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Putin’s war on Ukraine brings traumatic memories of WWII

YJI's Owen Ferguson interviews Gwyneth Wykes at her home in York, Maine, while her husband Gerald looks on.

Gwyneth Wykes, 93, lives in a quiet, idyllic coastal town in Maine with her husband, Gerald. The pair have stayed in Maine for some time and have also lived in Chicago and Toronto.

Gwyneth Wykes holds a copy of the English newspaper, Midland Daily Telegraph. The top headline reads, “ALL AID RUSHED TO COVENTRY.”

But before crossing the Atlantic and starting a family, Wykes grew up in Coventry, England. She lived there through one of the most perilous times for the world-at-large and the most dangerous era of her own life, the second World War.

Coventry, like many important British cities in WWII, was the target of sustained and incredibly destructive air strikes by the German Luftwaffe. The vicious aerial bombing campaign that destroyed huge swathes of the hometowns of Wykes and so many others is commonly known as The Blitz.

The history of the Blitz campaign is regularly taught in British schools, educating children on the horrors of war and the unforgivable number of civilian casualties that were caused by such strategies.

For a teenage Gwyneth Wykes, and for thousands of innocents in Ukraine now, learning about air strikes from a classroom was replaced by witnessing the horror first hand.

A bomb in your own back garden

One of Wykes’ most vivid memories as a teenager in Coventry living through the Blitz was regularly hearing the air raid siren at night and fleeing into the nearest bomb shelter. She recalled how, as they headed underground, her mother would often grab her piano accordion to provide entertainment and – more importantly – distraction from what was happening above them.

Gwyneth Wykes holds a photo showing the destruction of her hometown of Coventry, England, during the Blitz. (YJI photo)

Hundreds of her neighbors sheltered together while bombs rained overhead, obliterating entire rows of houses at a time. Coventry suffered such destruction that the word coventrated was coined, meaning to be devastated by heavy bombing like Wykes’ own city was.

“We came up to ground level, hundreds of us spilling out onto the road, everybody stopping looking for broken glass and embers from the burning buildings,” she said.

One evening while in the shelter, Wykes said, a bomb landed in a semi-detached house mere yards from her own home.

“We looked to the right and saw what looked like a whale inside a building … and it was ticking, very loud.”

As they tried to return home, four soldiers attempting to defuse the bomb warned them to leave.

“You can’t go into your house, this is a live bomb,” the soldiers said. “It’s a mine and we’re trying to take it apart so it doesn’t explode, so go away as fast as you can.”

Taking heed of the warning, they retreated half a block away and watched as the soldiers, unable to defuse the bomb, carefully loaded it onto a truck to take it out of the neighborhood to detonate it safely. About 10 minutes later, Wykes recalled, there was an incredible explosion.

Afterwards, they approached their house with “the door hanging off.” Inside, the chandelier was askew and three of the walls had huge cracks through them. Wykes fondly remembered how her mother then saw their fine china set on the dining table still in perfect condition and said, “Nothing’s broken. That’s good.”

Preparing for poison gas

Despite the outbreak of war, it was still important for children in the UK to continue their education and go to school. This was true for Wykes, who would start the war as a pre-teen and end it as a young adult, in the formative years where education was essential.  

But the harsh realities of the global conflict were impossible to ignore, especially in a city that had a verb created from the extent of its destruction.

As a teenager during the war, Gwyneth Wykes’ thick hair made it difficult to fit her for a gas mask. (Photo courtesy of Gwyneth Wykes.)

“So many of our friends were killed. You know, we found out when we go to school the next day and would have a lot of empty seats.”

A cautionary measure taken in schools at the start of the war was fitting the children for gas masks, according to Wykes, in case Germans dropped poison gas on the city. Even though it was a rational decision following the use of chemical weapons in World War I, the Wykes never forgot the dreadful experience of fitting and testing the masks.

“Two by two in. I went in with the girl I was assigned with, and then they closed the door and they turned on the gas. And I honestly thought I was going to die.”

Wykes said they brought a chamber attached to a truck, filled with harmful gas to test the efficacy of the masks, and ensure they were properly fitted. Unfortunately for Wykes, her thick head of hair led to an imperfect seal and within moments of entering the chamber, the gas was in her eyes and nose.

“The burning in my eyes, it was almost unbearable, and I screamed.”

Wykes was led back out of the chamber, and had her face doused by wet rags to try to remove some of the chemical causing her pain. But Wykes still needed a properly fitted gas mask, and within minutes she was sent back into the chamber, this time wearing a smaller one.

“I couldn’t even tell if I was being gassed that time,” Wykes recalled, as she was still suffering from the first attempt. She said it took a week for her eyes to return to normal but other effects of the experience have lasted ever since.

“I never got over it. If I’m ever in a shut place like elevators and things … I try not to go in, I’d do a dozen flights of stairs rather than that.”

The mental anguish Wykes suffered as a teenager being prepared for war left scars 80 years down the line.

Much like she couldn’t believe “he would do something like that,” referring to Hitler potentially using deadly gas, she is mortified by current rumours of chemical weapons being used by Russian forces against Ukrainians. And it’s clear that even if these types of attacks aren’t carried out, the threat and preparation required to combat them can stick with a child for life.

“When I came up from the shelter every single time, other people would be looking for glass and debris. All I did was sniff. You know, has he gassed us?”

The horror of mass graves

An unavoidable factor of the Blitz attacks on the city of Coventry was the overwhelming increase in dead bodies that had to be buried.

Gwyneth Wykes with an array of war-era newspapers, photos and other items from her collection. (Owen Ferguson/YJI)

“That particular series of affairs was the most incredibly hurtful thing to even think about,” Wykes said. “When they said that the five mortuaries that we prepared were filled … and the council decided they would have to have a mass grave situation.”

For Wykes, it is one of her most painful memories of that time – the local council converting a park in her city into a mass grave, excavating trenches that would be filled with her neighbors and classmates.

“There were hundreds in there. They were open for days and days and days,” Wykes said, visibly upset at recounting the memory and unable to finish the thought.

But she also recalled crowds of people bringing flowers to the grave to pay tribute and witness the blessing of the site.

Like many of the atrocities of WWII currently being repeated, Wykes despaired at the footage of mass graves dug in Ukraine after the Russian invasion.

“I saw them doing the same thing in Ukraine, in the past couple of days. I actually cried yesterday because I saw one young girl’s body thrown into that ditch by the leg, by the arm and he just threw her in there like that. It was nothing like that in Coventry.”

Wykes remarked that the mass grave in her home city was now a “magnificent” memorial garden that was a “hallowed area” with beautiful lawns. She was happy with how all the people lost during the Blitz in Coventry had been remembered.

History repeating itself

There are clear parallels between Wykes’s recollections of the horror she went through growing up in WWII and the events now taking place in Eastern Europe. She labelled Russian President Vladimir Putin an “evil man” whose actions against Ukrainians are unforgivable.

Gwyneth Wykes, right, with her husband Gerald and friend Mariene Benoit. Wykes said she is “thankful every day” that she survived the war. (YJI photo)

Speaking for herself and fellow survivors of the Blitz, Wykes said she was “thankful every day” to have managed to survive, but said the current events in Ukraine do “bring back a lot of memories for us.”

“What’s going on now with Ukraine, I’m afraid it’s even worse. Because those people are losing their homes entirely and there’s no advice anybody can give them.”

Owen Ferguson is an Associate Editor with Youth Journalism International.

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