- Contributed by
- Elizabeth Lister
- People in story:
- Betty Lewis (nee Stanley), Dorothy Stanley (mother)
- Location of story:
- Birchington, Kent. Godalming, Surrey.Plymouth, Devon
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 29 November 2005
This story was submitted to the People's War website by a volunteer from CSV Berkshire, Amy Williams, on behalf of Betty Lewis and has been added to the site with her permission. Betty fully understands the site's terms and conditions. Amy Williams is Betty Lewis' grand-daughter.
I was in school in London when the war came. The school closed down so I went home to Birchington, Kent. My mother used to play the piano a lot, I took it up, paid for lessons, but it didn't last long. I had to go dancing; I used to go dancing a lot. We lived in a small terrace house in Birchington but we still had to find room for the soldiers who were billeted at our house. My mother was very strict and I had to be brought home by 10.30 pm. There was always a dance, every weekend. I must have been a very strong person, because a lot of them were keen to get a girlfriend and get married. My mother said I wasn’t to get married: "If somebody's interested in you they'll wait until after the end of the war". There was the English Army Service Corps at first, and then they went to the Far East. After that there were Canadians, and New Zealanders. They were very nice. I could never understand why they came over here, but there you are. I know from my husband, who was a Flight Engineer in Lancasters, that a lot of them were in the Air Force too and many died.
I worked in a baker's in Birchington and it could only have been a week or two after I started working there that Dunkirk happened. To my disgust, I saw what had happened to the Allied soldiers who were coming back from Dunkirk, some of them hadn't had anything to eat for days because they had to walk through France. The French wouldn't give them anything. For two whole days we were kept busy handing out food and drinks to the exhausted soldiers as they arrived back on boats all along the coast. They were dirty, tired and hungry; it was a shock to see them in that state.
The German forces were coming in all round the French coast, so we were lucky really not to be invaded. Where I was living in Birchington it didn’t seem very far away across the Channel. It was very frightening to think that they might come over at any time. You could see the boats and you could see German planes and you knew very well what they were doing, I was only young and I couldn’t believe it, it was not long since I had been at school. We heard that there were thousands of soldiers coming back. They were standing on the beach, waiting to go on the boats and come home. The German dive bombers were just diving and picking off the soldiers on the beach and when the boats went out, they bombed the boat.
The husband of one of my friends took his little boat out, because there were so many people waiting on the beaches to come home. It was a little fishing boat, and it was a stupid thing to do, because the boat was white and half way across the channel they bombed it and he was killed. Some people were saying to him "don't go, don't go", because it's only a little fishing boat.
There was the English Army Service Corps at first, and then they went to Japan. Then there were Canadians, and New Zealanders. They were very nice. I could never understand why they came, but there you are. I know from my husband, who was a Flight Engineer in Lancasters, that a lot of them were in the Air Force too and many died. Then the Americans came over, of course they didn't come into the war until late. Girls I knew married them, GI brides as they were called, but the marriages didn't last, the Americans just went off and left them. They didn't hear any more from them. A friend of mine married a GI, her husband was a very nice but he was already married with a family.
Later on I went to live and work Godalming, Surrey. My friend and I had digs at the Fire Station and we helped out there. We used to go out with the fire engines and help with the people caught in the bombing. We used to go out on top of the engine. I wouldn't go down the shelter because I can't bear going into enclosed places. I used to help the wardens, and make tea, and things like that.
I went to work in a factory. I had long hair and we used to have to roll it up and bring it round to the front. The funny part about it is that I had to take my birth certificate to prove how old I was, because you weren't allowed even then to work unless you were sixteen or so. We used to make dinghies, for the airmen to get in if they ditched over the sea, poor devils. The dinghies were made of orange rubber and were a difficult shape to make. They were round at the end and we used to have to get every crease out before we could tape them round, because otherwise when the water touched it they would just disintegrate and come apart. Why the dinghies were that round shape, I never knew. I did ask why once and I was told that they knew what they were doing. You had to use small rollers and a lot of strength to get the creases out. It was the hardest part of the job and I still have a strong right hand from using those rollers.
We also did fire watching at the dinghy factory. We used to stand on top of the factory, on the roof and look out for fires. We each had to take a turn one night a week, men and women, it seems strange now that I was doing that when I was so young but at the time we thought nothing of it
I saw some of the bombing during the war; I couldn't understand how anyone thought we were beating the Germans. They were causing havoc over here. Most of the bombers were going towards London, but of course now and again they dropped bombs where they shouldn't have done. I saw the Doodlebugs once or twice, but you always moved away from them. They were like long tubes, the front was pointed, and some of them had imitation wings on the side. They were huge things. When you saw them overhead you went the other way because you knew that before long the engine would stop and it would just fall to the ground and blow up.
While I was on at Goldaming, a friend and I were walking along the road after a dance one evening, and we heard this noise - it was a V1 bomb. We knew it could stop at any time and fall, blowing up us all up. As we watched, it did stop. Before we had time to do anything, two Canadian soldiers threw us down into the ditch at the side if the road and sheltered us as the doodlebug dropped nearby and went off. They had saved our lives and said “What do you think you were doing just standing staring up at it!”
We were quite reckless in those days. Although I was living and working in Godalming, in Surrey, I still went back to visit my mother in Kent sometimes at the weekend. Having got the train to London from Godalming, my friend and I would take a taxi across London to Victoria Station. We did this even when there was a bombing raid; we just had to pay the taxi driver double the fare!
I had a boyfriend called Bill. He was in the Royal Army Service Corps, and he'd been in the army a long time and that was his life. He came from Plymouth and I used to visit his family. I went down on the train the day after the big bombing raid on the town and saw all the devastation. His family lived near the Hoe and they were safe but so much of the centre of the town was destroyed, it was a shock, it had all gone. We were all set up to have a party for Bill’s 21st birthday, but he went to the Far East, became a prisoner of war, and two years later he died. While he was a prisoner in Japan, his mother used to get, every now and then, small pieces of paper with: "I am well" or "I am not well" on them. The prisoner had to cross through what didn't apply. Bill didn't last long. My mother was very strict about not having a boyfriend during the war: I stuck to her advice and I was glad I did.
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