Onset of World War II

Betty Archer

On September 3, 1939, I was staying at my mother's in a small country village near Horsham, in Sussex, As the Prime Minister's announcement "We are now at war with Germany" came over the radio there was an atmosphere of disbelief tinged with acute unease. This was compounded by the shattering sound of an air raid siren going off. Of course we were sure we were being attacked! When the "All Clear" siren followed soon afterwards it was apparent that there was no raid imminent – someone had been "trigger-happy" and pressed the alarm. An understandable reaction. The eerie wail of the air-raid siren never failed to give one goose pimples. Even now, all these years later, the sound of a siren affects me in the same way.

As London was presumed to be the main target for air raids, Government policy was to remove as many small children as possible from the city and into the country. Before many days had passed trainloads of evacuees began arriving in Horsham. Everyone who had a spare bed (or beds) was allocated one, two or three children "for the duration". The village hall was full of children with nametags around their necks and carrying gas masks, nervously awaiting their fate.

We were allotted two sisters from London's East End. They had never been in the country in their young lives and found it difficult to cope with their new surroundings. Their broad Cockney accents presented some difficulty with communication – they did not seem able to understand anything we said and we had difficulty understanding them. However, they soon settled in and took to country life with enthusiasm. I shall never forget their reaction to the sight of worms squirming around on flower beds. "Look!" they shrieked. "Sniikies!"

The first three months of the war came to be known as "the phoney war". Nothing happened. The expected air raids failed to materialise, and people became over confident. Some evacuees' parents came to take their children home. Our two girls returned to London. Later, when the blitz started in earnest, we could only hope that they remained safe. Unfortunately, many did not.