WW2 Memories cont
Patricia [Patti] Pope
I was seven when war broke out, my sister Janice only one. I heard the grown-ups talking about the likelihood though it was all hushed up when children were about [unlike today] and I only thought of war as something that happened far away, possibly between cowboys and Indians.
As my father had joined the Royal Corps of Signals as a boy soldier, serving in India, he was a reservist. My beloved Daddy, my companion and teacher, was ‘called up’. Having broken my heart he told me how my tears hurt him, asked me to be brave and from then on I never cried in front of him again.
We followed the advice given out on the radio to make a gas-proof room, with the windows of our house in Whippingham Road taped up to stop being cut by flying glass. Later on in the war we had an iron table shelter in there.
On hearing the siren our mother would hurry us all in there, wearing gas masks, baby in a sort of iron lung contraption and we stayed till the all clear sounded. Grandad, our mother’s father who lived a couple of streets away, a Great War veteran who now worked as a postman, would come and check on us all because we and other relatives all lived nearby.
At first Brighton was considered safe and we took in a little London evacuee of nine. He cried all the time for his Mum, who rarely visited, wet the bed every night, ate very little and ruined life for me by telling me Father Christmas didn’t exist. London was taking a real bashing and we used to hear the German bombers droning overhead en route for London and the major cities like Coventry. In the shelter we used to sing ‘There’ll be bluebirds over”, “I’ll be loving you always” and “We’ll meet again” as well as rude songs about Goering.
The evacuee went back home, Daddy was posted to France. Gradually ‘safe’ Brighton wasn’t so safe. Mum had her bag stolen off baby’s pram as we shopped — all gone, money (little enough), ration books, precious letters from Daddy and her rosary and her keys. Later that night I heard a noise at the front door — keys in the lock. Mum shouted out “Who’s that?” A voice, after a pause, said: “It’s the A.R.P — put that light out.” As no light was on and the door had been tried we guessed it was the thief — he had our address and our keys. But he went. Of course we had no phone then, not for many years after. We had to beg to use the phone at the pub two doors away. Mum worked there some evenings but as soon as the siren went (or sireen, they said) she shot back to us and the bar emptied!
German planes returning from a bombing raid use to empty their remaining bombs before crossing the Channel. The cinema at Kemp Town was hit, and the clinic, and one day as I was coming home from Elm Grove School for my dinner our street was strafed with bullets. Mum shoved baby into the arms of a surprised tally-man she was talking to at the front door and flew up the street to me. She thought I was dead but I was only doing what we had been taught to do at school if you were caught out in an air raid — crouch down as low as possible and protect your head.
One night I wanted to stay in my bedroom at the back of the house. Luckily during the night I changed my mind and crept down to the shelter to join Mum and baby. Before morning a bomb was dropped onto the railway line below the street behind ours. All the back windows in the street were smashed by the blast and my bed was littered with glass shards. Grandad came round to check on us again and back we all trooped to the safety of the house he shared with our Nan. We were all shocked. I remember Mum hopping about trying to get dressed and putting two legs into one leg of her cami-knickers in her haste.
Some people came to the church hall offering to take war-worn kiddies for a week’s holiday. I asked to go. It was ghastly. At Worplesdon we were bathed (WE had a BATHROOM), searched for nits and lice, treated like poor kids (What? Us? Never!) and shoved into dormitories. Matron’s daughter bullied us mercilessly and after a few days, in desperation, I jumped on her back screaming at her and pulling her hair. I was in disgrace and it was with great relief that we soon went home.
Daddy, meanwhile, had had an accident on his signaller’s motorbike in France. He was shipped back from Dieppe to Newhaven and as he was put on the London train at Brighton station he managed to slip a note to a railwayman. Because of security his note, penned for Mum and brought to her by the railwayman, couldn’t give details so he wrote in his beautiful copperplate handwriting, so she immediately knew who it was from: “The bad penny has turned up again”. She knew he was safe and I loved the thought that my lovely handsome Daddy had been so close.
He was at Braintree for a while recuperating and getting more worried about us. The result was that we went to stay with my auntie and uncle at our beloved Petworth, 40 miles away - peace and country life, or so we thought. Sadly our cousin, their son, had been killed at El Alamein and the house was full of grief, tears and whispers. The house only had two bedrooms so we slept all in one bed, Mum, little sister and me, head to toe.
Janice and I went to school — she was in the infants and I was at the girls’ school. The boys’ school was down the hill, opposite Petworth House. One day, being the milk monitor, I was near the open window. I heard a low whine and looked up to see a German plane (I recognised the swastika on it) diving and then the dreadful crump of bombs. The boys’ school had been hit. I heard later the Germans meant to bomb Petworth House because sometimes top security meetings were held there. My mother, who was working at the nearby chemist’s shop, heard it all and rushed from work to grab me and my sister. Five boys, all playmates, from our lane were killed — I later found out more than 25 pupils and staff died altogether. Luckily my cousin Gerald, who only had one lung, wasn’t at school that day. The Canadian soldiers billeted nearby rushed to the scene and helped in the rescue. Petworth School bombing
That did it. Daddy by now was fit and back at Catterick Camp in Yorkshire, the Signals’ regimental base. We returned to Brighton and Daddy was given 24 hours compassionate leave. He rode his motorbike, almost non-stop, from North Yorkshire to Brighton. I remember his face was black when he arrived apart from the white under his goggles. He took off his big gauntlet gloves and Mum gave him big basins of tea. During the evening there were quiet discussions and Daddy said enough was enough. He would arrange for us all to be evacuated up North where it was safer. He found us a billet with a butcher in South Elmsall, Yorkshire.
Sadly we left home once again and said goodbye to our lovely Nan, Grandad, aunts, uncles and cousins. Janice and I were dressed in our best. I wore my outfit made by a local dressmaker. I loved the coat but hated the hat and the elastic holding it on, and my best shoes hurt and my gloves felt stiff. Little sister was dressed entirely in white — coat, leggings, shoes and socks and a fluffy white bonnet. At Rugby, as the Yorkshire train waited to change lines, a German plane dived and shot up the train. Mum threw us on the carriage floor and lay down on top of us to shelter us with her body. When we got up Janice’s lovely white outfit was black!
The Yorkshire butcher and his family greeted us (what funny voices they had!) and we had a huge beef roast — but with the Yorkshire pudding served first, with gravy, which seemed very strange to us.
I was enrolled at school and was the centre of attention with my ‘posh’ southern voice. It was a long walk up to school and every morning as I left the butcher’s dog jumped up the back fence and followed me. Every day I had to take him back, being late for school and scolded as a result, though I never said why. Once the school board man came across me on the way. I was scared and knew he did not believe me when I explained why I was late. I missed Brighton and my home and family so much. Daddy was near but not often able to visit. One evening as we sat at our meal [always loads of meat] I got carried away and told our hosts how, at home, we used to hide from the tally-man if Mum had no money. I failed to notice her face darkening with anger and happily embellished the tale. Later, in our bedroom, I was smacked VERY hard and, hating Mum at that moment, I threw her poor slippers on the fire (there was lots of coal, too, in Yorkshire).
Next day I felt I had to run away, to find Daddy or to get back to Brighton and home. I offered to take my little sister for a walk but I knew I’d go further. We walked and walked, with me telling Janice we were going to find Daddy. After some hours it began to rain and Mum was panicking but I was doggedly pushing on through the countryside. “Soon be there” I told my sobbing sister, who only wanted food, warmth and Mum. The sky was dark and I still pushed on, though I had no real idea where Catterick was. By now the police had been informed and finally Daddy was alerted too, and in the gloom, an Army vehicle drove up. “I’m going to find my Daddy” was all I kept saying. We were taken back to Mum who was relieved but very angry. I remember how the elastic hurt my chin as she jerked my hat off.
Mum and Daddy had a brief but intense discussion. “We’re going home, Len, bugger the bloody bombs.” She confessed she hated Yorkshire and longed for the sea and home. So our evacuee days were over. Daddy was posted to London and we saw him more often. The war buzzed over and around us but thankfully we all stayed safe!
Copyright rests with the author
WW2 People's War is an online archive of wartime memories contributed by members of the public and gathered by the BBC.
The archive can be found at bbc.co.uk/ww2peopleswar