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A Young Boy's War: Chapter 4

by Graeme Sorley

Contributed by 
Graeme Sorley
People in story: 
Graeme Sorley
Location of story: 
England
Article ID: 
A2127656
Contributed on: 
12 December 2003

A YOUNG BOY’S WAR — 1940-1945

CHAPTER 4 - LIFE GOES ON

There were few cars on the roads those days because of petrol rationing. My mother had an allowance to be able to drive to her job outside Reading. Those that travelled at night had their headlights blacked out so that only little slits of light emanated. Often the car had to be crank-started and my mother had to be careful not to injure her thumb with the “kick back”. As a result, we spent a lot of time on our bicycles. These were heavy, utilitarian and with no extra gears which made going up hills an effort. I remember one Christmas Eve huddled around the stove in the kitchen. It must have been 1943. The BBC was broadcasting a carol service from troops in some threatre of war. Their singing was very emotional and made my sister and me cry.

The popular songs of the day were "Run, Rabbit, Run", "Roll out the Barrel", "Quartermaster's Store", "O Johnny, O Johnny Heaven's Above", and "Ten Green Bottles". During the North African Campaign it was "Lilli Marlene". I think Vera Lynn's immortal "White Cliffs of Dover" and “We’ll Meet Again” came later. "Keep the Home Fires Burning” and "Take me back to Dear Old Blighty" were, I think, holdovers from the First World War. In the early days, the BBC would play the National Anthems of Allied countries after the Nine O'clock News; I remember liking "The Marseillaise" but they stopped playing it rather early on! I never did hear "The Star Spangled Banner”, because by the time the Americans had come into the war, they had changed this part of the programme. I always liked the Abyssinian anthem which sounded like Boccherini's Minuet.

My mother was a remarkable woman. Having been bought up in a different era, she was not used to having to work for a living. She had been educated in a private girls' school in Sussex but had not been to university nor been trained for a job. In Bermuda and Singapore she had always had a number of servants to carry out the tasks of cooking, cleaning, sewing, gardening and looking after us children, as befitted a Naval officer's wife. After my father was killed, she was left with very little to live on yet still managed to have us educated privately. Through a friend, she landed a job as a personnel officer at Miles Aircraft near Reading, dealing primarily with the complaints and welfare of the women workers and the blind St. Dunstan's men. The pay was quite good. One day some of the ground crew said "You always said you wanted to go up in a Spitfire, now's your chance". A pilot was sitting in a Spitfire trainer on the tarmac, ready to go. Excitedly she accepted, and was quickly put in the back seat. She hardly had time to get strapped in when the pilot took off, blissfully unaware that he had a passenger. He nose-dived, turned this way and that and looped many loops, thoroughly enjoying himself. She screamed in protest but the pilot could not hear anything above the engine noise. The ground crew ran up and down the tarmac terrified that she had not been properly strapped in and could fall out. She was deaf for three days after that event. She also got a severe reprimand from Freddie Miles himself and told never, ever to do that again. The job was an interesting one and she enjoyed seeing Spitfires rolling off the assembly line.

While we were living in Basildon, my mother was introduced to Commander John Dove, OBE, RN who used to come down to Goring and stay at the “John Barleycorn” for a few day’s leave. After a couple of years with Miles Aircraft, she decided to get a job in London and we moved into a small flat in Marylebone. Initially, while my sister and I were away at school, she stayed in the flat of another Barham widow. John Dove was also living in London and he would bicycle over to see her. In September 1944, he took her out to lunch and warned her that something terrible was going to happen that night - the Germans had a new "secret weapon". The first V-2 rocket which landed on London, landed fairly near her flat and lit up the sky with a red glare. Next morning, she went out to bring in the milk to find John Dove sitting on the front steps. After it had landed, he had jumped on his bicycle, pedaled over and stayed there all night to ensure she was safe.

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