How do you follow your heart during wartime? This remarkable treasure trove of letters gives a unique insight into home-front life and romance
Eileen Alexander was a brilliant scholar, graduating from Cambridge in 1939. Her academic career derailed by the war, she lived in London with her wealthy and eccentric Jewish family. She sought to make herself useful in various war offices, finally finding a post in the Secretariat Division in Central London. In nearly 1,400 letters to her friend, later fiancé, Gershon Ellenbogen, a flight lieutenant in the intelligence branch of the RAF, she chronicled life on the home front. The pair met as students in 1938 and the charm of the letters is watching Eileen fall in love, with Gershon proposing in 1941. ‘I wonder,’ she wrote, ‘what anybody would think if they came across my letters? I think they’d say: “This girl never lived ’til she loved” – and it would be true.’ These long-lost love notes – a chance Ebay find – complete with Eileen’s grammatical quirks, give a glimpse of a country at war and what it was to be a woman at the time.
Wednesday 25 August 1939
I wish I were a cabinet minister, Gershon – nothing like this could ever have happened. When Italy attacked Abyssinia, I’d have put two nasty, bristling battle cruisers across the Suez Canal (strictly illegal, of course – but oh! what a gesture) and then I’d have cocked a snook at Mussolini (I never liked his face anyway) and I’d have written a rude note to Hitler saying that I knew all about why he was holding Mussolini’s hand – so as to keep his mind off Austria. And now look what a nasty mess we’re in – all because no one thought of including me in the Cabinet. As a matter of fact, I’m frightened. I just wanted to tell someone I was. Let’s not mention it again.
Friday 1 September 1939
On hearing Hitler’s ‘peace’ proposals over the wireless last night, I begin to feel a warm glow at the idea of punishing the insolent brute as well! I have now heard from Miss Sloane [secretary to Leslie Hore-Belisha, Secretary of State for War and a friend of Eileen’s family]. There is nothing but clerical work at the War Office for the present but she advises the Censorship office. I have written to the Censorship, telling them how clever and useful I am, and how silly they’d be not to have me. You are likely to have a great deal to do and worry about during the next few weeks. Please darling, if you are bothered or busy, don’t attempt to write me long letters. I’d be glad of postcards – to know how you are.
Left: Gershon in 1947: he became a barrister and was a Liberal candidate in the 1950 election. Right: Eileen, aged 15, in 1933
Sunday 3 September 1939
We have just been listening to Chamberlain’s announcement that we are at war. There is nothing more to be said except God bless you and keep you, and everyone else who is going to help in blotting out slavery and brutality, from too much sorrow and pain.
Monday 24 June 1940
I went to Kilburn with my mother this morning to buy vegetables (vegetables are cheaper in Kilburn). You burst open pea-pods & taste the peas & unless they’re a Solace in the Raw, you Reject them. You squeeze cabbages & unless they squeak, you say in a voice of withering scorn, that they Have no Heart – and cast them from you.
A lettuce that you can’t stub your finger on is No Good – & when strawberries are two shillings a pound, you lose Heart & decide that you might as well have done your shopping at Swiss Cottage & saved a 2d bus fare.
Thursday 25 June 1940
Oh! darling, things that love night love not such things as these. The sirens started screaming at 1.15. I got up to see what my parents were doing – and Pa took such exception to my suggestion that we should all stay in bed, that I put on my new dressing gown, wrapped my eiderdown round me & followed him to our outside shelter. It was a clear, still night and the stars couldn’t have been more sharply focused if there had been a frost. We packed into the shelter like chocolate stick-biscuits in a round tin. We sat in deckchairs – large deckchairs – & my feet didn’t reach the ground. At about 2.30 (the shelter is distempered concrete & as bare as a picked bone, and I was getting colder & colder) I was suddenly doubled up with cramp. Anyway, I quaffed a sherry glass full of brandy & warm water in one nose-wrinkling gulp & went to bed.
Saturday 6 July 1940
Yesterday I was able to collect quite a considerable parcel of jewellery to send to the Red Cross. I found I had a lot of gold bangles and lockets & trinkets which could be melted down for their metal value & I sent, as well, a diamond & sapphire bar brooch, a brilliant brooch and a seed pearl & lapis lazuli necklace. In the afternoon my parents took me to Christie’s to see the things people had sent. The jewellery was rather staggering – colossal diamond necklaces and superb single-stone rings.
Monday 12 August 1940
If you spent every second of your time with me for the next 70 years, I should still be clucking at the end of it because you were going to leave me for an hour – and you talk to me about months. Oh! darling, don’t go overseas – at the thought my heart is turned to stone.
Saturday 17 August 1940
Yesterday was quite Adventurous. I was just coming back from Haverstock Hill – I’d been there to have a piece fitted onto the end of my gas mask at the Town Hall – when the sirens went. We walked into a shelter in a leisurely way, sat down on one of the benches – and I did my knitting until the All Clear sounded an hour later.
I was on my way home to change for dinner when the second warning went. I took shelter at Hyde Park Corner – and knitted again. When I got to the point when I had to measure what I’d done, I enlisted the help of four old charladies.
Eileen, third from right, and Gershon, far right, at their daughter Kate’s wedding, 1971
Tuesday 27 August 1940
God! What a night. Hell has no terrors for me any more. As the sirens shrieked, I went quite good-humouredly into the shelter, thinking that having a warning at 9.15 might mean an undisturbed night. I knitted quite happily for about an hour and a half – and at quarter to eleven, I tried to sleep, dear. We could hear the dull thud of Anti-Aircraft fire and the spattering of machine gun bullets – and close overhead the thick chugging of aeroplane engines. It was an oppressively hot night and the only sound apart from war noises was Pa’s ear-splitting snore. By midnight, darling, I felt that I’d rather die slowly of wounds than live in a room with Pa!
Wednesday 11 September 1940
Lionel [Eileen’s brother] and I thought we’d shake off our war-weariness by going to the pictures. However, we found Leicester Square & Piccadilly Circus completely roped off – to safeguard the public from the effects of four delayed-action bombs which they are harbouring.
We were just walking sadly back to the tube station when the sirens went and we took shelter in a basement, dimly lit by four hurricane lamps – so that knitting was out of the question – though, of course, I had your scarf with me, darling. Somebody said – inevitably – ‘What do you think of it all?’ which provoked a violent outburst from a tight-lipped, desiccated, decayed genteel old woman sitting beside me. ‘If you’d been in the East End,’ she said bitterly, ‘you’d know what to think of it all. “The spirit of the people is fine” the papers say – I’ve seen ’em, I know. It’s all very well for people like you –’ She turned angrily to me (I had asked her if it would be all right to smoke and she obviously thought I was a flibberty chip of a Mayfair block). ‘If one of your houses gets blown down you can go to another – but the poor folk lose their homes & their families, and then they’re left to shift for themselves. Ask them if they want peace. They’re crying out for it – craving for it. They want to live.’
Tuesday 1 October 1940
Darling, it’s sad to see the tube stations full of people settling down for the night with rugs and children & thermos flasks at 3.30 in the afternoon. There isn’t room at Swiss Cottage to move.
Thursday 20 February 1941
Last night was full of Adventure.
It all began with the HE [High Explosive] Bomb – which Whistled Ostentatiously past our window at about 9.30, blowing the curtains of the morning-room inwards – and landing with a dull thud about a mile away. My mother and I went on with our knitting, being accustomed to that sort of noise.
Then we went upstairs and looked out of the bathroom window to see What Was Going On. Well, darling – our Vigilance was Rewarded because in the far corner of the garden, near the tomato-patch there was a Red Glow. ‘Incendiaries’ announced my mother with Intense Satisfaction. ‘Sand’ I replied (I have a neat turn for Repartee, darling), at which she, not to be outdone, came back with ‘Shovel’ – and then, as a brilliant afterthought ‘Coats’. We put on heavy overcoats, armed ourselves with a bag of sand & a shovel each – rang up and asked the Police to Call – and went out to Stalk the Incendiary. Mrs Wright next-door, hearing all this from the shelter, opened the door a crack and asked what was the matter. ‘Mrs Wright, we’ve got an incendiary bomb in the garden,’ carolled my mother pointing to the Glow at the Bottom of the Garden, which was now very faint, owing to the impact of a heavy rainfall. ‘Oh that,’ Mrs Wright said, with a Hollow Laugh – ‘That isn’t an Incendiary. It’s the Bonfire.’ ‘What Bonfire?’ I asked angrily. ‘The bonfire the gardener made this afternoon,’ she said coolly. ‘He must have forgotten to put it out.’
Eileen, 13, and her brother Lionel, six, in fancy dress, 1931
Monday 10 March 1941
I arrived [at work] to find the entire staff in Gas Masks. It’s not so much having to put them on that we mind, a Home Guard spokesman said to me (taking his off to make himself heard), it’s putting them back in their satchels that is such a nuisance. I became a Temporary Administrative Assistant in the Meteorological and Educational department of the Air Ministry, darling. It is mainly writing letters to the Treasury asking them if we can have money for more staff. However, I’ve been promised that, in time, if I’m a Good Girl, I Shall See People and Get Things Done.
Thursday 17 April 1941
What I don’t know about Hell this morning could be written on the thin end of a wedge. The sirens went at about 9 and after that, until five in the morning, the planes were whining overhead so that I thought I could feel them grazing my scalp, and the sound they made gave me the impression that they were blackening the sky like locusts – wing-tip to wing-tip.
There wasn’t a moment of silence all night. Then, above the noise of planes there was another noise suddenly. It was far more terrifying – it sounded as an oncoming train must sound to a suicide on a railway line. It was like the whistle of a bomb and yet unlike it. It was like the hissing of a monstrous boiler – and yet it wasn’t. My mother said it was a landmine so we all got up and stood under the stairs in the hall. It took 25 minutes to come down, darling, and then it crashed and splintered and we all went back to bed.
We discovered this morning that it had landed in West End Lane. The West End is a shambles of splintered glass – Oxford Street, from Selfridges to Debenhams, is roped off – and the Strand is still ablaze.
Wednesday 31 December 1941
Did you hear Churchill last night? The gramophone is a wonderful invention because it can record for posterity the rich Overtones of Implication and Significance in the PM’s voice when he said: ‘The French General’s told the Cabinet that Britain’s neck would be wrung like chickens’ within 3 weeks.’ (Rich pause.) ‘Some chicken…’ (Further Pregnant pause) ‘Some neck…’
Saturday 31 October 1942
Darling, I was just paying for a very Dreary lunch in Fuller’s (everything was ‘Off’) when the girl at the Cash-Desk Hissed in my Ear Conspiratorially: ‘Would you like a cake?’ and Before I Knew Where I Was I was walking down the Strand balancing an enormous lemon layer cake in the palm of my hand. I’ve never been the subject of so much Attention in my life, darling, as I was during my journey across the 100 yards or so which separated Fuller’s from Bush House. If those Glances of Eye-Popping Desire had been directed towards me instead of towards the cake, darling, I’d have felt constrained to Call a Policeman!
I overheard a Wonderful Conversation between our cleaners in the cloakroom this morning:
1st Cleaner: ‘I bought an underset the other day, dear, and the man said: “That will be seven Coupons.” I said, “You’ll excuse my mentioning it, but my daughter bought an underset the other day and she only gave six Coupons.” So ’e said: “Ah! Yes, but your daughter ’ad open French knickers and you’ve got closed ones.”’
2nd Cleaner: ‘An Extra Coupon for a piece of elastic? Fancy now!’
1st Cleaner: ‘Yes, dear, and when I told me mother – 81 she is, she said: “So now they charge you an extra coupon for being Respectable? No wonder things is all upsy down.”’
Wednesday 4 November 1942
Pa was in the Antique Art Galleries today, darling, and he saw a man whose face was very familiar buying Battersea Enamel Decanter Labels. After he’d gone Pa said to the woman in the shop: ‘I’m sure I know that man. What is his name?’ She told him that it was Laurence Olivier and that he was buying the decanter labels for his wife.
He had told the woman that Vivien Leigh had only had one hat since the war started & that all her friends had implored her to get a new one or to buy some sort of decoration for her old one to make it look a bit different, so he was giving her the decanter labels mounted on hat pins, darling, so that she could have a brandy label in her hat one day and a claret one the next and so on!
Tuesday 26 January 1943
Mum & I are just back from Manoeuvres. We were called to fight a fire in St John’s Church. We Dashed Off there, nothing daunted & I will say, my love, that we did very creditably – except that for the first quarter of an hour I pumped away feverishly & Mum kept shouting: ‘There isn’t any water coming out of the nozzle’ when I noticed the entire coil of hose neatly done up at my feet – Mum had been training the disconnected extension on the fire for 15 minutes! Nevertheless, we came home flushed with triumph – soaked to the skin and covered from head to foot with Honourable Mud.
Sunday 12 September 1943
Darling, there is one comfort in peacetime – you don’t have to wear your underclothes for five years. You see, my love, I haven’t had a new brassiere or a new pair of breeks since before the war & the poor things are beginning to Feel Their Age. My darling, if I do get my job in Cairo I shall Fritter Away all my coupons on a frothy mass of impractical & beautiful underwear.
Wednesday 29 December 1943
Oh! darling, I just can’t take in the implication of the miraculous possibility of our being together in 2 ½ months’ time. I can’t believe it. I read the words over and over and over again. They meant a Spring wedding with primroses and crisp Scottish air for our honeymoon & release from the bondage of despair & frustration. They meant life, my darling, a new & lovely life for us together with a fresh start as far as work is concerned & death to the weariness, the fever and the fret of separation.
Eileen and Gershon were married on 26 March 1944 at St John’s Wood Synagogue. Afterwards Gershon returned to duties (he remained until after the Nuremberg war crimes trials ended in October 1946, which he attended; he became a barrister) and Eileen started a new career as an adult education lecturer.
This is an edited extract from Love in the Blitz: The Greatest Lost Love Letters of the Second World War by Eileen Alexander, to be published on 30 April by William Collins, price £20