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Gillian Tindall’s War Time Memories

November 12, 2019
by Gillian Tindall

Contributing Writer Gillian Tindall’s new book The Pulse Glass and the Beat of Other Hearts has just been published by Chatto & Windus and will be read as Book of the Week on BBC Radio 4 in the last week of November

Gillian aged two with a Sunday guest who died a few months later when his plane disappeared on a clandestine mission

This year is the eightieth anniversary of the start of the Second World War but newspaper coverage has been muted. Yet anyone who was old enough to fight in that war is now over ninety and these valued survivors become fewer with every month that passes.

Is it perhaps that the Second War – compared with the First – had an uncertain beginning and a long-drawn-out ending? Let us remember the moment on 3rd September 1939, when poor Mr Chamberlain – forever unfairly remembered as a failure in a wing collar – was forced to admit on the BBC that his belief that Hitler would keep his word and not invade Poland had failed, ‘and that in consequence this country is now at war with Germany.’

We went into well-organised panic mode since it was believed that London would be instantly bombed flat. Huge numbers of coffins had been stock-piled. Enormous plans to rush all school children, mothers of smaller ones and pregnant women away to the supposedly safer countryside, were put into action. Everyone waited with indrawn breath. Only nothing happened.

There followed almost eight months of what became known as ‘the phoney war’ when daily life in Britain remained remarkably unchanged. Most people old enough to have wartime memories are inclined to date the true beginning of the war from the invasion of France in May 1940. My husband is among those. One of his earliest memories is of playing in the garden as a very small boy when his mother came out to say ‘France has fallen – we’re on our own now!’ His alarmed reaction was ‘What, me and my Mum against the Germans? What will we do!’

Fortunately the egocentricity of the young works protectively too and, when the bombs began to fall on London later in the year, he was reassured by his grandparents’ fatalistic belief that if a bomb had your name on it then it would kill you but if it did not you would be safe. Indeed, while the neighbours made for the shelter of the Underground when the siren sounded, his family sat out the Blitz of 1940-41 in their house. Only the cat was apprehensive enough to go under the table. 

Such are memories of my generation, now respectfully collected by grandchildren, school pupils and students probing psychology. Yet, however willing the participants are to walk down memory lane, how difficult it is to convey the truth, especially the sheer ordinariness of war if you were too young to remember anything else.

I first opened by eyes and looked around at a world already heavily engaged in conflict. Most dads were absent – strangers in uniform who appeared rarely, if at all. All butter, sugar, meat, sweets, and tinned foods were rationed, and this seemed perfectly normal. Occasionally a grown-up would tell me ‘When the war’s over we’ll be able to have as much chocolate/jam/biscuits as we like!’ This sounded so improbable to me that I just assumed they were lying. Of course one could not have everything one wanted, that was the natural order of things. Perhaps it was useful lesson for life of which subsequent generations have not had the benefit?

Recently a bunch of students asked if I and several other seniors had been traumatised  by the war. Although we were interviewed separately we all, both men and women, apparently said `No, no, we thought that was just the way things were.’

We knew we were the goodies fighting the baddies and that seemed logical and right. But what about the bombing? ‘Just part of the surroundings’, we said. None of us had been bombed out but we were all familiar with the sight of a ripped-open house with an interior wall, often complete with a fire-place and wall-paper, open to the elements. This was still the case for years after the war. We grew up with ruins which made splendid adventure playgrounds. The rebuilding of London and other cities took time. Even when I was virtually grown up, acres of small streets that had lain between St Paul’s and the Thames were still blossoming with yarrow and rosebay willow-herb.

I only have two memories that contain an element of shock. One must date from the spring of 1945. Since the Allied landings in Normandy the previous summer, the grown-ups had been able to say ‘Yes, we are winning the war now!’ After a day in the West End, my mother took me to a newsreel cinema, where they specialised also in travelogues and cartoons – a treat for a child in a pre-television world.

When the Pathe News came on there appeared the first footage of Belsen concentration camp, which the British had just entered. I remember to this day the shocked words of the commentator and the images, but what impressed me most was the reaction of those around me me. Someone was hissing, someone else was saying aloud ‘Oh the poor, poor things.’ Several grown ups were crying. At this point my mother hastily bundled me out of the cinema, thereby inadvertently imprinting the whole thing on me for life.

The other memory from the same year must have been either VE or VJ Day. I was allowed to stay up into the middle of the night to see the celebratory bonfire lit on the green in the village where my grandparents lived. There was a torchlit procession with people dressed up. Mr Jones the laundryman was pointed out to me, arrayed as a devil. On the top of the bonfire was a stuffed effigy. Hitler, I suppose. I knew that it was just like a big doll – yet when Mr Jones climbed up the pile, stuck his pitchfork into it several times and then slid down and set the whole pyre alight, I felt of shiver of something like atavistic dread. I think I was in no doubt that, had the effigy been a living man, Mr Jones would have acted just the same. The realisation of the human desire for retribution has stayed with me, as has the heat of that fire.

You may like to read these other stories by Gillian Tindall

The Bones of Old London

Memories of Ship Tavern Passage

At Captain Cook’s House in Mile End

In Stepney, 1963

Stepney’s Lost Mansions

Where The White Chapel Once Stood

The Old South Bank

Leonard Fenton, Actor

In Old Deptford

Lifesaving in Limehouse

From Bedlam To Liverpool St

Smithfield’s Bloody Past

The Tunnel Through Time

8 Responses leave one →
  1. Greg Tingey permalink
    November 12, 2019

    NOTE: Book of the Week is at 09.45 ….
    Will listen

  2. Jill Carter permalink
    November 12, 2019

    Thank you Gillian, I’ve enjoyed reading this over my morning cuppa. I’m now working my way through your earlier essays over my breakfast and will tune in to Book of the Week (thanks Greg for the time info).

    My mum started work as a secretary at the Air Ministry a few weeks before the war started so her late teens/early 20s were spent commuting from Upminster to London, dodging bomb damage and wondering if there would be a train to get home at night. Like others Gillian mentions, she just took it in her stride because it was normal life. She’s 98 with Alzheimer’s now and although she can’t remember what she had for lunch, she can vividly recall being stuck on a train over the Thames in an air raid when all the lights were turned out and being holed up in a pub cellar overnight because an unexploded bomb had blocked the road to her house.

    I’m so glad you’ve introduced me to Gillian Tindall GA.

  3. November 12, 2019

    I love this, Gillian, it’s so beautifully expressed.

  4. November 12, 2019

    Greetings from Boston,

    Born at the end of 1939 on the other side of the pond, I have many memories of WWII as a child – the blackout curtains, the oleo margarine, the coupons, the purple heart in the windows, and Edward R. Murrow nightly broadcasts. I recall particularly his rolling out the word “propaganda” that I had to have defined.

    In Lynn, an industrial city ten miles from Boston where we lived, there was an enormous General Electric plant that ran 24 hours a day, 7 days a week making aircraft engines for the war effort. I can still hear the gentle “hum” of these machines on summer nights a few miles away from where we lived.

    I enjoyed reading Gillian’s memory – “must have been either VE or VJ Day. I was allowed to stay up into the middle of the night to see the celebratory bonfire lit on the green in the village where my grandparents lived.”

    When V-J day was declared on August 14, 1945 folks were jubilant, grabbed pots and pans, and proceeded toward the GE to celebrate. My mother impressed on my sister and me how significant that day was. Then I said to her, “Mama, can I wear my new shoes?” They were under my bed. In those days new shoes had to be worn to mass first, then saved for the “first day of school.” When she said yes, I knew it was a big day indeed!

  5. Jill Wilson permalink
    November 12, 2019

    It is difficult for us cosseted baby boomers to imagine what it was like to be a child in the war… thank you for the insights Gillian.

    Looking forward to book of the week next week.

  6. Anne Scott permalink
    November 12, 2019

    During the war, my mum lived near the River Clyde, as pretty much all the family members worked in the shipyards. My grandparents, along with their six children, emigrated to the United States in 1948. When I was young, I used to wonder why we didn’t get to go watch fireworks on the Fourth of July. Years later, my mum told us that hearing and watching the fireworks brought back too many traumatic memories of the bombs that devastated their neighborhoods.

  7. aubrey permalink
    November 13, 2019

    Yes. What vivid word pictures painted in the descriptions. I always remember, as a small child, gazing at the chocolate dispensers in Liverpool Street Station sans chocolate. Even then I wondered whether or not chocolate ever came out of those machines.

  8. Stella Herbert permalink
    May 4, 2020

    I have just hung out the original Union flags my mum hung out on VE Day – and we went to Buckingham Palace and Trafalgar Square – until mum got worried about the crowds and we went home!

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