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My Wartime Life as an Army child - part three - from South Africa to back home

by CSV Solent

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Archive List > Childhood and Evacuation

Contributed by 
CSV Solent
People in story: 
Barbara Hornbrook
Location of story: 
South Africa and England
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
21 July 2005

This story was submitted to the People’s War site by Graham on behalf of Barbara Hornbrook and has been added to the site with her permission. Barbara fully understands the site’s terms and conditions.

I think it was that Christmas we heard Princess Elizabeth’s message to evacuee children and we were thrilled to bits when she mentioned South Africa. We had a lovely Xmas party that year. The Hotel used to entertain some of the servicemen who were in the hospital and the ones who were fit enough helped with the party. The elder daughter of the landlady was dating an airman and of course he brought along some of his friends. It was nice to see the mums having a sing and dance, and forgetting the war for a little while. At this hotel we discovered we a couple of spies in our midst. They were a Dutch family who were supposed to be on holiday here because their young son was recovering from an illness, but they were evidently gathering information to pass on to the enemy. Sometimes, in the cool of the evening the mums would sit on the top of the dune that separated the hotel from the beach, and cool off after the hot day. One night they saw some signals coming from a ship at sea and mentioned it to the landlady next day, who mentioned it to her daughter’s boyfriend. We didn’t hear anything more about it and assumed it was one of ours. Then a bit later on some signals were seen coming from some trees along the beach near where we used to go swimming and kicking up the phosphorus in the sand after dark. Some of the ships taking soldiers back up north were being torpedoed soon after they left port, and the rafts were washed up on our part of the beach sometimes. One actually had some men on it that we had met. Eventually the Dutch family were found out and taken away.

For some reason we had to go back to the hotel we had first been in .It was now the early part of 1944. We heard on the news that ships in the Atlantic Ocean had stopped being torpedoed, which meant we might go home to England soon. People in the hotel started getting their repatriation orders and leaving. The sergeant didn’t seem to know we were there, so one day when he came with news for another family I stopped him as he was leaving and asked why we were waiting so long when most people had already gone. After asking our surname he left saying he might be back later and he was, with our official papers in his hands. The reason he gave for the delay was that he could not find us because we had moved about so much. At last we were going home. We left South Africa almost exactly three years after we had arrived, and it was their summertime. A lot of the friends we had made came to see us off and many gave us sweets and chocolates because they had heard about the shortage of sugar in England. By the time we got to the ship most of the chocolate had either melted or been eaten.

The last time we boarded a ship it was all shiny and white, but the one we were about to get on was all rusty and looked as if it had never been painted at all. It had been The Empress of Japan, a cruise liner but was changed to The Empress of Scotland, for obvious reasons, and converted into a troopship. Where there had been cabins there were now dormitories with bunk beds four high. We were not allowed to use the top bunk but I was opted to occupy the third one, which was a bit scary on rough days or nights. There was only one stop after we left Durban and that was Cape Town to take on fruit and vegetables and boxes of other food we would need for the voyage. There were also some servicemen going back to England, some of whom we had known in Durban. The ship sailed up the West Coast of Africa out of sight of land, which made the journey a bit boring, because we were travelling without a convoy this time. The captain kept the passengers informed about any news items of interest and also the position of the ship and how many days till we sighted land. As we got level with what was then the Gold Coast my mum and I were gazing out to sea hoping to see some land and spotted something sticking up out of the water. Standing next to us was a member of the crew also looking out to sea but with binoculars. As we pointed out to the object we saw he suddenly turned and ran to the steps to the upper deck. The next thing was the action stations sounded and everyone had to get below and we were locked in. All we could hear was the sound of gunfire and a plane flying overhead, and also children crying. It was very frightening not knowing if the ship would be sunk, and goodness knows what our mothers were thinking. Anyway, everything went quiet and then the all clear sounded, and we were allowed back on deck. We never knew what happened to the submarine or whether it was German or Japanese. After that a reconnaissance plane flew over from time to time until we were well away from Africa. The next hurdle, we were told, would be sailing through the Irish Channel. Evidently there were German submarines anchored off Ireland. But we didn’t go through there at all; we went up the West Coast of Ireland to reach the Mersey River. It was actually quite stormy in the Irish Channel, but as we approached the Mersey it became very foggy and we could not see the bank on either side. The water in the river was a dirty muddy colour and it was very cold. We finally reached the Liverpool docks but it was still very foggy and we could only see a big black shed on the dockside, and a band that had turned out to welcome the passenger’s home. We stood listening to the band and waving to the servicemen as they disembarked, while our mum went to sort out all the legal business attached to landing from a foreign country during wartime. There was also our new accommodation to find .As we watched a “real” policeman with a “real” helmet on walked along the dock. My sister and I said we would make a wish on the first one we saw, and we both wished we could come back to Aldershot, where we had lived before the war. The fog hung about for hours but the band carried on playing the latest tunes as well as patriotic music, and everybody was joining in with the singing. My mum came back just as the fog lifted and the band started to play “Land of Hope and Glory”, and we saw the city of Liverpool for the first time. As far as the eye could see there wasn’t a building that hadn’t been ruined, and in the middle of it all was the tall remains of a church steeple. As if someone was conducting the singing stopped and there were tears running down every face I could see. We had heard so much about the bombing but never imagined anything like this. It was the saddest thing I had ever seen. My mum told us we would be going to Aldershot and not Catterick so that cheered us a bit. All the servicemen had disembarked and we then had to wait till our boxes etc. were unloaded. I think we were given a letter or deck number and so we had to wait till that was called before we could make our way down the gang plank, to the station platform. It was about lunchtime by now but there was nowhere to buy food .The canteen on the ship had provided us with a packed lunch and my mum very wisely bought chocolates and biscuits at the shop on board the day before. We had another long wait then while the customs officials inspected our luggage in case we were bringing in secret papers, or so they told us. The train had been in the station for ages and they let us get on while the luggage was being loaded into the guard’s van, but we had to some in the compartment with us. It was one of those carriages that have the small compartments and it was full by the time the train pulled out. A steam train, by the way. We were sharing our compartment with a family we would be living next door to in Aldershot. Their grandparents had been bombed out in Plymouth, so they too had nowhere to go except where the army had room for them.

The war for us was very much like everyone else’s from here on but for a few exceptions. The train must have been a regular service with extra coaches because it stopped at every station dropping and picking up passengers. There was one stop that the train stayed long enough for people to get off and buy a warm drink. The train gradually emptied as we got closer to London so there weren’t many families left by the time we got there. I don’t remember which station we got off at but it must have been a siding because we could see the barrage balloons hovering above us, in the evening sky, while we waited for the bus to take us to waterloo. Once again we were shocked to see the damage the Blitz had caused. Hardly any buildings were standing along the streets we were travelling on. At Waterloo there was another long wait, under a tarpaulin cover, because it was raining and there was no roof above the platforms. It was very cold and draughty so it was lovely to have a cup of warm chocolate somebody had managed to find for us. Just as we were about to get on the train the air raid sirens went and we were hurried along the platform to the last bay and told to get on the train and keep away from the windows, and not to open the blinds. Then the train pulled away in complete darkness. When the lights did come on there was only one to each carriage. There were only the two of our families on this train; the others had gone on to other platforms. It was quite dark and late by the time we got to Aldershot and there were two jeeps waiting to take us to Scott Mon Crief Square. In the quarter when we arrived was a soldier who said he was our batman until we settled in. He showed my mum around the quarter, although he didn’t need to; she had lived here before, and then explained that the food in the larder and cupboards had to last for two weeks, until we collected our ration books and registered at some shops in town and the NAAFI. Then he took us across the road to an army canteen where a warm meal of soup, sausage and mash, rice pudding and hot chocolate was waiting for us. The other family was already there so we all walked back together, without the Batman, which was just as well. There were no streetlights of course and all we had to go by were white lines painted on the kerb stones and buildings. We had arrived back home in England just before the V1 and V2 rockets started coming over, but we had already got used to getting up when the sirens went to go down the shelter. One night we had a terrible storm and afterwards the sirens sounded. My sister had found a kitten in the town who would sit on the end of the table to be picked up as we went down the shelter, so he was quite used to the drill. This night as she went down the steps the kitten sensed something wrong and jumped out of her arms making her lose her balance. She fell headlong down the steps and was only saved from serious injury by the water that had built up from the storm in the bottom of the shelter. Another night a buzz bomb came over and the engine cut out right above our heads, while we were only halfway across the road to the shelter. Lucky for us it didn’t explode that time and came down in a field somewhere, and I think it was blown up the next day by the army. My mum and our next door neighbour were on the way down to the town on another occasion, when the sirens went for a buzz bomb and they must have been only half way down the hill when it exploded above the town. The first they knew about it was when they saw some of the windows blown out in the town.
We were very lucky living where we did. The Cambridge Hospital was just across the road so nurses occupied some of the quarters in the square. Behind us, soldiers occupied Jerome Square and across the other road the barracks were occupied by Canadian soldiers. The Canadians were really good to the children and often gave us a few luxuries from their canteen. That Christmas they gave a party and made all the presents themselves. In the build-up to D-day my mum was very busy sewing flashes on to uniforms for soldiers going to France, although officially we weren’t supposed to know. She was also altering uniforms for new recruits. Some were only about 18 and my mum was quite upset by that. The lady next door was engaged doing the pressing so sometimes there would be a queue from our quarter to hers .A bit later my mum found herself taking the flashes off again for security reasons. Gradually, the parade grounds, roads, and even lanes on the common all over the army camp filled with every type of army transport. We got used to seeing soldiers of all nationalities working on the vehicles as we walked to school each day. Everyone seemed to know what was going on and I’m surprised the Germans didn’t know in advance. Then one morning we got up and they had all gone, every single one, and the only sign they were ever there was a few empty oil cans and some discarded ball bearings. Not long after that we were woken by the sound of heavy aircraft, and ran out to see row after row of planes towing gliders. It was very cloudy but now and then the cloud opened up revealing not only rows of planes but layers. It was June the 6th 1944; Dday.Most of the soldiers in the camp went about the same time as the army vehicles leaving just a few Canadians in the barracks across the road. Afterwards we could only follow the progress of the invasion on the radio. There seemed to be reports all day long, and I remember the awful pictures in the papers of the concentration camps. I don’t remember much about VE day except the huge bonfire we had in the middle of the square, with people throwing there blackout curtains on to keep it going, and it was still going in the morning. We had thrown some large potatoes on to it and we dragged them out in the morning for breakfast. That was the first time I had eaten baked potato.

Well, that was my war. Sad to say my father did not come home to us. Our parents divorced a couple of years after the war, but that was their war story, which I may tell one day.

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