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Growing up in Wartime Southampton
Someone Else's Trousers
By James Marsh
The History PressCopyright © 2012 James Marsh
All rights reserved.
Grab the Black Bag
We were all there in that black bag that hung on a hook behind the scullery door of No. 94 Belgrave Road. Birth certificates, the all important ration books, insurance policies, identity cards, in fact all things relevant to our existence were kept there. That bag was of paramount importance and had to be taken to the shelter every time we went. This was almost every night because by the time I entered the world, on 6 December 1940, the Second World War had already been raging for just over a year.
Air raids were now common, happening with horrifying and gruelling regularity. Each night was an awful lottery; no-one knew whether their home would still be standing, or whether it had been reduced to rubble by one of the many bombs that fell on Southampton from late 1940 onwards. Records show this amounted to 2,569 high explosive bombs, 36 parachute mines and an estimated 32,000 incendiaries. The Blitz they called it and a blitz it was.
I was born in the maternity unit of Southampton's Borough Hospital (now Southampton General) in between two raids on the town, and from that clamorous start I was to know nearly five years of war. Indeed, on the night before my birth Southampton suffered one of its heaviest raids. My mother had to wait several hours for essential things like hot water and food because the hospital's facilities had all been knocked out by bomb damage. Like many other babies, I looked out at the world from the bottom drawer of my mother's sideboard. There were no carry cots in those days, so babies were simply wrapped in a shawl and placed there.
My earliest memories are of being at home in Belgrave Road with my mother, Mrs Edith Ann Marsh, my two sisters, Sue and Pat, and my brother George. Also living with us was a lady who literally saved my life early in 1942 after a serious accident. Her name was Mrs Spender and she rented two rooms. It was she who shepherded the children out when the siren sounded, and saw them safely to the shelter; she was always on hand in any crisis.
Number 94 Belgrave Road was one of five terraced houses that had been built later than the others on the street. The majority dated back to Victorian times, as did Belgrave Road itself when it had a tough reputation; so tough it was always said that police officers would only walk through in twos.
Ours was a three-bedroom house, only two of which were available to us as Mrs Spender occupied the other. The sleeping arrangements were quite simple; I, as the youngest, was in the front bedroom with my mother while Sue, Pat and George shared the small front room next door. The large rear bedroom that looked out over the garden was Mrs Spender's and, as such, was out of bounds to us. But not to a steady stream of mysterious men who came and went all the time. They were introduced as uncles or friends of hers who were just visiting. Three of these were brothers who lived a few doors away in Belgrave Road. We got to know them very well indeed, as their visits to Mrs Spender were regular.
There was one other room on the top floor, right by the stairs. To have a bathroom was almost unknown in Southampton at that time. The antiquated water heater, known as a geyser, produced an enormous explosion every time the gas ignited, frightening the life out of us. It may have only come out at a trickle but we did have hot running water. There the luxury ended however, because like everyone else in the road we had to use an outdoor toilet. This was situated just beyond the back door, across a concrete square. Beyond that our garden stretched away into the distance towards the fence that divided us from the railway. At the top of a steep bank was the main London to Bournemouth Railway line; this was to figure a great deal in my life, both during the war years and in the later days of my idyllic youth growing up in this wonderful community.
Downstairs there were two rooms and a kitchen, though we knew these by different names. The front room was Mrs Spender's living room and this, like her bedroom, was strictly out of bounds to my family. Even in later years when this room was part of our home, we as young people were still not allowed to enter. It became my mother's special room and was used only for important visitors. The only time it was open to us was once a year at Christmas. During the war years we had the back sitting room that looked out over the garden and the small kitchen next door. However, for reasons I cannot fathom, we knew the sitting room as the kitchen and the kitchen itself as the scullery.
And hanging on a hook behind the back door of this small room was that insignificant looking black bag containing all of our documents. Had the house been destroyed by enemy bombing and we didn't have it, not only would we have been homeless, but we would have lost the ability to identify ourselves and to get the meagre amounts of food and clothing which were only available when accompanied by coupons from the ration books.
Each time the siren wailed my mother reacted the same way, 'Grab the black bag and get straight to the shelter,' she shouted to either Sue or Pat, whoever was closest. I was lying in my drawer while Mrs Spender wrapped my two sisters and my brother George in pullovers and coats and got them out of the house. As young as I was I still felt a panic, an overwhelming feeling of being overlooked. I was convinced they had forgotten all about me.
This was far from the truth, of course. I was such a young child and still being breast fed so needed more things prepared. When this was done, the drawer was pulled out of the sideboard and carried, with me inside it, out to the shelter. In early 1941 this was the cellar of the Brook Inn, a charming public house situated on the corner of Belgrave Road at its junction with busy Portswood Road. Here we would wait through the night in comparative silence. This was undoubtedly brought on by fear. The children would sit as close to their mothers as possible while the bombs rained down around us, impacting not with a bang but a crump which shook the ground. This must have been so unnerving to people who knew what was happening and were not cushioned by youth and innocence as I was. They lived in perpetual fear, knowing that the next bomb that came whistling out of the sky could so easily fall on them.
When the all clear did eventually sound the landlord of the Brook Inn, Mr Jewit, told everyone to stay where they were until he had gone outside to see if Belgrave Road was still standing. Each time, to everyone's enormous relief, he returned to announce that no hits had been suffered, so we could all return safely home. Belgrave Road came through the war relatively unscathed. All around us, in so many parts of Southampton, houses and businesses were being destroyed. But, even though railway lines were a prime target for the German bombers, we suffered not a single loss. I know of only one bomb that actually fell in Belgrave Road. It was an incendiary and landed in a place that had no buildings. One of the residents, Mr Aldridge, raced down to the spot and defused the device, rendering it harmless. This was a very brave thing to do and earned that piece of ground the nickname of 'The Bombed Buildings'. That is how we described the place that became our playground, where we played endless games.
Later in 1941 large red-brick shelters were erected, the nearest of these being right outside our house. Of these shelters I can remember nothing, but my sister Pat has since told me there were rows of bunks along each wall, the rest of the shelter being very bare and basic. No-one got around to sleeping in the bunks though. How could you sleep when the German air force, in a campaign of sheer ferocious hatred, were doing their best to completely destroy the town and everyone in it? A task of which I am proud to say they failed.
Of my father I knew absolutely nothing at the time. I didn't even know I was supposed to have one. He was away fighting the might of the German army and there was every reason to suppose he might never return, as so many didn't from that bitter war. So to cushion us from this possibility, Victorian stoicism once more came into force and children were told nothing. After all, you can't mourn for someone you know nothing about. Early every morning, while the family was still asleep, my mother, in company with one of the neighbours, ran up to the police station in the adjacent Portswood Road. Although exhausted from yet another freezing and terrifying night in the air raid shelter, they needed to look at the bulletin board outside. This listed all the fallen and wounded military personnel from Southampton. Fortunately my father's name was never there. However, as children we were kept completely in the dark about the man who had been responsible for our entry into the world.
I now know, from a piece written about him in the Southampton Daily Echo, from 1944, that he was in Six Commando. Corporal William Marsh, as the Echo piece tells us, was a cook. But I have since learned he was much more besides. After joining he came out top in his unit and was selected for commando training. This took place in Scotland, and it was here, along with his fellow recruits, that he was taught the commando way of fighting: scaling cliffs in the dark to attack enemy held positions, and the art of hand to hand combat. This is one of the hardest things to do because it brought men into personal contact with the enemy. The killing was not done with guns or grenades, but from close range. He had to creep up on enemy sentries, grasp them from behind and kill by strangulation, or thrusting a commando knife into their vital organs.
How many of us now, if called upon to do this sort of thing, could actually go through with it? My father, along with many others, did because it was simply their job. He served with Field Marshall Montgomery's forces where he became Monty's personal cook.
During this time he became a dispatch rider. This meant riding a motorcycle at high speed, often passing through enemy-held territory to deliver important documents to the British High Command. This was very dangerous because these riders were a prime target to the enemy and many of them did not survive the war. Corporal Marsh never received a wound during his army service. Even when taking on the equally dangerous job of a sniper, which involved hiding in trees and picking off enemy troops. He has subsequently been described to me as a very brave man, and as his son I am extremely proud of him for that.
One story I have of him from this time came to me recently, and was told by my sister Sue. She was the oldest child and actually knew dad before the war. This was the only time in the whole of his army service that he was home on leave. If I did meet him then, I cannot remember because I would have been too young.
It was following America's entry into the war, prompted by the Japanese attack on their naval base at Pearl Harbour, and just one day after my first birthday on 7 December 1941. Many American soldiers were in this country mingling with the British population and trying out our public houses. They had to get used to warm beer and British licensing hours, as well as the shortages we had to contend with on a daily basis. Because dad was home he spent his evenings in the Brook Inn, and on one of these occasions my mother joined him, leaving us children in the care of Mrs Spender.
There were some GIs in the bar, and once my mother was seated her striking good looks attracted the attention of one of these. He strolled over and placed his hand on the back of her chair in a friendly fashion because he obviously wanted to get to know her. Seeing this, my father drew the Luger pistol he always wore throughout his wartime service. He then calmly placed the barrel of the gun against the GIs temple and said, 'Would you mind taking your hand off the back of my wife's chair?' It isn't surprising the man did as he was asked and left the pub without looking back.
One of my most vivid memories was the dreaded gas mask. The Germans had used gas to attack our troops in the First World War and it was feared they would try the same horrible tactic again. So we were all supplied with the means to survive if this did happen. Although they were designed to save our lives, to us children they were quite simply tortures from hell. The first time my mother put me in a baby version, called a Mickey Mouse because the baby was placed right inside it. The experience was every bit as bad as the larger versions. I screamed the place down, I fought and kicked and did everything I could to get out of the awful thing.
The adult versions were just as bad; dreadful things that went right over the head covering the nose and mouth, with a clear viewing window to look through. They also had a large expenditure hanging down the front that resembled an elephant's trunk, giving the grown-ups a very frightening appearance. I don't think anyone who put one of these things on, or were strapped inside, will ever forget that terrible suffocating feeling, or the horrible sickening smell of rubber.
German U-boats were causing havoc among the ships that provided this country with essential supplies. We had to put up with food supplements like powdered egg and milk. They were awful, but kept us alive and helped us through the war. Despite these hardships, what does stand out in my mind was the way everyone pulled together. This was a united front and it got everyone through these terrible times. Even as children we knew and understood this.
Mr Wilkins, one of the elderly men in the road, told me of a time when, just after an air raid, he carried me out of the shelter. As the roar was heard overhead I excitedly pointed up at the 'lovely aeroplane'. Everyone else was horrified. The aircraft in question was a German bomber and its doors were open. Fortunately for us they had already dropped their bomb load and were simply passing overhead on their way back to base.
Other members of my family that lived outside our road were not so fortunate, namely two of my mother's sisters, Ada and Vickie. In Aunt Ada's case it was early in the war when an incendiary hit her bedroom and set it alight. Fortunately this was spotted as soon as the all clear was sounded and the fire was put out before too much damage had been caused. What happened to Aunt Vickie however was much more serious. She had just married the young man she had met on 6 December 1939, exactly one year before my entry into the world. His name was Lesley, Uncle Les to us of course, and in those early days he and his new bride were living with his parents.
Les was not called up to serve in the armed forces because he was involved in vital work in the Spitfire factory in Southampton. The Germans bombed that factory to ruins but they relocated elsewhere. Production of the super aircraft, that did so much to win the war, managed to go on despite all of the German's frantic efforts to stop it.
On 28 February 1940, he was at home when the siren sounded to announce yet another raid. As he made his way to the Anderson Shelter situated at the bottom of the garden he felt a powerful blast of wind from behind. Conscious of the fact that his feet were no longer in contact with the ground, he was quite literally sent flying through the air and landed at the bottom of the garden, squashed up against the back fence. When he struggled to his feet and looked back there was nothing but a pile of rubble. The house had suffered a direct hit and his family was inside it. I have since spoken to my Aunt Vickie to find out what exactly happened that awful day. This is her version of those events:
We were all in the house when the siren sounded so Les started out to go to the shelter. We were left inside, meaning to follow him at once. Besides me, there was his mother, father and sister. Just before we started my father-in-law said, 'Bomb, quick, lie on the floor.' I did as he told me, though I heard nothing myself. The next moment there was a terrific noise as a bomb hit the front of the house and demolished it completely. We were all in the kitchen and this collapsed in on top of us, burying us beneath tons of rubble.
My father-in-law was killed outright, but miraculously the rest of us were still alive. I had been by the side of my mother-in-law's large Welsh dresser and this had broken and fallen in on top of me. It trapped my left arm beneath and this, somehow, was the only physical injury I suffered that day. But the wait to dig us out took five hours to complete. I have never forgotten this and I never will. It is the dark I remember so clearly, even more than the choking dust. It shut us into another world and we had no idea at all what was happening outside.
We knew very early on the rescuers were working to free us. They had come as soon as the all clear sounded and shouted, 'Anyone alive down there?' We shouted back as loud as we could, 'Yes we're here.' We didn't realise the work of freeing people trapped under rubble is a slow and painful business. It has to be done with the utmost care to prevent the whole structure from collapsing even further and crushing the victims beneath. The first contact they made after that interminable wait was the body of my father-in-law.
Excerpted from Growing up in Wartime Southampton by James Marsh. Copyright © 2012 James Marsh. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
1. Grab the Black Bag,
2. Peace at Last,
3. Introduction to My Father,
4. Monkey Business,
5. I Do Like To Be Beside the Seaside,
6. Slaughter House Grand Prix,
7. Cruising Down the River,
8. God Save the Queen,
9. Goodbye Schooldays,
10. A Life on the Ocean Waves,
11. Sea Air and Cape Brandy,
12. Late of Belgrave Road,