SITE HOME PAGETranscript of letter from Douglas Anstruther to his sister Joyce Anstruther (the author - Jan Struther) December 1940

Major Douglas Anstruther

Text, images and content © 2000
Redbourn, Herts.
December 1940

Dear Sister,

You will remember the news-letter that I sent you during the first six months of this world upheaval and how they were designed to tell people overseas of the little things that are happening in England which made up the background for the pictures given out by news bulletins and other pompous organisations, and how in March I had to stop writing them because we all got so busy and the days got long and the garden had to be dug, that there just wasn't any time left. I have in mind to try and bring you up-to-date with telegraphic descriptions of the same sort of things as those about which I originally wrote.

Time has lost even more account than during the Spring. Hours of daylight and dark and weeks on end are jumbled into each other, full of hard work, punctuated by sirens and bombs, but all slowed down into a turbulent chalky current; in fact one can only really count events in retrospect - the big air successes in the middle of September, the last days of August when we were all on tenterhooks that the Invasion had started, as indeed I think it probably had, but turned itself back in the early morning finding the wind and the weather inclement and unsuitable - even these memories seem blurred now and time makes it difficult to pick out background stuff which may be of interest. People have changed their habits, chameleon-wise so quickly since the "Blitz" began that one has taken for granted that bedrooms are on the ground-floor and living-rooms on the first, just as one has ceased, to the extent of not even noticing them, to record which of its foul wails the siren is giving out. In fact the Wardens hold up boards to remind you whether the period is one of normal, alert or battle, or in the case of some of the coastal towns, bombardment.

We evidently made a mistake in our decision not to have deep shelters which also would have solved the car-parking problem in peace time. Queueing up outside the Tube Stations is one of the most desolate sights in London - one's pride in one's fellow men is only restored by the knowledge that only 15% of the population use public shelters the other 85% stay put. London now looks rather battered, but utterly unyielding; grim and determined the people are, and sometimes grimly gay.

The scatteration (by which I mean people leaving London who didn't like being there as opposed to the evacuation of people leaving London whose houses have been bombed) has taken place in a most orderly way. All the villages this side of London up to about 60 miles out have about doubled their population. The Ministry of Food arrangements have been beyond praise. There are now strange "towny" faces all over the countryside, "towny" clothes, "towny" speech (Semitic predominant, Cockney next). Those who have to, or prefer to stay in London treat themselves to an occasional night in the country for a peaceful sleep, or sleep while they can during the daytime. The nightly barrage, though comforting is noisy!

At one time mails were disorganised and took four or five days to get here from London. Now they are much as usual. On one day the newspapers didn't arrive until lunchtime - the "Times" excelled itself by coming out to time and full size despite its building having received a severe shaking (and battering I believe) just about the hour that all good print is put to bed.

All the civil defence services, A.R.P., etc. have been wonderful - typically British, voluntary, jumbled, ill-organised, ill-equipped, and yet when the time comes for them to be wanted, practical, efficient and extemporising over their shortcomings. The A.F.S., from being the butt of the Londoners' wit and jeers are now the heroes of the day. They say London would not still be in existence but for their work.

For so many years we have heard of all the different "ersatz" articles that Germany has produced and always wondered what they really might be like, but it hasn't been until quite lately that we have developed our own special application of "make-believe". How much easier to paint one's stocking to one's leg, even including the seam; and the trouble that people have taken to conceal the anti-splintering devices that are on most windows, and the blackout arrangements which this year are twice as stringent. Some people have got the blackout on the brain - just as people became so demented over knitting that one found them working their eyebrows into their socks and mittens, some people have carried the blackout idea so far that the glow-worms in the lanes seem to require their attention. But I think the most vivid piece of ersatz that has come my way happened in July at an A T.S. Camp where one of the officers received the shortest notice that her fiancé was to go over-seas and decided that day to go and be married. In the half-hour she took to get ready the word went round the mess and she passed through an aisle of congratulations and well-wishing and so to the steps of the mansion and to the long drive to get a bus. At the foot of the steps was the Regimental Sergeant Major - a weather-beaten old lady, who in peacetime no doubt wore a stiff "Roddy Owen" collar and bow-tie, and who prided herself that she had been one of the first W.A.A.Cs in 1915; she pressed into the hand of the bride-to-be a little cardboard box and patting her on the arm said, "Good luck my dear; white heather to bring you luck." It wasn't until she was in the train that she thought to open the box, nor was she perhaps really surprised to find that it contained white lavender.

All over the country there is a drive to kill rats in an effort to save our food crops and stocks. The various agricultural committees have given the job of paying out a penny for every tail to the long suffering Women's Voluntary Services. In a nearby village a local artist has done a most amusing poster for this scheme of hundreds of rats being "piped" out of the village by a modern Pied Piper.

No doubt he got the idea from the local Air Raid Warning, for in this same village they have a siren that is sounded by hand - the Policeman issues from his cottage with the contraption, painted bright red, strapped to his body. The first time he did this the children coming home from school were so fascinated that instead of hurrying to take cover they trailed after him up the village street as he sounded his wheezy siren!

Do you remember when during one of my holidays I worked as a second footman and how the family butler, who had been there for two generations, had given notice at the time; that no one could imagine why he was leaving and how I was told to try and find out the true reason, and that when1 summoned up courage to ask, he replied, "I am just sick and tired of the sight their faces"? A good story and quite true as you remember.

Something of the same kind happened the other day but with a sequel. A faithful personal secretary who had been with her chief for 20 years or more was left late at the office in London clearing up some work; she hadn't noticed the black out nor the sirens until it was too late, wisely, to leave. Sitting there alone she suddenly felt that she could no longer stand the sight of all those files and papers that she had looked after for so many years, so, in a fit of frenzy and/or despair she destroyed and mutilated all the private papers of the firm she had served so well, until the siren sounding the "All Clear" about midnight brought her to realisation that it was time to go home. She didn't live very far away so between the dusk and dawn raids she tramped home. When she arrived at the office the next morning, punctual as usual, she found that the building had received a direct hit and as she stood there the demolition and rescue parties started their work to endeavour to retrieve the more valuable records of the business! And there we leave her on the corner of the street, perplexed as to whether she admits her midnight madness and save them the trouble of looking, or whether in the saner light of dawn she lets them go on with their work and no doubt in a day or two's time, evacuates with her chief into a better and brighter building, there to set up a safer system of securing documents.

Twenty-five years is a long time in one's outlook, but I remember my most vivid impression of 1914 is still the cock-a-hoopedness of the Nation. "We will show those silly Germans", "It will all be over in a fortnight"; the inability of a nation having enjoyed so many years of prosperity and peace to actuate its imagination so that it might even glimpse at what lay behind going to war; that, and the cheering and the bands and the flag-waving. I think just now the thing that makes my most vivid recollection of the last year is probably the same underlying trait of undefeatedness which has taken quite a different form of expression but is still there. It's jaunty, naughty, pooh-ish, "We can deal with this when we got going"! The phrase "'We can take it.'" is no idle boast.

And now we are approaching Christmas again and altho' we may not be as festive as in other years - in the words of the young Princess Elizabeth when she broadcast to British children everywhere - "We ... over here, are full of courage and cheerfulness."

Your loving brother,