1939 and all that

Dad’s RAF cap badge.

Findmypast exhorts me to find out about my family on the eve of war. This is mainly not mysterious as I did a junior school project in the late 1960s. So do the records match? Here I look at my father’s family.

Searching the 1939 Register, online via Findmypast, can be a frustrating exercise as the records of many people who are long dead remain locked because records have not been updated to anything like the present.

The records that are open provide residential address, name, date of birth (but not place) and occupation. D.o.B. can be useful in tracking people back to the 1911 census and thence back to 1841.

Uncle Jack

Fortunately, some of my folks lived in Howdles Lane, Brownhills, Staffordshire; the only street with that name anywhere on Earth. There, I was able to find John Dennis, Dad’s uncle Jack, who was “Horse Keeper at Colliery”. “Uncle Jack” had suffered a broken back in a roof fall and was therefore not called up to active service in the war. He lived with daughter Emma, “unpaid domestic duties” and son John, whose occupation was “draw-bench hand non-ferrous brass”.

Sam Dennis

Sam was my father’s father. The house where they lived still stands at the corner of Watling Street and Castle Street, just round the corner and no more than two minutes’ walk from uncle Jack, Sam’s brother. In 1939, it was No. 6 Watling Street, “The Crest”. Sam’s occupation was “colliery screen hand (above) heavy worker”. Dad told me that Sam worked for a time at Anglesey Wharf, where the main boat-loading screens were. This is where the Cannock Chase Colliery Company loaded boats and trains with coal from the drift that connected several pits. However, he died in 1960 after suffering a heart attack while running for a bus to get home from work at The Plant, or Cannock Chase Colliery No. 3. He worked at the pit throughout the war. Sam was a leading light in Park View Methodist Chapel and the local Rechabites. He was also a fine tenor / counter tenor.

Sam’s sons

Sam and wife Harriet had four children, all boys.

Derrick Arthur

Derrick was my father. His middle name was in honour of Arthur Cox, the popular miners’ leader. In 1939 “Derek” was still at school, but left in the summer of 1940 to become an office boy at Wyrley Grove Colliery. He recalled seeing the flames leaping high in the sky as the old city of Coventry was annihilated by the Luftwaffe. There was very little traffic, even on such an important road and he and his schoolmates would play marbles on the road on the way home. During the war Dad assisted the Air Raid warden.

He remained at Watling Street and The Grove until called up for National Service in February 1945. Dad had been a keen member of the Air Training Corps and wanted to be in aircrew, but was allocated to the Catering Corps. Although this was a disappointment at the time, unlike many of his contemporaries, Corporal Dennis emerged with a range of management skills, having been in charge of rations and payroll at RAF Tangmere, near Chichester, West Sussex.

Dad’s civilian ID card is dated 10 Feb 1948. He moved to Chapel Street when he married my mother.  After some time at night school, he advanced through the ranks of middle management, retiring as a factory accountant at Crabtree, Brownhills. In the “winter of discontent”, 1973-74, he worked at Ever Ready, the battery manufacturer. The power generating workers were on strike, supported by the miners, and there were phased power cuts. While most people were on a three day week (or unemployed) Dad was on overtime as the factory maximised production to cope with soaring demand for batteries.

Walter John

Walter was the oldest brother. One early job was a milk round with a horse and cart. On occasion, if the horse got fed up with waiting while Walter chatted to customers he would head back to the dairy. At least he was easy enough to find as he always followed the milk round.

In 1939 Walter was a bakelite moulder. During the war he worked at Kynoch, Perry Barr, on the northern edge of Birmingham. After his shift he was a spotter. High on the factory roof, his duty was to spot and report by field telephone on the type, strength, height and direction of enemy aircraft. There was a nationwide network of spotters, arranged in a gird, and this was a crucial supplement to the Chain Home radar network. Each spotter’s information fed directly the operations rooms that were used to marshal the defensive response of the RAF, search light and anti-aircraft artillery batteries. The German Wehrmacht never understood this aspect of Britain’s defences, which played a vital role in surviving the Battle of Britain in 1940. Later Walter would become a shopkeeper / manager, first in Devon, then Cornwall, where we enjoyed many summer holidays.


Alan was the second brother. In 1939 he was “annealer sheet metal”. He also worked at Kynoch. He became a shop foreman and designed assembly lines. During the war he was a member of the Home Guard, which he considered a shambles. Among his duties was guarding the tunnel on the Shugborough Estate, the value of which he never understood. Kynoch made a range of products for the war effort, such as shell casings and panels for vehicles. Later he would be a lecturer at Wednesbury College of Commerce and Industry. He was a keen cricket and tennis player and attended chapel until his death; the only brother to do so.

In wartime both Alan and Walter cycled to work in the blackout. Some nights there would be moon and starlight, but they had only half a front light – the bottom half was covered to prevent light shining upwards. There was very little motorised traffic, other than military convoys.


Frank was the third brother and was the only one called up to HM Forces during the war. In 1939 16-year old Frank was a coal merchant’s clerk. He was called up aged 18, trained as a “sparks” or electrician and posted to Macrihannish on the Mull of Kintyre, Scotland. This was part of Coastal Command, which was charged with protecting both Royal Navy and merchant vessels. Leading Aircraftman Frank Dennis serviced Sunderland flying boats. These could carry aerial torpedoes, but their main role was to spot u-boats and guide surface vessels to attack them with depth charges or by ramming. Later, as priorities moved to bombing targets in Germany and western Europe, he was transferred to Lancaster bombers, his story is told in a bit more detail in Sugar and Sparks.

After the war Frank pursued a career in local government, achieving senior rank at a local highways department. He was a keen photographer in his younger days, and a keen organist, who, in my view, was much more accomplished than he gave himself credit for. Frank never married. He died at home suddenly at the age of 64.

“Uncle” Joe Craddock

Joseph Craddock was a lodger and fondly remembered by my father. In 1939 his occupation was “colliery hewer, below, heavy worker”. I don’t know what became of him.

What impact did the war have on my family?

For the most part I suspect there was little specific, direct impact. After all, none were killed or injured and had successful enough careers afterwards. The most obvious impact was that National Service would probably not have been introduced had the war not happened the way it did, so Dad’s career path might have been different. I never discussed this with him, but he might even have joined the RAF, anyway. Either way, he would probably have advanced his office career to a similar extent.

Indirectly, and generally, there were clear advances for women in the workplace and the education and health services were radically changed to cater to everyone’s needs. It meant that my generation would not die of polio or tuberculosis and could go to grammar schools and on to university or other further education. These things might have happened, anyway, if a strong Labour government had been elected, but there can be no doubt that the political machinations during the war were accelerated as Labour continued to support the Churchill government provided that it would support moves towards free education and health care for all. All benefited from these at some time or another.

Although Churchill, in retrospect, is generally painted as an heroic figure, he was deeply unpopular with some sections of the working class and this led to his comprehensive defeat in the 1945 general election. Attlee, whom Churchill had described as “a modest man with much to be modest about” would be his nemesis.

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