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15 October 2014
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In the Shadow of Exeter Cathedral

by Norfolk Adult Education Service

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Contributed by 
Norfolk Adult Education Service
People in story: 
Elsie Wills
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Contributed on: 
09 February 2005

This story was submitted to the People’s War site by Sarah Housden of Norfolk Adult Education’s reminiscence team on behalf of Elsie Wills and has been added to the site with her permission. The author fully understands the site’s terms and conditions.

I was living just outside Exeter when the war started. When I heard the announcement on the radio, I went through to see my next door neighbours and we cried together. At the time, I had one son, Keith, and Robin was born three years after him. My husband was called up one month before Robin was due to be born, and we asked for a deferment until after the birth. However, they refused this, and instead said that he could be given compassionate leave when Robin was born.

Later in the war we moved nearer the centre of Exeter and lived within 250 yards of the cathedral. I had an evacuee to stay and an elderly lady, Miss Baker, would also come across to be with us at night times. She kept a tuck shop near the school, and I knew her from church. As she was frightened at night she would come across to sleep with us and shared a back room with Peggy Walker, the evacuee. Miss Baker would spend the evening knitting. If she heard a plane overhead she’d stop knitting and undo her stitches. As a result she never seemed to finish what she was knitting. She always dressed in black and wore a black hat. She carried a little case with her, but we never knew what was in it.

We had a Morrison Shelter inside the house, but we never used this. Instead, I cleared out the cupboard under the stairs, and as I always turned the gas off if there was a raid, we used a night light. It seemed safer under the stairs as we had observed that in most places that got bombed this was the only place left standing. There was an air raid shelter in our street and in a road of terraced houses it took up a lot of space. However, we didn’t use it as we had heard stories of large groups of people all being killed together in public shelters.

One night the bombs came so quickly, before the siren had even sounded, so we got under the stairs and were there for ages, listening to the loud banging and crashing. When the all-clear sounded I came out from under the stairs to find that all our glass had been blown out and the doors thrown open by the blast. I told the others to stay in the cupboard while I looked round the house. An armchair which I had just had re-covered was embedded with glass. I noticed there were coach loads of people outside. Their hair was all wet, and they had come from the nearby streets which were burning. They were dressed in their nightclothes and were much in need of the toilet and a cup of tea, so I let them file through our house to use our toilet and then we made them all tea. Everywhere all around was lit up with burning and the shops in the city centre were all burnt out.

Most nights during the 1942 Baedeker Raids we went out of Exeter to my sister Renee’s in the countryside. This was a three to four mile walk for us all. One evening when the bombing was bad we sat under a hedge at the edge of a field as this felt safer than being indoors.

With the rationing there was a lot of bartering went on. I knew a lady who was always short of cheese for her husband, and I would swap my cheese coupons for her soap ones, so that I could do the children’s washing. Getting shoes for the children was hard and you always had to queue to get Start-Rite. There were shortages of many things but friends always helped each other out. When we went to the shops we’d take our own newspapers for them to wrap things in. We used the pushchair to go and fetch coal which there was always a shortage of.

Peggy Walker’s mother was concerned when she heard about the raids on Exeter and so came down to see her. Of course, soon after seeing her mother, Peggy wanted to go back with her. I always felt very responsible for her while she was staying with us, but she was a helpful girl.

One evening Robin went missing while I was checking on a neighbour. He was gone for three or four hours and everyone was searching for him. We were really worried. The fire brigade started draining a static tank fearing that he may have fallen into it and drowned. It turned out that two teenage girls who lived on our street had taken him to meet some Americans without telling anyone.

My husband was a cook in the RAF. He came to see me the night before he left for Europe, and had to be careful to avoid the MP’s as he was not meant to be there. It was some time before I heard from him after this.

On VE Day people opened up their front windows onto the street and used them as bars. There was dancing on the streets and everyone was so happy.

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These messages were added to this story by site members between June 2003 and January 2006. It is no longer possible to leave messages here. Find out more about the site contributors.

Message 1 - Exeter bombing

Posted on: 13 April 2005 by Alan Pearce

I am studying the history of Farringdon, near exeter Airport. We have found two undisturbed bomb craters in private woodland. Metal fragments suggest the bombs were 200mm diameter. These were aimed at the airport. Can anyone tell me when the airport was bombed and any technical details about the bombs used.

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