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Last Updated: Wednesday, 20 June 2007, 13:42 GMT 14:42 UK
Fighting WWII from below ground
By Lucy Rodgers
BBC News

Some 48,000 were conscripted to work down the mines during World War II to tackle severe coal shortages.

The government has announced that the Bevin Boys, as they were known, will receive a special honour to commemorate their contribution to the war effort.

Bevin Boys
Bevin Boys in south Wales in 1945

They dreamt of fighting for Britain on the World War II battlefields of Europe but instead they were sent underground to mine for coal.

Yet, despite helping to fuel the war against the Nazis from the dark and dangerous tunnels of the country's pits, the young wartime conscript miners enjoyed little recognition.

The Bevin Boys, named after wartime Labour minister Ernest Bevin, were regularly abused for not being in uniform by those who wrongly thought they were conscientious objectors.

They were also often resented by local mining families who had seen their relatives drafted to the front line only to be replaced by "outsiders".

I think we should have done this a long time ago
Gordon Banks MP

And even when the war was over, the efforts of the wartime miners were not rewarded. While returning soldiers enjoyed a hero's welcome and medals, the Bevin Boys received nothing.

They had not even earned the right to return to the jobs they had at the beginning of the war, unlike other servicemen.

But more than 60 years on, these "forgotten conscripts" are finally to be honoured with a commemorative badge.

'Overdue honour'

The campaign for official recognition has been led by Gordon Banks, Labour MP for Ochil and South Perthshire, whose father and grandfather were coal miners.

He believes the honour is long overdue.

"The majority were conscripts, Ministry of Defence conscripts, and if they had not been in the coal mines they would have ended up in the armed forces," he said.

Ernest Bevin
I do not believe that it would be said of any of you boys that you failed to respond to the call for coal upon which victory so much depends
Wartime minister Ernest Bevin

"They played a very important role during World War II.

"To my mind, the MoD has responsibility because they were conscripts. Morally, I think we should have done this a long time ago. Many of these boys are now getting very old and some are no longer around."

The story of the Bevin Boys began in mid-1943 when the British government realised it had conscripted many of its experienced coalminers into the armed forces.

By then, the coal mines had lost 36,000 workers and the government began to appeal to servicemen to get them to enlist in mining. Few accepted.

Volunteers sought

Labour politician Ernest Bevin, who had been appointed minister for labour and national service as part of Winston Churchill's wartime all-party coalition government, attempted to inspire a response.

"None of you would funk a fight with the enemy and I do not believe that it would be said of any of you boys that you failed to respond to the call for coal upon which victory so much depends," he said.

Former Bevin Boy Warwick Taylor then and now
Warwick Taylor wanted to join the RAF, but worked as a Bevin Boy

But when December arrived and few volunteers had been found, it was decided a percentage of those who would have otherwise been drafted into the armed forces would be directed to the coal mines.

A total of 48,000 Bevin Boys were conscripted, with more than 20,000 of those selected randomly by ballot.

Among those 18 to 25 years olds who received the unexpected letters asking them to fight the war from below ground were Jimmy Savile and the late Eric Morecambe.

'I was devastated'

There was also Warwick Taylor, now aged 81, who was sent down the mines of south Wales in 1943, aged 18.

As a schoolboy he had signed up for the Air Training Corps and served three-and-a-half years expecting to join the RAF. But then his number came up in the government's ballot.

"I appealed of course but that was a waste of time and I had to go," said Mr Taylor. "I was devastated - so disappointed because all my buddies were going into the RAF. It was an awful feeling.

"We didn't know what to expect, going 3,000ft into the bowels of the earth."

It has been a long hard struggle for recognition - all the veterans have had it and we deserve it too
Warwick Taylor
Former Bevin Boy

But he now knows the part he and thousands of others played down the mines was a vital one.

"It was a hard job, very labour intensive," said Mr Taylor, from Poundbury in Dorset, who spent two years working down the mines and is now vice president of the Bevin Boys Association.

Despite the crucial role they played during the war, it was not until 1995, 50 years after VE Day, that the British government officially recognised the service of the Bevin Boys.

Until then, the conscript miners had not been allowed to participate in the annual Remembrance Day ceremony in Whitehall, London.

They have only now been given a commemorative award.

Mr Warwick said: "It has been a long hard struggle for recognition - all the veterans have had it, and we deserve it too."


SEE ALSO
Badge honours Bevin Boys' service
08 Feb 07 |  North West Wales
World War II miners hold reunion
11 Apr 05 |  Coventry/Warwickshire

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