Memories of a WWII Childhood

BRENDA C DENBY [nee Hume], an expat Geordie now of Esher, Surrey, remembers her childhood during World War II

I was about four when I became conscious that our country was at war with Germany. Initial recollection of sitting on my father’s knee in the kitchen every evening, sharing with him his large white cup of tea at 6pm when the Prime minister, Winston Churchill, would speak on the radio reporting progress of war news for about 10 minutes .This seemed to be mandatory listening for the whole nation and an essential conversation topic the following day. I would then slide down my father’s knees and go back to my chair, content.

Bombing on Tyneside, a major shipbuilding, engineering, fishing and coal fields area and a prime coastal invasion area continued from 1941 to 1945. Every night we would go to bed wondering if our house would be bombed and whether we, or our friends and relatives, would be alive, injured or buried alive by the following morning.

We had to completely black-out any signs of light to hide our riverside town from the aims of the bombers, but even blacked out curtains and external openings  did not conceal the coloured lights of the burning buildings, flashes from [our own] anti -aircraft guns, and above all the noise of the enemy aircraft flying overhead.

There was one particularly famous German air machine called the V1 [?V2 or Doodlebug] which, once its noise had ceased, dropped vertically onto its unfortunate target. Everyone feared that sudden silence. Sometimes when the noise and colour splashes were too frightening, I would hurry into my parent’s bedroom and huddle between them. Sometimes my parents were just too tired to get up and retreat to the outside shelter. We three then covered our heads with the sheets and blankets and even now I tend to cover my head under my sheet!

Some nights my father had to do fire duty in the locality as well as work in the shipyards during the day. My mother and I would wait so anxiously, especially during a raid, for his safe return, which he would announce by whistling as he crossed the street towards our front door. I have loved the sound of whistling ever since – which granddaughter, Izzy, is good at!

When the government authorised the building of air raid shelters, we had one [called an Anderson] built in our backyard and we were strongly encouraged to shelter in them as soon as the Air Raid Siren – fearful, penetrating, mournful sound- was heard. Whatever the time of day or night [as some bombing took place during school hours], we would retreat to the nearest shelter where most folk kept a stock of cocoa, biscuits and playing cards to help while away the time until the so welcome and more cheerful All Clear was heard. Still alive! If one was on the way to school at such times we would knock on the nearest door to be let in and share their shelter, before resuming school journey and our usual chatter.

I do not remember being specially frightened other than at bombing times  as the risks of every day became our normal way of life and somehow our parents and teachers managed to be very reassuring at all times, even when on one occasion our next but two door away neighbours were both killed in a night-time bombing raid about a quarter of a mile way [having gone to the local fish/chip shop] and left 7 children [my playmates], hiding in their home air raid shelter. In the morning when the children were found by concerned neighbours, they were taken away by relatives and I never saw them again.

After this incident my father decided it was too dangerous to stay in our town, North Shields, and he rented a small and remote cottage in the hilly Cheviot countryside about 50 miles away for my mother and me to stay in. Each weekend he would bus/cycle out to visit us, but without telephones it was a very lonely and fearful existence for my parents. No indoor running water [which came from a large water butt outside the back door nor electricity so we used wall- fixed gas lights and candles. After two years and harsh winters, Dad let Mum and me return to North Shields, notwithstanding the continuing bombing raids. Many streets were no longer recognisable, just some huge bomb craters, but our predominate thoughts, even as children, were that those of us who remained just carried on as days and nights passed by. Young as we were, we tried not to make known accidental injuries or minor illnesses as there was no National Health Service [until 1948] and our parents would have had to pay for any medical attention.

The big advantage of being in the countryside, however, was that we lived near to farms and enjoyed a much tastier and healthier diet than those living in the towns. The local school, a mile away across the fields, had only two classrooms and two excellent teachers [including the Head] for ages 5 to 15.

We soon learned also how to pick vegetables [and eat!] out of the soil and even chase wild rabbits at harvest time, later turned into delicious, healthy meals and stews. Our nearest shops were a 3 mile walk across the moorland road, each way. About fortnightly a fish van and a general stores van would call by. Fresh food would be stored in the coldest room in our house, called a larder.   When I was given my first -ever banana and peach at the end of the war I took my first bite without removing the skins, not knowing that I should have peeled them first! Our war time rations were just adequate, supplemented by a cold gill of milk a day, or orange juice, at school play time and a spoon of malted cod liver oil at home.

My playground, in addition to our back yard, were local graveyards and bomb sites and on top of air raid shelters covered in sand – very dangerous as there were still a lot of unexploded bombs about but I only came to harm once when my knee  collided with a plank of wood with a nail sticking through it, straight into my knee! I recall just pulling the plank away and taking the nail out of my knee, dusting off the spot of blood and lots of sand and continuing my exploring and jumping around! Don’t think I even told my parents. The dangers seemed to become an unavoidable aspect of our lifestyles.  Other entertainments were the local cinema [Hollywood films, cartoons and war films] and trips to the nearby seaside, although these were heavily monitored as there was so much military equipment and barbed wires alongside the beaches.

I became aware that WW2 in Europe had ended at last when there was much rejoicing in the streets, and Churchill’s speech on the radio, followed later by street parties when all sorts of food “goodies” suddenly appeared together with paper hats, flags and best clothes. Favourite part of my childhood war!

Sadly however, there were early consequences. Later in the year several of my school friends were very upset when they saw their fathers returning in a dreadful state following incarceration in Far East PoW Camps. Then my mother became ill following the stresses of the war and had to be hospitalised early in 1946. She died without returning home on 5th Jan 1948, aged only 46, on what would have been my father’s 50th birthday. The following month I learned that I had passed my 11+ and was destined for the local grammar school. In early 1947 I had to go and live in a local [masonic] orphanage, there being no help from the state for widower working fathers such as mine, where I had to stay until l reached age 16.