- Contributed by
- People in story:
- Mrs. Elsie Quarmby
- Location of story:
- Hastings, East Sussex.
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 23 November 2005
I was 21 and working in a firm of solicitors in the centre of Hastings at the outbreak of war. All was quiet at first until the Battle of Britain started, then southern England became the frontline where much of the air action was fought out. Unlike Dover, Hastings had few anti-aircraft guns and visiting hostile fighters would fly over and machine-gun civilians in the streets, at will. This was a regular occurence and we learned to accept it as part of every day life. As I heard the 'planes coming in I would take shelter wherever possible; sometimes in shop doorways, other times behind concrete tank-traps along the seafront.
One particularly vicious bombing raid claime the lives of peopl I knew well and left much destruction. I was leaving the office when I saw the young son of the office caretake, waiting for a bus. I called out thathe should take cover as we would be sure to under some sort of attack since the air-raid warning had sounded. He said he would take a chance and wait for thebus. I then passed the little cinema and stopped to have a quick chat to the manager and the girl in the ticket desk. Further along I went into the Post Office where we discussed the amount of 'planes overhead.
On the way back to my office I met one of our clients, who also commented on the activity. As I reached the door there was a terrible explosion and at the same time one of my bosses reachedout topull me inside. As he did so, the force of the impact shattered our glass roof and he was knocked unconscious. Being slightly stunned myself, I ran from the building to check if the young lad had got away by bus, also to see if our client was safe. He was leaning against a wall with an arm missing -it was nowhere to be seen. All I could do was sit him down and offer to get help. I turned the corner hoping to see the boy but there was no sign of him. The cinema had been bombed and the girl was nowhere to be found. The manager was but his head was discovered on the steps of the Post Office, about a hundred yards away. I had a close friend who worked in a nearby office. She was kille and her body was never found - her head was located on top of a shop's roof, miles away. She was such a pretty girl.
The caretaker kept asking me if I thought her son had caught the bus. How could I tell her I was sure he had not? His body was later found but it was in so many pieces that it had to be sewn together before it could be identified.
Of course it was terribly sad and it did affect me, as it did everybody concerned, but we had to carry on as best we could.
On another occasion, I had just got off a the bus to go home and heard a German 'plane fast approaching, guns blazing at me exclusively it seemed. I rushed into a shop which sold all sorts of equipment. There was an enormous explosion and I was immediately buried under rubble. I managed to dig my way out and came across a little dog who had also been buried. A bicycle tyre had curled itself around the dog's neck and this added to the terror of the poor animal. I calmed him down and carried on to get to the Fire Station. A fireman asked if I saw where the bomb had dropped and I said 'Yes, on me!' I told him the exact location and made my wayhome. That night I imagined that guns were constantly firing at me.
As one of the machine-gunning sweeps started I, and a few others, dived through a break in the seafront wall for shelter. With us was a young man who became hysterical and we had to restrain him to quieten his screams.
There were many Canadian RAF personnel stationed in one of the large hotels along the Hastings front, and soon after one lot arrived most of them were killed during a bombing raid. (One was miraculously spared because he was having a bath at the time; the bath was flipped upside down over him and he was thus saved.) Shortly afterwards I was walking behind the hotel when I came upon stacks of coffins, awaiting burial. During this time, my mother would keep an open house for Canadians or any other armed forces who wished to come. As food was in short supply there wasn't much to offer but it made a break for them. There were two young children with us and they were made a great fuss of whenever the visitors came.
Life went on in the usual way until an English RAF friend of the family came to see us. Jokingly I asked him when he was going to introduce me to a nice young man. He wanted to know what type I would prefer and naturally I said a tall, dark and handsome sort. Some time later my friend and I were at the station when she saw the English friend, so we walked along the platform with him. A voice called 'Wait for me' and up came his friend, who was also in the RAF. He was Scottish so naturally he was called Jock. Our friend asked me if he (the Scot) was tall, dark and handsome enough. I replied 'He'll do, thank you.' It was a put up job apparently but we hit it off straight away. The next time he came to see me I was laid up with a broken leg. It happened when I came off my BSA Bantam motorbike. A woman saw me and left with the comment that our soldiers suffered more than that. I walked quite a long way home and up many steps, not realising just how bad the break was, although it was agony.
Jock was stationed at Moreton-in-the-Marsh and would come to see me whenever possible. We soon became engaged and my uncle in Canada, who had joined the army and was in Britain, arranged with his wife to send over a wedding cake. This she did and we were to ice it. In the meantime, Jock was posted to the Middle East via Gibraltar. His 'plane was shot down over the sea and the crew was safely picked up by the Portuguese. A Vichy French boat was racing to get to the fliers first - had they done so the crew would have been interned for the duration of hostilities. (How I regret that the French hadn't succeeded; Jock would most probably have survived the war.) At the time they were pleased to be in the hands of the Portuguese, and they knew the internment would be short. I received the news that Jock was safe and was eventually returned to England.
On the Sunday he was due to come with me to hear the banns read in church. However, on the Thursday prior to then, I awoke with a start at about 2.30 am, and saw fierce flames on one of my bedroom walls. Simultaneously I heard footsteps coming down the back path and called to my mother, who was sleeping downstairs, to let Jock in. He wasn't there. I later learned that his younger brother, in Scotland, also awoke at the same time and told his mother that Jock was coming up the path. Of course he wasn't. I wrote to his squadron and had a very sympathetic letter back saying that Jock had been reported missing, and after investigation they confirmed that the 'plane had been shot down in flames, into the sea. His close friend, who had introduced us, was show down and killed that same week.
Towards the end of the war I was looking out of my bedroom window, when I saw what looked like a self-propelled bomb going over. I discovered that this was the first of the 'Terror Weapons', as Hitler called them, but we soon knew them to be 'Doodlebugs'. When they came over regularly our fighters tried to shoot them down, although it was extremely difficult. There was a Polish pilot who became quite an expert and claimed a number of 'kills'.
As the was came to an end, people were getting ready to celebrate. Rightly so, but I didn't have the heart for it. I since had offers of marriage but it could never be possible in those early years. It wasn't until I turned forty that I eventually took that step.
© Copyright of content contributed to this Archive rests with the author. Find out how you can use this.