During the Second World War, Mrs. Powell and a group of her friends started a knitting group for the Red Cross in Handsworth, Birmingham. Mrs Powell remembers that anyone mentioning the Blitz at the meeting had to pay 6/d towards the Red Cross. Their knitwear was sent to troops all over the world, and often the servicemen would write letters of thanks back. MS 4068 is a collection of such letters, and are a great insight into serving and training during the war.
Some letters have a lighter side to them. One serviceman, not knowing the name of Mrs Powell’s daughter, wrote a letter of thanks instead to “My dearest Cinderella”, asking for a photograph of her and signing off as “a lucky Sailor” (letter above). It took several letters before Betty finally revealed her real name, although persistent requests for a photograph seem to have been ignored.
These letters were not without their contention. Dennis Blount felt the pressure of the censors, apologising for taking so long to write:
“Every time I have started I have had to leave it for some “Blue pencil” reason or other” [Dennis Blount to Betty Powell 1 May 1940 MS 4068/1/1/2].
One of the boys stationed on Air Raid duty in London recalled a horrific attack which managed to avoid the blue pencil:
“Once we were helping to put out a fire over an air-raid shelter in an effort to rescue the people trapped inside, after the Jerry had unloaded the remainder of his bombs at us he came down and machine-gunned us, unfortunately he killed 3 firemen and we were also unable to get the people out of the shelter as he dropped two “tar-bombs” right in the middle of the blaze and the heat was so terrific that we could not get near enough to do anything.” [Fred King to Mrs Powell 21 September 1940 MS 4068/1/18/1]
Such stories from London couldn’t have been reassuring to those in Birmingham.
One boy was also captured and held as a Prisoner of War. William Sterry was serving in the 14th Army Field Workshop, part of the British Expeditionary Force in 1940. The role of the AFW was primarily repair and engineering work rather than fighting. Since several stories from the 14th AFW concern their retreat back to Dunkirk in 1940 it is likely that this is when William Sterry was captured and taken to Stalag XX-A, located around the town of Torun, Poland. Red Cross receipts show that Mrs Powell gave over £46 to the Red Cross Prisoner of War fund – around £1,500 today. [MS 4068/2 ]
Each of the thirty servicemen has their own story, and many Mrs Powell never heard from again. Yet the work of the knitting group provided clothes for those who needed them, and comfort and company to these young fighting men.