Private Battles: How the War Almost Defeated Us - Our Intimate Diaries


Simon Garfield interweaves the diaries of four ordinary people as they struggle to cope with the reality of life during the Second World War. It’s the true story of how ordinary British people won the war. And of how they almost didn’t.

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Simon Garfield interweaves the diaries of four ordinary people as they struggle to cope with the reality of life during the Second World War. It’s the true story of how ordinary British people won the war. And of how they almost didn’t.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780091910778
  • Publisher: Crown Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 9/6/2007
  • Pages: 560
  • Sales rank: 1,408,479
  • Product dimensions: 4.90 (w) x 7.60 (h) x 1.50 (d)

Meet the Author

Simon Garfield is an award-winning feature writer for The Observer, and the author of eight books, including The End of Innocence: Britain in the Time of AIDS, Mauve, The Nation's Favourite, Our Hidden Lives, We Are At War, and The Wrestling.

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Read an Excerpt

31 October 1940 - 2 January 1941

31 October 1940 This month in Britain, 6350 civilians were killed by enemy action.

5 November President Roosevelt wins a third term by a landslide.

8 November RAF bombs Munich, delaying Hitler's annual speech.

9 November Neville Chamberlain dies of cancer at the age of 71.

11 November The British attack Italian fleet at Taranto in southern Italy.

14 November 568 people die and 863 are injured in a raid on Coventry.

15 November The ghetto in Warsaw, with 400,000 Jews, is sealed off from the rest of the city and is starved of food.

20 November Severe Luftwaffe raids on Birmingham, followed by Liverpool, Bristol and Southampton.

21 November The Italians surrender in Greece.

26 November The ban on banana imports is announced, but sugar and tea rations are increased for Christmas.

8 December The House of Commons and Tower of London bombed.

14 December Churchill watches Charlie Chaplin's The Great Dictator.

17 December General Wavell leads a series of British advances in North Africa.

23 December Anthony Eden becomes Foreign Secretary as Viscount Halifax becomes Ambassador to Washington.

27 December The Luftwaffe launches prolonged attack on London, culminating in the second 'Great Fire' two days later.

1 January 1941 The BBC Brains Trust takes to the air.


Maggie Joy Blunt
Metal factory worker living in Burnham Beeches, near Slough, age 31

The winter is here. It seems to have come so quickly. Yesterday I found the dahlia leaves blackened by frost and I lifted and stored the tubers and cut the remaining flowers. They are in a vase now in front of me: their delicately crinkled petals spread in perfect circles of pale colour. I didn't realise dahlias were so lovely. What shall I be doing and feeling, and what shall I have done and felt, by the time those tubers bloom again . . .


Ernest van Someren
Research chemist in Broxbourne, Hertfordshire, age 37

Jean R. came to see us. We sat and talked most of the afternoon and evening, largely about incidents in London. She has just moved from an old house very near a railway to a steel and concrete block of flats. She told us about a woman having a bath in Kentish Town whose house was damaged by a very close hit, so that her bath slid down into the street without spilling the water or hurting her in any way. It was dark too.


Pam Ashford
Secretary in coal shipping firm, Glasgow, age 38

At 2.45am the alert woke me up, but I went to sleep again, and did not hear the all clear; this is said to have gone at 3.50. I have been surprised by the changed attitude so many people are showing - they stayed in bed. Familiarity must be one factor, and I should think the cold nights another.

My friend Miss Whittan was 'phoning London friends this morning and they reported that last night - the first for 56 nights without an alert - was so quiet as to be 'eerie'. There they were in their shelters expecting something to happen and nothing did. The ears get used to the noise and then quiet keeps one awake.

Miss McKirdy has heard of a house that was bombed in London, and immediately the salvagers began to go all over the debris looking for a pair of pink corsets. The owner had £2000 sewn in and had not happened to be wearing the garment at the time the bomb fell.

Ernest van Someren

Up early for Jean to get a coach back to work. A good post, letters from my brother and bro-in-law in RAF and a note from my mother with some ham from my sister in USA. Tony, my brother, has been moved from Scotland to Lancashire to a RAF training camp where he is allowed to do some consultant work as a psychiatrist, which he had hoped to do.

During the day a parcel arrived from [my sister] Tessa with assorted sweets and two pairs of nylon stockings. After we had sampled the sweets we found a letter saying that they were for Esmee and her two boys. We sent on the rest of the sweets the next day.

In the evening wrote diary and letters. It was fairly noisy.

Maggie Joy Blunt

Heart of my heart! It seems six or seven bombs have just fallen outside my back door. I heard a plane and then zzzoom! zzzoom! zzzoom! - one after the other. I felt the ground shaking and dived for the table. We have had bombs at H Corner which destroyed two council houses and the landmine in the Beeches but nothing as near as this. What damage now is done? I heard the soldiers stationed in the woods shouting 'Lights! These people aren't blacked out at all!' But it's not easy to keep a slither of light from showing now and then. The times I have pulled and tacked and padded my black-out.

The silence now . . . and the darkness! Outside never was such a dark night and that one plane swooping from the clouds, dropping its bombs without warning . . . I have heard no siren . . . In this quiet, withdrawn spot it is the unexpectedness of such an event that is so terrifying. I would rather be in a town and hear the barrage guns.


Pam Ashford

I am told there has been an increased demand for pianos - people are having musical evenings at home and canteens want pianos. And of course there are munition workers with big packets of money that they want to spend, despite the appeals of the War Savings Committee.

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