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Grandma's War Part 1

by Torbay Libraries

Contributed by 
Torbay Libraries
People in story: 
Mrs Diamond
Location of story: 
Background to story: 
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
04 November 2004

Grandma's War

This story was submitted to the People's War site by Paul Trainer of Torbay Library Services on behalf of Mrs Diamond and has been added to the site with her permission. The author fully understand's the site's Terms and Conditions.

In her story, Mrs Diamond recounts to her grandson a fascinating and often thrilling account of what it was like growing up in war-torn Fulham.

My dear Mark,

Before I can tell you about “Grandma’s War” I realise I will have to explain how I was there and where I lived. I was born in Fulham, which is next to Chelsea about five miles from the city of London. When I was nearly 4 years old, sadly, my Mother died. My Father and I went to live with his older sister, my Auntie Lot (short for Charlotte), her husband Uncle Bill and my cousins Rose and Bill who were both grown up.
After a few months my Father went away, but I stayed with my Aunt and Uncle. We lived in a very old house because Uncle Bill was a Greengrocer. Attached to the back of our house were stables where the horses lived; there were three of them, Polly, Tommy and Joe and they pulled the carts full of fruit and vegetables around the part of Fulham where we lived. Uncle Bill had one round, a man called George another and my cousin Bill had the biggest and best round. His round was in the better part of Fulham where there were much bigger houses and the people had more money, so he had all the best goods and Uncle Bill and George sold the cheaper produce. My cousin Rose had married and had her own home.

When the war started I was 11 years and 3 months old. I was very tall and looked older than my age. That summer, I had won a scholarship to go to Grammar School but my Aunt said they could not afford it because most children left school at 14 and started work, but to go to Grammar School you had to stay till you were 16. The junior school were trying to find me a school where I could get a grant to pay for uniform, books and upkeep. However, my Aunt still said no. When the war started it was still the summer holidays and it had not been decided where I was to go, so I was not on any schools list. All the schools were closed and nearly all the children were evacuated, but my Aunt said no, I was to stay at home.

Bill and my uncle loved their horses and they were very well cared for. Bill knew very soon he would be called up and Uncle Bill would need some help as Uncle and George were quite old. Bill taught me how to mix the various foods needed to keep the horses fit and well, how to groom them and change the bedding. I learned how to harness them. He taught me to be able to go into the stable blindfolded and put on the bridle (headpiece), undo the tethering rope, talking quietly all the time to the horse and turn her and lead her into the yard, so that I could do it in dark or smoke. I thought it was a good game, never realising the time would come when I would do it for real. Although we had electricity in both the house and the stables, with the outbreak of war there was a complete blackout. The air Raid Wardens were very strict and said even a small gleam of light could be seen from a thousand feet up in the sky! We made shutters to go over the downstairs windows and black linings to all the curtains on the other windows.

A few weeks earlier as I went out to do some errands, I went out of the front door and saw that the sky was full of great big silver balloons. They were like enormous sausages and had three big ears at the back. I shouted to the family and they all came to look. They were called Barrage Balloons and were fixed to the ground by a big steel cable. They could be raised or lowered on the cable, which was worked by a lorry engine. They were based in every park or open space, and they prevented enemy planes from dive bombing the people. They worked very well, but could not be used if our fighter planes were airborne.
On Sunday September 3rd, the Prime Minister Mr Chamberlain was to speak on the radio at 11am. We lived next door to the Salvation Army hall and the people in the service came out and stood in the road outside our house and most of the neighbours were inside, (lots of people did not have a radio of their own). Bill opened all the doors and put the radio on full power. Everyone was silent; so many people remembered the First World War.

After Mr Chamberlain stated that war had been declared, the Salvation Army people went back to their service and as the neighbours were leaving, a weird noise started going up and down in tone. It was the Air Raid Warning! Everyone started to run towards his or her own home. The warden was shouting, “Take cover!” but no one took any notice — they just wanted to be home.

Early in 1939 everyone had been issued with a Gas Mask. It was made of rubber with straps that went over your head and held it close to your face with a round metal filter at the bottom. In front was a celluloid panel to see through. It was in a brown cardboard box with a string to go over your shoulder and we were told to take it everywhere we went, but of course no one had brought it with them to our house! After 15 minutes, the All Clear (a high-pitched noise all in one note) sounded. It had been a false alarm.

For the next few months everything went on as usual. Then in January 1940 rationing started. Meat, bacon, tea, sugar, butter, margarine and eggs were the first foods to be rationed and you had to register with the shop of your choice. It did not apply to us as we did not sell any of those foods, but we thought it was good because poor people got the same as rich people so it was fairer.

At the beginning of March 1940 Bill left to join the Army. He had volunteered for the Kings Royal Rifle Brigade. He would train as a rifleman but would also be a despatch rider as he had always had motor bikes and had always done a lot of cross country and dirt track riding and had won a number of races. He was very good. With Bill gone, changes had to be made. Uncle Bill and George split the rounds and Uncle Bill took over Bill’s round and I started working with him. We went to Covent Garden Market 3 times per week to buy produce. There was nothing coming from abroad, only home grown produce. Covent Garden was behind the Strand in the centre of London, about 4 miles from home. Quite a few children had come home as they did not like being evacuated and nothing was happening. There was talk of opening some schools, but then Germany invaded Holland and Belgium and everything started going wrong. Soon the British and French armies were retreating towards the coast. Everyone was so worried as so many local men were over there. It was the first we heard of a place called Dunkirk. About 2 weeks later a friend called and asked if I could come and help take buns and bread over to the railway line and of course I did. The Women’s Voluntary Service had set up their mobile canteen and was making tea. We made sandwiches and buttered buns and when a train came it went very slowly so we could pass the tea and food to the soldiers who were being brought back from Dunkirk. Lots of people came to help; there were only a few trains at first but each day there were more. It went on for several days. The main thing I remember about the trains I saw when I was there is how tired all the soldiers looked. None had shaved and many only had part of their uniform and others had none at all. Lots had bandages on arms, hands or heads. In some carriages everyone was sound asleep. Some trains did not slow down; they had stretchers on them. It is something I will never forget.

After Dunkirk, life went on. We worked, we went to market and I joined the St John Ambulance Brigade Cadets learning First Aid and basic nursing at classes held in a local hall. The Home Guard was formed. By August, German bombers were coming over every day and there were lots of battles going on in the skies over London. They were aiming for the docks and power stations, but our fighters were doing a wonderful job to stop them. We could not see the actual fights but you saw the smoke trails all over the sky and twice I saw a parachute floating down and once a plane crashing, but not in Fulham. We still went on working and of course some planes did get through and dropped their bombs. Shops put boards outside with posters on like a cricket score - how many German planes had been shot down and how many of our planes were lost.

By September the Germans had changed to night bombing. Every night they came so everything had to be done before 6pm, as you knew they would arrive soon after. We made sandwiches and filled Thermos flasks and moved our bedding into the shelter and slept there. When it was bad we took it in turns to sleep. On the opposite side of the road to our house lived the coal man who had two big horses and we all took turns to keep watch. The main problem apart from the bombs was shrapnel from the anti-aircraft shells which, after exploding, fell to the ground - jagged pieces of metal up to 10 inches long. They could cause a very bad injury if they hit you. Our nearest bomb was about 200 yards away. It demolished 3 houses and badly damaged the two on either side. Some of the people had gone to spend the night in one of the deep underground stations and some were in the shelters. Neighbours and the rescue service dug those who still remained in the houses out. They were injured, but nobody died. It was the most awful mess. We lost our front windows and a lot of plaster came down from the bedroom ceilings and shrapnel came through the roof on to the beds. More people were going to the tube stations each night or stayed where they felt safest - under a heavy kitchen table, or in the cupboard under the stairs, a cellar if you had one, or a shelter like ours. You had to tell the warden where you were so they knew where to look for you if you got a direct hit. Most important was your shelter bag — everybody had one — which contained your rent book, ration books, identity cards, photos of the family, birth and marriage certificates and any special keepsake. And most important — the Insurance Policies! Even very poor people paid insurance, 1 penny per week for each child and 2 pence each for Mum and Dad. No Londoner would let any member of their family have a pauper’s funeral. This bag was taken everywhere at this time.

It was a fact that although you were up most of the night, perhaps only getting 1 or 2 hours sleep, nobody thought to stay home. When the “all-clear” sounded, as daylight came, you had a wash and put on your day clothes, got ready and went to work. Being so close to the gas works, the Shell-mex depot (one of the largest petrol depots in London), the Fulham power stations and behind all of them the railway and the river Thames, we certainly got our share of bombing. A big problem was when the main water or gas pipes were hit, leaving everyone without gas or water for cooking, etc. Uncle Bill got a big tin bucket and knocked holes in the bottom, stood it on two bricks and lit a fire in it. We always kept buckets and saucepans full of water, so we were able to make tea on the fire. We could only have the fire in daylight, As Autumn came on, if the weather was bad with fog or rain, it was great, as the bombers could not come so we got a night in bed.

When you see anything on TV about the London blitz, they always show the city of London burning, with hose pipes and firemen everywhere and maybe a big hole in the ground with a bus in it. Well, it wasn’t the only place. That same night (the Sunday after Christmas) we, in Fulham, had many hundreds of incendiary bombs. They were 12 inch cylinders and I think about one hundred were packed in a container which the plane dropped. When the container hit a hard surface such as a road or a roof, it burst and showered the bombs everywhere and where they fell they started burning. If you got to them quickly with a shovel of sand or earth or pumped some water on it they were extinguished. The difficulty was that when they fell on a roof, you could go up a ladder and pull them off into the garden with a rake but once the roof caught fire you could do nothing. We managed to deal with most of ours as the ARP and neighbours were there and everyone helped everyone else. Unfortunately the stables that backed onto our stables were mostly wood and caught fire very quickly. On one terrible night, they did catch fire. The men who stabled their horses there managed to get them out but could not save the carts and vans and equipment. They brought their horses around into our street and tied them to the back of the air raid shelter. As the fire got worse the wall of our stables got very hot and there was thick black smoke, so following the blindfold routine Bill had taught me, I got Polly out, followed by Uncle Bill with Tom and George and Joe. We managed to keep our horses away from the others as they were all very nervous. We had put nose bags on them with some favourite food in them to calm them but it was very scary. We could see lots of fires burning and a big red glow in the sky towards Chelsea. It was the worst night I can remember. Towards morning the firemen came and managed to get the fire behind us out. The coal man let the men have a spare stable and Uncle Bill let them have our spare one and we put Joe and Tommy back in their own stable. It was then around 5am when the “all clear” sounded. Uncle Bill said we may as well set off for market as it might be difficult to get there. It was! Streets were closed with fires and unexploded bombs and bomb damage so we kept getting diverted. We got as far as Victoria by 7am. I kept having to lead Polly over hose pipes and rubble. Then, as we turned up towards the Strand, a large policeman, covered in dust and dirt, asked us where we thought we were going (but not so politely!). Uncle told him we were going to Covent Garden and he told us there was no market as most of it had burned. He said to head towards the Embankment as any lorries daft enough to come into London would be directed there. So, that’s where we went and there were lorries there so we were able to buy straight from the lorries, including two boxes of apples left from Christmas - a great treat. Then of course we had to get home. I think it was by far the worst night of the blitz for me.


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