A Child's War by Douglas Witchell

Preparation For War
British Empire in Plymouth
Plymouth Before The War

Recently I saw a photo of Cumberland Gardens in Devonport, Plymouth, looking across at the Shakespeare pub. Before the war railings stood on top of the walls. They were taken as were all the other railings across the city. The scars remain. One day at the beginning of the war tons of sand was dumped on the pavement and against the wall on the Theatre Ope side of Cumberland Gardens. That evening the adults (mostly women) filled and tied up the sandbags that had been provided; all under the careful supervision of A.R.P. Wardens. Boys with trolleys delivered the bags to where they might be needed to help fight incendiary bombs and prevent blast damage. For the duration of the war the hallway of our house in George Street was filled with 4 sandbags, 1 long handled shovel, 2 buckets of water and a stirrup- pump. At that time, being house proud was not an option .

At about the same time we were also fitted for our gas masks. I remember a large house at the bottom of Ker Street. The room used to fit our masks had flickering gas lighting. At a later date my mask was tested in a large van outside of York Street School. A harmless gas was pumped in and the straps adjusted to make the rubber sides of the mask air-tight. This was all very scary for a six year old child. Very young children had Mickey Mouse masks as a different design. Babies had a sort of covered carry cot with a glass panel into which mum pumped air in. People became careless later in the war and did not always carry their masks as they were supposed to.

British Empire in Plymouth
Plymouth's Bulldog Spirit

I remember going with my mum to collect the family's ration books. I think we went to Pounds House in Peverell. They were issued in the beginning of 1940. Different colours for adults and children. At that time there was a flurry of building as static water tanks and air raid shelters were hastily put together. There was a tank at the bottom of Ker Street. It was circular and made of corrugated sheets, bolted together and the joints sealed with tar. I seem to remember it was about twenty feet across and five feet deep with chicken wire as a cover. The tanks were invaluable as water mains were frequently damaged in the bombing. There was also a public air raid shelter beside the tank. I remember a daylight 'nuisance ' raid when Ronnie Atrill and I sheltered in it.

My area of Devonport did not have gardens, but had back courtyards. So Anderson shelters were not common. Some houses had cellars, which were used instead. Pembroke Street had at one time twelve pubs and at the time of the war there were still five there. So those ex-pubs had very large cellars into which neighbours were always welcomed during raids. We lived on the corner of George Street and Pembroke Street. A communal shelter was built against our tenement wall and was always known as Mrs. Witchell’s shelter after my mother. It had two chambers approximately 10ft x8ft. I recall the builders were Southern Irish. I believe large numbers came over from Ireland during the war, without them I am sure we would not have been ready for the bombing. We were given rolls of brown paper and cut it into lengths, dampened and stuck on our window panes as crosses. This was great fun for the children. Bomb blast blew out windows and flying glass injured and sometimes killed. The crosses helped to prevent so much glass from flying around.

The French in Plymouth
One morning towards the beginning of the war my brother and I went up the road to Cumberland Gardens. There were hundreds of French solders in that little park sitting on the curbs and a great number of them in the neighbouring Picquet Barracks' grounds. My brother ran home to get our elder brother, who spoke excellent French. He had been an interpreter for the Plymouth Scouts at a jamboree in France back in 1939 and so spoke French. He spent that day (I think a Sunday) as interpreter to these hundreds of tired soldiers. The next time you drive past the gardens, remember that on that day it offered respite and the chance to rest to weary soldiers in a foreign land. They had arrived from Dunkirk.
The Plymouth Blitz
My family stayed in Devonport for the entire war, except for one single night. It was in the early days and Saltash over in Cornwall had not been bombed and our aunt Ivy invited us to stay with her. She lived in lower Fore Street Right under the bridge. Mum, sister, brother and I accepted the offer. That night the bridge was the Germans target! My sister stayed with mum who could not run whilst my brother and I ran up the main part of Fore Street. A warden made us take cover in the crypt of a church in a side street, (the church is no longer there). After the raid there was trouble getting us out. We surfaced mid-morning with sister and mum waiting with our cases. We were going home to Devonport. However, due to the closeness of some of the bombs the trains and the chained ferry were not yet running. At the station we climbed down onto the track and with an armed escort a group of about thirty of us walked over the bridge to Street. Budeaux station. We then took a train back to Devonport, never to leave again. Life was exciting, sometimes frightening but never dull. I recently discovered that the soldiers were from the Essex Regiment and not Home Guard soldiers which I had always thought.
British Empire in Plymouth
Cattedown Fuel Tanks

On a morning following a particularly heavy night of bombing, my brother Harry and I went off to York Street school. He was three years older than me. We wore Wellie boots because the streets were awash with the water from firefighting and there was debris everywhere. We went down Cumberland Street to the market where we were stopped because Tavistock Street had been destroyed overnight. We detoured until we finally got to the school. It had also been damaged, but it was still partially usable. Two classes were kept in the playground with mine being one of them. We were divided into two groups. My group was led off by Miss Farrant and another lady. We were taken to Ker Street Infant school where we were held for the rest of the week. The following week a beautiful Regency house further down Ker Street became our school. Miss Lyons was our teacher. The school day was from 9-12 and 2-4pm. At lunchtime on the day we were first marched to Ker Street. I went home to tell mum that I no longer went to York Street. school but had started at Ker Street. school. Harry stayed at York Street. That day a lot of mothers and grandmothers in South Devonport were surprised to find that their children had changed school without them being informed. At that time, each day might bring something new. Life was in a constant state of flux. During the period of the blitz, many schools were destroyed or badly damaged. There were more than 16,500 pupils in the Plymouth schools, in excess of 7,600 school places were lost. Education became uncertain.

One day, children from York Street School were hurriedly moved to Ker Street Infants School. One of the Regency houses on Ker Street became our schoolroom. Miss Lyons was the teacher. She was, as far as I can remember, the only teacher. She taught all subjects. The playground was a large terrace out through the French windows. There was a low wall bordering the play area, with a 30ft. drop down to Mount Street. No health and safety then. I am told a fence was put up later. On one occasion Lady Astor came and gave everyone a Hershey chocolate bar. We were there for three and a half years until we took the scholarship (eleven plus) in 1945; A first for Ker Street! Which until our arrival had been for infants only. There were six passes out of approximately 45 children. Under the circumstances this was to be expected. Absenteeism was common following air raids earlier in the war, sleeping at the desk was also common. I can't remember what we did when the siren sounded, possibly hid under our desks, I don't recall a shelter even. Schooling was disrupted up and down the country, but we left school able to read, write and do arithmetic. We survived. Today parents are in trouble if their child is away on a family holiday in school time. I have always said that my life's path was determined by a bomb. If I had stayed at York Street. Who knows?

I should mention a tale that will bring tears to the eyes of any woman who has given birth. My eldest brother George was a dispatch rider during the war and when stationed in Wiltshire he would sometimes come to Plymouth with dispatches. The bike was put in the passageway with the sand bags ,stirrup pump, buckets of water etc., and he would stop for the night. He was with us on a night of one of our heaviest and longest lasting raids. We all went to the shelter where we found that one of our regular families was missing. A lady and her two small girls who lived in George Square had not appeared. Someone said that the lady had had a baby that morning. My brother said he would help and ran off into the air raid. Shortly after the lady's husband, who was in the Navy, came in with the baby leading the two girls hand in hand. George followed with the wife. She was wrapped in a blanket and was over my brother's shoulder in a firemans carry. George had run the 70 or so yards from their house. At every step the poor woman's abdomen had bounced up and down on my brothers shoulder. Having given birth a few hours before I can only imagine the pain each bounce had caused. At that time if help was needed, help was given. The war brought us together.

British Empire in Plymouth
St. Michael and St. George Church
The church of St. Michael and St. George, the garrison church at Raglan Barracks was destroyed by incendiaries in 1941. There were no casualties that night. The stone building was left standing. Two static water tanks were dug through the full length of the building, each about eight foot wide by eight feet deep. Chicken wire was stretched over them to stop debris falling in. Static water tanks were invaluable as water supplies to fight the fires of the blitz were in danger of disruption with water mains being damaged. Sometime after the static tanks being installed, (year not certain but possibly 1943), two young boys were playing in the church and ran across the chicken wire which split and they fell through into the water. Trapped under the wire they both drowned. Possibly the two most unusual deaths recorded in Plymouth during the war. Drowned in a church! Word spread rapidly and a large crowd gathered opposite the church against the Raglan Barracks wall. Dire warnings were given to all the children about playing in the bombed out church. Many years later my mother told us that as the boys were brought out, the large number of American soldiers in the crowd, removed their caps and all stood to attention.

Our American Friends
The Americans arrived in numbers in early 1943. The Stars and Stripes flew over Raglan Barracks. On Fore Street and adjoining streets Nissen huts sprung up in their dozens. One block of Fore Street was levelled and fenced off. This became a recreational area as baseballs, basketballs, footballs (egg-shaped) and the game of horseshoes were seen for the first time by us kids. The one abiding memory I have of the American forces is their remarkable generosity. "Got any gum chum?" usually brought forth gum, Hershey bars, Babe Ruth nut bars and on one occasion a White Owl cigar (he was slightly drunk). We were frequently gifted catering size fruit juice and tomato juice.

British Empire in Plymouth
Clearing Rubble
One dark early evening, three boys - including me, were playing on the bombed out school in Clowence Street. In the lane behind the school was a gate with steps up to Seymour House which was used by the American naval officers. A black American dressed in white came down to me and gave me a baking dish covered with a tea-towel. "Stay there" he said to the other boys. A few minutes later he re-appeared with another man in white with dishes for the other boys. He said to keep the dishes and said something I did not understand until later; "Happy Thanksgiving!" The dishes held turkey legs, potatoes, vegetables and gravy. That evening three very thankful South Devonport families ate turkey for the first time.
British Empire in Plymouth
US Anti-Aircraft Gun in Plymouth

Here is another example of their genorisity. Just prior to D-Day, Devonport Park had a large numbers of American soldiers living under canvas within it. A group of us went to the park. A soldier asked was there a chip shop nearby and could I get him some fish and chips? He gave me a ten shilling note, equivalent to £30 today. I ran to the chip shop, ordered the fish and chips and raced back with it. I think he was surprised to see me return. He gave me a shilling for going which was a massive amount to a ten year old boy then. He ate two chips and handed the packet (wrapped in newspaper) back to me and said it was my supper. I think it was his intention from the beginning. I came to the conclusion many years later that their generosity stemmed from their own experiences a few years earlier. They would have been young boys at the time of the "Great Depression" and the "Dirty Thirties" and some of them would have seen their own parents struggle. The military gave them security and a better life-style than they had experienced as children. They were pleased to share it. Just a theory of mine but the timing is right and they were indeed generous.

These servicemen regularly gave us sweets, chocolate, biscuits, cigarettes and various food stuffs, mostly tins and of course American comics. Every school child eagerly did "swaps" in the playgrounds. Even at the end of the war there were still large numbers of American military personnel around and by the time of V.E. day and its street parties the U.S.personnel still at Mount Wise provided lots of the goodies for our own George Street party.

There were a few problems for sure. Clashes between R.N. and U.S sailors were frequent. On one occasion a drunken U.S. Petty officer became very offensive and threatening outside the Kings Arms pub at the junction of George Street and Pembroke Street. He was taken away by the shore patrol. The next morning an officer came around to apologise. When a lady said he had been threatening her, the officer said the man had already been taken from Plymouth early that morning and would not be allowed back.

Small arms fire was heard on the streets of Devonport a few times. On one occasion we stood down by the Crown Hotel and watched two soldiers, one in the doorway of Austin Clark printers, the other one crouching behind a pig swill bin across the road. It was as if the O.K. Corral had come to town. Lots of swearing and threats were hurled and and about fours shots in total. No- one was hurt thankfully. They were taken away by their M.P.s. in the end. I have no idea what became of them.

A few weeks before D.Day, the world heavyweight champion Joe Louis fought exhibition rounds with U.S. Soldiers and sailors in Plymouth as a morale booster. It took place on the lower Brickfields which is bordered by Kings Road. We climbed the railings to see this legend. The sports field was packed with U.S. Servicemen. In a few short weeks many of those young men would perish on the beaches and battlefields of Western Europe. R.I.P. gentlemen.

Daily Life in a War Zone
Prior to the outbreak of war the government encouraged people to have domestic pets destroyed. Seven hundred thousand pets were destroyed in a few weeks. The concern was that pets might starve to death if the food situation became too severe, and of course how would the animals cope with air raids. We know that Guy Fawkes night is distressing to most pets; an air raid is one hundred times worse. It was also illegal to take an animal into a public shelter. Imagine a frantic dog in an enclosed space with twenty people. Our cat Tish would dive under a bed or low piece of furniture and stay there until the all clear sounded. Some people stayed in their houses with the animals. It was common at that time to see dogs wandering the streets.

British Empire in Plymouth
St. Stephens Church
Mount Wise naval station used a lot of WRNS as despatch riders, some of whom were billeted in No. 6 George Street, a few doors from my house. A dispatch rider would leave Mount Wise via George Street and at the first junction at Clowance Street she would be ambushed by a pack of dogs. These had gathered at the bombed St. Stephens church which stood on the corner. Up to six dogs would give chase, barking noisily and snapping at the riders' legs. With very little traffic in those days, sudden acceleration and evasive action by the bike ensured these riders always won. At the top of George Street at the junction with Ker Street the chase would stop and the dogs would trot back to the church to await the next rider. At the end of the day the dogs went home; another day tomorrow. At that time pets were fed with scraps from the table. They seemed to do well on it.

In normal times a child's life is dominated by school. Wartime was different. In Plymouth, twenty four schools were destroyed or very badly damaged and over seven thousand pupil places were lost, which caused a great deal of shuffling around. I have told of going to York Street School one morning and part of it was gone. I ended up in Ker Street School and my mum didn't know until I told her at lunch time. Devonport High for boys was evacuated en masse to Cornwall. With 600 alerts, largely at night, tiredness was a constant problem, missing school or falling asleep at your desk was not unknown. Schooling was erratic.

We tried to lead a normal life, we read comics, every school playground had a "swaps" area for American comics, much prized. We regularly went to the library. We played the usual games although owning a ball was quite a thing. Replacing any sport or game equipment was impossible. Therefore balls were often just rolled rags. Marbles became hard to get so we used crown bottle tops in their place. We had a plentiful supply from Bill Brown the landlord of the Half Moon pub. We played on bombed ruins and saw little fear. Stone fights a daily event. All new bombed ruins were investigated eagerly. Every boy had a shrapnell collection, we swapped that also. After raids we looked for trophies of war. We also helped mum as much as we could. Brother Harry and I would take his trolley to the coke works, near the Avondale pub. We would load up and push it back to our home in George Street. We also had a saw and cut timber from the stairs, door frames etc.in the ruined houses to supplement our fuel supply. We learned world geography from the war maps on the front pages of newspapers. Every boy knew the names of the American and Russian generals and the territory gained and lost. We eagerly read the daily papers to know how we were doing. But we also played as children. We had fun where and when we could and we were still children.

British Empire in Plymouth
Stonehouse from Mount Edgecumbe
Possibly the most difficult part of being a housewife in the war was feeding the family, whilst coping with rationing and the erratic supply of non rationed foods. You registered with a butcher for all fresh meats and with a grocer for all other rationed foods like tea, cheese, eggs and cereals. The shops were supplied according to the number registered and with what might be available week to week. There was no choice, you accepted what was offered. Bread and vegetables were never rationed during the war but supplies were very unreliable. I recall walking from George Street in Devonport to Stonehouse because mum had heard a shop had potatoes. We queued by the Talbot Hotel and when we were served we were allowed 1/4 stone (3 1/2 lbs) only. Then there was the problem of cooking with frequent disruption to water, gas and electric supplies . My mum obtained two biscuit tins (biscuits were sold loose at that time) a tin was approximately 1ft x 1ft X1 ft. She fashioned an oven out of them and cooked on the kitchen fire. It was used from time to time when other cooking facilities were disrupted. Washing could also pose problems. Soap was rationed coupled with an erratic water supply. Also, we had a copper pot in the scullery under which you lit a fire, but guess what; coal was rationed. My brother had a saw and chopper so that we could salvage timber from the bombed houses. With mum's ingenuity we managed.

For children clothes rationing meant that it was easier to buy for the largest and then pass the garments down to the smallest. Wellie boots were worn rather than shoes, debris and running water in the streets after air raids made wellies essential footwear. Mothers had to comfort children terrified by raids and carry them to their beds after a night spent in an air raid shelter, and of course they still had to do all the usual motherly things too. There was also the need to work in many cases. My mum trained in Dingles as a tailoress during the First World War. So as a widow she needed to go back to her Singer sewing machine, and took in sewing jobs. The next time you see a World War Two photo of a housewife in her drab clothing and hat with her basket over her arm, pause,and silently ask, "How the hell did you manage it lady?"

For many years there had been little formal tribute to the women of the Second World War. I don't mean the thousands of women who wore uniforms and served as WAAFS, WRENS, WRACS and various other groups like the land army, firefighters, ARP wardens, the list goes on. Nor do I mean the women who worked in factories making munitions, building aircraft and ships, again the list is endless. I speak of the housewives, the women who kept the homes together in the most difficult period of the last century. The mothers and grandmothers and the teenage daughters who grew up very quickly and became young "mothers" caring for the young and frequently distressed children. Women took over the mantle of family head in the absence of husbands. Anyone who experienced the war will usually remark on the strength of character of these women. It is late, but they deserve recognition and thanks.

I slept on top of the bed in my siren suit which mum made from a thick grey blanket, elasticated at the wrist and ankle and with a hood. Everyone is woken by the wail of the siren, it was night, but we had no idea of the time; on with Wellies and overcoat. Mum, big sister Girlie and brother Harry and I grab our gas masks and get out to the communal shelter which had been built onto our tenement wall. It had two chambers approximately 10 ft. x 8ft. It was cold, damp and smelly. It was also quite dark but I think there was light from a low powered bulb in a wire cage on the back wall. There were benches around the walls, four lengths of creosoted 2x1s with the legs held firm by two strips of wood. Pillows and cushions were placed on the strips of wood and very young children were placed on them, hopefully to sleep, but also to afford them more protection from the adults legs. We always used the right hand chamber with the same group of people mostly women and children with three or four older men. Mr and Mrs Brown from the Half Moon are in tonight. Bill Brown is an ex-R.M. Colour Sargeant and I felt strangely comforted by his presence. I thought he would know what to do if anything happened.

Having experienced 602 alerts and 59 raids when bombs fell on Plymouth you would think that to describe a raid would be easy, it isn't. A raid or series of raids could last up to 3 or 4 hours. You are overwhelmed by noise and the fear it generates and with the knowledge that you may be hurt. The noise starts in the distance, gunfire, ack ack, pom poms and any gun that could point skywards. Living at the junction of George Street and Pembroke Street we were close to the ships in South Yard which would join in. The first bombs are distant but they gradually come closer and the noise level increases until suddenly it has settled over you. The explosions come very quickly; one after another. The children cry and scream at each explosion. The adults hold on to each other and on to the children; both giving and gaining comfort and support. Each whumph as a bomb explodes is more terrifying than the last. The ground and the shelter shake when a big bomb falls close by. There is a lull, then another wave as more planes come in. More bombs fall, another lull, then more planes, more bombs and another wave of fear. You sit it out, there is no alternative. Eventually the raid passes into the distance. It's over and then the "all clear" is sounded. You hear fire engines in the street, men shouting, debris falling.

We file out past the blast wall into Pembroke Street. The night sky is bright pink and red. As the searchlights are turned off one by one the sky becomes a deeper red. Over towards Plymouth Centre there is a strange brightness in the sky .Fifty yards down George Street two houses are burning. The very brave firemen are fighting a losing battle against the flames. There is debris in the street and water pouring down the gutter from Ker Street where a water main had fractured. There is an acrid smell in the air. The adults say "Good night" as if they were leaving the pub and not an air raid shelter. Please no more raids. In the morning Girlie will go to work in the offices of the Naafi factory in Prospect Row, mum will sit at her sewing machine trying to earn a living and Harold and I will go to York Street. School. But that's another story. Life still went on.

British Empire in Plymouth
Devonport Dockyards 1941
I have occasionally been asked how I remember the details. My answer is in three parts. One, I have a very good memory. Two, in 1946 my two eldest brothers returned from the war, one had been a dispatch rider in the Royal Corps of Sgnals, with service in North Africa and then after D-Day in France and Germany. The other was in the RAF. He became a pilot towards the end of the war and always regretted not having seen combat. We as a family would spend evenings talking, (families did at that time). They would tell us their experiences, my brother Harry, my mum and I would tell of our experiences. So the tales I now write have been told time and time again. We used to learn our tables by repetition, and so my experiences are remembered because of frequent telling, whilst still fresh in my memory. The third part of the answer is in fact a question. How the hell do you forget being bombed, how do you forget a war? A war that came to my city! Plymouth and Devonport were prime targets. It had the largest naval dockyard in Western Europe, Mount Wise Naval Station, a Centre of Communications for the Western Approaches, several army establishments , the Royal Marines Barracks and Mount Batten RAF station. There were 603 alerts, 59 raids when bombs were dropped. During the ' blitz' from September 1940 to May 1941, 1228 tons of HE bombs rained down on the city, (figures from German records - the total for the whole war are not known). This does not include the estimated 350,000 incendiaries which fell over the course of the war. There were 1174 civilian deaths. Military deaths were never divulged. It is known that 126 naval personal were killed in Drake Barracks on the night of March 21st 1941. We can safely assume there were many others. How the hell do you forget a war?

Maps
Plymouth Bomb Map
Plymouth Map, 1936
German Reconnaissance Photo of Plymouth Dockyards, March 1941
HE Bombs on Plymouth Map
Unexploded Bombs in Plymouth Map 1944
Videos

Plymouth Blitz

Clearing Up At Plymouth (1941)
About the Author
Douglas Witchell was born in Plymouth in 1934. He later trained as a Psychiatric Nurse.


Empire in Your Backyard: Plymouth Article



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