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Whitstable at War - World War II

Family Life: A One Parent Nation?




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 & Responsibilities


The family roles and duties of "dad" were, by necessity, shared between family members.... and some responsibilities fell to youngsters.... 


Whitstable Kids


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 around us. 

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 serious injury.  

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 that.

Brian Smith
Hoppers Crossing


"On Leave" Times....


All this meant that the limited visits of menfolk were eagerly awaited by young lads..... 


 Special 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 Seasalter. 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. 

Uncle 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.

Brian Smith
Hoppers Crossing


Fathers' Day


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...


‘When I first met Daddy.’


Mothers 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.

The 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 bed!”

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 Mummy?”  “Upstairs” 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 bottom.

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.

 Countless children 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 ‘Daddy’.

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.’

 Brian Smith


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....


1940 My Most Memorable  Christmas


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. 

Dad’s 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 Yorkshire. Sometime 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 repeated again. 

Our train 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 suddenly thawing.

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. The ‘landlords’ had decamped taking the rent and any food in the house. They had been paid for full board and, I think, several weeks in advance. 

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.

Brian Smith



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