During the Second World War, sightseeing, or rubbernecking as the Americans so aptly called it, was a common pastime. No television or local radio stations to keep them up to date, housewives, the elderly, and anyone with time to spare visited sites of interest to discover what was going on. There was undoubtedly an element of voyeurism in this, but, on the other hand, most people were genuinely concerned about what might happen to them 'if the worst came to the worst'. Our family was no exception, and my first experience of sightseeing came in 1940 when I was four years old.
The collapse of the British Expeditionary Force and the subsequent evacuation of Dunkirk sent shock waves through the community. Now the last line of defence had been broken and the army was licking its wounds, people didn't know what to expect. An invasion, they felt, would come sooner rather than later.
For security reasons, the authorities decided to disperse returning soldiers to camps all over the country. Likewise, the sick and wounded, too numerous for one area to cope with, they dispersed to medical facilities over a wide area. Some of these they allocated to Wolverhampton's main hospital, the Royal.
The evening before their expected arrival the local newspaper, the Express and Star, published details. They were to arrive at the Low Level Station the following afternoon, local authorities there to welcome them and no doubt provide refreshments. Mom, thinking there would be too many sightseers at the station, decided to view the proceedings from another vantage point. Consequently, the following afternoon, she – with me in tow – joined a small crowd outside the hospital gates.
Either the train bringing the casualties to town arrived late, or the welcoming committee held up things but, whatever the cause, we had to wait a long time before the first ambulances arrived. Much to my surprise when the soldiers disembarked, they were a dirty and disheveled lot with cigarettes dangling from their lips. Some had arms in slings, others hobbled about on crutches. To me, in my childish innocence, they didn't look at all like the heroes I had seen in books, or even the tin soldiers I played with. The crowd clapped them and shouted words of encouragement; the solitary stretcher case elicited a sympathetic cheer. When the last soldier had found his way into the hospital, the small fleet of ambulances returned to the station to pick up another group. Already running late, we then returned home with me wondering what all the fuss had been about.
Not long after that event, bombing raids began. At first, the wave after wave of droning planes that passed nightly overhead on their way to Manchester and Liverpool spared us. They were not, however, so kind to Coventry and Birmingham, both of which suffered badly.
The prospect of the same happening to us worried Mom so much that she decided to see first hand what the future might hold in store. And so, one wintry morning we headed for the railway station. Unfortunately, to save a few pennies on bus and train fares, she chose our nearest station, the one located in Station Street, Heath Town. A mistake! First stop out of town, it was little more than a halt at which only local trains stopped. What followed was one of those long cold waits so common in the war years that children with their short attention spans found so exasperating. It was no use, as Mom did, looking at the timetable every few minutes. Wartime transport was unpredictable; timetables abandoned to confuse the enemy. Trains were invariably late and when they did arrive, crowded. In those days, there were far more local stops, the slow moving 'local trains' stopping at each and every one. No corridors on the train, each separate compartment housed a dozen or so passengers on two facing bench seats. Anyone who needed to go to the toilet during the long, slow journey was in serious trouble.
My very first train journey, no sooner had the train left the station than the lights came on and it plunged into a long dark tunnel, smoke from the steam drawn train swirling past the carriage windows. It was quite frightening. We immediately closed open windows were prevent smuts of soot getting in our eyes, little black specks that mother would have to removed with the twisted corner of a handkerchief soaked with saliva. To make matters worse, it was lunchtime, and a lady sitting opposite us unwrapped a packet of sandwiches, and began to eat them. To do this in front of children the war had deprived of proper sustenance, was a form of torture. Fortunately, she was a kind person who, probably unable to endure the looks of longing on the faces of my brother and me, shared them with us. In return for this generous act, we mumbled a quiet, self-conscious, 'thank you'.
Once in Birmingham, we headed for the old Bull Ring, the city's central market, around which the bombing had inflicted the most damage. Of course, by the time we arrived, the area had been cordoned off to prevent looters stealing people's possessions and sightseers like us injuring ourselves. We could see very little, so we had to settle for viewing the fish market, a large hall that had survived quite intact apart from the roof, which had disappeared completely. Business as usual, the fishmongers, apart from having to wear extra clothing to keep themselves warm, carried on their trade as if nothing had happened. All kinds of fish and crustaceans lay on their white tiled slabs. Mom took a good look around, um-and-ah-ed a bit, and then decided that everything was too expensive. By now, the day cold and dismal, flakes of snow were beginning to fall, so we moved on to the relative warmth of the main shopping centre.
John Lewis' department store, the largest in town, was quite a revelation. In pet's corner parrots screeched and a small monkey chained to a perch chattered. One floor was almost entirely devoted to toys. We had never seen so many. Of course, Christmas approaching fast, my brother and I wanted everything. Mom deliberated, muttered something about things in Wolverhampton being cheaper, and we left with just a few glass globes for the Christmas tree. On the way up to the toy department, we had ridden on the escalator, but on the way down we took the lift. For me, it was a new and rather strange experience. Not being able to look out, I was never quite sure whether we were moving or not, and when the lift stopped at each floor, I felt as if I were still going down. All in all, it was a curious day's outing.
It was not longer after that, our turn to be bombed came, and one night several bombs fell on the town.
I remember it clearly. Trying to escape from the constant presence of war, we spent a pleasant evening with Uncle Bill and Auntie Eva at Manley and Regulus' Social Club. A small dance band played popular tunes, lights reflected off a mirror ball, and the people happy to be away from the cares of war laughed and joked. When we came out of the club, the sounds of 'Goodnight Sweetheart' still echoing in our heads, we found a pitch black world, the windows of houses light proofed with dark blinds, the streetlights turned off. It was quite a shock. After pausing while our eyes adjusted, we let the silhouettes of roofs guided us home.
When we were about half a kilometre from safety, air raid sirens began to screech; that night, the raids were beginning early. Urged on by an air raid warden, we hurried along as best we could, but my brother and I were too small to progress quickly, and by the time we turned the key in the front door, searchlights were already sweeping the sky and ack-ack guns fired in the distance. Once inside, we changed into old clothes, and headed for the Anderson shelter at the side of the house, while Dad rounded up the old widow from next door.
It was always cold in the shelter; no power, no heating, our breath condensed on the steel walls. A stubby 'night light' candle, our only source of illumination, sitting for safety reasons in a saucer of water, cast exaggerated shadows on the walls.
At first, almost as if the least sound might betray our presence and bring the wrath of the heavens down upon us, we sat in complete silence. This time the planes did not, as they had so many times before, pass us by but instead began to drop bombs on the town. Our old neighbour suggested we pray, which we did in a very self-conscious and subdued manner. I can still see the old lady's candlelight face; one frail woman against the might of the Luftwaffe, she needed a god. Our silence broken, we began to discuss what might happen next. What if the Germans invaded - in my childish naiveté, I expected them to appear at any moment - what might happen if the shelter were buried by falling debris, what if . . . ?
This was not our first experience of bombing. Some weeks earlier, a plane returning from the north jettisoned a crate of incendiary bombs on our street, one penetrating the roof of a house near us. Fortunately, the bombs were duds and no damage resulted.
The raid did not last for long, but damage had been done. The following morning, we wondered how much and where. For that information, it seemed we would have to wait for the evening newspaper, but about the middle of the day, the bush telegraph travelling slowly but relentlessly reached our part of town. The news that one bomb had fallen near the Bilston Road-Steelhouse Lane Junction troubled Mom. Aunt Elsie had a shop there, next door to the Horse and Jockey. We immediately put on our hats and coats, caught a bus to town and walked down Bilston Road to the site.
Fortunately, her shop, although quite close to the bomb crater, had not been damaged.
I expected us to call in and hear all about the incident, but much to my surprise Mom walked straight past and went to the bomb site itself. Air raid wardens had cordoned the area off, and the same group of old men and middle aged women in dark overcoats and battered hats who had - or so it seemed - waited outside the nearby Royal after the fall of Dunkirk, stood around the hole like graveside mourners. They were speaking amongst themselves in low respectful tones as if afraid to evoke fate; today someone else's turn, tomorrow ours.
About this time, a cartoonist was making a good living drawing holes in the road and exploiting the situations caused by them. Usually he depicted a red faced drunk or a battleaxe of a lady leaning on the rails surrounding the hole - a sign 'Danger Men at Work' in the foreground - and exchanging badinage with a brawny workman. The drawings were always funny, but during the war, holes in the road were far from amusing.
Unable to penetrate the ring of gossip, we waited patiently for an opening. When none came, Mom, with me clinging desperately to her coat and stumbling through a forest of trouser legs and skirts that reeked of mothballs, uncharacteristically pushed her way to the front. Suddenly we found ourselves standing in front of a large hole the explosion had scooped in the road. Two metres at its deepest and stretching from pavement to pavement, a smell of brick dust, cordite and escaped gas emanated from its depths; a broken main dribbled water. A policeman and two civil defence members, looking as if they were at a loose end, stood guard over the mess. Awaiting orders, perhaps, or a crew to come and clear up the debris.
Shock waves from the bomb had collapsed the fronts of several old terrace houses on the far side, and exposed their interiors. We could see torn edges where the dingy wallpaper had parted company with the walls. The furniture, however, had not been disturbed; beds still had their covers, Landseer prints still hung straight on the walls and guzzunders reposed beneath the beds. What was left looked like stage sets, or the interiors of doll's houses. I half expected to see people moving around inside them, carrying on their lives as if nothing had happened.
A chilly April day, winter struggling to become spring, clouds of steam issuing from the slender symmetrical cooling towers behind us, condensed and fell like droplets of rain.
I quickly became bored, but mother just stood there gazing abstractly, not at the hole, not at the damaged houses, but at some of the other houses. She was miles away. I tugged her sleeve. 'What is it?' I asked.
'Grandfather's house,' she said, 'It hasn't been damaged.'
'But Grandad doesn't live here,' I said.
'Not your Grandad, my Grandad, your Great-grandfather,' she said and carried on stargazing, no doubt reliving incidents from her own childhood.
Eventually, we did finally get away, and called in at Elsie's for a cup of tea and a full account of the previous night's events.
Plenty of other things stretched our necks in the years that followed, but none equalled these early experiences; until May the eighth, 1945, that is.
That night, just as they had done so often in the past, strange noises awoke us. This time, however, it took a few minutes to work out that they were the sounds of a car dragging a metal dustbin lid behind it. Soon steam engine whistles joined in, followed by bells. Peace had been declared, and the celebrations had started.
Mom came bustling into the bedroom, and we looked out of the window hoping to see something happening. In vain! No immediate signs, no raising of blinds to light the world again, no people pouring out onto the streets to let their joy be known, indicated that the world was coming to life again. All we could see was the same old blackness, and neighbours' roofs outlined against the sky.
'There will be celebrations in Queens Square,' Mom said. 'Go back to sleep and tomorrow we will go there to see them.'
But when morning came, her enthusiasm had waned. Oh, she wanted to go, all right, but remembrance of all the unruly acts that had followed the First World War, and the tales she had heard about the even more riotous events that followed the relief of Mafeking, had blunted her intention.
All morning, she vacillated, and then, just after we had eaten our dinner, she grabbed her overcoat and said, 'Let's go and see Grandad. Perhaps he will go with us.'
But he had already been, and having just lit a pipe full of his favourite twist, wasn't keen to go again. More hesitation, then Aunt Minnie arrived and she, in her typically unenthusiastic, fatalistic manner, agreed to accompany us. At last, we were on our way.
And what did we do when we finally got there? Nothing special! We didn't mingle; we didn't celebrate, we just stood on the other side of Queen Square and watched. Watchers not doers, that's what we were.
If there had been any mafficking, by now it was all over. No music, no singing, no outbreaks of God Save the Queen, Land of Hope and Glory, or Run Rabbit Run filled the air; just the murmur of a people more relieved than elated.
A small crowd had gathered around the square's only landmark, the statue of Albert, Queen Victoria's Prince Consort, around whose neck – he was after all of Germanic origin – someone had tied a symbolic noose.
Now and then, a callow youth, egged on by his mates and no doubt relieved he had escaped enlistment, clambered onto the back of Albert's horse and just sat there red-faced, not knowing what to do next. His cronies laughed, and ironically cheered him. This was the nearest to glory he would ever come.
I am sure that thousands of people had a great time that day, but, in truth, to me it was no more exciting than a Sunday afternoon visit to the park. Nevertheless, we felt it a duty to hang around another half an hour or so, 'just in case something happened'. When it didn't, we returned to Grandad's place and told him all about our experience.
A Victory Parade followed soon after, but we didn't bother to go. Old Mrs Jackson two doors down did, and for her trouble was knocked over in the crush and her hip fractured. It never mended, and she spent the rest of her life in bed.
VJ Day too, when it came, was a bit of an anti-climax. All I can remember about it was a bebop band playing on the car park of the Clifton, Fallings Park, the only time I saw the car park being used for anything.
The war and all its sights was over. There would be no more free 'entertainment'. But we didn't mind. All new to me, the rash of gymkhanas, sports days, circuses, fairs, cricket, football and many other attractions that followed provided bright spots in the dark post-war period.