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Childhood Memories of Wartime London - Nye Family

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posted on 2024-06-05, 18:14 authored by Their Finest Hour Project Team

Being only four when war was declared in September 1939, I was unaware of world events and the changes that would impinge on our peaceful life in the outer suburbs of London. We were given uncomfortable rubber gas masks and told to keep them with us at all times, but didn't understand cottage with no electricity, only one indoor water tap, and a basic toilet across the yard. A real challenge for our suburban mothers but great fun! Then came the excitement of the seemingly long journey to Hampshire where my mother, aunt, two younger cousins and I moved into a tiny place for us children. I learned later that my uncle's work had been transferred to a stately home where the staff were accommodated, but he had managed to rent a nearby cottage for his wife and family so that we too might be away from the capital if the feared invasion took place. We were very fortunate to have our family with us rather than being evacuated to live with strangers as happened to some of our cousins and many other city children.

Sadly for us, my father had to remain in London, where after a day's work in the City he took turns in fire watching on the roof of his office by night, as well as his duties as an Air Raid Warden at home. His occasional visits were greatly welcome but even in later years he would never talk to us about the dangers and horrors he faced daily during this time and throughout the war.

We stayed in the cottage for several months, happily enjoying the countryside and quite oblivious to the difficulties and worries our parents faced. The local school was overcrowded with the influx of evacuee children to the area, so my mother took a correspondence course and gave us our first lessons in the tiny front room of the cottage. The only hint of war that we experienced was a journey on the local train which was packed full of soldiers on their way to the coast. Christmas that year was different but somehow, we still had a turkey which we pushed in the pram to the local bakery where it was cooked along with the dinners of other village families who too only had small ovens.

A few months later my mother and I returned home, to find the beds had been brought downstairs, the windows criss-crossed with sticky tape to limit flying glass, and black curtains fitted to every window of the house to avoid any chink of light showing outside after dark. Streetlights, torches and the lights in public transport were painted blue to give only minimal light, and some street hazards were painted with white markings. We became accustomed to squeezing under the staircase when the siren sounded to warn of an air raid, and to take cover in the nearest house if we were outdoors. The sports field at the end of our garden had been taken over by the army so we became used to the sound of gunfire and learned to tell the difference between the sound of our planes and German ones flying overhead - we were on one of the main routes for enemy planes on their way to bomb central London. There was a silver barrage balloon further up the field.

Most of the bombs in the early days were incendiary ones, and I was taken next door to see the neat hole through the roof, upper room, and lounge carpet where one had fallen the previous night. Luckily our neighbour had been able to smother it before it ignited, as every house had strategically placed buckets of sand ready for such emergencies. We also kept a bag of essential documents near the front door with instructions to grab it if possible if we had to evacuate the house urgently. By that time, we had learned that death was a possibility for anybody but were told we need not fear it and that heaven was well above the range of any aircraft!

Some weeks later it was considered safe enough for my uncle's work to return to London, by which time their house was occupied so they came to live with us - seven of us in two downstairs rooms. Again, it was fun for us children but challenging for the adults. My uncle joined the Home Guard so, like my father, he had to be out many evenings and weekends. As children we enjoyed the Air Raid Wardens' stirrup-pump practice in our garden and were allowed to play with the hoses after the serious instruction was over. My mother became a local National Savings representative, whose duty was to collect money from those neighbours who had committed to saving regularly towards the national war effort, and to issue stamps to be exchanged for certificates to reclaim their money from the Government in due course.

My father followed the Dig for Victory exhortations and turned half the garden into a vegetable plot, and after my cousins could return to their own home my uncle kept ducks in his garden, so we had a ready supply of eggs as well as vegetables in season. We acquired a Morrison shelter (a strong steel table with removable wire sides) under which we slept, while uncle's family had the double-decker version with space to sleep four. When I needed an emergency operation for appendicitis the local hospital was full of wounded soldiers, but luckily, they still managed to find a space for me.

Schools still functioned. The library remained open, but two of the three swimming pools were closed, one becoming a store for mattresses for the WVS to distribute in emergencies, so luckily we could still learn to swim in the remaining pool. Other activities were mainly games at home or the garden or being taken to the local park.

In 1943, we moved to a suburb nearer to central London, next door to my grandparents and with another uncle living with us. This was a time of much heavier enemy attacks on London. Air raids were frequent, and ceilings fell down and windows were blown out almost as soon as they had been repaired after the last raid, so we became used to living in the semi-darkness of waterproof sheeting over each window. Fuel was limited so in winter we spent most of the time in the one room that had the boiler to heat the water. Walking to school we passed the ruins of houses that had been there the previous day, and a large water tank for use by the Fire Brigade was constructed in one space where two houses had been destroyed. Lessons were regularly interrupted by air raid warnings, when we all had to leave our classes and go out to windowless concrete shelters where we sat or shivered on wooden benches until the All-Clear siren sounded and we could go back indoors. The worst times were the suspense when the engines of the unmanned 'Doodlebug' missiles cut out and we waited not knowing whether they would crash on us or on some other unfortunate neighbour.

Later the V2 rockets did even more damage. There was no warning before they came, and they had the power to do much more damage over a wider area. We had a lucky escape when one fell about 100 yards from our home and killed some of our neighbours as well as doing a lot of damage locally. We would have been badly injured if we had not been out at the time. We were very fortunate in not losing any of our family during the war, but a little friend and her playmate were killed when on a rare holiday they were walking along a country road and were shot at by a lone German plane on its way home after attacking cities further north.

We were never hungry thanks to the skill and inventiveness of our mothers and the vegetables from Dad's allotment but had no choice over what we ate - whale meat and tripe were not popular but were occasionally the only option. Dried milk and powdered egg were amongst the many challenges for cooks, together with limited supplies of most ingredients. Like many other women, our mothers would join any queue outside a shop before discovering what was on offer. By this time Dad had two allotments in the park on what used to be the cricket pitch, with a water supply provided by the authorities. We had school dinners and, in the holidays, walked to a nearby hall where a British Restaurant provided hot meals for children for a few pence. All children had one-third of a pint of milk daily at school and babies were given orange juice.

Toys were nearly always hand-me-downs from older cousins or friends, but this did not matter to us and we were content with whatever we had. All our friends were in the same situation so there was no need for envy or one-upmanship over toys or clothes. We did have occasional new books, which were printed on 'economy' yellowish paper, and we used the local library until it was bombed. With no television available at that time and the newspaper not carrying a lot of graphic photos we were spared seeing the worst details of warfare, and although we were scared at times and experienced damage to our homes, we never actually witnessed anyone being injured or dying.

We were so fortunate that all our close family survived without injury and that we could remain in our own homes with our parents. Being too young to remember much before the war, we did not know what delights we might be missing so the restrictions did not really bother us and we just accepted everything as it came. We were among the lucky ones.


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Nye family

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My family

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Shared online via the Their Finest Hour project website.

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