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1940s Society Shop >  History >  Wartime Recollections >  Jean Bruce Memories

Jean Bruce Memories

Although Jean now lives in Canada she remembers her early childhood in Manchester.

The Wartime Memories of Jean Bruce
Written By Ian Bayley

I was born at the end of 1935, in Cheshire, just south of Manchester, so I was quite young during the war but it is amazing how some of those memories are so clear. One of my earliest memories is being grabbed out of my bed when I was little, and carried down into the air raid shelter which my father had dug in the back garden. It was a pit really with a roof covered with sandbags. I suppose if we had had a direct hit we would have been killed there but somehow there seemed to be fear of the house falling down and rubble and fire.

Although we lived in a suburban area south of Manchester, we had many air raids. We lived a couple of miles from Ringway Airport, which is now huge, and known as Manchester International airport. We had railway lines not far away and there were munitions works south of Manchester.

The shelter was always damp and often there was water on the floor. My father had built benches inside and we had a paraffin heater and oil lamps. I was bundled in a sort of 'Siren suit' that my mother had made from thick warm material like one of my fathers old dressing gowns. The sound of that Air Raid warning siren wailing still gives me goose bumps when I hear it. It seemed to be like a chain of sirens, one would start up then another over lapping it and then they were all going.

Our next-door neighbor's, a young couple like my parents, and their little boy, 2 years younger than me, often joined us. It felt safer with other people there I suppose. I had some feeling of fear, especially when a bomb was falling, but I knew the adults were more scared than I was and I knew they tried to pretend they weren't. Children pick up a lot more than adults give them credit for.

As the bombs were falling, they made a whistling noise, and then there was the bang as they hit and sometimes the ground shook. To make a game of it we all used to whistle along with the sound and clap our hands when the bomb landed.

My father later built another shelter underneath the house. It had metal frame bunk beds. It was dryer than the garden one and it always smelt of wet cement and paraffin. (If I smell those things nowadays I am immediately transported back in time.) A trapdoor cut out of the hallway floor reached this shelter. There was also a neighborhood communal one built out of concrete, it was on a spare piece of land we called 'The Croft' and it was like a large garage. It had benches on the sides and it was quite spartan but some people liked to be with others and they would go in there and have a singsong.

Sometimes my father had to go on air raid watch duties and wore a tin hat with ARP (Air raid precautions) written on it. Sometimes he let me wear it as a treat. We were given gas masks at the outbreak of the war and we had to practice putting them on and off. I hated doing that. It smelt of rubber and I felt as if I were suffocating, trying to breathe through that thing. I used to take it off to talk and I couldn't understand why I had to keep it on and mumble through the mouthpiece, as my parents insisted I do.

At first there were gas masks issued with a Disney character face for little children, (I was not quite four when the war started in 1939.) I think the one I got was a Mickey Mouse one, I can't remember, but I know I was really annoyed when I was told I had to give that one up and have a grown-up one.
jb paragraph 2

Jean and her father, William Pope,
  My father was not in the military but was very gifted in electronics and he was needed more where he was.

He worked for Metro-Vicks in Manchester. He may have worked somewhere else too. I don't know a lot about his working life as he was not even supposed to tell my mother what he was doing, and he spent a lot of time away. But I do know he was working on radar and its application in aircraft. My mum figured that out.

His younger brother, Harold went into the airforce. His other brother went into the army. My father wanted to join them in the military where he could have had a commission, but he was told he could serve his country better where he was. He actually died just before the war ended in January 1945 of lung cancer: so sad he did not see the end of it. They had treated him for TB for a year thinking that's what he had. He did not smoke and we lived away from air pollution, but it was probably sitting in front of those radar screens, electronic equipment, etc that caused his lung cancer so he did die for his country. He was 36. He was very bright and his premature death was such a tragedy.

He was interested in radio astronomy, and had built his own tv set in the thirties. He would have loved to have seen the advances such as the space programme and computers. I was an only child and he talked to me about science and how wonderful it was and how he hoped that when I grew up I could be in one of the sciences, maybe physics. I grew up with no ability in that area at all.

He had no doubt at all about the outcome of the war; that we would eventually win. We used to listen to Hitler on the radio, talking in German of course, and my father and mother used to laugh at him. Perhaps they were trying to make me less frightened.

I started school at the age of four, and it was in a large Victorian house. The place had a stone cellar so my parents felt I would be safe should there be a daylight raid. We went to school like most English children carrying our leather satchel on our back and a gas mask over our shoulder. I remember the gas mask was in a square brown box, but later I think it was carried in a metal cylindrical container. We had practice runs to the air raid shelter with much giggling.

We were told never to pick anything up that looked like a pen or a metal butterfly as it could explode. That was hard for curious children. I think we looked all the harder for these mysterious objects. Boys would come to school with chunks of shrapnel that they would proudly show off to the other children. Large fragments were met with 'oohs and aahs' . It was a kind of status symbol to have a large piece of shrapnel. Our house got one large piece embedded in the wood surrounding our back door.

Toys were hard to get and most children had second -hand things if anything. Precious toys from before the war were recycled as children grew out of them. Everything went to the war effort. We understood they could not waste metal making toys, as it was needed to build planes. Everything was rationed, food, clothes, and fuel.

A lot of the foodstuffs that had normally been imported were in very short supply. Things like tea and coffee and sugar were very scarce. The effect on a child was that sweets were very hard to get. There were some horrible tasting wrapped things that were supposed to be caramels, but every little bit of candy was so appreciated. I remember we use to buy a liquorice root, as a candy substitute and we would gnaw on it to get the flavour out and gradually it turned to soggy splinters and we threw it away when every last bit of flavour was gone.

Mothers were given a very small bottle of concentrated orange juice and it would be diluted with water to ensure the children got their vitamins, every few days. We also used to get a large jar of Cod Liver oil and malt. As the malt made it taste like candy I used to sneak the odd spoonful when my mum wasn't looking.

Every bit of spare ground was dug up and planted with food, most people tried to grow stuff in their gardens. Out went the flowers; in went the potatoes and carrots. Any scraps left after meals such as the very thin potato peelings (and that was rare) would be saved and picked up for feeding pigs at some local farm.

As food was in such short supply we ate some very strange things. One day she came home with something called 'Snoek' (pronounce snook) it was a fishy thing and it was, I believe, whale meat but I could be wrong. I know we couldn't eat it. We would rather have a potato for supper. If we had an egg, it was such a special treat that having it with a potato made it the main course. I remember once my mum standing in line for 2 hours to get two tomatoes.

People had to queue up for everything, (though rationing made things fairer.) Sometimes mum would see a queue forming and join it, not even knowing what was for sale at that shop. One orange was a very rare treat carefully shared out segment by segment, and I didn't have a banana throughout the war. I remember having one after the war and it was quite exciting to see one again. My mum brought one home triumphantly and when I tasted it, it did taste familiar (from my baby days) and I thought it was the most marvelous thing I had ever tasted.

Some of my family, cousins, aunts and uncles etc lived closer to the centre of Manchester and we worried about them in the air raids. I remember we went to see them one day and then went to the cinema. There was an air raid while the film was being shown! It was scary. It was scary traveling too. We used to take the train mostly, and sometimes the bus, into town and my mum was always worried there would be a raid. I remember one night I was in the front upstairs bedroom, which faced west and I saw this strange orange glow in the dark sky, like a sunset. "Look at that!" I said to my mum. "Ah yes, Liverpool is getting it tonight" she said.

We had a little girl stay with us for a while. He name was Mary or Marie she pronounced it Mahree. She was from London and had been evacuated for safety. I liked her a lot. However her mum missed her so much that she came to get her after a few weeks to take her back to London despite the bombs falling there. I never knew what happened to her. I hope she was ok.

While the war was on we had to keep a 'blackout'. Not a speck of light was allowed to be shown at night so the German planes would not have any landmarks, hopefully. All windows were covered with black cloth or heavy curtains (They were also crisscrossed with sticky brown paper to make flying glass less likely) and ARP men would go around the neighborhood looking for careless homes and would shout "Put that light out!!" if they saw anything. All the street signs were taken down so any German spies or downed pilots would not know here they were. As there were no streetlights it was spooky going out at night.

If I went out after dark with my mum she would carry a small square black torch, the top half of which was taped with black tape so only a sliver of light would light our way. I would hang on to her closely. She, like most women, carried a bag of pepper in case she was bothered by some man taking advantage of the blackout. The headlights of the few cars running also had their top half taped up so they looked to me like half-shut eyes in the darkness.

Sometimes if my father was home (he was away a lot) he would let me stand outside and see an air raid overhead. (My mum was not pleased and urged him to get inside.) There were searchlights trying to pick out the enemy planes and the boom of anti-aircraft weapons shooting up at them. My father used to say things like, "Can you hear that throb in the motor of that plane Jean , listen ! that's a Messerschmidt!".

It was all really rather exciting, and as it was the only childhood I had ever known, I thought all this was perfectly normal! In fact, I thought that this is how the world was, and always had been, and that we had been forever at war with the Germans. I did not understand what was going on really. I knew in a way what was happening, I listened with my parents to the BBC news, and Big Ben, and listened to how many of our ships, or their planes etc had been destroyed, and I laughed every Thursday night at 8.30 at 'Tommy Handley' and other comedy shows on the wireless, yet I did not understand that this was not the normal way of living.

When people complained about things, others used to say to them, "remember there's a war on!" and the children would say that too, and I knew that my mum's old metal pots and scrap had gone to be made into airplanes to fight the Germans, yet somehow I had no conception of peace.

When the war in Europe was finally over, I was waiting by the back door on the path for my mum to get home from work. She opened the gate with a big smile on her face and called out to me, "guess what Jean, the war is over! Its peace!!" and I answered, "what's peace?" I honestly did not know what she meant.

Many thanks to Jean for spending the time to write down her memories from this fascinating period in history. Only by reading these accounts will future generations get a feel for what life was really like.

If anyone has memories from this time that they would like to share please contact me.

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