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15 October 2014
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The War Starts - But What is a Chamberlain?icon for Recommended story

by Northumberland County Libraries

Contributed by 
Northumberland County Libraries
People in story: 
Joan Stokoe
Background to story: 
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
11 June 2004

It was Sunday morning, shortly after my seventh birthday. What was so important about 11 o'clock? My parents were talking in undertones. Mary and Bob were coming upstairs from the flat below to listen to the radio.

'Hush, no talking,' to my two-year-old sister and myself.

Somehow this seemed to be the climax to all the mysterious half-whispered discussions among the adults over the previous weeks. I had heard words such as Chamberlain, peace, war, Hitler, gas, wet blankets, Germans — I knew they were what you wash off dirty hands, but nothing else seemed to make sense. What was a Chamberlain? This word seemed to be spoken more than most.

This morning it seemed to emerge that Chamberlain was a man (nothing to do with a chamber pot) because now I discovered that he was going to speak on the radio at 11 o'clock and make an important announcement.

Mary and Bob came in. He didn't look like Bob, who was always acting the clown - this morning his face was very serious, as were all the adults. The atmosphere was so alarmingly tense that my sister and I crept under the table to watch them and listen.

The radio was switched on and the 'pips' to signal 11 o'clock were heard. The announcer introduced Mr Chamberlain, who was to speak to the nation. There was an intake of breath from my parents and fearful expressions on their faces as they anticipated the worst. What was the worst?

Mr Chamberlain said in a very grave voice something about the nation being at war. What did that mean? Something horrific, because my father said, 'Oh, my God!'

'Oh, God help us,' said my mother.

They were all talking at once. Then they thought they would go outside to talk about it with the neighbours. We followed them down and into the street. Everyone was out there, the children seemed to be excited. They were talking about the Germans - no, they had nothing to do with dirty hands. They were men with guns from across the sea and would come to kill us. They would also come in aeroplanes and drop gas and we would all have to wear gas masks and our mothers were going to hang wet blankets in front of the doors to stop the gas seeping into the houses.

'What was gas?' I wondered.

My 14-year-old brother came round the corner with his friend and saw the crowd standing.

'Where's our Rosie?' he asked.

Panic broke out! There were so many people and so much discussion going on that no one had noticed that my sister had disappeared. Everyone started to look for her. I broke into tears because I knew what had happened. When nobody was looking the Germans had sneaked up and stolen her and would kill her. We would never see her again.

My silly brother started laughing at me and said that I was silly, there were no Germans here yet, but when he realised how upset I was he gave me a hug and said, 'Don't worry, we'll find her' - and off he went in search of her.

A little while later he came back holding her by the hand. She had wandered away to the next street to see what was happening there and was enjoying her freedom and not too happy that she had been found.

I was so relieved that the Germans had not taken her that I forgot the trauma of the morning, and there the memory ends. I have no reflection of the rest of the day that World War Two was declared.

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