In the playground we raced around, arms out, shouting ‘I’m a Spitfire’

Cyril Abraham leading the Portadown College Scout group followed by Marshall Matchett.
Cyril Abraham leading the Portadown College Scout group followed by Marshall Matchett.

Former Portadown College man Derek Walker, OBE, now living in London, provides a fascinating glimpse into life as a schoolboy in Portadown during the Second World War.

The Second World War began on a Sunday morning. During the 11 o’clock service in Thomas Street Methodist Church the congregation were surprised to see the church caretaker, Mr Burrows, walking to the pulpit and reaching up to hand the minister a sheet of paper.

In his house next to the church he had been listening to the wireless and had heard Mr Chamberlain make his sombre announcement.

The minister (I think it was R H Gallagher) read the message and informed us solemnly that we were at war with Germany.

As a pupil in the Infants Class in Thomas Street Public Elementary School my first recollection of a physical difference made by the War is the memory of having to carry my gas mask to school every day along with my school bag. I think it was once a week that we practised putting on the gas masks.

Other changes came gradually but after Dunkirk they multiplied rapidly. Troops dug a row of trenches in a field owned by my father beside the Annagh Road, to defend the town against any attack from the south. We learned to get around at night in the Black-out without the help of street lamps.

Then the Blitz came to Ulster. I can remember only two occasions when I was wakened by the wail of the siren and taken out to sit in the air raid shelter. It had been built in the back garden by my maternal grandfather to serve the residents of four houses which he owned in Hanover Street.

We sat facing each other, about twenty people, on benches placed along two walls of the shelter, until the welcome single note of the ‘All Clear’ signalled it was safe to leave.

On the second occasion we were joined in the shelter by two women who had survived the Luftwaffe’s devastating raid on Belfast. The fear on their faces was testimony to what they had experienced.

Later we were joined in school for a time by several evacuees from mainland Britain, who talked about their experiences in air raids.

In the Thomas Street boys’ playground we raced around with outstretched arms, shouting “ I’m a Spitfire” or “I’m a Hurricane.” Our daily third of a pint of free milk fuelled our energy.

Keeping up morale was very important, and that seemed to involve a lot of parades in the centre of town. I remember watching them perched on my father’s shoulders to see over the crowd. Bands led the way - brass, flute, accordion and pipers in full Highland regalia. I once read that there were more band members per head of population in Portadown than in any other town in the UK.

The traditional youth organizations were usually present, with the College Scout Troop led by Cyril Abraham. They were joined by the Army Cadets and the ATC (air cadets) led, if my memory is correct, by Jimmy Chambers.

New uniforms for adults were also in evidence - the National Fire Service, the ARP wardens and, of course, the Home Guard. I never remember anyone calling them ‘Dad’s Army’; but I do recall one day meeting young Jack Brownlee (who many years later became an elder statesman of the Orange Order) in Portmore Street carrying a formidable piece of weaponry which had just been delivered to the Home Guard. I think it was probably an anti-tank rifle.

Fundraising to support the war effort was another preoccupation. In the Infants class I was taught to knit squares which were sewn together into blankets for refugees. Later there was the Book Recovery Brigade. A serious shortage of paper followed the sinking of ships bringing wood pulp from Canada, and schoolchildren throughout the country were encouraged to collect for recycling books, periodicals and newspapers.

For each specified quantity collected they were given a little cardboard badge bearing the symbol of an Army rank, beginning with lieutenant and rising to field marshal. I became a field marshal and joined with a hundred or so others at a town party where we were presented with certificates ‘signed’ by Field Marshal Montgomery (whom we proudly knew to be an Ulsterman, along with Alexander and Alanbrooke). I don’t know what became of my badges and certificate, but many years later I saw a set of the badges on display in the Imperial War Museum.

Elsewhere a lot was happening about which we heard nothing. For example, a former pupil of Portadown College, Waldo Maguire, was making a vital contribution to victory in the code-breaking team at Bletchley Park - something that remained a secret for decades.

Inevitably, news arrived of casualties and deaths, but nothing like the relentless roll-call of World War One. Of that there was a perpetual reminder when the new tower of St Mark’s was dedicated as a memorial to the fallen.

The two former pupils of the College who died in the Second World War were specially commemorated after Donald Woodman (himself a naval wireless operator who served with the Arctic convoys) became Principal and instituted the ‘House’ system. Two of the Houses were named after them: MacCallum and Seale.

New and smarter uniforms were seen in the town when the Americans arrived. Their arrival was greeted with mixed emotions: gratitude and envy, admiration and resentment.

The smartly-dressed, energetic young men, generous with nylons and chewing-gum, were attractive to some of the girls. Churches were anxious to provide supervised opportunities for socialising, and organized numerous events.

One Saturday night at a ‘social’ in Thomas Street Lecture Hall a GI who had recently announced his engagement to a local girl took her around the room explaining to everyone that he was going away “because General Eisenhower has sent for me”.

At the time some literal-minded people said he was telling a self-inflating falsehood, but it was probably just a figure of speech. The GIs all went to join Eisenhower in the liberation of Europe and many of them never saw their homeland again.

I had my own D-Day experience. On 6th June 1944 the dentist paid his annual visit to school, and extracted five of my milk teeth. Because I didn’t make a fuss he said I was a brave boy and gave me a sixpence; and I was allowed to go home for the rest of the day. When I arrived there I heard the news that the Allies had landed in Normandy. Thereafter I was able to say that I had received a reward for bravery on D-Day.

As the liberating armies advanced in east and west the horrors of the Nazi death camps began to be revealed. People’s thoughts inevitably turned to Portadown’s highly respected refugee family, the Blochs. They had escaped from Poland, bringing with them business skills that enabled them to set up Ulster Laces in Edward Street. (During the War it made uniform badges.) Richard Bloch first attended the College, where he was renowned as a linguist, and then joined the family firm while also serving as a volunteer fireman. It was not until after the War that they were able to learn more about the fate of many relatives killed in the Holocaust.

When VE-Day finally arrived the streets were decked with bunting, much of it faded, since it hadn’t been renewed in five years.

The weather was kind and tables in the many street parties were piled with food, in spite of rationing. The quality may not have been brilliant, but in those days we ate what was set in front of us and were thankful.

In July my sister and I had a holiday in Bray, when De Valera’s notorious letter of sympathy to the Nazi government on the death of Hitler was still causing reverberations. In the neutral Free State food had not been so tightly restricted and I encountered my first Knickerbocker Glory. Two years earlier I had been taken on the popular boat trip from Warrenpoint to Greenore, and on the return journey some passengers decided to smuggle contraband food. To avoid the notice of Customs Officers one man concealed a pound of butter under his hat, but the July sun soon started it to trickle down his neck, to the amusement of fellow passengers. (Rationing of some items continued until 1954).

Soon after the war in Europe ended there was a General Election. In Portadown the local results contained no surprises, but many people were shocked to hear that Mr Churchill was no longer the Prime Minister.

Meanwhile, the war against Japan continued, and those who had friends or relatives in the Forces were particularly anxious. How long would it take to expel the Japanese from their remaining conquests in Asia and the Pacific, and what would be the cost in lives?

Then, on 6th August we heard the astonishing news that an atomic bomb had been invented and had been used to wipe out the city of Hiroshima. Five days later the Japanese surrendered.

VJ-Day was celebrated with parades and parties and services of thanksgiving, but it didn’t generate quite as much exuberance as VE-Day. Even kids as young as me, not yet into our teens, could see that we were now living in a world that was very different from the one into which we had been born.