Maureen Knopp from Princes Risborough in Buckinghamshire was seven years old when the Second World War began. Here, she tells Susie Kearley of her war-time memories.
My dad spent 25 years in the Royal Navy and was posted to Canada to serve with the Canadian Navy for two years in the early 1930s. I missed him so much that when he returned, I just fell into his arms. We really bonded. I loved my dad, but over the years our close relationship caused friction with my mum, who said I always took his side!
When he came home from Canada that day, he kissed mum, but she was so used to seeing him go off on military duties that she already seemed to be expecting him to go away again.
By 1940 my dad was working in a factory where they used oil to generate heat in the production process. When war broke out, the factory had to revert to using wood, sawdust, and coal to generate heat instead, as all the oil was needed for military operations. The factory also switched from producing consumer products to manufacturing military aircraft to support the war effort.
As talk of war accelerated, I was worried that my dad would have to leave us again and I remember crying for almost three solid days. I’m not the type who cries very often and I wept in private, keeping my fears to myself because I didn’t want to worry him. So you can imagine how delighted I was when the news arrived that he was exempt from military service! Apparently his skills were too valuable in the factory.
Dad was used to dealing with coal. In fact, he was the only person at the factory who knew how to manage the furnaces used for making propellers and other aircraft parts. He may have been excused from fighting, but all the while he was working in the factory, he never had a holiday.
He was, however, allowed time off work to go to hospital after developing a hernia from lifting the heavy fuel into the factory furnace. In his absence the factory struggled to operate effectively, so when he was in hospital, they were frequently contacting him to ask questions. If anything went wrong, the first thing they would do would be to call him in hospital and ask for advice.
I went to sit with him in hospital and we talked about so many things that we would never normally have discussed. It was a time I remember with great warmth. I loved my dad, and I valued those moments with him.
Gas masks and hidden stories
Away from my dad and the factory, my life went on as usual. I had to go to school and we all took gas masks and medical supplies with us every day. The gas masks were made of horrible stinky material and I used to complain that I would rather die than have to wear mine!
My brother went to school on the train and my sister worked in the factory near the railway station. Every time a US aircraft flew past our home, mum was worried that it was an enemy bomber.
Unexploded bombs dropped around the school and we used to wish one of them would go off and destroy the school so that we didn’t have to go! Of course, they would have sent us to school over the road in the cold, dull Methodist church instead, but we weren’t thinking that at the time.
We used to go down to the railway station and wave the soldiers off when they went to war. Little did we realise that some of them wouldn’t come back. On other occasions, I would stand by the bridge near my home, watching the trains go past. The soldiers were all going off in first-class carriages and I thought that they had probably never been in first-class before.
At home, we lived with the radio on all the time, listening for the updates on the war effort and hoping to hear good news. We had newspapers too. Sometimes they had to be hidden from us children, because the news was too gruesome. I remember one newspaper from April 1945, when Mussolini was killed and the newspaper carried a picture of him executed and hanging upside down on the front page. How did I know about this? Well, whenever the newspaper was missing, we knew there was something we shouldn’t see inside. This made it all the more fascinating so we would search high and low until we found it.
There was no television in those days, but we used to see Pathé news reels at the cinema and I remember watching them when Britain first bombed Berlin. The giant screen showed lions from the Berlin Zoo strolling over the rubble. Some of lions were injured and that memory has always stayed in my mind.
In the garden at home, we all had to ‘dig for victory’ and we never bought a potato, onion, or a carrot from a shop. We used to grow food in the summer, and pack the vegetables in sand to preserve them for the winter. Remarkably, we never seemed to have much trouble with garden pests – there was the odd hole in our carrots, but overall it was a pretty successful harvest for the full six years of war.
At night we watched thousands of planes as they flew over to bomb Germany and we tried to count them as they went. It wasn’t scary though – it was just how life was in those days and I took it all for granted.
Air raids and rations
When the air raid sirens sounded, we had to go down to the dug-out air raid shelter in our back garden. Mum said we had to wear as many clothes possible and told us to put on five pairs of knickers, four jumpers and so on. Then we left in haste to the protection of the air raid shelter. On one occasion there was a frog in the shelter. I didn’t like frogs and refused to go inside after that, so mum sheltered me under the big old table in the kitchen instead.
We had blacked out windows like everyone else. It had to be done, and it just became a way of life. I also remember the Wings for Victory weeks, where people were encouraged to invest their money in National Saving Schemes which would provide funds to support the war effort.
I obviously didn’t like the rations – who did? We were limited to two ounces of sweets a week and that was hard going. But in amongst all the drama, the unexploded bombs, and those moments of uncertainty about our future as a nation, there was a great sense of community. We all pulled together and it was a good feeling. Unfortunately, it was such a long time ago, that many of the people I knew then are now dead. Most of the surviving WW II veterans are in their 90s now.
After the war, Winston Churchill came to Princes Risborough and I shook hands with him. So did my dad. He was highly respected as a war-time prime minister so I never really understood why he lost the election that year and his popularity seemed to wane.
Looking back, it’s remarkable that the town survived as well as it did. Princes Risborough is just 40 miles from London and it could have been much worse. There was a landmine found in one local village, and some unexploded bombs around my school, but nothing worse than that. We didn’t really feel locally that there was much for us to worry about.
I don’t have many photographs from that time in my life because during the 1940s camera film was a rarity. I think they needed the film for military purposes and family snapshots were not a priority.
It was a relief when the rationing finally ended and the supplies started to filter through. My dad lived into his 80s and I was back at his bedside when he passed away at the age of 83.