On 14th September 1940, her sister’s birthday, my mother Katharine recorded in her ‘Schoolgirl diary’ that just after tea “the sirens went off.” A week earlier had seen the start of the London Blitz – a relentless campaign of destruction by Hitler’s bombers which pounded the city night after night for nine months. The war, which until then had been largely fought in continental Europe, out on the high seas or up in the skies, had hit home.
My mother’s family lived in West London, close to Heston Aerodrome from where in 1938 Prime Minster Neville Chamberlain had flown to Munich to meet with Adolf Hitler, returning to declare that he had secured ‘Peace for our time.’ It was a brief stay of execution; less than a year later Britain and France would declare war on Germany. During the war Heston became an operational base for Spitfires and Hurricane Bombers, rendering it a frequent target of aerial attack.
Catching up with her diary a few days later, Katharine tells us that “Three bombs were dropped very near us. Our house was damaged”. The family had been evacuated in the middle of the night to a nearby ‘canteen’ as it was not safe to go down to their own Anderson shelter – the half-buried, corrugated-iron structure like a pig arc that her father had installed at the end of the garden the previous year, when war was looming. They couldn’t return to their house because a high-explosive time bomb had fallen “under the concrete round Hens house” and lay there waiting to go off.
The next day, while my mother was at school, the time bomb exploded, damaging houses all around. Her family were at last allowed home to clear the mess and board up the blown-out windows – my mother accidentally cutting her finger on broken glass. “It’s horrible living in the house like this.” she writes. Shortly afterwards, the children and their mother went to stay with a relative in the countryside at Woburn Sands while their father stayed in London, going to his job in the tax office while trying to patch up the house and protect it from further damage.
For my mother, aged thirteen, this was the end of her childhood. Even though war had been declared a year before, things had been relatively quiet until now. Katharine’s diary for 1940, started with vigour on January 1st but as usual gradually thinning out, had up to then contained the typical entries of a school child – “Went to my music lesson”, “Bought a 2d chocolate bar”, “Iris was off school with spots” and quite often “Nothing much happened today.” From that point on, the diaries continue recording her attempt to live an every day, normal schoolgirl life amid the chaos, but most entries are peppered with comments such as “Sirens went at 7.30. Heard a lot of gunfire.” “We had a bad three-hour raid this afternoon” “Did not go down to the shelter tonight as it was not too noisy.”
What Katharine didn’t know at the time, and possibly not until much later, is that when the time bomb exploded under the hen-house, it took with it seven men from the bomb-disposal squad who were trying to defuse it, blasting them all to smithereens. For weeks afterwards, my grandfather was still picking fragments of skull and human flesh out of the garden hedges; it must have been a grim reminder of the three years he spent as a stretcher bearer on the Western Front during World War 1, tending to terribly wounded and dying men on the battlefield. How must he have felt, having lived through that ghastly war, to be caught in the middle of this new horror?
The house was made habitable and the family moved back in, but would they ever feel properly safe again? Not my mother, of that I’m sure. It would not be until mid-May 1941 that I again find a day in which “Nothing much happened”, by which time it must have come as a blessed relief.