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Recollections of the War by Hilda Maguire

In 2005 Hartlepool's Museum and Library Services worked together on a project called 'Their Past, Your Future', which commemorated the part played by local people in the Second World War. As part of the project Hilda Maguire from the 'Writing Together' group reminisced about her memories of life on the Home Front. This is her story, in her own words:

I am now eighty-three years of age. I was aged seventeen when Neville Chamberlain, Prime Minister, announced that fateful dreaded message. He said that Britain requested “Adolf Hitler, withdraw his troops from Poland, Czechoslovakia. No undertaking took place and consequently Great Britain is now at war with Germany.”

The announcement was made at noon on Sunday 12th or 3rd September 1939. I remember clearly that I was lounging on our old uncomfortable horse-hair sofa, and I shouted gleefully “Whoopee! I’ll get a job now!”

Although I attended Henry Smith School, I’d made lots of unsuccessful “office job applications.” Unknown to my mother, I volunteered to join the WRAF (The Women’s Royal Air Force) and cycled to Middlesbrough for a medical and Doctor told me to but specs. Meanwhile, my Mam had managed to get me a job in a local estate agents office. I eagerly awaited my “conscription” at the age of twenty. But my boss requested a deferment until I trained the new girl.

As my two brothers were in the RAF, and Merchant Navy, I volunteered for the ATS, (Women’s Auxiliary Territorial Service) so that all three services would be represented. Eventually I went for ATS interview at Middlesbrough and had to complete a “diagram form”. I completed it and was horrified when the interviewing officer had the effrontery to imply that I wasn’t intelligent enough for ATS clerical duties. I had completed the form to the end of the last page and most other girls were struggling at the first page. So I was offered the chance to go into ATS as a cook, which I didn’t fancy or Land Army. So I opted for a factory job to be trained as a dilutee fitter. I think it was a con as the government needed more factory workers as many girls liked the glamour of the uniform. I was so disappointed but my brother said that if I had gone into ATS as a cook I could have gone into clerical work later.

So I went to the Stadium, Wallsend to learn the basics of engineering fitter. (By coincidence, my Dad went to Wallsend at the age of twenty, from Scotland). I lived in 98, Charlotte Street, Wallsend. After my training, I went to Parsons, Heaton to work in the projector shop.

I enjoyed working from blue prints, using electric drills, etc, and occasionally as a fitter’s mate to the men. We worked five days – twelve hour shifts, nights included and weekends then off two days. So, when the clocks were put forward, twice in war years, I worked fourteen hours if at work that particular Saturday night. I was happily settled, made a lot of friends, when I was informed that, “as I was already away from home” I would be transferred to Rugby, to work on Radar production.

I lived in a government hostel in Badminton Fields, three miles from Coventry. We often thumbed a lift into Coventry from the huge juggernauts lorries. As we had to rely on the dilapidated buses to get us to Rugby, six miles away, they often broke down. When the BTH (British Thomson Houston) penalised us for being late we all walked out – on strike! Most were lucky to thumb a lift back, but my two friends and I had to walk back, all the way and got no meal as the canteen was closed.

The blackout during the war years was depressing. Everything was rationed – food, soap, washing powder, coal, clothes, kitchenware, pans, kettles. We used to chase the Cadbury van to get our small ration of chocolate. We drank a lot of cocoa, tea rationed, and saccharine tablets in place of sugar. Egg powder for baking – no eggs! Girls used to paint their legs and draw middle seam at the back to represent stockings. However, people were healthier on the food rationing. Nowadays we see an awful lot of obese people.

The local buses finished at 9:30pm. All the buildings had balloon barrages (like inflatable elephants) on the roof and all ships also in the harbour. Piles of sand bags were placed at all buildings to be used to smother the enemy incendiary bombs. The “V” bombs – fired across the channel to the south coast were terrifying as no one knew just when and where they would explode. Everybody had to carry their gas masks at all times. Luckily, we never needed them. Hartlepool and West Hartlepool didn’t suffer such a lot of bomb damage as a lot of bombs fell into the sea. All the major towns and cities, London, Bristol, Coventry etc, suffered a lot of air raids and bomb damage.

The radio show, ITMA (It’s That Man Again), Gracie Fields, George Formby, helped to cheer us up during that sad, dreadful time as did Stanley Holloway’s poems, “With her ‘ead tucked underneath her arm”, “Albert, pick up thy musket” and “Let battle commence”. 

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