The Midlands How We Won the War


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The Midlands

World War II stories of ordinary people doing extraordinary things. Jules Hudson discovers the bonds formed between American paratroopers and the people of Nottingham.


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September 3rd 1939, and families all over the country

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-flock to their radios...

-I have to tell you now that no such undertaking has been received

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and that consequently this country is at war with Germany.

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In that brief moment life in our country changed forever.

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World War II had begun but victory wouldn't be assured by military might alone.

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The Blitz, evacuation, rationing, the loss of loved ones -

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the war on the home front meant that everyone had to do their bit.

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From the country's women, who took on everything - farming, factory work, even flying spitfires -

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to the nation's auxiliary firemen who worked through the terror of countless air raids,

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this is the story of ordinary people doing extraordinary things.

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This is How We Won The War.

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In this series I'm touring the country,

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exploring how different parts of the United Kingdom made unique contributions

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to the war effort here at home.

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I will be looking at the lives of ordinary citizens

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and the incredible efforts they went to throughout the war years.

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Today I've left Yorkshire behind me

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and I'm heading into the heart of the Midlands

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and the industrial cities of Nottingham and Birmingham.

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On today's programme I will be hearing how thousands of American paratroopers

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affected the pretty girls of Nottingham.

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Nearly all the men had gone to war, hadn't they?

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Anything in a uniform would be attractive to any of them.

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Discovering how the factory workers of Birmingham provided just about everything our troops needed.

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You name it we made it.

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Fifty per cent of all small arms used by the British forces in the war were made by the BSA.

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And finding out about the war efforts of a group of women

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who kept essential supplies flowing on our waterways.

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We stuck on the mud, we broke ropes, we banged into things.

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We did everything you could conceivably imagine wrong.

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On December 7th 1941

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the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor

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left more than 2,000 dead and destroyed over 20 ships.

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The disaster brought America into the war.

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At home the Allies' plans for the invasion of Europe began.

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By 1944, millions of American troops had arrived in Britain.

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More than 2000 men of the 508th parachute regiment were billeted here

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at Wollaton Hall in Nottingham.

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Turning the grounds into a sea of tents,

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the troops would have a profound and lasting impact on the community.

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Jonathan Keeling is a local historian

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with a passion for bringing the story of the American GIs to life.

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Together with a team of re-enactors,

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he's recreating the scene that would have greeted the people of Nottingham.

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-I suppose a sense of circus coming to town for the locals.

-Quite literally.

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One of the paratroopers actually referred to it as the Wollaton Zoo

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because people just came from miles around to see these,

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what they saw as being movie stars.

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How many of them would have seen a building like the hall?

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Few to none. When they first saw this, they thought it was actually Nottingham Castle.

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Local youngsters were particularly taken with the new arrivals.

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They were like a breath of fresh air,

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because they brought this city to life.

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They just come out of our comics the picture books we used to read which depicted soldiers at war.

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So we thought it had all come to life when the Americans came.

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Having endured four years of rationing,

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many people were astonished by the American troops' plentiful supplies.

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The Americans were the richest country in the world

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and they were just basically pumping equipment and food stocks over here.

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So the Americans had a lot of cool stuff.

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Everywhere you went you could approach an American soldier

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and you'd say "Have you got any gum, chum?"

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And he'd dole some out for you,

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so you could take pockets of the stuff

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because they had an abundance of everything.

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And my sisters, they were teenagers, about 18,

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and of course they were much in demand to attend their dances at the local church hall.

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And they'd occasionally invite them home for tea

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and they would always bring some nice tinned fruit from America

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or nylons for the girls, of course, which were virtually unobtainable.

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One paratrooper was surprised at the way local children reacted

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to the food he took for granted.

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He was eating an orange and just throwing the peel on the floor.

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He heard a noise and when he turned, he saw the local children actually eating the orange peel

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and realised that these children had never seen oranges before.

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So from that day on he went into town with his pockets bulging with oranges

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and every time he saw a child he used to pass an orange to the child.

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Kath Price was 15 and working in a local cafe

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but for the Americans she served, food was a secondary concern.

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What they did, they put the apple pie on top of their dinner

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and ate it like that and I said, "Oh, no! No!"

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"Oh, yeah." And all of them did the same.

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That was how they ate their meal

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because they couldn't wait to get out of the cafe to get to the Palais to see the pretty girls.

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All the girls loved the Americans.

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They were immaculately dressed.

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It was natural the girls would make a beeline for them.

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They were all healthy young men and they loved to go out and dance.

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The Palais and the Victoria Ballroom were always full of all these girls.

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Nearly all the men had gone to war, hadn't they?

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Anything in a uniform would be attractive to any of them.

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But their very popularity led to occasional tensions.

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There was a lot of people who had a hate for them

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because they did loving and kissing on the streets

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and things that they'd never seen before.

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Sure, there were incidents in the town, there were fights. LAUGHTER

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But they had their own military police, the Snowdrops with their white helmets,

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and they hit first and asked questions afterwards.

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The American troops' apparent wealth and looks may have caused resentment among a few

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but when they asked the people of Nottingham for their help,

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they gave it willingly.

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The only thing they didn't have was a laundry,

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so what they started doing was drifting out into town

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and asking people - banging on doors - and asking people to wash their clothes in exchange for food.

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People accepted them into their homes.

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They had them for Christmas and birthdays and things like that.

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The people loved them.

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Some of the paratroopers realised when they came here and they were adopted by the families

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that this was something they were missing.

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Two years they'd been away from their own families

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and now they were getting the family back

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and this is what Nottingham gave them.

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But overnight things changed when the camp at Wollaton Park was put on lock-down.

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Unable to get out, the troops turned to the Nottingham youngsters

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and tasked them with night-time missions into town.

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They loved fish and chips - our national dish.

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So we'd bring them back and they'd give us a call sign to shout out when we got near their area

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and it was "Sing, baby, sing." JULES LAUGHS

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And we thought it was great fun.

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And sure enough, hands came out through the fence, took the chips.

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But history was in the wind for the GIs of Wollaton Park.

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Few of them could be sure they would make it through what was to come.

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My dad came and woke us up in bed.

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He got us out of bed and he said. "Come on

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"because this is a sight you will never, ever see again in your life."

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And we saw all the Dakotas pulling the gliders.

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And then we knew that this was D-Day.

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That's something that I will never forget.

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RADIO: D-Day has come.

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Early this morning the Allies began the assault

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on the north-western face of Hitler's European fortress.

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Under the command of General Eisenhower,

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Allied naval forces, supported by strong air forces,

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began landing Allied armies this morning

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on the northern coast of France.

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The 508th endured 40 days of ferocious fighting,

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providing vital support to the D-Day landings.

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But they suffered over a thousand casualties, including 307 killed in action.

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It broke my heart when I heard how many were killed.

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We took them into our hearts

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and the people of Nottingham will never forget them.

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They're a part of the city.

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The legacy left behind by the American soldiers went beyond broken hearts.

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All over the country, children were born to GI fathers they would never know.

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Birmingham lass Shirley McGlade was one.

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My mum, her name's Lily, she was single.

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She wanted to be a Land Girl but she had to do factory work.

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The only pleasure she had was when she used to go out dancing.

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She absolutely loved dancing.

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And then the one day, she saw this GI come over.

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But she'd been warned by my nan,

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"They stay away from them, they're bad. You'll get yourself into trouble."

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And he came over and he asked her to dance. He walked her home.

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Asked if he could see her again and she said yes.

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But she said, "He was so nice-looking, I didn't think I'd see him again," you know.

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They did meet again and the relationship blossomed

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but war forced them apart and Shirley never met her father.

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I'd always been told that he was an American

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but he was a brave American that died on D-Day.

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And that satisfied me for a while

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but then as I got older, little things kept coming out.

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Shirley's date of birth - September 1945 -

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meant her father couldn't have been killed on D-Day.

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When she realised, she confronted her mother.

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I said to her, "Can you tell me the truth now, please?"

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And she gave me his name. She told me he came from Idaho.

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My dad's mum was French

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and I excelled at French at school because I wanted to...

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In my little childish head I was going to go to America,

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knock on the door and speak to her in French.

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And I thought, "I can't let this lie,"

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so that's how I got involved in my search for him.

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Some estimates claim up to 100,000 babies were born to GIs in the UK

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but Shirley's efforts were to help others before they helped her.

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In my search for my own dad,

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I had publicity in newspapers, television, radio

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and I think I found 13 fathers before I found my own

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and I thought, "Maybe this is what I'm on the earth for, you know,

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"just to find other people's dads."

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Shirley spent years trying to find her father.

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But it was an interview with a radio station in the States

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that eventually produced a breakthrough.

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I spoke to this radio guy and he had actually been talking to my dad.

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You know, I just couldn't believe it.

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Shirley finally met her father at the age of 41

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and a documentary team recorded one of their meetings.

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I feel very strongly about it

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and there's no way - you just don't deny family.

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Regardless of how it came about, you just don't deny family.

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When I first saw him I just couldn't believe...

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It was really weird, because like you know a film star or someone, you've got...

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They're set up but they're not real.

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And like when I first saw my dad he was like flesh

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and he hugged me and I hugged him back

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and I thought, "My God, he's real, he's solid."

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I was fascinated because suddenly he was there, he was real.

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Shirley saw her father only a handful of times before he died

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and her mother passed away before a reunion was possible.

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But she'd never forgotten her wartime lover.

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When Dad sent me a load of photographs,

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my mum looked through them and she said, "That's not your dad, that's an old man."

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In her mind he was always that black and white picture that was on the bedside table.

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She really loved him.

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The GIs were essential to our eventual success in World War II

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but they were only one aspect of the war effort.

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By 1945 half of Birmingham's population were engaged in war production,

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more than any other city in the country.

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The determination of the people here

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to carry on regardless of the hardships and the dangers they faced

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to me really embodies the spirit of the Midlands.

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As a region it has been rightly regarded as the engine room of British industry.

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ARCHIVE: The constant drone of machinery in our aircraft factories

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is the music of victory.

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With the confidence of experts, they set about the job of shaping the raw metals from the foundries

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into the components of more than 1,000 horse powered demons of the air.

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We used to boast that you could buy anything you wanted in Birmingham

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and it was made here, from a pin to a brass bedstead,

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from a button to a car.

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And in the Second World War, that diversity of trades was crucial for the war effort.

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People associate Birmingham particularly with Spitfires.

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But it wasn't just the Spitfire factory.

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Hudson's whistles, making the whistles for the army.

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Jewellers getting involved in making intricate and small parts.

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Turner Brothers of Summer Lane,

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making the jigs and tools for aircraft production.

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You name it, we made it.

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At the heart of that incredible output was BSA Birmingham Small Arms factory.

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With plants all over the country, its Small Heath branch produced

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many of the weapons used by front-line troops.

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Well, here we've got just a selection of some of the classics

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that this factory would have produced during the war.

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Can we pick some of these up?

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Yeah, this is an Enfield, a Lee-Enfield MkIII.

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One and a quarter million of them made by the BSA in the war.

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One and a quarter million!

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50% of all small arms used by the British forces in the war were made by the BSA.

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-That's extraordinary, isn't it?

-There's another one.

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Now, that looks very interesting. What have we got there?

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-This is a Sten gun.

-How many of these were produced?

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Over half a million of these were produced.

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And one of the major reasons that they brought them out

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was to be able to use captured German ammunition, nine millimetre bullets.

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Such ingenious designs made the industry of the Midlands essential to the war effort

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but it also made the area an obvious target for the Luftwaffe.

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Not only are these workers going to work during the most difficult conditions,

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they're having to cope with bombs dropping all over them,

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because the factories were cheek by jowl with housing

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and what the Nazis in the end realised and wanted to do

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was not only bomb the factories but try to bomb the spirit out of the British people.

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They failed.

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All over the country, people wrote about their Blitz experiences

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as part of the Mass-Observation project.

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Held at the University of Sussex,

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it offers an insight into the everyday lives of ordinary people

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throughout the war years and beyond.

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On November 14th 1940, 500 German bombers pulverised Coventry,

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leaving hundreds dead and more than a thousand injured.

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Tom Harrison, Mass-Observation director, reached the city the next day

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and described the aftermath.

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"Most of Friday I was moving in a city of the dark.

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"I have spent a good deal of my life listening to other people talk,

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"but I have never heard people talk less than in Coventry yesterday.

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"Many walked through the city rather blankly looking at the mess,

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"and the commonest remark was simply, 'Poor old Coventry.'

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"The commonest sound was the scraping of shovels and the shifting of rubble.

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"The centre of the town reminded me more of photographs of Ypres in the last war.

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"As soon as darkness fell, the streets went silent.

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"The people of Coventry had gone to shelter.

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"I needn't say that the ARP and AFS people were wonderful, too.

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"I was particularly impressed by the number of boys

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"some of them can't have been more than fourteen

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"who'd been working as messengers and rescue-work helpers all the way through.

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"Everyone seemed to be helping, even a very old, excessively dirty navvy,

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"who, on the day of the bombing, when everybody was feeling pretty low,

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"walked round and round the streets singing at the top of his voice.

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"Everybody he passed, however depressed they were,

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"couldn't help smiling and laughing at him,

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"even if they only said, 'I'm glad he feels like that. I wish I did.'"

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Back in Birmingham, the BSA Factory at Small Heath was hit by two bombs

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on the night of November 19th 1940.

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EXPLOSIONS

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Can you imagine the devastation that those two bombs would have?

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It was terrifying.

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The building, an eye-witness said, just seemed to disintegrate.

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There was a mass of rubble and masonry and girders just collapsing.

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And there was some unbelievable acts of heroism.

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There's one story of the men who tried to get through

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to three men and women who were trapped.

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And the Home Guard men were using the butts of their rifles

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to dig into and through the rubble.

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But there was a girder in the way,

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so they brought him oxyacetylene and he burned a gap through the girder.

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Now, the three men were on the floor hunched up nearest the girder.

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Do you know what they did? Do you know what them men did, them working men did?

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They lay on the floor, in the most ultimate act of gentlemanliness,

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so that the woman who was at the back could crawl over them and get out first.

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That's what they did.

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And it's that spirit that really defines Birmingham

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as a centre of raw production through the worst of times.

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It defines Birmingham but I think it defines Britain and the United Kingdom.

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To manufacture the weapons of war,

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BSA and other factories all over the country relied on a constant supply

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of huge quantities of raw materials.

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But with the railway system already running at full stretch,

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the Government sought to make use of every other available means of transportation

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and that included Britain's aged canal network.

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I'm going to catch a ride on the Yeoford,

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a restored 1930s narrow boat,

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just like those that carried cargo during the war years.

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And accompanying me on my trip is canal expert Tom Chaplin.

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The Grand Union Canal is a 300-mile waterway system

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made up of several smaller canals connected together in January 1929.

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During the war this route was essential to help get materials and goods

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between the industries of the Midlands and the docks of London.

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Tom, what kind of state were Britain's canals in before the outbreak of war?

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That's rather a mixed question, because in those days,

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a lot of the railway-owned canals were in poor condition

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but some of the private ones were in very good condition

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and in particular, what is now the Grand Union Canal was in very good condition.

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And this is a typical example of a Grand Union boat, built in 1937.

0:19:440:19:49

So just at the outbreak of war, the canal had been improved

0:19:490:19:52

and there was a new fleet of boats there ready to work.

0:19:520:19:55

But how do we go about coping with the increased traffic on the canal system?

0:19:550:20:00

There was always a shortage of boatmen

0:20:000:20:02

because being a boatman was actually very much a skill.

0:20:020:20:06

And the boatmen were taken off to fight.

0:20:060:20:09

So a lot of women came off the land

0:20:090:20:12

and went on the boats for the first time

0:20:120:20:14

and were trained to handle the boats.

0:20:140:20:17

And that really was quite a thing,

0:20:170:20:19

to come from a typical village or a town

0:20:190:20:22

and then suddenly go into a boat,

0:20:220:20:24

into a completely different way of life.

0:20:240:20:26

Adapting to the living conditions was one thing

0:20:260:20:29

but the women also had to learn new skills,

0:20:290:20:31

including how to operate hundreds of locks.

0:20:310:20:35

If you were going through a flight of locks, like Hatton, 21 locks,

0:20:350:20:39

and a boat comes up behind, he wants to overtake.

0:20:390:20:42

So if you were a minute slow up the lock,

0:20:420:20:45

you held them up by 20 minutes behind.

0:20:450:20:47

Delivering goods on time was essential

0:20:470:20:50

but to make a living, the women also had to learn the tricks of the trade.

0:20:500:20:53

They got paid so much per ton for a given journey.

0:20:530:20:57

But if you put too many tons on, it would slow you down

0:20:570:21:00

because you were too close to the bottom.

0:21:000:21:03

So the working boatmen, the people who'd done it all their life,

0:21:030:21:06

they knew just how many tons to put on for the maximum speed for the maximum tonnage.

0:21:060:21:10

So they could lose out on that.

0:21:100:21:12

And also balancing the boat so it steers well.

0:21:120:21:14

Those are the arts that take a generation - you learn from your parents.

0:21:140:21:19

But as the war progresses the girls get better

0:21:190:21:21

and I would hope they got some at least begrudging respect.

0:21:210:21:24

Oh, yes, they did.

0:21:240:21:26

What was typical of boatmen at that time -

0:21:260:21:28

they respected you if you could handle the boat well.

0:21:280:21:32

They then became a member of the club, if you like. JULES LAUGHS

0:21:320:21:36

One such woman was Jean Peters,

0:21:370:21:39

who was just 20 when she signed up in 1944.

0:21:390:21:43

Now, that's a wonderful picture.

0:21:430:21:44

Poking your head out of the side of the boat.

0:21:440:21:47

-How long had you been on the boat by that time?

-A week.

0:21:470:21:49

-And how much training did you get?

-We had two trips.

0:21:530:21:57

We did one of three weeks and then a second one of three weeks.

0:21:570:22:01

This was actually our training boat

0:22:010:22:03

and I was learning how to clean the engine.

0:22:030:22:07

You look very happy in your work.

0:22:090:22:10

Somebody called me and I put my head out to see who it was.

0:22:100:22:14

And do you remember, Jean, that first trip that you undertook after training?

0:22:140:22:18

I do indeed.

0:22:180:22:20

Because we'd done very well on our training

0:22:200:22:23

and we hadn't got into any particular trouble.

0:22:230:22:27

But when we went on my first trip on our own,

0:22:270:22:31

we stuck on the mud, we broke ropes, we banged into things.

0:22:310:22:35

We did everything you could conceivably imagine wrong.

0:22:350:22:40

But we did get our load up to Birmingham eventually.

0:22:400:22:43

The typical route for the canal girls

0:22:450:22:47

was to transport steel, aluminium or copper from the London docks

0:22:470:22:50

to the factories of Birmingham.

0:22:500:22:52

From there they would travel to Coventry to collect coal,

0:22:520:22:55

which they delivered back to London.

0:22:550:22:57

The canals were carrying ten to 12 million tons a year at that time.

0:22:570:23:01

But what was bothering the government was

0:23:010:23:03

if a bomb dropped on a strategic railway,

0:23:030:23:06

that would block all the way into London.

0:23:060:23:07

So a lot of this was alternatives,

0:23:070:23:09

making sure there were always two forms of transport.

0:23:090:23:12

Here we are coming into the centre of modern Birmingham, Tom,

0:23:120:23:15

a very different view to what we would have had 70 years ago.

0:23:150:23:18

Oh, definitely and even 50 years ago.

0:23:180:23:21

This block of flats here used to be stables

0:23:210:23:23

and this used to be a builder's merchant wharf here

0:23:230:23:26

and they used to collect refuse

0:23:260:23:27

that went down to the tips out at Smethwick.

0:23:270:23:29

So, yes, this was always humming with boats,

0:23:290:23:32

bringing coal in, building materials.

0:23:320:23:35

The landscape may have changed

0:23:360:23:38

but Jean's training as an artist helped her create a unique record

0:23:380:23:42

of life on the canals during the war.

0:23:420:23:44

Now this is a very dramatic image

0:24:100:24:12

and it says "re-stacking cargo - aluminium."

0:24:120:24:14

What's going on in here?

0:24:150:24:16

Our boat had hit a bridge and the cargo slipped

0:24:160:24:20

and we had too much weight at one end of the boat,

0:24:200:24:24

so it was going too low in the water.

0:24:240:24:27

So the boaters said you've got to get under the covers

0:24:270:24:30

and restack that otherwise you'll sink.

0:24:300:24:33

And so that's what we did.

0:24:330:24:35

We put a hurricane lamp up and then we just had to restack it all

0:24:350:24:40

so that it wasn't unbalanced.

0:24:400:24:43

As well as difficult cargo,

0:24:430:24:45

Jean remembers the harsh winter of 1944 to '45.

0:24:450:24:50

The locks and the canal began to freeze

0:24:500:24:53

and we were a bit scared of being caught by the ice...

0:24:530:24:59

where there wasn't a pub that we could go to get a drink!

0:24:590:25:02

-JULES LAUGHS

-Yeah.

0:25:020:25:04

Or there wasn't somewhere where we could get a bath or a wash or something.

0:25:040:25:09

And I nearly met my Waterloo then,

0:25:090:25:11

because the canal locks had steps running up to the top of the lock

0:25:110:25:17

where you had to run up to shut or open the gates.

0:25:170:25:21

I jumped off the boat and ran up the steps, slipped

0:25:210:25:26

and went all the way down the steps and into the canal.

0:25:260:25:29

And fortunately the girls who were, you know, on the boats,

0:25:290:25:35

noticed that I'd disappeared and came and fished me out.

0:25:350:25:38

In serving on the canals, were there moments where you felt detached from the war?

0:25:380:25:42

Well, I don't think we thought about it a great deal,

0:25:430:25:46

because you had to get on and get on with what you were doing.

0:25:460:25:49

You didn't have time to think about war efforts or anything else.

0:25:490:25:53

Occasionally the war would intrude upon us

0:25:530:25:56

and one of those sort of occasions

0:25:560:26:00

would be when we went down to the London docks.

0:26:000:26:03

There was a buzz bomb dropped at the back of some sheds

0:26:030:26:07

just near where we were tied up

0:26:070:26:09

and it made the lock shake, you know, and the boats rock

0:26:090:26:15

and fell us out of bed, really.

0:26:150:26:17

Kay said, "Well," she said,

0:26:170:26:20

"I shall put on a cup of cocoa if this nonsense goes on any longer."

0:26:200:26:24

-So all very matter of fact.

-Very matter of fact, yes.

0:26:240:26:27

As she travelled the waterways

0:26:270:26:30

Jean realised the youngsters among the boat people who worked the canals

0:26:300:26:34

had limited opportunities for an education.

0:26:340:26:37

She was asked to produce an alphabet book for the children.

0:26:370:26:41

And I made all the different letters

0:26:410:26:44

mean something that would mean something to them.

0:26:440:26:47

For instance, like R for rope and B for boat.

0:26:470:26:52

The thing that strikes me about Jean and her contemporaries is

0:27:090:27:13

the modesty with which they account for their efforts during the war.

0:27:130:27:16

The truth is without them the country may literally have ground to a halt.

0:27:160:27:21

As part of Britain's vast citizen army,

0:27:210:27:23

there is no doubt that they certainly played their role

0:27:230:27:26

in helping to break Hitler's grip on Europe.

0:27:260:27:28

Next time on How We Won The War,

0:27:340:27:36

I'll be trying my hand at using a weapon

0:27:360:27:38

dreamt up by armchair scientists

0:27:380:27:40

under the direction of Churchill himself.

0:27:400:27:43

-How's your throwing arm?

-Well, cricket was never my strong point

0:27:430:27:46

-but you never know!

-We'll see.

0:27:460:27:49

-Uncovering a dark side to Britain's propaganda unit.

-MAN SPEAKING GERMAN ON RADIO

0:27:490:27:54

By being all for Hitler, and really pro him,

0:27:540:27:57

they're managing to insert stories

0:27:570:27:59

which will undermine the German morale.

0:27:590:28:02

And recreating valuable work carried out

0:28:020:28:05

by some of the youngest troopers on the home front.

0:28:050:28:08

Everybody ready to get their hands dirty?

0:28:080:28:10

Yes!!

0:28:100:28:12

Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd

0:28:130:28:15

Jules Hudson seeks out the World War II stories of ordinary people doing extraordinary things.

He journeys through the Midlands to hear about the emotional bonds formed between American paratroopers and the people of Nottingham; travels the canals to explore how a small band of women kept essential supplies flowing during the war; and discovers how the factories of Birmingham provided just about everything we needed in our fight against Nazi Germany.