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U3A Writing: Wartime Through The Eyes Of A Teenager

…We had to have air raid practice with allocated shelters, and every other week we had to practise wearing our gas masks. As someone who has always suffered from claustrophobia, I kept a finger tucked in my gas mask so that I could breathe…

Nancie Dyson vividly recalls her experiences during World War Two.

On September 3rd,1939, war was declared. Five days later I became a teenager.

We weren’t to go back to school until the air raid shelters being built on the hockey field had been completed. When we did return, we had to carry our gas masks and have our identity cards with us at all times. I still have my identity card.

We had to have air raid practice with allocated shelters, and every other week we had to practise wearing our gas masks. As someone who has always suffered from claustrophobia, I kept a finger tucked in my gas mask so that I could breathe. As children we had no social life to be altered, and the food rationing was dealt with by the grownups.

The town started to fill with soldiers, the Royal Corps of Signals, and premises were requisitioned to house them. When walking to school over Highfields we saw the soldiers doing PE in the college playing fields, snow on the ground, and the boys in shorts and vests. We were glad it wasn’t us.

Bob Cooper asked me to take care of his white mice. He’d joined up under age – couldn’t wait to be called up. I kept the mice in my doll’s house in the lean-to greenhouse. We had a heavy fall of snow, the glass gave way and the mice all escaped. I never had to own up about them as Bob was killed on his first bombing raid over Germany. A rear gunner, he was only 17.

I didn’t start keeping a diary until I was 16, so my recollections of the war years are not necessarily in chronological order.

I was at home convalescing from some childish ailment when the bus drove up our road with the boys back from Dunkirk. We hadn’t room for any, but the two ladies next door had one billeted on them. He was a member of the Royal Welsh Fusiliers, which was my dad’s old regiment in the War to End All Wars.

He and Dad spent a lot of time in our front room talking together. We learned later that he had had a pretty traumatic time. When we were young, children were not told what was going on. Grownup business was not for us to know.

Hopkinson’s, where my father worked, formed its own fire brigade, of which my father was in charge and also a home guard, who were much better at marching than the fire brigade. Dad marched the firemen up Macauley Road to give a demonstration on how to use stirrup pumps and how to put out fires with sand etc. Not one of the men was in step. In fact, two were smoking pipes.

The home guard practised manoeuvres in Barkers Fields and we kids got many a good laugh when the cows behind which they were hiding got up and moved, exposing them to the ‘enemy’.

The fire brigade, however, proved their worth when the bombing started. Friday evenings they took their pump and equipment to Manchester, Sheffield, Leeds and Liverpool to relieve the men who were fighting the fires, returning Sunday night ready for work on Monday. And it didn’t really matter if they were rubbish marchers; they could put fires out.

Snow fell, and on the way to school Jean Mac and I had a snowball fight with the college boys. It was a running battle from Birkby over Highfields to the college, where we left the boys and crossed over to Wentworth Street.

There coming towards us were three of the soldiers whom we met (but didn’t dare speak to) most days. Having got our eye well in, we armed ourselves with snowballs and waited until we got nearer to them. When we were in striking distance, we let fly. My snowball removed the cap of the soldier on the left, just as his arm came up to salute. We turned, and there were two officers walking behind us. Jean and I ran hell for leather. We’d never been as keen to get to school - before or since.

The boys’ college formed 630 ATC, and I was recruited as an honorary member when they needed a lady announcer for a sketch they were doing at a fund-raising concert. No, I didn’t get a uniform, but it was fun at the time.

Boys we knew were getting called up and wanted pen pals, my favourite pastime, so I was quite happy to volunteer. Alec Wood was being sent abroad and promised to be in touch for his mother’s birthday. Mrs. Wood received the telegram to say Alec had been killed on her birthday.

Derek Schofield went on to win a DFC. Derek and Alec were members of our tennis club on Barkers Fields. Neither survived the war.

My grandfather retired in 1938 from his job as head gardener at Whalley Abbey and went to live near Dad’s sister in Hanley. When war came, he went back to work for Lord and Lady Mankel Lewis at Stradley Castle. They went to live in the gardener’s cottage, which was in the grounds of the castle next door to the home farm.

Soldiers were stationed in the castle grounds, and Grandma was assiduously courted by the married men, as their wives could stay with Grandma and they didn’t have to have a sleeping out pass.

Hetty, the farmer’s daughter, had a nice sideline in chocolate from the soldiers who were stationed in what had been the stables and the coach house. They had to parade each morning in front of the coach house but couldn’t form up until Hetty had passed through with the milk float - an extra lie in on Sunday mornings - and bribing Hetty was how they achieved it.

Knitting balaclavas, socks, mittens and scarves was what we girls did, and serving tea at the YMCA. We were recruited by the powers that be to act as casualties in a mock air raid. The boys next door, my brothers and I had to report to a St John’s Ambulance post in town. Bill and Basil were severe casualties and had to go in an ambulance. My younger brother had a broken arm, my older brother a head wound. Yours truly had a broken leg and had to walk to Fartown to report. Good job no bombs dropped in Huddersfield, although the anti-aircraft guns at Castle Hill made a great deal of noise and shrapnel rained down over the town.

I do remember being hungry a lot, and of course sweets were rationed. But we were all very fit. Games or PE every day and walking to school and back twice a day did us no harm.

My older brother started to train as an engineer at David Brown’s, and the apprentices decided to go on strike. I can’t remember if it was for more pay. Suffice to say they didn’t get my sympathy or support. The David Brown lot set off from work and marched to Hopkinson’s to fetch out the apprentices there.

As they were passing the butcher’s shop in Birkby, carrying banners etc., the butcher dashed out with a cleaver in his hands, prepared to decapitate the lot of them. He’s just got the telegram to say his only son had been killed. It took three men to hold him down. My sympathies were with the butcher, not the strikers.

I received a lot of mail during the war, some from Canada where the RAF learned to fly. Most had no destination – just clues: ‘sand in my shoes’, ‘Berettas abound’ etc. The boys called to see me when on home leave, just to make sure I’d carry on writing – then went to take out their girlfriends.

When the USA entered the war, we were treated to our first sight of coloured GI’s, stationed in Penistone. Rattling collection boxes in town on Saturdays for various branches of the forces was something we were allowed to do.

Clothes were on coupons, and there was a great deal of make-do-and-mend. I made myself a skirt from a pair of my dad’s trousers.

Our best source of news was the radio and also the newsreels at the cinema. Huddersfield escaped bombing raids, and we young ones were shielded from worries by our parents.

By the time I reached conscription age, I was surplus to requirement. The war was won without me.

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