Sunday 16 August 2015


                                                RONALDS WAR. (A WARTIME TALE)


I bought my Austin Seven brand new in 1935, well I say I bought her, it was actually Doreen who paid for her, she’d come into a legacy from her Auntie Maud.
She was a bit of a character Auntie Maud, none of the rest of the family had anything to do with her, which is why I suppose Doreen got the money.
She always used to say, 'just because she lives with Amelia doesn’t mean there’s any hanky panky going on, and even if there is, so what, judge ye not lest ye yourself be judged'.

She was like that, always looking for the good in anyone, 'you’ll get your reward in heaven', she’d say, although in our case we got our reward from heaven, good old Auntie Maud.
We even lashed out the extra seven pounds for the deluxe with the sun roof, Doreen said, 'it will be easier for Auntie to look down and see us'.
We certainly had some fun in her, picnics in the country, trips to the sea side and unlike our bicycles we didn’t get wet when it rained, although Doreen made us keep the roof open whenever possible just in case Auntie was looking, I think they were probably the best years of my life.
We were so lucky, I got promoted to senior officer at the station which pleased Doreen, she always worried when I was working, it meant more responsibility but less front line fire fighting, which I missed a little.

Life for us was blissfully happy for almost four years, in fact looking back, those carefree years before the war were good for everyone, not just us.
We could all see it coming but didn’t want to admit it, and of course the, 'peace for our time' speech made us cling to the hope of a negotiated peace, it wasn’t to be of course, but even the early years of the war lulled us into a false sense of security as nothing much happened.
I think as a nation we are good at pulling together when the chips are down, even so we hadn’t expected what a devastating effect modern warfare would have.
People were very surprised and frankly very scared when the war came to us, last time it was all over seas, I remember thinking when I laid up the car, I hope we’re all here to use her when this mess is over.

I’d taken the spark plugs out and put oil down the bores and turned her over every week to stop her seizing up, even though I couldn’t use her I kept her ready, just in case.
When I was a lad I’d worked in a garage before joining the fire brigade, so I had been taught to respect motors and to treat them properly.
One of my greatest pleasures was to work on an Austin Ulster that raced at Brooklands, not that I was allowed to do anything too crucial and when Mr Gordon won his class we all felt immense pride and that some small part of his victory was because of us.

When the war first started I thought I was so lucky not to be called up, I know fireman is not the safest job, but at least I was at home with Doreen and the kids.
I’d sometimes talk to my father about his war but he didn’t like to talk about it, he was in the cavalry, he used to ride the gun carriages.
He told me how he removed his spurs and replaced them with halfpennies so he wouldn’t hurt the horses, an amazing thing to have done in all that carnage, but I have to admit I’d probably have done the same.

I knew Doreen always used to worry about me when I was at work, but as the war went on it was me who had to worry about her, she’d got a job at the munitions factory, I didn’t want her to, but as she said, 'everyone has to do their bit and this bit is mine'.
Of course so many men had been called up we had to use the women, in fact without the land army girls, the ambulance women and the factory girls and all the others we couldn’t have kept going.

Then the blitz on London started and we were all in the front line, with nowhere to hide, for eleven weeks day or night the bombing was ceaseless, there was no let up we were working as long as we were able to stand, I didn’t go home from work for days at a time.

So many bombs and incendiaries fell that many nights our worst fear was realised, the fire storm, you could sense it coming, first a gentle breeze, then the wind, then that extraordinary roaring sound and the unbearable heat.
When a fire storm took hold there was nothing you could do except let it burn itself out and prey you didn’t get trapped in the inferno, or crushed by the falling buildings.
After a while we got used to the noise a building would make before it collapsed, an odd creaking sound, but with all the other noise going on you couldn’t always hear it and sadly many men were crushed to death this way.
There was one night in December 1940 when the Luftwaffe dropped so many incendiaries that the whole of the Square Mile was ablaze.
We were getting water from the Thames but it was low tide and even that ran out, some parts of Moorgate were left to burn and then we got the call from Mr Churchill to save Saint Pauls at any cost.
Amazingly it was only hit by one small incendiary bomb which was put out by a fire watcher with a bucket of sand, all around was ablaze but Saint Pauls was untouched.

I think initially a hell of a lot of people were scared to death by what was going on, but it’s amazing how quickly you become hardened to such things, you have to or you don’t survive.
Even during all this madness people still went out to enjoy themselves, dancing the night away in underground clubs, going to the flicks or the pub. I was told the Savoy still kept it’s policy of only permitting dancing for people in evening dress which I felt was unfair on the troops on leave who couldn’t dance as they were in uniform.

We’d become used to seeing casualties from the front and relatives dead or missing, but innocent children were much harder to bear and sadly at work I was seeing far too many, even though lots of them had been evacuated to the country.
I’ll always remember Jack who I went to school with, he volunteered for the navy right from the start.
When he came home on leave we met up for a drink, he told me his wife was pregnant but it couldn’t have been his, he swore me to secrecy, then I heard he’d volunteered  for submarines, I can’t imagine how anyone can go in those things.

I couldn’t meet him on his next leave but I heard he was in a bad way, they said he’d been mined on two separate occasions, he was in such a state his mother wouldn’t let him go back when his leave expired.                                                                                                                             
The next day the Military Police came for him, but his mother said, 'I am keeping him for one more week and then you can have him back', surprisingly enough they went away, of course they came back a few days later, then five weeks after that we heard the news he was killed in action.
His mother stood by his wife regardless of the tittle tattle, and when the child was born she was still there, it’s people like that who win wars.

Work was tough but Jacks’ mother was always an inspiration to me and when London’s burning someone has to deal with it.
You almost couldn’t cope with it, not just the physical effort but the mental effort needed to turn out night after night knowing what you have to face.
Then all of a sudden the raids stopped, day and night, and for me it was almost back to normal, the only bad news was the retreat from Dunkirk, I lost my cousin there and his brother only just got out although he lost a leg, such a shame as he had been a promising athlete.
Tom told me they were on the beach together for three days before they had a chance to escape, all the time strafed by machine gun and rocket fire from the Luftwaffe.
Hundreds of small boats had been commandeered to transfer the troops from the beach to the larger ships, mostly crewed by the navy though some were taken over by their owners, fishermen and the like.
The first one Tom and Harry were on was destroyed so they had to swim back to shore for another miserable day sheltering as best they could waiting for another chance to get away.
Tom said the last time he saw Harry he was boarding a London tug and assumed he would get home safely, it was only when he got back he found out it was sunk on the way.
His last attempt to leave was on a fishing boat but once again it was strafed by machine gun fire which destroyed his leg, and he was incredibly lucky to have got out on one of the last hospital ships.
We were grateful to have only lost Harry, although I don’t think Tom saw it that way.
The medical advances in those days were amazing, they gave him a new tin leg, but I heard later he’d been killed in a tragic accident, apparently he fell under a tube train and was killed instantly.
I hope that was it, but I just think the thought of not being able to run ever again was too much for him, war makes people do crazy things, sometimes they end up heroes and sometimes they don’t.

Still in all this madness normal life did carry on, Doreen and I went to the Odeon whenever we could and even went to the Palladium once, we saw Tommy Trinder, Arther Askey, a full bill and the dancers, that was a night to remember.

We had some more nights, and days to remember when the Doodle Bugs started to come over, the papers said they were rocket powered bombs launched from France.                                                       The scariest thing about them was you could hear them coming, a strange sort of wurr,wurr, noise that would suddenly stop, that was the frightening thing, when the noise stopped it meant they had run out of fuel and they were coming down.
It was alright if they did it above your head as they would glide past you to the ground but if it was coming towards you and stopped that’s when you were in trouble.
As the war went on the RAF got faster planes and would intercept them and shoot them down or sometimes fly along side them and flip them with their wing tips into the Kent countryside where no one was injured.

Eventually even the doodle bugs stopped and life became a bit more relaxed, people still lost friends and relatives overseas but at home the worst gripe was about the rationing, it was odd that there were children who had never seen a banana.

I managed to buy some petrol on the black market but was too scared to use it as it was for the forces and marked with a dye, but I promised myself as soon as it was over I would take a chance and go for a run in the car.                                                                                                                            
We plodded on with more and more good news, then all of a sudden it was all over, Victory in Europe was declared and although it seemed a long time afterwards we eventually got Victory in Japan and the whole thing really was over.
Even though we still had rationing everyone organised street parties to celebrate with tables in the street and bunting, what gay times we had, getting back to normal was almost an anti climax.
Doreen gave up her job at the factory although a lot of the girls didn’t, which did cause a bit of resentment from some of the returning chaps, but things had changed, everyones lives had changed and we had to move on and look to the future.
What times we’d been through both physically and emotionally, but we’d all come through it, that’s what mattered, I always felt grateful especially at work, every bombed out house or building told a tale of someone who didn’t make it.

Everything in the garden was wonderful, things couldn’t be better, then one day at work I got a phone call to say Doreen had been taken ill, no details but I was to get home as soon as possible.
When I got there her mother met me at the door, 'it’s bad news Ron', she said, 'Doreens dead', I’m afraid I just went to pieces I couldn’t accept it, how could we have gone through all that for nothing, it seemed so dreadfully unfair.
Apparently she’d had a massive heart attack, no warning, nothing, just taken from me in an instant, I sobbed like a child.
I’m afraid I embarrassed myself at the funeral, I broke down at the graveside and wept, I know I should have had more self control but I couldn’t help myself.

The kids are at Doreens mums, I couldn’t look after myself, let alone them, I would cry uncontrollably for no reason, I felt so utterly helpless.
When I woke this morning I knew what I was going to do, I just wanted one last drive in the car first, I hadn’t been able to in the war and anyway I had to warm the engine, I didn’t want it to stall half way through.
It should be easy, just put the hose on the exhaust pipe and the other end through the window, off you go to sleep, easy as that, all the pains gone.

It was raining when I went out, a terrible day, so I was surprised when I got to Audley Wood it stopped raining, the sun came out and there was the most amazing rainbow.
I couldn’t see it properly until I opened the sun roof, it was so beautiful I started crying, but not in the same way as before, somehow in that moment I’d let everything go, I knew Doreen was up there looking down, and I felt peace.

I threw the pipe away and drove back like a lunatic to get the kids, it’s such a lovely day, I think we should have a picnic.

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