- Contributed by
- People in story:
- Mrs J Legg
- Location of story:
- Southern England
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 26 February 2004
It was September 1939 when the grave news was announced on the radio by Mr Churchill, that war was declared on Germany and Germany and England were at war.
At the time I was spending my school holiday at Hayling Island. The news triggered the inhabitants into action, filling sandbags from the beach, fitting blackouts and stitching dark curtains, as the light could be shown from windows and enemy aircraft could find their position.
The first few days, sirens were sounded and we took shelter, but no action was seen which we really expected, as we were on the coast near Portsmouth, where many of the naval boats were docked. As evacuation plans were being made, for the schools to be sent to safer places, I returned home.
The journey home was eventful. Mid way the siren sounded, the car was stopped and we jumped out into a ditch, as enemy planes were quite near. I was pleased to see my parents on arrival. At once we were making plans for the following day, as I had to be at the station with packed case for evacuation, not knowing at this stage my future or where I would end up. It was a sad sight at the station; long lines of tear stained children of all ages, carrying cases and gas masks slung over their shoulders, with weeping mothers giving last minute advice and trying to console them, also knowing inwardly that they might never see their children again.
We left an hour later, then the train stopped. We were told that we had arrived. “Where are we?” was the first question to be asked, as all the platform signs had been blacked out. Well, it was Brighton. What a silly place, I thought, to evacuate us right on the coast, where Germans could land.
As in the past I had spent happy times there with my family, I had visions of bathing and seafront walks. The thoughts were soon squashed as there were fortifications and wire all along the front, with soldiers marching up and down.
Now the time had come to meet our foster mother. My heart sank when I saw her. A frosty faced old boarding house lady. I felt like running home. “I will take four of them,” she said, “You, you and you.” We were taken and shown a very unwelcoming bedroom, with two iron bedsteads and were told to unpack. My room mates were not really my choice, which did not help my feelings — one Burmese, one Irish and the other French. But we knew we would have to live in harmony, accepting this Victorian accommodation . We had more shocks to come.
Next morning, about to start our day, we realised there was no bathroom. We all came from modern homes and found this very odd. Obviously this was why the large jug of water and basin were on the wash stand. We looked for the toilet but that didn’t exist, but there were pots under the bed and a large urn to dispose any waste. We tossed up each morning who washed first and so on, as there was never any water left for number four. On extremely cold days in the winter, number one had to remove the ice from the jug before pouring it. By now our spirits were getting low. If we had had the knowledge of what was yet to come we would have caught the next train home.
A call from downstairs, “Breakfast is ready!”. We sat in a cold room, round a large table with revolting bowls of porridge, lumpy and watery, with chunks of bread that had seen better days. The foster mother told us things would get worse. Well, they certainly did in that household. The dinner was always accompanied by a large piece of steamed suet pudding. A dog wouldn’t have eaten that food. Evenings were dreaded as with no heat we had to do our homework round table wearing coats and gloves, as our hands were so cold, we could not write. No escape, as we were not allowed out after 7p.m.
The first Friday was a real surprise. A large tin bath was placed in the kitchen and methodically filled with hot and cold water from kettles, which had been boiled on the hob. Yes, it was bath night for the four evacuees. The first was the luckiest, they had clean water. We had yet another problem. The son of the house, who was a peeping tom, and every time he knew one of us was in the bath, he would decide to go to the toilet , which was at the end of the garden. We got wise to this and organised a guard on the door. After this episode our parents receiving weekly letters asking if we could come and have a bath in comfort.
My father was an understanding man and realised how unhappy things were, so drove down once a month and took us all out to tea. How we looked forward to that.
By this time we were all falling back with our studies and feeling undernourished, as we could not eat a lot of the food and portions were getting smaller and smaller. It was decided that I should return home if a better billet was not found. The other parents felt the same. The Burmese girl and I went to a billet over a public house with a bathroom, very nice, but unsuitable for pupils studying; loud music and drunks turning out late, we had little sleep. We begged our families to let us come home as there had been no air raids and the war had been on for nearly a year. Yes, they gave in and two rather undernourished girls went home.
How my home and garden had changed. The neat flower borders turned into a productive patch of sprouting vegetables. The greenhouse boarded up for a chicken house, with a variety of clucking hens. Along the fences were hutches, housing cute little rabbits. It was more like a farm than a garden. They were following the ‘Dig for Victory’ request. Then in the corner dug under the earth was the ‘Anderson’ shelter, where we would spend a lot of our future.
My mother fed us well with the produce from the garden and the rations which were small. For one week we received 2oz butter, 12oz sugar, 4oz bacon, 1oz cheese, 8oz meat, 2oz sweets and 1 egg per person. There was little fresh imported fruit like bananas, oranges or grapes. Occasionally we had one orange per ration book and had to stand in a long queue for this. Rationing was in operation until 1954, but the amounts were more liberal. Clothing and furniture were also rationed. On the occasion when I was asked to a wedding, my dress was made out of my Mother’s summer curtains and was admired and almost envied by my friends.
The time arrived that I had to get a job and was accepted as a junior at the bank at Clapham Junction. As up to now there was no action , this period was known as the phoney war. Two weeks later the Battle of Britain started. New Malden had one of the first attacks, as it was direct rail line to London. Remember it well. The Warning sounded when I was at the railway station and I heard the humming of enemy planes approaching. I fled out of the station, finding an old lady by the bus stop. She was frozen to the spot. I grabbed her and pulled her with me to a shelter which was, by then, being machine gunned as well as the train that I had just left. The shelter was full of terrified people and crying children, just waiting for the next bomb. No we were not hit. The sight was dreadful when the all clear sounded. There were wounded; the flower seller at the station had his head blown off; the buildings were scarred with machine gun bullets; broken glass scattered everywhere. I stood outside the shelter, numb with terror and out of nowhere my father appeared. We fell into each others arms, so relieved to know that we were both alive. From then on the bombers came night and day, but we carried on with our jobs and travelled to work with bombs on the line.
One day, after a sleepless night, the warning went when I was at the bank. We had to shelter in the vaults. There was a terrific thud but no explosion. At once we realised this was an unexploded bomb, but it had also hit a water main and the water was pouring into the vault. There we were with bombers flying over head, a bomb which may explode any minute and water getting higher and higher. As soon as the all clear was sounded the services took over quickly. The bomb was defused and water pumped from the vaults. We all left early and it took us many hours to reach home, as there were bomb craters everywhere.
Once the blitz started we had no social life. As soon as night fell people would disappear like rabbits into their shelters. My mother would pack a basket of food every evening and flasks and hot water bottles. We could then settle for the night with blankets and bowls in a very cramped condition. Many hours we would listen to the humming of the bombers and the firing of the ack ack guns, then the planes dropped showers of incendiary bombs, which caused fires everywhere. The Air Raid Precaution service were kept busy when this happened as they had stirrup pumps to extinguish the fires. These men were civilians and the service was called A.R.P. My father would spend every evening at an A.R.P. post and return to his surgery in the morning .
There were more evil things to come. These were bombs with an engine which would be timed to reach their destination, called doodle bugs. The engine would stop and then the bombs came whistling to earth. These were used we were told, because the enemy had lost so many pilots and planes during their raids. When those engines stopped, we waited, fearing the next one was for us. One evening a neighbour took his dog for a walk and when he returned his house was a pile of rubble. The next aerial bombardment we experienced was the V2 rocket. This didn’t have the burring noise of the doodle bug but just landed without warning and did more damage. How we spent those sleepless nights in terror in a small shelter amazes me now; and facing equally dangerous and terrifying days ahead.
People living in the heart of London, especially near the docks and railways suffered enormous losses of homes, families and businesses. They spent their evening and nights in the underground stations, where bunks had been erected. They would go to the tubes as soon as it was dark and formed quite a community. They got together to know each other and made friends. Some would try and entertain by singing and playing music. Many returned home next morning to find their home had been bombed or burnt.
May 8th 1945, Victory in Europe was announced and joy was everywhere. Parties in the streets for the children. Mothers getting together, baking cakes with whatever they had got, Union Jacks flying from every place imaginable. Thousands of people in Trafalgar Square all kissing And hugging each other. The lights switched on in the streets and no more blackouts needed. It was a day of relief and knowing that you were one of the lucky ones to still be alive was just a miracle.
Entered by Petersfield Library
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