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  • Julia Morris

Emerging from Wartime Lockdown - Memories of VE Day.

Updated: May 14

We cannot mark the 75th anniversary of Victory in Europe Day with traditional street parties, concerts and parades but we can take this opportunity to reflect on the achievements and experiences of the wartime generation: now so vulnerable to the threat of Covid-19. It brings one to wonder about parallels between Lockdown 2020 and their childhood experiences of jeopardy and restriction in WW2 and whether our hopes for a return to a more normal way of life will be at all comparable with their experiences in 1945.


During my time working as in museums and historic sites I became aware of the power of oral reminiscence as a way to bring the past to life. Accounts that resonate with our own lives and enable us to step into another’s shoes give a direct emotional connection with the past. The most evocative stories are often those of daily life rather than the deeds and exploits of the great and heroic, important as they are. I have taken the chance to catch up with an interviewee who gave a moinsightful and detailed account of her childhood in WW2 to find out how she looks back on VE Day 75 years on.

Barbara Osborn was 16 years old in May 1945, when the war in Europe ended. She had already left school and begun work as a shorthand typist working for an engineering company that produced components for warships and weapons of war. This was a pragmatic employment option for a young woman at the time, even if academically able. She came from a musical family and aspired to become a music teacher.


Barbara Osborn was 16 years old in May 1945, when the war in Europe ended. She had already left school and begun work as a shorthand typist working for an engineering company that produced components for warships and weapons of war. This was a pragmatic employment option for a young woman at the time, even if academically able. She came from a musical family and aspired to become a music teacher.


Barbara’s father was a WW1 veteran who made a modest living as a piano tuner through the 1920s and 30s but found there was no call for his skills when the second war came. Instead he took on a regular job to make ends meet and became a full time Air Raid Warden, a key worker, at his post every night whilst his family endured the worst of the bombing raids on Birmingham. Her mother also became a key worker administering coke fuel rations for the gas board. This provided vital income and gave her a sense of purpose in an emergency: something we can understand in today’s Covid-19 context.


At the beginning of the war Barbara’s older sister was evacuated and spent an unhappy time in Chipping Sodbury, isolated from her family. Barbara stayed at home, her school closed, and enjoyed her unrestricted freedom or helped Grandma in her drapers’ shop and dolls’ hospital. The family home, built in the 1930s, in a field of elm trees, lay close to the railway line into Birmingham. The track was not only a target itself but was used by the Luftwaffe to navigate into the industrial heart of the city and the Spitfire factory at Longbridge. Mother, both daughters, and sometimes Grandma too, sheltered under the kitchen table until the night a direct hit destroyed the houses opposite. Fearful their home could collapse, they picked their way over the rubble and fled to Grandma’s house. In her 2009 interview about her experience as a 10 year old, Barbara said quietly “then I was really scared”.


To start with they lived in the damaged house during the day and spent the nights as refugees camping in a neighbouring cellar or a relative’s house. Later in the war they moved back in. The house was in danger of subsidence, the windows covered with tarfelt because they had no glass and a tarpaulin covered the holes in the roof. Upstairs was uninhabitable so they slept, fully dressed, in a Morrison shelter downstairs. The blackout, enforced for all 6 years of the war, meant lighting was very restricted at night but Barbara does remember the wonderful night skies over Birmingham and as a Girl Guide she learned to identify the constellations for herself. It was too dangerous to go out after dark. Early in the Blitz the girls had gone to the swimming baths with their father only to be caught in a raid and had to race home with sharp pieces of shrapnel from the anti-aircraft guns raining down as they ran and the bombs fell.


The most rigid and long term restrictions applied to food and fuel. Travel was severely curtailed and food rations meant stockpiling was impossible and choice very limited. Resourcefulness was necessary; gardens and allotments, as we are seeing now, became a popular way of ensuring fresh supplies. Instead of searching out expensive toilet paper there was always newspaper, cut into squares for the outside loo or it used to wrap cheap cuts of meat bought from the butcher as he had no wrapping materials for his sales. Asked what food she missed most Barbara has no hesitation: bananas. The supply from abroad was cut off by the Battle of the Atlantic. She assures me she has made up for their wartime absence from the shops in the years since.


At the moment Barbara lives in isolation lockdown in her little flat in Kings Heath, Birmingham, a mile or so from her childhood home. The greatest difference she notices between now and the war is the lack of direct human contact that we can enjoy in the current pandemic. Whilst life was restricted and worrying in so many ways and many families were separated by evacuation or war service it was still possible to meet and get together during the day. Most human contact came through work or daily survival rather than social occasions: perhaps in one of many queues, or engaged in the endless paid and voluntary work necessary to keep things going. The radio was vital but usually listened to whilst getting ready to head out to wherever they would spend the night rather than as a family gathered around the set in the way we so often see in official photos. For people of Barbara’s generation social media and remote meetings are not too easy to use, but it is remarkable how many friends she has still has locally, people she has known all her life, who will ring and chat regularly providing a wonderful support network.

So back to VE Day. I asked Barbara for her memories of the day itself and what happened afterwards wondering whether we will see anything similar when our lockdown ends. She remembers walking through Victoria Square in the centre of Birmingham seeing the joyful crowds assembling to celebrate their great sense of release. At home the neighbours got together and lit a great bonfire for their celebration using the debris that still lay around from the bombing and used candles in jam jars in the empty lamp posts to mark the end of the blackout.


The words Barbara uses most often about this time are elation and freedom. The majority of her formative memories of childhood were forged against the backdrop of war. However, the bankrupt economy meant a quiet and frugal way of life well into the 1950s. This did not stop Barbara and her friends enjoying themselves. A friend in the USA sent floor length evening dresses that meant the sisters could go on dates and to dances dressed to the nines. Musical evenings and fancy dress events were favourite events.


Barbara and her group of close friends were keen to explore further. They formed the ‘Embassy Club’ and in 1948 organised a holiday to South Devon. Getting there required initiative and energy. One car took the luggage whilst everyone else travelled by train to Plymouth, took a ferry across the Sound and then walked to a remote valley near the little villages of Nos Mayo and Newton Ferrers. They set up their bell tents and spent an idyllic self-sufficient week enjoying the outdoors; on the beach, walking and exploring. Barbara’s pumps were kept together with a length of bandage and most of their clothes were homemade but one senses this was all part of the fun and the joy of being alive in a very different world.


My chat with Barbara gives plenty to ponder: I wonder if we will be able to return to normal with a similar sense of joy and thankfulness able to use our experiences of the emergency to work for a better future?





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