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FIRST CHAPTERS
A Bairn’s War - 1939-45 by Jim Davidson
ISBN: 0 -9543108-0-2
Chapter 1


...a state of war now existed between Great Britain and Germany.
It had a disastrous effect on my parents.

The summer of 1938 was brilliant. We had just returned to Peterhead after two years in Glasgow where my father and older brother, Willum, had worked in Fairfield’s shipyard. We lived there in a place called Partick, and I started school at Dowanhill Primary School. Father and Willum had been building big boats. They’d worked on liners for Cunard and on two Navy destroyers, the Maori and the Gurkha. The HMS Gurkha had a busy but short time in the war and was the first British destroyer sunk by air-attack. This happened in April, 1940 during the Norwegian campaign. A bomb blew a large hole in its starboard side, and its guns kept firing until it sank. The HMS Maori was bombed and sank in Dockyard Creek in Malta in 1941, but nearly all the crew were ashore, so there were few casualties. I think both ships were launched in 1938, when father and Willum were at Fairfields, and although they were warships, we weren’t thinking about war: 1914-18 was still too recent for the grown-ups. In Peterhead, we stayed with my mother's half-sister, Auntie Cameron, in Gladstone Road, and the braes and the seashore along beside the Killin' Hoose (Peterhead’s abattoir) was our favourite playground.

Sometimes the tide was right in, and small waves broke against the steps leading down to the shore. The chingle made a continuous rustling as the waves washed the beach. The sea was clear and blue with pure-white foam, and the continually shining sun cast a spell over that beautiful summer. Our homecoming to Peterhead was a magical experience for a six-year old. Sometimes we played outside Brown's shoppie at the top of Gladstone Road, and since there was little traffic in those days and that was usually horse-drawn carts, the roadway was a safe playground.
A favourite past-time was bursting bubbles of tar on the road. If you got a match-stick, and there were usually plenty lying around, you collected the tar like a miniature lollipop, winding the black ooze round and round until it formed a perfect ball which gradually solidified but never hardened. And of course, you got tar on your hands and feet, or even worse, on your clothes and jimmies if you wore them. There was only one way to clean the tar off your skin, and that was with a buttery paper. I'd often seen my father doing it to get rid of the paint from his work at the harbour - rubbing his face with the paper which shifted the small specks of paint. It was better for the skin than the turps; we used that for getting tar off clothes. I can't remember what we used to get tar off our feet - buttery paper or turps. And speaking of feet, that reminds me.

There was a day when we had been playing knights on chargers, or us small boys on the backs of bigger boys, and we had to hang on with one hand to our 'steeds' while we jousted with opponents and tried to haul the other riders from their perches. I say knights on chargers, though I don't think I'd heard of knights at that time. There was no TV in those days, few comics, and I can't remember hearing a wireless in the house, so there was not much chance of hearing about King Arthur and the knights of the round table. The only story I remember from the reading book at school was about a fox which persuaded a crow to open its mouth to sing so that the cheese the crow was holding fell to the waiting fox. Anyway, whether we were knights or cowboys, and we had all heard of cowboys and Indians, I was up on my older brother, Alex's, back. He was four years older than I and he towered alongside me. Disaster struck! I was hauled off his back. I landed on the stony tarmac and one of the granite chips tore the nail off my small toe. It was sore, bleeding and I howled. Alex shushed me so mother wouldn't hear, and the bleeding was stanched and I sat miserable and wounded on the pavement while the others jousted, though they were a wee bit more subdued. But I soon forgot my wound and it didn't bleed much, though it must have impressed me because I can still remember very clearly the warmth of the sun and my sore toe and Alex trying to shush my greetin.

Doon the Braes was wonderful though one day in that glorious summer, the rocks and the sea were the scene of a great loss. Uncle Davy in Glasgow worked for the Cleansing Department, what we in Peterhead called the "scaffies". He and his work-mates went round during the night collecting whatever people threw out, and on one occasion, he "collected" a toy yacht. It was little use to him or his bairns living in the middle of Govan, but he gave it to us since we were going back to Peterhead. It was huge in my scale of things, about ten inches long with a deep keel, coloured red with a single mast and white sails. And we launched it in the sea at the back of the steps at the Killin Hoose and it was supposed to sail about for our pleasure and enjoyment. Which it did. And come back to us when we wanted it. Which it didn't. What a sad affair that was. There was an offshore breeze, and the bonnie white sails filled with the wind and our brave yacht headed for the open sea. The last we saw of it was it heading for Craigewan and Rattray lighthouse. Or maybe Norway. For I never saw it again.

Then came a bleak afternoon in December. I felt miserable as I struggled home from school. The world seemed to be falling in on me, and to make matters worse, one of my six-year old classmates took it into his head to pick on me. Perhaps it was because I was especially greety that afternoon. I couldn't be bothered defending myself, and how I got home I don't know. I saw that tormenter in later years, when he was a grown man and married with family and grandchildren of his own, but he's been dead a while now, and I wonder if he remembered that afternoon, and if he felt in any way responsible for me ending up in hospital. Because he wasn’t to blame in any way.
When I arrived home hot and tearful, mother sent for the doctor and I was diagnosed - Diptheria. I didn't know what Diptheria was, but it was a killer in those days, one of the main killers of children. I can dimly remember lying in bed, awaiting an ambulance, and seeing yellow sulphur candles burning on the mantelpiece. Their fumes were supposed to kill the germs. The smell just about killed us. The only medicine I can remember getting that first night in hospital was a large glass of castor oil disguised as an orange drink. Sometime during the evening or night - the place was dimly lit and I had no idea of time or even where I was apart from a nurse sitting by my bed which convinced me I was in hospital - the castor oil took disastrous but predictable effect. I was mortified. And that nurse became a true angel of mercy.

It's easy to understand why some patients idolise their nurses and I wonder where she is now. December 1938, the Peterhead Fever Hospital, along by Buchanhaven. Are you still out there somewhere, nurse? You'd be an aul wifey now, but that night you were a true angel in nurse's uniform. Come to think of it, I must have been ill to have a nurse sitting by my bed... Nurse looked after me, cleaned me and the bed, and comforted me and in the morning I felt like wanting to live again. Breakfast came about 6am, porridge and a slice of bread spread with salty margarine. And I had to force it down, which I did, and I never looked back. The Diptheria was as good as licked.
Christmas came, but I can't remember if Santa Claus came on Christmas Eve or on Hogmanay night. What I can remember was that I was the only one in the male ward so I was moved in beside the wifies, and at six years of age, it didn't bother me. They spoiled me and it was all part of my healing process. That Christmas, by the way, I encountered Maltesers for the first time. They came in a small dark brown bag. And Santa brought me a book which I never read because the print was smaller than my reading book at school, and a flat box with coloured clay marbles you could put in various designs.

Soon after Christmas, I was released from hospital, and there at home the garland was still up, with my presents hanging from it. Santa had been especially kind to me and had visited both the hospital and Gladstone Road, so I had scored at both addresses. All the presents he brought me in hospital were left in hospital in case they had germs on them. So I had my stocking up all over again, and Santa at home brought me even better presents than he had in hospital, including a clockwork train. 1939 had arrived, I had lots of presents, and best of all, I was sleeping in our own bed behind my brother, Alex.

Spring of 1939, we moved house to Ives Park. We had been offered a council house up Hope Street, but it was too far for my father to get home at dinner-time from the harbour, so we exchanged houses with a Reekie family and we moved into their house in Ives Park. Our new house had a bathroom, and a garden for growing things, and a drying green at the back we shared with the Hamilton family downstairs. Our neighbours were friendly folk. There were no such people as "neighbours from hell" in those days, not in our part of Ugie Park and Ives Park. And there were crowds of bairns. It was a happy place to have your childhood.

Beside us was a cul-de-sac we called "The Blinner". And "the Blinner" was our football field, our race track, it was where we played "catching salmon" and "hanny oot", and "kick the tinny" and the girls played "beddies". "Doon the Braes" we fished for poddlies with limpets for bait, or searched for bandies in the rock pools, or turned over rocks for crabs. We lit firies and roasted limpets and boiled buckies, and when the girls were playing shoppies, we caught seaweed from the waves with ropes and a piece of paling wire twisted into a hook at the end, and the seaweed or "tungles" became fish we sold to the girls for pieces of sea-worn glass. The glass was either toffee or money, depending on the transaction. And the sun shone and it was a wonderful place for a six year old just coming up for seven. My mother used to roast dulse we collected from the sea, a long frond of brown sea-weed. She roasted it by running a red-hot poker from the fire along its length. It was a custom from her child-hood in Cairnbulg, and she seemed to like it, but I tasted it once and never again.

That was a lovely summer, the summer of 1939, and we bairns played blithely ignorant of the rumbles of impending war. I wasn't even put out when my brother, Willum, joined the TAs and came home in his uniform. That was all part of the adult world which had nothing to do with us. He was paid a "bounty" or "blood money" as he called it, but the significance of that description had no impact on me.
What did have an impact was when my parents bought a wireless, an Ecko, with Willum's bounty money. We had music in the house and listening to the news became a daily ritual for my father and mother. And the Buchan Observer's editor gave his opinion that war was going to happen because of four important facts:
(1) Germany wants Danzig and intends to take it by any means
(2) Italy has promised to support Germany
(3) Poland refused to give up Danzig and said that if Germany tried to take Danzig, it would mean war, and
(4) Britain and France had promised to support Poland in resisting Germany. Though why we should go to war over a place called Danzig, I doubt if anyone in Peterhead could explain, not even the editor of the Buchanie.

War clouds were looming for our parents, but not on our horizons. If anyone mentioned war, it simply added an exciting dimension to our games. And then one Sunday in September, everything changed. Mother was stirring a pot of custard and I was waiting to see if Alex or I would get to "cla the pottie" - scrape the custard from the emptied cooking pot before it was washed. If you didn't get to "cla the pottie", you got a wee saucer of custard, but scraping it from the inside of the pot was better. Anyway, mother was getting dinner ready, the wireless was on, and Father was listening intently to it. We daren't make a sound. Things seemed different, and there was tension in the atmosphere. Then mother and father were leaning out the window speaking to people in the street. And mother was greeting a mannie named Chamberlain had said on the wireless that a state of war now existed between Great Britain and Germany. It had a disastrous effect on my parents.

Everyone was very serious. And "claain the pottie" was not important. Now we began to understand why gas masks had been distributed in Peterhead a week or two before, 13,000 of them. And from that Sunday, a new influence had entered our lives, though we bairns made a game of it. Marching, saluting, shooting our rifles of fish-box wood, and copying the men going about the town in uniforms. They looked like strangers in their new appearance.

Later that Sunday, a German U-boat - the U-30 - sunk a passenger liner, the Athenia, north west of Ireland in the Atlantic. Of the large complement on board, eleven hundred of them civilians, 118 were killed either by the torpedo explosion or later in the sinking. Among the people on the Athenia, was the third radio officer who was a Mr R Ramsay, son of the Congregational church minister at New Deer, and there was a Mrs Buckersfield whose father used to own a shop in Ellon. That was in the Buchanie three days later. For us bairns, war was something new, an exciting development in our childhood. But for some bairns in the north-east, and even in Peterhead, the war was to be deadly serious, so serious it would take them away and they'd never see the end of it, far less the end of their childhood.
© Jim Davidson
jimdavidson156 at googlemail.com

*This 150 page book is available in the UK to order from independent bookshops or contact the author