Willenhall History Society
Second World War in Willenhall
Wartime Memories of a Willenhall Child by Doreen Lewis.
The Early days by Horace Davis
Recollections of life in Willenhall during the World War 1939-1945 by Lay Marston
Work and Marriage by Irene Tonkinson
War Time memories by Betty Marston
Thoughts on Willenhall at War by Margaret Round
Anti aircraft guns Five Fields
Letter from Gunner Tulloch
I was almost nine years old when war was declared, and recall the excitement when a man arrived to fit everyone with gas masks. What a rude noise they made when one breathed in a certain way! Then came the Anderson air raid shelter to be half buried in the garden and covered with soil. Old chairs and a camp bed, first aid kit and torch, candles and matches, also a few emergency supplies were kept down there. To a child it was quite an adventure when the air raid sirens sounded and one was rushed down there in the middle of the night. However, Mother, who suffered badly from bronchitis during the winter, decided the cold and damp would be more likely to kill her than an air raid, so after a few trips to the shelter, she put a feather mattress underneath the bed and she and I would snuggle under there and sleep until the all clear sounded.
Mother was very patriotic. She'd been a Wren in the First World War and Father, who'd suffered with ulcers as a result of the mustard gas used in the trenches, had died six years previously. When a call came from the government for old aluminium saucepans and any scrap metal to be collected for re-use as arms for the Country, Mother found an old pram and went round the big houses at the Manor begging for whatever they could spare. She herself donated her wedding ring, saying "if this will bring one of our lads home one day sooner, then I'm glad to give it." She knitted socks etc. for the Forces and I was instructed not to tell Grandma that she knitted on Sundays - a shocking thing to do in those days - but she said "our lads" needed warm things on a Sunday as much as any other day.
When the houses near St. Anne's Road were bombed the Baptist Church near Bloxwich Road was used as a refugee centre. We were not well off but Mother immediately parcelled up whatever clothes and bedding could be spared and I helped to carry them to the Church. Another of her war efforts was selling National Savings Stamps. Every Saturday she would knock on neighbour's doors persuading them to support the Nation and, if she was too ill to do it, then it became my job.
It was a time of variety concerts at Willenhall Baths, processions of soldiers, sailors and airmen led by their bands, and everyone trying to raise money for the War Effort.
Little London was my school and whenever the siren blew we grabbed our gas masks and were marched to the shelter at Clothier Street School, where we'd pass the time singing "Somewhere over the Rainbow", "Animal Crackers in my Soup" and "The Good Ship Lollipop" etc. When sweets became rationed any lucky child with a penny would purchase a swede. Believe me, there is a lot of chewing in a swede!
Later I attended Albion Road Girls School, where every Friday we were expected to take paper and cardboard for the Salvage Drive, even if it was only a washing powder p[acket. Woe betide anyone who forgot! Our school adopted a corvette, H.M.S. Bandit, and raised money to buy comforts for the sailors. We knitted balaclavas, socks, scarves and mittens too. Not being an accomlished knitter my scarf took nine months to complete, but some of the girls were very good. Teddy bears were made to send to children who had been made homeless in the blitz and the school also adopted a blitz baby and raised money to send to his Mother. We were allowed to choose a name for him but I can't remember whether Peter or Michael won the vote.
When V.E. Day arrived and later V.J. Day a huge bonfire was lit in Willenhall Memorial Park and people stood around singing the First World War songs "Tipperary", "Pack up your troubles" and "We'll keep the home fires burning" followed by "There'll always be an England, "Coming in on a wing and a prayer", "Silver wings in the moonlight", "White cliffs of Dover", "We'll meet again" and many more. There was dancing round the bandstand and everyone was wearing something in red, white and blue.
Mother died in 1941 but, like many others, she had more than "done her bit" and never doubted the outcome for one moment.
BACK TO CONTENTS
The Early Days by Horace Davis
When the Second World War began I was still at school and my earliest memories were of the battery of anti aircraft guns which for a time were based on the Five Fields as part of the Midlands defences against air attack, and also of the constant air raids of the winter of 1940 -1.
The camp in which the guns were based consisted of a field with sandbags marking the perimeter and containing a number of anti aircraft guns and searchlights. Accommodation for the troops consisted of khaki bell tents and they had no running water or other facilities. Ablutions were performed at the Willenhall Baths and each day you could see groups of soldiers marching through the town with their towels over their shoulders.
When the raids began I had just commenced evening classes at the Central Schools and we used to arrive at 7.00pm each evening knowing full well that very little would be done. Sure enough by half past seven the sirens would sound and the warning bell would tell us to retire to the air raid shelters as quickly as possible.
We knew that it was unlikely that the "all clear" would sound until the early hours of the morning so after a while we used to head for home. As we emerged from the shelter into the blacked out streets, searchlights would be criss-crossing the sky searching for the raiders which you could hear droning overhead and the guns from the Five Fields would be putting up a deafening barrage. Hot shrapnel rained down on the streets sometimes clattering on the roofs, and the doors and windows of the nearby buildings rattled and the floor shook.
Whether the gunfire ever achieved anything beyond providing some comfort for the civilian population will never be known but it occurred to us that we might have been in greater danger of injury from falling shrapnel than we were from the bombing.
A popular pastime in those days was collecting lumps of shrapnel as souvenirs and these were proudly displayed in the school playground the next day. After a very wet winter during which the soldiers endured all sorts of discomfort on a site which was all too often waterlogged they were eventually taken away to be relocated elsewhere in more permanent accommodation but the bombing was to continue for some time yet.
BACK TO CONTENTS
Recollections of life in Willenhall during the World War 1939 -1945 by Lay Marston
After the very hard times of the depression years, 1929/34. when Willenhall families suffered considerable hardship and deprivation, "The National Defence Contribution", which the budget of 1937 provided, increased the employment prospects of the town.
When the New Year 1939 was celebrated, it was probable that many families of Willenhall felt, and were, better off than at any time in their lives. Unemployment was not the misery it had been hitheno, and there was generally a "feel good" element abroad which helped people's morale, despite depressing news from other pans of the world.
The Italians in Abyssinia and the Japanese in Manchuria were a long way away and, without television to bring these world events as they happened, direct to people's firesides, they did not have quite the impact of today.
The Spanish Civil War was a little nearer home and it was these repons and the accounts of air raids which concerned people at that time. People rightly assumed that if war came, it would commence with devastating air attacks. There was a terrible fear and dread, after the experience of the First World War, that poisonous gas would be used.
In November 1938 Sir John Anderson was Home Secretary, and as such was responsible for the introduction of "Air Raid Precautions" (A.R.P.) There were many branches of the A.R.P., all mainly voluntary, and these came under the authority of the local council, who appointed full time co- ordinators to carry out the Home Office directives and training instructions.
I was instructed in the elements of "First Aid" as a member of the Boys Brigade, so I joined a First Aid Pany at the A.R.P. Centre in the Neptune Inn, which was opposite St Giles Church in Walsall Street. This old building was virtually derelict, the licence having been transferred to the new Neptune in Bilston Lane. Here instruction was given by members of the St John's Ambulance Brigade, and we were encouraged to obtain their certificate by passing the final examination. I well remember Mr Cyril Lovatt taking a very active part in these training sessions and mock incidents, which were usually arranged for Saturday afternoons. We learnt how to rescue badly injured people, supposedly trapped in upper storeys of buildings, and bringing them down strapped to a stretcher. This feature was ideally suited to the old three storey building. Similar exercises were carried out in the adjacent police station also of three storeys.
What to do in case of gas attacks was a dominant part of our training. A gas attack was what people most feared at that time. Gas masks were issued with instructions that they were to be carried at all times. The correct fitting of the masks was taught particularly as this was essential in the case of young children and babies, who had a different type of respirator. Decontamination Stations were set up, as it was feared that mustard gas would be used. The decontamination Station in Willenhall was at the corner of Leve Lane. It is interesting to note that thirty eight million gas masks were issued throughout the country, however, by the spring of 1940 almost no-one bothered any more, as the fear of gas attack receded.
When war was declared on the third of September, massive civilian casualties were expected. Fortunately this did not happen and there was a certain anti-climax. People became more concerned with everyday matters. Making "black out" arrangements occupied much of their time. Anderson shelters were delivered to every home where they could be adequately sited, and where the income of the household was below a certain figure. The shelters for the Willenhall area were delivered to the rail head in Stafford Street, and transported to each household by L.M.S. horse drawn transport. The corrugated sheets, after being bolted together, were sunk into the ground to a depth of three feet, and needed eighteen inches of earth on top. They were erected as close to the house as possible to give extra protection, and were quite effective except in the case of a direct hit. Great pride was taken in the erection and well being of the shelter. Improvisation was always at hand to improve the comfort of the occupants.
During this lull, cinemas and other public places began to re-open and, to a certain extent, the feelings of people were not so intense. They were getting used to the blackout and evidence of forthcoming food and other commodity shortages became apparent. Food was being hoarded, thus creating further shortages. In fact goods were considered more important than money. Inflation was bound to happen. People became preoccupied with news, waiting for each bulletin. The wireless (which it was usually called at the time), and the ability to keep it functioning, was of paramount importance. All electric receivers were few, and most people had to rely on an accumulator, high tensio.n battery and a grid battery to keep their set operating. The accumulator needed to be charged each week. The high tension and the grid battery lasted about two months. Even then reception was often very poor. Batteries were in short supply, particularly high tension. To obtain one was to achieve something, it was a prized possession.
Many people were earning more money than before. Employment in factories engaged in war work was plentiful, but due to rationing and shortages there was a limited amount of spending power. In late 1939 the National Savings Movement was launched to encourage people to invest money in the war effort, with an added percentage repayment after the war. Savings groups were formed in factories, shops, clubs etc. and an appointed collector did the rounds each week to collect the savings and issue certificates. I was the collector for the works group, but cannot remember exactly how the scheme worked, but I do remember that the bank which is now Barclays in Wolverhampton Street opened on Saturday, manned by volunteers, to receive monies collected and issue the necessary certificates.
Although training and preparation in all sections of A.R.P. continued to gain momentum, it was not until the invasion of the Low Countries and the fall of France in May 1940, that the full potential of the community was roused. Every able bodied person wished to contribute to the war effort. This was the spirit of Dunkirk and there was a defiant mood. Everyone was concerned and wondered what was going to happen. Every day was a day to be got through. Would there be an invasion? If so, what would happen? The war was coming to us, now it was our turn! The morale of the people was still good, but the struggle and deprivation began to tell. In January food rationing began. The rations were four ounces of ham, four ounces of bacon, twelve ounces of sugar and four ounces of butter per adult each week. In July tea, margarine and cooking fats were rationed to two ounces per week. Cheese ration fluctuated between two and eight ounces per week.
Anthony Eden, the new Secretary of State for War, broadcast an appeal for men to join an unpaid, part time army to protect their own location in case of invasion by land or from the air. The response was immediate and overwhelming. The name was to be the "Local Defence Volunteers". Equipment was non existent and initially only an arm band with the letters L.D. V. was issued. Training was literally carried out with broomsticks. Later the name was changed to the Home Guard at the request of Winston Churchill. Uniforms and equipment gradually became available and extensive training programmes were carried out.
The headquarters of the Willenhall companies were the greyhound stadium in Temple Road and the Manor Tennis Club in Bank Street. Many stories of their exploits during training could be told. The "Dad's Army" series on television covered it in the comic sense. The training was serious but there was always some memorable occasion that can be recalled. A colleague remembers when they had a route march to Brewood and back but many of the men, not being used to heavy boots or marching, developed blisters on their feet by the time they arrived at Brewood, and doubted whether they would be able to march back. "No problem" said Doctor Pottinger, who always carried a portable scalpel in his pocket. There was a foot inspection when he lanced all the blisters. After that the company proceeded back to base.
At this time the Blitz began on London and anti air raid services were properly co-ordinated. If I remember Councillor Harry Millerchip was C.O. of Willenhall A.R.P. services. The nerve control was situated in the cellar of the Council Offices, now the Public Library .
First Aid parties were incorporated into the rescue parties and it was required to do one night per week on standby duty. Councillor Dick Griffiths was head of Rescue Service. The Y.M.C.A. building adjacent to St Giles Schools was used by the rescue parties on duty all night sleeping in the cellar. I recall it was fairly comfortable, blankets were issued and the sleeping arrangements were adequate. We always slept in a state of readiness to standby at the sound of the warning siren. Memories flow back to nights in the cellar. It was very dark as there were no windows and very quiet. When sleeping against the wall which was adjacent to the footpath outside steps could be heard a considerable distance away, resounding in the blackout and getting louder and louder as they approached the cellar, until they appeared to be right on top of you, not on the outside of the cellar! This was usually about 5.30 to 6.00 in the morning.
Each party had a leader and a second and retained the same membership, therefore meeting week after week a real camaraderie resulted, which was very evident during these difficult times and made life easier. It is amazing how a sense of humour was maintained. I always remember Charlie Clifford who served in the army during the 1914-1918 War. He was never at a loss to bring humour into any situation. After all night duty breakfast was served in the canteen in the schoolroom of the New Connexion Church in Church Street. (This was the forerunner of the British Restaurant)
Probably the longest night we had in the air raid shelters was the night of 14th November 1940 when Coventry was heavily raided. The sirens sounded early evening, I think about 6.30pm and the "all clear" did not sound until dawn. It was our turn next! On the night of 20th November 1940 a stick of bombs fell at the rear of St Anne's Church, destroying houses in Ward Street, Ann Street and Springvale Street. Many people were made homeless, twelve people were killed and many seriously injured. The church had only superficial damage. The homeless people were first cared for by the Salvation Army in the Citadel in Moat Street, and the people of Willenhall responded generously to help the stricken families.
At this time the blitz was reaching its peak with planes passing over to reach Liverpool and Manchester. Many hours were spent in the shelters and the new menace of incendiary bombs was added. After the devastation caused in London, when thousands of incendiary bombs rained down on the city, the government invoked compulsory powers to conscript all employers and employees to share in the protection of their places of work. This meant more night duty with people sleeping at their places of work, in case incendiary bombs were dropped. Stirrup pumps and sand were made available and training given to tackle this new menace.
Although a lot more difficult times were to come, a great sense of relief was felt on that memorable Sunday morning of 22nd June 1941 when it was announced on the wireless (I think about 11.00am) that Germany had invaded Russia. People rushed out of their houses asking others if they had heard the news. Everyone realised that their fears of invasion of this country had receded and at last a light could be seen at the end of the tunnel. The news on that Sunday had a remarkable effect on the morale of everyone. We were no longer fighting alone.
Food rationing was now down to its lowest amount and the acute shortages resulted in black market and longer queues. Clothes rationing was introduced, also distribution of eggs and milk. Austerity began in earnest. Soap was rationed to three ounces a month. Bananas were almost unobtainable, and were restricted to children under the age of fourteen years. They were sometimes used singly as raffle prizes, as were onions.
Ernest Bevin, Minister of Labour, conscripted 30,000 men to work in the coal-mines.
The news that the Japanese had attacked the American Naval Base at Pearl Harbour on 7th December (again a Sunday) electrified the population. There was no doubt that America would now enter the war . However, when later in the day the Japanese made a formal declaration of war against Britain and the United States, we realised that we now had a powerful adversary against us, putting all our far East bases in peril.
In 1942, after the fall of Singapore and the Japanese advance in Burma, the whole world was at war. When news came that the Germans had recaptured Tobruk and Mersa Matru, it seemed just a matter of time before they reached the Suez Canal. The morale of people was again very low, everything seemed to be going wrong, disaster after disaster, how was it going to end? There was grave anxiety.
This was the time when Willenhall experienced its second air raid, on the night of 31st July 1942. The target appeared to be the marshalling yards in this area, it seemed that the raid followed the main Birmingham to Wolverhampton railway line.
That night I was on duty in the Y.M.C.A. cellar on standby. Immediately the warning siren was given. When the anti aircraft guns in the Five Field area opened up with their deafening barrage and rocket launched missiles we knew something was coming our way. Reports were coming in of roads being closed and many fires, there seemed to be a lot of activity going on. One rescue team was called out, and the team I was in were in reserve. Rumours were rife regarding land mines being dropped, and people were worried what was going on in their locality. After being dismissed in the early hours of the morning, everyone was anxious to get home to see what was happening there. The smell of burning and acrid smoke, mixed with the early morning mist, created an unreal atmosphere. People were gathered in little groups in the streets relating their experiences.
It was a relief to find my home intact, as were all the other houses in the street. My mother and my future wife (who was staying with her that night whilst I was on duty) said they had never experienced a night like it. They had been in bed asleep when the sirens sounded, but did not go into the air raid shelter. When the barrage of guns roared they took refuge under the kitchen table. They could see the glare from fires through the curtains and realised that the incidents were very near. The noise of the guns, the fall out of fragments of explosives which fell like shrapnel on the roof of the houses was very frightening. We were all thankful to see each other that morning.
Portobello was also hit by incendiary bombs, one man being killed by an explosive incendiary bomb. One bomb completely destroyed a terraced house in the Willenhall to Wolverhampton main road not far from Coventry Street. This caused some chaos to through traffic. Many injured people were taken into houses in New Road, awaiting ambulances. One young girl later died in hospital from her injuries.
In view of the high number of incendiary bombs dropped in this raid and the resultant fires, casualties were comparatively light. A house at the corner of Peel Street and New Road was hit and demolished. Mr Handy, who had a general dealers shop there, lost a daughter. It is understood that while the rest of the family took shelter in the cellar, she remained in her bedroom on the upper storey, which took a direct hit.
After the battle of El Alamein and the defeat of the German 6th Army at Stalingrad, the tide of war turned in favour of the allies. Times were still difficult with severe shortages of most things. There was full employment, people were earning more money, but had little to spend it on.
To encourage saving for better times after the war, National Savings Weeks came into being. Willenhall bought a Hurricane fighter plane, which was named after the town (allegedly at a cost of £6,000). There was a "Wings for Victory" week and "Salute the Soldier" week, with parades through the town centre. Targets were allocated and it was an achievement to surpass the target. Towns and cities throughout the country adopted ships of the Royal Navy. If my memory serves me correctly Willenhall was allocated the mine-sweeper (or sloop) H.M.S. Lavender.
V.E. Day (Victory in Europe) on May 8th 1945 was a day of celebrations and a public holiday was declared. Patriotic music was played throughout the day on the wireless, interspersed with news bulletins. There was an air of great excitement and relief.
A service of "Thanksgiving for Victory" was held on the then open ground at Rose Hill, Bilston Lane. A huge bonfire was lit and the lights went on again in Willenhall.
Although it was victory in Europe, the war in the Far East still continued. On August 6th 1945, when the U.S.A. dropped the first atomic bomb, the immensity and the mass destruction caused by this new weapon shocked the nation.
A great feeling of relief and thankfulness was in everyone's mind when the Japanese surrendered on August 14th 1945.
All knew that great problems lay ahead. But the war was over!
BACK TO CONTENTS
Work and Marriage by Irene Tonkinson
During the war I worked at the Police Station as a relief telephone operator at night. I remember walking home through quiet empty streets. Mother always had a special breakfast ready.
My Father, Tom Spate, was in the South Staffs, posted to France. When I was about eighteen I applied for a job in the accounts department of Sankeys, Bilston. The gentleman who interviewed me was Sydney Jones. He said the name Spate was unusual, was my father's name Tom, who served in France? When I said yes he said my father saved his life. Apparently they were in the trenches when he was injured and my father carried him to safety. I got the job.
I married in 1941, my honeymoon was a visit to the pictures. I had a pen friend in America who sent me a lovely pair of stockings. They were so gossamer fine they had to be washed in a glass jar .
BACK TO CONTENTS
War Time Memories by Betty Marston
I was a twelve year old schoolgirl in 1939 and the declaration of war against Germany almost co-incided with the return to school after the summer holidays.
Returning for the first day assembly, we were told by the headmistress that we must return home until air raid shelters had been built. This news was received with mixed feelings, partly because the weather was beautiful, and the thought of an extension was attractive, but with a slight feeling of apprehension as to what changes were to happen to our lives.
We were recalled to school after six weeks, and I think shortly afterwards were issued with gas masks (as were all the population) which must have been a mammoth task, and good business for someone. The letters ARP (air raid precautions) began to figure largely in our lives, and volunteer wardens were appointed to visit each house to measure people for these masks.I remember this as a hilarious occasion, as the eyepiece obviously had to be in the right position, and although the masks could have been very important, they were hardly a flattering piece of equipment. These masks had to be carried on all occasions, and the little square boxes first covered by home made cases, and later by leather ones became a standard part of our dress. Everyone over eighteen years of age had to return to their place of work approx. once a week and sleep there in case incendiary bombs were dropped. They were taught how to handle a stirrup pump in case it was needed. Fortunately people accepted all these things with very good grace, and used to keep a camp bed or sleeping bag to sleep on.
Other people joined first aid panies, meeting regularly to practice. And of course we had the Home Guard. These people did a very good job, but some of the things that happened were very reminiscent of Dad's Army.
Everyone used to listen to every news bulletin on the radio. And of course we had speeches by the then Prime Minister Winston Churchill quite regularly to help us on the way. Not many people had holidays away from home at this time, and it was forbidden to visit the south coast. Wales could still be visited and we were delighted to get half a pound of farm butter to take home with us when we stayed in a small village there.
For many months we were lulled into a sense of false security. Although most of the menfolk in a certain age group were conscripted into the forces, nothing much happened at home. At school we used to have air raid practices and when we heard the wailing siren, had to get to the shelters as quickly as possible, and stay there until the "all clear". Time spent in the shelters I remember in a light hearted way, as we were encouraged by our teachers to sing, say poems or amuse our fellow pupils in any way we were able.
After some months we did begin to get real air raids nearer home, and were especially nervous on moonlight nights when raids were more likely. No artificial lights of any kind were allowed (every house had to have blackout curtains or shutters) and even a chink of light soon brought a knock on the door and a reprimand. We used to hear the aircraft going over to bomb both Birmingham and Coventry. From Willenhall it was possible to hear the bombs and see the glare of fire caused by incendiary bombs, which was very frightening. In 1940 the war became very close to home. We lived opposite from the vicarage in St. Anne's Road and a bomb was dropped just the other side of the vicarage on Ward Street which also badly affected some of the houses on Ann Street. I remember the terrific bang, and a number of people were killed or injured. Ambulances and rescue people were on the spot very quickly. Later we were told that the bomb was jettisoned by an aircraft which had been hit by anti aircraft fire, and by dropping its bombs stood a better chance of getting back to base safely. Next morning we found that the window of our house had been blown in, as had every alternate house in the road. Apparently blast always acts in this way.
By this time most homes had been issued with "Anderson" shelters which were made of corrugated iron. These shelters had to be almost buried in the garden and covered with earth. Many people slept in these shelters for many months, making them as comfortable as possible with bunks, emergency lighting and food for emergencies. We as a family preferred to shelter in our pantry in the middle of the house. In high risk areas people were issued with "Morrison" shelters, a reinforced table with three sides to give some degree of protection without leaving the warmth of their homes.
Food became scarce after a time and ration books were issued to every person. It was necessary to register at a relevant shop to obtain these supplies. This shortage of food certainly tested people's ingenuity. I remember using liquid paraffin instead of fat in cakes and as our one egg per week was too precious to use in cakes we had to use dried egg and milk instead of fresh. Whatever was available at the time we were told was very good for us, potatoes and carrots were used in many different ways until they became short. On top of our meagre meat ration we were allowed two (old) pennyworth of corned beef per person. On being asked to take it to school for a cookery lesson my mother looked at the recipe and refused to let me take mine as she could make better use of it herself.
As a family a highlight of our lives was to receive a food parcel from an Auntie of my mothers who lived in California. She had left Willenhall many years before for health reasons. These parcels contained cake mixes, popcorn and various other excinng items we had never seen before. Usually when she wrote to us she used to enclose one nylon stocking in the envelope. I think she only sent them in ones so there was less chance of them being stolen. Nylon stockings were unavailable in this country and were so beautifully fine after the ones that we were able to get. So although we had to wait for six letters to get a pair for my mother, my sister and myself they were a great thrill.
If I sound flippant in any way I do not wish to do so. As a family we were very lucky that my father was past call up age. My parents did not have any sons, so we didn't suffer the terrible anguish of many people.
Most social activities were cancelled or curtailed and buses finished at 9pm. These, however, were only minor irritations and I remember never doubting that we should win the war. As we were always told we had right on our side.
BACK TO CONTENTS
Thoughts on Willenhall at War by Margaret Round
I was seven years of age when the Second World War was declared but I remember the day very clearly. The tensions, the fear and the disappointment of the adults were very obvious and made for an atmosphere that I have never forgotten. War was declared on Sunday morning and I remember the rest of the day being spent in improving the blackout arrangements in the house, arrangements which had already been tried out a couple of days earlier in a makeshift way. From now the arrangements were to be permanent, curtains were lined with blackout material and blackout shutters were made. These were made with laths and black felting and fitted over the windows before the curtains were drawn. During the day the shutters were kept in the pantry.
On Monday, 4th September, 1939, the Board of Education made a broadcast proclamation that all schools would be closed. They re-opened on 3rd October 1939 on a voluntary basis. I was a pupil at Clothier Street Primary School which was a wooden building with open corridors. It was arranged that if there was an air-raid warning the building should be immediately evacuated. Children who lived close to the school were to run home, each taking with them two or three children who lived further away. The plans were made by mutual arrangements between parents and the school. Air raid shelters were being built in the grounds but were not yet available. Two sets of shelters were built, one for Clothier Street pupils and staff and the other for Little London JuniorSchool. Little London Infants School was to have surface shelters in its own playground.
We had a number of air raid practices before the shelters were ready. As a warning, the headmistress, Miss Acton, walked along the corridor banging together two enamel plates and we, the pupils, would immediately stand in the gangways between the rows of desks, leave the classrooms in a very orderly way and run to the pre-arranged houses. Where did the staff go? I do not know. We carried our gas masks to school every day and when the register was called we answered "yes-yes" or "yes-no". The first yes indicated presence and the second that we had our gas mask. If we answered yes-no it meant a journey home to fetch the gas mask; this could mean a walk as far as Stubby Lane. Gas mask practice was a regular feature. Thumbs through the straps, chin in, up and over your ears.
By October Miss Acton had an Air Raid Warden's rattle to warn of a practice. I have not had access to Clothier Street Log Book but I have been able to read that of Little London Junior School. On 19th October 1939, at 11.30am a practice journey was made to the proposed air raid shelter in Clothier Street grounds. The time taken to get all the children to a selected point outside the school grounds was twenty minutes. It was not until April 1940 that the air raid shelters were ready for use. Now we were able to practice going into the shelters instead of running home. What excitement.
We sat on wooden benches with our backs pressed against the concrete panels in the dim, underground passages. There was very dim lighting from accumulators and unspeakable latrines behind hessian curtains. In the shelters the registers were called and then we settled down to gas mask practice and community singing. Ten green Bottles, One man went to mow, we're going to hang out the washing on the Siegfried Line, Run rabbit run rabbit run, run, run. Sometimes we had escape practice when the teachers helped us up ladders and through escape hatches. I do not remember any fear, just a sense of great excitement.
Meanwhile there was tension and excitement at home. The Whitsuntide holiday was cut short by the German invasion of Holland and Belgium and the Board of Education ordered schools to re-assemble. This was followed by a broadcast by the Secretary of State for War asking men between 17 and 65 to join the Local Defence Volunteers. My father, John Round, who was then 46, went immediately to join. The signing on was organised in St. Giles School over a number of evenings. My father had served throughout the First World War and still had his Sam Browne belt and revolver and I remember him polishing the belt and cleaning the revolver ready for the first parade.
In my home I can say that the atmosphere was charged with determination to do everything possible for the war effort and with a certainty that we should win. On the evening of the day on which war as declared my father had put a bottle of whiskey into the wardrobe saying "I shall open that on the day we win the war". He did.
My mother, Beatrice Round, volunteered to do sewing for military hospitals, she did the sewing at home and I used to go with her to take the garments, pyjamas and dressing gowns to a collection point (was it theWVS centre?) which was an upstairs room in a building in New Rd., opposite Tildesley's Car Showroom. I joined in the family knitting circle where aunties and cousins and grandma knitted six inch squares which were joined together by crochet and sent to hospitals. The knitting circle also turned out khaki and navy blue balaclava helmets, scarves and very heavy sea boot stockings which were knitted with white oiled wool.
Throughout May and June of 1940 we had air raid practices at school and the children from Little London came to their shelters in our grounds. They crossed Bloxwich Road, walked along Little Clothier St., along Clothier St. and so to the shelters. By the end of June the headmaster wrote in his school log book that this could now be done in 4 1/4 minutes. I remember that we had our Anderson air raid shelter at the time of the Dunkirk evacuation. This was further excitement for a child, but even as an eight year old I knew that there was more to it than excitement; I knew that there was danger and that dreadful things were happening.
In response to the broadcast and a letter from the Lord Lieutenant of the County which was printed in local newspapers many men had joined the LDV and they were now issued with light drill uniforms and LDV armbands. There was drilling on the Wakes Ground and training in the Territorial Army Drill Hall. I was often taken there to see the rifle range and other activities. After a short time proper uniforms were issued and the LDV was renamed the Home Guard. The men did a full days work and then went on duty at night. Often they did all night duty and then went to work the next morning. This was the routine for the other Civil Defence volunteers but I knew little of them since my father was in the Home Guard. At one time they went to a weekend training camp at Brewood, once a month. On one occasion they marched from Willenhall to Brewood one Saturday afternoon, and these were men who had worked all the week, including Saturday morning. As well as their regular duties the Home Guard went on manoeuvres on Cannock Chase. In the drill hall there was a key to St. Giles Church so that, in the event of a German invasion, the bells could be rung to warn the townspeople.
One night during an air raid it was reported that parachutes had been seen in the sky over Bentley Common. This was in May 1940 when the danger of invasion was imminent. The Home Guard turned out, but it was a false alarm. It was thought that it was puffs of smoke from anti aircraft guns which had been seen. On 10th May 1940 schools closed for one week for the Whitsuntide holiday. On 13th May, owing to the German invasion of Holland and Belgium, the Board of Education ordered schools to re-open. Later in May the staff of schools fitted the new "elements" to pupil's gas masks. The "elements" were green filters which were taped on the existing filters of the gas masks and were added protection against smoke gas. Air raid precautions were given much consideration and in August 1940 there was a meeting of Head Teachers at Albion Road School to discuss the protection of school windows from air raid splintering. The result of this meeting was sticky tape in criss cross patterns on the windows. This was now a common feature of windows everywhere. One small problem was that, before long, mould grew beneath the tape.
I do not have a comprehensive record of the number of air raid warnings in Willenhall but the following is a selection:-
27.8.40 -an overnight warning until 4.00am followed by an afternoon warning.
28.8.40 -an overnight warning until 5.00am
29.8.40 -a daytime warning.
This year the schools closed for only two weeks in the summer and closed for a further two weeks at the end of September. 13th September 1940 was a National Day of Prayer .
9.10.40- air raid warning am.
15.10.40- air raid warning am.
21.10.40 -two air raid warnings only two minutes apart.
22.10.40 -4.11.40 -many air raid warnings.
28.11.40 -air raid warning at 4.05pm.
3.12.40- air raid warning at 2.30pm. On this occasion the pupils and staff of Little London School did not go to their air raid shelter at Clothier Street School because of the depth of water in the shelter .
4.12.40 -air raid warning am. Two air raid warnings pm.
5.12.40- air raid warning.
12.12.40 -air raid warning.
17.12.40 -air raid warning
On 3rd March 1941 there was a problem with the air raid shelters on the Clothier Street site. There was no lighting because of accumulator faults and by 30th April, although the children were in the shelters, there was still no lighting.
I remember very clearly the two very serious air raids in Willenhall in which people were killed.
One night when my father was on all night duty with the Home Guard my mother and I spent the night in the air raid shelter in the garden. My mother was very worried because there were fires in the area of her family home in New Road. She was right. During the night she was very relieved when a member of the Home Guard arrived, on his bicycle, with a message from my father. There were fires in New Road but the family was safe. Several people had been killed and some of the survivors were sheltering in my grandmother's house. The Home Guard and other Civil Defence members were dealing with the situation. My father returned home in the morning and went to his work. At 9.30am my mother and I went to New Road, which was closed, but relatives were allowed access. I remember that the Fire Services were still dealing with fires which were breaking out sporadically, caused by the phosphorous bombs which had splattered their incendiary contents over a wide area.
The other serious raid which I remember, and in which people were killed, was the one in which bombs were dropped on the Ann Street area. The morning after the raid I went with my mother to Little London Baptist Church which was used as a rest centre. My mother helped to look after the survivors of the bombing who had been taken there. It was a pitiful scene with the survivors, many of whom had been bereaved, sitting around in groups or lying on makeshift beds. There were emergency cooking and clothing arrangements but I do not know what arrangements were made for rehousing the survivors.
During the war the Toc H Hall in Gipsy Lane was designated a Rest Centre, to be used in the event of people being made homeless in air raids. There was also a social club for soldiers who were stationed at Essington Tileries. A gas cooker was obtained from John Harper's, the Albion Works and volunteers provided light refreshments, a wind up gramophone, and a table tennis table. Sometimes the volunteers fetched fish and chips from "The Gem", opposite the Town Hall. The club was opened on two nights a week. The Toc H Hall was also used as a meeting place for the Prisoners of War Club, attended by the families of men who had been taken prisoner.
BACK TO CONTENTS
Anti Aircraft Guns - Five Fields
The Anti Aircraft battery was set up between Ashmore Lake and Broad Lane South at the outbreak of the Second World War. It was on a site known as the Five Fields. The guns were part of a chain of defences set up for the protection of the industrial Midlands.
The camp site was very primitive and the perimeter was marked by sandbags. There were no facilities of any kind. The soldiers used to be marched down to Willenhall Baths daily for washing purposes.
The site got very waterlogged during heavy rain. Accommodation for the soldiers was by means of army style bell tents.
The site consisted of 43.1 inch static heavy anti aircraft guns and as they were short of gunners a detachment from an artillery centre in Cheshire was sent to reinforce them.
The soldiers were from the 221 battery, 71st Heavy Anti Aircraft Regiment, Royal Artillery. The guns were backed up by searchlights, a Predictor, Heightfinder and Radar.
They were supported by Telephone operators and non operative gunners who could take over as light machine gunners for site defence.
The soldiers who manned the camp were a mixture of English, Welsh and Scots but the Scots were the most predominant.
When the guns opened up, as they did most nights during the Air Raids, the ground around Willenhall shook and shrapnel rained down on the roofs and streets for miles around. This caused great amusement to the kids who collected the shrapnel to take to school as souvenirs.
The unit moved on in April/May 1942 to Tunbridge Wells for further training following which they embarked for an unknown destination which turned out to be North Africa where they took part in operation Torch before going on to Sicily and then Italy.
The site was then closed as the defences became more sophisticated.
BACK TO CONTENTS
Letter from Gunner Tulloch
1402517 Gnr. J. Tulloch
224th Battery (Right Troop) 71st H.A.A. Rgt. R.A.
Tunbridge Wells, Kent
Dear Mr + Mrs Coulson
Our Battery left Willenhall rather suddenly in the end and I had no time to come in to say Goodbye. Although we all knew a move of some kind was imminent no one was prepared for so quick a call; in fact, all the gunners were on a firing course somewhere on The Wash at the time and had to be recalled. They returned shortly after 5 P.M.. and we moved out at 8 P.M. leaving only a small rear party behind. That was on Tuesday, a fortnight yesterday.
Our destination was unknown but we all felt that it was the last time we should see Willenhall and there was rather a gloom over the convoy for that reason. Which is not surprising; nowhere in all our travels have we been so well treated as during our sojourn among you people. We travelled all that night in bright moonlight. I knew we were headed South but it was only after daylight broke I discovered we were in Berks. About 8 A.M. the convoy passed through the town of Reading and now we were in the country familiar to us from last year’s manouevres.
Skirting London, and over in Surrey now, Dorking was the next big town, then Guildford, Oxted and so into Kent. By way of Sevenoaks, Tonbridge and Tunbridge Wells we came to a final halt on the common at the village of Rusthall, about two miles beyond that last named town. This common extends for many miles and our position is on a rise commanding a wide view of lovely wooded countryside. The camp is almost in the village itself and until we got wire up, the villagers, who had never seen a gun at close quarters before, crowded round us so that we had hardly room to turn. They are nice enough people but not like Midland folk at all. This district is for the wealthy; Tunbridge Wells is a highly residential town with expensive shops and cinemas and fine hotels. The village of Rusthall is populated mainly by the servants of the rich - shop assistants, house servants and the like. Tunbridge Wells looks down its nose at poor soldiers. Rusthall welcomes them but not with the same spontaniety as the people of Willenhall, and most of our boys regret the change.
We are living in tents pitched among the gorse and the life is a bit rough. For over a week the weather was perfect, with a warm sun shining all day long but on Sunday afternoon the clouds rolled up and we have had rain every day since, very heavy, at times, it is, too. Monday evening, we had thunder and lightning to add to our entertainment and now, on Wednesday, we are more or less settled down to endure all the damp and discomfort tent life must hold in wet weather. Soon, the sun must shine again and then everything in the garden will be lovely. Kent is very beautiful. I had a run to Chatham one day, passing through a lot of orchard lands at apple blossom time. I won’t forget it.
Now, what I really started this letter for was to thank you for all the hospitality and kindness you showed me during my stay at Willenhall. When you are away from home it means a great lot to have a place to go where you can forget barrack room life for a little while. I suppose Mr Coulson will have found the truth of this before I was born and it is good to know that, all the time, wherever you go, you are pretty sure of finding the fundamental sense of human kindness manifested in some way or other to a greater or lesser degree.
In your house, I found that kindness in a greater degree than anywhere on my travels and I want to tell you here that I appreciated it very much and will always remember you. If, in happier times, any one of the Coulson family is in Scotland, I hope I shall have the opportunity to repay in some measure. Meanwhile, accept my thanks; and good wishes for you and each one of your family.
BACK TO CONTENTS