Friendships forged in war soldier on

There was considerable confusion within the authorities on the evacuation of children from Ipswich during the early months of World War Two. Kindred Spirits readers tell what the experience was like for them.

There was considerable confusion within the authorities on the evacuation of children from Ipswich during the early months of World War Two. At first children were brought from London to Ipswich. This was thought to be a mistake, as Ipswich with its dock engineering works and airport was a target. In 1940 hundreds were sent to what was thought to be safer parts of the country. Many from Ipswich went to Leicester only to find it was just as dangerous there. Hundreds returned home, others were unable to return as their families could not afford the fare home. Today we learn from Kindred Spirits readers what the experience was like for them.

A friendship spanning over sixty-six years was formed when a little girl was evacuated from Ilford to Ipswich. Tom McCarthy, of Nacton Road, told me of how his family has kept in touch through their lives. Tom said. “We were just one of the many thousands of families who gave a safe haven to the countless number of evacuees who came pouring out of London as war was declared in September 1939. After several months had passed the air raids intensified and we were no longer the safe haven, as Hitler's bombers turned their attention to the east coast resulting in many hundreds of Ipswich children becoming evacuees themselves. What is perhaps unique about our story is that 67 years later we are still in contact with our evacuees who have become our life-long friends. Remarkably my mother Nellie, is still in regular contact with the little girl who came to stay with us in 1940”.

That little girl was Joan Liddle, who now lives in Saffron Walden. Joan tells how a lifelong friendship was started by a war. Joan said “It was two months before my 13th birthday when war broke out on September 3 1939. We had just returned from a family holiday on the Isle of Wight, with no TV or radio during that time, we were not fully aware of how serious things were. It was when we boarded the train at Liverpool Street to return to Ilford, that we found the carriage was lit with one blue bulb hanging from the ceiling. The windows were covered with a sticky net to reduce the effect of flying glass. Everyone was pretty quiet and looking serious”.

“Once back home we heard that children should report to their schools, so I went and was registered ready for evacuation. It was all rather exciting for us, and great to be meeting up again with our friends. We were told what we must bring and certainly not to forget our newly issued gas-masks, along with our name labels that we must wear. After a few days of sitting around, or lying in the sun on the playing field, we were told we were to leave the following morning”.

“On Friday, September 1, we all assembled together with parents and friends who had come to see us off. The coaches arrived to take us to the station, but we had no idea of where we were being taken. It was all a great adventure. We were too excited, at that time, to notice very much, the anxiety on the faces of those we were leaving behind.

It was a slow journey on the train to Ipswich. When we finally arrived we were taken from the station to Cliff Lane Primary School. It was a brand new school that had not yet been formally opened. We were given a drink and some custard cream biscuits. I can never eat custard creams now without remembering that day. There we stood, or sat, for what seemed like hours before we were allocated to our respective 'billet ladies'.

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My friend, Olive, her sister Doreen and myself were taken to meet Mr and Mrs Birch of Elmhurst Drive. We were amongst the last to be collected as Mr and Mrs Birch had been at work all day at the Co-op. They were newly-weds and to have three girls, two teenagers and a younger one thrust upon them, must have been horrendous. But they made us welcome and we tried to please them”.

“The next day we tried to look our best when Mrs Birch kindly offered to walk us down into town. We walked past the docks area; we did not know that there were docks in Ipswich. We finally came to the shops and a cinema near the Cornhill.

When Mrs Birch had completed her shopping we were glad to have a ride back to Elmhurst Drive on a bus packed with people and standing room only”.

On Sunday September 3 we were all told to go into Holywells Park nearby and gather near a building that had a loudspeaker attached to a radio. We had to be there a few minutes before 11am when the Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, was about to broadcast to the nation. Big Ben struck 11 and the Prime Minister began to explain to us that the ultimatum he had sent to Hitler to withdraw his troops from Poland, which had first been invaded by the Germans, had been ignored and “as a result this country is at war with Germany.” He sounded very sad. As he finished a plane flew overhead and, for a moment, I think a number of us wondered if we were about to be bombed, but it was one of ours”.

“We awoke that night to the wailing sound of the siren warning us of an impending air raid. We all stayed downstairs as the rooms had been sealed against a gas attack, but some of the residents of the road ran into the woods of Holywells Park. One lady, who was carrying a baby, tripped and fell, although fortunately, neither of them was hurt badly. A little while later the single note of the “all clear” was sounded. It had been a false alarm - but a foretaste of things to come”.

“Arrangements were made for us to share the building of Nacton Road Girls School. If the local pupils were there in the morning, we had it in the afternoon. That did not mean we had a half day free. We were given homework and taken on walks.”

“It was certainly no fault of Mr and Mrs Birch that it soon became apparent that three girls were really too much for them. So Doreen and I moved nearby to stay with Mr and Mrs McCarthy and their two-year-old son, Tommy” Mr McCarthy was Irish and loved parties. He worked at Cranes on war production of some kind. Often he did night duties, so needed to sleep during the day. We all tried to keep especially quiet - something which Tommy, being a normal two-year-old, would often find very difficult”.

“Mrs McCarthy is real Suffolk, even now I love to hear that soft Suffolk accent, in all these years she hasn't really changed. How did she cope with us all? There was food rationing and loads of washing and there were no washing machines in those days. In the winter the washing often froze on the line - and trying to remove those stiff, icy, weird shapes from the line was quite a feat. Mr and Mrs McCarthy also welcomed an occasional visit from our parents. We were indeed fortunate in being billeted with such kind people”.

“When we had free time, we often went for walks and one of my favourite places was to Ipswich Airport. No longer for civil aircraft, it had been taken over by the RAF who had twin-engine Blenheim there.”

“Autumn turned into a very cold winter. With no central heating and with coal rationed, we just had to do the best we could to keep warm. Christmas drew near and we all hoped, since there wasn't much enemy activity, that we could go home. We started using our pocket money to buy presents for our families. I had never done any embroidery, but I managed to finish a tray cloth as one of my presents. The day came when, having been sent the money to pay for the journey, we boarded the coach that would take us back to Ilford. It was a glorious morning - one of those bright, crisp, sparkling mornings. The countryside looked like fairyland as we drove past the woods, fields and the glittering shapes of the ferns all covered with frost”.

“We stopped at Bury St Edmunds for a break. Not having enough money left to buy ourselves a cup of tea each, we shared one cup between two. On reaching our final destination, Ilford High Road, I was delighted to see my uncle waiting for me. Had he not have been there, I should have had to walk the one and a half miles home, but with him we got a bus”.

“Although we were pleased to see each other again after the holiday, it was not such an enthusiastic group that returned to Ipswich. We were fortunate, the people were good to us and treated us as 'one of the family' - but, of course, it was still not the same as being at home. We were also grateful to be able to continue our studies together and for the generosity of being allowed the facilities of Nacton Road School, albeit for half days. So we were delighted to hear that we were going to have a school of our own again near Marlow in Buckinghamshire. It was to be the first school of its type in the country, a state boarding school, and would be ready in the spring”.

“It was April 1940 we said farewell to all those kind people who had opened their homes to us and tolerated their lives being invaded by a horde of hefty schoolgirls and at very short notice. It is said that the British people are at their best in a crisis. The people of Ipswich certainly proved that”.

Bewildered little faces pressed against the window of carriages as they pulled out of Ipswich rail station on a journey to who knew where. Peggy Brett (nee Sayer) of Hawthorn Drive was eleven when she was evacuated to Leicester in the early part of the war with her mother Dorothy and brothers Trevor (4 months), Neville (2), Aubrey (9) and Norman (13). Her fifteen-year-old sister Joyce , who was out to work, stayed at home with her father Percy who worked as a driver at the council rubbish tip. Little did they know that soon nine-year-old Aubrey would be close to death with diphtheria?

Peggy told me of the trauma the family suffered: “Soon after arriving in Leicester, Aubrey was taken ill with diphtheria and taken to hospital. He was put on the danger list. They contacted my father by sending a trunk call to the Duke of Gloucester public house in Clapgate Lane, no one my family knew had a telephone then and landlord Mr Beckerleg came to our home in Nightingale Road with an urgent message. My father travelled all night and stayed two or three days until Aubrey improved a little. Soon he had a relapse and my father returned to Leicester again”.

“Mum had to stay at the hospital with Aubrey, so Norman and I fed baby Trevor who was just four-months old with bread and milk until my mother could return home and feed him herself. At the hospital we could only see Aubrey through the window. He was in an iron lung and we could only see his head. He was unable to speak”.

“We spent Christmas in Leicester. While we were there Coventry was blitzed. When Aubrey was due to come out of hospital the doctor told mum to get home as soon as possible as Aubrey was very weak and infantile paralysis polio was a great fear at the time. Aubrey came out of hospital on a cold February day and we were on the train to Ipswich within a couple of days. I remember changing stations at Peterborough. In the confusion of changing trains we almost lost poor little Aubrey. He looked so sad, in those days boys wore boots and Aubrey's legs were so thin and the boots heavy. He also wore my pixie hood to keep warm. His hair was very long. We had many swabs taken because diphtheria was at epidemic stage, but we were all clear. Several of the boys and girls were very helpful and could see how ill and weak Aubrey was”.

“Back in Ipswich we used to walk over to the fence of the airport to see the aircraft. If the siren went some one used to run home and tell my mum we were coming. The boys used to give Aubrey a chair lift and one of bigger boys used to give him a piggy back. It was a long time before Aubrey went back to school at Morland Road again. He was given a spoon full of malt every day to help build up his strength. Norman and I used to take turns licking the thick brown liquid of the spoon. Eventually Aubrey recovered”.

There are still copies of the book “Ipswich, The War Years” available from the Evening Star office in Lower Brook Street, Ipswich. This is a hardback book contains extracts from Kindred Spirits and is published by First Edition of Altrincham. It costs £14.99.

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