WAR AND EVACUATION…
I never got to know my family of two older brothers and an elder sister until I was let out of the home on a weekly basis from the age of six. I was finally sent home in 1937 in time for the Jubilee celebrations.
My family had moved back to London in 1932 from where they originated from to 218 Neate Street in Camberwell, South East London.
I recall having a flag put in my hand to wave about and the good old "knees up" as the Londoners called it. I began school at Coburg Road with one eye still covered up to try and make the bad one work. I had to wear a patch over one eye ever since I started to crawl because of the eye trouble that the illness left me with.
It had made me very unhappy because of the names that the children called me, such as Popeye or Nelson and it made me very aggressive in my character. I silently vowed that I would never hurt anyone like that when I grew up.
As I got settled in with the family I soon found out that my mother and father were always at each other’s throats. We never had one day go past without a row of some sort. I got used to the arguing and pot throwing over the years.
Funnily enough if anyone interfered with them and perhaps would ask them to calm down my mother would tell them to “Sod off ! When I want any help from you I will ask. Meanwhile this is between me and my husband.”
When things were alright between them and money was not so tight they used to take me to New Cross Dog Track on the Saturday night.
Our journey would take us along The Old Kent Road. We would stop at the Lord Nelson first where they would stop to wet their whistles as they told me but being naïve I could never fathom out where their whistles were. I had never seen them use one.
My mother would be dressed in a large picture hat with a dress that had beaded petals falling from the waist over a full skirt and Dad would be dressed up in his “whistle and flute” as he called his best suit.
As we moved further on down The Old Kent Road we would call in at the Thomas a Beckett public house.
This was where all the famous boxers trained.
I was very often patted on the head by them as I sat on the step waiting for my parents to come out.
I hated these trips to the dog track. I would much rather have been at home picking out tunes on the piano which incidentally I learnt to play quite well over the years.
During the summer of 1939 I was hearing talk of a nasty man called Adolf Hitler. It was snatches of conversation that I heard when the grown-ups were talking together and I had been told to go and play in the passage ( a long narrow hallway in the house ).
Children were being sent away from their parents to safety areas, whatever they were.
It seemed very strange to me that as soon as I got to know someone as a friend they were sent off to the country. Houses were being issued with funny corrugated shapes that were called Anderson air-raid shelters that had to be put in a hole that was dug out in the back garden, if you had one.
Gasmasks were issued and everyone had an identity card.
We had practised at school with our gasmask’s for ten minutes every day and were told if the air-raid siren went off to get under our desks.
This poem tells of the times we had to practise putting the masks on………………….
Everyone had an identity card and a gas mask too
Nasty horrible things to wear, stuck to you like glue.
It was a daily ritual to practice wearing that gas mask
None of us liked doing it because it really was a task
Teacher would then come round to see if it fitted snug
Pulling at the head strap she would give it quite a tug.
I wouldn't mind but it was supposed to keep us alive,
But how if we had to wear it long would we all survive?
I was glad when we finally stopped that daily routine
But we still had to carry it no matter where we'd been.
We were never parted from it even when visiting the loo
But as soon as the war ended they disappeared from view
copyright---Maisie Walker 2005--- all copyrights reserved.
September 3rd 1939 was a lovely sunny Sunday morning and to me there seemed to be a hush over everything. At 11am it came over the relay wireless that Mr Chamberlain had said we were now in a state of war with Germany. I can still hear my mothers anguished voice saying " Oh sweet mother of mercy! My boys, my boys."
The hush from outside suddenly became a cacophony of voices. All the neighbours gathered on their doorsteps talking about what would happen if old Hitler got to England. I felt terrified in case I was sent back to the Sisters of Mercy home.
I was relieved when my mother said that Hitler or no bleeding Hitler she was still going hop-picking the next day and taking her kids with her.
It was a well known thing for Londoners to go for about three weeks hop-picking every year. They classed it as a working holiday that got them away from the London smog and they could see a bit of green countryside.
It was during the third week that we were there when a German plane got through our defences ( such as they were).
He spotted us working and decided to use us as target practise. We all dived into the hop-vines for cover and Thank God there were no casualties because one of our fighters came along and a terrific dog fight was going on above us when the Spitfire shot the Jerry down.
We were all excited when we saw him bail out of his plane because it was on fire and came floating down in to the adjoining field.
Everyone left what they were doing and ran to the next field armed with whatever they could find to clobber the pilot with. He was still extricating himself out of his parachute so he had no chance to run anywhere.
It was a phoney war up until the June 1940. Everything was still going on as usual apart from railings and various other things like old pots and pans being given up for the war effort. We still had to take our gasmask’s every where we went but up to that time it was like the sword of Damocles waiting to strike. Posters were put up saying "Careless talk cost lives". There was the blackout to contend with and things were beginning to get in short supply.
My father came home from the docks one day with a beautiful blue grey kitten that had been abandoned by its mother.
My mother took to that kitten and it became her shadow.
She would share her rations with Blue as she called him and when he got wounded by shrapnel she would nurse him back to health.
She would not have it put to sleep like many pets in the London area were because of the bombing raids. This was in case the animal ran off in fear and most probably getting killed or wounded in a gruesome way.
It must have been a terrible decision to make for all who had and loved their pets.
It was after Dunkirk when the bombing started in earnest and it got steadily worse as the days turned into months. It was a nightly ritual to get the flask of tea, blankets, candle and sandwiches ready to take down the Anderson shelter which incidentally was always swimming in six inches of water.
We could tell by the sound of the engines of the planes whether they were friend or foe. Blue always gave us warning at least 10 minutes before the siren went by clawing at the door or what was left of it. We knew that we had time to grab everything to make our way down the shelter. It was a living nightmare to go through the continual bombing night after night. My mother was continually praying with her rosary in her hands. When we emerged each morning still alive it was a miracle. It was better still if we could have a cup of tea and a wash to take the grime out of our eyes from continual dust and smoke of the fires and buildings that had collapsed.
One night stands out in my memory so vividly that I can still hear the screaming bombs and the Anderson rattling as the bombs reigned down on us. It was the night that hundreds of German bombers droned over dropping bombs to set all the docks afire. To say it was horrific would be putting it mildly. The scene that met us the next morning when we finally saw the light of day was horrendous. We felt as though we were standing in the middle of Hell. Fires were raging all round us and I could see bodies smouldering among the rubble of houses. The smell was putrid and we could only cope by putting something round our faces to try and filter the smoke and smell of burning flesh away.
The top part of our house had been completely demolished and yet my mothers beautiful ebony piano was still intact under the blankets that she had covered over it.
Even at the tender age of 10 years I wondered WHY the God that my mother was always praying to had taken our neighbours lives but left a piano.?
Believe it or not, to have a piano in those days was a status symbol.
Similar to a Rolls Royce car in the drive today.
That night has been etched in my mind ever since. If it had not been for our heroic R.A.F we would not be here today to tell the tale.
We spent most of our time down the shelter after that. There was a public house across the road from us named the Hop-pole and the piano found shelter down in the cellar until we found a safe place for it. It was well used by any who were partaking of the dregs from the beer barrels when raids were on. Especially singing songs relating to what they would do to Hitler.
Christmas Day 1940 was a stark time but it was quiet from the bombs for once and we were living in the shelter by his time because our house had gone.
I wrote the following poem about that particular Christmas Day and it depicts the fierce community spirit that everyone felt at that time.
A CHRISTMAS DAY MEMORY.
I sit and ponder about a certain Christmas Day many years ago
I remember very plainly of having no home and no place to go.
The year was nineteen forty in the middle of the London Blitz
Jerry pounding us with bombs, he tried hard to break the Brits
We finished up in our air-raid shelter to keep us from the cold
Listening to the bombs dropping down as hell began to unfold.
Christmas was fast approaching but no presents were in sight
It was dangerous for Santa to travel in the war stricken night.
At least that was what I was told by my fourteen-year-old brother!
No stocking put up for a Christmas, just comforting each other.
Christmas Day dawned and the firemen were so tired and weary
This did not deter them, they battled on as they remained cheery.
Along came a water cart at last to get water for a cup of Rosie Lee
How would the British survive without their cup of cheering tea?
We managed to have a quick wash to greet that Christmas morning
In case we were bombed again and had to heed the air-raid warning.
But it remained quiet, a deathly hush that seemed to envelop us all
A Christmas Day that remained in my memory that I can well recall.
It was like sitting on the edge of a volcano just waiting for it to erupt
Suddenly the sound of voices was heard the silence it did interrupt.
A radio was playing and the choristers were singing a rousing song
Many joined in the chorus as the voices made us all feel strong.
For those who have never witnessed a moving scene such as this
I thank the Lord! It was something that I would not have missed
I have never had that feeling of awe since that fateful day long ago
A kindred spirit amid a city razed that brought forth a certain glow
Of pride and joy that existed for a short time as we all started to sing
A song called “Santa Claus is coming to town” with voices in full swing
Its well over 70 yrs since that awesome day, I give thanks I am still alive
I very often wonder how through all that hell we managed to survive.
I hope and pray it will never happen again to any future generations
And may everyone be thankful as they enjoy their happy celebrations.
copyright---Maisie Walker -- all rights reserved.
Just after Christmas the Germans came back to give us another pounding.
My mother was by this time fed up with trying to keep what bits we had left together and we moved to number 168 further along the street that had a factory built nearby.
We started using the factory cellar to stay in during the night raids. This house too was bombed so we were once again with no home.
In the February 1941 my mother decided to go to the authorities to see if she could be evacuated with her children. My eldest brother was already in the Airforce. He was called up as soon as the war started. My sister was too old at 17 to be evacuated so she stopped with my dad but my other brother who was 14 years old and my mother and myself were told to be at the school by a certain time to board the bus.
We arrived at the appointed school with our gasmasks and tickets tied to our coats. Even the mothers had a ticket pinned to them. After a nightmare journey through London in a bus during a daylight raid we got to the station.
We were then herded on to it, like cattle by a bossy woman who kept shoving us into line.
I was rather worried about this because my mother had a very short fuse and I was edgy in case she shoved the woman back.
I was relieved, apprehensive and excited when we finally pulled out of the station heading for an unknown destination.
We had been on the train for about half-an-hour when a Jerry plane spotted us and used us as target practice.
Once again we came under machine gun bullets. It was a work of art for all of us to try and get down on the floor of the train because it was packed out with evacuees plus pregnant women who were being evacuated.
With a bit of luck we were coming up to a long tunnel and the train pulled to a halt to give the Jerry time to scarper.
As we pulled out again we could see that a Spitfire had come to our rescue and let the Jerry have full blast of his machine guns which resulted in the Jerry plane spiralling down to earth taking the pilot with it. The vociferous cheer that shook the train gave vent to all our fears.
We arrived in Loughborough at the Central Station at 7-30 in the evening.
We all had to walk to the Y.W.C.A. but fortunately the moon was shining that night and it helped us to fumble our way through strange territory in the blackout.
When we got to the Y.W.C.A. we were given a potted meat sandwich that was curled up at the edges and a black cup of tea but to us with being so hungry, dirty and tired it was like a four course meal.
I can recall someone saying that he was so hungry he could eat a " horse between two bread carts". I have never forgotten the giggle that went round our tired war weary group at that remark.