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World War II: Dunkirk? Blitz? A delightful time, recalls plucky British vet
By Jackie R. Broach
It’s not often a World War II veteran uses the word “delightful” to describe service during the dark days when the Nazis overran most of Europe.
Yet that’s exactly how Peg Topping, 88, recalls her time in the Royal Navy. She joined at 18 and served for about three and a half years, ending in 1944 when she married an American soldier and started a family. She was in communications, which included handling a switchboard, radio and a variety of other signal methods.
“It was delightful because you felt you were doing something. You felt useful,” Topping said with a crisp English accent unaffected by nearly 70 years away from her native country. Originally from Kent, she now lives at St. Elizabeth Place in Pawleys Island.
As a signal woman, “our job was to rescue people that came to grief in the channel,” Topping said. Boats were constantly taking supplies and other materials back and forth across the English Channel, and mines and air bombings were a constant hazard. When ships hit trouble, Topping was among those responsible for receiving the distress call and dispatching a boat to offer aid.
One of Topping’s most vivid memories of the war is Germany’s invasion of France that led to the evacuation of the British army from the port of Dunkirk.
“People were stranded on the beaches in France and all these boats had to go over and rescue them. There were all sorts of boats. It could have been your father’s row boat; it didn’t’ matter, everybody went,” and they took every available vessel, she said.
“They went over and rescued all these poor folks who were just trapped. The Germans were coming in one end of France and we were taking them out the other end as fast as we could get them out.”
Topping was stationed on the English side of the channel.
“We were receiving them at our end and putting them on trains and getting them inland as fast as we could, just getting them away from the water,” she said. It lasted days and there were so many people involved, she shakes her head at the remembrance.
“You can’t really explain it to someone who hasn’t been there, because something like that has never happened over here,” she said.
The German air raids in London and the frenzy to build bomb shelters also stand out in her mind. Her family lived on the outskirts of London and one of the neighboring families built an underground shelter at their home. They would run back and forth between it and the house, again and again.
“They went in and all of a sudden the door opened and they made a dash for the house for something they had forgotten to bring in.”
Eventually the all-clear came and they never had cause to use the shelter.
Topping’s parents, Ernest and Agnes Kidd, never bothered with a bomb shelter.
“They decided if they were going to go, they were going to go in the comfort of their own home,” she said.
Unable to get gasoline for the car, her father, who was in his late 60s at the time, would ride his bicycle to work every day. There were lots of working men riding bikes on the street, “peddling like fury,” she said.
Topping had previously worked with a navigation company that ran steamships up and down England’s coast and over to France. The war put a quick end to her employment when the ships were docked.
Living on the outskirts of London, she went to work for a department store briefly, but soon went to stay with a friend in the country for a while and got a job there with Nescafé.
“My mother thought she had died and gone to heaven, because she could now get Nescafé and she dearly loved a cup of coffee for breakfast. She was a very unusual Englishwoman,” Topping said with a quirk of her lips and a lift of her brow.
When it was time to go back to the city, she had to find another job and set her sights on the Royal Navy.
“I figured I’d have to join up sooner or later, I’d might as well go ahead and do it,” she said. “But you couldn’t just join the navy. They were very fussy about who they took.”
She was lucky, she added, that she knew some people who had the clout to help her get accepted. When she was, her parents were “tickled silly.”
Topping was stationed in Devonshire when she fell in love with an American soldier, George King. He was part of the 102nd Calvary, but “the only time he rode a horse was when he was playing polo,” Topping said.
“We met in the country and it just seemed wherever I was posted, he was posted and vice versa. We came to the conclusion there was a higher hand than ours at work. We said we can’t get away from each other so, we had might as well get married.”
She was 21 and, with a husband and a baby on the way, she had to leave the navy. They didn’t want pregnant women in their ranks, she said.
With her husband stationed in France and her back in London, she decided it was time to go to America. She didn’t want him being distracted with worries of her being caught in an air raid while he was trying to fight a war.
“I got married in London and from that point on, I used to go to the American Embassy and ask them to send me to America,” she said. When they weren’t responsive, “I said I shall continue to come and see you every day until you send me to America. I figured they would get so damn sick of me wandering in and saying, “I’m here!” that they would eventually break down.”
It took months, but she got her way.
In 1944, Topping boarded the RMS Aquitania, an ocean liner turned troop transport. It was being used as a hospital ship to take American wounded home. Topping was one of 12 war brides squeezed in for the journey, along with the medical staff and 25 members of the women’s branch of the British army who were headed to Canada for training.
“It was a very interesting trip,” she said. “We used to take our blankets off the bed and pinch all the rolls off the table before we left breakfast, and go up on deck. We had two thermos bottles, one with tea and one with coffee, and those that could maneuver would get up on the deck and we would have little picnics up there.
“The fellows that came up on deck, they were glad to talk to someone who knew what they were talking about. They knew when they got home, they could talk to their wives or their parents as the case might be, but they wouldn’t really know what they were talking about, because they hadn’t experienced any of this business.”
The voyage across the Atlantic took eight days as the ship had to go the long way, to South America and then up the coast in an effort to avoid bombs, she said.
When Topping arrived, now seven months pregnant, she was met at the dock by her husband’s parents and one of his long-time friends, Marie Tassinaro.
“She came because she thought it would be best there was someone my age,” Topping said. And while Topping’s marriage didn’t last, her friendship with Tassinaro, now 91 and a resident of the Jersey shore, did. “We’ve been buddies ever since,” Topping said.
Topping lived with her in-laws in Newark, N.J., and said she was lucky they got along.
“They were lovely people,” she recalled.
Her husband came home in 1945 after being wounded in France. But unable to send notice of his arrival, he found his wife wasn’t there. She had gone to visit a friend some 50 miles away.
“It worked out for the best, because it gave him a chance to reunite with his parents before I came on the scene,” Topping said.
She presented her husband with their son, Terry, and “he was quite entranced.”
Her husband took a job with the hospital in Morristown, N.J., and the small family moved into veterans housing.
“It was a very nice place and we were lucky because we had a beautiful home to live in whereas other poor souls had to wait until the war was over and something could be built.”
Topping and King had two more sons, Dennis and Peter. “Then I finally had a girl, Lauren, and decided to stop,” she said.
She was a stay-at-home mom for most of the time after her children were born and was married to King until her youngest was “pretty much grown.” But they remained friends up until his death several years ago.
She married again and lived on the island of Yap in the western Pacific in the late 1960s, while she and her second husband, Russell Topping, worked for the State Department. They lived near the armory on the island and Topping said she would often go down and cook for the soldiers there.
When they returned to the U.S., a couple the Toppings had met on Yap convinced them to move to South Carolina. They moved to Camden and Topping frequently visited the beach. Then one day she decided to stay.
“I was born and raised on the English Channel, so I need water,” she said. “If I don’t hear the waves, I get very cranky.”
Topping said she’s lived a full and exciting life, seen much of the world and has wonderful children and grandchildren to show for it. But her time in the navy was one of the most interesting.
“It was a heck of a time to live and you were very foolish if you didn’t live life to the fullest,” she said.