Alan Mills – Back in Leeds – Bombings & War Time Cinema

By the end of 1940 the number of evacuees in Otley had dwindled. Many children had just drifted back to Leeds as a result of the bombing not been as bad as anticipated. It was decided to terminate the operation as far as my school was concerned. I was one of the last to return to Leeds and resume my education at Kirkstall Road School.
However, within a few weeks back home, the whole neighbourhood was awakened by the dreaded wail of the air raid sirens. This was my first real taste of war and it chilled me to the bone. My Mum hastily got us out of bed and ushered us down into the cellar. I can remember my young six year old sister was holding her arms above her head as we descended the cellar steps. My Mum said it was instinct to protect her head. I cannot put into words the impulsive fear the sirens prompted, it was terrifiying and you felt it in the pit of your stomach. My Dad was on duty as part of the ARP (Air Raid Precaution) and he came back to make sure we were all alright. Word had already got through that Sheffield had taken a pasting, were we next? Fortunately not, but I’ll never forget the sheer terror of my first air raid.

Dotted about the city were various large water tanks which looked a little bit like shipping containers sliced in half. The idea was they were a water supply for the firemen in case the water mains were disrupted by a bomb. One of these was placed on the pavement in Boar Lane, opposite the Trinity Church. Such was the size of it, there was barely enough room for one person to squeeze through between the tank and the shop windows.
There were quite a few American soldiers in Leeds at this time.They were not popular, hence the catch phrase coined by comedian Tommy Trinder; ‘overpaid, overfed, oversexed and over here’.
Anyway, one early evening a British soldier was rushing towards the Railway Station, with full kit, rifle, back pack etc, probably feeling a bit fed up as he was returning to service from home land leave. One of the Yanks managed to get in the way of this Tommy and on clearing the way the GI said, “Come on Tommy, run, run like you did at Dunkirk.” Tommy stopped dead in his tracks, threw down his rifle and bags, lifted the Yank off his feet and promptly threw him in the water tank shouting, “And you can swim like you did at Pearl Harbour.” To cheers and pats on the back from locals on their way home from work or the shops.
By now we’d move from Kirkstall to Harehills and I’d left school (aged 14) and found a job as a plumbers apprentice on Roundhay Road. Growing up on an apprentices wage in war time Britain wasn’t easy but it had it’s moments. Looking back, Harehills had a good selection of cinemas, we used to go Monday and Saturday nights. We had a choice of The Shaftsbury, Hillcrest, The Star, The Clock and the Western, better known as the Bug Hutch!
We still had British Cinema, Vera Lynn and Gracie Fields were the forces pin ups and of course Vivien Leigh and Olivia de Havilland starred in the 1939 classic Gone with the Wind. American cinema also took a hold over here, I guess it wasn’t too easy to make British films so much. A new breed of stars that arose during the war years included Van Johnson, Alan Ladd, and gorgeous GI pin-up queens Betty Grable and Rita Hayworth. Some of Hollywood’s best directors cut their teeth on Signal Corps documentaries or training films to aid the war effort. Films such as Why We Fight, Prelude to War, The Battle of Midway (1942), Memphis Belle: A Story of a Flying Fortress (1944) and of course the ultimate propaganda war film Casablanca. Great viewing followed by fish and chips out of newspapers. Simple but happy pleasures.

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