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As Time Goes By: Take Cover

Eileen Perrin vividly remembers the day World War Two began.

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

People of the British Isles had feared war since 1937 when Hitler pushed through Sudetenland and invaded Czechoslovakia.

Germany was all set to re-arm. Goring’s slogan was ‘Guns before Butter’. The Hitler military-style Youth Movement had been growing since 1935, its members potential soldiers in the hands of the dictator.

We started preparing for the eventuality of war and volunteers came forward to be trained as Wardens with the A.R.P. (Air Raid Precautions), However, in 1938 Prime Minister Chamberlain came back from a meeting with Hitler in Munich, to be seen on Pathe News waving a piece of paper and declaring it meant ‘Peace in our time’. For a while we settled back to our usual lives.

But in 1938, gas masks were issued in the UK. To collect ours we had to go back to Islington from Edgware, to where we had recently moved, renting a brand new house at Burnt Oak, just round the corner from Mollison Way on the Stag Lane Estate. The estate had been built on an old airfield from which the aviator Jim Mollison had once flown, and from where, eight years before, in 1930, his wife Amy Johnson had taken off to fly solo to Australia in a second-hand Gypsy Moth.

By July, 1939, I left school and found a job with Odhams Press Book Department near Covent Garden in Henrietta Street. In an office on the third floor I checked invoices. At midday I would cut through Covent Garden, by that time all but cleared of the vans, carts and costermongers’ barrows from the early morning fruit and vegetable market, to take a walk down the Strand. Much later that year I sometimes crossed Trafalgar Square to go into the National Gallery to hear Moura Lympany the pianist play one of her lunch-time concerts which were put on to cheer up London office workers.

One lovely sunny September Sunday morning, with the French windows open to the garden, our wireless was switched on. At 11.15 am Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain came on to declare that following Hitler’s sweep into Poland we were at war with Germany.

That was on September 3rd. I was sixteen and we were standing round the dining room table. No one spoke. My Great Aunt Annie from Islington was staying with us, as the news had been steadily worsening, and the whole country had been fearful of attack by German planes.

Dad clenched his hands together. Mum’s eyes brimmed over with tears. When I asked her what she was crying for she said “You don’t understand what it means.” Dad put his arm round her shoulders as she added "All that terrible and useless slaughter.”

Twelve minutes later the first air raid sirens sounded and immediately we thought we were being invaded and were shocked that war had come to us so quickly. I ran up the garden to ‘rescue’ our cat which was sleeping on the warm earth under the runner beans. I brought him in and shut the back door. I remembered that when we moved here, Mum had put butter on the cat's paws, having been told that it would help to prevent him running off.

The sirens then sounded the All Clear

Later on the one o'clock radio news, which began with "This is London'', we were told it had been a practice alarm.

Following that Sunday everything changed. There was a blackout every night, It was a criminal offence not to carry one's gas mask. Car headlights were masked to a slit. Cariage lights on trains were dimmed. Church bells were no longer rung.

For a time nothing else happened to frighten us. There were no more sirens, but then, little did we know what the next year, 1940, would bring.

At work, in late September, Odhams Press evacuated us to Hazelwood, a mansion in Kings Langley owned by the Bonham-Carters. There I worked five days a week, going home at weekends by bus to Edgware on Friday nights.

Still on the mantle-piece in the drawing room was a photograph of Haile Selassie, King of Abyssinia (now Ethiopia), and those of other celebrities once entertained by the Bonham-Carters. This large room was used as an office and adjoined by a conservatory where they stored the stationery. The former ballroom also became an office. It had French windows on to a terrace overlooking extensive grounds with a small wood at the back.

One Friday evening the following March we girls went out to pick bunches of daffodils to take home. The office boys helped us by putting the flowers into carrier bags let down by string from the window of our bedroom, as we couldn’t risk being caught going through the house.

I shared a large bedroom upstairs with six other girls. It was painted in blue and silver, with a walk-in wardrobe which lit up as the doors opened. In air raids we had to take our mattresses downstairs and sleep on the floor in the corridor.

Meals were taken in the huge kitchen adjoining a smaller kitchen where the actual cooking was done. Not bad meals as I recall. The cook, a real Londoner, did us proud. The Managing Director who had his own flat in a separate building kept a spaniel which was given in sole charge to Johnny Bryan, one of the office boys, who had wavy auburn hair. After ‘walkies’ Johnny was wont to take the dog to the kitchen for a bowl of water and any scraps that were going, getting under cook’s feet. She would complain bitterly about ‘that ginger bleeder always coming in with his bloody dog’.

As Dad worked nights on the Daily Herald in Long Acre, my mother would be quite alone at home during the night air raids on London. So I left Kings Langley and took a job in London at the Port of London Authority, and so was home every night with Mum.

I worked in Trinity Square opposite the Tower of London in the P.L.A. Dock and Traffic Department. The stone figure of old Father Thames sat under a cupola on the roof of the building, looking down river to the sea.

My long journey to Aldgate on the Bakerloo and Metropolitan line was spent reading, mostly sixpenny Penguin Poetry books in which I could escape the daily war news. Going home in the dark winter months it was just manageable to read if I got a seat under a shaded light bulb giving just a glimmer of light in the darkened carriage.

I remember the Dock and Traffic manager, by name Major Theophilus Williams. He gave me a recipe for clearing my catarrh. I frequently suffered colds in the head in those orange- and lemon-less times. I was advised to sniff warm salt water up my nostrils, one then the other. It worked.

At first the Dock and Traffic department was housed on the second floor in a cavernous oak-panelled library and boardroom, with sandbagged windows and the lights on all day. On one occasion there I saw Michael Redgrave in Ordinary Seaman’s uniform. He had come in to pick up a dock pass when The Cruel Sea was being filmed somewhere down river.

Another day Mary Churchill, Winston’s daughter, came. She was a corporal in the W.A.T.S. I sat at a very large desk, shared by another clerk. Our supervisor was Harry Flower, a Yorkshireman who had been a stretcher-bearer in the First World War.


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