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As Time Goes By: After The Phoney War

Eileen Perrin recalls the early days of life in London after the outbreak of World War Two.

To read earlier chapters of Eileen's story please click on http://www.openwriting.com/archives/as_time_goes_by/

For the first few months after war was declared on September 3rd 1939, nothing much was happening. It was declared a Phoney War, and no one bothered to carry their gas masks wherever they went. The impact that war was making on life in the suburbs of London, was fairly minimal. Just changes in the way we lived. Torches were a ‘must-have’ to see your way home if you were out after dark. This led at times to a shortage of Number 8 batteries. But we all carried our Identity cards, and every night people obeyed the Black-out Rule, and curtains lined with black material were pulled tightly across the windows. On public transport buses had dimmed blue lights and underground trains had very low lights, even in the tunnels, so that reading became almost impossible.

Food ration books were issued. In January 1940 bacon, butter and sugar were first rationed, followed by meat in March, and tea and cooking fat in July. The only foods not on ration were fish, potatoes, carrots, English fruit, bread and flour. When the National loaf came in, there was no more white bread.
On January 8th 1940 sweets went on ration, which lasted until they were taken off in February 1953. Meat stayed on ration until 1954.
Petrol was rationed, so there were no more weekends away, and in truth during the war people did not go for their usual holidays, but made do with days out nearer home, in the parks, and Richmond and places like that.

In parks and open spaces searchlight batteries had been set up, also heavy anti-aircraft guns, and to deter low-flying aircraft, mobile barrage balloons attached by cables to lorries, hung in the sky over London.

Surface air raid shelters were built alongside roads, and most parks had underground shelters. Sandbags were stacked outside fronts of banks and shops, and criss-crossed brown sticky tape on windows to protect against flying glass. Tops of pillar boxes were painted with yellow detector paint which we were told changed colour in a gas attack.

Many went to join up. My old school friends Louie Gibbons and Elsie Knight joined the Womens’Auxiliary Territorial Service. Men, and later women, were called up for National Service, unless they were in a reserved occupation.

Army reservists had been called back, including my cousin George, who was called up in 1939 and sent to France with the British Expeditionary Force. George wanted me to promise I would marry him, but I was seventeen and had not thought of such a thing.

I didn’t see him again until February 27th 1940 when he came home looking tired and dirty, having been travelling over two days from Boulogne. He went up to London and bought me a gold cross on a very fine chain to wear to remember him. Then on the evening of March 7th I went with his mother, my Aunt Jenny, also Aunt Cely and Uncle Albert had come from Camberwell, to see him off from a blacked-out Victoria station packed with troops with their kit bags. It was to be the last time I saw him.

In my diary on March 30th 1940 I see that Mum and I went to see Judy Garland in ‘The Wizard of Oz’. We used to go to the pictures about twice a week: it was pure escapism.
On April 9th we read on a newspaper placard that Germany had invaded Norway and Denmark and Oslo had been bombed.

In mid April we went to the Empire, Leicester Square to see ‘Gone with the Wind’.
By May 10th Germany had invaded Holland, Belgium and Luxembourg and two thirds of our gunners were lost in the battles around Belgium.

In May 1940 George was with the Royal Artillery gunners, covering troops retiring to the beaches at Dunkirk. He was taken prisoner. Later we received postcards from him in Stalag XXA 3, and a photograph of him standing in the snow with other soldiers. None of them wore greatcoats. Later in 1943 he died of pneumonia in a Polish prison camp.
Just after Dunkirk we had been asked to hand in to any post office, shoe boxes filled with gifts of shaving cream, toothpaste and brushes, any sweets we could spare from our ration, paperback books and magazines, which the Womens’ Voluntary Service passed on to soldiers returning on trains, after being rescued from the war-torn beaches of France. As Dunkirk harbour was filled with sunken ships, and R.N.destroyers could not get in, hundreds of small boats from all round Britain had rallied to the call for boats of shallow draft: Thames pleasure steamers, fishing trawlers, luxury yachts and paddle steamers, and crews pulled troops out of the water as they waded from the beaches under gun fire from land and sky. We saw it all on the Pathe News at the pictures.

On June 4th Churchill made one of his famous speeches – ‘We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight in the fields; we shall fight in the streets; we shall fight in the hills. We shall never surrender’..............


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