KANGAROO FOR CHRISTMAS

Janet Toms got a grey wooden kangaroo for Christmas in 1942. The story behind it concerns Polish battleships, Cowes harbour, and great heroism.

When it comes to regrets, I am definitely with Frank Sinatra rather than Edith Piaf; regrets, I have a few. Mostly they aren’t of the life-changing variety but from time to time something comes to mind and I find myself wishing: if only I hadn’t thrown that away.

A white linen dress I bought in the 1960s is one example, altered to fit exacdy, a 21-year-old figure, simple, sleek and very stylish. I could not wear it now, the very thought is laughable, but I might have persuaded my daughter, or even my granddaughter to try it on. It would be great to open an old suitcase and come upon it from time to time, take it out, hold it up and simply reminisce.

Another occasional ‘if-only’ memory is of a large pile of 78 records that belonged to my father and dated from the 1930s and 40s. He was hardly a trend-setter, but he was one of the first people in our road to have a gramophone. Among those shellac gems were such golden oldies as The Laughing Policeman and In a Monastery Garden. In a rare moment of downsizing I put them out for the dustman. I must have been mad.

If I could rescue one item from that great rubbish tip in the sky, however, it would be a wooden kangaroo, crudely made but with large back legs that moved backwards and forwards when you pushed it along. Significantly it was painted battleship grey. I have only the dimmest memory of exactly when I received it as a Christmas present but from my mother’s attitude at the time, I knew that it was something special. By careful calculation I deduce that it was probably for the Christmas of 1942.

Children know little of the backdrop to their four-year-old lives. I have a very hazy awareness of my father arriving in mine. He wasn’t particularly welcome, disrupting the cosy routine I shared with my mother. The concept of the military, war and, in particular, Dunkirk simply did not exist. It seemed however that this stranger had come to stay. Before long he was disappearing every day and we developed a new routine of waiting for him at the gate each evening and as soon as he appeared around the corner, I ran down the road to meet him.

My father, I learned many years later had been invalided out of the army after the retreat from Dunkirk. His eyesight was appalling but he wasn’t at home for long before he had work at J. Samuel White s shipyard at Cowes on the Isle of Wight. I have no idea how he actually travelled to work.

It was about 13 miles away and possibly he caught one of those greatly missed steam trains that disappeared when the lines were axed 20 years later.

It isn’t too difficult to deduce why the kangaroo was painted battleship grey. During the war,

J. Samuel White’s was frantically building warships. In 1942 the yard was involved in building HMS Cavalier, one of 96 speedy craft especially designed to combat U-boats. I wonder, did the same paint coat the sides of the Cavalier as the flanks of my kangaroo?

In 1942 something else of great significance happened at White’s shipyard and indeed to the towns of both East and West Cowes. Because of their military significance, they became a target for German bombing and on the night of 3-4 May the Luftwaffe dropped 200 tons of explosives onto the towns, causing 800 casualties.

There was one small gleam of light on that dark night. In the shipyard undergoing emergency repairs was the Polish warship Blyskawica. As the attack began, the destroyer opened fire against the enemy planes and in the process saved many lives.

Despite the falling bombs, the crew stuck to their posts, and the ship fired repeated rounds at the German bombers from outside the harbour. Her guns becoming so hot they had to be doused with water and extra ammunition had to be ferried over from Portsmouth. This ensured the bombers had to stay high to avoid the fire, making it hard for them to target properly. Additionally the ship laid down a smokescreen hiding Cowes from sight. Although much damage was done to the town, without this defensive action, it would have been far worse.

The people of Cowes have long remembered this heroic defence and, this year, the 70th anniversary, a celebration took place and a square was named in honour of the Polish captain.

My father died long before this year’s 70th celebrations. Samuel White’s had been badly damaged in that attack but it continued working for the Royal Navy
and for private employers until it finally closed its doors in 1963.

So, the Christmas of 1942 arrived and I had a wooden kangaroo. It was of course a time of rationing. There was an air of defiance as people made their own Christmas paper chains and came up with inventive presents. Toilet soap allowable at 2 ounces a month was a welcome gift. Creative wives made decorated gas mask cases for their husbands, knitted gloves and socks and scarves. I well remember my mother knitting through the dark winter nights, the click of the needles, the sight of her feet in red slippers from my hidey-hole in the Anderson shelter. I was an only child. I had other presents beside the kangaroo although I can no longer remember what they were. I was lucky.

Thanks to my dad’s return there were chickens and rabbits in the garden, and an allotment, so that meat and vegetables were never short. A year or two later I had as a Christmas gift a pair of gloves made from rabbit skin. They had such beautiful soft fur, although the idea appals me now. As far as I can remember, my father never personally gave me another present leaving it to my mother to organise Christmas gifts.

My father never talked about Dunkirk although occasionally, when there was any mention of France, he would say “Parlez-Vous Francais”, and sing the opening words to Mademoiselle from Armentieres. He wasn’t exactly a linguist.

So, regrets, I have a few – why didn’t I ask my dad about that part of his life? Why didn’t I appreciate the significance of the kangaroo, the hours he must have spent making it? Did he do so at work or did he smuggle the paint home? Whatever the circumstances, I guess I’ll never know.