Article Human Rights & Press Freedom

Lest we forget: memoirs of a nonagenarian

"We danced in the streets outside Buckingham Palace on VE Day"

Memories, parades and wreath-laying; centenary celebrations continue to remember those who died in World War I. From Great Britain to New Zealand on 25 April 2015, television stations broadcast celebrations held to honour thousands of Anzac troops who faced horrors and died during the Gallipoli landings in Turkey 100 years ago.

“Such a waste,” sighs my 91-year-old mother Betty, as she channel-hops from the BBC, Sky News, CNN, eNCA, “nothing has changed.” God willing, she will be glued to the television on 8 May to watch the 70- year celebrations of the end of World War II in Europe.

What struck me as I sat down to talk and record her memories as a young woman born between the two world wars, is that despite the horrors and carnage taking place throughout Europe and further afield, there were no televisions, mobile phones, internet, social media, Twitter, Instagram and Facebook to record the atrocities and send images around the world in seconds. There was only the radio and Pathe news, which was about six weeks old by the time it reached the “pictures” (cinema), and all news was heavily censored.

In fact, what my mother remembers of those early years of her life has been filtered with a rosy glow of memories of a simple but carefree life. There may have been no inside bathroom and toilet, or a family car at first, but there were the country walks, flowers and trees, family outings and friendships that lasted decades. It was also an era of discipline, when children were seen but not heard and stoicism, where you did not talk or dwell on losses and hardships, but kept a “stiff upper lip” in the British way.

My heroine is my mother Betty, who throughout her life has done her best to impart values, wisdom and love to her children (David, Andrew and me), grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Lest we forget are memories and anecdotes of Betty’s early life as a young girl and woman born between the two world wars. Stories that will fade into oblivion if not recorded. My mother’s story is just one among millions of those whose lives were dramatically changed by what has been described by historians as the deadliest conflict in human history.

Eileen Betty Ellis was born on 24 March 1924 in Pinions near High Wycombe, Bucks (UK) to middle-class parents, Violet Nelly (known as Helen) and Walter Edwin Ellis, part owner of a furniture factory that made all types of wooden furniture, popular at that time.

Betty was an only child and a lonely one at times. She has a vivid recollection of being alone when she was about five. Betty says she was left at home “asleep” one night while her parents went out to the pub with friends. She was not very popular with them, because after waking up and finding the house empty, she stood at the front door and screamed the neighbourhood down. After that episode she was reluctantly dragged to pubs, where friendly landlords would let her sit in an unobtrusive corner while her parents and friends partied the nights away.

“Although they were afraid that another war might break out, everybody seemed to be on a ‘high’ and my parents and their friends drank and lived it up. Nobody talked about the Great War (WWI), and they certainly didn’t talk about it in front of children. There might have been nods or knowing glances at people we knew, but I was not aware then if they or their families suffered in some way.”

Neville Chamberlain gave us the dreadful news that we were at war.

War broke out when 15-year-old Betty was still at grammar school. She remembers quite clearly listening to Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain at 11am on 3rd September 1939. “He had been negotiating with Hitler for days and we were waiting with baited breath, because during this time Hitler had invaded Poland.”

By now Betty was living with her parents at the Red Lion pub in London Road after her father bought himself out of the furniture business and bought a pub licence. “We were at the pub when we heard the dreadful news that we were at war with Germany. Dad told us to get down into the cellar as we fully expected the sirens going off and the Germans coming over to bomb us.”

People were encouraged to build air raid shelters in their gardens. They were called Anderson shelters and had corrugated iron roofs. “You had to dig a hole and shore it up to make a room, with steps leading down to it and you stored bedding, food and water in it, ready for use. As we lived in the pub we just went down to the cellar, which was much more comfortable compared to the cold earth and corrugated iron.”

Everyone was issued with gas masks that they had to carry around their necks at all times, but nothing happened, no one knew what to do and after a time life went on as usual. “At first we were very frightened and expected to see planes and bombs falling on us, but after a few weeks we began to relax and we only got to see the fighting in Europe when we went to the pictures and watched Pathé news.”

London, other strategic towns and port cities were being bombed and at night, during heavy raids, the fires in London could be seen from High Wycombe.

Hating school, Betty left as soon as she could and had a series of mundane jobs, one of them with a trade union, “All the staff were women, except for two men, because all the other men had been conscripted. I thought the women were very coarse. They were evacuees from London and boy-mad, gawking at the American soldiers who were stationed nearby and who were girl-mad - they couldn’t believe their luck.”

What nobody knew at the time was that the airforce base was the American headquarters and that General Eisenhower was living in a secluded house in the woods near Princes Risborough.

The arrival of the American GIs was thrilling for men-starved women. “The streets were full of American soldiers and they looked so smart in their khaki pants and dark olive green jackets, while our poor boys had to wear horrible serge uniforms.”

Every Saturday night there were dances and there was no shortage of dance partners. The GIs wooed the local girls and gave them luxury gifts like silk stockings and chocolates. Those like Betty who were already “spoken for” were envious and, not to be outdone, drew black or brown lines up the backs of their bare legs and pretended they were wearing silk stockings, rather than wear the heavy lisle stockings that were standard issue in the shops.

Many young women married American servicemen and left in their droves on “bride ships” for the US. “A lot of girls found themselves worse off living in the sticks and many came back with their tails between their legs.”

Secret war work

A pub was a good place to network, exchange gossip, barter for food and get jobs. Helen soon put out feelers and Betty found herself working for AC Cossor, an electronics company founded in 1859 that designed and manufactured electronic valves, radio sets and television receivers.

Unknown to Betty, during the war the company made radar equipment for the government. “It was all very hush hush. I worked in the office as a typist and then as a private secretary in a building away from the factory. I rarely went into the factory. It had machines in it and along the sides of the walls were green [television-like] screens. There were also girls sitting on stools around moving tables, jamming pieces into objects that I later learned were radar components.”

By now Betty was 16 and engaged to be married to my dad Roger Tilling, her childhood sweetheart, whom she had known since she was 11.

Looking for excitement

As war eluded them, Betty and Roger decided to go to London and experience raids first-hand. Ealing was being bombed at the time so they went to Roger’s aunt and uncle’s home there. They and his cousin Marcus evacuated to relatives in High Wycombe, leaving only their Spanish maid to look after the property.

“We were excited but scared stiff and spent the night under the kitchen table as lights strafed the sky looking for German bombers, while naval guns pounded at them all night from a nearby park.” The two of them went home to the safety of the countryside very quickly the next day.

At 18 Betty was married and exempted from call-up, but it was still expected that young women “did their bit” for the country, so she volunteered to do night-time fire duty. “We worked on a roster basis and when it was my turn I went to a very old house in town that had been empty for years. I remember from schooldays that we were scared to go past the house because we felt it was spooky. We worked in twos and had to go up to the roof and look out for fire bombs. If one of them hit the house, the other girl and I were supposed to throw sand from buckets onto the flames. It seems ludicrous now to think that we could have put out any fires as the house was like a tinderbox.”

The only excitement was watching the docks in the East End in flames after a heavy night of bombing.

As the night dragged on the girls would eventually roll out their bedrolls and try and get some rest. “We were always scared, so you can imagine my horror when I woke up in the dark to find an ‘eye’ staring at me.” It turned out that Betty’s companion had a wall eye that didn’t close when she slept and this was what was staring at her. The only excitement on those nights was watching the docks in the East End in flames after a heavy night of bombing.

Sirens went off now and then in High Wycombe when German planes flew over after a raid. “I remember a lone plane dropping its bombs to lighten the load after coming back from the west coast. Fortunately, the bombs fell in a field and all we heard was a loud ‘crump’ as they exploded.”

I’ll never forget his face

Living in a small town, as High Wycombe was then, it was unusual to meet badly injured soldiers, so it came as a great shock to Betty when she came face to face with an airman who had been badly burnt when he was shot down by enemy aircraft.

“Roger was not even 21 when he was enlisted into the air force. He was posted nearby and decided to hitch a lift home when a fellow airman stopped and picked him up. I was about eight months pregnant then and had stayed up all evening waiting for him, when he walked in with a stranger with a horribly disfigured face – just shiny skin from grafts and slits for eyes and mouth. I was terrified (inside) but I talked to him as if he was perfectly normal. I will never forget his face.”

How medicine has changed since then; now, donor skin can be grown in laboratories and burns victims’ faces and bodies can be repaired with grafts that leave little scarring.

We knew we were winning

There was no doubt in anyone’s mind that Great Britain would win the war, says Betty. “Winston Churchill kept us going – he was wonderful and we only had to hear his voice on the radio giving magnificent uplifting speeches, to motivate us.”

The feeling that victory was near grew after the peace treaty was signed. “There was such excitement as we knew we were winning and there was just this last push to finish the European part of the war.”

When VE Day, came Betty and her friend Connie went by train to London to celebrate. “We stood outside Buckingham Palace hoping to see the king and queen. Thousands of people were thronging the streets and we danced and cheered with excitement. It was wonderful, we lost all idea of time and found ourselves having to take the late-night milk train, arriving home in the early hours of the morning.”

After VE Day (Victory in Europe), rationing continued for years and there was a massive shortage of housing.

After VE Day (Victory in Europe) the excitement wore off and, in fact, life seemed to get worse instead of better. Rationing continued for years and there was a massive shortage of housing. “In those days you couldn’t have any empty rooms in your house – if you did you had to have evacuees and people whose homes were bombed out, so rather than continue living in the Red Lion, which I hated, Roger, David and I moved in with Roger’s sister Elizabeth so that she didn’t have to have any more strangers living with her.”

Life was hard and Roger, who had now been demobbed, was back in his old job as a clerk at a furniture factory. The promise of promotion when he returned from the war did not materialise and he had a wife and two sons to look after.

After another terribly cold winter, with coal rations, and tired of pushing the double pram up to the gasworks to get coke, which was free, Roger answered a job advert in the newspaper. He never said a word – just announced one day that he was going to London for an interview.

“He came back and said that he had accepted the job offer and was going to Africa – to Tanganyika to join the Groundnut Scheme. Within weeks he had left and a year later in 1949, the boys and I joined him in Dar es Salaam. The extremes in life between Britain and Tanganyika, where there was so much opulence, is another story.”

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