For My Grandsons: Childhood Memories of World War II
I was four years old in September 1939, so my memories of the first years of the war are few. Some of what I shall say is what my father and mother – your great-grandparents Tudor and Dylys Morgan – told me, but most of this is what I remember myself.
The first excitement I remember was of the evacuees. In September 1939 the government was afraid that the Luftwaffe would attack immediately and bomb London to smithereens. So all London’s tens of thousands of children were sent, without their parents, to places that were expected to be safe. Hundreds of children arrived at Brighton station, with labels round their necks and little luggage cases, and my mother went down to the station to bring a little girl home.
Instead she brought two boys of about 12, because she felt so sorry for them – everyone wanted the girls. I can’t remember the boys’ names. They had never eaten with knives and forks off plates before in their lives, nor had a proper bath, so my mother had a lot to teach them. One of them was difficult and had to go somewhere else (but I don’t remember that), the other one stayed a long time and was happy with us.
When the two boys arrived they had hardly any clothes except what they were wearing. My mother got in touch with her cousins in Cardiff who ran a big clothing company, and they supplied things for them to wear although they were not supposed to, since clothes were rationed. One of the boys was given at school The Merchant of Venice to read, and of course he couldn’t make head or tail of it. By sheer chance there was a travelling company in Brighton that week, presenting that very play. My mother gave him a shilling and told him how to find the place and to get a gallery seat. She was thrilled when he came home with his eyes glowing with excitement.
A different excitement, perhaps in the summer of 1940, was seeing two German biplanes flying really high and circling around rather slowly. The local anti-aircraft guns popped away at them, but they were too high to be hit. Clearly they were taking photographs. (After the war we learnt that Brighton was one of the main places that the Germans had chosen for their intended invasion).
Houses were cold in those days. Ordinary people’s houses didn’t have central heating. All through the winter one fire would be burning in the kitchen-dining room. That was where we’d boil the kettle, to save gas. You only went to your bedroom to go to bed. It was too cold to do anything else up there. There wasn’t regular night-and-day hot water either. If you needed a bath, there was a boiler above the bath, with a spout, called the geyser. This had to be lit by Mother with a spark-flasher. The government told all adults that they should each have only one bath a week, and not very deep! Showers were unknown to us.
Food was a big problem. Meat, butter, margarine, sugar, tea and coffee were on special rations, and the allowances were small. Milk was mainly for children – a pint a day for each child. Adults had two and a half pints a week. (A pint is a little less than half a litre). Other groceries – sultanas, jam, tinned food – were on ‘points’; you could choose what to spend your points on, but they didn’t bring much. Eggs were sometimes available, but in winter there were no fresh eggs. The only breakfast cereals were porridge, wheat flakes, Weetabix, All Bran and shredded wheat. Sweets were rationed tightly.
Fish, fruit and vegetables weren’t rationed, but they were often scarce. Bread wasn’t rationed, but it was tough eating. There were no oranges, only children’s orange juice from the government. No bananas. No pineapples. Plums, apples and pears in the autumn and winter. Hardly any fruit in the spring, except dried fruit. We were lucky – my mother was a good cook and manager of her ration books.
One way of getting more food was to grow your own. Lots of town spaces were divided into allotments where people could grow fruit and vegetables. We had an allotment where my parents worked hard. They had a big strawberry patch, and grew potatoes, peas, carrots, beans and lettuce. I had a small patch for myself. I remember growing radishes but found that I didn’t like the taste.
We went blackberrying every August and September. There were plenty of good places to pick them. Father would wade into a great mound of brambles with stick and basket and pick loads. I ate half of what I picked, which didn’t make me popular.
Then there was clothes rationing. This meant that clothes were really boring and scratchy, basic garments to keep you warm. My mother was good with a sewing machine and she also did some knitting. The government asked every housewife to give spare aluminium pans to help the effort to build aeroplanes, and took away all the iron railings from every park and garden.
My father was a pharmacist, with his own shop. In 1939 it was a little place which I just remember. It had a tall telephone with speaker and earpiece separate. He went to work about 8.30, came home for lunch and then back to work until eight at night, six days a week except Wednesday, when he had an afternoon off, but reopened in the evening. He opened on Sunday mornings too, from 11.00 till 1.00. He was told he must not join the Army because pharmacists were important for the community. He didn’t even have to join the Home Guard, but he volunteered anyway and wore his khaki uniform whenever called to meetings or guard duty.
Years later my parents told me how frightened people were early in the war. The Nazis had occupied Poland, Holland, Belgium, Luxemburg, France, and Denmark with very little trouble, because their forces were so powerful. The whole British Army narrowly escaped being captured at Dunkirk in 1940. Many people expected invasion at any moment. Brighton is on the south coast of England, and when the war began the government closed all the beaches and the roads next to the beach, using lots of barbed wire, and putting mines in the beaches.
Two huge guns were put above the beach not far away from our house, and there were many batteries of anti-aircraft guns along the cliffs. The two piers at Brighton had their middles blown up so that invaders could not use them for landing. Nobody was allowed into Brighton except people who already lived there. So two of my mother’s cousins, Edward and Peter, registered that they lived with us in Brighton (they were both bachelors at the time) so that they could come and stay for weekends.
The second big excitement was when our shop was bombed. It was early in the morning of the 20th of July 1940 when Stuka dive-bombers, which made a terrifying noise, dropped bombs on the street where our shop was, early in the morning. My father was sure they’d hit the shop, but my mother told him not to be silly. However he got up and dressed, and found that he had been quite right. I don’t remember this at all well, but there was a terrible mess. The whole of the back of the shop was blown in. In the middle of all the rubble the bakelite telephone survived. If the bombing had been later in the day my father would have been there, and almost certainly been killed. It was possibly the first pharmacy in Britain to be bombed. During the rest of the war pharmacists in New Zealand sent food parcels to us once or twice a year.
Air raids were horrible, of course. The sirens would set up an awful up-and-down howling noise, and if there was great danger, then pips would be broadcast. The worst in Brighton was when a cinema was hit and more than sixty people were killed. It was a cinema we used to go to often.
When the Battle of Britain started in late summer 1940, my mother was so worried that everybody might be killed that she sent me for safety to live with my Auntie Nance and Uncle Will, who kept a grocer’s shop in Rhymney (not Rumney Cardiff)). She took me to London on the train (I could see all the barrage balloons over the Thames to keep low-flying enemy planes away) and put me on the train at Paddington. She gave the guard half a crown (eight to a pound) to keep an eye on me. I was five years old. Auntie Nance met me at Newport station and took me home to Rhymney on another train. Auntie Nance had no children of her own, so she was extra fond of me. She took me to Welsh chapel and Sunday School, and sent me to the elementary school, where we wrote on slates instead of paper. Her house behind the shop was warm and cosy, but behind the house was a huge slag-heap from one of the many coal mines. I was there for three months and developed a strong Welsh accent. Although the Battle of Britain hadn’t finished, my mother sent for me to come home after three months because she missed me so much!
Unfortunately our new home was quite close to the local gasworks, and the place was bombed three or four times. This cracked many of our windows, which had strips of brown paper across them in a lattice pattern so that splinters of glass wouldn’t be blown into the rooms. Of course the blackout rules meant having dark blinds as well as curtains. If at night a policeman or air-raid-warden saw any light at all coming from people’s windows he could warn them or take them to court to be fined.
We all slept in our big cellar during one whole winter. It was quite dark and exciting down there. There was a glass cupboard full of tins and jars of food kept for special occasions. When there were eggs available my mother bought as many as she could afford and preserved them in waterglass, a transparent liquid preservative, and kept them in a huge jar along with the jams and preserved fruits that she made – the government gave out extra sugar in the fruit season. My parents had bought an artificial Christmas tree and fairy lights before the war, so we could put them up each Christmas. We made many of the decorations ourselves.
Of course I had to be a soldier myself. As well as having a toy fort with lots of lead soldiers (not to mention cowboys and Indians), I had a popgun, a uniform (I guess my mother made it) and a tank that my father made for me.
By the time we moved back upstairs I was old enough to take an interest in the war. We had the Daily Telegraph and the News Chronicle every day, and the Observer on Sunday. The papers were very thin; four, six or eight pages, but they had maps of how the war was going. I used to cut them out and stick them on the wall of my bedroom. I also had a big map of Europe. I stuck little swastikas on the countries that Germany had occupied. Between the maps and the news I came to know the names of lots of Russian and German cities and rivers. We all admired the Russians tremendously for the huge sacrifice they made in the war, losing millions of lives in turning the German armies back.
After 1941 lots of American soldiers arrived in Britain, but the overseas soldiers in Brighton were nearly all Canadians. One Canadian spent Christmas Day with us; perhaps it was Christmas 1943, I don’t know. Later the Canadians gave a party for the children from the homes where they had spent Christmas Day Our street was sometimes very busy, with Bren gun carriers and tanks tearing up the tarmac. Cars were rare; my parents used to cycle out to the country on Sundays if it was fine. My baby sister rode on the back of Pa’s bike, while I had my own.
Some nasty things happened, of course. My father had rented a new shop in place of the old bombed one, but it wasn’t a safe place. It was bombed twice; the second time a teacher in the doorway, whom my father had urged to come in and use the shelter at the back of the shop, was blown to pieces. Next day I went to see the damage. The ceiling had collapsed. Hundreds of bottles of medicine of all kinds (most medicine used to be in bottles) were smashed on the floor and the ceiling insulation was soaking it all up.
One day in 1944 I went out on my bike with a girl I knew from the next street, Wanda. We were cycling up the main road above the cliffs when I saw a German plane flying in very low. I knew it was a Messchersmitt 109 because I was keen on identifying war planes. Suddenly there was a colossal bang from the block of flats we were cycling towards. We both dropped our bikes on the road and ran as fast as we could back to Wanda’s house and hid in the shelter. If we’d been much nearer the flats we’d both have been killed.
Despite all that, despite the rationing and the terrible shortage of toys and the very few presents and Christmas and birthday time, I thought the war was fun. My father’s brothers Llew and Bill, and my mother’s brother Tom, were all in the Forces, and sometimes they came for weekends. Llew came once in a jeep with a driver. Tom was a sailor, and made models for me when he was at sea. Llew and Bill went to France and Germany, and they brought home souvenirs: a Nazi helmet and bayonet, and foreign coins. I never thought that uncles I loved could possibly be killed. Years later I found that Uncle Peter had almost been lost in the failed British attack on Norway, and that Uncle Tom had spent a whole winter cooped up in a destroyer with hundreds of other sailors, keeping watch on the freezing seas between Iceland and Scotland. Later he helped take soldiers across the English Channel when the Allies invaded France. He met Uncle Llew, who was in the army, on the Normandy beaches by a lucky chance.
In 1944 and early 1945 I could sometimes watch flights of bombers that would rumble overhead in the evening on their way to bomb places in France and Germany. They would rumble back again early in the morning, too early for me to wake, but my father used to get up and watch them coming home, some of them obviously damaged.
My mother did her best to arrange holidays for us in the summer. Once we rented a bungalow in the Sussex countryside, but usually we would go by train to Wales to stay with aunts and uncles in Cardiff and Swansea. I was in Gwaun-cae-gurwen in August 1945 when Japan surrendered and the whole war was over. Someone produced fireworks that he had kept since 1939 – fireworks hadn’t been allowed during the war because all the factories had turned to making explosives. Although the war was over, it would be years before rationing stopped and life really started to get better. Britain was exhausted. At the time I was sad – no more exciting blackout, no more tanks in our streets, no more souvenirs from my uncles. Now of course I know how lucky my family and I had been – no-one killed or wounded.