Interview carried out by Nicola Williamson (Washington School)
Right so we will start from the beginning, can you tell us your name, when and where you were born?
Full name Ronald McClarence, born Gateshead, Teams, November 1933.
Can you tell me about your parents, what did your father do?
Dad was a coalman i.e delivering coal from a coal merchants.
Did he serve in the First World War?
Do you know where he served or what Regiment?
It was the DLI (Durham Light Infantry) but I don’t know where, he did say he went over to France but got sent back for some reason or other.
Did you have brothers and sisters and if so where in the pecking order were you?
I was the second youngest there was six of us 4 brothers, 2 sisters.
Did you have a happy childhood?
Reasonable yes, a bit hard up at bit times but we managed and got through made our own entertainment like you do.
And what was it like growing up in the area you grew up in?
It was reasonable, quite good as my parents had moved from an old house up in Gateshead to a fairly new house for the time at the end of the Teams in Gateshead. It had a proper bathroom and toilet and all that was indoors whereas where they were before was all outdoors.
Was it a tight knit community everyone looking out for each other?
I think that’s what’s missing from a lot of places now.
What was your interests as a child?
Just going out to play basically and getting out of school.
Can you remember the build-up in the outbreak to war?
The only time I can remember that sort of thing was how anxious my parents felt but I always remember the day war started a friend of mine I used to play with running down the back lane at Teams shouting “Ron war has started”, and to me that was the start of the conflict 1939.
Can you recall the Battle of Britain at all?
Bits and pieces not a great deal because being up this part of the country. There was air raids up here and I actually seen bombs falling from an aircraft up here when a lone aircraft came over one day early on in the war dropped a couple of bombs and hit Spillers we had an air raid shelter which we practically lived in when the war started.
I can imagine, did any of your family join up?
Yes brother-in-law, my brother, my brother was in the Navy he served in the Atlantic and Mediterranean another couple of Uncles served in North Africa they were there most of the war and Uncle Bill he was another Uncle that was in the army, he was in a gun battery but I do not know where he was stationed.
Did any of the family join the Home Guard?
Can you recall… I do know there was some stationed up here. Was there any activity going on?
Oh yes Lobley Hill there was a gun battery up there and that was just at the top of Lobley Hill and that used to rattle the house when the guns used to go off, there is another thing, there was a barrage balloon stationed in off Benjamin the Teams there and I also remember the nearest bombs that fell on us or near beside what was called Henleys bakery on Benson Road but they were two duds and all the damage they caused was just basically they blew the windows in when they dropped. Those bombs were put in front of Henleys garden and for sixpence you could put a stamp on the bombs you know and there was sort of collecting money for the war effort.
Was the start of the war a shock to the system?
Not really because I didn’t fully comprehend what it was all about because I was only 6 at the time.
Did you ever worry about what might happen?
Can you tell me a little about the camaraderie in your community during the war?
Well it was quite good but, everybody was fairly friendly and that like you know everybody was told to help each other out but shortly after the war started we were evacuated the four of us to a place in North Yorkshire, 2 brothers and 1 sister so there was 4 of us went down to Yorkshire to a place called Thoralby. And that was to us, to me it was a little adventure going into the school, with a little, well I didn’t carry my case, my sister carried that because they were looking after me basically and we all had our little gas masks which were in cardboard boxes and marching up to Benson station and getting the train there, where we got off in Yorkshire I don’t know but we ended up in Thoralby and the village hall like and it was a case of I’ll have him and him it was just a random selection process as I recall and I went with my sister to a house in Thoralby and my 2 brothers went to a farm that wasn’t far away from where we were and we all went to the same school at the same time. The age gap was from the eldest brother to me about 10 years or something so, but as I said we were all in the same class but we only went for half a day which was great. But we did decide one day to come home but I wasn’t part of that… I was just told what to do so we set of but only got so far and we decided it was too far so we turned around and came back. The couple I stayed with they were a bit harsh for want of a word I remember one morning I spilt some salt on my bread for breakfast and before I could get me any tea I had to eat that bread before they gave me any tea. They also cobbled my wellingtons and put signs in them you can imagine how good that was. Those wellingtons… I went to see my brothers one day and played chase in the farmyard and ran through a pile of muck and just sank slowly down like you know like there crusts(?) over and down I went and the wellies are still there as far as I know.
What were the day to day living conditions like? Did you notice much difference?
When I was away you mean, oh yes there was always shortages, you were always hungry I know that. Always looking for something to eat.
What was the food like?
Pretty bland basically but you know Dad grew a lot of stuff in the garden so there were fresh vegetables now and again tomatoes and stuff like this. He also kept hens or some of them kept hens. Used to go out and maybe catch a rabbit here or there so that used to come.
Can you remember any particularly funny incidents during the war time?
Funny… no… oh yes, I was, when we were kids we all had our own speciality in what we wanted to be during the war, what we all wanted to be in the forces. Mine was to be a rear gunner so the other lads were something else so one day we decided to catch this other lad one day and said look we are going to make a parachute we got a bed spread all the lads and gathered them up got 4 lumps of rope tied them onto the bed spread and of he went out the window, needless to say he ended up with a broken leg.
I can imagine, what was the worst thing to happen to you?
Worst thing? I can’t remember a bad thing to be honest the only thing that really bothered me was when we watched the bombs dropping out of the aircraft you know the closest I’ve ever been to, or seen any real action, we seen search lights during the war but we lived basically in an air raid shelter I think that wasn’t very good like but the central heating system was fabulous it was 2 plant pots with a candle in them. They created a bit of heat actually.
Did you lose any friends or family?
No I didn’t there was, the only one I can remember was the fella that lived across the road from us he was a casualty on D-Day I remember that happening the other thing was my uncle was evacuated from Dunkirk early on in the war and he never recovered he was a physical wreck for the rest of his life really and the tale he told us coming back from Dunkirk was… he was a dispatch rider in the signals driving up the beach on his motorbike and you know he was told to get out, dropping the motor bike and an officer stopped him and said, “You’ll be charged for that and he said “Charged for that, they are leaving tanks and wagons and stuff like that you want to go and have a word with them”, he said it was sheer panic trying to, well not real panic as they were fairly orderly but to think an officer could actually come and say you will be charged for something like that when they were retreating is absolutely ridiculous. But if that was the calibre of the officer no wonder they got lost.
Where were you when the war ended and what can you remember about it?
Eh, well we had to, we organised a bonfire in the street so we been getting all sorts of collecting stuff and we had built a bonfire in the street and I remember the bonfire being lit, we had a piano, don know how like and that was put in the street and there was a bit of a sing song going on.
Do you often think about the war?
Yes I do actually I read a lot of books about it and what happened to people during the war I just got one down there now about a prisoner of the Japanese and how he was tortured and captured and he was taken first to a port in Japan then they took him to the mines and he wasn’t far from Nagasaki when that was blown up and he was a runner and he ran professionally basically and beat some of the good, he came second to a fella called Sydney Woodeson and he… and later on his life when he got demobbed from the army he was caddying round a golf course in Scotland and they had Japanese ambassadors over for some reason or other and he was asked a question and he answered in Japanese and they said to him, “how did you know to speak Japanese” and he said “I spent a holiday there once”.
Did you think the war offered opportunity to some people that wouldn’t necessarily have had?
Possibly yes some of these entrepreneurs jumped on it and made money out of it.
And can you tell us a little about your life after the war the family, the career you had?
After the war… I was from a part of Gateshead, when the war ended I remembered going to school as part of my school was taken over by the army and taken over as a barracks early on in the war and we had to go up the street to school in a woman’s house. Mrs Bennet I remember her name even now but the rules… she must have been paid for this obviously but there was a teacher half a dozen kids in a room upstairs and her Dad died when we were at school upstairs do you know so that was the kind of scenario we had. It was weird to think that could happen like somebody… we could go to school in somebody’s house because the school was … I remember going up the school. Not our school but running messages for the soldiers, going to the corner shop and getting them whatever the corner shop had at the time. I remember getting a paper round after that which was reasonable for getting a few pennies the other thing during the war was going tatties picking` we used to go from Teams Gates and up to Lobley Hill I remember cos my nickname was ‘Titch’ cos I was very small standing on a brick at the back when they were picking them to go and work in the fields to pick tatties you know that was funny. Tried to make myself to look bigger so I got picked and got a job and not go back home. That was very interesting.
You mentioned you ended up joining the navy.
Oh yes I joined the navy when I was 16 and a half as I say I didn’t… can’t say I was successful at school the final exams at school I just lost all interest in school to be honest. When I enlisted, you left school and I went too (?) and passed a few exams… they’re what they called the northern counties exam J1 J2 Senior 1 Senior 2 then you went on to nationally you know and I passed the first exams so I couldn’t have been as dumb as I thought I was earlier on but I didn’t even try to be honest. My last school report was absolute rubbish but anyway I joined the navy as a junior stoker and I went to HMS Raleigh in Cornwall did my basic training there and from there I went to, you had a choice of where your home port was there was Chatham Devonport or Portsmouth, I chose Chatham because it was nearer London and easier to get a train back home but I was only ever in Chatham once because when I left Chatham I went into the submarines so I never seen… I left training went to Chatham and I never seen Chatham again but I was a Chatham rating according to the… I served in an aircraft carrier, a cruiser first, light fleet cruiser HMS Cleopatra and then from the Cleopatra I went on to an aircraft carrier and that was interesting sailing on a carrier because I was part of the flight deck party for a while for about 6 or 7 months and the next draft it was a heck of a shock getting drafted I thought I was going to a shore base but it was a submarine base training, that in itself was a different life altogether being a submariner cos nobody wanted you at ports, if you go into any of the main ports if there was barracks they would give you money to go into lodgings (oh I don’t want them lot in here).
Is there anything else you’d like to tell us?
I went down to Cyprus and Suez when that crisis was on and when I was on the carrier we took 2 lots of troops out to Cyprus and into Port Said we took them off, the Inniskilling Fusiliers and the 6th Independent Parachute Brigade worst thing about that was the hangers were used as a barracks for the service men. Worst thing about that was you had to go down in the morning into the water and you were basically swimming in seasick and stuff like that… wasn’t too bad when we got back into the Med it was quite calm another thing was sunbathing if you get caught, if you sunbathed and got burnt it was a self-inflicted wound you were in big trouble. So as I say I was glad to come out the navy at the end I didn’t know what to do I was going to join the merchant navy but got a job as a lorry driver so I enjoyed that being on my own, my own boss type of thing travelling all over the country. I still like driving but somebody doesn’t like me driving.
And would you say you’ve had a happy life?
Lots of family round you as I can see.
Oh, no only the one and she came very late in my life.
(voice off camera) yes, we’ve been married 20 years, out of the blue… I think Ron and his family are very close because they were all in the forces what I think is an interesting fact is when his mother, when they were evacuated was…
When we evacuated, my mother was pregnant at the time and I knew nothing about that and when I came back from being evacuated, “You’re not the bairn anymore…” I was 6 years old, now they know everything at 6 years old then we didn’t know a thing and that’s about it… my life story up until now.