- Contributed by
- Alec Turner
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- Alec Turner
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- 13 June 2004
M.V. Royal Daffodil. Built in 1939 by William Denney and Brothers, Dumbarton. 2060 Tons gross, 313 feet long, 50 feet beam, 4500 B.H.P. Speed: 21 Knots. Capacity: 2073 Passengers.
Memories of a World War Two Evacuee.
This is an account of my memories of a time now over fifty years ago when in Septemeber 1939 Great Britain with other European Nations were facing the
increasing prospect of another war against Germany, which eventually developed into
World War Two.
There were three children in our family and I was the youngest, being born in December 1929, with a brother who was six years older, and a sister four and a half years older than myself. The family lived in a three bedroom terraced house in Green Lane, Dagenham, Essex, just twelve miles from the centre of London.
The initial event that signalled the coming of war for me was queuing outside the local library at Valance House on a summer's evening during 1938. This was at the time when Hitler had marched his troops into Czechoslovakia prior to that historical Munich Meeting, when Neville Chamberlain, the Prime Minister returned and waved that ill-famed appeasement agreement document to the news cameras. We were queuing to be measured for a gas mask that was collected from the library a few weeks later. After the return of the Prime Minister from Munich, the threat of war seemed to diminish for several months, but the newspapers constantly reported new events that kept the thoughts of a war pending. Government advertisements appeared everywhere instructing what people should do in the event of an air raid. One brand of cigarettes introduced a set of picture cards entitled Air Raid Precautions that gave illustrated advice on what to do if an attack ever came.
During this period I recollect seeing an air raid siren being fitted to the top of a high pole adjacent to a Police call box at Becontree Heath. On another occasion a RAF barrage balloon detachment had parked a vehicle on waste ground between Chadwell Heath Station and the nearby Gaumont Cinema. A winch was mounted under a wire cage on the back of the lorry and a steel wire hawser stretched up to the silver-grey balloon floating in the sky many hundreds of feet above. In the summer of 1939 Anderson Air Raid Shelters were delivered to many surrounding houses. They were named after the Government Minister responsible for their introduction and came free to people having an income below a defined level. My father was a London Bus Conductor and earned below this level so we got ours free. These shelters were made of very thick corrugated steel sections, with six or eight curved sections forming the roof and several straight sections for the ends. When assembled, one end section contained an opening for entry. The complete assembly was designed to be sunken about four feet into the ground and covered over with the earth taken from the hole. Each section was extremely heavy and installation was the householder’s responsibility. For people unable to tackle this task Dagenham local council provided a fitting service. My father had suffered World War One chest wounds and a collapsed lung in 1936 and so was considered medically unfit to do this task. I can clearly remember the two council workmen who came and dug the hole in our back garden and fitted the sections together to form the shelter. It was the first one they had fitted and had both previously been unemployed for a long time.
By mid August 1939 Britain's entry into war seemed inevitable and the plan made many years earlier to evacuate school children from the greater London area became a reality with schools and parents getting together and then deciding whether their children would go if war came. My parents decided (together with my agreement) that I should go, if and when the time came. My Father had been a regular soldier having served in India and South Africa before the First World War in 1914 and had suffered several wounding and poison gas incidents. He fully realised the effects of military bombardment and the subsequent casualties that would arise. At this point in time both my brother and sister had left school and were just starting their first jobs, travelling each day into London and so were not eligible to go onthe evacuation scheme.
After the long summer holiday, school started during the last week of August and I went up into the third year class at Grafton Road Junior Boys School in Dagenham. The teacher, Mr. Teasdale, had the reputation of being very strict and would use the cane for the slightest misconduct. The class did not get a chance to try the patience of this new teacher as we were only with him for one or two days as by the following week-end Great Britain became at war with Germany and the plan to evacuate Greater London school children before this was put into action. Preparations by the teachers in the whole of Grafton Road School began during the middle of the week and I was placed into a group of children administered by teachers of the Infants School with Miss Molyneaux at the Head. I started school at Grafton Road so the teachers were known to me, especially Miss Molyneaux who had a very special interest in encouraging young children in music and I had played in her school percussion band and went with the band to many musical festivals and contests whilst in the Infants School. There were no lessons during these few days but we were instructed of what to take on the journey if the evacuation took place. This consisted of our gasmasks, a change of clothing, a towel, toothbrush and soap, and most important was an addressed envelope and writing paper so that we would be able to inform our parents of the address when we were settled in our new home. The teachers assembled us into small groups in the classrooms. Most children had brothers and sisters who were placed together into the groups, so there was a wide range of ages within each group.
My father went to the school several times during the evenings of that week and presumably was told of the evacuation plan and details of the arrangements when the signal to go was given. At this time my mother had become very ill with scarlet fever but could not be admitted to hospital as was usual for those days, as the threat of war was so imminent that only emergency cases were being admitted. My father had to stay at home from work in order to look after my mother who was unable to get out of bed. There was some dilemma whether I would still be able to be included in any evacuation activity because of my contact with the disease and possibility of passing on the infection. This must have been resolved between my father and the school authorities during the week as consent was granted.
On the Friday afternoon it became known that the evacuation would take place the following day. That evening I remember preparing for the next day's journey. A case was packed with a change of clothing and as my Mother was so ill, the lady living next door helped to make and pack sandwiches for me to take and eat during the journey.
My father woke me very early the next morning the 2nd of September 1939. I had some breakfast, then got ready to go with my father to the school. I carried the small suitcase, gasmask and the sandwiches in a cloth haversack. I don't remember saying goodbye to my mother, but I think that she was far too ill to be fully aware of what was happening. It was a dull and grey morning with puddles on the pavement as we walked to the school but I remember feeling excited at the prospect of going on a long journey, although I did not know where or how we would travel. The destination was kept secret and maybe even my father did not know.
We were assembled in the classrooms of the school and were told that we would be going by ship from Dagenham Dock that was several miles from the school. A fleet of old cars and vans began to arrive at the school and children piled in to be taken to the Docks. I travelled with about four other children in the back of a small baker's delivery van. We were taken to the Princess Cinema at the Chequers and then were reassembled to walk in orderly groups, the mile long straight road that ended at Dagenham Dock on the River Thames.
I can still clearly picture in my mind, the road ahead and behind filled with an endless stream of school children, some much younger than I, walking along the road and being urged by their teachers to keep in several lines abreast and not to stop. The case containing my clothes began to feel very heavy and I kept changing it from one hand to the other. Blisters formed in the palms of my hands that became most painful. It was about eight o'clock by the time we reached the end of the road which passed by the Ford Motor Works Factory and terminated at the Dock where the M.V. Daffodil was moored with hundreds of school children, some accompanied by their mothers, had already embarked. Two more boats, the Royal Eagle and the Royal Sovereign were also moored at the dock. These boats, famous in their day, normally ferried day-trippers on the River Thames from Tower Bridge Pier in London to Southend and Margate and also across the Channel to the Continent. The Eagle and the Sovereign were Paddle Ships and the Daffodil was a new propeller driven ship, having been launched earlier that year.
We boarded the Daffodil and soon the flotilla of all three boats headed it's way down the River Thames towards the estuary, passing large oil tanks on the north shore and pausing off Southend Pier presumably to drop the river pilot off before entering the sea. By this time word had spread that our destination would be Lowestoft and our journey would take all day. The weather improved and became sunny after the dull start of the day, and luckily the sea remained calm throughout the journey. It was the first time I had travelled by ship and it all seemed a great adventure for me being a nine-year-old boy. All the decks of the ship were crowded with children, probably there were as many as 2000 which was the passenger carrying capacity of the vessel. There also were many mothers and most of our schoolteachers who were organising and supervising the operation. Sandwiches were eaten and the teachers organised deck games such as quoits and giant sized deck-draughts. Escorted parties were taken on visits to other decks on the ship as we were only allowed to wander about on our designated deck. I went with one party on a tour and remember looking through a lower deck window, from a narrow passageway, into the engine room and seeing the highly polished glistening engine, handrails and pipework.
There was an event during the voyage when someone claimed they had seen a submarine periscope which resulted in many children going to one side of the ship to have a look and there came a message over the ship's Tannoy system for people to spread out on the deck as there was a danger of the ship gaining a list. Whether there was a real periscope seen or not I don't know but it certainly caused alarm because the ultimatum for Hitler to withdraw his troops from Poland had been issued and everyone was expecting the war to start within a few hours.
The flotilla arrived off the pier at Lowestoft at about five o'clock in the afternoon.
When we got on to the pier I remember how peculiar it felt to tread on firm ground again after being on the boat since early that morning and feeling the swell of the boat on the waves during the wait just off the pier. As we walked along the pier towards the shore Women's Voluntary Service helpers gave each child a paper bag containing sweets, an apple and an orange.
The teachers reassembled our group and we walked to an old grey stone walled school in Lowestoft where we stayed for the next three nights. Our sleeping area was in the main school hall. Straw was spread on the floor and pillowcases were provided which we filled with straw. I can't remember meals and where we ate them but I do recollect that milk delivered to the school was boiled in a coal fired washing copper before available for drinking. It was whilst watching the teachers carrying out this process that I overheard them talking amongst themselves that war had been declared and must have been just after eleven o'clock on Sunday the 3rd September 1939, when the time limit of the British Ultimatum for Germany to withdraw their troops from Poland expired.
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