Interview with Thea Warwick


Interview with Thea Warwick


Thea Warwick was seven years old and living in Rotterdam during the war. She recounts what is was like during the Hongerwinter. Walking for miles to soup kitchens and talks about other examples of how they obtained food. They moved into the smallest room of their house to try and keep warm and had to go out searching for wood to burn. She recalls waiting on their roof for planes to drop food parcels and remembers being woken up by an explosion which was a V-1 landing on a block of houses about half a mile away from them. She remembers the Germans searching for their neighbour and standing on the balcony of their house pointing guns down the gardens for hours on end. She recalls the day of liberation and when the Canadian tanks rolled into her town. An explanation is given how everyone in the street celebrated.




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00:28:56 audio recording

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RP: This interview is being conducted for the International Bomber Command Centre. The interviewer is Rod Pickles. The interviewee is Thea Warwick. The interview is taking place in Mrs Warwick’s home in Portesham, Dorset on the 22nd of March 2017. Max Warwick is also present. Good morning Thea. Could you start by telling us where you were born and your early childhood experiences please?
TW: I was born in Rotterdam on the 13th of August 1937 and the war didn’t start until 1940 as we all know. My father was called up in 1939 to help with the, with the army although he didn’t have any experience. He was stationed at a small airfield in [unclear] and because I was only more or less a baby my mother wanted to see my father so we went over there and stayed in a farmhouse. While we were staying there I got the measles so that meant we couldn’t go home. During that week when, when we were stuck there they bombed Rotterdam. And we didn’t know whether our house was still standing so luckily it was OK when we came back. So that was my earliest memory of the war. My father came back, I don’t know exactly when, but when he came back out of the blue he was very thin and he had dysentery so quite an ill man. And after that, after the bombing there, there wasn’t much going on to be, to be honest. The war or the hardship started before the Hongerwinter that is where I remember most and also there were things going on. There was a lot that year on the 10th of November 1944 all men were called up in Rotterdam and, and you had to be between seventeen and fourteen, forty. You had a days notice, so my father packed his little suitcase and went with our neighbour to the park behind our house where they were supposed to go. When they were inspected they told my father, even though he was forty, you’re too old you can go home. The neighbour was thirty-eight years old but he, he had a visible goitre so the Germans said “you can go home”. So luckily he came home after hours and I remember the joy we had. Thank goodness my father came home because my mother would’ve never coped with what was going to happen next. While, while this was going on with regard to [unclear] there was a little Jewish chap who lived in our street and he hid but the Germans found him because after the time — after the [unclear] that particular afternoon when all the men were supposed to be in the park the Germans came to every house to see if there were any men hiding. Luckily they got so fed up with going up and down the stairs they didn’t go up stairs they just went to the front door and asked my mother if there were any men, of course there wasn’t. Now, later on in the war when some — most, most of the men came back who were picked up in our street except for two who found another lady while they were in Germany and that was very sad and caused a bit of a scandal [laughs] I remember that all because it — then, then of course things got really bad. My father, there was no more food and we moved into the smallest room in our house. He had bought a dustbin lined with concrete which was put up in the corner of the room with a pipe going through the window outside we had a table and four chairs in there and that’s where we lived. I used to go to the park and try to find wood and also had a sieve with me and some tools because the path in park were made with a sort of coal like an anthracite and I used to scrape it off in bits and put them in the sieve, you know and then take them off home.
RP: This was for fuel obviously?
TW: Yeah, yeah because — well we had to burn whatever we could find in the dustbin, you know. We had no electricity, no gas. Luckily we had water. That was all we had left. Then one day I found a great big branch, branch of a tree and it was very heavy and walking home, carrying this tree and there was a man that lived there who I happened to know. He came up to me he said “I’ll have that”. He took it off me, I ran home crying and my father said he would — I will get it back and he called his neighbour up and the two men went up to his house and he gave it back without any problem. I mean, you know, we were all so desperate [laughs] it’s all become basics hasn’t it. In the morning my mother had to look through all the blankets for fleas because when you have no proper food the bugs come and there were a lot of fleas in the blankets every morning. Not only that we had lice on our heads. We were taken somewhere to some sort of hospital and I remember they cut my hair very very short. I was almost bald because of the lice and was given some sort of stuff, you know. These are all the things I remember and of course we had to walk everywhere, you know. Then my father went to, to the harbour to see if he could find anything to eat and then there was— in the winter and there was snow and ice and he had a bicycle and he fell, fell over on the ice and broke his arm. Anyway he managed to get home, had his arm in a sling and he rigged up some sort of contraption in that little room we were in in the corner to exercise his arm. Anyway that got better. Then he decided to go away for a few days at a time to go to the farmers to try and see if he could get food from them, but you see money was not worth a penny, you know. It was worth nothing, so all we had of value was then used to buy food in exchange and I tell you some of the farms got very rich during the war. We also had an allotment and that was fine and helped us out in the years before 1940 to the Hongerwinter. Of course when people got very hungry they went to the allotment and stole all the food and even the little summer house that was on there was completely gone. People took it home for burning, you know. And also every tree in the park went it was bare, it was totally bare.
RP: Goodness.
TW: Then the government tried to grow some food in open public places like corn and potatoes to try and feed the population, you know. Well that helped a little bit but it wasn’t really good err I will have to stop for a minute [pause] err yes and also we had to learn soup kitchen and I always had to get [unclear] and we found the biggest saucepan we could find, it was about that big, and I had to walk for about two miles with the pan to the soup kitchen and I was about six then. I think my mother let me — the things I did when I was six in those — she didn’t care anymore because after the war she was extremely strict with me, I couldn’t do this that and the other but in the war I think mentally she had, she had given up, you know. So I went to this [laughs] soup kitchen and one day we had a soup so called, it was a grey mass, you know and of course then I had to carry that all home and another day I went with my little neighbour who was the same age as me and we heard there was another — we could get a meal in a church somewhere we walked for miles to that church and on the way we found a great big bundle of money laying in the street so we started to count it and then because we were so young and naive we asked a passer by what we should do with it [laughs] and he said don’t worry I will bring it to the police station, yes, you know. Never to be seen again [laughs]. Oh we were so innocent.
RP: Did you not keep one note?
TW: No, nothing I mean we — [laughs]. Then of course, I didn’t have shoes anymore that was a thing so my father repaired the shoes as much as he could. Instead of soles he put rubber underneath from tyres, you know.
RP: Oh yes.
TW: And in the end he couldn’t repair them anymore so he bought me a pair of wooden clogs, you know, the Dutch clogs so that was in the Hongerwinter and there was a lot of snow and we still had to go to school. Yes [laughs] and I remember and they didn’t fit very well so he put some straw in them, you know and every fifteen yards or so I had to stop because snow used to pile up underneath because it was wood you see so I would struggle to school.
RP: They would become heavier?
TW: Yes, yeah you could walk and I had to take the snow off. And then of course when we went to school in the end there was no coal because each classroom had a huge burner in the corner and it was enormous and there was nothing. So we used to sit there with our coats on and every time when the sirens went we had to rush out of the school straight into the — what’s it called, the — underground what’s it called?
RP: The subway?
TW: No, no.
RP: Cellar?
TW: A cellar, no, no they were specially built for everybody to hide in. You had them in this country. Anyway.
RP: So while all this all this was going on obviously you were only six so you would not be aware of why you were cut off. Were you aware of the fact that the allies had advanced past, past Holland?
TW: No I wasn’t [unclear] to that. This was my — what I personally — my experience my memory, you know.
RP: So I wonder all this time that obviously the population looking for food what were the Germans doing were they starving or were they —
TW: No they were well fed. And of course, you know, in the street where we lived we had a Jewish family living who was a Rabi and one day he disappeared and the following day he had [unclear] that went in there which were called christenings[?] and we had another two sisters living further in the road who were fraternising with the German Officers they were collected by cars every time but I tell you a bit more about them later. Then my next door, we had four, eight families living in my — where I lived and my other neighbour he was in the resistance and also the one that lived on top and one day the Germans had a tip off that he was home I don’t know which one they were after the first neighbour or the one that lived on the top. The one that lived below luckily wasn’t home the other one that lived at the top was able to escape over the roofs and those Germans came in our house and stood on the balcony for hours on end pointing a gun down the gardens because they thought he would escape through the gardens but no he escaped over the roof. Anyway my first neighbour who lived below he — they did find him and they killed him. You know, with all these — although it was only a little street a lot happened there so can you imagine, you know.
RP: It must’ve been terrifying.
TW: Yeah. Right I’ll stop. [rustling of papers] That was in the summer it was before the Hongerwinter and we had quite a nice warm summer and my father somehow had secured a load of potatoes but we had to collect them ourselves. So from where he worked he got up a hand cart with a lid on it so my mother who was pregnant, so that must have been in the summer of forty-three, we, we left very early and walked for five hours to get to the river where this boat was supposed to be. So we had to wait a long time there and in the end we were able to fill the hand cart with potatoes and then we had to get home because there was curfew. We had to be home before dark. We just made it in time and of course I got very tired and I was able to sit in the cart, you know, because my mother didn’t want me, to leave me at home in case there was a bombardment [coughs] back so it was almost dark when we got home and we unloaded the potatoes. We threw them in the hallway until it was all finished and then locked the door and lights out and then we went two flights up. We had another room at the top of the house which wasn’t used and had a wooden floor and all the potatoes were spread out over the floor so they would keep you see, didn’t go rotten and then my father said “Make sure you don’t tell anybody we’ve got those potatoes.” I remember my mother boiling a big pan full of potatoes that night that’s all we had to eat [laughs]
RP: Do you still like potatoes?
TW: oh yes, yes [laughs] yeah, yeah.
RP: [laughs] it’s just that I thought with eating so many you might have decided that you were never going to eat them again.
TW: No. I have to stop here a minute [rustling of paper]
TW: We, we woke up about seven o’clock with an almighty explosion and my mother had a sort of very large bed called an Alisa Bowl, French word for it, it is so four people could sleep in it and for safety we all slept in that room, anyway there was this explosion and my father went straight out of the house to find out [coughs] excuse me, what happened and a V-1 had gone wrong in about maybe half a mile away from us and it landed on block of houses, you know. So he came back and he collected us and we all went to have a look and it was so sad. I remember it so well because people did have nothing left, they just sat in a field nearby with nothing, you know and apparently according to this book here this
V-1 was fired from [unclear] and was supposed to go to Antwerp. We thought it was going to England because most of them were, you know. We had V-1s and V-2s and we could tell the difference because of the sound they make. So that was all very sad. I’ll stop here a minute. My father during the war worked for the electricity supplier in Rotterdam near our house a huge building and it was the highest building at the time apart from a church about sixteen stories high and of course it was near the harbour. So the Germans took charge of that so there was [unclear] as well and my father was a night porter there during the war and they used to give it [unclear] with string and annoy him just for their own pleasure ,you know, ‘cause there was nothing else to do and when he was at the end of his shift they’d give him a huge plate of food to take home but he had to go on his bicycle but how he got home every time I really don’t know. We’ve still got the plates. My sisters still got the iron plates. They’re about that round and that high [coughs] Let’s stop for a minute. [long pause] Yeah, on the 9th of April 1945 somehow we knew about a food drop. My parents knew I don’t know how they got to know this but we went to the top of our house which had a flat roof and we waited for the planes to come and when they did come they flew very low and we saw the parcels being thrown out of the planes and we had a sheet there and we used to wave, we waved, at the pilots it was extremely emotional. Unfortunately whatever we got from the food drop wasn’t very much in the end because the distribution was very difficult. There was no petrol everything had to be delivered by horse and cart to the shops and we didn’t — and on the 13th of May that was after the war we actually got some tins of corned beef, corned beef and some biscuits. That’s all we got from the drop I suppose the rest had already disappeared, you know, somewhere.
RP: I suppose the Germans helped themselves as well did they?
TW: Of course, of course.
RP: So what — do you know what they were dropping beside the corned beef and biscuits? Do you know what they were dropping?
TW: We don’t know what was in it but according to the book here there were chocolates in it and everything but we never got it.
RP: You never saw any chocolate?
TW: No all the good things had gone. So only biscuits and tins were left but the Swedish Government sent us white bread. That was one loaf for every family and it tasted like cake.
RP: So how did they supply that the Swedes?
TW: Well we were told — it comes in the local shops the food shops we had they always sell food. The problem was we had to queue for hours on end. The way we used to queue I used to queue an hour then my mother and then my father because it was only a bag and we went home.
RP: So on shifts then? That’s something new, shift queuing but I suppose because Sweden was neutral they could sail in couldn’t they?
TW: Of course.
RP: They could sail in to Rotterdam?
TW: Well I think, well I don’t know how they actually managed to —
RP: Well whatever way they —
TW: Well it was after the war so they could have come by ship.
RP: They could have come by ship.
TW: Or by plane even, yeah.
RP: But, but you actually saw the aircraft come in when you were on the roofs then?
TW: Oh yes, oh yes never forget it. Makes me cry every time.
RP: So I mean — I suppose somebody somewhere got the food I guess so —
TW: Yes I think.
RP: What about your neighbours were they, were they able to get some?
TW: Well we, we all went to the same shops so I suppose, you know, they got the same as we did. I’ve got some more about food talk. The distribution was very slow and between the 1st of May and the 13th of May four hundred and eighteen people died from starvation and we were liberated from the 5th of May so can you imagine so they didn’t just — nearly at the end of the war lots of people were dying of starvation. You saw people drop in the streets it was awful. [coughs] Do you want to know about the liberation?
RP: Yes, yes please. So at what point did the Germans surrender in Holland then? Was it the same day as —
TW: Well it’s all a little bit vague but the official day actually they say was the 6th of May when they did it, liberated, not the fifth. I don’t know why they are saying this and then the Canadians, the Canadians came in. I’ll never forget that day. They came in their tanks row after rows, rows all afternoon rolling in with tanks then went to the centre of the town and of course everybody went out to celebrate and of course the Germans just disappeared. Then when the liberation came well the people had street parties everywhere, flags were hung out, bunting everywhere I don’t know where they got the flags from. My neighbour who was a pianist his piano was carried out of the house in the street and we learnt to dance the hokey pokey and this went on for days on end.
RP: I can imagine.
TW: And every now — after that everybody must have been too exhausted to party anymore. And then came the revenge. The two sisters that lived in our street and were friendly with the German Officers were dragged out of their house, their head shaven, tarred and feathered then put on a horse and cart and driven through the neighbourhood collecting others on the way. The Quizlings[?] living opposite us disappeared overnight. Then after that I can’t remember very much. I think it came back to normal.
RP: So at what point did the food supply return to normal do you think? Did it take a couple of years or —
TW: Oh well, we, it was the same of everybody else we had rations.
RP: So you had ration books same as this country?
TW: And err [coughs] I believe the rations in England lasted longer than ours.
RP: Yeah, I think it was about 1953 in England the rations stopped.
TW: Yes because coffee was always rationed wasn’t it?
RP: Yes and strangely enough bananas.
TW: Bananas ,God, I remember seeing a banana and an orange I’d never seen one before.
RP: I think I saw one about 1953 but yeah, yeah. So do you know how many drops were made in Holland then because —
TW: I think it was a one off. It was a very dangerous exercise. They couldn’t have done —
RP: Because the Americans also came by as well didn’t they? They had an operation to supply as well. Probably two different parts I think. They called theirs, they called theirs Chowhound , Operation Chowhound but I think that might have been to different cities not to Rotterdam.
TW: Well Rotterdam was the worse and then next came the Hague and then [unclear]
RP: Yeah, so they might have been dropping elsewhere. I know the one I showed you he did one drop on the Hague I know that.
TW: Yeah, Yeah.
RP: But the Americans also came in afterwards and I think they may —
TW: Well I was too young to actually know the ins and outs, you know. If I’d been older I probably would’ve known.
RP: So did you — so ten years later after the war did your parents talk about it or was it forgotten?
TW: Never
RP: No.
TW: Obviously, I mean we never asked somehow. We should’ve done because, you know, they could’ve answered a lot of questions. No we never talked about it. It’s only my sister two years ago wanted to know because she didn’t know anything [coughs]
RP: Is your sister still in Holland?
TW: No.
RP: No. So is there anything I should need to tell them because that’s been fascinating but — I mean when you said about the four hundred that wasn’t the total [unclear] was there more over time than the four hundred do you think?
TW: Well it was the highest in one week.
RP: In one week? So it was a weekly thing so —
TW: Oh yes.
RP: So it could’ve been thousands?
TW: Oh. If it hadn’t been for my father I don’t see we would’ve made it. My mother was useless. She was suffering a [unclear] which is very — your legs swell up and —
RP: Oh yes.
TW: You know, and she just mentally was out of it completely.
RP: Well that’s been fascinating and really, thank you for telling us all that. It’s been a pleasure listening.
TW: I think that’s it.
RP: It’s been fascinating and thank you very much indeed because it’s a little known story and I think it will be valuable information. So thank you very much for that. You did twenty-eight minutes. There you go.



Rod Pickles, “Interview with Thea Warwick,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed June 21, 2024,

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