There have been a few TV programmes about the Blitz recently. And, of course, Ukraine is constantly in the news. According to the Foreign Relations Global Conflict Tracker, there are currently 26 other ongoing conflicts worldwide. I was only four years old in 1942 but my childhood memories of World War 2 came flooding back to me.
My mother and I lived in a tiny flat in Kew. I went to the local kindergarten and during the raids we would file down into the shelter where we would make saucepans and dolls out of the soft wax from the candles all around us. We sang Onward Christian Soldiers very loudly every morning, almost as if we were warding off the bombs!
It’s almost impossible to explain the terror we felt when the siren went off, which it did every night around my bedtime. It was a spooky, winding up noise. It was the start of terror. We were sitting ducks sitting in the dark, just waiting. For what? To die I suppose.
On Fridays we lit the gas fire. We had a tin bath in front of it which my mother would fill with hot water and then she would put the wooden clothes horse next to it with the weeks washing draped over it. So with a single penny in the gas meter she managed to bathe me and dry the weekly wash. For me it was totally wonderful. Even now I can smell the Lifebuoy soap and the see the steam wafting from the drying clothes… it was the only comfort we had.
Each morning my mother would walk me to school and then catch her 27a bus to Knightsbridge where she worked in Harvey Nichols. She knew, and so did I, that we may not see each other again; one or both of us could be killed in an air raid while we were apart. It was strange – it was war and we had to accept what that meant, but that look my mother gave me, over her shoulder, as she turned away, could break a million hearts!
Saturday was shopping day. We had our ration books. I remember that we had 2ozs of butter and 2ozs of sugar to last us all week. We bought porridge, powdered eggs, a Hovis loaf and a tin of Spam. I was never hungry though.
During the war my father rarely came home but I was proud because he was fighting for his country and his family. When he did get any leave I was over the moon. We were a little family at last. It didn’t stop the bombs falling but it helped us feel brave and gave us the boost we needed.
My parents decided we should move out of London, so my mother and I went to live in Bournemouth. This was the start of the happiest days in my entire life. We moved into a B&B in Boscombe owned by the Tucker family who became not only our saviours but our best friends. The family consisted of Violet, a showgirl who played the mandolin, and her three daughters. The old, beautiful house was given to Violet by one of her lovers. It didn’t take long before Violet took my mother under her wing and protected us. The family had no money, I mean NO MONEY. Aged seven, I was in charge of finding pennies under the three piece suite cushions or going to the pawn shop to get a loan.
There was a huge cellar which is where we spent most evenings. My mother and the Tucker girls made it like a nightclub, there were candles everywhere and posters of film stars on every wall so when we had a big air raid we seemed to be apart from it.
The house was also like home to all the pilots that flew out from Hurn Airport every morning during those dreadful days of the war. When Vi was asked to have pilots (who flew out from nearby Hurn airport every morning) billeted with her, she agreed and the world opened up. There was always singing, always laughter. It was a happy house.
The young airmen would come to stay and we’d get to know them only for them to fly off to Germany days later – often never coming back. They bought us food from the NAAFI and the Canadian pilots always bought us maple flavoured ham. Then the Americans arrived and bought gum! So we never wanted for anything, food wise. I remember asking my mother what the pilots were called, and she simply said ‘call them all Johnny.’
Violet Tucker might not have had any money, but she had a house rule, ‘stay warm’ so however little we had, she always insisted that the little black log fire in the kitchen was on day and night. The kitchen was the hub of the house. It was where we all sat at the long table to discuss our problems. Problems shared were – and still are – problems halved.
Meanwhile the bombs kept falling, day after day, night after night. Life went on and we just got on with it. One dreadful night in May 1943 there was a huge air raid, so the skies went red again, but this time it was different. It turned out to be the deadliest wartime raid on Bournemouth. 26 Focke Wolf 190 planes dropped 25 high-explosive bombs on the town, destroying 22 buildings and damaging a further 3000. Nearly 200 people, mostly Allied airmen staying at the Metropole Hotel, died in that Luftwaffe raid. It was such a shock, so much so that nobody talked about it. It had happened and we were speechless.
Violet’s three daughters all fell in love regularly with the pilots so there was always a lot of singing. The girls would stand with their backs to the gas fire in Grandma’s bedroom, they would lift their skirts so the heat would warm their bottoms and then they would sing Deep in the heart of Texas. At the end of each chorus there would drop their skirts and clap. I always joined in. It was so funny and special.
One evening there was an air raid, as usual when the siren sounded, I collected my doll, Lily, and my Teddy and my mother her knitting and we headed for the cellar. That evening I had my best friend staying with us and she was at the top of the stairs followed by Bernice, one of the daughters, and then the air raid warden when there was an enormous blast from a direct hit on part of the house. The warden fell on top of Bernice who then fell on to my girlfriend, Frances. I was at the bottom of the stairs on a mattress when they landed on me. The warden and Bernice were stunned but in my arms was my best friend… she was dead.
We should perhaps learn to look after each other as we did in WW2. Stop wanting things, live within our means, do our bit to save the planet… food for thought?
Lots more memories from Wendy Darling’s rich and varied life can be read in her book No Darling It’s Called Bad Organisation. Available from Amazon or Shoestring Book Company (use HARRIET on your order to receive a signed copy).
More articles from Wendy Darling can be enjoyed here