World War II From a Scots/Canadian Point of View
What has a 7" gun to do with a Tangerine?
Mossend, West Calder is where I was born. Mossend was a small mining village, and West Calder was only a five minute walk up the Cleugh Brae, but it was the centre of the known world to me. West Calder is in central Scotland, midway between Glasgow and Edinburgh.
The first photograph shows a drawing of the highest point in the town, the ThistleTower. At the top of the tower you can see the figure of a Home Guard soldier on guard. The second blurry photograph showing Mossend was taken from the top platform of ‘Cauther’s’ ThistleTower. You can see part of Front Street to the right and barely visible on the horizon beyond Weswood Works,you can see Seafield, another mining village.
Mossend consisted of three streets. Front Street, Mid Street and East Street. We lived in East Street, giving us a million dollar view of Westwood Shale mining retorts, chimneys, and bings. Of course the idea of having a view didn’t matter when Nazi Germany was bombing the country. Most of the Blitz bombing in Scotland was targeted on the shipyards, factories and cities.
We were relatively safe – I don’t remember seeing any ‘barrage balloons’ near us. Nor can I recall any bombs or ‘Doodlebugs’ being dropped or aimed at us in Mossend, although I do remember the anti-aircraft guns on Front Street. I can even remember being allowed to sit on the seat and swivel the gun barrel – and I’m sure I still have the bruises where the gunner cuffed me off when he saw a plane coming.
I could say that the closest I came to the war was because my brother-in-law was flying ‘Hellcats’ from an aircraft carrier in the Pacific, and my Uncle Bill was driving tanks in Italy, but it wouldn’t be strictly true; WWll impinged on everything and everybody.
To aid the ‘War Effort’, we conducted our own ‘Dig for Victory’, by growing most of our food in our own garden, or getting some from friends who had allotments with glasshouses. Compared with today’s selections, our food was basic; tatties, neeps, leeks and cabbage. We were lucky enough to have some farmers as friends so we had the occasional beef and ham. We also kept our own hens so we were assured of an ample supply of eggs and poultry. (Have you ever seen a chicken that had its neck rung getting up and running for its life?)
At the bottom of the garden we had a hut (shed) which our Dad designated as our personal Anderson air-raid shelter if the bombing did start. However when the air raid siren started its familiar howling cadence, I noticed that rather than rush outside and down the garden, he ushered us all into the back bedroom until the ‘all clear’ sounded.
We all did our bit for the home front; even I did as a child at school. Our primary teacher used to encourage us to hold our hand under our ‘jeely piece’ (jam sandwich) as we ate it at our desk, and she would exhort us to ‘catch the crumbs and beat Hitler.’
At home, when we heard the milkman coming – that was before he had rubber tyres fitted on his cart; after he fitted them we had to rely on the sound of the horse’s hooves to warn us of his approach - it was my job to get a small shovel and follow the horse. If it did a poop, I had to shovel it up as it was excellent manure for the garden.
Needless to say, there was a total ‘blackout’ at night. Not one chink of light was allowed to escape into the night in case it helped a German bomber, and there was only one, very dim, street light at the ends of the streets. We tended not to go out at night anyway as we all huddled around the fireplace, either sitting on the fender stools or standing close to the wireless (radio). Listening to the BBC 9 o’clock news was a necessity for news of the war. It made for some sombre listening and caused a lot of tears.
We were not too bad for fuel for the fireplace, not that there was much coal, as it was all needed for the war effort, but working even in a shale pit or mine, there was always broken or damaged pit props or sleepers (railway ties) that could be chopped up – ‘splitting the clugs’ as we used to call it.
We didn’t have any trouble acquiring petrol for the car, as we didn’t have a car.
Before social networking, the men in the village used to have their own hobbies. There was gambling on the horses, quoits, greyhound racing, doos (pigeons) and of course – fitba’. The football was religion based, Celtic for Catholics and Rangers for Protestants, and as far as I can make out, nothing much has changed.
In summer time we kids used to be outside playing; although we played bools (marbles) and hide-‘n-seek now and then, our principal game was fighting - as in one street being at war with the other, either playfully or in dead earnest. If the streets weren’t at war with each other, Mossend was at war with Polbeth, the housing estate to the east. We all had our own gas masks, so we were ready for anything – theoretically.
One of our new buddies was an evacuee from southern England, who lived with our neighbour (his Grandfather) for most of the war. He took a bit of ragging at first but he soon fitted in (we needed an extra soldier in our street for the inter-street wars).
Sweets and candies were non existent; I don’t even know if the ration books applied to sweets, but I doubt it very much. My Red Bull drink back then was what my Mum called ‘sugarelly water’ – a glass of cold water with two spoons of sugar in it. As far as I can remember, the ration books applied mostly to clothing, and most of the clothing was ‘utility clothing.’ Utility clothing was made with less material than pre-war, and was marked as ‘CC41 – Civilian Clothing 1941.’
As for fruit from overseas, that was a rarity. At Christmas we used to pin our stockings onto the mantelpiece for Santa to put presents in, and I remember being fascinated by the first Tangerine I found in the bottom of my stocking. I was equally fascinated by my first sight of a real banana.
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I immigrated to Canada a few years back, and I’ve seen another side of WWll. A new friend has told me how he was a merchant navy sailor in WWll. He detailed how the ships used to gather in harbours until the time was judged to be right for a breakout. The convoy, carrying necessities, would start off at night, hoping to leave the German U-boats behind. But there wasn’t a hope in hell of arriving in Britain without being spotted and without ships being sunk.
He told me how his ship had a 7" gun to protect it – can you imagine? ONE 7 inch gun! That’s how my tangerine and banana were brought to me – men and women died so that the fruits could fascinate me.
Another new friend told me how he was a radio operator/gunner in a bomber. The bombers were built in Canada and were being flown across the Atlantic to replace the ones that had been shot down. The planes were loaded with supplies before they left, and when they arrived in Britain, my friend had some time off …he had to wait until the time was right for the Queen Mary – the only ship fast enough to outrun the U-boats – was ready to go before he went back to Canada and started it all over again.
Yet another fascinating fact, we were at an auction last month and couldn’t believe what was on auction among the towels; two perfectly good Utility towels. It was that nostalgic surprise that initiated these jottings. We now own two white CC41 towels.
76 years of age and still in good condition? What was that you said about good workmanship?
William F. Hendrie’s booklet - Old WEST CALDER gives an enchanting view of old West Calder in the early 1900’s, and shows the Thistle Tower from different angles.