‘We are now at war with Germany’
Mrs Marjorie Crowe (2009)
We were in St Olave’s Church, Ramsey, when someone entered the main door and handed an envelope to the Minister. Everyone stopped singing. When he opened the envelope and announced, ‘I’m sorry to tell you that we are now at war with Germany’, we were in a state of shock.
The service proceeded: no-one spoke.
Afterwards, we stayed in small groups as if gaining strength from each other.
As the week ensued, we had prepared ourselves for the next shock to come.
We knew call-up papers for the young men who were eligible would soon arrive. They came within a few days. The postman delivering our letters told us that the Reservists had been called up for active service and were assembling at the Old Cross (the part of Old Ramsey near Lough House) so we collected our bikes and set off. We found a small group of people assembled there watching the Reservists lined up in formation. One of the mothers who lived in Maughold Street was wearing a black dress and a white apron. As the men marched to a coach which was waiting in Waterloo Road to take them away, she pulled her apron over her face and sobbed. We were made aware then that this was the beginning of the unknown.
Many young people volunteered before the age of eighteen, including my two brothers.
The Home Guard was established and training began for Civil Defence. Windows had to be blacked out and street lamps were dimmed. Identity cards and gas masks were issued and had to be carried at all times.
The role of women
There was no conscription for women but our employers expected us to do voluntary work. Some joined the Land Army. Others started on training courses for nurses and the police force.
Many of the younger group volunteered for the Forces. Others were in charge of offices and shops. There were training courses for Wrens in Douglas. When the war with Germany accelerated, more pilots were needed. Some of the WAAF were qualified pilots; others were training and invaluable for ferrying the aircraft.
As the war intensified, men in the older age groups were recruited to the armed services. Women were able to help to take their place in various occupations, in banks, the Civil Service, as well as the armed forces and the Land Army.
Two gallant ladies
We realised that this was a new era. One of the first to be affected was the nineteen-year-old daughter of a painter and decorator. Some of his men were among the first to be on the Register. When the last man was called to train for combat, their nineteen-year-old daughter offered to help. She was often seen, wearing white overalls, climbing the painter’s tall ladder, carrying a paint can and brush ready to paint one of the tall buildings in Parliament Street.
When the postman for North Ramsey was conscripted for military service, her mother, who would be in her late forties, offered to take his place. She could not drive, so travelled many miles on her bicycle between the Vollan and Bride, often down muddy lanes, delivering post from Ramsey to Bride, in all weathers.
The education service too needed more recruits to replace the servicemen who had volunteered or been conscripted.
Air raid sirens were heard. When this occurred at night, all lights had to be extinguished and the wardens on duty would meet in the basement of the Bank (now the Westminster). Raids often took place in the early hours when enemy aircraft returned from Northern Ireland. A kind benefactor arranged with Christory’s Bakers to supply food and hot tea for the volunteers. We would patrol the streets to make sure that no lights were showing and all premises secured.
Barriers were erected on Bowring Road, which led to Jurby. These were about six feet high, consisting of sand bags, the first at the Fort and the second at Thornycroft. They were zigzagged to allow traffic to proceed. Dimmed storm lanterns were lit at night at the foot of the barriers.
After Dunkirk in 1940, the Island forces had few means of defence. Broom handles sharpened at both ends were issued to the air personnel at Jurby. Only the Home Guard who had their own guns were correctly armed. We were completely demoralised.
The influx of service families
With the increase in the number of servicemen, accommodation was very difficult to find. Refugees were also arriving. Some came from the Channel Islands, others were escaping from wartime Britain. Some went home in despair; others stayed rather than face the nightly air-raids in England. Air crew arrived, many bringing their families and seeking somewhere to live. This was difficult.
Boarding houses on the Mooragh Promenade had been requisitioned for the establishing of the Internment Camp and all residents had to leave their premises by the 21st of May. They were only permitted to take a few possessions with them. Some managed to find suitable premises. Others with children relied on relatives to care for the younger ones. This caused so much heartbreak. Their livelihood had also disappeared. There were few tourists then in winter and they relied on the early season to meet the winter fuel and food bills, rates and heating. The parents of one of my friends owned a boarding house on the Mooragh Promenade. When their home was required for the internees, she was eighteen. I recently asked her, ‘Where did you find somewhere to live?’ She replied, ‘I don’t remember. It was if it had never happened.’
Our next visit was from two Army Billetting Officers, who called at my parents’ house requesting accommodation for two men who were interpreters based at the new Mooragh Camp. They had nowhere to stay. So desperate were they that one had to sleep in a cell at the Police Station the previous evening. They inspected the two bedrooms on the top floor (of Thornycroft, Bowring Road) and decided it would enable the interpreters a degree of privacy. The rooms were suitable for four men who were part of a unit at the Internment Camp on the Mooragh Promenade. They arrived that evening and were soon settled in. They were friendly and discreet. We did not discover their role at the camp. The guards and internees soon arrived by steamer which berthed at the Ramsey Pier.
Thornycroft was a six-bedroomed house. Already there was a Sergeant in RAF Jurby, his wife and three-year-old daughter staying with us (Mother, Father and three daughters). They stayed with us until the end of the war and my mother stayed in touch with them for many years afterwards. Their name was Gove, and their daughter was Stella.
Building new airfields
Preparations were also being made for the construction of airfields at Jurby, Ronaldsway and Andreas. Bride Sand and Gravel (BSG) was appointed and work began. Sand, gravel and stone was in demand.
Ronaldsway was the most urgent and after each day’s delivery, the contractor would telephone stating the quantity of sand and gravel needed for the following day. One evening, all deliveries were cancelled when an important archaeological site was discovered at the end of the runway under construction. This site was to be excavated by a German professor and his wife Maria. They were living in the married quarters at Port St Mary internment camp. He was a well-known archaeologist. His role was to direct the excavation, which was to be carried out by volunteers from the camp. Maria, also an archaeologist, was responsible for the survey of the site. For security reasons, armed guards were on duty at all times. In his book Island at War, Connery Chappell does not mention any Manx archaeologists involved in the excavation.
Meanwhile, Jurby airfield was nearly completed, RAF personnel were in their quarters. Large hangars were almost covered and training of new recruits was under way. This was the year of the air battle over Britain. Small quarries were re-opened. BSG owned the Dhoon Quarry, leased one in Sulby Glen and another in Dalby. Fresh water was needed to wash the salt from the aggregates, boreholes were made and a well was constructed near to the shore, using concrete castings. Work began. A depth was reached when it was necessary for a ladder to be used by the workman. One man was securing the final casting when his rubber boots suddenly filled with water and a quick exit via the ladder was needed.
A bridge was needed to gain access to the Sulby Quarry. For this, railway sleepers were laid and then concreted over. This bridge was in existence for many years after the war. The measures helped with the increased workload. Another difficulty was the staffing problem with younger men joining the forces leaving older men to carry out their work.
Army personnel were billeted in Midwoods Photographic shop next to the Lifeboat Station in Ramsey. We spoke to one soldier who was sitting on a chair ‘on sentry duty’. I’ve never seen a young man look so exhausted. He just gazed out to sea with expressionless eyes. It was said they were here as a rest after Dunkirk.
After Dunkirk, some of the survivors were stationed in Ramsey, also members of the Free French Army were stationed at the Hydro (later renamed the Grand Island Hotel). Volunteers opened a Centre in the Old Chapel Hall, where the Electricity Showroom now stands. This was to provide somewhere Service Personnel could write letters, have refreshments and talk with local people. Letters from Service Personnel were often censored.
The introduction of rationing
Food and clothing rationing came into force and also petrol log books had to be kept. Although we had coupons for certain foods, oranges and bananas were very scarce. Meat shortages meant finding alternatives. Sausage meat could be minced with oats or bread and onions and steamed in a pudding basin, then sliced and served cold with salad. The WI taught us to bottle fruit and tomatoes. Apples could be cut into rings and dried. Bread was rationed for a short time. We were fortunate to have Laxey Glen Mills. Elderberries and blackberries could be made into a good winter drink. Jelly could be made from cherryade pop and gelatine. Rose hips were collected and used to make a tonic for children. Farmers’ wives preserved eggs in isinglass. Butter would be wrapped in half pounds, wrapped in butter muslin, placed in a crock then covered with water which had been boiled with salt. This solution had to be strong enough to float an egg. It was left for 24 hours before using. This would still be fresh after 12 months. Clothing was rationed. A coat and three pairs of stockings would take almost a year’s supply of coupons.
Garments could be made from materials not rationed. A warm winter coat could be made from travel rugs bought from Sulby Woollen Mills, and a warm dressing gown using curtain material, neither of which were rationed. Lace was not rationed and could be made into a wedding dress. A mother with small children trying to cope on the allowance made to Service wives would sometimes sell their children’s clothing coupons, to enable her to buy extra food for them.
In 1942, in order to maintain the Gold Reserves, the Government made an order that wedding rings could only contain 9-carat gold and must not be wider than a curtain ring. We were also encouraged to invest in National Savings.
This was a difficult time for mothers. They were solely responsible for the children, who were upset in the absence of their fathers. Also some were working hard to keep a family business profitable and making decisions for the future. At the beginning of the war, the main maternity hospital was in Douglas. Due to the influx of new mums, and because petrol rationing and the blackout made travelling difficult, it was decided that a Maternity Home would be established in Ramsey, and suitable premises at Brookhill Road were found and adapted. Unfortunately, because of the condition of the building, it was impossible to install a lift, so patients had to be carried by the nurses from the maternity wards to their bedrooms. Establishing this maternity unit made it much simpler for their families to visit the mothers and the new arrivals. The Matron was young and very pleasant, as were the nurses. They would relate any news of Ramsey and of the war.
One of the service families lived in a rented house near to me. They had two children, a boy of 10 and a little girl of three or four, who was looking forward to starting school at Albert Road. One day the mother was on her way to purchase food at one of the small shops in Bowring Road. She secured the straps on the push chair to make sure the daughter was safe. Unfortunately, the little girl managed to undo the safety harness and ran across the road in front of a motor car. She died instantly. Her mother was distraught. We tried to contact her husband. He was on a temporary posting from Jurby and was somewhere in England, and so it was difficult to contact him. We did eventually and he was given compassionate leave. As there was no telephone in the house, it was arranged she would stay with me where she could receive the telephone call from her husband. She was worried about his reaction to the tragedy. When the call came through, I handed the phone to her and left the room but could not help hearing her say, ‘Do you still love me?’
Moving away from friends and family was a strain for mothers and children. With the new influx, extra classrooms were needed to cope with them. The teachers helped the children to cope with a new curriculum and culture. They were used to the frequent postings of service life and soon settled to new routines. When doubts were expressed, one headmaster said they had
good exam markings and adapted well. One of the schools which the mothers put on top of the list was the Dhoor, a little country building between Ramsey and Regaby.
When the war with Germany escalated, training time for air crews decreased to a few months. At the end of this, they were given a short home leave before being posted on active service. We realised they expected the war to be over before their training was completed. It was a very sad time. Short leave brought home personnel who lived previously in the Isle of Man and it was good to see them most wearing service uniform. The Manx ships en route to and from Fleetwood were often overcrowded and permits gave priority to military personnel and their families. Students wishing to return home were not on the list. It was not unusual for a girl student longing to get back to the Island to ask a single male soldier if she could be his ‘wife’ for the journey.
Activity was seen at the new West Grammar School on Lezayre Road. Air Force Personnel were seen entering the building. Rumours spread round the town. Armed guards were on duty. It was not until after the war that we learned that this was an important Radar Station. A large platform was built on the sea between Jurby Head and the Point of Ayre. This was for practice bombing.
An Air/Sea rescue unit was established at the Shipyard in Ramsey. The crews of these high-speed craft took part in many rescues of ships. These are recorded in the book Ramsey Life Boats 1820-1991.
J urby Airfield
Following the invasion of Poland and Czechoslovakia, young men who had escaped were posted to Jurby Airfield for training. They had no means of contacting their families. Some of them married local girls and made a good life here. As well, there were· also Canadians and New Zealanders, who were stationed at Jurby and Andreas. When America entered the war, confidence and morale improved.
We were no longer alone.
A Sunday School outing
Some of the wives and children were living on Windsor Mount overlooking the Bay. Some of the children attended St Olave’s Sunday School, so we invited them to come with us on the Sunday School Picnic to Silverdale. When the big day came, the weather was perfect and everyone had a good time. The shop was sold out of sweets but they still had crisps, candyfloss, ice-cream and Horlicks tablets, swings and a boating lake. The mothers told us of listening for the planes returning from raids over Germany in the early morning. This meant that husbands would soon be home for breakfast. It was unlucky to count them. We taught them ‘Ellan Vannin’ and ‘Ramsey Town’, which we sang in the coach on the way home. We became good friends. They missed their families in England but enjoyed the safety of the Island.
There were many accidents and plane crashes on the Island, some on Snaefell. Due to security, there was little publicity at the time. Because of the secrecy regarding aircraft disasters on the Island during the war, tumour played a major part of our lives. When news circulated that wreckage had been seen on Snaefell, many people braved the steep climb to investigate. By this time, the major bulk of the disaster had been removed for investigation, and only small parts remained. These were collected and some made into decorative items. One such in my possession is a brass table lighter with a model Spitfire on top, a small but fitting tribute to a gallant crew.
Entertainment in Ramsey consisted of two cinemas and the Saturday dances 1eld at the Pool Ballroom. It had a good floor. There was a local band on stage and an M.C. Tables and chairs were comfortable. There was a coffee jar. Alcohol was forbidden and it was always warm in winter. The Polish men were especially good dancers. We became friendly with one of them and invited him home for Sunday lunch. On meeting my Mother, he bowed, :licked his heels and kissed her hand. They spoke about Warsaw and his family. During the early part of the war and as part of establishing good relations with the people of Ramsey, invitations were issued to an evening entertainment at Jurby Airport. This was for most residents a welcome break and also a way of satisfying curiosity about the way in which it operated. Free transport was provided and, as we entered the main gate, sentries were on duty, and a general feeling of excitement prevailed. We were shown into a large room with a stage, seating arrangements and dimmed lighting. When we had settled, curtains were drawn and the play commenced. We enjoyed the evening immensely, especially when we recognised some of the Station personnel in the cast. I think this play was ‘Night must fall’, It is difficult to convey the pleasure of that evening, as travelling was restricted owing to petrol rationing.
At that time I owned a plot of land at Grove Mount. It was surrounded by trees and a hedge. One of the interpreters at the Mooragh Camp asked me if some of the internees could use it to grow vegetables. They would buy the seeds and supply me with some of the produce. They would need tea and food mid-morning. This was agreed but this must be given to the guard who accompanied them. One day when I made the trip, the guard was not there. I asked them where he was. They laughed and said he was under the apple tree fast asleep ‘We’re watching him! He won’t get away!’
[Many were Italians who were desperately missing their families. My mother says that she would often take me up in the pram and they loved that, cooing over me in a very Italian way! FB]
Travel off the Island
Travelling to England was difficult. The Steam Packet ships sailed to Fleetwood to avoid the raids in the dock area in Liverpool. Some areas of the entrance to the port were mined. Soon after I was married, we needed to visit there. It was a calm day with a sea mist. As we neared Fleetwood, the fog intensified. The ship’s engine slowed down then stopped. After a few minutes, the seaman on duty shouted and we could see the faint glow of the sun. We were soon on our way into the harbour. There was no radar at that time. Liverpool was protected by the huge barrage balloons and was targeted on many bombing raids. A business colleague phoned me very distressed. He couldn’t find his way to the office where his employment of twenty years once stood. Now everywhere he looked there was nothing but rubble. He was heartbroken.
One lovely autumn day when harvesting was under way at Balladoole (Lezayre), a young airman walked into the field and asked if he could help. It transpired that he was recovering from an accident while training. He was in charge of the drogue which was flown from the aircraft during target practice. In doing this, his hand was caught in the winding gear. Fortunately the pilot realised the difficulty and managed to return to base, landing safely. Ralph Smith was the official photographer at Jurby. He was responsible for the complete set of aerial maps of the Isle of Man, a set of which are kept in the Manx Museum. He was a very good friend, who escaped relatively unscathed from more than one air crash. I seem to remember he worked for a local newspaper in Lydney or the Welsh Borders. After the war, while he was still stationed at Jurby, he was a regular visitor, often bringing a precious box of New Berry Fruits
Calling out the lifeboat
In peacetime, rockets were fired to call out the lifeboat crew. However, this was not the practice during the war. The coxswain’s young daughter had to run along Barrack Lane, banging on the doors to alert the crew members.
The end of the war
The war ended on 5th May 1945. Everyone seemed to be celebrating. Bunting decorated almost every building and in Ramsey a large banner was suspended between the tall twin chimneys in the Ship Yard. Street parties were planned and blackout curtains were taken down.
Homecoming of personnel from the forces was eagerly awaited. One did not know whether to laugh or cry. Some would not return, their graves unknown. About a month later, my sister and I were walking down Bowring Road where my parents lived. She was ahead of me. A man in a khaki uniform was coming towards us. He did not speak to her. It was only when we met did I recognise my eldest brother, home from the forces in Africa and Italy. We had not seen him for three years. She was then fourteen and he hadn’t recognised her. [Manx servicemen were unable to take advantage of 48-hour leave and many were away from the Island for years at a time FB]
Returning to civilian life
When peace was declared, most servicemen and their families were looking forward to demobilisation and a new way of living. Many servicemen were still in their teens; some still had to take examinations. Depending on the arrangements, be it a small or large firm, apprenticeships could be from four to seven years. In some cases, the Manx Government helped with small grants for the first few years. Some agreed to shorten the length of the apprenticeship.
This was a difficult time for students based in training colleges. Teaching methods had changed. Some found it difficult to adapt to the new regime. Others coped well and adapted to this new way of life. Apprentices who had been used to having regular pay in the services found it frustrating not having money to spend and having to economise by living with relatives. In some cases, the relatives were given a small grant for their food and keep until the student finished training and was able to earn a living. Wives too had helped to keep a family business solvent also helped the returning service men to take over the running of the businesses they had had to leave.
It was a new world.
Categorised as: Memories