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15 October 2014
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Escape and Wounding in Wartime

by Norfolk Adult Education Service

Contributed by 
Norfolk Adult Education Service
People in story: 
Margery Cook
Location of story: 
France and England
Background to story: 
Royal Navy
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
28 March 2005

This story was submitted to the People’s War site by Ann Redgrave of Norfolk Adult Education’s reminiscence team on behalf of the late Margery Cook, and has been added to the site with the permission of her relatives who fully understand the site’s terms and conditions.

Before the war I had spent several years living and working with a family in France. There was a lot of awareness in France that there was a war coming and in 1938, most of us young women joined something. I joined the French Transport Corps and in the event of a war would have been expected to drive out to the front. In 1939 I was on holiday in Normandy when I was called up to the Transport Corps, so returned to Paris. On September 2nd war was officially declared on Germany, and general mobilisation began. In France, everyone goes, and the men just disappear overnight. My bedroom overlooked the road and at about 3am I heard a shuffling noise and looked out to see all these men going off to the station. The next morning there was no-one there — butcher, baker, dairyman, post office and bank staff were all gone. These posts were filled by women as the only men left were the very old and the very young.

Then came the ‘phoney war’. The BEF left England and established themselves in the north of France. The French troops in the Ardennes had a dreadful time in that very cold winter. Many died of pneumonia. We had soldiers in our garage sleeping on straw palliases. It was the civilian population who looked after them as well as they could. Suddenly, in May 1940 the Germans broke through what they called ‘The Gap’. They have always invaded France through here, just beyond the Maginot Line. I was working in Versailles driving a private car for the French Army. Opinion was divided about whether to make peace or not. In May I had news from a family friend in the Government who told us we should get away and go south.

One evening I was walking to the station to do a shift. Along the road I heard an English voice, and sitting along the kerb were 30 to 40 RAF men with their lorries. I stopped and spoke to them, asking where they had come from. They were astonished and asked the same of me. When I said that I lived there they said that I should get away. They were worn out and covered in dust, and told me that their orders were to get to the nearest port. I wished them ‘God speed’ and rushed back home. The family rang round for advice and were told that they should go, and that, above all, they should get me out or I would be taken prisoner.

A few days later I took the last train out of Paris to the Pyrenees, together with the Grandmother of the family and the youngest Grandson. We went to a little place near St Jean de Luz where we had often been for holidays and were quite well known. Refugees were rushing through from everywhere, including members of the Government, all going through Spain to make for Lisbon.

The story of how I got away is long and complicated. We were on the last ship to leave, and I remember watching them take the wounded on board. The ships had to lie off-shore because the waters of St Luz were not deep so the fishermen brought them out to the HMS Ettrick, a troopship. The lifeboats were let down, and after the fishermen had lifted them in they were hauled up. It took all day. I had to go out to sea in a little boat, which took about ten people. It was an awful night with thunder and lightning and I thought we were being attacked. It took about three quarters of an hour to get to the ship. The British sailors had let down ladders and were standing on a platform at the bottom. When the little boat got close enough the fishermen seized a passenger and threw them across to the sailors, who caught them.

The voyage was uneventful, to everyone’s surprise. Other ships had been attacked and sunk. There were 200 Polish officers and troops on board who I made friends with, teaching them English. All they could think of was getting to England and starting to fight Hitler. We arrived in England on 28th June 1940.

I made my way to my sister in Chelmsford. My mother had been evacuated from the south coast and I didn’t know where she was. Nobody had known where I was and when I arrived they all crowded round to hear my story. The press got hold of it and the local papers were full of it. I was so tired that first weekend. I hadn’t had my clothes off for days as I only had a haversack and no spare clothes. I was so tired that I just sat in a chair and fell asleep.

The following weekend I went to the recently opened Citizens’ Advice Bureau in Chelmsford and asked where women were needed for war work. They told me that they were very keen to have suitable girls to be WRNS officers. In the meantime they put me in touch with an old General in charge of the Essex Home Guard and while waiting to join up I drove him around Essex looking at pill boxes and the like.

Eventually, I was posted to Portsmouth in October. There were so many of us there, that some of us had to sleep on the floor. The authorities were building up the forces quickly as they thought we might be invaded. I was sent out to Lee on Solent, the HQ of the Fleet Air Arm and I started off in Signals, working on a teleprinter. I was waiting to go to the Royal Naval College, Greenwich for officer training. One Friday night in November many people were on shore leave and there were only about 20 of us left. There were raids everywhere and guns going, but we had no warning as the raid was on Portsmouth and we were quite a distance away. About six of us were at the supper table when there was an enormous explosion and a shell exploded on the table about four feet behind me. All the other girls at my table were killed, but I was shot across the table.

I had an out of body experience. I remember thinking that I was on the way out but a voice kept telling me “You’re not dead. Go back”. So I came back and joined this body on the table. Everything was in darkness and there was the smell of cordite and the sound of people crying. I didn’t realise that I had been hit and kept saying “Don’t panic! Don’t panic! Get out through the French window”. I did this myself. Some time later a team of young sailors came round and found me on the path. They took me back into the hotel where I saw all these girls I knew lying in the hall. I didn’t realise at first that they were all dead. We never really knew what had happened, but we were told that it was one of our own anti—aircraft shells that had gone astray.

I was quite badly hurt with shrapnel in my back, so stayed in the Gosport Memorial Hospital for about a month. Then I had sick leave, and was at home for another month. I went back on light duties and found myself at Lancing College which had been taken over as a Naval Officer Training Unit and was completely empty. I helped set up beds and arrange ‘cabins’. So I found myself setting up Lancing College for all these naval officers with the help of a 19 year old lad. We did this between us over the next few days and I was rather bemused to find myself doing this.

While I was there my papers came through and off I went to Royal Naval College, Greenwich. Following that we got our uniforms and were posted. I was sent to a Fleet Air Arm Station called Worley Down, outside Winchester. Arriving in Winchester, I found naval transport outside the station and reported to the senior WRNS officer. She looked at me and said “Why have they sent you? I specifically asked for a mature, sensible officer, and they have sent you.”

I was at Worley Down for two years and found myself as Unit officer, looking after WRNS, being Entertainments Officer, and so on. Enormous amounts of shipping were being lost at sea and this was to be kept from the civilian population. We needed concert parties to keep up morale. We were lucky to have two young men who had been West End impresarios and just as we were getting started, who should be sent to Worley Down but Laurence Olivier. He was in the squadron of my future husband and it was John who trained him as a pilot. We went all over Hampshire with a very up-market concert party giving performances in all sorts of places.

John, my husband, was at Worley Down as an instructor, but was also a musician — organist, pianist, singer — and a musical director of the concert party. We were married in October 1942. He was posted to Scotland and we got married on weekend leave, so we did not see much of each other. He then went to sea in HMS Ocean — a new aircraft carrier doing its trials. It was the first ship with the safety wire for landing.

By 1944 I was posted to Combined Operations near Chichester. Training for the landing craft for crews was going on at HMS Seaserpent. There were a lot of young Canadians. All sorts of people were being trained to take over the landing craft in the invasion. We were accommodated in the main building, a hotel. Naval craft were stacked in every nook and cranny in the build up to D-Day - in every little creek. Unfortunately I ended up in hospital with back problems just before D-Day.

The landings in Normandy made it obvious that they could start demobilising the women. They always started with the married women so that they could get back home and prepare for the men coming back. I was demobbed in early 1945 and found somewhere to live in Blackheath, sharing a house on the heath with some friends of ours. There was little furniture available, but I managed to get a few things together. John was still at sea on his way out to Japan. Then the bomb was dropped and there was no further need for our people out there, so HMS Ocean turned round and came home. John got home around Christmas 1945, three years after we had married, so we didn’t really start a home until 1946.

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