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Helen’s Story

by Fawside

Contributed by 
People in story: 
Mrs Helen Smelt
Location of story: 
East Yorkshire
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
24 May 2005

"This story was submitted to the People's War site by Fawside, a community and environmental charity based in Allendale. It was written on behalf of Mrs Helen Smelt and has been added to the site with her permission. Helen Smelt fully understands the site's terms and conditions."
This story is the recollection of Helen Smelt now resident in the North Pennines. Helen was born, eleven years before the outbreak of war, in an isolated village near Hull where her father was the Headmaster of a local school.
Helen says:
In 1935 the school closed to make way for a special school for the deaf so my father was given another headship and the family moved to Hull.
The only intimations for me that things were not as they should be were that my mother would often cry a lot and ask about the whereabouts of my older brother Eric who was at the time a merchant sea-man, and that my father was out every night. It was only after the war ended that we learned he had been preparing ration books. As children we were very well shielded from all news.

Being 11 years old, I had been due to change schools in September 1939 but, with evacuation imminent, it had been decided that my older sister and I should accompany the others from my junior school. (Our mother came along too as a helper.)
So, on Friday 1st September, with our haversacks packed with the few belongings allowed and our gas-masks, we made our way to Hull Paragon Station the concourse of which had been divided by barriers into lanes, through which we were shepherded onto waiting trains. It was not until we actually arrived that we learned of our destination, a small mining village near Doncaster.

I remember being extremely upset, not by evacuation but with the fact that Johnny, my teddy bear, had lost an eye because my sister kept fiddling with it during the journey.

On arrival, we were led to the Village Hall where Billeting Officers were waiting to send us to our accommodation.
My mother, sister and I were to stay at the Squire’s house but the squire’s lady had hoped for boys and had prepared straw bedding in the hayloft!
Unfortunately there was nowhere else for us to go that day so we had to stay in the guest accommodation within the house for a few days until alternative billets were found with a miner’s family.

Although the family were friendly enough, it was all so very different from our own home and experiences, that we felt the hardship of the situation. My mother was an ‘Edwardian’ lady, used to having a live-in maid so she, of all of us, found it particularly difficult though even we more adaptable children didn’t consider it easy and found some of the experiences very unpleasant indeed.

Perhaps my strongest memory of our time there was bedtime the first night when, my sister and I having settled into our room in the blackout darkness, we became aware of breathing and realised that someone else was in the room with us. It turned out to be a youth, the teenage son, hiding in the corner listening to hear what we might say about the family…
I remember vividly, that glorious Sunday morning of 3rd September when the verger passed the news to the vicar who then climbed into the pulpit and solemnly informed us, that as from 11:00a.m we were at war with Germany.
The Hull school served a wealthy area so most parents drove across to visit their children. When they witnessed the conditions in which their children were now living, they packed them into their cars and returned home with them. We were all gone within a month.
My father did likewise for us. He had made enquiries to find the whereabouts of the area to which Newland High School, my new senior school, had been evacuated and set about renting a small house nearby in Bridlington for us, though he himself had to remain in Hull during the week, still responsible as Headmaster for his junior school there.

Close-by, Flamborough Head was a landmark so most enemy aircraft came via Bridlington. From Flamborough Head, the bombers turned north for Tyneside and Teesside, west for Merseyside, southwest for the Midlands and south for Hull. On occasions, the Germans would empty their load on us and many a time we could see the glare in the sky of Hull burning.
Indeed, it was very heavily bombed throughout.

Unfortunately, early in April 1940, Father had a stroke from which he didn’t recover so when Newland High School was re-evacuated to Norton near Malton, my sister and I went with them while our mother stayed with a couple of people who were helping her to care for my father.

Just over a year after war was declared our lives were changed forever, not by the war itself but by personal tragedy when, on 24th September 1940, I arrived home from school to hear that Daddy had died unexpectedly- he had been recovering from his stroke.
There being no Welfare State at the time, there was little provision for widows and children so our house had to be sold and we moved again into rented accommodation.
I had won a scholarship to the Hull High School, so I was still able to attend but my sister, with no scholarship, had to leave school to find employment.
She was lucky enough to get a place as a Pupil-Teacher after which she attended Ripon College for Teacher Training. However, all our clothing coupons were used to provide the uniform that was required. I was very short of clothes.
Of my two brothers, the elder, John (a teacher before the outbreak of war) had joined the army. When my father had his stroke, John was granted 48 hours compassionate leave: on his return to France it was to find his entire platoon had been wiped out.

His ‘charmed life’ continued and he was one of few survivors from the troopship ‘Lancastria’ involved in the evacuation of France. When some time later, John was posted to Singapore, he was ill in the sickbay and missed embarkation and subsequent imprisonment by the Japanese.
For all that, John died as a relatively young man.

A merchant seaman with the Blue Funnel Line, Eric eased the financial difficulties we faced, following my father’s death.
When his ship was torpedoed between Cape Town and England, a U-boat surfaced and gave the survivors the choice of being taken prisoners of war or taking their chances in open boats in the Atlantic. They opted for the latter and were given their bearings. Ten days later they were taken prisoner by the Vichy French but released in a prisoner exchange several months later.
Enclosed is a letter sent home soon after reaching land in French West Africa.

Although we had been largely sheltered from the war and luckier than many others, we had close friends killed in action, both at sea and on land and whose loss is still keenly felt.
It seems strange to look back after 60+ years and think of those years as a time of adventure, excitement and near normality. After all, why shouldn’t an eleven year old take war in her stride?

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