Whatever happened to Old Children?
My War - by Vic Forrington

I was in the War, you know. When we lived in Crewe.
In our street most of the dads worked on the railways which were there to take away old children to the war and to make them into old men or often into dead men.

If they didn’t work on the railways they worked at the wagon works which made the trains that took the old children away, or they worked at Rolls-Royce, like my Dad. At R-R as it was called, they made the engines that went into the bombers which flew each night to bomb Germany and some times never came back.

They also made the engines for the fighters that shot down the German bombers as they bombed us, that is, if our fighters weren’t shot down first by their fighters. All these dads were in Reserved Occupations, which meant they didn’t have to go to the war. They said they would very much have liked to go to the war, but their jobs were too important for that and Churchill needed them to stay at home.

On the other hand, those dads who didn’t have such important jobs and could go to the war were always trying to get into a reserved occupation and were very fed up when their Call Up papers arrived.

Some tried to be ill so they didn’t have to go, like we did when we didn’t want to go to school, but it didn’t often work for them either. But it was mainly the older children who had finished school and only had jobs that mams and older sisters could do, like baking bread or putting gunpowder into bombs, who got the call up papers, which made their dads proud and their mams cry.

These older children didn’t look like kids to us, being big and not going to school, but their mams used to cry and say that they were only children and shouldn’t have to go to war. Sometimes we put on our dads’ Home Guard armbands and pretended we were soldiers and asked our mams if we could go to the war. They would tell us to shut up and sometimes cry like the mams of the older children and tell us never to grow up and be taken off in the trains.

At first it didn’t matter much to us kids who were far too small to be taken off in the trains and rather enjoyed being got out of bed each night when the sirens went off and snuggle under the stairs and eat baked beans and condensed milk while the German bombers flew over us to blow up Liverpool.

Then they would fly back over us and sometimes drop some of their leftover bombs on us as they tried to get home without being shot down by our Ack Ack, or blown up by our fighters. Then when the all clear sirens went off we could go back to bed so as to be ready for school next day.

Later on in the war, when the bombing had nearly stopped, they built air raid shelters in our street and sent round big fat Air Raid Wardens with beer on their breath, just like the dads on a Saturday night, to drive us out of our comfy under-the-stairs hideaways and into the cold brick-walled boxes. It was better sometimes because you could actually see a German bomber caught in the searchlights and the ack ack fire trying to shoot it down, but even us kids could work out that it was a bit daft not to have put a roof on the shelter.

But ours was not to reason why, we were told. In the end they did put roofs on the shelters, but that was after the war was over. Sometimes we would see the ack ack hit a bomber and it burst into flames. At first the dads would cheer but later on in the war they would say poor buggers and be a bit quiet about it. Once we saw three Jerries parachute out a burning bomber and float down through the searchlights and into the dark.

One of the dads said to my Dad, who was in the Home Guard, some more for you to catch, Jack, and they all laughed except my dad.

In the day time life in our street went on, playing cricket and football with old tennis balls, Cowboys and Indians, with the girls as Indians of course, fighting, being made to go to school, trying to play truant, cheeking the policeman and being cuffed in return or, depending on the level of cheek, being kicked up the backside, or for extreme cheek being taken by the ear and delivered home to a dad who would take off his belt and wallop you. Altogether not a bad life, except for the wallopings.

What puzzled us though was the silence that would come on the street when the telegraph boy came on his bicycle and delivered a telegram. Mam would say, very solemnly, that Mrs So-and-so had had her telegram from the King. So why wasn’t she happy that she was a friend of the King? Mam would say that the King had told her that her Billy wouldn’t be coming back h ome from the war. Where was he going then? You know, Mam would say, where you are told at Sunday School.

We didn’t like to say that we always skipped Sunday School and went to the woods for Cowboys and Indians, and threw stones and sticks at the girls, who were still the Indians. Soon there were a lot more telegrams coming from the boy on the bicycle, and all Mam would say was that Mrs So-and-so had had her telegram. We sort of understood but didn’t like to ask any more.

We had a laugh at some of the things, though, like the posters that said Walls have Ears., and which would have noses and eyes added to them by kids. There were also people who were Fifth Columnists, who had to be reported to the police. Nobody knew exactly who they were or what they did, but we knew they acted suspiciously.

It was said that Mr Jenkins, who lived alone at the big house at the end of the street was a fifth columnist, but it turned out he was only a Welshman, even though he acted suspiciously. We would often report kids in other gangs as being fifth columnists, but the policeman would give us a cuff, but not too hard and tell us to hoppit.

There was a man called Lord Haw-Haw who used to talk on the wireless and tell people that Germany was winning the war and that Churchill was no good, He said our dads should rise up and refuse to work until Churchill gave up. He is also supposed to have said that we kids should rise up and not go to school, which seemed a good idea until Mam threatened to tell Dad to wield his mighty strap.

Actually we weren’t allowed to listen to Lord Haw-Haw and if you did you would be taken away to the Tower of London and Hanged for Treason, which sounded worse than the strap. Some of the dads listened to Lord Haw-Haw despite the risk of being hanged, and had a good laugh, they said.

Even though the bombers came over most nights to bomb Liverpool they didn’t bomb us very much, except one Sunday afternoon when a single bomber came over in broad daylight and bombed Rolls-Royce. It was considered a very unsporting thing to do, as all the dads were having their Sunday dinners at home instead of being on the ack ack. But they still bombed us a bit at night, and the next day we would go and look at the ruins and try to find bits of shrapnel to take home or swop with other kids for birds’ eggs or cigarette cards.

The policeman would only let us go to the ruins when the fire engines and ambulances had gone away, but there was still the smell of smoke and gunpowder about. At first it didn’t mean much to us kids, just something to do, until one day we became aware of the true horrors of war. We stood on a great pile of rubble looking in awed silence into the still-smoking gap tooth-emptiness in the terrace that had once been a shop. Our shop, the Toy Shop, had been destroyed by the barbarians and life would never be the same again.

Actually the shop never had any toys much, but it was the principle of the thing that offended. Funnily enough Lord Haw-Haw got to hear of it straightaway and sent a wireless message to the Children of Crewe that this should teach us a lesson and we must stop going to school immediately. Or so someone told us, probably a fifth columnist.

On nights when the bombers didn’t come, we still went into the roofless shelters just the same. Then they stopped coming at all and we were told we could stay in bed all night. But that wasn’t much fun and we still liked to get up in the middle of the night and go under the stairs and eat baked beans and condensed milk, like in the old days. Mams went along with this at first, but dads got a bit grumpy and stayed in their beds. Then mams started staying in their beds and it wasn’t much fun any more.

Then one morning there were lots of bells ringing all over the town, and someone had put bunting up across our street. Mams and dads were out in the street, laughing and shaking hands with people they normally didn’t like. Even the air raid warden had a smile on his big fat face, and the policeman was handing out cakes to us kids instead of cuffs.

It was VE Day. The war was over and we had won. Hitler was dead and Lord Haw-Haw was going to be hanged. Haw, haw we kids said, serve him right for the toy shop. The only people who still seemed a bit sad were the Mrs So-and so’s who had had telegrams from the King.

That night all the dads got drunk, but the mams didn’t mind as much as they normally did. The blackouts were down from the windows and all the lights were on, and there was nothing the air raid warden could do about it, but he was drunk anyway. In the street, instead of it being pitch black we could see everything, even through all the neighbours’ windows and the carrying ons inside.

After a few days everything went back to normal, with dads having to go back to work and having to behave themselves when they got home, except on Saturday nights. We still had to go to school, and school food was still horrid despite all the promises that had been made to us. They did re-open the Sweet Shop, but it only had hard boiled sweets which broke your teeth and were mainly used after a few licks to stuff down girls’ knickers when they were the Indians and we were still the Cowboys.

A temporary Toy Shop was set up, but still with no toys much, and at the bread shop the penny buns now cost tuppence. Even though we had won the war, we still only got one egg a week and a measly bit of cheese and an even measlier bit of meat each week, which the dads ate because they had to go to work.

Mams used to give us a bit in secret sometimes, but mainly we had to eat spuds and cabbage and things like that. They were supposed to be good for kids, but not apparently for dads, and carrots would make us see in the dark. They didn’t, but they did make us bump into walls and things when we tried.

Every now and then, a dad would bring home some sausages or bacon which he had got at the Black Market and which were very tasty. We never knew where the Black Market was because dads had to keep it very secret, and if we told anyone, particularly the policeman, we would go to prison.

The wireless said there was plenty of food now, but it turned out to be a horrid looking fish called snoek and whale meat which was mainly thick yellow fat, but no one would eat it, so the wireless eventually shut up about it. What have we been fighting for, the dads would say, especially on Saturday nights, even though they had not been fighting, because Churchill had needed them at home.

Ah, we would really have liked to fight but our jobs were too important and they wouldn’t let us fight, however much we pleaded. The ones who had been too ill to fight soon got better but looked a bit sheepish when they met up with the ones who hadn’t been too ill and had been made to fight. It would all be better, the dads said, after the Election and when they had all voted for Churchill. But secretly lots of them were really going to vote for Attlee, but didn’t want Churchill to find out and be offended.

Soon the soldiers started to come back home to their mams and dads. This was called being de-mobbed, and mams and dads, particularly mams, looked forward to it a lot. The soldiers looked much older than went they had been sent off in the trains, and not always that much happier either. Certainly not as happy as all the people who had stayed at home had been on VE night. We kids would try and cheer them up and ask about the war.

We would give them a V for Victory sign and puff an imaginary cigar, and speak to them in a voice like Churchill had on the wireless. They usually gave a V for Victory sign back, but often the other way round, which was considered rude by our mams. Sometimes they gave us bits of black chocolate and hard biscuits, which they said was their Iron Rations. They certainly tasted like it, but were a change from spuds and cabbage.

I remember talking to one soldier over our back wall as he went down the alley to see his mam and dad again. He was loaded down with kit bags and the like, and had a round thing in a net hung from his belt.

"Wotcha, cock", I said, it being a familiar form of address at the time.

"’Ullo, son"

"You bin in the war, then. Kill lots of Jerries?"

"Don’t think so, son, kept me ‘ead down most of the time, like all of us did."

"Watcha got in that net then, a Jerries ‘ead?"

"No, son, it’s an ostrich egg. Wanna ‘ave a look?"

"Cor, that really an egg? What’s an ostrich anyway? Where you get it?"

"Africa, stole it from a wog. Goin’ to give it to me mam as a present."

"Africa, where’s that? What’s it like?"

"It's in Africa. Bloody ‘ot and bloody ‘orrible."

"Worse than Crewe?"

"Well ‘otter anyway and full of sand and mud, like Southpor."

"Are you goin’ to go back there?"

"No, I’m bloody not."

"Wotcha goin’ to do then? Work at the wagon works like your dad?"

"No, goin’ to go to Night School, like a lot of the other lads."

"Wotcha goin’ to then?"

"Dunno yet. Wait until Attlee gets in, I suppose."

"Wotcha mean, Attlee?. You not goin’ to vote for Churchill?"

"Can’t vote anyway, not twenny one yet., but the corporals and the sergeants and the older lads are all goin’ to vote for Attlee and no more war. They say Churchill’s all right in a war, but they don’t want no more war, not now, not never."

"So you don’t want to give Stalin a bashing?"

"No I don’t. The sergeants and the corporals say that Uncle Joe isn’t as bad as he’s painted and we would be better off if we listened to him for a bit. Let the sergeants and the corporals take over from the officers, like, and the workers take over from the bosses."

"Cor! My dad in charge of the foreman! Will it ‘appen?"

"It’s not the foremen, son, it’s the plutocrats and the gentry who’ll ‘ave to go. The sergeants and the corporals say from each according to ‘is abilities, to each according to ‘is needs. Dunno what it really means, but thought I’d give it a try. Any way its time I saw my mam again, she’s bin waitin’ two years and should ‘ave my tea ready by now."

"’Ere’s your egg back then."

"No, you keep it, son. I’m fed up with the bloody thing."

"What about your mam?"

"She’ll never know if you don’t tell ‘er."

"Tat ta, then."

"Ta ta, son."

We left the street soon afterwards, because at Rolls-Royce my Dad got the foreman’s job at last and we moved to a better street where they all really voted for Churchill. So I never knew how the soldier got on at Night School and whether he found his better world. I hope he did because he seemed a good sort, and I hope someone told Attlee that he would have voted for him had he been old enough.

I still have the ostrich egg, even though some kid wanted to know if it bounced. It didn’t, but I keep it in a dish with the broken bit down, so I can still tell other kids about Africa.

(Copyright: Vic Forrington)