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Joan Quibell's Diary - Part Two - 1939-1940

by Joan Quibell

Contributed by 
Joan Quibell
People in story: 
Joan Quibell
Location of story: 
Birmingham
Background to story: 
Civilian
Article ID: 
A3201544
Contributed on: 
30 October 2004

Joan the A.R.P.

Audrey and I carried out our intention to join the A.R.P. We upped our ages slightly in order to be accepted, and were told we would soon be called for training. We were allocated to Bordesley Green First Aid Post, housed in our old school buildings, so poignantly familiar. We had not only to undergo a course of First Aid instruction, but also Home Nursing, and Anti-Gas training. It all sounded very exciting to us and we could hardly wait to get started.

Johnnie had departed, with the rest of his bedraggled little schoolmates, in coaches for Evesham. They all had their name labels pinned to their chests and gas masks over their shoulders. The R.A.F. had carried out some pamphlet raids on Germany, a propaganda exercise to let the German people know why we were at war with them. A British liner, the Athenia, had been sunk by torpedoes. The French Army had broken through the Siegfried Line and advanced on 12 points. So we were told. The British Navy had destroyed many German U-boats and forced others to flee for safety into neutral harbours. U.S.A. declared its neutrality in the European conflict. The Colonies all declared their allegiance to the Crown and were coming to join the fight. Warsaw was being fiercely attacked by Germany and in danger of falling. These were events I recorded during that first week.

At he end of that week, we, Pop, Mother and I, journeyed on the Midland Red bus to Evesham to see the young evacuee. John was billeted with an amiable soul who informed Mother he had settled down well, but out of her earshot John confirmed she couldn’t cook very well. His staple diet appeared to be corned beef. This concerned Mother no end.

I recorded in my diary with deep sadness that H.M.S. Courageous had been sunk with a loss of 60 officers and men. Then came the news we had dreaded. Warsaw had fallen and the gallant fight put up by poor little Poland was over. Germany was now in full occupation.

After a month of War having gone by, Mother was convinced John should come home and we’d all take our chances together, she declared. So, home from Evesham came the little 10 year old and actually so did many others. For one reason or another, either because the children couldn’t settle, or the parents couldn’t, lots returned to the city and schools re-opened and carried on. John, I think, was glad to be back. He’d had enough corned beef to last him a lifetime. As for Mother, she was positively elated.

On Monday, 23rd October, Audrey and I began our A.R.P. training. We attended a series of lectures, first of all learning the names of all the poisonous gasses that may be used, and practised getting our respirators on in 7 seconds!

After our Anti-Gas training, Audrey and I embarked on First Aid. We attended at the Post regularly and faithfully, and took it all very seriously indeed.

It snowed in early December that year of 1939, and was terribly cold. The blackout was strictly enforced, not a chink of light was allowed to show, and of course all street lamps were out. Christmas was shrouded in sadness and concern for all those families parted by the War. We were fortunate we were all together. Food rationing hadn’t yet really started to bite, so Mother managed a creditable feast on Christmas Day.

I celebrated my 16th birthday on the first Saturday of 1940 and thought it was a very grown-up age to be.

Towards the end of January came the awful news that H.M.S. Exeter had been lost with all lives. Three of our submarines were sunk with all hands.

We tried to cheer ourselves up, listening to Tommy Handly in ITMA on the radio. I practised my bandaging technique on Johnny as the all-important exam was looming and we must be proficient. We swotted up on burns and scalds, artificial respiration, pressure points etc. until we nearly went cross-eyed. Nevertheless, when we attended the Revision Class we came away with hearts full of gloom, there was so much we didn’t know.

On 21st February we sat the dreaded exam. The first part entailed sitting before the doctor and answering questions which he threw at us. Then came the second part, the practical. Although we had tried hard and done our best, Audrey and I had grave doubts. Imagine our delight, therefore, when the results came through and there for all to see, we had passed! We were now qualified First Aiders and could wear a badge. We were now ready for anything Hitler could throw at us. Or so we thought.
On 8th April, the War took a new turn and my diary recorded that Germany invaded Norway and Denmark. Britain of course went to their aid. Huge naval battles raged in the North Sea and German ammunition ships, food ships and 2 destroyers were either sunk or left blazing. Then on 10th April, I record the Navy had another great battle in the Cataract, sinking altogether nine ships. A huge minefield was laid in the Baltic so the Germans couldn’t send reinforcements to Norway. British Expedition Forces landed, and fierce battles raged. The destroyers Hardy, Hotspur and Hostile were engaged in battle with six German destroyers in Narvik Bay. It was reported 5 were sunk. Also sunk was the Hostile, the Hotspur severely damaged and the Hardy grounded. What a terrible toll in human life. And despite all our efforts, Norway and Denmark remained occupied.

In May, the war situation took on a new gravity. Fighting in France did not seem to be going our way. The King made a speech on the radio to the Nation in which he said the situation was serious and grave. “Though the dark seas of distress are surging around us” he said, “If we put our hand trustingly into that of God, we will prevail”. It was very moving.

“Whitsun holiday” was cancelled by Government directive, for everyone engaged on war work, and literally hundreds of barrage balloons suddenly started dotting the skies. There was an air of expectancy, of something in the wind.

Pop finished sandbagging the air raid shelter in the garden. And newsreel pictures showed German planes machine-gunning refugees in France as they pitifully tried to escape the marauding Armies. We most definitely were in retreat. The Germans were pushing towards the coast. On 27th May, we received the serious news that King Leopold of the Belgians had given in the fight. Poor Belgium, poor France, poor Holland. Hitler’s might was winning for him this terrible war.

On 2nd June we had a day of National Prayer. The war still seemed, for us, unreal. But now we learned the Germans were only 16 miles from Paris. Then on 14th June, Paris was captured and although desperate fighting ensued, what followed next was inevitable. On 17th June I record that France has fallen.

The remnants of the British Expeditionary Force were being taken off the beaches at Dunkirk and brought back to our shores by every little vessel that could float and could be mustered. Many of course were killed or captured but miraculously hundreds were brought home. Winston Churchill, our beloved Prime Minister, rallied us with his superb rhetoric.

We at the First Aid Post intensified our preparations and Audrey and I were given our “positions”. We were First Aid Dressers on the female side.

On June 25th we had an air raid warning at about 11.30 p.m., but the All Clear was given one hour later, nothing having happened. The next night, however, I distinctly heard explosions and gunfire in the distance although no warning was given. On 29th June, at 11.30p.m., we were awakened by sirens and spent two hours in the shelter. Then Audrey and I reported at the Post but there were no casualties. We had a system of warning lights at the Post. A yellow light came on if enemy aircraft were a certain number of miles away and a red alert meant you were almost certainly the target. Audrey and I were at the Post every night then, and it was a very tense time indeed. Other areas of England had had raids but thus far, we had escaped. Then we heard Hitler was going to invade us on 9th July, but this date came and went without event.

We were accepted for Auxiliary Nursing training and were to attend a course of lectures at Little Bromwich Hospital to this end. I found these very interesting and half wished I could train to be a full-time nurse.

On 9th August we had our first real raid. Not a bad one for us, but the sickening crunch of bombs was heard and the anti aircraft fire and the drone of planes.

On 14th August we had a slightly heavier dose. For four hours the raiders buzzed overhead and discharged their loads. Fortunately for us, our district escaped but Birmingham did suffer its first casualties.

16th August. Bombs were dropped very close to us and 7 near neighbours were killed. Raids followed on each successive night for quite some time. Pop fixed up bunk beds in the air raid shelter for us so that at least we could get some rest during quieter spells. Each day I would find myself dreading the night and the inevitable disturbance it would bring.

We still managed to attend our Auxiliary Nursing lectures and at the end of our six week course we were pleasantly surprised when we passed our exam.

About this time, we heard that London had been terribly bombed, over 400 people being killed. London took several hammerings and during this time, we, in Birmingham, received a little respite. Over the South of England, the battle of Britain raged. Daily the German planes would come in droves, to be tackled by our few spitfires who out flew and outmanoeuvred them.

Pop was busy, carrying out duties as a Street Warden. He was armed with a stirrup pump which was designed to put out fires caused by incendiary devices. Beginning mid-October, the raids recommenced in earnest. The droning of the aircraft, the screaming of the bombs, the barking of the guns, and the acrid smell that assailed the nostrils, became part and parcel of our nightly lives. Houses very close to ours received direct hits, people were killed or injured, and broken glass and rubble were everywhere. Audrey and I spent hours at the Post.

14th November. Wave after wave of German bombers filled the night air with savagery. The noise of guns and bombs continued unabated from 7 p.m. until 6.15 the next morning, but Birmingham was not the target. It was our near neighbours, Coventry. The devastation and desolation which the dawning light revealed, was horrendous. The beautiful Gothic Cathedral, along with most of the city, lay in ruins. There were over 2000 casualties. Our hearts bled for them, but just a few nights later, on the 19th, it was our turn. The intensity of the raid far outstripped anything we had thus far experienced, as bomb after bomb screamed down and the earth shuddered and shook. Next day, the damage which met the eye, was terrible to behold. Belchers Lane was quite unrecognisable; the Grammar School was down to the ground and piles of bricks where houses used to be. My anguish as I picked my way through the appalling shambles was quite indescribable.

On the 22nd, Jerry returned to seemingly finish off the job. The noise was deafening as bombs and guns and planes and shouts and cries filled the air.

When daylight came, it seemed a miracle our house was still standing. Not even a window broken, but we had no water, no electricity and no gas. Mother decided we needed a refuge. We packed some clothes, locked up the house and made our way to Stourbridge to my beloved Auntie May’s. She welcomed us with open arms, relieved to see us all unharmed, and declared we could stay as long as we liked.

Typhoid fever broke out in Birmingham. Everything was in a terrible mess, and there was still no water or fuel supply.

We spent Christmas at Auntie May’s that year, the saddest Christmas I had known. Poor Johnny didn’t get much because of the toy shortage and I suddenly felt so sorry for all the youngsters everywhere, being robbed of their childhood.
On the morning of 28th December we said goodbye to Stourbridge and returned once more to our home in poor battered Brum. The house was very damp but fires were soon lit in all the rooms.
So the year ended with us all under our own roof again. Mom, Pop, John and I, counted our blessings and greeted 1941 with hope for better things.

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