In 1939 at the outbreak of the Second World War, Sylvia Gillespie of Lacombe was living in Northern Wales near the English port city of Liverpool.
“I was 10 years old when the war started and 16 when it ended,” she said.
It was on Sept. 3rd, 1939 that the United Kingdom declared war against Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Germany, two days after Germany and the Soviet Union invaded UK-allied Poland on Sept. 1st.
“I remember it was a Sunday — September 3rd, 1939,” Gillespie said. “It was a beautiful Sunday morning and then my mother started crying. They announced it at 11 a.m. that we are at war with Germany.
“I took off for a bike ride because I couldn’t stand to see my mother so upset.”
Although only 10, Gillespie remembers the fear leading up to the war particularly because her parents both served during the First World War and witnessed the reality of war firsthand.
“My father was in the Army and my mother was in the Women’s Land Army,” she said. “I had heard a lot about it and grew up very much aware of the First World War, so it seemed like that one just finished.
“I remember people talking of the danger around Hitler coming to power. People were scared.”
For Gillespie, her family and many other Britons — that fear turned to national shame after British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain returned from Europe in September 1938 after a summit with Hitler.
“He came back with that dreadful white paper saying, ‘Peace in our time’,” she said. “That was a terrible disgrace for the British at the time and I remember it well because we felt like he had given into Hitler and let him do what he wanted.
“Finally Britain did take a stand and said enough is enough.”
Part of that transition was Chamberlain being replaced as Prime Minister by now-national hero Winston Churchill. Gillespie remembers the national pride she felt listening to Churchill on the radio with her family.
“I never missed it,” she said. “We didn’t have TV, so we were glued to the BBC Radio to listen to the news and to listen to Winston Churchill. He was wonderful and he galvanized everybody. He helped everyone say, ‘To hell with Hitler. We aren’t putting up with it’.
“Everybody was behind Winston Churchill.”
Gillespie particularly remembered Churchill’s civilian call-out during what is now known as the Miracle of Dunkirk — where British sailors, both navy and civilian, rescued 198,000 British and 140,000 French and Belgian troops between May 26th and June 4th 1940.
“I remember vividly and I remember we were watching it with horror,” she said. “Everyone who had a boat was called out — we were way out on the Irish Coast so we weren’t much use. It was very good for our morale that we got so many troops off.”
During the initial phases of the war, the United Kingdom went through what is now known as The Blitz — where Nazi bombers continually pummeled British cities. Gillespie said they were luckily located in a place that was not a military target but she remembers seeing the German Luftwaffe in the skies on the way to bomb Liverpool.
“They would cross over us to get to Liverpool and we would only get the bombs that were left over that they forgot to drop on Liverpool,” Gillespie said. “On the Welsh Coast by the Irish Sea, you couldn’t dig a shelter below ground because every time the tide came in it would fill up with water. We had to go hide under the stairs.”
During The Blitz, Gillespie remembers being scared but also remembers a distinctly British reaction — with citizens carrying on through their days going to work and having tea. Despite the danger, they often made light of Hitler.
“What the hell does he think he is doing? We are British. We don’t give up like that and we scoffed at him all the time. We made jokes about him and I remember the cartoons,” she said.
An invasion of Europe by Allied Forces became inevitable after the United States entered the war after Japanese forces bombed Pearl Harbour on Dec. 7th, 1941. Following that, thousands of American troops were shipped over to Britain in advance of the invasion which would eventually be known as D-Day on June 6th, 1944.
Gillespie remembers people feeling hopeful with American troops on the island.
“They had beautiful uniforms and were so well-dressed. The poor British soldiers had raggedy-old looking uniforms,” she said. “The Americans were swaggering around.”
Despite being thankful for their presence, Gillespie remembers not particularly appreciating the American attitude.
“The Americans would always say, ‘We have come to save you’, so we really resented that attitude,” she said. “We were thankful they were there, but resented the fact they were sticking their chest out and saying, ‘We’re here, no problem’.”
After the successful invasion of Europe and the subsequent Allied trek on to Berlin, Gillespie remembers the ending of the war in the allies’ favour becoming an inevitability for the people still in Britain. When the day came that the war in Europe was won on May 8th, 1945, Gillespie remembers a subdued British response.
“It was a bit of an anti-climax,” she said. “It was obvious with the Americans and Russians involved that Germany was going to be defeated. It was just a matter of time. We accepted it.
“There was celebration. We had tea parties and things like that but I don’t remember us going wild.”
Gillespie eventually moved to Lacombe in 1960 — with the war long behind her except for one odd connection.
“I remember that everyday at noon — they would have a siren go off in Lacombe and it was the same damn thing as it was during the war that signalled an air raid. The first day I heard it, I thought, ‘What the hell is this?’”
Gillespie will be discussing her experiences during the Second World War at a talk for the Lacombe History Lecture Series at the Lacombe Memorial Centre on Thursday, Jan. 24th at 7 p.m.