Section Four of Six
More Bombs, a Break, and School
A couple of nights after Christmas, Dad came dashing in from fire watching
and said, "It looks as though the whole of London is on fire! You
can see it from here!" I wanted to go out and see too, but they wouldn't
let me! Mum put on Dad's tin hat and went, while he stayed with me. I don't
think any of us slept that night. Mum insisted on taking turns with Dad
out in the street, so he could try to snatch some sleep, as he was on early
turn in the morning. The planes kept coming over, the ack-ack was dreadful,
and for me, shut up inside my 'shelter' it was far worse listening to Mum
and Dad whispering about what was happening than it would have been for
me to go out and see what it was really like.
The news next day was heavily censored, the famous photo of St. Paul's
undramatic in black and white. Dad was very upset when he came home from
work. He loved London and its historic places. "It's almost the whole
City," he kept saying. "It's nearly all gone!" I didn't
know then that he was referring only to the City of London itself, that
small and ancient square mile, continuously inhabited since prehistoric
times, around St. Paul's and the remains of the Roman wall. So I was quite
surprised and a little disappointed if the truth be told, to find everything
much as usual when we went shopping a day or so later. Though we could
smell it - that strange smell with which we became increasingly
familiar as the raids continued, a mixture of 'cold' smoke, smoldering
ruins, soot, lime mortar and wet dirt and masonry.
Night after endless night we heard the drone of the heavy bombers, the
ack-ack, the thump of shrapnel, dive bombers, whistling bombs, distant
explosions and the occasional ground shaking crump of a bomb close-by.
During the day, when Mum and I went shopping, we sometimes saw the results
of the previous night's raid, but our suburb was not a prime target. Mum
didn't explain things the way Dad did, and as I listened to the gossip
in the long queues at every shop and market stall, I realized that no one
expected the bombing to stop until Britain was invaded. Although the papers
and the radio made it clear that we would never give in when the Nazis
came, I wasn't too sure whether I was brave enough to fight in the streets.
Strangely, it never really got through to me just how much danger my
Dad was in all the time he was out at work, especially on late turn, so
I didn't share Mum's barely suppressed anxiety whenever he wasn't with
us. Maybe I just blocked it out because the thought was too awful to contemplate.
I became accustomed to the appalling noise at night and even to staying
in my 'shelter' and 'being good.' I knew Dad had been in the Regular Army
for 12 years, but unlike Grandpa, he didn't have a gun any more, and I
wondered how he would fight the Germans without one. I had no illusions
about what they would do to us when they came. I looked at the photos in
the 'War' book every day. One day, the book disappeared, and Dad started
telling me stories again. He told me about lots of the heroines of history.
So although I suppose I was inwardly terrified, I was conscious
only of the need to be brave, and never to let myself be afraid. I lay
awake at night imagining I was one of those heroines - Joan of Arc being
burned at the stake, or Nurse Cavell bravely facing execution by German
firing squad, or Boadicea charging the Romans in her chariot with the scythes
on the axles - though I didn't much fancy what happened to her when
they finally captured her! I tried not to be a coward and I was desperate
to be really tested, so I would know for sure that I wasn't.
Then one night, it was quiet! It was almost worse than the raids! Night
after night, we waited for the bombers to come, but they didn't. It was
summertime now and gradually we Londoners began to breathe again. There
wasn't going to be an invasion after all! We went upstairs to sleep in
our own rooms. But the rabbits were gone. They had eaten their babies because
they were frightened by the bombs, so then we ate them, though,
wisely, no-one told me just when!
Mum now sometimes took me to see her parents who had moved into a new
house not so far away as the old one. They had a lovely big garden and
an Anderson shelter, so I really enjoyed those visits.
We couldn't visit Dad's mother now, because she was out at work all day,
now that her youngest children had left home. All my married aunts worked
too, and the only unmarried one joined the WAAF, though sometimes we all
got together for a Sunday tea and shared our rations for a slap-up meal.
And the time had come for me to start school. I was really excited.
But the first day was a great disappointment. I had so looked forward to
having friends my own age. (The only other children I had met so far were
either years older than me, or babies in prams.) But there was just a huge
smelly room, heavy double-wooden desks, and what seemed like hundreds of
children crying or fighting. None of the other kids could read or write,
let alone recite their tables. There were no books, though I liked the
nursery rhyme pictures on the walls. Then we were put in desks and some
toys were given out. But there weren't enough to go around. I just had
to sit there 'being good.' Eventually I got so bored, not being allowed
to talk to anyone, and having a smelly, sniffing girl sharing the desk
with me, that I bit her arm! At least that got a bit of action!
There were about 60 children in that class and every morning the teacher
had to fill 60 mugs with milk poured from huge quart bottles, ready to
be drunk at playtime. Then she had to line us up and somehow get a tablespoonful
of Cod Liver Oil and Malt from a huge tin into each of us. When it was
cold, the sweetish sticky stuff was almost too stiff to get out of the
Within a few days, the teacher tried to make use of me to teach some
of the other children their letters. But my social skills were non-existent.
The kids hated my cultivated accent and my bossy know-it-all manner, and
it wasn't long before I was sent to a class in the Junior Primary section.
There I had lots of books to read and new things to learn. So I settled
down and was very happy. I particularly enjoyed the one mile walk to school,
which I did four times a day, as Mum liked me to come home for my dinner.