Section Two of Six
How the War Changed Everyday
Some things didn't change for me, as it did for other children. I was
too young to be evacuated without
my mother, and she wouldn't leave Dad. He was a tram driver, but when war
began, he was promoted to inspector and directed to remain in his job.
So Dad went to work as usual and we stayed put in SouthWest London. There
were no air raids in the first few months, but there was still plenty of
excitement for an inquisitive 2-year-old.
Once the sun set, it was dark - really dark! No street lights, not a
glimpse of light from a window or doorway, even torches or vehicle lights
had to be well shaded. On clear nights, the stars were just amazing. On
Christmas Eve 1939, Mum put me and a load of parcels in the pram and set
off for Gran's. It was pitch dark (London is dark at 4 p.m. in December!).
She had to push the pram with one hand and keep a fold of her coat over
the torch in the other. Although kerbs were supposed to be painted white
during the Blackout, the painters
hadn't got to our area. Several times, I was nearly tipped out, and got
told off when I couldn't save all the parcels. By the time we got to Gran's,
Mum was spitting chips!
Cars almost disappeared from the streets because ordinary people were
not allowed to buy petrol any more. Milk, bread, and coal were delivered
by horse and cart. I was sent out with the coal shovel to scoop up anything
the horses left behind, to manure the garden! Our window cleaner had a
side bracket on his bike, to rest the ladders on, and hung his bucket from
the handlebars. I remember an older cousin, who was training as a nurse,
setting out for a dance one evening on her bike. She was in high heels
and, lifting her long skirts, neatly draped them over the handlebars!
Iron gates and railings were melted down to make guns. When the workmen
came to get those in our street, Dad insisted on removing ours himself,
because he said they did such a rough job. Of course, I 'helped' him!
A big brick air raid shelter was built on the other side of our back
fence, and one neighbor got an Anderson shelter. I had a marvelous time
helping to dig the hole for it, and then covering it with the dirt we got
out of the hole. We
had no shelter, but Dad took out all the shrubs from our little garden
and dug it over ready for vegetables. Mum (and I!) grew runner beans, potatoes,
rhubarb and strawberries. Dad also built some rabbit hutches and set them
up against the back fence. The rabbits, I was told, were to help out with
the meat ration.
Nearly everyone was in uniform of some kind. Two of my uncles were in
Air Force blue, and another was a regular soldier. Dad's father was in
the Home Guard, and wore his old Army uniform. He had an old rifle, and
I remember Dad taking it apart one evening at Gran's, and showing me how
to clean and re-assemble it. All the grown-ups seemed to have tin-hats
as well as their gas-masks, and I kept asking if I could have one. But
they told me I was "too little."
One day Mum took me to a lovely old building which had once been our
local library but was now the Food Office. It had sandbags piled around
the entrance. We queued for hours to get Identity
Cards, and ration books. (Even me! This time no-one said I was too
little.) Mum and Dad each had a beige colored one, but mine was green.
That meant I was allowed extra milk. Mum wasn't cross because I wouldn't
drink the milk. It meant she and Dad had fresh milk in their tea, and our
custard was made with real instead of dried milk. As well as food, clothes,
and fuel rationing, lots of things were in 'short supply.' They periodically
disappeared, and when they re-appeared, shopkeepers kept them for regular
customers, or introduced informal rationing schemes of their own. Going
without jelly, icing on cake, oranges, bananas, and ice-cream, was bad
enough. But just you try coping with a Dad who can't get a new razor blade
or cigarettes or try to manage without being able to replace hair-grips,
sewing needles or zips! Mum reckoned the famous 'siren-suit' invented by
Winston Churchill failed to catch on, because, to be quick and easy to
get into when the air raid sirens went, it needed a full-length zip!
Most men were called up and women took over so many of their old jobs
that I grew up believing that there was nothing that women were not able
to do. (I was to be sadly disillusioned when starting to think about my
own career in the 1950s!)
Barrage balloons floated overhead,
and the top portion of the church steeples had been removed. Dad told me
the barrage balloons were to stop dive bombers. I thought they should have
left the church steeples, with their weathercocks and lightning conductors,
because they would have done plenty of damage to planes. But Dad said they
might burst the balloons and waste a lot of time and resources. He took
me to Central London, and we watched people digging trenches in Hyde Park
and Green Park, and filling sandbags. The sandbags were made into porches
around the doorways of all the important buildings, and stacked up to the
tops of the ground floor windows. He showed me the ack-ack
gun on the tennis courts at the top of our street, and we went to all the
Commons in South London inspecting
searchlight batteries, more ack-ack guns, and balloon emplacements. Sometimes
at night we watched searchlights and ack-ack from my bedroom window. Dad
said they were just practicing, but I thought he was trying to make me
believe we were safe in London, whatever Hitler tried!
The colorful posters that were displayed everywhere fascinated me. So
Dad started teaching me to read, and soon I could read all the posters,
the newspaper headlines and the numerous leaflets distributed by the government.
I had no brothers or sisters, or playmates of my own age, so reading
became a favorite past-time. By the time I was three, I could read the
Daily Mirror, Woman's Own, and Picture Post, as well
as some of the books we had. I soon learned not to ask about words I didn't
understand, in case Mum decided I was reading something unsuitable. I looked
them up in the dictionary instead. Dad said I was too young to really take
in much of what I was reading. He thought I was 'just looking at the pictures.'
He had obviously forgotten how graphic the pictures in the 'Home Doctor,'
the First Aid Book and Civil Defense
manuals were! In this way, and by staying quiet and pretending to be occupied
when grown-ups were talking, and by watching the newsreels from under my
eyelids at the pictures when they thought I was asleep on Mum's lap, I
got a pretty good idea of what was happening.
To begin with, it was more interesting and exciting than frightening.
But then I heard Dad telling Mum what had happened to my Uncle at Dunkirk.