Wartime memories of a child

Vol. Vol. 7 No. 3 - 1999

Wartime memories of a child

by Mary Jensen

I was recently rummaging in a box of ancient goodies. I didn't find what I was actually looking for, but what did come to light were two documents which brought me back to the 1940s and my wartime childhood.

One was a 'Certificate of Merit' issued in November 1944 by Portadown Urban District Council and presented by the then Chairman, Mr R J Magowan, for having collected 250 books during the Portadown Book Drive and for which I reached the rank of 'Field Marshall Recovery Brigade. I have no idea what the books were being collected for - probably for recycling the paper - but I do recall that, even at that age, I couldn't bear to part with all of them and did hoard quite a number, for which instinct I was thankful in later years. I also remember the 'bun fight' in the Town Hall at which we high ranking officers were presented with our awards!

The second find was a message dated 8 June 1946 from King George the sixth to all boys and girls, which must have been distributed through the schools.

War starts

Anyway, finding these fifty-plus year old pieces of history started me thinking of what else I recalled of the war years. I remember the day it all started. I was 6 years old and on my way to Sunday School along with a neighbouring child who was four or five years older. We had just turned into the Mullintine Road when she told me that war had started and, in my innocence and ignorance, I asked "What is war?"

I don't remember what her explanation was, but as her father was a wounded victim of the First World War she probably did have a fair idea of what it was all about. We had friends visiting from Clones that day and the two things that stick in my mind are the unwonted solemnity of the grown-ups and the terrible thunder-storm during the afternoon or evening.

At school we all carried gasmasks and most of us wore bracelets bearing our name, address and identity number, which, in hindsight, shows how seriously the possibility of bombing was taken. Portadown in those days was an important manufacturing town and would have been a likely target, so was fortunate never to have been attacked, but we all knew - or thought we knew - the unique drone of German planes passing over in the night.

Bombs fall on Belfast

Two events of those fear-filled times have stayed in my mind. On one of the nights that Belfast was bombed my Mother was helping at some function in the city. I can remember standing with my Father late at night or in the early hours of the morning and seeing the whole of the normally dark eastern sky lit up by a strange flickering orange glow. He told me it was Belfast burning, and his fear and foreboding transmitted itself to me. Happily for us, my Mother returned safely, but it must have been a dreadful night for the people of Belfast.

The second was, for us, quite hilarious. We live down a lane off the Loughgall road, about two miles out of Portadown. One morning we awoke to find the whole place swarming with people. There had apparently been an air raid warning during the night and all the residents of Edgarstown and Baltylum had fled out into the countryside. There they had spent a frightening and uncomfortable night sheltering in the fields, hedges and ditches along our lane, while we and the folk in the other two neighbouring houses had slept serenely and soundly through it all!

Cowboys and indians

Children in their play re-enact events of their times, so our games in the forties were not so much 'Cowboys and Indians' as 'Brits and Jerries'. We chased each other in gangs through what I think must have been an old brick-field in Corcrain, wielding wooden guns and making fierce "ack-ack" noises as we ran. We invented elaborate codes which were the means of communication within the members of our little cliques - we were secret service agents. We collected and swapped military badges and buttons and "ciggy cards" of planes and ships and tanks.

8th June, 1946

TO-DAY, AS WE CELEBRATE VICTORY, I send this personal message to you and all other boys and girls at school. For you have shared in the hardships and dangers of a total war and you have shared no less in the triumph of the Allied Nations.

I know you will always feel proud to belong to a country which was capable of such supreme effort; proud, too, of parents and elder brothers and sisters who by their courage, endurance and enterprise brought victory. May these qualities be yours as you grow up and join in the common effort to establish among the nations of the world unity and peace.

The evacuees came. A whole family were billeted with my aunt and uncle. A young boy whom everyone called 'the nipper' - I never knew his real name or what became of him, though he was often my playmate - lived at my Grandfather's and, at the Hart Memorial PS, many boys and girls with strange Belfast accents became our classmates and friends.

Potato gathering

Out in the country farmers had to make big changes. The Government told them what to grow and where to grow it, so ancient pastures and hilly fields that had never known anything but grass were ploughed up and planted with corn and wheat, potatoes, mangolds and kale. School children had holidays in October for the potato gathering.

I can still remember my chagrin when my fellow gatherers were paid a pound or thirty shillings for their labour, while my Grandfather grudgingly handed me a half-crown because I was family and would have been expected to do it anyway, war or no war!

Many young men had joined the forces, indeed some never returned. When each, in turn, had a week's leave it was a good excuse for a bit of fun. A social would be arranged in a local hall and a whip-round made towards a small gift for the man of the moment. Of course food was rationed, but in the country there was always what we called 'a bit of a roughness' - we had milk, so we made our own butter, and we had our own eggs and vegetables.

There were no luxuries, however, and foreign fruit was a distant memory, but the women were great inventors, One of my most vivid recollections is of banana sandwiches provided by one such genius at a social for one of the local soldiers. The 'bananas" were parsnips, boiled and well mashed and then flavoured with banana essence! I have never been all that fond of banana sandwiches but I can still conjure up the mouth-watering flavour of that particular batch.

Miss Marley's sweetie shop

Miss Marley had a 'sweetie shop' in Redmanville and that was where most of us from this end of town spent our sweet coupons, She had jars of Dolly mixtures and perfume bonbons and large chewy balls called 'gob-stoppers' that lasted for at least an hour, not to mention 'sweetie cigarettes' - a long white concoction with a red blob on the end which became increasingly sticky as you 'smoked', but which tasted quite delicious to our sugar-hungry young palates.

Recently, my five-year-old grandson told me they were selling poppies in school and if I gave him some money he'd buy me one! I duly handed over a pound coin and next day, when I went to pick him up, he marched out, not with a buttonhole, but with a little wooden cross bearing a poppy. He was so pleased with himself for having got me value for my money that I had to think quickly about what to do with it. I couldn't very well pin it in my coat! Then I had an idea and we put it on the grave of a cousin of mine who had died a year ago.

My grandson remembered Tom, who I explained had been a soldier and a prisoner of war. That led us into a morass of very difficult questions and I found myself floundering because, really, I knew so little of the war I had lived through as a child. Indeed, reading through the list of important dates on the back of the King's message I am appalled and ashamed at my ignorance.

The thought occurs too, that, when all the people of my vintage are dead, there will be no one left who remembers the ordinary every-day things of war time. Historians will know the dates of battles and important events and will teach them to their students, just like we were taught about The Wars of the Roses or The Boer War, but who will tell about the games we played, or the excitement when the Yankee soldiers drove past the school in long convoys, or how our mothers worked miracles to make tasty meals out of scarce rationed foodstuffs?