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Our First Date, on the Day War Broke Outicon for Recommended story

by george york

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Archive List > Outbreak of War 1939

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george york
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18 July 2005

I was 18 years old when war was declared. For some weeks before that I had been visiting a youth club in Pond Street, Hampstead in NW London with a couple of friends. I began to take notice of a lovely girl, who was unknown to me or to any of my friends. Eventually, in the week before the war, I finally plucked up enough courage to speak to her. We seemed to get along just fine straightaway and after the club she quite happily agreed to let me walk her home — at least near to her home, because at the corner of the road in which she lived, which was somewhere in Highgate, we said goodnight. I recall her reason for this was to do with her parents probably not approving of her being with a boy friend. However, we arranged to meet again, for our first date, on the following Sunday morning for a walk across Hampstead Heath.

Our pleasures were simple, in those days!

By the time Sunday arrived the world situation had changed dramatically. Poland had been invaded, there was a threat of war and Mr Chamberlain was going to speak to the nation on the radio.

Remember, only a year or so before, he had come back from meeting Hitler with his now famous piece of paper promising us "Peace in our time". He had saved us then, much to our relief, and there was a hope he would do it again — to even greater relief. I do not recall anybody who actually looked forward to war.

In those days the telephone was not in the widespread private use that it is today. She was not on the phone and I had no idea what her address was — remember, I had not walked her all the way home — and therefore there was no way in which I could get in touch with my girl. I therefore decided that all I could do was to keep our rendezvous and hope for the best. To my great surprise and joy she was there waiting for me. I remember thinking then that she must really like me!
Because it was such a beautiful sunny Sunday morning we decided to continue with our planned walk across Hampstead Heath. Some ten or fifteen minutes or more after 11 o'clock, when we knew Mr Chamberlain was due to speak on the radio to the nation, our happy walk was seriously interrupted by the wail of the air raid sirens. Although we did not know what the Prime Minister had said we both knew that it meant that we were at war with Germany!

We quite literally did not know what to do next. We sat on a bench, high on Parliament Hill, facing south towards the centre of London. We watched an RAF barrage balloon crew at the foot of the hill try, with considerable difficulty and little success, to winch up their balloon. It just seemed to flop around near the ground like a drunken sailor — or Mr Blobby (although he had not been invented then). We talked about what we should do for the best. Should we find some shelter (not easy in the wide open spaces of the Heath) - should we make our totally opposite ways home to our families — should we stay together. Without any experience of this situation we were totally confused and not a little afraid.

Remember that not long before this our cinema news reels and newspapers had shown us the kind of death and destruction that the German and Italian bombers had dealt out to Spanish towns in the Spanish Civil War. A popular film of that time was "The shape of things to come" which told the story of the destruction of civilisation by war and bombing and the escape by a chosen few by rocket to another planet — was this prophetic! With these fatalistic thoughts and images in mind our future, at that moment, did not seem bright. We agreed to stay together and face whatever was coming.

We stayed on our bench, holding hands, and gazed towards London waiting for the skies to blacken with hundreds of German bombers coming to obliterate London and probably us with it. We hardly spoke and just occasionally squeezed hands. There were no words of undying love — we had not known each other long enough for that — there was no kissing or cuddling — you did not really do that kind of thing in public in those days. We just sat there and waited for what we thought was inevitable, but nothing happened.

After a while the "All clear" sounded and we knew we were safe, at least until the next time. There were no aeroplanes, no bombs, no gunfire — but the barrage balloon had finally reached a reasonable height. That was probably the beginning of what became to be known as the Phoney War - and lasted about 9 months until the Germans invaded the Low Countries.

We said our goodbye and made our separate and opposite ways home — she to Highgate(?) and me to Kilburn. I was then working as a Counter Clerk and Telegraphist at the Post Office in Kilburn High Road.

I gave her my phone number at work and she promised to ring me in a few days.
When I eventually reached home in the afternoon I was instructed by my mother to take our dog Toby to the vet and have him destroyed! Apparently, my parents felt that we would have enough to worry about just looking after ourselves and it would be better for Toby anyway - I never did understand that logic! When I got to the vet's surgery there
were dozens of people with pets of all kinds apparently employing the same logic. That was a very sad moment.

Three or four days later I had a phone call from my girl. She was now working in central London and wanted me to meet her in Southampton Row the following afternoon. I was able to make the afternoon because I was on the early shift on the P.O. counter. Incidentally, in those days our Post Office was open from 8am to 9pm, Monday to Saturday and 9am to 12 noon on Sunday!

On this only our second date there was a second surprise. My girl met me fully kitted out in the blue uniform of the Women's Royal Air Force — hair in a bun, flat shoes, peaked cap, etc. Apparently, on Monday 4th September she had volunteered for the W.R.A.F. and was now stationed in Adastral House, the RAF HQ, in Theobalds Road. My thoughts may be difficult to understand nowadays but picture me, a strapping 6 feet tall healthy civilian with this slip of a girl in full RAF blue on my arm. What thoughts of King and Country does that conjure up? I felt a little like those chaps in the first World War who were given white feathers because they were not in the forces.

In such circumstances my potentially great love affair was destined to fail. I could not keep in touch by phoning her although she was able to phone me at work. As I recall , we exchanged a letter or two and she was shortly posted out of London. As a result we were never able to meet again and as a result our love withered on the wartime vine.

There are times when I recall this short episode in my life and wonder what happened to her both during and after the war. I had never had her home address and now cannot even remember her name — although Helen seems to strike a chord.

As for me, I served in the Royal Signals in Algeria, Tunisia, Sicily and Italy, and was demobbed in 1946 after 4 years. In February 1947 I married Eileen, my childhood sweetheart. We had three children and 51 wonderful years until she died in 1998 .

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