Keith’s Story


I was born in Plymouth which was a very big naval port. My grandfather joined the Royal Marine LI at 18 and fought in the Boer War and at Gallipoli where he was awarded the DCM. On Xmas Eve 1939 he was walking home from the barracks in the blackout when he was killed in a car accident. My grandmother moved in with my mother. My father was in the navy and he was killed on board ship nine months later. Air raids on Plymouth became almost nightly and an aunt’s house was destroyed while they were in an air raid shelter. She and her husband also moved in with us.

Mother and grandmother decided it would be much safer for us to evacuate to north Devon where we had relatives. We lived in the converted stable block of a vicarage. In 1943 the first Americans arrived in the village to build shelters for the vast amounts of munitions needed for the invasion of France. Nobody had seen a real live black man before and people couldn’t stop staring. The soldiers gathered at the village pub at night and fights between black and white soldiers were very common.

After D Day we moved back to Plymouth so that I could start school because my mother was afraid I would pick up the strong local accent. A lone German bomber dropped a bomb close to our house but we were in the shelter at the time and were unharmed but the house was severely damaged. I was much more concerned about my bike than the piano!

In the evening of VE Day everyone made their way to Plymouth Hoe to watch American and British bands marching on the wide esplanade. Dozens of ships in the harbour turned on all their lights and blew their sirens. The crowd was ecstatic and then the bands started to play dance music. Everyone danced until the music stopped at midnight and we all walked home. For us this was over two miles and when my tired legs could go no further my uncle hoisted me onto his shoulders and carried me home. Bedtime for me was always 7 o’clock so to be out at one o’clock in the morning was a great adventure.

Within a few days neighbours went from house to house asking for donations of tea, sugar and flour for a grand street party. Some tables were just for children so we had fizzy drinks instead of cups of tea. These were the days of rationing so it wasn’t a lavish tea party. It was the excitement I remember, not the food.