Topic: Peter Pratt recalls War, School and Castor Oil - 1943

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A single chapter from Peter Pratt's memoirs "The Road From Grimsby" (ISBN 978-0-9941107-8-7).

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About the Author:

Peter Pratt in 2015

You could say this is the story of an ordinary boy who lived life to the full, growing up in the 1940s to manhood in the 1950s. Peter was born in Grimsby England in 1936 three years before the start of World War 2. Grimsby then was the world’s premier fishing port.

He was the youngest of three brothers and four sisters. In his first seven years, he hardly knew his merchant seaman father and brothers because they were fighting for their country.

After the years in war-torn Grimsby and many unhappy school days, Peter discovered in sports - mainly football, cricket and fishing – a refuge from the classroom. He left school at fifteen with a school report that said, “You must do better.”

He began his apprenticeship in 1951 with the Grimsby Humber Graving Dock where after five hard years he earned his qualification as a steel fabricator, skills that later took him on many interesting worldly journeys south from Grimsby. In 1964 Peter and his wife, Patricia immigrated to Africa. While living in Africa, he raised two children making these important years.

The work he took in different countries demonstrated that this Grimsby lad could indeed, and would do better! Now Peter and his wife Patricia are enjoying their final journey retiring in Tauranga, New Zealand’s sunny Bay of Plenty.

From the back cover of "The Road From Grimsby" (ISBN 978-0-9941107-8-7).

Chapter 3

War, School and Castor Oil

Cover to The Road From Grimsby by Peter Pratt

World War II was in its second year when, aged five, I started my first day at school at South Parade Primary, only a five minute walk from home. My mother hugged and kissed me and put a penny for school milk into my hand, with a stern warning not to lose it. My twin sisters were told to look after me before mother watched us go from the front garden, with our gas masks slung over our shoulders. A sickly taste of the castor oil and orange juice she’d dosed me with lingered at the back of my throat as I held hands with my sisters to cross the cinder track.

Each morning Miss Pringle my schoolteacher called the register, where we answered ‘Here’ to our names. This was followed by a daily gas-mask drill and a walk to the air-raid shelter. My gas mask was the ugly black rubber type with a Perspex window and a bulky filter that resembled a pig’s snout. I envied the children who carried the red ‘Mickey Mouse’ type gas-masks with big eyes and ears. Nonetheless, they all had the same nauseous smell of rubber and a visor soon fogged up by anxious breathing. As the war raged on, the Luftwaffe came in waves and the air raids became more regular.

On one horrendous air raid our school was bombed, luckily in July during the summer holidays. It was the summer of 1943 when Grimsby experienced one of its worst-ever bombings. With sirens blurting out their warning, still in my pyjamas, my four sisters and I, wrapped in our blankets, traipsed behind Mam to the communal shelter at the corner of the street. Our own Anderson shelter was flooded more often than not especially with the heavy rainfalls that summer.

The night-sky was a latticework of searchlights criss-crossing each other as they sought to pinpoint the German intruders. My brother Bernard stopped and pointed skyward so we could see a plane lit up in the searchlight beams. Our mother soon dragged me inside the shelter, as the orchestral drone of enemy planes came closer and the symbolic crump-crump of our anti-aircraft guns retaliated. We trembled with fear as we huddled down in our blankets like frightened mice. There were several tremendous ear-shattering explosions, followed by a nerve-racking shudder and then darkness.

For a while, it was pitch black as the shelter’s lights went out. Mr Treacher came, our Air Raid Warden, and shone his flashlight around to check if everyone was all right. By then there were more flashlights lit, and thankfully there were no physical casualties as far as I can remember. The all-clear siren sounded and we all returned to our homes in the strange orange glow of the raid’s aftermath, a scene we became used to in the following years.

The following morning revealed the damage after a savage air raid across the West Marsh. Dixons Paper Mill was aglow with incendiary bombs and several houses by the River Freshney in Haven Terrace had been demolished. The streets reeked with the acrid stench of burning wood and cordite that seemed to last forever. On that particular night, several people in the town were killed, including a school friend of my twin sisters and his parents.

So it was not the hospital that had been bombed, as we had first thought, but our school, South Parade. At the time, I had not realised the dangers my teachers faced with their nightly task of fire duty. Luckily no one was injured or killed during the school’s bombing. My hopes of an extended holiday were short lived, as I soon found out. We would be attending another school until South Parade was repaired.

The twenty-minute walk to Victoria Street School led us over the Corporation Bridge to where, earlier in the war, Victoria Street itself had been severely bombed, turning shops and houses into blackened naked shells. As we walked past the bombed sites, we were warned not to collect shrapnel – the metal fragments – because they might be a butterfly bomb. Those were unusual small winged bombs, somehow attractive, but deadly to touch.

That first day as we walked to Victoria Street School I was amazed by the sight of the Corporation Road Bridge lifting up to let a ship pass through. I had never been this far away from home before, and it became something of an adventure to watch for different ships along the docksides and, in the distance, the Grimsby Dock Tower rising high above everything else.

Later that year on returning to South Parade School after its repairs, I had a new teacher, Miss Kemp. She noted my good drawing skills, but was bewildered by my inability to grasp the simplest spelling or the basics in arithmetic. Slowly and laboriously with her help I learned the two times table, the alphabet and spelling words. She had the class chanting the alphabet in a sing-song rhythm along with thirty odd other infants.

Although I also enjoyed sport, in those early two years of school my favourite subjects were drawing, crayoning and painting. Often my pictures were displayed on the classroom wall.

At 3pm on Tuesday 8th May 1945, Winston Churchill’s voice came over the radio. Our mother hushed us all into silence as we all listened to his broadcast.

“The war in Europe is over. Germany has surrendered.”

Mam burst into tears of happiness, hugging me and my four sisters. Almost immediately, the victory celebrations began. We ran into the street where everyone went crazy, singing, dancing, kissing and hugging friends and strangers. Flags were flying and bunting was strung across the street from house to house. Church-bells were ringing, vehicles honking their horns and from the nearby docks came the long dull hoot–hoot of ships’ foghorns.

My best pal David, who lived only a few doors away, came running around to tell me that his brother Kenny would be coming home. David’s family were already stringing flags and bunting around the front of their house. Kenny had endured four years in a German prisoner of war camp, not knowing he had lost his brother Leslie, who had fought in the desert campaign against Rommel at the battle for El Alamein.

All the families in Yarborough Street contributed what they could afford to make the street party that followed a success for the children. Trestle tables and chairs were set out along the street. All around me were happy faces smeared with jam and jelly. Each of us was given a brown paper bag with a stick of liquorice to dip into lemon sherbet, boiled-sweets, an apple and orange, and a balloon.

David and I got a toy parachute each with caps (the kind you put in a toy gun) to put in its ‘bomb.’ When I threw it up, the parachute sailed down and hit the pavement with a bang loud enough to make us jump. I suppose we were all still a little war-shocked.

After the street party, we were all marched in an orderly file to the Queen’s Cinema to see George Formby in ‘Get Cracking,’ followed by cartoons.

That night, the cinder track was jam-packed with civilians and service personnel in uniform: Army, Navy, Air Force, police constables and hospital staff from across the street. A carnival atmosphere ensued and the finale of the day was the victory bonfire. From surrounding streets everyone brought their old furniture and rubbish and piled it up. The highlight was the burning of an effigy of Hitler strung up and dangling from the cinder track’s sycamore tree.

Before dusk fell, he was tied to an old chair set on top of the bonfire and lit to chants of “Burn! Burn! Burn!” We cheered as the fire spluttered around his figure and sang and danced as the flames consumed him.

Three months later on 6th August 1945, the first atom bomb was dropped on Hiroshima and another on Nagasaki three days later. The Japanese finally surrendered on 14th August 1945 and VJ celebrations began.

Now the Second World War was finally over.

Photograph or Peter Pratt 1944

As an eight year old with my dog Chum 1944



This page archived at Perma CC in September of 2016:

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Peter Pratt recalls War, School and Castor Oil - 1943

Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 New Zealand License
Peter Pratt recalls War, School and Castor Oil - 1943 by Tauranga City Libraries Staff - HC is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 New Zealand License