Wartime Leicestershire memoirs.

    During the 1939-1945 war, we lived in Rugby Road, Hinckley - father, mother, sister and myself. I was 11 years old when the war started and 17 years old when it finished.

    It was no surprise when war was declared on the beautiful Sunday, September morning of 3rd. War had been anticipated ever since the Munich crisis of 1938. By 1939 we had all been issued with gas-masks, (Our front room was swarmed with Gas Masks, as Dad was an official distributor) black out materials were ready, many windows were already criss-crossed with strips of sticky paper to prevent them shattering into shards of dangerous glass, sandbags adorned many official buildings and every household had a bag of sand at the ready for extinguishing incendiary bombs. This applied to business and industrial premises, too. Many of the larger factories, etc. even had their own provisional fire service. Every 100 yards or so there was a stirrup pump available. Such had a white S sign on a black plate screwed to the wall or gate. Public air-raid shelters had been built, and the kerbs painted in patches of white. Likewise the street lamps, which were lit by gas. Some people, who could afford to do so, began stockpiling food, having heard of the food shortages during the 1914-1918 war or, like my parents, having memories of it. The A.R.P. was already half-formed and partially equipped. It is erroneous to believe that the war was unexpected. We hoped it wouldn't happen but knew in our hearts that it would.

    Dad had been in the Army for 6 years in the first war. He had been badly wounded during the dreadful Battle of the Somme in 1916. He returned to France later and was awarded the Military Cross for "conspicuous gallantry". He knew all about war, that was why he cried on Sunday 3rd. September, 1939 when Neville Chamberlain made his announcement on the wireless. It was the first time I had ever seen my father cry. Later on, I found out why. Millions of us found out why! However, my more selfish immediate concern was why Dad had a more elaborate gas-mask than we did. Mother explained that it was because he would be in the midst of any action necessary. My consolation was also that return to school after the summer holiday was delayed, as part of the school (Holliers Walk School) had to be converted into an air-raid shelter. Happiness!

    So we sat back and waited for something to happen. It didn't, except that life gradually became more boring and monotonous and the previously plentiful things in life became scarcer and scarcer and sweets were no longer to be found. We all had to carry our Identity Cards and gas-masks everywhere (they were useful for carrying other items in, too!) and all kinds of covers were available to smarten the original cardboard boxes and thick, rough string. Gas-mask drill took place daily at school. (We all had to learn how to put on and remove gas masks, otherwise they would be damaged. They felt suffocating and smelt of rubber.) We had to wear them for half-an-hour at a time to become accustomed to them. The thick cellophane type eye piece would mist over inevitably, although we had been taught to wipe the inside of it with a smear of thin soap - which meant after a while we couldn't see a thing! It was also impossible not to mis-time your breathing or stifle a cough or a sniff. This produced a very loud "raspberry" noise. Sometimes we did it on purpose, and the teacher was helpless in any attempt to distinguish the intentional rude noise from the accidental one. We also had air-raid drill: 2 rings = air-raid, go to shelter. 3 rings meant air-raid drill only: go to shelter. 4 rings meant get under your desks: 1 ring was the end of the lesson. Such a disappointment when it only rang once!

    For the period of the "Phoney War" as it came to be called, naught much changed except everything became almost unobtainable or inferior. A newspaper consisted of the outside sheet and half/sheet within. At school, we wrote in margins, on covers and on scrap paper. The military took over many private buildings. The George Ballroom became an army dump and St. Mary's Parish Hall a military hospital. It was noticeable that few young men were seen save those in service uniform, and the same, to a lesser extent, was true of the young women who, like the men, were called up for some kind of war-work at the age of 17, many already being in the services. The cinemas had been closed at the outset of war, and all sporting fixtures cancelled. Later, the cinemas were re-opened and limited sport took place. Mostly it was 'do it yourself' entertainment, with small socials, dances, etc. being arranged in private houses or small establishments not commandeered for other purposes. (e.g. in schools, or suchlike. The ballrooms attracted attention initially, and then were not even noticed.)

    One of the incongruous sights was to see the masses of barrage balloons over protecting Coventry. These were clearly visible as Hinckley is only 10 miles from Coventry. Every raid on Coventry caused all of us in the town to have long, noisy, sleepless and nerve-racking nights when the Blitz commenced - but I am ahead of myself here.

    Apart from the ubiquitous gas-masks, which it was compulsory to carry everywhere with you, the relentless black-out was the real nuisance initially. You were not even supposed to strike a match out of doors and torch batteries were becoming unobtainable. Even if you had one, you were only allowed to flick it on briefly - and pointed downwards only! When the power in them faded we would warm up the batteries in the oven as this made them last a fraction longer. You had to ensure the oven wasn't too hot or the batteries were left in too long otherwise they would melt and make an awful smell. Not a glimmer of light was allowed to shine. If one did, invariably an officious voice roared at the offender to "Put that bloody light out!" Many amusing (and other escapades) occurred in the black out particularly when the supply of torch batteries ceased. It was often so dark on moonless and overcast nights that you became completely lost and utterly disoriented. There was a chip shop about 25 yards from where we lived. Sometimes mother sent me there for some chips for supper. Going there was no problem. I just followed the smell of the chips and sound of voices. Returning home proved a problem sometimes as the darkness was impenetrable and on several occasions I became lost in that short distance. Once I bumped into a lamp-post and blackened my eye - to find it was the lamp-post outside our house, and on another pitch-black night I found myself on the other side of the road. My sister had similar experiences. The black-out made fools of us all. Venturing farther from ones own home was like embarking on a mystery trip as everyone at one time or another lost their bearings completely. Calls for help such as "Can you tell me where I am, please?" were often heard, sometimes when you didn't know where you were either. Useful!

    It was not unusual to find yourself floundering aimless in the middle of the road. You were unlikely to be run over by a road vehicle, as there weren't any! (There had been little road traffic before 1939 except the odd cow, business van and horse and cart.) Petrol was strictly rationed and confined to either military or other essential usage. All vehicles were slow-moving and poorly lit. Lights had to be dimmed and pointed downwards. People walked or peddled cycles mostly, catching a bus for longer distances to Nuneaton, Coventry or Leicester. Trains were few and irregular and packed to the doors. One became accustomed to standing on buses and trains, crammed in somehow. Old bicycles became objects which were valuable. Eventually they became for daylight use only as batteries for their lamps disappeared along with those for torches. The black out was total and falls, trips, bumps and bruises and, above all, being frighteningly lost was no encouragement to leave the dim lights of home unnecessarily. Dad fared best in our family as being an A.R.P. Warden and, later an officer in the Home Guard, he had an official torch and batteries.

    My sister was working 12 hours a day on war work (often dummy air-raids), and somehow weaved her way there and back unharmed. Mother seldom left the house after darkness fell. I was still at school, as during the winter months the times for returning to school in the afternoon varied. Normally, the hours were 9am - 12:30am and 2pm - 4:15pm. This changed as winters sunset became earlier. We returned for afternoon classes at 1:45pm, 1:30pm and 1:15pm to ensure we were home by the time darkness (the black out) fell, though we still attended for the same number of hours. Only children who came by bus from nearby villages were allowed to have their dinner at school. To complicate matters further, for most of the war the country had Double British Summer Time from 1940.          

    One incident relating to the black out is abiding. We had a black dog - a Scottish terrier. Dad always took her out last thing at night for a short walk in the adjacent lane (now Brunel Road), never bothering to put her on the lead as she just ambled along with or behind him. Arriving home from this ramble on evening, after locking the door behind him, Mother said, "Didn't you forget something?" "No! What?" "You forgot the dog" said mother, pointing to a rather bewildered black dog. Dad had not been concentrating and a black dog in the black out had missed her walk. He did take her immediately. During the winter of 1941-1942 I was attending confirmation classes weekly at St. Mary's Church, Hinckley, which stands in a large churchyard. Once, instead of finding the way in, I became lost somewhere between the church gate and the North Door, and wandering among the gravestones instead. I was rescued by a fellow candidate who heard my cry for help. Ridiculous! The church was blacked out all the time, with protective boards over all the windows, so even daytime services were held in interior dimness. The bells, of course, became the signal for "The Invasion" in 1940, and never heard again until 1945.

    Stoke Golding Church tower/spire was dismantled during the war as it was situated in the path of aircraft taking off and landing at a nearby airfield. It was rebuilt in 1946. Aircraft recognition was the rage initially, and most children learnt which was which. Planes were abundant in the area, mainly training aircraft and the Wellington bombers, Spitfires and Hurricanes. We tended not to bother about the Germans so much - until it was wise to do so! Then everyone thought they were experts at deciding if it was "One of theirs" or "One of ours". Sometimes we were wrong, but experience is a good teacher. If you couldn't see them, you listened to the engine noise - and could be wrong again.

    Hinckley's main and official air-raid was situated on the roof of the Danile Cinema. If it sounded when you were in there, your ears took a pounding. A notice would be flashed onto the screen saying: "The Air Raid alert has just been sounded. Patrons wishing to leave are asked to do so as quietly as possible." The usual result was that no-one moved! And as if we needed telling after that racket! Other sirens and hooters would sound - the hooters at the Gas Works in Coventry Road, and at Sketchley Dye Works in Rugby Road, while Bennet's factory in Southfield Road also added to the din.

    Hinckley received its warnings of impending air-raids from Leicester, whereas Nuneaton (a mere 4 miles distant) received theirs from Coventry. When raids became frequent, we paid more heed to Nuneaton's sirens than to Hinckley's, which often either didn't sound at all or were delayed. On the night of the big raid on Coventry (14th November, 1940), the alert for the Hinckley area came 15-20 minutes after the sky was full of planes, flashes, gunfire, explosions, etc. Dad and I were sheltering in the back porch as the attack started. When Hinckley's alert finally wailed, Dad said "And about bloody time, too!" It wasn't often he swore. After that night, the authorities changed the alert warnings from Leicester to Coventry - not because he swore, though, but because it was so patently ludicrous.

    No-one who was old enough will ever forget the year 1940. The "Phoney War" turned into real war. We had long since dropped the idea that war was exciting. At first, it was a curiosity when gradually turned into shortages of everything, especially food. We all had ration books but what little sustenance they produced had to be boosted by something else. Queuing became a part of life. If you saw a queue, you joined it. What was available was immaterial as long as it was available. You could always swap news with someone else. Nothing was wasted and we lived on potatoes, chips and black bread. Black bread was the sole sort. It was made from rye and was rough and dark looking. It was food! We ate it. Every Saturday morning my mother would send me to the Coop Firth butchers shop in Castle Street with instructions to stay in the queue until she arrived to take my place. She, herself, was too busy with household chores and, probably, queueing at another shop. In retrospect, I believe the housewife had the hardest and most body and soul breaking job of all, trying to find enough food and serve something for meals, while constantly mending clothes, as they were rationed, to. We were clean but, oh, so shabby in our threadbare garments. Luckily, Dad had an allotment and we were seldom short of vegetables. He, like many others, planted black-currant, red-currant, and gooseberry bushes whose fruit mother made into jam or bottled in jars.

    Many households kept hens to provide eggs and the odd chicken roast. Rabbits were also kept for consumption. I had rabbits but they were pets . Rations were cut back to minute portions. Corn beef became the meat ration plus a few sausages. It was safer not to ask what the sausages consisted of! Dried eggs and milk were the common - and only way - to ensure eggs and milk. Sugar was measured in grams it seemed. Before the war, food was regarded as nourishment for the body not to tickle the palate. For the first time the majority learned what it felt like to be hungry, really hungry, not just to feel like something to eat. It was desperation time when you reached one egg a month per person and collected nettles to boil for vegetables. Nothing glamorous about that side of war. "Dig for Victory" said the posters, and every tiny piece of earth was used to grow something. Ration books were of three sorts:   1 for babies and children to age 5.   2 for children from age 5 to age 16.   3 the adult book from 16+. Occasionally, being a holder of a Blue Ration Book (as I was under 16), we would receive the treasure of a few bananas or oranges. Heavenly! Oh! The envy of others less fortunate than I.

    War really suddenly hit us action-wise in the spring of 1940 with Dunkirk and the Battle of Britain. Until then, for us it had been confined to the monotony of struggling for food and the eternal queueing. Being in the Midlands, we saw little of the action but all knew that invasion was imminent and I recall the strange, calm which existed. The summer of 1940 was a gloriously warm and sunny one, which seemed to last forever. There were planes galore high in the sky and the white vapour trails left huge circles as "dog-fights" took place as Spitfires, Hurricanes battled the German raiders. Now and again the rattle of machineguns was heard. It was a summer which seemed to last forever, as I have mentioned, and also one of perhaps innocent serenity that we couldn't be beaten - ever. It had to be so - Churchill announced it.

    Frantic changes took place however. The Home Guard was formed (originally called Local Defence Volunteers: LDV.) Dad promptly abandoned the A.R.P. and Civil Defence, and volunteered for this. He had been in the army for 6 years from 1914-1920, and was instantly put in charge of many others as he had been a commissioned officer, seen active service, been wounded during the Battle of the Somme and awarded the Military Cross. He took to his new role like a duck to water. Initially, he only had an armband with L.D.V. on it and an old bayonet from W.W.I. Soon the Home Guard were properly mobilised, fully equipped uniformed and nothing like Dad's Army as portrayed in the T.V. series. The old Drill Hall in Brunel Road was close to where we lived, and he was put in charge of all the guns, ammunition, thunder flashes, etc., stored therein. One evening, he took me there and showed me all the contents. Fascinated, I picked up a shot-gun and pulled both triggers. Dad knocked the gun barrel downwards with one hand and me down with the other, roaring, "Never pull the trigger unless the barrel is pointed at the ground or in the air - unless you want to kill somebody!" He then relented, and taught me to fire rifles, revolvers, machine guns, and how to aim, load and unload. But the message stuck that they were NOT TOYS. Throughout the rest of the war, he kept a rifle, a revolver, thunder-flashes and live ammunition in the house. I drilled with the rifle and became obsessed with the necessity of keeping the tip of the foresight in the V of the backsight. I should stress that he never allowed it to be loaded except when he was on duty when, more often than not, he would take his loaded revolver and box of ammunition. My enthusiasm was dampened when he told mother, sister and me that, "If the Germans come, I shall shoot all of you dead!" To a child of 12 this was puzzling rather than frightening. No-one in the house touched the firearms without first asking permission. Mother didn't want to do, sister was too tired from 12 hour shifts on war work and civil defence duties, and I overcame my original fascination - though I knew how to load, aim and fire in theory.

    It was September time, 1940, that we first began to receive regular air-raid warnings. Until then the sirens had wailed irregularly. As winter approached, it became a regular nuisance. By that time, most people had learned to dive for cover, or flat on their face with hands behind the back of the head and keeping the mouth open so that the blast from the bombs would not burst your ear drums. It became instinctive to learn to take cover and when to carry on albeit warily. As raids were signalled so often, it was easy to forget if there was an alert or not. Night time warnings were taken more seriously but they, too, were ignored if "nothing happened" in the popular parlance of the time. If "something started to happen" then one got up. You would lie in bed and listen to the droves of enemy aircraft passing over and think, quite cold bloodedly, "not us tonight" and return to sleep.

    Contrary to popular belief, most houses did not have an Anderson Shelter, or any other sort of real shelter. Most of the population went underneath the stairs (where the pantry was usually sited) as experience soon taught that this was the safest place. Most learned also not to undress completely when going to bed - weather the alert had wailed or not. One removed one's top clothing and footwear and bedded down in undergarments, leaving top clothes and footwear laid carefully at the end of the bed ready to be snatched up before hurtling downstairs if "something happened". When the planes began messing about, we moved ourselves - fast!

    We didn't have a shelter nor could we go underneath the stairs as our pantry was too tiny. Our 'shelter' was the large, oak table in the living room. It was 1 1 / 2 yards square with 4inch thick legs and, most valuable of all, pieces at each end that could be extended making our 'shelter' 6ft 6 inches long. Blankets and pillows were kept beneath it, and my war-work weary sister would try to get some sleep before returning to her 12hour shifts plus Civil Defence. As the electric regularly failed for varying periods and reasons, candles were left ready with matchboxes at hand. The fire was encouraged to shed a little warmth, though one had to be measly with the coal as it was rationed (what wasn't?). The teapot and mugs stood ready for usage, but there was no food to spare. Originally we had all huddled underneath the table for hours, but experience and tiredness are great teachers, and apart from sister trying to doze beneath it, the table was for emergencies only. The canary's cage was removed from its hook by the window and placed on the sewing-machine on the opposite side of the room. A cloth had to be placed over the cage otherwise he would sing all night! Mother would sit quietly sewing, mending or reading by the dim light. The dog wandered around looking puzzled but seemingly unfazed by the cacophony of crashes, bangs, shaking, vibration and general uproar and commotion. I was restless from frustration as I wanted to be outside to observe and satisfy my insatiable curiosity. Mother banned this unless Dad was with me. Alas! He was usually out patrolling with the Home Guard during most raids or would be summoned by some emergency or other. He, to, preferred to be outdoors whenever a raid was on.

    Whenever a crisis took place, and by crisis I mean moments of shear terror, mother complained regularly, "The trouble with your father is that he's never here when you need him!" Whether she expected him to catch the bomb or plane or whatever was screaming down, I don't know.

    One such incident was during the Coventry Blitz on 14th November 1940. He and I had been huddled in the back porch looking at the dreaded "Bombers Moon", i.e. the full moon on a clear night. When the belated Hinckley alert blared, he disappeared with tin-hat, rifle and revolver. This was approximately 7:20pm. Sister and I sneaked outside and watched the parachute flares floating down, some of which were relatively near to the town. They were so pretty (after the eternal blackness) and so deadly. They were pathfinder flares. By 9pm, flares were not needed to find Coventry. The flames must have been visible for a hundred miles. The sky turned pink, then red, then white. You could see to read a newspaper in the garden. We retreated indoors as shrapnel hissed and pinged around. About 11pm, mother (refusing to be cowed) fried herself a little potato and cut a slice of bread with an apology of butter on it, for her supper. There was the most appalling scream of something which grew louder and louder and seemed to be heading straight for us. Mother shouted, "under the table, quick!" In the process I knocked her supper plate upside down on the rug - and stopped to pick it up, as we know how precious food was. She dragged me under the table where I crouched over the dog with my hands over my ears as the indescribable scream became louder - then it stopped, suddenly. The dog was first out from under the table, and promptly ate mother's supper! Dad reappeared briefly to check on us and to tell us that two parachute mines had landed in the Railway Station fields and all that area of the town - Southfield Road, Station Road, Sketchley, etc. all had been evacuated and the screaming noise had been a plane crashing near the Watling Street (now the A5). This incident has never been mentioned or reported but Dad was definite, and he and his men were among those who were detailed to search for the crew who were believed to have baled out (Some incidents during the war remain secret {or a mystery} to this day. We were told what officialdom wanted us to hear and no more). The rest of the night was unceasing activity and noise, hour after hour of it. Dad staggered home about 5am looking exhausted. My last recollection of it was of all four of us sprawled on the floor together in a stupor. When the all clear cut through the smoky air at circa 6am, Dad roused himself enough to croak "I've never been so glad to see the dawn!" Considering he had been in several actions during the Battle of the Somme, 1916 and, later, in Belgium near Ypres, it summed up the night. Unforgettable - and he had to go to work then as did sister, while I crawled to school. What it was like in Coventry itself, I do not wish to know.

    On the 19th-20th November, Leicester was heavily raided. Never - the less, mother and I set out in a journey to Markfield Hospital where I was to have an X-ray. Again, we had been up and sleepless for much of the night. It was amazing how public transport continued to run during the war. So we travelled by bus to Leicester's Western Boulevard. The Newarke, where we waited for the Markfield bus was a shambles. A man warned us not to stand where we were doing, pointing upwards to where large shards of broken glass were on the ledge just above us, as all the windows had been shattered. On the return journey, from Markfield, the bus detoured several times because of roads closed by unexploded bombs, and mother lost her bearings completely. Spotting, finally, Great Central Street, she signalled for the bus to stop and made her way towards the familiar landmarks with me tagging along aft. A large, friendly police constable in uniform and tin-hat said loudly, "Where do you think you're going, missus?" Taken aback, mother retorted tartly, "Why, down Great Central Street"."Oh, no your not!" was the reply. "there's UXB's down there". It seemed only then to see the red and white strip of paper strung across the entrance and the notice stating, "Unexploded Bombs. Keep Clear." She must have been so tired as, indeed, was I. After skirting around other bombed buildings we eventually rejoined the Newarke shambles. The air-raid alerts were already howling as we journeyed home and darkness fell. Another night to spend on the floor!

    One day, I know not which, I was making my way across the fields which led from Hinckley to Burbage, and a Danger Unexploded Bombs Keep Clear sign was propped against a stile. I thought, I'm not walking all that way back, and, as no-one was within sight, hopped over the stile, and ran through the next field. Nothing happened, otherwise I wouldn't be writing this now.

    It seemed the Germans had decided to concentrate on the midlands and leave London at relative peace for a while, for from the middle of November until Christmas the alarms eerie wailing as darkness fell became nightly. We snatched sleep when we could. On 4th December, 1940 mother and I went to a friends for tea. Our hostess said, "I don't want to rush you, but they are beginning to come over a little earlier every night". Before we reached home the sirens wailed Dad was anxiously waiting, saw us inside and shortly afterwards from his look in the back porch shouted, "Get down". Under the table once more in a pile of arms, legs, heads and dog. Bombs rained down near to the place we had just left. There was tremendous damage done, but no-one killed. Another night to remember amidst the way of life which was now familiar to all of us. Most passed in a familiar sort of blur.

    It was so peaceful (for us) the Christmas of 1940. We stayed with relatives at Mountsorrell, with my maternal grandmother and mothers sister. On 29th December came the great fire raid on London, of which we knew nothing until we heard the news on the wireless. This itself was a novelty, as at home in Hinckley we possessed no wireless. News travelled by newspaper and, more rapidly, by word of mouth.

    Spring and late winter saw a renewed onslaught on the Midlands, with Coventry and Birmingham the main targets. Once more, nights spent downstairs on the floor, while bombers buzzed overhead for hours, accompanied by bang, bang, whup, whup, the clatter of fire from nearby airfields, the howl of bombs with their unmistakable crump, crump. The ground shook and heaved, the house vibrated, windows rattled and doors blew ajar, the lights flickered, on and off, and sometimes no water nor gas was available. Often Dad seemed off-duty and he and I would be in the garden. He would explain the differences of meaning in the varying bangs and flashes. Originally, the planes flew high and were often caught in a criss-cross of searchlights. They looked like tiny silver moths. One night a solitary plane sounded very near, and was caught in a single low sweeping searchlight. Out of this it side-slipped, but I had time to recognise it as a Junkers JU.88, and see not only the black crosses on its wings and tail. It's tail-gunners face stared straight into mine - or so it seemed. This plane was scarcely higher than the roof-tops and, I suspect, was in difficulties as it appeared to be losing height. I was stunned by how low and how near it was.

    Sometimes a daylight lone plane would elude detection and 'sneak raid'. One day I was walking the dog in the Station Fields and a dratted Jerry ME 110 swooped low machine-gunning the area of the Railway Station. I dived in a ditch with the dog beneath me. I was enraged by the audacity of it - though secretly admiring the bravery of his cheek. For some reason, this incident is not recorded nor is the following. Again, a lone raider slipped in undetected about 6pm one dark night. No warning had been given and this plane bombed and machine-gunned the Electricity Power Station in Nutt's Lane, Hinckley. The lights went out immediately and mother and I both dived for the floor, I in the living room and she in the kitchen. Sister was still at work, and the power failed there, too. Dad was out somewhere. It was all very brief and unexpected. Oh, well, these things happened. It was part of life - irritating! This incident has, as I have aforementioned, never been recorded.

    There were heavy raids on Coventry on both the 8th and 10th April and a lot of activity around the area as Birmingham was a target on other nights. By May, we were becoming exhausted and desperate for a good nights sleep. On the evening of 16th May, the sirens wailed once more. Mother, sister and I were in bed (half-dressed) when the alert came. Dad was Home Guarding again, so mother was in charge. "Stay where you are. I can't hear anything" she called to us from her bedroom. Shortly afterwards, I found myself lying on the floor in the corner spitting out dust and dirt. Sister, who occupied the other half of the double bed had disappeared. Both she and mother had been blown downstairs by the blast from a nearby bomb, and everything was shaking and rumbling. I picked myself up, grabbed my clothes and half-fell down the shuddering steps. Then - underneath the table, while all-hell was let loose somewhere much nearer than Coventry. Dad appeared to check we were all right and said bombs had landed very near and people were dead - and to STAY PUT! We had no intention of going anywhere! Where to go? The uproar continued for hour after hour. It was Nuneaton and Hinckley which were attacked that night. Germany claimed they had attacked, raided, or whatever, Birmingham and Coventry. Friends of ours who had sought refuge in Nuneaton after being bombed out on the East Coast, were bombed out again. The following morning was Saturday so no school. This must have been a relief to the teachers as, after every nightlong raid, children simply sat at their desks and fell asleep. The staff must have been told not to awaken us, as no-one was roused or punished.

    Anyway, with it being Saturday, we gangs of children descended on the still smoking ruins to see the damage and search for souvenirs. Fragments of shrapnel or bombs were highly prized. Scrabbling around among the wreckage I discovered a large piece of one of the bombs. It was jagged and so heavy. Stupidly, I remember thinking, "this could have killed me". Next I retrieved a curious object which defied immediate identification - but suddenly I dropped it in horror. It was a human finger. We were all rousted out by an A.R.P. man who shouted at us to "B----- off!" Bricks, broken glass and smouldering masonry surrounded us. There was not an unbroken window in sight - Rugby Road, Granby Road, Granby Close, Northfield Road, Westfield Road, Clarendon Road (part), all the familiar places had windows smashed, doors blown in, tiles stripped from roofs. Our house had escaped serious damage because a) most of the blast had gone the other way and b) because there was a slight bend in the road and the lesser blast had skipped round us. It was a sight of devastation which must have been caused by bombs of some size. We were now to learn long afterwards that a number of U.X.B.s had also been dropped. Hinckley was not mentioned in the news except to say "East Midland town badly damaged by bombs." Other places were also hit, but Nuneaton had the worst of it.

    The main uniforms to be seen in the town were Air Force blue with several close airfields, the men flocked into Hinckley during off-duty hours. Many were from Bramcote Airfield just across the border in Warwickshire, and were training to be Air Crew. They wore a white flash on their forage cap to distinguish them thus. They sought Hinckley female company. Sister had so many different men with whom she consorted that I couldn't keep count. It was particularly embarrassing when two different R.A.F. boys turned up at the same time. She was always getting her 'dates' mixed up! I, of course, was not allowed out with anyone! Other uniforms came and went, but the R.A.F. ruled the roost. - until the Yanks came.

    The Yanks, oh yes, the Yanks! They arrived suddenly around the beginning of 1942 and took the whole place over - including the girls! Most were billeted in camps out of town, but others occupied the George Ballroom, the Lido down Netherley Road and other bits and pieces of the town. (The George Ballroom was in the Horse fair). Intense rivalry flared between Yanks and R.A.F. (and others in the British Forces), and numerous fights ensued. The 'Snowballs' (the U.S. military police, called snowballs because they wore white tin hats) would arrive in their jeeps and break-up fights with their long batons. They, like most law enforcement officers, carried pistols. It was not time to be particular!

    The Yanks were both welcomed and disliked. They were generous, cheeky and had "candy", "tinned fruit", and food we had not seen for years. They were very good to the children, who followed them everywhere as they whizzed about in their jeeps. They were often at a loss as what to do during their off-duty hours and wandered the town mainly trying to pick-up a "dame". It must have been so boring for them stuck in a town which could offer them nothing except the "Pictures" as we called the Cinemas. These were always packed, with patient, or otherwise, queues outside waiting to be allowed in. Apart from little, privately run, parties and dances mainly organised by local church or chapel groups, there was just no entertainment. It must have been boring, dead, depressing for the Yanks to come to a shabby, war-torn rationed town with it's dullness accentuated by the blackout, to which we were accustomed and they were not. "Put that bloody light out!" vied with "Goddammed Limeys!" and Tom, Dick and Harry turned into Bud and Joe. You could make an easy 'buck' out of our American friends by selling at inflated prices all kinds of rubbish which they found "Cute", though this was not overdone unless our overseas guests became exceptionally boastful, brash, and boring. You couldn't appeal to their stomachs. They had real eggs, whereas we had powdered ones, which tasted nothing like egg at all. There was one thing most of them craved (besides a Dame) and that was a bicycle to enable them to career around and transport them from base camp to the joys of Hinckley. It really needed to be a lady's bike, as they had no idea how to mount or dismount from a bike with a bar across as men's bikes had. They simply fell off men's bikes.

    They didn't dismount from a man's bike, they just let it stop and then fall to the ground - sometimes unintentionally entangled in it themselves. They wore their forage caps at incredible angles and marched in a rolling gait, which caused enormous giggles. From 1942-D-Day, 6th June, 1944, they seemed to take the town over. The kids and the girls loved them, but the men and older women were dismissive of them as "show-offs", and "Johnny Come Latelies" who'd had to be dragged into the war kicking and screaming when the real slog had been borne by the people at home and in Europe. ('Johnny Come Lately' was the name by which they were known, and they knew it.

    The Vicars and Ministers at the various churches and chapels arranged for a Forces Club to be opened at the Working Men's Club in Holliers Walk, Hinckley. Rations of tea, coffee, sugar, milk and some food were allocated to this new Forces Club, which was run mainly by young women from each religious denomination.

    This proved a popular destination, as there was nowhere else to go but the cinema. There was little entertainment except some old roller skates and a couple of table-tennis tables. The Yanks acquired a gramophone and some records (mainly of Glen Miller. The favourite tune was "In The Mood" and they also brought "Jitterbugging" to the town) and dances were held. "Ya wanna dance, honey?" was more a statement than a question. Mostly, though, it was a place where members of the forces could meet and chat. It was somewhere to go! A little oasis in a desert, as it were amid the dreary row upon row of shabby buildings and shops which had nothing to sell, plus the eternal blackout.

    Fights sometimes broke out and the "Snowdrops" and, less likely, the "Red Caps", as most British forces were by then overseas, had to be summoned. The home police left military matters to them usually. The Yanks were popular with the children and vice-versa. Children sought 'candy' and chewing gum, while the Yanks found memories of home in the company of the 'kids'. Many had left children back "Stateside". My sisters R.A.F. boy-friend of 2 years or more was posted away to complete his training as an air-gunner in a Lancaster bomber. She was soon seized upon by a Yank, who assured her he did not seek a serious affair but, "Just wanted a dame to take out." He knew that the long awaited invasion was due and that, as a paratrooper, he would be undoubtedly 'dropped' on the first day or so. He was a big chap, with crew-cut fair hair, and very handsome, with a Mid-West drawl. Much amusement occurred one evening when they were out and the air-raid alert sounded. By 1943-1944 these had become comparatively rare. He tried to hustle her to the nearest public shelter, to which he said, "We don't shelter until 'something happens'", which was a fact. It is amazing what people can become blasé about. When D-day approached, he disappeared along with all the other Yanks. One day the town was crowded with them, and the following morning they had all gone save for a few left to clear away the signs of their stay. The town seemed, indeed, was, dead, and returned to what it had been before their hearty arrival. Later, we heard that most of their regiment, the 82nd Airborne, had been killed or wounded.                                                     

    The 6th June, 1944 saw the sky full of transport planes carrying troops and planes pulling gliders full of other troops. They passed overhead at very low level for several hours. It was uplifting and yet sad. We knew so many would never see England again as indeed, they did not. Yanks, British, Free French, Canadians, New Zealanders, Australians, Czechs, Polish, Dutch, Norwegians - thousands of them lie in the war cemeteries of Europe.

    For we civilians, nothing much changed except that the Home Guard was disbanded and Italian and German P.O.W.s (prisoners of war. They were dressed in green) were put to work helping on the land and with other essential non-combative activities. On one occasion my sister and I were on Victoria Park, Leicester watching a scratch cricket match along with a group of others. The P.O.W.s in there green attire were interested but puzzled. You try explaining cricket to a German! It was hilarious but not successful. I remember thinking, they (the Germans) didn't really want a war and neither did we. The sole resentment was primarily one of "we are having to feed you and we cannot feed ourselves properly." How my mother fed and clothed us for 6 years is beyond my understanding, especially me. The body grows and changes a lot in 6 years. She was always busy "making something out of nothing" as she termed it.

    As the war dragged on and it was obvious that it would be over ere long, I recall being somewhat scared of the idea of peace. I had forgotten what peace was like after 6 years. Later, it was reported that many felt the same unease. The sky was filled with planes, but this time they were travelling in the opposite direction from the previous assaulting bombers and their menacing drone. The southern counties were attacked with "Doodlebugs" and "Rockets" but they did not have the range to trouble us. Raids had become a distant memory albeit a vivid one. The last ones troubling us were in the summer of 1942.

    We had a very lively night on 30th July 1942. For hours Dad and I had been standing in the garden as 'Jerry' refused to go away and continued to buzz around. Nothing untoward was happening, when Dad gave me a sudden shove in the back and I fell face down in the cabbage patch with him following me there. The sky turned into one gigantic firework display as whirling and crackling their way towards us were some of the contents of a 'Molotov Cocktail' - a canister which opened in the air and scattered a thousand or so incendiary bombs. Dad shouted, "Don't just lie there! Come and help me put 'em out!" With that, he grabbed a spade and ran into the street yelling over his shoulder, "And bring the bag of sand with you and a shovel!" It did not seem the moment to inform him that I had used the bag of sand to play sandcastles but refilled it with soil. With this dragging behind me I followed him into the street clutching the heavy dustbin lid and having stuck his spare steel helmet on my head. There were a number of incendiaries fizzing away. I dumped the contents of the bad of soil onto a couple, shielding myself with the dustbin lid. Seeing another incendiary just smouldering away I covered it over with Dad's spare steel helmet, retaining the dustbin lid for self-protection. Several other people were busy extinguishing other "fizzers". Dad had disappeared, but I found him with a group of men anxiously watching a haystack blazing in the field at the side of the Gasworks in Coventry Road. It was as light as day. The fire brigade arrived very quickly and soon had it lifeless again. "Where have you been?" queried Dad accusingly. I boasted of my exploits only to be told that I should not have gone near anything but sheltered in the house. Then he noticed the dustbin lid! He was not amused about that and I don't think he ever forgave me for the ruination of his "tin hat", and mother was furious about my dirty coat and filthy face and hands. There is no pleasing some people, I thought, as we all wearily trooped to bed when the long night finally ended.

    My sister brought home from work one of the most hilarious tales the next day. One of her colleagues had told the work force:

    "When those incendiaries dropped, some where near a friends house and set it alight. This air-raid warden came along screaming, "Put that bloody light out! Put that bloody light out!" A woman's head poked through the window and shouted back "You silly bugger! The bedrooms on fire!"

    We all had our stories of funny incidents but this one was hilarious as fires were dotted over a wide area. It must have been so obvious what had happened. Strange man!

    So we tiptoed towards the end of the war in Europe and V.E.Day on 8th May, 1945. This day was an anti-climax and dogged by a sort of forced joy as nothing seemed to have change much, although it had.

    The Second World War dominated my formative and impressionable childhood and threshold of youth as it did millions of others. It formed my character and later life. I remember the hunger, the cold, the monotony, the moments of jubilation, the moments of despair, the moments of terror, the moments of hysterical laughter, the queues stretching endlessly, the loss of the only man I ever loved and the camaraderie.

    The rest of my life has been unremarkable by contrast. That sums up the effect of WWII on me. It is so strange to look back on those wartime years almost longingly. As J.B. Priestley wrote, "The British were at their best during the was. Sadly, they have never been as good since."

    A view I endorse without reservations.

    Winston Churchill, in one of his wartime speeches, described the British as "an unconquerable people."

    He was wrong. We have conquered ourselves.




Jean B. Sleath
Hinckley










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