Once upon a war…

Who says  the elderly aren’t  worth listening to?  Just think of some of the gems they  can casually reveal in conversations about what it was like when they were schoolkids.  Here’s one:

Last week we chatted with a relative who had attended Owairaka Primary School in Mt Albert,  during World War II.   Her husband had been talking about the  numerous gun emplacements around  the city when she chipped in to say that trenches  had been dug around the football field.  The whole school took part in air raid drills, climbing down into the trenches –  armed with cotton wool for their ears – and a cork to put between their teeth.

That was in Auckland,  but  in other areas  from Devonport to Wellington,  children went through similar drills. Joyce Harrison, born in Wellington in 1927, was at school during the war – but even here she wasn’t free from wartime anxieties.  In her drill she was given among other things,  a  rubber.

“It was a little rubber that we had to put between our teeth for shock. But I think we were given an issue of rubbers. I’m sure we were. And you’d put – but, well you didn’t do that first. You had your identity badge round your neck with your name stamped on it”.

Interviewer: What was that made out of?

 Joyce Harrison: Made of something gold – it was a dull goldie material, something fairly soft I think.

Interviewer: And what was it attached with?

 Joyce Harrison: A cord round your neck, it had a hole in the top. Rough sort of stamping of your letters of your name on it – rather uneven and it had something else – whether it was your address? Anyway it had your name and the cord round your neck. And you wore that all the time.

And then you’d go down in the trench and you’d try not to get the sleeves of your cardigan dirty against the sides of the trench. They were pretty narrow down there. And then when you got in you’d put your rubber between your teeth. To stop in case there was shock and which could break your teeth. And we’d do that for a while and then the whistle, the all clear or so, would go and you’d come back again.

Interviewer: And when the whistle went did you have to run?

 Joyce Harrison: Oh yes, you had to go smartly because that meant there was an air raid coming.

Interviewer: And was there laughter and frivolity around this?

 Joyce Harrison: Oh no.

Interviewer: It was taken seriously?

 Joyce Harrison: Yes we took that quite seriously. I mean we quite enjoyed it because it was a little bit of a break, quite a nice break to go rushing out.

Interviewer: I just have a vision of a whole lot of giggling girls

 Joyce Harrison: I don’t think so, not for that. There were plenty of giggling girls around doing things, but – at other times.

Interviewer: But not during the air raid practices?

Joyce Harrison: I don’t think so. No, I think we were – well, we may have been light hearted about it that we were having a break from maths or something. But we took it quite seriously. And we were quite concerned. It brought it home to us that something might happen to us”.

All these precautions  followed news of the Blitz, when Germany relentlessly bombed British cities,  and local authorities began looking for places where New Zealand citizens could shelter during air raids. The danger to large groups of children was particularly worrying for the authorities.’ according to NZ History.

‘Before Pearl Harbor, the plan had been to clear schools and send children home if the enemy was on the horizon. After 7 December 1941, however, this policy ‘was eroded by visions of bunched children on roads being targets for machine-guns, of stray children, lost and panic stricken, of parents, disobeying orders, hurrying out to look for them’. The solution was to keep children at school during an attack, to build more trenches and to have routine practices in air raid drill.

In Devonport, local schoolkids took to quite sophisticated air shelters with their teachers as this Weekly News pic shows: (Note the bare feet!)

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Paul Smith

Paul is a veteran journalist, non-fiction author and writing mentor. He has also served on boards ranging from TVNZ to UNESCO.