WWII Memories
Personal Histories of World War Two

From Egypt to York

This memoir was written by Mrs. Patricia Watson, grandmother of James Wood, in 2002.

Memoir by Mrs. Patricia Watson

My father was a regular soldier and the day that war was declared we were on our way to Singapore where his regiment was due to be based.

It was decided that the troops should be sent to fight on the desert against Rommel's army so the women and children were hastily relocated to Heliopolis in Egypt.

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This was a pleasant place to live as the weather was lovely and we were given a big flat on the outskirts of the city and had a servant called Fatima to help my mother with the housework.

Dad was away most of the time and as the flat was next door to an asylum for Egyptians who were mentally ill, my mother was very nervous and kept me up to doze in the big chair until she was ready for bed.

Then we slept together in her big bed, which I loved.

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In the water was a mine, which was floating nearer and nearer to the ship.
Mrs. Patricia Watson

I was only five so I don't remember important things like being taken to see the pyramids and Tutankhamen's treasures.

But, as we lived on the edge of the desert, I remember filling a bottle with different colours of sand in layers and getting scarlet fever and having to be in a fever hospital for weeks, being looked after by nurses who couldn't understand what I was talking about, or I them.

During this time all the women and children and the men who were on leave were sent to Alexandria for a holiday.

Each family was given a tent on the beach to live in and games and competitions were organised for the children.

One day we heard that the King of Egypt, King Farouk would be driving past so Mum and I went up to the road to wave.

We were the only one's who bothered and the king waved back at us very enthusiastically.

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Suddenly there came the news that the women and children were to be moved at 24 hours' notice to Palestine (Israel as it is now) and we could only take with us what we could carry.

My mother managed a few clothes and a brass table and I took my teddy, a doll and a book.

Looking back, I think that the adults were fearful because the war was looming near but services children learned to accept their different way of life.

The train journey to Jerusalem was long, crowded and hot.

Soldiers stood at the open windows of the carriages with their rifles at the ready in case of trouble.

It was a very tired group that arrived at its destination, a barracks that had been condemned for the Palestinian Military Police.

We were given half a big room to live in.

It was divided down the middle by bits of furniture and curtain and another family lived on the other side and we could hear everything that they said and did.

My mother didn't seem to like them very much.

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The women of the Regiment were horrified by the filthy place, which was infested by cockroaches, but there were some Palestinians working in the kitchen and they and the wives got together and scrubbed the place with hard yellow soap and soda.

They used a flit pump on the insects and disinfected everything.

I enjoyed myself.

There were lots of other children in the building to play with and we were bussed to a British school across the town and used to travel lying on our backs on the seats with our feet on the windows chanting “N'bulsi House and Gitani Home” all the way to school.

Those were the names of the two buildings that the regimental wives and families were billeted in.

From the windows of N'bulsi House we could see the Mount of Olives and my mother took me to see the place where it is believed that Jesus was born (very disappointing), the Wailing Wall, which was fascinating, and all the other famous sites of Jerusalem.

The dirt and disease caught up with the children and almost all the babies under a year old died.

I remember my mother telling me that one lady had lost twins and we would look at the sky to find two stars that were close together.

I was then thin, pale and small and I know my mother was worried about me but I never ailed a thing and was perfectly happy to sleep in my bed under the mosquito net with the bed legs standing in tins of mentholated spirits so cockroaches and other bugs would not crawl up and into the sheets.

Our food was now carefully prepared under the watchful eyes of a rota of wives.

The salads were washed in potassium permanganate solution, which was bright purple, and as all the vegetables were boiled until they were a mush, which was usual in those days.

I expect all the bacteria were destroyed.

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Leaving Palestine

Then, once again we were suddenly given our marching orders.

The short notice was for security reasons but it must have been so hard for the wives.

No one was told where they were going until the voyage started so that we couldn't be targeted.

My mother added to her collection of souvenirs, six olive wood napkin rings and two small carved camels.

Apart from our clothes, my few toys and a few pieces of my mother's jewellery this was all we possessed in the world but my mother made a family of little dolls from hanks of wool tied together, which I loved.

I also had two imaginary friends, Mrs Golfitt and Mrs Cauliflower, who invited me to splendid tea parties.

We saw very little of my father during the war but I remember the distinctive smell of his army battledress and how he polished and cleaned all parts of his uniform.

He grew a little toothbrush moustache, which was very fashionable then.

He sent us many letters from “the front” but they were always censored with whole sentences cut out, in case clues were given as to where the troops were and what they were doing.

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South Africa

We went by sea this time and landed in South Africa in the Port of Durban.

Here we were billeted in a hotel near the sea front.

It was lovely.

I made friends and went to yet another school, walking to it along the beach and dropping stones on the small bright blue jellyfish, which we called bluebottles.

They had a very long fine thread trailing from them and if you got it wound round you when you were swimming it stung horribly.

Some big cactus plants grew on the beach and we would split the leaves open and rub them on the sting and it made it feel a lot better.

My mother enjoyed her life in Durban as troop ships were in and out of the port and there were always dances and parties.

She had the most beautiful ball gowns and had her hair and nails done.

She had no housework to do at all and the food in the hotel was very good.

We heard of the strict rationing back in England and knew that we were very lucky.

Next to the hotel there was a large piece of waste ground and every few days the Zulus danced on it, wearing bright beaded skirts and the next day we would go out and collect up all the tiny coloured beads.

My father was still fighting in the desert but became very ill and a year after we had arrived in Durban, we were told that he was to be sent back to England and we were to join him.

My mother once more had only 24 hours to make arrangements.

She packed up her few bits and pieces again having added two fly swishes with ivory handles and a brass dinner gong to her store.

I had to give away my teddy but kept a few books and my precious new doll.

I had no winter clothes but my mother found a tailor who promised to make me a warm coat in the time and he came running onto the dock just before the ship sailed waving the garment, keen to get his money.

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Sailing to England

It was a very dangerous time for shipping in 1942.

Most ships travelled in convoy but as the convoys were easier to track and kept being attacked, it was decided that our ship would sail on its own.

It was packed, as it was full of people fleeing from Singapore.

Dad was separated from us and my mother and I were put into an enormous place right at the bottom of the boat filled with hundreds of bunks, mothers, children and crying babies.

One woman had managed to bring her sewing machine and it clattered night and day to make warm clothes for the children.

The weather to start with was warm and most people dragged mattresses onto the decks and slept there.

My father for once got us a cabin which we shared with another woman who was not very pleased about it.

We did boat drill everyday, which was good fun, seeing how quickly we could get into our life jackets and onto the lifeboat stations.

It stood us in good stead for there was a real alarm one night, the klaxon sounded and I leaped out of bed, put on my life jacket and grabbed my little case which was already packed.

My mother and father rushed down to collect me and we went on deck.

It was a moonlit night and there in the water was a mine, which was floating nearer and nearer to the ship.

There was, I remember, absolute silence.

At last, it slid by the ship and there was a great cheer from everyone.

We found out later that the ship that had sailed before us, and the one after us, had both been mined and many lives had been lost.

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It took six weeks to get back to England and it was cold and wet when we landed.

We were put on a train to York with all our luggage.

This was where my mother's parents lived but they had no idea we were coming home because no one was allowed to tell.

Everywhere there were notices saying, “Careless talk costs lives”.

York station was so dark and dreary.

No lights were allowed and even the notices saying what the station was called were obliterated.

We managed to get a taxi and at last got to where my grandparents lived and my mother yelled through the letterbox until they woke and came down.

Living in the house were my three aunts, my grandparents and now us, as well as any husbands or uncles who came home on leave.

Housing was impossible to find although, luckily, their house was a reasonable size.

It had stags' heads mounted on the walls which I thought were quite horrid and it was very cold.

There were only coal enough for the fire in the living room and that had to be eked out by potato peelings and coal dust.

Usually there was a clothes horse draped with washing around it but I used to wriggle underneath and get as close to the fire as I could.

I felt the cold so much after living abroad.

Sometimes it was so cold that our face cloths froze on the edge of the bath.

We were only allowed a few inches of water to get bathed in and a line was painted around the bath so you did not go over this.

When you lay in bed you could see your breath I the air like smoke.

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Clothes and Make-Up

Clothes were on coupons and in short supply.

My two youngest aunts were very keen to look good and contrived to knit jumpers in stripes from darning wool which was not on coupons but was cut into sort lengths so that the back of the knitting was covered in little knots.

They also knitted stockings in lacy patterns and used leg makeup to make their legs brown, drawing a seam down the back with an eyebrow pencil.

Sometimes they got hold of a parachute that was made of silk so they could make beautiful underwear.

This was actually illegal but all the women seemed to do it and they were always being told to “Make do and mend”.

They had a good time though, as York was surrounded by airfields, so there were hundreds of young men to take them to dances or to the pictures.

At Christmas, when I was chosen to be an angel in the Nativity play, my mother cut down one of her beautiful evening dresses, which was white satin and silver.

I was the best-dressed angel in the show.

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The Garden and Air-Raid Shelter

My grandfather had a large garden and it was all put down to raising food, so we had plenty of fresh produce.

My grandmother had to preserve what she could for the winter as thee were no freezers then.

She bottled fruit in Kilner jars, preserved eggs in isinglass, made jam, salted beans in huge jars and managed to feed everyone.

The tiny bits of meat and cheese that we were allowed were augmented with lots of vegetables and great suet puddings.

Everything had to be queued for and if we heard that a shop had anything unusual to sell we were prepared to wait for hours if necessary.

York was being bombed frequently as it was the centre of the rail network and also because of all the airfields.

Most people had Anderson shelters in the garden or metal table shelters in the house but my grandfather was obstinate and wouldn't have one so when the siren went, I was put right under he middle of the dining table and then everyone else crawled underneath.

If there were a lot of people in the house, then the adults only got their heads under and their bottoms stuck outside.

Some people used the understairs cupboards as shelters as the stairs were a very strong part of the house.

Once when my father was on leave, there was a very bad raid.

My mother, who was very adventurous persuaded him to walk into town with her so that she could see what was happening.

The bombers had hit the gasworks and the huge gas cylinder had flames coming from holes all over it.

There was a street of houses on fire and a woman was trapped inside her house.

My father had to kick the door down to rescue her.

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School and Family Life

As children we were mostly protected from the awful things that were happening and enjoyed the drama of it all.

We had to carry our gas masks over our shoulders at all times and had “gas mask drill” every day at school to practise putting the masks on properly.

They smelt horribly of rubber and dust.

We also had to practise diving under our desks in case there was a sudden air raid and also tramped in single file to the big concrete shelters that had been built in the schoolyard.

Sweets were on ration and you could buy very few but the Canadians sent us drinking chocolate powder which we put into little bags, stuck our finger in and sucked the lovely chocolate.

We also chewed liquorish root, which was like wood and strong tasting cinnamon sticks.

When people got married they often had a box iced for the first layer of their wedding cake and a small cake as the top tier to eat.

Eventually mum and I got rooms in a house, a bedroom and living room and this gave us more privacy.

My little sister was born then and dad hitchhiked up from the south of England so that he could see her.

He would have been in awful trouble if he had been caught because all the troops were massing in the south ready to go across the channel for D-Day and there was very strict security.

But he thought he might be killed when he went over to Germany and he was determined to see her.

He went over the channel on D-Day plus 6 and fought his way across France and into Germany.

After the war he never talked about it but I know that he must have seen some awful sights.

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Christmas was a bit sparse for us but it was still very exciting.

Because we had not previously had a home in Britain, we had no Christmas decorations and there were none to be bought.

We had a small real tree and made decorations from milk bottle tops and fir cones.

Then my Mother found a stall selling baubles made from small painted light bulbs and was allowed to buy two.

I still have one and my sister has the other. We had toys, mostly second hand and went round to my grandmother's [house] for dinner.

There were no crackers and I expect the food was very plain but we enjoyed it very much.

Afterwards we listened to the Queen's speech and the news of the war at six o'clock on the radio.

Then all the chairs were pulled up close to the fire and everyone sang and laughed a lot.

I fell asleep and was woken up at midnight to walk home to our cold rooms, with my little sister asleep in her pram.

We had had a lovely time.

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