Transcript of interview with Lucy King
Interviewer (MS): This is Matthew Smaldon for Wargen. The date today is the 19th November 2018. I shall be speaking with Mrs Lucy King nee Blay at her home in Oxford. We shall be discussing her experiences during the Second World War, where she was with the NAAFI and the ATS EFI, serving in the United Kingdom, France, Belgium and Germany.
To start, can I ask when and where you were born?
Lucy King (LK): Well, whether I [am not sure if I] was born at home or hospital or not. We lived in Walton Street then, number 14. I was born in Oxford.
MS: So you were born in Oxford. And when was that?
LK: 1924. I’m 94. [laughs]
MS: Can I ask a little bit about your family? What did your father do for a job?
LK: Well, my father was totally blind. But he went to the Blind School in Birmingham, cause he lost his sight before he was 21. And he learnt to do the cane chairs. I don’t think you see them – not the real cane chairs – today, only people that are well off. He used to repair them. And the rush chairs – you might find in the old churches if you look – might be down St Barnabus. And the rushes are ever so long – and he did them and cane chairs. Do you know Little Clarendon Street?
MS: I do, yes
LK: Well there was what we called a Blind Shop up there. And the ladies there, the blind ladies, used to do the knitting of socks. Which my mother did as well. Rich people used to bring their chairs there, and then they used to do them. But my Dad was – there was no National Health then – he was paid 3/4d and it used to take him maybe all day. But do you know, he was perfect. When there was anything good there, very expensive, Mrs Bailey I remember her name was, she always used to give them to my Dad. Cause opposite us where we lived in Cranham Street, there was another blind man, Mr Harris, and he used to do the chairs as well, but he wasn’t as good as my Dad. My Dad was marvellous at feeling. When they were done, he used to feel all over there. And if you can imagine, real cane has little whiskers, and he had some little scissors, and he used to trim all over. I bet you that he got every whisker out.
MS: And he wasn’t born blind, he became blind?
LK: He lost his sight before he was 21. I don’t know what through, but my Mother said his mother tried to get rid of him, and that’s what caused his blindness, but I wouldn’t have thought so. They lived in London then. I think they were caretakers.
Susan (Daughter): He lost an eye
LK: Yes, he lost an eye – it was detached retina.
MS: And can I ask where you went to school?
LK: St Barnabus, down the bottom of Cardigan Street. There was a church and an Infants School in Cardigan Street, and you walked through and the Senior School was in Great Clarendon Street. The Infants School is pulled down but the Senior School is still there but I don’t know what they use it for.
MS: And what age did you leave school?
LK: 14. It was 14 then.
MS: So was that just before the war broke out?
LK: Yes, just before the war
MS: Did you have a job then?
LK: Yes. I went to the University Press. Everybody went to the Press then. It was a good place to work. I stuck it for two years, but I hated it.
MS: What was your job?
LK: Bookbinding. And my brother. I didn’t like it. After two years I got out and went into shop work [laughs]
MS: And when war was declared, do you remember hearing that it had happened?
LK: I think probably my Dad had it on the wireless. He had a wireless with little buttons on, which he pressed. I remember it was made by Pye.
MS: Did you used to listen to the radio a lot?
LK: Well I suppose I did. My mother was deaf as well, she could see better then. Us kids in them days, you had to help your mother. So we didn’t have much time to play really. Cause our school days was 9 o’clock till 12, then you went home for dinner, then you had 2 o’clock till quarter past four. So you can imagine in the winter months, it was dark.
MS: And you mentioned ‘us kids’. You had a brother – was it just the two of you or?
LK: Only two of us. Only 13 months between us. But he died a couple of years ago. So when I think of my mother and father, they brought us two kids up, they done pretty well.
MS: And so your father was blind, and your mum partially sighted and…
LK: She was partially sighted first of all, and both her and my Dad was up the Blind School in Birmingham but they didn’t meet there. When my Mum got married, her sight then came back, but she lost her hearing. [Photo of family being shown]
MS: So that must have been taken in 19…
LK: I was born in 1924. I think they got married in 1922.
MS: And this photograph, because you are in it, it must have been taken in the late 1920s. And that is your father there, and your mother, and he is blind
LK: Quite young, in his 30s I think. She didn’t have hearing aids in those days. She learned the deaf blind language. We were taught that. She must have been deaf when we were kids cause I remember learning that when I was about seven.
MS: And so you mentioned the outbreak of the war and hearing it on the radio. Did anything change in Oxford when the war started?
LK: Not a lot I don’t think. I can’t remember much. I think rationing started, I believe more or less straight away. And of course the first lot that were called up, and the regular soldiers, they all went.
MS: Do you remember anything about the rationing? Where there certain shops you had to go to, to get stuff?
LK: I think my mother always stopped… well, we were near the Co-Op on Walton Street. And we had Butlers, which was quite reasonable. In them days, when people weren’t well off, they went to the cheapest shops. I can remember Overconial (?) on the corner of Queens Street and New Inn Hall Street, they were quite cheap. But the only dear shops that I can remember where the well off went were, there was a big shop on Cornmarket Street called Grimley Hughes. They were upper class. I don’t think my Mum ever shopped there [laughs]
MS: Where there any soldiers in the area?
LK: Yes, up Cowley Barracks. We had a lot of soldiers there. I don’t know if there were any up Bicester or not, but I expect all those at Cowley Barracks were called up.
MS: Where there ever any soldiers on Port Meadow?
LK: I don’t remember there ever being a camp there, but there may have been – I don’t know. Cause when war started – I believe it started in September, so they might have had to camp there. I don’t know.
MS: Did you have an air-raid shelter in the garden, or anything like that?
LK: I don’t know whether we had one like that. I think there was one big one somewhere around Jericho, but we never bothered. Because I think all the houses where we lived in Cranham Street had downstairs cellars, what you used to get the coal in, so I think that if anything happened, you’d just go down there.
MS: Do you ever remember hearing the air raid sirens?
LK: Oh yeah, I can remember them. They went quite often but I think you got used to them because Oxford wasn’t really bombed. Because we are in a valley aren’t we, in Oxford. I mean London had it worse than us, didn’t they?
MS: Were there any evacuees who were brought to Oxford?
LK: Oh yeah, at lot of evacuees came from London, and that is why. Because I can remember a friend of ours, Joan, she came as a little girl. My Mum had a couple of blind people. Always had them. We had a blind man I remember, and a blind lady. She was ever so nice. She was very fond of my Mum. My Mum was a good living person. Every Christmas they used to give them a Blind Tea Party at the Townhall. Well, if you can imagine, some of the people used to take their husbands and wives, sit them down after tea, and being how they couldn’t see, they couldn’t see who was sat next to them. My Mum used to go round, and take one of them to sit [next to another] if they knew them. She was ever so good like that.
MS: And the couple that stayed with you, the blind couple, were they evacuated?
LK: Oh yeah, it was only one lady and one man. Mr Harridance his name was. I think he lived in Poplar, you know – the really run down places.
MS: And as the war went on, and you were getting a little bit older, did you decide that you wanted to join up?
LK: Yes. The thing was, when you were 18, they started conscription. And no way was I going in a factory up the Pressed Steel. I’d had enough factory work. So I went round town one day, and I remember it was in Woolworths, a big advert – ‘Come and Join the WAAFs as a Barrage Balloon Handler’, you know. It showed a picture of these WAAF girls with the ropes. And I thought, ‘oh that was lovely, that’ll do me’. So I went along, and I had the medical but I didn’t pass, I think because of my eyes I suppose. Being outside you had to have good eyesight. Anyway, I gave up on that. A week or two after they changed the adverts, and they advertised for NAAFI. And I looked at it and I thought ‘Oh, that’s something good. That’ll do me’. So in I went, and you didn’t have to have much of a medical, only a Doctor saying you were fit. So I joined up, and I went into Brize Norton on my 18th birthday. I shall never forget that. And I was at Brize Norton I think for over 12 months. And while I was there, they were coming round, our supervisors, getting ready for us people to go over there [France]. Of course, you had to join the Army, so of course I volunteered, put my name down, like you do when you’re kids. And I thought, I’ll never hear anything more. Anyway, I served my time as Brize Norton, over 12 months I think, then I went to Dunstable. That was a small wireless station. I was there for so long, then I ended up at Holton. And when I was at Holton, that’s when I had the call to go. Our head office was in Dulwich, near London. So we had to go there, and we were transferred. We had to go up to Scotland for four weeks training. And I can remember it was a place called Dalkeith, near Edinburgh. I don’t know how many of us went – not all of us went at one time [referring to group photo]. But they must have gone at some time. I remember we went on the midnight train, and they introduced us and all that. And I remember it was four weeks hard slog. We learnt to march, we learnt to salute, and I don’t know what that was for, cause we never used it afterwards
. But it was very strict, but it was good fun. And then I came back. We had two kitbags then. One to put our civilian clothes in, and one our uniform. I think we came back in our uniforms on the train, so when we got to Dulwich we had to pack our uniform up in one bag, and then go back to your NAAFI. I went back to Holton, and within a few weeks we were called up. And that was in September  think.
We were the sixth lot over there. Apparently they’d sent a couple [of lots of] girls to small camps, but as the war was getting on, they used to send the soldiers from the front on a 48 hour pass, that they had to have. And they liked the NAAFI where they could get a proper meal and that. So as I say, it was quite nice. First of all I was called up, and from there we went to Bayeux. Have you heard of that? That was a small place. I think only about 6 of us went there. But they had a session of dysentery. We all got dysentery, so I think they closed it. Then I moved up to Brussels. That was their transit camp, where they shift you out to different parts. I think I was the only one, because I was young, I went to Antwerp.
That was good, but it was very dangerous. I forget how many there was of us, about 10 I suppose. First they introduced us to the surrounding area. We took over a big hotel, we were only about 5 minutes walk from Antwerp docks. Of course, the Germans were after that. And they give us the low-down. I don’t know whether you know what the V1 and V2s are?
MS: Do you mind explaining?
LK: Yeah. The V1s, they didn’t have them over London much. The V1 is a pilotless plane, and it glides. When it stops, it floats. So if you heard it overhead, you know you were safe. So they used to come down – it could go half a mile or anywhere, and explode. But with the rocket, that was smaller. The V1s used to only come over at night, but the V2s used to come over in the day time. I can remember one afternoon, I was out with this soldier, and we were going to this cinema. And we got to this cinema, and all of a sudden there was this big flash in the sky. And this bloke pulled me down to the ground, and it was this rocket, came straight down on the cinema, which we would’ve been landed in. I expect it killed a few people, because the Belgians, really you weren’t supposed to go where there was crowds. We never stopped to find out. Because if anything happened like that, you had to report back to say you were safe. I think it probably unnerved me a bit. But with the V1s, you didn’t bother, because you got used to it.
In the morning, you always knew what happened, because news travelled fast in them days, because there was always some Belgian woman or bloke, that knew where it has come down. I don’t know if ever any did come down on the Docks, I expected they did. But you weren’t allowed in there, because I expect it was the Army in charge. But whether they ever did any damage, I don’t know.
MS: After you were at Holton, you had your training, you mentioned it was your birthday. So it was 1942 when you joined up, and 1944 when you went over to France initially. Do you remember how you got over to France?
LK: I think we went from Southampton, because we had to go on this troopship. And I can remember it must have been September because it was very warm. And there were a lot of soldiers, where it had come from I don’t know. They made us go up on the top, and up the top of the deck there was all these hammocks. I think the soldiers was going to have a good laugh at us. Because if you try to get in a hammock, you never done it first time [laughs]. And when one of us managed it, they all give a cheer. I think we was on that ship a good few hours. And then, I don’t know whether you know, there was a floating dock at Arromanches. The ship docked right out in the ocean, and there was a smaller boat that we had to load on, with our kitbags. And one of our girls, she lost her kitbag – went into the sea. Never found out. So what she got on, what she got on. And then from the floating dock, we was sent to Arromanches, that was the depot, and from there I went on to Antwerp.
MS: And did you stop at Bayeux first?
LK: Yeah, but we was only there about a month I think. As I say, it was only a small canteen, and I think it might have been a bit out of the way. That’s how they had us. I know we all got dysentery. I suppose with the war and disease there…
MS: And could you explain what you were doing there, because you mentioned the canteen, so was this similar to what you were doing in England?
LK: Yes, the only thing was that we were like a restaurant open all day. The Belgian women did all the serving and that. We just sat at desks, just taking the money. Because it was strange francs, you know. Francs and pfennigs, no, cents. It was pfennigs in Germany. But we didn’t actually do any dirty work, the work was different to when we were at home.
MS: And when you were at home, you were doing…
LK: Oh, we were serving cups of tea, and cakes and whatever.
MS: And when you were at Brize Norton, you were working in the NAAFI there, were you there when Brize Norton got bombed?
LK: No. Did it get bombed?
MS: I know some bombs were dropped on it, before you got there I think
LK: Because that was all Air Force there. I don’t remember any [bombs]. I liked it as Brize Norton because I could come home. Every week we’d have a day off.
MS: So not too far to come back to Oxford. And when you were in Bayeux, you got ill as you said, and then you travelled up to Antwerp…
LK: No, from there we travelled up to Brussels. That was our transit camp, and you stayed there until they shoved you somewhere else like
MS: And that must have been quite soon after Brussels was liberated
LK: Yes, it must’ve been.
MS: So it was probably October time, something like that?
MS: And then you went up to Antwerp. In Antwerp, where were you working?
LK: It was in the main street. The Docks were at the bottom. I don’t know what they called it. It was only about five, ten minutes walk. But we were never allowed down there. I think they took this big hotel, because on the bottom floor was a big beer garden. Mind you, you can imagine that was well used every night. I don’t think it was open in the day – it couldn’t have been. And then the second floor was the canteen, well more like a restaurant. Then there was two more floors there, and that was our dining room and living quarters.
MS: And you were sleeping there as well then?
MS: Did you have bunk beds?
LK: Oh no – proper beds. It was comfortable. You could not fault it.
MS: Who were your customers there, who were you serving?
LK: Only the Army. They didn’t allow civilians
MS: And was it only the British Army, or did you have Canadians, or…
LK: I suppose so. Any in the Army. There weren’t any Airforce over there then, or Navy. So I should imagine there were some Canadians and that. I think they were glad of it, because they had a 48 hour pass, and somewhere nice to go. They could visit Brussels, and they could get a meal anytime. Which was a change from Army grub [laughs], as you can imagine.
MS: Did you ever meet any Belgian people, any Belgian families?
LK: Funnily enough, my mother years ago – it must’ve been in the First World War, she had a friend who lived over here [Belgium]. Whether she was in service with her, I don’t know. But I never knew, until I was in Antwerp. My Mum wrote to me – and she lived in Bruges, which was not far away. When she knew I was in Antwerp, she sent me this address, to see if I could find her. Anyway, one of the blokes I was going out with, he was very good. He took me there, we found it. We used to get a ration of 20 fags and a bar of plain chocolate. Well I never ate the chocolate because it was horrible, and the fags I never smoked, so I used to put them in my drawer. When I used to go and see this lady, she’d got about four children by then, so I think she must’ve been a lot younger than my Mum. And yet my mum had never mentioned her, not till I was there, I don’t know why. As I say, I used to go and see her every week, because we had a day off like, and this bloke used to take me. The soldiers were ever so good to us, they really were. You could always find one to go out with. I think I went out with two or three.
The one I went out with more was a medical orderly. They had quite a big medical place in Antwerp, with a medical officer in charge. You knew what it was, because it had a red cross. And next door to that was another building with a green cross. So being nosey, I said to him one day ‘What’s the green cross there?’ And what it was, it was for these men, for when they went with women, they went after, as they might have caught a disease. So that’s where they went. I don’t think many girls had the cheek to ask! [laughs] I wouldn’t have asked if he hadn’t have worked there.
MS: And you mentioned, the lady who was friends with your Mum. When you went to visit her, did you take cigarettes and chocolate?
LK: Yes. She used to take my ration. They were thrilled to bits. I don’t suppose the kids got much chocolate. It was like plain chocolate here, but very bitter.
MS: So she’d been there all through the German occupation?
LK: Yes. She must have been over with my Mum either in the services or some reason.
MS: She might have been a refugee as there were quite a few Belgian refugees who came over in the First World War to Oxford. And how long were you in Antwerp – where you there for Christmas?
LK: Yes. I can’t remember, but I suppose we must have celebrated a bit, but not a lot as the war was on. I never worked in the beer bar, because I didn’t want to as it was a bit rowdy as you can imagine. Blokes used to come there, and there was a piano, and there’d always be somebody playing on the piano. And the blokes got really rizzied, which you can imagine I suppose, if they’d come from up the front, they wanted a 48 hour to forget it. Many a time I suppose they slept on the floor, so we just left them to it.
MS: And then you were in Antwerp, I suppose, when the Germans – in the Battle of the Bulge, they pushed into Belgium in December. Did you hear anything about that?
LK: Not really. I expect the Belgian people did. But I suppose really we weren’t that much interested. I was only, what was I then? I spent my 21st birthday in Antwerp, so I was one of the young ones.
MS: When is your birthday?
MS: So you were in Antwerp at the end of the war then?
LK: Yes. I’ll tell you another thing. May 5th was VE Day and Lord Montgomery came. Because I think there were a lot of soldiers stationed in Antwerp and around. So I suppose he’d come to view the troops. But we didn’t get to see him because we were working. But it was quite nice for the Belgian people, to have somebody like that, in authority [visit them].
MS: And were you alright for food and things like that?
LK: Yes. We were well fed. I expect the Belgian women who worked there, they had a meal as well, so it pleased them.
MS: What sort of food did you serve there?
LK: I think they served everything. Tea and cake, and I believe they served cooked meals. Because we were open all day, not like in peacetime. We were only open in the morning and night time. Because I think if you didn’t want to go with a women, they were glad to come in to chat with people.
MS: And then after the war ended, you were moved? You went from Antwerp…
LK: Yes. May 5th and a few weeks then we were moved up to Hamburg. That was our depot there. And I was there a couple of weeks. Then I was posted to a place called Oldenburg. Very old city, I don’t know why we moved there. But I wasn’t there very long, then that’s when they were thinking about opening a shop, as they’d let the married women come over, I suppose for the regular soldiers. And being one of the youngest, I suppose they thought I’d weather it well. And then we were sent to open a shop. As I say, it was a lovely shop. But all we had to do – and that’s why they give you two stripes, I was supposed to let the Germans know we were in charge, which you can imagine – but they did all the work.
MS: And where was that shop?
LK: In Berlin. Right in the heart of Berlin. And while I was there, I think it must’ve been when the married women were there, they took us on a trip around Berlin, sightseeing. And we went past where Hitler’s bunker was. Mind you it was all boarded up. And if I can remember rightly, there was a soldier on guard. So I don’t know what it is today. I should imagine that they’ve pulled it down.
MS: And could I just ask, obviously you experienced some of the doodlebugs and rockets in Antwerp. When you went into Hamburg, Hamburg had been heavily bombed, hadn’t it?
LK: Yes, pretty bombed out I think. But soon after that, because the war was over, they were letting the civilians over, the civilian NAAFI took over, and that’s when we were demobbed.
MS: Can I ask a little bit about Berlin? What did you think of Berlin, what was it like?
LK: I can’t remember much about it really. Because we didn’t have much time to look round. I think its quite a nice city. Whether it was bombed or not, I would imagine. Because it’s the capital of Germany.
MS: The shop that you ran, where about in Berlin was it?
LK: In one of the main streets I think, right in the centre. I think it must have been a big shop that they took over. Because, as I say, it sold everything that soldier’s wives needed. And I expect the food they had to bring from England. I don’t know whether they could bring children. I don’t think they had children over there, they might have done later on.
MS: And the shop was for soldier’s wives?
LK: Oh yes, only for the soldier’s wives.
MS: Did you have much to do with the German people when you were there?
LK: Well, it was alright if you could speak their language. So, really, I didn’t learn their language much, so you made do. If you want a cup of tea, you sort of point [laughs]. I don’t think they had anything against us. I think the ordinary German people were against the war as much as us. When you think of it, Hitler had to be stopped.
MS: So there were German women working in the shop?
LK: Yes. All German. I expect some of the German men did the heavy lifting and that. Of course, the thing is when you go from French Francs, and then you got to go to German Marks, and pfenigs I think they were called, the little coins, it was a bit tricky to learn all that. But we got through.
MS: Where were you living in Berlin?
LK: We were only about a mile out I think, because we had civilian [digs]– probably we took over a boarding house or something. Because that soldier who was with us [referring to photo], he was with the RASC, and he used to drive us in every day. But we were a good crowd there. I can honestly say I got on well, you know. Although it was wartime, you had to make your enjoyment where you could. And I think, thank God I never got stuck in the Pressed Steel Factory, cos I should have hated that!
MS: Did you have friends who ended up working at Pressed Steel?
LK: No. I had a cousin who worked up there. Our Elsie worked up there on munitions.
MS: What did your parents think about you joining up?
LK: I don’t know really. I know my Mum was proud, because then – if you had anybody in the family [in the services] – you sent your photograph to the Mail [Oxford Mail]. I can remember my Mum sent my picture, and one of my [future] husband’s friends, Ken Herring, he was never in the war. And he used to write to my husband, and he sent him the photograph, and that’s how he knew where I was. And I had this letter from him, and it took weeks. And all it was, was my name, and where I was – but it found me eventually! [laughs]
MS: And that letter, it wasn’t from your husband at that time, was he? And you’d been friends with him before you joined up?
LK: Oh yes. He was my first boyfriend actually. It’s funny – he come down one night – he was a butcher up Banbury Road – Alldens. And he come down on his bike, and I was waiting at the Scala cinema for him, and he was late. And he come off his bike and he was laughing. And I think I told him to bugger off [laughs]. And from then on we never met up again until after the war. He just got on his bike and off he went [laughs]. You do daft things when you’re young.
MS: Did you reply to him when he wrote to you during the war?
LK: No, I didn’t. I think I was too busy. I can’t remember if I wrote to him – I don’t think I did. Because I was going out with another bloke at the time.
MS: But when you got back, you did meet up with him again?
LK: How did I meet him again? I think it must have been through Ken Herring.
MS: When you were in the ATS, what was your uniform like?
LK: Lovely. It was smooth. The NAAFI had a uniform but I would never wear it because it was horrible, rough, like the soldier’s. And a funny hat – no way was I going to wear that. So being a civilian, you could use your own clothes. But the ATS uniforms were really nice. When we were kitted out, you had two uniforms. One with brass buttons, for going out, and one with Bakelite ones. And while you were training, they give you like a brass thing, with a slot. And you put it over your button, and cleaned them. And I can remember seeing, when they gave us all the kit, this tin of Duraglit. And I thought – Duraglit – I’ve never heard of that. And it was like cotton wool, with all this stuff – you put a pinch on, like Brasso I suppose. To be quite honest, you got quite proud of wearing that uniform in a strange country. Because where you went, and you were in uniform, people respected you. Even in Scotland they did.
MS: Thank you very much for your time. I only have one last question for you. And that is, do you think your experiences during the war changed you?
LK: Well I suppose it did in a way. It made you a bit… I never used to like to go with crowds. I always had one friend. And a lot of the girls smoked fags and went boozing. And to me, that wasn’t my scene. We were never brought up like it anyway. My Dad used to like a pint of beer, but being brought up in a pub, he would. But he never drank.
MS: So you mixed with all sorts of people, other girls, in the ATS
LK: I suppose it made you think more, when you come home – what are you going to do? I can’t remember what I did do when I came home – I must’ve worked somewhere before I got married
MS: Were you demobbed in 1946?
LK: No, 1947, at the beginning. I know I came home in January 1947. Because then the war was over, and they were letting civilians go in.
MS: Thank you very much for your time.