WW II, a British focus




 

 
Memories of Chris Cruden   
   *****

My Front Row Seat at WW11

 

CHAPTER ONE.

 

We are shown to our Seats

 

Aug 25, 1939 - Britain and Poland sign a Mutual Assistance Treaty.

Aug 31, 1939 - British fleet mobilizes; Civilian evacuations begin from London.

Sept 1, 1939 - Nazis invade Poland.

Between May and November 1940 15,000 people were killed in bombing raids on Britain.

 

Sunday 3rd September 1939 at 11.15 a.m. Mr. Chamberlain said on the radio “We are now at war with Germany.”  Lying on the floor reading the paper I started to tell my Mother and Father what the papers said and they told me to be quiet.  Mr. Chamberlain’s voice was very shaky and I think he was very unhappy because Mr. Hitler would not keep his promises to talk to him.

 

France, Australia, New Zealand and India declare war on the same day followed by South Africa on 6th and Canada on 10th.   

 

Neville. Chamberlain resigned as prime Minister in May 1940 after members of the Labour and Liberal party refused to serve in his proposed National Government.  Winston Churchill as Prime Minister replaced Chamberlain.  Churchill appointed Chamberlain as Lord President of the Council in Churchill’s newly formed government.  Poor health caused his retirement in October 1940 followed by his death from cancer on 9th November 1940.  

 

 

Mr. and Mrs. Clifford, friends of my Mother and Father, were sitting by the radio also listening and everyone sounded unhappy.  Mr. Clifford said he had been called up and would join the Royal Air Force.  Mrs. Clifford started to cry and so my Mother joined her.  Mr. Clifford said to stop being silly and that it would be all over in a few months.  I don’t think anyone believed him because they all looked miserable and Mum and Mrs. Clifford kept crying.  Dad had nothing to say and looked very serious and concerned, he reached over and briefly touched Mum’s hand.  I don’t think anyone noticed except me. 

 

My Mother and Father and the Clifford’s listened to Mr. Churchill, the new Prime Minister make his first speech on 13th May 1940.  He sounded very serious and not very happy, it seemed to me that no one was feeling very happy.

 

On Friday evening last I received from His Majesty (King George V1) the mission to form a new administration.  It was the evident will of Parliament and the nation that this should be conceived on the broadest possible basis and that it should include all parties.

 

I have already completed the first part of this task.

 

A war cabinet has been formed of five members, representing, with the Labour, Opposition, and Liberals, the unity of the nation.  It was necessary that this should be done in one single day on account of the extreme urgency and rigor of events.  Other key positions were filled yesterday.  I am submitting a further list to the king tonight.  I hope to complete the appointment of principal ministers during tomorrow.

 

The appointment of other ministers usually takes a little longer.  I trust when Parliament meets again this part of my task will be completed and that the administration will be complete in all respects.  I considered it in the public interest to suggest to the Speaker that the House should be summoned today.  At the end of today’s proceedings, the adjournment of the House will be proposed until May 21 with provision for earlier meeting if need be.  Business for that will be notified to MPs at the earliest opportunity.

 

I now invite the House by a resolution to record its approval of the steps taken and declare its confidence in the new government.

 

The resolution:

 

“That this House welcomes the formation of a government representing the united and inflexible resolve of the nation to prosecute the war with Germany to a victorious conclusion.”

 

To form an administration of this scale and complexity is a serious undertaking in itself.  But we are in the preliminary phase of one of the greatest battles in history.  We are in action at many other points in Norway and in Holland and we have to be prepared in the Mediterranean.   The air battle is continuing, and many preparations have to be made here at home.

 

In this crisis I think I may be pardoned if I do not address the House at any length today, and I hope that any of my friends and colleagues or former colleagues who are affected by the political reconstruction will make all allowances for any lack of ceremony with which it has been necessary to act.

 

I say to the House as I said to ministers who have joined this government, I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat.  We have before us many, many months of struggle and suffering.

 

You ask, what is our policy? I say it is to wage war by land, sea, and air.  War with all our might and with all the strength God has given us, and to wage war against a monstrous tyranny never surpassed in the dark and lamentable catalogue of human crime.  That is our policy. 

 

You ask, what is our aim?  I can answer in one word.  It is victory.  Victory at all costs – Victory, however long and hard the road may be, for without victory there is no survival.

 

Let that be realized.  No survival for the British Empire, no survival for all that the British Empire has stood for, no survival for the urge, the impulse of the ages, that mankind shall move forward toward his goal.

 

I take up my task with buoyancy and hope.  I feel sure that our cause will not be suffered to fail among men.  I feel entitled at this juncture, at this time, to claim the aid of all and to say, Come then, let us go forward together with our united strength.” 

 

 

The lines underlined were known and often repeated by children in Britain.  Usually accompanied by some suitably aggressive posturing.

 

Mrs. Hayward, our schoolteacher, at the Infants School, was a tyrant to a six year old never more so than in an air raid shelter and wearing a gas mask.  I imagine that Mrs. Hayward was also wearing her gas mask but either I don’t recall or couldn’t see because visibility is restricted by the inadequate and restrictive viewing opportunity provided by a gas mask.  I do recall that Mrs. Hayward was ugly so it didn’t really matter not being able to see her, but she would have looked better if she did wear a gas mask.  Mrs. Hayward looked square like a brick and I think she was a heavy teacher.  She was also old but not old enough to shave, she had two tufts of hair growing on one side of her face and she never removed them.  Some of the older children said they were false and she put them on each morning before coming to school.  They said that women did this because they thought it made them look attractive and they called them beauty spots with hair.  Our dog had lots of beauty spots with hair but I didn’t think the dog was beautiful but maybe other dogs did. It was a relief to know my Mother was beautiful without having to use beauty spots with hair.  My Mother was small and very beautiful with black, thick wavy hair; she looked small sitting beside Mrs. Clifford.   Mum was very pale and I expect her dark hair made her look even paler.   My Father was always very quiet he never raised his voice.  Mrs. Lascelles, at the corner shop, said she could never understand a word he said, I think she must be deaf because I could understand him.  I told him what Mrs. Lascelles had said and he just smiled. Telling my Mother about Mrs. Hayward and her beauty spots with hair seemed to annoy her and she didn’t want to talk to me about it.  I told her I thought it was a silly idea to have beauty spots with hair and I didn’t want her to use them.  I didn’t think my Father would agree to her having them anyway and she never did.

 

We had two teachers at the Infants School the other one was Miss Hay, she was the Head Mistress, she was very tall and thin and wore glasses on the end of her nose.  Her nose was long and thin like she was and I thought that was why her glasses always slipped to the end of her nose.  Miss Hay seemed to be ill, she never hurried and she always spoke softly and always patted us on the head; she did that to check that we were there because she could not see us too clearly with her glasses on the end of her nose.   When we had to go into the air raid shelter Miss Hay stayed in her classroom, I think.  Perhaps they didn’t have a gas mask for her because her face was too thin and a gas mask was essential for being in the air raid shelter.  It must have been difficult to keep her glasses on the end of her nose if she did go to someone else’s shelter but maybe other shelters did not require people to wear gas masks.  Other shelters maybe didn’t leak like the one we used and so the gas couldn’t get in to them.

 

Life and education are different in an air raid shelter.  Air raid shelters were very damp and the floors and walls were wet so I knew there was a leak in the roof and that was where the gas would come in and that was why we had to wear the gas masks.  It was carefully explained to us that we must wear the masks for our protection.  I wondered how the teachers knew when we would have gas that might harm us.  When we travelled anywhere, even a short distance, we had to wear a luggage label pinned to our clothes with our name and address written where it could be easily seen.  When we were not in the air raid shelter we did not have to wear our gas masks but we had to carry the gas mask in a square cardboard box everywhere we went in case we had to suddenly go into an air raid shelter.  It would be difficult to be admitted to an air raid shelter without a gas mask.  I wondered why Mr. Hitler had agreed to try and gas us only when we were in the air raid shelters.  Everyone said he couldn’t be trusted but we trusted him not to gas us unless we were in the air raid shelters and that seemed strange to me.  When no one was looking I turned the gas on at home, on the stove, to smell it and it didn’t smell too bad so I decided being gassed would not be too bad and the grown ups were making it a bigger problem than it really was.

 

I recognized people who did not have a gas mask because they didn’t have the red mark from one ear to the other and under their chin. The rubber on the mask left a mark on the skin after being worn for a while.   By putting a finger or pencil between our skin and the rubber of the mask it was possible to obtain relief from the discomfort of the mask.  Mrs. Hayward smacked our fingers with her ruler if she caught us doing this.  She told us that we must learn to wear the gas mask for our safety in case of a gas attack.  I didn’t think Mrs. Hayward understood the roof of the air raid shelter leaked and she should fix it and gas would not get in if it were fixed.  I couldn’t tell her because she was a teacher and liked to pretend she knew everything and sometimes became very angry if we didn’t do as she told us. 

 

Mrs. Hayward and Miss Hay lived next door to each other in the same lane I lived on.  Miss Hall, a retired schoolteacher, lived next door to our house; she didn’t like children and cried a lot.  When I was a little older I was told that Miss Hall and Miss Hay’s father’s or other relatives were killed in the Great War.  I knew our war was going to be a better one than the First World War and wondered what it would be called.  As it had just started I was sure adults had not thought what to call it yet.  So I decided I would think of a name and send it to the Prime Minister and that would cheer him up.  It also seemed a good time to start planning on how I would help win the war.  All the adults started to worry about not being able to find enough food so I thought I would worry about that also.  This war was beginning to make me busy.  All the adults said we would win the war and teach Mr. Hitler a lesson he would never forget.  Mrs. Hayward would not be a good teacher for Mr. Hitler because she got angry when we forgot something she had taught us and he was probably too old for Mrs. Hayward to teach.  On the radio Mr. Hitler always sounded irritable and annoyed and I felt sure Mrs. Hayward would soon make him behave himself.

 

 

Large posters began to appear telling us to dig for victory so Dad started digging big holes in the garden.  Sitting on the doorstep watching him dig I decided that I would not dig for victory because I would not be very good at it.  Dad grew up in Scotland on a farm so he knew how to dig better than other people.  Watching Dad do his digging for victory made me very proud of him.  The neighbours all did their digging in horizontal lines only going about 12 inches deep.  Dad did this type of digging but then he would also sometimes decide to go deep.  He would keep digging until the hole he was digging was so deep he could not be seen.  I knew he was still in the hole because shovels of earth were thrown out of the hole.  The frequency of the earth being thrown out was often changed to blue smoke when he lit a cigarette.  I decided I would not do that either, the smoke made my chest hurt.

 

Aug 31, 1939 - British fleet mobilizes; Civilian evacuations begin from London.

Sept 5, 1939 - United States proclaims neutrality; German troops cross the Vistula River in Poland.

Sept 10, 1939 - Canada declares war on Germany; Battle of the Atlantic begins.

 

The war the Germans had promised seemed to have been forgotten by everyone except Mrs. Hayward, she had become obsessed to see us all wearing gas masks.  We had a new Prime Minister, Mr. Winston Churchill, who seemed to do all the talking on the radio.  Dad told me we had two Prime Ministers and the other one, Mr. Atlee, did all the real work.   When Mr. Churchill spoke all the adults told me to be quiet and stop talking.  I felt sure he couldn’t sing and that was why he talked so much.  Singing seemed to be popular with everyone except Winston Churchill and he always sounded annoyed.  Sometimes he referred to Hitler as Mr. Schiklegruber or that “nasty little man” and I finally understood he was referring to Mr. Adolph Hitler.  When I heard Mr. Hitler speaking on the radio he sounded very bad tempered and annoyed just like Mr. Churchill.  It was obvious they did not like each other and would never be friends.  Sometimes I put my gas mask on and talked to anyone who would listen.  Everyone told me to take the gas mask off so they could understand what I was talking about.  I wondered if anyone thought of sending Mr. Hitler and Mr. Churchill a gas mask so no one could understand what they were saying and then they would not get so angry at each other and we wouldn’t have to have a war.  All the adults were worrying about the war but no one seemed to know how to stop Mr. Churchill and Mr. Hitler being so angry at each other.  I wondered to whom should I write and suggest Mr. Churchill and Mr. Hitler wearing gas masks would not be able to be so angry at each other and we would not have to have a war.  I felt a little confused by the war and why everyone was so worried about it.  It seemed that the adults were too confused to understand what should be done to stop the war we didn’t have.  I knew we had a war but nothing seemed to happen except Mrs. Hayward being obsessive about us wearing a gas mask and smacking us on the hand whenever she could find an excuse to do so.

 

 

 

May 26, 1940 - Evacuation of Allied troops from Dunkirk begins.

One day, on my way home from school, I found many army vehicles parked bumper to bumper along the road from the railway station across the field behind my house.  Soldiers were on stretchers, some not moving and many sitting or lying in the field by the road.  All the soldiers had been wounded, some badly, some without clothes and most covering themselves with blankets, the ambulances seemed full as did lorries with makeshift red crosses on them.  There were not enough ambulances for all the wounded and not enough hospitals, some schools were closed and used as hospitals.  None of the soldiers seemed to want to talk to me as I was passing, and those that did just seemed to mumble.  I noticed a lot of the soldiers were shaking and some seemed to be crying.  I tried to walk around the soldiers, some of the soldiers tried to move to let me pass but many could not move and some seemed very still.  Dirty blood stained bandages smell and I thought I could smell that awful smell for weeks afterwards.  The newspapers and magazines wrote of the courage, dedication and commitment of the soldiers and their sacrifice.  On the radio I listened to many people speaking of the same characteristics of the soldiers and knew these people did not know what a dirty blood stained bandage smelled like or they would write about those wounded soldiers and not make so many silly comments.  I knew, as did other children, that war was bad and God could never condone any act of war like adults who spoke on the radio and those writing in publications tried to do.  These were people who were not losing their school friends, who did not have to smell dirty bloody bandages and did not see soldiers crying.  These are people who pretend they hate war while glorying in the opportunity to be “experts” in order that they may influence others who could stop the war.  Sometimes games played at school were Germans and British, the British always won in our games, I avoided playing these games as did many other children, only adults thought they were games.  I didn’t think adults understood.

 

When I arrived home my Mother was making pots of tea and taking them out to the soldiers gathered around the garden gate.  She had been crying and when I asked why she had been crying she just said, “you will understand when you are older” so not sure why, I also cried.  Mum hugged me too tightly and told me everything would be all right and we would manage.  I didn’t know what was going to be all right, and what we would manage or why we were all crying.  But I did know that I was quickly becoming older and understood more than adults could understand.  When I heard Winston Churchill’s speech about fighting on beaches and in the air I understood what all those soldiers Mum was making tea for represented, I understood that 30,000 British soldiers would never come back and I understood why Mum was crying.  The newspapers reported that more than 320,000 troops had been saved from the Germans and about 100,000 of these were French.  Almost all the French soldiers immediately returned to France to continue fighting the Germans in their own country.  I thought the French soldiers must be the bravest in the world.   I think I understood patriotism from this lesson.

 

It was the month of my seventh birthday and I was more grown up than my Mother knew.  It seemed difficult to understand what a war really was and why we had to have one.  Whenever I listened to adults discuss the war, which they did all the time, they all had different reasons for it and why we were going to win.  When I tried to ask a question I was always told to be quiet or that I would not understand.  It seemed to me that I read the papers more than anyone else and wondered why I had seen so many wounded soldiers on my way home from school if we were winning.  The adults called it a setback, the newspapers said the soldiers had been trapped and I wondered what the soldiers called it.  Dad explained to me that we were told we were winning to keep the morale high so people continued to support everything being done to eventually win.  He explained it was called propaganda and that all countries did it.  I thought it sounded like lying and would cause more soldiers to be trapped if they were lied to.  No one seemed to care and I found it hard to sleep without becoming upset at the memory of so many soldiers with smelly, blood stained bandages waiting at the side of the road for someone to help them.

 

I did not tell my Mother that I was going to help winning the war because I was sure it would worry her.  If Mr. Churchill and Mr. Hitler wanted a war they should come and see the soldiers outside our house and they would change their minds.  One thing was clear to me and that was that a lot of soldiers were hurt and many died because we were having a war. 

 

At school we were told that so many soldiers had given their lives to save France and our country from the Germans.  Some of the children did not come to school for the rest of the week because they’re Dads or other relatives were included in the casualties of Dunkirk.  Their families did not find out they had died until the army was evacuated from France.  If Mr. Churchill and Mr. Hitler wanted this war I thought they were the ones who gave our soldiers lives and that did not seem very fair to the children who did not have their Dad anymore.  I did not know what Mr. Hitler looked like but I knew Mr. Churchill was too fat to have someone give his life away.  My Dad had been in the army so he would not be told to give his life away and I was very glad because I needed him and so did my Mother.  I felt very sad for the other children who also needed their dad and now had to manage without one.  It seemed wrong that Mr. Hitler and Mr. Churchill could start a war and stay safe by hiding behind soldiers who did not want to give their lives for something not their fault or understanding.  I knew I would hate war and politicians that made decisions to have one, for the rest of my life.  Schoolteachers talked about God and how we must pray.  I felt sure that anyone who believed in God would not start a war.

 

When Dad arrived home from work he also started to help Mum making tea and sandwiches for the soldiers at the gate.  Some of the soldiers were lying on the front lawn of my house and they just seemed to sleep and moan.  Dad gave me some money to go to Mrs. Lascelles small shop on the corner for some more things to make sandwiches and cups of tea.  I didn’t see any of our neighbours doing the same as Mum and Dad and thought it might be because they had decided to ignore the war or they didn’t like soldiers because they were all dirty and smelly and most were badly injured.  It was raining when I returned home from the shop but the soldiers and my Mother and Father had no shelter.  Some of the most badly wounded were in the ambulances.  I asked Dad why they were waiting in the ambulances and lying in the hedges and fields and not moving?  He told me there were so many wounded soldiers the medical authorities had filled all the hospitals and were now looking for hospital alternatives such as closing schools and using large empty buildings.

 

Mum always seemed to avoid our neighbours, whenever a neighbour appeared in the garden while Mum was there, and I wondered if it was because she was frightened of the neighbours.  Mum and Dad were still busy when I went to bed later than usual that night.  Every day for about a week we had lines of ambulances and army lorries and soldiers in the lane, they arrived by train even during the night.  I didn’t think we could have any soldiers left and began to think we would have to get soldiers from other countries but no country would help if their soldiers were going to be wounded or killed.  Adults were always talking about which countries would help and how Canada, Australia and New Zealand could always be counted on but there was no hope from other countries to help.  I looked on maps for other countries I could write to and tell them to help but began to feel I had too many things to do. 

 

School had also changed and so had Mrs. Hayward, she had learned to smile a little but I think it hurt her because I often noticed she had been crying and did not seem to concentrate on what she was doing.  Miss Hay often stayed in her office but when she was teaching she was very quiet and smiled a lot.  Her glasses were still on the end of her thin nose and so she patted everyone on the head whenever she could just to make sure we were there.  One day when we were going to the air raid shelter Mrs. Hayward asked me to run back to the classroom and bring a book off her desk she had forgotten.  Miss Hay came out of her office as I picked up the book, when she saw me she smiled and patted me on the head and told me to hurry back to the shelter.  She walked back into her office and I knew that Miss Hay did not go to the shelter like we had to.  From when the war started in September 1939 until the spring of 1940 it was believed Germany had forgotten about England in the war so we were only practicing having classes in the air raid shelter, it was not real.  The adults called in the “phoney” war and I think they did so because the real war had not really started yet and I did not understand this at all.

 

A visitor to our house asked me if I had a girlfriend and all the adults seemed to think that was funny so I thought I had better get one.  Her name was Gillian and she was smaller than me so I thought that she would be a good girlfriend.  I never told her she was my girlfriend because I was sure that it would spoil the relationship if she knew.  Next time I was asked if I had a girlfriend everyone wanted to know all about her but all I could tell them was I knew nothing about her because she never spoke to me.  The other children at school said I sounded funny when I spoke so I didn’t speak if it could be avoided.  I tried to do most of my talking when wearing my gas mask because everyone sounded strange while wearing a gas mask.  Mum was Irish and Dad was Scottish and they sounded different from other adults when they spoke so I knew that I must have a similar accent to theirs.  I talked to myself a lot and didn’t think I sounded different from other children at school.  Our summer holidays started at the end of June and when we returned to school in September it would be to a different school.  When we started school again something had happened to the Infants school but I never found out what had happened.  It seemed to have adults as pupils, a lot of them.  They seemed to come and go just as they pleased so I thought they would not learn very much or Mrs. Hayward was not their teacher.  We were never allowed to leave the school until the end of the day at 4.00 p.m. but they seemed to go home whenever they felt like it. 

 

During the 1940 summer school holidays I started my preparations for the defence of England.  It was apparent that I was a loner.  Mum became concerned and constantly suggested I should play with other children who lived nearby.   No children my age lived near us and that pleased me because they would want to play silly games as though they did not know or care that we had a war on.  It seemed to worry her that I was not interested and, in fact, I made an effort to avoid other children.  I remembered the soldiers Mum had made tea for, only a few weeks earlier, and knew that it was necessary to be prepared to stop that happening in England.  Dad always answered, when I asked him, what would happen if Mr. Hitler remembered where we were and became serious about the war; “we need to be prepared because everything will change” was his answer.   Dad was doing his part by digging deep holes in the garden and smoking a lot and I knew I had to find something else to do if I was to do my bit for God, King and Country.  Of course Dad knew what he was doing, he was the only man in the living in the lane with military experience, and I knew there was no time to waste with other children who just wanted to play.  As I had a girlfriend, Gillian, whom I never spoke to, I, was able to avoid any distraction normally associated with preparing for war.  In this environment and with careful consideration I made the decision to devote myself to winning the war in whatever way I could make myself useful.  I enjoyed reading and read all the newspapers and magazines I could find so that I would understand what was happening that adults said I would not understand until I was older.  Adults do not understand.

 

At the age of seven years I exhibited a desire for maintaining a low profile in typical British fashion so whatever I planned would remain a secret.  This then was my plan on the eve of the start of the Blitz.  Another project I frequently recalled was the need to find food because adults said food would become scarce.  My plan was to address these two projects first and whatever other projects that presented them as I progressed.

 

Climbing the fence at the end of our garden was the first obstacle and that was easy.  Since I was five years old, maybe earlier, Dad had adopted a daily regimen when he arrived home from work.  Climbing the fence was the first step in my evening run around the field.  Dad stood and read the paper while I was running.   Dad told me the shortness of breath and pain would soon disappear when I got a little older if I kept running for exercise.  Struggling to breath, when I finished, I was usually told “just once more round the field” and off I ran, for another round of the field.  Running so much hurt badly but Dad said it would soon stop hurting so much and of course, he knew best.

 

 Now, starting my plans to win the war, the objective on this occasion was to cross the field at my own pace, which was still a run, until I came to the railway line.  It was a small suburban double line; the station was visible from the back windows of my house.  Crossing the rail-lines and ignoring anyone who might see me from the station I climbed the fence and moved forward into the copse of trees.  A short distance took me to the bank of the river.  The river at that point was about 75 feet wide and was not in view of the station or any houses.  I built a bridge across the river.  Well it wasn’t exactly a bridge, it was partly bridge and partly a damn, well more damn than bridge and it leaked.  It took me about six weeks to build.  Often I had to take all my clothes off and walk in the river, pulling logs and other pieces of wood to build the bridge.  On the bank of the river I found a partly hollowed tree; tools from Dad’s shed made their way to the tree.  Sacks became towels and an old umbrella added to my protection from the elements.  Ants seemed able to penetrate whatever I used to protect food and I soon decided to forego food.  My determination to do my bit to win the war found additional inspiration when the Blitz started on September 7th with a bombing raid that seemed to last all night.  Now the adults talked about the noise of the ack-ack guns firing at the German bombers keeping them awake at night.  The “phoney” war was no more.

 

Almost 700 German aircraft in each of two waves took part and set London ablaze.  From that night on I could lie in bed at night and see the red glow of London burning.  I wondered where all the people would go who had been bombed and now had nowhere to live.  I thought Mum and Dad would take care of that so I didn’t need to put that on my list of things to do.  All the adults now seemed to have changed and become depressed and appeared worried except Dad, he just smiled, shook his head and went out to dig more of the special hole he worked on each night he came home from work.  When I went to school I always looked to see if Germans had arrived in the lane, or the field like the soldiers had done. But when they eventually arrived it was a different arrival. 

 

The autumn school term started in September so gas masks and air raid shelters were now serious.  Miss Hay did not ever go to an air raid shelter and I never saw her with a gas mask.  Mrs. Hayward pretended she was not worried but I knew she was frightened more than most adults.  Sometimes when she was asked a question she seemed to not hear until I asked again.  We were moved from the infant’s school to the junior school next door in the first week of the new term.  I was sorry to leave Mrs. Hayward and Miss Hall but maybe they needed time to understand what the war was really about.  I don’t think they understood wars.

 

Miss Warren was our class teacher and everything was different.  Miss Warren was a kind lady everyone liked her.  The headmaster, Mr. Williams, was not very nice and no one liked him.  We now had a morning assembly in the school hall before going to class.  This was new for us new children.  At the infants school we had a short prayer meeting before class in our classroom.  Mr. Williams conducted the short service in the hall each morning and read out any instructions he thought to be important.  Lunch was in the school hall; it was compulsory to have school lunch because we were not allowed to leave the school until 4.00 p.m. because of possible enemy activity.  The school was a Church of England school with a semi-tame Church of England minister, the Reverend Hutchinson I did not like him.  Mr. Williams volunteered some of the children to do odd jobs at the church.  I only worked at the church one Saturday morning and did not do well, although I did try – to not do well.  My job was to remove some carpets and take them outside where we beat the dust out of them and then we brushed them.  I put the carpets back where I thought they looked better than where they had been before.  Mr. Williams was not pleased and threatened me with the cane because a carpet was missing and I told him I thought Reverend Hutchinson had taken it because it was his church.  I decided I still did not like Mr. Williams or Reverend Hutchinson.

 

My sister Maureen, almost two years younger than I, had to be moved from the infant’s school to the junior school because it had been damaged by bomb blast and they had adult pupils instead of Infants.  Maureen was my sister and best friend at a time when life had become very difficult for me.  Being bullied was a daily event for me in the two years at the Church of England school, four stitches in my chin, a broken cheekbone, and more black eyes than my Mother could count, earned me great helpings of the best school lunches.  The head school cook, Mrs. Lovell, either liked me or sympathized with my situation. I liked all school meals. Mrs. Lovell always gave me large helpings and a second one if wanted and tried to advise me how to avoid the bullying.  I always took the large and extra helpings but never the advice.  Dad told Mum that I had to learn to fight back at the bullies so I knew I had to keep trying but it seemed everyone was bigger than me.  Sometimes when I got home from school with bruises Mum would hug me and tell me to go and wash my face and she went into the kitchen and closed the door but I could hear her crying.  I guessed it was because of something the war had caused and I would understand when I was older.

 

Nothing at Mr. Williams School was pleasant and I only liked the school meals, orange juice and cod liver oil.  Every week we lined up to be given bottles of orange juice and cod liver oil.  Everyone liked the orange juice but not the cod liver oil.  Dad told me how good the orange juice was for me so I told other children how much I liked drinking cod liver oil.  Other children at school didn’t believe me until they could watch me drinking it.  I said I would drink a mouthful to show them if they gave me their bottles of orange juice.  After a few weeks my Mother told me to stop bringing home so many bottles of cod liver oil and orange juice because they were taking up so much space and I was unable to drink all of it.  Some of it I gave to our chickens and some I poured out on the way home from school; I began to really like cod liver oil and threw the empty bottles in the hedges on the way home from school.

 

I ran to Maureen’s aid when a teacher slapped her and I pushed the teacher, Mrs. Magee, away from Maureen.  Mr. Williams gave me two strokes of the cane, one on each hand.  The cane made a swishing sound as he practiced the strokes and talked about why he was giving me the cane.  The reason I was being caned was very clear to me, I guessed Mr. Williams had a bad memory and was just reminding himself.  I listened and tried not to notice the swishing sound of the cane as he practiced and thought of what I would do to Mr. Williams when I was bigger than him.  Mr. Williams had a daughter, Angela, in my class and I thought I should exchange Gillian for her and then not talk to her once she was my girlfriend.  Miss Warren would not understand Angela was my new girlfriend, so I kept Gillian as my girlfriend, we had established an ideal relationship by not talking to each other.

 

About this time a street very close to the school, Privet Street, was bombed and two children in my class were killed and two badly injured, Mark lost both legs.  Dennis, one of the two killed, had sat beside me in our two-children desk.  He was very clever, and interesting and never bullied me.  He showed me how to draw the front of airplane hangers with wet ink.  Dennis was big and had ginger hair and a sister named Vivian.  I wished I could talk to Dennis and ask him if he had given his life and why did he do it.  If he did give his life then it must have been a mistake.  His Dad had been killed in France early in the war and it didn’t seem fair to me to have to give two lives from one family. 

 

Jan 8, 1940 - Rationing begins in Britain.

Everything was now rationed and we had to have a ration book to get food and clothes, I wondered if Mr. Churchill or Mr. Atlee had thought of ration books for family’s who gave a life.  This seemed only fair and Dennis would not have been killed.  I missed him a lot and often woke up at night thinking about him.  Although the war was now interesting I didn’t like it very much.  I wondered what it would be like if we didn’t have a war.  Did children in countries where there was no war have so many controls, curfews, and nightime blackouts, not allowed to leave school and rationing?

 

When we got to our class that morning Miss. Warren did not say good morning as she usually did when we arrived in class, and she kept her head down looking at the class register.  We all knew that there had been bombing during the night but thought someone had annoyed Miss. Warren.  She told us to be quiet and we would all go to the school hall where Mr. Williams had some special announcements to make.  When she looked up to speak we could see she had been crying a lot, her eyes were very red and small.  Mr. Williams had also been crying and could not speak properly, I felt sorry for him even if I didn’t like him.

 

We stayed in the hall singing hymns much longer than usual.  A week later a bomb demolished the end wall of the school, we only missed half a day at school after workers had cleared the rubble and ensured the building would not collapse.  Miss Warren cried a lot and Miss Hall died, Mrs. Hayward retired and died shortly afterwards.  I heard the adults saying how sad life had been for Mrs. Hayward because her husband had been killed in France early in the war and she had never got over it.  Miss Hall had also been married to a soldier also killed early in the war; her husband was Mrs. Hayward’s brother.  I felt very sad for Mrs. Hayward and Miss Hall.  I did not know about their sadness and realised they knew a lot about wars.  I was learning very quickly about wars and wishing I was not learning so much so quickly.

 

Christmas 1940 and the Canadians held a Christmas party for about 2,000 school children.  It was wonderful. We had gifts and food most of which we had never seen before.  The Canadians picked us up from school in army lorries and returned us home afterwards with bags of candy and presents.  There were soldiers from many other countries but the Canadians were the only ones that celebrated Christmas.  I wondered if the soldiers from other countries celebrated Easter and other occasions during the year, I hoped so and maybe they would have parties for children.  They never did. My Mother told me that our Christmas would not be what she wished for because the war made it difficult to buy things.  We had the best Christmas I thought, of all the children I knew, with decorations and a big fire.  Dad toasted large pieces of cheese on a long handled fork in the fire, pieces of the cheese melted and fell in the fire and made blue flames and smelled good.  Mum made lots of scones and soup and I found out that was why she had bought a large bone with hardly any meat on it from Mr. Farmer the butcher.  We had lots of chestnuts and they were my favourite at Christmas.

Mum enjoyed being in the kitchen cooking but she said it was difficult to find food.  I remembered one of my projects was to do something about food but did not know what I should do.

 

Building and maintaining the bridge and other defence plans against invasion continued throughout the autumn and winter.  Reading the newspaper every day had become an important part of my preparation and I found reference to the danger of spies in the country.  Large posters were everywhere warning “Walls Have Ears” and many other interesting posters.  Caution became necessary when approaching the bridge on the river.  The hollow tree would provide shelter for a German spy.  Making it more hollowed had enlarged the hollow tree.  Ice formed on parts of the river, it snowed every now and again, no stranger visited the bridge and by January 1941 I felt ready for the German invasion.

 

July 10, 1940 - Battle of Britain begins.

 

Mr. Churchill announced on July 10th that the Battle of Britain has started and the newspapers agreed with him.  Each day we watched the action high above us.  The sky was full of vapour trails left by the fighter planes and noise of the guns as they tried to shoot each other down.  Sometimes the British or German plane would dive down towards the ground and then suddenly pull out of the dive; they did this when another plane was behind them.  I think they were trying to get away from their enemy.  One day, on the way home from school, I saw a parachute coming down and knew it was going to land in the field behind our house.  I ran across the field to where the parachutist was going to land.  If this was a German parachutist it meant the invasion had started and this must be the leader arriving first because he was the leader.  I was the first to get to where he landed but felt frightened and didn’t get too close to him.  He was black and dressed in a shiny black uniform and had no badges to tell where he was from.  I felt sure he must be German because he was black and his uniform was not blue like the Royal Air Force uniform.  He tried to sit up or stand up and kept slipping back.  He sounded as though he was choking and kept mumbling as though he was trying to tell something to the small group now collected around him.  The police and a small group of soldiers all arrived at the same time and told us to leave the immediate area.  An ambulance arrived as we moved away and then newspaper people started to ask everyone questions but didn’t seem sure who to ask, or what they should ask.  One of the policemen told the grown up’s that the man was a German pilot and he had been shot down by a Royal Air Force pilot.  One of the adults asked the policeman if the German pilot was wounded and he said no he didn’t think so but he was covered in oil and would be all right when they washed all the oil off him.  He told us his plane had crashed over near the river behind our house. 

 

I ran home to tell Mum I was going out in the field and would be home to feed the chickens soon.  Bits of the plane were spread all over the field; some of it was in the river close to my bridge.  In the woods near the river I found part of Perspex cockpit screen.  I couldn’t get close to where most of the fuselage was because soldiers surrounded it and some police were there.  I ran home to hide my piece of the German Messerschmitt fighter plane under the back of the garden shed.  That was the first part of my collection and I was impatient to tell everyone at school.  No one believed me the next day at school and told me if it was true to bring the piece to school and show them.  At night I cut a piece of the Perspex and took it to school the next day, someone took it and kept it.

 

During the Battle of Britain over the South of England visits to an airfield not far from home provided opportunity to see RAF fighter pilots involved in the Battle of Britain.  Arriving early in the morning with sandwiches, an oilskin to sit on and a cycling cape to help keep dry we could spend a full day waiting seated in the heather on a hill overlooking the airfield..  Waiting was rarely without action from the RAF.  Our vantage point was on a hill overlooking the airfield.  From this position I looked down on the airfield and waited for the loud klaxon horn sound.  Suddenly pilots came running from buildings some of them pulling on their clothing and trying to run to their aircraft.  Most of the aircraft were hurricane fighters and spitfires that started with large clouds of exhaust smoke hiding the ground crew and their hurried actions to get the pilots into the air.  They seemed to race each other to be first into the air.  Acceleration of a hurricane aircraft produces a violent tail wagging from side-to-side as two or three attempted to be airborne at the same time, or at least as fast as possible.  I felt that the tail wagging made them appear to be like happy dogs wagging their tales and maybe this was why the dogfight in the air was referred to as a dogfight.  I knew it was not a happy event so that could not be the reason for calling the battle a dogfight.  No sooner were they airborne than they disappeared, climbing for a height advantage over their anticipated opponent.  Usually there was what seemed to be a long silence while I, with all the others sitting on the hill waited for the action to start.  It started and then it was difficult to know what was happening.  Often a plane would appear to be diving into the ground and then it pulled out of a dive when I could see no reason for the ploy.  Other older children always seemed to know what was happening and could never explain or would suddenly exclaim “look at that”: or, “did you see that?” or “he’s right behind you” all comments producing great excitement as we all jumped to our feet and made a lot of noise.  When the Hurricanes and Spitfires returned I tried to count, as they came in to land, how many were missing or looked to see which ones’ were damaged.  I didn’t have binoculars but often someone would offer me the chance to use a pair to see the damage to some of the fighters as they returned to land.  Often a fighter coming into land would have difficulty landing and skid badly coming to a stop away from other aircraft.  Everyone on the hill had ideas of why different landings happened but most of the unusual happenings, I understood from other children, were due to pilot injury and then the ambulance would race to the aircraft.  If this were true a lot of pilots were injured most of them had difficulty being removed from their plane.  Sometimes returning fighters would fly over the airfield doing barrel rolls about two hundred feet above the ground.  If there was no barrel roll the pilot, who we could clearly see, would fly closer to the ground and wave to us on the hill.  Both of these spectacular demonstrations of success brought everyone to their feet in a noisy, jumping up and down, and uninhibited demonstration of applause and admiration.

 

The blitz victims started to arrive in the neighbourhood during the summer school holidays and some were found sleeping in the hay barn in the field.  Mum soon had invited some to come and eat with us and sleep in our house.  They slept on the floor and on whatever Mum and Dad could arrange for them.  Most of them had lived in Gravesend, a part of the London docks which had been heavily bombed.  One family had a son named Bobby who was about my age so I decided to show him my bridge on the river after he promised not to tell anyone because there may be a lot of spies listening.   Bobby was frightened of the dark so we had to get back home sooner than I usually returned home.  Bobby told me he was not frightened of the dark he just wanted to make sure his Mother was all right.  My Mother explained that Bobby and his Mother’s house had been destroyed by the bombing and she had not wanted to leave the house in case her husband, who was in the Army training somewhere in Scotland, came home.  They had slept in shelters wherever they could and sometimes in the open for two weeks before the authorities had given them a railway ticket to get out of London.  She wanted to stay near London so she could see her husband when he came home, she was not sure where he was but thought he was somewhere in Scotland doing his training.  Bobby told me his Dad had been in the Army before Bobby was born and was a special type of soldier.  We guessed he was learning to drive or be a cook or maybe they were teaching him be a pilot.

 

Throughout the summer and into the winter I visited the bridge to maintain it and look for German parachutists.  As the winter approached the weather was often very foggy, quiet and mysterious.  Sometimes it was so quiet I sat in my hollow tree and imagined I could see in the fog by straining my eyes.  When I strained to see across the river I imagined I could see movement out of the corner of my eye.  Once or twice I did see movement and had to control my fear and remind myself the Germans, if it was the Germans that had arrived, were also trying to be quiet and were possibly as frightened as I was.  It had been my plan to sabotage the bridge if and when Germans landed but now, because of the fog they may have silently arrived and now too close for me to have time to destroy the bridge.  My plan had been for some delay when they found the bridge destroyed, would give me time to alert the soldiers on duty at the station about half a mile from where the bridge had been built.  It seemed I now had only one choice and because I was small it might be possible for me to reach the railway station without the Germans being aware of my presence. 

 

The fog made me more scared but I tried to convince myself that the fog was my friend and if I could not see more than three feet then the fog would hide me from the German soldiers.  I knew the Germans had maps and felt sure my bridge would not be on the map because maps the Germans used must have been made before the war.  If a German had been here to make a map since the war started I would have known and I was sure no one had been making maps recently.  The fog also made it impossible for a soldier to see well enough to shoot me.  Thinking I was a small animal in the fog they would be determined to be as silent as possible.  A rifle shot would alert the British army.  If I ran doubled up and with the advantage of knowing which direction to go I felt I could get to the soldiers at the station and raise the alarm.  I was scared.  The silence was making so many noises, I could hear many sounds, branches creaking, water bubbling in the river and movement out in the fog but no voices accompanying the movement, exaggerated my fear.  I was so cold and shivery but knew I had to try to run to the station and alert the soldiers waiting there.

 

I bumped in to the cow within a few yards of the hollow tree.  Just before bumping into the cow, and for just a moment, I thought it was a large German soldier.  I was relieved to meet the cow.

 

Reaching the station was more difficult than anticipated.  Now the very thick fog, cows and a ditch filled with water, dampened my desire to alert the military.  It dampened more than my enthusiasm; I fell in the ditch and now very wet decided I would go home and maybe deal with the Germans tomorrow, weather permitting.  It was almost dark when I climbed over the fence at the top of the garden and ran down the garden to the house.  Mum appeared worried and asked me if I had fed the chickens?

 

Every night I heated the chicken food for our ten chickens and fed them.  Outside the back door Dad placed a large cooker for me to mix the food and cook it.  When the weather was bad I cooked the food in the kitchen and carried it up the garden to the chickens and collected any eggs they laid.  Having fallen in the ditch I had to change my clothes and then hurry to feed the chickens before Dad arrived home from work.  At the weekends I cleaned the hen house and wondered how the chickens managed to mess their perch.  The part of the chicken, the tail, that contributed to the mess on the floor of the hen house was not above the perch when they were on it.  I sometimes watched the chickens to try and solve the mystery but they were embarrassed by me watching and would not do their business while I was watching.  If I made a hole in the back of the hen house I would be able to see what they did when they didn’t think someone was watching but decided Dad would not be pleased if I did that. 

 

Always, when Dad came home from work, he talked to Mum in the kitchen while he had a cup of tea.  The kitchen door was always closed and it was their time together; Dad always asked Mum, when he got home, “any news or gibblydays?” his nickname for her was “chickey.”  Dad was very protective of Mum.  After talking to Mum in the kitchen it was time for my run round the field and then “once more round the field.”  I shortened my run so that I did not have to go close to the railway line although I knew the Germans had not arrived I felt nervous.  When we walked back down the garden it was time for dinner before telling about what happened at school.  I never told what bad things had happened at school because they were not important and would not always be there; someday the bad things would all go away.  So I practiced thinking what it would be like when things got better.

 

Benedictine monks farmed the land opposite my house on the lane.  The lane was narrow with a fence separating the narrow copse of trees between the fence and the farmland.  The small copse of trees and bushes was about fifty feet wide before reaching a second fence and then the field.  The field was the property of the Convent, a private girls school taught by Nuns.  Almost all the field leading up to the school was planted with vegetables the Benedictine monks farmed.  The monks also farmed the land belonging to the Abbey where they lived.  The Abbey was also on a hill about a mile from the girl’s school.  The base of the hill leading up to the school was covered with rhododendron bushes.  The monastery was not very old; I believe it was built in the 18th century.  The monastery and the girl’s school were beautiful buildings each approached by a long drive leading through the trees till you came to the building.  Whenever I met any of the monks out for their walk they always spoke to me and smiled and asked how my Mother and Father were keeping.  They never seemed to speak to any other children and I wondered why.

 

The local council started to remove all the signposts and lines on the road.  Names were removed from bus stops but the bus still drove up and down the lane every half-hour but without their destination displayed.  All children had to have a luggage label tied to or pinned on our jacket or some part of clothing where it could be seen.  A curfew was introduced ordering parents to ensure children were in their home by sunset.  Some children who were caught breaking the curfew said if you were caught the police took you to the police station and sent for your parents who would be fined for allowing children out after curfew.  While waiting for your parents the police gave mugs of tea and sometimes fruitcake.  I was never caught breaking the curfew because I kept to the field most of the time but I was tempted to get caught to see if I would get some fruitcake but I was not sure if the stories were true about the fruitcake.  I felt sure my Mother would be very upset if I was caught and I knew my Father would not accept any excuse for breaking the curfew – or getting caught, he was much stricter that other Fathers.

 

The large sections of five feet diameter drainage pipes arrived through the top of the garden and now I knew why Dad had been digging the very large hole in the garden; it was for our air raid shelter.  While Dad was at work Mum was asked when we needed two workmen to dig the hole for the drainage pipe, she told them we would have to let them know when they could arrange to put the section of pipe in the ground.  They seemed surprised that the hole had already been dug and said they had to make sure it was adequate for the shelter.  When Dad arrived home from work I told him that the men were surprised he had dug such a deep hole, he smiled and said to Mum that he would not need the men to help putting the pipe in the hole.  When we walked up the garden for my run around the field I asked him how he would put it in the ground by himself.  He said I could help and we would manage it ourselves.  I tried to run round the field faster because I felt very proud that Dad only needed me to help him. 

 

 

THE "V" FOR VICTORY SIGN was the idea of a Belgian refugee in London, Victor De Laveleye. In a short-wave broadcast from London, he urged his countrymen to chalk the letter "V" on all public places as a sign of confidence in ultimate victory. This was plugged in all BBC foreign language programs and later supported by the two finger "V" sign of the British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill.