My (very) small part in the Downfall of Adolf Hitler

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                                My (very) small part in the Downfall of Adolf Hitler

Eric Sanderson this time entertains us with his war time memories.

Coming on to this mortal coil in the very same month that WW2 broke out – September 1939, in fact, war commenced just a couple of weeks prior to my arrival and being fair to myself, although I can be blamed for many things, I can’t be held accountable for the outbreak of hostilities between ourselves and Germany.

  Naturally, I don’t have full recall of those fateful years but some incidents and circumstances  are still quite vivid whilst the general background has been filled over the years by chatter amongst family & friends , mainly, my dear departed mother.

Many will have experience of very similar events and these few reminiscences (out of many) may just trigger, hopefully pleasant, memories of those long ago and soon to be forgotten days.

 My father was “called up” within a very few weeks of my coming onto the scene and spent the next five years or so away from home, mainly overseas. Consequently, the first time I remember him was when he came home on demobilisation leave in mid 1945 by which time I was nearly 6 years old. Who was this stranger coming into our lives after all these years with a settled and comfortable existence, telling me what to do and how to behave?. It was a difficult period of adjustment and speaking to others, years later, many had much the same experience.

 My mother always had sympathy for many of today’s single mums because she said that she was, along with many others , in effect, a single mother for over 5 years, struggling to survive on meagre means and raise a young child whilst at the same time, living in constant fear  for loved ones away from home and, of attack or even invasion at home.

In addition to my father, three other close family members were involved, two in the Royal Navy and another  a Lancaster rear gunner . So, plenty to worry over there.

 Several of our near neighbours also had father, sons & even daughters involved as sailors paratrooper, submariner and so on. Others includes firemen , train drivers (how I wished I could have been one) and everyone  involved in a variety of other occupations, including the local alcoholic who thought battery acid was a soft drink . Thinking back, I can’t recall a single man who was unemployed .That’s not too surprising during the war years but even long afterwards I can’t recollect anyone being unemployed or “on the dole” – somewhat different to today!.

 Although food was obviously much scarcer than today, I never remember having to go without. Rations didn’t go far but people were perhaps more resourceful, baking and eking out every possible scrap into something tasty, soups, stews, meat & potato pies and the like. My mother used to pick blackberries and make blackberry & apple pie with a delicious short pastry and it remains a favourite of mine to this day. The exception being school meals which, even to hungry young boys, were sometimes inedible. I’m sure I remember seeing the cockroaches knocking the top from a bottle of Gaviscon on a couple of occasions

My father , as did most soldiers, used to receive a (Black Cat) cigarette allocation and being a non smoker, would send them home  to be traded for butter, eggs, sugar and so on .Smokers at home were often happy to trade because cigarettes were difficult to come by, other than the much detested “Pasha” which consisted of dark, Turkish tobacco rather than the milder Virginia tobacco favoured by most.

I clearly remember seeing my first banana, some years after the war though and although sweets were rationed until well after the war, my Grandfather had a neighbour who worked at a local sweet factory and was able to obtain a few extra dainties for us from time to time. Goodness knows what he had to sacrifice for those treats.

Remember the ration books ?. You’d take these along to the shop where they would clip out a tiny coupon, god knows what they did with those minute scraps of paper and although many items were rationed, there was a range of goods known as “Utility” which could be purchased without ration coupons but they were generally of poor quality and shoddy nature. A friend recently recalled that her father, until he died,  still had a piece of “Utility” furniture surviving from the early post war years and which carried a large brand or stamp mark to distinguish it from the real article – perhaps not so shoddy after all?.

 Also, some food products such as sausages & offal were (I think) off ration and fairly plentiful. That may explain why sausages became a lifelong staple for many.

 It’s true to say that communities were more considerate & helpful towards each other than today, for example, neighbours would come into the house, prepare & light a fire so that the home was warm for those returning home from work. Sometimes, even preparing food and taking on laundry to help the hard pressed “single” mums who needed to work long hours in order to make ends meet.

My father used to send home seven shillings (35p in todays money) per week which, even in those days, was totally inadequate, albeit given that house rent in our streets was reduced for families with members in the services. Whether this was a regulatory matter or the benevolence of the local landlord, I’m not sure but in any event, many housewives had to work, often doing factory jobs previously done by men  such as turning, drilling, crane, truck driving and other heavy manual labour.

My own mother took a job at Burtons whilst I was despatched  to a day nursery for a very early start & late collection and so we were very much beneficiaries of the kind, neighbourly acts mentioned earlier.

During the war years, Burtons, who employed many “war wives” had a reputation as a  good employer, as well as providing good welfare facilities they even allowing paid, short term absence when their men returned home on leave.

Those living in the area will remember the crowds of workers ,flooding out of the likes of Burton’s, Sumrie, Hepton’s  and others at finishing time – just like going to a football match so dense was the crowd for a brief period. The buses & trams were all full, and crowded, such that two or three would often pass before you could scramble on, usually to standing room only.

Father’s employer was also generous, often sending gifts of money and food parcels with precious commodities like tea, sugar & eggs – coffee being unknown to us in those days.

Andersen shelters were provided in the gardens of every 5th or 6th  house, in our case next door and I clearly remember climbing into my siren suit, a warm, cosy maroon one piece suit  with enclosed leggings and  a large hood, prior to going down into the air raid shelter along with the much dreaded gas mask. Some of these shelters were prone to flooding but ours always seemed to be warm ,dry and , as I recall, very neighbourly.

 Although we were never bombed directly, some incendiaries were dropped nearby and the men, with only one exception, went out from the shelter armed only with dustbin lids in order to douse the flames.

Oddly enough, the “exception” in later years used to boast about being “over there” when in fact the extent of his military experience was a short spell in the Home Guard, based at Knostrop where POW’s were held and an Ack Ack gun emplacement was active .The POW’s, which I believe were mainly Italian, seemed to have comparative freedom to the area, particularly East End Park where they could often be seen wandering around in groups and speaking in what to us was a very strange language. However, they never seemed to cause any problems and some of them integrated into the local community after the war. 

Neither my father nor other family members ever spoke of the dark side of their war years but would, from time to time ,regale us with the often hilarious capers and scrapes they managed to get themselves into , a not uncommon pastime for many families.

 My father’s final homecoming was a strange affair. Mother told me that she’d collected me from school and on the way home, I said to her ,”Dad’s coming home today”. “No” she said, “he’s not coming home for a while yet”. When we reached home, who was sitting there, waiting for us to come home but my father, having been demobbed a few days early – something that my mother remained fascinated by and frequently recalled for the remainder of her life.

Massive street parties abounded all around & I remember at least two in our street , I think VE and VJ days which in my memory were gloriously sunny days, where tables were laid in the street, groaning with tempting delicacies and everyone having a good time after 5 or so years of being unable to do so.

 My family was lucky, all returned home unscathed, unlike some and a striking thing, looking back, is that most seemed to go about their lives with stoicism , optimism and good humour. I suppose the prevailing opinion was that the certainty of misery was preferable to the misery of uncertainty.

I don’t remember it being a depressing time , given the hardship and worry attached to most people’s lives, often the only relief being provided by the occasional visit to the cinema, in our case usually the “Star” or the “Princess” – where the celebrated Big Ernie presided.

 However, as I slide down the bannister of life , one of the remaining splinters in my a**e, is the concern that the life & spirit which was experienced & endured  during the war & early post war years will, very shortly, be outside the experience of anyone alive and even worse, be forgotten.

Of all the thing in life to despise, such as pestilence, famine, Bruce Forsyth etc, my recollections of those years isn’t one of them

 So, whilst I cannot claim that Hitler trembled in his shoes at the thought of my existence, neither did he roll his Panzer divisions up to our front door and so my claim to have played a small part may not therefore be too far fetched after all.

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3 Responses to “My (very) small part in the Downfall of Adolf Hitler”

  1. Doug Farnill Says:

    Thank you Eric for reviving some pleasant memories of the positive community spirit that was generated by those otherwise awful years. I was about 8 years older than you were and I can still remember that feeling of everyone pulling together. Plenty of cheating, blackmarket, seeking personal advantage and all that, but, when the chips were down we could count on our neighbours for help and support. One thing you have put me in reminder of was my quite strong fear of the gas mask. I hated practising putting it on during drills and was scared that it would get stuck and I would suffocate. Were you, I wonder, as a very young child supplied with one of those gas masks special for infants

  2. Eric Sanderson Says:

    Hi Doug
    Glad you enjoyed the yarn. You’ve put your finger on a few other wartime activities as well but the prevailing community spirit was, as you say , a positive one.
    Yes, I did have a gas mask and like you, dreaded the thing. They always had a peculiar smell to them when you had them in place and seemed to suck your eyeballs out.
    Best wishes
    Eric

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