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- Location of story:
- Swindon, Wiltshire
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 20 May 2004
I vaguely remember when I must have been around 14 years of age, on a Sunday evening during October, there was a terrific band that threw me out of bed and on to the floor. This `bang' turned out to be a German bomb that had fallen on the nearby streets of York Road, Graham Street and Rosebery Street killing ten people. This, I remember, was our first taste of what havoc and devastation could be caused by bombs. The houses were eventually rebuilt and today, it seems, no one ever remembers whey they differ from others in the rest of the row in York Road. More bombs dropped on Swindon causing the deaths of innocent men, women and children. I suppose we were lucky, it that is the word, for we did not suffer as many other towns and cities did during the war years, even though we had the GWR Works and other wartime industries situated in and around the town.
Whilst at the College in Victoria Road, all the pupils had designated houses to run to if the air raid sirens went during school hours. Several of us were allocated a house where two middle aged spinster sisters lived. Poor ladies, they never know how to deal with us and always breathed a great sigh of relief when the all clean sounded when we slowly dawdled back to school and they were able to resume their peaceful lives again - until the next time!
I had been staying with my aunt at Faringdon for a few days during the summer holidays on 29 August 1942, two days before my 16th birthday, when the news broke during the morning that a bomb had dropped on the Oxford Hotel in Swindon. This scared me as my home was near the Oxford, and my friend, Val, lived just opposite. I borrowed my uncle's racing bike and cycled home the 12 miles as fast as I was able, fearing what I should find when I arrived. I am unable to explain the relief I felt when I arrive home to find all was well although there had been some bomb damage and loss of life. This was the last bomb to fall on Swindon.
1942 was also the year that my Mother heard that her brother, George Keen, had lost his life on the minesweeper, HMS Gossamer, that had been sunk by a U boat in the Norwegian fiords.
My parents did their bit towards the war effort by Mum taking in evacuees from East Ham, an American GI and an English army sergeant. After the war, Mum received a commendation from the Queen for taking in strangers under her roof.
Dad was an air raid warden and, before an official warden's post was constructed opposite the Oxford (Drove Road School was built on this site). He and other wardens were stationed at the local bread and cake shop that was much to their advantage when there were any leftover buns to be eaten! He undertook other duties by manning the switchboard at the Civic Offices once a fortnight, arriving home in time for breakfast before going to school.
Mum, who was not strong, used to go out before breakfast to queue up at the butcher's, fishmonger's or greengrocers to obtain extra food to supplement the rations. In between times, she would make do and mend and make clothes with whatever she could find as clothes were severely rationed. She became so ill with rheumatoid arthritis that, on the vary day that the War ended, she took to her bed for the next year until she went to the Mineral Water Hospital at Bath for treatment. We always thought that it was the strain of the war and the lack of food that contributed towards her illness.
When my friend and I were not concerned with homework we used to take our torches which were blacked out so only a glimmer of light showed, to go into the GWR Mechanic's Institute for our library books - this was an adventure in itself when the nights were extra dark when we fell over low walls where the iron railings had been removed for the `war effort' and stumbled over pavements and kerbs. What excitement! Still we were fortunate to be allowed out by our parents who were always fearful of what could happen to girls in wartime.
I was around 17 years old when Val and I asked our parents' permission to work in the Forces Canteen, which had opened at the Town Hall in Swindon every weekend. The Canteen was supervised by our former headmaster's wife who kept a strict eye on the girls to ensure they did not get up to any shenanigans or fraternise with the troops! However, as the youngest there we were relegated to the kitchen to do washing up, make sandwiches and clear tables whilst the older girls chatted with the soldiers and airmen. Val and I then asked our parents' permission to work weekends at the American Red Cross Forces Canteen that had op0ened over the top of Marks and Spencers in regent Street. Not only were we obliged to obtain written permission from our parents but we were also subjected to a probing interview by the head of the American Red Cross. We were issued with a smart pale blue seersucker overall and the official Red Cross badge ( still somewhere among my souvenirs). This time all the tasks were shared equally. Our parents knew where we were - that we were safe and would soon be home when the Canteen shut around 8 pm.
On 6 June 1944 D Day arrived and with it disappeared most of the British and American forces to fight the war in France. D Day dawned sunny and clear and we were awoken at dawn by the continuous sound of droning aircraft and, as we rushed out into the garden, we saw the sky was filled with banks and banks of aircraft, some towing gliders - this was the day that Hitler was going to get his comeuppance, albeit that many lives were to be lost in the process. A few weeks after D Day some familiar faces returned, but sadly some did not. Life went on as usual and Val and I continued at the Canteen. One day, speaking to one young American soldier about our food rations, he was astounded and shocked at the meagreness of our British diet when we informed him that we had not seen bananas, grapefruit and oranges almost since the war began and that it was a case of `make do and mend' food and clothes wise. I forgot this conversation until the same young man arrived with a parcel that contained some grapefruit. I hastily stowed the parcel away on top of the cistern in the `ladies' in case anyone should take a fancy to this lovely fruit. We had forgotten the taste and how good such fruit was. Funny how soon we forget the hardships and now we take all sorts of exotic fruits for granted but I never see a grapefruit today without thinking of this incident.
With the ending of the War in Europe in May 1945 and the War in Japan in August that year, things began to get back to something near normal although rationing was to continue for some years. I continued working at Skurray's, the Automobile Engineers in Old Town, where I had worked in a reserved occupationduring the war.
Sixty years later it seems inconceivable that Val and I were those bright young things frequenting coffee bars, cinemas and wartime concerts with the express permission (or sometimes not) of our strict parents. .
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