- Contributed by
- People in story:
- Joan and Norman Gray
- Location of story:
- London and Lincolnshire
- Background to story:
- Royal Air Force
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 15 August 2004
This is an extract from a life story that my mum wrote for my brother Richard and myself and ultimately grand and great-grand children to read. She charted her life from her early childhood through to the year 2000 when she lost her beloved husband Norman. The chapter entitled “The War Years” provided us with a fascinating and somewhat frightening view of her life alone in London at the beginning of the war to my parents meeting and the birth of my brother during the war. I was born in 1949 after the war had ended so was not featured in this part of their lives.
As the story begins my mum was just 23 years old. She had moved to London from her home town of Grimsby and was working in the Peter Jones department store in Sloane Square………………………………………
I well remember listening to the radio all alone in my bedsit on that fateful day, 11 am on 3rd September 1939. Shortly afterwards the sirens sounded for the first time. I think most people in London thought it was their last hour. I know I did. I grabbed all my possessions including the photographs of my mother and brother and went into the air raid shelter thinking I would never see them again. Fortunately it was a false alarm and soon the all clear sounded. There was a lull for some time before we all began to return to normal routine.
At Peter Jones department store they formed a fire squad — most of us joined and as a result spent many nights on the roof on duty. The restaurant and lounge were on the floor below so it was not too bad, at least we had plenty to eat, which saved me buying an evening meal. I remember one of the directors was Scottish and he brought along a record player and some recordings of Scottish reels. He taught us the steps and we had great fun learning. At one of the annual balls we were able to give a demonstration. We were all dressed in long evening gowns. It was wonderful, the gowns were part of the show wardrobe and afterwards we were able to buy the gowns. Mine was to become my wedding dress.
However, it was not all fun in those days, but we made the most of it. The bombing had not started but I remember one night looking down from the railings of the roof and seeing the army from the Chelsea Barracks marching off to war. Later I was to see those lads returning from the disaster of Dunkirk. At one point someone got up a little concert party and we toured the sites of the barrage balloons cheering on all the troops.
Things weren’t too bad until the blitz started. I always remember coming home from a visit to my home town of Grimsby one Saturday night. The train was held up for a couple of hours outside Kings Cross Station. When we did eventually get off the train it looked as if the whole of London was ablaze. I was terrified as I made my way back to Victoria. Later my current boyfriend came to pick me up and take me out for a meal. We went to a restaurant where we often went. It was in a basement and I felt quite safe there even though there was an alert on — I could have stayed there all night. Eventually we decided to make a dash for it as I was only about 10 minutes walk away from my flat. As we were walking over the bridge there was a sound like a train on the line below. Suddenly we both realised what the sound was. It was coming from above not below. Fortunately there was a shelter on the bridge. We ran as fast as we could and threw ourselves into it. The bomb landed in front of the restaurant that we had just left. That was my first dice with death. I was to have many more near misses before I left London.
For several months it was not possible to get a good nights sleep in London. I passed more and more bombed areas on my way to work each day. Once I felt I must get some sleep, so I went into one of the tube stations with my blanket but I would have been better staying at home. It was awful, so many people laid on the floor all trying to sleep. Then I tried to shelter under one of the big London buildings but I could not sleep due to the awful smell of so many bodies so I picked up my blanket and walked through the black-out back to my flat. Then one night a friend suggested I go home with her for the night. She lived in Ealing — I went and as a result had a good nights sleep. However, a few nights later they were bombed, not a direct hit but it caused a lot of damage.
Another night I went my good friends Jack and Elsie. They had a ground floor flat in Maidavale. I felt quite safe there but even they were bombed a few nights after. The bombing was following me around! It was awful. The top flat was badly damaged and a family with a young girl who lived there was killed. They only found the little girls arm. Jack and Elsie moved out to the country after that.
One Saturday night I was getting ready to go out. I had just got in the bath and there was a terrible screaming noise. That was the start of the raids with screaming bombs. I soon got out of the bath and got dressed. I still went out though. We were getting used to the raids and not going into the shelters much.
Fortunately I missed the buzz bombs. I was fed up with the whole thing and decided to join up before I was called up. I chose the Womens Royal Air Force. For no particular reason — fate must have taken a hand in my destiny. I was on my way to meet my future husband. After nine years at Peter Jones, I handed in my notice, said goodbye to all my friends and was on my way.
FALLING IN LOVE
I went to Gloucester for five weeks training after which I was given a choice of two postings. I chose London and Lincoln. I was sent to Scampton in Linconshire and there at the gate to the base I met him — Norman Gray. I did not realise at the time but after a few days we had a date. He took me out to tea and to the picture house in Lincoln.
We now saw a lot of each other during the next two or three weeks. It was a warm September and in the evenings we would go for lovely country walks. Each week we went to the dance in the gym and danced to the RAF band. We had some great times there and I made two very good friends — Betty and Dorothy. Dorothy was the mothering type and looked after me. We had to sleep off camp in an old country house, which was said to be haunted. It was very cold there and Dorothy always used to go on the early transport from the camp to put the hot water bottle in my bed. Of course Betty and I were always on the late bus.
I think Norman and I both knew from the start that this was the real thing and we would marry. He had told me that he had already been married, that he got married young and that his wife had had a terminal illness and died soon after. So we were both free and we planned to get married as soon as possible.
We were marred on 8th November 1941. We had a nice wedding in Grimsby and my grandfather gave me away. Betty and Dorothy and another friend were there and three pals of Norman’s, his best man was Les Taylor his best friend.
We had a lovely reception at Blundell Park House and stayed the night in the Bridal Suite. We then spent a few days at Quarry Bank meeting Norman’s mother and sister Lily with her husband Jack and baby John. They made me very welcome and we had a pleasant stay. Our leave was soon over and we had to get back to camp.
EXPECTING OUR FIRST CHILD
It wasn’t long before I became pregnant and had to get my discharge from the WRAF. We went to live at my mother’s house in Grimsby. Norman got a living out permit and we found accommodation with a young couple sharing their house in Bealey Road in Old Clee, a little area between Cleethorpes and Grimsby. It was not far from the sea front and near to the Danesbury Nursing Home where my baby was due to be born. From there it was a very nice country walk to my mothers and grandmothers, passing the little Old Clee Church where my baby was later christened.
One morning early, when I was very pregnant suddenly without warning a German plane crossed the coast and started dropping bombs. I jumped out of bed and ran downstairs, flinging myself in the air raid shelter. I was very concerned that my baby was all right however a week or so later on the 17th September 1942 my beautiful little boy (Richard) arrived safe and sound.
After I left Scampton, Norman managed to get a living away pass and we shared a house with a very old widower. Norman used to cycle the 12 miles to Grimsby from the RAF Base.
ANOTHER NEAR MISS
We had another near miss when Richard was about a year old. We were still living with the old widower, he was a keen gardener. He hadn’t got a shelter so we used to go across his garden to the next door neighbours Anderson shelter. The old man stayed at home under the table. He was angry with us for going across his garden and told us we should go round the front of the house but we took no notice which was just as well for one night the German bombers used anti personnel bombs. After the raid was over we had just returned to the house via the garden when there was a terrific explosion outside the front of the house. When we later went up to Richard’s room, we found the window had blown in and Richard’s cot was full of glass. Apparently one of the bombs had failed to go off and a man was walking in the street outside our house and must have kicked the unexploded bomb and it went off, blowing him to pieces. If we had returned by way of the front of the house, it could have been the three of us that was blown to pieces. So our dear little baby had two miracle escapes that night and that was not the end of it. A few days later Norman noticed a peculiar hole in the garden just outside the kitchen window. He got a stick and was poking it down the hole when he suddenly realised what it was — another unexploded bomb. What a shock — We had a to get the army in to detonate it — everyone was evacuated from the area.
Later Norman managed to find us accommodation at a farm house in Tetley which was not far from the aerodrome.
One night Norman was cycling home along a tree lined road where apparently a German airman had just parachuted down and been captured by the police. Another time one of the German planes started to shoot up the base. I was in bed while Norman was being shot at! The Germans favourite trick was to follow our planes back to their bases and then shoot up the runway. One of Norman’s jobs was to light up the runway with the Aldis lamps when our planes returned from their missions. That particular night he dropped the lamp and ran very quickly!!
We were very happy at the farmhouse, the villagers were very friendly and we were taken into their little community. We used to go to the local whist drives when we were able. Once, I remember, we won a huge home made pork pie, it was delicious, we halved it with the farmer and his family. We had plenty of good food there especially home cured bacon. When Norman came back after night duty, he gathered lovely big mushrooms in the fields so we had lovely breakfasts. Richard liked it too with all the animals, he learnt to walk and talk a lot there. I was sad to leave there. When we left we went to keep house for the widower who I had always thought of as a granddad. I had lived with him and his wife when I was very young, before being adopted.
MOVING TO THE MIDLANDS
After the bombing we went on a visit to Norman’s mother’s house in Quarry Bank. He felt I would be safer there. We went back and packed all our things and we stayed all the rest of the war years in Quarry Bank, Staffordshire. Mind you I did wonder one night when I lay in bed and heard all the German bombers going overhead on their way to bomb Coventry. I hated being parted from Norman, but he wrote to me every day to cheer me up. He would come and see us as often as he could usually unexpected. I could always hear his footsteps coming down the entry at the side of the house. He used to come in and grab Richard and throw him in the air. I was always frightened he was going to hit the low ceiling. I was always very unhappy after seeing him off at the station. It was an awfully long lonely walk back in the pitch dark, but I was never frightened.
It was very strange at first, living in the Midlands. I felt I was in a foreign country, but I soon got used to the way they talked and I made many friends especially at the clinic with Richard every week. Of course I got to know my new sister in law Lily with her little boy John. We always got on very well together and in later years became more like sisters.
During Norman’s time in the RAF he was sent on many courses. At one time I went down to London for a week when he was stationed at Uxbridge. Then another time he was in Loughborough and he got us temporary accommodation near by with a local gamekeeper and his wife — we had some lovely meals there too.
Another time he was sent to Blackpool and again he got us accommodation with an elderly lady in a cottage. We had a few visits into Blackpool — it was during May 1944 so even though we were still at war a few places remained open. We went into Blackpool Tower and listened to the organ but not played by Reginald Dixon at that time. Richard would play on the sands. He was about 18 months old then. On the day I returned with him to Quarry Bank, I got on the train and it was packed with American soldiers all celebrating the fact that we had invaded Normandy - it was ‘D’ Day. They all made a fuss of Richard — I expect many of them were missing their own families.
The next move for Norman was to London and he was stationed near the Albert Hall. He hated being there but it was not for long. The war with Germany ended and he was there outside Buckingham Palace celebrating with all the crowds. From there he was sent to Yorkshire and I was hoping he would soon be sent home, but the war with Japan was still on and one day he came home suddenly and he had to have inoculations ready to be sent out to India. I couldn’t believe it.
We enjoyed his embarkation leave as much as we could. Luckily however, he didn’t go to India and some time later he was demobbed and we had him home again. So for the first time we were able to start our normal married life.
We enjoyed almost 60 years of happy married life until my beloved Norman died aged 84 in October 2000
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