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- People in story:
- Author, family and friends
- Location of story:
- Epsom and S Wales
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 16 June 2005
The author of this story had understood the rules and regulations of this site and has agreed that this story can be entered on the People’s War web site
In the spring of 1940, bad news came fast from France; the Germans were chasing us out of the country with their superior weapons and tanks. Everyone was extremely worried, our armies were being beaten back into the sea. There was no land left for them to retreat to.
The Government had to think fast, they put out urgent messages to all boat owners. Anyone who owned a boat of any description was asked to go to the South East coast. (I believe that it was the Ramsgate area). So, Pleasureboats, Steamers, Yachts, Fishing boats, Ferries and small Motor boats, in fact anything that could sail and had some room on it to carry passengers assembled. Hundreds of boats came from every part of the country and massed together on the coast. Anyone who was short of fuel, was quickly supplied on arrival. When they arrived at the appropriate place, they were told what was happening at Dunkirk in France, and everyone was to go and rescue as many people as possible.
The vessels sailed off in their hundreds, maybe thousands, skippered by boys or old men when there was nobody else to do it...... Surely the greatest armada of all time.
Amazingly, the sea stayed as calm as a millpond for three days and nights. The hundreds of ships and boats went to the rescue of our men and women and all the personnel forces, perhaps a few civilians, but mainly soldiers and airmen.
They were all packed into the boats amid the turmoil of shells blasting all around them, bombs going off and trying to evade the bullets from aerial machine guns. Lorries, tanks, planes and other equipment were abandoned, as the saving of lives was of far greater importance.
Thousands of men were wounded or killed, or taken as prisoners of war; having to endure further hardships. The wounded were conveyed to the awaiting boats, either being carried or having to wade through the water to reach the boats.
Meanwhile Horton Hospital, had been converted to a military hospital,(the mental patients having been transferred to other hospitals), as our back garden backed onto the hospital grounds, we could see some of the wounded in the grounds. Nothing had prepared us for the sight of the Green-Line buses, that had been converted into ambulances; bringing the wounded survivors of Dunkirk to the hospital to have their injuries tended. Most of them needed urgent treatment, some of their bodies so shattered that they would spend the rest of their lives never being able to do things for themselves again. Some lost their limbs or their eyes or had sustained injuries equally severe.
The staff were rushed off their feet, but still the ambulance buses came, night and day; day and night, would they never stop?
Everyone was fighting hard to try to ease their suffering, there were no anti-biotics to help, and everything took much longer to heal.
It was heart breaking to think of so many young men, just shells of their former selves, bandaged and pain-wracked.
If the casualties were able to walk, they were allowed into the grounds of the hospital. I could see them from my bedroom window, all of them were visibly wounded; they were bandaged, on crutches, arms in slings, some in wheelchairs, some were being guided because they couldn't see for themselves.
So many men with so many things wrong with them. Some were still teenagers, their lives now in pieces.
This was a terrible thing to happen in our lives, the war had really arrived on our doorstep.
As the men started to get better, they were allowed out of the grounds and soon became a familiar sight around the town, in their bright blue suits, white shirts and red ties, all slowly coming to terms with the cruelty of war.
By now, practically all of Europe was under the command of the Germans, our shipping was under attack at sea, and everything seemed very grim indeed. Ship after ship was being torpedoed, most containing food or other necessities. Even ships carrying children, who were being evacuated to Commonwealth countries such as Canada, Australia, New Zealand and parts of Africa, and some went to the United States of America; were being sunk by the German U-boats (submarines), lurking beneath the sea, undetected by the ships.
Very soon, the ships were only allowed to go to sea in convoys, guarded on all sides by large warships. If the ships suspected that a submarine might be lurking nearby, they bombarded the sea with depth charges, in an attempt to hit the U-boats.
Everyone was still suffering from the shock of what was happening in Europe. Where would Hitler strike next ?
We soon found out his plans, he was going to try and bomb us out of existence. The war had certainly come to us, the Battle of Britain was now becoming very real. The sirens started wailing, telling us that an air-raid was starting.
This time we knew that it was the real thing, we could hear the drone of the planes overhead, Bombers have a different engine sound to other planes. Dad made us dress up warmly, grab our gas masks and torches, and make our way up the garden, to the air-raid shelter at the top. All at once, the place was lit up as bright as day as searchlights all around us were switched on, trapping the planes in the light beam. The big guns would fire at them and we could see the bombs dropping from the planes. We tumbled into the shelter as quickly as possible, absolutely terrified; the noise was terrific.
We got into the shelter just in time, there was an enormous amount of noise going on, then a huge bang. The earth shook and rumbled, we were nearly too frightened to breathe. Other bombs dropped around us but none were so loud or so close as the first one. After a few hours, the all-clear sounded and we were all allowed to go back indoors again.
The next day we were told that it was a Screaming bomb and that it had landed on the Manor hospital ( which was adjoining Horton hospital ) and it had split a corridor in half This was the first bomb to fall on Epsom, but by far the last. The blitz had begun in earnest, every evening around tea-time, the sirens would start wailing, telling us that another air-raid was starting. We nick-named the sirens either "Wailing Willies" or "Moaning Minnies". No sooner would they start up, we would hear the planes overhead. I decided that I didn't like going into the shelter, it was too cold and damp, Violet didn't like the shelter either, she wasn't very strong, suffering continually from bronchitis and allergic asthma, and Dad said that our downstairs bathroom was the safest place in the house.
The bath had a lid that clipped onto the wall and when it was brought down, it fitted flat on the top of the bath. Mattresses were brought down from upstairs and placed on the bath lid and another on the floor, and there we slept whilst my older sisters slept in the shelter in the garden. I say that we slept there, but that was only if it wasn't too noisy, with bombs and guns and all the other things going on. It mostly lasted all night, at least until dawn. We often prayed that the weather would be too bad for the planes to fly and then everyone could get a good night's sleep.
Most people worked very long hours, at least twelve hours a day on war work. The farmers worked from dawn to dusk, factory workers would work from 8 O'clock in the morning until 8 o'clock at night from Monday to Friday, and from 8 O'clock until 4 o'clock on Saturdays. Sundays were mostly free, but sometimes people were needed to work. Often when people had finished their work an air-r-aid would be in progress, so a decision would have to be made; whether to take shelter or to try and get transport home. There were no lights on the inside of the buses, just the tiny slits for headlights, so you would have to stop the bus to find out where it was going, so sometimes it would be hard work just trying to get home.
School was regularly interrupted by constant air-raids. The Government had made another decision, this time to split the school day in half. Half of the school children attended in the morning and the other half attended the afternoon session. This would alternate each week, one week of school in the morning and the following week would be afternoons. We had plenty of homework to fill in the time we spent at home.
One afternoon, when it was just time to finish school for the day and make our way home, the air- raid siren went. The whole school was marched to the bottom of the playing fields, to the reinforced brick built shelters. They were fairly large with wooden forms to sit on. They had no backs to them, you just leant up against the brick wall behind. Our teacher decided that we should carry on with our lessons, we were all most annoyed, thinking that it was very unfair, school should have been finished for the day, we should have been going home !
We sat there listening to the planes machine gunning and dive bombing, and nobody could hear what the teacher was saying.
Amid all that was going on, we could hear the boys singing loudly in their shelters. We were supposed to be doing our lessons but we were not interested and were very distracted. The raid continued for another two hours or more, until the all-clear sounded and then we were allowed to go home, feeling tired and very hungry. By now it was 6 o'clock and lunchtime had seemed an age away. We couldn't get home quickly enough, our mothers must have been sick with worry and were very relieved to see us as they were not to know for sure whether we had left the school at lunchtime or not. This raid was over now, but there would soon be another one starting and in some ways, it seemed exciting to us children, but at the same time we were really scared stiff. We all tried to put on a brave face, but the raids were becoming worse.
We now had lots of daytime raids; standing on our front doorstep we watched the Battle of Britain taking place. Spitfires which really did seem to be spitting fire when their guns were blazing, along with Hurricanes which fought the Germans in the skies. Fighter planes would dive and swoop toward each other and then suddenly dart away again and planes would be shot to pieces!!
They made horrible noises as they plunged to the earth, out of control.
This was all around Croydon Airport, which was the main airport in London then. How those brave airmen fought for their country, it was unbelievable. Something I and anyone else who ever saw this, will never forget was that awful haunting noise the planes made as they nose dived toward the ground.
So it went on, day after day and night after night. Often when ambling home from school, there would be a sudden loud blast, causing everyone to jump out of their skins. A time bomb exploding.
Everyone was becoming nervous, never knowing what was going to happen next. At the same time though, they were pretending that everything was alright, we all had to try and keep smiling.
My younger sister Violet's allergies were mostly due to house dust and feathers. Even in our home her chest was very weak and she had severe asthma attacks and always seemed to be coughing or wheezing and gasping for breath. In fact her chest sounded like a lot of tin cans rattling. The raids were getting worse and she was becoming more and more upset. She had to spend more of her time in bed, and that was a problem in itself, she couldn't stay in the bathroom all day. Sleeping on top of the bath was alright at night, so in the daytime she was on the settee. Everything and everybody had to be shuffled around to accommodate everyone’s needs.
Family friends who lived opposite were having problems, their father had been drafted into the National Fire Service and his wife and daughters were absolutely terrified of being left alone in the house. Every time Fred went away, they came to stay with us, the house was becoming very crowded by now; the shelter was becoming full and so was the bathroom. We now had a mattress on top of the bath, one on the floor and a double mattress on the kitchen floor. I always slept on the bathroom floor. Unfortunately, one of the girls who slept on top of the bath used to sleep walk, and I was directly underneath where she stepped down; so if the bombs didn't wake me up, she did, by walking all over me ! However, this was still better than being outside in a cold damp shelter.
The bombing went on and on, all the docks around the river Thames in London seemed to be getting the worst of it, all the warehouses that contained the food supplies which had been unloaded from the merchant ships. There were other inflammable materials stored at the docks too, anything they could manage to ship through the sea blockade. When the docks were bombed, they went up like a terrific inferno. The Surrey Docks particularly took a terrible hammering, the flames were so high and the fires so intense, we could see them in Epsom.
The glow reflecting in the sky as the fires flared.
Our friend Fred the fireman had to go along with most of the firemen for miles around. It was hard work for them to get to the fires, they were turning into roads with large craters in the middle, or that had once had large buildings which were now reduced to huge piles of rubble and were impossible to get past. Masses of concrete and bricks strewn across the roads and pavements, so the drivers had to waste precious time trying to find clear roads.
When they eventually arrived they had the almost impossible task of trying to control these amazing infernos, which were lighting up the skies all around and therefore giving the German airmen a clear view of their next targets.
For three days and three nights, Fred and his mates fought those blazes, sometimes managing to grab a quick sandwich and a cup of tea from the voluntary services who always tried to be on hand. Those poor firemen were exhausted, when Fred eventually arrived home, he sat on the settee in our house. Mum put a cup of tea in his hand, but it was too late, he was already asleep! Everyone helped to get his boots off and his tunic, he was turned round and a pillow put under his head to make him more comfortable, he was left to sleep for a few hours, until it was time for him to go back on duty again.
One night when the girls were on their way to the shelter, one of them came back inside to tell us that there were people in the empty house next door. There was nothing up at the windows, so they could not put any lights on. Dad took a torch and went to investigate, he found a family huddled in there, they had been on the bombed out in London; and now they were here without any lights or a fire and they were all cold and frightened. dad brought them all round to our house, and with a cup of tea to warm them and a seat by the fire, they soon felt a lot better. Not very much could be done for them that night, but with a bit of help from various sources, they soon settled in alright.
Once they could see what they were doing, they fixed the blackout curtains and got some furniture. Events like this were happening all around us, and all over the country. Everyone put themselves out to help each other. Each person, determined to help whenever possible, and nothing was too much trouble.
The nobility mixed with the working classes and side by side they worked together and class distinction hardly existed. Everyone shared the same aim in life, to get our country back together again, once more at peace and living in freedom.
Continued in Part 3
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