Last year on Remembrance Day I shared a story that my grandfather had chronicled while serving as part of the Royal Canadian Navy during the Second World War stationed in Halifax. I’m so lucky that my grandfather kept a journal and later, in retirement, turned his journals into family books about his life, his travels and his work abroad.
This year I’d like to share part of an excerpt from his book that details his life while living in London in 1945. My grandfather, Lt. G. F Kelly, was Staff Officer Electrical Engineering and Liaison Officer to the Director of Electrical Engineering, Admiralty, Sir James Pringle. He was part of the Canadian Naval Mission Overseas with the Weapons and Equipment Department.
By 1945 the years of war and rationing had weighed heavily on Britain:
In the stores all goods were rationed and there was very little selection. The pride and joy of all officers seemed to be a Royals Razor which had it own chrome case which included the honing stone. These were not rationed but the Royals Store on Regent Street would sell only a small allotment each day to service men. This meant lining up at 0800 for store opening at 0900. I did this trip three times and got razors for dad, Mr. Mason (father-in-law) and myself.
Shirts were hard to find but they could on occasion be bought from Naval Stores. At the time we wore white shirts with detached, starched collars. Once your shirt went through a London laundry it came back ‘tattle-tale grey’ and nothing would return it to its original white. Starched collars were hopeless so we bought cardboard ones which only emphasized the greyness of our shirts.
Eating places were scare. ‘Lyons Corner House’ of which there were several in London specialized in roast beef. The chef had a very sharp knife and sliced the meat so thin that you could readily read the pattern of the plate through it. The real saviors of England were Coleman’s Mustard and Bird’s Custard. Put on strong enough mustard and you never noticed the sawdust in the sausage. All desserts were smothered in custard and they all tasted the same. Brussels sprouts were used at practically every meal and we developed a strong dislike for them.
A friend directed us to a ‘fantastic’ steak house, which was naturally ‘black market’. It was in SoHo and to get to it you had to pass through a store, go down an alley and enter by a back door. Naturally you paid for your meal two days in advance. When we sat down we were offered an extra thick strip of steak, with lots of bright yellow fat. Despite the fat we ate it up. It actually was not that bad, until we found out it was horse.
I love how these few little paragraphs give a small but specific glimpse into the everyday life of Londoners during the war.
In other parts of his book he describes his first night in London and being awakened by the sound of air-raid sirens, which he promptly ignores and goes back to sleep. The next morning he discovers the building directly behind his had taken the explosion and wardens were now searching the ruins. In other parts he describes how he clandestinely acquired two bottles of rum on the otherwise “dry” dockyards of Bath, set up a little bar in his office and used his little bar to aid in his official liaison duties.
As I mentioned before, I’m so thankful to have these memories of my grandfather in writing so I can remember and understand the remarkable life he led and one day share his stories with my children.
Lest we forget.