A step back in time to life on the home front

11th January 2013 at 00:00
Pupils in Aberdeen have had a taste of the dangers and hardships of life during wartime and witnessed the impact of the conflict on their city. Jean McLeish reports

They have sat in an old air raid shelter and listened to the stories of survivors who huddled there night after night, taking refuge from the bombing.

These Aberdeen pupils have seen police photographs of the devastation of their city during the Second World War and even seen the kind of bomb that caused the damage.

They have weighed out food to learn how little wartime families had to eat for a week during rationing, and been through a mock evacuation to experience the bewilderment of children their age being sent away from the city to escape the bombing.

"Our teacher told us that we were going on an evacuation trip and she made us some tags that evacuees would have worn on their jackets. She said not to take anything - just our gas masks - and she said we were going to meet other children to go to the countryside," says Ryan Melvin from P7 at Braehead School.

"My heart was pounding because I was worried, because I didn't know it was fake. I thought it was real."

Before their panic escalated, teacher Fiona Sheach revealed that the evacuation was not for real. But she says their experience inspired them to write vivid poems from the point of view of 1940s children evacuated from cities, often without much prior warning.

The Braehead children were immersed in this project throughout last term and, like Ryan, they have been caught up in the danger and excitement of wartime and its impact on their own home front.

It helps that Mrs Sheach is a history graduate whose passion for the home front topic is infectious. On a walking tour to explore evidence of Aberdeen's wartime legacy, Ryan explains why the project has been so successful.

"What I've liked was finding out how people coped - like the civilians and the soldiers - and how they coped with the changes like rationing and blackouts and having to carry your gas mask and ID card everywhere."

Earlier in the day, the children visited the Gordon Highlanders Museum to find out more about a soldier's perspective of war - trying on uniforms and examining their kit.

"We saw the armoury of weapons the Gordon Highlanders would have used - like pistols, machine guns and even swords," Ryan says, as they continue their city walk, visiting some of the bombed sites and discussing how the city has changed since the war.

The topic has prompted the children to study and reflect on First World War poetry, such as Dulce et Decorum Est, and inspired creative letter-writing based on mishaps in the blackout.

"We looked at blackout regulations and the funny side of that - how they painted cows white so they didn't get hit by cars because they had no headlights," Mrs Sheach says.

Their focus on the home front was supported by a BBC drama production, How We Used to Live, which follows a family's story from the 1930s through the war years. "You get to see how their lives developed, so we used that as a secondary source," she adds.

"Aberdeen was bombed really quite badly. Most people don't know that - they tend to think of Clydebank. But Aberdeen was bombed really badly because of the Hall Russell Shipyard and the port."

Acting headteacher Aileen McGowan says that before embarking on this project, children talked about their prior knowledge, establishing what they already knew and what they wanted to find out.

"I was very impressed with all the interdisciplinary learning that's going on, because they've been doing an awful lot of general classwork through the topic. It's lent itself really well to that approach."


When an old bomb is brought into the classroom for their Second World War project, the P7 children are impressed and excited.

"The white of the magnesium is still clinging to the bomb to this day and that, of course, would cause a terrific fire," Allan Paterson tells them. "It would put things up in flames very quickly and be very hard to put out."

Mr Paterson is teacher manager with the independent charity Aberdeen Urban Studies Trust and is leading a workshop with the Braehead Primary pupils.

The incendiary bomb didn't go off when it was dropped on Aberdeen in 1942 and while it's now safe for children to examine, Mr Paterson has to curb their enthusiasm.

"Can I hold the bomb?" one of the boys asks.

"I'm afraid you can't," Mr Paterson tells him. "It's not my bomb and if you drop it accidentally the metal pins would certainly break off."

The helmets that belonged to British and German soldiers are a safer bet for passing round. He also shows children maps illustrating where the major bombings happened in Aberdeen and photographs of the damage.

Children work on personal record sheets, responding to questions about some of the artefacts.

"We're finding out about civilian identity cards. We're going to read all the information and then there's questions to answer," Emily Mowat, 11, says.

Later in the week, Mr Paterson walks the children around the Rosemount area of the city, visiting former bomb sites and playing interviews recorded with people who used the air raid shelter they visit.

"We produce materials and experiences for pupils, hopefully to engender a clear understanding of the topic they're doing by providing first-hand experiences, active learning experiences - in this case using artefacts, documents, photographs and posters from the Second World War in Aberdeen," Mr Paterson says.

"It is incredible to have all these things and we've found it makes it really real for the pupils to understand."

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