This is the first instalment of a series that will make up the entire book "Adventure into the Unknown" by Roger Griffiths.
Cold Winds Blow
Operation Pied Piper on 1st September 1939 relocated 3.5 million. Designed to save the population of urban areas from aerial bombing of cities and military targets such as docks. In the movie Bed-knobs and Broomsticks (1971), the evacuated children are taken in by a good witch in-training. In the Disney sequel to Peter Pan, Return to Neverland, Wendy Darling's children Jane and Daniel are to prepare for evacuation before Jane is kidnapped by Captain Hook. The introduction to the movie details about the evacuation order and how children need Peter Pan more than ever. In the C.S. Lewis novel, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe 1950, The Pevensie children are evacuated from London to a stately manor that contains the wardrobe portal of Narnia.
Winston Churchill image courtesy of Levan Ramishvili
My war-evacuation area was north Wales, Prestatyn, near Rhyl in Denbighshire. A picturesque town guaranteed to keep the whole family happy. Also, Prestatyn is the gateway to the North Wales coastal area and the most easterly of the beautiful coastal resorts where the mountain air meets the salty sea breezes in the Irish Sea. This area was all sand-hills to run amongst with a long beach shoreline.
The armed forces practised their rifle drill there, must have fired out to sea. I used to pick up a lot of used bullet shells, made of brass. I had fun blowing into the open end, this made a loud high-pitched whistle sound. I fondly remember the house we lived in, named Clarehazel, with French windows, all white. Safe and carefree times directly due to Operation Pied Piper and Winston Churchill.
After my evacuation to North Wales I was sent to live with my Aunty Winnie and Uncle Bert in Tranmere, Birkenhead. They lived in a Terrace house on a very steep hill, directly above the shipyard of Camel Lairds, the River Mersey, and beyond Liverpool. My Uncle Bert was a nice man, quiet and hard-working. He saw the world through a haze of smoke, he was a real smoke addict. I remember his hands and fingers stained black and yellow from the nicotine. Usually the ashtray was full to overflowing, with a lit fag burning amongst the ashes, also one fag always hanging from his lips.
After I heard the siren from Camel Lairds, the big doors opened to let the stream of hundreds of men out. To go home, or go the local for a Black and Tan. They were all dressed in caps, overalls with big working boots. Grimy after a hard day's work on the ships. My Uncle Bert then made his weary return home up the steep hill, wheezing, coughing, gasping. We spent time together in the backyard feeding my duck. One Christmas day after dinner I found out to my dismay my Uncle Bert had cooked my duck.
When I visited years later, on leave from the RAF, I found him under a bridge on his way home from work, I called out, “Uncle Bert, Uncle Bert, it's Roger", but I had surprised him, and he was frightened. Finally, he understood who I was, and we went to his local pub for a couple of pints of beer. It was so good to see him but I could see with his smoking his health was in bad shape.
My Aunty Winnie was a tough lady, stern, and for a little boy, formidable. At night when it was my bedtime she called me from her front door, "Roger, get in here you little bugger", at the top of her lungs. I was usually in the quarry, down the crescent playing. I heard her yelling and was frightened by her aggressiveness, but finally went indoors. Aunty Winnie filled up the steel bathtub in front of the fire in the living room for scrub night. Then she would comb my hair out on to an old newspaper, to get the biddies out, they cracked them by pressing their thumbnail on them. Then it was up the old wooden stairs to bed.
The toilet was outside and called the outhouse. Toilet paper was old newspaper cut into squares. My bedroom faced the backyard. Most nights the cats in the alley screamed and screamed for whatever reason, what a din it was. Well I had better get to sleep, tomorrow I had several games to play of Conkers and Marbles.
I joined the Boy Scouts, the Anglican Church Choir and sang Christmas carols at doors, in the neighborhood of about 200, during the Christmas holidays and made a little pocket money.
When I was eleven years old my mother married William Findlay, he had three children, Billie, June and Margaret. I had two siblings, Jean and Brian. I was youngest of six, just like Alice in Wonderland. We all went to live at 174 Bebington Road, Bebington, Birkenhead. I joined the YMCA Gymnastic club. On Sunday's we always had a special meal. Roast beef, roast potatoes, brussel sprouts and a gravy boat plus a large salad bowl. Everybody helped themselves. Mother often invited Emily from Chester, she was in service there and had a cleft palate, this caused her to speak with difficulty.
Talacre beach photo courtesy of Filip Stepien
We had a special family holiday in North Wales. Talacre is a coastal village close to Point of Ayr on the southern tip of the Dee estuary, it has a huge beach and sand dunes and is a popular family holiday destination within a relatively short drive from Birkenhead. Point of Ayr lighthouse built in 1776 stands on the beach.
My parents rented a cottage in the sand-hills. I remember playing leapfrog, a children's game in which players vault over each other's stooped backs, on the beach with the whole family. A late sixteenth century children's game. Also, I had to take the pails and fetch water from a water tap in the sand-dunes. I was a little guy so it was not an easy task. I was so little that my Uncle Frank said I should be a professional Jockey rider since I was so small. When the pails were filled with water they became very heavy, but I managed to stagger back to the cottage. The water tap was in the sand-hills.
My step-father William Findlay had a large nose, this gave him a look of a leader. With his high forehead, creased with years of effort, his countenance showed a man that was fearless, confident and intelligent. With his small, kind, humorous, crinkly eyes the color of the deep blue sea. His usual dress attire was sailor like. He reminded me of Popeye, the sailor man. He had a lean frame, muscular and rugged. When he was dressed up he was like the film star Clarke Gable. He was a Chief Marine Engineer in the Merchant Navy. In later years he was employed by Weirs of Glasgow as a specialist in Weirs water pumps for the area. On call to the big ocean going ships berthed on the River Mersey, and occasionally he was called out to sea.
He paid little mind to the comparably trivial civilian problems, and therefore they didn't matter. I can only imagine him in the deepest, darkest depths of the ships during the war, fighting to keep the steam engines lit.
Cammel Laird Marine Engineering image courtesy of steve_w
He was on the aircraft carrier 'HMS Ark Royal' at one point, when it was torpedoed. He spent nearly three full days floating in a preserver until a helicopter arrived. In fact when he was in the Merchant Navy in the war years he was torpedoed twice on two separate occasions, both times with great loss of life. He survived to tell the tales, but never did! He was extremely modest. I believe that the Arc Royal was commissioned at Cammel Laird, Birkenhead in the 1930s. He ended up with a nasty steam burn when one the engines blew back on him from the torpedo's damage, then he had to be flown out from the Atlantic Ocean to Gibraltar for Medicare
It was the asbestos from the ships and his previous smoking habit that did him in. It ruined his lungs. I remember almost to the day when Dad got into trouble. I was down south in the USA with my family visiting Jean, my sister and her family. My Mother and Dad was visiting too. Dad was running around playing with all the children, Shandell, Kimberly, Kyle and Greg then suddenly he gasped out of breath. That was a signal for the beginning of the end. A medical exam revealed the worst.
Poor Bill, he retired at age 60. He took me to his last ship that day. I remember coming home on the train, him engrossed in the crossword puzzle, and me thinking of solving several clues, but generally I was clueless. The guys at work wanted to celebrate, to take him for a drink, but he brushed it off with his usual dignity.
I went to see him twice, I was living in Canada. The first time I flew over to see him he was very ill. By the time I went again he had passed. After the funeral service the family gathered outside. We could see the smoke from the chimney as Dad was cremated. Suddenly I said "Julie, Julie, Julie!" That was Dad saying goodbye. A close friend of his Jimmy, came through the crowd and shook my hand, thanking me for travelling all the way from Canada. It was a very touching moment.
Joined Port Sunlight, Soap Division as an office boy.
Left home to join R.A.F. (10 years with 2 in reserve).
Keep posted for the next chapter of "Adventure into the Unknown"