World War 2 Stories for Sheffield

Dora Wicksteed 

France 1939 to England VE Day - A Mother's Recollections

By actiondesksheffield

People in story: Dora Madeleine Wicksteed, Leo Hamilton Wicksteed, Jennifer Strudwicke, Jonathan Wicksteed, Arnold and Helen Wicksteed
Location of story: Normandy, Bordeaux, Bournemouth, Kettering
Background to story: Civilian


This story was submitted to the People’s War site by Joanna Thomas of the ‘Action Desk – Sheffield’ Team on behalf of Dora Madeleine Wicksteed.

We were living in Normandy at Notre Dame de Gravenchon and, two days before war was declared (September 3rd 1939), my husband decided that I must go to England, being pregnant and with small children, Jennifer (4) and Richard (18 months).

I was only allowed to take one small suitcase onto the boat at Le Havre and I remember Jennifer crying because she couldn’t take her doll’s pram (she was allowed her doll and still has it!). The boat to Southampton was small and very crowded, but they did find me a chair! My poor in-laws, with whom I was going to stay, had been waiting for hours for us at Southampton. At last we arrived at West Moors (a village near Bournemouth) very exhausted, but were made very welcome.

My next recollection is Jonathan’s birth. I had been booked in at Tuckton Nursing Home near Bournemouth for two weeks (4 guineas a week!) and on the night of November 6th I decided it was time to go! We left at 9pm by car. My father-in-law was very short-sighted and it was a nightmare journey in thick fog and very cold (we missed a bus by inches). I kept saying, “Are we nearly there?” and we were not! We arrived at last and the Matron got me upstairs, took my coat off, and Jonathan was there! I still had my little woolly hat on and when the doctor came in a few minutes later he said, “I’ve done many deliveries but it’s the first time I’ve had a patient with a hat on!”

My son, Jonathan was born in November, but my husband didn’t see him until the following February. When I came to England, he had to stay behind, but arrived on September 13th, went into the Army and, being fluent in French and knowing the country very well, has been ‘snapped up’ by the Authorities. By September 21st he was in uniform and back in France.

Then came Dunkirk and no news of my husband. A call went out from Bournemouth for anyone speaking fluent French to help at the various reception areas for the poor French civilians who had walked miles, been rescued and brought to England, and also some French soldiers. None could speak English and I was able to help for a few days. My ‘in-laws’ helped by having many English soldiers to the house. They all wanted a bath, some tea and food and we were kept very busy. It was lovely weather and I can remember them relaxing on the lawn and talking to my children.

Many days later (or was it weeks?), I at last heard form my husband, from Weymouth, where he had landed from the last boat to bring English soldiers from Bordeaux. After Dunkirk, he had taken his motorbike all down France and, on arrival, was told that he must throw his motorbike into the harbour to prevent the Germans (two hours behind) from getting anything. At last he arrived home, minus all his belongings; everything had to be discarded in Bordeaux.

Then came the Battle of Britain. My father-in-law, who was an excellent engineer but retired, returned to help the war effort. He would cycle off at night, but had to sleep in the daytime. My mother-in-law quite rightly said, “Father must have his sleep, so keep the children quiet”. So with the pram and two toddlers, I used to walk round and round the village to keep the children out of the house. I saw many, many planes and it was quite frightening.

My in-laws had two very large greenhouses in the grounds and my father-in-law, a very good gardener, grew tons of tomatoes and supplied all the surrounding district. My mother-in-law and I spent hours filling Kilner jars. Those tomatoes were the best I ever tasted!

Although West Moors was never actually bombed, we had German and British planes flying over all the time at night, on the way to Southampton and Portsmouth and, as I was very tired, it was suggested that I went for a few days to stay with my parents, then living in ‘peaceful’ Weston-super-Mare, which I did. One night the German bombers came and many houses were destroyed and people killed. We escaped but the damage was dreadful. We cleared up, but the following night the planes returned, this time the fire bombs blew our windows in. All the soot and plaster came down (we were on the ground floor). It was chaos, but we were unhurt. We could no longer stay. The station had gone but some kind friends took me, Dickie and my father (who had lost a leg in the First War) to Bristol station and, from there, I went back by train to Bournemouth and my father and sister went to London.

In 1942 (I think), I was offered a vacant cottage in Kettering and I was happy to accept and went to live there with my three children. It was marvellous to be in the cottage, but it was very basic with an outside loo, no bathroom, an old-fashioned kitchen range etc. I always remember the marble slab from an old wash stand in the little pantry which kept milk and butter etc. fresh. The only time I ever had ‘black’ rations was when the village shop told me that they had kept back a large tin of Bird’s Custard for me because I had three children.

One night the cows from the field got into my tiny garden. I looked out at 2 am from my bedroom window and there was this huge black from at the back door! In my dressing gown, I went down and chased the cows round the house, but what a cold I caught.

The day before D-Day, dozens of open lorries full of soldiers passed our gate and Jennifer sat on the wall facing the road and threw apples at the smiling soldiers who shouted their thanks to her. We had one apple tree but it was full of fruit.

My happiest day was when I went to meet my husband at Kettering station when he was ‘demobbed’, quite late at night, and we walked from Kettering to Hill Cottage at Barton Seagrave.

I have no memory of what I did on VE Day in May – I must have celebrated somehow!

Mrs Dora Wicksteed, aged 95