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- Pamela Scraton
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- 16 February 2004
"The day war broke out..." was a catchphrase I remember from those days. On the day war broke out in real life, I was a few months short of my fifth birthday, living with my parents and older sisters in Carshalton, Surrey. My father worked in the City of London, and my mother was a housewife.
Most of my early memories of the war years come back to me as vignettes of sharp recall among more misty generalities. I was used to watching planes overhead taking part in "mock dogfights", so I watched with interest as small pellets (as they seemed to me) began to fall from those in one group, and cried when my mother came running out and hauled my sister and me indoors, and under the table in the dining-room, with cushions to sit on, and raisins to eat. Later I heard her and my father talking about the heavy raid on Croydon aerodrome.
At that early stage we had no shelter, but later we acquired a brick shelter in the garden. It would have been a lot more comfortable if our shelter for five had not been built in our neighbours' garden, while we had theirs, intended for two! It would probably also have been better if our dog had not claimed the right to be always first in when the siren went, causing a nasty pile-up in the doorway on one occasion, which ended with both parents and the dog in a heap on the floor. (We children had been put to bed in there earlier.) That was the night we heard enormous crashing sounds and breaking glass. "There goes the house" was my father's quiet comment to my mother; but when we came slowly out after the all-clear sounded, the house was intact. It was the garage which had collapsed, and in the absence of a car, all the cans and jars of paint, and odds and ends in it had caused the sounds of devastation which we had heard.
I was late starting school and then attended for only a few days, before I was taken to the isolation hospital with Scarlet Fever, which was a serious illness in those days. I remember being taken to the shelter on my first day at school, and when volunteers were called for to entertain, singing nursery rhymes to the assembled staff and children. In hospital, when the air-raid sirens wailed, we were lifted on our mattresses, and laid under our beds, and a corrugated asbestos sheet was placed on top of the bed. On one occasion the french doors along one side of the ward were shattered by blast, and the floor was covered in broken glass.
I was still too weak to go back to school when I came home again, and I was given the job of sounding a final warning to the local housewives to get into shelter. With all the frequent warnings, many of which proved unnecessary, mothers were not getting any work done in the home, so I was stationed at the entrance to our shelter, watching for enemy planes, and when I saw them, I beat on a dustbin lid with a wooden mallet to raise the alarm; I felt very important, and very patriotic.
One plane we used to see almost every day "coming up our garden path" we nick-named "The Flying Fish". We used to call out to its pilot (not that he could hear) and cheer it on, assuming it to be "one of ours", until the day its snooping activities were rumbled, and it beat a hasty retreat, never to return and rumoured to have dropped a cargo of bombs (though this seems unlikely if it was on reconnaissance).
My eldest sister, Elsie, joined the WRNS, and before she left she gave me a necklace of red glass beads to "look after for her while she was away". I still have it. In August 1941 she was on SS Aguila bound for Gibraltar when the convoy was attacked by U-boats, and the Aguila was sunk in the early hours of the morning, with the loss of almost all on board. I was sitting eating my breakfast - a boiled egg with soldiers - when the telegram arrived. Our neighbour had seen it delivered, and she came into our house and scooped me up complete with egg, and I went placidly on eating it at her kitchen table. I did not see the first agony of my parents, and the news was broken very gently to me later. I suppose it was because there was no physical evidence of death, but it took me many years to accept that she would not come back. I often scanned faces in the streets, thinking that one day I would see her.
It was Elsie who had prevented, at the last minute, my evacuation to Canada. All arrangements had been made for me to go, even to a date and a ship, but she begged my parents not to let me go, saying she had had a premonition of disaster, and that I would never be seen again. The ship I had been allocated to did not reach Canada, but was torpedoed in mid-Atlantic, with the loss of 300 children. But thanks to my sister, I was not on it. Instead, I was evacuated to St. Helens, where I lived with the then Director of Education for Lancashire and his family. In company with many others, I returned home when the danger appeared not to have materialised after all. We did not keep in touch, but I still have a photograph of myself with the three children of the family (Brenda, Ian and Georgie).
My father was not very much at home in those days. He had his daytime job, and took his turn at firewatching duties after hours. He was also in the Home Guard. He was manager of a laundry, and on one occasion one of the laundry girls came running to fetch him, very upset because she had discovered "a body" in a laundry hamper. When my father investigated he found a side of pork wrapped in towels, which he deduced was intended for higher up in the company than the shop-floor. Having consulted with his immediate superior, he supervised the dividing-up of the porker between those present, and all enjoyed their share of this unexpected treat. Whoever it was originally intended for, of course, did not complain!
One time when he was at home, he took us out, and the bus bringing us home again was caught in an air-raid. We had to get off, and after walking towards home for a while, my father knocked on the door of a house chosen at random, and asked for shelter. I sat on the floor while the parents talked, and a litter of kittens was put into my lap, to keep my mind off the frightening noise and activity outside. When the all-clear sounded we walked the rest of the way home through the blackout, our only light being a torch with most of the light covered, leaving just a small slit.
Towards the end of the war the V1s - the Doodlebugs - replaced conventional raids. We got used to the drone of their approach, followed by stuttering and then silence as they cut out, and we used to time the gap between that and the crash. For some reason I was not afraid of these as I had been of the piloted planes with their bombs. They seemed much more random than the deliberate targeting of the manned bombers. When the V2s came, though, they were horrific, and left me paralysed with fear.
At the end of the war there were great celebrations, and an enormous street party was organised locally for VE-day. It was decided that the children's party would be in fancy dress, and someone who had a huge store of fancy dress costumes made them freely available. Each child was taken to choose. I was offered a "baby-doll" outfit, but had my mind firmly set on a fairy's costume, in common with half the rest of the girls, and this is what I wore. After the food element of the party, we each had to entertain the gathering, and in my fairy dress I gave a spirited rendering of King Henry's speech "Once more into the breech, dear friends", from Shakespeare's Henry V. Needless to say this didn't really grip my audience, and the prize was awarded to a child who sang "The White Cliffs of Dover", which was more in the spirit of the occasion.
That wasn't the end, of course. We still had years of restriction and hardship to come, but we could once again live without fear. Gradually familiar faces returned, making the gaps even more poignant. For those of us who had little recollection of life before the war, the reinstatement of earlier habits and practices were like new experiences. I remember tasting scrambled eggs - from real eggs - and finding them unpleasantly insubstantial after the slabs of dried egg I was used to. Gradually the cameraderie and community spirit of the war years faded, and "making do" and "doing without" lost their flavour of patriotism and became unpleasant necessities. We had won the war, hadn't we?
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