The WarGen interview took place at Rosalie Sebba’s home in Hampstead, North London by Edward Polsue
Edward: This is Edward Polsue that’s me, for Wargen, the date today is 24th July 2018. I am going to be speaking to Mrs. Rosalie Sebba at her home in Finchley, North London. We shall be discussing her experiences during the Second World War when she was a radio mechanic for the Women’s Royal Navy Service, which was more commonly known as the WRENS in Britain from 1942 – 1945
We are actually in Hampstead.
Edward: Sorry that was my fault. So first off you were a Petty Officer were you, in the WRNS?
Edward: Before we talk about your military career, do you mind if I ask you a few question about your childhood and build up chronologically from there. So, when exactly were you born?
I was born in 1924 and my father who was a doctor died in 1925 and I had an older brother and my mother re-married a wonderful man, a Canadian, which accounts for the reason that I and the younger half-brothers and sisters were sent out to Montreal in 1940 after Dunkirk.
My older brother who had just finished Harrow went to Cambridge for the year before he joined up.
Edward, OK, which college was he at, at Cambridge?
Edward: And what was he studying?
At that point I think minerology, but later after the war he studied psychology, and did very well.
Edward: What was your stepfather, what did he do?
He was originally in the Woollen trade. He later worked for a firm of metals I think, in London.
Edward: And you were brought up in Phillimore Gardens in Kensington and you lived in that house until the Blitz presumably?
Until we were evacuated
Edward: And did your father serve in the First World War?
No because he had mastoid and in those days you couldn’t. He was in the Home Guard in the Second World War. We had a nice house near Henley and with a big garden and a gardener and in the, I was going to say dad’s army, he was always known as Corporal Mr. Levy.
Edward: Was he? Adding an extra level of respect, I rather like that, OK. So that was your Canadian step-father, OK?
Yes, he was wonderful to us
Edward: Did he run around with pikes or did he remember the Home Guard as it is in dad’s army or was it…
He wouldn’t have known then
Edward: And you had brother and sisters?
Yes, I had an older brother who was in the navy and a younger brother and sister, and they’ve all died.
Edward: So, you were in the middle, the middle pecking order
I was the second
Edward: And you went to school in London?
Yes. I was sent to boarding school, actually, when I was 10. But I was very unhappy.. and bullied.. and there was a dreadful matron there who would have been put away if..
Edward: Time was awful
Edward: Dare I ask, I mean the food must have been terrible?
I wasn’t worried about the food in those days, it didn’t worry me at all it was adequate
Edward: It was very harsh was it?
So you went to St. Paul’s, you grew up in Kensington, you had a sort of very happy childhood, looked after by your mother, who must have worked extremely hard.
Well, we had 9 staff. She had to organise everything
Edward: OK, losing your husband at such an age, you know, with a 1 year old child, absolutely traumatic. Your interests as a child, did you?
It was simply horses
Edward: And did you ride often?
Yes, my treat was riding in the row on Sundays and I used to go on riding holidays
Edward: you loved it did you, did you have your own horse?
No, it was my bitter regret. My sister got it, of course. During the war when we lived in the country it was but they said not in London
Edward: A younger child being spoiled.
Yes, absolutely, she promptly fell off and broke her hip so it didn’t last very long
Edward: I am just going to glide into the war. So, can you remember the build-up to the Second World War?
Yes, I can, very much
Edward: Did it affect you in any great way?
Well, it coincided with the expulsion of the Jews from Germany and my mother did a lot of work trying to find girls and women jobs here because they could only get permits if they worked as domestic servants. And she worked terribly hard at it and everything had to be type-written. I remember my father’s secretary was a nice little, Erin, blonde girl used to come in the evenings and type the letters and my mother had a great deal of success with that
Edward: And your father’s… she was a Jewish girl?
No, not at all
Edward, oh, she wasn’t, OK
Just a secretary
Edward: OK, fascinating. So, you mother sort of took an active interest
Oh, she was always very active. She was a clever woman and she’d wanted to go to university but her father said he didn’t want a Bluestocking for a daughter.
Edward: Well, there you go. Age old story, we won’t delve into that. So, interest in horses and your mother took a heavy political interest. Can you remember the outbreak of war itself?
Yes, I can and how we were living in a rented house in Penn at that point
Edward: in where, sorry?
Penn, Buckinghamshire near High Wycombe and all the windows were sealed up with brown tape and huge great Huntley & Palmer tins full of sugar and flour
Edward: and emergency..
Yes, and we listened, you know, and everybody expected to be bombed at that instant
Edward: I mean you remember the actual day and you heard Neville Chamberlain make the announcement on the radio?
Edward: What did you think at the time?
I don’t know what I thought, I thought it was ghastly. But it had been building up so it was no real surprise.
Edward: And did you, were you worried, what did you think?
In the way that children feel it can’t happen to you.
Edward: And, you mentioned your husband earlier, he joined in 1939, you said
Yes, he went on a camp, what was the… a reserve… and he never got back out of uniform
Edward: Oh really, OK. He loved it did he?
Edward: Oh, he felt the need to do his duty, I see
Edward: When did you meet your husband?
He worked at my father’s firm and, when I came back from Canada, he was on leave and he came to say goodbye to my father just before they went over to Normandy. And we met. He escorted me back to my WRNS quarters in London and I saluted him
Edward: Really, oh yeah, wow. Saluting your future husband
I didn’t know he was going to be my future husband at the time
Edward: No, no. So just must have been, let’s think, you must have been 14 at the time war broke out, something like that?
Edward: And then your father was..
2 ½ years in Canada and I could get back if I did war work when I was, I can’t remember if I was 17 or 18 but it was 1942. I crossed over in a Belgian ammunition ship that was sunk on its next journey.
Edward: Good grief
And my parents, I always admired them for letting me come back at that time because it was fairly dangerous. And it turned out that December ‘42 they had the highest number of casualties with U-boats
Edward: A bad time to be in the North Atlantic, certainly
And it took 3 weeks in convoy
Edward: 3 weeks, I mean that must have been quite a tense 3 weeks
Well, again when you’re young..
Edward: It was a bit of an adventure I suppose, OK. Yeah that’s good. So, you say you were evacuated just after Dunkirk. Was that the event that triggered everything, Dunkirk?
Yes, well, being Jewish and thinking that Hitler was going to invade, my parents agonised over it. I can remember a dreadful week when my mother really didn’t want to go but the Canadian families said you must come, and it meant splitting families. On the boat going out to Montreal, it was about June 20th something like that, there were a lot of families who all had connections with Canada or the States. Because you couldn’t take any money with you, they had to be dependent on the families out there. And everybody was just terribly depressed.
Edward: Really, I mean so was there a day when you were told by your parents that were going to be sent to Canada?
Yes, and it was just when I was doing, just about to do my trick and I had worked terribly hard for it and suddenly it had all disappeared
Edward: Oh no, hopes dashed? And then they sat you down and they said we are going to send you away where you are safe from the bombing, presumably.
My mother brought my younger brother and sister.
Edward: Were you taken away? Did you catch a train to a port somewhere?
Yes, up in Liverpool. And that was memorable because my sister was 4 or 5 at the time and we suddenly discovered that she had taught herself to read.
Edward: Just out of the blue
She was very clever she went on to Cambridge and one thing and another.
I asked her how she did it, at a much later date, and she said – in those days you used to have lavatory cloths hanging, you wouldn’t know about them they were terribly unhygienic, but they used to hang on the door with lavatory written on in big letters and she said she taught herself from that.
Edward: Just L A V A
Edward: Oh right, OK. I see, interesting, enterprising stuff. And she just told you this, and she went with you to Canada?
Edward: And your brother as well?
Yes, my younger brother
Edward: So you were sent to your step-father’s relatives?
Yes, and my younger brother arrived with measles and he was terribly ill. And my mother never really looked after the children because we’d always had ailments and things
Edward: Your mother went with you did she?
Yes, and I’d never had anything to do with the children before I got to know them
Edward: Just out of interest did you, in 1940, did you palpably think that England might fall?
I don’t think I ever felt it might fall. I don’t think that came into it but one thought there was going to be a ghastly invasion, and war.
Edward: And so getting to Canada was quite a relief, I suppose
Not a relief, I didn’t want to go at all.
Edward: Needs must, I suppose
As soon as I got there I planned to come back. I went to McGill for a year and then I did a year in hospital, radiography, so that I would be qualified to get back.
Edward: So you went to McGill and essentially like your sister taught herself to read, you trained yourself in hospital.
No it was a course
Edward: It was a course, so you voluntarily embarked on that course so that you’d qualify for a job.
Edward: Yes, I see, and so you were motivated by… what motivated you to come back to England?
Edward: Patriotism, good old fashioned duty. And so you returned to England. Firstly, let me ask you about Canada a bit more. Was Canada hugely different from the UK at the time?
Edward: And were you in the countryside?
No we were in Montreal and I used to walk to McGill every day and, I enjoyed the work there, it was partly in French and Partly in English. And I made a lot of friends there.. but always with the intention of coming back.
Edward: You were still very young
Yes, I was much too young actually for the university. They have these awful sororities and fraternities that I refused to join and caused a lot of ill-will.
Edward: And, I mean, so everyone must have been older that you
Edward: They were up for a good time, I suppose. Did the war seem close in Canada?
No it was miles away
Edward: There was no rationing, no..
No, nothing really. Your letters, of course, took about three weeks
Edward: To get back to the UK. Who were you writing to?
Well, my father. My mother was backwards and forth
Edward: And you could send telegraphs or telegrams?
Well yes, I remember my high mistress at Saint Paul’s saying send a telegram to McGill saying if I had taken it I would have passed
Edward: And in Canada, so you embarked on this university course at the age of 15, 16?
Edward: And everyone else there would have been…
Everyone had makeup and I thought it was ghastly, and boys. But, you know, I did get a few friends. Partly Canadian and partly the one, two English people
Edward: How was your French?
It was good enough
Edward: Passable, from school?
It’s wretched now
Edward: And so it goes, OK. Having trained yourself, essentially trained yourself you voluntarily went through what must have been an unnerving experience for a 15 year old to go to university in a foreign country, away from home, away from your family while being looked after by your mother and your father’s relatives here, sorry, in Canada. And feeling the pangs of patriotic duty, you felt the need to travel back to England having given yourself the necessary qualification which would mean you could do war-work. The crossing back over, to get to Canada you went on a Belgian ammunition ship I find it extraordinary that, you know, a 14 year-old girl and brothers and sisters and parents and things would be crowded in with ammunition, you know.
Well we didn’t know it before we embarked. And actually, we embarked in Halifax, New Brunswick and then we sailed up to New Foundland, Saint John. And because we had ammunition on-board we were anchored right out in the middle of nowhere with a red flag because they had a big explosion there in the First World War and they didn’t want a repeat.
Edward: Right, I see. I mean most people would be pretty unsettled about the prospect of being stuck on-board a ship full of ammunition
Well, there were only about four or five passengers, there was a nice woman from Liverpool and a nice free-French man whom I kept in touch with afterwards and, he was a sailor, his boat had been sunk and he was coming back.
Edward: No smoking on-board, do you remember?
I don’t remember that
Edward: Of course, it wouldn’t affect you
It wouldn’t have affected me, I don’t remember. I mean, everybody smoked in those days. In the WRNS when we first joined we were in these huge mizzen huts with 50 beds, 50 – not cots what do you call them, bunk beds. And 49 out of the 50 smoked, it was horrible.
Edward: You were the one, were you?
I never liked it
Edward: So you travelled back, you were on another ship presumably to get back to the UK? To get back to England, sorry, we are back-peddling a bit I know
Well, this Belgian ship
Edward: Oh, you took the Belgian ship back from Canada did you?
Edward: And you landed in..
Edward: So, did you travel back on your own?
Edward: At the age of?
Edward: At the age of 17, at the height of the U-boat peril?
Edward: Were there other passenger with you?
Edward: The five that you mentioned, OK?
Yes. No doors could be shut.
Edward: No doors could be shut; they had to be open the whole time?
Eward: It must have been absolutely freezing?
I expect it was
Edward: So that was another three weeks. You came back to Liverpool with this plan to join up. Did you know which branch you were going to join at that point?
No, I had no idea. I trained as a radiologist, when I got back I found that the training was completely different here and they wouldn’t accept the Canadian so you had to train for two years here and that didn’t appeal to me. And, I had a great friend who was here who came back, I don’t know where it was. I was with her parents, she was a very great friend of mine and she came back just ahead of me. Her father was a General in the Irish Guards and she said if you can get in to be a radio mechanic so because it’s very worthwhile.
Edward: A worthwhile thing. (looking at Photo) That’s her father is it?
Yes, and he was well over 6-foot, her mother was about 4-foot….
Edward: So he must have been playing a part in the war?
No, I don’t think he did, I think he was past it.
Edward: OK, I see
I don’t know, I think he may have been. I know he took us to the theatre to see Olivier
Edward: Dear Larry?
In the Doctor’s Dilemma. We were in the front row which I had never been in before – a treat. And then he took us onto his club, I can’t remember which one, it was a gala night.
Edward: OK, exciting. So, how long had you been back in England before you joined up?
It was very frustrating, I didn’t join the WRNS, I couldn’t join the WRNS until May
Edward: Because of the birth date?
Edward: Just red tape?
I think so
Edward: Crikey, so month was it you arrived in Liverpool?
December, and I did voluntary work at the Canadian hospital in Taplow and my grandparents sent me to look after a cousin who’d got chickenpox. I was made to be useful.
Edward: I suppose everyone had to get their shoulder against the …
There were no nannies or maids in those days
Edward: I see, I see, you were still, I find it amazing how still very young you were to be traveling around England on your own
I felt quite alone
Edward: I suppose you had been through a fair amount at that point. And what was your reaction to getting back to England – with the barrage balloons and …
Edward: You were overjoyed, despite the comforts of Canada?
Edward: It was good to be home. And you didn’t struggle with the rationing or the blackout or anything like that?
I was sent to collect my rations. I remember the Cheddar cheese which I hadn’t had all the time in Canada, they don’t get it. And I think I ate my whole ration, a week’s ration, on the way home.
Edward: You missed the cheddar did you?
My grandmother was horrified
Edward: OK, so you say you joined the WRNS in May, that’s when you started training. What was the training like, it was different to Canada?
It was absolutely scrubbing floors and more floors
Edward: So it was naval Brasso, then?
Yes, we were sent to Queen Anne’s mansions, which I think has been pulled down, by St. James’ tube station, and that needed a lot of scrubbing out. And, after that, we were sent to the big institution at Mill Hill to be singled out for our different categories.
And that was more scrubbing out. And then, then I was lucky. I was sent to Chelsea Polytechnic for a three-months course in Physics. Everybody who was a radio-mechanic had to have a Maths O-level or whatever it was called.
Edward: Right, OK
So you were well educated, well fairly educated. There was lots of choice and I made a lot of good friends at that point.
Edward: I see, so what did you think of the scrubbing out?
Oh, it didn’t worry me at all
Edward: It didn’t worry you, OK. You didn’t think this is annoying red tape, I was meant to be…?
No, I don’t think so I was so thrilled
Edward: To be back home
Winning the war
Edward: Winning the war, exactly. And it wasn’t a shock to the system, the military life?
No, not after boarding school
Edward: Not after boarding school, right. Did you find there were lots of girls who felt the same way?
No, I think there was a lot of home-sickness – people who had never left home. There were a lot of kindred spirits.
Edward: So there was quite a heavy camaraderie then? Camaraderie was sort of quite heavy
Edward: And you never …
You can see with all the photographs
Edward: With all these, you know lovely photos in front of me. Did you feel prepared after training for becoming a radio-mechanic?
I think so, yes.
Edward: Did you have to dismantle radios and thinks like that?
Yes, and there were a lot of new models. I don’t think it was my best moment, I never quite understood what radio, how they worked, but I should have done by the end of it. And I remember we used to try and build them ourselves. But, you know, everything was so different.
Edward: Yes. There must have been quite a few models, as you say, different models of radio
Well they were all just valves and condensers and batteries, these huge batteries, accumulators which had to be filled up with water and sulphuric acid which we had to lug around the airfield. And because the airplanes were scattered because of bombing it was..
Edward: heavy work
Edward: I mean, how much did a battery weigh?
I don’t know but I had a basket and we could only put 2 or 3 in
Edward: Crikey. So you were now a fully-fledged radio-mechanic in the WRNS?
Edward: What rank were you at this point?
Well, when you finished the course you were a leading WRN and after you had done a refresher course you were a petty Officer.
Edward: OK. And how did your parents react to your joining up?
Oh, I think they were..
Edward: They were pleased?
Yes. My brother at that point was in the navy. Before he got his commission he was on the Arctic convoys and my own father who was a doctor was in the Arctic convoys in the First World War and got the DSC for quelling a mutiny on-board or something
Edward: Really? Good grief. So, sorry to back-peddle again here, but your brother had joined up roughly at the same time as you had?
Yes, as soon as he could after his first year at Cambridge
Edward: Right and he joined straight in the navy?
Edward: And you say he did convoys before he became commissioned or ..
Yes, then he was in destroyers
Edward: OK. And up in the Arctic as well?
No, he had a much better time in East Africa and India
Edward: Oh really, OK. That’s somewhat less nippy. And during your training in London and everything and your immediate, I don’t know how immediate it was, but your sort of dissemination to different postings and, you know, your class splitting up as it were to do their jobs. There wasn’t much time for fun was there? Or were you able to…
I think, I mean there was discipline, but there were good moments and a lot of dances and …
Edward: There were dances?
Yes, and boyfriends. It was alright
Edward: OK. And who organised these dances?
Edward: The Station, OK. What were the men, who were they?
Well, they were varied and they were imported sometimes from the army and there were Norwegians there, who I remember, fondly
Edward: Handsome blonde chaps with nice blue eyes
And my husband ended the war liberating Norway and he, later on, he had a lot of Norwegian friends
Edward: OK. What was the alcohol situation – was that heavily regulated?
It certainly didn’t affect me and I should think probably the men were quite beery. There was NAAFI, and, have you been to Bletchley?
Edward: I have, yes
Well in there … they’ve got a replica of the NAAFI. You could get it, I am sure it was cheap, or they probably didn’t consider it cheap in those days
Edward: So, where was your first posting to then?
Arbroath, yes, and I remember going up on the night trains, which were awful,
Edward: Yes, I’ve taken a few of those myself, they’re pretty uncomfortable even now
And we arrived on New Year’s Day so you can imagine everything was closed
Edward: Where had you spent Christmas?
I don’t know
Edward: OK, so you arrived in Arbroath and there was an air station there?
Yes, very big, it was an observatory and training corp.
Edward: For Fleet Air Arm pilots?
Edward: What sort of aircraft were they operating?
Well, there were Swordfish, there were Lycanders, these tiny little planes that parachutists used to use as they land and take off. But I could never understand that because they were terribly noisy and I would have thought that they would have alerted Germans from miles around – but they did. And then there were these dive-bombers,Barracudas, they had a lot of accidents.
Edward: Oh, really
And the later development of the Swordfish was the Albacore
Edward: So you were at Arbroath servicing all these aircraft
Edward: For two years, and your billets or barracks or Mizzen huts, what was the sort of day to day..?
It was Letham Grange, it was one of the Scottish big houses – I think it’s a boys’ school now.
Edward: And was it comfortable?
I wasn’t fussy in those days
Edward, OK, must have been freezing cold up there
Yes, that it was, it was perpetually cold and damp and I was discharged, well not discharged but I was left with chronic bronchitis
Edward: Good grief. Did you spend time in hospital for that?
Edward: You just cracked on?
Edward: Good grief. And then from Arbroath, servicing all these aircraft, you evidently went on a few trips?
There was one which I remember. The cockpits were open and you had a safety strap to the floor and the pilot that particular day was trying to shake off a hangover. You asked about drink, they obviously did. And he looped the loop and went what was called hedge-hopping which is flying terribly low and I said to him you know my safety-strap didn’t work, he said good God girl, think of the court-marshal I would have had.
Edward, Yes, not to mention a valuable…. So, the strap was just a canvas thing?
Canvas with a clip like a dog’s lead on the end
Edward: And you just attached it around your waist?
I suppose so, I can’t remember
Edward: Good grief.
It didn’t work
Edward: I know, pretty hairy then
Edward: So did you just hold on for the loop de loop
Gravity pulls it down
Edward: During the loop de loop then
Yes, try it, try it sometime
Edward: I’ll do my best to try it – not quite the bottle for it but, wow. And that was presumably in a Swordfish or something with an open cockpit?
Edward: So, from Arbroath. What was the food like, was there fish?
It just didn’t worry me. The only thing that worried me was my, the nanny that looked after my small brother and sister in London, she came from Arbroath, and they had smokies. And, he was a cobbler and she was a nice old Scottish lady and she wanted to do her war work and she invited me and my best friend to high-tea, often. And they always produced crab or something that they thought was a great treat. And at that point I was allergic to shellfish and after every visit, I didn’t have the nerve to say that it makes me sick, but I was sick after every..
Edward: Oh No
I did eventually
Edward: Valiant non-fussiness there. So, you had a nice two years up in Arbroath, then?
Edward: You enjoyed it, how often were you flying?
I suppose one a week
Edward: Once a week and that was to test the radios and everything?
Edward: I see, and then from Arbroath you went down to..
Various courses which were in Warrington, to update one
Edward: OK. And then you were…
And the Royal Naval museum at Yeovilton kept all my workbooks
Edward: So they are in a good place then. And you were stationed down in Yeovilton for a bit of time as well I think?
Edward: How long were you stationed down there?
I don’t remember but just a few months
Edward: OK. So you joined in 1942 then, you joined the WRNS in ’42 so these two years takes us to ’44 at this point and then you did various courses and you did those until the end of the war, did you?
Well, the courses, the refresher courses weren’t very long and I ended up at Colerne which was very dull, I got very bored there I remember. And I was at Swindon at one point, Wroughton. Again, I chopped and changed.
Edward: I would be interested to know about the atmosphere of places like Arbroath and Yeovil during the war
It was terrific, yes
Edward, I mean did life go on just absolutely normally?
Well, it was quite normal on the air stations, and one got leave and you hitch-hiked home
Edward: Yes, I was going to ask you about leave, actually
They were very generous with their leave
Edward: And you’d hitch-hike home?
Yes. And I remember arriving at Kentish Town once and a police car gave me a lift and at that point I’d got two rabbits for the family because they were 2 a penny in the country. And I left them in the car and the police brought them back afterwards.
Edward: Ah, that was very kind of them
Edward: Rabbit was a slight rarity as well so it was good of them not to hang on to them. So you would spend your leave in London would you, with your family for the most part?
Yes, I would have done
Edward: Can I ask you about things like air-raids?
We had some air-raids when we were at Warrington and you heard the Buzz-bombs… stop. But I missed all The Blitz and felt very bad about that, I should have been there.
Edward: With your father and…
Edward: Do you think a lot of people felt like that who had missed The Blitz?
Edward: Probably, OK. Did you ever come into contact with, I don’t know how, did you ever personally… you heard the Buzz-bombs, you must have seen German airplanes as well presumably
I can’t ever remember seeing a German airplane. I mean we were in Scotland most of the time. I remember being in Scotland on D-Day and feeling really out of it, when everybody was celebrating in London
Edward: When they were going over, including the man who was to become your husband?
Yes, well he was in France
Edward: And you, of course, knew he was going to France?
Yes, we didn’t know when. And on D-Day he would have gone to Norway
Edward: Did you have any particularly funny incidents which happened?
Well there was that one in the plane. I have to write this note – a brief history in wartime. I don’t think there was anything. I think we laughed a lot, I can’t remember what about. I’ve said it was a useful experience crossing the Atlantic to see first-hand what conditions were like for sailors because they were pretty awful, pretty hard
Edward: I mean, you must have felt, just speaking to you it seems like you almost felt as if you wanted more after the war, to keep doing more for your country?
Edward: Did you feel animosity towards the Nazis?
Edward: Great animosity
It was difficult to stop after the war. We would never buy a German car, never buy a Japanese car. One of my close friends in the WRNS, her brother… his cruiser was sunk off Singapore and they lost three big ships. And she heard he’d been rescued but didn’t hear another word right through the war and she kept faith and he returned home an absolute, you know, wreck of a man.
Edward: I mean did your friends and your colleagues must have all in some way suffered a loss or..
Yes, I think they did
Edward: And you would cope with it by pushing on
Just carry on
Edward: I think there is a lesson to be learned from that. Did you have time to meet with Naval Rates, I mean male Naval Rates?
We worked with them
Edward: You worked with them? And they were doing the same job as you?
A lot of them were, yes. Well, no not a lot because they were mostly sent overseas if they were fit
Edward: I see. Did you know lots of men on the convoys and lots of men in the ships?
No. Once when I was stationed at Warrington a few WRNS and I decided that we wanted to see … our radios in situ in the planes. So we trouped off to the docks and HMS Victoria was there and the sailor who greeted us, we said we would like to see over the boat, ship, and he said well I will have to speak with the Officer of the day and a very handsome Marine came up and a lot of the WRNS said, there were about four or five of us, I think I know him. And I thought it would be silly for me to say I think I know him. But afterwards, of course, he was a friend of my brother’s at Harrow.
Edward: Oh Really
And I went to his 21st so that was quite fun
Edward: Was it his 21st before?
Shortly after that
Edward: And your brother he was still working in ships?
He was away all the time
Edward: In destroyers?
Edward: And when did he come back?
He was invalided home from Africa and put in charge of a training something or other, I forget – Middle Wollop, I think, somewhere down there. They had various courses going. He had a number of blackouts – they couldn’t find the cause. It wasn’t very sensible to leave him.
Edward: What about your sister, what was she up to?
Well, she was tiny
Edward: She was still tiny?
Yes, she was still at school, and my mother brought my younger brother and sister home on what was called a banana boat. It was part of the lend/lease and they were ships that were half-finished and going to be aircraft carriers and it went to Lisbon and then they had to fly home from Lisbon because Lisbon was neutral at that point.
Edward: Did your mother find that she was able to look after all her children? I mean obviously you didn’t need looking after
In fact Nanny came out with a cousin, one of the last boats to leave London; leave England. At the time everybody evacuated because she’d brought a little cousin who was the same age as my brother. And so she was absolutely wonderful, she stayed with my mother for about 30 years until she died of a heart-attack just like Mark did yesterday, he went quite suddenly it was quite comforting.
Edward: There you go. That was after the war, was it when your mother died?
Oh yes. Her second name was Pretoria
Edward: Pretoria, South African connections?
South African history, yes, 1900
Edward: Oh, for the Boer War then?
Edward: I see, OK. Pretoria, Ladysmith and Mafeking, all that stuff
What did you read at St. Andrews?
Edward: I did history, and my mother is actually South African so we’ve a bit of first-hand knowledge I suppose. I don’t know what you’d call it. And so, in 1945, VE Day – do you remember where you were when the war ended?
Yes, in Scotland and I was very disappointed because nothing happened up there, everything was in London.
Edward: There were no celebrations in Scotland or comparatively few?
I suppose there were celebrations but nothing very noticeable
Edward: And so, again life just went on, you went to work the next morning?
Edward: And how long did you stay in the WRNS after the war?
I can’t remember. I was at Colerne I know… I don’t remember
Edward: Never mind. And VJ Day, do you remember that as well?
Edward: So after the war you went back home?
Edward: And did you stop serving in the WRNS?
Edward: And you got a job did you?
I was… I didn’t know what I was going to do, how I was going to earn a living and I took up Stena typing. Which I don’t suppose you know anymore. It’s a syllabic short-hand on a machine because I thought I wanted to be a reporter. So, I did that until I was pregnant, and well I got married in the middle unlike these days. And my mother sent me on a 3 months cooking course – good housekeeping that was very useful.
Edward: And this was with your husband at this point?
Yes, well it was before I married. I think, we got engaged March 1947 and married in June ‘47
Edward: OK. And he’d come back in 1945 as well?
Edward: From Norway?
Yes, and he was asked to write the report on Norwegian operations – it took quite a time and they were stationed in Essex at Colchester, I think.
Edward: What was your husband’s full name, sorry?
Sam, Sam Sebba
Edward: And where were you living with your husband after the war?
My parents bought a flat. My Grandfather had been chairman of one of the big insurance companies and it was very difficult to gets flats in those days and they offered my mother a flat in Kingston House, which is Knightsbridge, and a flat in Highgate overlooking the ponds. And my mother was so struck with the views of Highgate that they bought a flat there. And then when everybody came back to London she so liked Highgate that they bought a biggish house near Kenwood and the four of us were there, with chickens in the garden.
Edward: Chickens in the garden, to get around the rationing I suppose. And life post-war was good again?
Edward: Did you sort of, did you find the war sort of exhilarating, an exhilarating time for you?
Yes, one did at that age
Edward: You found it an exciting time to be alive
Edward: Dare I say it, almost enjoyed all the adventurous experiences
Yes there was a lot of enjoyment, and very good friends. There is only one still alive and she lives in America. When she married an American, he sold his house and bought a boat and he earned his living by writing about on trans-world trips. But she’s.. a bit demented now, a year or two older than I am. She went to St. Swithins in Winchester.
Edward: So you had lots of good friends
Good friends, yes
Edward: Good memories as well
Edward: Do you often think about the war, now I mean?
Not really anymore. Only when people like you ask
Edward: I impose my beastly society on you
How did you get into this?
Edward: I emailed another chap who organises this, I don’t know if he organises it, sort of involved in it, went to Sherborne and he sort of advertised the fact that he was involved in it so I wrote to him asking whether I could sort of get involved myself and he said yes. This is actually the first interview I have done.
I was just answering your email when I got the news yesterday, that’s why didn’t answer it.
If you soldered a joint badly at all or it would soon come adrift, then you would soon know about it
Edward: And, of course, the cold as well surely to tighten up…
And the damp. And of course there were no transistors in those days just large heavy sets with accumulators that have to be constantly topped up and carried to the planes. My overriding memories are those are those of the truly remarkable war-time spirit and friendships and of the intense and penetrating cold of the airfields and of damp cold.
Edward: That’s fantastic. How did the uniform stand up to the cold?
We used to wear bell-bottoms – thick, thick, thick naval jerseys. I don’t ever remember having a greatcoat. I suppose we had them, I don’t know.
Edward: Well thank you very, very much for speaking to me
Not at all