Family history: Wartime memories

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Two years ago, in the autumn half-term of 2014, the Robbie family came to stay with us in London. Gillis, our elder grandson, who was in his first term at secondary school, had a history project to do about World War II. This involved asking grandparents for their memories of the war, and writing about them.

John, who was born in 1937, was just two when the war started but had turned eight when peace was restored. He not only had vivid memories of his own from that time but could also tell Gillis about how his immediate family had spent the war years.

Gillis sat next to his grandfather for most of one afternoon, listening to John reminiscing and taking extensive notes in a spiral bound Reporter’s Notebook. His resulting essay, accompanied by wartime family photos, won him a special prize, congratulations from the Chief Master, and an entry in the school’s Golden Book.

On Remembrance Day, it seemed appropriate to share these wartime memories. Thank you very much, Gillis, for preserving them.

Gillis Robbie writes:

“This is a report on my extended family during World War II.
Let me begin with my great grandfather. He lived with my great grandmother and my grandfather in Hunstanton, Norfolk. One day, completely out of nowhere, some soldiers, a lorry, and a gun carrier parked by the house. They parked overnight and then they moved over to the lighthouse in the morning. One soldier came round and told my great grandfather to open all the windows because they were testing a six inch gun off the cliff. Great Grandpa didn’t seem to think that this would work, so he and his boss went to see the army and told them “If you fire that gun, the cliff will fall into the sea.” The army told them to go away because they knew what they were doing. Then guess what happened, the cliff fell into the sea! The army thought “That civilian chap seems to be smart, we should hire him.”

Great Grandpa joined the army as a War officer. He was issued with a 500 weight pickup truck and a lady driver from the ATS. She was a terrible driver and so he sent her away. He told the army, “You can’t force me to have my own driver, because I’m a civilian.”

Life during the war was not bad. Women did knitting because wool was not rationed but furniture and clocks were in very short supply. If something had the sign CC41 it meant it was pretty good. Toys were in very short supply during the war. Luckily for my Grandpa, his father was very good friends with the local auctioneer. He got some unusual birthday and Christmas presents like a toy rifle, a steel helmet that was made from cardboard, an anti-air craft gun that would fire wooden pellets, and a searchlight which he still has the lenses for.

Grandpa’s house had a coal fire, an electric one and a gas one.
The family never starved and nobody over-ate. This is why. Grandpa’s grandmother kept chickens, so there were plenty of eggs. She went gleaning (collecting fallen grain) and fed it to the chickens. Food waste was given to the pig that she also kept. Grandpa was very lucky to have a big garden. His family hired a gardener and they grew all sorts of things. Black currants, red currants, gooseberries, apples, radishes, carrots, cabbages, lettuces, cauliflowers, raspberries, strawberries and rhubarb. Grandpa’s mother bottled the fruit but then she got a canning machine, so she canned the fruit. If Grandpa was a good little boy, he would get a slice of bread and butter and an apple.

Grandpa was five when he went to school. Boys there used to play marbles with 303 cartridge casings they found. One boy found live ones and the headmaster had to search through boys’ bags to see if they had cartridges in them. At school, they did two drills, a gas mask drill and an air raid drill. In a gas mask drill, you had to take out your gas mask from the cardboard box and put it on. Grandpa was sad when he couldn’t get a Mickey Mouse gas mask because his head was too big and he was issued with an adult one. In an air raid drill, you had to dive under the desk.

Grandpa’s Auntie Myra was 17 when the war started and wanted to be a nurse. She was too young at the start so she joined the women’s land army. Her uniform was jodhpurs, a sweater and a hat. When she was old enough she was a nurse at King’s Lynn hospital for a year and then she joined as a navy nurse in the VAD. She was sent to a big naval hospital in Portsmouth in advance of D-Day. There, she was promoted to a senior VAD. There was one sailor who was fussed over by all the nurses. He had lost all his limbs and the nurses would take him to the cinema and give him other treats. Auntie Myra would give Grandpa some very unusual presents that she had nicked from the navy. A ship in a bottle, a compass, a pond yacht made from papier mache and coated in paint, and some sweets.

My Nanna was two when the war ended and she has this one memory. There was a big peace party at the end and she went round with red, white and blue ribbons in her hair saying, “I’m a peace baby.”

That is my extended family history. I hope you have enjoyed reading.”

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