This is a guest post. On Friday, I've been invited to speak to the fifth-grade class at Hunter College Elementary School, my alma mater. I thought it might be a good idea to read the pupils a story from my original web site, tankbooks.com. I launched the site in 1997, and the following year I received an email from Margie Hoffman, asking if I would like to post a story she wrote on my site. She also sent a follow-up story which is on the site. I've lost touch with Margie, so, while the essence of the story may be old hat to my handful of British Twitter followers (okay, maybe it's two handfuls), if anyone knows of Margie's whereabouts could they please get in touch with me?
A Child in London -- 1940
©1998, 2009 Margaret Hoffman
This was written by Margie Hoffman, who was a toddler in London during the Blitz.
My war started when I was about three months old. My Dad had been called up into the army and my mother had been living in a small apartment in East London. The German planes had already been flying over London and dropping bombs, mainly at night. After one raid, my mother took me in the pram, to post a letter to my Dad to tell him that we were all right. While she was away, an undetected land mine exploded and the apartment was just brick dust so she returned to her father’s house in the dock area of London.
This was an unfortunate move because the next thing the Germans bombed was the dock. They bombed it by day and night until even the water burned with the contents of the warehouses tumbling into the water. My grandfather had forbidden all his "children" -- all of whom were grown up with families – to go into the large warehouse down the road because he said it was a death trap. It’s funny what you do, though, to escape from noise and to get away from the scream of bombs. People crammed into the large warehouse, someone brought in a piano and local teachers and others organized singing to take people’s minds off the bombs. The warehouse received a direct hit and over 200 people were killed by blast. Others died not directly as a result of the bomb hitting them but they were crushed to death by the huge, heavy walls of the warehouse.
Apparently we were three days and three nights in an underground shelter in Granddad’s garden. Crowded together, the family were not too pleased when the local police knocked on the door and made them take in two more people who had been a mile away from their home when the air raid began, especially as they were none too clean. After the dawn broke and everyone crawled out of the shelter, we were not only covered in dust but covered in fleas from our two uninvited guests!
Granddad said if we stayed where we were we would not survive another round of bombing like that. He had already bought a small plot of land in Essex and built what he called a wooden holiday home there – it was not so much a holiday home as it was a two-roomed shed! But the garden was pleasant to look at, which was a good thing as we ended up with eight of us living in the wooden house and the men camped in a tent in the garden.
Eventually we sorted ourselves out. Poor Mum had to live with her mother-in-law, who was hardly a sweet-tempered person, Dad’s mother, although born in England, had Irish parents and she was prone to be bad-tempered and a bit of a drama queen. She made matters worse by telling Mum all the bad news of the war, and her prediction of what was going to happen.
Mum moved out and rented a small bungalow, which got us away from Nan but made it more difficult for Mum when the air raids started. By this time she had had another baby and when the siren went, my Granddad Hickman (who was kind, sweet and gentle – how on earth did he choose my grandmother for a wife?) would come round and carry me to the big underground shelter in his house, while Mum would carry the baby.
The shelter was called an Anderson Shelter and was built half in the ground and half on top. The top half had curved, corrugated iron sheets, and you piled lots of earth on it and hoped for the best. It tended to be damp, and if it rained you all had to lift your feet up because the water seeped in from underneath. Grandmother Hickman had chosen the house just after the war started because of the large garden and peaceful neighborhood; unfortunately she failed to notice it was quite near the railway lines and in a direct line with the Shell Oil Refinery five miles away. Consequently, Germans coming in to bomb the oil refinery would miss and others would continue to have a go at the railway. I don’t know how old I was when we sat there listening to German planes coming over the shelter on their way to London and we then had to stay there until they came back. Of course if they missed their target they would jettison their bombs before they were over the Thames Estuary.
One day my uncle was home on leave. He was only 19, an aircraft engineer, and he was stationed in some quiet backwater. He was fascinated by the planes and my grandmother was having hysterics. "Come inside the shelter! They will see you." Uncle was a fidget and wanted to see the planes coming back so he made us all a cup of tea and we sat there until the familiar drone came nearer and nearer. Suddenly I realized, he didn’t know about the railway lines! I didn’t say anything; everybody else was getting ready with their hands over their ears when suddenly four bombs cascaded on to the railway lines now gleaming in the moonlight. It was so near the whole shelter lifted up and then went down. My uncle dived in head-first in a state of shock and our tea went everywhere.
At one stage we used to go to sleep with our clothes on. We wore what was called a siren suit, which was kind of like a child’s stretch pyjamas so that we could get into the air raid shelter quickly and not get cold.
One night we went to bed at about 8 p.m. – we were cold and coal was rationed and bed was the warmest place. I slept with my mother and she would read in bed. It must have been winter because it was dark – we had thick lined curtains so that the light would not show through and in a raid you just kept the lights off anyway. Suddenly the air raid siren went; I was half asleep but my mother was up and into the back room for my baby sister (I say to her now, "I don’t know why she chose you first to get into the shelter.").
By the time it was my turn large lumps of jagged shrapnel were clattering on the top of the shelter and the ground, my sister was crying, and my mother was frantic to get me, but I didn’t care: I was warm and probably tired anyway. Suddenly the railway lines got hit again, the house shook , two windows broke, then my mother came rushing in. In the explosion the vibration had shaken open the wardrobe door, my mother walked straight into it and walked around holding her head. I laughed and laughed! It was like something out of a Charlie Chaplin film. She was so mad, she clouted me round the head and said, "See if you think that’s funny."
We rushed into the shelter, she a nervous wreck and nursing her head and my sister screaming. Suddenly I looked up and saw in the sky a long object with fire coming out of the back of it, but really quite close. "Isn’t that wonderful?" I said.
"Yes, so wonderful, that is what is going to kill us all if you don’t get inside." The V1 was certainly a marvel of German technology but we all knew that as long as you heard the engine you were safe; once it cut out, its descent was rapid and it could take out six houses.
My children asked me what our food was like – pathetic is the answer. We grew potatoes and tomatoes, picked berries and swapped things with neighbours. We were rationed so severely that even now I don’t eat meat as my ration had to go to my sister who used to be ill with asthma.
After the war when we came off ration, I had gotten used to not eating meat so I never bothered. For a family of three we would have four ounces of meat a week – two if it had been a difficult time for the supply boats coming in. England as an island depended on overseas help for food. If the U boats were active we all went without as most of the food went to our army. Two eggs a week or else that dreadful egg powder.
I always thought our food rationing was pretty dreadful until I met my husband who was a child in Holland during the war and who really knew what starvation meant.
As for our little family, Dad survived D-Day and went on with the Middlesex Regiment through France, Belgium, Holland and Germany and through great good fortune came back to us. How did the war affect him? Well, he couldn’t stand noise, we never had the radio on very loud, he would never listen to a memorial service. He would never go swimming. Years later I learned on D-Day he was dropped too far out and the vehicle he was driving was nearly submerged; he negotiated debris, burning vehicles and bodies to get his crew onto Sword Beach and then off into Normandy.
While his officers were having a meeting near him, mortar fire sped over the trees killing them all in front of his eyes. His confidence never returned; he could never make a decision and was left with stomach ailments that plagued his life.
He looked after us both when my mother was ill immediately after the war and our bedtime stories were Operation Overlord and the time he just avoided a mine in France. We knew all the generals and battle plans. We often spoke of old battles but he would never return to France with me. He died of a heart attack at age 69 but his wartime stories are etched in my mind forever.