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A Kid’s View of World War II

By Bob Timewell
Splasher Six Volume 30, Fall 1999, No. 3
Cindy Goodman, Editor

This reminiscence was prompted by the following paragraph on page 167 of Harry Crosby’s book “A Wing and a Prayer.”

“At 16-00 hours the next day, Christmas, we had turkey and ham, mashed potatoes, gravy, sweet potatoes, corn, peas, cranberry sauce, rolls, pickles, cake, ice cream, and three kinds of pie. We invited 150 kids from the surrounding villages, and they ate as though they had never seen such food.”

A friend had recently read Harry’s book and one evening during a dinner party he had happened to mention the fact. This started a discussion of what we could remember about the war years and how in spite of the shortage of food (or because of it) it is said that the population of Britain had never been so healthy. It was also commented how lots of young people today are overweight. Not in fighting trim!

Well, I can’t speak for the kids of the villages surrounding Thorpe Abbotts. I lived some two hundred and fifty miles northwest in a town called Runcorn on the upper reaches of the river Mersey some ten miles from the port of Liverpool, as the crow flies. I can assure you that my contemporaries and I had never seen such food and certainly never in such profusion. But I suppose the old cliché applies, “What you never have you never miss.”

Some of my memories of those turbulent times are very vivid while others have faded. Of the night air raids by the Luftwaffe on Liverpool and its surrounding area, my memories are sharp. Far from being afraid, my pals and I found the experience exciting. After the alert had sounded, we would get out of bed and dress up warm, my mother would then make her way, with me in tow, to the nearest air raid shelter. I’m sure she was terrified, but she never once showed her fear. I had a toy gun, which I used to point up at the sky making suitable noises with my mouth at the German bombers passing overhead. You could tell they were German by the sound of the engines, which were not synchronized and so made a discordant dull, rumbling sound. The ack ack batteries (anti aircraft guns) would then start firing at the German bombers dropping flares, which I called “Flying Onions.” The whole effect was like a giant fireworks display. Not appreciating the danger of the situation, I was always most disappointed when we reached the comparative safety of the air raid shelter. Inside the lighting was dim, with just two small light bulbs, and it was cold and damp with a musty smell of damp concrete. Running the full length of the shelter on each side, was primitive seating from lathes of wood.

The next morning on our way to school we always used to collect pieces of shrapnel (flak) that was lying in the streets or gardens. School was a different world to those today. We carried our gas masks in a small box slung over our shoulders. The Lord help you if you forgot to carry it! The school was a nineteenth century Victorian building which had gas lighting. The lavatories were outside in the playground open to the weather. At mid morning break we were given milk to drink that the teacher served directly from a milk churn. At midday, dinner was served, and if memory serves it cost a sixpence. The food was appalling; the thought of the stews that smelled horrible and were full of fat still makes me shudder! I was punished more than once with the cane for refusing to eat watery, tasteless, overcooked, white cabbage and those awful slimy Brussels sprouts.

There was only one male teacher in the school, and that was Mr. Robinson, the Headmaster, who I remember as a kindly person. Although he did cane me a number of times, I’m sure it was with justification, for I was no little angel! All the other teachers were women, and boy were they formidable. I remember one who taught geography; she really used to scare me. In her classroom was a large map of the world mounted on the wall. I can recall the question, “What are the pink bits?” The required answer was “The British Empire, Miss.” The Lord help you if you didn’t know the answer! The lessons seemed to consist of having such facts rammed into our heads.

There were frequent Air Raid Exercises. The school bell would sound, and we had to make our way in an orderly crocodile to an air raid shelter, a number of which had been erected in the playground. They had wood lathe seating and very poor lighting. We had to don our gas masks, and then lessons continued. After a few minutes the “window” steamed up and we couldn’t see. But I don’t remember any children being frightened – I think we all welcomed the break from routine.

In May 1941, the Luftwaffe mounted a sustained savage campaign against Liverpool which went on night after night. There were no lights showing from the houses and, of course, no street lights as strict “blackout” was in force. You literally could not see your hand in front of your face. Yet once the air raids started the flash of the anti aircraft guns firing, the flares being dropped by the Germans, the massive flashes from the exploding bombs, and the burning buildings lit the sky like daylight. One night a “stick” of bombs came down near our shelter, but fortunately, only one exploded; the shelter shook with the blast. The next morning we found that it had hit a house about one hundred yards from the shelter, completely demolishing it. Fortunately, the occupants had been in the shelter, so no one was hurt.

My grandfather had a big shop in the town of Wallasey, where I was born, in which he sold glass and chinaware. He was an acknowledged expert in cut glass lead crystal, particularly that which was produced in Czechoslovakia. People came from all over England to buy from him. One night during the May 1941 raids, a stick of bombs straddled his store. He and my Grandmother had taken to the cellar to shelter immediately after the alert was sounded. During the raid they heard bumps and thumps above them. Eventually the “all clear” sounded, and Grandfather went to open the trap door. At first he was unable to move it, but using a lever and all his strength he managed to force it open. They climbed out, and to their utter amazement, they were standing in what remained of the street. Later he said that he was amazed to see that his whole property, both store and house, had disappeared. The whole area was covered in debris, bricks, broken furniture, and worst of all the broken remains of a young woman hanging in the branches of a shattered tree. This affected him greatly for some time after. The only things of the store to survive were two lead crystal bowls that had been on display in the store window. Once was undamaged and the other had lost a foot. Both have been passed down to me and are still in use.

All this I saw for myself two days later. My father and I traveled from Runcorn by train to Liverpool. We had to walk down to the river Mersey, as the city was a shambles, with acres of rubble and shattered glass; salvaged contents of shops and offices lay littered at the side of streets. I recall seeing a mass of coins in the remains of a shop till melted into a solid lump of metal. Eventually, we caught the ferryboat to Wallasey; in the river were a couple of sunken ships with just the tops of the masts sticking out of the water. We arrived at the site of my grandfather’s shop and witnessed the same devastation we had just seen in Liverpool. There was a horrible stench of brick dust and smoldering skeletons of buildings, and the broken, pathetic remains of household furniture lay outside the wrecked houses.

While pilots and soldiers fought the enemy that caused all that destruction, my mother and millions like her fought a war against a different, ancient enemy; hunger. It was a war that they could not afford to lose. They system of wartime rationing and food distribution proved to be a success, but it must be said that the success was largely due to the resourcefulness of the housewives.

The introduction of rationing was gradual; ration books were sued for the first time on 8 January 1940. Although the system was fine tuned from time to time, the following table gives a fair idea of the weekly ration per person:

Bacon or ham 4 oz
Sugar 12 oz
Butter 4 oz
Tea 2 oz
Margarine 2 oz
Cooking fat 2 oz
Cheese 2 oz
Eggs 1 every two weeks
1 packet of dried eggs per month (equivalent to 12 fresh eggs)
Meat 1s-1d worth (minute!)
Jam, Marmalade
Syrup according to season from 8 oz to 2 lb per month.

By the end of 1940, most hoarded food cupboards were empty. Such items as tinned salmon, tinned meat, and tinned fruit and vegetables had vanished. In late 1941 the Ministry of Food introduced a points rationing scheme; every ration book holder received 16 points per month to spend as the wished at any shop that had the required item. At first only tinned meat and vegetables were “on points,” but as time went by, more items were added: canned fruit, condensed milk, cereals, and biscuits. The government had realized that this was an ideal way by which it could control supply, by raising or lowering the points value of each item. By this means the housewife could again be a discriminating shopper, instead of being just a collector of rations. Changes in the point values were published in the newspapers.

Two American items, which proved very popular, were tins of “Spam,” a sort of spiced meat loaf, and tins of sausage meat. Although one tin used up 16 points – whole months supply – it was good for several meals and contained a thick layer of fat, which could be used for cooking.

All these shortages led to experiments in the kitchen to find substitutes. My mother was always experimenting! My father and I were the guinea pigs. Most times they were a great success, but she did have some disasters. She made a cake, and since she did not have sufficient fat, used castor oil. The result? Well, the cake was great but my father and I performed the “green apple two step” all the next day.

Fish was not rationed, and this, of course, resulted in long queues outside the fishmonger’s shops. If you were at the back of the queue there was a fair chance that you could go home cold, wet, and empty handed. On one of these occasions, my Mother dished up a new fish dish; at first she refused to say what it was. We just couldn’t eat it. It was tough as leather and tasted of cod liver oil. Eventually she owned up that it was whale meat, an experiment that was not repeated. Sausages were also not rationed, but it was best not to inquire as to their contents. In our family they were referred to as “sweet mysteries of life.”

In the early part of the war, it was considered to be unpatriotic to have a white wedding. But later, as restrictions and rationing made it more difficult, it because a matter of pride to have a wedding as near the pre-war standard as possible. This was not accomplished without a lot of effort. Photographic materials were in short supply as were photographers. It was illegal to manufacture confetti, or to throw rice. Also, it was illegal to use sugar for the icing of cakes. This was a deathblow to the traditional three-tiered wedding cake. You will, of course, see photographs of very impressive wartime wedding cakes. The white, three-tiered works of art are, in fact, cardboard covers. Spam or dried egg sandwiches were also served.

One day whilst my mother and I were waiting for a train at Lime Street Station, Liverpool, some American soldiers passed us. My mother, who was very good looking, received a couple of wolf whistles, and I, being an enterprising young lad seeing the possibilities of the situation, asked, “got any gum, chum?” I was amazed! I got enough gum and candy to last me for months, but when I arrived home, I was disciplined and told never to ask strangers for candy again! Realizing that to disobey this instruction would bring swift retribution, I obeyed. The next time I saw some Americans I just said “hello,” and bingo, it happened again! I was given chewing gum.

On another occasion we, the family, were traveling by train to Glouchester. It was slow, and the carriages were packed with people. Most were in uniform, and some were even sitting on their suitcases in the corridors. An American soldier stood up and offered my mother his seat. He had a large box of chocolates, which he had just opened. He took one chocolate and passed the box to me, commenting, “You kids don’t get half enough candy!” I always remember your friendly easy going was and your generosity, particularly to children. You certainly brought a breath of fresh air and colour to drab gray wartime Britain!