Jean Vincent – World War 2 memories



by Jean Vincent (née Stephens). This was written by her for use by some primary school children


In March 1938 I was 10 years old and liked reading the papers and any magazines that came into the house. I especially enjoyed ‘The Children’s Newspaper that my elder brother had been reading for some time. This was a real newspaper with all the international and national news but written in a way that was easier for children to understand. For some years the Nazi party in Germany had been causing great concern in Europe and worldwide. There was a danger that a war would start that year when Germany was invading and taking over the neighbouring countries. The British Isles and other countries warned the Nazis that they would join in a war against Germany if these invasions continued. The Nazi Party was very cruel and imprisoned and killed many people who did not agree with them. Some German Jewish girls came to our school. They were very unhappy as they had to leave their homes and all their belongings. I am putting a very serious situation too simply but history books tell it in full.

Our Prime Minister was in talks with Germany and came back to England waving a piece of paper that Adolph Hitler had signed saying that Germany would not invade Poland to get the piece of land known as the Polish Corridor. This made people happy and this news broke as my mother was bringing my younger brother and me home from a train journey. We had left the Station when the paper sellers started to shout out the news. We had got well passed them so we could not quite hear what it was they were shouting. Mum asked me to read the news placard, as my sight was better than hers. I was not a brilliant reader and there were just two words. Words that I had not seen before. I stumbled over them and mum shouted ‘what are the letters’ I spelt them out


Mum grabbed our hands and shocked me by dancing about, jigging us up and down. Most of the other people in the street were doing the same so I then joined in.

Although we all got on with life, things were very different and over the next months life changed a lot. The situation in Europe was still causing much concern. School and play and Saturday morning cinema were all as usual but there was talk of evacuation if a war came. Most of us had to learn what the word EVACUATION meant. During the year some local Irish families went back to Southern Ireland (Eire) and some children to the USA and Canada so they would not be in England if war came.


This state of peace did not last very long and during the summer of 1939 we packed up our belongings to shut up the house, just leaving our clothes and some of our best toys and books out because there was almost certainly going to be a war. Some men came to the house and we were fitted with a Gas Mask each, with a cardboard box and a string shoulder strap so we could carry it with us all the time. The big Parks near our home had huge trenches dug and the sides reinforced, the tops covered with sheet metal and all the soil, which had been dug out, was heaped on the top. These were Air Raid Shelters.

At school just before the summer holidays started everyone had to rehearse lining up in the playground, as if evacuation had started. I said that I was going with my brothers and mother and some other girls were not going. Parents had the choice to send their children to the country, keep them at home or arrange to go to the country as a family. If a war started during the holiday the children going with the school were to report to the school. I do not know how the time of departure was given as I had left before my friends. Most of them went to Dorset.

One day I had cycled, on my little bike that was too small for me, to a friend’s house about a mile away. Her mother went to the shops and we had the wireless (radio) on, as the war news was getting very bad. The Prime Minister was again joining others trying to stop Hitler from invading Poland. If Hitler did invaded Britain would try to help Poland and we would be at war with Germany.

My friend and I were playing at mixing up various foods to see what horrible tastes we could make when the announcer on the radio became very solemn and we heard that Germany had invaded Poland.

I got my bike and pedalled so fast to get home so we could go to my brother’s school for evacuation. Our Mother was coming with us to work at the school. The Headmaster had rented a huge country mansion in Sussex and the day school became a boarding school. There were about seventy boys from five to seventeen years and me – the only girl.

We got to this house and spent hours getting beds ready. We must have eaten but I cannot remember what. I was in a room with my mother and young brother. I woke up at dawn and looked out of the window. It had been dark when we went to bed. Now I saw part of the garden with two tennis courts and behind that a huge field with wild flowers and a herd of cows. But best of all – the tennis courts were crowded with wild rabbits. There were hundreds of them, big ones down to tiny babies. It was a lovely place.

On the 3rd of September in the morning we all sat in the big entrance hall to listen to the Prime Minister speak and heard those chilling words that we were now at war with Germany. This was the start of a very different way of life for everyone in the British Isles and everyone in most other countries.


Being evacuated with a lot of children and all living in the same grand country house was nothing like being sent to a strange house to live with people you did not know. Although I was the only girl, I knew my brothers’ friends and as we had lived at the schoolhouse when it was a day school I did know some of the boys. The big house was full of little passages and small staircases and we had been there three days before my mother found a room big enough for eight beds! After this my older brother went outside and tried to match windows with rooms and he found a staircase inside a cupboard that lead to three little rooms that must have been the servant’s quarters. All this excitement quickly took away the homesick feeling, although everyone thought that we would be having air raids and bombs straight away. This did not happen and the head teacher had this brilliant idea that as the weather was so fine and dry the school lessons would be for an hour after breakfast, then we all had games and looked after the little ones as they were more likely to wander off to find their mum. After dinner all the children of my age and older were free to roam the hundreds of acres of woods and fields, streams and ditches on this large estate. Tea was at 4.30 and after then we had the school lessons until nearly bedtime. Using the daylight hours for play was great and we got to know the estate workers and some people in the village, which was a mile away down the private drive or across the fields. As the days became shorter we started proper school hours.

There were strict rules about safety, which we must have learnt as no one was hurt, drowned or shot. The elderly gardener and the man who made the acetylene gas were wonderful. The gamekeepers could be grumpy but when they had their guns out, a lot of children finding out what lived in the woods must have been a great worry to them. We found out so much about wild animals, snakes, lizards, beetles, insects and pond life. The wild flowers and fruit were in abundance and one could pick wild strawberries for breakfast if you were there before the birds. There was no pollution and no weed or insect killer sprays. The stream across an open field at the back of the house was wonderful to play in on a sunny day as long as you did not mind sometimes having to pick a leach off your leg or foot. When the teachers got to know of this we had to wear our Wellington boots in the stream. The water flow was quick and shallow and the water was very clean with lots of plants and tiny fish.

Life was not all fun and play as every family had members being called up for National Service or going into ‘war work’ making all the horrible things to do with war. Warplanes and ships, tanks, guns and ammunition, clothes and boots for the men and women in the Forces.

The war was getting to the coast of France and we had to move away from the South Coast. We could hear the guns at Dunkirk in France.

The school went to Oxfordshire near Banbury until 1943


My brother, Jeff, was eighteen in the June before the war started. His best friend was nearly a year older and had joined the R A F and was training to be a pilot by September the 3rd. Jeff had been on an education school visit to Norway during the summer holidays and joined the RAF in August, as did many of his friends. They had then to wait until they were called although they had been accepted for the RAF. During this time they were expected to get a job helping the community and the war effort.

He spent a few months with us at the school and when we had all settled in and the dormitories, classrooms and a lot of paper work was in order he worked on a farm in the village helping to plough grass fields so that wheat and vegetables could be grown. He went to be an airman in June 1940. Every man over eighteen and under a certain age was called up to be a soldier, airman, sailor, merchant seaman, coal miner or as war workers in factories. Not everyone was fit enough and they often could keep the job they had but had to join the Home Guard, become an Air Raid Warden, a Special Policeman or a Fire Watcher. There were quite a number of jobs that came onto the ‘reserved occupation’ list so enough trained men were at home to see that everything ran as well as possible.

Women could join the WAAFS, ATS or WRNS as service women. Some joined the Women’s Land Army so that many farm workers could go to fight for their country. The Land Army was not military and one could leave and get another job. The forces could not leave until the war was over and those who had joined up were not home until a year or two after the end. Women were needed in the factories and all had to register and many were sent to jobs a long way from home.

Not many of my friends had fathers in the forces, as unless they had younger siblings their fathers were too old. Later in the war older men went and some joined before being called up (‘getting their papers’).

These papers told men to report to a certain place in a town and enclosed a ‘travel pass’ for the train. On getting there they were given a medical examination, inoculations that were available (not many in 1939) and sent on to get a uniform. The first few weeks was spent in learning to march and accept discipline and was, and still is, called square bashing.

They also had to know how to use a gun and many other weapons. After this they went to the job allocated for them by the Government, many straight into fighting the enemy and being killed at just eighteen years old. Many women fired the anti-aircraft guns that boomed out all the time during an air raid. This was to shoot down the enemy planes. The enemy were shooting at our planes bombing Germany. War is terrible.

All the forces had to wear their uniform all the time, even on home leave. It was very strange to see a young man in civilian clothes. Men from other countries all had different uniforms and most children knew the country from the colour or shades of blue for the Air Forces.


As well as the shelters in the parks, many shelters were built in the gardens of blocks of flats and private houses. The houses had Andersons, which were strong sheet iron and delivered in pieces. A hole was dug and the sheets of iron put in it, the iron bending over at the top to make the roof. All the soil from the hole and more was heaped over the sheets so it became a hump in the garden. If the air raid siren sounded the family went ‘down to the shelter’. Most were stocked with water in bottles, some tinned food, biscuits and food that did not go bad and packed so that rats and mice could not get to it. There would have been a bucket for a loo as if bombs were dropping one did not want to get killed going outside to the loo. Warm clothes and blankets, hot water bottles, if there had been time to boil the water, were taken in with the people, as the shelters were too damp to leave those things inside. Everything that was wanted in the shelter was put ready to be picked up in a dark, as no one wanted to show a light that the pilots might see that there was a person under their bomber. Sometimes houses and flats could reinforce a basement for a shelter or the flats had a big underground or above ground shelters outside. Another kind was a Morrison, this was a heavy metal table with wire mesh sides and took the place of a dining room table and was indoors. I slept in one a few times and felt safer than being in a bedroom.

The aboveground shelters were made of concrete and some of these were in roads. Traffic had to go around them. These, I think, were more for people caught outside in a raid or if a Doodlebug was coming. One ran in to get away from the blast, which could do a lot of damage some way from where the bomb had landed. One was not just in danger of bombs as the anti-aircraft shells made shrapnel which fell in jagged pieces In London the Underground Railway became shelters and had bunks the length of the platforms with many people sleeping every night on these and the floor. The trains were still running and sometimes I was going home after it was dark and there was not much room left on the platforms to walk or even get off the train. Whole families went to these shelters, every evening as darkness came, during the times when there were raids most nights.

We came home from evacuation in 1943 and there were still air raids. We lived in a tall house that was built on a hillside. The front door was level with the road but walking to the back one was on the first floor. The basement part was reinforced and we went down there in raids. My dog, a cocker spaniel, was very frightened and always put a paw in my hand when the guns were firing. If the raid was at night we slept on the floor and I had a quivering dog curled up next to me, sometimes licking my face wanting to be comforted.

The shelters saved many lives. Once in a shelter you did not get out no matter what noises were going on outside and many families opened the door after the All Clear siren had sounded to find their house was a huge pile of bricks and rubble but they were all safe. War is terrible.


Jean Stephens Land Army

By the time I was old enough to join the Land Army the war was over so I did not have the danger of air raids and shelling that the women had during the war. I have spoken to women and they tell me of having ‘tin hats’ like the soldiers had. These had to be carried with them and if there was a warning siren they had to put them on and continue their work in the fields or farm buildings, unless German planes appeared when one got into the hedge or somewhere to hid, as the pilot sometimes used a machine gun to shoot people on the ground.
After the war the men did not come back to farmwork at once and some of them had learnt a new trade in the forces, which gave them a job that was not so hard and cold, and with better hours. Animals do not work just from 9 to 5. Unfortunately some of the men were killed in the fighting. Girls were still needed on the farms and in the forests.

The land girls lived in much the same way peace or war. We had hostels, with one hut as a dining and sitting room, which did have a wireless – if it worked. One hut as the sleep-in space, and the washroom and toilets a smaller building, sometimes brick and not wood. The sleeping hut had a middle open passage the full length with open cubicles holding two pairs of bunk beds, two two-drawer chests (one draw a bed), two small hanging cupboards and one mirror above the chests. Every four cubicles had a iron stove which if we could find enough fuel on a cold night we could get the outside of the fire glowing red. This never lasted until the morning and the early rise was very cold. Sometimes the water in taps and the loo was frozen. We did have a lot of fun without the dangers of bombing but the work was very hard.

We were well fed although food (and clothes) were on ration. Every week one had a jam jar with part of the sugar ration. This we marked with our name and it was left on the dining room table. Direr things happened to anyone using the wrong jar but any surplus could bargained for something else – soap or a sweet coupon.

We often had invitations to dances at local RAF stations. A big lorry would be sent over to fetch us, and they brought us home again. These were on a Saturday and we had permission from the Warden of the hostel to stay out late but the doors were always locked by midnight. One of the girls would always be ready to let a latecomer in the’ exit only’ door but the wardens nearly always heard them and breakfast became a ticking off time. A Land girl could be sacked for bad behaviour or not doing her job well. Some could not keep up the pace in fieldwork, e.g. potato and sugar beet picking. On a dry day, and if the potatoes were of a good size we could pick up, sieve, sack and weigh over one ton of potatoes each in one day. I liked dairy work best and became the only land girl living on a farm after finishing my training. I had milked cows while I was at school so chose to do that in the land army. Being in the Land Army was good.


Most people found these bombs very frightening and worrying.

The Doodlebugs or Flying Bombs flew quite low, the engine made a loud and nasty noise like nothing heard before. They could be heard coming and we all became good at knowing in which direction they were travelling. They did not go very fast which was probably why they were called Doodlebugs. This doodling across the sky made the waiting far worse as when the engine cut out they tipped up, crashed and exploded. There was much talk about them and everyone admitted that if one was coming their way they prayed very hard that the engine would not stop. If the bomb passed by, one said thanks and prayed for the people who it would hit. The stopping and crashing of the bomb could be easily seen; it would disappear behind a building and make a huge explosion and the blast damage was great. After dark a flame could be seen travelling with the noise across the sky. It is quite horrible to just think about them now. After the first few days the air raid sirens were not sounded as the all clear siren followed so quickly that we did not know if we were in a warning or an all clear. This was one of the lighter sides of the situation and made people laugh. We always found something to laugh about and this made life bearable. Everyone knew the war could not last very much longer or, at least, really believed it.

The V2 Rocket was quite different and crashed before we could hear it coming. It travelling faster than sound. At first there were some large explosions in different places in London, loud enough to be heard a long way away. Everyone wanted to know what was causing all this damage and loss of life. The Government at first said that some gas mains had exploded which made everyone very cross; as it was obvious that something was coming through the air. Then people laughed at the government and called the V2’s ‘Flying Gas Mains’ we quickly were told they were rockets and the name V2 was attached to them.

The damage done by these two terrible weapons was great and it was hard for families to split up to go to school or work in the mornings knowing that during the day a bomb may hit your house or school or place of work. My mother worked next door to our tall house. When a bomb exploded nearby she would come home and climb three flights of stairs where she could look across to my brother’s school and in the direction were I worked. Luckily she never saw a tall pillar of smoke in those places. She started doing this after flying bombs had landed near where I worked. I will tell you about that on another page.

Our clever and very brave men and women who went into Nazi occupied Europe and those who worked on Code Breaking found where these bombs and rockets were coming from and the sites were destroyed. It was as if the war had ended….. but the war did go on for another nine months.


Many people in Britain lived through many weeks of bombing many times during 1939 and 1945. Many civilians were killed or very badly injured as war is a terrible thing.

My war as a child growing up was not so dangerous as I lived a distance away from big cities, war factories, airfields and other military sites. We had no incidents near us in Sussex and very few in North Oxfordshire. Sometimes after dark we would hear just one plane and listened very hard as the engines of German planes had a different sound from ours. If it was coming near we would put out the lights in case the blackout curtains were not perfect that night. Once we did hear an explosion. A bomb landed in a lake about five miles away, and killed a lot of fish.

When I came home to Ealing in Middlesex, on the edge of London we were still having some daylight and night raids but not every day. We had a few bombs near the Church, which killed some people and knocked down some houses. I was a Sea Ranger in the Guides. We had been rehearsing a play to entertain people but the bomb damaged the Church Hall the night before so no one saw our play. We were very sad about the deaths of the family living next to the hall. When the siren sounded all the buses stopped and people got off and found a shelter or went into shops or other buildings. So much injury was caused by flying pieces of broken glass that it was best to get under cover. Many shops and houses had the windows boarded up. It was very dark inside.

The first day the Doodlebugs came to London I was at work in the office of a small factory who cut up huge slate and asbestos sheets to make telephone switchboards and many other things but also cut Welsh Slate that made all the large tanks at London Zoo for the snakes and fish. This morning just two of us were in the office when the siren sounded and we heard a plane coming. The two men in the large factory next door who went onto the roof during air raids to fire watch and at this factory they had a machine gun. We heard them firing the gun and went to the door to see.. foolish us. There was a big bang and the door knocked us back into the office where we hugged each other while lots of little things flew around the room. Then it was quiet and we dived under the desk… what we should have done at the beginning! All the window glass had gone and papers went all over the place but we were not hurt. We rushed into the factory but could see nothing but dust. We thought that every one was dead. A man voice shouted ‘It’s all right we are not hurt’ and the Forman came and hugged us and said ‘Lets make everyone a cup of tea’.

Outside people went looking for the pilot of this little plane the men had shot down. It had crashed into a tiny playing field and although masses of small houses were without windows and roof tiles and some factories had broken windows no one was hurt, just shocked.

Later on that day we learnt that Flying Bombs had no pilots. I was sent home early and hurried on my bike to tell my mum all about it.


We had no Doodlebugs near our home and did not hear of anyone well known to us who were hit. At work the Managing Director, who was a Major in the Army was killed in a road accident when on duty. All the workers in his factory went to his funeral, just leaving Dora and I in the office to answer the phone and work out everyone’s wages. The owner of the sweet factory next door had been asked to keep an eye on us in case of bombing. Just after lunch a Doodlebug crashed down in the next road onto a washing machine factory and several more were near. This man came in, with some sweets for us, and told us to pack all our work away, lock up and go home and he would tell our boss he had sent us home. Dora lived very near but I got on my bike and after all the workers from the sweet factory came to see we got away safely, I rode off with some more sweets, and sweets were rationed! In the next road I had to ride around battered washing machines that had been blown out of the factory. In those days washing machines were quite small, just large tubs on legs with a paddle inside fastened to the lid. I do not know where the motor was fixed. Very few people owned one. It was after this that my mother started climbing the stairs to see where the bombs fell. All that summer we held our Sea Ranger meetings in a little park that had an air raid shelter but never had to use it.
One afternoon I was in my bedroom when there was a big explosion and a lot of whooshie noise. From the window I could see over the houses and treetops for miles across the valley of the River Thames. I saw thousands of birds flying from the trees and a lot of smoke near the river.

This was one of the first ‘Flying Gas Mains’. It had landed in a Yacht Basin (Marina) at Chiswick and killed many people. This was one that the government tried to keep secret until they knew what it was. These V2s started to come everyday. At work we had a pair of swinging doors and we knew when a V2 had landed as these doors clicked as the explosion shook the ground. Most of these V2s were too far away to hear. They did much damage to property near the explosion.

One night I was asleep and I woke up to find I was standing in the middle of the room with my arms around my head with this horrific noise filling everywhere. It stopped and then I could hear hundreds of things hitting the roof. The family were all woken and we could not think what had made all that noise. Our windows were all right and the roof had no holes through it, although we thought it must be damaged. My uncle and brother went out to find the Air Raid Warden or a Policeman to get some news. It was a V2 that had exploded in the air over Ealing Common, where we lived. As the rocket travelled faster than sound, the terrible whooshing noise was it travelling through the air before the explosion. The rocket stopped when it exploded so the noise from the explosion was travelling at the normal speed and this noise made me jump out of bed. The dreadful noise afterwards was harmless. It was just the noise of the rocket going across the sky before it got over the Common and went BANG.


When we moved to Oxfordshire a RAF Station was being built in the next village. Bomber planes were flying from there but training the pilots and not loaded with bombs. Planes started crashing on take off and mostly belly-flopping down at the end of the runway but sometimes from higher up and these killed the crew. It was found that some of the building workers were enemy agents and were sabotaging the planes.

After this was sorted out we just heard the planes flying over and we could cycle on the road above the airfield and watch what was happening. I expect an adult would have been asking for his Identity Card – everyone but children had to carry one. We were only asked once when we blundered into an army exercise. They were so well camouflaged we did not see them, although we had remarked that we had not noticed before the farmers had planted lines of bushes. We thought they were blackcurrant bushes but they were camouflaged soldiers!

Coventry was twenty-six miles away and the night of the Coventry bombing was the only night the boys at the school had to sleep in the bunks in a reinforced part of the cloakrooms. The German planes were going over us to get to Coventry. My bedroom was a little way up the drive at the farmhouse and I ran up to get some bedding. The lights were switched off before I went on and I could use on torch. On the way back the planes dropped about ten flares, these were bright white lights and came down slowly on parachutes. I was very frightened and ran under a big walnut tree and hugged it tried to make myself invisible.

The water for the house came from an underground reservoir and sometimes the water would splutter and a leach would pop out into the bath. There was a sieve in the bathroom to fish them out. If it was dark it caused a lot of noise and laughter, as the window did not have blackout curtains and one bathed in the dark or moonlight. A little torch was used to find the leach and reinforcements were usually called in. This was the ladies bathroom; the other ones in the house were more modern, for 1939, and had narrower pipes so the leaches were stopped at the source. Probably swam about until they popped until the female only pipe! The water was analysed and found to be very pure and suitable for drinking as well as washing. The leaches were living in wonderful clean spring water free of pollution.