It was a few minutes to 11am and Ron and I were returning home as fast as we could because momentous events were afoot. We charged down the street and rushed into the house. The wireless was on and I heard the words gravely spoken,
‘As no such guarantee has been given (or was it received), this country is now in a state of war with Germany.’
I think it was our Ted (photo) who spoke first,
‘The best thing I can do is volunteer for the medical corps. There’s no way I want to get pushed into the infantry to be shot at!’
Once Ted had received his papers for the Army (in January 1940) a date was fixed for his wedding.
On the morning he was to marry Elsie Cartwright the snow lay thick on the ground and about 11am the Vicar came knocking at the front door,
‘Mr Hastings, if you still want to get married this afternoon you’ll have to get some help to dig a pathway through to the church, otherwise you’ll have to set another date.’
Ted managed to get some of his mates to help and they finally cleared a pathway to the door. The wedding went ahead.
Two weeks later Ted was in the Royal Army Medical Corps and four months after that he was in Dover evacuating the dead and badly wounded soldiers from the holds of the rescue ships after Dunkirk. What we didn’t know, until much later, was what the nature of this work was:
Wearing a rubberised groundsheet over his clothes he, and other Medical Corps men, would go onto the evacuation ships, climbing up and down the ships ladder with dead and wounded men over his shoulder. If you doubt this then go and look at the size of the hatches leading into the bowels of a ship. Ted later told us there was often so much blood his uniform was soaked through to the skin and as he walked, the blood in his boots spurted out through the lace holes.
But the horror did not end there, for ships that had been bombed had dead men aboard with limbs etc blown off and scattered about. In the makeshift mortuaries, armed with long metal clips and staples, the severed limbs and heads were clipped back on, all the time hoping this was the correct arm, leg or head. By the time this duty was eventually over Ted, a non or virtually non-smoker, was smoking packet after packet of cigarettes.
Ted’s wife (Elsie) was living just up the hill from us and I clearly remember one day, as I was going home from school, seeing her and her parents almost running up the hill, obviously in a great hurry. I found out why later. My sister-in-law had a brother, young Bob, who’d been brought back by his army mates from Dunkirk, very badly injured in both legs. Sadly, by the time he arrived at Dover hospital, gas gangrene had set in and there wasn’t much hope. Both legs were amputated and he was sinking fast, thus the haste of his family.
When his family arrived he asked his mother for a glass of beer but an officious nurse or Sister had commented,
‘Beer is not allowed on the ward!’
At this, young Bob’s mother had stood up and said,
‘If my boy wants a glass of beer, then he’ll have a glass of beer!’ and with that she went out and got him a bottle of beer. His last wish was fulfilled.
Young Bob died soon after, still in Dover hospital.
The family were told that if they wanted Bob’s body sent home for burial they should arrange for the local undertaker to meet the train at London Road railway station at a prearranged time; the coffin would be sealed and should not be opened.
Preparations were made and at the appointed time the train was met……no coffin!
A mistake had been made and Bob had been buried in Dover cemetery. With this news, the family decided to leave Bob in Dover with his mates. Young Bob, R.I.P.
After Dunkirk Ted worked in the War Office, London.
The Sunday evening World War II broke out, Mam, Ron and I went into town, as I imagine did many of Leicester’s inhabitants. We were walking along one of the main shopping streets but because of the blackout not a body could be seen, and yet we could feel crowds of people pressing around us as we were forced along. It was eerie. From somewhere our little family group had managed to obtain an ‘illuminous’ badge which was a disc approximately 1 inch diameter. If it was held close to the face and a glimmer of light fell across its surface, it was possible to see a green glow emanating from it but that was all. Certainly, the people in Granby Street, some going one way and some going the other, sensed rather than saw their way along and had no idea where other people were until they collided. Were people seeking comfort and confidence from the close proximity of others?
Then someone struck a match to light a cigarette, forgetting! At once the cry went up that we were to hear so many times during the next few years: PUT THAT BLOODY LIGHT OUT! THE GERMAN BOMBERS CAN SEE IT! which struck me as rather odd at that moment as there weren’t any of the dreaded Hun above us!
Our school midsummer holidays were extended that year and when we did return to school it was on a half day basis; mornings one week and afternoons the next, with the girls’ side fitting in on the alternative half days.
I cannot remember whether it was one of our half days of schooling or whether it was a Saturday but certainly a school chum and I, whilst standing at the Spinney Hill Park entrance close to Park Vale Road on the Mere Road, heard an aeroplane.
We ran to the top of Derwent Street (or was it Darley Street) and looked out over the said street which sloped down towards the main Charles Street/ London Road railway station. There were no high-rise flats in those days and we had a grandstand view of a plane in the near distance, droning steadily along.
‘That’s a Wellington bomber’ said my companion!’
‘No it’s not,’ I replied, ‘I think it’s a Defiant bomber!’
At almost that exact moment, the plane’s nose dropped. It casually dove down quite a way and then up came its nose as it regained its former height and continued on its way. Several moments later, or should I say several explosions later, we were both proved wrong. Cavendish Road had become the first place to be bombed in Leicester. Oh yes, the air raid siren did go off…….but later. The War had arrived and for us the Phoney War was over!
(Norman: Through My Eyes. A social and personal history of Leicester – Amazon)
About the author
Jules registered at Leicester, Born and Raised. on Jul 16, 2020, 06:07 PM and has posted 1 posts in the boards since then. Last visit was Aug 25, 2023, 09:36 AM.
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