Eileen Alexander 1917 - 1986 - memories of WW2 from Love in the Blitz

Elaine Alexander
9 Harley Road NW3 in 2020

Eileen Alexander , the 21 year old daughter of  Alec Alexander, (a Cambridge educated Cairo barrister married to  Vicky Mosseri  from a very wealthy Italian Jewish family, ) had achieved a first class degree in English from Girton College in Cambridge in 1939 and was looking forward to an  academic career when the war interrupted her plans.   She had recently met her future husband, Gershon Ellenbogen,  a lawyer to be , and started a correspondence with him , now published in Love in the Blitz, extracts of which form the basis of this article.  In the middle of May 1940 the Alexanders rented 9 Harley Road  situated between  Swiss Cottage and Avenue Road,St John’s Wood.  No 9  was a comfortable, detached, red-brick house not far from the anti-aircraft battery on Primrose Hill,  with a big garden at the back, complete with its own concrete air-raid shelter.  While the Battle of Britain  in the summer of 1940 mainly affected the villages of south east England ,  at the beginning of September 1940  the Luftwaffe turned  to attack the capital  and  London’s volunteer army of wardens and fire-watchers – soon to include Eileen and her mother – found themselves on the war’s front line alongside the city’s firemen, gunners, barrage balloon teams, medics and bomb-disposal units.

Wednesday 12 June

Yesterday evening my father & I walked to Primrose Hill for air. He was peering over fences at potato-patches in an ecstasy of dig-for-victory enthusiasm.

Tuesday 25 June

The sirens started screaming at 1.15. I got up to see what my parents were doing – and Pa took such exception to my suggestion that we should all stay in bed, that I put on my new dressing-gown, wrapped my eiderdown round me & followed him to our outside shelter. It was a clear, still night and the stars couldn’t have been more sharply focussed if there had been a frost – half a moon & little greyish clouds. We packed into the shelter like chocolate stick-biscuits in a round tin. We sat in deck-chairs – large deck-chairs – & my feet didn’t reach the ground.

Saturday 17 August

Yesterday was quite Adventurous. I was just coming back from Haverstock Hill with Lionel – I’d been there to have a piece fitted onto the end of my gas-mask at the Town Hall – when the sirens went. We walked into a shelter in a leisurely way, sat down on one of the benches – and I did my knitting until the All Clear sounded an hour later. There was one girl in the shelter besides Lionel & me. Most people took no notice of the warning at all.

Tuesday 27 August

God! darling, what a night. Hell has no terrors for me anymore. As the sirens shrieked, I  went, quite good-humouredly into the shelter, thinking that having a warning at 9.15 might mean an undisturbed night. I knitted quite happily for about an hour and a half – and at quarter to eleven, Mrs Seidler – ( a refugee visitor) –  turned out the shelter light & I tried to sleep. We could hear the dull thud of AA21 fire and the spattering of machine-gun bullets – and close overhead the thick chugging of aeroplane engines. It was an oppressively hot night and the only sound apart from war-noises, was Pa’s ear-splitting snore. By midnight, darling, I felt that I’d rather die slowly of wounds than live in a room with Pa and Dicky. It wasn’t a reasoned loathing, darling, it was just intense & hysterical & suffocating – the spiritual equivalent of the stale and thick air of the shelter. Then Pa said something nasty about Nurse, who had been caught in the raid – & his tone implied that no-one should stir from the house in these times – and I got up & said quite quietly that I was going to bed. Then, darling, the trouble started. Pa said that if I moved he’d go out into the night – (I knew it was only histrionics but I dared not take the risk of its being genuine for my mother’s sake). I said he was a damned bully – and stood in the doorway, watching columns of sparks scattering outwards in the sky – and after that, I sat on a cane chair by the door until the All Clear sounded at four. I didn’t get to sleep till about five – and now I feel infinitely old & tired – & so bitterly resentful of my father that I feel it would make me physically sick to be in the same room with him. Oh!

Thursday 29 August

Hell was let loose in the sky last night darling – and I slept through most of it. The Sirens went at nine and, because I thought it would be uncivil to go to bed so early I sat in the shelter until ten, knitting – and then went up to bed. When I said goodnight to them, my parents were sullenly silent – but I undressed, and in a few minutes I was asleep. Mrs Seidler woke me at two and said ‘Listen’ – and I did and I could hear the bombs crashing quite close at hand – she told me that my mother had spent the whole evening crying piteously – so I went down to the shelter as a Gesture. There were red patches in the sky from fires – and the searchlights criss-crossed like basket weave. I sat in the shelter for half-an-hour & we could still hear bombs and AA Fire – after that things quietened down – and I couldn’t stand the shelter any more – I could feel that suffocating hysteria welling up inside me as it did the other night – and I went back to bed and I slept till morning, neither hearing the All Clear or anything.

For fifty-six out of the next fifty-seven days and nights, beginning on 7 September, London would be bombed. The shift in German tactics from the airfields to the cities might have been a tacit admission of failure, but if it arguably put paid to Hitler’s invasion plan, that would be of precious little comfort to the capital, where in the East End and the docks, more than four hundred were killed and sixteen hundred wounded in that first massive raid alone.  London, and particularly the poorest and most crowded areas, was hopelessly unprepared. The Luftwaffe might not have had the planes or accuracy to inflict the kind of casualties feared, but until Londoners took matters into their own hands and occupied the underground stations, a government wary of nurturing a defeatist ‘deep shelter mentality’ had left the capital criminally short of the kind of shelters that would have saved so many East End lives.  On the same Saturday that the Blitz began, the codeword ‘Cromwell’ – the warning of an imminent invasion – had been issued, but for all the false alarms and rumours of German parachutists, no invasion came and by the 17th, with the ‘weather window’ closing and Britain’s Fighter Command still defiantly intact, German invasion plans were indefinitely postponed. But if the Battle of Britain was won, there was no let-up in the bombing, and with Britain’s night fighters as yet ineffective, and the capital’s anti-aircraft guns as much a danger to Londoners as Germans, the nights ahead would belong to the Luftwaffe’s bombers. In the early days of the Blitz the raids had generated a good deal of class hostility, but as the attacks spread from the East End across the whole of London, and the King and Queen found themselves as likely to be bombed out of their home as was a bank clerk, ‘Britain’, as J. B. Priestley admirably put it, found itself ‘being bombed and burned into democracy’.

Friday 6 September

While you were having a ten-minute raid, we were having a ten-hour one. Last night the explosions were so terrific that I took my pillows downstairs and slept on the drawing-room sofa. The fantastic thing was that the worst explosion occurred about five minutes after the All Clear – and the LCC2 was so Put Out by this, that no sooner had the bomb-reverberations died away, than the sirens went again – Another Warning!

Sunday 8 September

Another disturbed night on the drawing-room sofa, darling. The raid began at 8.15 and lasted until 5. During an afternoon raid, Bernard, Jean & I were nearly blown out of the window by gun-fire from Primrose Hill – but we had a pleasant afternoon in Spite of All – and they stayed to dinner . After dinner, we all went up to Mrs Seidler’s room and watched the glow from the fires at the docks. The houses were chocolate-coloured, darling, against a translucent sky, the colour of vin rosé, and there were bulges of smoke welling up, feathered at the edges – and occasionally the dazzling comet-fall of a flare and the light of an anti-aircraft shell – as though an electric switch had been flashed on and off.

We were just walking sadly back to the tube-station when the sirens went and we took shelter in a basement, dimly lit by four hurricane lamps – so that knitting was out of the question – though, of course, I had your scarf with me, darling. Somebody said – inevitably – ‘What do you think of it all?’ which provoked a violent outburst from a tight-lipped, desiccated, decayed genteel old woman sitting beside me. ‘If you’d been in the East End,’ she said bitterly, ‘you’d know what to think of it all.

Thursday 12 September

The Primrose Hill AA batteries, which, as you know, are less than a quarter of a mile from our house, were firing every three minutes from 8.15 till 5.30. We could even hear the whirr of the reverberating steel after the guns had fired – and occasionally pieces of shrapnel clanked onto the stone path in the garden. When I left the house for the shelter there was a huge fire in the East, and a bomb exploded about five hundred yards away from me, lighting the sky as though a triangular sheet of magnesium had been ignited – and at the edges, showers of molten earth were thrown up. Darling, in all my life I’ve never heard such terrible, heart-rending noise. We really are in the front line here.  Darling, it’s sad to see the tube-stations full of people settling down for the night with rugs and children & thermos flasks at 3.30 in the afternoon. There isn’t room at Swiss Cottage to move!

Gershon  became a Flight Lieutenant in the RAF  and he and Eileen  married in 1944.  Gershon attended the Nuremberg war crimes trials in 1945-46, later trained as a barrister and wrote a series of books on legal history.   Eileen  became the mother of a daughter and had a career as a teacher and translator of many books, including the Maigret stories.  She died in 1986, and Gershon married again in 1993 and died in 2003.

This page was added on 14/09/2020.

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