Second World War: Childhood of Air Raids and Weekly Rations

English girl recalls air raids, ration books and gas masks as common to her childhood during the second World War

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I was 2 years old when Britain entered the second World War on Sunday, September 3, 1939. Growing up in Kent, in southeast England, normal life for me was nightly air raids with streets and houses bombed and burning. Food was scarce; I was so thin that my shoulder blades stuck out. I called them my angel wings. 

Four months after the start of war in Britain, food was rationed. The weekly ration allowed each person one ounce of cheese, two ounces of margarine, four ounces of bacon, one egg and 10-pence worth of meat. My mother sometimes used her egg to bake a cake. Mum tried to explain that there had not always been war and that it would end some day. I was too young to understand a way of life of which I had no recollection, so I thought she was wrong. I believed that people had to be killed in war or they would get too old. War was how people died.

I wondered why she didn't understand. I was never scared; I thought I had to take care of adults, who feared the raids. When the warning sirens wailed, my grandmother was always terrified.

"Oh dear, oh dear, what shall we do?" she kept repeating as she ran in circles.

I would catch her and reach up for her hand to lead her outside to the shelter. We each had to take our ration book, identity card, gas mask and a blanket.

All windows were made light-proof with sheets of black paper. Once outside, we stumbled down the garden path in darkness.

One night my parents lingered outside in the moonlight to observe an unusually low-flying aircraft, seemingly without markings. As they wondered which side it was on, the pilot opened fire on them. Dad pushed Mum through the shelter entrance and dived in after her.

The Anderson Shelters issued to 6 million families were built into the ground and covered with earth. The only entrance was a narrow door. A crate inside served as a step down to the earth floor. Bunk beds lined the walls. When the door was closed, we were in complete darkness unless my parents lit a candle. The light flickering on the arched corrugated steel soon revealed glistening condensation trickling down the metal furrows. A musty odor was always present in the dampness. Sometimes my parents opened the door to watch planes in fight and flight. The little doorway was like a television screen showing a sky lit by searchlights and explosions. My parents' bodies were dark silhouettes against the glowing sky.

My father often rode his bicycle to the next town to check on family members after a raid. One night, when the sky in their direction was alight with the blaze of burning buildings, he didn't wait until the end of the raid. He found the entire street behind my uncle's home burning.

Dad worked the day shift in the munitions factory. Bombs often hit the factory, which was built on marshland. Luckily, the bombs passed through the floor to the bog below. The men roped off each hole in the floor and continued working. Dad enlisted in the Local Defense Volunteers, soon renamed the Home Guard, and was issued an Enfield rifle. Often, in the worst of the night bombings, he didn't remember walking home. I thought he sometimes made it home while in his sleep.

Several bombs fell close to our home, leaving craters and exposing chalk under the topsoil. One bomb fell a few yards from our house without detonating. Dad disassembled it in his garden workshop. My mother watched from the kitchen window a few feet away, while I begged to look.

Everyone did their part in the war effort. Volunteers filled sandbags used to protect essential services and prevent injury from flying glass. Housewives knitted socks for soldiers, made bandages from ripped sheets and donated anything metal from their homes to be turned into Spitfires. Little boys gave up their lead soldiers, lead roofs were ripped off churches and iron railings were removed from churchyards to be scrapped for munitions. Children collected paper for recycling.

During the early part of the War, 1.5 million children were evacuated to safety. By 1940, more than half had returned home. My family opted to stay together. I carried a gas mask to school every day. Lessons were often disrupted when we had to seek shelter from air raids. Schools and hospitals were often targets. The hospital was bombed as my mother was giving birth to my brother.

World War II shook women out of their formerly dependent, subordinate roles. As fathers, husbands and sons were called up, they left a gap in the male-dominated work force that women had to fill. Thousands of women joined the forces. Others were active in civil defense. They were air-raid wardens, ambulance and fire-truck drivers, shipyard and railway workers. Some became welders, plumbers or electricians.

Mothers left at home felt the most anguish, protecting their children while worrying and waiting for their men. They suffered through endless nights in shelters, only to arise early the next morning to stand in line to purchase food wherever it was available. I remember standing for hours in long food lines with my mother. Often the food ran out before we reached the head of the line, or we lost our place in line taking cover during an air raid.

People stayed home, only going out for food. Entertainment was the "wireless." The radio's first hit song about the War was, "We're Gonna Hang Out the Washing on the Siegfried Line," followed by "Run, Adolph, Run." Any song by Vera Lynn was well-received. A popular children's series ended with the words, "Good night, children, wherever you are," for the children who had been separated from their families.

On June 6, 1944, I saw the sky filled with Allied planes heading out to sea. The drone of aircraft could be heard for hours. This was D-Day. We all hoped that this meant the War would soon be won.

On May 7, 1945, Britain joyously celebrated victory. People sang and danced around bonfires in the streets.

Brenda East
Victor, Montana

Back in 1955 a call went out from the editors of the then Capper’s Weekly asking for readers to send in articles on true pioneers. Hundreds of letters came pouring in from early settlers and their children, many now in their 80s and 90s, and from grandchildren of settlers, all with tales to tell. So many articles were received that a decision was made to create a book, and in 1956, the first My Folks title – My Folks Came in a Covered Wagon – hit the shelves. Nine other books have since been published in the My Folks series, all filled to the brim with true tales from Capper’s readers, and we are proud to make those stories available to our growing online community.