The start of Second World War, 80 years ago
Britain declared war on Germany on 3 September 1939, two days after Hitler’s forces had invaded Poland.
Now, to mark the 80th anniversary of that declaration, veterans at The Royal Star & Garter Homes in Solihull, Surbiton and High Wycombe, have spoken about their memories of that fateful day.
"Although war is terrible, the experience of working together and coming through it was something I will always treasure."
Joan was 15 when war was declared. Desperate to play her part in the war effort, Joan fibbed about her age, declaring she was 16, so she could join the Air Raid Precautions (ARP). Joan can still recall the noise of the air raids, “They made a terrific noise. The floor beneath us shuddered. We held our breath. There was a giant roar. The guns opened up, heavy guns which positively thundered. Bombs screamed and exploded, the place shook.”
Before an impending air raid, Joan and her peers would ready the first aid post, and wait for the bombing to begin. First Aid Post No. 5 was sited in a school. She remembers, “We had a lot of dead who we used to lay out in the playground.” She continues “There were ever so many dead. It was horrendous, quite horrendous.”
In April 1942, aged 18, Joan joined the ATS “to do or die for England.” Joan’s strongest memories of her time in the ATS are of the camaraderie that got her through hard times: “Although war is terrible and I wouldn’t wish it to happen again, the experience of working together and coming through it – I know it may sound strange but it was something I will always treasure and be grateful for.”
Joan has been at the Solihull Home since December 2016 after finding it no longer possible to live independently at home. Joan feels that she is well looked after, “I’ve encountered a great deal of kindness here, several people here have been very, very kind to me.” She likes to get involved with as many activities as she can and is a well-loved figure around the Home. Keeping in touch with family is important to Joan. Staff understand this and help Joan use an iPad to stay connected to her loved-ones.
"The Royal Star & Garter Homes gives me a feeling of belonging, of worth"
Margaret Roberts (nee Hodges) was born in Birmingham in 1932 to Nellie and Albert Hodges. Her father served in the Royal Navy during the Second World War as a Navy gunner on merchant ships.
As a child, the Blitz was a terrifying experience for Margaret. She remembers hiding in her grandmother’s cellar, “I was petrified, I used to go into shock, but on reflection it has a sort of bearing on the person you grow into.”
Margaret’s husband Charlie Roberts joined the Army in 1950. During his military service, he was stationed in Korea during the Korean War, and in Hong Kong. They married in 1958. Tragically, Charlie died suddenly in front of Margaret and their only child Andrew on Margaret’s birthday in 1981. He was just 48.
In her mid-20s, Margaret realised she had a gift for looking after groups of young children and embarked on a teaching career which would continue until she was in her seventies. She even brought her primary school class into the Solihull Home after it opened in 2008.
Margaret initially joined the Home as a member of the Star & Garter Club: “I was sitting at home and thinking something was missing from my life. I saw the advertisement and it was fate really. It looked interesting, I knew the people running the show were very amiable. I thought it would suit me – I could live with this place!”
Margaret quickly felt part of the set-up and enjoyed meeting different people. She liked the fact staff treated her as an individual. Then, when her home was flooded, her son suggested his mother sought short-break care at the Home. Within weeks she made the decision to become a permanent resident.
She praised the people that work and volunteer at The Royal Star & Garter Homes, “There can’t be anywhere better than this home. The best part about living there is you feel safe. I never think I’m vulnerable in any aspect. And you know that there isn’t anything that you need or want that couldn’t be fulfilled if it was reasonable. It’s not us and them. They look upon you as part of the family. Nothing is too much trouble, and the staff do everything they can to help the resident.”
"I enjoyed my time in the WAAF. I wanted to serve my country during its hour of need, and I’m proud I did."
Phyllis first came to The Royal Star & Garter Homes for respite care. She liked it so much she decided to stay.
Phyllis was born in London in 1922. Her father Frank had served in the Navy during the First World War, stationed at Skapa Flow off Scotland. Her uncle fought in the Somme.
Her father never spoke of his time in the Navy, and her uncle didn’t discuss the horrors of trench warfare with anyone, until he opened up to Phyllis shortly before his death. “He didn’t talk about it to a soul, not even his wife,” said Phyllis, “but just before he died he told me a bit about it. It was terrible.”
Phyllis did clerical work at a bookbinders before deciding to take an active part in the war effort, joining the WAAF in 1942, aged 19. There she continued her clerical work and, following the war, served for six months in Belgium and Germany. She remembers: “It was awful in Germany. I was near Hamburg and saw all the destruction and starving people looking through the bins for something to eat. That’s something I’ll never forget.”
Phyllis was demobbed in 1946. She said: “I enjoyed my time in the WAAF. I wanted to serve my country during its hour of need, and I’m proud I did.”
She got a secretarial job at British European Airways, and attended conferences in glamorous locations such as Cannes and Venice. It was through work that she met her husband Colin. He had served in the RAF but was forced to leave after developing diabetes. The couple married in 1956 and had two children.
Colin died in 1977, and Phyllis says she was too busy for hobbies. She continued working – as a headmaster’s secretary – and joined the Women’s Institute, where she baked cakes for charity.
More recently, Phyllis struggled with the demands of looking after her three-bedroom house, despite the help of visiting carers. Her daughter was told by a friend that her mother should move into The Royal Star & Garter Home as “it’s the best care home there is.”
Phyllis says: “I came here for respite for two weeks and I liked it so I applied to come back permanently. There’s always something going on, and you can do as much or as little as you want. I do all sorts of things. I go to music club regularly and I belong to the choir. I go to the film shows and all the concerts too.”
She says being at the Home helps keep her mobile: “I do knitting to help my arthritis. And I go to tai chi when I can. All those activities help because I have arthritis in my shoulder, my hands, my knees, so I’ve got quite a bit wrong with me. I like to keep mobile and I don’t want to give up walking.”
"I remember the strict food restrictions enforced at the beginning of the Second World War, as well as the sight and sound of the British bombers flying south over Leeds."
Betty was born in Leeds in May 1922 and was 17 when war was declared. She joined the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) in 1942, aged 20. Betty was transferred to RAF Feltwell in Norfolk and worked as secretary to the Commanding Officer. Betty enjoyed her job but found it difficult when faced with writing to the families of aircrew who did not return from missions. Betty explains, “It was really sad having to write those letters. There wasn’t an awful lot to write, but there was enough.”
On her days off, Betty and her friends would cycle to nearby towns such as Cambridge and Newmarket. Betty remembers, “It was a very popular thing to do. We used to cycle down these tiny country lanes, and looking back, I often wonder how on earth we found our way! There were no road signs to follow, they’d all been taken down at the start of the war. We always got to where we wanted to go, but I’ve no idea how!”
One of Betty’s most poignant memories of her time in the WAAF was when she flew over Cologne just after the war had come to an end. Betty elaborates, “It was very sad seeing all of the devastation, so much property razed to the ground. Nobody about. It was awful.”
During her time at RAF Feltwell, Betty made friends with fellow WAAF secretary Dorothy. The pair spent four years working together and during that time developed a strong friendship. To this day the friends keep in touch via letters, phone calls and regular visits.
Betty left the WAAF in March 1946 and returned to her job at the Architect’s office in Leeds. “My job was very different to the one I left” Betty recalls.
Betty came to The Royal Star & Garter Homes in August 2016, after breaking her hip in a fall while living at Whiteley retirement village in Surrey. Betty enjoys living the Surbiton Home and finds the in-house physiotherapy service of great benefit. She explains, “It’s super here. I couldn’t ask for anything better. There is everything you could think of. There are all sorts to do and I make sure I get involved as much as I can. I recently discovered a love of poetry thanks to the weekly poetry readings.” Betty’s family are nearby and come visit twice a week. Betty’s daughter Pauline is a regular face around the Home and is frequently seen alongside Betty at one of the many events taking place.