Mike Charity's Herefordshire wartime

PUBLISHED: 13:22 18 October 2010 | UPDATED: 11:55 28 February 2013

Mike Charity’s Herefordshire wartime

Mike Charity’s Herefordshire wartime

As the nation marks Armistice Day and the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Britain Mike Charity recalls the days when Anderson shelters, jam sandwiches and good pals made wartime a happy time for a young Herefordshire boy

My Hereford war

As the nation marks Armistice Day and the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Britain Mike Charity recalls the days when Anderson shelters, jam sandwiches and good pals made wartime a happy time for a young Herefordshire boy

The postman's rattle of the letterbox alerted my father and I, still pyjama clad, watched in the hallway as he picked up the brown envelope and slowly turned it over, exclaiming, "that's beggared it".

I soon discovered that what had beggared it was in fact his army call-up papers. My dad was off to war.

The year was 1940 and I was nearly five years old. I never witnessed crying, reassuring caresses, or any great family drama between my mother and father, although there must have been many tearful midnight oil chats as they faced up to a future apart, not knowing for how long, or if they would ever see each other again.

It seemed to me as if one minute my dad was at home and then, like the rest of the Hereford menfolk in Melrose Place and surrounding streets in Whitecross Road, they had all gone. Of course in reality some remained. Mr Lewis the policeman and Mr Thomas a railway official were in jobs of vital importance to the nation. Our immediate neighbour Norman Alden, a former professional footballer who played for Liverpool and Southport before joining Hereford United, sustained a damaged knee during his soccer career and was not accepted for military service. He remained in Hereford during the war with his wife, May and their two children, Pat and Ken who became my childhood pals. Mr Alden, nevertheless, served the war on guard patrols and at the Rotherwas munitions factory on the edge of the city.

As Britain moved up a gear to face the overwhelming German advance in Europe and the now constant bombing of our cities and ports, so the wives and mothers stepped into their menfolk's shoes, coping with being both mum and dad, while keeping the home fires burning.

Many young women joined the Land Army, acting as tractor drivers or farm labourers, spurred on by morale boosting 'Dig For Victory' posters and the appeal for 'Women Of Britain Come To The Factories' billboards found hundreds flocking to the many engineering establishments in the provinces who were rapidly re-tooling to manufacture armaments. Many volunteered for nursing duties in anticipation of repatriated war wounded. Mothers also did their bit during school holidays, taking their offspring to farms while picking fruit, lifting potatoes or making hay. Everybody seemed in a concerted but chaotic way to be aiding the war effort.

As the 'Master Race' jack-booted its relentless way through vast areas of continental Europe, it seemed even to me that Mr Hitler was putting us all to a fair bit of trouble in Herefordshire. I had to traipse across Hereford with my mother for us both to be issued with gas masks. In the auditorium of the Shirehall, seated at a long table, we were greeted by Mr Pearce, too old for call-up. He also lived in our street and gave me a friendly smile as he pulled an ugly black rubbery mask from a cardboard box and deftly adjusted the straps over my head. Hardly able to breathe and the straps pinching my ears, I started to cry. "Don't like it?" said Mr Pearce, "don't worry, lets try a Mickey Mouse one". He quickly removed the offending head-piece and switched to a bright red jolly mask with a large floppy rubber nose. To Mr Pearce's relief my tears turned to smiles of delight as I held the comic mask up to my mother. She allowed me to keep it on as we crossed St Peters Square but insisted it was removed when we reached the more crowded High Town. I never really understood the seriousness of the mask. To me it was just a toy. Fortunately I never once had to wear it for its real purpose.

Compared to major English cities such as London, Southampton, Birmingham and Coventry, Hereford had a reasonably gentle war, if such an expression can ever be used in terms of battle. But the city folk were certainly not left uninjured or free of death.At 6.30am on a July morning in 1942, a lone German bomber flew over the Putson district of Hereford. Below lay the sprawling site of Rotherwas munitions factory. The first missile, estimated to be 250kg missed its target and exploded on the nearby Holme Lacy Road. Factory workers alighting from a bus for the morning shift took the full force of the blast resulting in 17 fatalities and 24 badly injured. A second bomb found its way to the factory and destroyed an empty transit shed. The bomber turned and headed for base. Some years later my father told me he had heard that one victim was never found. All that remained of him were pieces of his pay packet.
Coach-loads of frightened, bomb-scared children, young refugees hurriedly removed from their homes and frantic parents under threat of the constant German aircraft raids over England's important cities and ports began to arrive in the county. My step-grandmother, Alice, along with my grandfather, George, ran a small store from the quaint bungalow where I was born in the hamlet of Whitestone, near Withington and it was here that I spent much time during the war. They helped look after two young refugee sisters from the Midlands, taken in by a family just down the lane. On one of my frequent visits the sisters were invited round for tea and cakes; they meekly sat down at the white scrubbed kitchen table, still wearing cardboard labels with their names and former home town address pinned to their coats. Having been pre-warned to be kind, as they were shy and very nervous, I said nothing about the tickets on their coat collars. In later years I came to understand the labels must have been a link to the family life they were forced to leave, a life they hoped they would return to.

A major happening in our wartime world was the sudden appearance of Anderson shelters. These supposedly bomb-proof corrugated metal buildings, were set down in the earth so only the curved roof was on view at the end of our gardens. Some neighbours made them comfortable with the odd seat or stool, others stored garden implements, or kept chickens but we children of the street assumed squatters rights. In the middle-class world of Richmal Crompton's Just William books, prescribed reading for all young boys, William and his gang of Outlaws, Douglas, Ginger and Henry, played in wonderful tree houses. We kids in Melrose Place could now go one better. Courtesy of the Third Reich we had a dry, solid, covered, almost underground den of our own it even had grass growing on the roof to disguise it from Nazi pilots. Inside, during a lull in our wartime games, we enjoyed rations of jam sandwiches and scones washed down with pop. Throughout the period of real hostilities, I can only remember two occasions when we were grabbed by our elders and quickly herded to the shelters while the air raid sirens moaned in the background. There in the dark, we crouched excitedly, still in pyjamas and warm coats, until the all clear siren called us back to bed.

As the war ground on with the changing news of battlefield success and failure each week, my dad, now with the Pioneer Corps somewhere in Hampshire, returned home on weekend leave much to the delight of me and my mum; she told him he was very thin and then proceeded to try to fatten him up. She was a brilliant cook, who could make five shillings do the work of 5 at the gas stove. With food rationing issuing only 4oz. butter, 12oz. sugar, 3oz. bacon and one egg per week, her culinary skills came to the fore. She turned to offal to create inexpensive and nourishing dishes like tripe (the lining of a cows stomach) and onions, chitlins (pig intestines), brawn (a (pate made from pigs head), liver, kidney and heart. If I ever asked what the meal was she would say, "eat it up, it will do you good". I could never cope with tripe or chitlins but managed brawn and liver. My father, after the privations of Pioneer Corps cuisine, devoured every last morsel.

By the time the war drew to a close I was nearly eight. May 8th, 1945 was proclaimed VE Day (Victory in Europe), celebrated with street parties throughout the land and we in Melrose Place were not going to be left out. Trestle tables with white sheets were lined up along with buntings and Union Jacks hanging from bedroom windows. Our mums and aunts conjured up jellies, trifles, junkets and cakes. But artfully they resorted to the old trick of making copious piles of jam sandwiches to fill us up. Mr Brend who served in the Far East and whose wife and daughters, Monica and Maureen lived just down the street, was the first to return home, in fact in time for the party with an army friend, Mr Spink, who came to the occasion in a huge coolie hat. After the war they became well known in Hereford, trading as Brend and Spink Specialists in Glazing. With the food all eaten and tables cleared up, the final event was a group photograph with grown-ups and children all, inexplicably, wearing Red Indian feathered hats! They must have been pre-war leftovers from a fancy dress shop, anyway they came in handy when we next played cowboys and Indians.

So how was the war for Melrose Place? Pretty good. All our dads came home. We were untouched by bombing raids; there were no gas attacks. We children did not face becoming refugees and deported miles away from home. There was always food on the table and a fire in the grate working a steaming kettle. We had Dandy and Beano comics to peruse and the steam radio waves gave out Workers Playtime, ITMA, Gert and Daisy, Rob Wilton and Bernard Miles for laughs and music. Bedtime reading was page-turners like The Count of Monte Cristo, Tarzan or Treasure Island. And as well as that we won the war!

What did you do in the war?
Send your memories of wartime Herefordshire to The Editor, Herefordshire Life, Archant House, Oriel Road, Cheltenham, Gloucestershire, GL50 1BB or email joanne.goodwin@ archant.co.uk. And let us know if you recognise any of the faces in the pictures.

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