Marion’s Memories from the War

One of the grandchildren asked Marion once about the war, and she was kind enough to write down her experiences.

Marion’s Memories from the War (1939 – 1945)

Houses

I lived in a house in Egypt when the war broke out.  It was there that I heard the news of the outbreak of the war.  There were no televisions so we were all huddled round the big Radio in the corner of the sitting room when we heard the announcement from England.  I remember my Father shaking his head in disbelief and saying: ” People don’t realise the awfulness of what war means, and what is to come.”  He had been through the First World War in 1914 – 1918 and had lost a lot of friends.  We (my brother and I were young at 17 and 18 years) and it seemed exciting.  We were soon to learn the hard way.

When I was in England I was either living in Nurses’ Homes or with friends.  I spent a year with the family of Turlough Bamber’s Father in Southampton.  I also based myself with Dorothy Bamber and her Father, Carnegie Cheales, in Rowledge near Farnham.  When I first arrived in England in 1941, I went there, and the house had no electricity, but was lit with oil lamps or Gas lamps.  We would go upstairs to bed by candlelight, and I would read in bed with a candle on the bedside table. I soon ran out of candles, so I would go to the Village shop and buy a packet of spares.  I loved reading!

Air Raid shelters

I saw quite a lot of air raid shelters, but I never actually used one.  During 1942 I was living in London at Guy’s Hospital.  It was my first year of training to be a Nurse, and I was living in the Nurses Home.  We had a lot of studying to do, and also a lot of Exams.  However, London was being bombed night and day – but mostly at night.  The Air Raid Sirens would go off and we would have to get up, and go into the underground where there was a maze of underground passages linking the wards together.  We put warm clothes on and we would stay there until the “All Clear” sounded – then we would go back to bed.  This often happened two or three times a night, so we would get very little sleep.  However, in the morning, if we had an exam at 9am – we still had to be there to take it.

Rationing

I did not actually cook a lot, as I was living in the Nurses Home.  Though, on the Wards (if we were on Night Duty) we had to give (and make!) the patient’s breakfast. This often consisted of making scrambled eggs with powdered eggs. Everyone hated it.  I used to go round the patients at night before they went to sleep – asking if they had any  ‘real’ eggs.  Often visitors would bring their relatives a precious fresh egg. If they had, I would collect them in a bowl, and write the patients name on it, and ask them if they would like them boiled, scrambled, poached or fried. It was a lot of work, but we were rewarded by seeing the look on their faces the next morning.

If we went away and stayed with anyone, we would always take our food rations with us.  We would either give them the actual coupons for the week, or buy 2 oz of butter, 4 oz of sugar, 2 oz of tea, and about 2 oz of meat.  I can’t remember if that was the exact amount, but I know it was very little.  It was always a red letter day, if you stayed in the country and knew anyone who had a few chickens – and if they gave you one or two eggs to take back to London – wow! It was like receiving the crown jewels!!

Fashion

There wasn’t much time or money to worry about fashion!  But we did our best! We had a book with clothing coupons in it.  You were only allowed to buy so much material or clothes.  So  ‘fashion’ told you how to make the most of what you had.  We would use old curtains to make clothes – or even un-pick old clothes and make them up again in a more modern style. It was quite a problem if there was to be a wedding, and the bride would often be given or lent extra coupons for a wedding dress!  Children’s clothes were often made from unpicked old clothes.  Women became very clever at making all sorts of things out of old material.

Cars

I had two different cars while I was in Egypt.  The first was a  “nash” – a two seater with a hood over it.  Outside, at the back there were two further seats that you could pull out.  We didn’t have it for very long – about 8 months.   Then I bought a little car from my brother who was leaving for Rhodesia to train as a Pilot in the R.A.F.    The car was a brilliant little “Austin 7 “, and I was very sad when I had to get rid of it to come to England.

When I was a child my Father had one of the first cars imported into Egypt.  It was a ” Chevrolet”.  It’s number plate was just 37!  I always remember this because my Father was 37 when he acquired it!

Music

I started learning to play the piano when I was a child living in Port Said.  Later when I was in my teens, and returned from Boarding School in England, I had all sorts of music round me.  There was a very nice couple, who were German Jews who had escaped from Germany because of Hitler’s policy of exterminating all the Jews. They found a haven in Cairo and the Egyptian authorities were kind to them.  The husband, Gerhard, was a brilliant pianist, and my Father appointed him as Organist of Cairo Cathedral.  Many of the thousands of Soldiers, Airmen, and Sailors will remember his wonderful playing.  His wife, called Dora, was a lovely singer. She had a beautiful voice. They lived in a little house on the edge of the desert, and I often went to visit and Gerhard would play all the Beethoven Piano Symphonies and a lot of Mozart.  His wife would sing, and it was like being in Heaven.

However, it was also wartime and there were quite a lot of social dances, etc, as the troops were far from home.  We danced Waltzes and Foxtrots and “Excuse me” dances – and a host of others!  Cairo had an Opera house and we had various operas.  Once, as a group of friends and I were going up the steps to the Opera House, I looked at the man walking up beside me, and realised it was Paul Robeson – later to become very famous. He used to sing some lovely Negro Spirituals.  “Down by the River” was one of them. The War and hard work put an end to all this – sadly.

Entertainment

The only entertainment was a rare visit to the Cinema.  It was a great event! When I was in London nursing, some of the Theaters used to give us free tickets to their performances.  That was a treat and greatly appreciated. At home in Cairo we used to make our own entertainment. We would have a dinner party, and either play charades, or dance, or sing or play games.

Travelling in war time

This was difficult. When war broke out, I was in Egypt. In 1941 I wanted to come to England to do my Nurses training.  The journey by ship would normally have taken about 10 days going through the Mediterranean – or about 7 days going overland (i.e., by ship from Alexandria across the Mediterranean Sea to Marseilles) and then by train up to Calais, and then across the English Channel by ferry to Dover.  However, because Italy had joined Germany in the War the Mediterranean Sea was closed to shipping.  So, I had to get on a ship in Suez (a port on the Red Sea), and sail to Cape Town. On the way we stopped in Port Sudan and picked up 2,000 Italian Prisoners of War.  They had to stand out in the sun all day waiting to get on board, and I felt so sorry for them. In the evening they came on the ship and they were put in the “Hold” (where the cargo is kept). We set sail, but in the night the two or three Nurses who were travelling with us, were woken up and asked to go and look at the prisoners, as they were ill.  They found that it was so hot in the Hold, that the prisoners were all suffering from ‘heat stroke’ and had high temperatures.  So, the prisoners were all brought up on deck and, for the rest of the journey, they stayed in the open air.

In Cape Town the prisoners were transferred to POW camps where they lived for the rest of the war.   I believe a lot of them were used to build the very good roads in South Africa.  We were put on another ship and sailed across the Atlantic Ocean to South America and landed in Trinidad.  After two days we left and sailed North to Canada and landed in Halifax.  There we took on 5,000 Canadian troops and sailed across the North Atlantic to England, and landed in Liverpool. That journey over the North Atlantic was the most difficult part of the journey. At this time the war in the Atlantic was at its worst. In fact, it was called  “The Battle of the North Atlantic.” The Germans were trying to stop the supplies of food, ammunition and men from reaching England. One night when we were half way across the Atlantic, five German “U” boats started attacking us.  We knew an attack was going on, because all the ships of the convoy were sailing in a zigzag way so that it was difficult for the torpedoes to aim accurately at us.  When the attack started, this zigzag movement became much more erratic. When the ship turned suddenly, we would fall out of our bunks.    We all had to sleep with our doors open in case we were hit and couldn’t get out. In the morning we saw that one of our ships wasn’t with us and we knew that it must have been sunk.

From Liverpool I got a train down to London – and I was very shocked when I arrived because London was in darkness.  No lights were allowed anywhere. All I could do was to find a taxi and ask to be taken to the nearest Hotel! This journey had taken me over two months. Another problem about travel was that you could never tell anyone where you were.  When I was on the ship on my way back to England, and I got as far as Canada, I sent a cable to my parents in Egypt. I could only say I was well, and they were so pleased to receive it, thinking that I had arrived safely in England!  They were very surprised to get another cable 10 days later to say I had reached my destination.  There was strict censorship, as the Germans might know what ship you were travelling on. If they heard that you were stopping at various Ports on the way, they would be able to plan where your ship would be, and then go and bomb or torpedo it.  So, we had to be very careful.  There were posters everywhere saying: ” Careless talk costs LIVES.” In London, no lights were allowed to be shown at nighttime – so Railway Stations were all in darkness.  We got used to carrying a dimmed torch round with us at all times.  The Underground was good as lights were on down there.

Four years later I returned to Egypt towards the end of the War – and this time the Mediterranean was open.  We joined the ship at Glasgow.  I remember ringing my brother up to say I was going to Egypt – but, of course I couldn’t say on the phone where I was going – So I said ” I am going to see our Parents.” and that gave him a clue! Our ship joined some other ships and we sailed towards Gibraltar in a convoy with two destroyers protecting us.  As we were sailing into the Straits about 4pm, we heard the bells ringing for Lifeboat Stations – that meant that we had to go to a special part of the deck near a lifeboat, and we had to put on our life jackets.  As we waited there, we saw the ship travelling right behind us was hit and had stopped.  Then we saw rope ladders thrown over the side, and men climbing down into lifeboats. We had to sail on as quickly as possible as we had a lot of women and children on board, but we hoped that the shipwrecked people would be able to row to safety. Tangier, on the coast of North Africa was in sight so I hope they made it.

We sailed on into the Mediterranean Sea to Port Said.  On the way we picked up two rafts of people who had had to abandon their ships.  I think they must have been in the sea for a long time as they all looked ill and emaciated and had grown beards.

It was wonderful to meet my Parents in Port- Said, but also sad as they gave me the news of my brother’s death while flying in the North of Scotland.  Because there was no communication with land while at sea, I was not to hear about it until a fortnight after it happened.   War disrupted all our lives – but good often came out of evil, and many heroes were made.  Love and Compassion was the other side of this evil.

War work

For most of the war I was nursing, but for a short while at the beginning of the war, and for a short time at the end of the war, I worked in an information division where we processed documents in a host of different languages — German, Italian, Arabic, Persian, French and other languages.

What changed my life

Undoubtedly the War changed everyone’s lives.  We were young and had to grow up very quickly. My brother, at the age of 22 years was not only a Pilot, but also Captain of a Sunderland Flying Boat with 11 men under him, and great responsibilities in West Africa. For myself, I found out very quickly about the Eternal Love of God. If there had been no war I might have taken longer to find it.