Born in 1925, Dame June Whitfield’s teenage years coincided with the Second World War.
In her autobiography, And June Whitfield, the much-loved comedy actress who died last month aged 93, revealed how her wartime years in London were marked by near-misses with the Luftwaffe, mishaps, flirtations and first love, and how “through my own stupidity” she became seriously ill…
On a hot summer’s day in 1940, I and a couple of girlfriends decided to go for a swim in an open-air pool that was part of a local block of flats.
I ignored my mum’s warning – “Be careful. The pool probably hasn’t been cleaned recently” – and took the plunge.
Firemen at work on Ave Maria Lane near St Paul’s Cathedral after a bombing in 1940
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I was undoubtedly showing off to the others as I executed a spectacular dive into the deep end. It’s quite a good idea to keep your mouth shut under water, but I didn’t and surfaced with the taste of green algae in my mouth, only to see my friends staring in astonishment.
They had noticed that the water was stagnant and weren’t at all impressed by my plunge into its murky depths. The next day I had a sore throat, and the day after I was rushed into Bolingbroke Hospital in Clapham with diphtheria.
Flat on my back in a ward full of fellow sufferers, I was ordered to lie absolutely still, with no pillow, shifting only enough to have a syringe the size of a small fire-extinguisher stuck in my bottom.
To say it was uncomfortable would be an understatement. The fact the Blitz was getting under way at the time did nothing to ease my state of mind.
Whatever it was they pumped into me was effective enough for me not to have to undergo a tracheotomy, but there I stayed, unable to see anyone except our family doctor, for 12 days.
She said of one air raid: I was ordered to lie absolutely still, with no pillow, shifting only enough to have a syringe the size of a small fire-extinguisher stuck in my bottom
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I once caught a brief glimpse through the window of my parents waving from the car park, but apart from that the nearest thing I had to a visitor was the Luftwaffe.
When the planes came rumbling over, which they seemed to do almost every evening, we were all wheeled out to spend the rest of the night in the corridor, not knowing if our families had survived the attacks. Every day, Mum and Dad drove to the hospital to make sure it was still standing.
It was my first time away from home, I was 14, there was a war on and I was miserably homesick.
When I came out of hospital I went straight back to our much-loved am dram.
My mum, Muff, a name which had not yet acquired the connotations it has today, and I were in the Belfrie Players, an amateur touring company who were particularly active during the war.
There was one memorable performance we gave in 1940 under rather hazardous conditions – Noel Coward’s Hay Fever, with Muff playing the lead, and myself slightly miscast as the sophisticated vamp, and also helping out with the stage management.
We got halfway through when the air-raid warning sounded. By Act 2, German bombers had been spotted and the huge guns sprang into action, firing furiously.
My Dad Jack’s work in communications ensured he remained a civilian, wrote Dame June
There are countless instances of shows going on during air raids but probably not too many performances of Hay Fever took place with a fully operational ack-ack battery blasting away in the wings: “You can see as far as Marlow on a clear day” – CRASH! “It’s awfully nice, Bookham” – BOOM!
The noise was deafening and Mother enquired of those remnants of the audience who hadn’t been called to their post if there was really much point in continuing. Since they couldn’t hear a word anyway, we gave up and raced home through the unlit streets with the accelerator of Mother’s Austin Seven pressed hard on the floor and the speedometer needle nudging 40.
I was offered a place at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, starting in the autumn of 1942. It probably had less to do with ability and more to do with the exceptional circumstances of the war.
Several of my fellow students were to make quite a mark: Richard Attenborough, Miriam Karlin, Bryan Forbes and Pete Murray.
“Lord Dickie” and I were not in the same year, but once paired up to sing a carol at a concert. Shortly afterwards, in what was, I hope, an unrelated incident, the hall was flattened by a bomb.
RADA, too, was hit during the war and fire-watching duty was part of the student routine.
It was mainly the boys who did this, although Bryan and Pete were only too happy to take any interested girls up to the roof for a couple of hours’ “fire-watching instruction”. That’s what they said it was, but I never found out because, rather disappointingly, they never invited me.
Dame June’s mum watched over her during the air raids
About this time I met my first serious boyfriend. I was 17, he was 13 years older. Amateur dramatics brought us together and I was flattered by his attention. He introduced me to the bright lights of London, he wooed me with flowers and swept me off my feet.
He was there for me for the start of my career, and when I was away on tour we exchanged long, newsy letters and missed each other dreadfully.
I thought we were in love and our romance flourished for three years. I was devastated when I got his letter informing me he was getting married… to a girl he’d met through me! I didn’t attend the wedding.
A few months before the war, and just before his 17th birthday, my brother John had lied about his age and joined the 2nd Battalion of the Queen Victoria Rifles, Territorial Army.
It was a motorbike regiment, which was the main appeal, and he was told to report to the headquarters with his bike and a mac!
During his training, Mum received a worrying letter saying “he’d had a bit of an accident with an explosive device” but was “fine”. He had, in fact, been temporarily blinded and deafened, but fortunately made a complete recovery.
My Dad Jack’s work in communications ensured he remained a civilian, but he became an air-raid warden and added many fire-watching nights to his daily routine. As the Blitz continued, the doodlebugs hit the suburbs worse than Central London, and we weren’t spared in Streatham. Three landed just off the high road within 500 yards of our house.
Muff had, by now, converted our cellar into an air-raid shelter, containing four bunk beds, one of which I helped to build from old orange boxes, and a range of other luxuries, including a standard lamp, a radio, a table and a kettle.
It was christened the dugout and was quite cosy, but if a raid didn’t start until late, there was a reluctance to leave the warmth of one’s bed, grab a torch and hurry down the dark stairs to safety.
Dame June kept on acting through the terrible war years
During one particularly heavy raid, when Dad was on warden duty, Mother and Gran repeatedly called me down, but I stubbornly remained in my room, reasoning that the house had been through four years of bombs and was likely to survive one more night.
I heard an approaching doodlebug – I found them the most frightening bombs, as when their buzzing cut out it meant they were on their way down –and heard its engine stop. My heart stopped with it and I slid a little further under the bedclothes and waited.
There was a flash and an explosion, and all the air seemed to be sucked out of the room. Tentatively, I poked my head out, and was relieved to see the walls still standing and house still intact. Then I was out of bed, down the stairs and into the dugout in 10 seconds flat.
The bomb partially destroyed the church at the end of our road.
On the night Christchurch was hit, Dad was out fire-watching. I was so relieved when I heard his key in the door, but he brought sad news that members of three families we knew by sight had lost their lives.
One little postscript. After the war, when my brother John was demobbed, he worked at the Foreign Office.
He was also busy indulging his chief passion in life: golf.
I remember Gran saying to him, as he set off one blustery afternoon, “Oh John, surely you’re not going to play today. The wind will blow your balls all over the place.”
From And June Whitfield by June Whitfield, published by Corgi.
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