Life in a Grocery Shop at the outbreak of War

by Clive Davies

Little did we realise that after just a few years the second world war would be upon us, bringing with it all sorts of problems to any people who were involved in the grocery trade.

With the outbreak of war, most foodstuffs went on ration and everyone was issued with a ration book, which entitled them to a very small amount of butter, sugar, bacon, cheese, tea, bread, eggs etc. In these books, (see photocopies) were very small tokens, which had to be cut out by the retailers, counted and then sent off to the ministry of food. The local office for us was then at the Borough Hall in Halesowen. Sugar used to be delivered to us in bulk, along with the familiar old stiff blue paper bags, into which we had to weigh the sugar and seal them up. The weights and measures inspectors used to come round unannounced to check any items they chose, to verify that the weights were accurately measured out. The scales, and counter weights were also regularly checked. Butter and cheese also had to be cut up weighed out, and wrapped.

Dad used to have his bread delivered daily by Wimbush in their familiar green vans. Wimbush were a famous bakery in Green Lane, Small Heath Birmingham (long since gone). People soon got to know when the baker was due, and they used to form a queue outside the shop in order to buy what sort of bread the wanted. The bread was all in unsliced loaves, as sliced bread had not then come about. These days we are all used to buying biscuits in small packs from the supermarkets, but back in those days biscuits were always delivered to the shops in large tins to be weighed out and bagged as required. There were always some breakages, which used to be sold off more cheaply. Sweets also were weighed and bagged as required. Food rationing went on for a number of years after the war, being relaxed very gradually. Other things were also in short supply then, such as tobacco and cigarettes, but they were not rationed. I think I was about seventeen when I started smoking, but I was lucky enough to have a constant supply at hand. I was also popular at work as I used to supply some of my work mates with them. Later on, clothing also went on ration.

When we first moved to Quinton, I went to the Quinton C of E School on Hagley Road West, but in 1937 Halesowen Borough built a new school in Priory Road Lapal and many of us were transferred to this new school. The school opened on 3rd May with 180 pupils, and to mark the Coronation of 12th May that year, photographs were taken of each class - see the class photo with some of the pupils names. Things went very well until the war, but the powers that were at the time decreed that if we lived more than five minutes walk from the school, then we were not allowed to go, in case there was an air raid!! That situation lasted for about a year - how lovely!

At the outbreak of war, the Royal Engineers set up a searchlight detachment at Howley Grange Farm, which was on the land now occupied by Howley Grange School. This detachment consisted of a searchlight together with its own generator unit, a sound locator, and a Lewis machine gun. This little outfit consisted of a total of ten men, which included a sergeant and a lance corporal. So with time on my hands, I used to run errands for these men to the local shops. Needless to say most of the errands were to Dad's shop, which was a nice little earner for him.

Just after the searchlight moved in, there was another defence unit, in the shape of a barrage balloon. This was moored in an adjacent field, just behind where Wiggins Recreation Ground used to be then. I would imagine that the M5 motorway now encompasses all of that little lot. I also ran errands for the RAF crew who manned the balloon site. This balloon once broke loose from its mooring cable and drifted across the area, finally coming to rest across the roofs of two houses in Howley Grange Road. The searchlight was used along with many more round the city, during most of the night time raids on the city, but I never remember the machine gun being put to use. There were no heavy anti-aircraft guns in the neighbourhood, most of these were on the other side of the city, and I've no idea why that was. The German bombers used to navigate on Bartley Green Reservoir, and then lay a line of parachute flares into the city.

There was however a trial rocket launcher site situated over at Stonehouse, near Harborne. This was used once, we heard an approaching bomber, then there was this awful rushing sort of noise, followed by explosions, which seemed to go on for ages, but when all that noise had abated, we could still hear the same bomber droning on towards the city. One could imagine the crew giving some sort of "salute" to the rocket gun crews!

We got away very lightly with the bombing on our side of the city, as most of it was confined to the industrial areas on the northern and eastern sides. There was one occasion that I remember very well though. That was on the night of December 10th 1940. Quite early in evening a stray whistling bomb fell in Holt Street Blackheath, but later on that night the police came knocking on doors telling everyone to evacuate the area as a land mine had been dropped in Spies Lane with a time fuse. Our family went to friends in Old Hill for the night, and then three days later there was an almighty bang at lunch time which we thought was the land mine detonating, but in fact it was another one which had dropped in fields at Woodgate, close to where the M5 is now. The hole it made could have held a couple of buses quite easily. A Naval Officer defused the Spies Lane mine, and we were allowed back home. There was a third land mine dropped on that same night, which landed on Snow's Garage on the corner of Wolverhampton Road and Bleakhouse Road, opposite to the Roman Catholic Church. The garage was completely demolished, but amazingly enough; the houses opposite suffered only broken windows! I believe that these three mines were of British manufacture, captured by the Germans in France earlier on.

On leaving Priory Road School in June 1940, my next school was Oldbury County High School, in Moat Road Oldbury. I was a pupil there until leaving in June 1945, and so all my schooling there was in the war years. This also brought problems, as by this time there were daytime air raids quite frequently. We had a system of alarm bells throughout the school, which were rung intermittently for a raid, or continuously for a fire. When these bells rung, we all had to go into one the ten brick built shelters around the playing fields, each class having their own allocated shelter, with a supervising teacher.

If the all clear sounded around lunchtime, we were often sent home. In most cases this meant quite a long walk, as most of the intake came from the Halesowen and Blackheath areas. For normal school hours there were two "Midland Red" double deck buses, which used to ferry us from either the Warley Odeon cinema, or from the Shell corner at Blackheath. These buses were never called on out of normal hours however. Sometimes as we walked back home, the air raid sirens would sound again, and we were then supposed to take cover wherever we could. We normally just carried on walking, watching the German planes going over, often chased by our fighters. Considering the tuition time, which we lost due to being in the air raid shelters, it seems a miracle that we all seemed to pass the School Certificate exams at the end of our schooling. Although this is now going back sixty years it still brings back vivid memories.

I well remember one occasion, when David Renhard and myself were walking back home when two bombers appeared coming from the South towards us, at about ten thousand feet I guess. They then started to circle in the sky, about five mils away. We kept looking up at them, and then we saw something dropping from one of the bombers. At first we thought that it was one of the men bailing out. After a few seconds we could the see, and hear that it was a small stick of whistling bombs coming down. These bombs hit the Austin Factory at Longbridge, where they hit the power station there, killing a few of the operators. The anti-aircraft guns were shooting at these two planes, but were very wide of the targets. The A.A. fire died down, and suddenly two spitfires came out of nowhere, and chased the bombers away. We heard later that they were both shot down.

During the latter part of the war, I enrolled in the Air Training Corps in 1943, with the 486 Quinton Squadron. At that time there were about 100 cadets in the squadron. We used to meet at Four Dwellings School on Tuesday and Thursday evenings, for class work, and on Sunday mornings for parades. We had quite a good drum and pipe band, which was used for Church Parades round the village to Christ Church. We had a very good Warrant Officer who had served in the Sherwood Foresters. He taught us our rifle drill, and "Square Bashing" which was put to good use when the squadron was the very first in the country to be presented with colours. We then had a "Trooping the Colour" ceremony, which was performed at Quinton Hall, now long since demolished. The colours were kept at Quinton Church as the Rector, Mr Palmer was our Padre. They have since been moved to R.A.F. Cosford for safekeeping.

Whilst with the A.T.C. we used to go to R.A.F. stations for flying trips, usually on Sundays, and as often as not to Elmdon Airport (Birmingham). This was where the pilots had their initial flying training on Tiger Moths, and then onto the D.H.89 Dominie, a twin engined aircraft.

Each year there was an annual camp, normally at a bomber station, where we would fly in Wellingtons, or Lancasters. These camps were a good time for learning how the aircrews and ground staff were trained, and a good insight into armament, parachutes, rigging, aircraft electrics, radios, etc. When the war finished in 1945, the interest waned a little and attendances fell.

At this point 486 Quinton merged with 485 Harborne, and 2016 Weoley Castle Squadrons to form 485 Harborne and Quinton Squadron. For a time we had a very large band with three base drums and Church Parades were quite a noisy affair.

I enclose a photocopy of my Flying Log. Some flights were not logged as we were only supposed to do so much flying, and so some were kept quiet! The other copy is one taken on annual camp at R.A.F. Peplow (Childs Ercal), which was an O.T.U. - Operational Training Unit, and was equipped with Wellington Bombers. I am on the left of the middle row. The uniforms issued to the Air Cadets today leaves our old ones way behind, we could never seem to get the one to fit, and overcoats were not available in those days either.

© QLHS 2005


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