why our family came to have a soldier living with us for nearly a fortnight. Our Very Own Soldier One afternoon a platoon of soldiers marched into Priesthorpe Avenue and came to a halt whilst their sergeant and corporal knocked at every door and asked if there was a spare room. Dad said that Philip must share my bedroom which would leave us with a spare room, and that was how we got our very own soldier. He carried a backpack and a tin hat. His boots were huge and black. Mum whispered that we were to be very kind to him, as he had come from a dreadful battle and needed to time to rest. Dad brought him inside and introduced him.
His name was Jim. He was tall, and with his duffle bag on his shoulder he nearly filled our small hallway. Mum showed him Philip’s room and the bathroom. When he came downstairs he’d taken off his khaki battledress jacket and rolled up his shirtsleeves showing arms with tattoos on them. Khaki braces held up his trousers. Mum served dinner, but I can’t remember what we ate, I was too busy staring at the soldier.
After the meal he asked if we had any black shoe polish and when Mum gave him some he went out to the back door step and polished his boots until they shone like mirrors. To help get them really shiny he spit on the leather before he rubbed in the polish, then he huffed and puffed on them before polishing them with the rag Mum found for him. After cleaning his boots he brought his rifle outside. Philip thought that this was exciting, especially when Jim allowed him to hold it. Jim was emphatic; Philip was not to point it at anyone even though it was unloaded. He pulled a thin piece of rag through the barrel to clean it. When Philip asked him how many Germans he had shot with it, he just ruffled Phil’s hair and laughed. Jim’s regiment was the South Wales Borderers though he did not come from Wales. He was from Durham. Dad teased him about this and said he would have done better to join the Scottish Borderers. He was older than most of the other soldiers who stayed in our street because he had been in the regular army before the war. He had seen service in India. There was a dent in his tin hat. Philip asked if a bullet had made the dent, but Jim said he didn’t know.
At bedtime we heard him talking to Mum and Dad down stairs, and when Mum came to tuck us in she told us to say a special prayer for him and for all the other soldiers who had escaped, and to ask God to bless the ones explained was that many of Jim’s friends had been killed as they waited on the beaches to be rescued. Some fishermen, in a small boat had saved Jim, snatching him up from the sea where he had waded up to his neck in the water. Thousands of soldiers had stood like this in the water waiting for someone to help them whilst the Germans shot at them and planes dived bombed them. Perhaps that was how the dent was made in Jim’s helmet, but we were not to talk about it, because it made him feel sad.
At school, the next day, we discovered that most children had a soldier staying with them. Some of the children from the bigger families were disappointed that they hadn’t the room for one. Our next-door neighbours had a very unusual guest. Their soldier was black! Most of us kids had never met a black man before. When we arrived home from school we were disappointed that Jim was not there. He and the other men spent the day at the local football field, drilling. They had been issued with kit to replace that which they had lost. He came home at teatime and after the meal Dad took him to the Farmers Inn for a drink. Dad was very happy to have a real soldier to talk to. When they walked down the street together Dad swung his arms high as if he was back in uniform.
Jim brought a ration card for Mum to get extra meat, butter, sugar, cheese and eggs for him. He also brought us some sweets, which were a great treat. Even so early in the war sweets and chocolate were scarce. Mum beamed when he told how much he liked her cooking, especially her steak and kidney pie! He was with us about ten days, then one morning early troops lined up and on an order from the Sergeant they marched away. Before he left he promised to write to us. He gave Philip his cap badge as a keepsake. We did get two letters from North Africa, but nothing else. Maybe he was killed or wounded, maybe he was taken prisoner, or maybe he was too busy to write. I shall never know.
Kath O'Sullivan (nee Margerison)
Grangetown (Middlesbrough) was my birthplace but I was brought up in Southbank at 29 Oliver Street, being seven when war was declared. My father worked at the Malleable Steelworks in Stockton and was a member of the Home Guard (Royal Artillery) manning "Z" guns at Brambles Farm. My mother was a traditional housewife.
Brick and concrete shelters equipped with bunks for each family were built into the "back arches" and it was into these we rushed whenever the sirens sounded. (Back arches, sometimes called back alleys, sometimes called back streets. These were thoroughfares separating the backs of two rows of houses. The coal man could use them and in older times the "night soil man".)
There were few exceptions to this practice. One of these exceptions occurred on the night of 11/12 March 1943. My father was not on "the guns " that night having just got in from work, I had bronchitis and my mother made the decision that we would not go into the shelter that night for fear of making my illness worse. We took refuge under the stairs, considered to be the strongest point in any house, blissfully ignoring the gas meter that sat beside us.
My father went out onto the front step to watch the action as it built up, and after a few minutes he called me to come to the front door to see a German aircraft caught in a cone of searchlights. It was the first enemy aircraft that I had seen and it was quite exiting, not frightening, but thrilling.
The fright came a few seconds later. The aircraft was visible high over the roof tops to the south west flying on a north easterly track and ignoring the number of searchlights now holding it. Without warning it dived, the engine noise increased and there was the distinctive sound of falling bombs. "In !", shouted my father but we were already on the move, through the small lobby, past the glass door and into the living room. We were probably halfway across the room when the blast hit us knocking us off our feet and throwing us against the settee on the far wall. I can remember the intense pain in my ears, the strong movement of air and the noise.
My father picked himself up, he had been knocked on his back by the blast, closed the doors and switched on the light. As the light came on the initial reaction of all three of us was laughter. Our faces were black! The blast moving through the house had swept the chimney covering everything and everybody in soot. Amazingly we did not suffer any broken windows probably because the blast could move freely through the house.
The bombs that night had fallen at Skipper's Lane, at the Police Station, ( Napier St. at its junction with Middlesbrough Rd.) and the north end of Normanby Road near the railway.
There is a story connected to the Police Station bomb. When the bombs fell an off duty police sergeant set off for the Police Station not knowing that one of the bombs had exploded close to it. In the darkness he fell down the crater, damaged an ankle and had to be rescued.
There is a postscript to the events of that night. King St., forms a T-junction with Oliver St.,and two houses face up Oliver St. The morning after the raid the slates on the roofs of those two houses were seen to be rippled upwards by the bomb blast as it was channelled down Oliver St. They stayed in that condition until circa 1980 when the slates were replaced but the difference between these houses and the others can still be clearly seen.
The photo' was taken in 1940/41 outside the home of the Barnett Family in Oliver St., South Bank, Middlesbrough.
The boys are, L to R back row: Norman Turnbull; Frank Barry; Jim Barnett. Front row L to R; Stan Barnett; Harold Millican.
Norman Frank and Stan would be 8 at this time, Harold and Jim a year younger. Norman was the officer (self elected because he had the gun) Harold's "tin hat" has a wider brim than the others because it is a replica "Air Raid Warden's" tin hat. Harold's father was an Air Raid Warden.
I started school about 1941. Baltic st. school on the headland at Hartlepool, then on to Galleys Field sec. mod. Mines used to wash on to the rocks and explode. The windows would get blown out regular.
Dad was away in the navy so it was Mam`s job to put up the shutters on the outside of the windows every night. Mam was a crane driver in the steel works and when she did nightshift I stayed at my aunt Nora`s in the next street. (Nora is still alive)
I was just a little kid, but I can tell you a little bit of what it was like in those days.
Everyone had to carry a gas mask around with them all of the time. Every day in school we would have a drill and practice putting them on filing out to the air raid shelter in the field behind the school. Most of us thought it was great fun as it got us out of the classroom for a while. I remember one kid that was scared of his gas mask so they gave him a Mickey Mouse mask.
Everyone in the family had a ration book and I always remember the page that had the coupons to buy sweets such as chocolates etc. I had 3 sisters and they all had sweet tooth's and they always used their coupons up in a hurry and tried to beg for mine. I didn't care for sweets that much so I ended up selling them my coupons to the highest bidder.
Because we fought so much over the sugar and butter etc. our Mother would put the week's sugar and butter etc. into jam jars and put our names on them so we would only take what was ours. You still had to hide your stash so nobody would snitch it.
More Recollections from the North East
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