Apex Herald Editor
(Editor’s note: As host of the 2012 Summer Olympic Games, London in recent weeks has stood proudly on the world stage. People from around the globe watched admiringly as the English transformed their beautiful and historic city into a virtual arena for the world’s greatest athletes.
Watching tens of thousands of athletes and spectators revel in the Games’ closing ceremony, it can be difficult to believe that seven decades ago London found itself in the world spotlight for a much more ominous reason.
In the early stages of World War II, long before the United States became involved, Britain stood alone against Hitler’s powerful war machine. After suffering devastating defeats on mainland Europe, the British armies were in shambles. England appeared as easy prey for the seemingly inevitable Nazi invasion.
The incredible air war that followed – known as the Battle of Britain – staved off the German invasion and dealt Hitler his first true setback.
My mother-in-law, Joyce Tomlin Pizzichemi, lived through those dark days of the war and remembers very well the sound of bombs falling on her beloved London. As a young girl living in the city, she saw firsthand the absolute determination of fellow Londoners to stand united against the Nazi aggressors.
Though many may not realize it today, it was that steadfast resolve and fighting spirit displayed all those years ago that helped make events such as the 2012 Olympics a possibility. It is frightening to think what may have happened to our world otherwise.)
In late 1954, Joyce Tomlin Pizzichemi was a new bride in the New World. The 27-year-old English native had come to America in December with her G.I. husband, John, to live in his family’s home in Mayfield, Pa.
Eager to start a new life, Pizzichemi found it surprisingly difficult to escape the old one.
On her first night in America, seated at the dinner table surrounded by family, Pizzichemi heard a sound that made her blood turn cold. Off in the distance the old siren at the volunteer ambulance station began to blow.
As the low drone of the siren began its usual crescendo, Pizzichemi suddenly found herself reliving the nightmare of the relentless German air raids over London.
It was a siren just like the one in Mayfield that called Londoners to the dark, damp air raid shelters night after night as Hitler’s Luftwaffe strove unmercifully to pound England into submission.
Believing those childhood memories of the war were forever neatly tucked away deep inside her mind, Pizzichemi was stunned to find them suddenly flowing like water thousands of miles away from English soil.
“We were sitting around talking when the siren went off,” said Pizzichemi. “I jumped up and started shaking. I was so scared and everything started coming back to me. I could actually see everything happening again. It was the weirdest thing.
“That went on for quite awhile every time that damn thing went off. It had that same deep awful sound. I’m used to it by now but it still brings back some memories.”
Those memories are of a battle that helped save the free world from the Nazi war machine and helped mark the beginning of the end for Hitler.
Different kind of home front
Life on the home front in the United States during World War II called for sacrifices. Besides the awful waiting and worrying about loved ones fighting on foreign shores, Americans were required to change their lifestyles.
Rationing curtailed the use of gasoline while certain foods and garments became scarce.
But life in America, an entire ocean away from Europe, was nothing like the type of existence facing the English.
While America was still sitting on the sidelines in 1940 England teetered on the brink of collapse.
The Germans had swept away all resistance on mainland Europe and by the summer of 1940 had their sights set on the British. Before Sea Lion – the German codename for plans to invade England – could begin the remnants of the Royal Air Force had to be destroyed.
The Battle of Britain began in June and the first bombers appeared over the skies of London in August.
The English had been preparing for the inevitable showdown for months and the fall of France only quickened the pace.
In late 1939 many children living in major English cities were evacuated to the countryside. Officials realized it was only a matter of time before the Luftwaffe would begin its bombing campaign.
“They knew they were on the way,” said Pizzichemi. “The Germans were about to take over France and that is just a hop, skip and jump across the water.”
Pizzichemi was only 11 years old when she and five other girls were taken from their London homes and sent to a country estate in Reading.
Although one of those girls was a good friend from the neighborhood, Pizzichemi quickly became homesick.
“We were taken to this huge old house owned by an old colonel and his wife,” said Pizzichemi. “It was a lovely place. We didn’t see much of the colonel and his wife. They had servants and they took care of us and they weren’t very nice.
“Every other weekend my father came to visit. I started to get very homesick and then I got sick and wouldn’t eat. I had rheumatic fever when I was younger and they were worried about that. Eventually my father brought me home before Christmas.”
When Pizzichemi returned home she found that her parents, Daisy and Henry, had paid for an air raid shelter in the backyard. She hated the metal monstrosity from the first moment she stepped inside.
“It was oval shaped and you had to go down a few steps to get in it,” said Pizzichemi. “Whenever it rained we would get water on the floor. I remember being more scared in there than anything else. I don’t like being enclosed and I felt like I was being smothered all the time.”
All the children remaining in London soon received gas masks. The masks were old and had a putrid rubber smell that all the children despised.
“We had to carry those all the time,” said Pizzichemi. “We even had them at school with us. If we had been gassed I doubt they would have worked. I always thought I was going to die just from putting it on because of the smell.”
It was in August of 1940 that Pizzichemi and her family had to retreat to the air shelter for the first time. The four of them sat in the small, metal container and listened to the bombs falling several miles away.
“The very first bombing you did get that awful knotty feeling in your stomach,” said Pizzichemi. “You just kept asking God to help you. It was pretty awful.”
Pizzichemi believes it would have been much worse if not for her parents calming influence.
The youngest of five children, Pizzichemi never spent much time with most of her siblings because of the large age difference. While she was turning 12 years old, her brother Ted was 29, and her sisters Bib and Rose were 28 and 26, respectively.
Only she and Lilla, 17, remained at home with her parents when the war began. Pizzichemi believes having parents who were already approaching their 60s helped keep her calm during the bad times.
“My parents were much older when I was born,” said Pizzichemi. “I think if they had been younger I would have been a complete wreck. They always explained things to me and made me feel safe.
“My father had already been in two wars. He had been in the Boer War in South Africa and had been gassed in World War I at the Battle of Somme. So he had been through a lot and knew how to handle himself. My mother was a surgical nurse so she knew how to handle things. I think I would have been more scared had they been younger.”
The raids became much worse in 1941 as the Germans shifted their strategy from bombing airfields to targeting civilians. Still, life went on as normally as possible.
The family’s closest brush with death occurred during a night out at the theater, which remained opened throughout the war.
“We went there one night and a raid started and we went underneath the theater,” said Pizzichemi. “We could hear the bombs going off and could feel the thuds when they hit. When we came out there were no buses or taxis so we had to start walking home.
“We passed a place called Ealing and there were fires raging everywhere. People were screaming and crying. My sister hurt her knee and my poor dad had to carry her.
“That was one of the scariest nights. I kept wondering if I was ever going to get home because we kept seeing all this terrible stuff around us. Then the next day you got up and it was just another day. You wondered if you were going to be safe or not.”
It was during the heaviest raids that a teenager who lived nearby bled to death in the street after being struck by shattering glass. His death shook the entire family and reminded everyone how precarious life was during wartime.
“This young boy named Harold lived across the street,” said Pizzichemi. “There was a raid on when a bomb hit our neighbor’s house. The blast shattered the windows and he was hit in the neck.
“I remember my mother rushing over to help until the ambulance arrived. But he died instantly when his jugular vein was cut. It was very sad because he was only about 16 or 17.”
The sweet taste of victory
The Battle of Britain ended in May of 1941, a full seven months before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor brought the United States into the war.
Against all odds, the British defeated the mighty German juggernaut and prevented Hitler’s armies from ever stepping foot on English soil.
The price of victory came at a steep cost. In 10 months an estimated 43,000 English civilians were killed and another 51,000 injured.
So it came as little surprise when the few remnants of the Third Reich surrendered on May 7, 1945, London transformed into one of the largest parties on earth.
“I remember I was at home and people started yelling in the street,” said Pizzichemi. “Everybody was happy and crying and you were hugging people you didn’t even know. It didn’t take them long before they had these long tables set up in each street and they were covered with all sorts of food.
“There were Union Jacks flying everywhere and it was like one massive party. London was jammed with sailors and soldiers from all over the world. Everyone was so happy.”
After six years of fear, death and destruction, the war in Europe was finally over.
(This story was initially published in the Raleigh South Connection in 2007.)