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- Joyce Martin-Gutkowska
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- 12 November 2003
I think both my husband and I have material and reminiscences which should be of interest to you.
My husband, a Pole, has a detailed journal of his escape as a second year engineering student in 1939 from Poland via Lithuania, Sweden and France arriving in Britain in 1940. Unfortunately, he has never translated it; but he also has, and has translated, his father’s account under the Occupation in Poland.
As for me; I was 8 in 1939, living with my parents in Nazeing, a village in the Lea Valley. Though predominantly rural (lower Nazeing, where we lived, being mainly devoted to the glasshouse production of tomatoes and cucumbers), we were close enough to London to have our share of the Battle of Britain, Blitz, Hit and run raids, Doodlebugs, and finally a V2.
My father, too old at 41 for war service, continued working at the Royal Gunpowder Mills in Waltham Abbey, to which he cycled for each of his three shifts: 6am to 2pm, 2-10, 10-6. In his “spare” time he helped run a fFirst Aid Post. He naturally spoke little of his job, though “cordite” and “gun cotton” entered my vocabulary. The only thing I vividly recall is his arrival home from a particularly noisy night shift, and in wonderment telling us, ”Those b***dy nightingales went on singing when all hell was being let loose.” [The mills were and still are surrounded by beautiful woodland] When the gunpowder mills were officially closed down in 1943, he became part of the Directed Labour Scheme, and was sent to the other side of London to work at Firestone Tyres on The Great West Road. He came home only at weekends. Thus it was, one Sunday morning in early autumn in 1944 that he was home when the V2 dropped less than a mile away. He dashed off to render what help he could. I think that the shock of what he found was a factor in his developing soon afterwards severe pneumonia from which he never fully recovered, dying of emphysema in April 1953.
My mother, ten years younger than he, began her war by taking into our little house (only two bedrooms, no hot water system) first of all evacuees from London, quite pointlessly sent to our area; then a succession of Land Girls, one of whom, Renee Baker from Walthamstow, stayed to the end of the war and was very much like an older sister for me. In October 1941, my mother gave birth to my only sister in the High Beech nursing home in Epping Forest, to which she took herself alone, by Taxi, through an air-raid, trying, as she told me much later to suppress the contractions because the driver was so terrified she’d give birth on the way. The next-door neighbour came in to me till my father came home from the afternoon shift. My sister was very consciously named Faith.
For me the war was very much part of my education. I was evacuated for a short time in 1940 when my parents sent me (“care of the guard” from Paddington Station) to my father’s old aunts in Burry Port. I remember it was a hot summer and I had to go to Welsh classes, but I didn’t stay long. The Germans started bombing Swansea, so my fatalistic father decided it would be better to die together. I arrived home during the summer holidays to find that, joy of joys, we had acquired a dog — a rough collie called Bob, who was given to my father by a farmer near Waltham Abbey who’d had two but feared he couldn’t feed them both. Poor old Bob, he had a horrible war: Badly fed and terrified witless by the air-raids yet the most faithful nursemaid and guardian for my sister and me: and a wonderful watchdog too: strangers might be allowed into our house if we were out — but they wouldn’t get out again! He didn’t bark, and he didn’t bite, just held them in a corner-as an unfamiliar uncle in khaki discovered. I believed implicitly that Bob would have dealt likewise with any stray German parachutist.
No-one in Nazeing had an Anderson shelter as presumably the authorities felt there was plenty of space for German hardware to land, so the only shelter we had was to bring our beds downstair and if things were particularly scary, we dived for the “cwtch” under the stairs — Bob usually getting there first. Alternatively we huddled under our heavy dining-room table. Later in the war, we were issued with a Morrison table shelter, a very heavy metal box with steel sides. It was never assembled, quietly turning bright orange in the garden till it was collected for disposal.
Apart from the fact that the sound of a propeller aircraft would wake me in the night, stomach in a knot for several years afterwards, my memories of the blitz are summed up by fear, noise and the conventional wisdom that if we heard a bomb whistle, it wasn’t for us, but if it was a whoosh, we dived for cover. (The whooshes luckily all landed with monotonous regularity on the unfortunate glasshouses 100 yards away). Pings and clunks from shrapnel on house and shed roofs gave the promise of more souvenirs to be gathered the next day, useful for possible swapsies for bits of downed Heinkel or Dornier. Only two episodes remain vividly clear, the first a mere snapshot when I was ten: Waking in my parents’ double bed, to find my pregnant mother leaning over me with a pillow on her head, whispering “Please God, Please God” and my saying “It’s all right Mummy, I’ve had a lovely sleep”. The other probably occurred in 1943 when there were still spasmodic air-raids. I was woken by my mother calling,“Oh do come and look at these pretty flares!” Within seconds as I scrambled to the window they were followed by a Molotov bread-basket, a collection of incendiary bombs. The front garden at once became full of explosions and flames and on running to the back door, we found the back garden likewise full of fires. Fortunately nothing landed on our house though many windows were broken. However, the next door neighbour had an incendiary through the roof, through a bed where a Land Girl was a sleep, then through the floor to the room below, then finally exploding under the floor. The neighbour Jack Willetts, had gone outside turning on the hose to deal with the fires in the garden. We heard his wife shouting “Jack, Jack, there’s one through the roof!” — and then a great shout of laughter. Turning round, he had caught his wife full in the chest with the stream from the hose! The Land Girl was unharmed, but the bed wouldn’t have offered much comfort afterwards!
One casualty of The Blitz was the little village primary school which was sufficiently damaged for all the pupils — about 100 of us — to be sent to a local chapel hall where for a while we were all taught together in one room. My main recollection of that time is the amount of class singing we did: I’ve always been glad that I learnt so many songs from The National Song Book.
Nevertheless, we must have continued to have effective teaching. Early in 1942, all the Standard IV pupils sat for the “Scholarship” as the 11+ was normally called, and all but one of us passed for the grammar school. Down the years, I send a belated but heartfelt thank you to our teacher and headmaster, Mr Hills., The examination took place on a raw winter’s day in Epping — not really far away, but with no public transport, it felt like Timbuctoo. Luckily a school friend Marian Gray, was the daughter of a farmer who was still allowed to run a car, and he agreed to take me with Marian.
Being at grammar school meant an early morning start from Nazeing, by bus to Broxbourne station, and then by train to Bishops Stortford where for the next seven years we girls attended the Herts and Essex High School. For the first two years, we had school only in the mornings, including Saturday, because our building was shared by the evacuated Clapton County Secondary School. To this day I feel the greatest love and respect for our headmistress, Miss Rachel Pearse, for the standards and sense of values that she and her staff instilled into us under very difficult circumstances.
Just one or two memories of that time: air-raids were not regarded as an excuse for scamped prep! Later, all those requiring school dinner could not be accommodated by the school kitchen, so we were “crocodiled” to the British Restaurant. This I loathed as it was not exactly salubrious. Situated in an old bus garage, it had a plentiful supply of bird life overhead in the rafters, and the cooking was hardly up to my mother’s standard. I’m afraid that in spite of lectures, my patriotism did not go so far as to put up with it and I took packed lunches for a while. Miss Pearse herself was concerned because the Broxbourne girls had the longest day and she feared I would not get a hot meal every day. She need not have worried, my mother somehow always provided a hot dinner in the evening. She had been a good professional cook, though she always said afterwards that the war killed her love of cooking for ever.
The only food item we did not go short of during the war was tomatoes, at least in the summer; and I do remember taking some to a girl in school who lived on a farm in exchange for illicit farm-made butter.
After America entered the war, our daily train journeys were enlivened by the presence of American soldiers. We enjoyed talking to them, but innocent and well brought- up as we were, we mainly regarded them as a useful source of gum and other sweets. One vivid snapshot not to do with school I still have: standing in the garden and trying to count as wave after wave of aircraft and gliders went over. They were going to Arnhem.
VE Day came a few days before my 14th birthday. I was actually slightly peeved that it didn’t coincide.
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