Ken Birbeck’s memories of World War 2

I was taken from Surrey to Blackpool, Lancashire in 1942 at age 7 when my widower father became worried in Surrey with all the German bombers passing overhead every day, so I lived in Blackpool from 1942 until 1947. 

I attended a Boy’s Junior school there before going on to Blackpool Grammar School for just one year. Then my father fell seriously ill and asked his sister-in-law in Surrey to look after me while he was in hospital, but Dad didn’t recover and he died in January 1948, just after I had started at Godalming Grammar School. So I stayed on in Surrey, having joined class 2A where I had the pleasure of finding myself for the first time in a coeducational school. 

My father had been too old to serve in the army during WW2, but he had a sister in Blackpool, which probably explains why he chose to go there. I also had one of my mother’s elder sisters living there with her husband and their two sons of my age, and we sometimes took the train to return for holidays in Surrey together. My memories of the war years are rather dim. It is said that Hitler ordered the Luftwaffe not to bomb Blackpool because he wanted to be able to spend a holiday there after becoming the Fuhrer of England !!

I recall that we each had a rubber gas mask that we took to school, and there was a trench the other side of the school’s playground where we occasionally were taken during air raid evacuation exercises. The junior school organised fund-raising activities for the Red Cross and St John’s Ambulance and they installed a huge “thermometer” showing the progression of the funds raised. There was no canteen for lunchtime meals, and the school was quite a long way from our digs, so I walked from home to school and back twice daily, but that was normal in those days. I remember that we had distribution of milk at school.  I do recall it having been really very cold one winter, and we were short of coal and coke. There was no central heating. I went with my dad to queue for hours at the gasworks, hoping to get some coke for our fireplace to eke out the ration of coal. We used a baby’s push-chair to carry the heavy sack of coke. 

 Oddly, I have no memory of VE Day in Blackpool although there must have been celebrations and street parties. I especially recall the Saturday morning cinema shows for children, and I would go quite a long way with my cousins to see the programme with a cartoon to start with, then a live performance from a Wurlitzer organ or a comedian, or magician, and then a short news film followed by the main film – often one of a series so that you would want to come back the next week to get the rest of the story…

Before 1942 while still living in Surrey I do remember once having seen a dog-fight between German and British fighters in the sky over the Surrey Hills, but we were not allowed to get close to where the German plane came down. 

Our family had provided accommodation during the period from 1938 until after WW2, for Czechoslovakian and Sudeten-German refugee families, including some who remained in England after the war. We owned a guest house, Brook Lodge, that had been requisitioned in 1938 for housing refugee families fleeing from Nazi Germany. There was even a temporary school built by the refugees in the grounds of Brook Lodge for teaching English to the German-speaking refugees. Our family also owned a camp site nearby, close to Farley Green, originally consisting of bell tents but later had chalets, and it became Treetops Holiday camp. During WW2 we also had hundreds of visitors from London who needed some respite from the terrifying conditions in and around London and our Treetops holiday camp in the Surrey Hills was not too far for them to travel, and they were able to rest, or to have a good time, but of course black-out restrictions had to be obeyed, and there were sometimes Civil Defence exercises when stirrup pumps and buckets of water were used for putting out fires.

Food rationing was always a problem for the catering during and even after the war, and guests had to bring jam-jars filled with their sugar, labelled with their names. But we children didn’t worry too much about things like that. Somehow there always seemed to be some sweets, or sometimes chocolates to be shared around. We were able to play in the woods, building huts with branches and making dens, or looking for birds’ nests, or catching frogs or newts, hatching tadpoles and so on. But all that is not specifically WW2… No, but we could tell the difference between the sound of the engines of the RAF and USAF bombers, and the German aircraft, and I think it was ours that were synchronised while the German engines were not, and had beat cycles easily recognised.

Towards the end of WW2 my grandfather was at Treetops in his bungalow which had a tall cherry tree in front of it. He suddenly saw low in the sky a V1 doodlebug pilotless flying bomb gliding over him heading towards London. Its motor had cut out and it passed just a few metres above the top of the cherry tree, but then the motor ignited again and in a last effort the flying bomb disappeared from view and went on to explode further away, probably closer to South London. In reaction my grandfather cut off the top part of his cherry tree… !!!

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