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I have been privileged enough to meet with a number of ladies and gentlemen who kindly gave their time to speak with me about their personal and fascinating wartime experiences.
Here are two of their stories.
Wilf Dillon spent his early years living in a public house called The Hole House Inn in Hindley, Lancs. Although he’s pretty sure his parents had known hardship previously, by the time he arrived into the world the family was reasonably well-off. They could afford to employ a live-in maid as well as another lady to help with the washing, and his memories of those days are happy ones.
His Irish father was brought to England as a child and would go on to wed an eighteen-year-old Wigan-born lass named Rachel. The couple had ten children during their marriage, of which six survived to adulthood. Rachel would give birth to their final child – Wilf – in 1922 at the age of 43.
His mother was a strict disciplinarian who rarely showed affection. Wilf can’t ever remember receiving a hug from her. Even on the day he would eventually leave for the army, she remained seated at the table – no seeing him off at the door, no embrace or kiss. It was hard for him to understand at the time – and difficult still years later, though he would go on to appreciate how Rachel had coped with losing four infants and later her husband. Perhaps it hardened her.
Wilf started school aged five, and three years later the family left the pub. They lived for a time with Wilf’s brother and his wife – though it’s a mystery to him how they managed to cram eight people into their house! This now required a long and solitary walk home from school and back each lunchtime for his meal – something that didn’t unduly bother him but would be unheard of today. In his free time, he would help pick potatoes and bring the cows in for milking on the farm across the road.
The following year, Wilf and his family took possession of a small shop. Sadly, his father developed lung cancer soon afterwards. He lost his battle eighteen months later aged 55. His youngest son was just ten.
Wilf started at a new school close by, though he didn’t attend as regular as he would have liked. He’d been diagnosed early on as having a hole in his heart, which required regular visits to hospital. Coupled with the declining health of his mother, who often kept him at home to look after the shop, his education proved a poor one. In 1936, aged fourteen, he left school with no qualifications. The following Monday, he began work at Booths Caterers, Bakers & Confectioners.
Humping around 140lb bags of flour proved very difficult for a boy who had been medically advised to perform light activities only, but Wilf didn’t let this get in his way. For ten hours a day Monday to Friday, and seven hours on Saturdays, he hauled and emptied sacks, greased and cleaned cake tins, packed, loaded and emptied ovens, cleaned up, washed utensils and swept and mopped the floor. For his toil, he received five shillings a week.
Then a month before his seventeenth birthday, war was declared in Britain. Wilf remembers that fateful day well. His mother had asked him to visit the cemetery to lay flowers on his father’s grave, and Wilf’s mind was a jumble of worries on the journey there and back. What would happen to them all now? Later, an army unit with a search light was set up in the farmer’s field close to the shop. Whenever the powerful beam, which was intended to pick out enemy aircraft, lit the night sky, the family dreaded it, convinced that German planes would bomb the area to try to extinguish it. Fortunately, this never happened, although the family did have all their back windows blown out one night when a land mine dropped in Atherton.
Their local siren was located on top of a nearby factory. However, there was no public air-raid shelter close by and so, when the warning wail sounded, Wilf and his mother were forced to improvise to stay safe – Rachel would hunker down under the stairs and her son beneath the kitchen table. People could spend all night in the shelters without a wink of sleep and still have to head to work the next day.
Rations were meagre but the family grew potatoes, onions, vegetables and salads in their small back garden, which helped a lot in the late summer months, and it was surprising what could be done with powdered egg and Spam.
Though Wilf joined the Home Guard, he was deferred from entering the army for a year because of the nature of his work at Booths. The company was responsible for a time for feeding thousands of the Polish Air Force stationed locally. And when Germans began bombing the big cities, Booths would provide people who had lost their homes with meals until alternative accommodation could be found for them. Serving these people and witnessing first-hand the effects of bombs having made direct hits on night shelters, leaving many for dead, opened his young eyes to the benefits and value in helping others – something that would stay with him throughout his life.
Eventually, on the 23rd April 1942 aged nineteen, Wilf received his call-up papers. He joined the Royal Engineers at Blacon Camp Chester, where he underwent twelve weeks basic training as a Sapper. He was then transferred to 502 Field Company Royal Engineers at Winchester. A few weeks later, they found themselves stationed on the Isle of Wight for three months’ extensive training in bomb disposal and mine laying amongst other things, ready to be sent abroad.
In the army, he learned the value of friendship, discipline and organisation, working as part of a team and having consideration for others. When the initial feeling of adventure wore off, most lads missed home, but for Wilf it was an experience to be enjoyed as it got him away from his mother.
His path, however, took a sudden turn when the army became aware of his experience at Booths. They say an army marches on its stomach, and cooks were needed. It was decided he should undertake a catering course at Dorchester, and on completion he was transferred to the Army Catering Corp, where he was to remain in England to feed soldiers undergoing training. A great opportunity, but at the time it didn't seem so. Even though very soon he would earn his Corporal’s stripes, and knowing he would have a safer war, the transfer felt a bit of a let-down. However, the experience would drive his passion for cooking for the rest of his life.
Wilf found himself in Egremont and Sedbergh, then onto Kirkby Lonsdale where he was to stay for the rest of the war. Then just before victory was declared, he was ordered to join the Special War Office Signals in Italy. It took several weeks to catch up with the unit, however, and when he eventually did it was to discover they had been instructed to return to Baldock in England to learn the Japanese Morse Code! So off he went back home.
The war in Europe ended whilst Wilf was still in Italy, alone in a tent on a hillside in Ancona. Shortly after arriving back in England, VJ Day was declared, though he recalls no celebrations (which was sadly common) to this news at all.
With the war over, Wilf was put on a draft to the Gold Coast in Africa – known as the White Man’s Grave. On hearing this, his mother panicked and arranged with her local doctor to apply for her son to come home on compassionate leave because of her ill health – a lie, she was perfectly well. And so, Wilf came home for three months leave, which was then extended to six, during which time he went back to work at Booths.
On returning to the army, he was sent to Catterick Camp in North Yorkshire and put in charge of four camps each holding six hundred men. Here, he had his own office, with two army girls to see to the typing and office work. He was responsible for all catering including menus, ordering rations, collection, distribution and calling mess meetings to see if every unit was satisfied with the catering arrangements, as well as inspecting the four kitchens and their staff – some of whom were Italian and later German PoWs – each day.
He was finally demobbed at York on the 15th February 1947 and left the army with an exemplary record. He would be well into his eighties when he received the medals he was entitled to, with encouragement from his grandson – Wilf had never bothered to claim them.
Wilf went on to lead a full and interesting life. Shortly after arriving home, the head chef at Booths died, and Wilf was offered the position. The catering standards were extremely high and whenever a member of the royal family came to Lancashire, Booths would be asked to cater. Over the years, Wilf would go on to cook for some very important people, including Prince Philip three times, Princess Margaret, Princess Alexandra, Margaret Thatcher, Harold Wilson and many more.
Despite his position, the wages were not good and to supplement his income, Wilf began making and decorating quality cakes in his spare time. He later went on to teach others the tricks of his trade, running his own six-month course in advanced cake decorating.
At Booths, Wilf cooked thousands of meals each week and was content there. He was his own boss, had full control of the kitchen doing the ordering, menus, costings etc, and had a good team of staff. Unfortunately, the firm went into liquidation in 1976. Wilf was quickly approached by three firms to work for them and opted to join Kennings, for whom he helped build up a successful outdoor catering service. Three years later, he decided to branch out on his own.
His wife, whom he had met during a fortnight’s leave from the army, found him a bakery for sale at a reasonable price and they began doing good business. Their outdoor catering was also a huge success. Dillons' reputation was sealed.
Wilf also dedicated himself to charity and fundraising work. He formed a parish council and during his time as chairman of several committees helped raise a lot of money. For three years he was Grand Knight and later Provincial Grand Knight of the Order of the Knights of St Columba, visiting various councils, and went on to train as a Eucharistic minister. He was commissioned in 1978. This was a big commitment, and for Wilf a great privilege. He served this role for twenty-seven years, the highlight of this time being when he was given the opportunity to distribute communion from Pope John Paul II. Wilf was presented with the Benemerenti Medal for service to the Church in 1984 – the only person in his lifetime to receive this in the Sacred Heart Parish.
In 1991, Wilf suffered a heart attack and decided it was time to retire. After undergoing a triple heart bypass, he moved to Westhoughton to be nearer to his family. After the death in 2004 of his wife Louise, who Wilf looked after during her battle with dementia and with whom he’d had two children and been married for fifty-eight years, he threw himself into carers' groups and age support projects. He also began visiting local schools to talk about his wartime experiences.
In 2011, he was surprised to receive an invitation to the Queen’s Garden Party at Buckingham Palace. To this day, he has no idea who nominated him but deemed it a great honour. The following year, he was awarded the British Empire Medal for his continuing years of charity work.
For someone who, in his own words, had once regarded himself as inadequate and a bit of a dunce, he forged a happy and successful life. His message to future generations is simple: however lost or hopeless you might feel, remember anything is possible so long as you have ambition. Just be ready and always aim to do your best whilst respecting authority, friendships and helping others less fortunate than yourself.
My name is Sheila Crook. An only child, I was born to Frank and Diana Stones in 1936. We lived at the top of Lever Edge Lane in Bolton.
My dad was a shoe repairer and had his own business. My mum had been a tailoress working for a Jewish business but upon marriage had given up work to help my dad.
My paternal grandparents lived next door to us, and Grandad cooked the Sunday dinner for us all (five of us). During the war, my dad and grandad had an allotment. We grew a variety of veg and also had a grape vine in the greenhouse.
My mother was one of nine children and it was a close family. I was brought up surrounded with aunts, uncles and cousins. We often walked to my grandparents’ who lived on St Helens Road and had an Anderson shelter. When the family gathered here, we sometimes danced in the middle room with Uncle Joe playing the piano. One night, returning home in the pitch black as lights were rarely lit, we were approaching the Mission when a voice boomed out of the night: “Halt, who goes there – friend or foe?”
It was the sentry at the army post. He made us jump out of our skin.
“Friend!” my dad said quickly.
On the day war was declared, I was sitting by the fire when Grandma next door came in and gave Mum a carton of Roses chocolates. She said, “You won’t see these again for a long time.”
My mum’s eldest brother had died in Palestine in WWI, a few days before Armistice. He was a horse driver of a gun carriage in the ASC. My dad’s uncle, a Corporal in the Loyal North Lancs, died at the Somme. During the Second World War, the only relative to enlist was my aunt’s husband, who joined the RAF and went to India for five years.
I played out from a young age; everyone did. One day when I was three, I was playing with Norma aged four. She had been to the local school to be introduced. She said, “I will take you to see it.”
Off we went and into the school yard where the infants were having playtime. Suddenly, the air raid siren sounded, and the teachers came out and marched us all into the air raid shelter. It was a long brick building with a concrete roof. A teacher took the register and called out names. Nobody noticed we were strangers. We sang until the all clear sounded then the head appeared and asked if two little girls who didn’t come to this school were here. Our mums had been looking for us!
One night, my dad got me out of bed and took me to look out of the front room window. We could see in the distance over the fields a red glow in the sky. It was Manchester on fire – the Blitz.
A few years later one Sunday morning, word got around that a German plane had landed in a field at a nearby farm. Dozens walked up, but when we got there the light aircraft was one of ours that had developed engine trouble.
At the beginning of May 1945, I was eight years old. A few days before Victory in Europe Day, my mother took me with her to an afternoon film performance at the Odeon Cinema. This was a real treat and we travelled by electric trolley bus to town. These red buses each had two rods on the roof, which were attached to overhead electric lines. They ran fast, were silent, and were known as ‘whispering giants’.
On our journey, my mother told me that a picture of Mr Churchill would appear on the cinema screen telling us that war was over. The end of the fighting in Europe being imminent, an announcement was expected within the hour.
I cannot remember the film, but I do remember waiting expectantly for the Prime Minister’s face to appear and hear his voice telling us peace had come. It never did that afternoon, and when the film ended, we made our way home to prepare the evening meal. The wireless in the kitchen was switched on, but no voice told us during the evening that war was finally over. It was a few days later when it came.
The day after our visit to the Odeon, I went out of the house by the front door. We lived opposite a farm and the road was unpaved. For much of the year it consisted of mud and puddles, so the front door was only used in summer when it was drier. I called for my friend Doreen, who lived a few houses away, and the two of us proceeded to do some errands for her mum.
The first visit was to the greengrocer at the end of the lane. This was run by Mrs Cornwell who lived at the back of the shop with her family. On this May morning the side gate was open and, taking a silver sixpence out of her purse, Doreen entered the back yard. I followed.
“What are you giving Mrs Cornwell sixpence for?” I asked.
“It’s for the VE Day party,” said Doreen. “This is the third week that I’ve brought my sixpence,” she added in a smug sort of way.
I was horrified that I’d known nothing of this, and as I hadn’t paid any money would not be allowed to attend the party. At that moment, Mrs Cornwell came to her back door. “Can I come to the party?” I asked her anxiously.
“Only if you bring me the sixpences before dinnertime,” she said. “All the food is being bought today, as soon there will be no food left to buy.”
I ran home as fast as a hare and blurted out the news about the party. My mother somehow managed to give me the money, helped by my grandad, and I returned to Mrs Cornwell’s shop with my precious 1s 6d.
VE Day dawned in typical Bolton fashion – rain! The milk horse clip-clopped out of the stable yard opposite my home, pulling behind him the milk float which was loaded with silver-coloured churns of milk. My dad lit the fire by putting a match to a bed of wood chips, scrunched up newspapers and pieces of shiny black coal. Breakfast came and went, then we carried out the usual household chores of washing the pots, making the beds and using the carpet sweeper to pick up crumbs.
At about ten thirty, I was surprised to hear music faintly in the distance. By this time, the rain had virtually ceased so I went to the front gate and looked towards the sound. Then I walked to the junction and saw that people were dancing in the roadway. As I went, friends joined me and upon reaching the dancing we saw that the music was coming from speakers rigged up in the trees.
Some neighbours had brought forms and stools onto the pavement, where groups sat chatting. The younger women were dancing the Quickstep, Foxtrot and Waltz together. There was only the odd male to partner them as all the men were fighting or helping in the war.
Dinnertime came and we all returned home. My grandma was dying at this time and my mother and father took turns to sit with her, so I was somewhat left to my own devices and they don’t figure greatly in my memories of VE Day itself.
Afternoon arrived and so did the children’s party. This was to be held in the scout hut, which wasn’t a hut at all but a red bricked building. As we entered, a very long table met our eyes. It had a white tablecloth and down the middle was a band of coloured crepe paper which someone must have bought before the war. Wild spring flowers in jam jars were placed at intervals down the table. At each end was a Union Jack and there were flags hung all around. We ate beef and salmon paste sandwiches and little homemade cakes. Red jelly gave the table colour and the mums who were serving us held large pots of tea ready to pour. They all wore cotton pinafores over their dresses. No ice-cream was served as we didn’t have it during the war years.
After we had finished off every scrap of food, we went outside to play. By late afternoon we were home again and after an hour or so indoors, it was on with the celebrations once more.
Whilst we younger children had been enjoying a party, the older boys had been busy building an enormous bonfire in the back street. They had been collecting wood and rubbish to burn for weeks. One of the main organisers was a boy named Geoffrey, whose parents owned the local fish and chip shop and outside whose back gate the bonfire was built.
About seven o’clock, big bangs could be heard. The fireworks had begun! I had never seen a bonfire or fireworks before, and I ran out of the back gate and up the narrow, cobbled street. However, these flashes and bangs were alarming, associated in our minds with the war. I turned around and made my way back into the house.
The front entrance seemed the best bet, so I cautiously made my way past the farm. Jack Jumpers were cracking and flashing hither and thither so in the end my friend’s mum had to take me by the hand to the bonfire. I kept close to her side. Forms from the chip shop and adjacent houses lined the back walls. Again, people had brought out stools and wooden chairs to sit on.
About eight o’clock, the fire was lit. The flames took hold and soon licked their way to the top of the bonfire. Then the chip shop owners came out with bags of chips for all the children. They next brought out buckets of potatoes and placed each potato on the cobbles underneath the fire. An hour or so later when they were judged to be thoroughly cooked, the chip shop owner raked them out. They were then cut in half, topped with butter and given out. That was the first time I had tasted jacket potatoes. How good they were!
As it became really dark, I saw Catherine Wheels spinning round. Coloured fountains spurted upwards, and Rockets launched from bottles whizzed up into the night sky. However, I was still unsure of the bangers and rather frightened by them.
One woman had a six-week-old daughter named Audrey. She came out with her wrapped in a white shawl. “We shall tell her of this night one day,” she said.
The fire eventually died down, only a few embers were left. Adults and children alike began to drift homewards. Another treat was in store for me, however. Aunty Ada owned a hairdresser’s shop on the main road. She’d sent word that an illuminated trolley bus was to pass up St Helen’s Road about 11pm. My parents and I set off on the fifteen-minute walk half an hour before. Very few people owned cars and even if they did petrol was very hard to buy. The bus route didn’t extend to our locality, so we all walked a lot.
Halfway down the lane, a magical sight met my eyes. One of the householders had lit up a tree in his front garden with coloured lights. It was just like fairyland. None of the gas lamps on the pavements were lit during the war and we used flash lamps in the dark; therefore, the beautiful tree stood out all the more against the night sky.
We were soon seated around Aunty Ada’s front bedroom window waiting expectantly for the bus. It never did arrive, so half an hour before midnight, we set off to walk back home.
“Misinformed again,” said my dad with a laugh.
We passed the tree from fairyland again, then the dark shadow of our house loomed up at us. I went to bed just as the next day began.
Never before in my life had I been up so late, but 8th May 1945 had been an extraordinary day. Peacetime was just beginning.
I do hope readers enjoyed these accounts. I am always on the look-out for more. You are a unique generation. Your stories should be heard, and I would be honoured to listen. Do please get in touch with me via the contact form on this website if you too would like to share your memories.