Released 6 February 2012
It was May, 1940. The Nazis were marching across Europe.
An English family, George, his wife, Kathleen, their seven year old daughter and Kathleen's mother, who were then residing in Geneva, Switzerland, were on a few days spring vacation in the Alps when a telegram came to their hotel. George, a staff employee at the League of Nations, was summoned back to Geneva and told to pack his household goods to be stored in the basement of the League building "for the duration" [of the war] and take his family home to England - immediately.
The League of Nations, that hope of the free world, had collapsed as a functioning, peace-keeping body. All-out war was in progress and all visas were cancelled. Staff and diplomats alike were to leave Switzerland at once and return to their home countries.
The family, with only what luggage they could handle themselves, arrived in Paris on June 1, 1940. There they had to stay while George tried to get reservations on a ship and a train to take them to a French port to cross the channel to England. This simple job was proving impossible. Calais, the usual port of choice, was out of the question, it seemed, although no one knew why or what was going on in the rest of the country. The lack of news and information and the nightly air-raid warnings, were very frightening. While he haunted travel booking agencies, Kathleen took the child to play in the public gardens and at night, when the air-raid warning sirens wailed and hooted, they wrapped her in a blanket and took her down to the hotel basement with the other guests. Everyone sang songs to keep their spirits up.
Eventually George got tickets for a passenger steamer and was surprised to find that it left from St Marlo - a port far more to the south than one would have expected to be used to cross the channel to England. He didn't, however, question it, he was getting much too perturbed about the uncertain state of affairs.
On June 9th the train took them to an old, rusty and very over-crowded vessel. To add to the mystery, they were told the usual short journey would be an overnight trip. Kathleen, was able to get a tiny cabin with bunk beds because of her daughter and elderly mother. Grandmother had the lower bunk, Kathleen, the child and the doll she carried, the upper one. George stayed with the other men on deck or in the jam-packed public rooms. He reported next day that the ship went far out into the Atlantic and zig-zagged all night, eventually coming into Southampton on the morning of June 10th. After dis-embarking the women huddled in a huge dock-side shed, with people swarming all around and suitcases and trunks piled up everywhere. It was cold, it had hardly been a restful night and they had had no breakfast. They were hungry, tired and the grown-ups were frightened.
They learned from local sources that the reason there were so few ships available during that period was that almost every other boat that floated had rushed to northern France to help evacuate Dunkirk. Had they not been lucky enough to get on board this ancient vessel, the family would have been stranded and would have had to spend the rest of the war in France, as other friends and collegues of George's had to do.
So, in this bewildered and confused state, the women stood and shivered - and then an angel appeared. She was dressed in a long, dark dress and wore a cape over it and a quaint bonnet. The child was fascinated by the outfit and long remembered it, especially the bonnet. This oddly garbed "angel" came up to Kathleen and holding out a mug, said, "Would you like a cup of tea, Love?"
Kathleen was flummoxed. "Oh!" she said, "I certainly would - but I haven't any English money and my husband is over there looking for our luggage..."
"Never mind, Dear", said the angel. "Take the tea - you can pay us back some other time."
My mother, Kathleen Read, paid for that tea every year for the rest of her life. When she put change in the kettles outside the stores she always said to the puzzled bell-ringer, "That's for the tea!"
Thank you, Salvation Army, for being there with that cup of warm comfort.
Margaret Read [Rother] Nocca