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  • Writer's pictureSarah von Allmen

52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks: Week 23.

Week 23 - Mistake.

Some bad moves – and some good ones – during World War II.

At the outbreak of World War II in 1939, my maternal grandparents Bill and Lil Gosling were living in Didsbury with their three children: my mother (then aged 6) and her older siblings Tom (11) and Mary (9). Bill joined the Pioneer Corps early in the war, and except for a few short leaves he would be away from home until 1945.

William ("Bill") Gosling (1903-1985)

As early as the summer of 1938, with the threat of war hanging over Europe, the British government had drawn up contingency plans to evacuate civilians - particularly children - from cities believed to be at risk of aerial bombing to safer, rural zones. These plans were publicised by local councils during summer 1939, and “Operation Pied Piper” was officially announced on 31 August, with evacuation beginning the following day. Manchester was obviously deemed a high-risk area, so Tom was evacuated to Wirksworth, and the girls to Chapel-en-le-Frith in Derbyshire. However, this was the period of the “phony war”, and like many children, they returned home within a fairly short time when the feared raids failed to materialise immediately.

In 1940, Mum and Mary should have been sent to Canada under a government-sponsored scheme to evacuate children to the Dominions, but a pre-boarding medical examination found (to Gran’s mortification) that one or both had picked up head lice, and they were not allowed to travel. I am not sure whether it was the ship on which they were due to sail, but on 13 September 1940, the SS City of Benares, carrying 90 child evacuees among its passengers, was torpedoed, and sunk with heavy loss of life, including 77 of the children. Another evacuation ship, the SS Volendam, had been torpedoed two weeks earlier with 320 children aboard, but in that case all the passengers had been rescued by other ships. After the loss of the City of Benares, organised overseas evacuations were abandoned.

This meant that all three children were in Didsbury with Lil on 23 December 1940 when the longest air raid on the UK took place: the Manchester Blitz. It lasted 14 hours, and Tom recalls that it seemed as if the entire city was on fire, and flames could be seen along three quarters of the skyline. Mum remembers Tom trying to convince Lil that her mother's house was in the untouched sector, although even at the age of 7 she knew better. Cracks developed in the house due to a mobile 2.7-inch anti-aircraft gun firing from a position close by. In the morning the devastation became apparent, in a scene repeated all over Europe, with homes and businesses destroyed. In central Manchester, the cathedral and St Mary's church were almost the only buildings undamaged, and the family's garden was littered with shrapnel.

Manchester Blitz, 1940

At this time, the family had a cat who preferred to litter in private, and she had just given birth to kittens under the next-door neighbour's aviary. When the air raid siren sounded, the family were astonished to see her appear at door of the air raid shelter, carrying a kitten in her mouth. She deposited it in the shelter and returned to the garden to fetch the other kittens one by one. Her instinct proved sound: during the raid, a wall collapsed and demolished the aviary.

The following spring, Tom started an allotment to grow vegetables (quite an undertaking for a 13-year-old schoolboy), while the family kept chickens. This not only supplemented their official ration entitlement, but any surplus could be bartered with friends and neighbours.

While Bill was back in England for a few months before going to France in 1943, he arranged with a farming acquaintance to go into partnership after the war running the man’s farm and a laundry business. In summer 1944, therefore, Lil and the children went to Saxmundham, where Lil acted as level-crossing keeper and ran the laundry.

Tom returned to Manchester at the end of the summer to finish school, living with his maternal grandmother, while his sisters attended a primary school in Saxmundham. One of Mum's most striking memories of the war years was walking to school at Saxmundham across the fields after an air raid, surrounded by shell-shocked cows, swaying on their feet.

However, the farming and laundry partnership rapidly turned into a fiasco, and by late 1944 the whole family was back Manchester, where they found a home in Whalley Range. The winter was a hard one, and with no allotment to fall back on there was nothing to supplement the ration book, either in cash or in kind. Tom recalls burning linoleum and furniture to keep warm when the coal ran out.

Fortunately, by the time spring 1945 arrived the end of the war was in sight, along with Bill’s return, and the family could once again look to the future.

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