War Evacuation Memories

Over 3 editions, we have been publishing Pauline’s recollections about being evacuated out of London during the second world war.

Here is the full version, and we would love to hear your thoughts and memories too, just let us know in the comments.

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I was just nine years old when the 2nd World War started and I remember that prior to this we had an Anderson Shelter built in our garden and we were issued with gas masks, horrid things and men and women of 18 years were ‘called up’ for National Service.

I was living in Forest Hill, South London at the time and on September 3rd 1939 I, together with my 6 year old sister, baby brother & sister, and my Mother were waiting for a train to take us “somewhere in the country” away from any possible air raids, when the very first Air Raid Warning sounded.
This was a very loud wailing sound and even now, over 60 years on I still go cold all over if I watch a film or listen to a play about the War and the siren sounds. However, the warning turned out to be a false alarm so no problem.
In due course we and very many others boarded a train which took us to Reigate in Surrey. On arrival we were taken to a school or church hall where we waited for people to choose their evacuees, as we were called, in the meantime we were issued with some rations – I can’t remember much about the food except that we had some rather large tough looking biscuits – I think these may have been similar to those issued to soldiers during the War.

My family was lucky to be able to be billeted all together as our Mother was with us – some families had to be split up. Our first billet (I suppose this would be called a foster home now) was in a very big house on Wray Common in Reigate – we went there with another family of four and their Mother and I seem to recall we children, eight of us, shared a huge bedroom which was made into a dormitory – rows of beds along the room, a bit like a hospital ward. We were happy warm and comfortable there although food was rationed as were sweets.

Everyone was issued with an identity card, and a ration book, which was used to buy food. We had a pound of jam a month each, butter, sugar, tea & meat was rationed also but I can’t remember the amounts – we only had cakes now and again & very few sweets, it was a very long time before we saw a banana!
In spite of this ‘rationing’ we were never hungry or starving, we had clothing coupons as clothes were also scarce & one had to make them last.

After some months, my Mother returned to London with my brother & sister, and my 6 year old sister and I were moved from the ‘big house’ to live with a lady & gentleman & their grown up daughter in a cottage near the house so we were still in familiar surroundings. We didn’t have a lot of toys like you children have nowadays – my first doll’s pram was second-hand and had no shade so I sat a doll at each end & called it a twin pram.

After moving to the cottage we made friends with some other boys & girls who lived near & every Saturday we would go off together up to Reigate Hills – we all kept together and had great fun playing hide & seek etc. We didn’t have a watch between us & we had to be home for lunch at 1pm – we were never late – I think our rumbling tummies told us the time!

Two incidents stick in my mind regarding the awful gas masks, which we had to keep with us always – we had to have them tested one day. My class was taken off somewhere where the testing was being done – we were supposed to put the masks on (my goodness that rubber smelt awful) & walk through a van, a bit like an unfinished caravan, which was sprayed, presumably, with tear gas to make sure there were no holes in the masks. Everyone went through except me – no way was I going in that van. I told my Teacher that my Mum didn’t send me away from the bombs only to be gassed – I was not made to go in.

The second incident happened about 1940 – we had a bad winter – snow nearly to the top of our wellies – and I slipped over and badly dented the bottom of my gas mask. I had to take it to the local Police Station on my way home from school to have it replaced. The Policeman was rather cross because he thought I had been swinging the box about that held the mask. I told him that I had slipped & offered to show him my bruises – he believed me then and replaced the mask.

After about a year we were moved yet again and went to live with a Fishmonger and his wife & family – we had been evacuated away from possible bombing raids in London but we did have one or two raids whilst in Reigate. In the cellar of this new billet was a spare refrigerated room which was unused so that was turned into a sort of Shelter & we went down there if the siren went & stayed until the all clear sounded.

About February 1942 we moved back to London but by this time my Mother had moved & our home was in Upper Norwood very near the Crystal Palace. We didn’t have an air raid shelter in the garden but there was a Public one opposite our house, in a park. The houses in our part of the road numbered 1-23 & it was mainly only the people from those houses that used it – we made up the bunk beds & were able to leave the bedding over there knowing that no one would touch it. We put some pieces of carpet down on the floor – it was concrete & rather cold – and we kept the place clean & tidy. Each night we hung our clothes over the banisters, warm trousers & tops and directly the siren went we had to get up – I had to dress my brother, & my sister who was now nine would dress my younger sister – we would then all go over to the Shelter until the all clear. We had to be careful because there was no stair lighting & all our houses had black out at the windows – Air Raid Wardens would check that no lights were showing. Sometimes when the Air Raid Sirens became very regular I would have to go over to the Shelter when the younger ones went to bed & stay with them – read them a story & when they were asleep do my homework if I hadn’t already finished it.

In 1944 I think it was, we started to have daylight raids with “Doodlebugs” planes that flew by remote control then when the engine cut out beware!! That was a warning that the Bug was about to come down. After that followed Rockets & there was no warning they just appeared. So off we went again – the four of us were evacuated with our schools to Leicester where my brother and I were with one family & my two sisters were together somewhere else. Luckily we were near enough to see each other regularly. Whilst we were away a ‘Doodlebug’ came down near our home, our front door was blown out & my Mother who was walking up the road near our house was literally thrown along by the blast. Fortunately no serious injuries & the damage to the house was soon patched up.

We came home before the War ended & went back to school – dodging the raids then finally in May 1945 the War in Europe ended amidst much rejoicing. I was nearly 15 years old and just before Xmas 1945 my Mother told me I was leaving school at Xmas & would have to go to work. I started work in a Bank on 4/2/46 and stayed in that job for 22 years – but that’s another story.

Pauline Wallis

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