With so many men away on active service for up to 6 years,
children were often deprived of an adult male presence in their family life. In
effect, a large section of the nation became the land of the one parent family.
Along the way family, roles changed and essential responsibilities were
reapportioned. Inevitably, people changed and so did relationships. When
normality returned, not all the alterations could be reversed and this left a
long term legacy for families to negotiate.
Here, we provide a series of articles from Brian Smith that
examine these aspects.
Changing Roles &
The family roles and duties of "dad" were, by
necessity, shared between family members.... and some responsibilities fell
Most wartime reports and
books are based largely upon events resulting in fatalities, devastation
of property, the heroic efforts of those dealing directly with the enemy
or the results of raids so they present only a portion of the total
action, the traumas and tragedies, high lights and humour that the
people of Britain endured. A
little is said about how the ordinary individual, the housewife and
mother coped. They do
nothing to illustrate the fears we kids lived under or the excitement we
Natives enjoyed in the aerial action in Whitstable’s skies.
Fears so often generated by the adult talk, radio broadcasts and film
newsreels we were exposed to or even military presence we witnessed
Due to the absence of fathers,
some of us were exposed to levels of responsibility which would have
bypassed us in peacetime and were well beyond the normal expectancy of
our years. Our mothers
perhaps worked to supplement the haphazard military income so we kids
became quite capable in many aspects of domestic life not just to help
but sometimes to feed ourselves or in some cases younger siblings.
I can only speak for
myself but I feel some of Whitstable’s kids grew up through those
years with a capability and understanding, perhaps a maturity, beyond
our years. As much as I
could not promote war at any price I feel a bit thankful that I grew up
through one. But, I
have to admit I was a lucky one, my father came home – eventually, and
no family member close or otherwise lost their lives or suffered very
One of the
peculiar characteristics of Old Whitstable was to shun anyone who was
‘different’ in any way. If
you had a disability, were fostered or heavens forbid illegitimate, you
were different. If a woman
divorced (sin of sins!) she was different and so were her children. If you lost a father during the war you were most definitely
different! I don’t think
any of that was through any malice just a lack of understanding how to
deal with you. I escaped
"On Leave" Times....
All this meant that the limited visits of menfolk were
eagerly awaited by young lads.....
Visits of Menfolk
After an initial
overseas tour with the RAF in Tobruk, my uncle Len remained in Britain
for the duration of the war. Whenever he had leave, my Aunt (one of
Mum’s sisters) left her Woolwich home to stay with us at Mulberry
House in Stanley Road. For
me, her arrival meant Uncle Len would soon be along too - usually on his
motorbike. And it wouldn’t be long before he took me fishing via his
bicycle - on Seasalter marshes or, perhaps, if he had enough petrol, to
‘get amongst the Pike’ at Reculver.
Mostly we went to
Seasalter. The first time he took me to
We rode some little
distance beyond Blue Anchor Corner to the first or first ‘decent
sized’ dyke where I upset Uncle by not only catching the first fish
but also the biggest for the day..... and a Golden Tench at that! We didn’t fish that spot again!
I have no recollection
of our usual ride along Joy Lane or Seasalter Road but I do remember
mostly turning off at the railway bridge and, wary of any approaching
trains, riding along trackside towards Graveney until we reached
Uncle’s selected dyke.
was also wary of any approaching aircraft and a number of times we
hastily dismounted to hide under a bridge over a dyke when he thought
they were hostile.
For those of us born after the war, it is almost impossible to
imagine a major conflict involving so many men and lasting for so many years.
However, just pause for a moment and think it through. A child born in 1939
would pass through infancy and start school without knowing anything but
wartime. What is more, military service meant that contact with his/her father
might be cursory... or even non-existent.
Thus, the long awaited "meeting with dad" wasn't
always the magic moment of story books. Relationships were often affected many
years into the future. Brian Smith explains...
I first met Daddy.’
generally kept their families aware of a husband’s or father’s
presence in the family by photos prominently displayed about the
house. In many cases
a photograph was all that some children had seen of their father.
My own sister was turned 4 before she saw ours and was
quite scared of him when he first returned from active service.
There were two photographs of Dad displayed in our home.
One a ‘waist up’ studio photo of him, moustached, neat
uniform, peaked cap etc, the other taken in North Africa dressed
very casually in tropical uniform, shorts etc, very muscular and
well tanned, sitting in the shade of palm trees.
A rather dark photo so my sister identified him as her
‘black Daddy’! Of
course the man that finally returned home matched neither photo
and sister, taught to be wary of strangers, was very scared of
him. Next day Mum
served liver at one meal which my sister could never stomach. Dad
became very angry trying to forcibly make her eat it. No doubt many servicemen were exposed to food shortages,
missing many meals as supply lines stretched and became very
conscious of the need to eat when possible wasting nothing.
Many would have been aware of the shortages and deprivation
families lived under, giving meaning to their own efforts ‘to
beat the enemy’. But,
damage was done, sister became very frightened of him and withdrew
within herself. Sadly that relationship never really changed.
morning after Dad came home there was one amusing sequel I well
remember. Mum was up
and about her domestic duties long before Dad or sister got up.
Sister went into Mum’s bedroom, saw Dad lying there and
ran downstairs screaming “Mum there’s a strange man in your
I am aware of another
local story where a five year old girl and older brother were
about to go with their mother to meet ‘Daddy’ at the railway
station. There was a
knock on the front door. The
little girl opened the door just as her brother appeared behind
her. The strange man
at the door said “Hello. Where’s
replied the boy. The
man brushed past them, literally running up the stairs, leaving
the terrified little girl wide eyed and close to tears.
“Who’s that?” She asked her brother who stammered
“Daddy, I guess.”
Another story I read, or
heard, sometime was of another little girl so jealous of her
father’s displayed affection for her mother that she bit his
There was one
circumstance, little thought of, which led to children being
confused about their father when he finally came home.
Photographs, typically just head and shoulders, were black
and white, but service uniforms were khaki or blue.
To a young sub five year old an army uniform with side cap
or peak cap, looked just like a typical RAF uniform.
I have heard a number of stories where a child, expecting
their father home shortly, has either rushed up to greet a
‘look-a-like’ and suffered disappointment or been scared of
any other serviceman in similar uniform.
would have met ‘Daddy’ for the first time under similar
frightening circumstances to the earlier stories.
Not all fathers returned home as so frequently depicted by
newspapers and film – family waiting on a railway platform or
perhaps dockside. A
common scene where the children at least had some chance, if only
for a minute, to focus on the figure their mother pointed out as
What about me? I had pre war memories to identify ‘Dad’ in my mind.
They were happy memories although we do tend to only
remember ‘the good times’.
During the five years he was away I was ‘man of the
house’ disciplined only by my mother.
When Dad finally returned home I was supplanted, redundant
in that role. Furthermore
the ‘happy’ man I remembered didn’t come home with him.
He had become a stern disciplinarian, with a heavy hand
backing up my mother’s frequent disciplinary threat of ‘Just
wait until your father comes home!”
We never really ‘got on’ post war.
In his absence I had become my own person, and in Old
Whitstable parlance I ‘wouldn’t be druv.’
The Special Visit...
Contact with fathers varied considerably between families
depending on where dad was stationed. On occasions, there might be a welcome chance to visit dad "at the office" and the travel provided new
and exciting wartime scenery....
My Most Memorable
My father was one of the
many British soldiers who enlisted early in September 1939 and later
escaped the Dunkirk beaches during that infamous evacuation of 1940.
Brought up in ‘The Old King’s Head’ with Whitstable’s
beach his backyard and playground, he became one of the many strong
swimmers who regularly competed in the annual Regatta - a capability
which no doubt saved his life. Not
waiting to be rescued he swam to an offshore destroyer which was
torpedoed on the journey home. He
swam to another naval vessel which returned safely.
Dad didn’t get any sort of leave
and, so, Whitstable never saw him
for the duration. We, his
family, would not have either if Mum and I had not journeyed to Yorkshire
for Christmas 1940.
unit was billeted on the moors near the village of Thornton-le-Moor not
far from the Yorkshire town of Northallerton where Dad had arranged for
us to be billeted. Perhaps
some readers can imagine how exciting such a journey would have been for
a four year old boy - an
excitement highlighted by the wartime atmosphere at London’s major
stations crowded with military personnel, train cancellations,
redirections and some unexpected scenes en route.
Two of the most memorable scenes still vivid in my mind were in
pre- war, I had been given a battery operated train set. The engine was the
‘Silver Link’ patterned after one of the streamlined Mallard Class
renown for setting World steam train speed records. Dad and a motorcycling Uncle decided his motorbike battery would
do a better job than the train set’s ordinary torch batteries. The train went much too fast. I can still see it flying off the track, smashing into a door and
falling apart. It was the end of a
train set I had not yet played with!
On our journey to Yorkshire we ran into very heavy floods
around Doncaster. I can
still visualise the many house roofs ‘sitting’ on the water like so
many islands with, here and there, a taller building or perhaps just a
chimney pot or two showing. A
remarkable scene and, hopefully for the people of Doncaster, never ever
had to run very slowly through there, especially in the marshalling
yards where joy of joys there was my ‘Silver Link’ sitting in water
about one third the way up its 8’ diameter wheels. The floods were apparently caused by a very heavy snow cover
Dad was in the RASC and
drove a lorry in which he picked us up at either Northallerton or Thirsk
station. We were to be
billeted ( along with 5 other army wives and some of their children) at a
house in Northallerton - all six families arriving together.
Next morning all six wives got a severe shock.
had decamped taking the rent and any food in the house. They had been paid for full board
and, I think, several weeks in
Heavy snow had
again fallen but there was no coal at the house for heating. I know Dad and a couple of the other soldiers ‘acquired’ some
coal from the local rail yards but there was no money left for food.
Dad’s lorry of RASC supplies contained a full load of – figs,
figs full of seeds. There were boxes
and boxes of figs which we lived on until, in our case, Dad arranged a
billet for us in the village of Thornton-le-Moor.
What a contrast Miss Tweedie’s sweet shop was.
It was a scene straight out of those Dickensian styled Christmas cards
of yesteryear – deep snow, the old shop with bottle glass windows, old
Miss Tweedie herself- her spectacles, hair tied back in a bun and
cheerful smile. All exuded a warm inviting atmosphere.
As we entered, rows of sweets jars on the counter completed the
picture although I don’t recall getting any sweets. Our room - bedroom
under the low ceiling – with feather mattress and eiderdown had a very
cosy feel to it aided by a paraffin heater exuding warmth. It may have been wartime but
it was truly a magic Christmas for me.
(Nowadays we know the
dangers of asphyxiation with paraffin heaters but we survived –my
sister even emanated from there - eventually!)
Before we returned home to Whitstable, some 6 weeks
later, trips into Thirsk in dad’s army lorry to see ‘Pinochio’
and ‘The Wizard of Oz’ helped make that such a memorable visit.
Shortly after we left, dad was sent overseas.
We didn’t see him again until well after the War’s end when
he was released for his first ever leave at Christmas 1945.
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