A peek at the past: Extracts from a reader’s memoirs

Guest Post:

Extract One: WW2.?? The beginning.



My first memory of it was being fitted with gas masks and the posters which said,”Hitler will send no warning, so always carry your gas mask” Then there was the arrival of the Anderson Air Raid Shelter. For this, which consisted mainly of sections of curved corrugated iron, a hole had to be dug in the garden, I would say about 6 ft deep x 6ft x 7ft.

Father assembled the shelter in this, piling earth above it, and around it, which he made into a dwarf wall and a rockery. He built steps down into it at right angles and a protective wall alongside the steps. Duckboards were placed on bricks for a floor, and we had a couple of bunk beds in there and seats of some sort. Lighting came from a hurricane lamp. In wet weather, my Mother used to have to bale out the water using a child’s chamberpot, which was then emptied into buckets, and we children formed a chain to empty them down the drain at the corner of the house.

A brown army blanket hung over the door of the shelter, and this was to be kept wet in case of a gas attack.

Anderson Air Raid Shelter.

Very small children had to have a different kind of gas mask, that they lay inside, and this had to be pumped all the time. I remember I used to worry considerably what would happen to the youngest, (Billy, who had Downs Syndrome) when we became too weak to continue pumping in a prolonged gas attack. My younger brothers had pink gas masks with a flapping ?nose? which went up and down with each breath.

Gas masks for babies tested at an English hospital, 1940 (2) (1)

But all this must actually have been before War started, because the day before it did ? Sept. 3rd, 1939, I was evacuated with my sister, who was 13 on the day war broke out. We were packed on to buses at our school, complete with small cases containing our clothes, and a carrier bag with, I remember, a tin of corned beef and a tin of Carnation Evaporated milk. There may have been more, but I can’t recall. I was seven at the time.

We went off to the small?village?of?Huby, a few miles from?Harrogate,?Yorkshire, where we were dumped at the village hall and told to sit quietly.

I have no idea where my Mother and my younger brothers were, although I found much later that she and they had been sent to a completely different destination. It was all exciting to me and I was not a bit homesick.

Hours seemed to pass, and the number of children dwindled, and I was getting so worried because I was one of the last. Finally, I was added to the two other children that Mr and Mrs K had billeted upon them. I remember that I was somewhat mortified because they were scruffy kids from the Council Estate and probably had nits! (Interesting that a child of seven can be snobby!)

The Ks had never had children of their own, and I don’t think they welcomed their new charges at all, but Government regulations said they had to have us because they had spare rooms. My sister went somewhere else, I knew not where but did find out later at school.

Mr and Mrs K were an upper-middle-class couple, with a large house. He had a bookshop in?Leeds and used to read to us in an evening.? That was where I was introduced to R.L. Stevenson?s ?Treasure Island?.??? I was intrigued because they had a skin covered shield and a couple of assegai on the wall of their large hallway. There was also a heavily carved large, throne-like chair which I was told had belonged to Mrs K’s father when he had been chairman of the Savage Club.

Savages, shields, and spears! My goodness, I thought it must all have been terribly exciting.

The “scruffy kids” didn’t stay long, but I did, returning home sometime before?Dunkirk, because I remember the soldiers, dirty and weary, coming to our own village on the outskirts of?Leeds after they had escaped.??Dunkirk?was in 1940, in Summer, and there had been a period known as the “Phony War” which caused most evacuees to return to their homes, only to be caught in the Blitz which followed.

A British fishing boat picks up troops off the coast of Dunkirk.
Frank Capra (film) – Divide and Conquer (Why We Fight #3) Public Domain (U.S. War Department): http://www.archive.org/details/DivideAndConquer
British fisher rescuing allied troops escaping from Dunkirk in a trawler (France, 1940). Screen-shot taken from the 1943 United States Army film Divide and Conquer (Why We Fight #3) directed by Frank Capra and partially based on news archives, animations, re-staged scenes and captured propaganda material from both sides.

Dunkirk?was a small seaside town in?France?to?where the British Expeditionary Force retreated as they were followed by overwhelming German forces.??? Hundreds of thousands of them collected on the beaches, being continually strafed by enemy aircraft.? The call went out to all the owners of fishing boats and small pleasure boats in?England,? and an armada of them set off to France?to carry back our men.? Against all odds they were able to make several trips in some cases and heroically rescue thousands, many losing their own lives in the process.? In a way, it made a victory from a defeat.