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A Surrey Childhood 1939 to 1945icon for Recommended story

by Surrey History Centre

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Surrey History Centre
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Surrey History Service
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09 December 2003

Recorded at Surrey History Centre

for Barbara Vanderstock

My war was a child’s war. I was three in 1939 and eight at the end of the war. My mother, brother and I spent most of the war in a suburb of Croydon where there were frequent air raids and much bomb damage. The early years are hazy; memories of sitting on dad’s lap to have a family photo taken and his army trousers scratching my legs, of using an outdoor lavatory when we went to Pontefract following his regiment on their return from Dunkirk and the grim effects of over indulging in Pontefract liquorice cakes.


The war years were a time when uniformed men were everywhere but at home. My father volunteered in August 1939 and apart from a few months in 1940 was away until September 1945. My brother and I used to write to Dad on large white sheets which were then turned into the small photograph-type airgraphs. It was a real trial because Mum insisted on no blots or crossing outs. My share of the letter was of necessity short and cost me a few tears. It was a great moment when we got an airgraph from Dad. My job in the holidays was to wait in the front room watching for the early morning postman. It was important that the telegraph boy rode past the house because he was the one who brought bad news. Communication was not infrequent apart from a long spell when the Eighth Army was in Italy. When the postman passed our house day after day Mum said that it would be alright no one could beat our army despite bad news on the radio and in the papers. Even I realised how worried she’d been when finally a letter arrived. I rushed upstairs where she was still in bed and leapt on the bed waving the letter, she burst into tears and laughter at the same time. My brother joined us on the bed and we listened while she read Dad’s letter to us. His unit had moved to Greece, they were all safe but had been unable to write.

My mother did not let us think Dad or us would be hurt or that we would lose the war. I couldn’t remember my father so he was a semi heroic figure like the war heroes in my brother’s comics and in the films who would one day return and we’d all live happily ever after. My mother’s attitude meant that for me the war was exciting but not dangerous. The danger of finding snails in my bed in the Anderson shelter ranked as high with me as bombs dropping during night time raids. I enjoyed the camaraderie that the grown ups created - family parties at the local church hall where children, women and the few men left at home sang that we didn’t want to march with the infantry, fly in the air because we were the king’s navy. There was one memorable summer evening in 1944 when the doodle bugs were causing chaos and we were spending most of the time in the shelter when Mum got together with the neighbours over the wire netting garden fence and had a sherry before settling down for the night. It was the first time I’d seen grown ups drinking, giggling and making jokes like we children did. Looking back I suspect it was fear that made them so apparently light hearted. I only once saw adults show their fear and on this occasion we had gone to spend the evening with a neighbour as my father had said Mum would be safer with other people. We sat in the darkness during a night raid. One of the neighbours was an older woman who sat on a chamber pot screaming. I remember being amazed that she should use a pot in front of us all and surprised that she was afraid.

Watching the soldiers was an important part of our lives. A major event was to wave to the army convoys as they trundled down the main road past our house waiting for the coloured flag that signalled the end of the procession. We always waved at anything or anyone military. One sunny morning my mother called me to the backdoor to wave at “one of our boys” as he flew low over the back garden. The plane was so low you could see the pilot clearly as well as the black and white cross that showed he was not one of ours. I explained this to Mum and we ducked back indoors. Later that day we heard that the pilot had flown down the main road machine-gunning the people out shopping. We were more careful who we waved to after that.

Summer 1944

I was old enough to remember the summer of 1944 clearly. There were confusing nights spent in the shelter listening to raids that seemed to follow one another without a pause. All clears and warnings merged with heavy gunfire and the drone of aircraft. My brother’s thirteenth birthday was in June at the beginning of the doodle bugs attacks. He had a party with cakes and jelly, a very special treat at the time of rationing, and a programme of games. Instead the afternoon was spent running in and out of the shelter firmly holding on to our plates as air raids followed one after the other. It was a memorable day but a sad one for Croydon as many homes were hit by the pilotless craft. It took a while for the radio to tell us what was happening and by then we’d got used to the drone of the aircraft and the sudden silence as the engine cut out. Coming home from school I watched one cut out over our house. I’d got about fifty yards to run home not realising that the craft would travel further before crashing. Several people were killed on this occasion and houses destroyed. The crash site remained for many years after the war as reminder of the terror that this period held. My mother decided that we should leave the London area with the advent of the V2 rockets. Dad had said that if barrage balloons appeared near the house it was time to go. The London railway station was packed with people leaving London. We queued up by the entrance to the platform under the high glass roof of the station. There were so many air raid warnings and all clears that the ticket collector kept flipping his cardboard all clear/warning sign backwards and forwards joking that he didn’t know if there was a raid or not. We went to Nottingham until the worst was over. Our landlady was kindness itself and I have good memories of that time.

Wartime life

I don’t remember the war as a time of food deprivation never having known a pre war diet. One food high spot was the arrival of a gift parcel from the USA to families of service men. When Mum opened it there was the sweet, scented smell of old fashioned children’s sweets and bag after bag of sweets and cakes. I thought it was magic and could have overdosed just on the smell. It was a very special moment and reinforced the belief that America was a fairy tale place where everyone was brave, rich and like film stars. My Mum went to great efforts to get us Christmas presents. My favourite was a Golliwog she made out of blackout material. He went everywhere with me in his hand me down gingham shirt and trousers. When the blackout material fell into holes he was mended with an odd assortment of black material and stayed with me for the next thirty years.

As children we enjoyed considerable freedom. I used to go with my brother and his friends and play war games in the local woods, we hunted for shrapnel in houses that had been hit by incendiaries and played in the hay stacks and a bomb crater a in nearby field. Once when we were alone in the shelter during a day time air raid we stood at the shelter entrance to watch a nearby house explode as it was hit by a bomb. We wanted to check that a real explosion was like the ones on the films. Having seen the black/grey cloud full of pieces of debris we went back into the shelter satisfied that the film makers had got it right.

The cinema was an important part of our weekends. The three of us walked the few miles to the cinema to save the bus fare and sat in the cheapest seats. We looked out for Dad in the newsreel shots but never saw him despite the fact he said he always waved at any camera men he saw. I liked the war films and revelled in the patriotism and courage of the actors. Mum enjoyed the “love” films but I found them boring. In 1945 Mum took me to see Olivier’s Henry V at Leicester Square. It was everything I wanted in a war film and in the next few years I saw it again and again; the best time being when Dad took me when he came home. Our other family outing was country walks which cost nothing but to me seemed to last forever.

Occasionally we went to the theatre (courtesy of a generous great aunt), once at night time to see a pantomime. The only thing I remember was the pitch darkness as we came out of the theatre into a world without streetlights and the argument with my brother over who should hold the shaded torch. Two special treats were daytime visits to the theatre in London. We saw the magical Glynis Johns as Peter Pan and later a play about St George. This was very patriotic and afterwards the actors in their knight’s clothing collected money for the army.

1945 and VE/VJ Days

The end of the war was amazing. I had long imagined this time believing that it would be like “before the War”, a dreamlike time that Mum frequently described. A time when there were bananas a plenty, when the sun shone all the time, the night time streets were ablaze with light and families were together. When VE day came Dad was still in Greece. Never mind we were going to celebrate. Mum organised a massive bonfire in the garden and all our friends came. The flames were as high as the house. We all sang the songs of victory; Roll out the Barrel, It’s a Long Way to Tipperary and We’ll Meet Again – a song I later learnt from Dad made soldiers in the western desert weep. Next we went round to the street bonfire party where older boys carried lighted flames and marched in procession, ironically a sight reminiscent of the pre war Nazi rallies. Later there was a street party for all the children. The older generations who had fled the working class streets of South London to live in suburbia relived their childhood in providing us with the best street party ever. There were flags, trestle tables, home-made paper hats, orange juice, jellies and cakes and we sat there surrounded by laughing grown ups who would give us anything we wanted. All we children wanted was more cakes, more jelly and to laugh with everyone else.

VJ day was far less exuberant. Mum had taken us on our first seaside holiday since 1939 to Bexhill in Sussex. We went with a colleague from where she worked. When Victory over Japan was declared we weren’t bothered about Hiroshima and Nagasaki (guilt over that came later) we rejoiced that there was peace and we had won. We ran over the sands of Bexhill singing, for some reason, Nymphs and Shepherds Come Away. Mum and her friend Elaine took us to the De la Warr Pavilion in the evening. We had orange juice while they had cocktails and we kept having toasts to “Peace”. It was a good time but nowhere near as good as the cakes and jellies of VE Day.

My father did not come home until September 1945. I later learnt that the delay was because he was afraid of flying so he waited until he could get a boat. He said that they had all planned to see the White Cliffs which they had last seen coming back from Dunkirk but they were too tired to get up early when it came to it and missed the moment. We decorated the front of our house with bunting and flags. We were the only family in our part of the road to welcome back a serviceman so we went to town on the decorations crowning our efforts with a large poster “Welcome Home Dad”. We didn’t know when he was coming so the decorations were up for some days. My brother and I moved into the small bedroom so Mum and Dad could have the big bedroom and we waited. One night we went to sleep and we were woken up by Dad who was in army uniform standing at the door, he said “Hello Erbs” and we said “Hello Dad”. It was a strangely ordinary moment and next day when Dad was standing shaving (something I had never seen before) it was as if he had always been there.

Post War

At the time the true meaning of war was hidden from me and only later was I able to put my kaleidoscope of memories in the context of the horrors revealed in the post war period and my parents’ recollections. The only glimpse I had at the time was when I refused to let a new doctor examine me when I had chicken pox. I was frightened of him with his strange accent and black coat and hat and only allowed him near me on Mum’s threat of serious consequences if I persisted in my refusal. When he’d gone she explained that the doctor was a Jewish refugee from Warsaw and had come to England to be safe from the Nazis. It was only later that I learned to be ashamed.

Dad’s wartime memories emerged as comments on things that arose in casual conversation never as a recital of his memories. He had intended to join the infantry but went into the wrong room by mistake. Dad’s company was with the BEF in France, then the Eighth Army in Africa, Italy and Greece. After the war he told us of the ruthlessness of the experienced German army that they met in France, of burning their lorries at Dunkirk, of the thunder of the guns at Alamein, of the desperate fighting at Monte Cassino and the nightmare of driving on Greek mountain passes in total darkness that had left him terrified of heights and of flying. He told us how as they drove through a French village in 1939 an old woman commented that the soldiers moving up to the front didn’t sing as they had in 1914 and she added “their fathers must have warned them what it would be like”. Dad spoke of a column of guardsmen marching on to the Dunkirk beach in formal order each with his knife, fork, spoon and billycan and the eighteen year old sitting next to him on the beach whose legs were blown off by a dive bombing enemy plane. Dad was picked up by the Royal Daffodil steamer. The captain refused to move until he had picked up everyone in the water while the ship was under attack from enemy planes. On arrival at Dover Dad asked a watching woman to send a message to Mum that he was safe. I later learnt from a man who, as a boy, had watched the disembarkation that there was a trail of blood from the Dover dockside to the local hospital as the BEF returned home. Dad claimed that his most frightening experience of the whole war was watching Gurkha soldiers sharpening their knives before going into action. All these he said as incidentals to things that arose in casual conversation never as a recital of his memories.

We were a very lucky family, never bombed-out, all surviving unharmed and as children kept safe from the horror and fear of total war. The attitude of our parents and the adults amongst whom we grew up gave my brother and me confidence, resilience and a sense of security in an insecure time.

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