“MEMORIES OF WWII”

Cynthia M. (née Roberts) Flittner

Cynthia M. Roberts was born in 1928 and during her wartime childhood she lived with her parents in Little Bookham. She married in 1949 to John O. Flittner.

The source of this narrative is as follows:

WW2 People’s War is an online archive of wartime memories contributed by members of the public and gathered by the BBC.
The archive can be found at https://www.bbc.co.uk/ww2peopleswar.

Contributor: Cynthia M. (née Roberts) Flittner
Article ID: A4650824
Contributed on: 01 August 2005
Archive URL: https://www.bbc.co.uk/history/ww2peopleswar/stories/10/a4650824.shtml

Themes : Little Bookham, gas masks, rationing, evacuees, black-out, air raids, London blitz, Count Pontocki of Montalk, dig for victory, doodlebugs, land army, Canadians, D Day, VE Day, VJ Day.

Memories of WWII

I was 11 years old when War was declared on the 3rd September 1939.

My Father was a dairy farmer and I lived with my parents and younger sister at Little Bookham, nr. Leatherhead, Surrey. We were a very happy family.

I can recall the day War was declared very clearly. It was a beautiful sunny day and as usual, my sister and I attended Church that morning. Our Vicar had installed a radio (wireless, in those days!) so the congregation could hear the broadcast by the Prime Minister at 11a.m. The words of Neville Chamberlain, to the effect that he had received no promise from Hitler to pull out of Poland and, therefore, ‘we were at war with Germany’, echoed around the Church. The older members present looked very serious, some of whom had served in the First World War. However, as an eleven year old, I have to admit I felt a growing excitement welling up inside me, that we were going to experience war and all that entailed. As we walked home from Church, through the fields, a lone plane soared overhead in the blue sky and we heard the air-raid siren for the first time.

Soon we were all fitted with gas masks, identity cards and ration books. The gas masks were supplied in a little cardboard box and had to be carried about at all times, for example, to school or shopping. My father took a a very dim view of this on the farm! A local committee was formed and my father was delegated to supply the community with milk in the event of a crisis.

Shortly, evacuees began arriving from London which provided great excitement for local children. We even had an entire boys’ school from Streatham evacuated to the area and until they found their own premises they shared our school building, so for a while we only received part-time education.

One of the war-time measures was that all windows had to be ‘blacked out’ to prevent light providing guidance to enemy aircraft; this meant a busy time for housewives buying dark material to make the necessary curtains.

For the farm, it entailed painting all windows black in the dairy buildings, so lights during milking time in the winter months could not be observed.

As far as I can recall, the first winter of the war was fairly quiet and it was during the summer and autumn of 1940 that the ‘blitz’ of London began; later to be repeated on Coventry, Plymouth, Portsmouth and other well known cities. Our farm was on a flight path to London and we could hear the German bomber planes droning overhead night after night. In the morning we could tell how badly London had been hit by the glow from the fires in the dawn light. The ‘Londoners’ who stayed in the city to keep services going, or from sheer stubbornness, were marvellous and their bravery was acknowledged by all.

During autumn 1940 when we were in the fields picking up the potato crop, we witnessed many a ‘dog-fight’ between British and German planes, heard shrapnel falling into the trees and saw some pilots bale out. Children were given time off from school to help with potato planting and harvesting. We all loved it; it was great fun, even if a back-breaking job, and we earned some pocket money! After potato harvesting in the autumn we particularly enjoyed the great bonfire of dried potato haulm and the jacket potatoes cooked in the embers.

We settled into a routine at school and for children it was simply school days, school terms and exams, as always.

Food rationing required ingenuity on the part of housewives to provide nutritious meals. In our village a Pie Centre evolved where home-made pies could be purchased once a week. Living on a dairy farm we fared better than most. We had milk ad lib and from this source, cream and home-made butter. The butter was made by putting a quantity of milk in a large glass jar fitted with ‘paddles’ inside, which had to be turned by a handle operated from outside the jar. This job was delegated to myself and my sister. We hated it! We took 20 turns each at turning the handle, which became known as 20/20. However, as our Mother rightly pointed out, if we wanted extra butter we had to help make it. We were also well off for eggs — and loathed the dried equivalent. We missed sugar but used saccharine instead in drinks. Sweets were rationed — probably good for our teeth. For farms, there were extra rations at harvest time. We were fortunate, therefore, to grow up on a farm, which we loved, through all the seasons, spring-time and harvest.

The most unusual character I met during WWII was of Polish origin and came to live in a cottage near our farm, owned by a local well known architect. He introduced himself as Count Potocki of Montalk and his wife as Countess Potocka of Montalk. He claimed to be Stanislaw V, (I have his autograph), heir to the Polish throne, and also claimed to have vast estates in Poland where pre-war he had raised thoroughbred horses. He claimed, too, to have entertained the late Duke and Duchess of Kent at his estates. His appearance and style of dress brought comments. For example, he had long brown shoulder-length hair, which in the days of ‘short back and sides’ certainly caused raised eyebrows. He wore a maroon tricorn hat and long ankle-length flowing maroon coloured robes, not unlike a priest. His wife also wore long robes. In looks, he was fair-skinned, clean-shaven, tall and of aristocratic mien, with slender artistic hands. If anyone upset him, he would put a ‘curse’ on them, which to the village people seemed decidedly antiquated. I regret to say to some he was a figure of fun. He seemed to find my parents ‘acceptable’, no doubt due to the agrarian connections, although my father observed that from the condition of his artistic hands he had obviously not been used to manual work. At the end of the war he simply disappeared, we assumed back to Poland and his estates. To me, as a teenager, he was always a mystery. However, on the death of Princess Marina, Duchess of Kent, I was interested to learn that there was indeed a Count Potocki, who had entertained the late Duke and Duchess of Kent on his Polish estates and who had raised thoroughbred horses. This information was gleaned from a letter published in the Daily Telegraph from the Polish Legation, offering condolences on the death of the Duchess. Nevertheless, the question could be posed, was this the gentleman who had lived in our village during the war?

The war brought a great feeling of camaraderie; we were all in the ‘same boat’ and everyone was expected to do his/her bit. This applied to young people as well. During my teen-age years I joined a group who helped at the local hospital on Sunday afternoons, preparing teas, etc. for the patients, to give the nurses a respite. I distinguished myself on one occasion by using the whole butter ration for one week for one afternoon tea! Living on a farm with butter more or less ad lib, I had not appreciated how small the individual ration was; I learned my lesson and never made the same mistake again!

‘My war’ was, of course, influenced by farming and the slogan ‘Dig for Victory’. Food production was vital due to the heavy losses of food-ships from America caused by German submarine warfare. We seldom saw oranges and bananas and had to rely on home-produced fruit, which did get a bit boring. Farming was classified as a ‘reserved occupation’ but even so, many young men left to join the forces. Vast areas were ploughed up to produce cereal crops, potatoes, etc. and the workers put in long hours. Extra help was provided by Land Girls and occasionally by voluntary assistance, in our village, from Canadian soldiers billeted there prior to D-Day. Nevertheless, I recall it was a profitable time for farmers and saw the introduction of many innovations, particularly the combine harvester which reduced the harvesting of cereal crops from two operations to one. This did, however, dispense with the threshing machine, a beloved age-old occupation of autumn days.

Despite the bombing raids and war-time casualties, which the BBC never tried to minimise, everyone tried to live as normal a life as possible. For example, my birthday was Christmas Eve and my parents always arranged a birthday party, which was a great start to Christmas celebrations and I remember my Father always coming in after the afternoon’s milking to meet my friends. In addition, certain occurrences were highlights, such as Winston Churchill’s speeches; they were inspirational for young and old alike. We would all sit round the radio (wireless!) waiting for ‘Winnie’ to start and during his oration you could have heard a ‘pin drop’. Our hearts would be lifted and resolve strengthened. Another person who commanded great respect was King George VIth. At the beginning of the War, when he had only been on the throne for a short period, it took a tremendous effort on his part to make a speech due to an impediment and during his pauses we would all ‘will’ him to continue, which he did. At the end of the War he could make a speech with hardly a pause. He was very courageous and a beloved King, together with his Wife and the two Princesses.

I recall another highlight was General Montgomery’s victory at El Alamein. How we cheered good old ‘Monty’; it really was the beginning of the end.

However, we still had to experience the German ‘doodlebugs’, guided missiles, once again aimed at London. They had a distinctive ‘rumbling’ sound and when that cut out, it was a case of ‘watch out’.

When D-Day dawned in June 1944, it was a momentous occasion but by this time we never doubted victory; we had been ‘baptized’ by the Dunkirk experience. The Canadian soldiers billeted around our village disappeared to take part in the landings. There were, of course, set-backs during the invasion but underneath there was an inner feeling that at last we would beat Hitler. When victory was declared on May 8th 1945 there was an overwhelming feeling of relief. Church bells rang out throughout the country. On VE Day I met some friends and we all went up to London to join in the celebrations; it was a joyous occasion. We saw the King and Queen and the two Princesses, together with Winston Churchill, appear on the balcony at Buckingham Palace.

The War against Japan ended in August 1945 but VJ Day seemed a more subdued affair.

At the end of WWII I was 17 years old, so I grew up, literally, during the war years. However serious the situation, it was an exciting time for a teenager.

Mrs. Cynthia. M. (née Roberts) Flittner

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