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WW2 - People's War

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Under the Present Circumstances

by ann curry

Contributed by 
ann curry
People in story: 
Mrs Ann Curry
Location of story: 
The village of Moretonhampstead, Devon
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
18 January 2004

I was 9 when WW2 started and I was a banana baby, children suffering from coeliac disease whose cause, intolerance to gluten, had not then been identified. Braving Atlantic storms and U boats men unknown to me brought my life saving food. I never knew what they went through. I sat in winter evenings while they struggled and suffered and died, knitting wrist warmers and large gloves in army khaki and navy and air force blues with inexpert but dedicated hands. Mother sat there too, also knitting. In the bottom drawer of the large dresser was stored a treasure, a box of Black Magic chocolates kept for a Special Occasion, a birthday perhaps, or even the End of War. One evening while we ate our supper rations at the kitchen table Sally the terrier only following her instincts prised open the drawer and dug out the box. A trail of black paper wrappings marked her guilty retreat. Even the wrappings were valuable they were surely used for something.

My father had died in 1939, he was working in Africa, my mother returned to a rented country cottage, bringing her only healthy daughter and my 14-year old brother alreadey a sensitive and talented artist who howled with grief and began his slow descent into madness. By the kind graces, and money, of an aunt I, the youngest, was in Bristol Childrens Hospital, now I joined the family. Outside our front door at night convoys of troops drove past along the main road over Dartmoor to Plymouth, rattling and heaving their way up the hill as dark fell, and in the morning it was quiet. There was hardly any other traffic through the village.

But there were bombs, not oblilterating whole streets but closely personal all the same. Many nights a flickering raging crimson tore through the summer sky as it tore through the buildings of Devonport and the homes of Plymouth. Mother worked in the garden baking up leeks and celery in the rich Devon earth among her unpruned rose bushes. There was a strange noise, a crump that grabbed time for a chuild's moment and whuile I waited the eath around mother's stooping form rose slowlyl and fragmented and mixed with a cloud of mist. Mother was on her back. Leeks were falling gently around her but celery made of sterner stuff clung to its soil. My brother ran around in ragged circles screaming. I went back indoors, it would sort itself it had to.

We walked almost every day, there was not much other entertainment, all social develoopment all that ceaseless moving forward as we understand it today just stopped. there were very few toys. We walked to uncle's farm a few miles up the road and picked potatoes in a field that gazed blankly across a valley towards Dartmoor. On Dartmoor soldiers were busy at firing practice, more crumping sounds, and dull thuds that echoed down the river. Apart from farm workers all the men we saw were in uniform. The potatoes were unwilling to leave their cold earthy home, they wreaked revenge on knees and hands and backs but by the end of day, when the tractor coughed and rattled up the l;ane they were in their big brown bags ready for the rail station.

Mother prepared for invasion, she stored iron rations in a back cupboard. They were still there when she died in 1975, tins of baked beans, soup, and cocoa, and packets of scratchy Bronco toilet paper.

In a tumble down garage at the end of the garden a Ford 8 car stood on bricks. Some days I'd pull open the door and sit on the cold seat until mother found an old rug for me. Then the terrier dogs joined me while I scared myself with vivid pictures of the Dickens world and rushed out to watch every car that went chugging slowly up the hill. A petrol rat ion was available but mother was a horsewoman and instead of petrol she drew a ration of corn for a big sturdy pony. I gave him apples, smoothed leather soap over his saddle and bridle, put it all on him, brushed hil tail, spoke all sorts of nonsense in his furry twitching ears, plaited the coarse hairs of his mane and tied them with tough string from hay bales. I watched mother ride off on SSAFA business, the three terriers bounding along beside her.

My brother and sister were in boarding schools, from which I was barred being too 'delicate' so in the mornings I went up the street to a spinster lady a former teacher now wheel chair ridden by polio and was taught by her together with the doctor's son, an asthmatic whose occasional attacks of wheezing and puffing brought lessons to an end for the day. His father I remembered as a rotund and laughing man loved by children. During the war he was a pow of the Japanese and returned home a thin stick with haunted eyes and no laughs left. Bloody war. I made myself lunch, laid out meals in bowls for the dogs, cleaned out the pony's stable and filled his manger with corn and hay, laid fresh straw on the floor and wheeled the steaming dug to the dung heap which in its turn provided food for the roses and vegetables. I did some housework, had afew restorative moments on the rocking hose and turned to dickens, the Wind in the Willows, Winnie the Pooh, and Tarka the Otter. In the evenings I crept from bed to sit on the freezing stairs and listen to the 9 o'clock news .. 'and this is Al Varly Dell reading it.' It wasnt until he died only a few years ago that I discovered his true name, Alvar Lidell.

I spent another spell in a Bristol hospital but now it was different, the ward was darkened by its shaded windows, lights were low and several nights we were woken and shepherded abruptly to the basement to lie on mattresses under prickly blankets. Above our head the world was exploding, soft rains of dust flew about and never settled. The walls shook. The floor shook. The mattress trembled. Nurses brought warm drinks and held our hands. Somewhere in a dark corner a boy my age died calling for his father, he had briefly been my friend.

Mother rode out to small farms skiring the moor, in all weathers, sometimes through snow where her horse made the only imprints. She brought to the isolated women news of their loved ones as filtered through the fficient SSAFA machinery. Often the news was bad, mother counselled and consoled, carrying bottles of sloe gin in her saddle bags. I had spent hours picking and then pricking the black fruits and dropping them into bottles of gin. Gin didn't seem, to be rationed. the bottles were stored in an understairs cupboard and we filled a lot of them. Sometimes wounded relatives were brought to the local hospital and then their women would stay with us returning from hospital on the local bus. The bus depot was next door to our house but the driv er only stopped in the square, wouldn't take passengers up the hill. So from the square they, and we, walked while the bus snorted past us blowing a black exhaust and mother swore at the driver. There was no conductor, mopre adventurous children would hide behind the bus and leap on just as it was taking off from the square. Relatives returned to my sandwiches, butter meagrey scraped across the bread slices and tea in a big brown metal pot. I sat at the table and listed to them. In those days Dartmoor people had a more distinctive accent some words unique to the area, it was fascinating to listen to.

American soldiers set up camp on the adjoining downland. Big strong business like tenting for big strong athletic men, many of them black. 'They darkies' an altogether new phenomenon whose confident stride, direct outspokneness and careful attention to women, was all breath taking to a rural Devon community. The pubs did brisk business, there were fights outside, no knives or guns just angst-relieving fisticuffs. The birth rate which had naturally fallen picked up, and babies of varying shades were wheeled around the village. Many of the women left, lured from their distant fighting men folk by the more promising horizons of America.

Eventually the ever providing auntie found a school for me on the south coast run somewhat improbably by the Misses Salmon and Trout. I'd spent much time parading in front of the mirror in my sister's school uniform but to my chagrin when it was time for me to leave clothes rationing came and school uniform was abandoned. Bloody war. At school we compared shoe sizes and I discovered what I hadn't taken much notice of be4fore, that I was extremely small for my age. I stuffed in more bananas. But this lovely time didn't last for long, I was lprey to every iullness going, a more spotty measles, a louder whooping cough, a brighter scarlet fever, finally pneumonia landing me in a cot in Miss Salmon's bedroom. But saved, by pills that made violently sick, M&B 693, I later learned May & Baker's six hundred and ninety third experiment on the recalcitrant miracle sulphur drug. Phew, just in time, but the end of that school, they couldn't cope with such children 'under the present circumstances.' We'd walked along the lanes in chattering rows, picking bowls of rose hips and compiling a measure of our achievement. Their syrup had a high Vitamin C content but was disgustingly sweet.

End of the month and doling out of sweet coupons. Running down to the shop, a whole bar of dairly milk chocolate, eaten on the church steps in one delicious orgy. We never thought about sweets during the next four weeks. We ate a lot of veg mother had grown, a lot of rabbits local people had shot and benefited from farmer uncle's dairy from time to time. Mother made an eggless butterless sugarless (tasteless) sponge cake enlivened in pathces from an old bottle of cochineal colouring, and we combed the pages of the Ministry of Food's meagle little cookbooks, doggedly extolling the versatility of potatoes. Favourite foods were large marrows stuffed, and brown sugar sandwiches.

One of a local family was married to a conscientious objector, a 'conshy' who was ostracised and curiously looked a lot like Adolf Hitler. We childfren idolised Winston Churchill and the Royal Family, all in one breath. The bulldog would get us through of that we were completely certain, the idea of defeat was just not there. We adored his favoutite uncle persona and huge cigars and the household came to a standstill by the 'wireless' for his rousing speeches and then re-enacted thenm endlessly. 'We will beat them on the beaches, we will never give in ..'. By Jove no.

One evening early on in the war there was a thunderous knocking on the front door. 'We've got a bell ...', mother opened the door to a bustling little man in a black bomber jacket and carrying a clipboard like a shield and initials ARP on his cap. He demonstrated a tiny slit in the blackout curtain, enough light to bring in the whole German army he shouted. To this village? He was right, it was just that anger management hand't been invented. ARP men were close to conshys on the hated scale, poor blokes.

My father had made some wooden bricks most of a chunky 2 x 4" and others thinner plans about
8 x 2". A thin plant could be pivoted on two smaller bricks centrally placed, thenanother small brick balanced on one end. The hand came down forcefully on the free end and the shell catapulted through the air, denting walls and furniture and causing a rewarding amont of havoc and extremely sore hands. A misshapen glove originally knitted for a Spitfire pilot helped to soften the blows. This game achieved considerable sophistication, castles, then forts, then entire towns taking days to build were sytematically blown to bits copying military tactics that were a constant topic of conversation. By then I and most of my frioneds knew all the military ranks and symbols, all the military decorations, could identify any rank at a distance and spot a Spitfire silhouette with our eyes half shut. The drone of this brilliant engine occasionally now performing at an air show is still an instant key to this wartime childhood - 'it's one of ours!'.

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