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A CHILD'S WARicon for Recommended story

by chrishawe

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15 August 2005

A Child’s War

By June Alexandra Miller

Often, we speak of things, which happened during the ‘War’ but isolated incidents are not the whole story, far from it.
‘War’ begins to a child, at a certain point in your life when things start to become different; making their own mark on the pattern of your days.
Family values have changed so much since my own childhood. Material things and the need to acquire them now appear more important, than the loving home life; ‘The Family’ — the Mother, who always seemed to be there, at home waiting.
My own life was surrounded by ‘The Family’ although my sister, Maureen, two and a half years my junior, was my only sibling.
Our Mother, was one of six surviving adults from her family, so there were plenty of cousins, aunts and the occasional uncle popping into our home. The larger ‘Family’ was proudly thought of as a Navy Family living in the City of Plymouth, although the Royal Naval personal only applied to our Father, who was serving aboard an aircraft carrier called
H.M.S. GLORIOUS; Uncle Jim, married to my Mother’s eldest sister, Vera, was a Chief Petty Officer Gunnery Instructor and Mother’s youngest brother Uncle George serving on a Destroyer. The remainder, Uncle Philip in the Royal Air Force, Uncle Fred in the R.N. Dockyard Rosyth (later in Malta) and Mother’s youngest sister, Aunty Rene, who was married to Uncle Reg., (a footballer).
Life revolved around the women and children as the men folk were away from home for long periods of time. The women made all the decisions.
Aunty Rene and Uncle Reg were the glamour in the family. He was a professional footballer (Reg Bungay) they spent many holidays in our home during the ‘non-football’ season. Sometimes they stayed in a big tent at Bovisand’s where we used to visit them and have happy times there.
Aunty Rene had a wind-up gramophone and played Bing Crosby tunes and danced around with Maureen and myself.
Our home was shared with Mother’s parents — Granddad, known to us all as Charlie and Grandma Gore. Granddad was blinded during the First World War, he always seemed to be coughing, a leftover from being gassed in the trenches during the First World War. Grandma’s life was ruled by Granddad, she had known many difficulties bringing up the family on only War Pensioners money.
We, children, just accepted Charlie for what he was, as we knew him, never fearing him in any way; although I gather he was a bit of a tyrant when his own family were growing up.
Mother, was the centre pin of the Family, all their troubles were brought to her to sort out. A ‘spin-off’ from her own childhood no doubt. There was always a welcome; whatever she had was theirs, if she considered their need greater. A home of love and happiness, we always seemed to have some member of the Family wanting to stay, for one reason or another. A continuous round of making room was always the way of things.
In the year of 1940, I was looking forward to my 10th birthday. Daddy had been away for two and a half years with the Mediterranean Fleet. With luck he would be home just before my birthday in June. If things went to plan, I was to have a bike.
So, that was the background to my life, then…

When? I ask myself, did I start to notice any change?
Was it the grownups talking of War — listening to the radio broadcast?
No, none of that made any impact. Life still had its pattern.
Late May 1940. Mother was telling us she was going-away — Maureen was to stay with Aunty Vera at Hartley — I was to stay with Aunty Rene.
This could not be right! Mother had never left us. Why, should she be talking about leaving and going to a place called Glasgow in Scotland, she might as well have said the other side of the moon.
I was crying — I wanted to go there too, no amount of pleading made any difference — she was going to meet Daddy. The person in the photograph by their bed, the person who sent lovely cards at Christmas and birthdays, embroidered with silk flowers, the person who we prayed to keep safe when Mother put us to bed each night.
SHE WAS GOING BY HERSELF! No argument, we were to stay behind.
Once the decision became final I quite liked the idea of staying with Aunty Rene — knowing I would be spoilt, treated to forbidden luxuries of cream horns, lemonade and things Mother knew would only make us sick, but it was worth it. Aunty Rene (at that time) was childless so it was easy for her to indulge Maureen and myself, at times — it was pure bliss.
I wasn’t aware of Mother’s actual departure. The Aunt’s, no doubt collected us prior to the event. Daddy had written to Mother — his ship was making-way to Greenock. He had written to beg her to meet him there, at his family home in Glasgow. Mother had never known any of them but decided she would do as he wished. She had little knowledge of them as Daddy had left home as a young boy and joined the Royal Navy. It was through her brother George that she had met him.
Once in Glasgow, his brothers and a sister etc., made Mother most welcome. The plan was for Mother and Father to return home to Plymouth when his ship ‘paid-off’ (on leave). Mother, in years to come, would relate of their meeting, after being separated for two and a half years, with only letters to keep in contact — Strangers in love — her words not mine. They sent us cards of places Mother was seeing while Daddy was on duty. His sister Maggie making sure she saw as much as possible.
‘Not long now darlings, see you soon. Love Mummy & Daddy xx’
So many wonderful things to look forward to, great excitement in the family but, fate had other things in store.
Suddenly, I noticed definite changes going on in the Family. The grownups were whispering things we were not allowed to hear, but what? No one explained anything.
Aunty Rene and I were on a bus going along Mutley Plain. At that stage in my life, I read everything my eyes set on. We were going to Aunty Vera’s. The bus stopped in the traffic, I looked out of the window, and there was a newsagent’s shop with placards outside — white with big black lettering.
I remember quite clearly, turning to my Aunt and saying,
‘Look, that’s the name of my Daddies ship!’
People around us on the bus all seemed to stop talking. Aunty Rene wept and held me close to her.

The War had laid its hand on my childhood and everything was about to change. I have to rely on my Mother’s words to say what happened. She had spent many happy hours with Daddy and was always glad she went to meet him in Scotland. ‘Leave’ was on ‘standby’, because of the War situation affecting his ship. She returned from a days shopping with his sister to find a hastily written note,
‘Called out on convoy duty. See you soon. Love Alex’
(She had this pencilled note for years until it finally faded away).
Days were spent waiting for news of his return. She went out with his sister Maggie — they stopped for lunch and Maggie overheard a group of sailors talking and saying the Glorious had gone down. Mother recalled how Maggie told them to ‘watch what they were saying the Glorious was her brother’s ship and this was his young wife!’ They were full of apologies but added the rumour was the talk of the Royal Naval Barracks, that day.
The rumour was soon to become a fact.
Eventually the news was released with Lord Haw-Haw broadcasting how survivors had been picked-up by the Germans, this was later discovered to be untrue. The loss of life from the Glorious was very high. A telegram arrived to advise Mother, Daddy was missing in action.
Mother was distraught — it could not be true! Life could not be so cruel.
She waited and waited. Hoping by some miracle he would be safe but it was not to be and eventually she decided she must return home to her children and Family. Her newly known ‘in-laws’ did everything they could to make her journey home easier, not forgetting their own grief at the loss of their own brother only so recently reunited with his own Family.
They gave Mother a blue Persian kitten in a travel basket for Maureen and I called Saucy Koo; plus little Scottish dolls and kilts for us with a basket of sandwiches for her long journey. Milk and a saucer, for the kitten’s journey. Mother often recalled how the train was packed with servicemen, some survivors themselves, looking haggard and weary. Mother shared her refreshments amongst them, when she took the kitten from the basket to feed it she said one young soldier asked to hold it. As he cradled it gently in his hands tears ran silently down his dirt grimed face, adding to Mother’s sense of grief at her own loss.
When she arrived home I remember her sobbing, lying across their bed. I had never seen her cry before, what was wrong? No one tried to explain.
All I knew was that Daddy didn’t come home with Mummy and she was very upset. Possibly she still hoped news would come telling her he was still safe somewhere, how do you explain to a child of ten that War means killing one another? Reality was soon to follow with Mother receiving a second telegram saying…
This was to have dire consequences on all our lives as Mother’s Naval Allowance was drastically cut. She was in later years to remark.
‘Life comes at a cheap price in War.’ The Mother, who had always been there at home for us, now needed to find a job to help support us. None of the Welfare State to turn to then. We were never allowed to mention the Royal Naval Benevolent Fund in my Mother’s presence for years to come. (I will explain later why.)

Two Lady visitors arrived one day. Mother sat together with Maureen and I and Grandma and Granddad Charlie. They asked if Mother would allow Maureen and myself to go to Canada — to be adopted?!
Mother was horrified — she insisted if we were to die we would all die together. Granddad showed them out — he was very cross.
(What a wise choice Mother made.)
There was lots of activity at home — sticky paper was stuck in patterns over all of the windows — buckets filled with sand — buckets filled with water and kept in the side passage. Candles and matches were placed in easy to find places — food stored in tins and Charlie suddenly coming into his own once again, knocking the three cupboards under the stairs into one. Being blind didn’t handicap a man with a large hammer in a dark confined space! It was soon dismantled to make ‘our haven’ during the air raids that were to follow. A bit of a tight squeeze to say the least. Granddad’s innovations were — candles in cocoa tins with wire handles to act as lights in the cupboard. I remember well, the smell of my long hair singeing against one, causing havoc — we thought an incendiary bomb was somewhere in the house. Mattresses to sleep on — an enamel chamber pot (just in case), a first-aid box, torn strips of sheeting and cotton wool and the good old cure all, bottle of iodine. We were issued with gas masks, horrible things!
Things were also changing at school. The playground was dug up and underground air raid shelters appeared in its place. Instead of ‘Fire Drill’ it was ‘Air Raid Drill’; I remember falling over and cutting a slice off the base of my palm and approached the teacher for first-aid. Iodine and gauze was applied and bandaged but unfortunately the gauze stuck to the raw flesh and it took days of painful attempts to remove it.
Air Raid (underground) Shelters appeared in Freedom Park where the children’s swings are now situated and a large round water tank just inside the Park Gates complete with ‘NO SWIMMING’ notices. All the railings were removed for scrap. Then the air raids started.
Looking out from the Hoe during the daytime, you could see the planes sweeping the sky, dog fighting they called it. That seemed exciting to watch, not realising the horrors to follow with the fighter aeroplanes (bombers).
The nighttime air raids were the ones, which filled you with horror and fear. Even now the sound of a wailing siren will make my stomach churn. I feel rather like an animal trained to respond to certain signals.
Sitting in the cupboard under the stairs , the barrage of the big guns, the screaming of the bombs as they fell and the earth shattering explosions as they hit their targets and the drone of the enemy aircraft overhead; We all became adept at recognising the different types by the different sounds of the engines, or knowing how close a bomb had fallen. Shrapnel, red hot, falling like rain (boys would collect it in the mornings).
Granddad Charlie was a problem during the air raids as despite making the cupboard shelter, he refused to go in it — or even stay indoors — but insisted on standing outside the front door. No amount of pleading from Grandma or Mother would make him come in. He insisted all the doors throughout the house be opened as soon as the sirens started.
‘Blast can kill.’ Was his motto.
Incendiary bombs hit the house next door and anything alight was being thrown out of their upstairs windows, only narrowly missing Granddad, but still he stood at his post outside. A landmine was dropped in Ladysmith Road (nearby), Granddad was alright but a dearly loved cat was lifted by the blast right through the passageway and out of the back door and hit the backyard wall, killing it. Windows were shattered and bits of glass hung still attached to the pieces of sticky paper. A large boulder crashed through the bedroom window hitting the wall opposite with such a force it made a large hole before falling onto Maureen’s bed. Mother thanked God we were in the cupboard under the stairs.
With the death of the cat, mice soon became a problem, with so many houses being bombed, they were everywhere, and we needed a cat! The sight of a mouse nibbling Aunt Essie’s fur coat one night was the final straw, (she even wore it to bed, just in case of an air raid).
Mother let it be known at the local Post Office we were desperate for a cat. They were like gold dust, but we soon received a message saying that sitting in an Anderson Shelter in a garden in Mount Gould Road, was a large fierce cat. The owner of the shelter couldn’t use it as the cat would not let her in! Who would go and fetch it home? Mother was no great animal lover, though she wouldn’t harm even a mouse, Grandma and Granddad did not come into the equation so it was left to Maureen and myself. The cat after spending several days in the shelter must have decided we were not going to hurt him and allowed us to carry him home, staggering under the size of him, me carrying one end and Maureen the other. He was enormous and black and ruled the household, but a very good mouser. I can’t imagine there was a lot left to feed him on from our rations — so mice must have been his stable diet. We named him Billy.
Life seemed to take on some sort of pattern — air raids — school — helping mother — standing in queues for buses — standing in queues for food and listening to other women talking about lost husbands or sons. As more ships were sunk or families lost in air raids, there seemed to be no end to it.
Mother’s job at Spooner’s Department Store was no more. The bombs destroyed all shops in the Town. She returned to work for a brief time with her pre-marriage employers, Mr. & Mrs. Scott. He was now the King’s Harbour Master at the Long Room. As a young woman, Mother had been nursemaid to their children. Mrs. Scott had come to see Mother as soon as she saw the notice of Daddies death in the papers. They were very kind and helpful to us — Maureen and I remember playing in the gardens of the Long Room and having our baths there when our own water and gas supplies were damaged by the bombing. However, the Long Room itself was to fall foul of the bombers, as the raids continued.
Two of our elder cousins, Doreen and Elsa who lived at West Hoe, were quite young heroines driving ambulances in the raids around there. (to be continued...)

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