Small Boys and War

By Tony Greenfield

Small boys don’t relate easily to big wars but it was the big war that took me to Longstone, Derbyshire, in 1940. Anticipation of the war had already disturbed my life as we moved up and down the country. I was born in Sheffield but when the family moved, I hardly understood. I was only six when we went to London in 1937 where Father worked at government laboratories. Among other things, he was asked to develop a way to destroy dams by aerial attack. He worked on this problem for several months before confessing that he couldn’t do it so the problem was handed to Barnes Wallis. He told me that the idea of doing it had been that of some ministry many but Barnes Wallis deserved great credit for working out how to do it. He also worked on the development of the explosive called RDX.

We moved to West Hartlepool because the government asked Father to build and commission a plant for extracting magnesium from seawater. Since magnesium was a strategic material, the project was secret so Father was instructed to let it be known that he was managing a babies’ shoe factory: a very silly alias for a leading chemical engineer.

The war began while I was staying with grandparents in a village near Durham. Worried that Hartlepool might be attacked, my parents left me to stay with my grandparents and I went to a village school for two terms. This wasn’t as safe as they expected. Grandpa was manager of coke ovens that supplied coke to blast furnaces and the Germans were intent on destroying his works. There were several air raids but, at that time, the bombs landed in the field and I collected shrapnel from the craters. I remember watching a dog fight over the works between Hurricanes and Dorniers.

We returned to Sheffield and, still concerned about enemy attacks, Father learned that Birkdale School, then just a small prep school, had moved to Longstone. We drove there in the summer of 1940, first to Hassop where we left my 13 year old brother, and then to the farm at Thornbridge where my parents left me.

The first and second forms, aged seven to nine, were at the farm. The third to sixth forms, aged up to 13, were in the stables at Hassop. Three weeks later, the headmaster John Roberts drove me to Hassop where he said I would find the work more challenging. We had porridge and black treacle for breakfast, naked crowds in bathrooms, and after lights out I was made to stand with outstretched arms, a slipper on each arm, as a punishment for talking.

The next term we all moved to Thornbridge Hall. A few small dormitories were in the main hall but 30 of us slept in the huge garage which Charlie Boot had hung with great artistic works. Wide windows faced north-east and from these we watched the flames of Sheffield as it burned in the blitz. In my mind I saw, through the flames, Mother serving soup and sandwiches to soldiers in the SSAFA canteen near Hunters Bar and Father with a bucket of sand and a stirrup pump fire watching on the roof of a city centre store. I had been to Cockaynes in the holidays to buy a new doormat. The next holidays, Father showed me what remained of the store: a jungle of rubble and twisted girders. We were cosy in Longstone, enjoying fresh air, beautiful countryside and farm produce. The war would have stayed unreal had it not been for those flames and holiday visits to Sheffield and the sight of its devastation.

But I was still very young. I didn’t realise how close we were to being conquered.

We all had bicycles and were taken for rides at weekends to distant places like Tideswell and Youlgreave, in the evening racing round the grounds of the hall and playing bike polo on the tennis court. I cycled weekly to Bakewell for a piano lesson. Gardeners, at Charlie’s command, did magic, moving trees, repairing great classic statues (Atlas, with the world on his shoulders, had lost his nose), and even creating over night, just to surprise us, a new shrubbery bed. We walked to church on Sunday mornings, alternately to Longstone and Ashford. The duke read the lesson at Ashford and his daughters arrived by pony-and-trap. We walked on Sunday afternoons, often to Monsal Head and Dale. The rocky castle was magic to our imaginative minds. So were the trains that roared across the viaduct and into the tunnel. On the way back we chased cows into the path of matron who cried with fear and was later furious.

We walked to Hassop, through the small green gate into the woodland and to the little lake, where we swam. Look at it now: it’s muddy and very dirty. It was just as dirty then but we swam and had fun. There was a small jetty with a rowing boat that we took to the middle and dived off it.

I learned to play rugby which I loved. In the classroom I learned nothing of any use to me in the rest of my life except for geometry. Most of life focused on religion and I believed that we would win the war because God was on our side. But chocolate was rationed. My brother and I crept out late one night to empty the last load of one penny Nestlé bars from the chocolate machine on the station platform. One boy proudly returned from the post office with a two pound pot of marmalade the day before jam rationing started. We contributed though by growing vegetables, rising at six to cycle to the allotment and singing as we went: ‘When we were young we used to scratch Mr Heeley’s cabbage patch, so early in the morning, so early in the morning, before the break of day.’

Mother sent me food parcels which I stored in my tuck box: Virol and hard boiled eggs. One day I found a box of corona cigars in my tuck box. My brother took them to Charlie Boot thinking they must be his. He was right. We surmised that some other boy had pilfered them from the hall table and fearfully disposed of the evidence in my tuck box.

In 1943, just before my 12th birthday, Father said: ‘It’s about time you did something for the war effort.’

(More about Tony)

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