Schooldays in WWII

Vol. 9 No. 1 - 2007

Schooldays in World War II

by Florence Gracey

One of the topics in the Key Stage 1 Curriculum is World War 2 and children are asked to interview a senior relative as to their wartime recollections. Consequently, for the benefit of my grandsons I have written down what I can recall of my primary school days during that period when I attended Ardmore Public Elementary School in the parish of Montiaghs.

Ican still recall the hushed silence in our house that Sunday , 3rd September 1939, when my parents listened to the lunch time news on the radio and heard the Prime Minister of the day, Neville Chamberlain, in what seemed a very sad voice, tell the nation that Britain was at war with Germany. The war situation first dawned on us children when we were issued with gas masks. My brother and I set off to walk the two and a half miles to school, bag strapped on the back and a gas mask slung over one shoulder.

The gas masks were a precaution in case the German planes released poisonous gas over the Province on one of their bombing missions. It was a very exciting time when we had an air raid practice at school and had to put on our gas masks. As a child they always reminded me of a baby elephant’s trunk. They were cylindrical in shape, grey in colour, and had a piece of celluloid through which to see. There were rubber straps to fit behind the ears and the apparatus covered the whole face.

Blackout curtains

Householders had to have thick black curtains on their windows so that the light would not shine out during the hours of darkness, and if the German bombers came they would not know the location of the towns, and in particular the city of Belfast. When the enemy planes approached Belfast, sirens sounded there, and in nearby towns, to warn people to leave their homes and go to air raid shelters. In Lurgan my Grandfather joined the A.R.P. (Air Raid Precaution) service and was responsible for the William Street area. When the bombing raid ended an “All Clear“siren sounded and people knew it was safe to return to their homes. The Germans wanted to bomb Belfast shipyard, but because of the “Black out” they could not see where to drop their bombs. They hit shops and houses instead and there were big fires blazing. This was called “The Blitz“. There were 4 Luftwaffe attacks in April and May 1941.

Even boys and girls had to help in the war effort. The boys collected scrap metal, mostly food tins discarded in the home, and any houses with iron railings had these removed. This metal was subsequently melted down to make tanks and ammunition for the armed forces. Some buildings were important enough to be allowed to keep their railings and the School and Church railings remained intact. Even the Schoolmaster had to give up his car and travel by bus and on foot from home to school. Rumour had it that his Hillman went to be a “Staff car“ for a high ranking Army Officer.

The girls collected books and grandmothers were persuaded to have a real clear out of their book cases. I still remember how proud I felt when I received a certificate telling me I had reached the rank of Field Marshall for collecting five hundred books. Again these went to be recycled.

Mothers too did their bit for the war effort by knitting socks and gloves and balaclava helmets in khaki coloured wool for the Army and blue for the R.A.F. Some single ladies put their name and address inside the finished article, and one fortunate young lady met her future husband in this way. The soldier paid a visit to say a personal “Thank you” for the knitted garment, and later proposed marriage.

Even though we lived in a rural area we were constantly reminded of the on-going war. Out in Lough Neagh there were great wooden rafts, painted yellow, and bomber aircraft would swoop down from the sky to practise bombing these. The reality of war was brought home to us children when a single seater Spitfire on a training flight crashed in the “Dairy Field” at Raughlin. The pilot was dead on impact. He had obviously been trying to push back the sliding roof in an effort to escape, but something went wrong and the aircraft made a deep crater in the ground. It happened while we were at school. Curious boys hurried to the scene after school, but Army personnel had already sealed off the area. It was guarded day and night and the locals were not allowed near the site.

Evacuees arrive

School numbers increased considerably during war time with the arrival of the “evacuees“. These were mainly the children of relations of people in the Ardmore and Derryadd area: their parents or grandparents having moved to Belfast to work in shipbuilding or the linen industry, both in their hey-day in pre-war times. These children came to stay with relatives, or else returned with their mother to family homes that had lain derelict for years. The children came to school; this too caused great excitement among the local children who discovered second cousins they had never known existed.

American troops arrived in Ulster in 1942 and we soon had excitement when a U.S. army sergeant from the Lough Road camp in Lurgan was frequently entertained in our grandmother’s house. Later our Mother’s youngest sister was among the 1800 GI brides to leave for North America. Later in the war, Belgian troops arrived and on one occasion stopped outside our house in the course of manoeuvres. This was the first time we had heard a language other than English spoken. This was 1944 after the liberation of Belgium when several divisions came to Northern Ireland for training.

Coupons for food and clothes

Meanwhile all food was rationed and people were given coupons to buy food and clothes. People were asked to dig their gardens and grow vegetables to feed their family. The government could use money saved from buying food to buy tanks and guns instead. Slogans such as “ Dig for Victory “ and “ Make do and Mend “ were the catch phrases to remind people they could all play their part in the war effort.

VE Day celebrations in Belfast
VE Day celebrations in Belfast

The war eventually ended on Monday 7th May 1945 and the school had a real party atmosphere when VE Day – victory in Europe, arrived. There were great celebrations, but rationing of certain goods continued for some time.