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Memories of the River Emergency Service 1939-41

by Ruth Durrant

At the time of the Munich crisis in 1938, I volunteered for the River Emergency Service. Very few people had ever heard of us, then or later. It was administered by the Port of London Authority, and came into being because the Authorities considered that, if War came, London might be so severely blitzed that it would not be possible to evacuate casualties by rail or road. So they had the bright idea of using the Thames pleasure steamers to get people out by water. Fortunately, this never proved necessary and the boats were only used as floating ambulances or first aid stations.

Our Ship was the Cliveden seen here moored at Cherry Garden Pier

The steamers were converted into ambulance ships by removing all the seating and installing posts and supports on the lower deck to hold the stretchers in double-decker fashion. Thus the non-walking wounded could be brought on board on stretchers which were then simply put into place. The upper deck was devoted to life rafts and the stretcher store.

Each of the two teams consisted of : A trained nurse - known as Sister; four of us untrained girls, known as V.A.D.s (Members of the Voluntary Aid Detachment); two stretcher bearers; and a doctor in overall charge who could be called upon by either team. Of course, there was a crew to run the boat, and in charge of all movement, there was an Ambulance Officer - an R.N.V.R. Officer. I'm not sure, but I think that the stretcher bearers were Conscientious Objectors.

In the event, our craft, the Cliveden, became two first aid stations at night : one where we were billeted and one on the boat. So when the sirens went each evening, half of us went down to Cherry Garden Pier, where the boat was moored overnight, and the other half stayed in the Council Flats where we were billeted.

One night, when the sirens had sounded and I was walking down to the pier. I removed my tin hat because it was uncomfortable on the combs which I used to wear to keep my hair from my face. The inevitable happened and a comb fell to the ground. I got down on all fours to search for it - they were like gold-dust because in normal times they were imported ! So I was not going to risk losing one. I couldn't find it in the pitch dark, but help came in the form of a policeman, who, when he heard of my dilemma, joined me on the ground, and we padded about together. The rather stern sister came upon us and was furious ! But we found the comb !

I am the second from the left, preparing a stretcher/bed

I am the second from the right, assisting whilst the doctor gives the 'patient' an injection.

My friend Gwen

I am the third woman from the right

We occupied two Council flats in Bermondsey. I don't remember there being much furniture. We certainly didn't have beds and we all slept on inflatable mattresses called 'lilos' arranged in rows in the ground floor flat. Sometimes you would hear a hissing sound in the night and you knew that someone's bed was deflating and that they were in for a pretty uncomfortable time because the 'lilos' were right on the hard bare floor. With a girl called Gwen, it was my job to repair the 'lilos'. We had to immerse them in water to find were the holes were and then make the repairs with a bicycle puncture kit.

Our daytime station was at Billingsgate, then the location of London's big fish market. We were the subject of great curiosity to the men working there and they were always inviting us to this and that. One of these invitations was to visit the huge refrigerators, which I did. They were really very very large rooms. I had never seen anything like them - and still haven't.

Moored next to us at Billingsgate, was the Massey Ferguson Fire Float, manned by the Auxiliary Fire Service. They thought that it was great to have a boat-load of girls next door and always seemed to be popping over for something. One of them was called Stanley and I went out a lot with him. We were both very keen ballroom dancers and he used to take me to the Th้s Dansants at the Piccadilly Hotel. We had a lot of fun and got on famously. So well, that when he asked me if I'd like to bring my toothbrush to our next date, and I said 'No', this did not make a bit of difference and we carried on as if no proposition had been made - and refused ! His father had a men's tailoring shop in Regent Street and Stanley took this over after the War. I popped in there some time in 1946, but he was not in the shop that day.

As ever, the personalities of colleagues were of remarkable interest. One of the Sisters was domineering, definite and determined; another was vague and rather self-effacing. We girls were convinced that the inflexible one would be great under stress and the other not so good. It proved just the opposite. There was quite a large span of ages amongst us V.A.D's - nineteen to thirty-five I should think. And we seemed to come from every walk of life, including the aristocracy. (I read recently that Lady Violet Powell, daughter of the fifth Earl of Longford and wife of Anthony Powell was a V.A.D. like me in the River Emergency Service.)

Only once do I remember the ship moving at night and that was to see if we could be of any help when the City was set on fire on 29th December,1940. But, our ship being made of wood, we could not even approach the shore and had to watch the awful sight quite helplessly. We didn't take part in Dunkirk either, which upset us a lot. I believe that a neighbouring fire-float did go. Certainly we saw masses of small boats going down the Thames and wondered what could be happening. Our uniform was very practical : navy great-coat, shirts, trousers and ski-cap - with flaps for use in bad weather. Before going to Bermondsey, we were billeted in the Children's' Hospital in Shadwell and the boat was then at Wapping. On our walks from the mooring to the billets, we were often stoned by boys who shouted ruderies about 'nurses in trousers'. I suppose women wearing trousers were then thought to be 'unnatural'. We were not popular with the nurses at the Children's' Hospital either because their doctors came with our male staff into our quarters in the hospital. We had a sort of 'games-room - mostly for table-tennis I think. But we V.A.D.s were at the mercy of those hospital nurses in charge of our training and they saw to it that we were allotted the most menial and unpleasant of jobs.

I enjoyed my time in the R.E.S. - it was quite exciting and we were a good team. We played a lot of badminton. Gwen was my partner and we never lost a game ! We also frequented The Prospect of Whitby quite a bit.

I am the fourth from the right

Despite all this, I left in 1941. The first Blitz and the Battle of Britain were over. So things were dull on that front AND my father was always complaining that he didn't have me educated just to muck about in boats - we learned to row quite adequately and to use semaphore. Both were fun.

The one with her hands on the oar is me

In June, 2001, I had to have a scan done of my back because of sciatica. I was given a number of questions to answer beforehand : for example 'Do you have a pace-maker?' I could answer all of them save the one which asked if I had any shrapnel in my body from a wound. I remembered that I had been hit on board - in my bottom - but I really didn't know whether any shrapnel had got into me, or whether it was just a scratch. Whichever, it was a very slight affair. The young man I had to report this to, was delighted. Nobody had answered the question that way before. He had to check whether the scan could go ahead. It could and it did and I was informed that the shrapnel is still there ! After sixty years ! This news made the young man's day ! I can hardly remember the event, It must have been most trivial, But I do hope that I was appropriately heroic !

On hearing this story, Fiona - my colleague - and Michael - my manager - at the Citizen's Advice Bureau where I am a volunteer, found it very amusing. And they had various suggestions and comments :

  • 1) Would I now get a medal ?
  • 2) Would I qualify for a War Pension ?
  • 3) Would I be able to use the shrapnel -now that I knew it was still there -as a weather forecaster ?
  • 4) What about scanning at airports ?
  • 5) What about having the shrapnel extracted and wearing it on a chain around my neck ?
  • Etc, etc.

My husband tells me that I must have been a victim of 'friendly fire' i.e. that I was hit by a piece of one of our own Anti-Aircraft shells. He says that had it come from a German bomb, I would probably have been blown to bits. This hasn't got quite the same cachet somehow …….it doesn't amount to much, just a victim of 'friendly fire'.

I entered into correspondence to get some official details about the R.E.S. but these are few and far between. The librarian of the Museum in Docklands gives as his opinion 'the R.E.S. records were destroyed shortly after War for reasons of confidentiality' I find that quite amazing if he is correct and would love to know the reasons.

Further information from Oriel Williams, the Curator of the Museum, has reminded me that of course the R.E.S. was formed to provide on the Thames, an equivalent service to that given on land by the Civil Defence. Therefore the ambulance service was only a part - I had rather tended to think of it as the whole !

I was also reminded that A.P.Herbert served in the R.E.S. He was a very witty author and an M.P. and wrote an account of his service under the title of 'The Thames at War'. We saw him quite often on the water and I remember he brought C.B.Cochran, the successful impresario to visit us. I had quite a long conversation with them both and couldn't help wondering whether Cochran was looking for girls for his famous chorus line ! If so, he didn't choose any of us …………

Memories of the London Blitz 1940-45

The first real air-raid on London was on 7th September,1940. This happened also to be my brother's wedding day, at which I was one of the bridesmaids. The wedding was in Hampstead and went off very well. That evening the two bridesmaids and the two ushers went to the Trocadero Restaurant in Piccadilly Circus for dinner and dancing. Good fun, but when we came out from the restaurant to go home, there was no transport to be had. It was all quite bewildering, with bombs going off and fire engines dashing around. We had been quite unaware of anything happening above us. As we girls couldn't get to our own homes, it was decided that the boys would take us back to their digs in Hampstead. And so we walked there. Quite a long way and rather quaint in long dresses !

The author during the war.

Lashings of make-up, particularly lipstick was considered essential if one was to be 'attractive'- the modern word is 'sexy' ! Another essential was high heels - I tottered about like mad. Of course we all smoked - some like chimneys. Note the 'manicured' eyebrows and I still had my broken tooth !

Although there were sixty seven consecutive nights of bombing, only two stand out in my mind : 29th December,1940, when the City of London was set on fire, and 10th May, 1941 when, instead of the usual targets of railways and docks, there was a more widespread raid on London. About fifteen hundred people were killed and eighteen hundred injured. At the time of the first of these two raids, I was on the Thames, in the River Emergency Service. We watched the dreadful sight but could not get close enough to give any help.

My father was also totally against first-aiders and considered them a danger to the public - who should only be looked after by professionals like him i.e. doctors and proper nurses. So when I heard that Postal Censorship were seeking staff, I applied feeling quite confident I wouldn't be accepted but that the move would appease my father and shut him up for a bit !

Memories of the Wartime Censorship 1941-45

In my interview, I was closely questioned about my connection with the German family I spent 1936-1937 with in Bensburg bei K๖ln. I didn't expect to be accepted, but I was ! I was engaged to be an examiner, to read letters in English, French and German. I considered I 'had' two languages but Postal Censorship didn't count French because 'everybody knows French, naturally' !

The department I started in dealt with airmail to the United States and Switzerland and was mostly in English and German, 'though there was some French and Italian as well. Many of the letters in German were very difficult to read : they were written on both sides of very transparent paper (airmail paper) and sometimes the reverse side of the paper was written diagonally AND the writers often used a very old-fashioned style of writing called Schrift. This was full of loops and the letter 's' looked like an 'f'. Fortunately I had been taught this in Germany. It was not in general use even then and I doubt if anyone uses it nowadays - it's probably not even known about !

On my very first day I met Karin. She became one of my very best friends. We shared a flat in Grays Inn Road which was nice and handy for the Holborn office. We never lost touch after the war. She died in 1996 and I miss her very much. As beginners, we were both extremely nervous and actually shook ! It was good not to be the only new girl. Karin was half-Norwegian so she had that language as well. There was not a lot of call for Norwegian and eventually she left Postal Censorship to go to the Admiralty where she worked in the very secret department which organised undercover operations in Norway, certainly, and perhaps other places as well.

We all sat at old-fashioned school desks arranged in rows. There were quite a number of examiners in each section - twenty or thirty I would say. Any query or doubt we met with, we had to take to the section leader who was usually able to make a decision, 'though sometimes she needed to consult higher Authority. As the mail was out-going, the main thing we had to look out for was any indiscretion which might tell the enemy where a target for bombers could be found e.g. 'there was an air-raid last night and a lot of damage was done, but fortunately they missed the power station across the road'. If the writer's address was given, the whole reference to the air-raid had to be cut out. It would not have been enough just to cut out 'the power station', Note the offending words were cut out - we did not 'blue pencil' anything ! We examiners were not allowed to do the cutting. We consulted the section leader and if she agreed excision was necessary, she did it. Sometimes the letters looked like paper chains and of course anything written on the back was also lost. All the letters had to be opened in the same way i.e. down the left hand short side and never across the top in the usual way. This was to avoid tearing the sheets. We sealed the envelopes with our numbered labels - each examiner had her own number. One day, I read a letter going to Switzerland which struck me as odd. It seemed that a lot of girls were involved, but what was it ? Later that morning I had a similar letter. The first one had not by then been collected, so I was able to take them both to the section leader. We both thought it might be a white-slave operation and she decided to pass the letters to her superiors. I heard nothing directly about this, but some time later she congratulated me on 'a good piece of work', but she named nothing specific. I imagine this was to prevent any lapse of security - we couldn't go down the pub and talk indiscriminately of what we had done !

I found the acronyms put on love letters quite amusing : SWALK - Sealed with a loving kiss; BOLTOP - Better on lips than on paper; ITALY - I trust and love you; HOLLAND - Hope our love lasts and never dies; but considering that the writers must have been aware that their letters were likely to be read by censors, I was sometimes pretty surprised at what I read !

After a while in my first department, I was transferred to work in the Prisoner of War department where I read in and out mail. The in-mail included the twenty-five word messages on Red Cross forms which, under the Geneva Convention, newly-captured prisoners were permitted to send home. It was amazing how much some of them were able to convey in twenty-five words. Amongst these messages I read many times that conditions at the camp were good and this statement would be followed by the request 'be sure to tell Joe (or Jack or whoever) in the Marines. Collins English Dictionary describes 'tell it to the Marines' as an expression of disbelief. Quite a neat way of saying the opposite, but we did wonder how the German censors failed to detect the code - they must have found it a bit odd that so many Prisoners of War had friends or relatives in the Marines ! Or perhaps they just thought that the Royal Marines was a very large Corps ?

Of course some of the letters were very touching and sad. Some though, were full of malice like the writers for instance who considered it their 'duty' to inform men who were prisoners that their girl friends or wives were going out with other men - often American soldiers. I had to pass several of these but one day I got one such which was sent anonymously. I just couldn't bring myself to put my label on and send it through - I tore it into little bits and threw them down the lavatory. I didn't tell anyone, and I suppose that if it had become known, I would have been sacked.

There were of course specialist departments where we could seek help. One was the Uncommon Languages Department, manned by people who knew every language you could think of - and more ! They all seemed to me to look very clever and 'other-worldly'. You could easily imagine that they might well boil their watches whilst watching the egg ! (This was a description of intellectuals in the days of pocket watches.)

The three Services were represented and I often had to go and consult an R.A.F. Officer called Freddie Ashton (later Sir Frederick Ashton, the Ballet dancer and choreographer) whom I spoke to a lot. One day I found him laughing heartily : an examiner had shown him a letter written by a balletomane in which she said : 'I've just heard that Freddie is in the R.A.F. As I write this, he may be bombing Germany !' Freddie was only too relieved that he was not, and never likely to be. If I met him on the bus in the morning, I knew that I was late !

After another while, I was moved again, this time to be P.A. to the head of the Prisoner of War Department. This meant that, as well as acting as her Secretary etc, I read rather special mail, most of it being in Diplomatic Bags, both to and from German and British Prisoners of War. Some of these were prominent people in one way or another. They certainly wrote interesting letters. One English married couple I particularly remember, wrote the most marvellous letters to each other that I have ever read either in real life or in fiction. And they sustained themselves in this way during a long and very difficult separation. One felt quite humbled and privileged to have to read their letters.

The Diplomatic Bag did not reach me in a bag, which was a disappointment ! The unfolded papers, two to four inches deep, were wrapped in brown paper and tied with string. When everything had been dealt with, I had to parcel the lot up again and take the bundle to a messenger to pass on. One day he showed me how to do up a parcel properly and make a really decent job of it. He said he couldn't bear my efforts any longer ! To this day, I do up parcels with paper and string exactly as he showed me.

I don't think we ever paused to wonder if we were doing a worthwhile job in Postal Censorship, but looking back after nearly sixty years, I am glad to have been involved in such work. Whether it - or I - did anything to hasten the end of the War is of course impossible for me to say. Anyway, the end came.

I was asked to stay on and work on documents to be put in the archives. Presumably I would have been doing this with my Prisoner of War Department boss, which I would have enjoyed as she was a good person to work with. I also had another attractive offer : to go to Vienna as P.A. to a senior Medical Officer in the Control Commission. But I had met my husband to be Bob, and decided for him against all the other proposals !

My colleagues were all women but a good mixture of age and nationality. One very compassionate Italian was always very moved when she read anything sad or sentimental. And she naturally had to share her emotions with her neighbours. We couldn't get to know everyone very well but I made another friend besides Karin. This was an older woman. I think she was possibly the most attractive person I have ever met : very good to look at, terrifically intelligent and quick witted, great fun and quite unaware how charming she was ! She was half-Belgian and her French was impeccable. But she was unhappily married. It was a real tragedy; her husband had to be certified ('sectioned' today) and when the time came for the actual procedure to be carried out, she asked me to accompany her. Even for me, it was a terrible day…………. She married again after the War and went to live abroad. We gradually lost touch. I didn't make much attempt to pursue my friendship - I felt that she had started a new life and didn't need any reminder of her past unhappiness.

By the time of the second memorable air raid, 10th May, 1941, and living in digs in Oakley Street, Chelsea. My father, by now in the R.A.M.C. (the Royal Army Medical Corps), had been posted from the Royal Herbert Hospital in Woolwich to the Military Hospital in Bath, and of course my mother had gone with him. So I had no home in London any more.

My landlady was named Mabel. She had strong theatrical connections and tendencies. She was an Air Raid Warden and took her duties very seriously : on the night of the big raid, she goaded all her tenants - we were all young and able-bodied - out onto the street to go and inform householders, who were themselves mostly sheltering in their cellars, that their attics were on fire, and to help them use their stirrup-pumps to dowse the flames. On another occasion, several of us girls went to Soho with Mabel for a meal. In the restaurant, we noticed two men who were acting suspiciously : they were studying a map in a very furtive manner. When they left the restaurant, Mabel ordered me to follow them ! I did because you tended to do what Mabel told you ! I felt quite inadequate and was much relieved when they got into a car and drove off. However, I did manage to note the number and colour of the car. Mabel duly reported these details to the police, who interviewed us. Later that night they told us they had traced the men, who were found to be loyal subjects, 'though they admitted that the map - whatever it was - was a secret document that they should not have had with them in public. Good old Mabel !

Soon after this, I moved into a flat in the Grays Inn Road with Karin. We had met as new girls in the Postal Censorship Office which was in High Holborn, so my new home was very conveniently placed.

As I remember it, 'normal' air-raids meant high-explosive bombs and incendiary bombs. The latter of course caused lots of fires, but did not explode like the high-explosive kind. There were also land-mines. These seemed to be dropped by parachute, quite indiscriminately i.e. not on normal targets like railways. They had huge explosive power : whole streets were sometimes annihilated. I remember, when my parents were still in London, coming home after four days duty on the river, to find the house empty and a HUGE whole in the back garden. Where was my mother ? Thankfully, safely out shopping. On occasion, landmines did not explode on impact. Streets and buildings then had to be evacuated and the whole area cordoned off. You couldn't take anything with you beyond what you could pick up and easily carry. Then bomb-disposers came in and made the mines safe. What heroes ! We had a Naval friend - Peter (more of him later) - who sometimes did this. When forced to, he would recount how he was f๊ted by grateful residents and loaded with presents e.g. watches - which of course could not be accepted.

Karin and I grew accustomed to the High Explosive raids and had a code - mostly unspoken - that we lived by. This included not being found dead with our hair in rollers. So if the sirens went, and that was the case, we took the rollers out. And put them back in again when the All Clear sounded. Sometimes this could happen as many as three times a night. Our flat was on the ground floor - a good thing - and on a corner. My bed was close to a large window and one night when we thought the bombs were getting uncomfortably close, I slept in Karin's room - we each had a bed-sitting room. The next morning we found my bed covered in broken glass.

We went to the cinema a lot and saw many famous films e.g. Lawrence Olivier's Henry V. Apart from loving the films and enjoying a break from raids, going to the cinema was attractive because we were safe - below ground and no glass. People who had cellars under their houses were lucky - they could sleep down there in comparative safety. Others had Anderson shelters. These were made of arches of corrugated iron and were partly buried in the ground so that they were protected by earth and grass.

Indoors, there were Morrison shelters which were steel-topped tables with wire-mesh sides and you slept underneath or possibly dived under when necessary ! Of course not everyone was lucky enough to have anything. Whilst we did not enjoy the raids, we were not scared stiff. However, things changed for me - and presumably many other people - one night, when I became aware of something very curious going on. And Karin - normally the calmest - went nearly berserk, saying we were going to be killed. I asked what it was and she said that she couldn't tell me because it was secret. She had moved from Postal Censorship to the Admiralty where her knowledge of Norway and Norwegian was of more use to the Country. She worked in an office where - so to speak - undercover operations were organised. The work was so secret that the maps which covered the office walls and showed operations, were curtained over when anyone other than immediate staff was there. I pressed her to tell me, saying that if I was going to be killed, I was surely entitled to know by what. She did, and of course it was the first V1's - or 'doodlebugs' as they came to be known. Through her work, Karin had learned about Peenemunde, where these bombs were made.

I was always frightened of the 'doodlebugs' and took cover away from glass - particularly shops' plate glass windows - wherever possible, when the engines of these pilotless planes cut out. If you were aware of this, you knew the bombs would be falling close to you.

On one occasion, we were watching a film in which Errol Flynn was winning the war in the Far East single-handed. There was a scene where some refugees were trying to escape - ? from Singapore - on a boat. The engines failed and one character said 'The engine's stopped - what can it be?'. I couldn't resist shouting out 'It must be a 'doodlebug'. The audience was appreciative.

I don't actually remember going to any public air-raid shelter, We weren't heroic or anything, but just got on with whatever we were doing. We didn't talk about the danger. We didn't go in for much analysis in those days and this protected us. We certainly were never tempted to sleep in an Underground station. Many of our neighbours in Grays Inn Road did so, and we used to see them at Chancery lane - our local tube station - when we returned from the cinema or whatever. They used to tell us what had happened earlier in the evening before they went to the station. This was usually encouraging : 'A couple H.E.s - but your flat is OK love.'

The V1s were followed in due course by the V2s. These were also pilotless weapons, but they just fell from the sky - so to speak 'out of the blue'. There was no period when you could take cover because you couldn't hear them at all until they exploded. The explosion was very loud. We used to say that you were OK if you heard the explosion. If you hadn't …………

At one point I suffered a bad attack of sciatica and had to use a stick. This was marvellous : everyone was helpful when I got on and off buses and seats were freely offered to me. Of course it was assumed that I was an air-raid victim. I did not confess. People would just have felt 'let-down' and possibly I didn't wish to acknowledge how slight my 'injury' was. Bob - who later became my husband - was also in a similar situation. He and a friend were on leave and went to the Odeon cinema. One of them was on crutches and the other had an arm in a sling. Both were wearing their Army uniforms. They had settled into perfectly adequate seats when the Manager - presumably believing them to be possible heroes, insisted that they move to the best seats at no cost. The truth was that one had injured his ankle playing hockey and the other had a boil ! Hardly heroic stuff !

Karin and I had a pretty hectic social life : we had a number of relatives in the Forces and this meant a great amount of traffic in our flat. Karin's cousins always seemed to be escaping from Norway and mine were often on their way to the Far East. All this entailed a good deal of partying ! We visited pubs and night clubs and palais de dance. Ballroom dancing was very popular - and of course the bands and singers. All the popular music appealed to me, particularly : 'All the things you are', 'The white cliffs of Dover', 'When the lights go on again', 'Lilli Marlene'. And the bands of Henry Hall, Carroll Gibbons, Joe Loss and the singers Vera Lynn and Anne Shelton.

I still believe there is nothing to beat dancing to music played by live players. One night we were doing just this with a party of friends in a night club, but it was an unusual night club in that it was above ground - in fact on the first floor. So when the sirens went we were all aware there was a raid on. The dancing went on and in due course the All Clear was sounded. One of our party was a very brave man in the Navy who defused land-mines et al, in cold blood. When the raid was over, Peter was nowhere to be seen. He finally emerged from under a table where he had been taking shelter. He said he could not understand how we civilians seemed to disregard danger. Rather ironically he had the ill-luck to step on a mine on a beach in Italy. Mercifully he didn't lose his foot but of course he was invalided home where he went about on crutches. He recommended this condition most heartily, as being the best possible for getting taxis.

Of course, most of the fit young men and many young women were in uniform. They did look good, even glamorous in some cases. There was rivalry between the different arms of the Services, and they often called each other by uncomplimentary names e.g. the R.A.F. called the Army 'brown jobs'. I'm sure many other rude names were used. The Poles and the Americans were not popular because they pinched the girls from the British, the Poles being considered too charming and the Americans too well-off. There was also friction when men not in the fighting forces thought they were being sneered at and found wanting. I remember in a pub one evening pointing out to a Naval friend, a man in khaki uniform with the words 'War Correspondent' on his shoulder. We both considered such people very courageous because they went into and near battles with no means to defend themselves, just a camera. But this particular man thought that we were belittling him when he noticed us looking at him. He came over to us and was most belligerent. It took some time to persuade him how wrong he had been.

We were very conscious of the dangers of careless talk - reminded by the famous poster 'Careless Talk Costs Lives', and generally we were most patriotic. This, and our youth, must have made it easier to bear the deprivations caused by the food and clothing and petrol and hot water rationing - a five inch bath was the limit; the difficulties of getting about in the blackout; the Air Raid Wardens and their cry of 'put that light out'……… We trusted Churchill implicitly and were inspired by the conduct of our fighting men. Some things will never be forgotten - the smell left behind after an air-raid - I've never known precisely what caused this but assume that it must have been the explosive and the subsequent fire; the death of so many people; the terrible damage done to buildings; the seemingly extraordinary way baths were left exposed but looking as if they were clinging to those walls which remained standing; the way that Londoners never lost their sense of humour and were true neighbours to each other. We experienced many acts of comradeship and kindness, as for instance the butcher who invited me to share the safety of his cold-room, when we could hear a 'doodlebug' was just about to descend. Neither of us thought about the danger of blast which might have caused us to be incarcerated and then frozen; we were just glad to be able to escape the flying glass from his shop window. This happened to me in my lunch hour and I was later able to tell my boss - I was by then working in Postal Censorship - that I had been frozen with fear !

There is no doubt that the spirit shown by ordinary people during the War generally, and during the Blitzes in particular, was a wonderful inspiration and source of strength to all of us. The courage of people who had the responsibility of looking after small children whilst their fathers were overseas and very likely in danger, and the courage of those who were bereaved was most touching. It was a good time to be British and we were proud of it.

Ruth Durrant

On 30th June 1944 the a V1 Rocket hit the Air Ministry which was situated at Adastral House which was on the corner of Aldwych and Kingsway where I was employed.

Fortunately it was at lunchtime and I was walking down the Strand going towards Trafalgar Square. I heard the ominous sound of an aircraft overhead and the sudden cut-off of the engine. Within a few seconds there was a loud explosion nearby from the direction of the Air Ministry. In rushing in that direction, I beheld the whole of Aldwych covered in debris and broken glass. The buildings were all standing, but very battered. I was allowed to enter Adastral House and attempted to clear the debris. We were all very shocked and I was able to find a telephone and ring my Mother to tell her I was O.K. Very soon, we were told to pack up and go home.

Betty Young

In 1944 and 45 I was stationed at Brand Hill Camp, Woodhouse Eaves, Loughboro' and working at Beaumanor as a Y-group special Wireless Operator. (My training had been done on the Isle of Man - 9 months of it- first, so we had got used to coping with many novel situations, the uniform,the army food, living together as a very mixed batch of women,surviving on very little money, foraging for fun in the evenings and, important - learning how to handle wolves.)

The work or "duty" was covering the 24 hours over a period of three days and then a day off. This meant that weeks as such disappeared and were replaced by a 4-day period.

On duty day 1 from 12noon - 6pm

day 2 from 6am - 12noon

day 3 from12midnight - 6am and then from 6pm - 12midnight

- DAY 4 - OFF!!!

The work was covering/intercepting enemy groups sending messages in Morse manually most of the time, later there were some machine sent. Actually some of the groups were French and other nationalities. All the messages were in code, which meant 5-letter blocks of letters which were neatly copied down on special papers as accurately as possible. The groups usually sent their messages at regular intervals but as the Allies advanced, things got a bit disorganised and anything could happen. There was often"interference" - i.e. noises off and then you would curse, ask for help with a different aerial or throw a fit, according to temperament and time of night and lack of sleep.

The perks were - a trip to the Naafi canteen across a field or two ( rotten coffee or oversweet lemonade) - a carefully hidden crossword - trying to remember poetry learned by heart at school in another world The two latter only during the safe lulls, of course.

The night duty was a devil as very often we had not had much sleep before midnight and sometimes had in fact been out on the town in the evening. I think we all smoked. I can remember burning my elbow to keep awake once at least.

Rene Akeroyd Pedersen.

15th City of London ATS
Some members Of the 15th City of London ATS Taken in Truro Cornwall About 1940/41
15th City of London ATS

Nurses in the middle east

I believe, with good reason, that the photographer was an Army Chaplain and that the location could have been either of the following: Middle East Forces No 2 Casualty Clearing Station 9th Army 1941 -1943 or Middle East Land Forces HQ British Troops , Iraq, 26 General Hospital, 1946/47
A Nurse on the bank of the Suez Canal

This picture is taken on the bank of the Suez Canal in the area of The Military Hospital , El Ballah. The photographer was an English Army Chaplain , Reverend Harry Pointon

I believe, with good reason, that the photographer was an Army Chaplain and that the location could have been either of the following: Middle East Forces No 2 Casualty Clearing Station 9th Army 1941 -1943 or Middle East Land Forces HQ British Troops , Iraq, 26 General Hospital, 1946/47

Stuart Brown


Adelaide Hall


Adelaide Hall, the American jazz singer and Broadway star, arrived in Britain in 1938 to co-star-along with fellow actors Edna Best, Leslie Banks and Todd Duncan-at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, in C.B. Cochran's lavish west-end musical adaptation of Edgar Wallace's "The Sun Never Sets." Such was the warm reception she received from the British public that Adelaide adopted Britain and in return, the British people adopted her. In no time at all she became one of Britain's best-loved entertainers and her stay lasted over 50 years, up until her death on 7 November 1993.

Adelaide was the first black star to be given a long-term contract with the B.B.C., which resulted in her own radio series. She also became an exclusive Decca recording artist, cutting over 70 discs for the label, many of which were released during the war. It's fair to say her voice was heard almost everywhere: across the radio airwaves, in night clubs, in movies and on the stage. With her husband Bert Hicks, who acted as her manager, they owned and resided above the chic Florida Night Club in Mayfair. As well as her regular stage concert performances, Adelaide frequently starred in the Florida club's late-night revues. In 1940, the club received a direct hit by a land mine and was totally demolished, forcing Adelaide to move her home to the relatively quieter surrounds of the Surrey countryside. It was here during long summer afternoons that Adelaide could regularly be seen giving a helping hand on her neighbour's farms.

During the 40's, Adelaide was one of Britain's highest earning entertainers-indeed, during 1941 she was reported to the highest. Throughout the war years she worked endlessly and tirelessly, performing at practically every theatre, concert and music hall in the land, entertaining both civilians and members of the armed forces.


It was during one of London's heaviest Luftwaffe raids, which sent most of the capital's population scurrying to the safety of underground shelters, that Adelaide stood to her guns and braved the screaming bombs and incessant bursts of anti-air-craft machine gun fire to continue entertaining the public. She was starring at Lewisham's Hippodrome when, in the middle of her act the air-raid siren sounded. Adelaide immediately stopped her performance and walked to the front of the stage to ask the packed audience if anyone would like to leave the theater. Only a handful of patrons took up her offer, the rest remained seated. For the next four hours, with bombs exploding outside the building, Adelaide entertained the audience by singing over fifty songs, right up until the all clear sounded at 03:45 a.m. The following morning, her piano accompanist, Gerry Moore, commented that his fingers ached so much from playing that he could hardly move his hands. Though Adelaide could barely speak, in defiant mood she returned to the Hippodrome stage the following evening to perform her act as scheduled.

Adelaide Hall on stage in London, 1940.

Adelaide Hall on stage in London, 1940.

Photograph courtesy of Iain Cameron Williams

"Whilst sirens shrieked and bombs dropped in nightly German air-raids, Adelaide Hall, American Broadway star, carried on unstirred in the grand aged tradition of the theatre with her act, which has made her hugely popular with London audiences. Returning again and again to the stage of the South London house where she is currently featured, Miss Hall encored with 52 songs, ranging from 'Dinah' to 'Solitude', on the night of the longest and most insistent raid London has so far received." ANP News.

Undeterred by the Luftwaffe's persistent nightly raids, Adelaide continued her concert tour around Britain. The following week, whilst performing an engagement in a northern town, Adelaide encountered yet another evening air-raid.

"Adelaide Hall, popular American and Continental entertainer was blitzkrieged out of a theatre in the north of England last week, but only after her performance was given. Taking refuge in an air-raid shelter after her performance, Miss Hall said: 'The great roar of the planes as they dived, the rat-a-tat of machine gun fire and deeper boomings of the Messerschmitt cannon, made me realise for the first time since the war began just how horrible and devastating modern warfare is … but … blitzkrieg or no blitzkrieg the show had to go on.'" ANP News.

Under various bold headlines, "Actress Is Air-Raid Heroine", "Adelaide Hall in Bombing, Quiets Terror Stricken Populace by Calmly Singing Songs", "Blitz or No Blitz, The Show Must Go On" and "It Rained Bombs as Adelaide Sang" accounts of Miss Hall's fighting spirit, via the A.N.P. News Agency, flashed across the globe reaching the front page of many morning newspapers as far away as New York, Birmingham in Alabama, Indianapolis, Pittsburgh, Chicago and Charleston in South Carolina.

Undeterred by Hitler's pounding Adelaide's tour continued. During one particularly scary incident at a performance Adelaide was giving in Southampton, the theatre where she was appearing received a direct hit and the whole front fa็ade of the building was blown away. Such were the perils of defying the Luftwaffe.

Adelaide (left) with Jessie Mathews (right) at a premiere held at the Locarno in Streatham.

Adelaide (left) with Jessie Mathews (right) at a premiere held at the Locarno in Streatham. They signed autographs for a solid hour. May 1940. Photograph courtesy of Iain Cameron Williams

At the beginning of November 1942, as the Lord Mayor of London's official guest, Adelaide appeared at a huge rally held in Trafalgar Square on behalf of the National Drive for Metal Salvage. Thousands of people attended bringing the surrounding streets to a standstill. From a specially erected platform Adelaide made an eloquent appeal to the public requesting they donate as much metal as possible so it could be used to help make machinery for the war effort. Her speech brought the loudest cheer of approval from the public during the rally.

In 1943, Adelaide joined ENSA (Entertainment's National Service Association). One of the first things she did after enlisting was to have a tailored uniform made by the famous fashion designer, Madame Adele, of Grosvenor Street. Adelaide loved her uniform and wore it with pride whenever and wherever she could. Over the next two years she made several trips across the war torn battlefields of Europe wearing it. Performing in her inimitable style from makeshift stages hastily erected in fields, tents, aircraft hangars and sometimes even on the back of lorries, Adelaide gave several shows a day in front of anyone who would listen.

In 1944, on 23, 24 and 25 February Adelaide appeared at the Vauxhall Motors factory in Luton, Befordshire where she entertained the company employees during their lunch break. In all she performed to over 10,000 workers. It was the first time Vauxhall had contracted a star to perform at the factory for three consecutive days.

When V.E. day was announced on the radio, Adelaide was in Hamburg in the middle of a German tour. Subsequently, she was one of the first entertainers to arrive in Berlin to congratulate our troops after the city had been liberated. "In some of the towns and cities we visited there wasn't a street in sight, they'd all been razed to the ground. People were putting up wooden boards with names on to identify the streets that had once been there."

At the end of her last ENSA tour, Adelaide's husband told her … much to her dismay, "The war is over now honey, you can let that uniform go!" Adelaide never did let that uniform go until many years later. In the meantime it remained neatly folded in one of her theatrical trunks, just to remind her why some things are worth fighting for.

Adelaide, with her piano accompanist George Elrick, at Belle Vue, Manchester

Adelaide, with her piano accompanist George Elrick, at Belle Vue, Manchester, during the christening party for two three-month-old lion cubs that were born in captivity. The cubs were named Adelaide and George in their honour. September 1941.

Photograph courtesy of Iain Cameron Williams

Above text and photographs ฉ Iain Cameron Williams 2002.

A biography by Iain Cameron Williams titled: "Underneath A Harlem Moon … the Harlem to Paris Years of Adelaide Hall" has now been published by Continuum International Publishing Group.

book cover, Under a Harlem Moon

More Information on
Underneath A Harlem Moon

A new double CD titled "Adelaide Hall - A Centenary Celebration" has been released by AvidGroup (AMSC 720) to commemorate Miss Hall's centennial.

Womens Land Army, Norton near Doncaster

The above photo was taken, during or just after the second world war. A farmyard scene after potato picking at Norton Priory Farm, Norton, near Doncaster. Included in the picture are two women who may well be in Women's Land Army Uniform.

Stuart Brown.


At the end of August 1939, we were told to pack suitcases for the children and prepare for their evacuation from London. I had five children. Joan (13) and John (11) the two oldest reported to their schools for the trip into the unknown. I took the younger ones, Eileen (9), Leslie (7) and Margaret (5), to their school. They had name tickets pinned to their coats and carried their boxed gas masks on a string around their necks. There was a long line of buses ready to take them away and the police on duty, told us to turn our backs, so as not to upset the children if we could not hold back the tears. We had no idea where they were to be taken and it was a most dreadful feeling, losing my five children in one day.

A few days later we were told the whereabouts of our children. Joan in Brighton, John in Burwash, Sussex, Eileen, Leslie and Margaret had been taken to Hailsham, Sussex. With the children gone, I felt completely at a loss. Eventually the schools arranged coach trips on Sunday's and we were able to visit the children in their 'foster homes' .

Joan seemed happy in Brighton, but John would turn away from us so that we could not see his tears. He was very unhappy in his first billet and finally told his father about the bullying from two older lads in the family he was lodged with. My husband arranged for him to be moved and he found a warm welcome at his next 'home'. The three youngest were also very unhappy, billeted with a childless couple who did not show them any affection.

The children were made to move again when the Battle of Britain started. Many children ignoring the Government warnings, had returned to London and we were very glad that the children were safe in South Wales when the bombing started in earnest.

Young John was sent to Garnant, a mining village near Ammanford, where he seemed reasonably happy, Eileen went to Abergwili, a small town about 4 miles from Carmarthan, where she was billeted with a wonderful family, Mr & Mrs Dawkins. Leslie was taken to live on a farm in the Welsh hills and Margaret to an isolated house next to the church in a place called Nanty-Couse, where she learned to speak Welsh.

When Eileen found where Margaret was living, Mrs Dawkins decided to make a visit. She later gave me a very funny account of that day. The address was 'The Manse' so she made sure that they were dressed suitably to visit, what she thought, was a vicarage. Imagine her astonishment when they arrived to find everything in the place covered with feathers as the woman was plucking chickens.

The house was a complete mess, Margaret was running around in the yard outside in dirty old clothes, playing with her foster brothers. This was no vicarage, so all Mrs Dawkins' efforts to impress were wasted.

I was still living in London with John, my husband, the bombing had increased and I was now 6 months pregnant. John had received orders to report to Greenock in Scotland as the London Docks where he worked as a stevedore were under constant attack. So I went to stay with Margaret in Nanty-Couse and although I hated it, at least my new baby would be safe. Helen, my new daughter was born in Carmarthan Hospital on December 7th 1940, but when I returned to the lodgings in Nanty-Couse, I found that the landlady's children had Chicken Pox.

Once again, Mrs Dawkins came to the rescue, offering me a place to live in Abergwili, until I could find somewhere of my own. I managed to rent two rooms with a Mrs Plummer. and with Eileen just a few hundred yards away, we were more like a family again. Helen was an attractive baby and Mrs Dawkins who acted as godparent bought many clothes for her, they called her 'Dimples' and wanted to adopt her.

Margaret at my insistence had been moved and was living on a farm owned by the brother of Leslie's foster parents. She seemed very happy there, riding a horse to school each day. However a very mature 14 year old 'Liverpudlian ' evacuee came to lodge there. I noticed some very bad bruises on Margaret's back when she was trying on some undergarments that I had made for her. I discovered that every Saturday night, when the foster parents were out, this girl made Margaret sit in a bath of very hot water, then put in her bed, made to sit up in the bed and go to sleep. Every time she moved or threatened to tell of her treatment, she was beaten with a towel holder that the older girl had secreted in her chest of drawers. My complaint to the school, led to the evacuee confessing and she was expelled from the school.

I earned a little money by cleaning the flat of two school teachers, Miss Tinley and Mrs Cato. My husband John would visit as often as he could and he became great friends with Mr Dawkins. We kept in touch with the wonderful Dawkins family for many years.

Joan, my eldest daughter came to live with me, until she left school and joined the WAAFS when she reached the age of 18. In September 1941, Eileen was moved to Llanelly. She had won a scholarship to Mary Datchelor School.

In February 1941, I found that I was pregnant again. I returned to the flat in Peckham, South London, taking Helen with me. Son John who was now 14, returned with me, as the bombing had finished, apart from a few sneak attacks - or so we thought.

August 1942, and Eileen was allowed to come home to help me through the pregnancy and on September 16th 1942, son David was born I was now 43 years of age. Eileen returned to her school in Llanelly, John my eldest son, stayed in London to help me look after the two babies, Helen and David. In September 1943, Margaret joined Eileen at Mary Datchelor School. They both stayed with a Mrs Jones, another fine lady who was kind to the Roberts family.

In February 1944, our flat in Peckham suffered a direct hit and was destroyed and members of the family injured. My husband who was still working in Scotland urged me to return to Wales, so on a day in June, I went back to the kind people of South Wales, taking Helen and David with me. John stayed in London assuring me that he could look after himself.

That day as I discovered when I got back to Wales was D-Day, the 6th June 1944.

Mrs Lilian Roberts


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