Memories of a child's life in Tyseley, by Alexander Hook
During the weekend that war was declared in September, 1939, I was on holiday with my family in Sandown, Isle of Wight. We travelled home on the Saturday. The train from Sandown to Ryde was packed. Mom, Dad, my elder brother and I found room in the guard’s van and I was lifted up to sit on top of a milk churn for the duration of the journey to Ryde pierhead. From there we boarded the paddle steamer ferry to the railhead at Southsea on the mainland. During the short voyage across the Solent the aircraft carrier HMS Courageous was pointed out to me.
I was seven years old and knew nothing about war or Germany. I was soon to find out. The following week my brother John was evacuated with his school, King Edwards Grammar School, Camp Hill, to Myton College, Warwick. I missed him a lot. Luckily he was billeted with a young married couple in Landor Road, Warwick, who became good friends of ours, and were very kind.
Not long after losing my big brother’s company, Dad told me that HMS Courageous, the ship we had so recently seen, had been torpedoed and sunk by a German submarine. The date of the sinking was 17th September, 1939.
One of the first regulations that came into force at the beginning of the war was in regard to the 'Blackout'. Because it was obvious that the Germans would send the bomber planes to destroy our factories and railways etc., mainly under cover of darkness, no one was allowed to show a light at night, so that all street lights were switched off for the duration of the war.
All the housewives were busy trying to get suitable curtain material to 'blackout' their windows at night and the same regulations applied to offices and factories. In the winter when you went out on a moonless evening it would sometimes be extremely dark. The Wardens would come round checking for any lights showing and you were in trouble if he saw a glimmer of light from your window.
Buses and cars had their head lamps hooded so that hopefully they could not be seen from above. Buses also had their tops camouflaged with dull matt brown and green paint and those that were based in Acocks Green bus depot were left out at night and parked all along the Fox Hollies Road dual carriageways for fear that the German bomb aimers might regard the vast roof of the garage as a factory, especially as it is alongside the railway.
Over the ensuing weeks and months we all had to register for Identity Cards, (at Yarnfield School) and we were issued with Ration Books for food, Coupons for clothes, and with gas masks. My dad was issued with a tin helmet and a stirrup pump for firewatching in Mayfield Road during air-raids. The gas masks we were supposed to carry about with us at all times. We always had to take them to school, and sometimes we would wear them during a lesson. The eyepiece would steam up in minutes, and of course our voices were muffled. Thankfully we did not have a gas attack throughout the war. Occasionally we would have an air-raid whilst at school, and we all had to grab our gas masks and run to the school bomb shelters until the 'all clear' was sounded.
Dad also dug a large deep hole in the back garden for an air-raid shelter, but for the first year or so of the war we sheltered in the small pantry under the house stairs. When brother John was home on school holidays it was very cramped in the pantry with four of us sheltering in there during the night raids.
Eventually the dug-out air-raid shelter was completed and there we could at least lie down and perhaps sleep during the night time raids, although being woken in the middle of the night, grabbing clothes etc., and running the length of the garden to dive down into the shelter wasn't really much fun. Soon after you would lie there listening to the drone of the Dornier bombers coming over and the constant firing of the ack-ack guns and bomb explosions. And you still had to attend school that morning! Hopefully, the all-clear would sound in time for everyone to wash and have breakfast before setting off to work or school.
In 1941 air-raids in Birmingham became heavier and more frequent and the air-raid shelter became very damp and flooded despite efforts with Dad’s stirrup pump, so we had installed in the front room a Morrison table shelter which obviously was warm, dry and comfortable. It was as big as a double bed, quite well sprung and made of steel with a sheet of steel for a roof and a strong wire mesh around the outside.
The method used by the first wave of bombers during a raid was to drop baskets of incendiary bombs to set fire to factories and industrial areas to create fires which would guide the following waves to the main targets. Incendiary bombs were about 18 inches long and burnt fiercely and brightly. To deal with them, the Firewatchers would drop a sandbag or two on the bomb and hopefully extinguish it. One other method was to use a long handled shovel and throw garden soil on the bomb. When a garden shed, garage or house caught fire then that was when the stirrup pump and water buckets were used. Water for this purpose was found in large old oil drums at the side of the road every 40 metres or so and were kept topped up by the residents. On the corner of Knights Road and Tyseley Lane a circular brick built water tank was built up to about 2 metres high for the use of the fire service.
Later on, the Germans developed an incendiary bomb that after burning for a short while would then explode. One landed on our next door neighbour’s shed and a man who lived opposite us ran over to deal with it with a shovel of soil and was quite badly injured when it exploded, and he was blinded for some months afterwards. After the introduction of these exploding incendiaries the firewatchers and ARP Wardens dealt with them by using the long handled shovels and using dustbin lids as a shield. Barrage balloons were flown during raids in an attempt to stop any low level air attacks, the idea being that the balloon cables would cut through the aircrafts’ wings.
The blitz on Birmingham in 1941/42 increased and Tyseley being an industrial area and with the main railway line to London and a canal running through it became a prime target together with its neighbours, Greet and Small Heath. The gentleman my brother was billeted with was a member of the Auxiliary Fire Service in Warwick, and at the height of the blitz he and his fire crew would be sent to assist in controlling the fires in Tyseley and also to the devastating blitz on Coventry.
After a night’s blitz we schoolboys on our way to school would look for and collect pieces of shrapnel from the ack-ack shells lying about the streets. I had a large biscuit tin full of it by the end of the war. Some of the German aircraft and their crew members must have been full of holes during their flight over us. The consequences of these raids led to all sorts of problems. Gas supplies would be disrupted because gas mains had been blown up as were some water mains. I walked with Dad to Tyseley railway engine sheds carrying a copper kettle and my Dad carried a white enamel bucket to fetch water from a stand pipe there. There was a long queue as it was the only water available in the vicinity. During the following week army water trucks used to stop at the comer of the street for us to collect our daily water which had to be boiled before drinking.
There were of course, food shortages and most food was rationed and there would be long queues at the various shops. There were no supermarkets of course, and the housewives would queue at the grocers to try and obtain eggs, cheese, tea and sugar etc., and then queue yet again perhaps at the butchers and then the greengrocers. A time consuming process. Coal was also rationed so during a cold spell the house coal fires were kept as low as possible. No central heating at home in those days!
Our friends in Warwick kept poultry and rabbits. Dad, sometimes at a weekend, would visit my brother in Warwick. He was transported by my uncle who owned a motorbike. He would sometimes bring back some eggs kindly donated by our friends. They also gave us a pair of rabbits, a Dutch buck and a Flemish giant doe for breeding, and for some time we had fresh rabbit available to eat. My Dad demonstrated how to kill a rabbit, and Mom was quite expert at skinning it. We had rabbit for dinner, stewed or roasted at regular intervals. They were not regarded as pets.
Another blow for us was in 1943 when John joined the Royal Navy and so we did not see him very much until 1946. During this war period we had an allotment in Fox Hollies Road which had previously been part of the Fox Hollies Hall estate, and where 3 tower blocks now stand. We grew some lovely vegetables etc., including plenty of rabbit food - carrots, lettuce, cabbage stalks etc., so they were probably better fed than we were. We also grew potatoes, peas, rhubarb, beans, onions and radishes etc. All lovely stuff. They called it 'Digging for Victory'.
At last in 1946 we had VE Day and then VJ Day. All the lights came back on again- WONDERFUL!
I now reflect on these war years, and wonder how our parents managed to cope. Most adults were doing a full time job, then taking on their duties as Wardens, Firewatchers, Home Guard, AFS, Special Constables, Auxiliary Nurses, WVS etc., etc., and also trying to bring up a family and most of the time with very little sleep. Some of the husbands of course were away on military service so their wives had to cope as best they could. An exhausting time for them all.
Some of my own relatives suffered considerably during the war. My aunt’s husband was taken prisoner by the Japanese at Singapore. She pluckily looked after her young daughter during the Birmingham blitz in Sparkbrook where they were bombed out and moved to Barrows Road Small Heath. She didn't hear from my Uncle for a considerable time, not knowing whether he was dead or alive. He did return in poor health from his terrible ordeal at the end of the war, and my Aunt nursed him back to good health. Happily they had a second daughter. My Aunt died in the Spring of 2005 in her 93rd year.
Another Uncle was directed to join the Fire Service and was sent to Bristol to help during the blitz there, and witnessed some tragic events. A cousin joined the Army and was badly wounded fighting in Italy. An Uncle was sent by the Army to serve the whole of the war in either Shetland or Orkney (I can't remember which). We didn't see much of him!
Some of my cousins served in the Army, RAF, the Navy and WRNS so that my own family was quite affected, like millions of others by the war. We were also lucky that they all came back alive. A great relief for us all.