Seventy years ago thousands of South Yorkshire men were sent off to fight for their country. But what happened when they came back? Rachael Clegg looks at life in the immediate aftermath of World War Two and discovers how families coped
RUBY Gascoigne barely recognised her husband when he walked back through the door after the Second World War.
He had been away for four years, fighting in every theatre of war. He had experienced frostbite, he’d been marooned, he’d seen his friends die and starve, he’d fought and he’d seen suffering on a dramatic scale.
So when the war was declared over, things could only get better.
Ruby married Frank - two years her senior - when she was 18.
She fell pregnant during Frank’s one-week leave home over the Christmas period 70 years ago.
But within just 12 months of being married, the young, happy couple were thrown into the darkest depths.
Suddenly, they were parents, workers and fighters, as well as a young and inexperienced husband and wife.
Frank fought abroad for most of the war, and his only contact with Ruby was through the letters he sent home.
She had no idea where he was, her only vague clue a postbox number on each note. She went through her entire pregnancy alone and raised their first child single-handedly, while also working in Sheffield’s steel mills and running a home, until Frank returned.
“It was dreadfully strange when Frank came home,” admits Ruby, now 88, and one of The Star’s Women of Steel.
“We started going out with each other when we were 16 and 18, but it wasn’t a romance. We used to go to the pictures and our families presumed we were courting but it was nothing serious. We did a bit of snogging but that was it!”
Frank was called up to fight - first in Dunkirk - and at the same time Sheffield was heavily bombed. As many as 660 people were killed, including Frank’s parents. Ruby was all he had left.
“Frank lost his mother and father,” said Ruby, who now lives on Duke Street. “He came home on leave and said, ‘Should we get married?’. I cared well enough for him so I said yes.
“We were married on the Easter Saturday and we had one week together. Then he was off to Northern Ireland and, later that year - during his week’s leave - I fell pregnant and he told me he was going abroad.
“He was issued with a tropical kit - and I didn’t see him for four years.”
Ruby and Frank changed enormously as people throughout their four years apart.
“I withstood the pregnancy on my own and when Frank came home our little son Graham was three-and-a-half years old,” said Ruby.
“I had led a sheltered life before the war, I knew very little about the world really. But by the end of it I had worked in the steelworks and had seen a different way of life.
“It was very strange when he came back. His skin was dark, his shoulders had broadened, he wore glasses and he looked like a different person. It was 3am when he came back in, and he was covered in khaki and laden with stuff that he’d looted. Graham didn’t want to know him.”
Though Ruby was pregnant again with their second child, she also found Frank was jealous of the male acquaintances she had from work.
“Men would say, ‘How do you do, Ruby?’ and Frank would say, ‘Who’s that?’. I told him he couldn’t expect me not to have spoken to anyone over those four years.”
But they ironed out their problems.
“We had a really good debate and we started again,” she said. “We decided that whatever had happened during the war we’d write it off.
“So many girls had affairs and pregnancies - men came home and divorced them - but I decided to settle down to a new way of life.
“I became a housewife and I haven’t regretted a single day ever since.
“We had five beautiful boys together, Frank was a brilliant father and we had a wonderful marriage in the end.
“But that first week of real married life was torture.”
Frank took early retirement at the age of 62. Until then he never talked about his experiences in the war. And then, one night on holiday in Spain, when Frank was 64, he told his daughter-in-law’s mother about his experiences.
Ruby said: “She said to me, ‘Ruby, I want to stay and listen to Frank - he’s telling me what he’s been through’.”
“I was amazed,” said Ruby, “Frank hadn’t told me anything about his experiences. But she said to me, I shall never forget what that lad has been through. It must have been hell’.”
During the same holiday a friend of Ruby’s was reading palms in the bar. Ruby, in true holiday spirit, volunteered to have hers read.
“It was the night before we were coming home,” she recalls. “The lady took one look at my palm, closed my hand, and said, ‘Go home and be happy’. I said, ‘What do you mean?’ but she said, ‘Just go home and be happy’.”
The Monday after returning home from holiday, Ruby and Frank were getting ready to go out. Frank came out of the bathroom and said he felt dreadful.
“I offered to make him a drink so he came in the kitchen, put his arms around me - I could feel he was sweating profusely - and he said, ‘Ruby, you’ll never know how much I love you’.”
Moments later Frank sat down in his chair, in his finest going-out clothes, and died of a heart attack.
Ruby and Frank had been married for 42 years, the couple had five boys together, bringing them 14 grandchildren, 20 great-grandchildren and one great-great granddaughter.