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War time in Suffolk by Eileen Smy

by Action Desk, BBC Radio Suffolk

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Archive List > Family Life

Contributed by 
Action Desk, BBC Radio Suffolk
People in story: 
Eileen Smy, Charlie Smy, Cherniavsky
Location of story: 
Suffolk, Framlingham, Dennington, Sternfield, Burma, Sussex
Background to story: 
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
21 November 2005

(This story was submitted to the People's War site by a volunteer from BBC Radio Suffolk on behalf of Eileen Smy and has been added to the site with her permission. Mrs Smy fully understands the site's terms and conditions).

When war was declared I worked in Sternfield House, a large country house near the church, in a village called Sternfield. I worked as a parlour maid at this house for a family. My employers were a Russian and Canadian couple called the Cherniavskys. They had a lot of servants and I ‘lived in’ at Sternfield House and on my day off I went home to my village of Dennington about 6 miles from Sternfield.

I can’t remember if the servants of the country house were drafted when war was declared but I think that land workers may have been exempt. As Mr Cherniavsky was Russian he had to report his whereabouts every so often to the local police station in Saxmundham as was the custom for foreign nationals during the wartime. Mrs Cherniavsky, his wife, returned to Canada for the duration of the war and she took their two young sons.

In 1941 when I was eighteen I married my Charlie before he went off to war. Charlie just wanted to make sure of me before he went off to war in case I was married to someone else when he came home!! He used to see me biking along with my father when we lived at Badingham Road and he lived in Framlingham and he said to his mates, ‘That’s the girl I’m going to marry one day.” And I didn’t like him! We couldn’t have a white wedding cake because of the rationing during wartime. We had chocolate icing on our wedding cake because sugar was rationed. You had to make do and pool the food because you only got so much butter and sugar and eggs. My father had a huge garden and he grew all his vegetables like most people used to do back then. We used to take our rations from different shops - you didn’t get them all at the same shop. I was married and I got my rations at National Stores at Framlingham and my mother got hers from somewhere else and they’d got something in that another shop didn’t. So you did quite well in the end. At Christmas everyone pooled together and everybody had a few little extras for Christmas and as I was married I got my extras too and we pooled them. So it was all right. Dad kept chickens so we never went short of eggs — sold them too!!

I didn’t get called up to do war work as I was married with a young son. I wanted to and I could have volunteered but my own mother didn’t want me to. She said, “They took his Dad and they’re not going to take his mum.” But I did all sorts of things during the war — at Dennington when they had their holiday I delivered the post. Lovely job! Didn’t mind doing that. Sometimes I lived with my mother-in-law in Framlingham.

Once cycling along I saw some incendiary bombs but generally we didn’t see many bombs around Framlingham there was the occasional one but they were mainly dropped on the built up areas. I think they used to jettison them off the east coast and dropped them anywhere on the coast to get rid of them. Sometimes while cycling along you’d see a German plane. They hedge-hopped and flew very low over the hedges. You just kept cycling.

I can’t remember if there were air raid shelters in Framlingham but I suppose there were.

During the war I made my son’s clothes on my mum’s sewing machine. Trousers were difficult! I made pull up ones. He never had a gas mask. Every night when Charlie, my husband, was away during the war I used to say to our son Brian, “Kiss daddy good night.” And he kissed his daddy’s photograph on the way up to bed every night. Sometimes I used to walk right past the photograph and he’d let me get to the bottom of the stairs and he’d shout, “I haven’t kissed Daddy goodnight.” I did it on purpose to test him! I expect a lot of women did that — took their children to kiss their Daddy goodnight. So he knew his Dad when he came back. They got on so well. A lot of fathers and children didn’t get on because they were strangers.

When war ended my husband took a long time coming home. I’d been told Charlie was missing presumed dead but he’d been a prisoner of war in Burma building the railway. He came home via Australia, as he had to take respite there because he was so ill from the prison camp. He convalesced for a long time. It was called extended leave.

When my husband returned from the war he wouldn’t talk much about it but he did say one of two things. He was a Private and he was very close to his Captain and his Captain looked after all his men. The men were dying of dysentery and malaria including Charlie. Some had already been declared dead so the Captain came round for a final goodbye to his men to say some prayers and Charlie was one of the men declared dead. However, as he was being sewn into a rice sack and being prepared to be buried in a grave, the Captain noticed that Charlie’s eyelids were flickering and said, “This man is still alive.”

When they used to sit around discussing what they would like to do after the war, Charlie’s Captain said if we all survive I’d like to buy a farm in Sussex and I’d like all my Suffolk Regiment men to come and work for me. After the war the Captain came and knocked on Dad’s door and said “I’ve got my farm, are you coming?” So after the war we went down to Sussex to live and work on the Captain’s fruit farm. Charlie said we’ve got to go but we can always come home. My son used to say “When are we going home mum?” “I used to say but we are home, we live here.” And he would say “But I want to go home to Suffolk.” He started school down there and we lived there for a couple of years at least.

My husband told a few stories about the war. He was quite an entertainer and a funny man so he used to enact shows for the Japanese prison guards. And one night the Japanese guards filled his cup with Sake wine for a joke and he gradually got drunk, as he wasn’t used to alcohol at that time.

He said the Japanese were good and bad but mostly he had bad experiences and it got worse as the war went on. His ankles were bad because the Japanese guards beat him. And if you couldn’t work because you were sick you didn’t get fed. He buried a lot of men. When he came back to England he went round to the parents or wives of every man who’d been lost to talk to them. He needed to tell them how they were when they died and explain to them what happened because the War Department didn’t explain. He said the big strong men were the ones who died first because they needed more food to keep them going and they hadn’t got the stamina to survive. The skinny ones survived. My husband carried his wedding ring all through the war, he wasn’t supposed to (none of them were supposed to). He managed to keep it all through the war but he lost it when he got home. His fingers were so thin. He managed to hide it from the Japanese. They used to bury a lot of stuff in the ground or they’d swallow it and retrieve it later.

A lot of the PoWs in Burma, when they returned home, elected to go straight back to Burma to show everybody where the graves were before they got lost.

When my husband came home he used to have terrible nightmares. One night his hands were around my throat. He thought I was a Jap. That was frightening. But I still slept with him. A lot of women couldn’t take it. They were frightened to sleep with their husbands but we said we’d stick it out. He ran away sometimes to London because he couldn’t cope and the Salvation Army would find him and return him. He had to get it out of his system. You just had to get on with it. It must have been terrible. I worried about him when he went off because we didn’t know where he was.

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