World War Two may have happened more than 60 years ago, but still lives long in many people's memories. We caught up with the Brooks - Ron, 90, and Joan, 89 - to chat to them about their experiences, both at home and abroad.
The road to war
In 1939, Ron, 19, and Joan, 18, lived six doors apart in Southall. The arrival of war wasn't exactly a surprise for either of them. 'I knew damn well it was coming 3 years before it came,' admits Ron. 'I joined the TA to make sure I was in a unit that I knew, rather than some odd one.'
Even Neville Chamberlain returning from Munich, 'waving this bit of paper', as Ron remembers it, failed to convince them otherwise.
So how exactly did it happen?
'At about 11 o'clock on a beautiful Sunday morning, there was this announcement that we were now at war with Germany.
'Within an hour we had an air-raid warning. Instead of going into our shelters, we all rushed out into the street and looked round, but it was a false alarm,' recalls Joan.
At about 11 o'clock on a beautiful Sunday morning, there was this announcement that we were now at war with Germany.
Although Ron and Joan went round together as part of a big group, they weren't boyfriend and girlfriend - 'you couldn’t afford to', says Joan - and as soon as war was declared, Ron was called up.
In the beginning, no one had any idea how long the war would last and a lot of people thought it was going to be over by Christmas - something they said in the First World War.
'I don’t think anyone took any notice,' says Ron. 'Nobody believed them, anyway. We weren't over-worried by it.'
While Joan remained in Southall, Ron was posted to Cockfosters in North East London - an experience that didn't exactly excite him. 'We used to parade in the morning, break off for breakfast, parade after breakfast, then we’d march around Cockfosters, and then we were dismissed for the day. It was all a complete and total waste of time.'
It wasn't until after Christmas that Ron was actually posted overseas - to Egypt - and then he didn't come home for 4 years.
'We used to get "air mail letters", but you could go for weeks and not have anything at all,' recalls Joan. 'They were censored and he couldn’t tell me very much about what he was doing, but I did know he was in Egypt.'
North Africa (1940 - 44)
Ron was part of the Royal Corps of Signals, attached to the 4th Armoured Brigade. His unit started in Egypt, but then went along the coast up to Tunisia and eventually Libya, where he took part in both sieges of Tobruk.
However, Ron wasn't on the frontline of fighting. 'We were armed, but only to get out of trouble.' Not that saved him from the constant danger of bombing. 'Yeah, we were bombed and strafed frequently. I was talking to the Brigadier once, like I’m talking to you, and a shell fell where that tray is from out of nowhere, and muck went up all over him!' [laughs]
Spending all that time in the open - '50 miles in all directions of b****r all' - also meant Ron became less happy with enclosed spaces. 'The first week he came home to England, we had a lot of heavy bombing,' remembers Joan, 'and he didn’t like being in the house.'
Not that being killed was ever a major concern. 'You didn’t worry about that. There was no point,' says Ron. 'I mean you could go through a 24-hour period, and nothing happened. And then all of a sudden out of nowhere something would happen, but you never knew what…'
Amazingly, Ron and Joan didn't lose that many friends. 'Only Henley,' says Ron. 'He was driving a staff car and an aircraft came the other way and machine gunned it. And the car had umpteen bullet holes across the bonnet and it went into the cab, and shot the driver, and we buried him the same night.'
Joan continues the story. 'When he was on the boat going out, he kept saying, "I know I’m not coming back, the thing I’ll miss most is my piano." And everyone said, "Don’t be daft." But of the three people killed on the first day of war in Egypt, he was one of them.'
Medals from three generations of Ron's family: Top left, Private Alfred Tindall, Ron's Grandfather, from the Boer War (1899-1902); top right, Gunner Tom Brooks, Ron's father, from the First World War (1914-18); at the bottom, Ron's medals from the Second World War.
The UK in wartime
Joan didn't have it easy back in London, either. 'I went and got a job at the Treasury as a shorthand typist, but the bombing started, and to get home every night was murder. You’d get down on the underground, and of course the underground was just full of people sleeping down there for the night. And half the trains weren’t running anyway, so in the end I got fed up of it.'
Instead, Joan decided to volunteer and joined the ATS (Auxiliary Territorial Service), where she was posted as a log-reader to Bletchley Park, the site of the Government Code and Cypher School.
One thing that's often remarked on about this period is the 'wartime spirit', something that both Joan and Ron confirm. 'The atmosphere wasn't subdued at all. It’s amazing how everyone just took it in their stride,' says Joan. 'When we look back now, I don’t think we realised just quite how bad it was.'
'People just ignored it,' says Ron. 'It never occurred to me that the Germans would win. We just carried on one day after the next.'
It never occurred to me that the Germans would win. We just carried on one day after the next.
Keeping going was definitely the order of the day during the war and everyone helped everyone else. 'The main thing was to make sure your rations went far enough so you could feed.' recalls Joan. 'People would go out of their way to help you. You could walk around in the dark, and you’d never get attacked. It went on for so long that, in the end, it was just a way of living.'
The war didn't beat Ron and Joan, though, as they managed to find time to get married in between Ron's return from North Africa and redeployment in Europe.
'In February 1944, Ron had over a month’s leave, so we had a white wedding and the neighbours gave me coupons. It was everything coupons. We had a reception in the room over the Co-op - all basic, very basic,' says Joan.
They even managed to squeeze in a honeymoon, although not like most people's idea of the post-wedding holiday. 'Our honeymoon was in Weymouth,' says Joan. 'But we were only allowed in there because we were in the forces - there was all barbed wire along the front, and it was freezing cold.'
Victory and the return to civilian life
Eventually, people realised that the war was going to end in victory. 'I think when D-Day came, people began to think "we are getting somewhere now",' says Joan. 'That was the turning point.'
For Joan and Ron, their memories of the end of the war were very different. 'I know that the unit went off and left me, literally, a single British army soldier in a German village,' says Ron. 'That was the first and only time that I got the wind up.'
Meanwhile, back in London, the celebrations truly started. 'It was VE Day and everyone went mad - it was a bit exciting, I suppose,' says Joan. 'We could take all the black-outs down, and could have the lights on the cars and in the street. That was quite exciting. I don’t know if you’ve seen films of it, with everyone going bananas. Eventually, it all settled down again and we were all demobbed.'
In fact, getting back to ordinary life was probably the most difficult part. 'A whole group of people who’d come down from being a Sergeant-Major or something like that, they’d come back to a being a bloody road sweeper!' says Ron. 'For instance, I’d been a Quartermaster Sergeant for 4 of the 6 years, and I came back and was a clerical officer in the Civil Service. I mean, I went down with a bump, but not half as big a bump as a number of people.'