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Joan Quibell's Diary - Part One - War Declared

by Joan Quibell

Contributed by 
Joan Quibell
People in story: 
Joan Quibell
Location of story: 
Birmingham
Background to story: 
Civilian
Article ID: 
A3170116
Contributed on: 
23 October 2004

Joan Quibell

My mother was fifteen in 1939 and faithfully kept a diary. She was living at that time in Birmingham with her parents and younger brother, John. It is from her diary entries during those years that these stories have been compiled.

Towards the end of my time at College, Hitler invaded Czechoslovakia and a lot of talk about war was being bandied about but the crisis, as it was termed, blew over when the Prime Minister, Mr. Neville Chamberlain, returned from a meeting with Hitler in Munich waving a piece of paper in his hand which he declared was a signed assurance that Germany had no more territorial ambitions. “Peace in our time” he declared, and we breathed again.
In August, our family went to Torquay for a real sea-side holiday. Within days of our return from that idyllic stay on the South Coast, the troubled waters began to boil in earnest.

The Territorial Army was mobilised and sand-bags began to appear everywhere, forming protective walls outside public buildings. Everyone was issued with Identity Cards and Ration Books which would be needed should War be declared, to ensure fair distribution of food. Air raid shelters were available to householders to augment the public ones being built at alarming speed in every neighbourhood. Two types of home shelter were on offer — one comprising several sheets of moulded corrugated iron, designed to be partially buried in the earth, like a sort of submerged igloo. This was the Anderson shelter and the kind favoured by most, including us. The other, was an indoor erection like a sort of reinforced table top, more suitable for the infirm. Gas masks too were issued, rather horrible rubber contraptions which fitted over the entire face, with plastic goggles through which one peered, and a charcoal-filled snout through which one breathed. I thought we should practise wearing them, and told my parents to put them on so that we could get used to them. We sat there, all masked up, for around five minutes, at the end of which time, Mother whipped her’s off, to reveal a puce and sweating countenance. “My God” she gasped, drawing in deep breaths of air. “That’s enough of that. I’ll take my chance and get gassed.”

Plans were drawn up for all school children to be evacuated if the worst came to the worst, and John who was then 10, was set to go with his school to Evesham.
I’m ashamed to say there was little anxiety in my heart. I liked the increasing excitement. I didn’t really believe it would happen anyway. It would be like Munich all over again and war would be averted at the last minute. If only that had happened.

Instead, as the world knows, Germany invaded Poland and a bloody battle raged in Warsaw. An ultimatum was issued by Mr. Chamberlain on behalf of the British Government, that unless fighting ceased immediately and an assurance given by Germany that their troops would withdraw from Poland, England would be forced to declare War upon them. September 3rd was the deadline.

We sat by the radio at 11 o’clock that fateful Sunday morning, awaiting the Prime Minister’s broadcast. Mr. Chamberlain’s tones were grave. He reported that no assurances had been received, and therefore a state of War existed between our two countries.

My parents sat, solemn and stunned for a few moments. Pop could hardly believe the 20 years of fragile peace since the last conflict were now over and we were to plunge into fighting again. Mother began to cry, saying it was the end of life as we knew it. She was bereft at the prospect of being parted from her beloved son but thanked God he was not old enough to fight. It would be hard enough packing him off to safety in the countryside, waving him off to battle would have killed her.
We had our Sunday lunch, subdued and silent, and then I went out and called for Audrey, my best friend. We carried our gas masks, as instructed, in little cardboard boxes suspended by cord on our shoulders, and walked in the warm September sunshine to Munden Park. Again I am ashamed to say we had no thoughts of the death and destruction which would lie ahead, of the heartache that had already started for many. We were thrilled that our country had taken up the fight against the evil Hitler.

There was something important now for us to do. Our lives had purpose.
Audrey and I walked and talked and planned, deciding that we would volunteer to join the A.R.P. We fancied the First Aid Post which had been set up in our old School. The idea appealed most strongly. The War would be over soon, we were convinced, so we’d better lose no time in getting involved.

So we strolled, talking animatedly, our hearts astir. At the end of the afternoon, I bade goodbye to my friend, and continued home alone. There I found Mother, grim-faced, packing Johnny’s clothes and getting him ready for his departure next morning. He was to muster at the school at 9 a.m. to be taken with the rest of his classmates to rural Worcestershire. Pop put on the radio for the News, and we learned that London had already had its first air raid warning which had turned out to be a false alarm.
Through the vein of mall ordinary happenings, faithfully recorded in my diary, were the increasing preparations for War as the England I loved with passionate intensity, girded it’s loins for the coming onslaught.

As I read through the pages of my diary, that first night of War, I sighed deeply. Mother had said it would be the end of life as we knew it and I supposed things would change irrevocably and never be the same again. I put away my diary and climbed into bed but sleep eluded me for a long time.

I could hear voices from Mother and Father’s room and knew they were discussing the terrible events which had overtaken us.
John’s case was packed and ready downstairs for his departure in the morning. Everything was going to change. It was the end of a chapter, the end of an era. It was the end of my pre-War childhood

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