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One child's war part one 1939-40

by bedfordmuseum

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Archive List > Childhood and Evacuation

Contributed by 
People in story: 
John Daniels & the Daniels family
Location of story: 
Suffolk: Leiston, Glemsford & Bury St Edmunds
Background to story: 
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
25 November 2005

On August 2nd 1934 Count Von Hindenburg the 87-year-old President of the Germany died. With him died the last vestiges of democratic government in that country, and the last constraints upon the ruthless ambitions of Adolph Hitler and his Nazi party. Thus was set in motion the chain of events which was inevitably to lead to the outbreak of war in 1939. I was born on August 3rd 1934 in the little town of Leiston, in East Suffolk.

At that time school was compulsory for all children between the ages of 5 and 14, so my first days at school coincided almost exactly with the outbreak of war. Of course I was far too young to have understood just what the implications were, although I think that I did sense the growing anxiety of my parents as the events unfolded.

Early days at school must be misty memories for a 71 year old, but then, as now first emphasis was on the basic skills of reading, writing and arithmetic (readin’, writin’ & ‘rithmatic!), but I also remember music (singing & percussion band) and “P.T” (Physical training), mostly in the form of team games in the playground). There was just one female teacher for each class (typically 45+), no “specialists” & no playing field.

During the early months of the war, (the so called “phoney war”) little effect was to be seen in a five year old's school routine beyond daily “gas mask drill” and weekly “air raid shelter drill”. Failure to take one’s gas mask to school was a sending home offence!

Food rationing was introduced quite early on, and so younger school children were all given a free one-third pint of milk at break times to ensure adequate nutrition. In fact for my family food rationing was rarely a problem as my Father was a keen gardener. His large allotment (land hired from the council) provided an all year supply of fruit and vegetables, these being supplemented with eggs from the six or so chickens kept in our garden. In a country district such as ours wild rabbits were plentiful, and commonly featured in most families' diets.

Following the defeat of our forces in France, and the withdrawal from Dunkirk in May 1940, the war seemed to move much nearer home. The beaches of East Suffolk were considered to be difficult to defend, and hence a prime target for invasion. Parents were offered the option of having younger children evacuated to a safer area, and, no doubt with a heavy heart, my parents exercised this option. I was sent away with my “big sister” Jean (aged 10!) to be looked after by a kindly couple, named Burton, who lived near the West Suffolk village of Glemsford. (June 1940)

Mr. Burton, who was a gamekeeper at nearby Kentwell Hall, lived in a cottage two miles from Glemsford, with a shallow stream close by. Life there was quite fun, in spite of the cottage lacking all but the most basic of amenities. The fact that school attendance involved a walk of two miles either way was not considered abnormal, and my sister and I did this daily walk in the company of other children from local farms along lanes & country roads. Once a German bomber dropped some incendiary bombs in a cornfield near to the cottage, and the resulting fire destroyed the whole crop, (Sept. 1940). Shortly after this our rural idyll was also destroyed when Glemsford also became host to a number of evacuees fleeing the London “blitz”. In themselves these children were blameless, but with them came a highly infectious children’s disease, Scarlet Fever, to which my sister and I fell victim. Treatment demanded total isolation for up to six weeks, and we were incarcerated in a grim hospital at Bury-St-Edmunds whilst the disease ran its course. I remember little of this time other than the unremittingly awful diet, minced beef (swimming in fat) with overcooked potato & cabbage, followed by tapioca pudding (“frogs spawn”!) every day without exception. A long-term effect of this was to give me a life long aversion to all but the leanest cuts of meat, and I have never eaten tapioca again. My mother later exercised the “vegetarian” option in my food rations, which gave extra cheese in lieu of meat. There was no attempt at any sort of educational or occupational therapy programme for young children, and an anti-septic bath prior to release, ensured the “Isolation Hospital” experience was unpleasant to the last!

Our parents had shown great devotion in visiting during these weeks, as coming to see us involved a 90 mile round trip, undertaken by taxi at considerable expense. Direct contact was forbidden and any conversation had to be through sealed windows, so even then the visit was far from satisfactory.

By this time (Dec. 1940) victory in the “Battle of Britain” had averted the immediate danger of invasion, but London and other major cities were being subjected to heavy nighttime bombing raids. Leiston itself had now been judged to be a suitable haven for more evacuees and this being the case, Jean and I were taken home to resume normal family life.

In due time my elder brothers Ronald and Allen went off to do their military service, in the Navy & Army respectively. To his chagrin my eldest brother William had been judged medically unfit for military service. Under a directed labour scheme he was sent to practice his trade as a skilled engineering fitter at the factory of W H Allen in Bedford….but at least Jean & I were living at home again.

John Daniels, Bedford Oct. 2005

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