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As Time Goes By: Enduring War

...I remember one night of air raids, being called out of our bunks, when the Duty Officer told me off roundly for not wearing my tin hat, but as I had my curlers in at the time I felt I would look silly....

Eileen Perrin continues her vivid account of life on the home front in Britain during the grim days of World War Two.

To read earlier chapters of Eileen’s engaging autobiography please click on http://www.openwriting.com/archives/as_time_goes_by/

Children of school age were sent away from targeted cities and ports to the country-side. Some were sent to Canada. This evacuation scheme was temporarily suspended when on September 14th 1940 the S.S. City of Benares was torpedoed 600 miles out in the north Atlantic and 73 of the 90 children aboard were lost.

Many hundreds of people were killed in the Christmas 1940 blitz on London, Chatham, Bristol, Liverpool, and other ports, and these raids continued until May 1941. Hitler was trying to starve us out.

In Liverpool, which was the main port for the food convoys from America, the docks were continually saturated with bombs. Records state that over the period of six months 681 bombers delivered 870 high explosives and over 112,000 incendiaries. Parachute mines were dropped into the Mersey causing havoc among the ships arriving.

I travelled by tube to work and nearly every day was joined by Bill Searies and his sister Flo who lived a short distance from us. After the night raids, it made such a difference having someone to talk to on the tedious journey. Flo joined the W.A.A.F. (Womens’ Auxiliary Air Force) and Bill joined the Home Guard. He said that if younger and not married he would have joined up. He joined the Army in the 1st World War at eighteen.

My job with the Port of London Authority was classed as a partly-reserved occupation, but I was called upon to do part-time service on two evenings a week on the Home Front. Given the choice of becoming an ambulance driver, air raid warden or in the fire service, I chose the latter and was sent to Hendon Fire Station and became a telephone switch-board operator in a big old house over the road from the main fire station.

Before turning in we would go over the road to the Fire Station and up to the rest room on the first floor. We had cocoa and cheese sandwiches. When they returned downstairs to the Duty room after finishing their game of billiards, none of the men used the stairs. They always slid down the pole, as they did on a warning when the bells went down. I remember one night of air raids, being called out of our bunks, when the Duty Officer told me off roundly for not wearing my tin hat, but as I had my curlers in at the time I felt I would look silly.

The Auxiliary Fire Service then transferred me to Mill Hill where there were no bunks and I had to sleep under the switchboards on the floor of the Operations room.

I remember how I hated going there after dark. From the bus I had to walk to the end of the shops and round a corner by a Roman Catholic church. Outside was a life-sized figure of Jesus hanging on the cross with the two Marys looking up at him. The moonlight made it really spooky and gave me the shivers.

Before the Council installed air raid shelters in houses, Mum and I slept downstairs. To those who wanted them, corrugated iron Anderson shelters were erected in people’s back gardens, but we preferred an indoor Morrison shelter, which the Council workmen erected in our dining room, and this became our dining room table for the duration. On bad nights Mum and I would creep underneath its flat iron top and try to get some sleep on our thin mattress, with an eiderdown and Army surplus blankets.

At weekends I went round all the houses in my neighbourhood selling National Savings stamps. These were built up to buy National Savings Certificates. To encourage our efforts there were posters in libraries and in the underground stations with the imposing slogan “Build a Battleship”

Once, in Trafalgar Square at the foot of Nelson’s column, there was placed a real Lancaster bomber to advertise the National Savings Campaign. A huge placard showed how much each component cost, from a wheel, to a wing, to the engine.
Food rationing had begun in early 1940 and lasted until 1954, but sweets were not rationed until July 1941, hence the chocolate bars we were able to give to the men returning from Dunkirk in May 1940.

Somehow Mum managed on the rations, and we ‘dug for victory’ in the garden, and we kept chickens. We had omelettes and home-grown tomatoes with slices of the not-quite-white National loaf but it was good.

I corresponded regularly with my friend Percy Cotton, a Leading Stoker in the regular Royal Navy, then on the Keppel, a destroyer. We had met when Mum, Dad and I spent several years in the mid thirties on holiday in the Isle of Wight, staying with his aunt, uncle and Granny Cotton in Hill Street, Ryde. In 1938 when his cruiser H.M.S. Emerald had sailed to Zanzibar and Trincomalee in what was Ceylon (Sri Lanka), he had sent me photos of places I could only dream of.

During wartime he often came to see us when on leave, and at one time met our neighbour Ben Pike also in the Navy, who for a while had been taking me to the pictures and for walks.
Films I remember from those years were Orson Welles ‘Citizen Kane’, Walt Disney’s ‘Dumbo’ and ‘How Green Was My Valley’.

After the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbour in December 1941 the Americans joined us in the war effort. In 1942 Perce brought us tins of American dried egg, butter and ham, which seemed to be ‘going spare’ in his ship’s mess.

In July 1941 Henry Wood started the ‘Promenade’ classical music concerts in the Albert Hall which I regularly attended and thoroughly enjoyed. The last concert of the season always ended (and they still do - in 2008) with the rousing ‘Land of Hope and Glory’.

Clothes rationing had been introduced in June 1941 and lasted until 1949. Window-shopping was a thing of the past, and there could be no impulse buys. Household linen was in short supply and was stamped Utility with two small triangles on the hem.

Mum and I knitted and listened to the radio a lot and some of the most popular tunes of the day were Glen Miller’s ‘Moonlight Serenade’, ‘Stardust’ and ‘In the Mood’. Knitting was a regular thing during the war, to help out with clothes rationing. Wool was in short supply, and many a previously knitted garment was unravelled so that the wool could be re-used. It was wound into skeins, and then washed to get some of the kinks out of the strands, then wound into balls for re-knitting.
‘Make do and mend’ went on long after the war, as rationing still persisted until about 1949. Our children, now in their fifties, never forget the knitted swim suits I made, which, when they got heavy with sea water, sagged alarmingly down between their knees, and the little knots where wool had been joined together, always made our daughter think she had little worms nestling inside her swim suit.

Seven or eight years after the war, - married,- still making do, and still short of money, I made our little boy a pair of grey shorts from one of my skirts. Even now, I hesitate before giving anything to the Oxfam shop. I have peg bags and tea cosies which have their origin in other items, and every day their use brings back memories.


I worked at the P.L.A., travelling up to Aldgate by tube and walking round by the Minories (which housed the Royal Mint) to Trinity Square. The third floor of the Port of London Authority building was taken over by the Royal Navy and there was a Flag Officer in Charge. A stout Able Seaman called Tubby would come down to chat with the Docks policeman who always stood at the street entrance to our building. As my office was on the ground floor I often saw him there. So it was Tubby who arranged to introduce me to John Petrie an R.N. Writer who worked in the Admiralty department.

John came from Edinburgh where he was a trainee lawyer before being called up. We began going out together. One memorable evening we attended the Royal Albert Hall on Remembrance Sunday, when members of all the services marched into the central arena to the music of a Guards band and at the end showers of red paper poppy petals floated down on them all.

John told me they lived ‘up a stair’. He had a sister Christine who did not exactly approve of him having an English girl friend. Every week he posted a parcel of his washing home to his mother. All this made me think, but anyway, I took him home and introduced him to my parents, and eventually we became engaged.

In 1942 Leslie Perrin was called up for the Royal Navy and almost immediately was able to volunteer for the Fleet Air Arm.
The film ‘Casablanca’ came out starring Ingrid Bergman and Humphrey Bogart with the nostalgic song ‘As Time Goes By’.
After that in August 1944 down south in Sussex they watched the Spitfires and German planes in dog fights over the English Channel, and listened to the drone of the bombers making their way to London in the early evenings.

The barrage balloons were no use when the flying bombs started to come over and after that the rocket bombs that arrived with no warning at all.

On V.E.Day in May ‘45 I met my old school friend Joan at Piccadilly and went down to Admiralty Arch and walked along the Mall to Buckingham Palace. Hundreds were there in the bright sunshine. Strangers to each other their arms linked - four or five or eight abreast walking and singing and calling out; the servicemen stopping to kiss the girls they met up with going in the other direction.


I worked at the P.L.A.until I was married in July 1945 to Les Perrin, the boy I had met at my first job with Odhams Press. He had been in the Royal Naval Air Service later called the Fleet Air Arm. Although experiencing food shortage, the dreaded air raids, separation and loss of friends and family we had both been lucky to escape having to face the worst horrors of the war, which for us had therefore been good in parts.


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