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15 October 2014
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Excerpts from a 'Memoir'

by smithstringer

Contributed by 
smithstringer
People in story: 
Mrs Joyce Stringer
Location of story: 
Woolwich, SE London
Background to story: 
Civilian
Article ID: 
A3818162
Contributed on: 
22 March 2005

WAR IS DECLARED

Preparations were being made for war, with air-raid shelters now appearing in parks and sand bags protecting buildings. Hitler was preparing to take Sudetenland from Czechoslovakia. The Czechs appealed for help from Britain and France and these two Governments began negotiations with Germany. The talks ended with an agreement signed at Munich in September 1938 by Hitler, Mussolini, Neville Chamberlain and Edouard Daladier. This agreement allowed Germany to have the Sudetenland in return for a guarantee that Britain and France would uphold the new Czechoslovakian frontiers. Chamberlain returned to Britain waving this now famous piece of paper declaring that 'There would be peace in our time'. The population was divided over this agreement many feeling that we had let Czechoslovakia down, especially as six months later Germany took the rest of Czechoslovakia unhindered.

There was now a gradual ending of unemployment as factories were being geared to arms production. Hitler repeatedly declared that "Germany had no further territorial aims". Actually the policy of appeasement championed by Britain and France had encouraged Hitler to seek new conquests believing that Britain and France had no intention of declaring war. In the countries already taken over he had introduced his Secret Police and had begun his persecution of the Jews.

In August 1939 Russia signed a pact with Germany. It was a time of great suspense as we all realised that World War 2 was now imminent. The population had been issued with gas masks and children were being prepared for evacuation. Most people felt that saturation bombing would begin as soon as war was declared and that hostilities would be over quickly. I was worried for my parents, believing Woolwich would be an early target. I wanted them to come and live with me but they didn't want to leave their shop. However, I did persuade my grandparents to come to Feltham. I hoped it would be safer than Belvedere. Joe, who belonged to the Auxiliary Air Force had already been mobilised and was posted to a Barrage Balloon site in Norwood Park.

Then on that fearful day of 3 September 1939, my grandparents and I gathered around the wireless set, roast dinner cooking in oven, as Neville Chamberlain, in a most solemn and memorable tone, spoke to the Nation:

"This morning the British Ambassador in Berlin handed the German Government a final note stating that unless we heard by 11 o'clock that they are prepared to withdraw their troops from Poland, a state of war would exist between us. I have to tell you now that no such undertaking has been received, so consequently this country is in a state of war with Germany."

As his speech ended, the first wailing siren of the war sounded. We felt a bit panicky as we had no shelter. Soon, however, the 'all clear' sounded - we learned later that it was a false alarm.

After my grandparents and I recovered from the shock of the first air-raid warning, followed by the 'all clear', and realised it was a false alarm, we finished cooking our Sunday lunch. But we realised also that this day, 3 September 1939, was the day that changed our world and we knew that things would never be the same again.

The weeks that followed were uneventful with no air-raids, and this lull was becoming known as 'the phoney war'. Children began returning from evacuation. Cinemas and theatres re-opened and shows were chosen for their light-heartedness in an effort to enhance the population's morale.

I became pregnant again. As the air-raids had not materialised, my grandmother decided to return to her home in Belvedere. I realised if I couldn't work I would be unable to afford this house, so I returned to my parents' home and we rented from them their two upstairs rooms.

We had barely settled in when the 'phoney war' came to an end with a vengeance. Europe was hurtled into Hitler's 'Blitzcreig' period. Blitzcreig meant lightning war and lightning it was, for in April 1940 his armies streaked through Denmark and Norway, in May Belgium, then The Netherlands and Luxembourg. At the end of May he was advancing on France. There was wholesale bombing of cities and dive bombing of refugees as they tried to flee from the terror. Neville Chamberlain resigned as Prime Minister and Winston Churchill took over. On 27 May all ships, large and small, which could be mustered sailed from England to rescue our armies from the beaches of Dunkirk. This was a glorious achievement. On 22 June 1940 France capitulated.

On 8 August the Battle of Britain began. Opposite the Dockyard Station, a one time public house had been converted into flats with a reinforced basement. This became our night-time sleeping quarters. As soon as the siren wailed, my mother and myself and many of our neighbours trundled over there and a motley crew we were - enveloped in blankets and woollies, gloves and scarves, deck chairs and mattresses, camp beds, flasks and food. Some of the men, including my father, took their turn in fire watching as there were many fires caused by incendiary bombs.

Then one Saturday we had the worst day-time bombing. All of the buildings along the river, as far as the eye could see, were ablaze. I was out when it began. On reaching home I went to the top of our house, where we had a good view of the river, and it was a terrifying, if spectacular, sight. Night and day the bombing continued and I remember particularly one night when the whole of the City of London was ablaze. But the Luftwaffe were suffering great losses and the day raids eased somewhat.

1940-1944

Mostly the war news in 1940 had been depressing. At the end of May our armies were evacuated from Dunkirk, evacuated by hundreds of very brave men using their own small boats. In June, France capitulated. Then it was our turn and the Battle of Britain commenced - the date 3 September 1940. The Luftwaffe began with using thousands of incendiaries thus lighting up the target areas ready to receive the thousand pounders and the land-mines.

On the Saturday I went to the top of our three-storied house, where there was a clear view of the river. I shall never ever forget that day. The Thames was alight, as were the Docks, the riparian buildings - I felt it was a scene from Hell. This period was known later as the Second Fire of London. It was like a terrible nightmare which I had witnessed. And this nightmare continued with the burning of the City of London. All the old familiar streets, such as Cheapside, Cannon Street, Queen Victoria Street, Fenchurch Street and so many more, were engulfed with incendiaries and, like the River Thames, were a blazing inferno. Many of our lovely old churches and historic buildings were destroyed, as were banks and shops.

There was a basement in the block of flats opposite our house which had been reinforced as an air raid shelter. As the bombing was then relentless, my mother and I, my father being on fire-watching duty, went to the shelter to snatch a little sleep between the wailing of the sirens. It was becoming increasingly difficult for me as I was then six months' pregnant, so I decided to accept an aunt's invitation to stay with her until my baby was born. I packed my bags and made my way to Leiston in Suffolk.

Here my first baby was born, Josephine Phyllis - names which were chosen by Freda. As soon as possible after the birth I moved to Hayes, Middlesex, where I rented two rooms. I was now near enough to visit my parents, grandmother, and sister Freda.

One day my father turned up unexpectedly with the sad news that Freda had died from an epileptic fit, caused by the new electric shock treatment with which they were experimenting. The date was 10 May 1941, which was also one of the worst daylight raids. There were thousands of casualties and great devastation.

In July my second child was born, Neil John Charles, in Hillingdon Hospital. Rationing was introduced on clothes and food.

The news remained very depressing. The Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbour and soon after completed their conquest of Singapore and The Philippines. The worst news of all was that France was now completely occupied by Germany.

As soon as there was a lull in the bombing I moved back nearer to my parents and managed to rent a house in Genesta Road, Plumstead. It was not ideal but it was good at last to be settled in my own home with my two babies. I could walk with them to see my parents, and they visited me. I met an old friend at the Clinic who was living at No 1 Genesta, and Gladys and I visited the Clinic together and helped each other. These were much happier days with no bombing. The war news also was more encouraging. We had won the battle of El Alamain, and on the Russian front Germany had capitulated at Stalingrad.

I was having trouble with the house. A large crack had appeared at the top of the stairs and I could see through to my neighbours. We also had cockroaches, due to earlier bombing having fractured underground pipes, and I was pregnant again and the bombing was increasing. I used to walk to the Town Hall shelters each evening, pushing the pushchair with children, blankets, bottles and food. I found my return journey in the mornings exhausting because of the steep hills. We also had workmen in repairing the subsidence. This was a great inconvenience, as they had all the floor up and we had to walk on planks. This was very hazardous with two toddlers. I didn't stay long at the Town Hall, as one night I saw insects crawling up the wall where I slept. I had never seen bugs, but I had a horrible feeling that is what they were. I thought it was better to brave the bombs and the cockroaches rather than the bugs.

We just managed to get straight after the workmen had finished when my third baby was born, Geraldine Lois. She came with the advent of the flying bombs. These were terrifying and macabre and, when Geraldine was eleven days' old, we were bombed by one of these devilish devices. My father had come over to help me and to return Josie, whom my mother had been seeing after. When the warning sounded we made our way up the garden to our Anderson shelter, where we stayed until the sounding of the 'All Clear'.

On our return my father put Geraldine into her wicker cot, which was in the middle room downstairs and was being used as my bedroom. I was about to make a cup of tea when we heard a very ominous and frightening noise, and then came the explosion, with glass, bricks and debris raining down on us. My father groped his way into the bedroom to rescue Geraldine. The wardrobe doors had been blown off onto her cot but, by a miracle, she appeared to be unhurt. We were taken to St Nicks where we were treated for shock and had all the glass removed. My father was kept in as he was quite badly cut and we were transferred to the Slade Rest Centre. It was hardly a Rest Centre, as flying bombs were exploding all night and fire engines and ambulances wailed continuously and the casualties and the new homeless were being brought to the Rest Centre. It was a terrible, nightmarish time.

The canteen was situated at the top of the building and each time I managed to reach the top with the two toddlers and my new baby, the warning would go and the flying bombs were raining down death. I descended once again, still without refreshment. How vivid is the memory of those terrifying nights, trying to shield my babies with my body. Then help came. A call from a very old friend - "Please come and stay here with me at Blaby". Yet again I was on the move as my house had suffered major damage.

MY MEMORIES OF D-DAY

The 5th of June 1944 was the day my third child was expected. I hoped it would arrive on that day, as it would have been my sister's birthday, had she lived. But my baby did not arrive, and was not to be born for another uncomfortable six days. Rome was liberated on the 5th of June and great was the welcome for the allies, Rome being the first city to be liberated. Roses filled a correspondent's jeep.

Then, on the 6th of June, the invasion began. It was reported on the news 39that, after a terrible bombardment, airborne troops had landed at the mouth of the Seine. My father came over to collect Josie, as my mother was going to look after her until after the birth. Neil was to stay with me. At one o' clock there was a very moving broadcast called "D-Day, The Day." We were told that 4,000 ships and many thousands of other craft were gathered ready for the landing on the coast of Normandy. The day was grey and cold with a North wind. At nine o' clock King George broadcast, calling us all to prayer.

By the 7th of June the beaches were clear of the enemy and stores and equipment landed. Bayeux had been liberated and the people were delirious with joy, throwing flowers, embracing and kissing our troops and crying 'Vive 1' Angleterre'.

We were, however, warned by Churchill not to be too optimistic, as the Germans would be launching their counter-attacks. My baby arrived eventually on the 11th of June, our wedding anniversary

In those days we were expected to stay in bed for ten days. Six days later began the bombardment of London by Hitler's secret weapons - the pilotless planes or flying bombs. They were very frightening and sinister. It was almost impossible to see them. Suddenly they could be heard, then an ominous silence culminated in a deafening explosion. During the silence, people waited with bated breath, very frightened. I had been suffering with constipation; the midwife said, "If you haven't been by tomorrow, you will have to have an enema." Well, I didn't need that enema - Hitler's flying bombs did the trick!

When Baby Geraldine was ten days old, our house received major damage caused by a flying bomb. My father had come over to help me. When the warning siren sounded, we made our way to the Anderson shelter in the garden.

We returned at the sound of the All Clear, put baby in her cot in the middle room downstairs and were just about to make a cup of tea when we heard that sinister sound, then silence. With the explosion we were hit by glass, plaster and bricks. I escaped with Neil out of the back door, down the side alley, struggling over glass and rubble.

My father rescued the baby. The wardrobe doors had blown on to her wicker cot, but fortunately she was unhurt. We learned later that this flying bomb had been shot up during the raid by one of our planes.

We were all taken to St Nicholas Hospital, where they removed glass and treated wounds. My father was kept in but I was taken with the children to the Slade School, which was being used as a rest centre. What a nightmare that turned out to be! The canteen was at the top of the building. Every time I managed to struggle up there, so the warning siren would sound, and down I would go again. That night was the worst experienced in that part of Plumstead, with flying bombs exploding all around, and the noise of ambulances and fire- engines adding to the fear.

I was terrified, and couldn't think how best to protect the children. Within a few days they allowed Joe home on leave. We picked up Josie from my mother, who parted with her very reluctantly, and we made our way to Countesthorpe, Leicestershire, to where they were evacuating us.

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