My mother was not killed in the war, obviously — she survived and had me and lived to know her grandchildren and now, after her death, they repeat her stories to their children. I wish I had listened more to these when they were first-hand and taken notes.
Mum was 16 at the onset of World War II, she worked in Central London and for some peculiar reason her work was evacuated to the south coast (nearer to the enemy) — to Eastbourne. This was judged to be safer than London.
In about July 1940 just after her 17th birthday she went on her bicycle to play tennis, riding alone along a country lane in her short white tennis dress — not a soul about. A mighty thud shook the air from behind her — from the direction of the town — she peddled harder. Then there was the roar of an aircraft getting louder, she glanced over her shoulder to see a black shadow approaching fast, she looked around — there was no cover -just a ribbon of Tarmac, a ditch and close cropped pasture on either side. She peddled with all her might. There was machine gun fire — she threw herself into the ditch and the bullets strafed the road a few feet away, sending up spouts of dust and the smell of hot tar. Her bicycle jumped convulsively. She lay in that ditch, her arms over her head, in the embrace of that cool mud for a very long time.
Finally ‘when the plane had had time to get all the way to Berlin!’ she said, she extracted herself from the ditch, moved her mangled bike and splintered racquet from the bullet scarred carriageway and set of to walk back to town and her digs.
She didn’t make a fuss but that evening she telephoned her father and soon after she returned to Central London where she lived and worked throughout the rest of the war, witnessing the Battle of Britain and the Blitz.
When I was a child and we climbed out of the Underground at the Aldwych Mum would be reminded, she would remember climbing up these steps once before, exiting of the Tube — at that time there had been a blast and she had been blown down the steps. Recovering herself she continued up into the dust laden air to the surreal sight of a red double-decker bus sticking out from the first floor of the building opposite where it had been blown by the blast. She said it was a V1 flying bomb (the sort that you could hear coming, they were the worst, when the engine stopped, you held your breath as you waited for the bang). Mum had had another near miss but no fuss! The casualties, which were considerable, were not dwelt upon.
In the evenings, she and her father would walk to the Archway bridge that overlooked the City and watch the fires burning.
Meanwhile in Eastbourne sporadic bombing and gunfire continued with significant civilian casualties. By 1942 the Nazi tip and run attacks were happening all along the south coast but worst of all in Eastbourne — low flying Messerschmitt Bf 109’s delivering their single 250Kg bomb to key targets and causing maximum fear and disruption by attacking the streets with automatic fire before escaping back across the Channel.
Mum felt much safer in the capital — somehow there the conflict felt less personal!