Alf Clift's recollections of wartime Cradley, as a schoolboy at Colley Lane and Halesowen Grammar School
I was ten years old the day after Neville Chamberlain broadcast that we were at war with Germany. It was a sunny Sunday morning the 3rd September 1939. I was playing with our neighbour Malcolm Dunn, riding our tricycles around the back yards of 52 and 54 Windmill Hill. I don't remember us going to Sunday school that day and everyone seemed to have the wireless on full volume, as the grown-ups were expecting an important announcement. We were too young to realise the momentous events that were to follow in the next five years. Our parents, who had lived through and remembered the 1914 - 18 war certainly did, and dreaded the thought of a similar catastrophe.
My first recollections after that sunny Sunday were during the phoney war at the end of 1939 and early in 1940. The infant's school in Colley Lane had closed earlier, the boys and girl's junior pupils had moved into the Boy's school and the Infants into the old Girl's school. The original Infant's school was converted into an ARP centre. It was manned round the clock with ARP Wardens and First Aid Volunteers. The old Headmistress's office and Staff room were used by the men on duty. The cloakroom area was converted into an ablution centre for potential 'victims' of poison gas attacks and the classrooms were used to store stretchers and other ARP equipment.
About every month or six weeks during this period the top class in the junior school was 'recruited' as volunteer victims for the Air Raid Practice run by the ARP. I remember there were plenty of volunteers to be rescued on stretchers and bandaged by the First Aiders but not so many to be treated for mustard gas and showered off in the new ablution block.
I don't remember when we were issued with gas masks, but I think it was just before war was declared. We were then later issued with a green filter to tape onto the end of the snout to protect against a new type of gas, but I don't think we were ever told what it was. We were supposed to carry the small brown cardboard box with its gas mask everywhere.
We had regular gas mask practice at school when the whole class had to put on their masks while sitting at their desks. The Perspex eyepiece always used to mist up after a few minutes, and you could not see very well. Rude sounds issued from the gas mask, made by the rubber disk in the bottom of the mask as it vibrated with 'heavy breathing'.
My father worked at Bilston steelworks and did fire watching duty there; he also joined the St. John's Ambulance Brigade in Cradley and was trained in first aid. Everything revolved around the St. John's little black and white book. Mother and I had to test his knowledge of anatomy, types of injury and the types of slings and bandages to use. I know I was regularly used as a victim and trussed up like some chicken with splints and bandages.
We did not have an air raid shelter but shared one with our neighbours the Dunns who lived at 54 Windmill Hill. Their Anderson Shelter was delivered during the summer of 1939, and Edgar Dunn and father dug a hole between the two houses and erected the shelter, covering the top with the soil that had been excavated. They built wooden bunks inside the shelter for Mrs. Dunn, Mother, Malcolm Dunn and I. During the Birmingham Blitz we were awakened by the sirens and trouped down to the shelter. For a period in 1941 the bombing was continuous every night for about six weeks. On the worst nights you could see a fiery glow in the sky as you looked over Adam's garden towards 'The Round of Beef'.
One particular heavy raid we were sitting in the shelter listening to the aircraft noise and the anti aircraft fire when there was a series of increasingly loud 'crumps'. We were all sure these were bombs being dropped ever nearer to our little shelter. Suddenly, a jug of hot sweet tea was passed into the shelter by Edgar Dunn. We asked him about the bombing and he said, "what bombing?" "Those loud crumps we can hear", we said. "Don't be daft, that's your dog wagging it's tail against the side of it's kennel!". That is the nearest we got to bombs at 52 Windmill Hill.
As I have said, father was a St. John's Ambulance man, and our neighbour Edgar Dunn was first in the LDV (Local Defence Volunteers), and then the Home Guard. During the raids they patrolled the area from Colly Lane to 'The Round of Beef'. I don't think there was, nor do I remember a direct raid on Cradley, but on one particularly noisy night bombs were dropped around the area. Whether a plane was in trouble or it dumped its load and ran I don't know, but a stick of bombs were dropped in Hagley Park close to the keeper's cottage and on the same night a bomb was dropped in Two Gates Lane, demolishing a couple of pig sties. Our two intrepid Wardens returned with a large piece of shrapnel from this, which I kept as a souvenir for many years.
In 1941 I went to Halesowen Grammar School and us Grammar Grubs used to catch the bus at the 'Round of Beef' if it came. I was not allowed to cycle to school at first, although I had been given a bicycle for my birthday and for having passed the Halesowen Grammar entrance examinations. With a lot of persuasion I was finally allowed to use it (probably not very safely, especially down Drews Holloway), but then the traffic was not very heavy anyway. Once the taboo was broken on cycling, father and I used to cycle to see my uncle Walter Clift in Stourbridge on most Sunday mornings. With food rationing becoming quite stringent, father and uncle Walt had joined a pig club.
In exchange for both families' bacon ration, we were allowed to kill a pig every six months. Sundays was our day to help with mucking out the pigs, and father delivering the stale bread from the works canteen. When the pig was killed and butchered, Edgar Dunn would bring our half back to my Grandmother's in his bread van. We used to cure the side of bacon and hams in the cellar of the 'Poplars' in Two Gates Lane where Grandmother Westwood lived. I can remember rubbing blocks of salt and salt petre into the pork to cure it. We then covered it in muslin and hung it in the pantry. At the beginning the taste of home cured bacon was gorgeous, but as time went on the hams became very salty and the fat was sometimes reasy. So I think we only killed a couple of pigs before going back to the regular bacon ration.
From 1941 onwards Dig for Victory became the order of the day. Where we lived in Windmill Hill, 52 and 54 shared a back garden and before the war started it was agreed between the two families to convert most of the garden to lawn. By 1942 the lawns had been dug up to grow vegetables. In return for increased pocket money (like 6d per week to 1/-) I was encouraged to plant cabbages. So we had masses of cabbage, cauliflower and sprouts (hundreds of them) and these attracted the butterflies with their resulting caterpillars. Of course we ended up with lots and lots of cabbage stalks.
The cabbage plan was not repeated, but onions were in very short supply by now, so next we had a garden full of onions; but there are only so many onions anyone can eat, and that project was also not repeated.
By 1944 - 45 tobacco was pretty well unobtainable. My father obtained a supply of tobacco seeds from work, and we propagated these in boxes in the spare bedroom. Duly the gardens of 52 and 54 Windmill Hill were filled with tobacco plants of every variety, Turkish, Virginian, Rhodesian and Russian. These plants flourished, and were not attacked by butterflies or any other garden pest that I remember.
The garden shed was converted to a curing shed with strings of tobacco leaves hung up to dry. The dried leaf was treated with all types of concoction (my father was an industrial chemist). So finally we had all varieties of pipe tobacco, home rolled cigars and even some chewing plugs. I don't think the tobacco factory made us too popular; the smell was fine while the leaf was being cured, but as soon as father lit his pipe the house would quickly empty, and visiting pipe smokers never seemed to relish another fill.
Finally on the 8th of May 1945 Victory in Europe was achieved, VE day had arrived. I remember the church bells began to ring for the first time since 1940, because up until then ringing of church bells was the signal for a German parachute invasion. Well, not this time; people came out on to the street talking and dancing. Jimmy Shaw, who lived at 60 Windmill Hill, lit a small bonfire on the pavement opposite, and a larger one was started in Two Gates Lane.
I was nearly fifteen, and quite grown up (at least I thought I was), so on the next weekend with a couple of pals from the Grammar School decided to see what celebrations were going on in the big city. Off we went to Birmingham and promenaded Victoria Square, New Street and Corporation Street. It was a nice sunny day with plenty of people out on the town. The girls in their summery frocks wearing 'Kiss Me Quick' hats, and plenty of soldiers (particularly the Yanks) taking advantage of the invitation. Although we thought we were grown up, we did not have the courage to join them.
This essay is © Copyright 2002 Alf Clift.
Cradley Links thanks Alf for his generous
permission to reproduce it on this web site.