Vancouver-area residents recount childhood in England as Blitz kids

By Tom Vogt, Columbian Science, Military & History Reporter

Published:

 

BRENDA HALL: When her younger brother misbehaved, she'd tell him that "'Hitler is coming! Listen! You can hear those boots outside now, marching!' That straightened him up a bit." (Photo by Amanda Cowan/The Columbian)

RITA STEWART: In outlying communities where she and her sisters were sent, "The kids were very mean to evacuees. They would say, 'Your mom and dad will get mustard-gassed and die.'" (Photo by Amanda Cowan/The Columbian)

ROMA EKSTROM: After her brother's ship was torpedoed, "He was missing in action and presumed dead. We mourned for him." Then one day, "There's a knock on the door, and he's there." (Photo by Amanda Cowan/The Columbian)

PETER STENHOUSE: "My father was killed by a V-2. They had a ton of TNT. They never found anything to bury." His remains are "somewhere in a landfill north of London." (Photo by Amanda Cowan/The Columbian)

Did You Know?

• The Blitz (from blitzkrieg, German for “lightning war”) refers to the German Luftwaffe’s sustained bombing campaign against British towns and cities from September 1940 until May 1941. Starting on Sept. 7, 1940, London was bombed for 57 consecutive nights, and often during the day.

• About 43,000 British civilians were killed during the nine months of the Blitz. In May 1941, the Germans shifted their focus to the invasion of Russia.

To Learn More:

• Peter Stenhouse’s talk on surviving the Blitz: youtube.com/watch?v=MyzXFMRNz1c

• SB-24 navigator Larry Stewart, who married Rita, was part of the U.S. bombing campaign over Germany. Read the story at

www.columbian.com/news/2015/nov/11/wwii-veteran-recalls-service/

When Peter Stenhouse, Brenda Hall and the Greenberg girls were growing up in England, it wasn’t just clouds of war looming on the horizon.

Their homes were overshadowed by waves of German bombers.

Stenhouse, Hall and the two sisters — now Rita Stewart and Roma Ekstrom — are Vancouver-area residents who were born in England in the 1930s.

They were Blitz kids. They witnessed the Battle of Britain, when the Royal Air Force fought the Luftwaffe for aerial supremacy in the skies over England. They survived the bombing onslaught known as the Blitz, when the Germans shifted their focus to punishing English cities. And even then, those kids still had four long years of war ahead of them.

Their childhood memories of World War II include makeshift bomb shelters, forced evacuations and random death.

“My father was killed by a V-2” rocket, Stenhouse said.

One of the Greenbergs’ family friends was a soldier who lost a leg during the British army’s evacuation from France.

“They made him an air-raid warden,” Rita Stewart said. “He had to pull dead people from the shelters.”

The Greenbergs lived in London’s East End, near the docks that were a prime target of enemy bombers.

“It was a war zone,” Stewart said. “You saw hundreds of German planes going over to bomb the docks.”

She was among four Greenberg sisters who were evacuated to small communities in the English countryside.

Stenhouse was relocated a couple of times, although he endured much of the Blitz’s brunt with his family in London.

“My school was evacuated to Poole Harbour, west of Birmingham. After the fall of France, my parents pulled me out,” Stenhouse, 83, said. The thought was that if England falls, “We go down as a family,” the National Park Service volunteer said.

“It was a backs-to-the-wall-type thing, really.”

Brenda Hall grew up in Bedford, about 45 miles northwest of London. Her family took in some of those evacuees.

Another girl in the house

“One of the ladies came with her daughter. I had two brothers,” Hall said, so, it was nice to have another girl in the house. “I loved it.”

Rita Stewart was evacuated twice. After Germany invaded Poland in 1939, Rita and another sister, Angela, packed a few belongings in pillowcases and left London. They wound up in Cuckfield.

Even though it was only 35 miles south of London, “People thought we were foreigners,” Rita said.

“The kids who lived there were so cruel,” Rita, 85, added. The young evacuees were out of danger, but the local kids kept reminding the newcomers that their mothers and fathers were going to get killed by the Germans.

“I was not evacuated the first time,” Roma, 82, said. “My mum said I was too young. When the sirens went off, I would head for a space under the stairs, and huddle with blankets and a pillow.”

Stenhouse shared his Blitz memories last month at Pearson Air Museum. He recounted a couple of early milestones in the war, including a radio broadcast in which Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain announced that the nation was at war with Germany.

“My mom gave me a half-crown to buy sticky tape and we put it all over the windows in case there was flying glass,” Stenhouse said.

On Sept. 7, 1940, “I was playing with a friend. His family had an apartment on the third floor,” Stenhouse said. “I looked through the window when sirens went off and was watching little dots that went from smoky gray to dull red in the sky. It was the start of the Blitz.”

In that round of evacuations, Roma and Rita were sent to Reading, 36 miles west of London. The shipment of children was ushered into a church hall and distributed among local families.

‘I’ll take that one’

“Prim ladies would point and say ‘I’ll take that one,’ ” Rita said. “We weren’t chosen. A lady took us and put us in her attic. There were two cots.”

In the darkness, Roma and Rita noticed a human form in the attic.

“We jumped into one cot and clung together all night,” Rita said. In the morning, the girls saw what had given them such a fright: a tailor’s dummy.

Their permanent billet was with a farmer and his wife.

“He would take us down to watch him kill rabbits,” Roma recalled.

The local school didn’t offer much in the way of stability.

“Life at school was bad,” Rita said. “The headmaster had no training in education. He was a retired sergeant major.”

He did know about discipline, and he enforced it with a cane.

“He found out we were Jewish,” Roma added, which made things worse.

“There was a lot of anti-Semitism,” Rita said.

After one perceived infraction, Rita got called out: “Greenberg. Come here!”

“He whacked me across my hands. I got word to my mother.”

A Mary Poppins moment

Then came the day …

“The door opened and in walks my mother, like Mary Poppins with her umbrella. ‘Are you Mr. Garrett?’ ”

(“I’ll always remember that bastard,” Rita mentioned in an aside).

Mrs. Greenberg took her umbrella — WHACK! WHACK! — and gave the headmaster a dose of his own medicine. Then she demanded: ” ‘How dare you cane that child?’ ”

“She took me on the bus and took me home. I was the happiest person in the world,” Rita said. “If we die, we die together.”

After the Blitz ended and the young evacuees all returned home, the Germans targeted London with a new form of air attack. The first V-1 flying bombs hit London on June 13, 1944. Known as doodlebugs and buzz bombs, they were unmanned air vehicles that were launched from the Continent.

As Roma recalled, “We came back when the doodlebugs started. We’d hear the noise …”

“And when it stopped, you’d run for shelter,” Rita said, finishing her sister’s sentence.

It was a buzz bomb that blew the roof off the Greenbergs’ house.

“We lived in the basement,” Rita said. “There was a big wooden table with mattresses underneath where we would sleep.”

The V-2 rocket assault started on Sept. 8, 1944. Unlike the buzz bombs, there was no warning.

“They just fell out of the sky,” Stenhouse said. “They had a ton of TNT.”

After his father was caught in a blast, they never found any remains.

“He is buried somewhere in a landfill north of London,” where debris and rubble was dumped, Stenhouse said.

Sent to an orphan ship

The impact on the family didn’t end with his death. After Mrs. Stenhouse said that she no longer was able to support her son alone, Peter spent two years in an orphanage.

It was a ship-based program, and Stenhouse enlisted in the Royal Navy on his 16th birthday.

Stenhouse was seriously wounded in 1956 as part of a beach-support unit assisting a British commando operation in Cyprus.

While Brenda Hall’s neighborhood wasn’t targeted by German bombers, the residents of Bedford knew they were at war. Some bombs hit near where her father worked at a plant that made turbines for ships.

“It was across from the gas works and not too far from an electric power station,” Hall, 79, said. “They did try and drop some bombs there; the only thing they damaged was a theater. If they’d ever hit the gas works, a lot of the town would have been blown up.”

Hall did find an odd benefit to the threat of German invasion. She had a younger brother, and Brenda warned him what would happen if he didn’t behave.

” ‘Hitler is coming! Listen, you can hear those boots outside now, marching!’ That straightened him up a bit,” she said.

Brother was a Desert Rat

There were other aspects to being a family at war, including brothers who were serving. Alf Greenberg was one of the British army’s Desert Rats who defeated the Afrika Korps at El Alamein. Her brother came home with what now would be diagnosed as post-traumatic stress, Roma Ekstrom said.

Jack Greenberg was a sailor, whose merchant ship was torpedoed in the Atlantic.

“He was missing in action and presumed dead,” Roma said. “We mourned for him.”

A year or so later, “There’s a knock on the door, and he’s there.”

It turned out that Jack had been rescued by an Argentine freighter; he returned to London by way of South America.

According to the Imperial War Museum in London, more than 43,000 British civilians were killed during the Blitz.

The V-weapon attacks in 1944 and 1945 killed about 13,000 people, including Stenhouse’s father.

And after his death, “My mother kind of went to pieces,” Stenhouse said. He was in the navy when a cousin told Stenhouse that his mother was dead. He doesn’t know when she died, just that it was after 1948. But Stenhouse traces her demise back to the WWII rocket attack that killed his father.

“She was kind of a victim, as well.”