Norman's story of being a 9 year old boy in wartime Liverpool.
RECOLLECTIONS OF THE WAR
I have been asked to tell people about my experiences as a child in Liverpool during World War II. To start, I must emphasize that my experiences were based on that of a child living on the outskirts of the city and although there was some drama, others living further into the city would have had a much more difficult time. Nor am I going to claim that my reactions were necessarily typical of all youngsters of my then age. With these caveats, I can only hope that this account may be of interest to those who have never gone, and hopefully never will go, through this experience.
My first realisation that a war might be in the offing came at the end of September 1938 when I was nearly 9 years old. Not many children of that age would take any interest in politics and I was no exception. However, when Neville Chamberlain returned from Munich telling the country that ‘there would be peace in our time’, my father was very angry, saying that Chamberlain made his blood boil. He clearly (and as it turned out accurately) thought that war was inevitable and those who thought that Hitler could be appeased were wrong.
Even the Government must have been somewhat of this view themselves, since preparations for war started in 1939. We were given some ideas of what to do in the event of war and the consequent bombing (“Air Raid Precautions”) and Anderson Air Raid Shelters were issued to everyone whose income was less than £5.00 a week ( average pay was around £200 per year) and had a garden in which to install them. A good description of the Anderson shelter is available at www.woodlands-junior.kent.sch.uk and there is no need for me to go into detail here. Suffice to say, that the shelter had to be set into a hole in the garden, the deeper the better and then covered over with the soil dug out. I remember my father undertaking this task with a little help from my two older brothers. He chose to put the shelter about three feet deep at the bottom of our garden in Score Lane, probably some 40 feet from the house itself. His thinking was that he did not want the shelter’s entrance to be blocked by debris from the house in the event that it was destroyed. The downside was that when we had to use it we had to go right down the garden, in the dark, to get to it. My parents installed in the shelter some basic amenities, such as benches on which to sit or possibly sleep, a paraffin oil heater and a cable from the house for an electric light. Later, when we needed to use it in earnest, two further problems manifested themselves. When a significant number of people were in the shelter (and in our case, our neighbours who did not have such a shelter, joined us), there was a great deal of condensation on the metal sides of the shelter and this was liable to drip on those inside. Even more serious was that a shelter dug relatively deep in the ground was for much of the year below the water table, with the result that several inches of water flooded the shelter rendering it virtually useless. This was recognised as a common problem and was solved by the provision of a concrete open-topped box which was inserted into the Anderson and the seating could then be arranged over the surrounding space with one’s feet dangling into this box. It must have been quite difficult to get such a box into the shelter and I do not remember who did it; I suspect that it was those who delivered it. As you can imagine, the interior was always very damp and rather unpleasant and, on many occasions, we chose to remain in the house and I, as the youngest, was told to stay under the stairs which would provide some protection from falling debris if the house was bombed. Another consequence of using this shelter arose from the fact that our garden had been planted with night-scented stock which gave off their perfume in the night as we were going down to the shelter. The result is that I strongly associate the delightful smell of these plants with air raids, even up to the present time!
Another indication that the Government expected war was the fact that gas masks were issued to everybody. Although the Germans never used gas, it was thought highly likely that they would. The masks had of course, to be carried around with us wherever we went. For this purpose, they were contained in small cardboard boxes which had a cord to enable the mask to be carried around one’s neck. It is these masks that you can see on photographs of evacuees. Because we never needed them for real, I never wore one for any length of time, but they were not pleasant at all and it would have been a case that wearing one was the lesser of two evils. Again, a description of a gas mask is given on the website cited above.
On 1 September, 1939, Hitler’s troops invaded Poland and this was naturally a major issue on the radio news and we all knew then that war was almost certain and I can vividly remember the announcement by Neville Chamberlain on the following Sunday (3, September) that we were indeed at war. I know that I was very frightened, having heard on the radio of how there had been massive bombing raids in Poland and I expected that we were going to be subject to the same treatment. Although as a an adult, I can now appreciate that even if there was mass bombing of Britain, the chances of my house in Liverpool being destroyed that night must have been extremely low. However, as a child nearly 9 years old, I didn’t think in those terms and I remember going to bed that night thinking that this could well be my last night on earth. Needless to say, there was no bombing that night, nor for many months thereafter, and I got used to the feeling of war.
We had to make a number of adjustments to our lives. We had to ensure that we did not show any lights after dark; all our windows had to be covered by blackout material. Street lights were non-existent and although torches were allowed, they had to be used sparingly. Vehicles headlights were restricted to a narrow slit by covering them with a mask. Petrol was only available for those who had a real need for it, such as the local doctor. This, of course, was not the problem then as it would be today as hardly anyone had a car; I don’t remember anyone in my road having one. Another thing that we had to do was to crisscross our windows with tape so that any bomb blast would be less likely to result in shards of glass flying about causing more damage and injury.
Food was rationed but the extent of rationing varied from time to time, and indeed continued to a decreasing extent for nearly seven years after the war ended. In general, people had an allocation of some basic commodities, such as butter, sugar, meat, tea etc but other items were allocated on a points system, under which to obtain an item one had in addition to a cash payment, give a specified number of points. At this range, I cannot be precise on the actual amounts allowed, but nobody ever felt they were starving. Food supply was always adequate, if sometimes rather boring. Some things disappeared altogether, notably bananas, and if we went to the cinema and watched an American film in which someone was seen eating a banana, there would always be a loud reaction!! There was also a bit of horse trading. For example, my family liked weak tea but were relatively heavy users of sugar and so we would find someone who liked strong tea and didn’t use too much sugar and do a trade off. There were also a number of food items which one wouldn’t find today –notably powdered egg. Perhaps a little more surprising is the absence today of mutton, which was quite a normal meat before the war, but ceased to be available during the war and is certainly not common today. Other items were used more extensively than today, for example powdered and condensed milk. Cereals were restricted in their distribution, so that we in the north could get wheat flakes, but corn flakes were unavailable. Bread ceased to be pure white but was more like today’s wholemeal bread. However, it was a healthy diet which is reflected in the state of older people’s teeth and very few people would have been labelled obese.
Other domestic items were strictly limited to essential items only. For example, it was impossible to buy china with any pattern at all and I clearly remember buying some decorated china which had just returned to the market after I was married in 1954! As a chid my concern was more related to the availability of toys. Only second hand items could be bought. My ambition to own a Hornby model railway set had to be put on hold until the war was over, but by then, I had other things to buy and I never did get my train set! For the same reason, wood was very scarce and when I was introduced to woodwork at my secondary school, we were rationed to a small piece of wood, for example a 6 inch piece of 2x1 timber, with which one could not do very much!
When the war started, schools were still on summer holiday but initially they were all kept closed. As a child, I probably thought that this was one blessing of war – no school!! The reason was of course that schools did not have any air raid shelters and it took time to provide them. After a little time, classes did resume, in my case, on a part time basis in another pupil’s house. Others were evacuated. In the case of my school, if one lived on the city side of Mill Lane, you would be evacuated; otherwise you were left in Liverpool. My middle brother, at another school, was evacuated to Shrewsbury and my wife-to-be was evacuated to West Kirby. I know that both were quite happy with their stand-in parents. In my wife’s case, she was billeted with two of her friends in the house in Meols belonging to the widow of a wealthy solicitor who had maids. Life was very comfortable, in fact better than at her real home. She acquired a taste for good living which she is still trying to achieve with me! Others were not so lucky and some had horrendous times. At least, in the two cases cited above, their respective families could visit them without too much difficulty, but this was certainly not always the case. In Liverpool’s case, evacuation ceased after about six months, ironically just before bombing started.
In due course, air raid shelters were built in or near the school grounds. My junior school, Northway, had access to a partially submerged public shelter in the recreation ground behind the school. Others had surface shelters built in their grounds and some of these have only recently been demolished. These surface shelters were also built in the streets where it was not possible to have Anderson Shelters. This naturally limited access in the road but, as stated above, this was not the problem it would be today. With this provision, schools resumed a near normal service.
For the first seven months of the war, there was very little military activity and no air raids. This was the period of the so-called phoney war. It ended abruptly in April, 1940, when Germany invaded France and, by advancing through Belgium, rapidly overcame French resistance, leading to the dramatic evacuation of the British Army from Dunkirk. Invasion of the UK then seemed to be a certainty, delayed permanently as it turned out by the RAF in the Battle of Britain. This was, of course, fought in the skies over the south of England and didn’t directly affect us. However, preparations for invasion were made throughout the country. All road direction signs were dismantled so that any invader would be as confused as possible and strongpoints (‘pillboxes’) were constructed all over the country. A number of these pillboxes were built at various places around Merseyside. These were small reinforced ‘forts’ situated at strategic points such as bridges and road junctions and something like 60,000 were built. A few still exist and I believe there is still one in Springwood Avenue at Hunts Cross. In addition, large numbers of cylindrical and pyramidical concrete blocks were made and placed, again at strategic places, to block access for tanks etc. After the war many of the cylindrical variety were pressed into civilian duties, acting for example as canal walls. Many of these obstacles and pillboxes were situated n Liverpool; for example one pillbox was situated at the junction of Rocky Lane, Childwall and Bowring Park Road by the old Cheshire Lines railway bridge there. Another consequence of the war was the removal for weapon production of ornamental railings. The effect of this can still be seen throughout the country. Nearly all pre First World War houses were sold with a low wall on which there were railings. The railings were all removed and the result today can be seen on such walls as small (about 2inch high) metal stumps.
At a domestic level, our neighbours met and asked my mother, who had been an army nurse in the First World War, if she would get together a range of medical materials and equipment which would be needed if there were any casualties from bombing in our neighbourhood. Consequently, we had a cabinet in our house with the necessary supplies. Fortunately, none of this was needed for war victims.
The war came home to us in full measure in August, 1940, with the beginning of the major blitzes. Because it was summer, these raids tended to be in the small hours of the morning and we were awakened by the sound of the sirens, had to get up and trek down the garden to our shelter. The next few hours would be filled with the drone of aircraft, the Junkers bombers having a very distinctive throbbing sound, the whistle of falling bombs and the subsequent explosion of these when they hit the ground. Occasionally, there was no explosion and we were left wondering whether this was because the bomb was a dud, or whether it had a time fuse. Either way, it created a bit of a worry if it had landed anywhere near you. In addition, there was the noise created by the anti-aircraft fire from batteries around the city. The nearest to my home was in Childwall Valley Road, on the right hand side just past the railway bridge. There were also some mobile guns which moved around the city. If one looked out into the night, very often the sky would be lit up by the glow of fires. Eventually, of course, the all clear would be sounded and we would return to bed and get up the following morning to go to school as if nothing had happened. Children would spend a few happy hours hunting for the shrapnel from the anti aircraft fire and sometimes the remains of the small incendiary bombs that were freely dropped over the city. By the end of all the raids, I had amassed a reasonably big collection. Unfortunately, I do not know what happened to it: I suspect my mother ordered me to put all that junk in the bin!
If all this seems to be well organised, this was certainly not always so! For example, quite often we would be alerted to a raid by gunfire or the sound of planes and the air raid siren would go off later. Even more annoying would be the sound of the all clear when we knew that a raid was in full progress We never learned why this happened but the theory that was prevalent at the time was that the alerts were authorised in Manchester, and the sirens timing was determined by whether the raids were going to be on Manchester or not. If the raid had bypassed Manchester or had finished there, we all got the all clear. I do not know if this was really the case, because if it had been, why did we not get a warning when the bombers were concentrating on Manchester? I do not remember too many false alarms. Because of the unreliability of the warning system, we actually tended to rely much more, if we were at home, on the radio (the ‘wireless’ as it was then called). When bombers were near, the local transmitter would be switched off and this would be soon followed by some form of action! As the evenings drew in, the raids became earlier in the night, but often would last, intermittently, for many hours as different waves of bombers came over. On a few occasions, I can remember that my father would come in from work, sit down for his dinner and then be made aware that a raid was in the offing by the radio going silent.
The worst experience for the city was in May 1941, when the city was bombed every single night for a whole week. The damage to the city was enormous, much of it because of the many fires that were started and the interruption of the water supply to the fire engines as a result of further bombing. Sometimes the firemen literally could only watch as the buildings blazed. The sky was literally lit up with the glow of the many fires that had been started. In the good old English tradition of bolting the stable door after the horse had bolted, steel pipes were later laid down the side of many of the main roads in Liverpool to bring water from the river into the city. We never had need of them, since the raids then ceased! Another precaution that was taken was the provision of large tanks of water in various places, the so-called’Emergency Water Supply’ or EWS. Several of these were placed in the schoolyard of my secondary school, the Collegiate School in Shaw Street. This school had incidentally suffered some damage from the air raids. It lost many of the windows and this was particularly noticeable in the school hall, which was therefore not well illuminated. I returned for a visit to the school some 40 years later and I was amazed at how bright the school hall was then with all the windows replaced.
So much for the generalities of the raids. What of my personal experiences? I had two which are worthy of note. The first of these occurred probably one Saturday in September, 1940. My father, mother, my middle brother and I had been out for the day and were returning just as it was going dark by tram from the city centre. When the tram had reached the then large tram depot and corporation works in Edge Lane (next to the Littlewoods Building, which still exists), there was the sound of anti-aircraft fire, and the conductor said that they were not going any further but we could all go into the surface shelter that was situated there. For reasons that only my father could have explained, he decided that we were not going into that shelter but would continue to go home on foot, some mile and a half away. We had been walking for a little while when I thought I heard an express train going along the railway line which went under Edge Lane, not far from where we were. However, I also heard my father screaming to me to lie down. Hardly had I done so, when there was the loud explosion of a bomb which landed a few hundred yards back down the road along which we had just walked, and which I was later told had killed two people. I don’t remember feeling at all worried about that bomb; what worried me was whether I had been lying down in dog excrement! I hadn’t!! It might sound silly that I thought the bomb was an express train, especially as no express trains ever went along that particular railway line. It is said that in moments of extreme danger, time goes very slowly and this is a good example of this. The time it takes for a bomb to fall is very short, but in that time, I thought I heard a train, I did hear my father, I did lie down and then and only then did the bomb land! Clearly, I had no time to realise that the train theory was rubbish!
We subsequently continued our way home with no further adventures, and, as it was then getting late, I was soon in bed. My father came up to me and said that I was not to be worried if I heard guns, they were on our side, he told me. I remember thinking that may well be true, but they were firing at the enemy who certainly wasn’t on my side! Sure enough, within minutes, a mobile anti aircraft gun opened fire not very far away. Sebastian Coe could not have got down the stairs quicker than me! I spent the remainder of the night underneath the dining room table!
The second event of note was around the same time. At that time, my 15 year old brother, who had been an evacuee at the beginning of the war, had volunteered to be a messenger boy for the fire service in an air raid. It had been found that during a raid, telephone communication from the scene of a fire to the fire headquarters was often impossible and there was a need to have an alternative - hence the messenger boys who cycled from a fire to the base station with messages. They were issued as a form of protection with ‘tin hats’. On the particular night in question, my brother had been on duty but had been told his services were not further needed that night. He returned home and was out in the road when the householder in the house immediately opposite my house ran out and, seeing my brother wearing a tin hat, assumed he was someone in authority and told him he had heard a swishing noise coming from his back garden, and, on looking out of the window, had seen a parachute there and thought that the enemy had landed. He did not realise that he was talking to a 15 year old boy, who with the bravado of youth, immediately went to investigate. What he saw wasn’t an enemy soldier or airman, but was in fact a landmine. These were very powerful bombs, similar if not identical to sea mines, which were dropped by parachute from aircraft. They were terror weapons in that they could not be aimed and, by taking a significant time to descend would hit their target a little time after the aircraft had departed, and when those on the ground would not be expecting it. They caused quite a bit of damage, usually destroying several houses when they exploded. This particular one had failed to detonate but was certainly an active bomb. I am not sure what the immediate reaction of my brother was, but he obviously informed others and this led to the immediate evacuation of the entire neighbourhood. My family moved into what was then the mission hall of St David’s Parish Church in Queens Drive at the bottom of Score Lane and for the next few nights thereafter I went to live with a relative. The Royal Navy eventually came to defuse the mine and then we were all allowed back to our homes, with the exception of the householder in whose garden it had landed. A policeman was posted outside to prevent any interference with the missile. Even though the bomb had been defused, I was very conscious of its presence a couple of hundred feet from my bedroom. I just hoped that the navy knew what they were doing! After a couple of weeks, the navy came again with heavy lifting gear and removed it, but not without damaging the driveway of the house opposite. I do not know what would have been the result if the bomb had actually exploded, but I suspect that some of my family would have been killed or wounded. As it turned out, alls well that ends well.
After the May blitzes, Liverpool did not have any further bombardment, although, of course, we did not know that at the time. Admittedly, the threat did come back in 1944 with the advent of the V1 Flying Bombs (‘Doodlebugs’) and the V2 rockets, but these did not come as far north as Liverpool. However, when Hitler decided to invade Russia in June, 1941, this certainly took the pressure off the UK. We did not feel quite so isolated and strengthened our belief that we would, in time, win the war. The air raid on Pearl Harbour the following December, which brought the USA into the war, gave us even more confidence that it was only a matter of time before it was all over. Nevertheless, we still had many worries and the Eighth Army in North Africa had much fighting ahead. I remember my history teacher telling us that we should have sympathy with the pupils of the future who would have to know how many times this army went backwards and forwards over the Sahara! This was resolved after the battle of El Alamein later in 1942. This was also the time of the Battle of Stalingrad, and these two battles turned the tide of war against the Germans. Finally, as far as war in Europe was concerned, there was the invasion of Normandy in June 1944. By then, I was nearly 14 years old and had seen many of my older school mates being called up as soon as they left the Sixth Form. For me, war was getting rather closer! While war in Europe was clearly nearly over, there was still the matter of dealing with Japan, which was proving not to be an easy proposition, since it involved vicious fighting against a determined enemy in the jungles of south East Asia, or island hopping against the same enemy to get closer to Japan. When the war in Europe was over, in May, 1945, there was naturally a great deal of euphoria, but it was tinged with thoughts of what still lay ahead. The development and use of nuclear weapons completely changed the picture and there was a very great deal of relief that the war was finally over in August, 1945. The lasting legacy was the fear of a future war using these weapons, but at that time, few were too sympathetic to the Japanese who had been a very cruel enemy.
The war was over, but Britain was seriously in debt and there were many years of economic difficulties ahead. I was eventually called up for my 2-year period of National Service at the beginning of1952, a time which I have to say I enjoyed, contrary to my expectations. The completion of that period really marked the end of the war for me.
As a postscript, my middle brother who had discovered the unexploded bomb was called up to serve in the navy in 1944 and was demobbed in 1947. In that time, he did not see any action. My oldest brother was at Oxford University at the outbreak of war studying chemistry. He had to sit an examination and those who did not pass a certain standard were called up into the services.. My brother did pass this test and graduated in 1941 when he had to go into work of national importance. The nearest he got to active service was having to join the Home Guard!! He even missed nearly all the air raids!