The Russian invasion of Ukraine has shocked the world. Images of the devastation and suffering of the Ukrainian people flood our TV screens. For Marjorie Gazzard it’s brought back painful memories of her experience in the Second World War. Marjorie, who will be 100 in August, worked at the Admiralty as London was bombed. This is her story, in her own words.
“During the war even the women were called up when they were 18. I was 17 in the August and the war broke out in September 1939. I didn’t get called up until I was 19.
The government just let you know by letter that you must attend for what, I suppose, an interview. They asked ‘did I have any preference? Did I want to go into the Services? But I didn’t particularly fancy that because my dad was an ARP warden and my brother was on reserved occupation and my mother being alone.
So they said that’s fine. I was asked what education I had and I told them I’d got my 11+ and that I’d stayed on for the last 18 months or so taking a commercial course because I went to a very good grammar school.
So I did a 2-year commercial course, coupled with my other subjects and it transpired that I was very good at typing and English. The next thing I knew was that I’d been sent to work at the Admiralty.
I was given a pass – my name was Marjorie Eaton then – and went straight to the entrance immediately under Admiralty Arch. To the left was an extension of the buildings and a big bomb-proof building, which is still there today. No windows in it and it was called the Citadel.
To get it to with my pass I used to get the bus to Turnpike Lane tube station from Devonshire Hill Lane where we were living because we were bombed from our house in Peabody Cottages.
People forget that when war broke out people who owned their own homes left them to go to the country somewhere. But the law was – and people don’t mention this on the war programmes – that every house owner had to deposit their keys with the local council and the council commandeered their houses for people that were bombed out.
So when we were bombed out – it would have been in October 1940 in the Blitz – we spent the night with my brother Les’s fiancée and dad was given the keys to this house about a quarter of an hour where we lived. It was a very nice house and in fact we had a very rude letter from the owner telling us they hoped we would take care of it.
We left there when mum and dad got a job running the Conservative Club in Edmonton and we were there for the rest of the war, which included being bombed by the doodlebugs.
My sister Joan was home by then. She had been evacuated to March and Cambridgeshire and we had our own bedroom above the bar downstairs.
The air raids got so bad and near sometimes. With the doodlebugs, as soon as the engine stopped you knew the bomb had dropped somewhere. A couple of nights we had to go right down into the basement to sleep under the billiard tables because they were made of slate. That was not entirely comfortable.
During my Admiralty days we had to do watches, conducted as if we were in the Navy, which we were, as civilian workers.
I was on B watch. We did one day 9am-7pm then you had that night at home and the next day you went on from 7 at night to 9 in the morning.
I used to go on my own up there (to the Admiralty). I’d get off the underground at Leicester Square, walk down St Martins Lane and cross Trafalgar Square. Sometimes there would be an air raid but most of the raids were at night.
At Admiralty Arch I went into what I now realise was the Circulation Department for all the messages that came in from the Navy. It was very well organized. Every ocean, every sea had a CinC (Commander-in-Chief). We had to type all the messages that came through. The original messages were often badly typed so we re-typed them and added a circulation list on the front. The messages came through on a small conveyor belt.
On one memorable night I saw the King and Queen close up. There must have been 10 of us around the conveyor belt picking up messages and we were told they were coming. We were told not to look up, to continue working as was normal. But fortunate for me I had my face to where they were walking through our room and as I reached for one of the messages to put in my typewriter there was the King and Queen. Winston Churchill must have been with them.
The King was in Naval uniform, made up so you could distinguish his features. I remember that clearly and I think the Queen – the Queen Mother as she was to become – had one of her fur wraps. There was a little group of men with them and I realise Churchill would have been with them because it was something to have royal visitors.
We used to get a break during the night, depending on how busy we were. We wouldn’t all go at once. There was a horrible dimly lit place with bunks and odd blankets in them. There were A, B and C watches so the bunks would be shared by goodness knows how many. When we had a break you didn’t sleep because you were on edge anyway and you couldn’t see a blimmin’ thing.
The buzzer went so those of us who had just gone in had to get up. We were allowed to the cloakroom to wash our face and hands and make ourselves a hot drink and take it back to our typewriters. You can imagine at that stage they were old electrical things like blooming lawnmowers.
But we got through it. As we typed each message they were all checked to make sure that no mistakes were made. You had to have a test to be able to type 60 words a minute. When you think of the ease now!
On night watch at 5 o’clock in the morning the most important things came through. It was messages for the government and every other Chief, Commander of whatever section of the world’s oceans they were responsible for. It was called THE JOB in capital letters and only if you were fast accurate were you chosen to do it.
I did it several times, so that was quite important, looking back. And I was proud that I’d done that. So I knew what all the commanders all around the world were getting to know; where every ship was at the precise moment and date. Other messages were about what action was going on. But we didn’t talk to one another about what we were typing. We had to sign the Secrecy Act.
One of the most memorable messages was about HMS Hood. It was the newest, most large, most warlike battleship we’d ever built and the girl who picked up the message saying that it had been sunk – her fiancée was on it.
The first the rest of us knew was when we heard the girl cry out. Our supervisor went up to her because we were all looking then – we’d all stopped typing – and took her out. She was posted somewhere else. That was horrendous but we weren’t allowed to tell our family.
One of the other things I remember was that we used to have a meal break and I was friendly with Sheila and Mary, who was already married. We used to the Joe Lyons Corner House by Charing Cross Station. I remember one night as we came up from our horrible dungeon thing there was an air raid. I don’t know what was worse; the noise from the bombs or the guns. The whole of Trafalgar Square was lit up with searchlights. Couldn’t see the planes at night, but, by God, you could hear them.
The three of us, arm in arm, came out from under Admiralty Arch, across the main road – Cockspur Street it would be – onto Trafalgar Square and into Charing Cross Road. All the time you were surrounded by servicemen – and women – in uniform.
When we got into Joe Lyon’s you didn’t have room to breathe. There were hundreds of servicemen in half-dim light and of course they all smoked. The only thing I can describe it as is like a professional football match.
Should to shoulder and us three clinging together so we didn’t get separated. We did manage to get a table and have something and chips. The men, all in uniform, were saying ‘let’s have your table when you’ve finished.’
It makes me upset, even now. How many of all those men survived?
And now I think about what’s going on in the world today. It’s awful. But I don’t see what we can do. It is a replica of why we went to war against Hitler.
When he walked into Poland nobody put up any resistance. We should have stopped him there and then.
I know we don’t want to go to war but it looks as if we may have to. Why do the so-called democratic nations let this develop? Why do we all sit back and let it happen?
On the other hand, what is the answer? What is the answer?”
What are your thoughts? You can share your reflections with fellow members in the comments below.
Paul Phillips has been a journalist for over 40 years, had senior editorial roles with the BBC and Sky News and worked in many parts of the world as a consultant and skills trainer. Paul is also a university lecturer specialising in broadcast journalism and TV production.