- Contributed by
- Joan Quibell
- People in story:
- Ron Southgate, Leslie Gaines, Edgar Vaughan, Ronnie Wood, Doris Rogers, Beattie Wood, Audrey Smith, Maisie Ludford, Ken Jeynes
- Location of story:
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 06 November 2004
Joan and Audrey
Snow fell softly on the first day of January 1941, coating the bare leafless trees, and through it all, the new moon shone. It resembled a scene from an old-fashioned Christmas card, transforming with beauty all the scars.
We were still getting air raids, and warnings, but nothing like the ones we had so recently endured.
My 17th birthday was marked by the fall of Bardia. British Forces captured the town and took 24,000 prisoners. For once, there was an atmosphere of triumph in the air, for this victory opened up new gateways for us. Soon, there was fierce fighting for Tobruk.
On 23rd January, the wonderful news that Tobruk had fallen to our troops. We were winning the war in the desert. Winston Churchill shared our elation, and declared “This is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it may be the end of the beginning”. At last, we thought, the tide has turned.
There was so little on the home front to be glad about. Food rationing was very stringent and our weekly allotment of such commodities as butter, meat, sugar, tea, etc., was incredibly meagre. Try making 2oz of butter last for seven days. Tinned foods like fruit or fish were on a points system, so became rare and real luxuries to be carefully hoarded for special occasions. Eggs in shells totally disappeared, to be replaced with a dried variety which, when reconstituted with water, could be cooked in various limited ways, but never tasted like, or resembled, the real thing. Fresh fruit like bananas, and oranges, or indeed anything which had to be imported, was very hard to come by. The Ministry of Food churned out their propaganda, reassuring us we would all be healthier for eating less, and producing recipes for strange and unfamiliar items with which they were attempting to supplement our diet — like snook and whale meat. Whenever a consignment of fish or anything else in short supply, but off ration, reached the shops, word would fly round the neighbourhood like a fire, and great queues would form. Mother spent hours patiently standing in line for anything which she could turn into a meal for us. I never remember feeling actually hungry, but oh how I would long at times for something nice.
It was the same for clothing. We had coupons for this, so there had to be much deliberation on how they should be spent. You only splashed out on something new when absolutely necessary. “Make do and mend” was the order of the day, and things had to last and last. We endured these minor hardships with little grumbling. The war in the Near East was going well for us. Our Army were beating the Italians. We all wished it was happening to Germany as well.
In late March we received news the tour Fleet was doing marvels against the Italians, sinking five of their warships without loss to ourselves.
In April, news broke that Germany had declared war on Yugoslavia and Greece. More trouble for us, I noted in my diary, and how right that proved to be, but it wasn’t in far away lands. It was right there on our own doorsteps. We had lulled ourselves into thinking that Air Raids had finished, but the worst one of all was in store, for the night of 10th April, Maundy Thursday.
I wrote the following account, immediately after it happened, whilst it was still horribly fresh in my mind. This is how it was:
“We sang “It’s a long way to Tipperary”, Audrey and I, as we marched up Bordesley Green East with our tin hats and our gas masks slung over our shoulders. The prospect of a ghastly raid was imminent. The night before, 9th April, Coventry was badly bombed again and it seemed the practice of our enemy to concentrate their fury on our- city the night after attacking Coventry. It had happened this way twice before.
We were singing as we made our way to the First Aid Post to which we were attached, not really feeling as light-hearted as we sounded. In reality our hearts were full of fears and apprehension.
As we turned the bend in the road, the Post came into view, its fine old Victorian tower standing clear against the greying skies. We were challenged at the gate by the Home Guard sentries. Once inside the Post we forgot, to some extent, our foreboding, and talked to the other Volunteers on duty. At 8.30 it was announced there was to be a lecture in the first Waiting Room, so we all adjourned there to listen.
The lecture continued, and at 9.20 we heard a plane. Instantly we were all alert but it passed over and as there were no sirens we thought we must have been mistaken, and it could have been an ambulance warming up in the yard. We heard the Guard change outside, the marching feet across the playground, the rifles clicking. Then at 9.30 the lecture ended and we made our way back to the First Aid Room to refresh ourselves with tea. As we entered the hall, we noticed the yellow light glowing, denoting that enemy aircraft had crossed into the country.
“Hoi, we’re on yellow” a voice yelled. “Hurry up and get your tea”. We began running into the Staff Room but when half way there, were stopped dead in our tracks by two loud reverberations which shook the Post. Bombs. Tea was forgotten for the moment, while we collected our steel helmets. Overalls were donned, then the helmets. Water was run into all the bowls. Covers were taken off all the dressings tables, stitching needles were put in the sterilizer together with other surgical instruments. Bandage stores were thrown open. All lights were put out and hurricane lamps lit and placed at intervals along the hall. Everything done, the Post was now at Action Stations and we walked back into the Staff Room and collected our tea. We were all very calm as we sat there drinking the hot beverage.
Then the yellow light glowing in the hall changed to red and the sirens began to wail. Well, we were ready for the raid. Our nerves were keyed up. We were on high tension but no-one dared to show it.
About five of us trooped into the hall and sat in a circle under the statue of Wellington. There was Ron Southgate, Leslie Gaines, Edgar Vaughn, Ronnie Wood, Doris Rogers, Beattie Wood, Audrey and I. Afterwards Maisie Ludford and Ken Jeynes joined us. We were a merry little party, joking and laughing. Someone began to sing “The Down Town Strutters Ball” and we all joined in.
Then planes zoomed overhead. I have never heard so many. There must have been hundreds. They made a terrific noise. The floor beneath us shuddered. We held our breath. There was a giant roar and we were all quieted. The guns opened up, heavy guns which positively thundered. Bombs screamed and exploded, the place shook. No casualties yet.
Ron went outside but came back a few moments later to tell us the sky was red with fires. The air smelled horrible.
Another distant throbbing denoted more planes coming in from the East. Flashes lit up all around. Some casualties arrived from the two bombs which were dropped before the sirens. They were treated and sent down to the Post’s Air Raid Shelter until such time as they could be safely transported to the Rest Centre — their homes had been destroyed.
We sat down again, but no sooner had we made ourselves comfortable than the most ghastly noise I have ever heard brought us all to our feet. We stood there stupidly looking at each other while this terrible rattling/screaming came closer. No-one said a word. This is it, I thought. The scream of the bomb stopped suddenly. A delayed action. We could hardly conceal our relief and were shakily sitting down again when a noise at our side drew us up again. Doris had quietly fainted. We fetched water and brought her round but she still seemed shaky so she was despatched to the Air Raid Shelter. I privately wished I could go there too, but put up the old bravado. We were sitting down again when another whistling bomb sounding as if it was coming straight for us drew us to our feet again. This time it wasn’t a delayed action but fell with sickening thud very nearby. “That was close” we declared. A volley of guns opened up and the sky seemed torn open with noise. The ground shook and so did we, secretly. When the next high explosive landed very close by, we decided it was a bit foolhardy to sit in the big hall as protection was nil. I didn’t much fancy Wellington’s statue on top of me either. So we concluded it would be a good idea to evacuate to the passage where we would be flanked on either side by classrooms and thereby stood a better chance. The boys kept going outside and coming back with the news that more fires were raging and the sky was bright with shells and tracer bullets.
From then on we didn’t get a quiet moment. Plane after plane droned over and unloaded its cargo. They came in hundreds and for solid hours bombarded us mercilessly. I shall never forget it. The bombs came so close and so often that in the end I gave up being frightened, convinced I would never see daylight again. I thought of the family at home and wondered how they were faring.
At 2.30am the injured began to pour in. Some were bad, others not so bad, but we all ventured forth to treat them. My first case was a poor old lady who had a smashed eye. A loose dressing had been tied round her head by the ambulance person who brought her in and she was pushed on to me for further attention. I did not know what I would find as I undid the bandage. Shall I faint, I wondered. Will it be very bad? Well, it was bad enough, but no I didn’t faint. God was very good to me that night and gave me a courage I didn’t really possess. Our weeks and weeks of training paid off and we were able to deal quite efficiently with everything we were asked to do. Solidly until 5am we were kept very busy tending the wounded. Many people were brought in whom I knew, amongst them Margery Wynne with whom I had been to school. Another school friend, Ivy Waring died on the Post and her Mother was badly injured. I noticed Audrey comforting a girl on a stretcher with appalling head injuries but who was still conscious and crying pitifully. I marvelled at the tenderness with which Audrey handled her. It was indeed a night of misery, blood and tears. Never to be forgotten.
But it ended eventually, and as it had begun, we drank tea. There were no lights, the electricity having been cut, but with the aid of the hurricane lamps we collected ourselves together again and began cleaning up. This took quite a while and throughout it all we were extremely quiet and subdued.
We left the Post in the greying streaks of dawn. There was havoc all around. Half the houses were gone, strewn over the road. Gaping craters yawned across the streets and as we approached our homes, fear gripped me. Would my house still be there? Would Mother and Pop and John be there to greet me? I left Audrey on the corner of her road, from where we could see that 396 was still all right, and then I hurried on alone. People were retrieving what was left of their possessions from out of the ruins. I went past Barsby’s house, which had received a direct hit and lay in total ruin, underneath which, although I did not know it then, still lay buried my old friend Nina, Ruth and their Mother. Nina was my age.
I turned the corner of the road and stopped short. My house was still standing. They were all right at home. I went in, tired and sick, but strangely triumphant. Almost immediately my head touched the pillow I fell asleep. I was so tired, physically and mentally drained, yet I had the quiet consolation of duty done.”
It was Good Friday and the worst Eastertide we had ever had.
Fierce fighting was going on in Greece and the Germans were gaining ground. There seemed so little to cheer us up and the blitz had taken on a new intensity over London. Each day we prayed for good news but it failed to come, the tidings getting ever more depressing.
In May we had to evacuate our Forces from Greece and Crete, the German might proving too strong. When oh when we were asking ourselves, will our fortunes change? The War seemed to have been on for such a long time. If only it could all end and we could live normal lives again. I used sometimes to try and picture what peacetime would be like. No more bombings and sudden death, no more partings from those we love. No shortages. Street lamps would shine and the shops would be full of good things to eat and lovely clothes to wear. Rubble and ruins would be swept away, new houses would be built, and gaping holes would be grassed over. The winds of time would blow away harsh memories and heal our hearts. I would ponder in this way, and wonder, how long?
About this time, Hitler committed an inexplicable act of folly. He turned his attention on Russia. Fierce fighting was taking place. It was all quite too much for me to comprehend. All I wanted was an end to the whole thing. The Russians employed a scorched earth policy if they had to retreat, so there was absolutely nothing for the Germans to inherit. They were actually being checked and it looked as if Germany had bitten off more than it could chew. Our Forces were fighting in Libya.
On 6th December an astounding thing happened. The Japanese attacked the American Fleet in Pearl Harbour and overnight this changed the whole scene. It brought America into the War, and we — were at war with Japan.
On 11th December came the shattering news that the Prince of Wales and the Repulse were both sunk in the Gulf of Siam by the Japanese. There were no details of casualties as yet but it was a fearful blow and one we could ill afford.
Christmas came and went. Another year of War done. Would 1942 see the end?
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