u3a - Battle of Britain and the Blitz stories - Eileen Whitaker

Submitted by Eileen Whitaker - Buxton u3a


Mum was only 5 foot tall and about 7 stone so was known as Tiny. In contrast my 2 grandmothers were quite hefty with large rumps! The three of them were living in a house in Chorlton Cum Hardy with their ginger cat. His favourite seat was on top of the sideboard. When a plane was coming over all eyes turned to look at the cat. If he jumped down and went under the sideboard the 3 women would try and get under the table. Mum said it must have been a funny sight as the two grandmothers rears would be sticking out! If the cat stayed on the sideboard they knew they were safe as it would be an English plane!

In the autumn of 1944 Mum was pregnant with me. She suffered with claustrophobia and didn’t like to go into the shelters. One night during a raid she opened the door to see how bad it was. A young policeman saw her and ran over to pull her along to the shelter. There was the loud noise of a plane behind them and then they were both blown across the road. Fortunately they were both unhurt and me also. Even now though loud engine noise behind me sends shivers up my spine. 

In January 1945 mum was living in a large house with my 2 year old brother and me still in the womb. It was a freezing winter. She had the fire roaring away to heart the sitting room when she heard loud banging upstairs. The pipes to the boiler had frozen, the tank was empty and about to explode! She grabbed my brother and dashed down the garden path and grabbed the first man who was going past who happened to be a plumber. I must sound a wimp but until I was 12 years old before I flushed the lav I opened the door with one hand, pulled the chain with the other and ran like mad so I didn’t hear the system filling up!

On VE Day I was three months old. Dad was home from the war and working nights so was in bed asleep when his mother turned up quite merry after celebrating in the local pub. She grabbed me, climbed on the rocking horse, rocking away shouting “Gee up you bugger! The war’s over!” Dad came down quite angry that she’d woken him up. Mum was anxious that she would drop me, and  I was lapping it up!

Meanwhile my husband was born in 1943 in Shanghai in a Japanese civilian concentration camp. His mum was three months pregnant when they were marched into the camp with only what they could carry. A suitcase in each hand. At the camp they were allocated a living space of about 3 feet wide and 6 feet long per person. There were about 200 people in the camp, different nationalities. Dad set about digging out latrines with other men. He then volunteered to work in the kitchen. The main meal of the day was a stew, the meat was greyhounds from the local racing track. The first stew the potatoes had lots of bad bits so they cut these out. When they dished up the stew from a ladle per person, the last 20 people didn’t get any food. After that the bad bits went in as well. The other meal was a loaf, well 2 loaves between 5 or boiled rice with a lot of sawdust in as it was the sweepings off the floor.

Mum was allowed to go into hospital which was run by a German doctor whom the Japanese didn’t know was a Jew. The nurses were Italian nuns. When the baby was born the doctor packed inside his nappy vitamins and drugs which would help their survival back in the camp. She was searched but they wouldn’t look inside the baby’s clothes. She was marched back into camp between 4 soldiers. The next 71/2 months she was never without a cup of water in her hands to keep the milk flowing. The diet was so poor her milk dried up then the baby is straight onto camp food. Before he was 9 months old he was so ill that he was taken back into the hospital but mum wasn’t allowed to go with him. His heart actually stopped beating but due to the loving care of the hospital staff after 6 weeks he was well enough to go back. He didn’t know his mum and cried until she put on a white blouse and he thought he was back with the nuns.

There’s many more memories but must stop somewhere. Every morning they had to line up outside no matter what the weather for roll call. On the final morning after standing for nearly an hour dad said one brave soul peeped round the corner to the sentry box but there was nobody in it. All the guards had done a runner in the night! American planes flew over and dropped fliers saying, “Stay where you are, we know where you are.” Sometime later the American ambassador arrived in a big car with fags and outriders and a band. They changed the 40 watt bulbs for 100s. After him arrived the British ambassador either in a rickshaw or bicycle, I can’t remember which. He had the light bulbs changed to 60 watt and then begged a lift back in the American ambassador’s car! They came home on HMS Belfast which is now a museum on the Thames. Dad said there were 200 people on that ship! He had a broad Yorkshire accent all his life. In Shanghai he’d been working for Jardine Mattheson ( of noble house fame) He had all his back pay. With a friend they went into Harrods and he saw all these delicious chocolates. He asked the assistant to fill him a box with ones he chose. When the box was full she asked him for his coupons. “ Coupons? What are those?” She thought he’d been teasing her and angrily threw the chocolates straight back into the glass case!