Thursday, October 28, 2010

22. Doodle Bugs and a Proposal.

The Director of the club offered me a full time job and, as working for the Red Cross came under the ‘reserved occupation’ category, I took it so that I would not then be directed to work elsewhere. It seemed like a good idea, but the job I was given was very depressing. It involved typing lists containing hundreds of names of enlisted men who had borrowed from Red Cross funds when they were on leave in London and had run out of money. The loan would later be retrieved through the relevant Unit Paymaster. But the money would never be recovered from the men on my lists because they had all been killed in action, and their debts cancelled.

Early in June 1944, I was working away in the office with Margot, the other typist, when I heard a loud, strange pop-popping noise that I had never heard before, followed by an ominous silence. I shouted to Margot to get under her desk as I ducked under mine. After a few seconds there was a terrifying explosion very near us; all the office windows were blown inwards and, had we not been under our desks, we would have been cut to shreds. The explosion had been caused by a V1 bomber, a Doodle Bug. We were shocked but unharmed and each of us reacted differently. Margo cried and was helpless with fright while I got a dustpan and brush and started clearing up the broken glass - obviously a nervous reaction; the shock hit me the following day when I could not stop shaking. It was the closest to death I had ever been. Like the sound of the air raid sirens, the threatening pop-popping noise of the doodle bugs and the terrifying silence that preceded the explosion, is something I will never forget.

A doodle bug was the origin of the cruise missile, a flying bomb, one of the earliest rockets. For five months these deadly things dropped at the rate of one hundred a day on the south of England, 9,521 in total, stopping only when the rocket launch bases aimed at London were located and destroyed. A further 2,448 were then launched from other bases against ports in Belgium, until the last base was destroyed in October. Over 22,892 people were killed, mostly civilians. These bombs were very sophisticated, with wings and bodies, not like an ordinary rocket, and the cost of manufacturing almost 12,000 must have been enormous. Some of them were deflected by very brave fighter pilots who would intercept them, tip the wings of the rocket with the wing of their own plane, sending it into the sea.

Besides working in the office I also assisted in the club itself, dispensing Coca-Cola and fresh doughnuts from a doughnut making machine. The American doughnut was unlike the English doughnut in that it was made with much lighter dough, had a hole in the middle and was without jam. The cola syrup came from America in huge barrels which were stored under a staircase. On one occasion the barrel tap was not turned off properly and a sticky wave of syrup flowed into the club before it was discovered. What a mess.

The Americans were so different from the few, serious English boys I had known, they seemed to be so full of fun and knew how to compliment a girl and make her feel like a million dollars. They smelled nice too, and it was the first time I had come across after-shave and cologne; until then I had only been aware of mother’s 4711 cologne. Of course, they could get anything they wanted from the PX shops, America looked after their troops much better than the British looked after theirs, but America was a wealthy country whereas England was pretty impoverished by then. About twice a week a band would arrive to play in the club and we would jitterbug like mad and go really wild.

With free theatre tickets available for the troops and limited charges in restaurants, I was taken to shows and out to dinner a lot, which was as well because then I could eat a decent meal from time to time. One of my favorite places was the Hong Kong in Shaftsbury Avenue and in 1947 I took my husband, Tom, there for his first taste of Chinese food. Even then there was still a price restriction and one could only order a maximum of 4/6d, so we ordered the set menu, ate, paid the bill, then walked round the block before going back and ordering again. This time we went to the upstairs level and as we were both in uniform, we got away with it. I've always enjoyed Chinese food, and I still cook a jolly good Stir Fry, which is a favorite with my friends.

I was first taken to the Hong Kong for lunch in 1944, by a young Major in the Air Photographic Squadron who was a brilliant photographer and cartoonist. In fact, he took some very nice pictures of me. The restaurant was packed and we were asked if we would mind sharing a table; so we joined a very nice woman, who was wearing the uniform of the Canadian Red Cross, and an older, quite attractive man. I cannot remember what we talked about, but it was a very enjoyable meal.

About a week later I received a telephone call from a man whose name I did not recognize, Victor Raymond van den Eindon. Who? He explained that he was the man with whom my friend and I had shared a table at the Hong Kong and would I please have lunch with him. Rather reluctantly I agreed; there were no such things as free lunches but I was curious to know how he had managed to find me. Well, it turned out that he was in the Belgian resistance with access to various intelligence departments, had remembered my name and traced me through the American Embassy. How about that? Sounded like a tall story. But I was in for some more surprises. During lunch I sensed his interest in me and one of my defenses in any possibly tricky situation was to mention my age. “I’m eighteen!” I said. His face dropped. “Oh, dear,” he said “I am thirty eight.” “What does that matter?” I asked. The reply left me speechless, “Because, young lady, I have asked you to lunch with me for the soul purpose of asking you to marry me.” His English was perfect, his manners impeccable, he played the violin like an angel (he had studied at the Conservatoire in Buenos Aires), and in a few short weeks I was completely infatuated. I honestly don’t know why.

We were invited to spend the week-end in the country with friends of his, separate rooms of course, and when I asked him how he was going to introduce me he said, “As the future Mrs. Van den Einden, I hope!” I was so young; his friends must have thought he was mad and, in spite of them making me very welcome, I felt gauche and ill at ease. The husband owned a factory where they made barrage balloons, and he had been parachuted into Belgium several times on various missions. His wife was very beautiful and sent the family’s laundry to Harrods in a hamper every week to be washed! I did not know people did that sort of thing, especially in wartime, but that is how the other half lived. They had two lovely young daughters and I spent most of the time with them. I still cannot understand why Vic wanted to marry me.

Because mother could not come up to London to see me, I had to visit her which I did, sometimes staying overnight. Father really wanted to be reconciled, so I took Victor home to meet my parents. Father agreed to our becoming engaged, (sapphire ring with diamond shoulders) providing there was no hanky panky before the wedding!

Sometimes Victor and I would eat at the L’Institute Belge, where I ate horse for the first time, and it was very nice. During the war we probably all ate horse unknowingly. I seemed to spend many hours waiting for him because his work was now intense. The Normandy landings were being organised and he was involved in lots of secret stuff.

And then the war was over. Victor and his secretary and her husband were being measured for uniforms representing some organization, and were very excited about going back home to Belgium. And that was that! I was just dropped. Not a word of goodbye, nothing. I wondered why he had bothered with me in the first place, it certainly was not for sex, he already had a mistress in Bath, although he did not go there after we were engaged. But, it was heartbreak time in chunks for me, which I richly deserved because I had broken a few of them myself. It was pay back time.

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