A Christmas Memory of World War II
By Beryl Kingston.
Christmas in WW2
By Beryl Kingston.
Christmas in WW2
I spent the first Christmas of the war in Felpham in West Sussex, where I’d been evacuated with my family and it was during one of the worst winters that I can remember. It snowed for months, the Thames was frozen for eight miles from Teddington to Sunbury. And Christmas shopping, such as it was, was done over slush filled roads and pavements as the snow fell.
We walked to school along the seafront through drifts that were higher than our wellington boots, I had chilblains on my toes, fingers and earlobes, the whole world was black and white and even the sea froze, with great chunks of ice clonking against one another as the tide came in.
The school I was with put on a play on the Pier Theatre in Bognor Regis, to cheer us all up but the pleasure of it was ephemeral. The local kids and the evacuees had massive snow fights every week. There was plenty of snow for it and we used a huge flint with lots of rough edges inside each snowball. Some of us nicked the local dustbin lids to use as shields. It was very exciting but there was certainly an edge to it.
The rations hadn’t really started then, so there was a chicken for Christmas dinner and a Christmas pudding afterwards. But that was in the phoney war. By the next August the real war had begun.
My mother had taken us all back to London at the end of the summer term. She was sure there wasn’t going to be a war and that we were going to make it up with the Germans and the Germans were then going to fight the Russians. Well she got the last bit right! But we were back in the city neatly in time for me to watch the first blitz on London and the bombing of Croydon airport, which I saw from the flat roof of a block of flats in Croydon. From then on, the Germans bombed us every night and by Christmas 1940 this was the sort of scene you were most likely to see in the streets of London.
We took refuge in the cellar under the house and stayed there every night from the time the siren sounded until the all clear went, which was usually just after nightfall until just before dawn. I am writing about it all at some length in my current novel, which is the 30th. But I also wrote about what it was like to be bombed out, in a small chunk of autobiography, and that is fairly accurate because I kept a diary account of everything at the time, writing in the first person singular, as though I was the child to whom it was happening. It makes the language simple and the understanding of the situation limited, but it’s accurate.
“Tonight they've started up really early. We've barely had our tea. Pat's gone to bed but they've let me stay up and listen to the wireless.
'Never a dull moment,' Gran says. 'I'll just put the dishes in to soak Ella. You go down.'
We can hear her clattering about as we wrap ourselves in our eiderdowns and settle into the chairs. It's a normal sort of night although a bit noisier to start with. The air's full of coal dust, Pat's in her camp bed, the cat's in her basket, the cards are on the table. Gran makes three mugs of cocoa and brings them down for us and we play cards for an hour or two and I keep the score. Then there's a bit of a lull and Gran goes up to see Aunt Jane. It makes me want to go too. So when she gets back, I sneak away while it's still quiet. When I get to the passageway that leads to the kitchen I'm of two minds whether to go to the kitchen toilet or to risk the one upstairs. In the end, I risk the one upstairs, which is a mistake, because while I'm still sitting on the toilet, I can hear the Germans arriving, and by the time I pull the chain, they're right overhead. I must look sharp and get back.
I'm half way down the stairs when I hear the first bomb falling. It makes an awful screaming sound as it comes down and it's very very close. The explosion makes my ears ache. I can hear glass smashing and things falling and the next bomb's screaming down and this one's even nearer and much louder. I'm so frightened I can't move or call out or swallow or anything. I just stand in the hall and wait. I know there are six bombs in a stick and try to count them, but the next one is screaming so close to me that I know it will fall through the house and explode here and kill me. I try to pray. 'Please God don't let it kill me. Let it drop somewhere else. Please!' But it explodes before I can finish and it's so close it shifts the ground under my feet. I can feel it rippling as though it's been turned to water. Then there's more screaming and another explosion and I think it's on the other side of the house but I can't be sure because there's a terrible roaring sound coming from the dining room and the hall is full of dust, clouds of it, swirling and buffeting.
Mum and Gran are beside me somehow and they're taking an arm each and they're sort of jogging me down to the cellar. I feel sick and my legs aren't working properly and I'm doing that awful shaking, all over, even in my stomach.
They ease me onto a chair and wrap me in my eiderdown because I'm freezing cold and Gran gets a bottle and pours out some stuff that looks like water and smells sweet. 'Drink this,' she says. 'There's a good girl. It'll make you better.' So I drink it as well as I can for shaking. It's cool in my mouth and burning hot going down my throat but it doesn't make me feel better. It makes me feel so sick I don't know what to do with myself.
'What is it?' I ask Gran.
'Gordon's Gin,' she says. 'It's good stuff. Just lie still and give it a chance to work.'
I lie still for ages and the noise of the raid goes on all round us. 'They've bombed our road, haven't they?' I say to Mum.
'Yes,' Mum says grimly. 'They have but it's over now. Are you warmer?'
I tell her I am, because that's what she wants me to say, but I'm still very cold and still shaking. It takes ages and ages before I can stop.
'Well that's it, 'Mum says to Gran. 'We're not staying here.'
'It's all right saying that,' Gran says. 'Where can we go?'
'You leave it to me,' Mum says. 'I'll fix it.'
She will too. I'm so glad she's my Mum. She's so brave and she always knows what to do.”
That year, Christmas was the first time that Londoners hadn’t been bombed since the beginning of September and by then, my mother had evacuated us all for a second time. As my grandmother said ‘never a dull moment’.
I was born in 1931 in Tooting, and when I was four was enrolled at a local dancing school run by a lady called Madam Hadley, which I attended until I was eight when the war began. Because of the war my school career was – shall we say – varied. I was evacuated twice, the first time to Felpham which is near Bognor Regis and the second to Harpenden in Hertfordshire, and consequently went to ten different schools. I ended up at Streatham Secondary School, an LCC grammar run on the Dalton system, which offered a few lessons as sparking points and then required pupils to be responsible for their own learning, either in study rooms with their teachers on hand to help and advise, or on their own in the library or the school hall. It suited me to a T. Then to King’s College London, where I read English and enjoyed myself a lot, but wasn’t particularly distinguished, having other things on my mind by then...
A Family At War
This is a story for people who want to know what it was really like to be a child during the war and in the London Blitz. But it will also interest people who can't understand how anyone would want to deliberately hurt a child or an animal, since at its centre is a closely observed character study of an abuser, cruelty, selfishness, bravery under fire, fantasy world and all.