Memories of WWII London linger with local woman
Gwen Cavanna was barely a teenager, living in London, when Great Britain declared war on Germany 75 years ago, in 1939. Now living west of Fenwick Island, she remembers city life in London’s most difficult days.
Cavanna was born 1926, living several years each in her parents’ humble flat (sharing a lavatory with nine people), with her grandmother and also in a convent. When she was nearly 12, Cavanna returned to her mother, Violet Bicknell, who had worked hard to secure a home with two bedrooms and “indoor plumbing, which I had never seen in my life,” Cavanna said. The girl was mystified about a large white box in the kitchen. It was a refrigerator.
But war was on the horizon and, a year later, thousands of children were evacuated from the city in Operation Pied Piper. Cavanna was sent to Buckinghamshire for two years, for fear of Blitzkrieg bombings and invasion.
“They didn’t care of us very well” in the country, she said. Everything was rationed, so Cavanna only remembers getting two ounces of meat weekly. If they were lucky, there was extra fish, rabbit or horsemeat. Clothes were scarce, so the toes of shoes were cut off to accommodate growing children.
Cavanna went home again at age 14 to find a job, working at the famous Harrods department store.
“Only the elite went there,” said Cavanna, who was positioned at the counter, helping ladies button their evening gloves. She once saw Queen Elizabeth II there.
Meanwhile, the bombing was still under way.
“People used to get very [upset] if they came over at 3 [p.m.], because they interrupted our tea,” Cavanna said. “Got our knickers in a twist!”
She once saw a parachutist land over London, telling her mother about the “man hanging from a balloon.” They called the Air Raid Precautions group for that.
Of course, things changed at every turn. A bomb dropped in Cavanna’s neighborhood “flattened” the house two away from hers.
After a particularly heavy air raid, Cavanna left work late one night and only turned her head to the left to see “a truckload of soldiers completely blown to death.”
“This was quite common. You got used to it. I have to give it to the English people, to the European people — we didn’t give up hope,” Cavanna said. “We would laugh and joke as if it was peacetime, because it was the only way to keep going.”
Six years of war, rationing and being hungry took its toll, but Cavanna wouldn’t be scared out of her own home.
“Neither my mother nor I went to shelters. We figured what would be would be,” said the now-87-year-old.
She next worked at Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower’s war headquarters in London. She saw once saw actors Peter Lorre and Broderick Crawford there. Even Eisenhower himself “came and told us we were doing a nice job.”
Fighting for Great Britain, Cavanna’s officer father escaped from Dunkirk (Dunkeque), France, when Germany invaded, but not before waiting in the water for 20 hours. An Allied armada of ships and civilian boats rescued hundreds of thousands of soldiers across the English Channel.
“To see these soldiers come home was very traumatic. … You grew up very fast then,” said Cavanna, who herself once got shrapnel in the back of her neck.
Young people were still challenged by regular city living. Cavanna’s father told her to walk home down the middle of street to avoid creepers in dark corners, but she was still jumped in middle of the street once. She demonstrated how she placed both hands on the shoulders of the American attacker, rammed her knee into a strategically sensitive area and then fled.
Like thousands of women, Cavanna would become a war bride, sailing with 3,000 others on the ship the Queen Mary. She had married an American sailor of Russian descent, surname Korniloff. It took a long six days to navigate the Atlantic, which hadn’t been completely swept of mines.
Customs officials at Ellis Island “weren’t very happy to see us,” said Cavanna, recalling “a lot of officers asking impertinent questions.”
Hungry and tired during the 12-hour day, the women were offered coffee and doughnuts, and “We all bitched because we wanted tea.”
Free at last, Cavanna just wanted to go home and sleep, but not before Korniloff showed her Times Square.
Fluent in Russian and Chinese, her husband later worked for the CIA and translated at the Yalta Conference, where Winston Churchill, Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Josef Stalin planned the Nazi defeat.
The horrors of war weren’t entirely done, though, as the couple would visit Europe on CIA business to see Dachau, Germany’s first concentration camp for political prisoners and model for later camps.
“I just don’t comprehend the world sometimes. It’s sad,” Cavanna said, “to see the ovens, all those poor people executed…”
Cavanna first came to Delaware about 55 years ago, purchasing a house in Middlesex Beach. Later, she and her second husband settled in her current neighborhood for about 23 years. Her son Peter, a Navy veteran, lives nearby.
“Life’s had its ups and downs,” Cavanna said, calling it sad that her husband and other immigrants didn’t have a big family network nearby in the States, especially when they grew up with it.
A painting of her own ancestor hangs above Cavanna’s sofa. Her father shared the same last name as the lady depicted, Maria Bicknell. The original portrait was painted by Bicknell’s husband, the famed John Constable. The reproduction was created by Cavanna’s uncle.
Cavanna’s own grandmother worked cleaning bedrooms for the royal family during the reign of King George V and Queen Mary. She still remembers a fancy car delivering a Christmas bonus of turkey, grapefruits, bananas and more. Other family members chauffeured for visiting dignitaries or worked for the king’s hairdresser.
Cavanna is frustrated today by the government: “They do not take care of their elderly.”
But she concluded, “Here today and gone tomorrow. Life continues. You have to think positively.”
Of the English people, she said, “We’re not cold — we’re just very disciplined,” Cavanna quipped. “I’m speaking the king’s English. … Do I still have my accent?”