WW II, a British focus



Memories of Daphne Veronica Bradley, nee Atkinson (Born August 29, 1922)


On Friday, September 1, 1939, Hitler’s troops and tanks invaded Poland.

We had been lulled into a feeling of security a year before when Neville Chamberlain our Prime Minister had come back from Munich after talks with Adolf Hitler, waving a piece of paper on which he said it declared “peace for our time”.

We had hoped that it was true, but there was the general feeling that Hitler was biding his time and so we prepared for war! Sandbags were filled to protect buildings. Gas masks were issued to the whole population which was very frightening as we didn’t know what effects a gas attack would have. Air raid precautions were practised and many people learned First Aid.

I remember going to Lancasterian School in Church Road, Tottenham, with my father to be fitted with a gas mask. I had my first perm on that day and I was really upset when the gas mask strap was dragged over my new perm. The smell of the rubber was very pungent and we wondered how on Earth we were going to cope with these horrible things. Children discovered to their delight that you could blow rude noises by exhaling sharply into them. I have since read that 38 million gas masks had been issued, house to house, to the population.

Thousands of homes had Anderson shelters distributed to them in places that were likely to be attacked by air raids. These were made of curved steel bolted together and were installed in peoples gardens half buried in the ground with earth heaped on top. Access was gained by climbing through an opening and down into the shelter by a small ladder.

Leaflets about home defences were pushed through letter boxes during the summer of 1939. There was guidance on blackout restrictions and people went out frantically, to buy thick curtains, black paint, cardboard and drawing pins all to blot out any glimmer of light from windows in case it should help enemy bombers.

The official black-out began on September 1, 1939, when all street lights were turned off and cars crawled along roads with their headlights out. The results were alarming. People tripped over kerbstones, twisting their ankles. They walked into lamp-posts and various other objects.

My sister who lived in Southgate (Arnos Grove) was expecting her first baby at the end of September 1939. Her husband was a chemist and he dealt with a pharmaceutical firm called “Maws” of Barnet.

Of course with the frightening things that were going on he was concerned for his wife. A young man named Donald Stewart came into his shop frequently as he was a representative for Maws of Barnet. His mother had recently been evacuated to a small village in Somerset called Draycott which was near Cheddar where the cheese comes from. It was his suggestion that my sister joined his mother in Draycott where my sister would be safe from any air raids, and so arrangements were made.

My sister didn’t want to go there and be on her own so my father told me that I was to go as well. This did not appeal to me in any way as my friends were all in Tottenham and there was no way that I was going to leave my little Cairn Terrier behind. My mother had died just two years before and my little dog was my greatest friend. I was 16.

However I was talked into it. I was allowed to take my little dog, and we set off from Arnos Grove by car, driven by Donald Stewart. My brother-in-law, Carl, sat in the front and my sister Irene, a very pregnant lump, sat in the back with my little dog and myself. We went via the Great West Road which for me was a big frightening adventure having never been further than Margate or Clacton. It was night time.

There had been a tearful “good-bye” when leaving my father. He would now be alone and facing whatever a war might bring. The date was August 28, 1939.

The drive down was long and tedious and very uncomfortable. My little dog was no trouble at all and I believe that a few tears must have fallen on his head. Donald didn’t seem to know the way very well and with his broad Scottish accent it was difficult to understand him above the sound of the car engine.

Eventually we came to the dark country lanes with small villages dotted in between. Everyone was in darkness with the villagers in their beds.

After what seemed an endless journey and it was only a small car we arrived in Draycott, Somerset. We were to stay at Hillside Cottage which, we didn’t know at the time, had only four rooms.

The car was parked down in the road because Hillside Cottage was very aptly named and to get to it we had to struggle up a steep path to reach the cottage door. There were no lights on and Donald had to bang very hard before a lady answered in her night dress and wearing a hair net. We had been told that she was the village midwife and that my sister was expected to give birth to her baby there.

However, the lady was joined by her husband, who, thankfully, had managed to dress himself. We were welcomed in, but I believe that they hadn’t quite expected us to arrive in the middle of the night, and they certainly hadn’t expected us to turn up with a dog. Donald & Carl drove straight back to London.

We were quite exhausted, so it was suggested that, after a cup of tea, we should undress and get into the bed that they has just got out of . I didn’t fancy that at all, but there was no choice.

My little dog was to be locked in their dark shed until the morning, but I wasn’t having any of that. I showed off just a little bit and said I would sit downstairs with him until morning.

My sister wouldn’t go to bed without me, so I told them that I would take the dog up with me and keep him on a lead, on my wrist, for the rest of the night. I was able to thread the lead through the metal bed springs, which let my dog sleep under the bed. He was very restless! It must have been very confusing for him because, for the rest of the night, he was walking backwards and forwards under the bed with his lead still attached to my wrist through the bed springs.

What we didn’t know was that, also sharing the room were the couple’s two young sons. It was very dark, and I don’t know who was more surprised when morning came, them or us. I can’t remember their reaction on seeing strangers in their parent’s bed - with a dog on a lead. I’d had no sleep and suddenly realised that it was my 17th birthday!! The cottage had no running water and no heating, only fires downstairs during the winter. We washed in cold water.

We were introduced to the family, which consisted of Mr & Mrs Curtis, their daughter, Sylvia (aged 14) and their two sons, Austin (aged 10) and John (aged 8). Mrs Stewart, Donald’s mother, arrived on the scene, but where she’d been sleeping we had no idea.

I can’t remember having breakfast, but I suppose that we must have had something.

Sylvia, the daughter, showed us around the village that consisted mostly of sparse stone cottages. The village was a small one and I didn’t like being there at all.

We were introduced to a young man, named Lionel Plimpsoll, whose great grandfather was responsible for the Plimpsoll Line on ships - which indicated if they were overloaded or not. He lived in the village with his grandfather. He was fun to be with.

My sister found it all very exhausting being so heavily pregnant (not a word we used in those days). The climb up the hill, to the cottage, even made me out of breath.

Everywhere we went I took my little dog and he was a great comfort to me.

The song “South of the Border” was very popular at the time and Austin, the young boy, drove us mad by constantly whistling it wherever he went. To this day, I have only to hear it and I think of Austin.

Sometimes we would walk into Cheddar, which was only just over a mile away. One day Mrs Stewart joined us for a trip into the caves at Cheddar, which I remember, were very spooky and very cold. It was all very boring for us who were used to London.

One day, though, we really had a lucky escape. Lionel Plimpsoll was going into Bristol and he owned a car, which was rare in those days. He asked us if we would like to go with him and, of course, we jumped at the chance.

We weren’t going all that fast - did any car in those days? Suddenly, we saw a wheel flying through the air, down into a ravine. The car screeched to a halt! It was from the car in which we were travelling. It was a wonder my sister didn’t have the baby there and then.

However, Lionel fixed his spare wheel onto the car and we finally arrived into Bristol. It wasn’t very exciting but was a change from the boring village of Draycott.

We’d arrived in Draycott in the early hours of Tuesday morning, but had no idea how long we were likely to be there.

On the Sunday, September 3, my brother in law and Donald Stewart arrived about breakfast time, and the news was grim. The Prime Minister was going to address the nation at 11 o’clock.

My sister and myself decided to walk to the little church on the outskirts of Cheddar, as we were feeling very miserable. Of course my little dog, Peter, came with us.

We sat under a chestnut tree with a seat around it. The bells of the church were those that played tunes and as they played, “There’s a friend for little children”, we saw my brother in law walking towards us along the lane in the distance.

He called out as he came nearer, “We’re at war with Germany! It’s just been announced on the wireless”.

He returned to London, because he had to go to work, so there we were stuck in Draycott, awaiting the birth of my sister’s baby.

Mr & Mrs Curtis were very kind and, although we must have turned their lives upside down, they made us feel very welcome. They were typical country village people, and I can remember that they wouldn’t have a photograph taken together because they considered it was unlucky.

In those days I had no knowledge of what giving birth was all about so, really, the prospect of my sister having a baby in a cottage, in a small village that had no electricity or running water, didn’t give me any reason for concern. Most women in London had their babies at home, delivered by the local midwife. They weren’t all State Registered Midwives, just women who attended births in people’s homes. Sometimes it was the mother of the woman giving birth.

Anyhow, we spent another week at Draycott, until my brother in law came down at the weekend. He wasn’t happy about the arrangements for my sister and he stayed for two more days, taking bed and breakfast at one of the cottages.

Unbeknown to us, he had gone into Wells and had found us a flat to stay in which was owned by a State Registered Nurse. I remember him coming back and telling us to pack our cases because the cottage in Draycott was not a fit place for my sister to have her baby. I don’t know what explanation he gave to Mr & Mrs Curtis. I felt quite embarrassed because they’d been so kind.

I don’t remember how we got into Wells - probably by bus. The flat certainly was a great improvement and Wells itself was a delightful place, at first!!

We went into the cathedral several times and watched the figures coming out of the clock on the hour and every quarter of an hour. My little dog was still no trouble. I can’t remember what we fed him on because there was no such thing as tinned dog food, or special foods for animals- only dog biscuits. I guess that we must have got scraps from a local butcher because, at that time, food rationing hadn’t come into being.

As the time wore on we were sick and tired of walking around Wells, having taken it all in, in the first few days. There were no air-raids in London, as had been expected, so my sister decided that she wanted to go home, so did I!! She sent her husband a telegram and he came down by train at the next weekend.

Once again, our cases were packed - which of course, had included clothes and nappies for the new baby.

My father had given my brother in law money for the fare, but there was no money for my little dog, who should have been paid for on the train. We decided to wrap him up in my heavy coat and he spent the entire journey without a whimper. It was dark and it was miserable all the way until we arrived at Paddington. Civilisation at last!! We couldn’t wait to get onto the tube and home.

My sister’s baby was born on September 23, 1939, at a hospital in Whitechapel, none the worse for the experiences of the previous few weeks.

My father and I travelled to Whitechapel to visit them, but, for some unknown reason, they wouldn’t let us see them. I don’t know why! I can remember my father getting very angry and remarking, in a very loud voice, “We could be bombed out of existence tonight and I wont have seen my grandson”. I just quietly walked away!

It wasn’t until two weeks later, when my sister came home and placed ‘David’ into my arms, that I was finally a very proud ‘Auntie’.

Daphne Veronica Bradley, nee Atkinson (Born August 29, 1922)