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A Portsmouth Child's Life in WW2

by Anne Joseph

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Archive List > Childhood and Evacuation

Contributed by 
Anne Joseph
People in story: 
Anne Joseph
Location of story: 
England, mostly Portsmouth
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
06 June 2003

When World War Two began on 3 September 1939, we were living in Drayton. It ended almost six years later on 8 May 1945, by which time we were living in Southsea. As a family, we had what is laughingly called "a good war". My parents, sister and I survived the blitz without personal injury, although twice our possessions got clobbered. Our furniture was in a warehouse in North End when it was bombed, and our more moveable household effects just happened to be on Bristol Railway Station when it, too, was bombed. I do remember watching dogfights during the Battle of Britain in the late summer of 1940, but as a five-year-old I did not have any accurate understanding of what it was all about. We moved many times during the war, which became a way of life for me but was obviously an ongoing challenge for my parents. As luck would have it, we managed to be in Portsmouth for just about all the worst of the blitz, but truth to tell I suffered much less than almost anyone else. In those difficult times, my parents did everything they could to protect me from knowledge of the far-reaching implications of the war, while at the same time making sure that I understood unbreakable ground rules which peacetime children never need to contemplate. In the early years of the blitz, I was scared during air raids from the moment we heard the sirens wailing. I was absolutely terrified when we hears a bomb or a stick of bombs falling, guns firing (either ours at enemy planes or theirs at us), or planes crashing around us. But as soon as the all clear had sounded, I was O.K. It wasn't much fun seeing bomb damage, but many children enjoyed challenging one another to see who could collect the most shrapnel after a raid. Picking up any other object, however, was strictly forbidden because of the risk that any such item could be booby-trapped.

Our first move was probably early in 1940, a quick visit to Wales, where the families of both my parents lived. We took our cat there for safety. Many decades later, my husband and I were in London visiting a cousin of his who had spent the war years in Canada. She asked me whether we had stayed in Wales throughout the war, and I told her "no", that except for a few months we were in Portsmouth. She just looked at my husband and said: "her parents evacuated the cat, and kept the kids in the blitz!"

When the Battle of Britain started in the summer of 1940, we were still in our house in Drayton. Our maids had gone: called up for active duty. We were still in Drayton throughout the first three months of the blitz on Portsmouth throughout October, November and December. We did not have an air raid shelter, so whenever there was a raid we assembled in the strongest part of the building. Daddy allowed each of us one item to take with us, and I chose my teddy bear, whose fuzzy tummy got denuded very early on as I pulled out the fuzz whenever I got scared. As the war went on, poor old teddy got to be more and more abused by me as I cuddled him so tightly and shredded yet more fuzz off his tummy. Today he sits in pride of place on my dressing table. He is in terrible shape, but is probably just about the most precious possession I own.

Just before Christmas, my parents closed the house in Portsmouth and trundled back to Wales to celebrate the holiday before moving on to share a house outside Bath, in Somerset. We were in Bath for several months in 1941 while Daddy had a job at the Admiralty. Daddy always joked about once hearing a rumour that there really was someone junior to him at this particular habitat of the Admiralty, but it was never confirmed and he never actually me him. This job came to pass very much as a low, low, low choice. Daddy had served in the Royal Navy for 16 years, but was invalided out at the end of World War One.

On leaving Bath, Daddy returned to Portsmouth to search for a home, and the rest of us waited in Wales. In the early summer of 1942, the nomads were off again, this time to a rented bungalow in Havant.

After so much moving around in just over two years, my parents said to heck with it, decided that we would stay together in the bombing, and just accept that whatever will be, will be. We were in Havant for about a year, and I remember a lot of it since I was by then seven and eight.

To protect ourselves during raids in Havant we had an indoor contraption, which was called a Morrison Shelter, named after Herbert Morrison, the Minister of Home Security. I hated it. It was a heavily reinforced steel cage, 2ft 9in high, with sides of steel wire webbing. Ours was set in the corner of the dining room, and as the youngest, I had to crawl in first and move over to the far wall. It was airless, very hot, excruciatingly claustrophobic and, believe me, once was enough. I suspect that the others disliked it as much as I, because from then on we just took our chances in the drawing room. Every time we heard a bomb whistling down, Ma would throw herself on top of my sister and Daddy landed on top of me. There were times when I wondered if a bomb and falling house might not be preferable.

Soon after this, our neighbours invited us to share their Anderson Shelter with them. An Anderson was built into the garden. First one had to dig a hole deep enough to be about waist high for an adult standing within. Then reinforced corrugated iron pieces formed walls and ceiling, after which a load of earth was piled on top to give added protection. Still somewhat claustrophobic, but infinitely easier to endure than the Morrison.

I remember climbing out of the shelter after one night raid, and Daddy saying to me something about the red sky of sunrise indicating bad weather: this was the first time I told him not to be so daft. I knew then that the glow was part of the city in flames.

Havant at that time was on the edge of farmland and countryside. The raids remained bad, and since some were still by day, we had very specific guidelines for those times when the sirens went off while we were out playing in the small lanes and roadways. Get home if there was time, and if not, dive into a ditch as soon as you hear a plane, for protection against being strafed by gunfire. I was lucky enough never to get hit by a bullet, but diving for cover before a near miss meant that I was forever hitting some twig or rock that would tear my clothing. With very few clothing coupons for growing children, this meant plenty of sewing in the "make do and mend" category, and we also made ample use of hand-me-downs.

I remember some of the posters around town: "walls have ears", "danger unexploded bomb", "dig for victory", "is your journey really necessary?", "don't take the squander bug when you go shopping", "coughs and sneezes spread diseases, use your handkerchief", and so on. There were no street signs: they had all been removed so as to confuse an invading army or enemy agents. Almost no cars, of course, because there was no petrol. Daddy's pre-war car had been a Packard, which was taken from him and converted into an ambulance. Daddy got himself a bicycle so that he could get around on his air raid warden duties, and once came home very excited since he had actually overtaken another cyclist: he then confessed that the other cyclist had only one leg. Rationing was quite rigid, but since I had never known anything else, it seemed normal to me. Certainly we were very much better off then those unlucky people in occupied Continental Europe. Sunday was a great day for treats: we had our one egg a week for break fast, and then after lunch Ma doled out our weekly chocolate ration which for us was one two-ounce Fry's Crème bar for each of us.

Nobody, adult or child, ever left home without gas mask slung over their shoulder. Only children under ten were not obliged to carry their National Identity Card, but most of us did because it made us feel so very grown up. Torch (flashlight) was of course necessary to get around in the dark, since observance of the blackout was critically important. Throughout the war, clocks were changed four times a year (Greenwich Mean Time to Summer Time and again to Double British Summer Time, and then back again) in order to make maximum use of daylight, which not only helped farmers and gardeners to work much later in the evening, but also helped to save gas and electricity.

When gas masks were first issued, I had what was known as a Mickey Mouse one, specially designed for very young children in brilliant red material. Within a year or so, I don't remember exactly when, I graduated to a grown-up one, same as the rest of the family. I still have the final re-issue of my National Identity Card, which was issued in Portsmouth on 21 April 1951, as well as my last ration book, which was issued for 1953-54.

Helping Ma to bake a cake was quite something. First we had to make the pseudo-eggs and then move on to make the pseudo-butter, all on the presumption that there was enough flour. Sugar could be another problem. Washing the dishes was quite an art, since all you had for soap was a few scraps from a worn-out bar of soap in a cage contraption with a handle on it. You held the handle and shook the cage in hot water. Amazingly, it worked. Whenever we could not find toothpaste in any shop, we used salt. Ma used to say that chimney soot was ever better, but somehow I could never bring myself to stick my toothbrush up the chimney and them put it into my mouth.

The back garden of our bungalow backed-up again the railway line at the edge of the station. Any troop train that came through would usually stop here for a while before going on to Portsmouth Harbour, from which point the men would proceed overseas. As the youngest and smallest in the neighbourhood, it became my job to be lifted over the railway barricades so that I could "illegally" reach any stopped train and hand over all manner of goodies that the local housewives asked me to give to the servicemen. This required care on my part, because the lines were electrified, and the railway property through which I had to go was filled with all the electricity feed boxes and wires.

Once a week - occasionally twice - we would "go to the pictures". There was only one cinema in Havant, and the programmes changed twice a week. Here we saw newsreels, and this became my first experience of seeing war on film. In the cinema, we would not be able to hear an air raid siren, so if one occurred, there would be an announcement made to the audience and unless it was very close and the projectionist stopped the film, we would just stay put. If the raid were close, we would all leave the building and scurry home like frightened rabbits.

British Restaurants sprang up all over the country. Just about everyone would volunteer to work here and serve meals to any sevicemen who came along. At Christmastime 1942, a blind eye was turned to the edict which limited large gatherings of people, simply because everyone wanted the servicemen to have some sort of Christmas companionship. My small size helped here, too, as I was given platters of food, then held aloft and handed from shoulder to shoulder down the lines.

That particular Christmas Eve, after I was in bed, I heard tinkling bells and a few thumps outside, then two male voices in the drawing room. One belonged to Daddy and the other one I had not heard before. I just knew it was Father Christmas. Annoyingly I fell asleep, but next morning when I woke up there was a filled stocking at the foot of the bed.

From the earliest days at Havant in 1942 until the end of the forties, my parents opened their home to servicemen for food, talk and relaxation on an almost constant basis. I have already mentioned that our household possessions were destroyed in the bombing, and replacements were hard to come by. We scraped together just enough china and cutlery to enable us to have a few guests at our dining table ... with a proviso; between courses, we all had to trip into the kitchen to wash the dishes for the next course. Ma's initial embarrassment at this soon evaporated, as the servicemen seemed to enjoy it. It really broke the ice as they laughingly told us of helping to wash the dishes for their mothers or wives. Most evenings ended with a singsong around the piano, with Ma strutting out all the expected melodies.

I cannot leave the story of Havant without any mention of my log houses. Toys were hard to come by, as were craft materials. Imagination and ingenuity were the required substitutes. When Daddy had a delivery of logs placed on a concrete area against a wall behind the bungalow, I began to place a few of them into the shape of a house. Carefully choosing logs of different size and shape, I soon as a log house built which covered much of the concrete. Twigs and vines became dolls. Stones and pea-pods became furniture, and as the family joined in with this enterprise, we soon as a veritable mansion in the back garden.

We moved even nearer to our old house in Drayton in the early summer of 1943, this time into a rented house in Farlington on Portsdown Hill. We were there until late 1944.

The year and a half, spanning two summers, which we spent in Farlington were happy times. By now, I was eight and nine. My sister became a Girl Guide, but I was still too young and there were no other girls my age who could have been part of a Brownie Pack with me. Instead, I was permitted to become an unofficial, out-of-uniform Brownie attached to a Girl Guide Pack.

From our garden, we were able to watch all the preparations for D-Day, as Portsmouth and Langston Harbours filled with the requisite craft. Southwick House, among other homes, was ensconced within an extensive estate reaching out to just a stone's throw away from our home, in a northwesterly direction along Portsdown Hill. It had been requisitioned by the Royal Navy in 1941, and from about 1943 began its transition into the Headquarters for D-Day preparations. In simplistic terms, we civilians stuck to the southern side of the Hill, and the fighting men took over the northern side. There were wonderful chalk pits on Portsdown Hill, and we were greatly entertained by watching soldiers practice climbing up the sides of the steep pits. Enemy agents were often found on Portsdown Hill.

As time went by, we were subjected first to a friendly invasion: that of the Americans, who appeared to us as quite amazing. All that gum chewing got most parents in the neighbourhood tut-tutting and threatening their children with a fate worse than death if any of us ever dared to chew gum. As the months went by, we all got to be more and more friendly. We learned quickly that they really were very nice people - but as a child I was puzzled by the rather loud façade they presented to the world. I was scared by their boisterous, affectionate nature. The Canadians, sporting maple leaves on their uniforms, were always greeted with a smile.

One evening we heard more outward-bound planes than usual from nearby airfields. We watched in amazement as the sky was filled with countless planes hauling gliders. Later that night, we watched the planes return and wondered where the gliders had landed.

On the evening of 5 June 1944, we again heard more than the usual number of outward-bound planes. As we looked out of our windows early in the morning of D-Day, 6 June 1944, we noted that Langstone Harbour was empty. All the landing craft had gone. We were sent to school that morning, but once it was announced on the radio that the Allied Landing had begun, we were immediately sent back home. It was a lovely sunny morning, and by 10 o'clock we saw the first hospital ship coming round the Nab Lighthouse, en route for Porsmouth Harbour. We had been warned to stay near the air raid shelters, since the Germans were expected to bomb and strafe us with everything they. In a way, I support they did just that, but it was our luck that "everything they had" was in fact nothing. For us it turned into a holiday.

The summer of 1944 was the doodlebug era. That's what we called the rockets the Germans were using with such great gusto. We quickly learned that there were only three flight paths in our district, two of them came nowhere near us and the third came directly overhead. So we would watch the show from the garden, ducking into the Anderson shelter only when one was heading our way, and even then only when the engine cut out and we knew it was about to drop from the sky. In time we got blasé about even those, since engine cut out was a clear signal, and we became increasingly proficient at judging where each one would fall. One memorable night we watched 18 of them on our flight path drop straight into Farlington marshes less than a mile south of our house. The best thing about the doodlebugs was that there was no strafing, and once past, they could not turn around for another try like the planes would do. It was a tiring summer, but somehow nobody seemed to mind because the war news had improved greatly and we knew the end was in sight.

Decades later, when I was in Israel during the Gulf War in January 1991, it was back to gas masks and doodlebugs. Someone told that those scuds raining down on us were in fact souped-up V-1 and V-2 rockets. I just looked horrified and explained that this was the second time these miserable little what-nots had been dropped on me. The gas masks we wore in 1991 were a little fancier than our old World War Two version.

After D-Day, all the evacuee families began returning to the Portsmouth area in great numbers. We had to move again as the Farlington house owners wanted to come back. Off we went to share a house down in Southsea.

The spring of 1945 brought with it terrifying shocks as the concentration camps were liberated and the full impact of the holocaust crept into our lives. By now I was 10, and Daddy allowed me to see all the newsreels week after week so that I would learn the full horrors of what had happened. Regular schooling had been all but non-existent throughout the war years, but the education that I received through experience and countless, increasingly deep conversations with Daddy provided me with knowledge and maturity that was way beyond my years. Though it would not be recommended by many to live at a time of war to gain maturity, I must admit that the experience, enhanced by the way Daddy used newspapers, the radio and day-to-day happenings as teaching tools, is something for which I am grateful. He taught me the value of responding to other people's needs, caring for one's possession, and perhaps most important of all, the value of facing one's mortality.

One day in May 1945, Ma sent me off to the newsagents' shop to get her some cigarettes, and while I was there I heard a lot of excited talk proclaiming that the war was over. I got back home and told Ma, who merely urged me to hurry up and set the table since Daddy would soon be home for lunch. He arrived, and I told them both my exciting news, but neither of them would listen to me. At l o'clock we listened to the news and heard that the war was over.

On VE-Day afternoon we all went down to Sally Port, where the entrance to Portsmouth Harbour is at its narrowest. Everyone was laughing and waving, and all the Royal Navy ships were blasting away on their sirens. I had my Girl Guide morse flag with me and spent the time frantically sending signals to all the RN ships - and to my surprise was answered in morse by lights and flags. Never again would Royal Navy personnel be that relaxed on board war ships. That night Ma turned on all the lights in the house, and left the curtains drawn back: no more blackout. Then out we went to dance the night away around all those bonfires being lit in the middle of almost every street.

When the first atomic bomb fell on Hiroshima, all my fears were reawakened and intensified. This was not just a bomb filled with high explosives, it was the first ever atomic bomb which brought with it massive and terrifying destruction. Daddy was sitting on my bed trying to comfort me, and then in a stroke of genius he told me that atomic power could be very innocent and helpful, too. Just turn on a switch and lights would go on with this same, by then controlled, atomic power.

It was at Christmas 1945 that I had my first opportunity to attend Midnight Mass. All through the war, church services were always held in daylight because it was just too complicated to arrange for an effective blackout. All those stained glass windows, many of them high up, would have been extraordinarily difficult to black out each sunset and unveil each dawn. Many, many churches were bombed, but loss of life within their precincts was unusual. The only church that I remember receiving full and continuous protection was St. Paul's Cathedral in the City of London. But that was not only because of the significance of the church itself - many others in the country were of equally great historical significance. St. Paul's in those days was far and away the highest building in the area, and during the London blitz it became a strong symbol of survival. If you could still see the dome of St. Paul's when dawn broke, then the spirit of the people remained strong.

We stayed in Southsea until Daddy was able to find and buy us a house back in our old neighbourhood of Drayton: actually it was next door in East Cosham. I adored this house, which was actually my first long-term home. My bedroom became my castle, for which I was allowed to choose furniture, pictures, books, and ornaments. To all these new happenings was added the most splendid experience of owning a puppy, who shared my bed with me.

And so, I finally felt able to stop hugging my teddy bear as I went to sleep, and removed him each night from his daytime place of honour on the bed to another place of honour on my dressing table.

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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 - Your Story

Posted on: 13 July 2003 by david crowson

Dear Anne.Read your story with interest,and have submitted mine,which is somewhere on the same site.You and I are of a similar age,and both from "Pompey"(which I left many years ago)but share the same memories of those days.Would love to e-mail if you like..on
Yours Sincerely
David Crowson

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