Private Stan Wilkinson, Wilkie for short, no. 3536336, died in January 1994. Before he died, he recorded his memories. These have been provided by his daughter Carole Mindham. Carole wrote a prologue as follows:
“Before my father died in January 1994, he was often ill and immobile. At those times he used to take a small notebook and “scribble” in it. He had never been a “writer” leaving most of the correspondence to my mother so, when she showed me his notebooks and wondered if they could be thrown away, I was amazed to find a fascinating record.”
“He had often told us incredible stories of his time in Africa, however, his writing was not of this but of Manchester in the early days of the war. It is the story of his first months in the Army and is reproduced almost verbatim from his notebooks. I am so sad he did not have the time to continue his story.”
Some of the Story of Wilkie
Thursday, 17 October 1940, my first day in the Army! I was instructed to join the Manchester Regiment at Ladysmith Barracks, Ashton-under-Lyne before 11.00am. Once there I was issued with a knife. fork and spoon, my uniform and my lucky number 3536336. On the following day I was sworn in and received the King’s shilling.
By Saturday we were being given orders and the first was to attend Church Parade on Sunday morning. Protestants were to go to the gym, Catholics to a beautiful church outside the barracks. I was beginning to worry about my wife Esther. A year previously she had been through a terrible time when we lost a beautiful baby girl after a difficult pregnancy and a very hard labour. Just before my ‘call-up’ Esther had found herself pregnant again, much to our delight. Now I wanted to be sure all was well, three days away from her had been quite long enough.
I had spent all of my youth in the Methodist Church at Upper Moss Lane in Hulme. Manchester and was totally involved with all of the organisations but especially the Boys Brigade. On this first Sunday morning, however, I ‘fell in’ with the Catholics, making sure I was in the last three. As the parade turned right I simply marched straight on! It did not take me long to find my way into Manchester and then to Benchill, Wythenshawe and my wife. Then, at the end of the day of course, I had to tackle the problem of getting back and I began to realise just what I had done. If caught I would be charged with going AWOL, not too good after only three days in the Army! I believe I was looked after, protected and guided throughout my six years Army Service and that has prompted me to tell you about it all.
I left home on that first Sunday and arrived in Piccadilly at about 10.30pm. I spotted the Ashton bus and made a dash for it. It was crammed full of soldiers but I found one seat upstairs. As I sat down the bloke next to me said, “Hello, Wilkie, how long have you been in the Army then?” He was an old school mate, some three or four years older than me.
When I told him three days he was rather taken aback but full of admiration that I had managed to ‘break out’. He shouted up the bus to all his mates about this “cheeky bugger and added. “He’s worried about getting back in. ”
“Forget it.” they replied. “we’ll get you in.
When we arrived the soldiers poured off the bus but there were only two guards taking passes. My friend’s pals surrounded me and the whole crowd carried me along. before I knew where I was I was inside the barracks. I thanked them all but I have never seen or heard of that chap since. How strange that the only seat left was next to him.
Monday morning, parade for identity discs. “C of Es fall in on the right. RCs on the left. Methodists and the rest of the ‘rag tags’ in the middle.” What do I do now? I might get killed in whatever’s coming and I don’t want to be buried as an RC. I fell in with the Methodists. The Sergeant came along the line, stopped at me and said to the squad “We have a chappie here who doesn’t know what religion he is! Yesterday he was a Catholic, today he’s changed his mind and become a Methodist. See me after this parade. ” I thought, “Hello – trouble.” When I saw him after the parade he asked me where I’d been the previous day.
“I was on the Church Parade, Sergeant. ”
“I know bloody well you were on the Church Parade but where were you the rest of the day?”
“I was in the canteen, Sergeant. ”
He looked me in the eye and said, “What beats me is how you got in last night?” I must add there was a definite twinkle in his eye and after this he was always very fair with me.
As we settled into Army life the Square bashing and route marches nearly killed a lot of the men. I was not unduly affected, probably because, as a window cleaner I was used to running up and down ladders and, in my second job as a gardener I was used to digging. It was not too long before I found myself on a charge. The first was for insubordination. It went like this,
The CO is sitting at his desk and I am marched in. quick time. “Left, right. left, right. halt. Right turn.” I am now facing the CO and the Captain reads the charge.
“This man is charged with insubordination. I was taking the map reading lesson when he fell asleep at the end of the front row. I threw a piece of chalk which landed on his head but did not wake him.”
“What have you to say, Wilkinson?” asked the CO.
“It was not insubordination, Sir. I was there one minute and gone the next. I didn’t go to sleep intentionally, Sir.” I had rehearsed this all the night before but things took an unexpected turn. The CO said,
“Are you married?”
“Have you any children?”
“My wife is expecting now, Sir.”
“That’s it, Wilkinson, you are helping to carry the baby. When my wife is expecting I always have toothache for several months. Case dismissed. March him out.”
This experience of being on a charge was to stand me in good stead later.
Then the snow came, deep and crisp and even. By this time I was on the Vickers Machine Gun. Number 3 had to run with the ammo, I had to run with the gun and it wasn’t half heavy. We went on the range on the Derbyshire hills and I had to lie on the snow and fire the damned thing. The following day we went on a Route March. There was thick snow on the ground, a young officer in charge and he tried to march us along the road! We could hardly stand up.
Needless to say, we didn’t like him! Before long we had lost the road and were adrift in the Derbyshire hills. I knew how bad it can be up there and I began to get worried when it started to snow and blow a blizzard. After about two hours of this we were wet, cold and hungry. Then the Officer told the Sergeant we were lost, something had gone wrong with his compass! By now the blizzard was so bad, if one strayed out of line you’d be lost. Eventually the blizzard eased and a weak sun appeared and at that point we heard a plane which had been sent to look for us. He dropped a note, I presume with some directions, and about an hour later we found the road. We arrived back some four or five hours later having missed a meal!
Just before Christmas the Blitz started. Bombs were dropping everywhere and I became increasingly worried about Esther.
One morning, at 6.00am we were each given a shovel and directed onto a line of buses which took us down Oldham Road to Manchester. Groups of men were dropped off in various places and my pal and I were digging out bodies from bombed buildings in Cannon Street. After several hours the Sergeant came along and said, “Right, Wilkinson, I want you to climb up that ladder and fasten this rope on the top of the hoarding so we can pull it down, it’s dangerous. ”
When I looked it was about 35 feet high. I said, “I can’t do that, Sergeant, the top of the hoarding is moving about in the wind, when I get up there the ladder won’t be stable.”
The Sergeant offered to get some men to hold the ladder.
“Even with a dozen men, once the ladder started going they couldn’t stop it,” I pointed out.
Then a voice said.
“The man’s right, Sergeant.”
When we turned round there was this City gent in his white shirt, black jacket and striped trousers, he was immaculate. What he was doing wading through the muck, rubble, beams etc I don’t know. He added, “I understand these things, you cannot order that man to go up there. If you want it down you need a bulldozer.”
The Sergeant ordered me back to work and was I relieved! I would have had to disobey his order. Neither he nor I ever referred to it again.
Later that day a Jewish chap came along and said to me “Under where you are digging now, there is a cellar that is my office. If you can get to the safe and get me the papers you can keep the cash, I think there’s about E70. Here are the safe keys. I’ll be back later. ”
£70 – and my pay was 1 shilling (5p) a day. If there had been someone alive down there we could not have cleared the muck and rubble faster. When we got down to the ground floor, the ceiling of the cellar, I found a broken gas pipe. I lit it with a match and a flame about two feet long began to burn. We saw a hole in the floor and when I lay down and looked through we could see the safe.
Now, some time previously two of our pals had been trapped in a cellar when the ceiling fell in so Jack and I had decided to be extra careful and test all floors thoroughly. We tried dropping a paving stone onto this one and it was definitely shaky. Jack suggested I propped it up with a fallen beam while he went in but I felt it was too dangerous. That £70 was calling to us very loudly and had there been a reasonable chance we would have gone in for it. We often wondered who got it in the end.
On the way back to barracks I sat on the bus wondering about my wife and whether the bombing had extended to Wythenshawe. In the end I thought ‘To hell with this, I must find out how she is.’ As we drove up Oldham Road we were held up at traffic lights and that gave me an idea. That night I told Jack we must be near the front for getting on the buses the next day.
“If you get on first, make for the back seat.”
“I’m going home for the day” said I. Of course he would not believe me.
Next morning I was first on the bus and got the back seat next to the emergency door with Jack beside me. I gave him my shovel to hide wherever he was working that day. I waited in the hope that we would be stopped at the traffic lights. Sure enough we were held up! I was out of the emergency door, across the pavement and down a back entry before you could say Jack Robinson.
Once more I was lucky for when the convoy arrived in Manchester the Sergeant told everyone to return to the sites they worked on on the previous day and I was not missed!
I knew we were due to leave at around 5.30pm and I was back by 4.45pm. I found Jack, dirtied my shovel, hands and face and started work! Apparently the Sergeant had been round and asked where I was and Jack told him “The toilet.”
At that point I heard the Sergeant say “Oh, you’ve decided to come back have you Wilkinson?” I turned round, black as the Ace of Spades. I could tell the Sergeant had been drinking, probably since lunch time.
“I needed the toilet, Sir, and the only one I know is in Albert Square so I went there.” “In future you will do the same as everyone else” he stormed and marched off. (He meant, of course, go behind a pile of rubble!)
On the way back to barracks Jack informed me he was going home the following day – using my experience to guide him. I advised against it as I felt sure there would be other chaps who, having seen me get away with it, would try it on.
The next morning we sat near the front of our bus the middle one of three, just behind the Sergeant. As the traffic lights held us up the emergency door on our bus flew open and out jumped four blokes while six were escaping from the bus behind!
“Look, Jack” I pointed out, “They can’t expect to get away with that. If you’d gone today you would have been right in the soup!” When we arrived at Piccadilly a Roll Call was held, this had never been done before. We were continually getting new officers at this point and I suppose they were learning the ropes just as we were!
Later that day an officer came along and asked if anyone had any experience of directing traffic.
“Yes, Sir, I have,” said I “I used to be a Special Constable and this was my Division.” “You’re the man I want” said the Officer, “Fall out and get rid of that shovel.” I had been longing to get rid of that bloody shovel for the past four or five days! I was taken to Cross Street, near the Manchester Evening News Offices and Marks and Spencers and told not to allow anyone to turn left into Deansgate as there was an unexploded bomb round the corner.
“Let in the Fire Brigade. ARP, Bomb Disposal and Ambulances but no one else. Keep the traffic moving” I was told before the officer disappeared.
As I got my bearings I realised there was a large Burtons Shop on the corner. well and It appeared they were just letting it burn out. truly on fire. with no one attending to it. Charming, a bomb round the corner, a fire behind me and I chucked my shovel away for this!
My task was to direct traffic to turn right and go up towards Piccadilly while there was traffic coming down from Piccadilly. I was wearing my great coat and steel helmet with my rifle over my shoulder. Later our rifles were withdrawn but at this time there was a danger of looting. We had been given orders to shoot anyone we caught looting. I knew I would not be able to do that so I decided to aim at their feet or bash ’em with my rifle if necessary.
Some time later I heard fire bells and saw an engine coming from Piccadilly like the clappers, right through the middle of the two lines of traffic. I stopped everything and moved the traffic aside. He came over the crossing like an express train, I did not have chance to tell him there was a big bomb crater in Deansgate. He must have been a damn good driver. When he saw the hole he slewed the fire engine round just missing it, a fireman was flung off right into the hole poor devil, but it could have been the whole engine in there.
I returned to my traffic and soon a big lorry came and stopped. The driver asked me if I had had anything to eat.
“No” said I.
“Would you like this pork pie and an apple?” he asked, “I was in the last lot and I can remember being hungry.” Of course I had to eat it on the job and it was wonderful. Another lorry pulled up as he was passing me and the driver said “I’ve been driving for 20 years and this is the first time I have been waved on with a bloody pork pie!” He found it very funny and contributed a packet of fags!
Soon after this a Rolls-Royce with uniformed driver came along so I waved him round and up Piccadilly. He waved his hand to indicate that he was turning left towards Deansgate. (This was, of course, before winking lights.) I indicated ‘no’ pointing towards Piccadilly. I moved towards the car and a middle aged man sitting in the back asked, “Who said we can’t turn into Deansgate?” He looked at me as if I was dirt which made me mad.
“I say you can’t,” I replied.
“Drive on, John.” The man directed. I went to the front of the car, unslinging my rifle I pushed a bullet up the barrel, put off the safety catch and aimed at the front tyres.
“If you move another yard, you’ll have two flat tyres.”
A fireman told me later that all traffic had stopped and everyone was watching with interest. The man finally told John, who looked scared to death, to drive to Piccadilly.
“You silly old bugger, why didn’t you do that in the first place?” I asked.
“I’ll report you to your senior officer” he said.
Behind the Rolls came a lorry, the driver stopped beside me and said, “Blimey mate, when you upped with your rifle I thought you were going to shoot him, you had me scared!” I began to feel a bit worried then wondering who the bloke in the Rolls was and if I would be in trouble. It was not long before my officer came along and asked what had happened with the chappie in the Rolls. I explained.
“And what did you say to him when he left?”
“Well, Sir. I-ere well I …”
“Come on man.” he insisted. “what did you say?”
“I called him a silly old bugger and told him to bugger off’ I admitted.
“Quite right,” was the response, “you could have used stronger language than that. You’re doing a good job my man and you handled that situation very well.”
I took the opportunity to ask if there was any chance of a relief as I’d been on this job for about five hours. He told me a policeman was supposed to relieve me after two hours.
“I’ll sort him out,” he said and stormed off.
Until then we had been issued with rations each morning after breakfast (5.30am) but on this day we had been told there were none and we must fend for ourselves until we returned at around 6.00pm. Gosh was I hungry, despite the pork pie. Just about this time I noticed a WVS van trying to get through the lines of traffic like the fire engine had done earlier. I stopped all the traffic and waved the van through. The woman driver gave me a nice smile and a wave so I gave her a smart salute. To my surprise she turned the corner into Deansgate and pulled up behind the fire engine. She lifted the side of the van and began serving tea and ‘wads’. Firemen came from every direction. When the queue died down a little I dashed across and asked if I could possibly have a cup of tea.
“By all means,” she said, “I have never had the traffic stopped for me before. All over the city the traffic is crawling and I was very late for these poor firemen.”
When she heard that I had to fend for myself and I had not eaten she was horrified and gave me a great plate full of sandwiches and some wads. Later she told me she had to move on to some demolition workers on London Road. That meant a ‘U’ turn against the traffic. Once more I held up the traffic for her and that left a gap for her to belt up to Piccadilly. A lorry driver coming along commented on the VIP treatment I had given her until I explained how she had fed me.
“Before she came I would have sold that fire engine for a cup of tea and a bun.” I said. He laughed and contributed a bar of chocolate. The lorry drivers in those days were known as ‘The Gentlemen of the Roads’ and they were. I had often seen them helping out or doing little kindnesses for other road users when I was out and about on my motorbike.
Well, time went on, no sign of a relief and I was getting very tired. As 5.00pm approached I began to think about getting back to barracks. If I waited for a relief (who may never come) I would miss the bus and then I would be in a mess, I only had 3 pence. I abandoned my post and made my way to Piccadilly where the lads eventually came marching up, filthy dirty, a right scruffy lot with their picks and shovels. As I was getting on the bus the officer came up to me and admitted having forgotten me.
“I’m so glad you got here,” he said. “So am I,” I thought.
The following day I was on point duty again, this time at the crossings on Portland Street. As I arrived there were two coppers standing on the corner, my Officer spoke to them then came back to tell me they would relieve me, two hours on, two hours off. That sounded all right to me, two hours when no one would know where I was!
The traffic built up as the morning wore on. After three hours I was getting tired and there was no sign of my relief. Eventually, I saw the two coppers strolling down a back street away from me so I ran after them.
“Hey, I thought you were supposed to relieve me?”
“You’ll have to do the best you can. we’re busy” one of them told me.
I was disgusted and told them so, “You rotten buggers. Here am I doing your job for a
shilling a day, you’re getting a damn good wage and strolling about doing nothing.” I determined to be off to find a cup of tea as soon as the traffic eased off. As it began to thin a little a lorry driver stopped and asked if I knew where Northenden was.
“If you like to pull in near that side street I’ll be with you in two minutes and I’ll show
you.” This was Manna from Heaven, Northenden is practically next door to Wythenshawe! I had a good look around then joined him. As I jumped into the cab he said, “You’re not deserting are you?” I laughed and told him not to worry, I’d be back by 5.00pm. I explained that my wife was having a baby and I was worried because of the previous night’s air-raid. He was going from Northenden to Sharston and then back to Manchester so I arranged to meet him at 4.00pm.
When I “jumped it” home I made all sorts of excuses to Esther, my wife, about how I had managed to get home. This time I decided to tell her the truth – well almost! It was such a relief to find everyone safe and well and I told her that my mate was standing in for me for a few hours because this friendly lorry driver had offered me a lift. We enjoyed our few hours together and I was there to pick up my lift at 4.00pm and was back directing traffic by 4.45pm. When I met up with Jack again for the bus journey back to barracks, he would not believe I had been home! I promised to ask my officer if Jack could be my relief on the following day and then spent half an hour showing him how to direct traffic.
Next morning a new, very young officer accompanied us, I explained what I had been doing and that the previous officer had promised to arrange a relief today and so Jack and I started point duty together. He lived on the road out to Ashton and so I suggested he have four hours at home – so long as he was back by 4.00pm. Of course he jumped at the chance.
The following day we were sent to the same spot but what a mess we found. There had been a raid the night before, one bomb had dropped behind an office block on one side of the crossing and a second on the other side. There were bricks and rubble all over the road. A gang of Corporation workmen arrived to clear a way through for the traffic, so I helped by guiding the traffic round the rubble while Jack directed the traffic at the crossroads. At this point our new officer arrived to see how we were getting on.
“Do you think you two can handle it?” he asked me.
“Yes, Sir, no trouble at all,” I replied, we did not want anyone else in on our act.
Later when everything calmed down a little and the workmen had left I asked Jack to take over while I had a walk around to look at the bomb damage. There were several shops all closed and locked up and, sandwiched between them was a little Pub. The bomb had blown out the backs from all the shops and the wall of the Pub had fallen into the cellar. I went into the bar at the front of the Pub and was amazed, it was hardly touched, just a few broken glasses. Then I found the Mackies! I collected three bottles and half a dozen packets of crisps, went outside and found myself a spot where I could see anyone approaching. I settled down to enjoy myself thinking of the poor soldiers digging in all the muck and rubble. It was not long before Jack came looking for me so I showed him how to get into the Pub. He came out with several bottles of beer and a carton of cigarettes. I told him to put them back – if we were caught with them we’d both end up in the Glasshouse (the Military Prison). We had three packets each, put the rest back and planned to return the next day. We were disappointed, however, as the following day the publican was there clearing up and the mean old devil did not even offer us a drink.
One day, out of the blue, a dozen of us were issued with rifles and taken off in a different direction. we found ourselves outside Belle Vue Zoo.
“Good-oh, lads they’re giving us a day out.” We were marched in and the CO told us we were to be posted around the Zoo. A nice young chap took me off to the Lion House and told me my task was to guard the lions! Apparently the Curator had become increasingly concerned as the Blitz progressed in case bombing in the area should cause damage to the Zoo, to the restraining fences or walls. This might allow the animals to go free! My job for the next few days (and nights) was to keep my rifle at the ready and shoot any lion which might escape. I can tell you, I was sweating during the entire time, I did find it fitting though that I should be with the lions, I used to recite monologues at Concert Parties and Shows and one of my favourites was Albert and the Lion so I spent my time in the Lion House reciting this to the animals and considering which one best fitted the description:-
“There were one great big lion called Wallace
Whose face was all covered in scars
He lay in a somnolent posture
The side of his face next to the bars.”
Thank goodness I was not there long. What happened when we were withdrawn I do not know but I never heard of any escape from the Zoo.
Christmas Day, 1940 and we all expected to be issued with a Pass. No such luck. What we were issued with were picks and shovels yet again and me too this time. We were taken down Oldham Road where a large power station had been bombed. The rubble was about seven feet high. We were given two hours off for lunch as a special treat for Christmas and got back to barracks at about 7.30pm. Eventually we were served our Christmas dinner – stone cold. We were so mad, Christmas Day, we could not go home, we had worked like navvies and been given a cold dinner. We banged our mugs on the table but there were no officers or NCOs about to take any notice, they had probably gone home! Eventually the Sergeant cook appeared so we relieved our feelings by telling him what to do with his rotten Christmas pudding!
Two days later we collected our picks and shovels but we were marched out of the barracks, no buses this time. It was just like the chain gang, marching with one’s shovel on one’s shoulder. It had snowed heavily in the night and the trek to Ashton-under-Lyne station was heavy going. There a train was waiting for us. As we travelled along an officer came to tell us that when we left the train we must hold onto the shovel of the man in front and form an ‘elephant chain’. We laughed when he left, “silly old fool” but we were glad of his advice later.
I realised we were travelling into Derbyshire and the weather got steadily worse. Eventually the tram stopped and we were told to get out. We were not in a station so we got down onto the permanent way. As we alighted the wind hit us, pushing us back against the carriage, blowing the snow into our faces and blinding us. We began to move off, keeping as close to the carriages as we could and we were damned glad to hold onto the man’s shovel in front. One chap who stepped too far away from the carriages went off the permanent way and was up to his neck in snow. We were on the Manchester side of the Woodhead Tunnel, a bleak place even in the summer, and we had come to dig out a train which had got snowed in. We did not have far to walk but we, never-the-less, looked like snowmen when we got there. The snow beside the train was almost to the top of the windows and if one stepped backwards you were into six feet drifts and had to be helped out. I had only seen weather like this on films, we were absolutely frozen despite the digging. Then I had a bright idea. There were four of us in our little ‘gang’, I suggested we try to find a carriage door and dig that out so that we could get inside for a warm. Eventually, by using a pick to force the door open, we were able to do that and we took turns to rest and thaw out. Then the rumour started that a soup train was on its way. We took that with a pinch of salt but soup and bread did appear! So we sat in ‘our’ carriage to enjoy our meal – little did we know it was all we’d get that day. While we were eating the Sergeant came along.
“Where do you lot think you’re off to, Blackpool? Out, get digging!”
We must have worked double quick as we finished and had four-five hours to wait for the train to pick us up. An officer came along and said we could go the nearby village if we wished, so as the weather had eased somewhat, we decided to go. We found the Pub and inside there was a piano and a kit of drums. One of my pals started to play the piano and I asked if I could play the drums. The Publican gave me the drumsticks and we were away! The dozen or so locals in the Pub must have enjoyed it as they kept sending us drinks over!
Soon after this I was given official leave to visit my parents. Their house in Blackley had been damaged in the Blitz, they were not hurt, thank goodness, but they were very shocked and now homeless. A bomb had exploded nearby and sucked the front of the house completely away. My brother and I went to see them at a relative’s house and my mother was in a terrible state. She was obviously upset about the loss of her home but she was desperate to have her clothes and personal belongings recovered. The major items which she begged us to go and get for her were her black shoes from under the sofa and her best corsets from the drawer in the dressing table. When my brother and I got to the house we were horrified. As the Manchester Evening News described, “It looked like a doll’s house with the front lifted off. Even ornaments on the mantel shelf were not damaged, nor were the pictures disturbed on the walls.” We were disturbed I can tell you at the thought of venturing in there to retrieve the black shoes and the best corsets! We managed it by going slowly and stealthily but I do not think my mother ever realised the dangerous situation we had been in.
Not long after this they cleared out the whole of the barracks, the sick, the lame and the lazy. Anyone who could walk was marched to Ashton station with two blankets, a ground sheet, a large pack and a small pack. The train trip ended at Aintree Racecourse, Liverpool, we were put, four men to a stable where one horse had been housed. At about 4.00pm we were marched into the city and down to the docks and warehouses. Hundreds of troops had been arriving all day long from all over the north of England. That night Liverpool had its first big air raid.
We were marched to warehouses belonging to the Liverpool Warehousing Company. Now my father, an electrician, worked for this company in Trafford Park, Manchester and he had taken me, as a boy, to show me around. I had been back later as I liked to go on the roof and look all around Trafford Docks. These Liverpool warehouses were almost the same, a whole block, six storeys high, divided into sections each with a narrow door at street level. A cast iron stairway winding round reminded me of a lighthouse. We climbed up this iron staircase and on the top floor we found buckets of sand, buckets of water, a stirrup pump and three shovels. This equipment was to deal with incendiary bombs which were about two feet long. When they landed they burst into flames setting fire to anything near to them. They were dropped in thousands, a whole city could be burnt out if they were not dealt with quickly. The bombers would come over and drop the incendiaries followed by the second wave dropping high explosive bombs.
The floor of ‘our’ warehouse was covered with sacks of grain which worried me somewhat. Grain meant rats and I had seen rats as big as cats at my father’s warehouses and here we had no light apart from that coming in through the open loading bay doors. Each bay had a thick rope which I found, when let down, reached the ground floor. I went to the back of the warehouse and found an empty sack, I used my knife to cut six squares of sacking and gave two to each of my two mates.
“If a bomb drops anywhere near here we could soon find we can’t get down that spiral staircase. The rope is our escape route and the canvas is to protect our hands.” Some time later our Sergeant and our Officer came around and asked about the rope and the canvas squares, when I explained what they were for the Officer sent the Sergeant to all the other groups to instruct them to do the same.
Then the raid started. Each time a bomb dropped I am sure our warehouse rocked! It was 8.00am before we returned to Aintree and sleep, note I said ‘sleep’ rather than ‘bed’. We slept on the concrete floor of the stable with just two blankets and a groundsheet. Even the horses had straw! There were 1½ inch channels cut into the floor to drain water away and during my sleep I must have rolled into one of these. When I woke I thought I was paralysed from the hip down. It took a great deal of jumping, stamping and rubbing to get life flowing back again.
These ‘fire watches’ continued for about three nights and we were becoming familiar with the area. There were houses sandwiched between the warehouses, they were two up and two down in blocks of seven or eight. As they had tall warehouses at both back and front they were always dark so they had to have lights on most of the time. The kids who lived around here were tougher than any I had ever met. One night I was relieved of my position in the warehouse and did the rounds with the Sergeant, making sure every man was at his post. By the time I had been up and down a dozen narrow staircases I was almost dead! Then a raid started, we had had them every night and the casualties were mounting up.
One night it looked as if the whole of Liverpool was on fire. There were buildings all around us covered with flames and dense smoke pouring out. There were no ambulances or rescue squads around and lots of fires were untended. We did come upon one fire engine and pump unit and, about 40 feet up on a spidery ladder clung a solitary fireman playing a hose on a burning building. There was not another fireman in sight. I thought, “What have I got to be afraid of compared with that poor devil?” Weeks later my older brother, Tom, told me he was this lone fireman. The heat from the fire was so intense apparently that water splashing back scalded him.
As the Sergeant and I moved between warehouses we saw a light on in one of the houses, he told me to get it out ‘quick sharp’. I flew down the street and banged on the door, no answer, I gave the door a kick, still no answer. By now the Sergeant had arrived so we both thumped on the door and shouted, “Put that light out.” Eventually a woman opened the door and told us to ‘F…’ off. I had never heard a woman use such language.
“If you don’t put it out I’ll come in and smash it out,” said the Sergeant. Another string of curses from her. Finally the light was put out but not many days later the whole house had disappeared.
Later the Sergeant said he thought we might find a cup of tea round the corner so we set off at a jog trot and sure enough we came upon a WVS van. We drank the tea as fast as we could and set off back again. I noticed an ambulance parked at the end of our street and two policemen, they always went in two’s in this area. As we walked along we heard a bomb coming down and threw ourselves down on the pavement against the warehouse wall. Crash! It had landed at the end of the street. When I could look up, all that was left of the ambulance was a door and three wheels about 30 feet in the air. At least they did not know what had hit them. I had to put these things out of my mind and do my best to forget them otherwise I would have been too scared to think straight.
I became increasingly worried about Esther as spring approached. I had managed to get back to Manchester once or twice (unofficially!) and she was safe and well with her mother and sister nearby but the news was worrying. The baby was due at the end of April, early May and leading up to this time the blitz on the North West was bad.
Finally. I heard that the baby had been born and all was well and, wonder of wonders, was allowed compassionate leave. I got to St Mary’s Hospital in Manchester in double quick time but I was still too late for visiting hours. I was in uniform and managed to spin such a tale to the Sister that she allowed me in. Esther told me later that she recognised my “footfall’ (or bootfall) and knew immediately that it was me walking down the ward.
I was relieved to find Esther fine and the baby well but in the cellar for safety! She told me horror stories of being rolled under beds whenever the sirens went so it was a relief to get them both home to our little house in Wythenshawe.
Over that summer of 1941 I was given embarkation leave three or four times! Each time I went home and Esther and I said our sad farewells, I’d set off back to my unit and then find our embarkation had been cancelled. I was transferred down to East Grinstead and trained as a cook and of course. from there it was impossible to go AWOL to visit Esther!
Finally I was shipped off to North Africa in time for El Alemain. I was to spend five years there without leave to come home.
I visited the most fantastic places, learned a great deal about the native people and their way of life, I escaped with my life and with little injury but I “lost” five years of my marriage and my daughter’s childhood. Believe me, I did my best to make up for it in the years after the War.
I am, of course, the daughter born just before Stan left for El Alemain. I have found his story fascinating and hope you have too. It is the story of an ordinary soldier but an extra ordinary man.