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Wartime Memories in a Seaside Town

by anne-elizabeth

Contributed by 
People in story: 
Nora, Les, Bert, Doris, Uncle Ern
Location of story: 
Brighton, Sussex
Background to story: 
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
20 March 2005

Storm Clouds Gather

It was my wedding day, St. Swithin's Day, 1939, and although the sun shone, storm clouds were gathering over Europe. Then, within a matter of weeks, my 26th birthday dawned on 3rd September, a birthday like no other. My husband, Les, and I sat by our wireless in silence, waiting....waiting, for the broadcast by Winston Churchill. As feared, war was declared, and things would never be quite the same again.

Those Wartime Years

The following year my husband joined the army and I became a member of the ATS in the Pay Corps, working at the Corn Exchange in Brighton.

A year later I went to work for the Medical Board for the three women's services in Queen's Road, Brighton, where the girls went for a full medical and my job was to write down the details on their medical history sheet, as dictated by the doctor. For this I received the sum of about £4 per week, which in those days was a very good wage. Once a week I was drawn to the smell coming from the bakery nearby where I would buy a cake to take home which was a real treat. If I close my eyes I can almost smell it. How the baker managed to keep going in those hard times I don't know.

Some nights, along with another girl, I would go fire watching, for which I was paid 2/6d. per session. In the morning we would go to Marigolds Cafe in Brighton for a breakfast of toast and tea, which tasted really good. No cooked breakfasts in those days. I seem to remember the egg ration was one a week.

Meanwhile, building had stopped on the house my husband and I were buying in Portslade and I had returned to live with my parents in Hove, while my husband was away serving as a surveyor in the Royal Artilliary Survey Regiment. Because of an operation, he was in hospital when his unit was posted to France, where, sadly, his best friend was killed while flash spotting. There, but for the grace of God...

Back in Brighton and Hove there was barbed wire along the beaches and times were hard for the fishermen as they could not use their boats and no compensation was paid in those days. The two piers were cut in half in case of invasion.

At the bottom of our road a house near the railway line was bombed, but fortunately it was a rare occurrence in the area.

Once a week I would walk to my mother-in-law's house about a mile away during the evening blackout. The sky was like ink, but on a moonlit night it was a lot easier. Occasionally I would hear the drone of planes overhead. Looking back it seems strange that at the time it never worried me. I doubt people would feel so safe on the streets at night these days.

Meanwhile, my father, who had served in the First World War, was working at the CVA factory making 'chucks' and my brother was an officer in the Merchant Navy. While in Marseilles, France, his ship was bombed. I think this was when it was anchored in the harbour. All his possessions were lost, my mother's photo ending up at the bottom of the sea. But he was safe, being on shore at the time.

An old childhood friend of mine, Bert, had been a good runner, representing Sussex at Stanford Bridge during his school days. This was now to prove of great significance. He had joined the Territorial Army previous to the war and was one of the first to be called up, and one of those who had to literally run for his life at Dunkirk. He told me he had never run so fast in his life, before being picked up by one of the boats. It seemed a miracle at the time how calm the sea was.

Occasionally, towards the end of the war, I would stay in Richmond with my husband's aunt and uncle. Uncle Ern was an air raid warden and sometimes we would hear doodlebugs coming over heading for London. I can still see Uncle Ern running down the stairs in his tin hat and waving his arms about shouting, 'There's another one coming, there's another one coming!'

The Celebrations

On VE Day with my friend, Doris, and sister-in-law, also named Doris, we went to London. We managed to stand on the Victoria and Albert Memorial opposite Buckingham Palace. The crowds of people and scenes of jubilation was amazing. Everyone was shouting 'We want the King, we want the King', until the royal family appeared on the balcony and the crowd went wild! What a night that was, with dancing in the streets.

I am now 91 years old and although those times may be a distant memory they still remain clear in my mind. Times may have been hard, but nothing like the suffering many others endured. The people pulled together then and I do look back at those times and friends and family now gone with affection. There are few of us left now to tell the tale....

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