Girls on the Home Front
Today, it's my turn on the Blog Tour for Girls on the Home Front by Annie Clarke. I'm afraid that I couldn't get a review done in time, but to compensate, I have an extract for you.
August 1941, North East England
Arrival at the factory…
One, a woman of about thirty, whose frown was deep, stepped forward. She smiled, and her face was transformed. ‘Welcome, ladies,’ she said. ‘Mrs Raydon and I are security officers. Some of you are new, so will the others forgive me as I go through the usual pep talk, or perhaps that’s too optimistic a description. You see, new girls, I have to tell you what it is you’ve signed up for.’ She held up her hand, only it wasn’t a hand, it was an arm that ended at the wrist. ‘I made a mistake. I became careless and had a mishap with a detonator, and you may well find yourself working with these, so be careful.’
Fran gasped, along with several others. Miss Ellington continued to smile. ‘This is a filling factory, and it is work which is simple, but needs total concentration and steady hands for you will be filling armament cases of varying descriptions with explosive powders. These cases include detonators, shells, bullets, rockets, bombs. You are not only handling these powders, you are breathing them in and they can cause rashes, changes in skin and hair colouring and so on. Not always, but they can. We do our best to transfer you to the sewing shop or somesuch if this becomes a problem to you. Sometimes you feel sick, sometimes you get a bit emotional, sometimes . . . Well, let’s not dwell on it, but we do what we can to give your bodies a change of scene.’
She pointed to Mr Swinton’s overall. ‘Yes, made by a “resting team”. Not Mr Swinton, just his overall. We had no pattern for Mr Swinton so he created himself, indeed he did.’ As the others laughed, Mrs Oborne whispered, ‘Miss Ellington’s a devil for riling the old bugger. Gets right up Swinton’s nose.’ Fran could see Swinton glowering beneath his bushy, grey-tinged eyebrows as he moved his weight from foot to foot, and then rose on his toes, before subsiding and repeating the pattern.
Mrs Raydon took over. ‘Now, ladies, a few crucial rules. You must not – ever – say where you work, not to your mam or da, not to the lady in the corner shop. Do remember we have to assume that even walls have ears, or so the posters tell us. Also remember that if our troops have no weapons capable of firing, they are in mortal danger, and what’s more, we will lose the war. If you do your work efficiently, diligently, you will be part of the process that allows them to survive and crush the enemy.
‘You need to know very little except your own particular task. The less you know, the less you can inadvertently discuss. Here, in this sector, you are likely to be working with one of the following: a fuse pellet – which helps the detonator to spark the explosive in a shell, or the detonator itself, and not forgetting the explosive, which we call The Yellow. You will come to understand why. All of these are badtempered little beggars and need careful handling.’
Mr Swinton now stepped forward. ‘Don’t be fooled. There are those within our own population, our own community, who would do us harm, so if you are vulnerable to flattery, to blabbing, you might be drawn into certain actions, or into explaining how the site is protected. If you do reveal what you are not supposed to, if it is discovered that you have spoken of your work, or helped the enemy in any way at all, you will be arrested and imprisoned.’
Fran thought of how she’d told Davey she had signed up for war work in a factory, and swallowed. She had told him nothing about what it was, or where it was, because she didn’t know. All she’d known was that it was secret and this is what she’d said. It was then that Davey, Sarah’s brother, had come up with the idea of calling it Spark Lane between themselves because the canny lad had guessed. Now, listening to Swinton, she felt it better to just call it ‘the Factory’.
Miss Ellington was speaking again. ‘Of course, there are rumours of our existence as we have so many employees – we Geordies aren’t daft – but no details have been leaked. So make up your own fibs if you have to say anything.’
Miss Ellington then explained that the Factory complex covered hundreds of acres, and that it was none of their business to know how many workers were required, or their tasks. ‘When you arrive at the start of each shift you will come to this room, or one similar, for every section has its own facilities. Once here you will divest yourselves of anything metallic, including wedding rings, and put them in the envelopes provided, and these will be kept safe until you leave at the end of your shift.’
Mrs Raydon took up the thread. ‘You will also leave matches in the envelope provided. You will wear only cotton for fear of static. We canna say any of this too often, and you will hear it often, believe me.’ Mrs Raydon explained that all the buildings were well spaced out so an explosion would cause minimum damage to any of the other sectors. Each wall had a strong skeleton structure, but with a centre constructed to give way easily in order to minimise the effect of an explosion. ‘In order for work to continue, in other words.’ There was a pause. Mrs Raydon finished, ‘That’s what’s important, pets. The work must continue, whatever happens.’
Beth muttered, ‘And bugger the workers.’
Fran sighed, but Miss Ellington had heard. ‘Exactly, young lady. An explosion is usually your own mistake, but it might be something worse. If, for instance, you take a hairgrip into a work area, it will in all likelihood be considered sabotage. Therefore, if that grip is discovered upon your person once you are clear of the changing rooms, you will be removed from the premises and will, probably, face serious criminal charges. Throughout the shift, we, or others concerned with security, will float around keeping an eye out for lack of concentration or carelessness. That is our job. We do it well.’
Mr Swinton waved his hand around. ‘While you’re in this sector, this is where you’ll change into the overalls provided, wearing them over your day clothes which should be cotton. Checks will be made. You will don turbans and felt boots, if required, since we can’t have any sparks from shoes. Over there, along that bench against the wall, are the envelopes for your dangerous articles. Place your shoes beneath if you are required to change them. Mebbe in time we’ll get a separate security room for your articles. Miracles happen.’
He coughed. ‘Today the trainees will start in the sewing shop, the others will follow me. Trainees, there’s no need for you to know any more than that they are following me.’
Miss Ellington took over. ‘A hint. If anyone asks, you are working in a factory making thingummybobs, and then change the subject.’ Miss Ellington waved her hand to Mr Swinton, Mrs Raydon and herself, and then encompassed the room – ‘At the start of every week you will be reminded of all that’s been said today. Remember, you know nowt. You say nowt about nowt. You work eight-hour shifts, or longer if needed. These shifts rotate weekly – mornings, afternoons or nights. You do not complain if we have to work a seven-day week. We have a war to win.’
Mrs Raydon stepped forward. ‘Any questions?’
Valerie, from Sledgeford, where Beth now lived, put up her hand. ‘We get fed, I ’ope, otherwise it’s a bliddy long day. The bus takes near on two hours.’
Miss Ellington grinned. ‘Don’t you worry, you won’t fade away. There’s a canteen.’ Mr Swinton pointed to the clock. Miss Ellington nodded, serious now. ‘Time to get on and take the place of the night shift. Remember: “Be like Dad, keep Mum”, “Walls have ears” and . . . Well, bear in mind every other poster you’ve seen. And end the war with two hands, I beg you.’
August 1941: As war sweeps across Britain and millions of men enlist to serve their country, it’s up to the women to fight the battle on the home front.
Fran always thought she would marry her childhood sweetheart and lead a simple life in Massingham, the beloved pit village she has always called home.
But with war taking so many men to the front line, the opening of a new factory in the north-east of England presents an opportunity for Fran to forge a new path.
Against her father’s wishes and with best friends Sarah and Beth by her side, Fran signs up to join the ranks of women at the factory. It’s dangerous work but as the three friends risk life and limb for their country, they will discover that their lives are only just beginning…