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Family's struggles on the home front while dad was a POW

By Black Country Bugle  |  Posted: March 01, 2014

  • Portrait of Mary Barrett painted by a POW

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THESE memories and pictures of the Second World War have been brought to us by James Barrett of Fallings Park, Wolverhampton. His father, also named James, enlisted in the first months of the war but, unfortunately, spent four years as a prisoner of war of the Germans, while his wife was left at home to raise their young family amid the hardship of life on the home front.

James writes, "My father James was born in the city of Limerick on 9 September, 1911, and he came to this country in the early '30s. He married my mother, an English girl, Mary Roberts, on 15 August, 1934, at SS Mary and John's Catholic Church, Wolverhampton; they had five children, Patricia, Maureen, John, James and Kevin.

"Dad worked as a plasterer's labourer, when all was mixed by hand, with horsehair added; it was extremely hard work. Then he had a spell of lorry driving before he went to the Stafford Road Great Western Railway loco works, which was a huge industrial complex.

"The tired steam engines would enter the totally self-sufficient works at one end, to be completely rebuilt by boiler-smiths, coppersmiths, blacksmiths, tinsmiths, wheelwrights, welders, machinists and engineers of all descriptions. Then the steam engine would leave the works in pristine condition.

"It was mainly a family-run business; all the trades were handed down from father to son through the generations.

"There was a huge flight of steps leading up to the works canteen. As children, in and after the war, we had some wonderful Christmas parties in the canteen and I well remember the real butter on the bread, the jelly and newspaper hats and all the people that tried to make the war go away for a brief moment.

"Up the hill, just around the side of the canteen was the gatekeeper's hut. Inside were two huge blackboards, one either side of the GWR clock. On these boards were numbered brass discs, one for each employee. I presume on entry the workers would take their brass disc from the out board, past the clock and place it on the in board, under the careful scrutiny of the gateman, who docked all latecomers.

"There was a huge steam whistle that blew, if my memory serves me well, at 7.30am, 7.55am and 8am, five days a week. This whistle could be heard all over, it was so shrill. By our house, the road leading to Stafford Road would be jam-packed with cyclists heading for the Britool works, the ECC works, the gasworks, Goodyear, Courtaulds, the GWR works and a host of smaller firms. All increased their speed on hearing the blast of the steam whistle.

"Our father joined up for army service, along with many more from the GWR Stafford Road works, and enlisted in the Royal Engineers on 6 November, 1939. He left our mother with two young children and me on the way.

"In the war years our mother was a real treasure. We had less than nothing and she would make a lamb's head last at least a fortnight. She would strip the skinny meat from its cheeks, cut out the tongue and we would have brains on toast for a couple of days, then the rest of the skull went in the stewpot, which was reheated on a daily basis. When collecting the lamb's head from the butcher, our mother always asked the butcher to leave the eyes in. When asked why, my mother would reply, to see us through the week.

"When I was a bit older, I would go to the same butcher, peer over the counter and look at the butcher in his blood-stained apron and say timidly 'five shilling's worth of beef and take this sixpence off what we owe you.' That's the way it was in those days.

"With our father being a Catholic, our mother converted and Canon Woulfe from Our Lady of Perpetual Succour Church offered her a job in the school, helping to serve school dinners. He was aware of our mother's plight, looking after three small children completely alone in wartime. She would have accepted right away but I was still a baby, my sister and brother were at school. The canon told our mother that he would look after me while she worked the few hours a day at the school and this was agreed. After all this time I can still remember travelling around in his big black car; it was a Wolseley, just like the police cars but without the bells on front!

"In 1940 our father joined the BEF in France and then went to Belgium, only to fight in the retreat all the way back to Dunkirk. There, with the other soldiers on the blood-splattered sands, they waited for a miracle. Then the miracle came in the name of Operation Dynamo and most of the Allied soldiers were evacuated by an armada of small ships, many people giving their lives so that this miracle could be achieved.

"Back in England he was billeted in a church in Blackpool along with other troops, then he had a short leave home before he was off again to Egypt. A short stay there, then he was shipped to Greece, then on to Crete, to another no-win position in May 1941.

"I once asked my father why they had surrendered on Crete, he said when a paratrooper is carrying a machine pistol that is capable of cutting down a small tree with one burst and you have a single bolt action rifle that's capable of breaking your shoulder if not held correctly, there seemed at the time, very little choice.

"The garrison army on Crete surrendered to the Germans in May 1941. Our father, along with other troops, was sent to Poland. The Germans who interrogated him could not grasp that he was of Irish descent yet was fighting for the British, like so many more soldiers. The Germans thought he was very helpful when interrogated in Poland; he was asked where he had sailed form and replied in his inimitable Irish way, Dudley Port!

"Over the next four years he was incarcerated in Stalag XXA, Stalag IIID and Stalag IVF until released by the Russians in 1945. Towards the end of the war the RAF bombed them at night, the US air force by day and in between the Russian air force.

"While he was a POW he wrote home and my mother replied and in around 1943 sent him a photograph of her and us children taken at Jerome's photographic studio in Worcester Street, Wolverhampton, just down from the old Scala cinema. From this photograph, which was hand-tinted, a fellow prisoner painted a portrait of my mother, which my father brought home with him.

"When our father arrived back in England he was not the same man that went to war and this was reflected in his health and attitude towards life.

"Today, it is all quite different with counsellors to guide you through the emotional turmoil and mental anguish. Our father, like so many released prisoners of war, got handed a cup of tea when he landed back in England, and that was it; some, I doubt, even got that!

"I was five and a bit when our father came home, dressed in his big army greatcoat, which was welcome indeed for my brother and I felt a great deal warmer in bed with that great khaki coat and its shiny brass buttons over us.

"I well remember a year or so later our father, my brother and I began to make a concrete path up the garden, my father using all the tricks of the trade he had learnt working on building sites before the war, my brother and I fetching pram-loads of sand from the nearby sand pit in the park that backed onto our house. It took about a week of evenings to complete the task.

"I remember sitting down with my father and my brother at the end of the finished path and our father said, 'you deserve a medal for all your hard work.' The very next day, it seemed by fate, our father received his campaign medals and an acknowledgement from the French government for his efforts while in France.

"Eventually our father went back to work on the railway and retired at the age of 65 in 1976.

"He suffered greatly in his health, especially in the later years of his life and it was all put down to his years in the prison camp. He died on 7 January, 1994, aged 82.

"Our father was no hero, just a soldier, like so many millions of others, many paying the ultimate price for the cause. As my father once remarked, 'I was just unlucky to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, like so many other servicemen.'"

Have you a family story of World War II to share? Contact dshaw@blackcountrybugle.co .uk or write to our editorial address.

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  • lisafarmer500  |  March 24 2014, 2:15PM

    My very much loved and never forgotten grandparents. How lovely it will be for my 2 sons to finally have some older pictures of them. Faces to go with the many tales they are often told and will hopefully take forward to the next generation of family.