At the age of 12, I was not prepared for the war. It was a dark cloud that cast its shadow over what promised to be an enjoyable part of my life. I had just passed the 11-plus exam and had a scholarship to the local grammar school. My future looked rosy, but there were clouds on the horizon.
In England, we knew for some time that war was on its way. As I grew older, I read the national newspapers. They convinced us that Hitler’s aggression soon would be directed against England. The papers were full of news about Mussolini’s conquest of Ethiopia and the Spanish Civil War. The Spanish Civil War was a harbinger of what was to come. It polarized European thought and opinion. The newspapers gave detailed reports of the aerial bombing, sieges, battles, massacres, the flight of civilians and all the terrors associated with the war. The nightmare grew closer.
Our daily life did not change, but there were preparations as Hitler’s designs on Europe were realized. The atmosphere became tense. England accepted refugees. The first refugees who came to my hometown were Basque children. A national civil defense program was organized. We all received gas masks and, from that time on throughout the wartime years, we all carried them everywhere. As yet there was no action, but it was clear that after Czechoslovakia, some other European nation would be next to fall before the Nazi menace. The Munich crisis provided a breathing space for us as Chamberlain returned and spoke about “Peace.” It was not to be. Visible preparations were made. City schools and public buildings were walled with sandbags to mitigate the effects of the expected air bombing. The blackout began – no lights in the streets!
Poland was the next victim. This time England honored its commitments, and war on Germany duly was declared. Only hours afterwards we were roused by the wail of sirens sounding an air raid warning – it was a false alarm.
The first impact of war came to my hometown when young Polish air cadets, no more than boys, arrived and were billeted with friends. We had met few foreigners in my part of Yorkshire, and I do not know what impression they gained of the West Riding, but they were extremely polite with formal manners and always stood at attention when they spoke or were addressed. We were most impressed by them, although generally they spoke no English. Ironically, Poles returned to work in the Yorkshire woolen industry after the war, when England welcomed them as a much-needed source of labor.
That was the beginning. The next army to arrive was our own, rescued from France. I remember soldiers sleeping along the wayside by the trucks that brought them. Exhausted and defeated, the remnants of the British Army, who had fought in France, had been evacuated from Dunkirk. They were billeted all around us. Everyone was preoccupied with the threat of a German invasion that fortunately never came. At this point, everyone was drawn into the war effort.
My father joined the Local Defence Volunteers, which later became the Home Guard, a uniformed defense force. Although it was equipped pitifully, it was ready to face panzer divisions or whatever would be sent by the invading forces. I joined the Air Training Corps. I remember we learned aircraft recognition and had long hours of “square bashing” (military drills). My mother’s knitting group furiously knitted scarves, socks and balaclava helmets to send to the troops.
Life was austere. Everything that came to England had to come by ship, and the U-boats were taking a terrible toll on merchant shipping. Food and fuel were rationed tightly. Then clothing was rationed, and I still laugh over photos of a tall adolescent (me) wearing jackets with sleeves which stopped halfway up my arms and trousers worn at “half mast.” Coal shortages brought the family together as we huddled around the small coal fire that was our only source of heat. This shortage led to a shortage of hot water, and our baths were limited to five inches by government prescription.
Travel was difficult. Trains, hours late, were packed with sleeping soldiers. The blackout slowed buses to a crawl. Fog was another problem—at its worst in October and November. We experienced particularly bitter winters in the early 1940s with heavy snowdrifts on the moors.
Our education continued as close to normal as could be expected under the circumstances. After leaving school, our older classmates were drafted immediately into various branches of the services, as were the most physically fit of our schoolmasters. Sadly, I remember Mr. Beavan, whose life ended as a Japanese prisoner of war on the dreaded Burma railway construction. Others who were older and retired came back to accept the challenges of teaching.
We were not a bad lot, but small boys are very intolerant. Life must have been a dreadful strain for some of the older teachers. I remember that we had German refugee teachers, perhaps brilliant academically, but in facing British schoolboys, they had accepted a very difficult assignment. It is sad to recount that one of them committed suicide.
The war progressed. The news continued to be depressing. I remember the newsboys chalked up their headlines in the central square of the city. Headlines such as “Ark Royal Sunk” dismayed us. Then the air raids came. For the homeland, it became largely an air war. First came the Battle of Britain with fighter aircraft challenging the Luftwaffe’s air supremacy, followed by the massive bomber formations that attacked London as their prime target. Then the attack on the ports in both the south and the north began. We were on the flight path between Germany and the important port cities of Liverpool and Manchester. Every night, air raid sirens warned us that the attack was on its way.
I usually got up, dressed and slept on the bed until 4 a.m. when the all-clear siren sounded and we knew that the attackers were returning. Sometimes they would attack industrial targets in our area. The sky was illuminated with magnesium flares and we experienced the pyrotechnic displays associated with bombing attacks. We fled to the shelters when bombs were close, but for the most part, it was a war of nerves. Further west it was very real, and my relatives in Liverpool were “bombed out” and had to come and live with us.
Our house was crowded, but then my father was drafted and was sent to the south of England to join the massive troop buildup of forces preparing for the D-Day attack.
He followed the 21st Army to France as an engineer in a railway operating company. He moved from Cherbourg and went subsequently to Antwerp, where he experienced the intensive V-2 rocket bombardment that the Germans were using to attempt to deny the port to the Allies as the Battle of the Bulge was fought. Gradually, the threat of bombing decreased, and the 21st Army fought its way forward through the Netherlands and across the Rhine into the heartland of Germany.
The war ended. Our rejoicing was rather subdued. We had lost a lot. I was a student at the University, but compulsory national service continued. I spent another three years of life in an occupation that was arduous, unrewarded and unrecognized. I worked as an underground coal miner. I suppose in some remote way my experiences added to my education and the well-being of the nation. At least I grew older. As soon as I was released from national service, I became a student at the University of Dublin and began to enjoy life once more. This experience was the gateway to an academic career as a research scientist.
In retrospect, it is difficult to assess whether I personally took the right steps, but there were few choices. There are many things that I regret, but there are also many things that I enjoyed. I survived the war, although I never was exposed to battle. I am thankful that, in the course of my career, my contact with many varieties of humanity and cultures increased my understanding of the world. Nevertheless, both curiosity and a thirst for knowledge still remain unsatisfied.
Wartime taught me a great deal about what I did not need. A major lesson was that it is not difficult to endure any amount of hardship if the burden is shared, but misery and loneliness are solitary conditions.
Jack R. Plimmer, PhD, was born in England and educated in England, Ireland and Scotland. After a career as a chemical researcher in universities and government, he moved to the U.S. His interests include visual arts, literature. He has taught courses on the Opium Wars and London 1900, served on OLLI’s Strategic Planning committee and taken many classes in literature, writing, art, opera, history, reader’s theatre, architecture, philosophy, life story writing and poetry.