World War 2 Memories of Elaine Greensmith

September 3rd 1939 found me, aged 6, with my family on the beach at St.Annes-on-Sea, Lancashire, a popular holiday resort near Blackpool. My brothers and father had been playing cricket on the beach with a several other boys who had joined in the game.  Suddenly I was told that they were going to the Town Hall to hear the broadcast by Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, that would tell us whether or not we would go to war with Germany.  The news, when they returned, was Yes, we were at war with Germany.

The Manchester Blitz began on the 22nd December. Our house in the suburbs of Salford had already been hit by an incendiary bomb in October of that year. When it happened I was in the air raid shelter at the back of the house and went out to see flames coming from the window of the room where I had been sleeping. My father, an ARP warden, was at a neighbouring house helping to extinguish a fire there when he was called to get back to his own house. Heroically, he rescued my teddy bear from the burning room in answer to my pleas.  I was quickly removed to a neighbour’s house where I stayed for two or three days while my mother organised the clearing-up operation.

As the autumn went on, so the air raids intensified. On the evening of Sunday, December 22, the Manchester Blitz began.  My brother, David, was at Church when it started and the service was brought to a sudden close.  He stood for a moment at the top of the church steps to try to take in the enormity of what was happening and then hurried home to join us in the shelter where we stayed for most of the night. It was many years before he could bring himself to sample a Church service again.   The sound of the exploding bombs was bad but the blasts from the anti-aircraft gun nearby were worse.

Dawn broke and we were unscathed. My brothers walked into the centre of Manchester to inspect the devastation.  On their return and with the growing knowledge that these blitzes were taking a set pattern of two or three night’s duration, my father decided that we must leave the Manchester environs for the time being.

Like most people in those days we did not have a car, relying on public transport. We set off just after midday walking for the first mile along with scores of other people as bus after bus passed fully loaded.  Then we were lucky enough to get on a ‘bus which took us a short distance and then another and another until we reached Bolton and eventually arrived at a village called Chapeltown on the edge of Turton Moor – in fact only about 16 miles from home.  My father, a commercial traveller, regularly came here to call on the three mills in the area so knew it could be a good place to find a temporary safe haven. Darkness had fallen by the time that we stopped at a place called Four Lane Ends and I remember feeling completely bewildered.  How was my father going to find his way!  He took us to the village post office which had a bakery and tea shop.

We were drinking a welcome cup of tea when a lady came in dressed in a dark coat and wearing the typical Lancashire headscarf.  She started flicking through a box of Christmas cards on the counter, glancing every now and then at the spectacle of the five of us.  After a whispered conversation with the post mistress she spoke and asked how we came to be there.  With only a moment’s hesitation she said “I’ll have the little girl”.  “I don’t think she’d come without me” was my mother’s anxious reply.  “You can come as well” said the stranger.  Eventually, my father and brothers were accommodated at the Chetham Arms and my mother and I were welcomed into the “two-up. two-down”  cottage home of the last minute shopper of Christmas cards – dear Mrs. Raby who was later to become a family friend.  We were introduced to her husband and sister-in-law as if it was an everyday occurrence to bring home waifs and strays.  Sleeping arrangements were re-organised – and they shared their Christmas with all of us.

Boxing Day came, and by that time the worst of the blitz seemed to be over and it had been agreed that our family should return home but without me!  I then had the official status of “evacuee”; the  Raby’s had made it clear that I would be welcome to stay for as long as necessary and I reluctantly waved farewell to my family not knowing when I would see them again, or if ever.

My parents were thankful to find our house still standing but many familiar buildings were gone, our Church partially destroyed, businesses disrupted and the docks badly hit.  The bombing lessened while the Luftwaffe had a go at other cities.  Although I settled in remarkably well with these extremely kind people and enjoyed  the village life but not the school! Helping on the nearby farm, having rides on home-made sledges in snow and making daisy chains was all new to this city child. Despite all of this, I was always a touch homesick.  So much so that it was thought safe enough for me to return home in May 1941.

Déjà vu – I spent the first night at home back in the shelter.  I was just in time to catch the Whit Sunday bombing of Manchester and its environs.  Once again we survived, but were shaken by the feeling that they were “at it again”.  Still the air raids continued with many lessons interrupted as we took refuge in the school basement.

Later in the war a girl came to my school whose family had moved to Salford from London to escape the Doodlebugs, V1’s and V2’s that caused such devastation in London. It was years later that I learned that one or two of them had managed to cause severe damage in the Manchester environs.

Food rationing was a huge challenge but somehow, my mother managed to produce satisfactory meals.  She was always grateful for a few eggs from Mrs. Raby from time to time.  It was a great novelty for me to go with Uncle Tom to his allotment where he kept hens and grew fruit and veg.

One of my brothers was in a reserved occupation but the other brother was not entirely truthful about his age and joined the Black Watch and was attached to the Corps of Signals.  He was badly wounded when carrying despatches on his motor cycle in Holland.  He made a remarkable recovery thanks to the skills of a neuro surgeon at the Head Injuries Unit situated in what had been one of the ladies’ colleges in Oxford.  When it was clear that he was going to recover, he asked to see me.  I shall never forget the experience of witnessing the suffering of the soldiers in the adjoining beds in that ward.

I have many grim memories of WW2 but also the remarkable resilience of people.  There were cheerful times, too, when folk buoyed each other up and looked forward to victory and to the times when nations would live at peace with one another and work together for a better world.  Now, I wonder what has happened to that spirit?

 

Elaine Greensmith

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