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- Elizabeth Gay
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- 14 December 2003
World War II through the eyes of a child living in London.
Towards the end of August 1939 my family and I were on holiday near Swanage in Dorset. War seemed imminent; we had to cut short our holiday in order to return home and buy blackout material for all the windows in our house — a government decree. I had just had my ninth birthday. I attended Sydenham High School in South East London with my sister who was fifteen and it was decided that, London being too dangerous a place for children, the whole school should be evacuated to Brighton and join forces with Brighton and Hove High School which was another member of the Girls’ Public Day School Trust.
After war was declared on September 3rd we all assembled in the school grounds not knowing when we were going to leave. We had to say goodbye to our parents every day until finally the day of departure was decided and we were herded on to a train bound for Brighton. Each of us carried a gas mask and a small tin of “iron rations” which contained chocolate and raisins. The train got as far as Haywards Heath and then, because of a supposed bomb on the railway line, we all had to get off. We hung around on the platform for what seemed ages before eventually continuing on our journey and arriving after dark, tired, bewildered and homesick.
My sister and I were billeted with a Mr. & Mrs. Cook at number 25 Wilbury Crescent, Hove. Mr.Cook was a brother of our family doctor but he and his wife were complete strangers to us. An invasion by the enemy was anticipated at any minute, especially after the fall of France, so what the logic was behind the decision to send us to the south coast I shall never know. We used to sit on the beach oblivious to the danger until we saw people gesticulating madly at us and shouting above the wind that the air raid warning siren had gone off and enemy bombers were heading for the English coast.
Eventually the whole school was brought back to Sydenham just before Christmas 1939 and there it stayed for the rest of the war remaining open, even though there were at one point only 25 pupils attending. My sister and I were among them. Many of our lessons were held in the basement deep below the main structure of the school. It is worth noting that despite the constant disruption of our lessons and the disturbed nights during the Blitz, we all passed our exams.
As a family we tried to carry on as normal a life as possible. My mother refused to let the war get in the way. During the school holidays we went on bike rides to the country and had picnics. If there was an air raid warning we just went into the nearest air raid shelter and waited for the “all clear” siren.
On one occasion I went with my mother and father by bus to Shirley Hills near Croydon for a picnic. It was mid-August 1940. No sooner had we arrived but an air raid warning sounded and we had to take shelter. Peering outside we witnessed an incredible air battle going on in the sky in front of us. The sky seemed to be full of aircraft diving from every direction with dog fights raging and the horrific sight of planes on fire spiralling into the ground. The noise was deafening and very frightening. Afterwards, we realised that we had witnessed one of the early conflicts of the Battle of Britain taking place near Biggin Hill which was in the direct line of sight from Shirley Hills.
All through the Blitz our family stayed in South East London despite the nightly bombing and the windows being blown out on many occasions. We had no air raid shelter at that time, neither an indoor “Morrison Shelter” which was like a reinforced steel table, nor an “Anderson Shelter” dug into the ground outside. My parents were worried about the safety of their children so my brother and I were sent to stay with a cousin who lived in Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire to escape the relentless nightly bombing. My brother was 14½ and I was just 10. We had only been in Aylesbury for two or three days when, during the night of Wednesday 25th September 1940, a damaged German bomber, trying to limp home after a raid, decided to jettison the landmine that was still on board. The bomb exploded extremely close to my cousin’s house, The Old Barn, which was very badly damaged. I was in bed sound asleep when the landmine exploded and the first thing I remember was feeling a tremendous weight on my bed. I awoke to find that the plaster from the ceiling had fallen on the bed and I had a struggle to get out from underneath. I groped in the pitch darkness for my shoes but being unable to find them I had to make my way barefoot across broken glass and splinters and then downstairs to join the family. Mercifully no one was hurt although we were all badly shaken. My brother, who was saying his prayers at the time, was saved when the internal wall to his bedroom inexplicitly fell in the opposite direction to the line of blast. He swears to this day that it was divine intervention!
Early on, during the war, we children were warned of the dangers of anti-personnel bombs. These were innocent looking objects lying in the road in the form of cigarette packets or matchboxes which contained enough explosive to mutilate or blow a hand off. We were told never to pick up anything in the street.
The A.R.P. (Air Raid Precautions) organisation gave instruction to the civilian population on how to deal with incendiary bombs. Every family was supplied with a sand bucket and a stirrup pump to douse any fire with water except in the case of a phosphorous incendiary bomb when the use of water was forbidden because it would have scattered the phosphorous, which continues to burn on water and would have turned one fire into dozens more.
My mother queued every day for anything that was off-ration such as sausages or fish. She met people in the queue who were happy to exchange tea coupons for sugar coupons or visa versa depending on what you were short of. We were allowed 1/2d (6 pence) worth of meat per person per week which did not amount to much and 2 oz of butter each which was later increased to 4 oz. Offal, such as liver, was off-ration but a notice on the butcher’s door nearly always said “No offal”. Sometimes we were able to buy whale meat which was tough and lacked flavour. We had to economise on electricity so only 5 inches of hot water was all that we were allowed when we had a bath, which was often only once a week. We painted a line on the side of the bath and were careful not to exceed it.
I kept a diary in 1944 and on Thursday 15th June I mentioned pilot-less planes for the first time. These would have been the first flying bombs later known as Doodlebugs. They began coming over night after night, in fact the Croydon area where we lived was the worst hit. The Doodlebugs exploded all around us causing much loss of life. On Saturday 17th June I noted that we had five air raid warnings in the morning alone. We brought our beds downstairs as it was too dangerous to go to bed upstairs. On Wednesday 21st June we spent all day in a nearby air raid shelter. Our house windows were blown out time after time. On Wednesday night 28th June a doodlebug exploded nearly opposite our house killing five of our neighbours. Some other neighbours who survived came and stayed the night with us. They arrived on our doorstep coughing, bedraggled, covered in dust and deeply shocked. On July 7th my school broke up early because of the bombing. The bombing continued nearly every night all through the month of July 1944 and into August. However by the 2nd September I wrote in my diary that we spent our first night upstairs in our own beds for the first time for eleven weeks. On September 7th it was officially announced that the Flying Bomb War in London was over and the blackout was partially lifted. Little did we know that there was even worse in store for us in the form of the V2 Rockets which came out of the blue, silently with no noise or advance warning. I first mentioned a V2 Rocket in my diary on Tuesday 19th September 1944. It fell some 4 miles away from us, but then they became more frequent and gradually came nearer. One Thursday in early November, probably the 9th, a V2 Rocket exploded in the air above my school. If the explosion had happened a few minutes later all the children would have been playing outside in the grounds as it was just before break time. Luckily there were no casualties. It was a miracle because the hockey pitch where we normally played was literally covered with hundreds of huge, jagged, brightly shining pieces of metal from the rocket. From the windows of our school we had seen black specks high in the sky which fell rapidly until they clanked heavily on the roof. One or two of us went and collected some of the pieces and hid them in our shoe bags but this was this strictly forbidden and they were all confiscated. As far as I know this was the only V2 Rocket to explode in the air over Britain, if it had not done so I would not be here nearly 60 years later to tell the tale.
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