Comrades In Arms
Each of the four men involved in this article grew up in Wolverhampton. They never met before or during the war but they shared a number of quite similar experiences in the years before the outbreak of hostilities. Perhaps, the best way to proceed then, is to leave the explanations to the men themselves.
GEOFF TURNER is in his late 70's, a small man with a very good turn of phrase and a quite infectious humour. He was the main mover behind the project and therefore deserves for his story to begin most sections of the article.
Geoff started his secondary education at Wolverhampton Grammar School in 1931, having been In primary education from 1925 at Bingley Street School. He lived in the Waterloo Road area of the town, near to the Molineux Stadium. He worked in the town in the years immediately before the Second World War.
'I started at the Grammar School in Compton Road in 1931. I had started school six years before in 1925. I remember I used to walk to school from home in Waterloo Road with a friend of mine through the West Park. There was no such thing as school buses in those days. It was walk or nothing.'
'School was a totally different thing in those days. I don't know whether I'd say it was harder at school in those days but it was certainly different. It was very disciplined at the Grammar. You had to do your homework, there was no chance of getting out of it. No excuses were ever accepted, so you never offered one. It was either do the homework or be punished. You accepted that was the way of things, so if you failed to do a homework, you took your punishment.'
'School uniform was a requirement at the school. In the first year you wore a grey jacket and grey short trousers. Later you wore a black jacket with either grey shorts or long trousers. In the Fifth Year you had to wear grey pin-stripe trousers. Throughout those years you wore a school cap. It was woe betide you if you were caught outside school without a cap on. It was probably designed to act as a means of recognising Grammar School boys in town.'
'We went to school on Saturday mornings because Wednesday afternoon was a sports afternoon. If you weren't playing sport, you still had to be in attendance at school. We played matches on Saturday afternoons as well. It was football in the winter, cricket in the summer.'
'One feature of the school which was a bit different from nowadays was the OTC or the Officer Training Corps which the school had. It became the CCF (Combined Cadet Force) a little later. It was run by the PT blokes who were always ex-RSM or CSMs from the Army. I suppose the intention behind appointing ex-Army as PT teachers was to instill some discipline into the young lads. Needless to say, it was not a very easy regime which those blokes ran.'
'I left the Grammar in 1936, after the Fifth Year. I needed to find work and remember we're talking about a time when work was not that easy to find. It was the time of the Depression and jobs were thin on the ground. Anyway, because I had a bit of ability with figures and book keeping I became an accountancy assistant at a firm on Snow Hill called Staffordshire Farmers.'
'I was put next to this married chap and was supposed to learn the job from him. It was not like being an apprentice or even a trainee, it was just a case of trying to pick up as much as possible from him. As I was saying, there were very few jobs about and so he was quite protective of his job and unwilling to let me know too much in case I took the job off him.'
'It was up to me to play it cagey and pick up a few pointers along the way. I must have managed to learn something because about eighteen months later I left the firm and went to a company called Manley Regulus in Showell Road in Bushbury. I worked in the factory as a sort of time study engineer. I had to watch and time the workers as they did the jobs. I determined the bonus. This meant that you weren't that popular really I suppose.'
'Once again I stayed there for about eighteen months or so, before I saw a job in the paper at Boulton and Paul Aircraft. I went to work there in February 1939. That was to be my last job in civvy life for a few years.'
RON PICKEN is a quiet unassuming man but he has probably the most exciting, if that is the correct word, background of the four Veterans. We will find out more about that later in the story, but he was also brought up in Wolverhampton and attended both primary and secondary school in the Whitmore Reans area of the town.
'When I was five I went to school at St. Andrews which was near to Courtaulds factory. I can honestly say I really loved it at that school. It was probably one of the happiest periods of my life.,
'The Headmaster at the school was a Mr. Wilson and he was amongst the nicest people I have ever met. He really cared for us kids in the school. Remember, many of us came from quite impoverished backgrounds and knew very little about the world of nature and so on. As a result, Mr. Wilson would often take us for a walk on a Saturday afternoon to Pattingham. That was some walk for us because we were all pretty little and it was quite a distance.'
'On those walks he would spend time explaining to us about the flowers, plants and trees along the way. It was a special time and most of us loved it.'
'In fact, Funnily enough, I had to go to school in Pattingham after my mother became ill and it was decided that I could not stay at home because I was much too little.'
'The school in Pattingham was very different from St. Andrews because it was a village school and only had the one class in the school. That meant that you had all the ages in the one room. Still, it worked quite well. When I was eleven I came back home and went for my secondary schooling to Hordern Road or Whitmore School, as it was known.'
'In the same way as I loved school at St. Andrews, I hated it at Hordern Road, mainly because I was frightened. The Headmaster was named Mr. Harrison and he was known as Buggy Harrison and he wielded the cane in no uncertain way. The cane was his ultimate weapon and he used it very often.'
'All the time I was at school in Hordern Road, I excelled at only two subjects, Geography and Science. I never got A marks in anything else, only Geography and Science. I reckon when I left school I was only able to count up to about 40, if I was lucky.'
'One memory I do have of that school was our one and only football match. Mr. Harrison announced that we had been challenged to a match and therefore we needed a team. He came around and asked if any of us could play football. No-one said whether they could play or not, but when he asked if we could kick a ball, some of us said we could, including me. I was made left back. We won the game 3-0.'
'I can't remember us playing in a school strip, especially as very few of our moms could afford normal everyday clothes without paying for football boots and a strip. We must have played in some sort of strip though.'
'About a year before leaving school I got a part-time job, like most of the other kids. It was delivering dry cleaning around Whitmore Reans. I would run from school up to the dry cleaning shop where the bike was waiting for me and deliver the clothes around the area. It was like that for all of us because we were poor and every extra bit helped.'
'I left school at the age of fourteen and it was one of the happiest days of my life.'
'Both my father and my brother worked on the railway and so it was taken for granted by many people that I would do the same. My mother had said all along that there was no way I was going on the railway because she was tired of having the men in the house on shift work. As a result I got a job well away from the trains.'
'I went to work for Beatties as a curtain and carpet fitter. I stuck it for about twelve months until I decided that I wanted a change. It was already war-time and there were more jobs about and I wanted to do that little bit more if I could. So, in 1939 I went to work at Daimler's which was located in Courtaulds, helping to build armoured cars.'
'I was officially dubbed an apprentice engine fitter but because I had some experience with oil pumps I finished up working on them. It was at that time that they were apparently having trouble with the pumps on the armoured cars that were being used in the Western Desert. While the pumps seemed perfect in this country, they were malfunctioning in North Africa.'
BOB STOKES is probably the quietest of the four Veterans but, like his three companions, he is a most Interesting man to speak to and obviously enjoys recounting his experiences. Also, like his companions he was brought up in Wolverhampton, in his case around the Neachells Lane area of the town.
'We used to go from Moseley Village School at the bottom of Deans Road to the baths at Heath Town. They used to march us down there. The school backed on to Neachells Lane. The best of it was when we got to the baths none of us had got anything to wear in the water, no shorts or trunks. No one took any notice though, they just kept the boys and girls apart. Even the grown ups used to have separate nights for the baths in those days.'
'Another thing I remember was that there was no such thing as school dinners. You had to go home for your dinner. If you were ever away from school, you had the school board man around to see your mom to find out why you weren't at school. Everybody knew the school board man and we'd keep a look out for him coming around. Mind you, if ever you were away and your mom didn't know, you'd get a right good hiding.'
'I went to the local secondary school and there must have been about forty in the class. Half the time the teacher didn't know who you were. There was just too many in the room. That was probably why we never got homework, they'd never have time to mark it. There was a small group of kids who the teachers did bother about, but they were the exceptions.'
'I didn't really like school and I envy the way the kids nowadays can talk to the teachers. There's none of the 'Yes Sir, No sir, three bags full sir,' we never imagined that the teachers were human and had their own lives. It was a case of being frightened of teachers, in fact, you were frightened of anyone in authority. You saw a policeman and you'd run a mile.'
'We used to go to the local Sunday School twice on a Sunday whether you liked it or not didn't matter, it was the done thing.'
'I left school in 1937 on a Friday and started work on the following Monday. My dad knew a feller who had a shop in Darlaston and so I started work there. It was a shoe repair shop. I had to start as soon as possible because we needed the extra bit of money that I would bring in. I earned 7/6d a week (38p), working from 9 in the morning to 8 at night. I had to walk there and back. There was just me and Mr. Wood who owned the shop.'
'He started another lad on after me and in fact I finished up running the shop. When my mates were joining up, Mr. Wood said he could not spare me and so I was exempt from military service, much to my annoyance. It was almost like being in a reserved occupation. I had to find some way of getting away from the shop.'
GEOFF ENSOR is the one member of the Senior Service in the group. He shares one thing with Geoff Turner in that he was educated at Wolverhampton Grammar School, although it was a few years later. Geoff has actually committed most of his memories of his service in the Royal Navy to paper.
'I went to primary school in Bradmore. The school was across the road from the Bradmore Hotel in what is now the Community Association buildings. The brick building was for the older children, the 10 and 11 year olds, the corrugated hut behind was for the 7-9 year olds and there was a third building where the lawn is now for the youngest children. That's where I started in 1928.'
'There were two classes in the school and Mrs. Sleith was the Headmistress of the Infants, Mr. Jones was the Headmaster of the Juniors. It was called Bradmore School but it was ultimately closed down and most of the children went to the newly built Warstones School. It had previously been in Church Road but the Salvation Army had moved into the building and the school had moved to Birches Barn Road.'
'There were two men who taught in the brick building. I can't remember how they divided up the building but they must have done so somehow.'
'They were pretty strict in the primary school because one of my greatest memories was when I got my thumb stuck in the door one day and I couldn't write with my right hand so I tried to write with my left hand. I got hit across the knuckles with a ruler for using my left hand even though the right hand was bandaged up.'
'One day I was walking home from Bradmore to Merry Hill because there were no buses to Merry Hill when a carpenter who was working on the new houses along there asked me if I'd like to make a bit of money by collecting up the billy cans of the carpenters at dinner time, lighting a fire with some coke and putting the cans on the top to warm up. I'd put a piece of match on the top to stop the smoke getting into the cans. I used to scrape their combined condensed milk, sugar and tea off a newspaper. I got 4d a week for doing that. I would often miss my dinner at home because of that little job.'
'I went to the Grammar School from Bradmore in 1935. It was a good school but it had a lot of rules. For, instance, you had to touch your cap when you passed a master and you were not allowed to 'masticate' in the street. In other words, you could not chew.'
'It was a real disgrace if you got hauled up in front of the Beak (Headmaster) and if your parents found out, you'd get a further punishment when you got home. I remember one occasion when I refused to do some lines for a prefect on three separate occasions and the Senior Prefect had me go to the Library where a prefect caned me. It was six of the best! I never did do those lines though.'
'In 1938, at the height of the Munich Crisis, the Senior Master at the Grammar School enrolled in the Civil Defence and asked for volunteers to go and prepare gas masks in Raglan Street. I volunteered. It was mentioned in the school magazine, the 'Wulfrunian', and I've still got a copy of it. We were supervised by a policeman. From there I joined the AFS, the Auxiliary Fire Service.'