Skip to main content

The Globe and Mail

Duck and cover: Edna Lesham's diary of wartime Britain

Edna Ledsham’s drawing of a gas mask.

Edna Ledsham, née Uden, lived in Kent, southeast England, during the Second World War. Just shy of 11 years old when the war began, she watched British pilots fight the Luftwaffe overhead, endured the penuries of wartime rationing and survived a nearby V-2 rocket explosion. She came to Canada in 1954, bringing with her a scrapbook that she and her mother, Dorothy, had compiled during the war. The book was recently scanned and digitized to be preserved for her family. The following are excerpts from Ms. Ledsham's introduction to the book, describing some of her wartime memories.

On gas masks

The people of Britain were all issued gas masks, which we were to carry at all times. Babies had a special container in which they were placed. Blackout was mandatory, with everyone covering their windows at night to block out any light. Air raid wardens would patrol the streets looking for any infractions. We also had to tape our windows to prevent flying glass from explosions. All headlights on vehicles, including bicycles, had to have covers with slits in them and only essential vehicles were allowed to be driven, as petrol was scarce.

Story continues below advertisement

On the scarcity of eggs

Food and clothing coupons were also a necessity, as much of our food was imported by sea and merchant ships were targets for enemy submarines. People were encouraged to grow their own food and my parents also decided to keep chickens. In so doing, our egg ration coupons had to be surrendered. My mother put down eggs in a bucket of isinglass (a form of gelatin) to preserve them for the winter when the hens weren't laying.

On air-raid shelters

Homeowners had the opportunity to acquire air-raid shelters. The Anderson Shelter was installed in the garden, partially dug in underground. The Morrison shelter was a large table made of steel that went inside the house. It was like a giant cage. We had one in our dining room, using the top as a table, and when there were air raids at night my parents and myself slept in it. The steel mesh sides were removable.

We lived near Biggin Hill fighter station and I remember one beautiful sunny Sunday, watching from our garden a "dog fight" overhead between "our boys" and the Germans, sometimes seeing parachutes as pilots bailed out of their stricken planes.

Once we had a shell casing come through our roof, narrowly missing the water tank in the attic.

On rocket attacks

Story continues below advertisement

My worst experience occurred towards the end of the war, when our house was damaged by a V-2 rocket exploding nearby. Due to their speed, these rockets couldn't be heard coming. They would explode, followed a few seconds later by the sound. I was looking out the window drinking a mug of coffee when the mug suddenly exploded, spraying hot coffee over my face. I put my hand up to my face expecting blood to be pouring off. Then I found blood on my hand. I screamed and my mum rushed to me but the only thing wrong was that a shard of the china mug had sliced my finger. We went along the hall to view the damage with me leaving a trail of blood on the wall where I'd dragged my hand! The window I was looking from had remained intact but on the other side of the house, the windows were shattered, with shards of glass sticking in the furniture. The front door was blown in, the roof tiles blown off, and soot came down the chimneys, as well as plaster from the ceilings.

On the war's end

Of course, there was wild jubilation when the war in Europe ended (VE Day: May 8, 1945). People decorated their homes with Union Jack flags and streamers. My parents and I took the train up to London that night and joined the hundreds of thousands of people celebrating. I remember we went around the statue of Eros in Piccadilly Circus, which had been boarded up during the war to protect it. The crowds were so dense that at times our feet didn't touch the ground, being swept along like a tide. Some people in buildings above us dumped water on the crowds below, causing much laughter! There was also a great deal of singing and dancing (where space permitted). We then managed to make our way down the Mall to Buckingham Palace, where everyone chanted, "We want the King!" over and over. There were tumultuous cheers when he and his family (including the future Queen, then Princess Elizabeth) appeared on the balcony.

Report an error Licensing Options
Comments are closed

We have closed comments on this story for legal reasons. For more information on our commenting policies and how our community-based moderation works, please read our Community Guidelines and our Terms and Conditions.