The End of Peace.
Patricia Roberts was twelve years old on Thursday, September 3rd, 1939. On that day Neville Chamberlain, the Prime Minister of Great Britain, made a national radio address to inform the British people that they were at war with Germany due to that country's refusal to begin withdrawing from Poland. World War II had begun. France declared war on Germany the same day.
Patricia "Patty" Roberts was my mother and she heard that radio address as it was broadcast. Live. Sitting in the living room of her home at 102 Commercial Street, Southampton. The course of her life changed in the brief time it took for Chamberlain to speak.
Without yet knowing it she was on a new road that would lead ultimately to Southern California, a life in America, eight children and a marriage that lasted 52 years.
But first she had to survive.
Humans are not alone in being forever scarred by bombardment from the sky. After the serious bombing began, not long after the defeat of France by the Nazis in June of 1940, one of the first things my mother noticed was the behavior of the neighborhood pets. Dogs, cats, horses, chickens.
They all started going out of their minds. There is no other way to put it. It was not uncommon to see dogs acting as if rabid, attacking anyone who came near them or without any provocation at all. Acting crazily, chasing their tails, running to and fro. Dangerous. Most, if not all of them, were euthanized before long. Few had the time to care for them; nothing much could be done for them in any event, traumatized as they were, with the nation on the brink of being invaded. There were other priorities.
Like almost everyone else in England, my mother saw air battles taking place overhead. Spitfires and Messerschmitt's wheeling and diving, the sounds of their machine guns and cannons clearly audible. But if one wished to watch the battle, it was essential to do so with some kind of roof over your head, with occasional peeks to see what was happening. This was necessary due to the large amounts of spent brass casings falling from the sky, sometimes from thousands of feet. She could hear these shell casings hitting rooftops, smashing skylights, or a strange discordant tinkling as hundreds of them would strike the pavement in sudden bursts of sound.
Even fifty years after the war she remembered a night in which she awoke sometime after midnight. She listened carefully, but there was no sound of anti-aircraft, nor of sirens, nor of the low-pitched hum of an approaching formation of bombers. Things she was accustomed to hearing.
She waited; something had awoken her.
And then, from out at sea, out there in the channel somewhere came the sound of gunfire. A brief but intense burst lasting perhaps thirty seconds or so. A hammering, thumping sound so to speak, muffled by distance. And then silence. She knew that not so many miles away British and German gunboats were shooting it out, having stalked and searched for one another on their nightly patrols. And now they had found each other.
In the morning, one could sometimes see the results of these deadly encounters. An MTB (Motor Torpedo Boat) tied up at the dock, the foredeck and bridge smashed in, the entire boat riddled with holes and blood-stained. Sometimes a line of two or three shroud-covered forms lying on the dock, waiting for the ambulance that would take them to the morgue.
My mother's recollection of Dunkirk, the near miraculous rescue of over 300,000 British and French troops trapped by the Germans in June 1940 amounted to coming round a corner in the town of Bitterne to find the local park filled with hundreds of French marines. Milling about, talking, smoking, waiting for orders, waiting to find out what was next for them as their country was going down under the Nazi onslaught. They were exhausted, filthy after weeks of battle.
Years later she told me she sometimes wondered about those men; how many of them survived the war and finally had a chance to get on with their lives. She thought that about so many people she met during those years. Did they make it or not.
Late November of 1940 was the worst. Southampton was struck fifty-seven times by major air raids from 1940-42, but the three massive attacks at the end of November and on December first 1940 inflicted the highest loss of life and the greatest amount of damage. It was one of those raids that damaged her house.
She was on her way home from school; as she neared the corner where she turned for home on Commercial street, an unpleasant neighbor boy, a nasty kid who gave everyone trouble came round the corner and, upon seeing her, began laughing and pointing, shouting gleefully, "They got you, they blew your house to pieces!" Horrified, she rushed past him and raced down the street until her house came into view. It had been damaged but not badly; one corner of the second floor blown in by concussion from a bomb further down the street, where many homes were damaged or destroyed. She could see her father poking around in the small bedroom that was now open to the air.
He eventually repaired the damage himself, but it took a long time. Her parents and younger sister had time to reach the relative safety of the shelter in their backyard and were inside that shelter, on the side of the house opposite to that which absorbed the brunt of the blast wave. Which probably had more to do with their survival than the shelter did.
Sometimes however, there was no time to take shelter. Sometimes, in spite of her experience, her instinct, her intuition, she knew she might come face to face with death abruptly, without warning. With no chance to do anything about it. The luck of the draw. As if a giant cosmic schedule had been drawn up by the gods of war and on this day, at this hour, it was her turn to roll the dice. She would either survive or not, and her caution, her exposure to and familiarity with life in a wartime environment would not matter in the least. Live or die and it was not up to her.
Years later she would describe what took place that morning as being exactly the same as a rabbit taken by a lethal and silent hawk plummeting down from the sky. Not even aware of the danger until the talons sank into it's flesh.
It was late 1943 and the Americans were arriving in great numbers. Things were better. The heavy bombing that Southampton endured was now over a year in the past. Air raids were infrequent and small in number. For the Luftwaffe, the danger of being shot down was now so great that the raids were generally limited to high speed hit-and-run attacks using mostly fighter planes outfitted for use as makeshift bombers.
That morning my mother and her sister were returning home from the neighborhood market. They were twenty feet from their own front door. Suddenly she heard a shout from further up the street. A second later she saw the explosions erupting in a line down the street towards them, and the deafening full-throated roar of an airplane, which she remembered only as a dark shape flashing overhead barely fifty feet up. In her peripheral vision she glimpsed her mother's panicked face as she rushed out of the house towards them. Towards the guns. Doing what mothers do. Trying to get to her kids. The shells reached them; bursting in the street perhaps ten feet from where they stood, gouging holes in the pavement.
And then it was over. The plane, probably a Bf-109, which mounted a 20mm cannon in it's nose, zoomed away and disappeared. The entire encounter lasted than three seconds. She stood frozen. She had not moved an inch nor had her sister. Had the pilot aimed just a little to his left, they would have both been blown to pieces. Two more added to the death toll of civilians which by war's end had reached 68,000.
Patricia Roberts died at her home in Valinda California on October sixth, 2002 at age 75. The war haunted her for the rest of her life but she learned over time how to put the memories in their place so to speak. Always there, but not intruding in the life she was so giddily happy to have in May 1945.
She was, by any measure, as outstanding an immigrant as any that ever arrived on American shores. She gave her adopted country eight law-abiding citizens who produced sixteen grandchildren representing every race on earth, a fact which delighted her, for while showing their Asian/African/Latin heritage...they all still looked alike. I like to think that was my mom's ultimate revenge on Hitler.