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15 October 2014
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Peckham in the War

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Margaret George
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04 January 2006

I was fifteen years old when the war started. I’d left school in 1938, which was also the year my sister died of diphtheria. She’d caught it in a swimming pool. I was working for a mail order company based in Surrey Docks opposite Waterloo Station.
When I was called up my firm had to say that I was in a vital occupation. I was living at home with my mother and my father was in the army. I went to hand in the letter which said I was a machine accountancy operator. But actually I really wanted to join the land army.
I was in the Women’s Volunteer Service. Sometimes we drove around in a mobile canteen around and at other times I worked in a school in Deptford High Street. The woman in charge was a writer. We would make tea and coffee for the fire service and went round to visit different shelters. Some of the shelters were very large: it felt as if you had to walk for miles into it before you saw anyone. At the end of the shift I’d be dropped off at home in a cab. I preferred working in the canteen, rather than going visiting the shelters.

People would take all sorts of things down into the shelters: everything they’d need for the night, such as flasks and hot water bottles. My family used to eat with the neighbour’s family. I remember once there was a fight down there. I had a friend called Kitty, who’d just had a baby. The two of us were having a late morning lie-in when another girl, who was a horrible troublemaker, turned up. She told us to leave because she needed to sweep up, and she started sweeping. Then she hit Kitty! I stepped in, but we had to get my mother to come and break it up.

If we were at work we used to stay down in the shelters longer than necessary so that we could write letters and things, until our boss found out. They also used to show films in the shelters, projecting them onto makeshift screens of sheet. I started smoking during the air raids. I’d just come out of a shelter that had been badly hit by shrapnel, and a friend offered me her cigarette.

When an incendiary bomb hit a building, young boys (under-18s) used to climb up onto the roofs to cover them with sandbags, and fire hydrants would be brought by taxi. There would often be looting, for instance if a jeweller’s was hit, but people also took anything at all from the big shops. I remember once where they didn’t get the barrage balloons up quickly enough and a street was machine-gunned.
One Saturday on the bus on my way to work I found out there’d been a direct hit on Woolworth’s in New Cross. Our neighbour and her baby had been killed.

My father took me to see London burning. It was quite early on in the war before he was called up. It was a daylight raid and we could see right across London the docks burning. He told me to take a good look at it: it seemed as though we had no chance of surviving. But as time went on we got used to it. We still went to the cinema, for instance, despite knowing the doodlebugs were falling around us. There was nothing we could do about it. There was a point in the war when we were expecting to be invaded. When we discussed what we should do if the Germans came, I remember someone joking that we should pull faces and pretend to be disabled so that the Germans wouldn’t want to touch us.

There were communal kitchens in London where we all went to eat. You got very cheap meals there on top of your rations. We’d also buy blended chocolate from the shops. It tasted disgusting and the packaging was awful, but everyone queued up for it anyway. As well as food rations we also had coupons for clothes. We didn’t go short, but there were always queues for nylons.

Sometimes I went out with my cousin Jackie’s girlfriend, Mary. He'd had lived in the same house as us before the war, and they'd been practically engaged. He was captured and taken as a POW during the war and then she never heard from him throughout the war. Somehow his letters never reached her.
Once I was walking down the Old Kent Road and I was followed by a night watchman. My future mother-in-law, who I was good friends with, found out. She was furious and shouted filthy insults at him in her Cockney accent.
One time we visited Chester where there was this American camp. I was very shy. A small American soldier came over and asked me out. When he turned up to take me out my mother wouldn’t let me go because he was carrying a ground sheet under his arm!
I had a friend who went out with Americans regularly. On one occasion when I was invited to go out with my friend and some others. I found out on the way to meet them that they were Americans, so I stayed on the Tube to escape going out with them.

This story was submitted to the People's War site by Clare George of the BBc Radio Cambridgeshire Story Gatherer Team on behalf of Margaret George and has been added to the site with her permission. The author fully understands the site's terms and conditions.

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