Wounded in action! Elaine in one of the American dresses (but not the favourite one!) Edinburgh 1944/45
- Contributed by
- Elaine McArthy
- People in story:
- Elaine's childhood autobiography continued
- Location of story:
- Mainly Edinburgh, Scotland
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 20 August 2005
Victory and Aftermath
At Home House in Scotland we continued with the war routine but thankfully without the air raids, although we never knew whether there was going to be another one so as well as the rationing, the blackout remained with us. We all had a ‘blackout’ job to do. Every evening, before it got dark, every single window had to be blacked out with heavy black curtains which lined the normal curtains so that no chink of light escaped to give enemy pilots an inkling that towns and cities which could be bombed were down there below them. Air Raid Wardens patrolled each area to make sure that not a single chink of light was visible. In our playroom, curtains had been replaced by heavy boards which had to be clamped into place over the windows. It was the boys’ job to ensure these were in place before dusk, and I have a vivid memory of the young assistant whose unenviable job it was to see to the black-out, having a ritual of having to nag the boys night after night to no avail and calling out in exasperation in a broad Scots accent, ‘If you don’t do the blackout, you’ll get no tea!’
Many of the adults in Britain who, for one reason or another were not in the Forces, opted to join the Home Guard. Some became Air Raid Wardens. Unfortunately for the children at Home House, the Duddingston wardens had decided to commandeer our playroom for their headquarters. That was bad enough but what galled us was that they did not confine their activities to matters concerned with the war, they also took it upon themselves to snoop into our personal lockers and tick us off if they were untidy. This, we thought, went far beyond their terms of reference or call of duty and we resented it very much. To our relief they moved off after a while and found a different venue.
Because of the great losses our merchant navy had sustained and the fact that the cost of the war had nearly bankrupted Britain, ‘austerity Britain’ continued to suffer rationing for many years after the war had ended. A few weeks after VE day when America withdrew the lease-lend arrangements, rations were even reduced, and the following year, after a grain shortage, bread became rationed as well however I do not remember this being a huge problem. Although life was very dull and the food monotonous, we were not nearly as badly off as many of the people in Europe. Things gradually came off the ration list the last being clothing, meat and coal which continued to be rationed until 1954.
I am not sure when we received food parcels in Britain but our family was fortunate enough to receive one from a wonderful New Zealand minister. We do not know who he was or how he got our name but we were so grateful and looked forward to his parcels with great anticipation. He always put a little religious text in with them. These parcels were a godsend and something to look forward to. Another time my mother and I were invited to go to a hall where we would see a number of items of clothing which people had donated for those who had been ‘bombed out’ and as we qualified, we could chose two or three items each. I remember very well spotting a beautiful blue silk kimono with a pink embroidered dragon running down the back which I immediately fell in love and said that was all I really wanted but my mother was adamant: no! What I desperately needed, she said, was a skirt and a couple of jerseys which is what I came away with — very serviceable and boring garments!
Another hardship was the fact that we were only allowed 5 inches of bathwater to bath in once a week. A black line had to be painted round the bath to show where the limit of 5 inches was which we were not allowed to exceed. (Showers had not yet hit the scene.) Soon more posters sprang up, this time exhorting us to ‘Bath with a Friend’! At Home House we had a strict rota for bath night, followed by our own schedule where, in addition to our own ration, we allocated ourselves a night each when we would jump into the bath after a friend! The rest of the time we had to just wash ourselves with water from the basin which, if we were lucky, might be lukewarm.
The cold was one of the worst things during those war years, especially in Edinburgh! Central heating had not come in for private dwellings and the coal ration was sufficient only for one stove to be lit in the kitchen and one fire in one room to be lit in the evenings. The rest of the house was freezing. In the bedroom I remember my breath condensing as I summoned up the courage to stick my nose out from under the bedclothes and we could scrape the frost off from the inside of the windows. For most of the winter my, and other children’s fingers and toes were covered with painful chilblains. Although Home House was a big building we only used the dining room on Sundays, the lounge hardly ever, and for most of the time we lived mainly in the ‘study’, the one warm room in the house, It was a large square room in which we had our meals, did our homework, wrote our letters home and, for those who could, played the piano. One wall was lined with books from top to bottom and in the evenings we would blissfully sit round the fire reading books from the enormous range of available to us and escaping into another world.
After the defeat of Hitler’s Luftwaffe in the Battle of Britain, we did not seem to suffer any more air raids in Scotland, or if we did , I do not remember them. London, on the other hand, continued to suffer with doodle bugs and V2 rockets, both pilotless flying objects. People said the doodle bugs were the worst. These were flying bombs which would travel across the sky emitting a ‘ putt- putt’ noise. When the noise stopped you knew the bomb was going to drop but you did not know where: you just hoped it was not going to drop on you. After the explosion people picked themselves up and carried on as usual until the next one. With the V2 rockets there was no warning. People never know what had hit them. Fortunately they did not last long as, after the Normandy invasion, the troops soon found the launching sites on the French coast and dismantled them.
At Home House it was very hard for the missionaries’ children because they were separated from their parents for the whole of the six years of the war, the parents being on the missions in Africa or India while their children were in Britain and neither side could make physical contact. Telephoning was very expensive so weekly letters had to suffice and both parents and children had to hope that the ships carrying their precious mail were not torpedoed. Fortunately most children had aunts and some uncles in this country (if the uncles were too old to be ‘called up’). As older children left Home House no new missionaries’ children could come as they were stuck overseas so we tended to acquire a new clientele of children. Some whose fathers had been torpedoed and drowned in the navy or others whose fathers had been killed or had become casualties of one sort or another.
The war meantime dragged on year after year, and night after night through six long years. We prayed every day and night for it to end until one day, when I was thirteen, I opened a newspaper and read that, joy of joy, allied troops had landed in Normandy and the allied invasion of France had begun. This is an historic day, I told myself, what is the date, I wonder? I looked again at the newspaper: 6th June, I read, a date I never forgot, the only trouble was that I had not made a note of the year and often could not remember that it took place in 1944!
Later dreadful horror stories began to come out about terrible concentration camps which the allied troops had liberated but I was too young for anyone to talk about them in front of me, and of course, as there was no television in those days, I was shielded.
Then the most glorious day of all arrived: VE Day on the 8th May, 1945. The war in Europe was over: Victory had come to Europe (VE), Hitler was dead and WE HAD WON. Although the war in Japan was still in progress our elation knew no bounds, we who had no loved ones involved in the war with Japan. The evening of the day victory was declared we, at Home House, along with hundreds of other Edinburgh people climbed Arthur’s Seat and gazed in rapture over the Firth of Forth where, after six long years of darkness the fleet on the Firth of Forth was all lit up in all its splendour. We had never seen so much light in all the years of darkness. It was truly magnificent and for a couple of hours we forgot the cost and allowed ourselves to be transported into a magical world of joy, dazzling light and celebration.
Famously one of the BBC reporters describing one of the VE Day celebratory scenes announced, ‘The fleetsh’s lit up — and sho am I!’
The end of the war in Europe was welcomed by everyone in Britain but, of course, those who were unfortunate enough to have husbands, fathers or sons involved in the fight against Japan, the times were not so euphoric. It was not until 14th August 1945 that Japan accepted unconditional surrender after the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki on 6th and 9th August respectively. I do not remember any celebrations connected with the end of this part of the war. If there were any they were muted. Perhaps people were too awed and horrified at the devastation caused and the annihilation of such a large number of civilians: men, women and children, together with a realisation that the world had entered a new phase and would never be the same again. The power of the atomic bomb was spine-chilling. Were there any possibilities for good uses or was it a just a terrifying instrument of evil?
Gradually the men, and women who had been in the Forces were demobbed and began to come home. Naturally there was great rejoicing and jubilation in homes all over the country except in the homes where the loved ones never returned. Their loss must have been all the more painful when everyone else was celebrating. Some who did return had been wounded and had to come to terms with that. Even for those who did return and seemed to have come through unscathed the return to civilian life was not always easy. Many were traumatised by what they had been through and the loss of their friends who had been killed. When we met a favourite cousin of mine who had who had fought in the North African campaign, I aged fourteen, who had been fed on a diet of heroic war films, asked him if the war had been very exciting. He fixed me with a steely penetrating look which I shall never forget and said coldly, ‘It was soul-destroying.‘ We never ever spoke of the war again. Others suffered in other ways and their families suffered with them. Then again some missed the comradeship, camaraderie and excitement they had experienced in the forces.
For those at home there were changes too. Some women, like my mother, had to give up the jobs they had been doing to return them to the men who had been in the Forces. Not that they resented this: they felt it was only right but then they had to start looking for other work which was not always easy. Life was not always without problems within the families either. Although they were naturally glad to see the return of their menfolk and so thankful that they had survived the horrors of the war, at the same time, for virtually six years while the men were at war, the mothers had been in charge of the family, had managed all the business affairs, brought up the children, dealt with the air-raids, rationing etc. but when the men returned very many of them expected to return to their role as head of the family, unaware of or ignoring the role their wives had been playing. Not only was it often difficult for the mothers but it could be hard for the children too. Often they resented the man they hardly knew coming into the house, seeming to oust them from the close relationship they had had with their mother and telling them what they could and could not do. This was often particularly hard for those whose fathers had been prisoners of war. When I was at university I had a friend whose father had been a prisoner of war in a Japanese prison camp where life had been brutal in the extreme and where they had nearly starved to death. He had only just survived. He returned home, ill, emaciated and depressed and if any of the children moaned about the food at home, as children do, he went into an almost uncontrollable rage. ‘How dare you complain,’ he shouted at them, ‘you don’t know how lucky you are. In the POW camp we had to survive on boiled fish bones.’ Although the family felt for him after all he had gone through, at the same time they resented his attitude and did not find it easy living with him. Then they were overcome with guilt at feeling as they did. Counselling had not hit the scene so people had to try to work things out as best they could with the help of their friends, if they were lucky enough to have ones who could and were willing to help.
At the same time things in the country seemed to take a long time to normalise and life was pretty dull. Food rationing was still in force, products of every kind were in short supply, people were desperate for homes and furniture to put in them. Prefabricated buildings went up to meet the immediate needs of those whose houses had been destroyed in the war. One good thing was that the worst of the slums were cleared and the people who had been living in them rehoused. As far as furnishing went, ‘Utility’ products were usually all that were on offer. These met the basic necessities without frills or decoration of any sort.
I suppose as a child you take things for granted and we were just delighted that the war was over and we knew things would improve and life would get better. Peace was just a wonderful experience. I could not believe it therefore when, only a year or two after the war had ended, I went to a lecture and heard an eminent speaker warning us that, in the very near future we might have to face war with Russia. ‘War with Russia?’ I thought, ’What is the man talking about? That could not be possible, I thought. Russia was our ally and only a very short time ago we, at school, had collected clothes and other items for these allies: ‘Aid to Russia’ it was called. For one thing, it was inconceivable that we should now be talking about going to war again when we had just finished this long and wretched war and secondly, that it should be against our former allies. My friends and I knew nothing about Stalin, his occupation of newly liberated countries, communism etc. All we knew was that my parents generation had spoken of the 1914-18 war as ‘the war to end all wars’ yet twenty-one years later they were immersed in war again. (My parents had been seventeen when WWI broke out. My father had fought in the trenches and my mother had been a VAD nurse.) After all the world had been through, I thought, surely now we were all going to live in peace.
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