Like many of his generation, Bill Buckley of Pensnett has a wealth of powerful memories of a childhood spent in the shadow of the Second World War.
And while many of us express the intention of committing our recollections to paper or to tape for the benefit of our descendants, not all of us get around to it. Bill however, recently took the bull by the horns, setting himself up with a camcorder and pouring out his thoughts on those formative years just up the road from where he lives now. The results have been edited down and put onto a DVD, which Bill has been kind enough to let the Bugle have a good look at.
And so impressed were we, we asked Bill if he'd allow us to reproduce some of his memories in our pages, and we're pleased to bring them to you now, with his blessing.
Bill kicks things off in late 1939, with the long-dreaded but inevitable announcement that this country had declared war on Hitler's Germany ...
"'Will Dad have to go to war Mom? How about me?' I asked.
"'It'll all be over by Christmas,' my Dad said. 'We've got the best forces in the world.' "They soon began to organise the LDV (Local Defence Volunteers, the original name for the Home Guard). And it was quite comical, they were doing drill with broomsticks.
We were expecting bombers, so we had blackouts; no lights and heavy duty curtains. And there were sticky brown paper crosses on the window panes. There were Air Raid Wardens, messengers — kids on bikes — and the Auxiliary Fire Service.
"Everywhere you went, people were digging up signposts, so that if the parachutists came, they wouldn't have a clue where they were going.
'How about you Dad?' I asked him. 'You're a lorry driver, how are you going to get on with no signs?' 'Doh worry abaht it,' he said. 'Ah've bin at this job that long I know this country like the back o’ me 'ond.' "Things changed very quickly at school. They were all nice, young teachers we had there, and they all disappeared one by one to join the forces. We were left being taught by very old teachers, brought back out of retirement.
"Everyone had an Identity Card; I remember my number even now. And Ration Books and gas masks, you had to carry them everywhere you went. They came in three different sizes, small, medium and large. Mine was one of the medium, and you put it in a cardboard box with a bit of string round it, and everywhere you went you had to carry this gas mask with you.
"Young men seemed to disappear very quickly, joining the forces; and so were the young women, a lot were called up to go to different factories making aircraft and armaments. Some even went to work on farms; the Land Army Girls.
There were a few who were seconded down the mines, the Bevin Boys.
"Food wasn't too bad at the beginning of the war. But once the surplus had gone we started to get into trouble. Everyone was asked to start growing vegetables in their gardens and allotments.
We were still getting a lot coming in by sea at the start of the war, but as it progressed a lot of the convoys, a lot of the ships got sunk, and food became very very short.
Docks "Fortunately, sometimes I had to go with Dad to Liverpool docks, to collect sugar or flour, and it seemed unusual that every time he went, one of the bags had split open, and he'd came back with several bags of sugar or flour. Very useful.
"I used to go with him in the summer holidays.
He drove an old Guy wagon, made in Wolverhampton, and the engine was inside the cab with a huge cowling over it.
When I went with him in the winter, that's where I sat; it was lovely and warm. There were two main runs — one to Malvern, which I knew every inch of the way, and one to Coventry, which I remember from the '40s. The one time we went to Coventry it was just a huge ball of fire. There was a horrible smell, very acrid."
Despite its heavy industry, the Black Country had come off nowhere near as badly as Coventry. The most tangible problem for its citizens was the scarcity of food and other basic necessities.
"There were queues every Saturday," says Bill, "and the three of us lads had to go with Mother down to Brierley Hill town, and each stand in different queues to keep a place for her.
When she came to take our place we'd disappear into the next queue.
We'd get a penny a week each for doing this. I'd spend mine round the market, buying last week's comic. Last week's was only a halfpenny.
I would also do errands to earn another half a penny, so that I could go to the pictures on Saturday afternoon.
Gene Autrey, Roy Rogers; it was absolutely great. And they'd always leave you on a cliffhanger so you'd got to go next week to see what happened.
"Of course we had no television, but we had plenty of games to play.
Football and cricket out in the street; a rope over the arms of the gas lamp post to make a swing.
“There was Kick the Can, Hide and Seek, marbles, cigarette cards and jacks. And we could go for lovely walks; bird nesting in the summer, and swimming in the canal. It didn't matter how cold the water was, we'd swim up by Round Oak Steelworks; they used canal water to cool down their hot rollers, and pumped the warm water back into the canal. It was so warm there was steam coming off it, it was great.
"But then there was Cowboys and Indians, and ours were the best armed in the country — because not too far from our houses were the railway sidings. They would leave wagons there overnight; locked up, obviously. But the father of one of my mates had a huge bunch of keys, so one night, off we went with them, and eventually we found a key that opened one of the cars. It was packed with rifles; 303s.
"Wa hey! We'd landed on our feet! So off we went with a rifle apiece.
It was a good job we'd got no ammo, or there'd have been none of us left. We played with them for a few months, but word got out that it had been noted that some rifles were missing, and they were going to come round searching everybody till they found them. So one dark night, we all went down to the big pool at the bottom of the street — very deep it was too — and every one of us threw our rifles into the pool.
"Mind you, I was always getting into trouble.
Anything that happened, people would say 'do you remember who did it, Mrs Darby?' or whoever it might have been, and the lady would say 'no, but one of them had bright red hair.' And the police would say, 'oh we know who that is, it's Billy Buck’. So I was often in trouble. But I never twitted on any of my mates.
Bombing "The bombing started in 1940. I remember the wailing sirens. And I remember digging out a hole for our Air Raid shelter, which was ruddy hard work. We had to go down eight or nine feet.
Dad put a couple of benches in there, and a little camp bed, and it really wasn't too bad. We spent many nights in there; as soon as the bombs started to fall, Dad had to dash out as he was an ARP man.
There were magnesium bombs, incendiaries, which you couldn't put out with water — it would just bubble up and scald you — you had to tip a bucket of sand over them.
"The first bomb in our area came at the beginning of 1940. It flattened one of the cottages at the bottom of Cochrane Road; it used to be called The Croft, two or three hundred yards from our house. The railway ran along the bottom of our houses, and the German aircraft used to follow the line to try to hit Round Oak Steelworks.
The nearest one to land near us was only a couple of houses away. We were all in the shelter, we heard it and felt it, all the trembling. But the only damage it did to our house was to blow all the windows in. And Dad kept pigeons. My job before going to school in a morning was to clean them out and help feed them. But the blast of the bomb killed them all, and I threw my hands up in the air and shouted 'Thank you Hitler, you've done me a good turn!' We had two or three good dinners out of the pigeon pies that mother baked. So there's always a silver lining.
"The next morning, all the local kids had to take buckets and collect all the shrapnel from our Anti-Aircraft guns, and put it in a pile at the end of the street. It was collected every so often, so the metal could be reused for more armaments.
All the railings had been taken away and melted down; even the little railings that ran around the graves."
Given the family home's proximity to the railway line, the Buckleys and their neighbours were almost literally in the firing line, and so, like many a child in wartime, young Bill was evacuated to somewhere safer. But it was far from the idyllic rural life he'd been hoping for ...
"I was evacuated to Malvern," Bill recalls, "but I had to stay with a horrible farmer.
He got us up at six in the morning and made us wash in cold water and then work till it was time for school. I wasn't having that, so I ran away, and it took me three days to get home.
The weather was nice and sunny, but it was an awful experience really.
On the way home I stole milk off front steps and drank it behind hedges. I pulled carrots up out of fields, and ate apples from trees. Oh my little feet. They were ready to drop off by the time I got home.
Search "They knew I was missing from the farm, and everyone had been out looking for me, the police and Air Raid Wardens.
So when I turned up, Mother came rushing out to me and gathered me up in her arms. Then paled me with a boiler stick, which was her favourite weapon. It put lumps on my head.
“But after that she loved me up and said how she'd missed me, and thanked God I was safe. She promised never to send me away again."