The History Place - Personal Histories

A Girl's Life in London
by Margaret

Section Four of Six

More Bombs, a Break, and School in Wartime

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.My Aunt in WAAF uniform and myself ready for school 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 tin.

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.

Copyright © 1999 by Margaret All Rights Reserved

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