Liz Young interviewed in May 2018 by Jill Pearce for WarGen.
My personal memories of the war are rather sketchy and random. I was born at Woldingham, Surrey in 1936. The village is between Croydon, Kenley and Biggin Hill aerodromes, targets for the German bombers and I remember the planes droning overhead and sometimes stopping, presumably to unload bombs, the horrible noise of the warning sirens and the all-clear ones.
We had an Anderson shelter in the garden near the back door, but I don’t remember going there more than once. We slept downstairs where the windows had wooden shutters fitted to prevent broken glass flying everywhere.
My mother, Catherine Benn, was a founder member of the WVS (Women’s Voluntary Service for Civil Defence) and she travelled to London by train every day to run the Press Office. After my Nanny was called up, my aunt came to live with us to keep Mum company and to look after me. The Cook, the Parlour Maid and the Gardener had also been called up but I have no recollection of them.
At this time my father joined the East Surrey Regiment and started off at Dover Castle before being sent to Italy.
Between them, Mum and my Aunt Wigs managed to hide the horror of the bombing situation from me as I don’t remember ever being frightened, nor for that matter ever feeling hungry. We kept chickens and grew vegetables. And we had Canadian soldiers occupying the house opposite and there was great rejoicing one day when they brought over a huge plate of liver which the men had refused to eat. I often wondered how Mum kept it for any length of time as we didn’t have a fridge.
Shortly before my brother was born in 1944 we were sort of ‘evacuated’ to a manor house near Grafton Regis, Northamptonshire. Lady Reading, the founder member of the WVS had decided that Mum should give birth in the peace and quiet of the countryside and arranged for us to stay with a WVS colleague, Lady Hillingdon. I found her stately home with vast paintings of hunting scenes rather frightening and my nose was thoroughly out of joint suddenly not being the centre of attention! I remember a farm hand used to come to the back door each day with a covered pail of milk. I was also fascinated by the horse drawn barges that went along the canal at the end of the property.
On returning home, I resumed going by bus to school in the neighbouring town of Caterham. This was fine until the school decided it should shut mid-afternoon and send us out into the town where we had to wait for a long time for the bus. Caterham being a garrison town, it was full of soldiers and my parents thought this a very unsatisfactory situation and arranged for me, aged nearly 9, to go to the Junior School of Winceby House, one of the many girls’ boarding schools in Bexhill on Sea, Sussex.
I absolutely loved being with a gaggle of girls all the same age. We had to walk up the road, come rain or shine, to the main school building for lessons and lunch. The school was on the top of a cliff above the sea and the classrooms were freezing cold with just one coke boiler in the corner. I suffered with dreadful catarrh and chilblains every winter. Our dorm was also very spartan, but I found it nice and quiet after the noise of the bombers. I don’t remember school food apart from masses of bread and marg and porridge at breakfast which we were forced to eat. I usually managed to get the girl sitting next to me to eat mine and I absolutely loathed it, it made me gag but nobody knew about allergies in those days and I am slightly allergic to milk which is, I suppose, why it made me feel sick.
A large boil appeared on my neck which puzzled the Matron and she smothered it in Wintergreen ointment and bandaged it. When I got home at the end of term the doctor was horrified. It was a TB gland from the unpasteurised milk I had drunk in Northamptonshire.
I am afraid I don’t remember the end of war celebrations. Only my father returning home in 1945 and bursting into tears at the sight of this strange man!
There are two wartime stories I remember my father telling me. Both appealed to his sense of humour. His regiment, the East Surreys, opened up the Citadel Barracks at Dover which had not been used since the 1914-1918 war and they found a vast stock of china chamber pots. I suppose there was no running water there, I don’t know. Some decorated with coloured crests for the use by officers, some with black and white crests for the NCOs and plain white ones for the other ranks. He made friends with a very aristocratic Polish cavalry officer who had escaped a Nazi camp and had been seconded to his regiment. One leave he bought this tall man home and led him into the kitchen where Mum was cooking. He peered around and said, ‘how very interesting, I have never been in a kitchen before.’ I think his family had a castle. After the war, Pa helped him get to Canada where he started work as a lumberjack, but I believe eventually ended up running a timber business over there.
Before the war, my mother had been involved with charity work in London and she must have caught the attention of the Marchioness of Reading because in 1938, she received a letter summoning her with four others, to a secret meeting in London where the WVS was formed and as a journalist she was appointed Press Officer with the idea of attracting women to get involved with war work and she did this with considerable success because by May 1939 there were 256,000 members of the WVS – it was actually the Women’s Voluntary Service for Civil Defence was its proper title and by 1941 there were almost a million members. Due to her publicity campaign, Commonwealth journalists came to Britain to learn how to inspire women in their own countries to join in the war effort and I think this helped sort of people, Americans into sending food parcels and clothing parcels. The responsibilities of the WVS seemed to include helping with evacuation, clothing distribution and helping returning soldiers. They were accredited with moving 1.5 million people out of cities in early 1939, providing clothing for needy including clothing that came from America and those returning from Dunkirk were given food and drink and warm clothing. By the time of the Blitz the WVS had set up mobile canteens and helped 10,000 people every night of the Blitz for 57 nights. 247 members were killed, 25 WVS offices destroyed because they were all over the country. It is rather a shame that after the war they sort of faded from recognition because they had done such a tremendous job during the war and were sort of heroes at the time and then it all just faded away.