Two Tales Of War (My Parents War Time Story)



This book has been written in two parts, the first tells the tale of my father who as a gunner in the army spent most of the war out in the Middle East, and my mother, who was a shop girl living on the Home Front. It then goes on to tell in a factual rather than romantic way how the two of them met after the war at the shop where my mother worked and quickly became involved and finally got married.

The story shows the harshness of the conditions facing the soldiers from the weather and the desert surroundings and the lack of modern conveniences. It also shows how as a gunner in the artillery, my father had more to fear from disease and poor diet than from the enemy. My father’s tale illustrates how the boredom and endless routine of life as a gunner was broken up and relieved by trivial events that took on a new significance.

Life on the Home Front was also harsh but rather more civilised with the eternal problems of food shortages. Although many thousands of civilians were killed as a result of bombing life went on albeit in a very different way to that of today. This book clearly illustrates how lifestyles have changed since that almost forgotten age with a lack of modern equipment and technology. It reveals how life was before throw away nappies and prepacked food.

The book goes on to show how the shortages caused by the second word war carried on long after the war was over but did not prevent people from leading fulfilled lives and getting married.


A Soldiers Tale


It was a particularly cold winter while I was there and we only had wooden huts to stay in at the training camp. There were stoves in them but never anything supplied to burn to produce any heat. One very cold and snowy day I was out for a walk with a group of fellow recruits when just outside the camp I heard the call of nature. There were houses about so I went in the nearby public toilets where I spotted that there were many cubicles all with wooden seats fitted to the toilets. Quick thinking made me realise that these would make excellent firewood. So we got together and tore off all the seats, hiding them under our greatcoats as walked back into camp.

That night we had a good fire in our hut and for once we all went to sleep warm. The next day the MPs (Military Police) went round the camp trying to find out who had been responsible for vandalising the public toilets but we never owned up and they never discovered the fresh ash in the stove in our hut.

After basic training was over I was sent to the Middle East where there was a battle front being fought. There were no long distance troop planes in the early days of the war so we were sent by ship. Quite a few cruise liners were commissioned for war use and were used as troop carriers. However, I was sent out on the Stathallen which I boarded at Greenock. We were there for three days loading the 60 guns and all the equipment.

Eventually we set sail for Cape Town and during the time that I was on watch we lost a man overboard. As we travelled south the soldiers found it too warm in their cramped cabins so most of them slept on the deck where it was a little cooler.

Upon arriving at Cape Town we all split up and toured the area. A small number of us had an invite from the local Mayor to tea and dinner with himself, his wife the lady Mayoress and his daughter. It was his last day in office and he wanted to make a show of his support for our troops. We were treated like Royalty and really enjoyed the celebrations and banquet.

A few days later we sailed for Bombay and then on to Iraq. Many of the soldiers were not used to sailing and got seasick but fortunately I was not one of them. Food rations were fair on board ship but we had a rude awakening when we disembarked at our destination. I started my tour of duty with a temperature and bad cold and was sent to a convalescent camp at Phybes Fort.

Days later after recovering I was sent to a reinforcement camp but here I was ill again, this time with Influenza and I fainted while on guard duty so was sent to an RAF hospital. After examination the medics decided it was sand fly fever and I could not eat. Then I developed Pneumonia because of my weakened state of health and was violently sick all the time from the M& B tablets I was given. A few days later I got yellow jaundice. It was weeks before I had recovered enough to be given a discharge and then I spent 7 days on leave in the RAF camp.

That Xmas I had a good dinner with chicken soup followed by roast chicken with stuffing and all the trimmings including roast potatoes and marrow. This was followed by jelly, blancmange, Xmas pudding, fresh oranges, nuts and raisins. All of this was washed down with a generous helping of beer.

In the New Year I was sent back to camp but the journey was livened up by playing pontoon on the train. I managed to win over 350 fils, which was a nice win. That night at camp it was freezing cold in the tents and to make matters worse we were flooded out. It snowed regularly, thawing in the sunshine of day only to freeze hard again at night.

Authors Addition

This story of my fathers life in the Middle East campaign was taken from 2 diaries that exist but unfortunately he did not keep any diaries of his time spent in Europe at the end of the war. We know that he travelled around Eastern Europe and even Germany at the end because he brought a lot of foreign coins and notes home with him after the war was finally over. We also know that he was de-mobbed in March 1946 when, along with all the other surviving soldiers, he was given a set of clothes to return to civy street with. These comprised of a navy blue pin striped suit, one white shirt, a trilby hat, an army great coat and a pair of black shoes.

One might have thought that jobs would be plentiful as factories returned to more normal production but a lot had been destroyed so jobs were quite scarce. After a week or two at home he did find a job in a factory. It was while working there that he first met my mother as you will see later on in the book.

A Shop Girls Tale



Until I was 11 years old my family which consisted of my mother, my father and my younger sister lived in a council house in an avenue of new houses. We were nearly at the top of a hill and had about a 20 minute walk to school.

My parents were quite frugal and they saved up enough to put a deposit on a house which was a bit older but was also a bit bigger. Both houses were in a nice part of Small Heath, Birmingham.

My mother did not go to work as most married women stayed at home in those days to do the housework which was a lot more physical and basic. For instance few houses had any kind of carpets on the floors and instead had rugs most of which were home made. They were made in our spare time, mostly in the evenings, out of odd bits of material or very thick wool worked onto a canvas backing with a special hook. Because there were no carpets the tiled floors had to be scrubbed and wooden floors had to be polished. White doorsteps were cleaned with whitening and red ones were polished with cardinal red.

Clothes had to be mended, socks and stockings were darned, not like today with the throw away culture that we have. Meals took longer to prepare as there were no pre-prepared foods such as frozen vegetables and cleaning aids were very basic with no electric cleaners or anything like them. My mother always had plenty to do looking after the family.

My father worked at the B.S.A. factory where they made bicycles and motor bikes. When the war came the factory turned most of its work over to the production of munitions.

When the Second Great War started in September 1939 I was 17 years old and had been at work for 3 years since I was 14. (My sister also started work at 14 but she worked in an office at the CO-OP dairy.) I was doing a 57 hour working week including 1 hour on each of 5 days for a dinner break. The wages were low and there was no minimum wage stipulated by the government. At 14 I earned 10/- a week which in todays money was 50p. At 15 I had 12/6 and at 16 I earned 15/-. We were given a small rise each birthday until the age of 21. I had 1 weeks holiday a year till I was 21 then had 2 weeks and when I was managing a shop an extra 3 days holiday.

All the staff were paid cash out of the till each week. (few people had bank accounts or cheque books then) All sales made were in cash as there were no credit cards either. The sales were nearly always coins because notes were so valuable. It was very rare to see a 5 pound note and even one pound notes were an uncommon sight.

Before the war 10/- notes were brown and £1 notes were green but as the war started the colours were changed to mauve for the 10/- note and a combination of blue and pink for the £1. These colour changes lasted until 1948 when they reverted back to the old colours.

!n the 1930s £10 , £50 and £100 notes had been issued but these were all withdrawn at the onset of the war. Few people new that these notes existed and even fewer ever saw them because their purchasing value must have been enormous. A £5 note in today’s values would be worth about £300. The £5 note was plain in design being printed in black ink on white paper and was enormous. Because of its simple design and high value it was a target for forgers and the Germans hatched a plan to cripple the British economy. Their idea was to print forgeries of the banknotes and flood the country with them. The fakes were extremely good with the correct serial numbers on them but the plot was foiled and only a few surfaced.

In 1944 a new £5 note was introduced with a metal thread in it like we have today. This made forgery very difficult in those days. However it was some 10 years after the war before higher value notes started to be re-introduced. But enough talk of the banknotes so back to life in the shops.

To give some idea of how much things cost an ordinary loaf of bread was 4 old pence, less than 2 decimal pence today. You could buy buns for a farthing, which was a quarter of an old penny. There were 12 pennies to a shilling and 20 shillings to a pound. One pound was a typical wage for a young adult then.

I worked for the CO.OP. Society which ran a lot of shops in those days. There were no supermarkets but instead were blocks of shops , all different, but run by the CO.OP. Often there was a grocers, bread shop, butchers, drapers, green grocery, fresh fish and furniture. 

My job was working in a grocers and confectioners but this type of shop was very different to any today. The shop was in a row of shops but not in a main town centre. It was on the main Coventry road which was busy with traffic even then. Most roads were quiet in those days compared to today especially so with the war on because petrol was rationed with most of it going to the forces or essential delivery vehicles.

The food shops all had tiled floors in the public area but behind the counter were bare concrete. Just before closing each day the floors had to be washed using a mop and bucket of soapy water. After that we had to fetch some sawdust from one of the other shops in the block belonging to the CO.OP. This was then spread over the floor and swept up first thing in the morning. The sawdust made the tiles look quite shiney the next morning.

The front of the counter was dark wood (No plastic in those days) with a glass front and glass on top. All the woodwork had to be dusted and polished every day and the glass had to cleaned.

There were no electric chiller cabinets or fridges in those days so the food such as Bacon, cooked meats, butter, cheese and eggs were stored until they were wanted in a cold room which had large stone slabs in it to keep it cool. The shop counters were marble which were icy to the touch in the winter. The concrete floors did not help you to keep warm either and a lot of staff used to get chilblains in their feet because of the cold.

Girls were not allowed to wear trousers (which would have been warmer for work) in those days, not even in the forces. The only place girls were allowed to wear them was in the Land Army. There was no heating allowed in any food shops except in the staff room where there was usually a small gas fire.

During the war everything came in loose and had to be packaged up. Any dried fruit we were lucky enough to get and even pepper had to be weighed up. We had to make paper cones to put the pepper in.

Jams and marmalade came in big containers. We had to wash jars which customers had returned to us and then spoon jam or marmalade into them and weigh them whilst allowing for the jars. All types of jam had apple mixed in them to make the jam go further as we had plenty of apples in our own orchards.

We also sold cooked meats when they were available. Boiled Ham, Corned Beef and Jellied Veal all came in 7lb blocks which had to be cut in fine slices by hand as there were no machines in those days. Carving knives had to kept very sharp to give a clean cut as there was not supposed to be any waste.

The bread and cakes were delivered fresh every day on big black iron trays that were very heavy and never cleaned properly. Occasionally they were scraped but they always seemed to be caked with bits of old cakes that made them very dirty and sticky to handle. Admittedly a large sheet of greaseproof paper was used to line the trays before the cakes were put in but there was very little attention paid to health and hygiene in those days.

The first time I served a customer to some farthing buns I really embarrassed myself. A lady came into the shop and asked for 4 farthing buns. So I placed them in a bag and held the two corners as I had seen the other girls do, then swung the bag to twist the top round. The bottom of the bag burst sending the buns across the shop.

The manageress quickly bagged some more and handed them to the customer apologising to her profusely. Then she told me to pick up the spilt buns and gave me a good telling off.

All food was rationed, some by government and some by short supply. Everyone was issued with ration books which contained coupons for all foods such as Bacon,

Butter, Margarine, Lard, Sugar, Meat and Bread. Clothes were also rationed. The coupons said what they were for on them and could not be changed for anything else.

When a shop assistant served you they had to cut out the appropriate coupons and put them in boxes. The coupons had to be counted each night and balanced up as if they were money and then sent to head office. There was no self service in those days. A shop assistant would serve the customer to everything that they wanted from a shop and then pack the purchases up in the customers own basket. There were no shopping trolleys then or plastic bags.

Any imported food had to be brought in by ship and the Germans used their submarines to sink as many cargo ships or otherwise as they could. All oranges and bananas that came in were only served to children and pregnant ladies. Sweets and chocolate were rationed but bread wasn’t rationed till later on and then bread and flour were both rationed.

I had one lady who preferred to make  her own bread so she bought the strong bread flour on her coupons and I had to order fresh yeast from the bakery. (There was no dried yeast then.) It always came in a bit overweight so I was in the habit of eating what was left. It may have done some good because I never had spots. On the other hand that may have been due to the fact that I never had any chocolate or cakes either.

In those days no scrap food was wasted. All hotels, restaurants and cafes had large bins into which any waste food was tipped. These were then transported to the farms for pig swill. This has all been stopped now on the grounds of hygiene. Worse than that any cakes that were left over in the shop and going stale were returned to the bakery the next day and were then chopped up and mixed together. Then the mixture was moistened and put between two squares of pastry, baked and sold as Nelson Squares or as they were commonly called “Door Stoppers.” This name came from the fact that they were rather solid but never the less they sold well enough.

Rationing made people eat all sorts of things that they probably wouldn’t otherwise have tried. Like everything else salad crops were in short supply so we often eked out the lettuce with dandelion leaves. They were rather hot though so you did not eat to many at once! Sometimes a brave member of the family would pick some nettle leaves to make some soup with.

As we had no fridges to keep milk in it would sometimes go sour, but it was not wasted. When a bottle had gone off for a day or two a piece of muslin was fastened over a basin and the sour milk would be poured onto it and left to drip through. The thin liquid that passed into the basin was put into the chickens drinking water but the curds left in the muslin were lightly pressed together and were then eaten as a soft cream cheese.

In the summer there was often a glut of tomatoes and as you could not get them in the winter they were boiled and put into jars with special seals on them to preserve them. Afterwards they could only be used in cooking but it did mean that an extra vegetable was available out of season. Runner beans were also preserved but this time they were done in layers of salt. The jars had a layer of sliced beans then a layer of salt and so on until the jar was full. When using them they had to be rinsed thoroughly to remove the salt but they kept well.

Vegetables were always eaten in season apart from the few we preserved ourselves so winter meant eating cabbage, sprouts, swedes and turnips some of which I was not to keen on. Very little food was tinned but fruit from our own orchards was often bottled for winter use. There were virtually no imports of fruit and vegetables because of the German submarines.

Home grown vegetables became a very important source of food, so much so that the government came up with the slogan “Dig for victory” which was posted on billboards all over the country. The idea was that people should dig up their lawns and flower gardens and grow fresh vegetables instead to help balance their meagre diets and supplement what the farmers could produce.  

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