Blackout, Bombs, Sirens, And A Brave New Start
The first half of the 1940’s were years of war, of bombs and blackout, of queues and coupons. The next five were of peace, of permits and town planning. It was the decade of sirens, and then a fresh start.
The first year of the 1940’s was strangely quiet. Thousands of children had been evacuated. The sirens didn’t sound until June, 1940, and then it was a false alarm.
After eleven months of the ‘phoney’ war, Wallasey had its first air raid on August 1o, 1940, It was just a taste of what was to come.
Over 500 alerts followed between then and January, 1942. In addition to 340 townspeople killed, 275 were seriously injured.
Over 1,150 houses were demolished. Over 17,000 were damaged. Wallasey was a front-line town.
King George VI and Queen Elizabeth came on November 6, 1940. It was intended to be a hush-hush visit, but the news got round and the crowds turned out.
King George VI and Queen Elizabeth visiting Wallasey, 6th November, 1940.
Inspecting bombed streets during their tour, the King and Queen chatted to many families who had lost their homes only a few nights before. Rubble was everywhere.
It was a visit full of little human incidents – like the Queen waving to two old ladies she spotted sitting on their doorsteps a good distance away, and the King’s comment, “Don’t tread on my corns!” to a section of the crowd which almost completely surrounded him at one point.
“And where do you live, dear?” asked the Queen of one little girl in Seacombe, “Back of the Gandy” was the enlightening reply.
Prime Minister Winston Churchill came on April 25, 1941. Complete with cigar and V-sign, he inspected Civil Defence services.
“Good old Winston” shouted the crowd which seemed to have appeared from nowhere. Before leaving for the Merseyside docks, he turned to the people who had greeted him and called “God bless you all”.
The following Sunday evening, in one of his memorable broadcasts, he made reference to his country-wide tour the previous week. It had the effect, he said, of bracing his own courage; it had stimulated his own spirit.
The No.6 Mark 1 (20 barrel) projector was one of six allocated to the Wallasey 'Z' rocket battery attached to the 103rd Cheshire Home Guard Anti-Aircraft Battery which was formed in 1942 and dismantled in December 1944.
Wallasey liked to think that some part of that process derived from his brief visit here.
In 1942, in the middle of a hot summer, Wallasey Home Guard defended the town against mock invaders. It was a realistic bit of work. It showed just what could happen.
Then the G.I’s came. Hundreds of American troops were accommodated at New Brighton. The New Palace Cafeteria became their canteen.
They lived at the Tower Ballroom. They were favourites with the girls.
They were generous guests. Chewing gum and chocolate was regularly handed out to local youngsters who had to manage on a weekly sweets ration of something like four ounces.
Wallasey gave the Americans freedom of the town in 1944. They paraded through the streets, and in a Vale Park ceremony the “Old Glory” fluttered alongside the Union Jack.
The war brought boom business to the cinemas. There were long queues outside them all in Wallasey.
Folk went to see “Mrs. Miniver”. “The Foreman Went To France”, “The Way Ahead”, “Went The Day Well”, and “The First of the Few”.
Other films included “The Wicked Lady”, “The Man in Grey”, “49th Parallel, “In Which We Serve”, “Millions Like Us”, and the Bing Crosby-Bob Hope “Road” films.
Wallasey people brought gramophone records of the Andrews Sisters, the Ink Spots, Vera Lynn (the ‘Forces’ Sweetheart), Kenny Baker, and George Formby.
Everyone was humming tunes like ‘Begin The Beguine’, ‘Room Five-hundred and Four’, ‘White Cliffs of Dover’, ‘Somewhere Over The Rainbow’.
There was Charlie Kunz at the piano, Adelaide Hall, Tessie O’Shea, the Western Brothers, Stainless Stephen, Gillie Potter, Suzette Tarry, Elsie and Doris Waters.
On the radio people listened to shows like ‘Garrison Theatre’. Bebe Daniels and Ben Lyon in ‘Hi Gang!’ and ITMA, with Tommy Handley.
There was the Nine O’Clock News, with Big Ben from London before it. There was Lord Haw-Haw from Germany. He mentioned Wallasey by name on two occasions.
The ferryboats were blacked out. One of them, the ‘Royal Daffodil II’, was sunk at her berth in a raid in May, 1941. It was a direct hit, but despite the violence of the explosion, only man suffered. He was blown out of the engine-room and lost his false teeth! It was thirteen months before the vessel was salvaged. She looked a sad and battered sight – no funnel, no mast, smothered in marine growth, and full of tons of sand.
The Royal Daffodil II after receiving a direct hit from a German bomber on 8 May 1941.
Thousands of sandbags were used throughout the town as protection against blast and bomb splinters. Communal shelters hugged the pavements in score of streets.
The ‘Queen of the Fleet’, they had called her once. She had lost her elegance, but she was repaired and put back into service in June, 1943.
Rations were small. A few ounces of this, a half-pound of that. A thing like an orange was practically nothing but a memory from pre-war days.
British Restaurants provided cheap meals to the public. There was one in St. Paul’s Road, Seacombe, another in Wallasey Road.
‘Clippies’ collected the fares on the buses. They wore slacks and head scarves.
There were queues outside all the shops. There was a Food Control office in Liscard.
The Home Guard had its headquarters in the School of Art, Central Park. There were barrage balloons.
Short of Beer
There was a shortage of beer in the pubs. Some hostelries introduced their own rationing system.
There was coupons for utility clothes. The girls, troubled by a shortage of stockings, painted their legs.
Wallasey had ‘Wings For Victory’ weeks. There was also ‘Salute the Soldiers’ weeks.
Cigarettes were as hard to come by as gold. There were ‘under the counter’ dealings.
Wallasey folk were urged by posters to remember that careless talk cost lives. People were asked to save every bit of scrap. Dustbins were provided for unwanted peelings. They went to feed pigs and poultry.
George Reakes, an Independent, had succeeded Lieut-Colonel Moore-Brbazon as Wallasey’s wartime M.P. Conservative Ernest Marples defeated him in 1945.
There were bonfires and parades when the war ended in 1945. There were ‘victory cruises’ on the ferryboats.
A civic welcome for Ian Fraser, 1945, who had won the Victoria Cross.
A shy young V.C., Lieutenant Ian Fraser, R.N., was given a sword of honour by the town in which he had decided to make his home. Fraser had taken a midget submarine into Singapore Harbour to attack the crack Japanese cruiser ‘Takao’ with limpet bombs.
During the victory celebrations people chalked huge V signs on every available piece of wall space. They hung up flags and buntings.
Victory in 1945 brought many street parties. This one, in Gresford Place, was typical.
Ferryboats were dressed overall. Up on the Breck they burnt a vast mound of torn-out air raid shelter fittings.
Pianos were brought out on the pavements and there was dancing in the open. The magistrates were busy with requests for licensing extensions.
The weekly food ration was only four ounces of bacon, eight ounces of sugar, and two ounces each of butter, cheese, cooking fats and tea, but somehow everyone managed to stage a celebration.
In the new big new film that was going the local rounds, a youthful Deanna Durbin summed up the feeling of everyone: “Can’t Help Singing”.
Wallasey was quick to make a fresh start. There was bustle and plans.
In 1946, despite permits and shortages of everything, the town began to re-build, replace and improve.
The shelters came tumbling down. Houses started going up.
The first of the vast new estates were taking shape at Leasowe and Moreton within months of the end of hostilities. New schools went on the drawing boards.
New semi-detached brick-built houses in Reeds Lane, Moreton, were known as 'Duplex' houses and completed in 1946.
The last of the luggage boats sailed from Seacombe in March, 1947. The Rakers were re-formed and went to a home at the Tower.
In the late 1940’s Wallasey spread itself out and stretched itself up. Its shape changed completely, It got itself a new look.
The decade that had opened to the noise of sirens and bomb-blasts closed to be cheerful, heartening music of bulldozers clearing blitz sites, and the rattle of bricklayers’ trowels.