The Civilian Experience: War Through The Eyes Of A Welshwoman

This is the first part in a series of articles about the long and eventful life of one very special lady. As a conscripted Land Girl in the Women’s Land Army during the Second World War, she worked alongside German and Italian prisoners in the fields of rural Britain. She held her own against confident and sure US servicemen and was at first irritated to hear about the end of the war.

Gladys, born on the 30th of April 1921, lives in North Wales and has been kind enough to share with me a little about her life and the times she’s lived through. The vividness of her descriptions of events gone by is very impressive when considering how much time has passed.

Gladys was born in the small port town of Amlwch on the island of Anglesey in North Wales. Amlwch had been a thriving community in the 18th and 19th centuries due to nearby Parys Mountain copper mine, at one time the world’s largest copper mine, but during the early 20th century the town’s industry was very much in decline. Only around 2,700 people were living in Amlwch at the time, a significant decline from 6,000 people in 1890.

Amlwch Queen Street

Gladys’ father was a merchant sailor who’d ran away from home to join the crew of a sailing boat at the age of fifteen and spent the rest of his working life at sea. Her mother was a housewife and devotedly taught her and her seven sisters everything they needed to know about domestic life. A large but typical family, they were neither poor nor rich in comparison to other families in the town.

Having a father away at sea, typically for five days a week but sometimes for much longer periods, wasn’t difficult for Gladys growing up. Most of the men from Amlwch chose a life at sea, the only other real work being farm work, which was much less exciting. Her father earned good money and when he used to come home he always had a little something to give the children, it was all fun and games; he was like a star.

Life was completely different during the early decades of the 20th century. Women in rural communities such as Amlwch had the simple choice of working in a small local business, like a general store, or going away to a big city like Liverpool, 90 miles away, to become nurses. Once women got married and had children they became housewives out of necessity. Having six younger sisters to help look after, Gladys learnt to be responsible at a very early age; probably more so than most young people today. Her early responsibilities would shape her strong and confident character.

Gladys’ first job was at The Trecastell Hotel in nearby Bull Bay at the age of fifteen or sixteen (1936 – 1937). Working as a waitress and receptionist she learnt some key skills which would serve her well in future, such as how to behave and converse with different types of people; the hotel’s clientele included members of parliament and the aristocracy. The hotel’s owner at the time was a German woman, a hard woman and typically German in appearance; tall, blonde and square faced.  The work was hard; fourteen hour days, seven days a week but Gladys looks back at the time with fond memories.

The Second World War broke out whilst Gladys was working at the hotel. She remembers one particular event just after the war began. One night a couple arrived at the hotel and Gladys, working reception, checked them in. The woman told Gladys that her husband was German, information which Gladys then shared with the owner. Upon discovering the guest’s nationality, the owner became extremely alarmed and as a result stayed awake all night checking whether or not the guests were sending secret messages out to sea. The following morning the owner decided to throw the couple out, much to their surprise. Although the owner was also German she’d lived most of her life in Britain and even had a son in the British Armed Forces.

Not all Gladys’ experiences from her time at the hotel were as light-hearted. In late August 1940 the German Air Force began its bombing campaign against the city of Liverpool, which would last until May 1941. Liverpool was the most heavily bombed area of the country, apart from London, due to the city having the country’s largest west coast port and its consequent importance to the British war effort. Around 4,000 people were killed in the Liverpool area during the Blitz; this death toll was second only to London, which suffered 30,000 deaths during the war.

The German aircraft, including Junkers JU 88’s and Focke-Wulf Fw 2000’s, would approach Liverpool from the west, flying directly above Amlwch, to avoid most of Britain’s anti-aircraft defences. Gladys remembers the sound of the sirens ring out every night at 7.30 pm as the bombers would fly overhead. As she walked home from the hotel she would never see them high above but could hear their dull engines pass by. Sometimes on a clear night, as they approached their targets, she would see flashes of anti-aircraft fire far out across the sea. The worst thing about those nights was that at around 11 or 12 pm when the bombers would fly back over the town returning home, Gladys would hear them again but their engines would sound very differently because they’d dropped their deadly cargo and were much lighter.

Gladys never truly grasped at the time the effect that those bombing missions had upon Liverpool. She’d only ever see the devastation the bombs were causing when she visited the cinema with her friends and sisters. Liverpool went through hell during those eight or so months.

Fortunately, Amlwch and North Wales suffered very little during the war. The nearby port of Holyhead, 20 miles away, was hit by nine recorded aerial bombings and two incidents of machine gun fire but nobody was killed. The war never reached Amlwch. Gladys makes no claims to having suffered any real hardships unlike the populations of bigger towns and cities in Britain.

The war felt distant. One of the only indications were the many convoys that would sail by on their way to and from Liverpool. It was fantastic to see them sail by. Gladys remembers one ship in particular pass by;  the Royal Navy’s HMS Prince of Wales, a 225m long battleship, that would eventually be sunk by Japanese forces in the South China Sea, a beautiful sight.

The people of Amlwch didn’t even suffer much from food shortages; local farms produced milk and butter and most people grew their own vegetables in their gardens. In the summer months’ people would pick wild berries. Some fruit and vegetables were scare, such as oranges, bananas and onions but people made do with what they had.

At the age of twenty, in 1941, Gladys left home for the very first time and moved with a friend to Rusholme, Manchester, 115 miles away. There she worked in a nursing home. Despite the on-going war, her family did not object to her leaving and moving to the big city; Manchester was not such a target for German bombers as Liverpool was and was not bombed during Gladys’ stay there. Although she was enjoying her time away from home, the experience was to be cut short. In December 1941, the government passed a second National Service Act.

The second National Service Act widened the scope of conscription by making all unmarried women and childless widows between the ages of twenty and thirty liable for service. Gladys, at the age of twenty-one, like tens of thousands of other young women, was called up and returned to Amlwch.

Land Girls

Despite a strong desire to join the armed forces, which her father forbade, Gladys became a Land Girl in the Women’s Land Army. The Women’s Land Army (WLA) was an organization created in the attempt to increase the amount of food grown in Britain. In joining the WLA, Gladys left home again but this time only to live in a hostel along with 120 other young women in the small village of Llanerchymedd, 6 miles away.

Her responsibilities included haymaking and the cultivation of potatoes. Gladys has fond memories of the WLA and it was also the first time she came into contact with prisoners’ of war. In the nearby town of Llangefni there existed a prisoners’ of war (POW) camp and, surprisingly, many of the POW’s worked alongside the Land Girls on the farms.

The first ‘wave’ of POW’s were the “Ities” or Italians who had unconditionally surrendered to the allied forces during the North African Campaign (1940 – 1943). The “Ities”, a generic name for Italians used largely during the war, were permitted to mix with the general population and even visit the cinema. The “Ities” were quite happy in North Wales and didn’t want to go home. They’d surrendered because they didn’t want to fight and never caused any problems during their stay at the camp. They wouldn’t attempt to escape and were considered quite safe by most people. “We no like war” was the only English phrase many of them knew.

As the war progressed the first POW’s were sent away and replaced by German and Italian fascists; hard-line men of Hitler and Mussolini’s Armed Forces. Some of these POW’s were simply horrible and Gladys remembers having a disagreement with one German POW in particular. After failing to get the prisoner to work by shouting at him she had to ask for assistance from one of the armed guards, who were always at hand as the POW’s and Land Girls worked the fields.

Despite the confrontation, Gladys didn’t really mind the POW’s all too much, saying that the Land Girls had no choice but to work with them.

The Germans and the Italians were not the only foreigners in North Wales at the time; the US Armed Forces were also present. Like many depictions of Americans during wartime, the “Yanks” could be extremely patriotic, proud and at times self-important; the Americans who happened to meet Gladys met their match.

Gladys was once outside a ‘Fish and Chips’ café when a group of American servicemen approached her. The following conversation took place;

Winston:              “Do you want to know my name?”

Gladys:                 “Sorry, I’m not interested.”

Winston:              “Don’t you want to know my name?”

Gladys:                 “I’m not interested. I don’t care if your name’s Roosevelt, I’m still not interested.”

Winston:              “My name’s Winston but I ain’t got a church on a hill.”

Gladys:                 “Well, you’d be a damned sight better off if you did!”

On the 8th of May 1945, the war in Europe came to an end. Celebrations erupted across the world but some people in Britain weren’t initially happy. Gladys, like many of the women in her Land Army hostel was asleep when the news of peace reached her. All of a sudden there was banging and shouting all around and the door to Gladys’ dormitory swung open. Before anyone could explain what was happening, Gladys, along with some of the other women, was throwing her shoes at the noisy crowd. Gladys and the other women had to wake up early in the morning to work in the fields and were infuriated at being woken up. Later, of course, she was extremely glad to hear the news.

Although many of Amlwch’s young men were exempt from military service because they worked on farms, several men who joined the navy never returned; including two brothers from a single family. Fortunately for Gladys none of her family or friends died during the war.

The atmosphere during the war was different to what most people would imagine. Everyone was different. People spoke to each other in the streets, unlike today, and were generally more social. Gladys thinks back and explains that it was the country’s overall morale that kept people going. It kept the country running. There was a true sense of community; something that has been lost in many places since.

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