What did you do in the war, Grandma?
By Audrey Stevenson, as told to Derek Green.
As a kid I spent weekends at my grandparent’s house. We’d trek from east to west, pushing our reluctant VW Beetle up the then new Westgate Bridge, throw our 20 cents in the bucket, and roll on down the other side. They lived a quiet life in the shadow of the Mobil tank farm, which suited them because it was close to Grandad’s work – he was a bookkeeper at Dow chemical – and there they lived their unassuming existence, tending the veggie patch, getting the bus down to the shops at Williamstown, and looking after their grand-kids. It wasn’t until one of those youngsters asked “What did you do in the war Grandma?” that the following surprising account was first heard, and gave us all a different perspective of Altona housewife, Audrey Stevenson.
In 1939 I was living in Southampton, in Hampshire, England with my family, which consisted of my parents, my sister, two older brothers and myself.
I had an older married sister who lived in Bournemouth, about an hour’s ride away on the train, and a married brother who lived in the next suburb. We still lived in the house in which I was born, 68 Manor Road, Itchen, and life for me was very comfortable, though I didn’t know or appreciate it at the time. When the war started, I was still at school, in my last year and cramming for exams which were due in about six weeks’ time, and on which my whole future depended, or so I thought! I was very keen on sport, I represented my county in netball and athletics and just wanted my life to go on like that. What right had Hitler to interfere?
The first blow fell when the powers that be decided that all the children should be evacuated. I told my parents “I wasn’t going”, “I was too old for that” and also “I had music lessons on Tuesday and Thursday at 6.30, what about them?”
So it was a few days later I went along to my school to wave “cheerio” to all the other kids. I returned home feeling rather deflated after watching the bus loads of children disappearing around the corner, some laughing, some crying, but all a bit excited at the unknown adventure that lay ahead.
Once the neighbourhood learned that there was a spare pair of hands around I was inundated with offers of work. With so many people being called for war service, the opportunities for me were endless. Shop work, domestic work, child-minding – I didn’t know what to do. To me, then, work was just a four letter word.
My father, who was a great believer in the Protestant work ethic, suggested I take up one of the offers, “In the meantime, just ‘till everything sorted itself out”. So I did and for several months I went domestic, helping out where needed; the local nursing home, private homes where there was sickness, knitting comforts for the ‘poor unfortunate soldiers’ as my mother called them. I was very busy, but not actually feeling fulfiled, if you know what I mean.
One of my three brothers, George, was in the Territorial Army, The Royal Corp of Signals, and had to join a unit straight away. I remember vividly the day he left. He let me help him put on his putties, I was winding them round and round his legs, crying all the time. My guess is that he had to unwind them and do them all again before he got to camp, they would never have passed muster as they were, even I could see that. But he was a good brother, and never ever told me if that was what he did.
About this time, I was helping out in a house where the wife was sick. I’d been there through the daytime for almost three weeks when the husband suggested it might be “more convenient” if I slept there – more convenient for him he meant! I got the message and went, even left my coat hanging up behind the door where I had placed it that morning. I ran all the way home.
Shortly after that episode, my mother’s youngest brother, my Uncle Horrie, turned up on the front doorstep one afternoon. He was on the way to his own house but called into ours to tell us the news before we heard it from another source. Horrie was a merchant seaman. In our family, everyone was connected to boats and the sea in one way or another, either building or sailing them. He told us that his convoy had been coming through the Channel, nearly home, when suddenly this flight of Nazi aircraft came shooting out of the sky, bombing and strafing them like all hell was let loose, and he said to my mother, “You’ll never believe this Vi, one bomb went right down the funnel blowing the ship to blazes. At the moment I don’t know how many mates I’ve lost, a few of us were saved from the water, but all I had on board is gone!”
So there he stood, wearing only a borrowed flannel vest and trousers that the Seamen’s Mission had kitted him out with after they had dried him out. My mother, quite bereft, was trying to force him to wear one of my father’s shirts so that he could front up to his wife and family in a more respectable state (always one for appearances my mother). But Horrie would have none of that. “I’m going like I’m going” were his exact words, and off he went.
I’ve often thought since, in those times there was no transport home, no counselling given, one just had to survive and turn up at the office or workplace next day or the day after, whether you felt like it or not and carry on. I suppose surviving was the important thing!
By this time in the war, every back garden had an Anderson air raid shelter in it, “families for the use of”, as jargon had it. We were becoming used to rationing of vital foodstuff. We knew that one and two-pence worth of meat and two ounces of butter didn’t go very far, plus a quarter of a pound of sugar and two ounces of tea, per person per week. Not in a healthy family like ours. Not forgetting the two ounces of bacon. Oh bacon! But, that was my mother’s problem, how she coped God alone knows, but cope she did, as, it seems did all the other mothers. Offal and sausages weren’t rationed of course, and you can imagine the queue outside the butcher’s once word got around. “The butcher’s got some liver!” We didn’t go much on tripe though, that was a North county treat, so we Southerners let them have that – we could be generous when the mood took us!
Being fitted with a gas mask was another thing at the time. We had to turn up at the Civic Centre at appointed times for a fitting. That was a hoot in itself. Apart from the baby capsule, which was ugly and cumbersome and which you placed the baby completely inside. The adult masks came in three sizes, so just as well there was an expert to help us adjust the straps and make it fit. The masks came in a cardboard box about 9”x9”x6” with a strap for carrying it on the shoulder. We were supposed to carry it all the time – some of us did, most of us didn’t. We must be grateful we never had to use them.
Then of course, in late May 1940, there was Dunkirk. No need to tell that story here. At Southampton, being a port, we were inundated with British, French, and a handful of Polish soldiers – what to do with them? It was then I discovered that the years I had spent learning French were a waste of time. This was another language altogether. Through the aid of the local auxiliaries, Red Cross etc, they were fed, clothed and dispersed throughout the country over a period of days. Quite an achievement really, when you consider there were over 330,000 of them in all, spread around various landing places in the south of England.
All that military equipment left on the other side of the Channel, and Adolf thinking he had us beaten, Winston Churchill, the world’s greatest orator of the time said, “We shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in the seas and Oceans. We shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air. We shall defend our island whatever the cost may be!”
With those words ringing in my ears, I thought it was about time I took this war seriously – everybody else in the family was doing something worthwhile, I suppose I should give it a go. I was now sixteen, and my father directed me to the Labour Exchange, as it was then called. “See what they have to offer” he said, “But you don’t have to take any old thing, alright!” He had wanted me to pass my exams and become the Almoner at the city hospital. Me, I wanted my sport, and as it happened, I never did take those exams – pity really, all that. I often wonder how life would have worked out with no war. Fruitless speculation of course.
Back to the Labour Exchange circa 1940, I was met by a dragon of a lady, I think she was a bit miffed because I had managed to escape her net for several months. “Well, l had been working hadn’t I”, “earning pocket money and helping the sick in their hour of need, hadn’t I”, I told her. “Not good enough”, said dragon lady, “There’s real work to be done out there”. I remember thinking at the time, “here we were trying to fight a real war when there was this little Hitler and probably more like her with their domains all over the country”. Power does go to some people’s heads.
But I was young and she was right in a way, there was real work to be done, so let me get to it. So, as comedians say when trying too hard to be funny, I had my particulars taken down, was presented with a green card, and told to report to Supermarine Aviation, IN THE MORNING! We parted amicably enough which was just as well, because, though I didn’t know it then, we were to see more of each other later. I did as directed and presented myself, IN THE MORNING! I could walk there from my home. A friend of mine was already working there so she pushed me in the right direction, and after another interview I was taken into the workshop. Now, I’d been in workshops before, (my father built boats but he wouldn’t allow women to work in the place).
This was something like I’d never seen before. There were three huge frames holding aircraft in various stages of construction, and one aircraft practically finished. It was painted a brilliant yellow and I was told it was a Walrus, a magnificent flying boat with huge floats and a wooden propeller. Mystery of mysteries, I was allowed to scramble all over it, touch the wings, and climb into the cockpit and all. I thought “if this is real work let me try some more”. Next thing – down to earth with a thump. I was shoved into a corner with a benchtop full of nuts, bolts and screws, and told “Sort that lot out! Different bins for each!” That was my job for the next fortnight, whilst my friend was working on fuel tanks, covering them in a heavy white fabric, dipping them in the glue tank, more white fabric, and then in the dye tank, from which they emerged a glorious red colour which she told me was primer, whatever that was. She used chains and pulleys to lift the tanks so it was not heavy work. At the end of the day, I told her “I could do her job given the chance”. She told me “your trouble is you want to run before you can walk” I reminded her that running was my forte! But I was left with the nuts, bolts and screws. Well, we all have to start somewhere!
About a week later, a new girl started in the workshop. She went through the exact same process as I had; interview, scramble all over the Walrus, then she got the nuts and bolts job and I graduated for the first time in my life – to the fuel tanks. I cut out the fabric on a template. I remember thinking at the time; “this material would make a lovely dress, if it was dyed the right colour”. Clothing coupons were on one’s mind rather a lot at that stage of the war. We hoarded them so that we could buy clothes for special occasions.
Back to the job! Tank in glue, stick fabric on, glue, fabric, dye tank, with a drying out period between each move. I said to my workmate, “what happens to these tanks when we’ve finished with them?” She said “All these planes carry spare fuel tanks as they can’t fly very far on just the one”. “They use this one first, then chuck it overboard!” I had visions of people walking along the street, dodging falling tanks and said, “But people could get killed like that.” She gave me a queer look and was about to walk away, when I asked her why they let every new girl clamber over the plane before getting the nuts and bolts job. She turned to me and said “Gawd, your naive!” In those days women weren’t in the habit of wearing trousers. There was a step ladder to climb to get up to the wing and sit in the cock pit, then another ladder to get down – a nice glimpse of leg for the fellows on the ground. It was sort of initiation ceremony, after that you were one of the crew! Well, if that was what turned them on, and it was a man’s world in those days.
At the other end of the workshop, I discovered men working on a different type of aircraft, smaller, compact, a real slim beauty of a plane. When I saw it I thought “that’s where I’d like to work!” I got my wish, later.
Life was going along fairly normally, considering. We were going to the pictures, Will Hay and Moore Marriot made us laugh, John Mills and Roger Livesly gave us their stiff upper lip, and were a bit of a love interest for us. Dances were still being held in the ballroom at the end of the pier, and in Southampton Guildhall, we had no stockings to wear, so long dresses were the norm for dances. If we had to dress up for an occasion at the weekend we painted our legs with Max Factor face make-up in a darker shade than normal. In those days of course stockings had seams but we didn’t let that deter us, we drew the seams with eye-brow pencil. When I say we, it was a difficult thing to do for oneself, so anybody handy was roped in for the job. Mothers, sisters, Grannies – I remember on one occasion the chappy next door when his wife and I were going somewhere together. The important thing was to keep up one’s morale and to try and feel good about oneself.
24th September 1940
One Tuesday just after lunch break, the factory hooter sounded, which meant drop everything and run to the shelter, which was across the road, under the railway line overpass and on the other side – the theory being that if the factory was bombed, the bank supporting the railway sheltered us from the blast. Well that was O.K. if you reached the shelter, but on this day we didn’t. Halfway between the workshop and the railway line, the plane was there right above us. I think I did the hundred yards sprint in my best time ever, got to the over pass and stayed there. He strafed us, light blue overalls against green grass, sitting targets you might say. Some men didn’t even get to leave the workshop because they had switching off jobs. They were the lucky ones, as the factory was untouched. They told us afterwards there were two planes.
Those of us left standing were ushered into the air-raid shelter while they cleaned up the mess outside. It seemed like hours before someone came to talk to us to make sure we weren’t damaged in any way. They told us to take tomorrow off, go to our own doctor if we felt the need, and go home now.
Next day we discovered three of our workmates and the bosses’ secretary had been killed. The secretary, Peggy, was the most efficient person I had ever come across. She knew the factory inside out and it wouldn’t be the same without her. It transpired later that those planes were reconnaissance planes “sussing out” the lie of the factory. I suppose when they saw us running the temptation to shoot at us was too great. Thursday was the day of the funeral, but my parents wouldn’t let me go. So I had another day off fortunately, because in the afternoon the bombers came in and finished the job that the “rec’s” had started two days before. They blew the factory to smithereens. In daylight mind you. That was the week that was.
In all, over the two raids, more than eighty workers were killed and two hundred or more injured – all neighbours or school friends.
Now a little bit of aircraft history. When the Nazi Party came to power in 1933, Hitler set about re-arming and accelerated the growth of the air force under the new air Minister Hermann Goering. In 1934 the British government began to see the danger and proposed increasing the size of the Royal Air Force. Germany had started afresh with new and revolutionary designs for aircraft and proven how effective they were when Hitler aided Franco in the Spanish civil war, which began that same year. Our air force consisted of wooden bi-planes which had hardly changed in twenty years. Our fastest fighter was the Fury II, which carried two machine guns and had a top speed of 220m.p.h. Our most modern bomber was the Heyford III, which had a maximum speed of 137m.p.h. The French, in their wisdom, decided to stick with their present planes, just increase them numerically. But the British decided to re-equip with machines of a new generation of design and construction. This was the time when there was the keenest interest in speed. The Grand Prix had been revived after the First World War and British success was achieved by Sir Henry Segrave who won the French Grand Prix in 1923, and Le Mans (which was first held in 1923) was won on four occasions by Bentley cars between 1927 and 1930. Also at this time Sir Malcolm Campbell was beginning to challenge world land speed records.
So too, there was great competition in the air. The leading prize was the Schneider Trophy which was won for Britain in 1927 by Supermarine’s S.5 seaplane, and again in 1929 with their S.6 which was fitted with a very powerful Rolls-Royce engine, and reached the astounding average speed, of 328m.p.h. The government, which until this time had supported the project, refused more money, even though a third win for Britain would have been a triumph. Lady Houston offered up to 100,000 pounds to cover the cost of developing a new plane. So in 1931, an improved version of the S.6. won the trophy yet again, and it stayed in England.
With the experience of designing and building such aircraft behind them (manufacturers, Supermarine, and the engine builders, Rolls-Royce) is it not surprising that when the government asked for tenders for a new fighter, a plane based on the Trophy winner and designed by R. J. Mitchell was one of the two accepted. The second fighter plane accepted was Hawker Siddeley’s Hurricane designed by Sydney Camm. The first was the Spitfire, the prototype of which was ordered in December 1934, and of which there were over twenty two thousand built – my slim beauty of a plane that I had first seen down the other end of the workshop and fallen in love with.
After the bombing, when we had gathered ourselves together, the government confiscated empty factories and warehouses which had closed down or moved to the country because of the war. Any place that was big enough was taken over and we started back into business. There were two such places on the other side of town, just along the street from one another. It was a bus ride away but no real problem. There I started on my first Spitfire – wings actually. The ribs came to us from the metal-shop, we drilled holes in the appropriate places through a metal template or jig, depending on the size of the rib. Then they were sent to the other workshop across the road to be fitted together. Within a month we could drill the holes without the pattern, it was much quicker that way. We could also sharpen our own drills too, which was a time saver – we did not have to wait for a man to do it for us. I also had a whole new group of workmates.
Meanwhile at home we were making much more use of the Anderson air-raid shelter at night. We had had several quite heavy bombing raids; one incendiary raid where the row of houses opposite ours were burned out, then another night, a stick of bombs, six of them. We counted the crunches – very close. My dad was working in Barrow-in-Furness up north at the time, so my brother Steve (he was 19) was acting as man of the family. He wouldn’t let us out of the shelter until he had been up and had a look around. He came back after a while. “We were all right”, he said, “the house is still there” Friends of ours at the back of our garden, Walter and his mother, were both gone, a direct hit on the shelter. “But I’ll go and tell Mrs Mosedale she can come out now”. Mrs Mosedale was another neighbour, with several little ones. We kept an eye on her because her husband was at sea somewhere. We trooped out of our shelter and went to help Mrs Mosedale with the children. Her back door was jammed, so Steven said “I’ll nip ‘round the front, see if I can open it from that side”. Gone five minutes, when he returned his face said it all. The whole front of the house had been blown away. “I don’t know how to tell you this”, he said.
Our house was still intact, but such a mess – glass, soot and dust over everything. We tried to clean it up, a lot of the furniture was ruined, so we did our best. We cooked our meals in the kitchen and ate them in the air raid-shelter until we found a little house on the other side of town, about a mile from my work, which was handy. It meant I could ride my bike to get there.
Once again things seemed to settle for a while, dances were out of course, but Will Hay, Moore Marriot, Andy Hardy, Gordon Harker and others of that vintage were still showing at the local cinema. We did not bother to leave the cinema if the air-raid siren went, I think we were past caring by that stage. We just told the projectionist, “Keep it rolling Joe”, though we did not go up into the balcony anymore, or even sit under the balcony downstairs – we had had the experience of falling plaster once before. The thing about war is it’s exciting in a way, you never know what’s going to happen next.
My brother George of the Royal Corps of Signals was evacuated from Crete, and was home on leave. One night just after tea he was in the garden when a plane passed overhead. He shouted to us, “Hey, there is a parachute or something coming down over the park”. We all rushed out, thinking we were going to see a prospective prisoner of war. It turned out to be a landmine. We just stood and watched it come down. After the thud, there was a great orange glow filled the sky – no sound afterwards of fire engines or police sirens wailing, so we went back to whatever it was we were doing before. Next morning on my way to work through the park, there was this blinking great crater blocking my way. I propped my bike up against a tree, and with a couple of other people on their way to work also, we felt our way around this huge hole in the ground and walked the rest of the way to work. When we arrived, Oh no, not again! The workshop had been attacked and looked very messy. I just turned tail, walked back, scrambled over the hole again, picked up my bike from where I had left it (yes, you could leave things lying around in those days, we were a fairly honest lot) and went home. My mother said, “Well that’s enough!” and decided to start smoking and to go to Bournemouth all in the same breath. Bournemouth is a lovely seaside resort about thirty miles west of Southampton, a place of retirement for elderly people with money, and I had a married sister, Helen by name, who lived there, though she was neither elderly nor moneyed. She thought the move would be a good idea; “About time” she said.
I naturally had to phone the exchange to tell them I was going to evacuate myself. Dragon lady said “I know it will take about a week to clean up the workshop, but meanwhile we have a spot for you in Castle Bromwich”. That was in the north of England and the last place I wanted to go. Seems there was a Spitfire workshop there and, she informed me, that if I was over eighteen, whether married or single, as long as I had no children under the age of five, the Labour Exchange could send me wherever they wanted if I had the skills and help was needed there. I told her “thanks but no thanks”, gave her a forwarding address and hung up.
In Bournemouth I got myself a job in the local laundry; it was still war work as I was in the section that had a contract with the army. My job was checking in the bundles of dirty laundry, checking out the clean laundry, and chasing up any missing articles. We found a flat to live in after a few weeks and I could walk to work, so everything seemed to be satisfactory. It was a lovely restful break for a few months. Then came the notification from the powers that be. The rolling mills in Woolston, which belonged to the Navy and had not been in use for some time were being opened and jigged and tooled up for aircraft building, and there was a position for me. It meant travelling over thirty miles each way every day, strange really because before our house was bombed we lived about two miles away, and I had known the area all my life, so I jumped at the chance.
When I walked into that workshop, it was just like coming home. I knew quite a few of the people – some I had worked with way back at the beginning. There were fuselage to work on as well as wings, all under the one roof again, so we worked on both, which ever was the most necessary or most urgent. I felt good. The Spitfire, of which as I said before, 22,759 were made, was the only plane on the allies’ side which was there from day one of the war right through to the end of the war. It was still being modified right up until 1945. That was Spitfire Mark 21. Jeffrey Quill, author of the book, “Birth of a Legend” states, “It was the massive and vital contribution of the hither to largely unsung heroes in Supermarine, Vickers, Rolls-Royce, and countless small sub-contractors, that enabled it to happen.”
I’ve never spoken openly or in detail about my war experiences before, tried to forget some of it actually, and now I see it written down in black and white, I’m quite moved. By the end of the war, I had survived and was married, and soon after we emigrated to Australia.
So when my youngest granddaughter asks me one day, as her older brothers and sisters had already, “What did you do in the war Grandma? Grandpa was in the Air Force, but what did you do in the war?” I shall not mention the nuts and bolts job, or the fuel tanks or even the smelly army socks, I shall tell her proudly; “Your Grandma built Spitfires”.
Since telling my story I was fortunate enough (whilst paying a visit to the U.K.) to attend “A salute to the Spitfire”, sponsored by the Southampton City Council and paying homage to those magnificent machines, to those who built them and to those who flew them. It was the anniversary of the maiden flight of the Spitfire, the famous aircraft which took to the skies over Southampton for the very first time on March 5th 1936.
40,000 people lined the Weston Shore (where we used to swim as children) for a spectacular air show, the highlight of which was a fly-past of 13 Spitfires. As the planes passed gracefully overhead at 250 miles per hour, the Tannoy system played Elgar, and the famous Winston Churchill wartime speech of 1940 boomed out. There were many tearful eyes (mine amongst them) as the aircraft in tight formation soared over the city docks accompanied by Churchill’s historical words, “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few”.