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The War in the West - A Child's Perspective

by sap81uk

Contributed by 
People in story: 
Michael Palmer
Location of story: 
Devon and Cornwall
Background to story: 
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
10 November 2004

At the beginning of World War Two I was three and a half years old, just old enough to remember the summer of 1939, which we spent in Torbay with my mother's aunt, a widow who, I learned much later, was German by birth. I can recall the long hot summer days, mainly spent on Paignton beach, but was too young to have any inkling of how much my cosy little world was about to change. After a few weeks we returned home to Plymouth, where my father was a employed as a bank clerk.

One day everyone was very serious, and we all had to sit down quietly and listen to the radio; it was the Prime Minister, Mr. Chamberlain, announcing the outbreak of war. In the middle of June 1940 we heard for the first time the sound that we all got to know so well, the Air Raid Siren, but it was a false alarm. Our house was built on the side of a hill, so that at the rear of the property there was an extra storey, and on the ground floor was a garage under the house which covered about two thirds of its area. My father had a shelter constructed in the garage, at the bottom of the stairs, with large timbers all bolted together and sandbags all around us so that we would have been fairly safe except in the case of a direct hit or of a bomb falling beside the house. We soon came to know that shelter well, and beds were made up there for me and my sister; flasks of soup and cocoa kept us going. We each had to carry a gas mask in those days, kept in a neat little cardboard box inside a protective case and worn with a strap over the shoulder. I hated mine and would rather have suffered a gas attack, had it come, than wear the thing, which gave me a feeling of claustrophobia. The bombing that was known as 'The Blitz' began early in July 1940, and for eight nights during that month the City of Plymouth suffered devastating damage, although the heaviest death tolls were caused during the intensive raids in March and April 1941. The Air Raid Warning would sound, the wailing siren rising and falling in a way that chilled the blood, we would go down to our shelter, and the waiting would begin. Soon came upon our ears the sound that we learned to dread, the characteristic throbbing of aircraft engines as the Enemy bombers approached, then the sound of our own anti-aircraft guns and, almost immediately, the thump, thump of exploding bombs. I somehow managed to fall asleep after a while, although my parents and sister (who was four and a half years my senior) would remain awake until the All-Clear sounded (this was a continuous note of the siren, and was always very reassuring), upon which we would go back to bed, although I was usually left asleep in the Shelter so as not to disturb my slumbers.

Shrapnel (razor-sharp shards of shell casing from our own anti-aircraft shells) did quite a lot of minor damage, as well as causing some injuries, and incendiary bombs fell near us, but the most devastating blow in our area was as the result of a land-mine (a delayed-action high-explosive device) which went off a little further up the hill. All the glass in the front of our house went, and nothing was left of the house where it fell. No one knew of the existence of the device and when it 'went off' people were going about their business. I can clearly see our neighbour, an elderly widow, staggering in from next door, blood streaming from a scalp wound after having been struck on the head by a piece of shrapnel.

One day, in April 1941, we went to visit my grandparents, (my father's parents, as my mother's were by then both dead) in Saltash, just across the River Tamar in Cornwall where they lived in a terraced house a little way above the road leading to the Saltash Ferry. The Saltash and Torpoint ferries were virtually the only means of crossing the River Tamar into Cornwall in those days, apart from going by train over Brunel's bridge, or making a long detour to the north to cross the river at Gunnislake. We stayed a few days, sleeping at a neighbour's house next door, but the bombing of Plymouth got worse and my grandparents begged my parents to stay. Unfortunately at that point the Germans turned their attention to the Naval and Military installations along the Tamar, and in particular Brunel's Royal Albert Bridge, which was the only rail link with Cornwall. Night after night the bombs fell, the town of Saltash getting its fair share of bombing. I can clearly see a captive anti-aircraft barrage balloon, free of its wire and on fire in the sky above us after an enemy aircraft had slammed into it, belching out flames and roaring like a dragon. Grandma said: "Charlie, Charlie, bring the boy in; it could fall on us." My grandfather, clearly enjoying the spectacle, replied that it would not make much difference if we were indoors, and let me watch.

We used to shelter in a cupboard under the stairs when the Air Raid Siren sounded, and waited for the 'All Clear'. The cupboard had been specially strengthened as at home. One night at the height of a bombing raid on Devonport, the Enemy scored a direct hit on the underground ammunition dump at Bull Point down river on the opposite side beyond the rail bridge. My father was fire-watching outside the front door. Suddenly there was a thump, and Father was found unhurt at the back of the house, having been blown down the passage by the blast. When the All-clear sounded and we went back up to our bedrooms, my sister found that across her pillow, where her head would have been, was a great lump of twisted metal. This must have been hurled up over the rail bridge by the explosion at Bull Point, nearly a mile away, to smash through the window and land on her bed.The next morning there was a large hole in my grandparents' back garden where, the evening before, we had put down a saucer of milk for a hedgehog that we found snuffling its way up the hill outside the house. A policeman came, took one look at the hole, and said that it was an unexploded bomb. We had to evacuate immediately, as did all the neighbours, although it was only about 5 a.m. We all set out, clutching what few possessions we could. Grandma carried her eiderdown. It was considered safer out of town, and Grandma knew a farmer at Pill Mere, just outside Saltash; we walked there to see if they would take us in, which they did. We stayed there for a few days, until it was safe to return home. It was found that the hole had been caused, not by a bomb, but by an iron girder, which had been blown across the river to land in our garden. While at Pill Mere we used to take shelter under a great oak table in the farmhouse kitchen. We soon discovered that there was an ack-ack (anti-aircraft) battery just behind the farm; the noise made by the guns being fired was incredible. A fox took a goose one night, ate the head and left the corpse in the yard.

For a short time we went back to our own home, but at about that time my father was called up into the Army. I can see him standing on the hearthrug in the Dining Room, and my mother was saying that I must kiss him, as he was going off to the War. I was very upset, and wouldn't kiss him, although I was sorry that I had not when he was gone. My great aunt, begged my mother to bring us to stay with her at her home in Preston, between Paignton and Torquay. We stayed with her for a short time, but this was not a success. Aunty was a very selfish old lady, always used to the best and very much spoiled by her late husband as they had had no children.

We moved round the corner to lodge with a spinster lady, who had taken in paying guests before the War, and her companion., another unmarried lady who had l.ost her fiancée in the Great War of 1914-1918. There was no electricity in the house, only gas. There were gas mantles on the walls in the rooms and passages and on the staircase, and the radio was powered by electrically-charged Accumulator Jars, which had to be taken down to a nearby garage regularly for re-charging. Our bedroom was at the front of the house. My father came home on leave while we were there, dressed in his battledress, forage cap, webbing and packs, and carrying his rifle. He was welcomed with a steak and kidney pudding from a tin, that had been kept for him, and sat by himself at the dining table while we watched him eat it. This was probably just after an incident which occurred one day when my mother, sister and I were out walking above Goodrington Sands; as we walked in the sunshine we suddenly heard the sound of an aero engine. A German fighter plane flew up over the edge of the cliff, turned and opened up on us and the other people out walking with its machine guns. With great presence of mind Mother pushed us children under an adjacent park bench and threw herself on top of us to protect us from the bullets that were flying everywhere. Luckily the pilot missed.

On another occasion when we were walking in Victoria Park further up the hill we witnessed a German fighter plane shot down by one of our destroyers just out to sea. Then one day, when my sister and I must have been alone in the house, we heard the sound of aircraft engines and ack-ack guns, and, just as we looked out of our bedroom window, a fighter plane flew low and straight parallel with us just above the houses on the opposite side of the street, they being lower than ours as we were higher up the hill. We waved enthusiastically, and the pilot must have seen the movement because he turned his head and looked briefly at us. Just then we saw a large black cross on the side of the fuselage - it was an Enemy aircraft! It headed for the Gasworks, but we later understood that it was shot down before it could strike its target.

Shortly after this my sister was accepted into her secondary school, which was then evacuated to Fowey in Cornwall, and my mother decided that she and I would also go there to live. Fowey was far from the war, although there were military posts at various vantage points along the cliffs, with a boom across the harbour entrance to prevent enemy submarines and midget submarines from entering the harbour. I went to a 'kindergarten' run by two spinster ladies. I well remember the novelist Daphne du Maurier who was then living near Readymoney Beach with her children, including her two daughters who attended the same school as myself. One day I saw her husband, General Browning, who was involved in Operation Market Garden, the Arnhem expedition, walking along the Promenade in his military uniform.

The father of one of my little friends was a chemist, and had a model railway layout which took up two rooms in the top of the house; it was a magnificent affair, with tunnels and cuttings, bridges and stations. Sometimes we were allowed to play with it. One day there was a parade in the Town, and my friend drove a pony and trap (wearing, I recall, a bowler hat and suit), while we more humble mortals had to stand in the crowd and just watch. There was a baker's shop in a little square by the Town Quay; one day we peeped in and saw them making swiss roll; it was about four feet wide and being spread with jam, rolled and then cut into appropriate lengths after being cooked.

My favourite pastime, as school was only in the mornings, was sitting on White House Quay, dangling a fishing line over the edge. All that I ever caught were the little harbour crabs that spent their lives crawling up the sides of the quay. One fine day as I sat there a boat pulled in. Out clambered a lady and the man who had been rowing. A slight wash from the boat caused my float to bob up and down, and an _expression of annoyance must have crossed my face as the gentleman apologised for spoiling my fishing and gave me half a crown ( a small fortune) by way of compensation for the loss of my fish. This was the well-known man of letters, "Q" (Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch), then in the evening of his life.

On another day, as I was shrimping in some rock pools another lady and gentleman asked me if I would like to go out in their boat to fish for shrimps in some rock pools on the other side of the river. My mother said that I might go, and we spent the day shrimping. When we got back they told me to call next day at a shop where they lived. This was a Sunday, and I recall that somebody passing kindly pointed out as I knocked at the door that they wouldn't be open. They were there, however, and I came away bearing an enormous bowl of cooked shrimps.

Nearby was a paddling pool where we used to spend sunny days. There was slime on the bottom, and every day I would go home with a wet bottom after slipping and falling. One day I was given a model boat, a little sailing boat which had been made by a retired sailor. We would sail it in a little pool, and I still have it. One day the retired Sea Captain asked us if we would like to go in his rowing boat to the top of Pill Creek. It was quite a long way and when we got there he said to my sister that she could row back. He was a very large gentleman, and she found it very tiring.

At my school we were taught to read and write (things I could already do well), arithmetic (which I could not understand) and French from 'Madame', an elderly French lady who would have been born at around the time of the Siege of Paris in 1870! We played more than we studied, it being a very liberal regime. One game involved us playing sentries. "Halt, who goes there? Friend or Foe?" If you said 'foe' you had to go away again, if 'friend' - "Advance Friend, and be recognised". I mucked it all up one day by getting confused and replying, when asked which I was : "Friend, Foe." It all had to come to an end; the Americans wanted our school as well, and on the last day the Misses Kelly and Carter shared out all the toys between us. I got a little wooden gun.

After the USA entered the war and the building which housed our little school was taken over by the US military, as my sister's school had by then transferred to better premises in Newquay mother and I went to live there as well, and I started to attend the local primary school. This would have been in 1943.

It had been a very happy time for us at Fowey; the war seemed a long way away, even though there was an army post out towards the headland. One day as I was running fast along the road I tripped over and grazed my knee. The sentry came over, said that I was a brave little fellow for not crying, and gave me a bar of chocolate.

To get from Fowey to Newquay to visit my sister we had to change at Par, and sometimes at Lostwithiel. During the war we seemed to spend a lot of time travelling in trains. In wartime this meant waiting on platforms or in waiting rooms for what seemed hours. In the end the train would come; I do not recall ever having a seat, as the trains were always full of servicemen, many of them fast asleep in the compartments, and entire journeys would be spent in corridors sitting on suitcases, with myself feeling horribly tired. Trains in those days had corridors and compartments, and the blinds were invariably pulled down, both in accordance with Air Raid Precautions, and to enable long distance travellers to get some sleep. Trains were heated with steam, which seemed to ooze out of every crack, and the black smoke from the engine would blow back over the train, so that you always got smuts in the eyes if you looked out of a window.

Although the War was by this time moving away from England, and the threat of air attack was receding, nevertheless from time to time at the Newquay primary school we had to practice what we would do in the event of a gas attack. There was a van which came round to my school, and groups of six children would don their gas masks, each group taking its turn in the hermetically sealed van (that is once the door was shut). At first we sat there breathing through our gas masks in comparative comfort; then we had to take them off and experience the stinging sensation of the gas, which caused a buzzing in my ears and made my eyes water, before putting the gas masks on again and breathing steadily until all the gas was expelled. The latter procedure was, of course, to teach us what to do in the event that a gas attack came before we had time to put our masks on. I cannot recall being at all put out or perturbed at having to do this, although the gas was presumably only tear gas, and had no lasting effect.

Early in 1944 as my birthday approached my mother asked what present I would like. I knew perfectly well, but I also knew that money was short, and with some trepidation I pointed to a shop window in which there was a scale model of a Spitfire; I had been eyeing this for some weeks, and had little hope that we could afford it. My mother went in and bought it, saying that she had been considering buying it for a little boy she knew, but she would not say that it was for me, and it was with great excitement that I opened my few presents on my birthday to discover that the coveted Spitfire was mine. It was carved out of wood, with a perspex canopy and metal guns, and was my pride and joy; as I recall it lasted considerably longer than might be expected from toys today.

The school taught the three Rs. Once at the end of term I came third in the class exams, and got a book for a prize. One day there was a fight with stones and lumps of earth between some of the bigger boys; the Headmaster turned up and several of the boys were caned. I would be given threepence a day to buy myself some chips for lunch as there were no school dinners; one day for some reason I had sixpence to spend, and bought sixpennyworth of chips, although I recall that there were too many for me to finish.

When the Local Authority discovered that we had left our house in Plymouth unoccupied the house was requisitioned and occupied by a family who had been made homeless by the bombing. By late 1944 it was obvious that the Allies were winning the War and that all threat of bombing was over, and in the autumn of that year we were told that we could go home again. Mother and I went home, and my sister followed when her school returned at Easter 1945. I can still remember going back, and the joy we felt at once more being in our own home. The other family had left the place in a bit of a mess, added to which the bombing had caused cracks to appear in most of the walls and ceilings, but it was Home, and that was all that mattered. My father was demobilised in 1946 so that we were all together once more.

Not one of my near relations was killed or even injured during the War (although a distant cousin was killed in the London Blitz). My father had joined the Royal Artillery and rose to the dizzy heights of Lance Bombardier. Early on we rather assumed, my sister and I, that he would become a general one day, having only a vague idea of what it was all about. Father spent a good part of the War stationed at Larkhill on Salisbury Plain. His Regiment went to North Africa, but men over 40 years of age stayed at home. He was then transferred to the Pay Corps. My own attitude to the War was quite clear; I hated Hitler, Mussolini, Goering, Goebbels and the others with an intense hatred, and had visions of Hitler and his cronies being hauled in a cart through the streets of Plymouth. All Japs and Germans were evil, and we watched with intense interest as daily the maps of the Allied advance into Europe which appeared in the newspapers such as the Western Morning News showed the Allies getting closer and closer to the borders of Germany. That we would win was never in doubt so far as I was concerned; Churchill was my hero. (Many years later I stood before his catafalque in Westminster Hall in London as a mark of respect). After V. E. Day (Victory in Europe Day) there was a long procession through the streets of Plymouth, in among the bomb sites through scenes of devastation that today would seem incredible; I suppose that we had become accustomed to it all - it was just the way things were. My father got us a vantage point in the Bank of England Building, and we watched the tanks and armoured cars pass by, with contingents of all three services, in an apparently endless stream.

Despite the wartime shortages, when virtually everything was rationed, and the weekly ration was just a few ounces of basic foodstuffs like cheese, meat, bacon etc. I cannot remember ever being really hungry, as my mother was a very good manager and things like fish and chips were readily available. We usually seemed to have plenty of fresh vegetables, bread and jam (consisting largely of marrow with a bit of colouring) but none the worse for that as it filled a hole! Then there was always tea (the only coffee available was chicory essence) to cheer one up. We had ration books for everything that we had to buy, such as foodstuffs and clothing, and coupons were cut out by the shop assistants when items were purchased. In fact things were generally far worse and shortages greater after the end of the war, when the country was bankrupt and many cities, like Plymouth, consisted of great areas of total devastation. It is difficult for people now to imagine the acres of 'bomb sites' which remained so for years; in fact one suspects that many car parks today are the remains of areas wiped out by the bombing.

I suppose that in some ways we had a 'good' war, in the sense that we lost no one in our family, but it was at the expense of a disturbed childhood in my case, without my father's presence, living in rented accommodation in strange towns among strangers, although we met many who were the soul of kindness and always tried to make us feel at home. In truth, of course, no war is good, and as Hitler and his cronies discovered to their and their countrymen's cost, it is easier to start a war than to win it. Let us all hope that none of us ever live to see such another conflict.

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