Sunday, 17 March 2013

My Family During the War

My mum and dad were both children in 1939 when war was declared against Germany. I had never really understood what life was like for them during this period of history so I decided it was about time I found out. My mum is no longer with us, but her sister, my Auntie Trixie, has provided me with a wealth of information. My dad could also be relied upon to share his memories. In both cases, once the box was prized open, the stories poured out. Much laughter ensued as incidents and anecdotes were recalled for the first time in many years and I scribbled frantically to write it all down.

My dad on the left with a pal
Both my parents were seven years old at the outbreak of war. My dad lived with his family in East Finchley, north London. He wasn't evacuated but stayed at home for the duration. He has vivid memories of watching the Battle of Britain take place in the skies above him and for an eight-year old boy, with no real conception of life and death, this must have been one of the most exciting events to witness of his life so far. He can also recall the red glow in the sky as London burned during the height of the Blitz.

Small boys feel no fear. When the air raid siren sounded my father recollects sauntering down the road with a pal in no immediate hurry to get to the safety of the shelter. It was only when the air raid warden blew his whistle and shouted at them in no uncertain terms that they would make a dash for cover, most likely with a clip around the ear for punishment. Craters in the street and bombed out houses were a common sight, though luckily my father's road and its immediate surrounds were not hit. Dad remembers walking down a street one day and coming across a crater where a doodlebug had hit the day before. These sorts of happenings provided endless fascination and excitement. The exhilaration of London at war was not to last however. Tragedy struck the family when my dad's older brother, Joseph Roy, was killed whilst serving on HMS Hermes in the Indian Ocean. My father was only 10 but suddenly the reality of war was driven home.

My mum, Uncle Ernie and Auntie Trixie
(with uncontrollable red hair!)
There were no such tragedies for my mother and her family, though there was a very near miss! When war broke out my mother was living in Chelsea, in the heart of London, with her parents and two of her siblings. Her youngest brother was in Ireland with my grandfather's parents. When the family had come to England from Ireland in the late thirties it was decided to leave my Uncle Noel, then a toddler, behind, until the family were settled. Unfortunately the outbreak of war meant he was not able to join them until 1944 when he was nine years old. My aunt recalls going to collect him from Ireland and being aware that German U-Boats still patrolled the waters of the Irish Sea. But, being children, submarines were exciting rather than something to be scared of. I imagine my grandparents had rather different feelings on the subject during that crossing.

My mother's oldest brother, my Uncle Ernie, was also separated from his parents for a time. At the start of the war he had been sent to stay with his Grandma Lawton, my great-grandmother, in Sutton-in-Ashfield in Nottinghamshire, to convalesce following an illness. My great-grandmother was adamant that my mother and my aunt should join them to get them away from the dangers of the London blitz. My Nan however wanted her girls close and refused to let them go. It was only when my great-grandmother threatened to come down and collect them herself that my Nan relented and took her two daughters on the train to Nottinghamshire.

Life goes on in wartime London, 1940 © IWM (D 1303)
And it's a good thing that they left that day as on that night in 1940 a bomb hit the block of flats where my family were living. It destroyed about a quarter of the building, unfortunately the quarter where my family had their home. My grandfather, who was now the only one at home and who had been asleep in bed at the time, dropped three floors. He survived because somehow his bed turned over in the fall and shielded him from the falling rubble. My poor Nan returned from Sutton-in-Ashfield, having left her daughters with her mother, to find her home destroyed and her husband in hospital. Luckily Grandad made a full recovery from his ordeal. But he was not the only one injured by the bomb. The old lady who lived across the hall was woken by the noise although her flat was not damaged. However, hearing the commotion she opened her front door to see what was going on and promptly fell three stories down. The hallway was no longer there! My aunt believes she survived. The bomb had fallen through my mother's and aunt's bedroom where they had been sleeping the night before. Did Grandma Lawton have a premonition that something was going to happen which is why she was so persistent that the girls be evacuated? We'll never know. But it's lucky she did as I would not be here today if it wasn't for her insistence.

Grandma Lawton
Grandma Lawton decided that she couldn't look after all three siblings herself so my aunt was sent to live with another relative a few minutes walk away whilst my uncle and mother stayed with their grandmother. Grandma Lawton was, by all accounts, quite a strict lady. The children would be told off for staring at themselves in the mirror. And my aunt recollects how, because her grandmother struggled to get a comb through my aunt's unruly mop of curly red hair, she was sent down to the hairdressers to have it all cut off. Of course, it grew back as curly as before.

After a year in Sutton-in-Ashfield all three children returned to London. All seemed quiet but the attacks weren't over as it was not long before the infamous doodlebugs were to inflict their particular brand of terror and destruction on the populace. But for the children it was still a time of excitement. Back home in Chelsea, they returned to a new block of flats looked after by a warden who insisted all the children were home by 9pm. The children and their little gang of friends would have great fun running away from him when he was trying to get them inside. He would go and knock on Nan’s door who would deny all knowledge of her children still being outside and claim they were safely in. My naughty Nan! Bombed-out houses were sources of great adventure. The children would clamber over the wreckage, balancing over shattered floorboards through which they could see the floor and rubble beneath.

It was a time of danger and fun, excitement and tragedy. These were lives being lived and appreciated to their fullest extent. My auntie will be 82 this year and my dad will be 81. It's hard to imagine the child within, but just get them talking and the child soon returns.

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