Child of the Blitz reflects on a lost London

AT night there were exploding bombs and devastating fires while during the day there were spectacular aerial dogfights — it was all part of growing up in wartime London for Daphne McKenzie.

Air-raid sirens would warn of incoming bombers and give time to dash to the nearest underground shelters.

Death in the neighbourhood was common and many of the familiar landmarks were obliterated when Hitler’s airforce rained down terror.

During breaks in bombing raids Daphne and her friends would collect bucketfuls of shrapnel in their devastated neighbourhoods. 

It was hardly a regular childhood, with little opportunity to enjoy peaceful playtime.

The now 80-year-old Warrn-ambool resident has those wartime memories etched in her mind and a collection of childhood photographs to give some insight to those challenging years when Britain was under attack.

“I was six when the war started and 12 when it all finished,” she told The Standard.

“We had a lot of air raids. There were shelters in the backyards. We all had our own gas masks and all the houses had blackouts.

“There were guns everywhere.

“Dad was an air-raid warden and made flags. Mum stayed home to look after him.

“When there were dogfights overhead we were taught to lay in the gutter or against a wall so there was less chance of being hit by shrapnel.

“There would be air raids when we were walking home from school.

“It was a very scary time, but I think I was too young to panic.

“You got used to people dying around you.”

The scariest period was during the 57 consecutive nights when German aircraft blitzed London and other significant cities.

Daphne learnt to recognise the V-1 pilotless bombers, known as doodlebugs.

“They had two lights,” she said. “When the light on the tail went out that’s when the bombs would fall and we would run as fast as we could to the shelters.

“But the V-2 bombers were more fearsome. You couldn’t hear them until they went off.”

Daphne and other children were sometimes taken away for breaks to live with other families in the country, where it was safer.

There she mingled with Italian prisoners helping dig potatoes and wandered through paddocks to rural airfields to salvage bits off damaged planes.

Children would walk many kilometres to the closest school.

Back home in Walthamstow, north-east London, the family’s double-storey terrace house stood firm during the raids,  although plaster fell off the ceilings and windows broke.

The traditional exterior fences were removed because metal was needed to make war equipment.

At one end of their street a group of scouts died when the house was hit and the sole survivor was killed later when he fell while trying to escape.

Fire was commonplace as  emergency crews often had no running water because the mains were destroyed.

“The authorities would cover the wreckage with concrete and fill it with water for a storage,” Daphne said.

“We were all on food rations. 

“You’d get a little bit of butter, the eggs were powdered and in the country we ate rabbits.

“You couldn’t get new clothing and the girls wore boys’ boots because they lasted longer.” 

Her brother Edwin was captured by the Germans and spent much of the war years in Stalag 18A, a German prison camp in Austria, after he served with British forces in Dunkirk and Greece.

He was able to take a family photograph into the prison and an inmate copied from it to sketch a colour-pencil portrait of Daphne. She cherishes it today as a rare piece of memorabilia. 

After an interrupted primary school education she attended secondary school for two years before leaving to study childcare. Then after working two years in the childcare sector she migrated with her family to Australia when she was 17.

Her father obtained a job with the Melbourne harbour trust and worked there till he was 72.

In Melbourne she met Norman McKenzie, a shipwright who had migrated from Belfast.

They married in 1953 and celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary this year.

Ten years ago they moved to Warrnambool.

Daphne has never returned to London.

“I never wanted to go back because I remembered it too destroyed,” she said.

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