An Oral History of Hinckley

By Permission of Colin Hyde & Westfield Community Centre

5. World War Two

Outbreak of war

Many of the people who told us their stories were young men and women at the start of World War Two

We were at home; it was on Sunday wasn't it? September. We were all at home I know when Mr. Chamberlain said we were at war with Germany. I can hear him saying it, we had one of these old sort of wirelesses that you had to have a battery to, you know, you had to have batteries at the back of it...we all sat around listening.

Housing an evacuee

It was the 3 September 1939, I was terrified - the first air raid we had at home - my husband was in the Army and I had this little boy. My cousin was sleeping with me in this cottage and we got up and we'd go blackouts. We were that frightened we daren't put the electric light on, we got a candle 'cos the fire had gone out you know, there were no electric heaters in those days. So it were cold. Daren't fetch the boy out of bed because he had bronchitis if he got cold. We made some tea and I held my gown around the stove, I mean it's laughable isn't it - so he couldn't see up there. I mean it was stupid. And I got that cold that when we got back into bed we couldn't sleep could we and when we went to work the next day we felt no good. So I said to my cousin, Tve made up my mind, I'm going to stay in bed. If he bombs us I shall be with the baby, we'll die together. She said, I'm not getting up either. Course she didn't stop long with me she went into munitions, she left me on my own like. My second baby died sudden in my arms with a bad heart. Sent for my husband home form North Africa, he never come, and for weeks he was writing to me as if the baby was still alive and I didn't hear from him when he was at the front and I thought I'd lost him as well.

I had an evacuee after that. I had a girl for a start, then her mother fetched her back to London to look after her baby sister, then I had the brother. The girl was alright but she had ticks in her head when I first had her. When I had the lad he came with this rubber sheet, and he must have been seven, and I said, 'What you got that for? He said, To put on the bed... I wet the bed.' So I took him to the doctor. He said, 'We'll soon cure you m'duck, I'll give you some medicine and you get out of bed when your 'Auntie' goes to bed and she'll get you up in the morning. And he didn't do it no more. He must have been embarrassed about it. That had been neglect somewhere hadn't it?

Well it were just black, it really was black. You had to get accustomed to the dark before you could really...even out of my own back door, I was going down the entry which I've done hundreds of times and I ran at the wall, you just couldn't see a thing. When I went into munitions up John Street I used to bike to work before eight o'clock in the morning during the blackout. I mean, there wasn't the traffic about obviously but it was a bit eerie.

We rented the first house, up Wolvey Road near The Three Pots Hotel but it were a bit remote. You needed transport really but we hadn't got a car. We used to bike it a lot and use the buses. We were married in '37 and the war started in '39 and I was expecting a baby at the time and she was six month old when he went abroad and when he came home she were at school. Dreadful. He wrote regularly, me and his mother used to send parcels. When he went in the army I was on me own and then a Coventry family got bombed out and I took them in and let them use the house - there was a man, a woman and a daughter. I used to take mending, off from the factory, at home. Just got enough rations, you know. Sometimes, we'd got a miner lived next door and they used to get extra rations of meat stuff like that and she used to let me have some of her coupons and he used to get coal, plenty of coal - we were all right in that respect.

Giving birth during an air raid

I can remember my husband and I were in the bedroom when we heard the drone of the German planes -awful, menacing noise. We both ran to the window, it was a casement window. I remember fiddling with it and pushing it up. We both stuck our heads out - we were waiting for bombs to start raining down on us, you know, and they just went over. I think they were making for Coventry.

People would say if they're selling so and so at so and so, didn't matter what you were doing you'd drop it rush off to get in the queue. Food got scarce. I remember queuing up for half a pound of cream biscuits - queued for about nearly an hour. Then at another shop, two bananas and one orange. I only had my eldest daughter then. I remember going home with these bananas and these cream biscuits and saying to my daughter, 'Look what Mummy's got for you, aren't they lovely? So I gave her these cream biscuits and she: 'Pah, pah! Don't like it Mummy.' 'Cos she wasn't used to it you see, and the banana she looked at like this, she were scared stiff of it, she wondered what it was. I said, 'Mummy will take the peel off for you and I'll cut it up and put it on a plate.' So I gave here a little bit...she said, 'I don't like it Mummy.' I thought, 'All that queuing!' Mind you, my husband and I, we ate them after.

I mean you had one egg, two ounces of tea, a quarter of bacon and all things like that, just enough for one week. Sometimes we used to try and save up the milk and put it in a jar, shake it up like that so you could have some cream. It had its funny side, mind, the war, and it had its cruel side, but we muddled through.

We used the bedroom and the living... and they called them a Morrison shelter and they were made of metal and they came in pieces and they were assembled...and it was in the front room on bare boards. When the sirens went - we put all blankets inside you see - and when the sirens went my mother-in-law and my sister-in-law lived next door, they all came into our front room and we all went into the Morrison shelter. Well as I'd got advancing pregnancy I couldn't crawl in there, you know, so I used to go and sit in the pantry on a stool, 'cos I couldn't crawl in there. Oh it was a great ugly thing, some people put them in the garden but my husband says, 'Well we've got an empty room and it's warmer.'

My daughter was born in the Coventry raid. And I can remember the midwife was there and I'd gone on and on and on, I don't know where I was, and I can remember them coming in with an old tin bath - remember the old tin baths? My mother-in-law brought it up with her from Wales, she said it'll do for bathing the dog 'cos we had a posh bathroom in the new houses. Everybody used to bath in them old tin baths, you know. I remember my husband and my sister-in-law coming in and holding this tin bath over my head while I lay in bed and the shrapnel was coming down on the roof - bang bang bang bang - they were afraid it was going to come through onto me. The ambulance was trying to get to me... the stretcher was outside the gate but the ambulance couldn't get through for the shrapnel and that. Eventually Carol was born about three days after... three days, three nights. 'Oh dear' I said, 'I don't want any more. But I did eventually...! had to go through the same again, my husband said, That's it, no more.'

We'd all been issued gas masks. I know we were issued them at the GFS on Monday evenings we used to meet there. And we just stood around the fireplace talking and sort of making a joke of it almost, but we always had to carry them around. Then, of course, you'd got your identity cards and your ration books and I did first aid classes. You did fire-watching, well, ARP. I remember the day after it had been announced when some of the Territorials had to join up immediately, you see and I can see those soldiers marching up Station Road - only young lads actually they were. That was the first time we heard and of course, everyone thought there'd be an air-raid that first day but nothing happened - nothing happened for quite a time.

One thing that I always remember is when the Scots Guards were off to war. They came up from Coventry road...playing the bagpipes, it was ever so thrilling, beautiful kilts they had, you know, and they went swinging off around where the bingo place is now and down towards the station, and I followed them down pushing Carol in the pram and I thought to myself after, I wonder how many will come back? They all started whistling when the bagpipes stopped, and getting on the trains at Hinckley Station.

Back of our house we had a dug out in case of an air-raid. I can remember the first air-raid warning 'cos I'd just come home from work, I was just putting my pyjamas on ready to go to bed. The sirens went and down we went to the dug-out. Very confined believe me, but we didn't use them that often. We used to sit in the pantry World War Two.

The night Coventry was blitzed

I remember one was when Coventry was bombed badly we had a lot of incendiaries on the farm and some of them went so deep they're still down there somewhere... even though they've built on all that ground they're still there. I think they got a bit mixed up with the Hinckley water tower - it was a great big tower, I think they thought they were at Coventry then. They weren't, so we got a lot of the flak as they called it.

That night of the Coventry blitz - the moon - you could have read a newspaper. It started at seven o'clock at night and finished at seven in the morning. They used this water as a turning point, it was a landmark. We heard that after, that it was a landmark. It had been nice for two or three nights but this night the moon! It was like daylight, but you couldn't see nothing, they was right high up weren't they. It was one 'Zzzzzz', you could hear them, yes. Somehow you could tell as you listened - They're not ours'. It was a drumming noise - a distant noise, and then they seemed to be gone and the alert would go.

Coventry, I watched it from a railway bridge, you could see the glow in the distance and you could hear the bombs. Well, you could hear a rumble more that the explosions.

And I remember D-Day morning. My husband got out of bed to have a look at what were going on - he could hear the noise all in the sky and that. He said, 'Oh come and look out here. There were hundreds of planes, some of them looped onto each other - glider planes. I'll always remember my mum and how she cried 'cos our Bill had got to go. He was out in the Middle East and he'd never seen my eldest daughter for four years 'til he came home. Only her photo.

The Americans are coming!

We had the Americans at Kirby Mallory, they went by my house. They had big cars and big cigars. We had the Marines here (Earl Shilton) and they were terrible. They broke nearly everybody's wall down or the door in, but they did leave mine be, I escaped. Well, they just got drunk and went mad, they reckoned they'd been at sea for so long. I think there were two married the girls from here. I didn't like the Americans 'cos they'd got this, that and the other. I know one girl, she were a nice looking girl, she got in with this American, courted him, we all accepted her as going with him and then she got pregnant, you know, she'd got her engagement ring on her finger. He didn't marry her did he, 'cos he was already married with two children.

I remember one or two girls who went with them and one or two who married them. If there were ones who didn't they used to call the ones that did...all back-biting and that sort of thing, 'Oh so and so's got a Yank,' you know, that type of thing.

We seen enough of them (Americans) coming up the yard - there were two women up the yard and their husbands were both aboard. They were keeping them company at night. There were more talk going on than a little but there was a lot of it being done. I said as long as they don't knock on my door - they'll have an answer if they do, I'll have a bucket of water all over them.

I stayed in at the factory for quite a while because there was only myself and my mother... and so I was allowed to stay at home - well I was working - but stay in the factory. Then towards the end they said I'd got to go into munitions so I just went up into John Street which was in the town. I did a very mediocre job cutting mica which is a silvery kind of thing. You cut it into slices and it was used in the make-up of aeroplane engines but we didn't know what it was at first, we just knew we were doing it. One day we were allowed to see where it was put... part of the engine. It was very boring. There were all girls in that particular room where I worked and when they were all talking one against the other, which was natural, it was a terrific noise but as soon as the door opened and the boss walked in, or the manager, there was dead silence, just like that, cut off.

In the Coventry Road behind the station... two land mines, that's when I was on duty actually. They didn't explode and they lay there until they came to diffuse them and take them away. That was the time when the bomb fell in Merivale Avenue as well...I know there were two sisters in one bed and one of them was killed and the other wasn't touched.

Your main duties (the ARP), when there was an air-raid warning, you'd have to parade round the streets to see that every light was blacked out, that was very strict them days. Your windows would have sticky tape across them, criss-cross to protect against the blast.

Training with the Home Guard

World War I victory celebration in Earl Shilton
World War I victory celebration in Earl Shilton

I know the Home Guard, it was funny marching up and down 'cos they only had these stick things over the shoulder - there wasn't enough guns for the soldiers never mind the Home Guard. We weren't prepared you know.

The drill halls were commandeered to use a rifle, how to throw a bomb, how to take a rifle to pieces and put it back together. Old sweats were called back to train for rifle shooting. I know the first time I fired a rifle, gosh, it was like someone giving you a clout around know, the re-coil, and also there was half of us didn't even know what to look for regarding the sights. You had five 'up the spout', I do remember that, that's bullets, you had five at a time. I don't know what sort of rifles they were, I've not the faintest idea...but I didn't do a lot of that because I was drafted into the intelligence department to learn Morse code and the radio.

I can remember three old sweats, one was 72, I was 32 - and he'd fought in the First World War because he'd had his toes froze off in the Dardenelles. From what he told us that was a real disaster - it was so cold. Mind you, there you were, you had a rifle and you were squinting along it and you knew you weren't going to hit...and I'm thinking of old Jack, he got glasses on and he ambled up and put a rifle to his shoulder and the target was there - you used to hit a bell so when you hit it you'd know - and he'd had a cough and he'd got a cigarette on and he'd bring it to his shoulder and wham! you'd hear the bell go straight away. He could do it left or right, it was marvellous.