Wartime memories of Gerald Dickinson. (Bold text: Deb Fisher, Gerald’s daughter.)
I was going to ask you about the war
About the war? Well, I remember September 3rd.
Was that when the war broke out?
Yes. I remember listening to the… We were in Gerald Street (NB: He corrects this to Moorland Road later in the discussion) and my father had a five valve superhet radio. And we sat there and we listened to Chamberlain.
Did you know it was coming?
I can’t remember now. I remember sat there listening to Chamberlain saying… He was apologetic, you know, and he was a bit whiney. It was like: “I’m very sorry but we’ve got to go to war… I sent him an ultimatum,” or something, “and I haven’t heard…”
Yes: “No such undertaking has been received,” or something.
Yes. “…so a state of war now exists”. And, er… I don’t know, it didn’t affect me that much, I don’t think. But I remember the day, so it must have affected me.
What were you, 13? 14?
12, was it?
You were born in 1925 and it was 1939. You must have been about 14.
Did you parents seem sad about it?
Well, my father said, “There are going to be shortages. Sugar is going to disappear.” So he went up town and went up to one of the grocers and he bought a big stack of sugar!
Laughter. Wasn’t everybody doing that?
No… I don’t know; people didn’t have the money. I don’t know who was doing it. They were local people and they didn’t have a lot of money.
Well you weren’t exactly rich, were you?
No, but we weren’t as poorly off as some people.
How long was it before they rationed sugar?
Oh, I can’t remember. But they brought rationing in quickly because they knew it was coming, or they should have known anyway.
I suppose they did know, because it wasn’t that long since they had been through another war. But to you it wouldn’t have meant very much.
Well, they started to call up of course. There was a lot of chaps, young fellas, you know, they had all joined the Territorials, because they’d have to go for a fortnight or something, training. It was a holiday, and they’d get a pair of boots. So they joined up for a pair of boots! And as soon as war was declared, they called them up, so they had to go into the army. But I never knew much about it.
So how old was Uncle Josh, then?
He’s three and a half years older than me.
So he must have been nearly 18
Nearly 18, yes. We were working, then. They were all scared of the air raids – they were going to be bombing everything, so we started building air raid shelters.
What were you building them out of?
Bricks and cement. Then they started issuing out Anderson shelters. These were shelters with corrugated steel and you sunk them in the garden and covered them with earth. Then they brought out Morrison shelters, which was a steel table. You put it into a room and you got into the steel table. But we didn’t have one, we didn’t have an Anderson – my father ultimately built a shelter in the back. We built it in the back yard there, up against the hospital wall. Sunk it in the ground in brickwork.
But that was the phoney war. Nothing was happening. We didn’t have any air raids or anything like that. I mean, they did have air raids, but they were minor things. Air raids went on in London, I think. But it was all a new thing. They always thought that the bombing was to be the thing that would wipe out towns, you know. When Guernica in Spain started… But it was a phoney war, there was no change. We just carried on as normal for 12 months.
And then, all of a sudden, they started going through France and it all happened. We didn’t appreciate what was going on because it had all already happened before we knew anything. On the radio, we heard that Abbeville had fallen – I remember that, the news in Abbeville, but it just didn’t make any impact on me. I was 14, I was going to school. We had air raid precautions in school. Our form had to go down into the boiler house if there was an air raid warning. We used to look forward to that! They built baffle walls in front of the windows; brick walls around the school.
Then they started the blackout and everything was blacked out at night. We didn’t take it very seriously because we never saw much. Until the bombing really started, after Dunkirk. He bombed the main centres of industry, mainly. Coventry – he blasted Coventry – and London, Liverpool, Cardiff, Swansea. You could hear a peculiar throb, the engine going “zoom, zoom, zoom, zoom”. And you’d think, “Oh yes, Jerry’s over, Jerry’s up there.” But nothing was happening and you didn’t take any notice. Until all of a sudden he dropped a couple of bombs in Port Talbot and everybody scurried for the shelters. We were all in the shelters then. At night you’d go down the shelter when the air raid warning went.
They seemed to go over Port Talbot and up to Liverpool. Anyway, they used to go over every night. They didn’t do much in Port Talbot. The searchlights went on; there was a searchlight down the end of the street.
So there was no anti-aircraft fire or anything?
Oh yes, there was anti-aircraft fire.
I don’t know where the guns were. A lot of them were over in Swansea.
What’s that thing on the top of Margam Mountain? That’s from World War II, isn’t it?
There was an observation post. They had these observation posts. They had radar; we didn’t know much about radar at the time because they kept it secret. But there were observers in certain spots up in the mountains or somewhere. They could see the planes and they reported where they were and how many.
When the bombing started seriously and they bombed Swansea, we could see it. We could see the searchlights coming on. We just went to bed – I went to bed normally – until one night they dropped some bombs down the end of Vivian Park there, and blew our windows in. And Josh, my brother was downstairs in the front room watching the searchlights. I was in bed, I’d gone to sleep. And my mother was downstairs and she started screaming. I woke up and I got out of bed, and I walked along the landing and I was just turning down the stairs and my father grabbed me and said: “Steady boy! Steady boy!” He grabbed me back.
Anyway, we went downstairs and my father put us in the corner of the chimney breast. He said, “You stay in there now,” and he pushed a chair up in front of us. And he went out. He thought that the bombs had dropped in the hospital, so he went out to see what he could do. But they’d dropped in the end on Moorland Road. There was a searchlight in Sandown Road, and it seemed to be the centre light. It seemed to be the controlling light; it seemed a little bit different to the others.
Where were you living? Were you still living in Gerald Street or were you living in Moorland Road?
Moorland Road, when the war broke out.
Only you said you were listening to the radio in Gerald Street.
No we were in Moorland Road when the war broke out. That’s where it was. It wasn’t Gerald Street.
So which windows got broken?
The front windows in the bay window downstairs. Josh was in the chair there, and it blew all the glass all over him.
Oh gosh. Was he hurt?
No, he wasn’t hurt.
But by then he must have been of an age to join up.
Well, yes, he was getting on that way. They were calling up the older ones, in their 20s. When we started building the shelters, I remember Josh was on the shelters with us. Josh and Mel. Then Josh was called up. So Josh went to the Army, and Mel went.
That was the same Mel that we were talking about before, that used to work for you?
Yes. His father, Bill Matthews, he was a great old gent. He was working for my father at the time. We were going doing repairs, then. There was no new work. We built some water tanks in different parts of the town. We built one out of brickwork and they filled it full of water, you know, for if there were fires. And we built shelters in the school and on the street. And – that’s it – I started work when I was 16. I left school and my father said, “Look son, you can go on if you like, but I’d like to have you out in the business.” I was only too willing to come out of school, I’d had enough.
So I went to work. We were working in Pendarvis Terrace by the school and we were building shelters in the street. We were building two shelters in the street. The shelter was a huge thing, mind. It was on one side of the street. There was enough room to pass for vehicles or a cart and horse or whatever. There weren’t many cars about in those days because they took the petrol off. Anyway, I started to work for my father. He took me to work, and it was 8 o’clock, and I’m standing there, and he says: “You go and help Tommy”. Tommy was the labourer. He was an elderly fellow; all of the young fellows had been called up at that time. My father said: “You give Tommy a hand, he’ll show you what to do.” So I gave him a hand, putting bricks in the barrow and one thing and another, and at 2 o’clock my father came down – he had a little car – and he came down and got out and had a look round. And he said to me: “Get in the car”, so I got in the car, and he drove up to town. We went into the central café. He said, “Would you like some ice cream?” I said, “Yes,” so he bought me an ice cream. I thought, this is great. If this is work, this is great! So the next day I was there working again, and I waited for him to come again. He never came. I was most disappointed!
Anyway, we built the first shelter and we prepared the roof for the concrete. So Josh and Mel were throwing it into the mixer, and tipping the concrete on to a stage. And Tommy was throwing it up. Me and Bill Matthews were on the top spreading it out. I don’t know what help I was but I was trying to carry it on a shovel. Anyway, after about the first week or so the second roof was ready. With concrete you’ve got to do it all in one. So we got it all ready to start on the next day and everything was ready. And Bill didn’t come in because he wasn’t well, and Tommy didn’t come in because he wasn’t well. So it was only the three of us – me, Josh and Mel. So my father came down and he said what are you going to do? “Oh,” Josh said, “We’ll manage – we’ll get it in, we’ll do it.” I mean, I didn’t know what he was talking about.
I’d worked on the top of the roof up on the other one, so I was supposed to go up on the top. Anyway, Josh and Mel were both about 18 and had been working since 14. And Josh was putting it in the mixer and Mel was throwing it up. And he was carrying it up to the top… Oh God, I didn’t know how to shovel; there’s a knack to it and the concrete started coming up and it started to build up and dry out. So I was trying to get the shovel in and pull it over. Anyway, they gave me a hand occasionally, and at 5 o’clock we’d finished the concrete, it was just a case of putting cement on the top to make it look tidier. And my father came down and said, “What are you going to do?” “Oh,” Josh said, “We’ll work on and finish it.” I said: “No we won’t. I’m going home!” My back was broken; I was exhausted! I wasn’t fit at all.
Well, you weren’t used to it.
No! I think I lost a stone in the first two months that I was in work.
Was your mother trying to feed you up a bit?
Well, she was always feeding us! But rationing was in, and the old warden was running around saying “Put that light out” and all of this… We had sheets that we fitted on the outside of the window to keep the lights out. Jerry used to come over every night. When it got dark earlier, he came over earlier, and once it got lighter, he came over later. He made use of the dark. And we had a few bombings. He bombed Oakwood Street.
We carried on doing a lot of repairs. You couldn’t get metal for the gutters, so we had to repair the gutters on the houses. We just had to try to repair whatever was there. I got to be a dab hand at repairing stuff! We got cement and sand, like, but it was difficult to get anything else.
Do you know when Uncle Josh got called up?
It was when he was about 19.
How long was it before he was sent overseas? Was he in this country for a long time?
Yes, he was in this country for quite a while. He was training up in Brecon. I remember my Dad said, “Come on, we’ll go up and see him,” on a weekend. So we got in the car, and all the signs had gone off the streets, so we didn’t know where we were. And the roads weren’t like today.
If you wanted to go to Brecon you had to go over the top, I suppose?
We went to Hirwaun, and we came through this village – all the signs were gone – and we knew we had to turn off at Hirwaun for Brecon. So my father pulled in to the side and there was a couple of old gents on the side. And he said, “Ask them if this in HIrwaun.” So I opened the window, and said, “Excuse me, is this Hirwaun?” “What?” this fella said. My father leaned over and said), “This is Irwin?” “Oh yes,” he says. (Laughs) (Note: Gerald’s father was from Luton; Gerald himself was actually pronouncing Hirwaun in the correct accent. “Irwin” was completely wrong. It was therefore rather ironic that the locals understood his father’s mispronunciation!)
Anyway, we went up to Brecon and I think we stayed the night somewhere. And we saw Josh. They were marching up and down the streets, and we were there watching, and he was out of step. And my father said, “Oh my God! He’s out of step!”
So were they worried about him, your parents?
They were very concerned. They were worried about him. Naturally my father knew what was going to happen, you know. They shifted him up to St Albans, and my father said “We’ll go and see him”. So him and my mother went up to St Albans to see Josh. And I was left back home. A couple of days they were up there.
Then I had my calling up papers. I don’t know how old I was – 1944.
So that was around the time your father died?
Yes. He wasn’t well. And I had my calling up papers. And the war was going well.
Was it after D-Day?
After D-Day, yes.
So Uncle Josh was up at Scapa Flow was it?
Yes, he was up in the Orkneys. And he came home on leave, and when he went back, he said all his mates had gone. He was up there, he was working on this ship or something. And this Captain was leaning over the side and said: “They’ve gone. They’ve landed.” Josh says: “Where?” “Over in France!” “Oh,” Josh said, “So the invasion’s on?” “Yes,” he said, “There’s millions of them.” And Josh said, “Good! That means I don’t have to go if there’s millions gone.” All his mates had gone. Anyway, a couple of weeks later they sent him down and he went across.
So your father was ill and you had your papers.
Yes. So he got some forms and appealed for compassionate leave for me. So I got a letter back, or a telegram or something, and they said they were sending the King’s shilling back. So I didn’t go.
Was it a kind of deferment?
Yes, it was a deferment, it was a couple of months. And in the meantime my father was ill. But also the war was going so well they all thought it would be over by Christmas. This was in October, that was when my father died. But it was going so well – they were going through France, the Russians were pushing, the Americans had landed. Meanwhile there had been so much bomb damage that they were looking for building workers to rebuild, and whatever. So they made building workers a reserved occupation. So I never went.
I expect your mother was pleased about that?
Well I was pleased as well! I didn’t want to go. Although in a way I did. All my mates had gone, all my friends were there. They were coming back on leave. Just before the invasion they had gone – they were older than me some of them – and they came back on leave… Anyway, I never went.
You were telling me about the black Americans coming over?
Oh, yes. They had built an army camp out in front of our house; three or four long huts. I don’t suppose you could get more than about 200 in.
Where did they build them? Was it where the park is?
Opposite us, where there’s a couple of houses, there was nothing at the time. There was a shelter and behind that there was this area they used for houses that were already there. And this area, they used it as an army camp. Altogether we had German and Italian prisoners there, Americans – coloured fellas. The cattle used to be out on the moors and they used to wander down into the streets. The Americans were in the camp opposite and there was a knock at the door and my mother went to the door. And there was this big, black American standing there. We weren’t used to black people – there weren’t any around – and he was there standing by the door, and he said: “Caaaas!” And my mother said, “What?” “Caaas!” he said, “Out there!” So my mother went out and there were cattle grazing in the front!
What did he expect her to do about it?
I don’t know, but he was telling her about it. Anyway, I don’t know what happened afterwards. But yes, we had black Americans there, there were Dutch soldiers down in the Jersey Beach Hotel. And there were some soldiers in Bar Gallois. They moved the black Americans down there and they put white Americans in the camp opposite. They parked lorries just outside our house on the side, just on the grass there.
I was coming home, I’d been up town to a dance or something. I walked everywhere then – I don’t know whether there were any buses running in those days. Anyway, I was walking home and I walked over Beach Hill. And as I walked over Beach Hill, I’m looking down now into Victoria Road, and I could see these lights flashing. And the Americans had a peculiar torch. It didn’t shine out from the top, it shone out from the side. And it had a brilliant spot on it. And I could see these spotlights going off, three or four of them, and there was a bit of a kerfuffle going on in the dark. As I was walking along, suddenly someone says: “Let him have it!” and they all started galloping down the road. So I turned off the road and there were these fellas coming down with iron bars and clubs and things. And I thought, oh hell, let’s get out of here.
As I started to walk away there were three Americans walking behind me. I could hear that they were talking but I couldn’t hear what they were saying. Our house was at the end of the hospital. The hospital had a big wall and there were gates. I always used to go in through the gate and in through the back door. So I opened the gates, closed them, and I stood in the corner as these Americans were coming past. And one of them said to the other: “If anybody asks you who hit him, you don’t know.” Anyway, I went in. Then, in the middle of the night there was a revving of engines, about 2 o’clock in the morning. All these vehicles were moving out.
A week later, or a fortnight or so, Sheppard was the local Sergeant and he rode a bike. And my father had a car and the road fund licence was in the window and it had dropped off. So my father had taken it off and put it in the glove compartment. Somebody must have noticed this and Sheppard came around to see him about it. So he knocked on the door and asked him about it and my father explained. So he’s telling him about it, and they’re having a chat, and Sheppard said: “You know, I thought I’d had it one night. I was down there and there was these coloured Americans coming down the street there, coming down Victoria Road. They were all armed up with clubs. But fair play, they respected the uniform. I had my hands up and I told them to go back. So they went back.” It was only him there! It appears that one of the black Americans had been dancing with a white girl in St Joseph’s, and the white American fella didn’t like it and hit him or something, and it all boiled up. And they ended up shifting them out at 2 o’clock in the morning and moving them all somewhere else.
Didn’t you say you met one of them coming down the road and he told you he was Welsh or something?
Oh, yes! There was a couple of them was talking to me one time. One of them said to me: “I’m Welsh, my name is Evans!”
So in terms of rationing, did you always have enough to eat?
No. Well, we had enough to eat. But it was a minimum amount of sugar. We had a couple of ounces of butter, a bit of bacon, a little bit of cheese, and there was very little meat, that was always rationed. My mother was always looking for food. She came in one day and said: “I searched everywhere for something. Evans the Pies was open and I got two pies, one for each of you.” One for my father, one for me. But it was everything – fruit was scarce, you know. I remember I was walking down the back of Water Street and there was a place selling fruit and vegetables. He had a bowl of cherries and I bought some.
Uncle Josh was out in France. Did he see much action?
Oh yes, he saw a bit. As I said, his company had gone, while he was on leave. So he was left on his own. And I suppose he was attached to another group of soldiers. Anyway, they sent him down to England from the Orkneys and they sent him across, and he was in the reinforcements. They took him up the line and told him to see a particular officer. The officer took him and said, “You come with me”. So he took him up the top of this bank and they were digging holes there. And he said: “You get in the trench with so-and-so. We’re expecting a Panzer division through here tonight. Die at your post if necessary.”
So he was in this trench and this fellow, who was a stranger to Josh, said: “I want to go and see so-and-so,” and he got out. Josh said he had two hand grenades, and 50 rounds of ammunition, and he had to stop a tank! Anyway, nothing happened. But later on he was in a similar position in this trench. And they used to cover it over with doors that they’d ripped off houses. So he was in the trench and he was standing on the front of the trench. And he said these moaning minnies come over and they blew him into the trench. Luckily they had hollowed up an end of the trench, and his head went in there. He said everything else came down on top of him, he couldn’t see anything. He started to scream. Then he said: “I thought, don’t start screaming and shouting now, because you’ll use up all the air.” His arms were pinned, but he managed to get one arm free. And he was poking about and he found this stick, and he said: “I poked it up and I could see the stars.”
How long was he there?
When he came home on leave he brought the army paper – I forget what they called it – and he gave it to my mother or me, and we were looking at it, and there was an article about one soldier who was buried for an hour and a quarter. And Josh said, “That was me”. They dug him out, and the officer said, “You go with the MPs”.
He was in the advance in Hertogenbosch. When Arnhem went off, they created a narrow lane and they never got to Arnhem, but they had created a narrow lane and they wanted to widen it. So they attacked Hertogenbosch and Josh was in it. And he said, the Company A was to advance, Company C was to go through A, and Company B was to go through C. “Well, we did it,” he said, “and we went forward and there was this German machine gun.” He said it was a Schmeisser. He said that you could tell the German machine gun because it went “Brrrrrrt!” And he said it was on single shots, they were trying to pick them off. He said: “I was hiding behind a blade of grass!” (Laughter). He said they were marching up to this place and it was dark, and they were on one side and on the other side there was the other company. And you couldn’t hear anything, all you could hear was the click of the shovel on your back, and the very lights were going up.