I was 16 years old when war broke out. We heard that Hitler had invaded Poland, and at 11 o'clock on Sunday morning, Sept. 3rd, the Prime Minister, Mr. Neville Chamberlin, broadcasted to the nation that England was now at war with Germany.
I was in the second year of my apprenticeship and my friends and I wondered what would happen now that we were at war. Well, we soon found out because there were continuous bulletins on the radio, giving instructions what to do in the case of an air raid. We had air raid drills, when the siren sounded a very loud wailing noise we stopped whatever we were doing to take cover in Church basements, subway stations or anywhere that would protect you. When the "all clear" sounded, a loud long clear blast, we went back to what we were doing. Meantime, shelters were being built everywhere.
We were issued gas masks to be carried at all times. They were made of black rubber which pulled over your head with an adjustable strap on the back, a window to see out of and a long rubber hose connected to the nose part and ran down into the carrying bag which was sealed on one side. It was a funny sight when we all put them on for drills. The whole country was blacked out, no lights were allowed to show, we put heavy black curtains up to the windows and if somebody came to your door, the hall light had to be turned off before you opened it. Air raid shelters were issued to those who had back gardens. A large hole was dug in the ground, the shelter, which was a curved piece of corrugated steel, was put in the hole then completely covered over with dirt. Dad made ours look nice by growing grass all over it, he put mats on the floor to cover the dirt, built a seat along each side and rigged up a light, hung a heavy curtain over the doorway, made steps down from the garden level, so we were quite comfortable.
The "London Blitz" was the next experience. Croydon was a suburb just S.E. of the city of London. There was a fairly large airport there which was turned into a military airport and, of course, became a target for the German bombers so we were well in the middle of it all. Every night about bed time the sirens would start wailing and we would head down into the shelter. After a while we got into the habit of packing a snack of bread and cheese and a thermos of tea or cocoa. The air raids usually lasted a couple of hours and happened almost every night. If they missed a night we would wake up in the morning feeling very lucky. This lasted for about 3 months.
One night we were having a fairly heavy raid and we heard a scuffling at the doorway, and in through the curtain jumped a big rat, when the rat jumped in, we jumped out! We had a little spaniel dog called Sally who immediately took on the rat. There was lots of barking and squealing - then silence. When we looked in the rat was laying dead! So we were able to get back in again. Bill, my brother, came home on leave from the Middle East during this period and he said he was glad to be going back out there again!
There were several kinds of bombs. The big ones demolished large buildings or streets of houses leaving big craters. Incendiary bombs were smaller and started fires. We organized into groups with one person (called an air raid warden) in charge and each group took turns out on patrol to watch for fires or if anybody needed help. We wore tin hats. One night a small fire started at the top of a house, so we formed a bucket brigade up the stairs, everybody laughing and joking and getting very wet, but we got the fire out.
Another kind of bomb that came in the daytime was the Buzz Bomb, a small rocket with a motor on it that sounded like a lawn mower, "putt, putt". We could see them coming over and hear the motor, but when it stopped they just dropped and everybody would lay on the ground and cover their head and hope for the best. We had a lot of laughs over these too, especially when you got up knowing that one had missed you. These bombs came across the Channel and were launched from the coast of occupied France. During these times everybody became very friendly and good neighbours.
Food rationing was in effect by then. Meat, butter, sugar, tea, eggs, clothes and fish weren't rationed but very hard to get, and if the word got out that there was fish coming in, it was nothing to stand in line for an hour to get some. At that time I stopped putting sugar in my tea and have never used it since. Peanut butter appeared in the shops in big blocks from America. Powered eggs came from Canada. We mixed water with the yellow powder and cooked it, it was gross!
In 1942 I finished my apprenticeship, was 17 years old and joined up in the Air Force. They didn't need seamstresses, I couldn't drive or work in an office, so they put me on the Defence of England, which I was quite proud to do, and became a "Barrage Balloon Operator". I had six weeks of training, marching, drilling, taking orders. A barrage balloon was like a very large fish with a rudder, it was filled with hydrogen and fastened to a large cable on to a winch which was controlled to raise the balloon and was kept on the ground by heavy ropes, fastened to cement blocks. It also had to be kept nose into the wind at all times and was turned by a drill of moving the blocks. They were stationed in parks or any open spaces in the cities and around any military targets, and were raised at the sound of air raid sirens. The purpose was to keep enemy aircraft flying too high to find their targets. If a plane flew below the balloons, it would hit the cable and crash. They were flown at staggered heights. If it got too dangerous, we had a slit trench to jump into, which was lovely in wet weather!
I was stationed mostly in the northern part of England and for a long time in Manchester (home of Coronation Street) and became friends with a wonderful family, Lucy & Harvey Taylor, they were distant relatives of my cousin's father. They had 4 children and I spent weekends or anytime off at their house. I remember afternoon tea of thinly sliced fresh bread and butter and little cakes in front of a fireplace. When I stayed overnight, Harvey used to get up in the morning, I would get into bed with Lucy and he would bring us breakfast on a tray and we would sit and talk. Lucy was like a mother to me and I loved her very much.
I used to go home for a two-week leave every three months and I found that during my absence, "Mum" (my stepmother) had mellowed towards me, and I had some good visits at home, but was always quite happy to get back to the excitement and good times of life in the forces. One night after returning from a leave, my friend and I decided to get a cup of tea at the snack bar at Manchester railway station before going back to our balloon site. It was a very crowded place and while we sat there, we saw a good looking Canadian soldier walking towards our table and he asked if he could sit with us. We didn't mind a bit, and I thought, here's a new date for my friend. As we sat talking we found out that his name was Bruce and had just spent a leave in Manchester and was heading back south to his station near Croydon. We didn't have a long time to talk as he had to catch his train, but he seemed quite interested in me and not my friend which was quite a surprise. I gave him my address at home, and off he went to catch his train. A while later I had a letter from my dad, he mentioned that a Canadian soldier had been to see them and was coming to tea sometime and seemed to be a nice fellow. After Bruce had been to tea he wrote and told me, and we started writing to each other. Then we would meet if he was in Manchester or if I was in Croydon. I am not sure how long it was after, probably about six months, he asked me if I would go back to Canada with him and then we got engaged and we planned to be married the following year.
Several months later I went to see him at his camp and when I arrived the camp was empty. I was told by a guard at the gate that they had all been shipped off to France, of course he was unable to write and tell me about it as such moves were very secret. So I cried all the way back on the train and went home.
I didn't hear much from Bruce over the next few months and then I received a letter postmarked in England in strange handwriting. It had been written by a nurse on Bruce's behalf to let me know he was back in England in a military hospital quite badly wounded. He had been driving a truck in convoy through Falais, France, which was mistakenly bombed by the Americans. He had pieces of shrapnell in his lung and shoulder. I asked for leave to go down to the hospital and recognized him only by his smile. He had lost so much weight and had been a close call for him. When he was able to leave the hospital he was sent to Seaford on the south coast to recuperate.
The war was now concentrated in the occupied countries with the Allies fighting the Germans to regain these countries. Italy and Japan had joined with Germany (The Axis) and Russia joined with the Allies. The air raids on England had let up a lot and we were now able to enjoy a more relaxed life style.
After a few months when Bruce was feeling better, although still quite thin, we started to plan again to be married and made the necessary arrangements. We both got two weeks leave and on Jan. 6, 1945, with my cousin as my Maid of Honour, Bill, my brother's girlfriend Phylis and Mrs. Taylors' two little girls, June & Sheila were bridesmaids. Mrs. Taylor borrowed a wedding dress for me, and the girls wore dresses that they already had. New clothes were rationed, and almost unobtainable. Happy Coleman, a good friend of Bruce, was our best man. We were married at St. Pauls Church, Thornton Heath, our local parish church. We didn't go away on a honeymoon, the two weeks passed very quickly and it was time to return to our stations.
The Allies were getting the upper hand over the war and we expected it would soon be over. At the end Hitler shot his Frauline and himself, and Italian General Mussoline was captured and hung by his feet. By then, I had become pregnant and obtained my release from the Air Force. I had served four years.
The day the war ended we all flocked to the city of London and joined the masses of people cheering and waving flags in front of the residence of Sir Winston Churchill, he was our Prime Minister, a British hero, and the man that got us through it all.
Bruce returned to Canada in September aboard the Mauritainia, and because I was pregnant, had to wait. Brian was born on Jan. 10, 1946, and the two of us crossed the Atlantic on the Queen Mary. We left June 11th and arrived in Halifax on June 15th. Bruce was there to meet us and at first I didn't know him in his blue suit and trilby hat. I had only ever seen him in uniform!
After a six week stay in Riverton with Bruce's family, we moved to Hazelbrook to the farm that Bruce had bought, into a big old farmhouse with bare floor boards, no water, electricity in some rooms, a table, four chairs, a hot plate, a bed and a baby! There was a hand pump in the barn and we carried water to the house by buckets. While Bruce started to set up the farm, I started to set up the house, where we lived for 38 years and raised five children whom I love very much. Bruce died on April 13, 1983, in the house that we had made home, with family around him."
Joyce Crane (Gawn), Leading Aircraft Woman (2036744),
Women's Auxiliary Air Force (British) serving in England
April 14, 1942, to September 7, 1945.