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Joan Quibell's Diary - Part Seven - 1944

by Joan Quibell

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Joan Quibell
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04 December 2004

Les (Leslie J.Sprigg)

On 6th January I became 20 years of age. I had a lovely day, receiving cards and letters from many people and the sweetest telegram from Les. The day culminated in a birthday banquet with Rita at Pam’s Pantry.

During February Les had 14 whole days leave. H.Q. magnanimously granted me five days furlough so we were able to dash up to Birmingham for a few days. Upon our return we talked long about getting married. Les said he felt we should wait until the end of the war, but wouldn’t it be wonderful if we were husband and wife. I was wildly happy and resolved to write to Mother and Pop to inform them of our hopes and plans.

After his leave finished, I wrote to Mother and Pop and told them how deeply in love we were and that we wanted to get married on hi s next leave. I needed their permission and their blessing, and I implored them to give it.

On the 23rd February, I wrote that I felt about as happy as a fish out of water. Not only had we just come through one of the worst nights imaginable, a visit with a vengeance from the Luftwaffe, but I also received a note from home written by Mother, saying no, they certainly would not give permission for me to marry before I reached 21. My spirits plunged to absolute zero. I then had the difficult task of writing to Les with the news that our marriage could not take place for many many months.

The air raids were resuming with renewed intensity and frequency, but the enemy were sustaining heavy losses due to our magnificent anti-aircraft barrage. On the news, M.T.Bs had been in action in the channel and I felt so anxious.

Eventually a letter came from Les, saying although he was disappointed, he respected my parents’ views on the subject of marriage and perhaps it was all for the best.

Further letters from him told of the hectic times they were having. He was now based at Lowestoft, and the radio news seemed to be constantly mentioning actions on that part of the coastline. I feared so much for him. Then one night there was a terrible action off Ymuiden and shortly afterwards I got a telephone call from him saying he was in London on six days leave. I dashed happily up to see him but oh how awful was his news. His ship had been very badly smashed up, the bridge had received a direct hit, killing or injuring all the officers, one had died in his arms. He brought the poor battered vessel back, stern-first, through a minefield. His terrible experiences showed in his tired, sad face. But thank God he had survived and he was here with me for a few precious days. We saw each other every available moment.

All too soon his short leave was up and I again thought my heart would break when we said goodbye. What was he going back to? When would we meet again? The War had gone on far too long, if only it would end and we could start to really live.

Unfortunately this prospect seemed more remote than ever and we were getting some quite terrific raids. When I was cowering in the hut listening to the sickening screaming of the bombs and the barking of the guns, I though of Les who was enduring far greater dangers.

There was tremendous activity at H.Q. particularly in G — we knew something was in the wind. Les sent a wire telling me to cease writing until I got his new address. He was on the move again. Then at last came the news they were picking up a brand new ship and would still be in Home Waters. He was at Lowestoft awaiting drafting to the new boat.

I had a 48 hour pass which I spent in Birmingham. It was the first o time I’d seen my parents since they’d refused their permission for me to marry and the short leave did give us the opportunity to clear the air. Mother was quite reasonable about it and explained she had nothing against Les personally, he seemed honest and dependable but marriage was a very big step and was something I should enter into seriously and it should be entirely my own responsibility. She didn’t want me going to her if it didn’t work out, asking why she had given her permission. I could see her point. “You’re very young” she added “It won’t hurt you to wait until you’re 21 and then the onus is entirely on you”. The 48 hours I felt had made things better between us and I journeyed back with perhaps a little more understanding of her reasoning.

A few days later I received word from Les saying he was at a Signals School in Petersfield for a few weeks on a course. As Petersfield is only a 2 hour run from Waterloo on the Southern Railway I was able to visit him there. He was very tired and unhappy. He said the course he was on was something to do with Japanese and he had a strong idea he would be sent to the Far East, based at Golden Hind, which was Australia. He said he had been through so much, seen lads his own age killed or terribly injured, he seemed unable to look on the bright side any more. He felt the future too uncertain to contemplate.

Back at work, the pace hadn’t slackened and we seemed hardly able to draw breath. Night duties and duty typist stints wore me out, not to mention platoon evenings and hut cleaning activities thrown in.

At the end of May, I received a letter from Les to say his course was completed and he was leaving Petersfield. But for the time being, at any rate, he was not going foreign. He was in fact returning to M.T.Bs but did not know exactly where. He said there was a new boat waiting for him and I prayed fate would be kind.

On 6th June the news we had been waiting for and living for broke upon the world. It was D-Day. The second front had opened. British and American forces had landed in France in Normandy. Operation Overlord had begun. All day long, squadrons of planes droned over Uxbridge almost continuously filling the air with their sound. At H.Q. we were frantically busy and my thoughts, needless to say, were with Les. Just where was he, amongst all this. The whole operation was perfectly co-ordinated and early reports were that it was all going extremely well.

I finally received a letter from Les, written 2 days after D-day. It contained little news except to say that he was on M.T.B.753, a brand new D-class.

That night, Hitler played a dirty trick and launched his secret weapon. It was a pilotless aircraft. They were like winged huge bombs fitted with an engine. They were launched from a site on the other side of the channel, the motor carried them so far, and then, when it cut out, they fell to earth and exploded. Our Intelligence had known about this evil device and it had the code name Diver. The motors could only carry the bombs for a limited distance before they cut out, but London was well within that range and so most of them achieved their target, the area around the capital. They became known as Doodlebugs or Flying Bombs but officially they were P.A.Cs — Pilotless Aircraft — and they quickly became the bane of our lives. They would come chuntering over — and you would hear the distinctive, almost spluttering sound, as the wretched thing droned on. Then it would stop. Complete silence. You would hold your breath waiting for the sickening bang. They couldn’t be aimed with any degree of accuracy so they fell anywhere, quite indiscriminately, and claimed many lives and wreaked much damage.

Les wrote that his hopes for leave had been dashed and it now looked unlikely he would be home for months. I was able to adopt a philosophical attitude. The main thing, after all, was that he remained safe.

The flying bomb raids were gaining in intensity. On 8th August there was a big naval action off St. Nazaire and once more my stomach churned with fear.

September arrived and we were very busy at H.Q., moving guns and gun-sites now that, mercifully, PAC activity seemed to have ceased.

A letter arrived from Les to say he’d been moved around a lot of late, but was now settled, he hoped. After operating from a Normandy base, he was once again on our side of the water.

On 10th September, we could hear the distant thundering of the guns which turned out to be a heavy naval bombardment off the coastline of Belgium and Holland. Our land forces on the continent were encountering fierce resistance and we realised our hopes that it might all be over by Christmas were a little premature.

Hitler launched a new secret weapon upon us, which was a long range rocket. These again had a limited range, but, like the doodlebugs, London fell within that scope. They were even more terrifying than the P.A.Cs because you got no warning whatsoever of their approach. Just the sickening crunch when they landed.

The folks at home seemed to be doing all right. Pop was busy on his allotment, digging for victory. They didn’t appear to know anything about the rocket attacks. Funnily enough there was never any mention of them on the radio news.

We were definitely winding down in G. It was like the aftermath of a hurricane. Where we had a short time ago been rushed off our feet, we were now gently ticking over. We had a wonderful time when we weren’t busy, playing cards, making toast and telling jokes. I also used to read aloud to them, sometimes Ghost Stories by M.R.James, but these were not recommended immediately prior to Night Duty.

On the 9th October, Light Coastal Forces were reported as being involved in many battles off the coast of Holland and as I knew that to be Les’s area, I was naturally reduced to a mass of worry again. I was so relieved when he rang me on the 11th so say he was O.K.

Shortly after this I received a phone call to say he was in London and had 13 days leave. During this time we went up to Birmingham. While we were there Les had a good talk with Mother and he must have cleared up a lot of her doubts and misgivings because before we left at the end of our stay, she said she had been doing some serious reconsidering and declared she was now willing for our marriage to take place on Leslie’s next leave. I threw my arms round her neck and almost throttled her. She declared she’d go and see Vicar Hart at St. Paul’s, our local Parish Church, to see what arrangements needed to be made regarding the Banns since we didn’t know just when the date would be. She became quite carried away with enthusiasm, saying as it was to be a small family wedding she could do the food herself and would ask Mrs. Simonds to make a cake. She would also see if she could come up with an idea as to what I could wear. We left on this very happy note and they waved us off in very high spirits.

We were happy to be back in London, making plans and preparations. We were so excited. We asked about Utility Furniture and were told how to go about applying for units which would enable us to buy some of this. I was to try and find us a flat during the next few weeks as Les’s leave had now finished.

Mother wrote that she was pretty sure she could borrow a wedding dress for me. My cousin’s friend had recently got married and was about my size. She was only too pleased to loan me her dress. There wasn’t a head-dress or veil as she had borrowed these herself. It sounded very pretty, white lace over taffeta. My cousins Mary and Gladys had agreed to be my bridesmaids and they had lemon dresses already sorted out. I was thrilled. Queenie Hastie, my married colleague in G, declared I could borrow her veil and head-dress and brought them back from her next visit home. It was a full-length veil edged with lace and the head-dress was white gardenias.

I heard fairly regularly from Les who seemed to fluctuate between Lowestoft, Yarmouth, Belgium and Holland. There was still plenty of activity around our shores and the Little Ships were constantly in the news. Fierce fighting was going on, on land too.

The odd rockets were still coming over and several fell quite near to us, giving us nasty shocks. I was pleased when my 48 hour pass came round and on 7th December I left immediately after Pay Parade.

I had taken home Queenie’s veil and head-dress, carefully packed in a large cardboard box. I tried on the wedding dress and it fitted perfectly. It was so pretty and so too were the lemon dresses that Mary and Gladys were to wear.

That evening, Mother, Pop and I, talked about the Big Event. Mother had been round friends and neighbours who had generously rallied with food coupons and contents from their store cupboards. She had miraculously amassed tins of ham and tongue and fruit. She planned to do a salad meal with cold meats, followed by fruit cocktail and trifle. She had procured sufficient dried fruit from goodness knows where, and Mrs, Simonds had actually made the cake. Only a single layer of course, but we were lucky to have that. She would marzipan and ice it a little nearer the time. Of course ground almonds were unobtainable but soya flour was quite a good substitute with a few drops of almond essence for flavour, and only the top would be iced, but, with a white frill round the sides, I was sure it would look perfect.

Mother had sorted out no end of household items which she said were surplus to her requirements and I left at the end of my 48 hours, feeling a great deal had been achieved towards our wonderful day.

Normally in mid-December, thought s of Christmas predominated all else but not this year. I seemed unable to think of anything other than my coming wedding. And then, on the 22nd I had the most amazing luck. I actually found a flat. It was situated at 35 Hilldrop Crescent, Camden Road London N7, and was the top floor in a large Edwardian house. The rooms were large and airy and the rent was 10 shillings a week, well within our means. The house was owned by a Mrs. Kathleen Jemison who said she would keep an eye on it during our absence and would do anything she could to assist us. I couldn’t believe my good fortune and sent a wire to Les telling him the fantastic news.

I was on duty Christmas Day but lunch was very special. We went down to the Camp and had a super meal, all the Christmas trimmings. We tucked in with gusto, and when the pudding was brought in, all ablaze, we cheered heartily.

On the 29th I left Uxbridge to spend my 48 hour pass in Birmingham Mother had sorted out many more articles which she said we could have. Pop joked it would feel like coming home, when they came to visit us, there would be so many familiar things around.

On 31st December I returned to Uxbridge to a very quiet New Year’s Eve. No roistering celebrations this time. Just a fervent hope and prayer that 1945 would bring us Peace and lasting happiness.

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