My war started when I was about three months old.
My Dad had been called up into the
army and my mother had been living in a small apartment in East
London. The German planes had already been flying over London and
dropping bombs, mainly at night. After one raid, my mother took
me in the pram, to post a letter to my Dad to tell him that we were
all right. While she was away, an undetected land mine exploded
and the apartment was just brick dust so she returned to her father's
house in the dock area of London.
This was an unfortunate move because the next
thing the Germans bombed was the dock, they bombed it by day and
night until even the water burned with the contents of the warehouses
tumbling into the water. My Grandfather had forbidden all his 'children'
(all grown up with families) to go into the large warehouse down
the road because he said it was a death trap. Its funny what you
do though to escape from noise and to get away from the scream of
bombs. People crammed into the large warehouse, someone brought
in a piano and local teachers and others organised singing to take
peoples' minds off the bombs. The warehouse received a direct hit
and over 200 people were killed by blast. Others died, not directly
as a result of the bomb hitting them but they were crushed to death
by the huge heavy walls of the warehouse.
Apparently we were three days and three nights
in an underground shelter in Granddad's garden. Crowded together
the family were not too pleased when the local police knocked on
the door and made them take in two more people who had been a mile
away from their home when the air raid began, especially as they
were none too clean. After the dawn broke and everyone crawled out
of the shelter, not only were we covered in dust but covered in
fleas from our two uninvited guests!
OUT OF LONDON
Granddad said if we stayed where we were we would not survive another
round of bombing like that. He had already bought a small plot of
land in Essex and built what he called a wooden holiday home there
- it was not so much a holiday home, more of a two roomed shed!
Anyway the garden was pleasant to look at, which was a good thing
as we ended up with eight of us living in the wooden house and the
men camped in a tent in the garden. Eventually we sorted ourselves
out, poor Mum had to live with her mother-in-law, who was hardly
a sweet tempered person, Dad's mother, although born in England
had Irish parents and she was prone to be bad tempered and a bit
of a drama Queen. She made matters worse by telling Mum all the
BAD news of the war, and her prediction of what was going to happen.
Mum moved out and rented a small bungalow which
got us away from Nan but made it more difficult for Mum when the
air raids started. By this time she had another baby and when the
siren went, my Granddad Hickman, (kind sweet and gentle - how on
earth did he choose my Grandmother for a wife) would come round
and carry me round to the big underground shelter in his house and
Mum would carry the baby.
It was called an Anderson Shelter and built half in the ground and
half on top. The top half had curved corrugated iron sheets and
you piled lots of earth on it and hoped for the best. It tended
to be damp and if it rained you all had to lift your feet up because
the water seeped in from underneath. Grandmother Hickman had chosen
the house just after the war started because of the large garden
and peaceful neighbourhood, unfortunately she failed to notice it
was quite near the railway lines and in a direct line with the Shell
Oil Refinery five miles away. Consequently Germans coming in to
bomb the oil refinery would miss and others would continue to have
a go at the railway. I don't know how old I was when we sat there
listening to German planes coming over the shelter on their way
to London and we then had to stay there until they they came back.
Of course if they missed their target they would jettison their
bombs before they were over the Thames Estuary.
My Uncle was home on leave, he was only 19, an
aircraft engineer and he was stationed in some quiet backwater.
He was fascinated by the planes and my Grandmother was having hysterics
"Come inside the shelter. They will see you". Uncle was
a fidget and wanted to see the planes coming back so he made us
all a cup of tea and we sat there until the familiar drone came
nearer and nearer. Suddenly I realised He didn't know about the
railway lines. I didn't say anything, everybody else was getting
ready with their hands over their ears when suddenly four bombs
cascaded on to the railway lines now gleaming in the moonlight.
It was so near the whole shelter lifted up and then went down. My
Uncle dived in head first in a state of shock and our tea went everywhere.
The V1 Rocket
At one stage we used to go to sleep with our clothes on, it was
called a siren suit, kind of like a child's stretch pyjamas so that
we could get into the air raid shelter quickly and not get cold.
We had gone to bed at about 8pm. - we were cold and coal was rationed
and bed was the warmest place. I slept with my mother and she would
read in bed. It must have been winter because it was dark - we had
thick lined curtains so that the light would not show through and
in a raid you just kept the lights off anyway. Suddenly the air
raid siren went, I was half asleep but my mother was up and into
the back room for my baby sister ( I say to her now, I don't know
why she chose you first to get into the shelter)
By the time it was my turn large lumps of jagged
shrapnel were clattering on the top of the shelter and the ground,
my sister was crying, my mother was frantic to get me, but I didn't
care I was warm and probably tired anyway. Suddenly the railway
lines got hit again, the house shook , two windows broke, then my
mother came rushing in. In the explosion the vibration had shaken
open the wardrobe door, my mother walked straight into it and walked
around holding her head. I laughed and laughed, it was like something
out of a Charlie Chaplin film. She was so mad, she clouted me round
the head and said "See if you think that's funny"
We rushed into the shelter, she a nervous wreck
and nursing her head and my sister screaming. Suddenly I looked
up and saw in the sky a long object with fire coming out of the
back of it, but really quite close. "Isn't that wonderful"
I said. "Yes so wonderful, that is what is going to kill us
all if you don't get inside." The V1 was certainly a marvel
of German technology but we all knew that as long as you heard the
engine you were safe, once it cut out, its descent was rapid and
it could take out six houses .
My children asked me what our food was like - pathetic is the answer,
we grew potatoes and tomatoes, picked berries and swapped things
with neighbours. We were rationed so severely that even now I don't
eat meat as my ration had to go to my sister who used to be ill
with asthma. After the war when we came off ration, I had got used
to not eating meat so never bothered. For a family of three we would
have 4 ounces of meat a week - 2 if it had been a difficult time
for the supply boats coming in. England as an island depended on
overseas help for food. If the U boats were active we all went without
as most of the food went to our army. Two eggs a week or else that
dreadful egg powder.
I always thought our food rationing was pretty dreadful until I
met my husband who was a child in Holland during the war and who
really knew what starvation meant.
As for our little family, Dad survived D Day and
went on with the Middlesex Regiment through France, Belgium, Holland
and Germany and through great good fortune came back to us. How
did the war affect him? Well he couldn't stand noise, we never had
the radio on very loud, he would never listen to a memorial service.
He would never go swimming. Years later I learned on D Day he was
dropped too far out and the vehicle he was driving was nearly submerged,
he negotiated debris, burning vehicles and bodies to get his crew
on to Sword Beach and then off into Normandy.
While his officers were having a meeting near
him, mortar fire sped over the trees killing them all in front of
his eyes. His confidence never returned, he could never make a decision
and was left with stomach ailments that plagued his life.
He looked after us both when my mother was ill
immediately after the war and our bed time stories were Operation
Overlord and the time he just missed avoided a mine in France. We
knew all the generals and battle plans. We often spoke of old battles
but he would never return to France with me. He died of a heart
attack aged 69 but his war time stories are etched in my mind for