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Housewife in Weymouth and Portland

by agecon4dor

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Archive List > Childhood and Evacuation

Contributed by 
People in story: 
Mrs Sylvia Samways
Location of story: 
Weymouth and Portland, Dorset
Background to story: 
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
27 June 2005

This story was submitted to the People’s War site by a volunteer from Age Concern, Dorchester on behalf of Mrs Sylvia Samways, and has been added to the site with her permission. Mrs Samways fully understands the site’s terms and conditions.

“This is the story of what I remember of the Second World War. There were rumblings of an eventual conflict for a year or more. Adolf Hitler had come to power in Germany and was inflaming the youth of the country. His speeches were widely mentioned in the press, and there was an air of fear for the future in everyone’s hearts. Jews were being humiliated and imprisoned. The whole of Germany was becoming restless with Hitler making impassioned speeches demanding ‘liebenstraum’ or living space for the fatherland, and making threats to the small countries on its borders. Neville Chamberlain, the Prime Minister, went over to Germany and signed a pact in appeasement, waved it in the air and said that it was ‘peace in our time’. Of course he was wrong, but it did buy us time as this country was ill-prepared for conflict. In the months that followed the country began to make preparations, including expanding the air force.

On the first Sunday in September 1939, as far as I can recollect, I was nursing my baby son — just two months old — when the grave voice of Neville Chamberlain came over the radio announcing that we were at war with Germany. Hitler’s troops had already invaded Poland. That blighted our happiness for the rest of the day. In many ways the second war differed from the first. Older people would have remembered the shortage of food, the endless wait for news of the men fighting at the front when the only means of communication were the newspapers. Now we had the radio and that made a lot of difference. Mindful of the possible food shortage, I pushed John in his pram into the town and returned loaded with cans of food, which proved to be a good idea as rationing started in the early days and we were all issued with ration books. My lawn in the back garden was dug up and planted with vegetables. Within a short while we were listening to voices on the radio encouraging us to dig for victory. Living on an island we depended on the ships to bring us food from abroad, and we were all very mindful that they could be sunk by the U-boats lurking around our shores and in the Atlantic Ocean.

The whole of the beach was covered with barbed wire so that was out of bounds for the duration. Also we were told to black out our windows, so that not a chink of light was visible from the outside; this meant fixing up black paper or curtains. The rations were small, particularly meat and butter, but at least we were all equal and nobody starved. One could use a little initiative and mix up the meals with vegetables. There were tins of some sort of dubious meat called spam with a strong taste which I didn’t find very pleasant, and dried eggs which we reconstituted. The loaves were made of special flour, quite dark but not unpleasant and probably kept most of us healthy. We soon settled into life on a war footing. The radio probably helped. We were kept informed daily about what was going on, which was very little in the early stages, and listened to regular speakers on cookery, make-do and mend, and a doctor with a pleasant gruff voice telling us how to keep healthy and make sure our bowels were in good order.

It was decided that the Channel Islands could not be defended against the enemy, but anyone who wished to move out could be transported to the mainland for the duration. This meant that quite a number lodged with Weymouth inhabitants. At about the same time some children were moved out of London to lodge with local families. A rather foolish decision and they were soon returned to their families. Some Durham miners were also sent to the area to camouflage the oil tanks at Portland. There seemed to be a quiet period at home although the troops on the Continent were retreating as the enemy marched into Belgium, the Netherlands and finally France.

The Allies were in trouble and had to retreat towards the coast, mainly in the Dunkirk area. A call went out to all available craft to proceed towards that area and rescue as many as possible of our beleaguered troops. No-one knew what would happen next, but we were very vulnerable and at risk either from an enemy landing or attacks from the air. The invasion didn’t come although there were rumours around the town that it was imminent. Around about this time my flower patch was dug up to build an Anderson shelter - a dug-out covered by corrugated iron and then earth over the top. We made it as comfortable as possible, but it was rather cold and damp and lit by candles stuck into flower pots. Then the enemy planes started to sneak over the channel and, one afternoon, an air battle raged over the bay which was rather frightening. A ship named the Foylebank was attacked in Portland harbour and many lives lost. Also a raid at mid-day scored a direct hit on the bus station. Then my husband joined the War Department Fleet based at Portsmouth and, like many other wives of servicemen, I was on my own and feeling quite lonely. He joined a vessel sailing round the coast to Norfolk, mainly target towing and transporting troops. From there they were sent to the Thames estuary and he witnessed at first hand the courage and cheerfulness of Eastenders who were enduring air raids.

We were issued with what was called a Morrison Shelter, which was virtually a strong iron table on two levels, a top and one level near the ground. With a mattress one could sleep on top or retreat underneath during air raids - similar to bunk beds. This was installed in the dining room and took up quite a lot of space while the dining table was moved to the lounge for the duration.

On his return to Portsmouth, my husband was placed on a vessel called the Yolande based at Christchurch. There they worked with scientists ashore who were experimenting with radar. We rented a cottage not far from the quay, and it was nice to be staying in a quieter area, and to see him when he was off duty. At Easter I was staying with my mother in Weymouth when we were caught in a heavy raid. A plane dropped bombs on the Westham area destroying the Methodist Church, and then proceeded to drop others. We were sheltering under the stairs and heard a terrific bang. When my father ventured to open the cupboard door the whole house was covered with soot and dust. The chimney pots had been blown off while the houses at the end of the road had been flattened. We spent one winter and most of the spring at our lovely little cottage in Christchurch, and then one late afternoon there was a sound of aircraft and the spluttering of machine gun fire. A plane flew low overhead firing shots and hitting a woman in the shoulder. That was the end of the Yolande’s stay in Christchurch. During the raid on Westham our house had sustained slight damage to the brickwork, but nothing substantial considering that a pub about 100 yards away had been flattened.

The raids now seemed to be increasing and the enemy were bombing London and principal cities night after night. Weymouth and Portland were in the flight path and the sirens would sound as soon as it was dark. Then there would be the zoom zoom of heavy aircraft overhead — not very pleasant. My husband was also in danger at Portsmouth both at sea and on the land. When he had the odd few hours off duty, he would hitchhike home. Although there were few civilian cars on the road, military transport were around and would pick up a man in uniform.

On returning from Weymouth to Portsmouth after a spell of sick leave, he was sent to join a ship at Falmouth, and he lost no time in finding us a place to stay. It was so quiet down there with no raids or planes overhead. So we embarked on the long train journey to Falmouth. We started around eight o’clock from Weymouth, and after four changes at stations en route finally arrived at Falmouth Junction in the early evening. With a small child it wasn’t easy and we had to take some food and drink to last the journey. However there was a great deal of camaraderie in wartime and I found plenty of kind souls to lift John and my luggage from the trains. So we arrived bag and baggage and in time I found good accommodation.

It was around this time that the Americans decided to enter the conflict. The war in the Far East was hotting up and the Japanese bombed the American base at Pearl Harbour with the loss of many lives. The giant on the other side of the Atlantic became a powerful ally and within a short space of time, large planes appeared on our airfields and thousands of airmen and soldiers were over here for training and making friends with the war weary Britons. The Americans were mostly young, tall and slim with smarter uniforms and better pay than our soldiers, but they made friends easily. Falmouth is a pleasant town and they had a really good library. I spent a lot of my spare time reading. Then on fine days in the summer I would take the pushchair to Gylynvase beach on the edge of the town, no barbed wire in sight. American warships and landing craft were building up in the bay and the creeks surrounding Falmouth. We attended an Easter Sunday service at the parish church. It was full with worshippers, some even sitting in the aisles. A large part of the congregation were American soldiers - a sight that we will never see again. Then we had our first air raid. The enemy planes flew over, but I am not sure that they caused any damage, probably reconnaissance. However, in view of the fact that we had no air raid shelter we reluctantly decided to move a few miles out into the country. So we arrived at a farm near Maenporth beach, very quiet. The war seemed a long way away, and my husband was able to cycle out when off duty. We shared an annexe with a mother and child whose husband was serving in the Navy, and were joined by two London mothers and their daughters who had escaped from the city and the random missiles fired indiscriminately from the enemy coasts. Their husbands were serving in the Army and they occupied some large huts in one of the fields. None of us were used to country life and the two girls were fond of chasing the hens which were wandering around all over the place. It was the time of the potato harvest and we were employed by the farmer to walk behind the horse-drawn plough and pick up the potatoes. They were then weighed, put into sacks to be dispatched by train as quickly as possible to the London markets.

Then came D-Day and the vessels hiding in the waters around Falmouth disappeared overnight. The troops were once again fighting across the channel; this time they were joined by the Americans and Canadians. The cities of Germany were also bombed in retaliation and suffered severe damage. There would be many battles on the ground and in the air before the people on the Continent would be liberated. In the meantime life went on quietly on the farm. There was an outbreak of whooping cough in the village and I became worried when John developed a tickly cough. It was time to go home. So in slight haste we gave in our notice and took the long journey home. It was good to be in our own house again, although without my husband who was still in Falmouth.

In course of time victory was declared and there was great rejoicing, particularly in London. I just felt so relieved that we could go about our daily business without the fear of that dreaded air raid siren, but also sad that so many of our friends were killed either on the battlefields or in air raids. We were lucky to come through unscathed. Then there were all those thousands of ordinary people on the Continent and in Germany and Russia who wanted to live in peace, and had been caught up in a terrible war. I sometimes thought about all the young American soldiers who took part in the D-Day landings and met stiff opposition on Omaha Beach. Many were killed never to return to their homeland and families. It was some time before my husband returned home and we were a complete family once again. It was even longer before the country returned to normality once again, and the empty shelves were filled in the shops. Many buildings were flattened and had to be restored. War leaves many scars on both people and communities. I hope and pray that it will never happen again.”

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