Memoirs of a School Boy During the Second World War
Remembering life in Shropshire, England, the Italian PoW Camp, and huge craters where bombs had fallen, during WWII
In 1939 when the Second World War began, Alan Edwards was six years old, living with his parents and brother on a farm near Oswestry in Shropshire, England. It was an exciting time for the young lad. As wartime activities escalated, he saw German bomber planes pass close to his home on their way to attack the Liverpool docks — a strategically important location in the British war effort.
During the Liverpool Blitz, the German Luftwaffe devastated the Liverpool docks, but the scale of the destruction was kept quiet and went largely unreported because the authorities didn’t want the Germans to know how much damage they had inflicted. The large port on the River Mersey, was the main link to North America, as well as the location where 90% of all war equipment was delivered to the UK from overseas.
It was in this context that young wide-eyed Alan often saw search lights illuminate the skies near his home, enabling anti-aircraft gunners to shoot down the German bombers heading for Liverpool. Some enemy planes returned early due to heavy gunfire in Liverpool — they dropped bombs randomly on their flights back through Shropshire. Alan’s father took him to see one of these bomb sites: a huge crater in the middle of a ploughed field. It was a chilling image of the kind you never forget.
Just outside Oswestry was a Prisoner of War camp which supplied manpower to the farm: prisoners harvested crops throughout the Summer and Autumn. They were mostly Italians who didn’t speak much English and didn’t want to be involved in the war anyway — they had done their duty, been caught and were pleased to get out of the camp. They worked hard, helping to harvest the corn, digging up potatoes and picking other crops. They were a valuable resource as most British men were away fighting, so they worked with the land girls to keep everything going on the farms.
When Alan was eight, his family moved to Shrewsbury and he remembers his time at school there. The children took their gas masks to classes and had practice runs to nearby air raid shelters — they were underground with allotments above. There were shelters in the streets too, with concrete roofs and bomb-proof doors.
“Dad got a job driving a lorry to Coventry and bringing back parts for the construction of Auxiliary Fire Service pumps mounted on trailers,” explained Alan. “He got caught in the bomb raids at Coventry when the cathedral was destroyed, but he kept going back and doing pick ups. He took the parts to the marketplace in Oswestry, which the government had requisitioned for trailer assembly. Then the finished trailers were despatched across the UK, to wherever they were most needed”.
Alan’s dad worked shifts, sometimes passing near to home on his way to collect parts. Alan had to wait at the side of the road to give his dad a packed lunch made by his mum — rationing meant he couldn’t just pick up a sandwich from a shop.
The family lived on Copthorne Road, near the barracks and Headquarters of the Kings Shropshire Light Infantry. Soldiers were coming and going, there were troops on training runs, and military bands performed on special occasions. It all made Alan feel he was in the thick of the action. The Copthorne Hospital (opposite where the Royal Shrewsbury Hospital is now) was occupied by Italian Prisoners of War who were allowed to walk into town and enjoyed considerable liberties. “Most were recovering from injuries, so they weren’t going to run away,” said Alan.
The family relied on the radio for information about the war efforts, and reports of large numbers of Allied aircraft flying out to attack Germany (with most returning) were typical. They heard about German raids on Britain too: the London Docks, Liverpool, Birmingham, Coventry, Portsmouth, Southampton and Bristol to name just a few! When the King and Queen visited the East End of London to meet the people living there and see the destruction, it was big news because it was very unusual for royalty to mix with commoners at the time.
Alan smiled as he remembered Tommy Handley on the radio every Thursday. He was the comedian of the day. Alan said, “he lifted people’s spirits”. Workers Playtime was another radio show which toured the UK visiting factories around the country, with the aim of raising morale among the workers. It succeeded and was so enjoyed that it continued long after the war. It was a mix of comedy and music that engaged ordinary people in their workplaces and provided a platform for wartime officials to congratulate the workers for their valuable contributions to the war effort.
The Americans trained military airmen in Shropshire and once training was complete, they moved to airfields in Kent and South East England. This meant many US and Canadian airmen were located in and around Shrewsbury, alongside soldiers. Military lorries were parked around the town. Outside the local church, Alan remembers asking the American troops for sweets.
“Any gum chum?” was the school boys’ catchphrase, and it usually resulted in a whole packet being given to the children because the soldiers could buy it cheaply in the American camps.
“The rations allowed us only a quarter pound of sweets per week,” recalled Alan. “We had one after school every day and that was it. We had to make them last. Getting extras from the American soldiers was a real bonus!”
People enjoyed fun and humour despite the war. Alan smiled as he recalled the rationing jokes from his local pantomime: “The actor was complaining that his meat ration for the week was so small that he wrapped it up in his bus ticket to take it home — and it fell through the punch hole!”
Some years after the war, Alan secured an apprenticeship at the Sentinel Steam Wagon Company on the outskirts of Shrewsbury. He was lucky the building survived the war as several bombs were dropped in the vicinity, and the locals said that the bomber pilots were aiming for the Wagon Company but kept missing it!
Alan obviously survived the experience and today he lives in Shrewsbury with his wife, having retired from a career as a church minister.
Get the Book!
Read more about people in wartime Britain, in ‘Memories of the Second World War’ by Susie Kearley, available on Amazon here.