Enmeshed in the conveniences of modern life, it can be easy for those who never lived through war to gloss over its difficulties.
2019 marks 80 years since the official beginning of the Second World War. While most people know the basics of the story – the atrocities of concentration camps, the loss of countless young men in battle and the years of food rationing – as each day passes there are fewer and fewer people who can recall the exact details of life in wartime.
Qualicum Beach author Janet Dol remembers those times as if they were yesterday. Dol has written a book commemorating her time as a child growing up in WWII London, entitled Children At War. In it, she takes the reader into her childhood world.
Dol grew up in Bromley, Kent, just outside London, and many of her youngest memories are shadowed in the constant fear of bombs dropping on London. The world that Janet Dol recalls in her book is a far cry from the world of today.
She remembers the exact moment when war was declared. She recalls that it was an ordinary Sunday afternoon that everything changed.
“I could hear the sound of lawn mowers on our street grinding along, when suddenly, there was an eerie silence as the mowers came to an abrupt halt,” writes Dol in the book.
She had just turned eight years old.
“Perhaps if I had known what the next few years would bring I would have been terrified,” she wrote.
The next few years would bring a complete change to the world as she knew it. Bombing was constant, and close by, once lasting for 57 consecutive days.
No light was allowed to be emitted out of windows at night, so as not to be a target for enemy planes flying overhead.
“We could hear the planes going over. If they couldn’t get to London, they dropped their bombs where we lived… we got a tremendous amount of bombing. Our house was bombed, but it wasn’t a direct hit. At that time we were under a table,” said Dol.
“My mother used to give me a little nip of brandy when a bomb fell. Today that would be considered a very bad thing.”
It would be easy to shake your head at the idea of a child being given brandy in the context of today’s world. But after being immersed in the world Dol is describing – one of gas masks packed alongside school lunches, family evenings passed inside air raid shelters and fifteen year olds armed with bayonets in case of invasion – the brandy seems the least pressing of all those concerns.
A recollection of life on the ‘Home Front,’ the book speaks to the horrors of war as experienced by a civilian population.
It brings the reader into a world where the comfort and stability of home is turned on its head.
In Dol’s memoir, the innocence of childhood is all the more striking, juxtaposed as it is with the horrors of war. When the ceilings collapsed on the houses on her block after a bomb dropped close by, her and her mother survived by hiding under the kitchen table.
The next day, Dol and the other neighbourhood children took the chunks of ceiling and used them to draw hopscotch blocks on the sidewalk.
It’s a chilling painting of how life must go on, and how the fundamentals of human nature remain amidst horrors that seem otherworldly now.
She recalls countless other memories in the book, like being shot at by a German pilot on a walk to school, visiting her father on the Merchant Navy ship where he served, the bombing of her school in the early hours of the morning, and one night where she gathered with the rest of her neighbours to watch a battle between the German Luftwaffe Airforce and Royal Air Force in the skies above a playing field near her home.
“We all went out and watched, like idiots, because we could have all been killed. And how we cheered every time they shot a plane down. I mean that may seem awful – but of course, if they hadn’t shot airplanes down, we wouldn’t be alive,” said Dol.
“I have tried not to be judgmental – I’ve mostly said ‘the enemy’ and of course, at that time, we hated the enemy. But we realized afterwards that… the average people were just the same as us. And they suffered. They couldn’t help it either.”
The book ends with Dol’s meditations on the lessons of wartime.
“The world will never be free unless we can cast out the desire for power in our self seeking lives. How can we experience or hope for peace, unless it begins with us?” said Dol.
She speaks of how the things experienced during wartime linger – hearing the sound of a plane crashing years later and recognizing it instantly without seeing it, and shaking from head to toe when a police officer put on sirens to pull her over. To this day, she still can’t stand the sound of a balloon popping.
Dol will be reading from Children At War at St. Mark’s Church in Qualicum Beach on Sunday, Nov. 10. Copies of the book will be available for sale there, and are also on sale for $10 Monday to Friday at the Qualicum Seniors’ Centre and Billy Shakespeare’s Cafe in Qualicum Beach.