- Contributed by
- Pamela Lee (née Heath)
- People in story:
- Jack and Nielia Heath and children, Cyril, Pam, and David
- Location of story:
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 15 January 2005
In the Anderson shelter, 1941, are Cyril (top left), David (top right), and me (bottom right)
I was 5 years old when World War Two was declared — 7 weeks before my 6th birthday. We had moved house from Worthing along the south coast shortly before this, because my father had been sent to the Westminster Bank in Winton, a district of Bournemouth.
I remember sitting on the floor in the dining room of our rented house in Winton with my two brothers — Cyril, 2-and-a-half years older than me, and David, 2-and-a-half years younger. Something was wrong — it seemed rather dark and rather quiet and we were affected by the tension in the house and the way our parents seemed so serious. I think we had just been given Arthur Mee's Children's Encyclopaedia, all 10 volumes, and I have it still. Then our parents came quietly into the room and my father told us very seriously that war had broken out. Of course, we didn't really know what that meant, but they had been teenagers in the First World War and my mother had lost 2 brothers. We soon found out.
My mother had to sign on for war work, but was signed off again immediately because of her three young children. My father was declared to be in a Reserved Occupation which meant he didn't go away to war as the fathers of my friends did. He worked in the Bank all day and spent the nights fire watching in our road (up the church tower I think), or watching for enemy aircraft on the cliffs with the Home Guard. He spent most of the weekends with the Home Guard too, training and carrying out exercises to prepare them to defend us in the event of an invasion.
The threat of invasion
The threat of invasion was very real and my mother told me of a dreadful night while we were on holiday at Mill Farm near Witchampton, about 10 miles from Bournemouth. I loved Mill Farm, I could hear the rushing stream that used to turn the mill as it flowed past my bedroom window and I got up at 6am every day to 'help' the farmer milk the cows. I loved their warm breath and the low mooings and the swish of the milk as the farmer squirted it by hand into the bucket. I could sit on the little 3-legged stool and watch him for hours. My mother had been a Land Girl and learned to milk, so it must have been in my genes.
We still had our little Morris 8 car to drive to the farm so it was very early in the war, before we had to lay it up in the garage on bricks to keep the tyres off the ground, because there was no petrol. During the night, she told me, they heard that there had been an invasion, and we were only 10 miles from the coast. My father and the farmer, and maybe other men, stood outside the farmhouse in the dark with pitchforks and rabbit guns, and my mother was instructed to wake us 3 children, put us in the car and drive north, no matter that she didn't know how to drive or where to go — this was life or death stuff. Mercifully another message came through to say that it had been a false alarm.
The early years of the war in Winton
One of the first things I remember is being astonished to find French soldiers in their uniforms sitting on the pavements. They were billeted in Alma Road School just around the corner from where we lived. We were full of curiosity and tried to talk to these strange beings - but without a lot of success. They were kind to us and gave us dark brownish red and blue leather notebooks, I think they had a pencil and a mirror in them. They also said what sounded like 'Allivoozonk!' loudly and frequently. We thought this was a wonderful word and chanted it back at them. It was several years before I understood that they were saying 'Go away!' (Allez-vous en).
My father, not content with looking after and drilling his Home Guard Platoon also trained us. When we heard a bang we had to fling ourselves on the floor and put our hands over the back of our necks for protection. When we hear him shout 'Gas' we had to put on our gas masks asap and not expect any help from him. Then he would check that we had done it correctly, which he did by putting a piece of loo paper on the bottom and making us breathe in to keep it there. He had a whole gas chamber to train the Home Guard in as well as us, but I will let my brother David tell you about that as he remembers it better than I do.
My father also had a large map on the breakfast room wall, just above my rocking horse. He listened intently to the News on the wireless (we had to keep quiet then), and moved little coloured pins on the map to show where the different battle fronts were. We also had little notices on the wall by the electric light switches and the hot taps. These had a rhyme on them: 'Switched on switches and turned on taps, make happy Huns and joyful Japs'. Some things were delivered by horse-drawn cart — maybe milk, bread or coal. I ran straight out — there was no garden gate as it was metal and had been taken away for the 'War Effort' — to greet the horses which I loved. We also collected up what the horses left behind with a dustpan and shovel for Daddy to put on his allotment. As paper became more and more scarce we used pieces of newspaper torn into squares and hung on a string in the loo — I hated that.
My father told us that the Germans dropped little devices in the street which would explode when people picked them up. They were disguised as bars of chocolate etc, and we were never to touch them. One day I was riding my bicycle to school and I saw a match box lying in my path. I was convinced it was one of these traps, so I thought I would cycle round the left of it, then I changed my mind and tried to go round the right of it, but in my fear I couldn't make up my mind and I cycled straight over it, just having the presence of mind to lift my legs up in the air and expecting it to explode. I was lucky — it was just a match box!
We read the Dandy and the Beano and learned from them that any strange person dressed in black and walking suspiciously was likely to be 'Funf the Spy'. We giggled and pointed and whispered 'Look there's Funf' at quite a few lonely old people who answered this description.
There were a lot of day time raids on Bournemouth and at school we were always running downstairs to the basement until the all clear sounded. We sometimes used to watch aeroplanes fighting overhead — swooping down and climbing up again, their engines roaring, and rat-a-tat-tatting with their machine guns. One day we saw a Spitfire spinning down on fire. It crashed on a house in Benellen Avenue, Bournemouth, demolishing it and killing the pilot, who had not been able to bail out. We later went to see the wreck — I wondered where the pilot was. We also used to be taken to see bombed houses with whole walls missing and people's beds and wardrobes sliding down towards the drop, and their curtains torn and flapping in the wind. I didn't enjoy this — it made me feel very insecure. Even now my house never seems very secure to me, a crack in the wall makes me really anxious that it might collapse.
There were raids in the night-time too. At first we used to lie with our mother under the stairs listening to the whine and crash of the bombs. She was very good at keeping calm and used to pray The Lord's Prayer. Daddy, of course, was up the church tower or out on the cliffs. We were only 20 miles from Southampton where the docks were bombed, and planes returning from the big Blitzes on Coventry for instance would off-load any bombs they had left as they went above us over the coast. We learnt to distinguish the difference between the engines of 'Ours' and 'Theirs' as we called the British and German planes. Soon we moved all our beds into the front room downstairs.
A landmine nearly hits our house
One night a landmine (much bigger than the usual bombs, and suspended from a parachute), came floating down our road. It was about 3:35am on 16th November 1940. The landmine was a tiny bit too high to hit our house, and the houses of our friends, but it hit the school just around the corner, where the French soldiers had stayed, with an almighty bang. My mother was just coming into the room with a fresh pillow for David who had been sick, and she saw the whole window light up with an orange glow. She threw herself on top of David and yelled at Daddy, (he was at home that night), who tipped Cyril and me onto the floor, pulled our mattresses on top of us and flung himself on top of that. Once we felt safe to crawl out we found some of our ceilings had fallen down and, extraordinarily, all the windows facing towards the blast had been sucked out and the others had been blown in. Daddy had to try to explain to us the effects of the blast. Cyril got told off for running out to the breakfast room to see the damage in his bare feet, as there was glass everywhere.
One young man who was disabled and worked in the Bank with my father had been bombed out 7 times. His family would always go out in the garden when there was a raid, it felt safer to them. Some people dug air raid shelters in the garden, but after the landmine we had a corrugated iron shelter called an Anderson put in our front room. It was like an up-side-down U and it was packed around with sandbags, and the windows in the room had yellow sticky mesh put on them, and there were orange and apple boxes filled with sand and stacked against the outside of the walls. There were four bunks, one on top of the other on each side of the Anderson where we children slept, and our parents slept on the floor below. I remember it as being quite a big shelter, but I have seen one over from the war recently and it's really very small. I can't think how we all managed to squash into it.
NOTE: For the continuation of my WWII experiences, please see Machine-Gunned on Swanage Beach
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