- Contributed by
- People in story:
- Miss Winifred Mary Smoker
- Location of story:
- London, 1938-45
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 14 July 2005
This story was submitted to the People’s War site by a volunteer from Age Concern, Dorchester on behalf of Miss Winifred Mary Smoker, and has been added to the site with her permission. Miss Smoker fully understands the site’s terms and conditions.
“In 1938, with the return of Mr Chamberlain – “Peace in our Time” (which nobody believed) - we all knew that a war was inevitable. We had to be prepared for gas raids on civilians. London and Dockland was considered to be the most vulnerable. They prepared shelters against gas raids and asked for volunteers. I volunteered as I was working in Cornhill in the City of London, and manned the shelter outside the Royal Exchange. We had to go to lectures on poison gases, so that we would recognise the symptoms and burns from the different gases. We had to go through a gas chamber and we had to teach people how to put their gas masks on properly. Men tried to disguise their gas masks as brown paper parcels. But the women got fashionable cases; it was part of your outfit. I had black patent shoes and handbag and a black patent gas mask case.
I was just 18 at the beginning of the war. I had left school and I was working in a high street bank in the City of London. I was working a ledger machine and was living in Sydenham, SE London with my parents. I had to register, but as I worked in a bank I was registered as being in a reserve occupation.
Travelling to work was very difficult because I worked in the City of London. 1940 was the Great Blitz on the City and the East End. I had to walk from the West End to the City after the bombing round St Paul’s – that was as near as I could get on public transport. There was still smoke and smouldering buildings, and hoses all over the roads. We could see the flames from our home. It was terrifying.
I did fire watching and I worked one night a week at the YMCA canteen at Waterloo where the troop trains came in. At the age of 18 you were fired with enthusiasm to do your bit. When the trains came in we served food, cleared tables, did washing up. Lots of bombs fell around where we were living. I was in a building where all the windows were blown out, but never in one that had a direct hit.
I never went in an air raid shelter. In a way it was excitement. We didn’t have holidays during the war. You couldn’t go to the coast because that area was barred to the public; the sea was out of bounds really. “Is your journey really necessary” was posted up on all the railway stations. Hotels were taken over by offices that evacuated their staff from areas that were being bombed. There wasn’t any incentive to have a holiday because there was nowhere to stay.
We used to watch dog-fights (planes) from our back garden. We were in a flight path. You got to know the sound of the aircraft. You knew whether they were theirs or ours. The most frightening thing was the V1s and V2s – the doodlebugs. They dropped immediately where they stopped. You always thought it was going to drop on you.
The second part of the war was very different for me. In 1942 there was an announcement made that they were short of nurses and Land Girls. They would release anyone from a reserve occupation, so that’s how I started nursing. I applied to the London Hospital to train to be a SRN with a view to joining one of the Services with a commission. I did my training but by then the war was over.
When I was doing my nursing training, I had a near miss. I had an evening off and arranged to meet a “date”, travelling by train and bus. I had to take the bus that ran along Praed St, Paddington to be in time for the train. I was a little late coming off duty. I saw the bus disappearing round the corner. There was a raid on at the time. The following morning there was a picture in the newspaper of a bus turned upside down in a crater – it was the bus I just missed.”
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