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The War Years (Part 1) 1939 - 1941 : extract from a personal history

by activeboycee

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Archive List > Childhood and Evacuation

Contributed by 
People in story: 
the Breed family, John Stone, Mr and Mrs Cartwright, Mrs Biddle
Location of story: 
Margate (Kent),Shenstone (Staffordshire)
Background to story: 
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
17 May 2005

The War Years (Part 1) 1939-1941 (Extract from a personal history)

Early 1939 and brother Bernard volunteers for the Territorial Army (T.A.). War talk penetrates even my thick head as a nine-year-old, and I clearly remember Bernard joining a large squad of TA soldiers down at the bottom of Wilderness Hill filling sand bags. I don't remember by what means we travelled down, but I do recollect the family visiting him at a summer camp of TA soldiers at Shorncliffe near Folkestone that summer. And then the eventual delivery of the Anderson air-raid shelter to our home - sections of corrugated iron which had to be bolted together and buried about six feet down in the ground.

I will never forget 1st September 1939 - the first night of the blackout. For some reason I was out after dark - why, as a ten-year-old under those circumstances, I really do not know - and walking along Thanet Road. Believe me, the blackout was truly black. No street lights, no house light windows shining out, no vehicle lights apart from a very narrow slit that they were permitted to have in the "hood" which masked the lights off. The utter blackness was mind-numbingly confusing. I was accosted by a couple who were carrying luggage cases hurrying along behind me and who bribed me with a shilling (a fortune!) to help carry the cases to the station. They were in a real hurry.

A bus happened to come along, so they stopped it and got on. Naturally I followed with the cases, and I remember they urged me to quickly get off and leave them to it, but I wasn't going without my shilling! By this time the bus was going down Marine Gardens approaching the Clock Tower, and as they gave in and handed over the cash, urged me to get off quickly. Totally confused, I remember stepping off the still-moving bus, rolling into the gutter, picking myself up, somewhat shaken but miraculously unhurt, and walking back home still gripping the shilling in my tight little fist!. It was only much later in life that I gave any thought as to who the couple were and why they should have been in such a hurry. Burglars with ill-gotten gains which I innocently carried for them? - a couple running away scared because of the forthcoming war? - an eloping pair? I will never know!

Sunday 3rd September 1939, and one little choirboy in St. John's Church in the choirstalls hearing together with everyone else air raid sirens for real interrupting the service at 11.15. (It so happens it was a false alarm). The upheaval brought about by the war now affected the family in every direction. Bernard received his call-up papers and disappeared from the household to serve in the Buffs, initially helping to guard the Dover rail tunnel, but going to France with the BEF (British Expeditionary Force) in early 1940 eventually to be captured by the Germans behind Dunkirk in late May. He was incarcerated as a prisoner-of-war in Stalag XXB near Marienburg in Poland until freedom in May 1945, returning home as thin and emaciated as a rake. Nephew Colin has a diary which he kept during those awful five years.

Sister Veta became a land-girl on one of Tyrrel's farms and Dad automatically became an "essential worker" in a reserved occupation as an emergency gas maintenance engineer and would not be allowed to leave the area. For the time being I continued at Holy Trinity School, and was more or less an onlooker of the war at that particular point - such as witnessing wrecked seamen rowing into Margate Harbour from mined ships off the coast; watching specially adapted Wellington bombers equipped with huge "deguasing" loops fly low over the sea attempting to explode any magnetic mines the Germans might have laid;
and then during the early part of 1940 hearing the guns and seeing the palls of smoke across the sea on the continent as the Germans advanced through Holland, Belgium and France.

Then the war really came on 2nd June 1940 with the wholesale evacuation of all the schoolchildren from Thanet coinciding with the Dunkirk evacuation from France when thousands of bedragled soldiers (French and Belgian as well as British) were landed at Margate by the two Thanet lifeboats and the legendary armada of "little ships". Southern Railway laid on literally hundreds of trains every day to take them away from Thanet (the history of that logistical exercise is a legend in its own right), and in the middle of all this we schoolchildren had to leave in the same way. We were just taken away, and that was that! No time for parents to object or make other arrangements - we were lined up with our gas masks, carrier bags, and with identification labels tied to our coats, on to that train. I really can't remember what I felt at that particular time - whether I was scared, excited or what. In that era, you must remember, it was practically an adventure to even have a bus or tram ride from Margate to Ramsgate, let alone get on train to go to on holiday! I suppose it seemed quite an out-of-this-world adventure into the unknown.

The train we were put on at Margate Station was on platform 2, and right beside it on platform 3 was one of the Dunkirk trains being filled with soldiers in every kind of condition imaginable. I can see in my mind's eye even now the picture of those exhausted and defeated men laughingly passing to us through the open windows of the two trains buns and cakes they had been given because they felt sorry for us! What a memory.

I have very little recollection of the journey to Staffordshire. However, having arrived at Lichfield, the school form I was in at that time (1A) was taken to a small village the other side of the city called Shenstone. If you have ever seen the film "Bedknobs and Broomsticks", then you will have a fairly accurate picture of what happened to evacuees when they arrived at their destination. You were just allocated to a certain family or couple who had been informed that they had to take in one evacuue at least and that was that. We didn't have a say and neither did they!

It so happens that I had a school pal, a John Stone, and Dad had somehow extracted a promise from our teacher that we would not be separated. We did stay together to start with and were billeted with a farm foreman and his wife, a Mr and Mrs Cartwright, in their tied farmhouse.

It was a very strict regime - we were never allowed into the house after school until family meal time just before bed, our only recourse to anything like comfort in the cold weather was to play in the pig stye to try to keep as warm as we could! Several times we found ourselves in the middle of a bombing raid at night - we understood later that the Germans were trying to eliminate the English Electric works at Stafford but were slightly out!

Even so, there were many pleasant memories as well - one outstanding one was of roaming and playing on the wild Staffordshire moors whenever we could (just look at the plate "Spitfire Coming Home" - that could be John and me!!); sitting on the plough in the middle of winter attempting to keep it free from clods of earth (...what would Health and Safety say about that now?!); walking the three miles or so to school and back every day, whatever the weather (and winter 1940 was an extremely severe one with five and six foot drifts all the way there) ; both of us singing in the Shenstone Parish Church choir, taking turns to "blow"
the organ, playing chicken at seeing who could be closest to letting the bellows nearly exhaust before frantically pumping to put air in at the last moment. Believe me, it's quite a remarkable sound hearing an organ slowly drop pitch as the air runs out - we didn't always make it!! Of the times when we were so hungry we slipped into a field on the way to school and pulled a turnip up, scraped it clean with our hands and had a few bites. Oh yes - and always looking forward to the receipt of the occasional parcel which Mother managed to post to me containing a cake and Enid Blyton story books! So many memories of so long ago.

However, after a period of some months, Mrs. C decided to become pregnant, and the authorities moved us over to the other side of the village to be billeted with a Mrs Biddle. We were quite happy there - the welcome was much warmer and the food far better, but it was not long before the results of my scholarship examination came through and I was moved to join Chatham House Grammar School which had been evacuated from Ramsgate to share the King Edward VI Grammar School at Stafford.

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