War-time Diary

Vol. 7 No. 3 - 1999

Notes from a war-time diary

by Bertie Martin

German pocket-battleship Graf Spee
German pocket-battleship Graf Spee

Many people enjoy reading the published diaries of politicians and other celebrities, and if they reveal family secrets, sexual indiscretions and character assassinations, they reach the 'best sellers' list. Sadly, the diary I kept as a teenager in the 1940s does not contain any of those, nor can I claim it as literature, as I simply recorded each day the War news and my personal activities.

On reading my diary for 1940 I discovered how things long forgotten looked from a personal view, and how local references brought back a way of life that has almost disappeared.

Second World War

The Second World War started in September 1939, and In the first few months it was Naval activity that captured theheadlines. The 'Royal Oak' was sunk in Scapa Flow, there was the battle of the River Plate, and the 'Admiral Graf Spee' was scuttled.

In my Journal for 1940 I wrote how the War affected us locally, how occasionally important events impinged on our lives, and how sometimes it was the small matters we have forgotten that made a difference to us. Early January 1940 started off with a bread-servers' strike. In those days, before supermarkets, a large amount of bread was delivered so this could have been a major inconvenience, but it was short-lived, a settlement being reached on January 9th.

Early that same month saw rationing come into force; it applied then to bacon, butter, sugar and cooking fat. We have forgotten that a railway line once crossed the Brownstown Road, but on January 13th I noted "serious accident there, three men killed".

The Parkside Factory was burned on 8th February. It was not used for weaving, but for storage of yarn. Rumour suggested it could have been a reprisal for the execution in England, a day earlier, of two IRA men; I did stress "rumour" and added "no definite proof".

In many ways life went on as usual; in February the Musical Festival opened, with as adjudicator, Maurice Jacobson, who over the years re-visited Portadown many times. Portadown were playing football and in the early months they beat Bangor and Cliftonville, drew with Linfield, Derry and Glentoran and were beaten by Ballymena and Coleraine.

On April 27th there was an excursion to Dublin at cost 3/- (15p) return; this was a portent of the huge numbers who would cross the Border during the War years for short breaks to escape the "blackout" and growing war-time restrictions.

When the War started the main streets of the town were being re-surfaced; this had involved digging up the existing surfaces, leaving walking precarious in the 'black-out" and I wrote on April 15th "work will soon be completed".

On April 23rd we learned how the War would affect us financially; tobacco was up 3d an ounce, one penny on beer, telegrams would cost more (these were widely used in the days before every home had a telephone} and postage would be 2 ½d. At this time there were 240 pence [d] in the pound. Purchase Tax would be introduced in October and would apply to goods leaving the wholesaler. This "wartime" measure remained in force until 1973 when it was replaced by VAT. In May the War news become more serious. Germany invaded Holland, Belgium and Luxemburg. On the 10th of that month Winston Churchill formed a coalition government. On the 28th King Leopold of Belgium ordered his troops to lay down their arms. The allied troops were in a grave situation and from then until June 3rd the evacuation of Dunkirk was under way.

Ginger Rogers
Ginger Rogers

For news we turned daily to the radio and in addition it gave us music and comedy. The great provider of entertainment was the cinema; throughout the War years full houses and queuing were the order of the day. At the time of Dunkirk, one of the darkest periods of the War, Portadown film-goers could see Humphrey Bogart in "Swing Your Lady" or "Bachelor Mother" starring Ginger Rogers.

My diary shows I went to the cinema sometimes 3 times a week during the autumn and winter, at a time when we had three picture houses. During the summer this fell to about twice a week, as during those months tennis clubs were popular with people of all ages. The cinema had always provided cheap entertainment in comfortable surroundings, although by the end of the War the prices at the Regal were Stalls 9d, Balcony 2/- [two shillings or 10p].

There was "live" entertainment too - ENSA, the entertainment section of the Forces, provided a concert in the Town Hall and that was also the venue for a show presented by Edgar Benyon, a magician and ventriloquist, who over the years visited Portadown usually for a week; his shows were very professional and attracted full houses. In July 1940 Duffy's Circus was in town.

I recorded daily the number of aircraft lost in air battles or bombing raids, but serious students of the history of that time will find it was only later the full facts emerged. On Sunday June 16th people leaving church found troops building road blocks. Was this to halt an invasion? we asked. It was felt that a German attack on Britain could begin.

Then it was announced that air raid shelters ware to be built and on August 16th work began here on 14 shelters; the work was carried out by R. Heathwood at a cost of £1,966.

Spitfire Fund

The "Belfast Telegraph" organised a "Spitfire Fund" whose target was to raise enough to buy 6 'planes, one for each county. Part of the fund-raising was a "'Midnight Matinee" at the Regal Cinema.

On August 23rd we were issued with gas masks; fortunately there never was a need for them. On October 20th the town had two air-raid warnings, one at 1.00a.m. and one at 8.00p.m.

The Northern Ireland Prime Minister Mr Andrews and Harry Midgley spoke in the Town Hall to launch 'War Weapons Week' and it was announced the town had raised £115,000.

The novelist L. P. Hartley coined the phrase "The past is a foreign country, they do things differently there" and the truth of that statement is borne out when we consider the change in our attitude to crime and punishment. In September, two boys who broke into a fruit shop in Woodhouse Street were each given three years in a reform schools. In November two local men, members of the then IRA, were sentenced for taking part in a bank robbery; they were given 12 years imprisonment and 10 strokes of 'the cat'. Most people today would find physical punishment abhorrent.

And so we came to what was the end of a momentous year. Although we did not know it, there lay ahead another four and a half years of the War.