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Open Features: My War - Part III

…My prize find was a bazooka with its anti-tank missile in place. Much to my chagrin, the conductor wouldn’t let me on the bus with it, and it was too far to walk home…

The war years provided boys with exciting opportunities for new games, as John Merchant reveals.

This is the third in a series of five articles presenting John’s vivid memories of growing up in wartime.

One of our other sources of munitions was a nearby quarry where the Home Guard practiced with Sten guns. The Home Guard was a much ridiculed defense militia made up of over-military age men, or those who failed to meet the regular military draft criteria. They were intended to be a last line of defense if the country was invaded. The Sten gun was a forerunner of the Ouzi and a whole progeny of other light, sub-machine guns. It was inexpensive to manufacture and notoriously unreliable. One of its unfortunate characteristics was frequently to miss-fire and to eject unexploded bullets. Our treasure!

We’d watch from the bushes on the perimeter of the quarry until the exercise was over and the unit had straggled away, and then comb the ground where they had been to gather up the unfired bullets. Later we’d make a fire under them and hide behind rocks and trees until they exploded.

Sheffield is surrounded in the west by the high moorlands of Derbyshire. It is difficult terrain; rocky, swampy and treeless. It offered the perfect training ground for the paratroop divisions who were preparing for the ill-fated Arnhem invasion in Holland. Though my friends and I never got close while the exercises were going on, once the troops had gone, what they left behind was ours for the picking. My prize find was a bazooka with its anti-tank missile in place. Much to my chagrin, the conductor wouldn’t let me on the bus with it, and it was too far to walk home.

Our days were not entirely made up of mischief, however. We did our bit for the war effort, willingly and with gusto. When the water mains were damaged, we’d carry water in buckets from wherever it was still available to those that needed it. When there was a paper or metal drive we took our home-made carts and went door to door to collect aluminum pots and pans, books and newspapers, or whatever other strategic material was in demand. Since there were no toys or jewelry to be bought for Christmas or birthday gifts, we joined groups to make bracelets from plastic wire, which was a novelty at the time, and made brooches from silver and gold painted beech nuts, threaded onto wire.

While I was getting a graphic geography lesson from the war reports, my formal learning was seriously disrupted. When we could go to school, classes were often disrupted by air raid drills, or sometimes by the threat of real air raids, when we all had to file into the school air raid shelter. At other times, the road to my school and the tram tracks were closed due to damage from bombing that often took weeks to repair.

In an attempt to lessen the impact of these disruptions, the Department of Education created a program they called Home Service. People were asked to make their homes available for small, neighborhood classes, and teachers were brought in, two or three half-days a week, to teach a mixed age group of children. It worked for some children, but I found learning difficult in such an unstructured environment, and my education suffered. Fortunately, two of my parent’s neighbors who were retired teachers, tutored me privately, otherwise I would have fallen by the wayside.

The other major impact of the war on all of us was rationing. Coupons were issued to each family for foodstuffs, clothing and candy, and only a few selected individuals who were required to make trips in the course of their war work, were allowed an allocation of petrol. This latter restriction didn’t bother most people because very few owned cars anyway. Food rationing was probably the most difficult for us to deal with, though in truth the amounts we were allowed probably resulted in a more healthy generation than hitherto or since.

The food and clothing restrictions quickly gave rise to an active black market, and to the word spiv, though the origins of the word, spiff and spiving for fancy dresser, predate the war. The local spiv could get you anything, usually at an exorbitant price, and it was illegal to deal with such people. My mother refused to resort to the black market, but she had her contacts so we were able to supplement our rations to some extent.

People who had certain physically demanding jobs were allowed extra rations of meat, cheese, butter and sugar, and would often barter the items that they didn’t want for services, or for commodities they preferred. Another source of extra rations was the backyard chickens and even pigs that people in the suburbs took to raising. Normally prohibited from suburban and urban locations, the municipalities temporally waived their by-laws to allow these small, but essential endeavors.

A very successful program to help ease the food supply was the Government sponsored, Dig for Victory campaign, created by Lord Woolton, the Minister of Food. People with gardens were encouraged to dig up their lawns and flower beds and plant vegetables. Those without gardens were allocated plots in parks and unused spaces in the cities.

For most of us kids, the worst imposition was candy rationing, sweets as we called them, and sugar. The sugar never lasted until the end of the week despite all the restraint we could muster. We tried substituting treacle for sugar in our tea, but somehow it wasn’t the same.

The allowance of sweets per capita lasted no longer than a day, however conservative we were. In order to spin out the pleasure, I took my ration in chewing gum, and in Crunchy Bars that had a very light, honeycomb filling; so, since rationing was by weight, I got more for my coupon. We supplemented the real sweets with licorice root, which we could purchase without restriction, and chewed like tobacco.

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