War came slowly to me. Slow it may have been at first but soon it filled my life. Though it is now long gone, it will never be forgotten.
The Malins' that inhabited 48 Hook, read the newspaper, and most of all listened to the wireless (radio) for entertainment but most of all for the BBC news. It was usually read by Alvar Lidell and was always important. So we gathered after tea in Frank and Annie's dining room, where the wireless was, to listen. Frank's rule: no one speaks during the news, especially very young drain smellers in training. Sitting quietly, I heard the declaration of war read by Neville Chamberlain. To my small child's mind war seemed like a big game. I was disappointed that I was too young to fly a Spitfire. I thought it would be great fun. The adult reaction to the declaration, however, surprised me and a feeling of dread came over me.
Because my namesake, David, KIng Edward VIII had abdicated to get married, our new King, George VI spoke to us. You might ask why a small child would know and remember such things. It was probably because I lived with adults there were no other children. So I stuck my nose in where it wasn't wanted. I was a true nosey parker.
Before I could read well, I went through my grandfather's leather bound chronicles of the Boer Wars and the First World War. Great heavy books they were, full of wonderful pictures. I wish I had them now. What an historical record they were. I always wondered why the pictures were so still. Little did I know that they were often posed because of the long exposure time needed to take each picture. One large picture in the First World War Chronicles stuck in my mind. It showed Prussian and British soldiers with their arms around each other smiling and singing Christmas Carols. I wondered why enemies were doing this. Granny Fiddler explained that a "truce" had been called over the holiday, a time out so to speak. I can still see that photo in my mind today. You might note that I never questioned the idea of the same men going back to killing one another after the holidays. I had been taught well. The soldiers on our side were right and besides they only killed to defend us.
In the autumn of 1939, the war seemed far away and the British Army was going abroad to fight it. The British Expeditionary Force (BEF) was being formed and my Uncle Walter was "called up". He was, once again, Captain W. V. Malins , Quartermaster, Tenth Hussars. Wally and Pat and their children lived not far away in New Malden and I remember trying to help him put his small car up on blocks. "For the duration." he said. My mother lent Wally an electric heater to keep him warm in France as winter was coming on and off he went.
As Christmas approached, Alvar Lidell informed us that the German Pocket battleship, Graf Spee had been scuttled. Buoyed up by events like this the adults spoke hopefully about the German's not being able to overcome the combined might of Britain and France. I learned a popular song of the moment and my little voice could be heard singing. "We'll hang out our washing on the Seigfried Line if the Seigfried Line's still there! all over the house" All was quiet in France.
Spring 1940 came and all hell broke loose. Urgency was everywhere. I, along with everyone else, was fitted with a gas mask. contained in a cardboard case slung over my shoulder. A horrible old military nurse scared me as she stuck a great big hypodermic needle unsympathetically into my arm. It hurt and I pulled away and broke the needle. She was furious. She berated me "Look what you've done! Don't you know there is a war on and everyone has to have their shots! You're nothing but a little coward!" Ever since that moment, I have had an aversion to needles.
Neville Chamberlain, who believed in peace and Hitler's integrity was publicly humiliated, resigned as Prime Minister. On May 10, Winston Churchill, a man whose time had truly come replaced him. Winston's voice and words gave comfort to everyone We were planning to fight wherever he wanted. Plans for evacuating children from danger moved rapidly. Children were to leave London many went to the country and some even went overseas to Canada. To my great relief, my mother wouldn't let me go. She was all I had and now I clung to her even more. I didn't want to let her out of my sight. Whenever she left, I grieved until she returned and I was relieved.
The reason for the sudden urgency soon became clear. It seems the Germans had turned West and attacked through the Ardennes in Belgium. They surprised everyone with their "blitzkrieg", their lightning war, It seemed that every day we sat by the wireless listening to Alvar Lidell, as the BBC reported on one defeat after another. In short order, things got drastic. It was May and the bulk of the BEF with some French units were now trapped in Dunkirk. The fabled "Little Boats Of Britain" under escort by the Royal Navy crossed to France to help evacuate the troops.
With the catastrophic events happening in France everyone seemed to be more nervous and alarmed. Still, I was too young to really understand what was going on. Quickly though, events became so dramatic that many have stuck in my brain for life. Today, the long passage of time has allowed me to develop a greater understanding of what I experienced at 48 Hook during the war.
48 Hook Rise was situated at the intersection of Princess Avenue and the secondary road for the King George (Kingston) Bypass. We looked down the Bypass towards Portsmouth, a major seaport on the South Coast. Suddenly, the Home Guard, young boys and old men appeared in our front garden. Interested in these new "soldiers", I joined them and came face to face with my first Bren Gun which nobody seemed to know how to operate. They argued over it for some time. I wondered why Frank called our brave visitors "poor buggers!" Later, I discovered they had little or no ammunition for their rifles or the Bren had they known how to use them. No matter, I suppose they were supposed to stop a German Panzer Division coming up the Bypass with what they had.
The miraculous and bloody evacuation of the BEF took on greater meaning for the Malins family when my Uncle Wally, Captain W. V. Malins who was stationed in St. Nazaire in the South of France disappeared. Retired from the army, he was a civilian only a few months before. Now he was gone. My Aunt Pat was hysterical. My mummy, Sybil, who could be a force to be reckoned with, took the matter in hand. With her sister-in-law and me in tow she headed for the Tolworth Police Station. Most of the bobbies there were old because the young and able had gone to war. The police station was crowded with shouting and shoving people all bent on finding information about their loved ones with the BEF. So, it took some time for my mother to get the attention of the Sergeant in charge. He was an elderly cockney with a huge white moustache stained brown at the mouth from tea and tobacco. I was suitably impressed. Sybil and Pat wanted him to use the telephone to phone the War Office in London to get information about the whereabouts of Captain W. V. Malins. He refused. Sybil and Pat and many others were not about to be silenced. Sybil persevered. The one sided-conversation that ensued is mine forever. " Madam! If you didn't know it, there h'is a war going on!" he stated emphatically. "The telephone is only for h'official bizness and cannot be used lightly! Sad to say we have no h'information about your bruvver or any of the other poor buggers." My aunt was weeping by this time. "There, there, Madam that will never do." he told Pat. "Your 'usband was doing his proper duty! So, 'e might still be in France! 'e might be 'ere somewhere! or 'e might be killed! " My mother, somewhat enraged, told him that Wally had been at St. Nazaire not Dunkirk and that the Navy had a harbour there to use to evacuate the troops. This prompted an answer I'll never forget. "H'if he got on a ship! H'it might 'ave been sunk! H'it might 'ave been torpedoed! H'in which case he might 'ave been drownded of!"
In truth, there was no information, it took weeks and sometimes months for families to be informed if British servicemen were alive, wounded, captured or dead. Some families never knew until war's end. Some still don't today! Hundreds of thousands of troops were evacuated to England. They lived to fight another day. But the military that escaped France was momentarily totally devastated and disorganized. The Malins family, however, was one of the lucky ones. Six weeks later Wally was found safe and sound. Medical staff then discovered the beginnings of heart disease. He was no longer fit for military service. So, he was discharged back to civilian life with his family in New Malden.
Uncle Wally was a gentle, funny rather vulgar man. People liked him. He could make them laugh. He could always find something humorous in the strangest and most distressing situations. He was a great story teller and so he told us about his escape from France.
It seems that all was quiet and peaceful in the Spring in St. Nazaire where the 10th was camped in tents. Wally, the quartermaster, was in charge the stores and the ammo dump. He was quite enjoying his stay in France. There had been no hostilities in his region and news from North was spotty at best. This all changed dramatically and suddenly one morning, when his superior stuck his head in Wally's tent/office and said "Burn what you can and let the French loot the the remaining stores. Have them take everything! Blow the ammo dump! Blow the fuel dump!" a surprised Captain Malins replied, "How soon?" "Now! Dammit! There is no time to waste! We are leaving!"
Wally went quickly about his duties doing "blue lights". Blue lights refers to the colour of the flame produced when igniting the methane coming from a latrine. Doing "blue lights" refers to the overwhelming need to break wind (fart) when one is consumed with fear. Wally was consumed by sudden fear. How could things be so urgent when the enemy was hundreds of miles away. By noon the evacuation was well underway when Wally, burning papers, received another shock. "Malins we are leaving now! Take only what you can carry!" The urgency frightened Wally more. He grabbed the heater borrowed from my mother and stepped outside where he really got "The wind up!" Aircraft filled the sky and most bore German markings. He looked up the road to the entrance of the town and there were two German motorcycles with side cars and a tank coming towards him. As he ran towards the quay, he thought, "How did they get here so bloody fast?" War was upon them! The Blitzkrieg had arrived.
Things were decidedly nasty as the Stukas bombed and the Messerschmitts strafed. Royal Navy destroyers trying to evacuate the troops were being attacked at the dock side. Wally glanced sideways and saw an unbelievable sight a burly Sergeant was trying to carry a side of beef he had looted from the stores. Wally never saw him again. My uncle was virtually dragged on board the wrong destroyer. He protested but no one listened. Instead, a sailor threw my mother's cherished heater overboard as they left the harbour being strafed and bombed. Wally looked back and watched a following ship simply blow up. Later, he discovered it was the ship he was supposed to be on.
After returning to England, he was unable to get immediate word to anyone that he wasn't on the ship that had been destroyed. Weeks later, however, my Aunt Pat was reunited with her husband who was soon discharged from military service so that he could spend most of the war "ducking bombs" with the rest of us.