The day I was born the second world war had been under way for some 10 months, the army had been rescued from the beaches of Dunkirk, and Hitler was making preparations to invade. Operation Sea Lion as it was called was poised to be launched, the barges were being loaded in the channel ports and the British public were fearfully expecting the Germans to be landed on our beaches at any time.
There was one thing left to be done and they thought it was a mere formality; they had to take control of the skies above England. As the Luftwaffe had easily subdued the air forces of the rest of Europe they had every reason to believe England would be no different.
On the 24th July when I entered this very uncertain and dangerous world there was not much going on – the Luftwaffe had attacked shipping in the channel – but the “Battle of Britain”, as it later came to be known as, had not yet begun. My father had recently been enlisted in the Royal Navy, probably undergoing some sort of training but certainly not on board ship.
He was, however, within a few weeks, assigned to HMS Kimberley a “K” class destroyer which was just completing a refit after taking part in the Norway campaign. The photograph of him holding me at just a few weeks old was the last time he saw me for the next five years.
As far as I was concerned up to the age of five my father was unknown to me so I did not miss him. There were other things I didn’t miss because they were unknown to me. For instance sweets were put on ration in 1942, but were not available anyway so I did not acquire a sweet tooth and I did not miss them. Likewise bananas and other fruit. I didn’t actually have sight of a banana until the age of seven – someone showed me a banana but I didn’t have a taste. Sweets stayed on ration until I was 13 in 1953. FFS.
These were all the price of being a war baby. The next thing I didn’t miss could have happened at any time and that was affection. I didn’t miss it because my mother was incapable of showing it and I never experienced it.
The most serious aspect of being a war baby was health. The National Health Service was not brought into being until 1947 and it was probably not up to speed for a couple of years. However, clinics for children were in existence before then and free milk, orange juice, cod liver oil and goodness knows what else were provided which probably – with the limited healthy diets – meant that we had a good start so providing nothing serious was wrong then we had an advantage.
The baby boomers get all the media attention, war babies don’t get a mention and yet there can only be five years between the first war babies and the first boomers but we had very different experiences.
The major difference is the relationship with a father. I didn’t know my father until I was five and he didn’t know me. We were strangers to each other and the relationship never became what it should have been. On the other hand he didn’t have a father role model himself because his father left home when he was three years old so he didn’t know how to behave. On the other hand you would think that some adult common sense could have crept in.
Commonsense like if you are going on a bicycle ride – this is a very strong memory – to the beach (in 1945, in Sussex) and you wrap a raincoat around the crossbar to create a seat for a five year old and that five year old is frightened, it isn’t secure there is no footrest, and won’t go then you don’t go. No such thing, you go anyway and leave the five year old in a country lane in tears and you go off for the day. I remember that because of the trauma that is deeply imprinted on my memory.
As for my mother she was just as bad. Why didn’t she say no we can’t go? That was the way it was in years to come, where was her commonsense in all this? There was none, almost as if she was unable to have her own opinion and indeed she didn’t.
I can understand father to a certain extent, he had a good war in Ceylon as NAAFI canteen manager. Socialising was normal even in wartime for him. He came back to Blighty, got his old job back, got his wife back but was presented with this child that he hadn’t bonded with. Could have been an alien in his world. He wanted to go out Friday night and Saturday night drinking – very much a working class attitude – or should I say socialising with his wife, but there was this alien in the way.
Never mind, go out anyway and leave the five year old alien in bed in the house alone. I have few memories of those times but I do remember being frightened on being left alone at a very young age on regular occasions.
Of course, some years later when they had a second child – which he bonded with – everything was entirely different. A baby sitter was engaged when required and by the time I was twelve I was the baby sitter.
Also by the age of twelve I was displaying intelligence and becoming a rising star at school. I was well into chemistry as a hobby and played all sorts of explosive tricks on him. He didn’t understand me. At the age of five and onwards I was fairly placid – that was my nature, still is, I hardly show excitement, panic, anger etc. He tried to provoke me into reacting and would pinch me – revealed to me by Gran in later years – to no avail. I wasn’t interested in ball games and I was soon reading and becoming a bookworm.
I have formed an opinion that somehow he was jealous of me. Certainly in later life he never ever said anything good about any of my achievements, and there were quite a few. So, for me, being a war baby had quite an impact on my life and no doubt if I wasn’t my mother who was wanting a girl and got a boy would not have dressed me in girls clothes and made a dolls house for an early Christmas saying “it’s what I wanted”. I don’t think so. Her brother George turned up with a wooden army lorry he had made for me and I remember being very taken with that.
Perhaps she got her revenge by having me circumcised when I was just a few weeks old. That has a huge psychological impact on babies and goodness knows how it impacted on my later life. There is a theory that the pain caused by the circumcision of a baby is a hindrance to mother/child bonding. I am fairly sure that there was no bonding because I don’t remember any closeness whatsoever. If my father had been around no doubt things would have been different – she wouldn’t have attempted to turn me into a girl for a start.