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Lest It Be Forgotten After I Am Gone: Recollections Of Relocations - 10

Raymon Benedyk, continuing his life story, tells of being called up in wartime to work in coal mines.

This was quite a luxurious development, with two tennis courts, a garage block, a resident caretaker and a central heating system supplied to all the flats within the complex. We were living in style! It was also not that far from our warehouse/factory to where we could travel to and from quite easily by bus, or car if petrol was available. Our factory was as busy as we could be, with me travelling to other parts of London to sort through suitable waste goods offered by suppliers for what we needed, and transporting it back to our warehouse in our small van that I was now able to drive. I also did some deliveries to market traders in other parts of London and was leading a busy life.

When Rita and Alf with baby Nicola moved to the country when the London bombing started, Rene and her parents Sarah and Lou moved into their flat in Crown Lane Gardens, and again we were together quite a lot. Whilst nothing untoward ever happened between Rene and myself, the question and answer sessions did recommence, and now as I look back I can see how honest and trusting I was. I can’t say that I was foolish in any way, but it surely must be considered an unusual relationship that we had and, even on my part, enjoyed.

From 1942 to 1944, this was a quiet period when there was only an occasional bombing of London, and theatres and places of entertainment reopened. I went to an occasional dance and enjoyed the music and female companionship it engendered. On one occasion I found myself one of a throng of youngsters in Covent Garden Opera House, which had also been converted into a dance hall, where I can forever boast that I danced on the stage of that world famous place.

Early in 1944, the ‘Doodle Bug’ bombing started. These were unmanned flying devices carrying a sizable bomb propelled by an engine that, when its fuel ran out, just fell to the ground to explode wherever it landed. It was as indiscriminate as that. Over the spring and summer of that year, thousands landed on and around London causing damage, injury and death. Again London was not a pleasant place to live in, and those who were able evacuated themselves. My parents and I were offered accommodation in a small rooming house in Reading where we found ourselves living with about a dozen Irish labourers. It was not unpleasant, and we were made very welcome by the proprietors and courteously treated by them and other residents alike. Daily my father and I would travel by train to London and our business, and were pleased to be able to enjoy a good night’s sleep in Reading away from what was going on in London.

Also, just before my eighteenth birthday in July 1944, I volunteered for the Royal Air Force, fully anticipating that I would be accepted because of my four years training in the Air Training Corps. However, the recruiting officer who interviewed me said, “We don’t want any more aircrew. If you want to volunteer for anything, volunteer for the army!” Needless to say this did not please me at all and, concluding that if I wait until my call-up papers arrive, the Air Force is where I would end up because of my years in the Air Training Corps. I was to be sadly disappointed and, in fact, a bit shocked when my papers did eventually arrive and I found myself being directed to work in the coal mines!

It seems that Mr Ernest Bevin, Minister of Labour and National Service in the war-time government, responsible for procuring men for the armed services had, in his wisdom, also called-up coal miners. So, by the end of 1943 when it was realised that coal production was falling to dangerous levels because of manpower shortages, and urgent steps to do something about it were necessary, he organised a system whereby young men with a certain call-up number would be directed to work in the mines. I was one of these and we were called Bevin Boys after the infamous Mr Bevin.

So, from January 1945, I found myself based in a hostel in Doncaster. It was very very cold that winter and the facilities, whilst not exactly home from home and quite basic, were not too unpleasant. We were housed in Nissen huts, each constructed to bed twelve recruits. There were also huts for ablutions where the water supply was at best tepid and, in the icy weather, the toilet seats had hoar frost on them which needed to be removed before use, recreation facilities where we could read in the library and have dancing lessons (!) if we wanted – I learned to Tango - and eating halls where we were provided with basic but not unpleasant food. All in all, I found out very soon that I was quite lucky compared to some other lads who found themselves billeted in miners’ homes where there were no such luxuries.

Our three weeks of training consisted in mainly toughening us up for the rigours and dangers of the job. The training pit we were sent to was obviously carefully chosen, where the equipment we were given to train with was all in perfect condition. The pit itself was clean and well lit and more like a modern factory. However, when we were each eventually assigned to a working pit, well, that was a real eye opener. We found them to be like the pits we had all heard and read about, and seen in the movies, being dark, dirty and dangerous places to make a living. Knocks and bruises, scuffs and abrasions were very common occurrences. Boys, as well as all mine-workers, were occasionally injured, some seriously, and some were killed. It was a dangerous area in which we found ourselves. Of the 48,000 Bevin Boys called up to work in the mines, nearly 3,000 were killed or seriously injured.


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