Interview with Daphne Baptiste


Interview with Daphne Baptiste


Daphne joined the Air Ministry at 17. She initially joined the Civil Service as she believed it would be a safe job with high wages. Throughout the war, she was stationed at Ladies College in Harrogate and was in charge of supplying water to many RAF stations. Daphne recalls her experience of the war as a civilian, as her father was a firefighter in London, she recalls a large amount of the Blitz. She mentions working with a young man who was a conscientious objector and describes how he was viewed at the time. During the Blitz, she was both a fire watcher and a first-aider. She also gives information regarding her family's experience during the First World War, including Zeppelin bombing. She recounts her memories of seeing St. Paul’s cathedral is surrounded by fire, seeing firefighters running to put out fires and the anxiety of not knowing if she would wake up in the morning. She recounts one or two deaths and many injuries in the fire service, including her brother, another fire-fighter, who was injured one night, and left disabled. She ends the interview by remembering marrying her husband, a Canadian born army officer, just before the D-Day landings, in which he was injured. She went a long-time without any communication, wondering if he would return.




Temporal Coverage





01:22:45 audio recording


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CB: My name is Chris Brockbank and today is Thursday the 4th of May 2017 and I’m in Epsom with Daphne Baptiste who experienced the war as a civilian and married an Army officer later on in the war. But Daphne, what are your earliest recollections of life?
DB: My earliest recollections are, date from when I was four years old and I can remember I hadn’t started school, my mother was on her knees in our little house in Becontree. She was washing the kitchen floor. She had the bucket and a mop there and was on her knees at the time and suddenly we heard two loud bangs and I rushed to her side, a four year old frightened of these two loud bangs. And I said to her, ‘What’s that? What’s that?’ And she said, ‘Shhh. Just be quiet and I will tell you in a moment.’ And that’s when I had my first history lesson and she told me about the First World War and how we now respected people who had given their lives in the First World War and remembered them on November the 11th each year to give them the respect that they deserved. That’s my earliest memory. My other earliest memory is being taken to hospital with diphtheria. Again, I was four years old and my mother had lost her own brother when he was two and a half years old with diphtheria. It was a serious illness and you can imagine how distraught the family were at the thought that I also might die from this children’s serious illness. I didn’t fortunately. Obviously. And, but I came out after seven weeks in hospital not having had any visitors other than my father standing outside the large ward window looking at me as he cycled from Becontree up to the City of London to join his fire station where he was on duty at that time. That would be 1925 I suppose and [pause] but I came out of hospital unable to walk. My parents had to hire a little old pushchair and took me away on holiday with the rest of the family and, and I soon regained the ability to walk but just for a while that was the result of diphtheria.
CB: So, what did your father do as a job?
DB: My father was a fireman. He had been in the Navy for two years at the start of the First World War. He’d been invalided out with an injury. He’d been crushed by some machinery I think in the engine room and invalided out. He wanted to marry my mother. They had met and he wanted to marry her and she wouldn’t marry him until he had a job so he joined the London Fire Brigade. She wouldn’t marry him still until her brother could come home from the Army. This was First World War. Her brother was on the Somme, fighting in the Somme and she used to tell us when we were children that she prayed every night of her life that her brother would get a blighty one which meant a slight wound. A small wound. Enough to bring him home. And he did. He was wounded in the arm and he came home and he was able to be, he was able to give her away at her wedding to my father. So, and my father stayed in the London Fire Brigade all through the war. The First World War. Rescued children from a burning building. We think probably set on fire by German Zeppelins. We’re not sure about that but they were certainly active at that time and he rescued six children one by one from this burning building. The adults and children on the ground floor were killed in that fire but he managed to get six children out from the first floor and was given the medal of the OBE after the First World War in recognition of bravery, gallantry which was a cause of pride in the family at the time.
CB: So then in the interwar years while you and your siblings were young what was happening then?
DB: With my father and his career? He stayed in the Fire Service and I can’t think which particular year that would be, nineteen, late 1920s possibly he was promoted to be in charge of a fire station. And because he had had even two years experience in the Navy they gave him the Fire Boat Station at Battersea Bridge. On the corner of Battersea Bridge, and so we the family all moved to Battersea. Lived on the bridge, on the corner of the bridge there and had opportunities to go on the fire boats and see what went on there. And then seven years after that he, a new Fire Brigade Headquarters was built just by Lambeth Bridge opposite Millbank and the Houses of Parliament and he was given command of the fire boats there and remained there until his retirement. Right through the war he was in charge of the fire boats from Westminster to Chiswick. Had a very lively war. They were not only trying to deal with fires along by the riverside, the docks and, and the oil fires but also they were often called out to relay water from the Thames even up to two miles because the engines couldn’t always get through the roads. The roads were too heavily bombed. And so that certainly happened when there were fires at Piccadilly. I think that was possibly one that a couple of miles of hose laying. I suppose a man could get through guiding the hoses through. I’m not sure how it happened but [pause] but it did happen. And he was allowed to retire, 1944 when the worst of the raids were over although we were still having V-1 and V-2 raids but not so frequently as during the war we had raids every night. And when we came up out of the shelters of the Fire Brigade Headquarters the shelters were simply bunk beds that were provided for us in the basement and we would see the firemen running through the basement to where ever their appliance was. Their, their engines or whatever. We thought that was quite exciting when we were teenagers I suppose, one has to admit. But, but it was, it was a very lively time. We understood that because the Fire Brigade Headquarters had been built on a raft, I think that’s a building term, right by the river every time bombs fell in the river and they did, they were dropped in the river. That was a guiding light for German bombers very often especially if there was a moon and bombs would be dropped in the river and the building, the whole building, nine floors would shake but we didn’t ever have one broken window because it just moved. The vibration.
CB: So, he was looking after the river between Westminster and Chiswick.
DB: Yes.
CB: A lot of the bombing was further east.
DB: Oh yes.
CB: To what extent was he drawn in to that?
DB: Oh yes. In fact, he, no this is going back through the war. He almost went to Dunkirk but the Fire Brigade Headquarters people decided that they would send over to Dunkirk the fire boats as far as Blackfriars or Cherry Garden. I’m not sure which was the final one. But that they must retain some fire boats in London in case bombing started there. It hadn’t started there then and so my father wasn’t sent there but, but certainly he was at the docks, he was at the oil fires and, and where ever they were called upon to go and they very often drew all the fire engines and fire boats to all over different parts of London. I can remember there was Raphael Tuck’s Christmas Greetings Cards building next to us. Next to the Fire Brigade Headquarters. That was burned to the ground and people could be quite rude about that and say it was next to the Fire Brigade Headquarters what were they doing when that building was on fire? But every engine was out, every fire boat was out dealing with fires at different places. They certainly were called upon to travel quite widely in, in and around London.
CB: So which floor were you on? Living.
DB: We lived on the sixth floor. Sixth floor. There were nine floors all together and the night of the very big City fire my sister and I went up on to the roof, that’s above the ninth floor and looked across to the city and we could see the whole of St Paul’s Cathedral surrounded by flames there. The city had suffered very much in that. In that raid. And the only firemen left in the headquarters were a few, no engines again but they were up on the roof with stirrup pumps and buckets and as incendiary bombs fell on the roof they would go and put them out from their stirrup pumps and buckets. Put the fires out before they could get a hold on the building.
CB: And as children what did you, how did you feel about this huge perspective of fire?
DB: This was before the war, you mean?
CB: No. In the war.
DB: In the war.
CB: So, you’re watching. You’re watching the fires burning.
DB: Well, children. You see I was seventeen, eighteen, upwards then.
CB: Yeah.
DB: My sister was two years younger. A year and eight months —
CB: Yeah.
DB: Younger than I was. And you didn’t enjoy it. I used to think to myself if we survive all this I’ll never grumble about anything ever again. Well, of course I did. I have [laughs] But, but that was how you felt at the time. You didn’t know whether you would survive the night. You didn’t know whether you might be surrounded by fire even where you lived. Certainly, when I worked in the Air Ministry in London and I did first aid duty for the Air Ministry and was called out to raids. We took shelter probably once every two weeks. Slept in the basement again with these huge pipes that supplied water I think to the whole building and I used to wonder and was frightened at the thought of it. What would happen if the building was bombed and those pipes burst and we would be down there? What would happen to us? Yes. You were quite frightened but nevertheless you just had to get on with whatever was needed. I can remember coming up in the mornings and walking across rubble from some of the bombed buildings. It wasn’t, it was a difficult time to live but somehow you were given the strength to get on and do what you had to do. And we were very relieved when the time came that the bombing started, when it stopped every night even if you had one night’s rest you were thankful. And then after a break of course when the V-1s started and that was another different experience.
CB: 1944. Yeah.
DB: And they were still coming over to our country even when my husband had taken part in the Normandy landings and was wounded and came home. That was still going on. And then later on I was working when the first rocket, the first V-2 fell. I think that was in Chancery Lane. I was working in High Holborn in another Air Ministry building and I think that fell in Chancery Lane not that far away. It didn’t do us any, it didn’t do our building any damage but we were quietly working and suddenly heard this tremendous bang. It was a loud bang when the first rockets came over and, because we didn’t know what it was. And then you gradually began to, the news percolated through that it was the Germans latest weapon of war and, and we had many of them after that. That was 1944/45, I suppose. Going towards the end of the war.
CB: Going back to your father and the early stages of the war Dunkirk was the end of May, early June 1940. Then the bombing started seriously in London in the autumn.
DB: Yes. September.
CB: So, to what extent did your father describe what he was doing fighting the fires?
DB: He didn’t really talk a lot about of it at home. He was very very tired because it was constant. It was every night. At the beginning of the bombing he was out for three days and nights without sleep and because he was the officer in charge all his men came and went, did their day duty or their night duty and then went home and had a break. But for those first three days and nights he was on the fire boat the whole time and I think he was going to be going out again and my mother was absolutely distraught about that and went to see the chief officer [laughs] and said, ‘You can’t send him out again.’ And he didn’t. He gave him a night’s leave to come home and sleep and I suppose a subordinate officer took over. But then it happened again. Every, every night but at least a break in between and I mean we did hear over the years different things that might happen but, but he didn’t ever go in to any detail. Whether he thought it would be distressing for us. We would hear the buildings that he’d been to like Piccadilly and relaying hoses. We would hear that sort of information but nothing, nothing of the suffering. We would hear if any of his men had been killed. One or two I think were sent overboard from the boat in to the river and were not always able to be rescued although they could all swim. But, but no. We didn’t hear a lot about the suffering from my father.
CB: But the loss rate of civilians and of fire crews was quite considerable.
DB: Certainly, all the land crews I think maybe the land crews did have a greater number of casualties than the Fire Boat crews because some who might have been knocked in to the river would have been able to swim to the shore and be rescued. However, that was. But land crews, yes my own brother was a fireman stationed in the East End of London and the East End suffered very heavily. And one night there was bombs were dropped and I think it was a laundry fire and he, I think all the generator boxes were blown up all down the street that he was in, helping to put out the fires and he was blown in to the middle of the road and he, every bone in his foot, in one foot was broken and he spent the next year in hospital. The Fire Brigade or the Ministry of Defence, whatever it was then were trying out a new type of treatment that they had discovered through the Spanish Civil War where they had discovered people injured by the roadside who not been able to be rescued for a long time and their wounds had healed in their own gangrene. And my brother’s foot went gangrenous and he was taken in to hospital at Ripley in Surrey and they tried this, this treatment on him putting plasters on, I think once a month. However long it was. Leaving it on. And those wounds were left in their own gangrene and he had to be moved in to his own ward because his wounds and what came from his wounds was affecting the throats of other patients and so he was put in a ward on his own. And, and those plasters were put on for a year and then at the end of the year the doctors said to my parents because he wasn’t married, my brother, he was still at home and they said, ‘Now, your son’s wounds have healed but if we leave things as they are he’s going to be more of a cripple with that foot than without it. So we want you to make the decision, you and your son whether he should have that foot removed.’ And my brother was engaged to be married at the time so the fiancé was brought in to that too and my brother did decide to have the foot just below the knee. His leg was taken off and, which was very sad. It left him disabled of course for the rest of his life but —
CB: So, just putting that in to context the Spanish Civil War was 1936 to ’39.
DB: Yes.
CB: Were there people from the civil war who were part of the medical staff?
DB: I wouldn’t know. I don’t know that. No. I’ve no idea. We just heard that it was a discovery that they were trying out for raid conditions in our own country.
CB: Yes.
DB: But instead of them just being left by the roadside these people who were injured he was in hospital and being supervised.
CB: Yeah.
DB: Looked at all the time. But it was a strange, well, it was a very strange experience. And my sister and I used to cycle from Lambeth Bridge to Ripley to go and visit him. And at one stage there were lads who had been injured as part of aircrew in the same hospital. I don’t know quite how that happened but they were put out in the open air in the summer weather. I think they had injuries where they felt fresh air was beneficial to them. But, but for my brother that was the end of his war.
CB: Yes. This is before McIndoe really got going.
DB: Yes. Yes. Well, that was later. That was penicillin, wasn’t it?
CB: Well —
DB: Yeah. Fleming and McIndoe.
CB: No. But this is to do with the burns really.
DB: Yes. Yes.
CB: So, going back to your father with the boats.
DB: Yeah.
CB: You talked about the sorts of fires including oil.
DB: Yes.
CB: So, what was the real problem with boats? Was oil the real danger that caused a lot of concern. Burning on the surface of the water.
DB: I think. Well, I think it was because they, possibly it was more relaying of hoses. I mean there were obviously fire engines around because this was Shell Haven. Thames Haven and Shell Haven.
CB: Right.
DB: But certainly, I don’t know how near they got to those. But it might have been in a hose laying capacity. I really don’t know all that.
CB: Okay. So, you were born in 1921.
DB: Yes.
CB: At the end of the year. You decided, at what age did you leave school?
DB: I left school when I was just seventeen.
CB: Right.
DB: I’d gone in to the sixth form. I’d done one term in the sixth form but decided it was an unsettled world. We hadn’t, hadn’t started the war but, but I didn’t want to carry on with education. I wanted to go out to work but and so I took the Civil Service exam. But I also started at St George’s College, Red Lion Square to get more qualifications and hoped to get in to the executive grade of the Civil Service and perhaps from then to the administrative. But I would have settled for the executive I think then. But of course, the war started and they closed all of those institutions for a while. They opened them later but at that time I was looking ahead to marriage and family and didn’t really, and wouldn’t have continued with education.
CB: But you said you joined in January ’39.
DB: Yes.
CB: The Civil Service.
DB: Yes.
CB: What made you choose A) the Civil Service and, B) the Air Ministry particularly?
DB: Well, you know in those days it wasn’t the affluent society that it became later and you always felt that security was the big thing and the Civil Service had a very good reputation. You reckoned that the Civil Service had slightly higher wages than other types of work. That it was interesting work. Administration. All of those things appealed to me. My parents were not affluent. We had security and the Civil Service was another, it was a secure future. You felt you were paving the way to a secure future for yourself and I liked administration. I wanted to do that. I had to put down if I had a preference for any department what would it be and I put down the Civil Service. I put down one other, I can’t think what that one was now because I thought the Civil Service Air Ministry would be a particularly interesting job. The, the Air Force was only really just growing at that time. And, and that I felt would be good and that I might have time, might have the opportunity of going abroad with the, with the Air Ministry. What I didn’t know was that in those days they didn’t send young women abroad with the, with the Air Ministry. So I wouldn’t have had those opportunities. But the war started anyway and that, that put an end to that. But yes, I felt that would be an interesting life.
CB: And how did they train you to begin with?
DB: Oh, you were put in to a department and under your superior officer. He gave you a sort of training but you, you started work. I mean it was quite a modest job. It was a clerical officer and as I say I hoped to get to be an executive officer quite soon because you could take the exams quite quickly. The internal exams. But, but everything changed with the onset of war. But, but you were working straightaway on, on your own work. I think as I stayed with them for a year or two I think my particular responsibility was examining negotiations and agreements for providing water supplies and sewerage disposal facilities for Air Force stations all over the country. That could be big airfields, it could be small premises and so you were dealing with, corresponding with supply authorities for those facilities and also for councils if the councils were involved. Borough councils, county councils, whatever. So, you were dealing with those authorities all the time. So, I got to know a lot about the different airfields. All the names of them. And even to this day when I hear the name of an Air Force station that still exists I immediately think of the size of the file. It might be like that. Bovingdon. All sorts of them all over the country or down to small premises like that.
CB: And the airfields themselves were, they were building them brand new.
DB: Some of them. But some of them were old Air Force stations from before the war. Yes. But a lot of them were new. The thick ones tended to be the older ones. And certainly, all of East Anglia was like one big airfield.
CB: Where was this run from?
DB: Where was —
CB: Where was this office of yours?
DB: The first year of the war I was in Harrogate. We were evacuated to Harrogate. To the Ladies’ College. We worked in Ladies’ College at Harrogate. They evacuated the Ladies’ College pupils to a safer place in the country they thought but they gave it to us, the Air Ministry. And really Harrogate was filled with civil servants and Air Force personnel and we had a social life up there. I was billeted with a railway family up there. And when I, when the raids started and we weren’t getting any news of how our families were faring back in London and I put in for the transfer back home the man of the house where I was billeted, who was a senior engine driver on the LNER railway, he said, ‘Would you like a ride on the footplate?’ I said, ‘Yes please.’ So he gave me a ride on the footplate from Harrogate to Knaresborough, a little local village up there which was exciting for me. And then I came back to London but, and in Harrogate they were very kind, the people we were billeted with. And one day the air raid sirens went. Well, so that must have been just at the start of the raids, I think. Well, nobody ever expected Harrogate to suffer any air raids but the lady of the house, well it must have been a weekend because the lady of the house grabbed hold of the three of us girls, seventeen year olds, and said, ‘Come under the stairs. Come under the stairs.’ And she dragged us under the stairs because she said that was the strongest part of the house. A very modest little house. And dragged us under there and I think there were three bombs dropped from one aircraft in the grounds of a hotel I think up in Harrogate. And I think that was, they were the only bombs that I think Harrogate had during the war but it certainly created excitement at the time.
CB: So, you got back to London but how? How did you convince them to send you back to London?
DB: Well, I just said my family were here and where they lived right by Lambeth Bridge and the centre of all the bombing. That it took five days for us to get letters or to be able to make a phone call. We couldn’t make a phone call home and I said that, you know I wanted to be back with the family. Hopefully to work in the Air Ministry in London. Of course, there was some of the Air Ministry in London you see. It was that the I went to [pause] now was it Ajax House? Victory House? One of the big houses in the Kingsway I went to first of all and travelled to work daily. Bus or tram or whatever it was. They didn’t question it.
CB: You were billeted with your parents when you were in London then. You lived at home.
DB: Living at home. They didn’t call that billeted [laughs]. But yes, and that was when we had all of the bunk beds in the basement of the Headquarters and [pause] and didn’t know what we would find when we got up in the morning. Whether it would be rubble as I say. We often did walk over rubble in different parts of London. We got to work. I mean I think probably the hours were a bit intermittent. It depended how long it took us to get to, to work. I think there was still a tramway that went underground up to the Kingsway. Near Bush House.
CB: Yeah.
DB: And —
CB: It’s still used. The tunnel.
DB: It’s still used.
CB: Yeah. Yeah. The roadway.
DB: Yes. Yes.
CB: So you didn’t use the tube because of the —
DB: No.
CB: The roadway and the bus was more convenient.
DB: Well, there wasn’t, the nearest tube to us was Westminster tube station which would have meant walking over the bridge and to the station which was right by the Houses of Parliament.
CB: Yeah.
DB: Big Ben. And that would have taken longer I suppose. We could get buses outside the Headquarters. Buses ran from Albert Embankment there right through to, to the West End. To the City.
CB: There’s a classic picture of the Blitz with a bus in a big crater. Did you see that sort of damage?
DB: I don’t know that I saw that. I remember hearing about it. We had friends. Now, this man was in the police force and he was, you know he had a reasonably responsible job in the police force and I think he lived in Balham and he was out overnight with the raids happening and got back home in the morning off duty to find that his wife and three daughters had been killed. Their house had been bombed and I think that was when Balham had quite a lot of bombing. That part of London. And I think the tube station at Balham, I think a bomb went down the shaft to it. I have a feeling.
CB: A ventilation shaft. Yes.
DB: Was that right?
CB: Yes.
DB: Yeah. And [pause] Yes. There were some horrific incidents. That must have been awful for him.
CB: When you were in Harrogate you were doing your airfield work but what did you do when you returned to London?
DB: Well, I was trying to work out [pause] yes, because it must have been a different branch. It might, it might even be that that part came because I’d been in the Air Ministry for a year before I came back when the raids started. And it may even be that I started with something smaller in Harrogate and took on the airfield work when I came back. I’m not, really not too sure about that now. No. I can’t think.
CB: What sort of people were working with you?
DB: What —?
CB: Sort of people were working with you?
DB: Oh, well, they were mainly young women and middle-aged women and men. But we also had, I remember there was one young man who was about twenty eight and he was a conscientious objector. So he was given leave to not be part of the armed services but I think he had to do nine months in prison for that. But I know there was quite strong feeling because people used to feel is this fair because he is showing what he can do in the civilian job and therefore he will have an advantage when the men in the services come back home. There were all sorts of feelings about conscientious objection, that sort of thing during the war. If there were people in reserved occupations. They would call them reserved occupations. He was a nice enough chap and if he was, if he was sincere in what he believed you know you couldn’t blame him but but the people there who had loved ones fighting in the active services did feel strongly about it.
CB: So, did this effectively be expressed as abuse?
DB: Oh, they would talk. I don’t know how much they expressed it to him but certainly they would talk about it to one another and say how they felt about their own loved ones being away, in danger, losing perhaps seniority for when they came back and that would affect their promotion. Yes. There were prejudices.
CB: Did he describe any experiences of his own of people?
DB: I think he was a bit of a loner.
CB: Criticising him.
DB: He was a bit of a loner, I think. For those reasons really.
CB: And did he do extra tasks like fire watching?
DB: Did he or did I?
CB: Did he?
DB: Did he? Not that I’m aware of. I did. I did fire watching in Harrogate and I did first aid of course in London. I did fire watching on the roof of the Air Ministry. The Ladies’ College when we were in Harrogate. I thought that was the thing to do because my father and my brother were in the Fire Service. But when we came back to London I wanted to do first aid and I did British Red Cross and St John’s Ambulance courses in order to help me to do that.
CB: And then to what extent did you put that into action?
DB: Well, I, I didn’t have to do any serious dressing of wounds or anything. I think bandaging and as I say I saw this one really nasty incident. But they drew more than one first aid party to them in case people couldn’t get through obstruction in the roads. And we were the second party to get there on this occasion and there were people just ahead of me already dealing with the wounded but that was where I was standing behind ready to take over. For instance, if those people had fainted or anything in their, you know treatment of the injured. And that was where I did see the open head wound. Very dark wounds of this one particular lady and I did hear afterwards that she had died and I wasn’t surprised. She looked, she was unconscious but I didn’t actually have to deal with it myself.
CB: What sort of wound was it?
DB: Open. The whole of the head was open.
CB: Blown the back of the head had it? Yeah. And how did you feel about that?
DB: How did I feel about it? I just felt at the time I wasn’t capable of thinking. I was waiting to see if I was going to be needed. But afterwards even during those days I thought how awful that young women like me or anybody had got to see that because it, it was pretty awful.
CB: The secondary shock caught up with you. We’ll pause just for a mo.
[recording paused]
DB: I was thinking just now when you said, you know, you’re doing alright I thought if I had been the age or near the age that I am now when those, some of those things happened I would have probably taken more in. Be able to interpret them in a different way. It very much relates to the age that you are at the time and the experiences you’ve had previously. So that you don’t quite know what to expect I should think when you are, you are doing all these interviews. But, and, and I don’t know whether I am, whether I am interpreting everything correctly. I’m, I’m trying to be totally honest.
CB: Well, it’s the recall that is important.
DB: Yes.
Other: Yes. Yeah.
DB: Yes.
CB: We want to know.
DB: Yes.
CB: How you felt about it.
DB: Yes, well that —
CB: As you remember feeling about it.
DB: That’s what I’m trying —
CB: Yeah.
DB: To do as I go.
CB: In today’s perspective.
DB: And it’s a long time.
CB: Yes.
DB: It’s a long time ago.
Other: It is a long time.
DB: But —
Other: I think it’s fantastic that you remember.
DB: Well —
Other: Absolutely fantastic. I can’t always remember last week.
DB: Well, no but that’s true. They say that don’t they? The short term memory.
Other: Yeah. Goes.
DB: I find now that I can lose a name. The name of a person, name of a place.
Other: Yes.
DB: I can’t just grab hold of it straightaway.
Other: Would you like another cup of tea now?
DB: No.
[recording paused]
CB: We’ve covered a lot of things but what I’d like to do is just to step back in a way because —
DB: Yes.
CB: I mentioned early on I’d like to know what your education was and how that worked and then how that impinged on your career so, what, what did you do when you got in to the more senior part of education?
DB: Well, I was never very senior because I went in as quite a lowly level of clerical officer intending to take the examinations.
CB: No, but at school.
DB: Yes. This was at school. But when I was at, it depends really where you want me to start.
CB: Okay.
DB: I went to a London Elementary School. From there I took the Junior County Examination. I passed at a high level but elected not to take up those top grammar Schools. Went to the normal London Grammar School. It was a grammar school in Clapham and and worked for matriculation examinations at sixteen, the equivalent of GCSEs now, I suppose and passed those. And went in to the sixth form intending to do what was called Higher Schools Examinations then but had decided whether it was anything to do with the world being very unsettled, it was the time of Munich and all of those things. I don’t really know. But I decided I didn’t want the lengthy education. That I would go out to work. Chose the Civil Service and, and would work my way up within the Civil Service. Now, when I was at school I was quite able at the academic studies and at sport so I could have gone either way at school. It was a good education. It was a good grammar school. Also, when I was at school I did have the opportunity of sitting for a scholarship. Just for a Saturday morning scholarship to Trinity College of Music and I passed that and I used to travel as a ten year old actually on the bus from Battersea Bridge to Hyde Park Corner, change the bus at Hyde Park Corner. Everybody worked Saturday mornings in those days so with all of the working population I would then get the bus and go up to Selfridges, walk down beside Selfridges to Trinity College of Music and did three years of music education there. It was mainly piano and theory. I didn’t do the singing there. I did that later on when I was older when I wanted to do singing tuition and did that and in my life have done quite a bit of singing. That was my interest. Coming back from Trinity College of Music, Saturday about 1 o’clock all of the crowds coming home from work in the morning it was a real scrum at Hyde Park Corner where I had to change buses. No queuing for buses in those days. That didn’t happen until the war. So, everybody was rushing for their bus at Hyde Park Corner. There was quite a lot of elbowing as I remember but, and do you know you’d hesitate these days to let your ten year old do that sort of journey in London on her own. There was one other little girl that, we were often together. But that’s the way it was. We did that journey on our own and got back for the rest of Saturday to my home by the bridge. My mother who had thought when my father got his own fire station command was going to have a nice country station like Streatham, she thought. That’s not so countrified now I believe, because we had Phillips Paper Mills one side of the road and Morgan Crucible Chemical Company the other side of the road. Down a side road. So we were really right in the heart of London and it was actually at, when I lived at Battersea Fire Station there that I met my husband in the church youth group. I was fourteen, he was fifteen and we weren’t boy and girlfriend then. In fact, I think we both had other eyes for other boys and girls but it was a good healthy start to to growing up and, and we kept in touch. We kept in touch when I was at Harrogate. He was at his OTC, Officer’s Training Corps at his school. He went to Sir Walter St John School in Battersea and and did his training for OTC and therefore he went into the Army when he finally left school and we got to the wartime years. And first of all they sent him to the Oxford and Bucks Light Infantry. Then they picked him up for, for Sandhurst and he did his training at Sandhurst. Wasn’t the lengthy training they do now at Sandhurst but that’s where he met and it was while he was there that he came home on leave, asked if he could stay with my parents. His mother had already moved to the West Country with her husband. And my parents didn’t know what to say. I didn’t know what to say. I wasn’t in love with him at the time [laughs] And, but anyway they said, ‘Oh, yes. We can’t refuse him.’ And so he came and stayed with us for his leave and that was where our life story began. Our love story began if you like. My father sent one of his men to Victoria Station with me to pick up my husband. We went back to the Fire Brigade Headquarters and he stayed there with us and, and that was it. That was the future assured.
CB: So, then he, in his Army experiences he then landed at D-Day.
DB: Yes.
CB: What happened there?
DB: He was, he was drafted to the Lincolnshire Regiment. Really, he chose that because he was at Sandhurst with a Lincolnshire boy, man and they talked about what they would put down as their first choice when they left Sandhurst and my husband didn’t know. My husband was born in Canada of an American father and, and met the mother in the First World War. That, and that was how Don came, they went back to Canada and Don was born in Canada. But this young man that he trained at Sandhurst with said, ‘Well, why, if you don’t know what to choose why don’t you put down for Lincoln’s Regiment? He said, ‘I’m going to put that down because it’s my home county and we could stay together, you know, the rest of the war.’ So, Don said, ‘Yes. Alright. I’ll do that. That’s as good as any regiment.’ So, he put down for the Lincolnshire Regiment and they were drafted to different battalions and never met again the rest of the war. He didn’t even know if he survived the war. But of course, my husband made many friends in the Lincolnshire Regiment during the war. And in fact we went to most of the Lincolnshire Regiment reunions after the war which was why when we were talking I said to you we went to most of the reunions every September after and through the war and went to a number of reunions in Normandy. When he was drafted to the battalion, second battalion the Lincolnshire Regiment he did normal infantry training with his company and then he said to me that they wanted to send him on this intelligence course at the School of Military Intelligence at Matlock, I think it was. And so he went to Matlock. I was on holiday with my parents and my sister in Devonshire in 1943 and we had become engaged by then, Don and I and expected to be engaged for possibly three or four years. Wait for the war to finish. We didn’t even have the Second Front established then but we waited. We would wait for the war to finish. He would get established in civilian life and so we would have to be engaged a long time. Well, he started at the School of Military Intelligence and I received this letter when we were on holiday in Woolacombe and the letter said, ‘If I pass this course I will get my third pip, be a captain. And I’d like us to be married before I go abroad.’ And I thought what on earth am I going to say to my parents? They think we’re going to be engaged for four years. So, I spoke to my mother first. I thought she would be the easier one and she said, ‘I don’t know what your father will say.’ [laughs] Spoke to my father and he said, ‘Ridiculous.’ But they all rallied around, you saw the picture of the wedding and gave me coupons for my trousseau. And we had a wedding and a wedding reception and photographs. Everything as I say except for wedding bells which we couldn’t have. Then of course, within nine months of that marriage he had landed in Norway, err in Normandy. I’ve got to gather my thoughts. And so, and many experiences stem from that. But we survived. We survived the war. We were the lucky ones.
CB: How did he get wounded?
DB: Sorry?
CB: How did he get wounded?
DB: They were about half a mile inland, if that. A quiet road. That was where they established their Brigade Headquarters. As I say he was brigade intelligence officer and he was, he’d had to go with the brigadier inland to the village of Herouville [?] This was where they landed. Herouville.[?] But the village itself was about a mile inland and they’d established that, the regiment had got that far and they established a Divisional Headquarters in a big office there next to the church and Don had gone with the brigadier to sort out the next move because I think German Panzer divisions were moving up to where they were and they were going to have to change all their moves. Make a different strategy. He came, he went up in the scout car, they came back in the scout car. Don stayed with his little band of brigade IO people telling them the next plans. What they’d got to do next. And it was while they were sitting there in a little dip in the roadway that this either mortar fire or artillery fire there’s some question now about which it was. They, we, we always understood it was mortar fire three hundred and fifty yards away but now there’s some suggestion that it may have been artillery fire. Whichever it was it landed in the midst of them, this little band of I think a dozen of them, this brigade IO headquarters and half a dozen of them were killed and half a dozen were wounded. The brigadier was one of those who was wounded too. And we kept in touch with him after the war. We saw them every time we went to Scotland. He was in the Scottish part of the Third Division. This was the Third Infantry Division and [pause] but of course it meant Don was put in the assembly area for bringing back to England. Did I tell you that story about the medical officer? The medical officer came round, dressed his wounds which were all leg including the femur, fractured femur and he put him back with others who were also wounded and said to the medical orderly, ‘I want you to take this officer down to the beach tonight for embarkation in the morning back to England.’ And the medical orderly got it wrong and took the man next to my husband down to the beach that night. The medical officer came back and said, ‘You’ve taken the wrong man down. Never mind. Leave it now but get him down first thing in the morning. I want him on that.’ On the, on the ships. So in the night, that night the German bombers came over, strafed the beach and all of those including the man next to Don, all of those who were down on the beach were killed. But Don wasn’t killed so, but taken down the next morning. So, the next morning the small ships came in and took these officers and people who, including German prisoners who were there on to the small ships and the small ships were going out in to the bay, the bigger part of the bay to the big ships to get them back to England. While they were on the small ships German bombers came over, Stuka bombers this was, came over and started dive bombing the small ships to stop them getting out to the big ships. The big ships who already had their, you know thingummies to get them on board that was already down but they had to put up these big gates. And in the meantime, the small ships which were being piloted by men of the, of the Third Division, and it was a little corporal and Don said he was absolutely wonderful because he would watch these Stuka, Stuka bombers coming and getting to the top and when they got to the top they started dive bombing. And as soon as the little corporal saw that he put the tiller hard over and the bomb would fall one side of them. They would come around again, go up again and as soon as they got to the top they would start dive bombing and the little corporal put the wheel hard over the other side. It fell the other side of the ship. He said, ‘If he did that once he did it twenty times and saved our lives.’ Including the lives of the German prisoners. But then they went away. The dive bombers went away and they were able to get the little ships out to the big ships and get them back to England. But, so he had about three escapes all together. Once with the Canadian officer. Once with the assembly area.
CB: How long was his convalescence?
DB: Well, he was in hospital six months but he was given, his leg, it was on traction and subject to dive bombing by wasps he always said. Wasps which kept coming round and dive bombing. Picking up the scent of all that was going on with his leg. But anyway, after two months and he was having physiotherapy and the doctors came up and said, ‘Sir, you are not exercising your leg enough. It’s not healing quickly enough.’ And my husband said, ‘I’m doing as far as I can. I cannot bend it further.’ ‘Well, you’ll have to try it.’ And my husband finally convinced them that he was doing as much as he could. So they decided to give him x-rays again. They took him out to x-ray him and found that the spike of his broken femur was sticking in a muscle. That’s why he couldn’t move it.
CB: Jeez.
DB: So, convinced they took him to the operating theatre again and cut off that spike and of course he had to start healing all over again and that took another three to four months. That’s why he was in hospital so long. But that was the only, well sort of, I suppose it was a sort of a convalescence. And I can’t remember when he was actually posted to Nottingham but from there he was posted to Nottingham and, and we were living there. That was when I left work and went up to join him. He, he rented a house that was opposite one that his uncle and aunt lived in. They happened to live in Nottingham and they said, ‘People opposite us are moving. They want to let their house. Why don’t you get Daphne up here?’ Which we did. So that was the end of my career and I was what? Twenty three then. Whatever it was. He was twenty four. And we were up there when the atom bombs were dropped and that brought a very quick end to the war of course. And then in that October he was posted to Cairo to do this advisory job really. And, and it was the, that next year that our son was born.
CB: How long were you in Cairo?
DB: He was in Cairo.
CB: Oh, he was.
DB: Yes. Not I. No.
CB: Right.
DB: There was no normality yet.
CB: No.
DB: That wasn’t really civilian life. He was there from October. I think it was eleven, thirteen months, I think. He went in the October and I think he came back the following month and I think he was demobbed the following November. So a year and a month.
CB: Okay.
DB: And then we were up in Blackpool. Or just north of Blackpool. He in the Civil Service. Me with our small son. He managed to get two rooms up there for us so we lived there. We were making all sorts of plans about the next summer going to the Isle of Man to see the TT races. He was very keen on the TT races on the Isle of Man so [laughs] But it didn’t happen because he took the next exam and passed that and was moved back to London. And then we stayed with my parents until we got a little house in Epsom ourselves and where we lived for seven years and then moved here and have been here ever since.
CB: That’s very good. How did you parents come to Epsom anyway?
DB: That was through this officer of, of the Lincolnshire Regiment whose parents lived in Epsom and managed the building firm. Managed. Owned the building firm that built many streets in Epsom. And that officer, John Roll was killed in Normandy in the July. He survived the first month or so but he died in the fighting in, I think it was Chateau Beauregard Wood. The woods around there. And Don wanted to see the parents to give his condolences. Talk about him. He always said John Roll was the best Christian young man he ever knew. A lovely young man, and he was engaged and he died. So Don went to see him. And I think my parents were probably looking at estate agents then to see if they could find a house that they could move to when my father did finally leave the Headquarters which he was due to leave then. And that was when Mr Roll said, ‘I have a house in Epsom that has been leased to the Epsom Fire Service and if they will let, let it, release it back to me your parents can have it to rent.’ And that’s exactly what happened. They did release it to him. Mr Roll let my parents have it, next to the park in Epsom. We lived with them until we got our own house. And that established the pattern for the future. I’m still here.
CB: Very good. Right. We’ll stop there. Thank you very much indeed.
[recording paused]
CB: Yes.
Other: You mentioned something —
CB: So, you, a couple of things to pick up on. Your first child was your son.
DB: Yes.
CB: His name is —
DB: Anthony.
CB: And then you had a daughter.
DB: Avril.
CB: Avril who’s ably —
DB: We stopped there.
CB: Avril is —
DB: We thought we’d have four.
CB: Right.
DB: And we decided to stop.
CB: Ably assisted today by David.
DB: Absolutely. He’s a treasure.
CB: Yes.
DB: He’s a treasure.
Other 2: Is it worth, I don’t know whether it’s worth mentioning or not but, but mum’s father you know I think because of what went on in the war actually got a sort of creeping paralysis disease didn’t he? I mean, I don’t know whether that’s worth mentioning or not.
CB: Right. So, what were, what —
DB: No. I don’t think so David.
CB: No.
DB: Because we did discover an earlier, his father seemed to have something like that.
Other 2: Oh, right. Right. Okay.
Other 3: It’s probably genetic.
DB: I guess it was something genetic.
Other 2: Yeah. Yeah.
CB: So, so, in summary what you’re saying is that your husband was finding it more difficult to get around in later years.
DB: Not my husband. No. My father.
CB: Your father, I meant to say. I meant to say your father.
Other 2: Yes. Yes.
DB: My father did find it —
Other 2: Yes.
DB: Very difficult to get around.
CB: Yes. Yes.
Other 3: From his early fifties.
DB: He was very badly disabled.
Other 3: Not later. From his early fifties.
CB: Early 50s.
Other 3: From about 1963.
DB: Not the 50s. It would be ‘60 Avril. ‘60s.
CB: 60s.
DB: Yeah.
CB: And then a story about what your husband was doing in the —
DB: Well, it was —
CB: With the D-Day plans.
DB: They did a lot of training in Normandy. A lot of the invasion training. He always said he got his feet wetter off the coast of Northern Scotland than he did when he landed on D-Day.
CB: Right.
DB: Because he jumped on the back of a Sherman tank to land on the beaches at Normandy. But anyway, from Scotland getting ready for the trip across the Channel they moved down to the south of England. Hambledon. Near Hambledon Somewhere near. That part of, of the south coast and because he knew he was within reach of Epsom he thought it would be a good idea to take the, if he, if he got the weekend off duty to come up to see me. So, he borrowed a motorbike from the unit down there and rang me. Asked me if I could meet him at the Anchor Hotel. Anchor Hotel. Royal Anchor Hotel, something like that, at Liphook, Hampshire. I took the train down there, met him there and he booked a room for us. First time I’d ever slept between coloured sheets [laughs] and I promised myself when we got our own home after the war I would have coloured sheets. Silly things you do really. Anyway, we spent the weekend there and then of course he had to go back south. He told his, and I had to come back home, I was working still with the Air Ministry he told his fellow officers about this lovely weekend and he’d achieved it. Hadn’t told any of them before he came away and so a number of them tried to do the same the next weekend and the military police got to hear about it and came up and arrested them all and took them back before they’d had the weekend there [laughs] And it wasn’t Don. It wasn’t dad that had told them. That was just the way it was. I think, yes so I think there were too many of them. And within, I think it was within a couple of weeks of that time he had a motorbike again down there. This time officially. Legally. And he came up to London. He was being sent with revised plans of the Normandy invasion in an old laundry box and he’d got to get them across to Tilbury to see the generals there about the revised plans there. And so he brought these plans up in this old laundry box and we slept in my mother’s spare bedroom up there of course with this revised plans of the Normandy invasion under the bed. I mean, I wasn’t allowed to see them of course. I mean he was totally honourable in that way but I don’t know that anybody else knew that and I don’t know that you ought to put that in really [coughs] sorry.
CB: I don’t think it will be too sensitive.
DB: Sorry?
CB: I don’t think it will be too sensitive.
DB: You don’t think it would.
CB: No.
DB: No. Probably wouldn’t.
CB: No.
DB: Well, there we are. I’ll have to leave that to you.
CB: What was the most memorable thing about your experiences in the war?
DB: Oh, well, I I think I would have to say [pause] because they went over on the Tuesday for the landings and I didn’t hear another word until the Saturday. I didn’t know whether he was alive or dead. And on the Saturday, because it took a couple of days to get him back to England, on the Saturday I, I was at work. Again, we still worked on Saturday mornings. My sister phoned me from the Headquarters and said, ‘You’ve got a telegram, Daph.’ And straightaway she said, ‘But it’s alright.’ Because you see being a wife I had the first telegram. ‘But it’s alright,’ she said and she was choked and I was choked hearing this. She said, ‘I’ll read it to you.’ And of course, I’ve never forgotten he just said, ‘Wounded. Now in hospital. Writing. Love Don.’ But it wasn’t the official telegram. That came later. The War Office telegram. He had got the sister of the hospital, Botleys Park, he had got her to send that telegram to me as a personal telegram from him. And of course, my boss at the office packed me off home straight away. ‘Go on. You go home. You’re going home.’ And so I went home because I would obviously want to go down and visit him. I knew it was in Botleys Park. Must have. I don’t know how that news got through but anyway I went down to see him Saturday and Sunday and —
CB: Finally —
DB: That was the most memorable news because I knew he was alive.
CB: Yes.
DB: I knew I’d got a future. And he never saw active service again you see. He was —
CB: No.
DB: That was the end of his active war. Other than that as far as my own experiences perhaps in some ways seeing the horrors of the war and feeling that I would never want to do that again.
CB: During the Blitz.
DB: Yes. Yeah. And, and this lady whose head was open. And I think all of these things influence your thinking for after the war.
CB: Yes.
DB: How you feel about war itself. Now, I’ve got a young grandson who quite thinks about going in to one of the services and I think I don’t know whether I want him to. But —
CB: You mentioned the V weapons earlier. V —
DB: Yes.
CB: What was people’s reaction, first of all to the V-1s?
DB: Well, we were puzzled. We were totally puzzled. We didn’t know what it could be. What is this thing? It’s something different. Then of course very quickly they did get news out. We didn’t know. And the barrage balloons were up of course and we were hoping that they would catch these sort of aeroplanes in them and bring them down and there was more a widespread dispersal of where these things were falling. It’s where a lot of them fell around Epsom you see. It was horrible. And my own experience of being caught in that locked air raid shelter opposite St Thomas’ Hospital. I didn’t know, you never knew where they were going to fall. They were just making this noise and, until it stopped and then you didn’t know whether it was going to fall on you when it stopped. You didn’t know that it would go on a bit further over the river like it did with me. It went over the river. Or you didn’t know whether it would fall before then. There were so many question marks with all of this which left a great insecurity about life generally. You didn’t [pause] you didn’t know whether any moment might be your last moment. Your last conscious moment. Despite all that somehow you had an optimism that you would survive like I did when I saw the people lined up on the railway station saying good bye to their loved ones. I amongst them. Dispersed all along the railway station platforms. As the as the chaps went off to wherever they were stationed and you didn’t know whether that was the last time you would see them. So there was so, there was so much insecurity and yet you hoped. You carried on hoping. You believed. I believed we would come through. I believed we would win the war. Even in Harrogate where Harry Schofield the chap I was billeted with he got very depressed and I would go around singing, “It’s a Lovely Day Tomorrow.” [laughs] and I’d say ‘It’ll be alright. It’ll be alright. You’ll find out. It’ll be alright.’ But you got, you did get depressed at times when it went on, dragged on so much and you knew that the war could not finish until we had gone in to Europe. So we knew that was still ahead of us. Nothing could happen. We couldn’t plan the future until that happened and we’d retaken Europe.
CB: The V-1 you got some warning because the engine stopped. It wasn’t supposed to but that’s another matter.
DB: Yes.
CB: But the V-2 you couldn’t hear it arrive.
DB: No.
CB: Until after it had arrived.
DB: That’s right. Until the bang happened.
CB: What was the reaction to that?
DB: Well, that first one happened, as I say I was in High Holborn and it fell in Chancery Lane. And again, to begin with because it was the first you didn’t know what it was. This terrible explosion. You didn’t know whether it was an unexploded bomb suddenly going off. One that had been dropped a year before perhaps because this happened too. Bombs would suddenly explode. And so you waited for news and, and I think we again they got the news through quite quickly that it was another V weapon that the Germans had, had invented. And, and we didn’t know what, whether there would be many. Whether it was a one-off thing. We guessed there would be more. Of course, if they’d been successful in getting it that far then it must be possible for them to get more that far. They came from certain fields in, on the continent and we were told that the RAF were bombing those places and of course but they were well fortified. I think some were at, no. it was the submarines that were at la Rochelle. They were more Northern Europe —
CB: Yeah.
DB: These V weapons. You probably know but certainly we were doing our best to bomb where they were being made and, and fired from. A lot of time you spent waiting to know more. And then when you knew more waiting to hear the next development or to feel or to suffer the next development yourselves. Hoping that it wouldn’t be your loved ones. You knew it could happen where they lived or where they worked. There was, there was so much uncertainty all the time.
CB: The V-1 by nature of its arrival created more blast at surface level. The V-2 descending vertically had high penetration and had less blast. From a public point of view which one was more terrifying?
DB: That’s difficult to answer because there seemed to be more of the V-1s. There probably were.
CB: There were.
DB: The V-2s I think were over more quickly. Therefore, they haven’t left as big an impression on me as the V-1s did. But on the other hand you shook probably with belated fear when the V-2s happened. But then you said to yourself it happened, it’s done. For that one it’s done. There may be more. But with the V-1s you went through a longer process of hearing it. Not knowing how near it was or where it would stop or where it would fall when it did stop. So, in that way I would think the V-1s were more frightening for me. It wouldn’t be the same perhaps for others.
CB: Okay. Good. I think we must stop there. Thank you very much indeed. Absolutely fascinating.



Chris Brockbank, “Interview with Daphne Baptiste,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed March 4, 2024,

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