Alan Mills – Evacuees – Mothballs and the ATS Ladies

War Time Memories by Crossgates resident Alan Mills, Part three.

Eleven year old Alan Mills had been evacuated from Leeds to Otley: Mothballs and ATS Ladies

To move on further into the fascinations of wartime Otley, I remember there was one character who roamed around wearing three old raincoats with a battered trilby on his head complimented by straw stuffed in his boots. He always carried a thick polished stick with a piece of rag tied around one end, which people said was either symbolic of his story unravelling or maybe just denoting he was a member of the Vagrants Union.

It didn’t take long for some of the evacuuees to start taking the mickey out of the poor bloke. This always resulted in him bawling and shouting whilst banging his stick on the pavement and then fumbling about in his raincoat pockets, before fishing out a hand full of mothballs and pelting the kids with them- hence his nick name, Mothballs.. As we settled in Otley, we all began to understand him a bit more, he was just a harmless eccentric and the derison turned to pity, we often used to give him sweets and little gifts.

I don’t remember seeing any snow ploughs on the road, maybe the drivers had all been called up but the buses together with the military lorries and other road users rolled the snow solid and flat. Motor cars and light vans ran successfully with chains fitted to each wheel. I regularly used to see a haulage contractors by the name of Milligan pass on Leeds Road using steam driven lorries carrying coke or waste paper to the paper mill near the river in Otley. These lorries were quite unique, I don’t ever recall seeing them again.

Next to the back door at our new home was a dustbin full of water for use in case of emergency, as recommended by Air Raid Precautions. Anyway, one extremely cold morning after a particularly bad snow fall, being curious or daft, I’m not sure which, I got hold of the handle of the dustbin lid saying, ‘Let’s see if this is frozen,’ it was – solid and so were my fingers, stuck solid to the lid. With the aid of warm water from the stove, I got my fingers back but it was very painful and I had to put up with blisters and sores for weeks after.

The same morning on our way to school, we discovered the River Wharfe was frozen solid, so after school we tempted fate and walked across it.

As we entered January 1940, the frost and snow were still prevalent. We were still using the Congregational Hall as a make shift school. The frost during the day never lifted and there was no heating. Most of the teachers and pupils were clad in warm clothing but not all. We’d been evacuated during a long hot September and those who hadn’t been able to go home for Christmas, still only had summer clothing. Most of the boys had short trousers but some of the girls were still in summer dresses. It’s hard to imagine how they survived in one of the coldest winters on record – going to school in a snow storm, arriving with wet feet and coats (if they had one) and no heating to dry off. During the lessons the teachers had us doing physical jerks to get the circulation going. As if this wasn’t enough, at the end of the school day, we had to run the gauntlet of Otley Kids from the next door local school. This turned into a nightly snowball fight and although we were outnumbered, we never backed off and gave as good as we got.

February saw the snow beginning to thaw and with that came the inevitable flooding. The River Wharfe overflowed into the nearby cattle market. My unedifying memory of this is seeing a woman riding a cow out of the flooded stalls – the cow seemed quite content with this farmers wife as jockey!

As Spring approached the war was still passing us by but one morning, me and my  mate  turned up at school and all the other kids gaped in wonder and surprise at seeing us. They thought we were both dead – it turned out a German bomber jettisoned a stick of bombs which landed during the night on top of the Chevin. This would have been about two miles above where we were living. Apparently the bombs killed four cows. Years later I read a report this bomber had been engaged on a bombing raid over Liverpool and got lost on the way home, thus unloading it’s unused cargo over Otley Chevin.

A few weeks later, a few of us were playing in the nearby woods. As the night began to draw in we made our way back to our respective foster homes. I got to the gate and I realised I had left my gas-mask in the woods. I asked the others if they’d come back with me, this was met with a definite not likely to which I said I’d get up early in the morning and retrieve it. This brought more derision, ‘Suppose we have an air raid and gas bombs are dropped? So I went back for it. I was scared stiff, the woods seem to come alive after dark, things moved in the night. The wind moaned, owls hooted, I was terrified but eventually found my gas mask and legged it back home.

As we entered June 1940 the days were getting warmer and longer, the long winter behind us but reports were coming through about the German army advancing rapidly through Holland and Belgium and into France, which eventually resulted in the epic evacuation of the British army from Dunkirk. Although at the time we were more pre-occupied with our still new surroundings. We used to jog everywhere, one time we ended up near Yeadon at a large hangar where planes were built and tested for the RAF. On the way back, we stopped at a small stream where the water ran clean and clear. We regularly stopped there to quench our thirst and today was no different.

We carried on our jog and discovered a dead sheep lying in the stream. We all took a couple of deep gulps at the thought of what we had just drank and this prompted us to abandon our jog and go back down stream and build a dam. There was this mini waterfall which was about eight feet high, we carried some large stones  and placed them across the stream. We then plugged the gaps with the abundance of water cress and mud and left it to slowly fill into a shallow pond. The following day we went back to see our efforts- a dam about 18 inches deep and around ten feet across, this was easy now for the sheep to drink from. Later we found a length of fall pipe and an old bucket. We punctured holes in the bucket and filled it full of straw. We then shoved the pipe in the dam and hung the bucket at the other end, this then filled with water and hey presto we had a perfectly working, home made, very refreshing spring water shower. If you’re wondering how we dried off, we just ran about in the sun.

A couple of weeks later we were out on one of our jogs and were heading towards the shower when one of the lads stopped, saying listen, listen. Sure enough from the direction of our shower there was lots of playful, sparkling laughter. We crept nearer and peeped through the long grass and bracken. There in all their glory were a bevy of semi nude young ladies, all frolicking in our dam and shower. They were probably ATS girls from the nearby searchlight battery.

We realised we were a a bit out of our depth, so with eyes like chapel hat pegs, we withdrew with dignity, promising not to mention it to anyone, we didn’t want half the school turning up at our dam, or maybe even a visit from the Military Police.

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