In September 1939, Dr. William (Bill) Cooke was just 11½ years old, living in a BELCO owned house on Cemetery Road. Years later he would write in his memoir that he saw “several policemen ride up to the BELCO Front Gate on Serpentine Road. It was the day Britain declared war on Germany and these were the first security detail assigned to guard BELCO against hostile action.” Meanwhile Harley Usher as a young man was sailing tourists off St. David’s when, as he recounted for RG Magazine in 1997, “a fisherman came up to me. ‘Don’t you know that war has been declared?’ he said. ‘No,’ I said. ‘I don’t know war’s been declared.’”
Of course neither young man could understand at the time the full implications of that declaration—the role Bermuda would take on as the Second World War played out and the transformations it would inflict on their lives and the island as a whole. Even today, because of Bermuda’s tiny size and remote location in the Atlantic, it could be easy to overlook the island’s significance during that period of global war. However, it was its very geographical position that gave Bermuda huge strategic importance as a means of defending the US from possible air attack before the renovations and from German submarines. As it turned out, Bermuda never experienced the brutality of invasion nor the destruction wreaked by bombing suffered by other countries but it would be a serious mistake to think it emerged from the war unscathed by change.
In September 1940 a deal was struck between President Franklin Roosevelt and Prime Minister Winston Churchill allowing America use of Bermudian land on a 99-year lease to create a military base. The creation of the base in St. David’s and the annex in Southampton permanently changed Bermuda’s topography, but arguably it catapulted Bermuda into a different way of life, affecting people from all backgrounds. Many Bermudians, especially from St. David’s, were displaced from their homes. All were exposed to an influx of unfamiliar people—mostly military personnel from the US and censors from the UK. New occupations opening up because of the American presence on the island gave Bermudians new skills—driving buses and trucks before the general introduction of motorised transport, for example, and building according to American standards. The war itself presented further challenges, such as rationing and surviving without dependence on regular imports or on the financial benefits of the tourism industry that had steadily developed during the 1930s. Sirens and blackouts became a routine.
All these changes have been recorded in articles and books written by Bermuda historians but it is still difficult for most people to wholly imagine their impact, especially for younger Bermudians born after the base was closed and the land returned to Bermuda. Perhaps it is easier to envisage Bermuda during the war through the eyes and voices of those, like Bill Cooke and Harley Usher, who experienced it firsthand. Oral history can therefore be an invaluable tool. This article features individuals whose childhood and young adult memories shaped by the war help to provide understanding of what those uncertain times were really like. Those individuals include retired internal medicine specialist Dr. William (Bill) Cooke, already mentioned; artist and sculptor Vivienne Gardner, who first came to Bermuda as a child with her parents, William and Beatrice Gilmore, and her sister Beryl in 1940; martial arts school founder and trainer Frederick (Skipper) Ingham; Bermuda’s first cultural affairs officer, Ruth Thomas; retired head librarian and director of Community and Cultural Affairs, Grace Rawlins, and retired customs officer Winston Rawlins. It also draws on books and articles—The Back Yard and Bermuda Recollections, in particular—recording firsthand wartime memories of those no longer with us.
Foreigners, Bases and Blackouts
The declaration of war meant an abrupt stop to tourism as Harley Usher soon discovered. When Vivienne Gardner arrived with her family in July 1940, she recalls the island being very quiet because the hotels were closed, and houses that had previously been rented, empty. Financially, the island was in a bad way. A month later the arrival of 150 censors changed the situation somewhat as the Princess Hotel was rented to them for their office use as well as accommodation. In December another 160 censors and 500 children arrived “all looking very pale.” The Bermudiana Hotel was also reopened and rented to the newcomers. Meanwhile, the military began to arrive in large numbers. Understandably, there was resentment against such an obvious influx of newcomers, particularly when at the beginning the American bulldozers inflicted a hellish upheaval in St. David’s changing the coastline that had been so familiar to Harley Usher. There were also fights between the Bermudian men and servicemen over women. But over time the connections became stronger than the hostilities.
The rental market started to boom once the base agreement came into action. Rooms and apartments were rented to military personnel. Many women augmented the family income by taking in laundry from the military—the white uniforms from the Naval Operations Base (NOB). And many men found work on the base. There being no more tourists to take sailing, Harley Usher promptly applied for the position of pilot with the American base and was immediately accepted. Victor Woolridge explained in 1989 for Bermuda Recollections how he found work on the base cutting down trees to prepare for the new airport. Later he learned how to drive a truck and was responsible for burying the military dead in temporary graves on top of the hill from the Black Horse Tavern. (Subsequently the bodies would be sent to the US.)
If the peoplescape changed so also did the landscape, particularly the harbours. Instead of the Monarch and Queen of Bermuda steaming in from New York carrying tourists, a whole plethora of naval ships and other boats would arrive in Bermuda for different reasons. Vivienne Gardner quotes from one of her mother’s (Bee Gilmore’s) letters to her own mother in England, describing her sailing excursion with their friends the Coopers: “‘Dr. Cooper had to go ashore to see about something on a captured German supply ship.’ And another time there was a French fishing boat brought in. It had a full cargo of crawfish and these were put up for sale. And then: ‘A huge liner is up on the rocks on the opposite side of the bay.’” In September 1943, Bee Gilmore wrote of a Norwegian ship being blown onto the reefs and its “cargo unloaded and put up for auction in Hamilton.”
Helen Little recounted in 1989 for Bermuda Recollections her amusement over German propaganda: “I …was walking with a young man who was a marine on the H.M.S. Illustrious and the H.M.S. Illustrious was right out here in Grassy Bay and we were walking along and somebody had the radio and we heard that the Germans had just sunk the H.M.S. Illustrious …! The Germans didn’t know where she was; they were trying to find her since she was an aircraft carrier. She wasn’t sunk at all. They sunk the Ark Royal three times and she kept popping up all over the place!”
For Bill Cooke’s young eyes, ships and military activities were a source of endless fascination because his ambition was to be a soldier. He loved watching all the activities at Number 8 shed. As he writes in his memoir, he remembers the American Legion cargo ship arriving in April 1941 and watching their unloading activities after school. “She was docked opposite the Supermart (then Gorham’s). I recall the laying of a railway spur from the Front Street track down onto the dock and running parallel to the ship. I believed this was to transport stores and equipment to various sites around the island. I thought the railroad gun carriages were taken to each end of the island via the rail line, although I heard the trestles could not handle the weight of the entire gun assembly, and thus the barrels were transported by barge.”
Living in Spanish Point, he was able have a good view of the NOB ships in the Great Sound, Grassy Bay and Murray’s Anchorage. In the Great Sound he would see “a congregation of US Liberty ships, US auxillary ships and a variety of the larger landing craft with the LC Tank often carrying a collection of Higgins boats [landing craft] on deck and in the hold.” He also remembers that the train to Somerset passed the enclosing boundary fence of NOB at Morgan’s Point and just before the gate was a compound where German prisoners of war were brought to Bermuda secretly after their submarine had been captured. Bermudian nurse Shirley Humphrey nursed the submarine’s captain, who had a broken arm.
A more gruesome memory he has is that of a body found floating in one of the smaller Spanish Point bays—a US sailor, “dressed as a Shore Patrolman. A Liberty boat sailing from the US landing in Hamilton to the ships in the Great Sound had capsized in stormy weather at midnight, and a number of passengers drowned.”
His father’s electrical expertise would come in useful as young Bill Cooke was sometimes allowed to accompany him to Murray’s Anchorage where the merchant ships would gather, some needing electrical repairs. “We would wake one morning to find that all the ships (perhaps 80 to 100) had departed in the night, with the cycle repeated the following week.” Other times Bill would visit his friend Peter Bromby, whose father was Commissioner of Dockyard Police. “I took the drifter, the Onyx, from Hamilton and after tea and cinnamon toast in their quarters at 7 Clarence Terrace, we were off to explore the yard. It was a busy time with ships of all types, especially British and American, being serviced and one after another a series of ships was lifted in one of the two floating docks employed during the war.”
Once war broke out, the island was forced to adopt a new security measure—nightly blackouts, which some blamed on the Americans, the fallacious argument being that if Bermuda hadn’t become a base, Hitler would never have noticed the island. All windows had to be covered with shades. (In the summer months the blackouts made for stifling conditions, as Vivienne Gardner recounts. She and her family slept with nets over their beds because “the mosquitoes were appalling; Will [Gilmore, her father] was finding the larvae in flower vases and even in the water in the toilet bowl. The US bases had a campaign to get rid of them and fish were being put in the canals and the marshes.”)
At evening time all streetlights had to be out, which made travelling difficult except on moonlit nights. Torches on pedal bikes were covered in red cellophane. Winston Rawlins remembers that his father, Charles G. Rawlins, was an air-raid warden whose responsibility was to check that lights were out. He would carry a small torch for the purpose. Vivienne Gardner remembers air raid sirens going off but says, “…without gas masks or dugout shelters there was no point moving so no-one took any notice.” Ruth Thomas, however, has a different memory. “When the Fire Station siren went off, you’d know by the number of sounds that it was a warning German planes were coming and you’d dash to the cellar, the closet or under the bed.” Did she really believe Germans were coming? “Oh yes,” she says promptly. Whether the adults believed it or not, she is not sure but certainly everyone felt that life was very uncertain and that German invasion was a threat.
Ironically, though the law required blackouts, often Bermuda skies were full of light other than the moon. Winston Rawlins remembers a floodlight going on and a local pilot flying around the island. Bill Cooke spent a lot of time at a US army searchlight station which was installed in Spanish Point, while Ann Zuill Williams writes in her memoir The Back Yard: “Our evenings changed from star hunting, to plane hunting. The sky was crazily criss-crossed with searchlights beaming up in all directions. They waved over the sky apparently at random, when suddenly two beams trapped an aeroplane like a spider trapped a fly. The tiny speck tried to dart away, but was lit up and imprisoned for all the world to see.” Ruth Thomas remembers seeing a blimp floating in the sky “like an enormous egg.” (Blimps were used for U-boat spotting.)
Bermuda may have been physically isolated from the bombings in Europe but it was never isolated from news about them, thanks to the Zenith shortwave radio. “Everyone had access to a radio,” Ruth Thomas recalls. “Sometimes an aerial would be fixed up so people could listen outside.” Vivienne Gardner’s mother would listen for news of raids, fearful her family in England would be hurt and their property damaged; Ruth Thomas’s grandmother would be glued to the radio listening to the speeches of Churchill and Roosevelt, while Skipper Ingham as a young boy also listened to Churchill. Ruth Thomas remembers vividly the BBC’s “This Is London Calling,” the chimes of Big Ben and the sounds of the sirens all over the City of London. Years later, in 1961, she would visit London and see the bomb sites, evidence of what she heard still there.
Meals and Rationing
Wartime inevitably means shortages and of course this was particularly true of Bermuda. Generally, people learned to be frugal and to be resourceful. Very little was thrown away.
Although people’s experiences of food supplies differed according to their economic background and their contacts, everyone agrees that nobody starved because they could always catch fish and because most had gardens where they grew their own vegetables. In addition, many kept chickens, rabbits, goats and sometimes pigs. (Ann Zuill Williams recalls in The Back Yard saving kitchen waste for a pig named Miss Manners.) Sharing produce and meat was common. Vivienne Gardner herself learned the art of plucking and preparing a chicken for roasting but particularly recalls the time her family got hold of a whole head of a calf and dismembered it, putting her mother’s cooking skills to good use. “…she cooked up the tongue in an ‘agra dolce sauce’ with raisins and vinegar. The flesh on the cheeks she turned into jellied cold meat and the brains, of course, were sweetbreads and she fried them up in batter. All of it was delicious.” In our era of supermarket instant foods, it would be hard to imagine a housewife doing that today.
Even so, at times certain vegetables and fruits were scarce according to the season. Vivienne Gardner remembers times when there were no potatoes on the island and when “fresh fruit was almost unavailable and the only local vegetable seemed to be the pumpkin.” On the other hand she has a clear memory of “Major Kitchener, who had masses of lovely tomatoes growing on Hinson’s Island.” Presumably he shared his tomatoes although he was “mysteriously not allowed to sell them to the public because of some ruling by the Food Control Board.”
As the war progressed, other foods and supplies shortages became a reality since ships bringing goods to Bermuda became less frequent, particularly after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbour and German U-boat attacks in 1942. Water was sometimes scarce and Vivienne Gardner remembers a US navy ship coming to the rescue, importing 10,000 gallons of water and allowing Bermudians to take water produced by their desalination plant while in port. Items such as butter, flour, rice and sugar were often in very short supply, which seemed a real deprivation for many. Rationing was therefore a necessity.
The late Sir John Plowman was put in charge of implementing a rationing plan when he joined the Government Food and Supplies Board (later he would become its director and then chairman). In 1988 he described how his system worked to a senior citizens’ writing group held at Bermuda College. (Later his account was recorded in Bermuda Recollections.) As he told the group, he had the Bermuda Library to thank because before the war broke out he had borrowed an autobiography called Georgian Adventure written by a British civil servant who had been very involved with food rationing during the First World War. It was his system Sir John adopted. “We had a system of registration and each person had to register at a grocery store and based on the number of people who were registered, they [the stores] were issued with the quantity of each food that was rationed. Now the argument that a lot of people said was, ‘Well, some people can get more than others.’ Well, they could if they wanted… But the point was that every individual could get what they were entitled to.”
Perhaps what he didn’t realise was that some families were too cash poor to think about even registering at a store. Winston Rawlins, who was six or seven when the war broke out, whose father, a part-time preacher, owned The Convenience Store near where the Liberty Theatre is now, bears this out. “My father’s customers were often not officially registered because they were poor people who could not afford to buy anything. Some had eight children and couldn’t afford the ration they were eligible for. They were below the radar. My father used to help them out.”
Skipper Ingham, who was also a child during the war, agrees that rationing didn’t make a difference for many families as they couldn’t afford the rationed goods, while confirming that starvation wasn’t an issue because of fish and home vegetable gardens.
Those who could afford the rations were not all pleased with the system, as Sir John himself pointed out: “I’ve taken criticism all my life but I did particularly in that period.” Vivienne Gardner remembers that her mother, Bee Gilmore, was certainly one who felt critical. She duly signed her family up for their food rations at the Goody Shoppe (on Reid Street) and soon wished for the coupons system implemented in England when she realised she could not go to a different store once the Goody Shoppe ran out.
Perhaps the deprivation many people felt most acutely was bread, the result of a severe shortage of flour. As Bee Gilmore said, “All I could get for three days was half a loaf of mouldy bread!” In his book The Story of Bermuda and Her People, W.S. Zuill explains how mouldy bread was deliberately sold to deter people from wanting to eat it. Sir John recalled a ship mercifully coming in with flour when there was just one day’s supply left. Sometimes, as Ann Zuill Williams recounts, the flour wasn’t exactly in pristine condition as they would find weevils “miniature black beetles crawling through the bag.”
Butter and sugar were also rationed throughout the war and Ann Zuill Williams describes how their new rations were delivered to their home, Orange Grove, in Smiths Parish every Friday by horse and cart. Each member of the household was allowed two ounces of each which her mother, Christiana (Kitty) Zuill, would measure on the kitchen scales. She would then use her empty Yardley face cream jars to store each person’s portion and if there was enough left at the end of the week would use it to make fudge as a treat. Butter, Ann Zuill Williams explains, easily went rancid so it was difficult to store. Sugar was easier, but Vivienne Gardiner remembers a rule that said no more than one and a half pounds of sugar could be stored in a household. It was a strange rule, she says, in that households were at the same time advised to lay in stores of food.
As is true in any time of shortage, a lot depended on whom you knew. Any social connection with the American base was hugely advantageous, as the Gilmores found out when Vivienne’s sister Beryl secured a secretarial position at the naval base. “This was wonderful for our family since Beryl, who was a very pretty girl, had all the officers eager to help her in any way they could. Consequently, cases of wonderful food were brought to our house, delivered by handsome young men in Jeeps.”
Grace Rawlins’s parents, Mary and Joseph Rawlins, were caretakers of Southlands on the south shore during the war when the property was taken over by the American navy. They lived in the main house where the officers were billeted, while the enlisted men camped in tents along the shoreline. Mary Rawlins cooked for the officers which meant that the Rawlins family ate well. Young Grace, who was three or four at the time, distinctly remembers steak and ice cream as well as vegetables.
Bill Cooke remembers appreciating “an unexpected benefit” of clerking the Bermuda Mineral Company’s trucks when they delivered soft drinks to the canteens and messes of the military camps: a small container of powdered saccharine to supplement his ration of sugar, which he describes as “the most missed item of our allowance.” Sometimes pure luck came into play. As Vivienne Gardner recalls from reading a letter written by her mother, “when Will [Vivienne’s father] went sailing, he once found a cask floating out to sea that was ‘evidently lost off a lifeboat.’ It was full of rations, tins of food and biscuits with added vitamins for nourishment, malted milk tablets and pork meat, all in perfect condition.”
However, the most memorable and catastrophic food shortage of all affected animals rather than humans. Sir John remembered three supply ships in a row being sunk by the Germans, with the result there was no bran or oats for the horses and cows. (The grass in Bermuda did not have enough nourishment.) As a result cows stopped producing milk and the horses became ill as a result of starvation. “They were in a desperate way.” Vivienne Gardner writes that “a law was enacted that no horses were allowed to be driven faster than a walk but as horses and carts were the only mode of delivery many drivers disobeyed the ruling.” She remembers she would “bicycle through town and scream at any driver who was whipping his half-dead horse to make it trot.” Some horses had to be shot.
Wartime shortages also affected shoes and clothing and for these items ration books were supplied. As Ann Zuill Williams writes, “For growing children it must have been difficult because we outgrew our shoes faster than the ration books allowed. Shoes were passed from child to child.” Ruth Thomas recalls being in trouble for being hard on her shoes and outgrowing them too fast. Many a child did without. Where clothing was concerned, people were very resourceful. For example, the hundredweight bags in which flour was shipped had more lasting use than the flour itself. They were, according to The Back Yard, “made of white cotton, often with a flower print, so even if the flour was full of weevils, the bags were good for making underpants and petticoats. Some bags only had the name of the company stamped upon them and if the print happened to turn up emblazoned across your bottom it was obvious you were wearing ‘flowah bags’ and good sport for teasing!”
Peace at Last
Eventually, the years of uncertainty ended in victory for the allies. As Vivienne Gardner recalls, on May 6th, 1945, her mother wrote, “Beryl heard, secretly, that the German Minister has signed the peace and if so at any minute it should be given out. Is he right, I wonder?”
The news was indeed correct as she was to write the day after VE Day: “Well! Peace is here at last. After listening to Churchill’s speech at 10 o’clock yesterday, all the sirens and church bells went, and exactly one hour after there were services in all the churches… the Cathedral was packed!”
The war would not be completely over, however, until the Japanese surrender was first announced in August of the same year, a reason for more celebration as we can infer from an airmail envelope owned by local collector and philatelist Horst Augustinovic and written from Bermuda by a Mrs. W. M. Pudden to a recipient in the US. On the back of it she added, “V-J just announced since I wrote this!” And then: “Bermuda’s only siren is almost worn out after two minutes of peace. We[’re] having Gin and Tonics.”
For Ruth Thomas, the days of rushing down to the cellar at the sound of the siren were finally over.