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War for Nita

by mrsBonita

Contributed by 
mrsBonita
People in story: 
Nita Doonan
Location of story: 
Dorset and London
Background to story: 
Civilian
Article ID: 
A3805698
Contributed on: 
18 March 2005

Nita Doonan. Born September 8 1932
Lived in Dorset 1932-1943 and in London 1943-1945

One of my earliest memories is of sitting in a galvanised bath before the fire and suddenly becoming aware that my mother, who was bathing me, and other members of the family were listening very intently to something a man was saying on the radio (we called it wireless in those days). I was too young to recognize the importance of the moment but I realised later that the man on the radio was announcing the outbreak of the second world war. The date was September 3rd 1939: five days before my seventh birthday.
Children were evacuated to our area from the areas which were thought to be most at risk from the expected bombing — big cities like London for example. My grandmother gave us all a laugh one day when, on looking out of the window at some children going by, she said, “Oh look at all they poor little evaporated children.” However, Hitler’s first targets were the Channel approaches and the ports of southern England and another memory I have is of standing in the street in summer 1940 and watching the Battle of Britain being fought in the skies overhead. I thought it was very exciting when we ourselves were evacuated to another part of Dorchester one night because an unexploded bomb had dropped at the end of our road. We all had to turn out in our nighties and stay away from the area until the bomb had been defused.

My parents had been having some marital problems and, in September 1940, decided to separate. So my mother and I moved from Dorchester and for a couple of years moved about living with various relatives. My mother had been longing to get into some kind of war work and she would have loved to go into the forces but she couldn’t because she had me. However, with most of the able-bodied men away at the war, there was plenty of work for women and she worked first of all as a ‘clippie’ (bus conductress) in Weymouth. Next, when we moved to Poole, she worked on the switchboard of a small munitions factory in Hamworthy (Hannafords).

Women, who were regarded as the ‘weaker sex’ and who, for years, had been told their place was in the home and not in the public world of work were suddenly a vital part of the war effort. By September 1941, in response to posters like ‘We Want Women’ distributed by the Ministry of Information, three million women had registered for war work and by 1943 any healthy woman up to the age of fifty-one who was not working or looking after dependants could be fined or imprisoned for refusing to be directed to employment, wherever it was and however arduous. Posters proclaimed ‘There’s not Much Women Can’t Do’. Hundreds of government-run creches opened up. Woman’s place was no longer in the home but in the munitions factories or the services.

In 1943, with most sensible people getting out of London as fast as they could, my mother was persuaded by a friend that war work would be much more exciting in London, so off she went and found work making aeroplane parts for Plessey (although she said she had so many rejects it’s a wonder we won the war). To begin with she left me with an aunt in Kent but I missed her so much I eventually persuaded her to take me to live with her again. The factory where she worked had been re-located under the ground in the hope that it would escape the bombs. My mother worked nights and she absolutely hated the factory work: “It was hot and dirty,” she said, “ and the noise was just terrible. Going down to the factory on the escalators was like descending into hell.” Now that she had me living with her again she could escape from the factory work and she got a job as the manageress of a dry-cleaners even though she had no experience whatsoever of being the manageress of anything. Confidence and cheek got her through the interview.

Technically speaking the word Blitz (short for ‘blitzkrieg’, a German word meaning ‘lightning war’) refers to the intensive German air raids on London during the Battle of Britain in 1940. Between July and December, 1940, 23,000 civilians died. Having overwhelmed the rest of Europe with this ‘lightning war’ Hitler expected to break the spirit of the British people with the same tactics but he was unsuccessful.

By the time I joined my mother in Ilford this intensive bombing — the Blitz — was over but London was still receiving its fair share of bombing. There were air-raids nearly every day and the moaning whine of the Warning and the strong, still note of the All clear punctuated our days. There were Anderson shelters in most people’s back gardens and some people had Morrison shelters indoors. The Anderson shelters were built of concrete and you went down steps to an underground shelter. The Morrison shelters were made of steel and were like big cages which took up most of the space in an average sized room. My mother wouldn’t go into one of these because she’d heard of a girl having her legs cut off when there was a direct hit on the house and the cage had collapsed on her.

One night, a friend of my mother’s took me to a musical show at the Hippodrome. We were sitting in the gallery enjoying the show when the stage suddenly went black and smoke filled the theatre. There had been a direct hit on a block of houses just behind the theatre. We managed to get out but I left behind my mother’s best fur gloves and my coat. Returning home on the bus we saw that the plate glass window of the dry-cleaner where my mother worked had been smashed by the blast and people were helping themselves to the clothes. When we got home we told my mother what was happening and, not realising the trauma we had been through, she immediately rushed out of the door to get to ‘her’ shop. To the day of her death she never, ever lived down the fact that her first thought had been for her shop and not for her poor little shell-shocked daughter — and I even got told off for losing the gloves!!

Next came Hitler’s nasty little secret weapon — the unmanned rockets - V1’s and V2’s. Nicknamed Buzz-bombs, because of the sound of the engine, the first ones fell on London in July 1944. I can remember that the horror of these bombs was the terrible sound they made, getting louder and louder until the whole world seemed to be filled with a kind of throbbing roar. Then the noise would abruptly stop and we would wait for the explosion. This would come several seconds later because after the engine cut out the rocket would sail on by its own volition for a further mile or so. If the engine cut out when the noise level was at its loudest you knew you were safe because this meant that the engine had cut out when it was directly overhead. The fact that it would sail on to kill or maim hundreds of people somewhere else seemed irrelevant. It seems terrible now, but my only feelings seemed to be gratitude and relief that, this time at least, it wasn’t me!

The only thing I can remember about rationing was that I couldn’t get enough sweets and we sometimes used to barter clothing coupons for sweet points. Some things remained on ration for a long time after the war ended. I can remember that when I got married in 1952 my husband and I had to take our ration books to the hotel where we stayed for our honeymoon.

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