Saturday, July 4, 2015

As time goes by...

Fifteen years ago, Mum was diagnosed with macular degeneration. She wanted to share her story and decided to put it to words before she would no longer be able to read or write due to her inevitably failing sight. She served in the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS) as first predictor at a heavy gun site on the Ack-ack guns which were large anti-aircraft guns. I'm going to share her mostly humorous stories of her own war effort and time in military service to honor her, her service, other veterans past and present and the 70th Anniversary of Victory in Europe (VE) Day.

As times go by, we lose a generation. With that generation we lose a living history of times spoken by those who lived that history. That is the history that is told by those who lived through the Second World War. Their stories should not be forgotten and need to be passed on to keep them alive. The  sacrifices of those who willingly, or unwittingly made when they were called upon to serve their country should not be forgotten. During my life, I have watched WWI veterans dwindle in numbers every remembrance day as they march to the Cenotaph in Whitehall, London. Now they are gone. I am now watching WWII veterans dwindle in those same numbers including members of my family: An uncle who served in the Royal Air Force in the middle-east; another uncle in the Royal Artillery who served in North Africa, and my father who served in the Royal Artillery in the Army in Europe. We must not let their stories go to the grave and disappear with them.
My father never talked much about the war. I can only recall one story that he told me. He told me how his regiment liberated a concentration camp and how, "They looked like ghosts walking towards us..." The imagery my father conjured up in my mind spoke a thousand words, because the image stayed with me and spurred me to learn more about the war.  I did learn in later years that he was stationed in Aberdeen in a Mountain battery where he underwent rigorous training in the Cairngorm Mountains where he learned mountain warfare. His training was in anticipation of a possible invasion by the German army. As I learned more and more about the war and the concentration camps, I understood and respected even more his never wanting to elaborate much beyond those words. My mother is now 94 years old. She speaks far more about her service. Mum's war effort began at Earl's Court Exhibition Centre where she helped make parachutes.
"...I was in the cutting room.  We laid the rolls of material out along the bench marked it out with tailor chalk (which was blue) and then cut it out with electrical cutters.  It was a much happier place and more pay.  As it was quite a distance from my digs, I had to rise early and travel on the tube train leaving home at 6:30am."
Mum also endured the blitz in London. The blitz was the massive bombing campaign by the Luftwaffe. The raids took place mainly over London because of the docks, but raids also took place across the country particularly in industrial areas. The raids lasted for almost 9 months and although historically considered a failure, reigned  havoc on civilian lives and resulted in many civilian deaths.  More than a million homes were destroyed in London and nearly 20,000 civilians in just London lost their lives. London sustained 57 consecutive nights of bombing. There were 71 major raids where 18,000 tons of explosives were dropped. Many children, mothers and pregnant women under Operation Pied Piper, were evacuated out to the countryside and overseas away from the impending dangers of the blitz. Some of these evacuees never saw their parents again either because their parents were killed or just because after 6 years of war, lost contact with their children, remarried and moved on with their lives. The "failure" of the raids laid in the fact that it never broke the British spirit including the spirit of my mother. I'll let her describe the nightly blackouts and blitz experiences during her time in London while lodging with an elderly couple, John and Anne. She had a couple of incidences that left her more than in the dark.
"I remember a very large block of flats also a park shelter having direct hits near our home and everyone killed.  We could always hear the planes flying overhead and the shrapnel fall around us if we happened to be outside.  The planes were usually our Hurricanes or Spitfires against German Messerschmitts  Once, John and myself were in the living room and Anne was in the kitchen making our evening meal.  The sirens had sounded and we heard a whistling sound which we knew was a bomb coming down.  John shouted to Anne to quickly get under the table while him and I did likewise under the dinning table.  (well I say under -- we had our head and shoulders under and the rest of us out into the room as it was a cross-legged table which didn’t allow much of us underneath).  Almost immediately we heard a bang and the house shook with a bang above and the house filling with dust.  We waited for the all clear to sound to move from our little bit of protection.  In the meantime, Anne toddled into us and said, “Did you speak, John?”  She was deaf and hadn’t heard John and was still happily cooking tea.  As the all clear sounded, we flew upstairs through the dust to discover we had been caught in the blast of a bomb falling nearby.  The bedroom ceiling was damaged, in fact a gaping hole where one looked out at the sky.  A paving stone had been blown out and after shooting through the roof and ceiling, was nestled in the middle of Anne and John’s bed.  Thank God the bomb wasn’t a few hours later when Anne and John would have been in bed.  Hundreds of people were killed when these bombs fell.  Landmines were the worst, which brought down very large areas of habitation, sometimes a row of flats about six stories high.  That was high for those days.  As the raids became more frequent, air raid wardens were appointed for every street and blew their whistles to make sure every pedestrian was in a shelter or under cover.  Shelters were everywhere.  A number of Anderson shelters were bought by house-owners. These were made of galvanized metal and half buried in the yard or gardens as far as possible away from the house.  Of course, they were no good in a direct hit, but provided some protection from blast debris.  All windows were taped over with brown tape (thick paper).  This was to prevent the minimum of glass flying about.  At night, every window had to be blacked out to stop any light being shown outside.  This was usually done with blackout material and made into curtains.  It was an offense to show even a chink of light as of course enemy planes would have seen this from the sky.  Everyone was issued with gas masks.  Even babies were given one which was like a box to put them in.  Anyone without a mask did so at their peril."
Mum goes on to describe life in the Anderson shelters, blackouts and how she acquired two black eyes during the blackouts.
"air raids became constant -- night after night starting at about 6pm and the all clear not given until day break.  We had no shelter in the garden.  So always went to a communal one at the end of the road.  This was a plot of land that had been for pigs and consisted of a long Anderson shelter which was entered by going down three steps.  Forms were lined either side which were quite narrow on which the ladies slept (if possible).  The men slept on the concrete floor along the seats.  One end of the hut was a wooden contraption that a bucket was placed in.  This was the lavatory.  Oh how I hated this.  Apart from the smell, the noise at times was shattering. "
I should add that my mum was referring to the sound of the bombs and not the makeshift lavatory! She now describes her close encounter with a lamppost during a blackout:
"I had forgotten my torch (these were allowed if the beam was shone down toward the ground, not up).  This particular time being winter and pitch dark, I walked out of the firm’s door, took a few steps and crash, wallop, straight into a lamp post.  I was stunned for a while and arrived home holding my hand to my eye, did it hurt.  Anne gave me something to bathe it, but the next morning it was completely closed with a bruise that was really disfiguring.  I had some comments about that."
That's the first black eye she acquired. The second is about to come during another journey home in the pitch blackness of a blackout.
"It was pitch dark outside when I left to catch the bus at the end of their road.  The stop was under the railway arch.  I felt my way to the end of the queue and stood waiting.  Suddenly, I heard scream after scream and heard the people from the queue rushing in all directions.  I didn’t have a chance to wonder why as seconds later a fist was smashed into my face.  I like those before me, ran.  I just wanted to get somewhere safe.  I couldn’t see anyone but ran through the arch into the gate of the first house I came to, ran to the door and in a panic just banged on the door which was immediately opened by a middle aged lady.  The poor woman didn’t have a chance to question me as I shot past her into their living room in tears.  When I had calmed down a little and shed a few tears, I explained to the family that I had been punched in the face while waiting for the bus nearby.  The room seemed to be filled with people and children of various ages came hurrying down the stairs.  Poor little souls, I must have frightened them.  Everyone was gazing open-mouthed wondering what the disaster was. Two of the male members of the household went to my friend’s father and uncle who must have been shocked as they’d only said goodnight to me a few minutes before.  Well they walked me all the way home about a mile in the blackout as my last bus had gone. The buses finished running about 10pm owing to the blitz. Well I had a bad eye after walking into the lamppost but this one was much worse. It was closed, swollen and painfully bruised. I wrote to my brother Harold who was serving in Tunisia in North Africa. I mentioned I had been attacked and was punched under the Wandsworth Station. After sympathizing in his reply, he said, “All his friends were laughing and wanted to know where my Wandsworth Station was!"
The "Wandsworth Station" quip was from my Uncle Harold. I can almost hear his chuckle among his friends all the way from Tunisia! Mum was eventually called up and got her orders to report to Kingston Drill hall for a medical and IQ tests. Mum chose the Army and entered into the ATS - Auxiliary Territorial Service the women's service of the British Army. After her six weeks training, she had to report to Caldecott near Chepstow on the Welsh side of the Severn tunnel to a heavy ack-ack gun site. Mum was now now Private Holt 150955. Private Holt was assigned #1 one the Predictor. She describes the team who were to man these huge anti-aircraft guns.
"I was happy to be on top and liked my job which was number one on the predictor.  Six girls were working on this.  A girl also manned the spotter which was to scan the skies for an enemy plane through a special telescope machine.  She would then give information to two girls on a machine called a height and range finder.  They would find the height and range and shout it to the predictor girls.  This information would be entered into our predictor and I would be watching the data in a dial.  When everything was spot on target, it was my job to shout very loud, “Fire” to the officer standing near.  He would immediately should, “Fire” to the men manning the guns so it sounded very quickly, “Fire”, “Fire”, “Fire” as loudly as possible.  Almost at once the men who had the shells ready loaded the huge guns and fired.  Speed was essential.  Often I wondered if we’d be bombed as huge flames shot out of the guns as they were fired and must have been seen from the planes above.  Of course, we all wore steel helmets and battle-dress, also boots and gaiters.  On cold days and nights, we had a warm leather jerkin to wear over our battle dress.  Sadly, a gun site not far from us was bombed and many killed.  As the shells exploded, the noise was deafening, hense my present deafness.  Our extra kit for the gun site was collected from the stores on our arrival.  After a raid, we would all march to the cookhouse for cocoa. "
It turned out that mum was ace on the predictor. She scored 100% when tested for accuracy. She explains,
" Being a No1 on the predictor, I was taken to a hut where there were officers and given tests on how correct I could be by shouting fire at the exact moment the predictor worked it out.  Each time I was 100% right.  I remember them calling the other officers over to watch me.  They all seemed very amazed.  Well they say pride comes before a fall and I definitely fell.  Shortly after this predictor test, we were all at a large firing camp overlooking the Irish sea in a little village called, Ty-Goes-on-Anglesea.  We were there for a spell of practice firing.  Our command post was on the edge of high cliffs.  To the left of this was a very large parade ground.  On this I was told by an NCO to report to a sergeant on the parade ground.  On arrival, there I was given no explanation, but told he was going to give me drill commands.  What have I done I thought to suffer this punishment.  So there I stood, the sergeant at one end of the large square and me the other.  He was shouting drill instructions to me which I had to carry out.  Once again, it was “Attention, right turn, left, right, left, right, left, right, halt”, etc.  The wind from the sea was howling across the square which of course was impeding my hearing.  Plus I thought whatever the punishment was for, it was unjust so I didn’t even try.  This went on for sometime until I was really cheesed off.  Finally I was dismissed.  Later I was told this drill was to test my ability to shout and give instructions (as I also had to shout the same to the sergeant) as well as to carry out his instructions to me.  It was to see if I was capable of giving instructions to those in my section with the hope of becoming an NCO.  Of course, I was told I couldn’t shout and couldn’t march so I felt a miserable failure.  I was still kept on as No1 on the predictor without the benefits.  I knew I was a failure in marching as my steps were too small or should I say lady like which was proved to me on another occasion.
We regularly were taken for PE (Physical Exercise) in our little shorts, vests and plimsoles. Afterwards, we were marched by our instructor to the showers (which was always cold water).  On this occasion, I was marching at the front of our section when the NCO marching at the back shouted, “Halt”.  Of course, the platoon all halted.  “Not you lot!” he shouted.  “Private Holt, you’re out of step.  Come to the rear rank”.  That caused a few titters as you can imagine.  As for my shouting, if I couldn’t shout then, I learned to later in my married life when I had a platoon of seven children to control." Poor mum! She was always getting into some kind of trouble during her service. This time it was a little more serious and she felt really bad for letting her team down. I think she still feels some shame to this day. But I always say to her whenever she retells this story, "but that's why they had dummy air raids!" The idea is to practice procedures during an unexpected raid which included getting up in the middle of the night  so that during an actual raid responses becomes second nature which they were -- except for this night..
"As No1 on the predictor, no guns could fire until I gave the order. Well one night the commanding officer decided we’d have a dummy call out. No doubt to keep us up to scratch with our duties. I woke in the middle of the night with a start to hear whistles frantically blowing. Oh it’s a raid. I jumped out of bed and saw the hut was empty.  My goodness I must have slept sound and not heard the initial whistles. Now I’m for trouble.
I hastily pulled on my long lace up boots without lacing them up, put on my leather jerkin over my pyjamas and as I had curlers in, my helmet was balanced on the top and then of course my gas mask on my shoulder. It was pitch dark and although we had a path to the command post, the quickest way was over a field. Being pitch dark, I kept stumbling in pot holes and had to pass gunner Holt who was manning the Lewis gun. “Hurry up, private Holt,” he said.  "You’re for it.” Trouble he meant of course. Well I hurried into my position by the predictor. All this time the whistles had been blasting. Nothing was said until the order stand down. As of course everyone was waiting for me to give the order fire which I couldn't do until I’d studied the predictor.  Once we had the order to “stand down”, I was told I was on a charge and to report to the charge room after 8am parade.  I was really sorry I had let them all down.  Thank goodness it wasn’t a real raid. It would have been really dreadfully serious. Well that night finished with us being marched to the cook house for our cocoa. One and all tittering at my expense at my appearance. I suppose I did look rather a clown, but at that time I couldn’t see it was so funny. I knew I was in disgrace and wondered what my punishment would be.
The next morning I was taken to the commanding officer to face my ordeal. I was marched off between two NCO’s with my cap (which was always worn while in uniform) off and clutched in my hand. Facing the officer, my charge was read out and my only explanation was that I was sleeping soundly and didn’t hear the alarm whistles. Told how serious it was I was then put on 2 weeks confined to camp and fatigues. My first fatigue was to whitewash the command post latrine (or lavatory) which was a bucket in a wooden hut. I was marched to the hut with the necessary equipment, i.e. a bucket of whitewash and brush and left to perform my task and what a task it turned out to be. To begin with, the weather was appalling. It was windy and pouring with rain.  Well actually it was falling down in torrents. Oh! I thought. This is easy, I went into the hut shut the door and quickly performed my task. After which, I sat on the bucket seat awaiting the CO to inspect my work. He duly arrived and said, “What have you been doing, Holt?” 
“Whitewashing the hut sir as I was directed.”
He called me outside and said, “I can’t see any whitewash!” "“Oh Sir, I said. “I understood I was to white wash the inside.” He looked at me aghast with his eyes practically coming out of their sockets. “Set to and whitewash the outside and do it properly.  I’ll return later to inspect what you’ve done.” The rain was still falling heavily.  I began my task. As fast as I put the whitewash on, it was washed off. I was wearing only my leather sleeveless jerkin over my battle dress jacket and looked like a drowned rat, I felt like it too. There I stood all day sploshing the whitewash on and just as quick, off it came. I’m sure the rain was sent to really demoralize me for demoralized I was. Surely, I kept thinking Sir will think I’ve suffered enough. A few tears added to the rain drops. Woe is me I thought. 
"Finally at 5pm Sir arrived, took one look and said I’d finished. “Finished Sir.  How can I finish?  It’s washed off as fast as I painted it on.” Oh how I regretted my body enjoying that sound sleep. I was told to clear my instruments of torture away and go and get dried out. My nicely curled hair was hanging outside my cap like witches’ tendrils. I thought if I’ve caught the flu, he’ll be sorry, but of course I didn’t."
It was during the war when my parents met and eventually got married. They only had a week together after they got married. After a week's leave, they had to return to their camps. Dad (Frank) had to leave for Aberdeen in Scotland and mum had to get back to Caldicot in Wales. Since they both had to leave from the same station around the same time, mum called and lied to her commanding officer about missing her train. This was so she could spend another thirty minutes with dad. Things never go quite according to plan as mum will explain...
""We spent a week together at South Harrow and were unhappy at the thoughts of leaving each other so soon.  Him to Scotland and me to South Wales.  My brain worked overtime and I did, or suggested something very naughty.  Frank’s train went from Euston and mine from Paddington both at around six o’clock in the evening so just to have some extra time with him, I rang the camp and spoke to the officer on duty and said I’d missed my train.  “That’s alright, Private George.  See that you are in camp and on parade by 8am.  I then went with Frank to see him off before catching my last train to Caldicot.  I knew I had told a lie and felt guilty.  Was it worth it for an extra half an hour? 
Well I caught my train which was the mail train and stopped at every station.  Consequently, by the time it reached Caldicot, it would give me about thirty minutes to get on parade and sign the time of my arrival in the guardroom.  The train approached the station and I prepare to alight when low and behold the train went straight through. The guard who was a gunner with a rifle looked down to the train as it went by and hoped I wasn’t on that one or if I was I’d manage to return on the next one back before the deadline. As soon as the train reached the next stop not far from the camp called Severn Tunnel Junction, I made haste to a porter and told him of my plight.  I was told there was another train due in directly. “Oh thanks” I said with relief, but unfortunately this train went straight through my little stop and after waving to the guard above the line, on we traveled to Chepstow.  Oh dear, talk about calamity Jane!  Once more, I stepped down on to the platform and was put on the next train back.  Of course it didn’t stop at my little Halt.  By this time, it was passed 8am and a girl was on duty as the guard had changed.  By the time I arrived at Severn Tunnel Junction, I was frantic and saw the porter again, explained the train he had put me on hadn’t stopped and I was in trouble.  “Don’t worry”, he said.  I’ll see you’ll get off with the next one. The next train came in good, but horror or horrors, it was a goods train and he hoisted me up into a compartment if you could call it that as it was a covered in truck with of course no seats and full of cows. Now I’m terrified of these creatures and edged into a corner as far away as possible from them. They just went on chewing some straw on the floor and one came toward me chewing. At least his jaws were working and his big round eyes staring into mine.  Oh how terrified I was. Relief at last, these trucks stopped to let me off. There being no platform, I had to jump down quite a drop.  Well that ordeal was over.  Now another was to begin.
I hurried to the camp and was met with “who goes there?”  “Private George”, I announced on entering the guard room. I signed my name and the time was entered. Private George, you have been AWOL (absent without leave). An NCO was called and in disgrace was marched to the office of the CO (commanding officer). He told me I was on a charge for being absent and not being on parade. The outcome of this was I was confined to camp for seven days and to report to the cook house every night after duties to do fatigues. I was given a knife and sack of potatoes to peel. Another night sinks of washing up, etc. I heard after the guard all enjoyed a good laugh at my misfortune seeing me going backwards and forwards past the camp. Oh well, I made them happy, but I was not [happy] having endured such a disgrace."
Mum's luck with trains got a bit better, but not without some drama!

"While travelling to Anglesea for our firing practice as usual we travelled overnight by train.  We usually sang as we marched through the country areas.  The men as usual trying to keep in step behind us.  This was most enjoyable as we usually aired our lungs.  On the above mentioned journey, our train pulled into Crewe station for the train’s engine to be shunted to the end of the train.  Our part of the train just a few carriages was to have a smaller engine and travel on to Anglesea (at least I think that was what was happening).  At Crewe station I saw a lady on the platform selling mugs of tea.  Quick as a flash, myself and another brainy person like myself jumped out of our carriage to acquire a cuppa.  Oh Calamity, the train started up.  My partner got on, but there was I left on the platform waiting for the train to stop which of course it didn’t.  After hasty words with the porter and station master, the train was halted just outside the station and I was taken to my carriage.  Nothing was said to me about this.  They’d probably given up on me by this time.  Although, I must say, I was a great asset to the Army.  We won the war after all didn’t we?  Of course with all my help."
And indeed we did win the war, with the help of many other brave honorable young men and women like her. After the war, Mum was posted to Carlise on the Scottish border to work in the Army pay office. Eventually, she left the army and focused on married life and raising the family. We need to keep these stories alive and in the hearts and minds of future generations. It's only by understanding the human element of war that we can have empathy for the other humans affected by diaspora,  persecution, and many other effects of conflicts and war.

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