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15 October 2014
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My First Memory

by csvdevon

Contributed by 
People in story: 
Betty Yates
Location of story: 
Loughton School for Girls
Background to story: 
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
19 April 2005

My first memory is of listening to the broadcast of war being declared. My father who was in the Regimental Army had just left and he was asked to go back. My mother was totally opposed to this so he joined the Royal Observer Corps instead. I can remember we just happened to be visiting my grandmother when the broadcast was relayed. My granny, parents and brother were all sitting round the table listening to the radio. My first reaction was ‘what will war be like?’ My father’s response was that it was far too terrible to talk to a little girl about it and that it would not only be soldiers in the trenches who would suffer but for the first time people in their homes would suffer too. My mother’s initial response was ‘we must stock up the larder.’ Our train journey home was not the usual swift coastal trip via Bristol but we were shunted to various locations. There were lots of troops being moved and military operations taking place. It took us 12 hours to get home to Ongar.

It was not long before the posters started appearing everywhere particularly the railway stations and post offices with various slogans like ‘Careless talk costs lives’ and ‘Be like Dad be Mum’. There was also one which sticks in my mind about the Colorado Beetle which would infest the crops. It may have come over with shipments of wheat and this was taken seriously as we lived in a rural community.

I went to Loughton School for girls and the Auxiliary Fire Service commandeered our school swimming pool. An anti-aircraft gun was also put in position on one of the school playing fields and soldiers took over the gym. Children were warned not to look across at the soldiers in the field and certainly not to speak to them. I always felt embarrassed as we had to play netball in our navy blue knickers!

It wasn’t long before evacuees came to Ongar. It as the first time I had heard the term ‘nits’ or ‘dirty heads’. Some of the children evacuees integrated well whilst others were taken back by their parents. In 1940 two soldiers were billeted to our family. They were in charge of traffic control and all the road signposts were taken down virtually overnight. I can remember these soldiers had rifles but because ammunition was in short supply we used to have to stuff their pockets with newspaper so it looked as though they had pouches full of ammunition. I never felt we would lose the war and father’s reaction was always ‘it will be okay in the end’. Everyone was intensely patriotic.

We lived near North Weald which was a Battle of Britain fighter station. We would see lots of planes flying over all glinting in the sky. I can remember we went for a picnic on my birthday and we saw a German parachuting out of his plane. My brother, friend and I were cheering loudly at his misfortune but my mother reprimanded us saying ‘but you know his mother will be worried about him’. The local paper reported that he had been captured and taken away. I don’t recall where but I do remember an uncle who had two German Prisoners of War working on his farm. Very often they were required to dig ditches or do any form of manual labour.

My father’s role in the Second World War was spotting and recording planes flying over our area. He had to study cards of silhouettes of planes so that he could also identify them at night. We also had an ‘Anderson Shelter’ in our back garden. My grandfather helped father to dig the hole in the ground and steps leading down. My father made four bunks in the shelter. It came in corrugated iron flat pack and heavy sacking went over the door. Father was very annoyed as it meant he couldn’t grow more vegetables in the garden but my mother thought the shelter was more important. Father didn’t like us to use the shelter when he was on night duty and very often we would go to the cellar of one of the ‘International Stores’ which were a chain of grocery shops. On one particular night my father looked out of the Anderson shelter and we all saw a land mine floating down on a parachute. A flare had been sent up which was a greenish glow in the dark sky. I can remember it was very eerie and I felt very frightened. Very often when I was going to school on the train I can remember a bomb near or on the railway line. Buses would have to take us to the next station which meant we would be late for school which we always relished.

Our home and travel life were very much affected, particularly when the Americans arrived. There was a lot of flat land around us and the Americans who seemed to arrive overnight quickly built air fields. My brother went out on his bike one day and he was shown all over the airdrome by the American soldiers. He was 12 at the time and he was allowed to sit at the wheel of a lorry. On one occasion the Americans held a party and they collected my brother and I from home. It was the first time we had tasted so many wonderful flavours of ice cream which we had never come across before. We were also given ‘hershey bars’ — chocolate with a biscuit centre.

At Christmas time we would often give books as gifts. These were rough-papered and not the soft white paper we have today. Clothes were passed down and often made out of some other garment. Any girls over 5’3” or over 8 stone had to report to Sister at school and they would get extra clothing coupons. My school was very strict on school uniform and everyday when we arrived at school we would have to change out of our school shoes into ‘house shoes’. This was to protect the flooring in school.

I was in the Girl Guides and when I was 16 a letter arrived which stated that I had to do something useful to contribute to the war effort. So I joined the Red Cross voluntary aid Detachment. We did our nursing and first Air Courses. On Saturday afternoons we would go to the military convalescent hospital which was based in Kelvedon Hall. Various exits were boarded up in case convalescent soldiers wanted to escape. I mainly served tea and wrote letters for the soldiers. It was the first time I realised that there were adults who could not write.

Then D-Day arrived and the American troops seemed to disappear immediately. They had to go to France to make ready bases there. I can remember many heavy bombing raids and we often had bombs land near us. One fell across the road and in a field near the local cottage hospital but luckily it didn’t explode. The ‘Doodlebugs’ — flying bombs started in 1944. You always heard the noise and you knew that when the noise stopped it would have landed somewhere. As these bombs were so unpredictable it was often decided to close schools. Anyone taking exams at the time had to sit their exams in the air raid shelters. At my brother’s school in Buckhurst Hill, a flying bomb landed in the dining hall and the caretaker was blinded by flying glass. It was only at the beginning of the war that children were expected to always take their gas masks to school. Anyone forgetting their gas mask could be despatched home from school.

Newspapers informed us of the progress of the war. These were usually not more than five sheets. This together with newsreels at the cinema were our only source of information. The newsreels had a great impact as it was the first time you actually had cameramen on location recording the events. These were heavily censored and even letters in the post were censored. I can remember sending a letter to my aunt in American and the next time she wrote she told me she had received my letter in ribbons as so much had been cut out. Any information was cut out no matter how harmless. The radio broadcasts were usually variety programmes as well as the news. Tommy Handly was very popular and he was renowned for his catchphrases ‘A German spy called Funf’ and ‘Can I do you now sir’. I also remember the radio doctor who would give handy tips on health — what one should eat and how to avoid constipation. There were also recipes on how to use certain foods, in particular various uses of potato. Whale-meat first arrived at the end of the war. It was very chunky like tuna and many leaflets were issued on how to cook it. I remember as a child I was never allowed to leave food on my plate. The Americans sent canning equipment in 1945 and suddenly we had plums and Spam which we thought was wonderful. When you went to a restaurant for a meal you could only have two courses. So if you had soup, you could not have dessert. A lot of the main parks in London, like Hyde Park were dug up to produce vegetables. After the war a lot of aid went to Europe so times were equally if not more austere. We had ration books for certain items until 1953.

I knew Victory was coming. I remember the news that Roosevelt had died and everyone being sad that he had not seen the end of the war. I was at the convalescent hospital at the time. We went to church to give thanks for the end of the war and then in the evening a local band set up in the street and there was street dancing. I went to the Victory Parade in London with my family. All the forces and bands took part and it was a joyous occasion.

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