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Memories of the Second World War: Childhood Memories in Benenden, Kent

by Thanet_Libraries

Contributed by 
People in story: 
Reginald Wood, Violet wood, Pamela Wood,Shirley Wood
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Contributed on: 
06 May 2004

This story was added to the website by Sue Giardina with permission from Pamela Wood.

Memories of the Second World War

I was only 9 months old when the war started, so many of my memories are of stories told me by my parents, Reginald and Violet Wood. Unfortunately, they are both now dead, so I’m hoping I remember accurately what they told me.

Immediately before the war we (that is say, my parents, my sister Shirley and I) were living in Stanmore, Middlesex, but my father was spending a good deal of time abroad, working for the Canadian Government, helping to construct the exhibitions displaying Canada’s wares in various European cities. He had been apprenticed as a carpenter and joiner, but was a foreman by the time he got the job with the Canadian Government. In, I think, 1939 he returned from Holland by boat and was distressed to find that amongst the passengers were Jewish children who were being sent to the UK by their parents. The men on the boat who had cabins (and that included my father) gave them up to the children.

When the war started Dad’s job with the Canadian Government ended and he brought us down to Broadstairs to stay with his parents. By 1940 Thanet seemed less safe and Dad sent my Mum, Shirley and me inland. We rented a bungalow in Benenden, Kent. But Dad stayed with his parents in Broadstairs. My grandfather refused to leave his 2 allotments and my grandmother wouldn’t leave him! There was an attempt to evacuate my great grandmother who at that time was living with my grandparents and was over 90, but she was having none of that and came home, bringing with her another of her elderly neighbours.

Dad was by this time working on boats and ships in Ramsgate Harbour, patching up any that had been damaged. (He had tried to join both the Navy and Air Force but was told his skills were more useful as a civilian.) The Luftwaffe bombed Ramsgate Harbour on various occasions, but those working there were told to ignore the air raid sirens and continue working until bombs started to drop. On one occasion Dad was working with a young apprentice. As the bombs started to drop they both dived for shelter, in different directions. My Dad survived but the apprentice died.

Dad was still working at Ramsgate Harbour when the Dunkirk evacuation occurred. He was given the job of stacking rifles as the soldiers came off the boats. He also gave out cups of tea. He was there when the Guards, who had been fighting a rearguard action, arrived. He described how they looked when they arrived - their uniforms in rags, often barefoot. But they were with their sergeant major, who ordered them to form up and they marched off as if they were on the parade ground. There was a collection of clothes for the returning soldiers at the time, to which my Dad contributed some of his own clothes.

Dad had joined the Home Guard. Mum said his uniform was far too big for him. At least he was given a rifle, since the Kent coast was quite a likely site for invasion. In some areas all the Home Guard had were pitchforks. His particular detachment of Home Guard were told that if there were an invasion they were to make their way somehow to Pluck’s Gutter, which would be the first line of defence. Their families would have to fend for themselves. One night he was on clifftop looking out to sea when he saw numbers of landing craft emerging from the sea. Horrified, he went straight to his CO, who turned to Dad and asked: “What should we do?” Fortunately, the moon came out at that point and they saw that the “landing craft” were, in fact, huge banks of seaweed.

Benenden was not that safe a place, as some of the dog fights of the Battle of Britain were going on overhead. We didn’t stay there for very long, because Dad was sent all over the country in the next few years, mainly helping to build factories or making sure they could continue production after they had been bombed. Dad went into Coventry the morning after the very big raid on that city. He had heard the noises made by the bombs dropping during the night and was fearful about what he would find. As he was approaching Coventry he could make out the shape of the cathedral and reassured himself that things couldn’t be too bad if it was still standing, but when he got closer he realised it was an empty shell and saw that the area around was flattened. He wasn’t allowed to stay and help dig out survivors but had to go and make sure the local factories were in working order.

We tended to follow my father, so my sister attended school in Monmouthshire (where my other grandparents lived), Walsall, Winnick, Broadstairs and Cardiff. We spent some time back with my grandparents in Broadstairs, I think in about 1943-4, but then we went to Cardiff, where I started school at the age of 5.

Since I was only six when the war ended, much of what was going on went over my head. I remember trains full of soldiers. They tended to be kind to my Mum and her two little girls, giving up their seats for us and generally making sure we were OK. (Did the fact that my Mum was an attractive young woman have something to do with this, or were people more helpful in those days? I suspect it was a bit of both.) I remember the sound of aeroplanes. I found the sound of a single plane overhead strangely reassuring, but the sound of bombers droning over us at night was much more threatening. The anti-aircraft guns were also very noisy. I remember the sound of the doodlebugs - once heard, never forgotten. I remember sitting in the cellar in Alexandra Road, Broadstairs, with the sound of bombs dropping nearby and the road being raked with machine gun fire, and the little boy I had been playing with crying because Mum was preventing him from running home to his mother.

I didn’t really feel deprived because there was a war on. It was all I could remember. People would say things like: “After the war you’ll be able to have a teddy bear, ice cream, lots of sweets,” but I didn’t really believe in “after the war” and many of the things I was promised I’d never tasted and therefore didn’t miss. I would have liked a teddy bear, but by the time they were being made again I was too old for one, and my younger sister got one instead. In the meantime, I drank my cod liver oil and orange juice, ate my dried eggs and spam and was happy. The fact that sweets were on the ration meant we were only allowed a quarter of a pound a week (I usually opted for liquorice all sorts), which was probably very good for us. We seemed to get quite a lot of fruit in season, and to this day I prefer fresh apples or cherries to a box of chocolates and I still think a boiled egg for breakfast is a bit special.

We returned to Broadstairs towards the end of the war. My grandfather had died and my parents found a house in Queen’s Road into which my parents, my sister and I, my grandmother, my great grandmother and my aunt moved. My aunt Vera was working at the Food Office and my Mum joined her there for a while, but then she became pregnant with my sister, Jane, who was born in October 1945. According to my Mum, she more or less ran the department which dealt with the retail businesses in Thanet, while my aunt was more or less running the department dealing with the public and their rations. In both cases a man was nominally in charge.

I was still 5 when we returned to Broadstairs and started to attend St. Mildred’s School. The children were only in one side of the school. The other had been turned into a British restaurant. Shirley and I once sampled the food at this restaurant. We thought it horrible and decided it was much better going home for lunch every day. I can remember sitting in the air raid shelter at the end of the playground, singing songs like “Daisy, Daisy”. It was probably a strongly built building, but it was above ground, whereas the shelter for the older children was on the other side of the school and underground. We now had a Morrison shelter at home. This was a large, strong metal table which we had in one of the downstairs rooms. We often slept underneath it.

I remember seeing soldiers climbing up the cliffs and wondering how they managed to climb so high. By this time there were lots of American soldiers around as well as the familiar British ones. Little gangs of children would go up to them and call out: “Got any gum, chum?” I don’t remember them ever giving us any gum. After the war Manston became an American Air Force base for some years. We noticed the American servicemen seemed to be a bit broader across the behind than most British men of their age. I’m sure this had a lot to do with their diet. People in general seemed to be thinner in those days.

Pamela Wood
6 May 2004

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