John recalls wartime mine service
PUBLISHED: 10:01 21 May 2013 | UPDATED: 10:01 21 May 2013
A Brixington man has recalled doing his national service down the mines during World War Two.
John Hadfield, 87, who lives in Valley Way, was conscripted into the war effort in 1944, at the age of 18.
When we think about conscription today, images of soldiers being sent to fight in Europe may spring to mind, but by the time John was called up the British Army’s demand for soldiers was having to be weighed against the country’s need for coal.
Having conscripted many miners into the army at the start of the war, the government found that they were short of men needed to work the pits and provide the coal which was vital to fuel the war effort.
Government minister for labour and national service, Ernest Bevin therefore announced that conscripts would go down the mines, with these men being nicknamed ‘Bevin Boys’ after him.
And so it was that rather than heading for the battlefields of Western Europe, John ended up being sent to the Welsh village of Llay – not that he would have minded joining the army.
He said: “I was willing to join the army, but when I was called up they just said ‘You’ve got to go to the pit’, so that was it.”
Although he would not be facing bullets, John was still entering a dangerous profession, with the village of Gresford, near to where John was sent, having lost 240 men in a mining disaster only 10 years before.
Initially, John worked with railway wagons on the surface as they were filled with rock, but one incident led to him being sent underground.
“When I worked on the rail wagons it was quite a cushy job, and I was quite happy, until I let two wagons go down the track and noticed the points were wrong.
“I rushed down the road as fast as I could to lever the points, but it didn’t work and they derailed.
“They were very upset with me, and the foreman said ‘You’re down the pit tomorrow’.”
In the pit, John’s duties included sending empty coal tubs to the coal face, and working at the face itself – not always comfortable for 6ft 2ins John as the face was only four feet high.
There was one fatality during John’s time at the mine, when a worker was crushed by a collapsing roof, but although John admits it was “a very dangerous job”, he got through his service unscathed.
John later transferred to a pit in Ashton under Lyme, nearer his family home in the north of England, and when he left national service trained as a church minister.
He later worked for BT, before moving to Exmouth when he retired. Nearly 48,000 Bevin Boys served during the war, and after it finished they faced a long fight for recognition.
Eventually they were recognised, with John receiving a veterans’ badge and a medal, which he says he never thought he’d get.
And just last week, the Countess of Wessex unveiled a memorial to the Bevin Boys’ at the National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire.
Those who campaigned for the memorial say they are pleased the Bevin Boys sacrifices are being recognised, but for John there was never any question about the work.
“On my days working on the face it wasn’t very pleasant, but it was the job, it was the war time, and you couldn’t ask for anything else, you just worked.”
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