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15 October 2014
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A Wartime Childhood 1939-45: Part 2- No Comfort

by Kent County Council Libraries & Archives- Maidstone District

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Archive List > Childhood and Evacuation

Contributed by 
Kent County Council Libraries & Archives- Maidstone District
People in story: 
Barbara Hughes; Elsie Phillips; Gordon Phillips; Ellen Chandler; Bill Chandler; Jack Chandler; Tom Andrew; Hilda Andrew; Sylvia Kenny; Ivy Kenny; Ivor Kenny; Charlie Kenny; Gladys Butcher; Bernard Butcher; Bill Butcher; Ken Butcher; Bert Holdaway; Nell Holdaway; David Holdaway; Stella Davies; Lionel Davies; Ada Davies
Location of story: 
Farnham; Plymouth; Frensham
Background to story: 
Civilian
Article ID: 
A7811011
Contributed on: 
16 December 2005

Unknown companion, Barbara, her Grandma, her Uncle Tom and Aunty Hilda VJ Day August 1945

This story was submitted to the People’s War site by Rob Illingworth of Kent Libraries & Archives on behalf of Barbara Hughes and has been added to the site with her permission. The author fully understands the site's terms and conditions.

My mother had received a telegram informing her that my father was "Missing, presumed killed."

Some weeks after this,mother got a job in the General Post Office in town. Counter Assistant. As most of the male postal workers were called up into the services, women were being recruited to replace them.

This meant that she had to go away, to Oxford, on two separate training courses of about a month each. I was to 'look after grandma' while she was away.

Though working very hard, she obviously had a good time. Oxford, with its theatres (she saw Arthur Askey and the singing sensation, 'Hutch' at the New Theatre), its cinemas, to say nothing of unfamiliar leisure pursuits like punting on the river, seemed like a good place to be when she told us about it.

Naturally, I missed her. A lot. And when she came back, she worked such long hours that I saw a lot less of her than I had in the past. But there were compensations: the 'woods' for instance, our playground as well as the empty large houses with 'grounds', not gardens. Behind us was Hill House and halfway up the hill on the way to the village was Gold Hill Manor. Both were requisitioned 'for the duration' by the Army, as was Edgborough School, halfway up the other hill leading to Frensham.

Suddenly, these houses were buzzing with life: soldiers from the Empire. Edgborough housed a contingent of Maoris from New Zealand, while Hill House and Gold Hill Manor were occupied by Canadians. Mike's Field, opposite Gold Hill Manor, was full of their tanks and hitherto quiet country roads were not often filled with convoys of heavy vehicles or marching men. The entrances to the driveways to these houses, as well as the gates to Mike's Field, were guarded by sentries carrying rifles. Needless to say, we children lost no time getting to know them, cadging chewing gum or sweets, or just chatting to them on our way to and from school or when sent out 'to play'.

Then, I left the village school and started attending Grey Coat Hospital, a girls school, evacuated from Westminster in London and now houses in 'Two Gates', a large house on the Tilford Road.

Our entire family was, of course, very aware of the war through newsreels at the cinema but mostly through the radio. As we had no electricity, this was powered by heavy batteries that, when they ran out of 'juice', had to be re-charged at the garage in the village. Lighting downstairs was provided by gas light and upstairs by candles and cooking was done on the 'range' on which all our hot water was heated. As the radio batteries had to be carefully conserved, Children's Hour was rarely listened to nor music but radio drama was and the News was an absolute must. We would listen in silence to details of events 'somewhere in England', of battles in the Middle East and beyond and of air raids carried out 'somewhere in Europe'. Germany. Often followed by the ominous words ' ... some of our aircraft and missing.' At which, Gma would suddenly fall very silent.

Uncle Bill was ground staff and therefore relatively safe, stationed somewhere up north but Uncle Jack was by now a pilot - a glamorous figure - stationed in Rodesia. He'd managed a visit to us before he left England and I'd heard him trying to reassure Gma before he left. They were standing on the front lawn by a shoulder-high laburnum tree that she'd not long planted: 'When I come back, Ma' he said 'I expect I'll be able to sit under this.'

Now, at weekends, she and I - at the request of either the WI or the WVS - would walk the mile or so to one of the big houses in Frensham to sort salvage. Piles of books and magazines collected from all over the area were stacked in the empty stables and it was our job to sort the readable from the unreadable. The former were put in neat piles while the latter, fit only for salvage, were thrown into the manger for pulping. It was odd to think that the books we were presently handling would be soon in the hands of our fighting men: sitting in planes, waiting to drop in alien territory, or in the desert whiling away the time in a tent or a tank.

It was understood that, if we saw a book we liked the look of, we could keep it - but only one mind. This way, Gma acquired a rather splendid dictionary to help her with her Daily Mirror crossword and I a decent edition of Little Women by Louisa M Alcott. So it was worth it.

As well as us children getting to know the Canadian sentries, my grandmother (a daughter and widow of soldiers, after all) responded to another appeal from the WVS and invited two Canadians to Sunday lunch. Ken and Bill. Very kind - very gentle - men. One at least, was a teacher and both were stationed just behind us, across the back path, at Hill House. It wasn't long before they were slipping across, through the back gate and down the garden, past the neat rows of vegetables. Generous, too, for they always shared out any parcels from home: dried fruit, chocolate and Saturday Evening Post magazines. We also had parcels from our relatives in Canada. Great Uncle Jim (a real Canadian Mountie) and his family who sent sugar, tins of ham and drinking chocolate, and more 'funnies': comics containing favourites like Li'l Abner.

Then, suddenly, Sylvia was sent home. Gma, obviously thinking she might get the blame if Sylvia got too friendly with our sentries, probably deemed it better that Sylvia risked meeting her fate at the hands of the Luftwaffe rather than that deemed worse than death at the hands of our Allies. The responsibility for which would, almost certainly, be laid at Gma's door. I was still optimistic about Dad's survival but Mum had stopped saying 'we won't give up hope.' Then she got leave from the Post Office and we went back - just us - to Plymouth for a few days. For a holiday, I thought, and blessed the fact that having 'business at the Dockyard' meant that we would be staying in what I still thought of as our 'real home'. But no, like visitors, we stayed with Aunty Ivy because Aunty Jones had a new lodger. Once again, I shared a room with Sylvia, almost a grown up now with an American boyfriend - a soldier: one of the 'doughboys' that were helping to clear up the rubble left by the blitz and who had a dog - Migliori - that Sylvia was to look after when he went to France. Couldn't be long now.

Together, mother and I packed up, choosing the things to send to Farnham: a tallboy, a sideboard, the gas stove - and the things we'd leave behind. Then came the day we both went to the dockyard, travelling by tram and bus through the city. I have never forgotten that journey. Through a scene of utter devastation (a cliche, I know, but nothing else describes it.) Ruins everywhere. The whole city, it seemed, was gone. From the centre, it was possible to look out across the Hoe to the sea. Rubble in great piles where once there had been houses. Walls with 'things' - like baths - still clinging to them. And, where once the big shops had stood (Dingles, Yeo's, etc., where I had visited Fr Christmas in the Blue Fairy Grotto) were notices directing customers to clusters of houses on the outskirts of the city. They didn't give up that easily. My school, Montpellier, like others, had received a direct hit and was now a pile of bricks. Churches too - St Andrew's, the city church, was known as the 'garden in the church' because it was now just a shell. The space that was once the West Door, now had a piece of twisted wood nailed over it, on which was written 'Resurgam': 'I will arise. Written and fastened there by a local headmistress. Charles Church, near the Barbican, is now the official memorial to the civilian dead of the city. Still there, a blackened ruin, standing amid the swirl of busy traffic of modern day Plymouth. If you should see it, remember my Plymouth. The blitz had affected everyone.

'You never had to ask whether they've lost someone' I overhead Aunty Ivy say to mother. 'You can see it in their eyes.' Those 'lost' were not interred in mass graves. This was my Plymouth. My home. Not London. Not Cologne or Dresden.

Our old life was just as effectively destroyed, had I but known it. For, of course, the reason we were there was because mother was not only closing the flat but establishing her right to a Widow's Pension, for Dad was now deemed to be officially 'killed in action.' Years later, I learned that he had left Batavia about a month after those telegrams were sent, on HMS Anking, one of some half a dozen ships that were the last to leave Java for Australia. On the way,. the little convoy had been intercepted by the Japanese navy and every ship had been sent to the bottom, leaving few survivors. By a strange coincidence, one of them came from Frensham and turned up, so mum told me much later, at the Post Office in order to tell her what had happened. 'I was on counter duty' she said 'and we were so busy, they couldn't give me time off.' So she learned that he was 'dead before he hit the water' in between serving customers.

No counselling then.

It must have been about that time when someone came from the Red Cross to see mum. They had sat together on That Sofa and I heard her say to my mother: 'I expect the fact that there are hundreds of women like you must give you some comfort' and mum replying, with great dignity, 'It gives me no comfort at all.' I felt very proud of her.

On the journey back from Plymouth, we had to change trains at Yeovil Station and there, while waiting on the platform, the alert sounded. Soon, we were witnessing a 'dog fight', a battle between two planes, high up in the sky.

Eventually, 'ours' shot down 'theirs' and, as 'Jerry' fell to earth, black smoke pouring from his plane, we all cheered wildly. Then, young as I was, I was suddenly struck by the thought that the pilot - if not already dead - was up there, desperately fighting for his life - fighting to get out of that burning plane, twirling like the sycamore leaves David and I played with. Uncle Jack was a pilot too. Like the one up there, who might or might not be alive. Both were human beings, My new priest, Father Robo, had just explained at Catechism Class that, despite being enemies, we were all brothers. If that was so, what were we all doing to each other?

The war ground on. Grey Coat Hospital returned to London and I started my fourth school in about as many years: St Polycarp's, the Catholic school in town. Then a fifth, Elmsleigh and it was here that the Elmsleigh Girls Patriotic League was born.

Elmsleigh, housed in a large, Victorian house near the railway station, possessed its own small library of books: old fashioned Angela Brazils, the Golden Treasury, the child's Odyssey, that sort of thing. In one of them, I read about a schoolgirl during World War I who started something called a Patriotic League, dedicated to raising money for the war effort. My imagination fired up, three or four of my friends were roped in and together we formed the EGPLT, persuaded the Red Cross to make us honorary members, and give us a collecting box. We were not allowed to collect money in school but the Headmistress was very pleased to let us organise a concern (tap dancing, solo singing and dramatic sketches) and charge our fellow pupils admission to see it. It proved so successful that, next term, we put on a second. All the money raised went to a good cause and we had a lot of fun both organising and performing. I only hope the audience enjoyed it as much.

One day, David and I ran up to the top of the garden, as usual, to play. But things were different: Hill House, usually buzzing with life: soldiers and their vehicles, stood silent and empty. Everything and everyone had gone. Gold Hill Manor too - and all the tanks in Mike's Field - gone.

Mother came home that night with stories of massive troop convoys grinding through the town. During her usual mid-morning break, as she'd carefully picked her way across the road through the vehicles, she heard one of the occupants - a sergeant - in the back of a lorry talking to his men: 'We'll be going through the New Forest. I lived there once and, in the autumn, the trees are a picture.' Mother said one of the young soldiers was obviously trying not to cry and the sergeant had passed him his cigarette.

Days later, home from school for some reason, Gma and I were sat together, she reading while I was probably pasting pictures into one of my many scrap books. Almost at the same time that we heard the dividing door at the back of the house bang shut, Aunty Nini burst in, in a state of great excitement: 'turn on the wireless' she said. 'It's started.' In minutes we heard 'This - is D-Day.' As we'd suspected, our soldiers had all gone to France. Ken and Bill. And later, Mum's friend, Paul, the French Canadian Dispatch Rider, who came from Montreal. In the days that followed, there was even more activity. In the skies mostly. Noisy planes on their way to Europe - to drop supplies and men - or bombs. Then the doddlebugs started to arrive: V1s and V2s. Once again, I was told to fling myself to the ground if I heard one cut out overhead but, with the V2s there was no warning.

Early one Sunday morning, mother and I were literally blown out of bed by a simultaneous blast and explosion. A V2 had come down in Gong Hill Drive, at the top of the hill, completely destroying a house, which was mercifully empty. Thankfully, none ever got quite to close to us again.

But the war was coming to a close. I was in hospital, recovering from an operation, when I heard, on my wireless headphones, Victory in Europe being announced. To celebrate VE day, the girl in the next bed shared out an oh-so-rare orange her mother had brought in, as a special treat: splitting it into sections and dividing them up between the boy in the next bed and myself. What a celebration!

Only Japan now, then - I was sure - Dad could be found and at least, we'd go back home to Plymouth. By then, my great friend was Stella Davies. Stella was the daughter of Lionel and Ada Davies; Lionel was the Deputy Postmaster who had hired mother. An older father, who had been gassed in NW1 and Stella was the child of his second marriage. His two sons, Norman and Donald, by his first wife were both away in the forces: Norman in the Army fighting first Rommel In Africa and then up through Italy. Donald in the RAF, like Uncle Jack, a pilot. Tragically, he was killed in July '44, in a bombing raid on Germany.

Stella and I had recently become Girl Guides and were at camp near Guildford when rumours started circulating that the Japanese had, at last, surrendered. I returned home to find Uncle Tom and Aunty Hilda up from Plymouth for a holiday. We all went out in to the garden with the Union flag nailed on to a stick and had our photo taken. There weren't any parties: 'what have I got to celebrate?' mother said later.

Neither did we go home to Plymouth but, by then, I knew better than to ask. It was nearly six years since the beginning.
August 1945. I was 12 years 3 months old.

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