Interview with Rhona Hay


Interview with Rhona Hay


Rhona Hay was a very young child during the war and lived with her mother while her father was away serving in the RAF. Her brother was also in the RAF and was killed during a training accident. She recalls the acceptance of the bombing and so on as part of everyday life. She describes rationing and the make do and mend habit. One day an incendiary hit the jam factory and she saw the sky alight with the glow of the burning while she and her mother watched.




Temporal Coverage





00:37:34 audio recording


IBCC Digital Archive


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AHayR180426, PHayI1801


JS: Ok. And I’ll just add, this interview is being conducted for the International Bomber Command Centre. The interviewer is Jim Sheach. The interviewee is Mrs Rhona Hay. The interview is taking place at Mrs Hay’s home in Muir of Ord. Muir of Ord, Scotland on the 26th of April 2018. Rhona, can you tell me a little about your family before the war or as the war started? Where did you live? Who else was in your family?
RH: Well, the family originally came from Inverness. By the time I’ve got any memories at all this was, well, 1943/44 in Cookham which is not so far from Maidenhead, Eton, Marlow, High Wycombe, further —
JS: That’s fine.
RH: London.
JS: Who was in your family?
RH: By the time I have any memory, well, my father was posted somewhere in Britain so it was just my mother and I, and for a short time I had a nanny but I think that was somebody possibly who needed a home. Or if it was a larger house with only two people let’s push in a few evacuees. Though there were evacuees in Cookham I can just remember them but by that time they were wanting back to London anyway. So, I can just remember her. I don’t think she lasted very long, and I can remember my father getting rid of her. I think she was an old lady who was getting very difficult. I don’t really think she was much help as I said. There was more than one adult in the house.
JS: What did your father do?
RH: He was in the RAF. Air Force. Royal Air Force. And —
JS: What —
RH: I’ve got his record if you want to have a look to put it in a specific area. I think by that time I know he was posted at Harwell at one point. Also, Benson. He was definitely at Benson in 1939. He was then posted out to France. When they had to move they had several hours to get the squadron out. He got them out because he remembered the old cavalry tracks in the Amiens Abbeville area. He, there is a long letter to my sister, now deceased. He then was in Bordeaux and got out through Marseilles in, I think a coaling ship. Out via Gib. Right out in to the sea and came up between the, between Ireland and then the beginning of July I think it was. So for all that time. And my brother was in the Air Force. He was killed. He was in 19 OTU. They’d just been made operational because an invasion was expected from Norway and it was the first fatal air crash out of Kinloss. It was a Whitley. It had engine trouble which wasn’t much good and it flew into Ben Aigan. They were all killed instantly I believe.
JS: What year was that?
RH: 1940. 24th of September 1940. About 15.45 hours.
JS: You, you mentioned that you were, you remember that you were staying in in Cookham just outside London.
RH: Yes.
JS: So what, how did [pause] do you remember anything about how the war affected you when you were staying there?
RH: Well, I can just remember a dogfight. It was fascinating watching these aeroplanes going around and around and around. It was the, I’m pretty certain it was a Spitfire. What they were fighting I haven’t a clue. It was fascinating watching the way they twisted and turned. You knew it was a fight but you didn’t understand the significance, and I think that’s probably very much the case for many people of my generation. Especially if mother was alone with her children. You knew what was happening. They kept you informed. You didn’t understand the full significance obviously, and I can just remember my mother being, ‘Oh, those poor men.’ And then said they’d landed in Normandy. I knew some men had landed in Normandy. They were fighting. I didn’t know where Normandy was. Not then. And you certainly didn’t for one moment comprehend the full horror of anything like that. But things weren’t hidden from children. You knew people were bombed. You knew somebody else’s father had been killed in the war or he was a prisoner of war. It was just part of life. And in Cookham there was a bakers, definitely. There was a fruit shop which was very near. There was an International where you walked down and got your small piece of cheese. Your sugar was put in a blue bag. All the floors were wooden. Everything was brown, I think inside. And I said there was, the cheese ration was two ounces a week. My father came home on leave and the cheese went down in his mouth in about one mouth full, and my mother came in and was just looking at me. She had the sort of look that said, ‘Don’t you dare say anything.’ [laughs] I didn’t. So for any other shopping, oh there was, and you could get ice cream once a week. No cones. Only vanilla. Very small bit between two wafers and it came in at a certain time and if you didn’t get there in time to be in the queue no ice cream and not a hope of another ice cream. That must have been in summer. And that’s where you got your sweetie ration too but I don’t have much ration. I know you got a sweetie ration but then I was probably only given one sweet or something. That sweetie shop was opposite the police station. And also down there you used to take the batteries of the radio, of the wireless and the batteries had to be recharged or the wireless wouldn’t work, and reception got quieter and quieter and you knew that’s when the batteries had to go and be recharged and I think they were quite heavy.
JS: They would probably, they would probably be acid batteries rather than —
RH: Something. Yes.
JS: Yeah.
RH: And the wireless was on the table and I could sit neatly under the table and listen to the wireless, and of course we always had the news. And strangely, yes I remember people like John Snagge or was it Dimbleby, but the other voice I remember clearly was Alvar Liddell. Again, didn’t really mean too much at the time but when I heard his voice later. Yes. That’s who it was.
JS: It’s just very of the era.
RH: Yes. One warm room and the blackout curtains were always down. Before you put the lights on blackout curtains went down. Or very thick curtains. You didn’t show any light, and the torches used to have a sort of blurred light so you could just about see if you had to use a torch. It was a very good torch actually.
JS: Being where you were did you see any bombing at all? Or any effects of bombing?
RH: Definitely. There was a Doodlebug. We were waiting to get the bus to go shopping in Maidenhead. As I said that’s where the butcher was and the fish shop and all the other shops you needed. And we weren’t first in the queue that day. The house was fairly near the bus stop which was just after or just before the level crossing in Cookham and there was a beautiful silver aeroplane just gliding down. Silver aeroplane. No propeller. I turned to my mother, more or less to say, ‘Look at the pretty aeroplane,’ and it wasn’t there. I don’t clearly remember an explosion but everybody disappeared. I couldn’t think why they were running away to get shelter when they’d already, the bomb had already gone off. And it wasn’t until years later I realised they’d actually gone back to see if their house had been hit. Anyway, the bus came. We got on. There was no one else there, and we went off to Maidenhead. And the fact that there was no one else there in some ways was very good because the buses could be so crowded. They were quite small. Very small by comparison with today’s buses. Children were always on their mother’s knees as soon as the bus started to fill up and if there were two pre-school children, the woman sitting next to you would have a child on her knee. Then there would be the queue. The passengers standing. And it could be so crowded on the bus that the bus conductor would be standing on the bottom step of the bus hanging on for dear life and only just on the bus. And when we got to Maidenhead I think sort of just slowly disentangled and disgorged ourselves. It was about three miles. It was much more fun to go in to Maidenhead by train but more expensive I think. And they had a porteress. No porters. She was a porteress and I thought that was a wonderful job. And then of course there were, that you could definitely remember hearing the alarms go off. And the all clear. But I’d always been told, ‘Well, God won’t let us die.’ What else do you tell a child? But on one occasion it had been a bit noisy outside and there had been some crashing as well. Hearing aeroplanes overhead was nothing unusual and my mother came in, picked me up, opened the blackout curtains which were always down and very effective and the whole sky was alight. Right across over towards Maidenhead. Found out afterwards that an incendiary had hit a jam factory. Well, hitting a jam factory it wouldn’t need an incendiary but the whole sky was alight and all she did was to pick me up. ‘Well, if we’re going to die we’ll die together,’ and we both went into the same bed, and I think that’s the only time I ever shared a bed until I got married. But you just didn’t. You had your own bed and you went to bed.
JS: So you, you mentioned that you heard the sirens and the all clear.
RH: Yes.
JS: So did you have a shelter to go into?
RH: No.
JS: Or was it just —
RH: We had the —
JS: Was it not deemed to be [pause] so where did you go?
RH: Well, it was 1944, I suppose. I think there was a mini Blitz or something from February to about June. So they weren’t too likely. But in fact we didn’t on that occasion. We just went to bed. The house had a basement so I suppose we could have always have gone into the basement and in fact quite a lot of time was spent in the basement because there was a boiler there and you could cook. Boil something on the boiler as well. The boiler was a fire which gave the heating, but also on top you could boil your kettle or saucepan or anything and it was a fairly large room with a wooden table in the middle and a wardrobe. A cupboard at one end and a sideboard at the other. All in basic pine, unstained. Really interior stuff. Downstairs there was also a coal hold and a larder. At a push although I think you only got one bag of coal a week but when you could get more much later you still had to count the coal bags that were ordered and make sure that the right number of coal bags was delivered, because if he didn’t and he kept one back he could still sell that on the black market. And quite what health and safety would say having the coal hold next to the larder we don’t know but it was a really cold larder. You didn’t need a fridge. But [pause] also waking up once and there was a roar. It must have been after the bad raid. It might have been the raid on Reading because Maidenhead isn’t that far and with the turning circle etcetera of the bombers at that time. Hearing the roar of aeroplanes overhead I’d heard it so many times so why on that occasion I said, ‘They’re coming to bomb us.’ ‘No. That’s our aeroplanes going to bomb Germany.’ ‘Oh, well. That’s alright then.’ Back to sleep.
JS: So the sound of aircraft was just a regular occurrence.
RH: It was a regular occurrence. It doesn’t bother me. Come to think of it even the Typhoons or the Tornadoes when they used to go over. Oh, yes. Where’s the other one? I suppose you’ll be over soon. Never bothers me.
JS: So at that point you weren’t at school. So you were at home all the time?
RH: Yes, but my mother must have taught me a certain amount. I think she did her housework when I was asleep because, and again as the evidence in Lincoln. I was beginning to write and read by the time I was three because my father as a fluent French speaker was posted to the south of France responsible as a liaison within the region Bordeaux/Marseilles and I’ve got postcards which had been sent to Lincoln which my father wrote to me. To me. Printed. And also, “I see you’re starting to write now. Good show. Daddy couldn’t go along, wanted to go along this road but he couldn’t because the Germans had bombed the bridge.” Just the sort of thing you wrote to a child. As I say I don’t think things were hidden particularly. And I also remember that whether it was, it must I think have been after possibly the invasion of Italy and the fall of Mussolini there was an Italian POW. And that was definitely summer time because he’d been working on the fields, and he used to stop to have his piece at lunchtime, probably when we were going for a walk and we always chatted and he had a little girl my age. She was probably my age when he left and that’s how he remembered her. And for years, he gave me a little basket that he’d made with willow I think it was that he used to take his piece in to take to put by while he was working. Come back and have his piece. And I had that basket until the woodworm demolished it in the 1990s. It was a good long time. Oh yes, and we had a Christmas tree of course. But the decorations were lots of cotton wool. That was snow. And what must have been the things that were dropped to confuse the radar. The long thin —
JS: Oh, Window.
RH: The long thin silver strips, and they hung on the tree and that was the icicles. And of course the winter of ’45 was a very cold one anyway. You broke the top off the milk bottles before you could [pause] The ice I mean.
JS: Yeah.
RH: The top. The blue tits had probably broken the top of the bottles to get to it first. Because the milk came in bottles and they were left on the doorstep.
JS: So when did, when did your father come home?
RH: That would have been ’46. Pity about that. It was very much better when it was my mother and I [laughs] Then she had to share her time. And anyway, little girls, I think he’d have rather had, since my brother had been killed he would far rather had a boy. So I was brought up something as a tomboy until I reached fourteen, fifteen when he suddenly decided that as a female I’d better run around after him. Females ran around after the pater familias. Which didn’t work. Not amenable to discipline. I think I always wanted to see the reason for doing things rather than just accepting it.
JS: That’s a good thing.
RH: Well, much later it meant I wasn’t very good at science because I didn’t like being told that’s the, that’s the scientific rule, it can’t be broken because nobody told me why. Why put things into equations if you’re going to have to get them out again. It didn’t make sense. But that was much later. But I was what, four when I started school anyway. Small private school. Only about ten or twenty children. Untrained teacher and absolutely brilliant at it.
JS: So was, what year would that be?
RH: About –
JS: When you started school.
RH: ’46 I think. It was definitely before I was five. We used to go mornings only. Same as really nursery school now. The state school anyway was opposite and it was desperately overcrowded and I think, again certainly for part of the war there were all the evacuee children as well. So I believe. But it was very crowded. And we had some grass we could play on and they only had a hard concrete.
JS: A hard concrete square.
RH: Yes. Exactly. But again when we were very, it must have been about the time I started of course the war was just over. We played killing Germans and we were stopped immediately. She was straight out when she realised we were going around like that that. ‘The war is over. There is to be no more killing of any one.’ And I never knew ‘til much, much later that her only son had been killed in the war but she wasn’t certainly not going to have any more hatred or prejudice or anything. That was over.
JS: So in the village there were evacuees but just didn’t stay with you. Is that right?
RH: Yes. They were just down the road. I think there had been evacuees but not when I was there definitely. I believe their language could be very colourful.
JS: Well, it’s part of that thing that we spoke about earlier, I suppose. That the war just mixed everyone up.
RH: It mixed everyone up. Yes. I did play with them occasionally but as I understand, I think she wasn’t, she was a bit hesitant because of the sort of colourful language. I certainly preferred those children to another girl that was down that road. I rather liked them. They were great fun.
JS: Was that as opposed to someone else who lived in the village before?
RH: She was of that village, yes. But of course the evacuee children anyway were older than I was but, yes I did play as I said occasionally and they just took me on, you know. Just another child. I don’t think we thought about anything like that. But —
JS: That’s been really good. Thank you very much. No. That’s been great. Let’s pause this.
[recording paused]
RH: There was a couple of other things that might be relevant.
JS: Yeah.
RH: That on one occasion, it might have been to either just at the end of the war. We went north to meet my father who must have been, we went out and met him at York. Very crowded journey again. Very limited memories. I think that’s when I saw some of the bomb damage in Reading. Definitely I remember seeing bomb damage. And we got to York, my father met me, us. It could be that when we stayed at a nearby RAF station and I was left in the Nissen hut over, well I think they went for a meal presumably in the mess and I was spoiled rotten by the WAAFs. It was great fun. So I must have been fairly confident at the age of about three. We went north with the car. That’s when my father built a cairn to my brother and I couldn’t understand why we were building a cairn, you know. A heap of stones. And then I don’t remember my father ever mentioning my brother again except if somebody else brought it up and I was definitely discouraged from not talking about Ian. Coming back, again we got to York. Very crowded. Overcrowded train definitely. We only just squeezed into a compartment. Very crowded on the platform and at that time the porter broke my favourite bottle of orange juice. We did have another one as well but that didn’t taste nearly as nice. I’m still annoyed with that postman [laughs] Sorry, porter. They always had uniforms etcetera. And thinking of that you got your orange juice which was great and cod liver oil. You were supposed to have a teaspoon of cod liver oil a day. Yuck. I bit the spoon so much I cracked it. Must have been able to do an awful lot of damage even with baby teeth. But —
JS: You mentioned staying on a base in a, in a, in a Nissen hut with WAAFs.
RH: Yes.
JS: That’s obviously been a big impression that stuck with you.
RH: Yes. But only bits of it, you know. The Nissen hut and the shape and a row of beds and I was in one somewhere in the middle and of course everybody was talking to me and chatting. I suppose they were waiting to be demobbed by that time. There was a heater but I don’t think it was on so it must have been summertime. And my mother leaving me. But she came back and that was a bit of nuisance. As I said I must have been spoiled rotten. And although it was just after the war there used to be parties for the children on the station and we all got a present. And I think the WAAFs and whoever else was on the station, especially with skills would make a toy. I had Donald Duck. I’ve still got Donald Duck [laughs] He’s in the roof space. And of course the boys all got a wooden toy or something similar. I’d have far rather had a wooden toy.
JS: So what was that?
RH: Pardon?
JS: So what is Donald Duck made from?
RH: Don’t ask. Health and safety would have a fit [laughs] The eyes could be taken out at a risk. I haven’t a clue what the, that stuffing was. Probably a kapok and felt, and he was yellow and he had a green hat, a little jacket so they must have been busy with sewing machines. In fact, dolls were wasted on me. I had quite a few of them, and my gollywog which I loved and you never thought of it in a racist way. He was your much loved gollywog with a smiley black face. And somebody in the village made doll’s clothes for me. Absolutely beautifully made. Obviously on a machine. All the little smocking. All the little bands around the sleeve. Beautifully made. I did not have much time for dolls at all. Occasionally you would. But no. Not dolls. And people, if your child had outgrown things you passed them on. And the front was cut out of your sandals in the summer so you didn’t have to use your shoe coupons. And your paddling pool was never a paddling pool it would be a large tin, oval tin washing tin container. You could just about sit in it. And all the water had to be carried over out of the garden etcetera. Oh and in the summer you got either an extra ration of sugar or an extra ration of jam so that if you could get fruit you could make some more jam. Which meant that people who had fruit and the sugar, and a neighbour had blackcurrants and I can remember picking the blackcurrant. I think they probably did far more picking than I did but you didn’t eat them and you made jam. But fruit was a great treat. No bananas ‘til the end of the war and then you only got one banana. And the shop had a picture of bananas in the window, ‘Mummy, they’ve got some more bananas.’ ‘No. Those aren’t real.’ I wouldn’t believe her until we went in to the shop and they told me. ‘No, those are not real bananas. You won’t get any more for a long time.’ Yes. And of course queues were absolutely normal. And the butcher was Dewhurst at the time. He was quite cheery. Always talked to me. And children didn’t wander off. They stayed with their mother and if they were very young they had reins. I had some pretty pink reins. But on one occasion I didn’t want to talk and he said, so he said ‘Lost your tongue?’ I wasn’t going to talk so I went and put my tongue out. Oh dear. I was in trouble for putting my tongue out to someone. ‘Go and stand outside the shop.’ And afterwards I had to come back and apologise and I still didn’t know why. I mean I’d been told it was bad manners but I didn’t want to talk and I showed him that I had not lost my tongue. That was not how the adult world works.
JS: It was very logical though.
RH: It was very logical [laughs]
JS: Yes. Queuing for everything must have just been part of life.
RH: It was. Queuing for everything and standing beside your parents, well your mother, and fathers were very much not there. As I said I was very happy. I think that was the best bit of my childhood because although you knew what was happening and you were told what was happening you didn’t understand the implications. And the barrage balloons always seemed to be very high up. Again, that’s something you can just remember. Oh, yes. That’s the barrage balloons that are up there. You didn’t think twice about it. And you walked a lot more than you [pause] And somehow you made your rations go and stretch. And tripe was very nice until my mother tried cooking it in milk. Yuck. I refused to eat tripe in milk. Otherwise it was alright, you know, I don’t know how she cooked it at any other time but cooked in milk. No.
JS: No. I suppose it’s what was happening at that time to you at your age would just have been the norm.
RH: Yes. Exactly.
JS: It wasn’t as if something had phenomenally changed.
RH: Well, things and also of course things didn’t seem to change afterwards anyway, because the rationing continued and the very cold weather continued. My father built a snowman in the winter of ’47 so it was obvious that was quite something and the garden was covered with snow for ages. And you could scrape the ice off the inside of the window ‘til you got down into the one warm room. Except they started doing the shipping forecast after the war and when my father came back there was to be absolute silence while he listened to the shipping forecast. That was impossible. Totally impossible. ‘Go outside.’ And it was dark out there and I was more or less almost clinging to the door handle but I wasn’t go to show him I was afraid. I was damned if I’d show him I was afraid [laughs] I don’t think he’d have cared anyway but he wouldn’t have realised that he was, you know being heartless or uncaring. But that’s what, that’s what daddy told you, don’t argue. But I do argue. That’s what daughters do. They argue. Not for long.
JS: Great. Thank you very much.



James Sheach, “Interview with Rhona Hay,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed January 18, 2022,

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