The Wartime Memories of Betty Johnson

When and where, were you born?

1928 – Kilburn, London

Tell me about your parents? What did your father do?

Mother, Betty Grimes – Secretary at Hadley Page Aircraft, Cricklewood & then at Aircraft Disposals Board.

Father, Herbert Francis Jordan – Manager at cigarette & tobacco shop in Piccadilly, then Hampstead.

Did your father serve in the First World War?

Essex Regiment Reg. No. 13173 – Lost his leg at the Somme & discharged 2/3/1918.

My Mum’s brother Bill received a shrapnel wound to the brain, but lived and came home a suicidal wreck.

Did you have brothers and sisters? And if so, where in the pecking order did you come?

One brother, Micky, who was 2 years older than me but died when I was 11 of pneumonia, before anti-antibiotics had been developed.

Did you have a happy childhood?

Yes.  Very happy!

What was it like growing up where you did?

Interesting.  Even before the war started in Hampstead we were getting a lot of Jewish refugees.

What were your interests as a child? (Flying? Sport? Music? eg)

Reading, Brownies & Guides

Can you remember the build-up to war?

Only all the Jewish refugees who kept coming to school as their parents had escaped from Hitler.  Catholic trainee priests came to our school once they had mastered the English language.

Can you remember the outbreak of war?

I was staying with my cousin, Rosemary, on her Dad’s, Uncle Fred, farm near Colchester when war broke out.  We listened to the radio and heard Neville Chamberlain say “We are at war!”

My mum & dad decided to send me to Uncle Fred’s, but changed their minds after a couple of weeks, because they thought that if the Germans invaded they would do so through Essex.  I was very upset because living on a farm was like heaven!

Can you recall the Battle of Britain?

Only what the radio said about it.  I was living in Wiltshire then.

Did any of your family join the Armed Forces?  If so where did they serve?

Cousin Fred was in the RAF stationed in the UK.

Cousin Sam was in the Navy.

 Cousin Bob was a commando & did a lot of fighting all over the place.

Aunt Nellie’s husband was in the RAF and was taken prisoner in Singapore and died.

Did any of your family join the Home Guard?

Uncle Jim? – He had wanted to join up but was in a reserved occupation?

Was it a shock to the system?

No – We took it in our stride.

Did you ever worry about what might happen to you?

No

Tell me about the camaraderie in your community etc?

I was only a schoolgirl and found it all exciting!

What were your day-to-day living conditions like?

Food started to disappear from the shops – bananas, oranges & lemons.  I was most disappointed that we could not make fresh lemonade!

The terribly depressing black-out.

My weekly comic, The Schoolgirl, was stopped until after the end of hostilities.

Schools were closed in the cities.  Country schools stayed open.

Can you describe to me a typical day-in-the-life on the home front?

OK – No school-friends, no school, no lights, no comics, no bananas, no oranges.    Sweets were rationed.  The awful blackout, but we got used to it.  It was a bitterly cold winter and everyone’s pipes froze! 

What was the food like?

OK – but very limited!  We used to collect stunning nettles to use instead of vegetables.  They tasted a bit like spinach, but became very boring.

Did you ever go hungry?

No – Mrs Scull & Mum used to manage to keep the family fed, somehow.  When I was living in Wiltshire, everyone grew plenty of veg.

Did you get enough to drink?

Yes – In Wiltshire there were Army camps & hospitals and recuperating units, which quadrupled the population.

Except that the water was turned off between 8.00pm & 8.00am so us evacuees  had to fill buckets before we went to Wartime Emergency School, so it would tied us over.

Can you remember any particularly funny incidents?

I had been sent to Aunt Alice in Guildford for safety.  When there Mum thought she kept hearing cuckoos, but was told it was gunfire in France.  Immediately she decided to take me back to London.  We walked to Guildford Station where there was a notice saying ‘No trains until further notice!’  This was because every train had been requisitioned to transport soldiers evacuated from Dunkirk.  There were British, French, Belgian – all battle-worn and exhausted.  The trains had to queue up and the soldiers gave us a grin and a ‘thumbs up’.  W.V.S. and Red Cross ladies of Guildford set up trestle tables & tea urns and passed hundreds of beakers of tea & buns through the carriage windows.

Can you remember any particularly tragic incidents?

No – Except that on the other side of the road from the Scull’s lived Aunty Ivy & Uncle Athur who had a daughter Norma.  She married Harry, a handsome Royal Engineer, who was sent abroad.  Shortly after we were told that Norma was expecting a baby.  When the baby was born it was black!  The locals shunned Norma and some of them would spit at her!

When Harry got home, 3 years later, he fell for his son right away & took him to his heart.  Harry & Norma had another boy & a girl and lived happily ever after.

What was the worst thing that happened to you?

17th June 1940 – It was decided that London children should be evacuated.  My friend Betty & I were sent to Westbury, Wiltshire, along with a number of other children.  The Billeting Officer waited with us for our foster parents to arrive.  We were both left waiting, so he took us in his car to where the people lived.  I was first to be placed, with an elderly lady called Mrs Ingram.  As soon as she saw me, she said “I don’t want a great girl like that.  I want a nice little girl who I can put to bed and who won’t answer me back!”  The Billeting Officer then went to the next address where Betty was to stay.  A Mrs Scull said, “Come in dear.  We’ve been waiting tea for you.  You must be starving!”.  And they went up the path I ran up to them and said, “Oh please, please, please could you take me as well?  Could you please find room for me?  I’m Betty’s best friend.  No one wants me and I’ve nowhere to go!”.  After a short discussion with her daughter, Mildred (Mo), she agreed to take me as well.  We Betty’s would sleep in Mo’s double bed and she would sleep in the bed that Betty was due to use.  We were 3 ‘only’ girls who suddenly discovered that we had ‘sisters’.  This was the start of a wonderful friendship that has lasted all these years.

How did you cope with fear?

Everyone was in the same boat.  As a Girl Guide we were told to keep cheerful & smile!

How did you cope with the loss of friends and colleagues?

Fortunately, this did not really happen to me.

Where were you when the war ended?

In Brixton as a teenager.

What can you remember about it?

No blackout!

Lots of fun & music.  We partied all day.

All rides free at the fair on Clapham Common.

Dancing up & down the Town Hall steps.

What was the general reaction?

Relief!

Do you have any photographs of yourself from the war?

I am writing my wartime & later memories called ‘Treacle’s Tales’, some snippets are included above.  There are a number of photographs in it with descriptions of who & where.

I have submitted an essay called ‘“D” Day’ to The Imperial War Museum.

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Author: shane

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