John Grice recalls life on the Home Front in Cradley during World War II
I remember the night that a German bomber dropped a stick of incendiaries along our section of the river Stour. Two or three hit Blackwell's steel storage units, and several dropped alongside the river - Overend side - and burned themselves out. One dropped into the yard formed by Abbiss's shop and the houses of Mr. Farmer and Les Dealey. I remember Doris Dealey trying to beat one out with a shovel! Another dropped in 122, my back garden, and yet another hit our back garden wall and went into Jones' garden, next door. Four or five also hit Willetts' works on the other side of the river.
Apparently the aircraft was a Heinkel 111 taking part in a raid on Birmingham. It was hit by anti-aircraft fire, and jettisoned its bomb load, but fortunately the last few were incendiaries. The aircraft crashed near Malvern, killing the crew.
I recall being taken on the bus to Birmingham to stay with a friend of the family for a holiday. When Mum and I arrived, we found that the area in which the family lived had been flattened, and so we returned to Cradley with a terrified Alan, who stayed with us for a couple of months instead.
I remember the Grace Mary Estate in Quarry Bank being called the Holy City. It did get bombed, but was called the Holy City because of two large land mines which were dropped by parachute and failed to explode!
Dad worked at Stewarts and Lloyds in Coombs Wood, and had to take his turn on Fire Watch. I remember taking his hot supper in a basin to the Works.
Stewarts and Lloyds was never bombed. Being in a deep basin, it was not easily recognised from the air, and the sloping metal roofs may also have made radar identification difficult for the Luftwaffe air to ground radar.
My father felt that a bomb which hit T.W. Lench had been meant for Stewarts and Lloyds, although it may well have been a simple navigation error, as I don't think the Germans would have flown all that way to waste two squadrons of Heinkel 111's on nuts and bolts!
Food was uppermost in my thoughts during the war, being 8 years old when war started. We had no tropical fruit during the war - no bananas or oranges, and sweets were rationed. I remember ration chocolate, which tasted nothing like chocolate.
We had a large garden, and so did well on vegetables. We also kept chickens too for eggs, and of course at Christmas and special occasions we would have chicken for lunch.
Because meat was rationed, Mum bought a lot of offal, which was not rationed. Fish was scarce, and on one occasion I landed in big trouble with Mum; she had sent me to buy fish, and I came back with a piece of fresh salmon, having spent every penny that was in the purse. Bread was rationed, and we were able to buy the 'National loaf', which tasted like sawdust.
I believe we had to be registered with our butcher, Homer's in Cradley Heath, and the Co-op for groceries. They kept the pages from our ration books and dished out accordingly. We were given extra milk at school, and also vitamins. Occasionally we would receive a food parcel from friends of my mother in Canada, containing real chocolate, tins of fruit and fruit cake. Wonderful!
I went to school at Colley Lane. The headmaster, Jack Shakespeare, made a Spitfire model - I think 50% of full size - and it was used in Halesowen to promote "Wings for Victory", which was an appeal for funds towards the purchase of aeroplanes. The community organised events to raise money, and then sponsored the aircraft produced.
There was an above-ground air-raid shelter at Colley Lane Boys' School next to the school building, between the classrooms, which were at right-angles to the main building. There were also four other large underground shelters between the playground and the playing fields. Above ground they appeared to be mounds of earth. Below ground they were like very long Nissen huts, with entry by steps at both ends.
We sat on long benches in the dark, and if we were in for a long time the teachers would read to us by torch-light. The whole school was accommodated in these four shelters. We spent a lot of time in these in 1941-2.
There were also air-raid practices, and also gas-mask practices, and checks to make sure that our masks still fitted as we were all growing. If necessary, the straps were adjusted. As the war went on, we had additional filters fitted to our masks to cope with the gases that the enemy was producing.
At the age of eleven I won a scholarship to Halesowen Grammar School. Clothes were rationed, but they insisted on full school uniform. My Mum made a lot of my uniform, including trousers, as material was not as heavily rationed. She was a fine seamstress, fortunately.
We seemed to spend most of 1940-41 in our cellar beneath our home. There were many air-raid shelters above ground, which seemed no safer than being in your home. My Dad used to say the only advantage of being in an air-raid shelter was that all the dead would be in one place.
Dad and I loved to listen to the wireless, and I remember hearing Lord Haw Haw (William Joyce) broadcasting from Germany, saying "Don't worry Cradley, Lye and all you little towns in the Black Country, we haven't forgotten you. The horsemen of the Apocalypse are about to ride over you." Within minutes the siren sounded and over came the German aircraft, but luckily they did not hit us.
We had a limited bus service during the war to conserve fuel. Petrol was rationed. There were no more trips to the seaside - these were not allowed because of the defence systems. Wherever we went we took our ration books, gas masks and identity cards with us. I can still remember my identity card number.
Comics and toys
My cousin Thelma, who is ten years older than me, says that no toys were available, and that Christmas presents had to be made with whatever materials one could find. However, I was not short of toys, and comics such as Beano, Dandy and Hotspur were still available, money permitting. I never cease to appreciate the sacrifices my parents must have made to give me a wonderful childhood, regardless of their circumstances.
Relatives in the forces
My cousin Alf Woodhouse was in the RAF and stationed in India. When he came home on leave he brought me sweets and other things for the family that he could get on his rations in the service. He seemed to spend his time cleaning his boots, badge and buttons on his uniform which he had to wear whilst on leave. Having since spent 28 years in the RAF, I can sympathise.
His sister Joyce Woodhouse joined the WAAF, based in England.
My cousin's husband, George Myatt, was an REME Company sergeant major, who fought with the Russians, in Russia, repairing tanks. The Russians put their men in front of the tanks when they advanced - they had more men than tanks!
Before and after the war
The main difference I can think of between Cradley life before and after the war - remember I was eight before the war, and fifteen after - was that after the war no-one was as trusting. People were more wary of strangers, and started to lock their doors, unheard of before the war.
I went on to fly for twenty-eight years with the Royal Air Force in Avro Lincoln 2b bombers, Hastings Transports (over Korea) unarmed, Valetas, and finally in Avro Shackletons of 205 Squadron. After a brief hiatus, I returned to professional commercial flying, finally logging another three thousand hours on forty-nine types over ten years.
Today I live in France, one thousand feet up in the foothills of the Pyrénées mountains, twelve miles from the Spanish border, and only thirty-five miles from the Mediterranean.
We have been made abundantly welcome here in France, where we have lived for seven years. There are only thirty-six of us in the village (that's people, not families). I can leave tools outside, and I've gone to bed and left the back door open and unlocked - just like the Cradley of before the war.
They say that anyone born north of a line Bordeaux-Narbonne is not French, but rather Norman. The local residents are shortish, very strong and hardworking mountain farmers - if they spoke Cradleyan, or the Cradley folk spoke French with a Catalan accent, you wouldn't tell the difference! That is the best compliment I can pay both the Black Country people and the local people here.
These, then, are my boyhood memories of growing up in a war which at times was frightening, and yet sometimes - like the times when we dodged the black-out to watch the fires, getting covered in pieces of shrapnel - was an exciting adventure.
This essay is © Copyright 2002 John Grice.
Cradley Links thanks John for his generous
permission to reproduce it on this web site.
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