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.
In our previous installment of Living Witnesses, Joyce Board was a young teenager evacuated to Somerset. By late summer of 1942, Joyce had finished school and returned to London to continue her education at Chelsea Polytechnic, where she met the love of her life, Peter Hudis. For the remainder of the war, Joyce lived with her parents, Joe and Emily, on Shenley Road, Camberwell.
Joyce's return from Somerset was not the only excitement for the Shenley Road household that year. Her cousin, Garry Hunt, was born in May 1942, the youngest member of his generation. His father, Ted, was in the Royal Air Force and was stationed in India and Burma. Leaving the comparative safety of her home in Morden, Surrey, the young mother, Amy and her baby son spent most of their time living in the house on Shenley Road, where Amy could get support and companionship. Garry writes, 'I can remember many of the sights of the war, parts of London burning...'
On 4th February 1944, the so called 'mini Blitz' started. "First came bombs, then the buzz bombs, then the rockets," Joyce says. The bombs were incendiary bombs, the V1 buzz bombs or doodlebugs were self propelled flying bombs. Finally came the rockets or V2s, the first ballistic missiles used in war. The Shenley Road house was on a hill, with a view over London. Every morning the family would go outside to see if St Paul's Cathedral was still standing. To their great relief, it always was. 'St Paul's was still there, we were still there. So it was alright." Although badly damaged, Christopher Wren's iconic dome survived the war, a symbol of hope for the Londoners.
n one particular air raid, Joyce had a near miss. On June 28th she was in a telephone kiosk on Peckham Road, talking to Peter, when a buzz bomb fell on nearby Bentley House, a block of flats, shattering the kiosk. "The glass of the telephone kiosks always imploded, killing whoever was inside," Joyce says, " Yet this time the glass exploded outwards--I don't know why. But I survived the bomb." Stunned by the explosion, Joyce watched in horror as the residents emerged from the flats, blood pouring from their heads. They had been sheltering in the basement and the ceiling had fallen in. The scalp bleeds very freely, and the terrified young girl thought that everybody was mortally wounded and about to die. In reality, they had nothing more than superficial scalp wounds. Just then, a very worried Joe appeared, calming her and escorting her home. Nineteen people were killed in this incident, one of the worst V1 bombing incidents to affect Camberwell.
Determined to go to medical school, Joyce was doing her pre-meds at Chelsea Polytechnic. She did excellently in botany and well in zoology and chemistry, but failed physics and had to re-take it. The second time, she made it through the weekly problems because they were basically the same problems as those of the previous year. But she approached the exams with trepidation, knowing she was bound to fail. Fate, however, intervened. As she was in the middle of the oral exam, there was a huge explosion. A buzz bomb had landed on the examination hall. While the examiner cowered under the desk, thinking only of his own safety, Joyce stood amid falling rubble. "I didn't know what to do. And I utterly despised the professor." Embarassed, the professor gave Joyce a pass on the oral test. And because all the exam papers were destroyed, Joyce and the other candidates were passed on their grades. "If it were not for that bomb, I could not have become a doctor. And I got through medical school alright, despite never understanding physics."
After graduating from Chelsea Polytechnic, Joyce was 'called up' for civilan war work. Much to her frustation, the young scientist was assigned to the Fuel Research Station in East Greenwich. Established during the First World War, the Station was tasked with an experimental investigation of more economical and efficient methods for the preparation of coal and its products, such as coke and coal gas. Joyce was frustated with the tedium of the job and embarassed that her war work seemingly contributed nothing to the effort to defeat Hitler. Joyce describes the Fuel Research Station as a building the size of a detached house, with a long beam that had a thermometer at the end. The work consisted of measuring the BTUs of various fuels such a coal and coke. There were three shifts; the evening one ended at 10pm, leading to a late night, while the night shift ran from 10p.m. to 6a.m. Meanwhile, Joyce was a young woman in love and got away whenever possible to visit Peter at his parent's home in Edgware.
Luftwaffe bombings continued to disrupt life in London as Joyce persued her medical education. Women were generally not accepted in the prestigious London medical schools, so Joyce had few options for her training. After finishing her war work at the Fuel Research Station, she was due to start at the London School of Medicine for Women, attached to the Royal Free Hospital. But on 5th July 1944 a buzz bomb hit the hospital and medical school, causing immense damage. Then on 9th February 1945, a V2 rocket destroyed the laboratory wing. As a result, the new students were initially sent to Guy's Hospital instead of their own medical school. They were far from welcome there. When the young women arrived, the male medical students queued up and stood silently, staring at their legs. And when the women were invited to attend a Sunday afternoon record concert, all the men got up and walked out. " It didn't bother me, because I had such a rough Cockney childhood. But only two or three of us were working class. For the genteel middle class girls, this kind of treatment was very painful."
One of Joyce's most disconcerting war memories concerns her attitude to the bombing of German cities. On February 14th 1945, the BBC announced: British and US bombers have dropped hundreds of thousands of explosives on the German city of Dresden... As soon as one part of the city was alight, the bombers went for another until the whole of Dresden was ablaze. "There were fires everywhere with a terrific concentration in the centre of the city," said one Pathfinder pilot. RAF crew reported smoke rising to a height of 15,000 ft.
Joyce will never forget and perhaps never completely forgive herself for celebrating this holocaust of civilians and refugees, as well as the earlier bombings of Cologne and Hamburg. These terrible acts seemed at the time to be bringing victory closer, as well as being just retribution for the London Blitz and the destruction of Coventry. Infused by war propaganda, the adolescent Joyce truly hated the German enemy. "This was the worst thing I ever did" she reflects. Throughout my own childhood and youth, I experienced her ongoing remorse as a healing thorn. Neither she nor my father had a shadow of willingness to collude with prejudice or hatred in any form. Reminding us of those terrible days, Joyce constantly exhorted us to consider justice and human rights above any personal or nationalistic concerns. Looking back, I can only say that Joyce, along with millions of other young people exposed to war propaganda, suffered a moral injury. Due to her inherent resilience and her Christian faith, Joyce has been able to transform and make meaning of this moral injury, yet the pain remains.
The European war ended on VE Day, 8th May 1945. "That was a most wonderful day in London," Joyce recalls. "Everywhere people were dancing and singing in the streets, complete strangers hugging each other. We were so happy on that day."
Yet the war had a long aftermath. One day, sorting through papers for my parents, I came upon a child ration card bearing my own name. Until that day I had no idea that rationing in Britain continued until 1954. The sight of my own ration card brought the war uncomfortably close. Demobilization took a long time too. Ted Hunt was 'demobbed' only in 1947. The photograph to the right paints a poignant picture of the social disruptions caused by the war. Immense costs were born by all concerned, from the soldiers at the front to the child in his mother's arms. In this picture, taken by Joyce, we see Ted wearing his new 'civvies', excited to return to his family. But his four year old son does not know or acknowledge him. Garry pulls away from his father and leans towards the only Daddy he has ever known--his uncle Joe. Neither Joyce nor Garry have ever forgotten this moment. The bond between father and son, lost in those early years, was never fully regained. Like many other war babies, Garry paid a heavy price for a global conflict he was powerless to influence. As for Joyce and Peter, their wartime experiences led them to raise us, their children, as pacifists and peacemakers and to seek thoughout their lives for the path of peace and justice.