The Outbreak of War

A memoir of life in Rolleston by Mary J Baxter who moved to Rolleston in 1939 at the age of 11and in recent years has returned to visit old friends. 

My earliest memory of the beginning of the war was as we walked home from the village chapel on Sunday September 3rd. As we walked past a house on Station Road, a voice called to us - “Where are your gas masks?” - I did not want to believe it but Chamberlain had just made his famous speech and we were indeed at war.

Some weeks before this I had been introduced to the first indication of the horrors that war might mean. One evening a man from the Civil Defence volunteers came to our house. He carried a large bag and like a conjurer lifting a rabbit out of a hat, proceeded to take out a square cardboard box.

No! It wasn’t Christmas coming early, for from the box he produced the most hideous object I had ever seen.

We watched with amazement as he explained that he had come to show us how to use gas masks as war seemed unavoidable.

It was like a nightmare, because I had heard about Germany invading other countries and worried about what would happen to us if we too were invaded.

With disbelief I watched my father change from a pleasant faced man into a stranger. I felt the hairs rise on my head as I willed him to take it off and was thankful when he did. “Now you”, he turned to my mother and handed one to her, carefully noting the details in a book.

One by one, we children were given a gas mask to try on, something my brothers did with great hilarity, making weird noises which made me cover my ears. Then it was my turn and I fumbled with the peculiar piece of rubber that smelt horribly and made odd noises as I breathed in and out. How terrible it would be to have to wear this thing if there was a war. I could not bear the thought and was glad when it was removed from my face.

From the day war was declared that detested gas mask was my constant companion. Luckily we never used them except for a few minutes practice each week which was more than enough.

Of course the cardboard boxes disintegrated in a few weeks and then we were given a tin very similar in the size and shape to the tins that National Dried Baby Milk came in. These would bounce as we ran home from school and often came into painful contact with our elbows, the funny bone to be exact. I learned many years later in Nurse Training School this name was given because the “funny” bone was at the base of the Humerus (the arm bone).

Everyone wanted to help in the ‘war effort’ and even though we were too young to do much, we did what we could. One of our uses was to knit for the troops, scarves for soldiers and airmen and sea boot stockings for sailors. These were knitted with oiled wool which had the bonus of softening our hands.

My father, together with the men of the village who were either too old or too young for the services joined the “Local Defence Volunteers” (later becoming the Home Guard). They joined together in their time from normal work to prepare themselves in case there was an invasion. My eldest brother joined as soon as he was sixteen and stayed with them until he was called up into the army.

At school, food rationing was taken seriously and in our cookery lessons with Mrs Brettle we were taught to use these rations carefully and never to waste anything. Our school dinner menus were carefully worked out so that the meals were tasty and satisfying. These were augmented by the vegetables grown by the boys in the school allotment. These school meals cost each child only three and a half pence (old money) all the time I attended Tutbury School.

At home we were busy making blackout curtains which had to be completely impervious to light. This material was difficult to sew, but eventually no windows showed any light which might guide bombers on their way to bomb the factories in nearby towns.

Street lamps were put out so that at night, it was extremely dark except when there was a moon. We all hoped it would be cloudy at full moon for then it was almost as light as in the daytime. The few cars and buses had to have lights dimmed so that it was hazardous to drive at night.

Soon after the war began evacuees from Birmingham arrived in the village and in Burton. In Rolleston they had lessons in the Commemoration Hall so that our schooling went on as normal’. This was not so for one of my brothers who went to school in Burton where, for the duration of the war, the town children had to share with the evacuees, each being taught part time, either mornings or afternoons.

Living in the area near the railway station, there were few children so I was delighted when a family from London arrived for their daughter was the same age as me and we soon became firm friends. That friendship has lasted until the present day although we have not met each other for many years.

© Mary Joyce Baxter

Mrs Baxter, who is also a keen photographer, has published a collection of poetry “Reflections”, some of the pictures and poems drawing on her memories of the village and local area. Price £2.50, with 50p going to Cancer Research, from Mrs Baxter, 48 Lindale Crescent, Burnley, Lancs. .BB10 1EX

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Last updated: 24 June 2006