David Spilsbury Remembers World War Two
The War came to me early. On Friday, 1st. September 1939, as Hitler’s Blitzkrieg on Poland began, a coach load of pregnant women left Birmingham for Evesham. Everyone knows about London children being evacuated, but the government had had time since Munich to lay plans to clear the big cities of other vulnerable groups of non-combatants as well, including my mother. She was six months pregnant and found herself billeted down a side-street from the High Street, in a house containing, much to her disapproval, the illegitimate daughter of the pub landlord across the road. She had to share a narrow single bed in a draughty attic with a woman at a later stage of pregnancy and much larger than she was. They endured the forced intimacy, the discomfort and unfamiliar cooking for two nights. On the Sunday morning, they listened to Neville Chamberlain’s precise, flat Birmingham tones affirming that “I have to tell you now that this country is at war with Germany ” and decided they preferred to face whatever the city had to offer, rather than stay another unhappy day in the supposed safety of Evesham. Next morning, the first full day of the war, they caught the bus home. A few days later, when Mom went to check at Sorrento, the Matron was a bit surprised to see her, but said, “It’ll be all right, I’m sure, Mrs. Spilsbury.” Thus it was that, three months later, I was not country-born, but Moseley-born in what had been an attic of the grand house built by Mr. Ellis to please his wife by commemorating their Italian honeymoon. By then it was Sorrento Nursing Home, whose closure was fiercely fought 10 years ago and which is now sadly missed by many who gave birth or were born there. When the bomb dropped
The home I returned to was a small terrace house in Stretton Grove, off Chesterton Road, near the junction with Stoney Lane familiar to explorers of Baltiland. Tragically, the packed Carlton Cinema in Taunton Road was bombed in the notorious raid of 26th/27th. October 1940, when Luftwaffe bombers rode the X- beam from Le Havre straight across the centre of Birmingham. Our little house close behind it was shaken, but survived. After that, Mom always took me down the Anderson Shelter in the back garden when the sirens sounded, dead on 6 o’clock every night. ‘You could set your clock by them,” as people said.
Thus it was that the bomb which dropped on Stretton Grove to celebrate my first birthday destroyed only our home and some of our possessions. Dad came home from night shift to find his home wrecked. Wartime planning was at its best, though. We were homeless at the beginning of December, but the Council office set up to deal with victims of war found us a home before Christmas, a private tenancy in Moseley, not Balsall Heath.
Mom’s brother had friends in the RAF and he arranged for one of their trucks to do a “foreigner” and move our few precious sticks of furniture on Christmas Eve,. including the walnut veneer bedroom suite Mom and Dad had bought when they got married. It was a rough-and-ready Christmas for a young couple with a baby, but that house in Warren Avenue was to be the family home for the next 46 years.
Of course, these are not my memories, but the part of oral family history that frames my life in the consequences of war. My first real memory is one of being carried across the living room to a womb-like cubbyhole under the stairs. It is a few seconds of drama only, accompanied by the surging drone of aircraft, but with no sounds of exploding bombs.
There is a sense of warm panic in my mother’s hold, and then relief in the comparative safety of what experience had taught was the strong backbone of Victorian terrace houses, the part which remained standing amidst rubble in street after street in all the bombed cities and towns of Britain. The last raid on Birmingham was in September 1941, so I must have been less than 2 years old when this incident occurred, yet it is a vivid flash that sticks in the memory.
Apart from watching barrage balloons being raised on a warm summer’s day in Cannon Hill Park, my one major memory of the war itself is standing gazing up at a fleet of aircraft passing over the house. Four-engined bombers towing gliders droned in formation from the direction of Moseley Hall, disappearing over the horizon formed by the houses of Ascot Road. It was a gloriously sunny afternoon or evening and everyone was out in the back gardens, pointlessly waving and cheering. “Go on, give it to ’em …. well done lads Adolf’s on the run.”
For years, I thought that aerial armada was part of the D-Day landings, but when I learnt that 6th. June 1944 was a dull day, a narrow window of opportunity in a month of squalls, I realised my recollection clearly could not be of that.
It was the direction of flight that gave me a clue. Carry on that line and you would reach Holland, wouldn’t you? And the greatest airborne operation of the war was after just such a sunny day that September, at Arnhem. To the west of Birmingham and the Black Country, a string of emergency airfields had been built, Halfpenny Green, Pendeford, etc. Is that where they had come from, those optimistic young men in red berets taking to the air in pursuit of a bridge too far?
The following May, there was what Churchill called “a brief period of rejoicing” for Victory in Europe, before the final drive of the war in the Pacific. VE Day dawned fine and tables and stored-away best tablecloths were set in line down the middle of Leighton Road, so that children nurtured in blackout could know something of the reality of the mythical “before the war.” Dishes and crockery little used for six years appeared out of cupboards and sheds. The camaraderie of war was turned to preparing dishes unfamiliar from lack of practice and gathering materials using improvisational skills much practised out of necessity.
I sat near the top of Tudor Road, I remember, bemused by so many adults fussing round us. The strangest experience, though, was when someone put a dish in front of me in which sat a large lump of yellow glass that wobbled. I took a bit of persuading to dig a spoon into my first jelly, but never forgot the sight of it, although the taste has sadly faded.
Afterwards, when it started to get dark, a bonfire was lit at the top of Farquhar Road. There were no fireworks, of course, as war industry was not geared to produce such frivolities, but we had grown up over years in which nights were black, except for searchlights, the flashes of explosions, and unwanted fires. “Put that light out!” was dire necessity then, not an empty catchphrase. To stand round a pile of blazing wood and see laughing faces brightly lit against the dark was the very essence of hope in the future. That fire seared the road with a black circle that remained for years before the Council could resurface it, but it seared the minds of us children far longer. Never again would a bright light after sunset produce reflex fear.
The Last War The War marked indelibly those of us raised during it. It defined the basis of life, our play and the myths of national glory which we accepted and only later came to question. In a sense, “The Last War,” as it was always called, was the last war. For boys, war was an inevitable and expected aspect of growing up until recent times, but all wars since 1945 have been minority activities. Technology has ousted vast battalions and armies. The Village only rarely sees now a military uniform worn seriously, and it is unfashionable to acknowledge the legacy of might. War has been taken from the centre and told to sit still on the periphery of our history. And still it moves.