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Memories of childhood in a prohibited area

by Dr Rosemary Gilbert

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Archive List > Childhood and Evacuation

Contributed by 
Dr Rosemary Gilbert
People in story: 
Rosemary Gilbert (formerly Ingham), Marine Corporal Norman Machell Ingham
Location of story: 
Kingsdown, Walmer and Deal, Kent
Background to story: 
Civilian
Article ID: 
A6594861
Contributed on: 
01 November 2005

Wartime memories of childhood in a prohibited area

My father’s call-up papers arrived amongst the Christmas cards on Christmas Eve 1942 instructing him to report to the Royal Marines Eastney Barracks, Portsmouth on 30th December and enclosing a postal order for 4s. (one day’s pay), and a rail ticket. This news came as a shock for my father had assumed by then that he would not be called-up. He was a bank clerk and his bank (Midland Bank now HSBC) had told their staff in the autumn of 1942 that the government had informed them the call-up of bank staffs had almost reached the limit and that unless a man received call-up papers by the end of the year it was most unlikely he would join the forces. He was just unlucky! He found himself at age 35 the eldest of a squad at Portsmouth most of whom were between the ages of 18-20. He left my mother, my brother and I living a few miles out of the town of Chesham, Bucks. Like most people we had no car, no washing-machine and no fridge. The solid-fuel boiler which heated the water had to be lit and fed with anthracite or coke. Shopping had to be done by bus in Chesham almost on a daily basis, and at a time of rationing and shortages, and my brother and I, aged 6 and 8, had to travel several miles to school by bus. When my youngest brother was born in January 1944 my mother found it difficult to cope with two children and a baby. So when my father was posted to the Marines Pay Office at Walmer near Deal the same year she told him she would like to bring the family to join him there.

My father at first refused to agree but after realising her difficulties, relented and sought the advice of the authorities in Deal as this was, of course, a dangerous prohibited area; many people had left ‘Hellfire Corner’. He was told that if the family actually arrived nothing could be done about it, so he arranged to rent one of the many unoccupied furnished houses for us. Our home at Chesham was let to the wife and family of a naval officer.

In the spring of 1944 we travelled to Deal by train which from London was full of Canadian servicemen. My mother had to breast-feed my baby brother in the crowded compartment with a scarf draped over her chest. One of the soldiers remarked, with a North American drawl “Don’t mind us, ma’am”. When we got off the train at Deal it was dark, my father was there to meet us with a taxi which took us round the corner to the Police Station, where our Identity Cards were inspected and we children were scrutinised in the car by smiling faces. My father had been granted permission to leave his barracks and live with us, being given Provision and Lodging Allowance of a few shillings a week.

We lived firstly in a bungalow on the Ringwould Road at Kingsdown and then at Walmer, experiencing bombing, shelling from France, and V1s (Doodle-bugs) and V2s droning above us towards London. The owner of the bungalow had arranged to go and stay with her brother for safety in Ashford, but just before we arrived bombing began there so she decided to remain at Kingsdown with us. In September 1944 shells landed in Ringwould Road, blowing off the roof of the bungalow next-door to ours and my brother and I picked up hot shrapnel in our garden. The air-raid warning for a shell attack was a variation of that for bombs, being sounded twice. The sound of it sixty years later still sends a shiver of fear down my spine. Many people went frequently to the cinema (known then as 'the pictures') as there was little other entertainment. If you were in the cinema when the warning sounded, as happened to us, the projector was switched off and everyone had to leave and miss the rest of the film, although you were given a ticket for another showing. We could see the flash of the guns on the French coast before hearing the sound of the firing and then the thud when the shell landed. We peered longingly at the sea through a barricade of scaffolding and barbed wire. The beach was mined and Deal pier partly demolished to avoid providing a means of landing for the enemy.

My mother was permitted to shop in the NAAFI and we were amazed to find foodstuffs, such as slab fruit cake (gorgeous in the 1940s!), which we hadn’t been able to buy for some time. There were many service personnel in the area, probably connected with Operation Overlord. Some would hand out cartons of raw chocolate powder into which we dipped a licked finger, and the Americans used to throw us chewing-gum from their vehicles. With sweets rationed this was a great treat. On Good Friday 1945 I recorded in my diary that we ‘had NO buns’. One Easter my mother, following a Wartime recipe, made ‘Easter Eggs’ from cold mashed potato rolled in cocoa, which not surprisingly we, sitting in the cinema at the time, were unable to eat! For my tenth birthday on 31st January 1945 I was given 10 Coupons (clothing presumably), 1 book, 1 blotter, 1 geography wheel, 6 cards and 2 cheques for 10s.6d. and 7s.6d.

Because the road from Kingsdown to the village school at Ringwould was subject to shelling, parents refused to send their children there and my brother and I missed 6 months of schooling until we moved to a house in Dover Road, Walmer, which belonged to a naval captain. His sea chest was pointed out to us in the cellar. We were then able to go to St. Ethelburga’s Convent School in Deal until 1946 when my father was demobbed. We had to share this house with the young wife and child of an airman so after a few months my father found a house in Herschell Road, Walmer, the first house we had to ourselves. This belonged to the widow of a partner in a publishing firm and all the walls, including those in the bathroom, were lined with books. I made friends with a fellow school pupil who was the daughter of a Marine WRN working in the Pay Office with my father, and we used to walk to the Barracks together to meet our respective parents when they left at 5pm. On Sundays we would watch the Marines Church Parade with the Drum Major tossing his staff high into the air. When I had saved enough pocket money I was able to buy my first proper bicycle on the 27th March 1945. Costing £8 16s. 5d. with blocks on the pedals an extra 2s., it was a ‘Norman’ painted completely black, even the handlebars because of the shortage of chrome.

To celebrate the end of the War in Europe on 8th May 1945 we had two days holiday from school and my friend and I went out into the streets to see the celebrations with flags flying, but we experienced another shortage as all the Union Jacks were sold out and we had to make do with a French Tricolour instead. A small area of the beach was cleared of fortifications and checked for mines shortly before the end of the war and I paddled for the first time on the 18th April 1945. There were no buckets and spades in the shops and the only thing my mother could find was a set of sand moulding shapes, which were of absolutely no use as when we reached the beach we discovered it was all shingle. But we were the envy of other children as my school friend’s father owned a local garage and she had an old car tyre inner-tube which we played with in the sea, there being no rubber products around. I can still feel the roughness of the rusting metal pipes of the fortifications when my bare limbs brushed up against them in the water. After the war we were also permitted to travel in the area and see neighbouring towns and villages for the first time.

I was aged 10 when the war ended and am grateful that my parents protected me from much of the horrors they were experiencing and that I was too young to realise the seriousness of the war. I had a glass slate with a map of Europe inserted between the glass and the backing, and as the Allies advanced into Europe so I shaded in those parts of the map. Recently reading a wartime history of the Deal area I have been amazed at what had gone on around us.

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