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A Childhood War in London and Glasgow

by johetc

Contributed by 
People in story: 
Location of story: 
London, Scotland, Harrogate
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
24 November 2003

There was a sound of cheering, elated cheering, from the wireless. And the grave, triumphant voice of Chamberlain. “Who is that?” I asked my mother “Why are they cheering him?”. “He is a wonderful man” said my mother happily. “He has saved the country”.

We were to learn differently a few days later. A neighbour and friend came rushing to the house. She and my mother were closeted together. “We are at War with Germany” said my mother despairingly. I ran upstairs to my bedroom and looked out of the window. I imagined the enemy surrounding the house, and myself at the window shooting at them. I was nine years old.

The days after that seemed out of control. My father who had been home on leave from Iraq where, as a civil servant in the Air Ministry, he had been posted, was summoned to return immediately. So he had to leave us.

We queued for ration books, for identity cards, for gas masks. There was panic in the air. My mother made a decision - London was not the best place to be. So off we went to Euston Station, my brother, myself and the dog, Rusty, shepherded by our anxious mother, a gentle and reticent Scottish woman who kept her counsel, and expected and received our unquestioning obedience. We boarded the Flying Scot and nine hourse later we were in Glasgow and at the house of an uncle with my grandmother and aunts The uncle was not pleased. He had his own problems. “The dog will have to go” he said. My cousins and I whispered and giggled, enjoying all the disruption. What was said between the adults I do not know, but next day we were on our way to MacDuff on the Moray Firth, a small fishing town where my mother’s aunts lived in a large gaunt house on the the sea shore. They took us in as evacuees and there we spent the first winter of the War, returning to London in 1940, in time for the Blitz.

One night I woke up and found that instead of my bed I was on a mattress on the floor downstairs. The sky was blazing, bombs falling, airoplanes droning. We slept downstairs for a few nights then came to an arrangement with neighbours who had a cellar. We would rush in there when the sirons sounded , and return only with the all-clear. Nights were disrupted. So was school to my delight. At the sound of the warning we would troop down to the convent cellars. It is a terrible thing to say, but the air raid warning made me feel excited, and the All Clear to me was a flat depressing sound. However I felt differently some years later when I saw the film “In Which we Serve” An ordinary family in a house just like ours sheltered under the stair case when the sirens sounded. The house was demolished and they were killed. In the next raid - for the first time - I was afraid.

There were new games: capturing German spies, daring to go in roads cordoned off because of suspected unexploded bombs, collecting shrapnell and in the case of my brother other explosive devices. He got into trouble for that, and songs - “Ven der Fhurer says, Ve is der master race, Ve heil, heil, heil, Right in der fuhrer’s face”, and “Underneath the spreading chestnut tree, Mr Churchill said to me, If you want to get your gas mask free, Join the blinking ARP”.

Finally our father returned from Iraq. He was posted to Harrogate, a completely different country for us. Relief from the sleepless nights for our parents, new schools for us - for me a small village school, where the teaching was excellent, but the girls different from the convent school ones in London, and very different again from the school in MacDuff, (where for a time we attended only half the day, because of the sudden intake of evacuees from Edinburgh.)

A baby was born in January, our brother. And in August we returned home. Another year in wartime London at the convent. I finally refused to go back there. “Trouble with the nuns” as my father put it when he was visiting his mother and sisters in Glasgow. “Send her up here” they said. And so I began a new school yet again. I went from the “posh” convent where I was miserable to a convent in the heart of Glasgow where I spent the happiest days of my school life.

In holidays I would come home. By now the flying bombs were falling. My grandmother did not want me to come home because she feared for me. But I persuaded to my parents, with no understanding or thought for my grandmother’s fears. We would watch the “Doodle Bugs” overhead, and pray that they would not stop. The V2s were fascinating. You heard them crash and explode, and seconds later you heard them coming.

In Scotland our school would send parties of girls to help the farmers in October - mainly lifting potatoes - “Tattie-howkin”. It was back breaking work, but what fun we had. One year we stayed in Fasques House in Kincardineshire, Gladsone’s old home. We slept in dormiteries and had pillow fights, and midnight feasts.

The war for me was woven into my childhood. It was different for my mother, my father (who served in the Home Guard in Harrogate) and my brother who who joined the Air Training Service, was posted to Andover and many exciting experiences. He had taken his Matric exam in 1944 under difficult conditions. Every so often the boys had to duck under their desks as German bombers flew over.

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