- Contributed by
- People in story:
- Julia Margaret Axtell. My mother, father, two grandmothers and an aunt
- Location of story:
- Widemouth Bay, North Cornwall
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 23 October 2005
Dozens of dark, oblong-shaped objects were bobbing up and down in the water as the surf rolled in over the sandy beach. I watched with my Grandmother from the large window in the living-room of our holiday bungalow which overlooked the wide expanse of the bay at this North Cornish village.
"They are bodies..." shrieked my Grandmother, "dead bodies washing up on the beach." My father rushed both to look and console his mother simultaneously - showing immediate empathy with her as his father had been drowned when he was a child. I was six or seven at the time and 'Dead Bodies on the Beach' sounded really interesting - fear of death was some years ahead of me, at that time. More curious adults joined us and speculating began:
"Could be bodies…"
"Perhaps a ship-wreck?"
"But there are hundreds of them..."
"What else could they be...?"
"Only one way to find out..." - my other Grandmother's voice, the fun-loving, young at heart, one, "I'll go down and have a look." She turned to my Auntie Joan, my mother's younger sister, "Come on Joan, let's find out what all this is about."
They set off down the coastal path unaware that I had sneaked out of the house and was following them. When we had nearly reached the bay my Aunt turned and saw me, "You little rascal" she said with a smile in her voice, "come on then!"
By the time we arrived on the beach dozens of other people had got there ahead of us, to our amazement (and no doubt to the adults' relief) the objects washing ashore were not 'dead bodies' but wooden crates. Several of the crates had already been broken into revealing boxes and tins bearing food labels...
Everyone was pairing up to struggle to lift a crate and take it home... this was 1943/1944 and nobody was going to pass up a chance for some extra rations - especially ones that were free. We three ran into the sea and grabbed the first crate we could get our hands on.
"Come on then, Topsy-Turvy," said Auntie Joan, "now you are here you'll have to help us." Together we struggled up the steep path back to our bungalow and set the sodden crate down in front of the rest of the family... At that point I was severely 'ticked off' and sent to bed by my irate parents, who, no doubt, had been worrying about my whereabouts.
The next morning I awoke and made my way into the living room where I was stopped in my tracks by the biggest surprise of my, so far short, life. The whole room was filled to capacity with stacks of tins and packets of foodstuffs. I thought I was in Aladdin's Cave as I wandered from pile to pile reading the labels, 'Ham, Chicken and Egg Roll', 'Spam Meatloaf', 'Peaches in Syrup', Cigarettes, Chocolate - CHOCOLATE??? I could hardly believe my eyes, how had so much bounty emerged from one, not very large, crate?
My mother enlightened me a while later: my resourceful father had borrowed a lorry from a farmer friend of his and the two of them had driven to the beach and loaded up with as many crates as they could get their hands on!
During the next day it was announced by 'the authorities' that anyone who had taken a crate had to hand it in to the police or council offices...
"Fat chance of that," chuckled my father. I never did hear whether anyone returned their bounty but we certainly didn't. My father believed that his family's needs came first, that was where his responsibility lay. "Hand it into the authorities," he muttered, "and we know who'll be benefiting from it, and it won't be the poor and needy!"
Some of the goods were ruined by the water which had got into the crates but everything that was in tins was fine. My parents secreted everything they salvaged back to our home in Devon and stored it away in the attic. The only worrying aspect of the whole business, as far as I was concerned, was that my mother scared the living daylights out of me by impressing on me that whenever we had "one of our treats" for dinner if anyone knocked at our door at that time and asked whether we had any of the food from the ship-wreck (at a later date we discovered that it had come from an American supply ship which had been torpedoed in the Atlantic) I was to say "no"!
Now, my difficulty with lying started at an early age and I became convinced that I would blow the whole thing by blurting out the truth! This fear stayed with me until we had eaten the last 'delicious' mouthful of our secret cache of American Fare. It never occurred to me to consider the poor troops whose supplies never arrived and to this day I think of Ham, Chicken and Egg Roll with mouth watering nostalgia - although, on reflection, it sounds pretty revolting!
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