Monday, 8 October 2012

The War Years.

The Whites and World War II

As war was breaking out, the White girls were leaving school and starting work at A. Hill & Company. Richard John was almost 17 years old and after the reintroduction of military conscription would have become eligible for conscription when he reached the age of 18 had his work with the production of spectacles not been regarded as a reserve occupation. With the increasing risk of air raids affecting Birmingham, Dick became an Air Raid Warden. The family had an air raid shelter dug into the garden at the back of 14, Ingleby Street.
  Leonard Knight was not old enough to join the Armed Forces until 1943 and when  he was 18 he joined The Royal Navy. He seems to have been in the Mediterranean area for several photographs exist of him in scenes which appear to be taken at Malta and possibly Egypt. He was involved in action off Italy since he was awarded The Italy Star after the end of the war. There is one large photograph which shows him among the entire crew of HMS Boxer with Valletta Harbour in the background. The ship had been launched on 12 December 1942 having been constructed at Harland And Woolf shipyard in Belfast. It certainly played a role in the invasion of Italy in 1943 and later, also in the Normandy Landings in 1944. The writer, Spike Milligan, recorded that he was carried on The Boxer from North Africa to Italy when he served with the 56th Heavy Regiment Royal Artillery but Leonard  never mentioned that he was aware of that fact although he was a great fan of The Goons, the comedy group of which Spike Milligan was to be a member.
  German air raids on Birmingham began in August 1940 and massive raids on the city took place during the nights of 19 to 22 November 1940. Minor raids followed but there was another major raid on 11 and 12 December 1940 and further massive raids on the city were launched by German aircraft from 9 to 11 April 1941 and from 27 to 30 July 1942. In all Birmingham experienced 27 raids in which more than 2000 people were killed and 3000 seriously injured. Many of the raids were aimed at the factories where supplies for the war were manufactured. The White family passed many nights in their air raid shelter while Dick carried out his warden work checking how people were in their air raid shelters, ensuring the blackout was being observed and administering first aid with the materials in his ARP first aid box containing as it did, a bottle of Dettol, bandages, splints, scissors, rubber adhesive plaster and safety pins. The ongoing terror continued until the last Birmingham air raid which rained down on the city on 23 April 1943. Family members' nerves were frayed; Pearl was unable to tolerate thunder storms for the rest of her life and when ever a flash of lightning occurred or a crack of thunder, she would hide herself under the stairs of the house and Ruby would often be close behind her.
  However life went on in the face of bombs and rationing. Hill's factory switched its production to war work. Pearl and Joan silver-soldered naval officers' silver cap badges. They soldered rings for applying to stirrup pumps which were used for putting out fires. Women were also conscripted and a number of the workers at the factory were called up, including Pearl but not Ruby, who was deemed not to be fit enough, nor Joan who was too young. Pearl sat an examination to enable her to work for the Royal Air Force and passed it but ultimately was allocated to work for the railway service which entailed carrying out heavy and exhausting work.
  Joan recalled that every day, Mr. Steier toured his factory to ensure that his "children" had not been killed or injured in the air raids. The factory was not damaged at any time but on one occasion, a bomb fell on and exploded in the shop facing the soldering department. Fortunately, because it was a night-time raid, no-one was injured.

A view of the soldering shop at the old factory in Frederick Street where
Ruby, Pearl and Joan worked for many years. Joan is at the window.

 Len Knight meanwhile changed his service from the Navy to the British Army and joined The Royal Leicestershire Regiment, his number being 14991414. The Second Battalion of The Leicestershire Regiment was fighting in the jungles of Burma in 1944 and it was in this terrible theatre of war that Leonard found himself fighting the Japanese. He rarely spoke about the awfulness of it but he lost a lot of weight in the intensely humid, tropical jungle atmosphere and contracted malaria, bouts of which he continued to experience even when he was back at home after the war. He certainly experienced nightmares about it years later. He used to tell stories of the horribleness of having to burn leeches off his skin with lighted cigarettes. This must surely have been an awful experience for a young man of nineteen.
  In Shotteswell, the Proffitt-Whites experienced two tragedies as a result of the war. Lionel Tom White, the second son of Tom W. and Mary Proffitt White, became a trooper in the Royal Armoured Corps, 32nd Tank Brigade and found himself fighting in the North Africa campaign in Libya. He was killed in action at the Battle of Gazala on 29 May 1942 and was buried in the Knightsbridge War Cemetery in Acroma in Libya. The third son of the family, William Proffitt-White, joined the Royal Air Force and was a pilot officer in 77 Squadron, Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve. On the night of 29 January 1944 his bomber airplane took off from RAF Elvington en route to action over Berlin but the aircraft crashed with the loss of all seven crew members. William is commemorated on The Runnymede Memorial in Surrey while the two brothers are commemorated on a marble plaque bearing the names of the Shotteswell men killed during the two World Wars which is placed at the entrance to St. Laurence Church. At the foot of their father's grave in St. Laurence churchyard, an additional stone was placed commemorating the names of the two brothers.
Memorial at the entrance of St. Laurence Church in Shotteswell honouring Lionel White
and William Proffitt White and others. The brothers are the only members of the White family
whom I know to have died in war.                                           

  Back in Birmingham, life for the family was not all doom and gloom. They supplemented their rations with food grown in the garden and with the poultry that they kept. Dick would come up with an occasional wheeze such as when he decided to hold a raffle where the prize was a pig. The raffle winner was not too pleased to find that the pig in question was a "sugar pig", a small pink-coloured, porcine-shaped piece of confectionary! Needless to say this prize did not go down too well with the winner who had expected something rather more substantial but Dick refunded everyone's money and the joke was generally appreciated.
  About 1943, Joan recalled, Mr. Hill and Mr. Steier held a dance for their workers at the jewellery factory in a hall in Harborne and gave bonuses to the five people who had worked longest for them. Ruby, Pearl and Joan took their mother, Josie, with them to the dance, as a guest and Joan recalled that there was a generous buffet meal which contributed to making it a thoroughly enjoyable evening for them all. Joan said that they had never been to an occasion like it before.
 The White girls did not let the war spoil their social lives and made friends with various young soldiers home on leave and in particular, a young black American soldier who would often visit the home where he was well regarded. In the summers, the girls would go to work on the land and usually visited the area around Grantham in Lincolnshire where they formed a special friendship with a local young woman who remained a great friend of the family for 60 years after the war. Later she worked as a manageress in a bakery where particularly fine pork pies were made and every Christmas time the Whites would receive a parcel sent by her, containing several of the delicious pies to increase the family's Christmas cheer.
 And so the war approached its end and on 8 May 1945 the Germans unconditionally surrendered to The Allies and victory in Europe was declared. The British began a massive celebration. The three White girls turned up to Hill's factory for work as usual but Theodore Steier told them to go home and take the day off so that they could participate in and enjoy the Victory celebrations. Joan recalled that they certainly did so, mixing with the happy crowds in the centre of Birmingham and perhaps drinking a little bit more than they should have done. In fact, Mr. Steier was so happy about the victory that he gave his employees a whole week's holiday with pay instead of just a single day of leave. The Birmingham branch of the White family and the factory that employed three of its members, had made it through the long war years, safe and sound.

Dick White sitting on the air raid shelter
at 14 Ingleby Street, late 1940's.

  Some sadness was to follow soon afterwards, however: Annie Maria, "Granny White", died the following month from, as Joan recalled, "old age". She was buried in the grave in Quinton Cemetery where the bodies of John Henry and Tom already lay, the funeral taking place on 13 June 1945. In recent years, she had continued to have problems with her leg ulceration and had slipped on a banana skin and fractured her leg. Her younger sister, Laura - "Aunt Laura" - lived another nine years until dying on 17 July 1954, a life-long spinster. She died at 89 Crockett's Road, Handsworth and Dick was the executor of her will which was granted probate on 17 September 1954 at Birmingham. The will provided £50 for her sister, Connie,  £30 for her sister, Marjorie, £30 for her long-time friend and companion, Elizabeth Matilda Taylor, and the rest of the estate, totaling £1099 5s 9d was left to her brother, Dick, which was a good boost for the family's finances.
  One person who was not sharing in the celebrations of VE Day was Len Knight for he was still in Burma fighting against the Japanese who did not surrender to The Allies until 14 August 1945 (British-time, in Japan it was already 15 August). Even then, it was a while before he was demobilised for, on returning to Europe, he was deployed in Allied-Occupied Germany. After the war he was awarded The Italy Star, as mentioned above, The 1939 - 45 Star, The Burma Star, The War Medal and The Defence Medal.

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