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Seventy-five Years Ago Today....

ChrisM

Super Moderator
Staff member
Seventy-five years ago today, 6th March 1943........

I'm not doing much, really, just mucking about. I should be at school - Sandwell School in Streetly - but I've had measles and although I'm better I'm not allowed to go back yet. Not that I'm too bothered about that! So here I am, peering around the half open door of our garage, down the drive towards the gate and the hawthorn hedge which is the barrier between us and the Chester Road and the whole outside world. Mum is in the house somewhere, doing whatever she does there; or else getting ready for her W.V.S. shift or even for the weekly meeting of local housewives. They get together to knit mittens and scarves and balaclavas for the troops. Knitting and nattering, in other words. Probably talking about their sons or husbands who are far away. I sometimes go with her, if I'm not at school. One or two of the houses have lovely gardens which I can explore until tea is ready. We often get cake.

To be honest, I don't know exactly which day I am doing this, and it may not be precisely March 6th. I know it is not Sunday because the driveway is empty – the family Ford Prefect isn't there and so Dad is at work (he is allowed a small petrol ration) - and I have an uninterrupted view of the gate. Although I suppose he is often not there on a Sunday as well. That's because of Home Guard business. It is not a Monday either, thank goodness, as then the garage would be full of steam from the gas wash-boiler and the smell of bed linen being laundered, the dolly being swung backwards and forwards as fast as possible by my mother. It's jolly hard work and she has a funny expression on her face while she does it. And then the mangling. I have to keep my fingers right out of the way while this goes on. So it could be any day around now although it might even be a little bit earlier.

I am vaguely aware of what is going on in the outside world. I know that beyond our gate the world is a dreadful place although I shan't know just how dreadful it is until I am much, much older. I know that almost all of Europe is in the hands of the Germans and that life for the people there can't be imagined. These days I am always careful not to be seen to be picking at my food as otherwise I get the usual lecture - which I hate - from my dad: "If you were in Europe now you would probably be picking food out of dustbins...." It's always enough to make me clear my plate and that's a habit I shall never lose.

There are things I know about and others I don't. I know that it is the aim of every single German and Japanese to bump me off and if it is the Japs I know it will involve torture as well (because everybody knows that and often, when we go on our bikes to the Avion cinema in Aldridge, the films prove it). Such horrid things come to me in bad dreams every now and again. I know that the RAF is attacking German cities and factories every night because that is what the BBC News (read by Alvar Liddell - or "Alvanidell" as the name sounds to me) keeps on telling us. I know there is a lot of fighting in Russia as well - they are always talking about the River Don on the wireless. And in North Africa. And I know that the life I am leading is absolutely normal. I can't remember much about what it was like before; and I most certainly can't imagine what it'll be like when it's all over, if it ever is. I don't worry about much. There is nothing extraordinary about what is going on. It's just normal life. If I had a bit more imagination I would know that the grown-ups aren't relaxed at all.

What I don't know, and perhaps it's a good thing, is what is happening day-by-day. Yesterday the RAF lost 14 aircraft and their crews bombing Essen. Today is the start of a running battle in the North Atlantic between two convoys and 20 U-boats: 21 ships will be sunk over the next 14 days, against just one submarine. We lost 14 ships last week. Since the beginning of the year around 100,000 Jewish people have been deported to a place with a funny name. It's called Auschwitz. Ten days ago the first of some 23,000 gypsies arrived. Around now they are starting to build something huge at Birkenau which is next door. They'll do this very, very quickly because it is slave-labour which is doing all the work. When my mother, far into the future, learns about these places, and all the others, she will always call the people who were sent there "those poor wretches".

What I don't know either, but perhaps the grown-ups are starting to feel it, is that the tide is just starting to turn. I and most of my fellow Brummies haven't had to spend a night in an air-raid shelter for ages. And Bomber Command is getting busier and busier. They are always talking on the wireless about "last night's raid on the Ruhr". Rommel has been forced back after defeat at El Alamein last October and is becoming trapped between the British 8th Army who are chasing after him and the British and American armies which landed four months ago in Morocco and Algeria. It looks as though the Afrika Corps has had it and Rommel himself will return to Germany before the end of this week. The German 6th Army was finally destroyed last month at Stalingrad and the Soviet armies are getting stronger and stronger. And in the Far East, after all of last year's disasters, the Japanese are starting to be forced back. To me, though, what I know of this - and I only know bits of it - is all just day-to-day stuff.

I am still idly looking down the drive. Then to my amazement a figure appears on the other side of the gate. It is a soldier. I quickly recognise him. It's my 20-year-old brother. He comes through the gate and walks towards me with a broad grin. I shout to my mother through the back door. He shouldn't be here. We only said good-bye to him a couple of weeks ago. He had been home on what everyone called Embarkation Leave. I had been told that that was it, he was going far, far away and I shouldn't expect to see him again for goodness how long. And now here he is, back again.

Graham (otherwise known as Bill) has now been a soldier for 8 or 9 months. He is in the Royal Artillery. He had wanted to join Bomber Command but they wouldn't have him. His eyesight wasn't good enough. I bet Mum and Dad are a bit relieved! For exactly two years up to June last year he worked and trained at the side of our dad in the local Home Guard platoon based at Little Aston Hall stables, which they said was still full of the smell of horses. Then he was called up into the Royal Artillery. First of all he went to Church Stretton. On a lovely Sunday at the beginning of July we all paid him a visit there and Dad took some pictures with a bit of colour film carefully kept from pre-war. There he is, below, facing an unknown future with a cheery grin and a Woodbine.

After coming up the drive and greeting me in the garage there are embraces with Mum who has arrived all excited at the kitchen door when she heard me shouting for her. He explains why he has arrived unexpectedly. He has been able to convince his Commanding Officer that measles can be quite a serious illness - he himself had a bad time of it. So what about a bit of Compassionate Leave? The C.O. falls for it and now my brother looks at me, all hail and hearty, and perhaps, just perhaps, feels a tiny twinge of conscience. But there we are, and, well, a couple of days at home are not to be sneezed at.

Forty-eight hours later it will be good-byes again, this time for real; and off he will go, back down the drive, back to Woolwich and back to an unknown future. In a few days after he leaves us he will be on a troopship casting off from Avonmouth and sailing for an unknown destination.

Bon voyage, Our Kid!

GMChurchStrettonJuly1942img807cropred.jpg

(to be continued later in the month, if anyone is interested)
 
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Astoness

TRUE BRUMMIE MODERATOR
Staff member
smashing read chris....looking forward to the next instalment...ps i can see the likeness between yourself and your brother

lyn
 

Astoness

TRUE BRUMMIE MODERATOR
Staff member
pen i reckon that these memories from chris could be book material....

lyn
 

Pedrocut

Master Barmy
Also look forward to the next chapter. It prompted me to reach for a draw and pick up the pay book of my late uncle.

I note that he was discharged as he could not fulfil the Army physical requirements.......seems a strange way to put that he had lost his right arm in North Africa!

IMG_0199.jpg IMG_0198.jpg
 

Astoness

TRUE BRUMMIE MODERATOR
Staff member
how lovely to have your uncles pay book pedro...these things are so precious

lyn
 

ChrisM

Super Moderator
Staff member
A bit of time has passed since my brother set off down the drive with a backward glance and a raised hand of farewell. Probably two or three weeks in fact. Measles spots have long since been forgotten. It is now Monday 15th March 1943. Laundry day for my Mum but I haven't been there to see the frantic activity.

I think about my brother a lot. But I can't say that I'm worried about him. I leave such things to the grown-ups. I am sensing some tension in the air but my parents don't burden me with their worries.

If I were to think about it I would realise that everyone seems to have worries of one sort or another in these extraordinary times - extraordinary to them, that is, but quite normal to me. Mr. Bacon next door has been stuck on Malta for the last three years and his daughter, who was born just before he left, only knows him from a photograph on a bookshelf which she chatters to while her mother looks anxiously out of the window for the postman - and please, please, may it not be the telegraph boy who knocks on the door. Mr. Behague on the other side of us is in the AFS and disappears for long periods to serve in cities other than Birmingham when they are under attack. Mr. Woodward over the road is never seen and is somewhere or other on the high seas in the Royal Navy. Mr. Bullock has also disappeared, probably to the Far East, and won't be seen again for years. And Mrs Milburn, a lady in Balsall Common who writes every day in a diary (which obviously I don't know about at the moment), has survived months of worry when her son in the 1/7 Warwicks disappears during the retreat to Dunkirk in May 1940, and then over the following weeks and months is rumoured to be a prisoner, then rumoured to have been wounded, then found to be in a permanent prisoner of war camp from which a letter, finally, in January 1941, comes from him confirming that he is OK. Mrs Milburn notes on the first of this month how glad she is that there has so far been no snowy winter to cope with. On the 4th she reports a dreadful tragedy in a crowded tube shelter in London the previous night when someone slips on the steps and in the ensuing chaos 178 people are suffocated or crushed. Last Friday she quotes the February air raid casualties figure: 252 killed and 347 injured in the south-east, south and south-west. Birmingham seems still to be getting away with it. The war ebbs and flows in Russia and North Africa, good news, then bad and then ..... There can't be too many people around without some sort of worry. Grown-ups, that is. I'm OK.

This isn't to say I don't think about my brother a lot. My Dad took a picture of us during the February Embarkation Leave and the film has now been developed. It was taken at the end of our garden overlooking fields which much, much later will be buried under the houses and gardens in Kingscroft Road, Streetly. I look quite proud of him - which I am.

While he was home, Dad and he must have had a conversation, based on my brother's eight months of military experience and what our father learned on the Western Front, exactly 25 years ago in the spring of 1918 before he was wounded and sent home. They agreed two things. The first was that each letter from the family at home or from my brother abroad would be given a serial number. In this way each side would know when something had gone missing. The other thing was that a private code system was agreed. In this way, from time to time, my brother could let the family know where he was at that moment. This is to get round the censorship to which every soldier is subject: each letter passing through the censor's hands and even a hint of any information of that type being snipped out. As of today I don't know anything about this. But very quickly I shall become aware of it and that will always surprise me in the future – that I was trusted with knowledge of something which could get my brother, and perhaps the whole family, into very serious trouble indeed.

But that is for the future. Today we have no idea what is happening to him. I have just got home from school. There has been nothing in the post.

GCMCM1943.jpg
 
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ChrisM

Super Moderator
Staff member
It's Thursday 18th March 1943. Things have been going on much the same. I have been becoming more aware of my parent's worries. Especially those of my mother. In our kitchen, just to the side of the gas stove, there is a coat rack, a jumble of outside coats and scarves. Mum, Dad and I are in the room. Mum is cooking. Suddenly her feelings get the better of her and we hear her say how much she longs for news, any news, so that she knows he is all right. I see her bow her head and bury her face into the clothes hanging against the wall. Dad, the strong one despite whatever he himself is feeling, utters some consoling words and puts his arm around her shoulders. It is the only time in the whole of the war when I see my mother cry. At that moment I start to realise that grown-ups can feel.

Then, yesterday, I got home from school and everything had changed. A letter had come from my brother. I expect my mother had telephoned my father the moment it dropped through the letterbox. What it exactly says I don't know. It is Ser. No. 1 from his direction. Whether it contains any coded information about his whereabouts, I don't know either. But he is OK and that is all anyone wants to know. And I have to say that I am a bit relieved myself. Can't speak on behalf of my 15-year-old sister, Sheila (see image), who is constantly irritated by both her brothers, the elder one we are talking about and her younger one, me, but I suspect she is pretty pleased as well.

The letter's arrival prompts an immediate response that evening from my father. Hope I'm not forced to put pen to paper too. Hate having to do that, don't know what to say and someone, like a big sister, stands looking over my shoulder making sure I am doing it tidily and not making any blots. Have a birthday in three weeks time which will involve thank-you letters to aunts and cousins - just how many letters is a six-year-old expected to write? They should be rationed. Dad on the other hand has no such reluctance:

17 March 1943 No. 1​
Dear Graham,​
We received your letter No. 1 today (19 days in transit) and are very glad to note you are OK up to and including 26 February. We were particularly pleased to get this even though the news is somewhat scanty. Mother has been keeping a stiff upper lip but has been worrying about you so write as frequently as possible and by the quickest possible route.​
(We were lucky enough to have a family holiday in the summer of 1941 in South Devon where we met evacuees from Ladywood. My parents later found another farm venue a bit closer to home, near Tintern, and I think that we had a short spell there both in the autumn of 1942 and again in spring of 1943. How lucky I was!)
Your letter reminded us both of our last family holiday together in 1941 at the Farm and your disappearance on the return journey. We are going to the farm again at Easter for a few days break, all things being equal, and I believe the Wards (old friends of my parents, also Home Guard and living in Middleton Hall Road, King's Norton) are also coming down to the same area. Sheila I believe will stay next-door. I hope this holiday will set us up again – Mother is a bit below par and I'm not feeling too hale and hearty.​
(Dad was responsible for much of the copper and brass strip and sheet production at Kynoch)
Works about as usual – the present problems are mainly concerned with constant and far-reaching changes of programme which always is a bit of a headache for a production man.​
(Dad had been an enthusiastic member of the Home Guard since June 1940. He built up the Streetly/Little Aston platoon over the previous almost three years but in the early part of 1943 this was decimated by the transfer of most of the men to a heavy anti-aircraft battery in the neighbourhood. Seventy-five years and a technical revolution means that we can now see them online; copy and paste into Google ....No. 5 Platoon, "B" Coy. 32nd Staffordshire (Aldridge) Battalion 1943....to view ).
Home Guard about as usual but has hotted up considerably the last week. We have been given a new operational role 2/3 miles to the west and rather involved it is. The A.A. men have all gone and are settling down in their new jobs with a fair amount of growsing. We have got a big stunt on this weekend which will be 24 hours actively on the go as far as I can see. We had a film show at Company last night and I finished up with a talk on the new job and the weekend stunt which may be a bit worse than the usual military mess-up – new weapons, new men, new ground. I am sticking with the Company and turned down last week two offers of command of other Companies, one at the works and the other at the old "C" and "F" Company area, both broken-down units and a lifetime's work to get straight again.​
(Dad goes on to talk about some of the young men in the neighbourhood, most of whom were probably H.G. before their call-up)
Geoffrey Hall goes tomorrow to the South Staffs, Dodd has been on embarkation leave. Nevitt was home for a short leave in midshipman's uniform – no other news of personalities except C*** is marked Grade 4 and so apparently will be sticking with us. M**** had medical last week and also in Grade 4.​
Put the car into Cutler's last week for that rattle in the clutch to be put right and asked him to have a look at the engine. The rattle was nothing – just a stone wedged between the torque tube and the chassis – but he overhauled the engine and I expect to get a bill shortly equal to the National Debt.​
All are okay and send their love. Chris is back at school with no ill effects after the measles. Spends most of his time annoying Sheila. Expect they will all be writing today and tomorrow. We are all thinking about you constantly.​
All the very best, old chap. Hope the Crossing is not too exciting.​
Your affectionate Dad.​

When will I know where my brother is and what he is doing?


FMGMCMSAChurchStrettonJuly1942img809eFEMetc.jpg
 
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Astoness

TRUE BRUMMIE MODERATOR
Staff member
brilliant read chris and a smashing photo:) i take it that is your mom and bro on left and is that you hiding behind your sister ?

lyn
 

ChrisM

Super Moderator
Staff member
brilliant read chris and a smashing photo:) i take it that is your mom and bro on left and is that you hiding behind your sister ? lyn
Dear Auntie Lyn,

Thank you very much for your letter. I said yesterday that I hate writing letters. But Mum says I have got to reply to you because you have said some nice things and have asked me a question. She says it's just good manners but then, it's easy for her, she hasn't got to write the letter.

So here I am, sitting on a cushion on one of those uncomy upright chairs at our dining table. Mum has put a dip-in pen and a piece of paper in front of me, got a bottle of ink out and taken the cap off it. I have got to WRITE TIDILY, BE CAREFUL WITH SPELLING, DON'T MAKE ANY SMUDGES OR BLOTS and, above all, DON'T KNOCK THE INK BOTTLE OVER. So I have got a lot of things to think about. And I really want to get this done quickly so that I can go outside before the snow melts.

Yes, in the picture there is Mum, my brother Graham and my sister Sheila. I am there as well near to my sister. I am mucking about. I do quite a lot of mucking about. Mucking about is fun. And nice. I don't know why grown-ups don't muck about themselves. They might enjoy it. The picture is when we went to Church Stretton last July to see my brother.

There is another picture from that day which I haven't shown you. That's because it's a mess. I'll tell you why. My dad is very proud of his camera. It's in a leather case with a long strap which goes over his shoulder. It's called a Kodak. When he wants to take a picture he gets it out of the case, clicks a little catch on the back of it and out pops what he calls bellows with the little glass thing which he calls a lens at the end of it. He holds the camera steady against his chest, looks down into the viewfinder, cups his hand around the front of that so that he can see whatever he is looking at, especially when it's sunny, and then tells us to keep absolutely still. It's sometimes a long wait while he twiddles something else and it's hard work to stay still and keep a grin on your face for all that time. Finally, when he's ready, he clicks another little catch somewhere near the lens. Then we can move again. A film is expensive, Dad only gets 8 or 12 pictures out of it and you don't want to be the person who ruins this one.

Now, the trouble with this is that the person behind the camera, Dad, is never in any of the pictures. So, on that day last summer, he tells my sister to take one of the rest of us. My sister is a very clever girl – she knows lots of things that I don't – but what she doesn't have is three hands. And you need three hands to hold the camera steady, keep the sunlight out of the viewfinder and click the catch all the same time. At least, that's what she tells us she doesn't have when the film comes back after being developed and the one she has taken is all fuzzy. (I love my sister very much. At least, I think I do. But she is very bossy-abouty and it's nice when, for a change, I can remind her that she has made a mistake. She doesn't like that).

I am sending the picture to you. It's not very good. But it shows me again, mucking about. I haven't learned how to do a lot of things yet. But I'm an expert in mucking about.

It's my birthday next month. In case you send me a present, I'm sending you a thank you now. It will save me having to write you another letter.

Lots of love.

Chris

PS Mum says I ought to say thank you as well to the other kind people who have said nice things about me.

HMCMGMChurchStrettonJuly1942img806.jpg
 
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Pedrocut

Master Barmy
Good to see you didn’t blot your copybook. What a contrast to today when millions of pictures and videos are taken with mobile phones!
 

Astoness

TRUE BRUMMIE MODERATOR
Staff member
what a lovely reply chris....thank you....you mentioned church stretton which has just switched a light on in my head...i will have to check but i am sure someone gave me some old black and whites from there which i know i have not put on the forum....i must go and check this out and let you know as i could be wrong

lyn
 
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