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A Moving Account of a Young Girl's Life in the Midlands During the Second World War
By Cherryl Vines
The History PressCopyright © 2012 Cherryl Vines
All rights reserved.
War is Announced
It is Sunday the 3rd of September 1939. It is not long past eleven in the morning. I am fifteen years and sixteen days old.
The radiogram at my home, The Woodman Hotel in Clent, has just been switched off, the silence resonates around the room, a deathly hush has fallen.
As usual on a Sunday morning the place is full. Weather-worn farm workers lounging in the front bar, dapper businessmen who have escaped the Sunday morning chores to sup a few pints of ale while their long-suffering wives stay at home to prepare the meal. The chef, who wandered out from the hot kitchens just a few minutes ago, wiping his hands on his crisp white apron, is vaguely annoyed that his pre-lunch routine is being disturbed, little knowing how much his life is about to change. The carefree chambermaids have scampered down from their bed-making duties, wondering what on earth can be so important to keep them from their work. My Mother, my Father and I, we are all there to share this terrible piece of news – news that will change our lives forever.
We have all listened to the broadcast in stunned, horrified silence. Although summer is just coming to an end and autumn has barely started, with the golden leaves still stubbornly attached to the trees, there is a chill in the air.
We are in a state of shock, having heard confirmation of news that many have dreaded for months. The Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, has declared that, despite the best efforts of the politicians of the day to secure 'peace in our time', the inevitable has befallen us; despite pledges to the contrary, Germany has invaded Poland, Hitler has ignored requests to back down and so, therefore, 'BRITAIN IS NOW AT WAR WITH GERMANY'.
There is a collective sigh. 'Never mind,' someone says, trying to lighten the mood, 'it'll all be over by Christmas!'
If only! We were not to know it, but there would be six long Christmases of fear, deprivation and shortages before this awful war was over. The Prime Minister has requested that we all play our part with calmness and courage; little do we know at this time just how much courage it will take to get us through this dreadful ordeal.
Minutes after the broadcast ends, my Father, Sidney Wheeler, goes quietly up to his room and prepares for a potentially murderous act.
In a bedroom of the hotel in this quiet Worcestershire village, he methodically loads three bullets into his First World War revolver.
His intention, should the Germans invade, is to shoot his beloved family.
One bullet is for me (Pamela, his only child), the second for his wife Marie (my Mother) and the final one will be used to remove him from the horror of what he has just created through his actions.
He has given this plan a great deal of thought. A veteran of the Somme, he knows the Germans, he knows what is coming, he knows what war does to a man and he sees this act as perfectly reasonable. When the Germans come he will be ready!
Wrapping the loaded weapon carefully in a large cotton handkerchief, he stows it away. Pushing the drawer closed, he turns the key and prays that he will never be forced to have to use it.
Never having experienced the worries and deprivations of war and little knowing what lies ahead, my concerns at this time are rather more focused on my return to school for the new autumn term, getting together my uniform and books and preparing for the forthcoming and dreaded School Certificate.
Though I am not to know it just yet, Herr Hitler is soon to rid me of the requirement for, or the worry of, any of these things.CHAPTER 2
My Father's War
He has tried hard to put behind him the terrible sights and sounds of the battlefields of the First World War. He rarely speaks about what has happened.
But this 'War to end all Wars' has seen him witness many, many dreadful barbarous acts, including the murder of his best friend, shot through the head by a German leaving a captured bunker. He has never said but I suspect that the perpetrator of this deadly act did not live long after this outrage. He has also witnessed the sickening experience of seeing one of his pals walking beside him who, having stood on a mine, is quite literally blown to kingdom come. There is nothing left of him at all. Absolutely nothing!
And there was so much more.
The rats, the lice, the mud, the blood, the stench of life (and death) in the trenches – most of the troops spending hours up to their knees in water until the command, given by the sound of a whistle, to go over the top to attack – and never knowing who would be next to die. And as if the bombs, the mines and the bullets are not enough of a threat, there is also the terror of mustard gas, which, creeping silently, blinds and kills. When he becomes an Officer he has an additional pressure to deal with. He carries forever the guilt of sending men to their deaths; for making just one wrong call can terminate a life, or many lives, on his say so alone.
The whole vile experience of his war which, together with that of his Birmingham pals, has been entered into with such naïve hope, has culminated in the death of a generation of idealistic young men. They have joined up town-by-town, village-by-village, and since troops are gathered together on a geographical basis, many that fight together die together.
Thus whole villages are robbed of their men – their fathers, sons, brothers and sweethearts; families frequently lose all of the men that they send for sacrifice, as they fight side-by-side – so they die side-by-side.
An entire generation gone forever.
A man does not easily forget these things, or forgive them, EVER.
I think it is true to say that my Father, at this stage in his life, is not terribly fond of the Germans. And never will be.
There are lighter moments in his war, amongst which is the hugely anticipated arrival of the post from home. Without fail, his mother packs and posts a parcel for her darling boy every single week, which arrives without fail every single week, no matter where in Europe he is. The contents of this parcel are consistent and predictable, and one imagines him being teased mercilessly by his fellow soldiers as he unwraps the contents, first revealing the new pair of underpants and then, rolled up inside, the bottle of Lea & Perrins Worcester sauce; the same contents every time. This spicy little bottle of relish proves to be a lifesaver for him since this condiment, when added to the virtually inedible trench rations, makes them almost palatable.
There is naturally also the camaraderie of friends, the sarcastically dark army humour that helps them all get through the unimaginable experiences that war forces upon them. There are also the football matches that take place between the British troops, giving a little light relief in the midst of so much misery, allowing a little normality in the midst of so much madness. He always loved football and won medals for games played as a junior. Sadly for him, the photographs of the time show him in uniform beside his football player troops; he clearly has to settle for reflected glory from now on.
Some time between joining up and his commission, he is temporarily invalided home with rheumatic fever. This is when his lifelong admiration of the Salvation Army begins. For it is they that provide his welcome home from the ship with a cup of tea and a cigarette, a kindness that is never forgotten.CHAPTER 3
The Incident at The Midland Hotel
Although he joins up as a private, the war sees my Father promoted quickly through the ranks to Officer status.
This state of affairs could have easily come to a very abrupt end following an incident at a local Birmingham Hotel when he is home on leave. By nature he is a very gentle man, but the war has toughened him up. He is not prepared to put up with any nonsense, not after all the things that he has been forced to witness.
Wearing his very smart dress uniform with its shiny trouser stripes, he is here to relax, but is being loudly harangued by a local 'Hurray Henry' who clearly has chosen not to offer himself up for sacrifice in this Great War when he had the chance, and who has probably consumed far too much alcohol already that evening.
The rude remarks and barracking have continued for some time. My Father has very nearly had enough.
'I say my man are you attending here?' says Henry (for this is what we shall now call him), accompanied by laughter from his equally drunken companions. 'No,' says my Father, incensed at the suggestion that his smart uniform is that of a waiter, 'but I can soon attend to you!' During the ensuing scuffle, Father and Henry struggle next to the open first-floor window of the hotel. Seconds later, much to the horror of the onlookers, my Father's opponent is flying towards his doom on the pavement, well over thirty feet below.
However, it is clearly Henry's lucky day for, instead of crashing to almost certain death or very serious injury on the ground below, he finds himself cradled in the safety of the large awning hanging (happily for him) beneath the window from which he has just been ejected; this breaks his fall and very probably saves his life. Quite how Henry escapes from this canvas cradle is not recorded, for by now my Father is well on his way out of the back door of the building.
The barman, who, having witnessed the whole series of events and whose sympathies clearly lie with my Father, removes him quickly from the scene before he can be identified; an act that probably prevents his war culminating in a rather different conclusion.
Many years after this event, my Father returned to the same hotel and is recognised by the very same barman still working in the bar. They discuss the event, one that has never been forgotten. He confirmed that 'Henry' survived the incident with only his ego damaged: he was considered by all to be a drunken boor who deserved to be taken down a peg or two, and who more than deserved the treatment that he received.CHAPTER 4
Home from France and Marriage
So by some miracle of fate, my Father returns physically unscathed from the war back to the bosom of his family and his old life in the family business.
The Wheelers have been butchers for decades. They trade from shops in and around the city centre of Birmingham.
Before his war service, he served his apprenticeship from a very early age, learning the cuts, preparation and storage of meat. He also acts as delivery boy. As a very young boy he is asked to deliver an order of steak to a local theatre. It is for the prima ballerina Anna Pavlova, who is on a tour of the country and is performing in Birmingham for a few nights.
He arrives on his bicycle. For his trouble his prize is a meeting with the beautiful dancer and the reward of a florin, a 2-shilling piece, which she presses into his hand as a tip. He has this precious keepsake for many years until it is stolen.
* * *
During wartime leave he has met my mother, Marie. One of three children, she is pretty, vivacious and fun to be with. Her sister Edith, from whom I inherit my much-detested middle name, is a talented musician; she frequently plays and sings for the BBC. They have a younger brother, Fred. This much-awaited son and heir is a happy arrival after the birth of two girls, but the entire family spoil him – a fact that probably shapes his behaviour as an adult, which sometimes leaves a little to be desired. Towards the middle of his life, my Father has grown to detest him. He bans him from the house, but my Mother adores her little brother and feels he can do no wrong.
Apart from her delightful personality and her good looks, Marie is also a very skilled seamstress; she has served an apprenticeship as a milliner with Madame De Leats in Edgbaston and is capable of creating and making the most beautiful hats. She charms everyone with whom she comes in contact.
It is not long before Sidney proposes and she accepts.
He has survived the war and this is the start of the rest of his life.
It is Monday, July the 10th, 1922 when they marry at St Peter's Church in the village of Harborne, and their guests are driven en masse in a charabanc the fifteen miles to The Tontine, a hotel on the River Severn at Stourport, for the wedding breakfast. Quite an adventure!
They set up home together in accommodation over the butcher's shop in Harborne High Street. This was then, as now, a vibrant and busy trading area. The days are long; with very early starts necessitated by the trips for buying meat at the market in the Bull Ring, but the business is successful, which, given the expensive tastes of my Grandfather, who works and lives with them, is just as well.
He is a very dapper dresser and insists that all his clothes (including his vests) be handmade. Only the best will do!CHAPTER 5
A New Arrival
I have, by now, entered the world, born on August the 18th 1924 at a local nursing home. I grow into a serious, dark-skinned and brown-eyed child with straight brown hair. Greatly cherished by all the family, my Mother treats me rather like a large doll. I am in possession of the most beautiful wardrobe of clothes and shoes, including a white fur coat with a matching hat: everything to coordinate. I look so very smart!
Since I am an only child, I am doted on, indulged and a little spoilt. I usually demand (and get) my own way!
The lady, whose role (and possible misfortune) it is to care for me during the day, is subjected to my favourite pastime. I love nothing better than to sink my little baby teeth into her arm as deep as I can go.
When my straight hair does not conform to the fashion of the day, and given my Mother's desire to be the parent of a curly-haired moppet, I am forced to undergo a number of frightening and smelly sessions with the curling tongues. Heated on the stove over the open gas flame, the temperature control of which leaves everything to be desired, my small ears sometimes get in the way of this vile equipment. I hate it!
I really do not want to be curly that much! Furthermore, the tongues offer curls of only a temporary nature – they soon drop out and my hair returns to its natural straight state.
Undaunted in her desire to achieve her view of physical perfection for me, I am later introduced, as a very small child, to the hairdressers and the misery and chemicals of permanent waves. 'Perms', which equally disgust my young nostrils but do offer a more permanent result for those determined that I have curls, and curls I do have!
At around three years of age, and probably much to the relief of my well-bitten carer, she is offered some respite when I am sent to a small private nursery in the village. Within the first few days, finding it not much to my liking I return home alone. On another occasion I recruit a willing cohort and I am able to navigate both of us over several busy roads to the local park, which strikes me at the time as being much more like fun than school! Everyone, including the police and neighbours, are in full cry when we are both finally located, playing on the swings, none the worse for our adventure.CHAPTER 6
By now my Father has become aware of the clout that his wife's father has in the pub trade locally. His father-in-law, Arthur James, is in charge of all licensed premises in the area, on behalf of a large local brewery called Mitchells and Butlers. It is an important role as he has the say over which pubs are allocated and to whom.
By a strange coincidence, the linking of the two trades of butchery and beer stretches back centuries, butcher's shops frequently being situated on the same site as public houses. (Indeed my own great-great-grandfather was born in a room above a butcher's shop situated in the Crown at Deritend, the oldest pub in Birmingham.)
So now he can change direction, he has a means of entry into the world of pubs and brewing and the possibility of a new career path, should he want one.
For an ambitious young man with a young family, this is too good an opportunity to ignore. After a few years of marriage, he and my Mother start to contemplate the possibility of a life in the licensed trade. Here is a chance for them to move to the country, run their own business and work for themselves, together as a family.
So the young couple decide that this is the time to practice their entrepreneurial skills, and they take the lease on a small village pub in Hagley called the Prince of Wales. The butcher's shop (situated on the outskirts of Birmingham) is soon dropped in favour of the pub, as the commute between the two premises and the early starts required by the meat market prove to be too difficult.
I attend the local village school and, apart from longing for a brother or sister for company (neither of which appear), I enjoy a carefree childhood.
Excerpted from Pamela's War by Cherryl Vines. Copyright © 2012 Cherryl Vines. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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