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A long stay in Wales...

by cambsaction

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Archive List > Childhood and Evacuation

Contributed by 
People in story: 
Jean Billman
Location of story: 
Wales, Swansea, London
Background to story: 
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
22 December 2005

At the end of August 1939 my parents and I travelled to South Wales for our usual holiday with my maternal grandparents but this was to be a longer holiday than at other times. With no television I was unaware of any political problems until my mother explained that we were at war with Germany and it was felt safer for me to stay in Wales rather than to go home to London. They left and I was enrolled at the local school. In the first letter I received from them they told me of the nightmare journey they had. Apparently the car headlights had to have brown paper on them and crossing Salisbury Plain had been extremely difficult, even towns had no street lights.

School was much the same as any other school except the welsh lessons. One innovation was the air raid practices, when we all ran home as the siren sounded and returned at the all clear. Every now and again we had gas mask practice when the whole school stood in the playground and put on their gas masks. These smelt of rubber and steamed up if you had them on properly. The infants had Mickey Mouse gas masks but the juniors had real grown up masks in a small size, whilst babies were put inside a much larger contraption which had to be pumped by the mother.

The only news we had was from the radio or the very skimpy newspapers and word of mouth, often just rumour. Life in the village went on much the same as usual. There were some differences food was rationed and some things non existent. I missed oranges and bananas. Some of the women who worked at Bridgend in the ammunition factory came home each day with yellow hair and complexions. German aircraft tried to bomb the railway line trying to find the factory, which was underground but did very little damage other than startle the cattle in the fields.

Mamgu, as I called my grandmother had relatives who lived at Morriston just north of Swansea and we would visit them from time to time. .On one such occasion my great aunt persuaded me to stay for a while. I had a marvellous Christmas visiting other relatives and listened to others doing their party piece. Some sang, others played an instrument or recited a story or poem. New Year was an exciting time for child who took a pillowcase and knocked on doors wishing people a Happy New Year and received sweets or an apple. The local doctor gave each child a new penny. When he discovered that some were coming back a second time he put a spot of gentian violet on the palm of each hand.

Visits to Swansea always included a trip to the market to buy cockles and laver bread. There was one old lady who sold these who wore a long black apron and a Welsh shawl, who smoked a pipe.

Whilst I was in Swansea the Germans bombed the town. One night my great aunt woke me and told me to get to the shelter then rushed out of the room. Unfortunately I could not put the light on, as we had no blackout curtains and I could not find my shoes. Finally I gave up and ran into the garden. It was pitch black and I realised I had wandered off the path in my bare feet. Suddenly the sky lit up with a bright orange glow and I could see not only the shelter but the whole of Swansea in the distance. Next day my grandfather arrived and took me back to the village.

In 1945 my parents felt it was safe for me to return to London as all seemed to be quiet and the allies had landed in Normandy. The school I had been registered with had returned from evacuation. This school was in Westminster and had been used for extra accommodation for firemen whose station across the road looked after The Houses of Parliament and Westminster Abbey. The school itself had had a few incendiary bombs and a strange cylinder, as the caretaker put it, which turned out to be a land mine which had failed to explode.

The lull in the bombing ended with the arrival of the V1s. Our instructions were. to go to the cloakroom , which had been reinforced with concrete. Once there we took it in turns to perform country dances to the accompaniment of a wind up gramophone. The v1s or flying bombs were aptly named and were clearly visible with their flaming rear end.

Returning from school one day I was walking up Earls Court Road when I was followed by one which gradually overtook me and went on to fall on a crowded restaurant in High Street Kensington. It missed our house but the blast blew out the windows and lifted a massive trap door into the loft which twisted in the loft, folded and came back down through the aperture and hit the floor, rattling most of the crockery in the kitchen.

The V2s were different as the arrived and fell so rapidly that there was no warning. Our instructions at school were to get under the desk.

We lived in a mews and one of the garages had been reinforced and was just big enough to take the residents of the mews and my aunt who lived a block away. As she was deaf a neighbour would inform her of an air raid warning. She would grab her hot water bottle, one of the metal variety, and hurry over to our shelter. One night as she was hurrying down the road a bomb dropped behind her. The blast lifted her up carried down the road and dropped her. She got up and carried on to the shelter and banged on the door. The man who opened the door caught her as she fainted then promptly dropped her as he felt this hot piece of metal H e thought it was a piece of shrapnel, which could be extremely hot. We had one piece land in our yard and although we searched for it we could not find it in the dark. Next day returning from work my father saw it wrapped round the knocker. We never managed to remove it.

Strange sights could be seen in London. Bombed house could have been cut in half, with half the bathroom gone, the other half still having its bath in situ. Older bomb sites could look quite pretty with tall pink spikes of flowers.

Kensington Gardens played its part in the war. Italian prisoners of war were camped close to Kensington Palace. My parents had an allotment in the park very close to the Palace stables, very useful for manure. Our plot provided all the fruit and vegetables we and some of our neighbours could eat.

News from the front became more hopeful until we learnt that German surrender was inevitable. When heard that the war was over and the next day would be a holiday, like every one else, we made plans to go up the West End and to Buckingham Palace. Once again the lights were on in London. We walked for hours, as there was no public transport, everyone was cheering and laughing. In Regent Street people were standing on the shelters in the middle of the road ,some had found bangers and were throwing them. Others were climbing up lampposts and waving. Like everyone else we ended up at the palace and shouted until the royal family appeared on the balcony. We walked from the palace back to our home in Kensington tired but elated.

As a child the wartime events could be frightening but were also exciting at times and at others hilariously funny. However I would not wish them to happen again.

Jean Billman

November 19th 2005.

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