“The war was such an exciting time for me as a young girl”
County Durham’s Ena Gowland recounts her childhood memories from the Second World War.
Interviewed and written by Emma Lowson
Ena Gowland, 86, from County Durham, was only seven years old when war broke out. Living out most of her childhood in wartime, Ena remembers war more fondly than we would expect, with her family even befriending a German prisoner of war. Lower Westgarth Farm in Copley Bent, near Bishop Auckland was her home during the war, and coincidently, is my home today.
Ena had many stories to tell about her experiences during the war, as living on a farm, she and her family were heavily involved in the “Dig for Victory” Campaign. In 1940, the Ministry of Agriculture announced that farms had to have as much acreage as possible ploughed out for crops to feed the country. Brian Hodgson, 85, who lived in Woodland, a nearby village, recalls, that:
“15 acres of our land was immediately ploughed out as we grew potatoes, turnips, oats and wheat throughout the war.”
Ena’s memories in particular reflect how the Second World War mechanised farming in the UK, with her family receiving their first tractor, a blue Fordson, when the war began. The National Archives state that agriculture was in poor shape by the mid-1930’s and much arable land had reverted to pasture. Farms in the UK had not been well kept, with Ena recalling that Lower Westgarth had no mains water when they arrived in 1937. Eighty per cent of food was imported from abroad during the 1920’s and 30’s due to the economic slump and farmers were struggling to make a decent living. Ena said that the war turned out to be a blessing in disguise for the UK’s farming industry, the Ministry of Agriculture forced the production of food, therefore pushing mechanisation and changing the industry forever.
As part of the war’s farming campaign, young women were trained and sent from the city to live and work on the country’s farms. The Women’s Land Army began enrolling in 1939, and reached a peak of 80,000 members in 1944. Mrs. Gowland remembers being in awe of the Land Girls who arrived from the cities like Newcastle to stay with her and her family.
“They were townies and came with lipstick – even my mother didn’t have lipstick – and they wore big hats and dressed very smart. One girl from Sunderland had ginger curls and looked fabulous. Me and my sister were stunned by their beauty and loved having them with us.”
These Land Girls introduced Ena and her sister Marjorie to a world of fashion and make-up, something that was entirely new to them, showing them a life outside of the countryside.
Despite the war being more traumatic for those who lived in the cities, Ena remembers war as being a time of fostering friendships and it was an adventure for her as a growing girl. One of those adventures was the flood of evacuees that came into the area to live during the conflict, introducing dozens of new children to play with them. The BBC History website estimates that around 800,000 children left their homes during the first few days of evacuation, being moved to live with host families. Evacuees made new friends for Ena with children from Sunderland, Newcastle, Middlesbrough and Hartlepool being moved to the countryside in County Durham.
“My classes went up to about 30 children, which was more than we were used to, but we loved it. The evacuees seemed to live such exciting lives in the city but looking back, we were the ones who lived free and adventurous lives.”
Ena recounts seeing the boy evacuees as “city slickers” and their arrival made an exciting experience for her and her friends.
“I remember one boy, Patrick who was 14, and every girl in the village wanted to be his girlfriend; the girl along the road ended up dating him and everybody was green with envy.”
Some evacuees became well integrated into the community, with some rushing to help out on neighbouring farms. Although most of the evacuees returned home as soon as the war was over, some children didn’t leave, either due to loss of family, or a desire to stay in the countryside. Bert, a young evacuee who stayed at a nearby farm, never returned to his home in London, living out the rest of his life in the North. Bert is pictured below, front left, having a well-deserved break from farm work with some of Ena’s family.
One of Ena’s most interesting memories however, is of Willi Maass, a German prisoner of war (POW) who was sent to help on the farm from spring to winter 1946. It was common for prisoners of war to be sent to work on farms as the “Dig for Victory” campaign was one of the most vital Home Front movements. James Richards, a contributor to the BBC History website says,
“During 1946, up to one fifth of all farm work in Britain was being done by German POWs, and they were also employed on road works and building sites.”
It wasn’t just German POWs though, Mr. Hodgson recalls how there was a camp of Italian POWs in Woodland who were sent to work on the village farms. Ena said that Willi became a close friend of the family during his time there, even becoming a community hero when he fixed the village mill when it had broken down. Willi spoke good English, and even formed a strong relationship with Ena’s father, with them often sharing a cigarette and telling each other stories after a hard day’s work. Ena described Willi as a simple countryman, not an army man, who didn’t want to be at war. Ena saw similarities between Willi and her father, being not only kind but conscientious. She said,
“We hated Hitler, but we didn’t hate all Germans. There was never any animosity between the family and the prisoners of war who worked with us.”
As Christmas 1946 rolled by, Willi even gave Ena and her family presents, which included slippers and a wooden pull-along horse and cart that were made by other prisoners of war at his camp, Harperley, near Crook. Ena regrets never keeping in touch with Willi as he never returned after the Winter was over, but remembers him kindly as he often played games with Ena and her siblings Marjorie and Eric.
This particular memory surprised me, as you would think prisoners of war would be reserved, not wanting to mix with “the enemy”. But the story of Willi and Ena’s family is a precious one, showing that during war, even enemy populations can come together and form friendships.
Despite bombing raids rarely occurring in Copley Bent and its surrounding villages, Ena still remembers being rushed outside in the middle of the night upon hearing enemy planes overhead. It was common for German aircraft to drop bombs on their way out of England to lighten the load and this meant part of the country were hit unexpectedly. A neighbouring farmer, Tommy Alderson, 77, remembers his father telling him how a German airplane was successfully shot down by locals over Barford Camp, Barnard Castle. With a searchlight on a hilltop nearby, they managed to locate the plane and take it down. Events such as this were exciting for country folk, as it made them feel as though they were contributing to the war effort, even if they weren’t physically fighting overseas. Ena remembers on a Friday, in the middle of their dinner they could hear a lot of planes flying over and the whole family was rushed into the dairies, dessert in hand. The family, with their rice puddings on their knees, sat on a mat and continued their meal during the raid. When it came to bombing raids. Because of Ena’s young age, it is not surprising that she didn’t fully understand the real threat the country was under. But her memories of these raids show how important a child’s trust and confidence in their parents was during these times, as they looked to them for protection from something they didn’t completely understand. Ena said:
“We took nights like that in our stride because we were confident as our mam and dad were there and made us feel safe. We were never afraid. Our dad often stood outside and watched when these raids were going on – it used to make my mam sick with worry! She’d often beg him to come inside but my father was just interested in what was going on.”
During our chat, Ena had a million and one stories to tell me, but one thing that resonated with me was the thought that the war was such an adventurous and uniting time for her. Ena recalls farmers in the community coming together during the war and helping each other out. She said:
“Nothing got farmers together more than the war did.”
Mr. Alderson echoed this thought by saying how:
“Local farmers came and helped us plough our produce, everyone got involved and helped as much as they were able to.”
The local farmers and their families became a unit, maintaining a humour and camaraderie with each other even though they were under immense pressure to provide food not only for their families but for the country. It is important to remember that rationing continued until 1954, so farmers continued to be under pressure to produce food for many years after the war. Ena said:
“They were indeed trying times but we made the most out of the fun times we had as our community drew closer as a unit.”
After the war had ended, there was little discussion of the war between Ena and her family.
“There was no destruction for us during the war, so it was quite easy to carry on after it had ended. We didn’t dwell on what had happened, we just got on with life as normal. We were very fortunate with where we lived, but realised not everyone was so fortunate”
Ena finished reliving her memories by telling me how much Lower Westgarth meant to her. She said:
“The years I spent growing up in this house and on this farm were the best years of my life, and the war, though stressful at times, was an exciting period of my time here.”
Ena now lives in West Auckland, but often visits the farm to reminisce on her time there as a young girl.