Wednesday, 15 February 2012

The war is inactive for some months

Volume 1 – chapter 9 – Part 1

I do not know the actual date that we left Whittington Barracks, but it was early in 1940. While we were part of the military establishment, in the first few months of the war nothing happened. Nothing that I was aware of which is not surprising; there was no impression that the world had suddenly become a more dangerous place. It was only after we had become civilians that the dangers of war were to descend on us in the form of the blitz.

My new uncle’s name was Arthur James Slater, but for some reason he was known to everyone as Bill.

There is a saying that I have often found to be true: ' As one door closes another door opens' and this appeared to happen for us at this moment of crisis in our lives. With her parents dead and ordered to leave the barracks, my mother had a difficult decision to make. Where would she go, and how would she manage without the support of her husband, and the military. The answer to this problem may have been found, as a result of the following circumstances. A short time before war was declared her sister Nin came to visit at the barracks accompanied by a young man to whom she had become engaged. They married, an occasion which we attended, and after an interval of time, they moved to a new semi-detached house in a suburb of Derby. Being away from familiar surroundings my aunt was attracted by the idea that my mother and I might provide some comfort and support, so she readily agreed when asked to provide us with accommodation.

He was an automobile engineer, who on the outbreak of war had offered his services to Rolls Royce, and being accepted went to work at their aircraft engine factory at Derby. This required moving to an address near to his place of work, which turned out to be a smart new semi-detached house with the grand sounding address of ‘Wentworth‘, 7 Rosedale Road, Alvaston, Derby. Being the proud owners of their own home, with three bedrooms, they decided they would come to our rescue. Aunt Nin had been the only member of the Jones family to remain at home with her parents, until she married. She had received a grammar school education, and with her father’s assistance had secured a good job with the city council in Stoke-on-Trent. Like my mother she had always lived under the protective shield of my grandfather, so moving to Derby must have been a big step for her.

My Aunt and Uncle was an oddly matched couple, they were different in just about every way possible. Uncle Bill was tall and slim, and though he was only in his mid twenty’s he had already lost much of his hair. This made him look much older than he really was, but it suited him when compared with his wife, who was some years older. He was a gentle man with a kind easy-going nature, totally without any pugnacity what so ever. In addition one would have to say that he also lacked the attributes of a strong and reliable character. He did not always keep his word, and was not the sort of man that one would turn to in a time of crisis. He was a gregarious fellow, though in his early years he had led a very quiet and sheltered life. It was only after meeting my Aunt that he learned to enjoy the pleasures of alcohol, and the company of those who drank it. The pastimes that gave him satisfaction and enjoyment were fishing and gardening, though most of all he loved his work. It must have seemed like a dream come true, when the advent of the war provided him with an opportunity to work for the most famous engineering company in the world, Rolls Royce.

My Aunt was the very opposite to her husband in every way, she was a strong determined woman both in body and mind. As a child I did not realise that my Uncle could be described as effeminate, and that my Aunt was at the other extreme, being masculine and strong willed. Everyone who knew her well said that she was a female version of her father. There was a distinct division in the Jones children, three of the boys and two of the girls took after their mother. They were fair and had blue eyes, and generally had her quiet gentle qualities, though the eldest, my aunt Jin, and her brother Walter, were said to be more like their father in personality. The other children of the family, another son (Victor) and my Aunt Nin, had inherited their father’s qualities, they were dark haired and had brown eyes, and had that determined character so apparent in him. Aunt Nin displayed the same confidence and outspoken personality, fearing no one, and remaining a determined individualist to the day she died. If the picture I paint is to be accurate, I have to say that she often drank too much in her later years, and always became belligerent as a result. When this happened she was usually truculent and argumentative, though it must be said that he temperament may have been unstable because of the removal of her thyroid gland when she was a girl of sixteen.

As a result of her father’s influence on the Stoke-on-Trent City Council, my aunt had worked in the council accounts office for a number of years. It was through her work that she had met and eventually married her husband. Bill Slater had spent most of his working life with the Pottery Motor Traction Company, the largest of the city's bus companies. It was with this company that he served his apprenticeship, becoming a skilled auto-engineer. There is no doubt their union was the result of opposites attracting, and it must have been certain from the outset who would wear the trousers in that family. Aunt made the decisions, and though Uncle always needed her strength, there were many times he felt extremely dominated to an unbearable degree. She loved him and he knew it, so while he sometimes sulked, he never rebelled.

Long before the war Rolls Royce had manufactured aircraft engines, and of course it was they who developed the engine that powered the Super-marine Swift, (later to become known as the famous fighter plane the Spitfire.) which won the Snyder Trophy shortly before the war commenced. I feel some satisfaction in also mentioning that it was a man from my home town the Potteries, who designed this famous aircraft, he was of course R J Mitchell.

Mention of a famous Staffordshire man turns my thoughts aside for a moment, and predisposes me to say a few words on behalf of my place of birth. There are not many areas of Britain that do not attract compliments at one time or another, though some localities receive more attention than others. Whatever the reasons for this, it is my impression that there are parts of England that are seldom recognised for their beauty and attractive features. An example of such neglect would be the lack of attention given to the countryside around the city where I was born. In fact, a large part of the county of Staffordshire deserves a mention. I do not claim that it was perfect, but it certainly compared well with other places better known. I would also like to say a few complimentary words about the people. Staffordshire has more than its share of famous sons, the author Arnold Bennett for example, and of course the previously mentioned Mitchell, who worked in an engineering factory at Fenton, before turning his attention to aircraft design. Equally worthy of mention are the ordinary people, whose good qualities are the best.

For most of their history our county regiments have consisted traditionally of local men, and these regiments performed the finest feats in the history of the British Army. One of the greatest was the breaching of the Hindenburg Line during the First World War. This attack was carried out by the 46th North Midland Territorial Division, which included the 137th Brigade, made up of North and South Staffordshire Regiments. North Staffordshire infantry battalions spearheaded the assault and it is the opinion of some that by this action they proved themselves the finest soldiers in the world. (An account of this action was written in the 1920s entitled ‘The Breaking of the Hindenburg Line’ but I have never managed to find a copy.)

Why these county units are not eulogized alongside the Guards regiments, and others who are singled out for attention? We hear of the 51st Highland Division and other such popular formations with monotonous regularity, but never the North Staffordshire Regiment. Don’t misunderstand me, I recognise and admire the achievements of the famous regiments I have mentioned, but I believe I have a point worth making. It may seem boastful to mention that in later years, many of the recruits that made up units of the Airborne, and the Commandos were men from Staffordshire Regiments. Yes, I am proud of this record, and so take this opportunity to say so.

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