In commemoration of the seventieth anniversary of the end of World War II, I'll be sharing a few stories from or about the ordinary people who were the witnesses of this global cataclysm. My parents' generation, people born in the mid 1920s, grew up in the war years. Many of them served their country either in active service or civilian war work. In these blogs, we will hear British, American, Jewish, German and Italian voices. The stories of the living witnesses form an irreplaceable oral history and their voices need to be heard. They share tales of tragedy and trauma, heroism and hope--and also of romance, not because war is romantic but because they were young and war or no, it was their time for romance. It is easy for us to ignore the voices of the very old. Some of those who we interview live in institutions--society's strategy for protecting ourselves from the Messengers--old age, sickness and death. Soon enough, these witnesses will be gone. The intention of these blogs is that their stories not die with them.
When I was growing up, we did not study the recent world war in school. History ended with the Treaty of Versailles, while Current Affairs began with Yuri Gagarin. But the war's oral history formed a regular topic of conversation at home. My parents and grandparents all had tales to tell--most of all, my vibrant, outgoing mother, a born storyteller. Here I retell her story.
On Saturday 2nd September 1939, Joyce Board and her parents, Joe and Emily, returned home to London from a late summer holiday. The school year had already started and Joyce, who had just turned fourteen, was looking forward to joining her classmates. They found a tense atmosphere in the capital. Next day, Sunday, at 11.15, the family gathered around their wooden radio to hear Neville Chamberlain announce: (Hear the speech here)
This morning the British Ambassador in Berlin handed the German Government a final Note stating that, unless we heard from them by 11 o'clock that they were prepared at once to withdraw their troops from Poland, a state of war would exist between us. I have to tell you now that no such undertaking has been received, and that consequently this country is at war with Germany.
As the National Anthem played at the end of the Prime Minister's speech, the air raid sirens wailed. Although this was a false alarm, it brought the reality of war home.
At the insistence of London's mayor, Herbert Morrison, Operation Pied Piper, the mass evacuation of children from cities, had begun on Saturday. Joyce's school, Charles Edward Brooke School, had already been evacuated to Yeovil, Somerset. Many of the pupils were placed in East Coker, of Four Quartets fame. Due to her late return from vacation, Joyce was in the latter wave of the four day evacuation. She had to undertake a long and frightening journey alone from London to Somerset to join her schoolmates. Soon she had a very personal experience of the chaos and confusion inherent in Operation Pied Piper. Disembarking the train at Yeovil, she had no idea where to go or who would meet her, and wandered desperately down the streets, clutching her suitcase and gas mask. Eventually she was found and brought to a farmer's wife who was overseeing the operation in the area. This woman was very angry about Joyces' late arrival and gave her a good scolding before finding her a place to stay.
Joyce was first sent to Ilchester, to stay with a with a couple in their eighties. The old man was gardener to the local doctor. The old lady no longer cooked--a big change from home, where Emily was a devoted cook. A spirited fourteen-year-old girl and a very elderly couple proved to be a bad mix, so Joyce was then placed with a family. Joyce describes the family as "very nice, very friendly, but they never cleaned." This was a shock for Joyce, as her mother was an excellent homemaker! "They had a bathroom, but nobody bathed. I don't believe I had a proper bath the whole time I was there." The family had a lot of cats, which Joyce enjoyed. The father, who Joyce describes as "a lovely man," was a baker who had to get up at four in the morning to bake the bread. He came home exhausted and rolled into bed covered in flour. So, since nobody ever washed the sheets, his bed was full of flour and caked dough.
For a teenager like Joyce, evacuation was a mixed blessing. She missed her parents, her parish church and her large Cockney family, with its rowdy parties and singing of 'Knees up Mother Brown.' Evacuation was not like boarding school, for boarding school children normally went home for holidays. The evacuees did not go home, ever, so Joyce did not see her parents at all for three years. At the same time, she enjoyed a taste of independence and country life. Fortunately, Joyce's cousin, Terence Board, musical genius and a former child prodigy on the organ, was then in the Royal Air Force and stationed nearby. They would hitchhike to Yeovil together to go to the cinema when he had a day off.
Early in 1940, food rationing began and Joyce received a ration book. Living in the countryside, it was easy to supplement the rations by growing vegetables. Milk, meat and eggs could also be obtained locally. Joyce even learned to make West Country specialties like clotted cream.
While Joyce was in Somerset, she had one terrifying experience. She was out in the countryside with her friend, a teenage girl from her host family, when a German plane returning from bombing Bristol spotted the two young girls and strafed them. Crouching amid the gorse bushes, they somehow survived this wanton attack.
Evacuation ended for Joyce when she matriculated out of Charles Edward Brooke School and embarked on her inter B.Sc. at Chelsea Polytechnic. So in 1942, having just turned seventeen, she rejoined her parents in their house in Shenley Road, Camberwell. By this time, many foods, including meat, eggs, milk, butter cheese, rice, biscuits, jam, sugar and margarine were rationed, as well as soap. In London, there was a thriving Black Market. Much to Emily's chagrin, Joe, influenced by his Quaker mentors, would not allow the family to buy anything at all on the Black Market.
It was a few months after Pearl Harbour, and the big influx of American GIs into Britain was just underway. The lively and flirtatious Joyce attended afternoon GI dances with a friend. Notwithstanding that the GIs were described as, "Overpaid, oversexed and over 'ere," Joyce says, "They always behaved beautifully. I was very innocent and could easily be taken advantage of, but none of them ever tried to. We would dance and then they would take out their family photographs. 'This is Ma, this is Pa.' They were wonderful." To this day, Joyce remains profoundly grateful to the American GIs who she saw as the saviours of her country and way of life.
Something more exciting than GI tea dances was to come her way. At Chelsea Polytechnic, Joyce met a quiet, pale, thoughtful youth named Peter. Soon the two seventeen year olds were in love. "At Chelsea Polytechnic I met Peter, and my life--my real life-- began." Similar in age, height and interests, the two seemed made for each other. But their backgrounds were very disparate. Peter was Jewish. He lived at the elegant address, 43 Cranley Mews and his father was a civil servant. Joyce was a Cockney girl living in South London. All the elders disapproved of their relationship, with one notable exception. One day, on her way to Cranley Mews, Joyce ran into Peter's grandmother, Rachel, on the London Underground.
"You like my grandson?" asked Rachel in her thick Yiddish accent.
"Yes, I'm going to marry him."
There was a moment's pause before Rachel said, "Alright then."
Their elder's disapproval was not the only hurdle the young people faced. Soon after they fell in love, Peter was diagnosed with TB and sent away to a sanitorium. At that time, TB was an incurable illness and amounted to a death sentence. But Joyce never had any doubt that she and Peter would marry and have four children. And, against all odds, she was right.
The First Kiss
When he came home to die
You shed no tears
Knowing in your heart
The future that was yours.
You had watched him turn pale
Fever dew descend
Surrey sanitorium swallow him.
You'd met at seventeen,
Romance undimmed by
Rationing, buzz bombs
And air raid sirens,
Shared a first kiss
At Willsden Junction station
Two days after Christmas
Your sparkling eyes
Gave him a reason to live
La Belle Dame Sans Merci
Fled from your ebullience.
Condemned as a callow youth
He spent a rich, full lifetime
By your side.
Next time: Living Witnesses Part 3: The Medical student. Hear what it was like as a student in London amid incendiary bombs, buzz bombs and rockets!