I find it hard to believe that I was born only six years after the end of World War I; it was as remote to me as a child as it is now. My father1 used to take me and my mother to visit his great friend who had been with him throughout, and I was thrilled by the stories they used to tell. It all sounded so exciting to a little girl who led a very sheltered life in a dull London suburb, and even his account of how he had been gassed, and led out of the railway embankment in a line of men, each holding the shoulder of the man in front did not shock me. My father had been a telephonist attached to the heavy guns, and was very proud of his association with the Royal Artillery, whose tie he wore on formal occasions. His legacy from the war was a permanent cough and a very weak chest, but I never heard him complain that he had no disability payment.
During the 30’s there were many wars going on around the world, but I was not affected in any way until the Spanish Civil War in 1936. There was much talk among the adults about the Communists. Then British sympathizers were going out to Spain to fight against the King of Spain and his government, and there were terrible tales in the newspapers of the bombing of cities and the destruction caused. One day there was a photograph, now very famous, of a child orphaned by a raid, sitting alone amongst the ruins of a street. This picture had a profound effect on me at the age of twelve. I began to realize what war really meant to ordinary people living ordinary lives, and of course it was quite near to home, unlike the invasion of Abyssinia also in 1936.
For a while, we schoolchildren had been amused by the strutting little man who had become Dictator of Italy, and when his troops invaded first Abyssinia then Eritrea, we booed every time we saw him on the cinema news screen; and we cheered pictures of Haile Selassi2 with his family arriving to safety in London. But again this war had been very far away from our lives in Britain. During this time we were becoming more and more aware of another Dictator in Europe as Hitler was beginning to make his presence felt. Again, to us at school, he was something of a joke, especially when he made an important speech. We used to goose-step around the playground with an arm upraised, shouting “Heil Hitler!” and “Sieg Heil”3! It became clear that Germany was re-arming and building up a very large army, but, as now, our politicians seemed to lack any feeling of urgency, and they continued to argue amongst themselves about the danger looming. I recall several warning speeches by Mr. Churchill4. While all this was occurring our King had abdicated, and we had a coronation of the new King and Queen to look forward to5.
In early 1938, Germany annexed the Sudetenland6 and marched unopposed into Austria, and we hoped he was satisfied. It was becoming more and more obvious of his attitude to the Jews, and many Jewish children, often without their parents, began to arrive in Britain. To a teenager, Europe was becoming a very troubled place. The next demands from Hitler were for lands in Czechoslovakia, which he claimed were former German territories. Things were really becoming serious; there was much scurrying about by our and other countries’ politicians which culminated in Mr. Chamberlain’s famous piece of paper. I remember his arrival back from Berchtesgaden7 to Heston Airport, close to where I lived8. He was waving delightedly at the crowd as he passed the end of my road; and I think he really believed he had scored a triumph, though there were many heads shaking around me. People did not have faith in Hitler’s word. I remember that Mr. Chamberlain’s car was in a procession of many dignitaries, including some French generals, noticeable by their round colourful hats, my first view of something soon to become very familiar around London.
During the following months, I think we became more aware of the danger we were in. Shelters were dug in London Parks, large water tanks appeared on pieces of waste land, and the A.R.P (Air Raid Precautions) were established. Civilians were asked to volunteer to be air raid wardens, and for heavy or light rescue work; the Auxiliary Fire Service needed men and women to train for support work, and the W.V.S9 got busy with plans for the evacuation of school children from inner cities. Gas marks were issued and instructions given on how to gas proof a room for a few hours. I have a vivid memory of the day gas masks were fitted, and collected from the local school. As soon as it was put over my head, I started to choke, and I panicked and tore it off. The same thing happened every time we tried, and I shouted that I would NEVER wear it, come what may!
3 September, 1939
The school holiday was spent as usual at our caravan in East Wittering, Sussex. My mother and I were thinking about packing up and taking the caravan to its winter quarters, when we realized that the move might be sooner than we thought. A night or two before the declaration of war, we had a trial blackout and we had to find dark material to cover our windows. The people in tents had considerable difficulties, and as the entire street lights were extinguished, it was very eerie. But this was soon to be the pattern of our lives for the next six years. The only news we received in the camp was by the radio owned by the family of Romanies10 who had been allowed to use the field for a few nights, while their fairground was cleared. We all flocked round their caravan, and they brought the radio out on to the caravan steps so as really going to happen,that we could hear Mr. Chamberlain’s speech11. A few minutes after the first shocked feeling that it w the air raid siren sounded!
Joan Duncan lives in Cambourne.
About the author
- William Martin Haw was an Associate of the Royal College of Music and a professional violinist of high order
- Haile Selassi, born Ras Tafari, was Abyssinia, now Ethiopia’s last Emperor, 225th in line. Following Benito Mussolini’s invasion of Abyssinia in 1935, Haile Selassi fled in exile with his family. He stayed in Bath at the Fairfield House and briefly in London
- Nazi salute meaning Hail, my leader and Hail victory to signify obedience to the leader and nation
- Winston Churchill warned of the dangers of the rise of fascist powers in Europe. He remained a fierce critic of Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement policy. Chamberlain became Prime Minister in May 1937
- King Edward VIII abdicated to marry Mrs. Wallis Simpson, thereafter taking the title Duke of Windsor. His younger brother George VI became the new King
- German name of the region in the north, southwest and west of former Czechoslovakia inhabited by ethnic German speakers
- Neville Chamberlain met Hitler and without consulting Czechoslovakia promised to give Germany all the areas where more than 50% of the population was German. Then he persuaded France to agree
- Orchard Avenue in a West London suburb
- Women’s Voluntary Service
- At 1115 BST, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain announced that Britain was at war with Germany. It was a Sunday