Hitler started his invasion of Poland on Friday 1st September, my 25th Birthday. I tried to ignore it. It wasn’t fair. The Prime Minister had told us that peace was secure only last year. Now all the talk was of war. People were lugging sandbags around all over the place, building bomb shelters and painting their windows black. We all got issued with Gas Masks, even April May. She got what they called a Mickey Mouse gas mask. It didn’t look a bit like Mickey Mouse. It was ruddy horrible. There was even talk about them evacuating her to the countryside. I wasn’t having that. Neither was Mother. We would look after her. She would be safe under the stairs with us if they dropped a bomb on us. People said that in houses like ours, under the stairs was the safest place. The stairs would never collapse.
I had quite a decent birthday actually. Mother gave me a hat, and April May gave me some flowers. Auntie Beryl gave me a little book which had a bit of advice for every day of the ear in it. “you should have planted your Taties by now, and remember that a smile is contagious” That sort of thing. That Sunday we all gathered around the radio to hear the Prime Minister’s broadcast:
“This morning the British Ambassador in Berlin handed the German Government a final Note stating that, unless we heard from them by 11 o’clock that they were prepared at once to withdraw their troops from Poland, a state of war would exist between us. I have to tell you now that no such undertaking has been received, and that consequently this country is at war with Germany.”
No one who was there could ever forget that moment. We all knew that it was coming. But to hear it, to experience it, for real, was earth shattering. The first thing I did was run to the lavvy. Loose stools. I only just got there in time to save my drawers from an early wash. As soon as I sat down, mother was hammering on the door. Not to see how I was doing, but because she wanted to go too.
Father was out at the chapel. Praying for peace. Once we had both finished with the toilet, me and mother held each other tight, with tears in our eyes. And we held April May too. Then we took deep breaths, and decided then and there that we had better just ruddy well get on with it. So we finished making dinner, ate it, and took April May out for a walk in the park. It was already a different world, but we were determined to stay the same. Auntie Doris’s pop Pick of 1939: “We’ll Meet Again” by Vera Lynn. It captured the mood of the country, what with all those blokes going off to war and all those Kiddies getting evacuated. The sad thing was that plenty of them didn’t ever meet again. And plenty of those that did were not the same people as they were beforehand.
20 years after the end of the first war, and to listen to some people, you would have thought that another one was going to break out any minute, what with Hitler making Austria a part of Germany, invading Czechoslovakia, and making threatening noises about Poland. But it was all nonsense. The Prime Minister said so. He went to Berlin and signed an agreement with Hitler that September and came back waving a ruddy piece of paper which he assured everyone meant “Peace in our time” I heard him on the radio. He told everyone to go to bed and get a good night’s sleep. I did an’all. I was a bit gullible like that. Perhaps it would be a bit much for me to go on about Chamberlain being a ruddy Tory. He was, but the Government was a coalition in those days and there were people who agreed with him on both sides.
There were others who had tried to get the French and Americans to stand up to Hitler along with us, but they didn’t have the stomach for it at that point. Besides, there were plenty of influential people who still thought that Hitler wasn’t too much of a problem. He was 1938’s ‘Man of the Year’ according to the Time Magazine in New York (Mind you, they picked Stalin in 1939) and Lord Rothermere was a big fan. Rothermere was the editor of the Daily Mail, so it doesn’t really come a surprise that he was a personal friend of both Hitler and Mussolini, and had articles praising Nazi Germany, suggesting that it was about time someone stood up to the Jews, and praising the “immense benefits” his policies were “bestowing upon Germany”
They were nasty times, the 1930s. But some ruddy Tories would like to see them come back, austerity, no national health service or welfare rights an’all. Never mind starting a war against mainland Europe. Any road, for better or for worse, I believed Chamberlain. At least I got a few extra good night’s sleep without having to worry about another ruddy war. Little April was a lot more settled by then too. Bless her. She was talking and walking and singing and dancing, and a real bundle of joy. I know she was my little sister, but I never discouraged her when she started calling me Mamma Doris. I used to call her my little Shirley Temple. At least I did when my father was out of earshot. He didn’t have much time for her anyway. And I tried as best as I could to keep it that way. I didn’t want him nipping her chubby little legs to punish her over some silly thing like he used to do mine. He didn’t neither, and even to this day little April has never had to suffer with her veins the way I used to in later life. The best times were when it was just me, April and Mother. We were a proper little family, and it seemed we could face anything together. Even ruddy Hitler!
Auntie Doris’s Pop pick of 1938: “The Lambeth Walk” by Billy Cotton and his Orchestra. Even the King and queen got into it and shouted “Oi” in all the right places! But guess what! Hitler had it banned, and said that it was “Jewish mischief and animalistic hopping.” Sometimes that man could be so hurtful….