As we’ve now got over the sadness of ANZAC Day I think I should talk about my mother’s experiences in the war, which were not quite so horrendous.
On 2nd September 1939, my mother returned to her family in Sheffield from a holiday she’d been taking on the Isle of Man. She was nearly 19 and an only child. My grandfather, who’d fought in the 1st World War, was very worried that war was imminent and wanted her at home, I think.
On Sunday morning, 3rd September, she set off to the RAF office to see if there were any civilian admin. jobs available – she’d trained as a secretary. They persuaded her to enlist and immediately sent her off for a medical. She stripped and the MO was just about to do his examination when the entire place came to a stand-still to listen to Chamberlain’s address on the radio. He declared that as Germany had failed to meet the ultimatum given to them, Britain had been at war with Germany since 11.00am.
In all the commotion in the offices, her medical was skipped and she signed on the bottom line. If she’d had a medical, she wouldn’t have got in. She’s only just over 4’11”, well below their minimum height requirement, and subsequently had to have her uniforms made for her. They didn’t even have shoes and gloves small enough.
This also may mean that she was the first person in Britain to join up during the war. We’ll never know that. I do know that if she hadn’t enlisted, it’s highly unlikely she would have met my father.
She was in Sheffield during all the bombing and I know that’s had a life-long effect on her. But she met my father, who came from London and was training there for a while, and decided to wangle herself a posting to India when he went out there. She worked for Louis Mountbatten in Delhi and was then posted to Sri Lanka (then Ceylon, of course) where she spent the rest of the war, except for a short break to India to marry my father in St Mark’s Cathedral in Bangalore. My father had more leave than my mother had, so he had a longer honeymoon! In November 1945, they travelled back together by boat to England – we still have the correspondence between Commanding Officers giving them permission to do so. I’ve been to St Mark’s and seen the registry entry, which was thrilling.
My mother’s now nearly 88 and she also only talks really about the good times – except for a few stories she’s told us lately about the Sheffield Blitz. She’s very specifically asked us NOT to put the Union flag on her coffin as she feels she doesn’t really deserve it. Her time in Sri Lanka wasn’t arduous – plenty of fresh food, no fighting etc – and she feels that her family in England suffered far more than she did.