'Grandma Nellie's' unforgettable 21st birthday

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, November 10, 2004

Did you hear about the time "Grandma" Nellie Dinnebier, of Cochrane, got bombed on her birthday? No? Well, then, permit me to revisit this touching day-in-the-life story from Second World War England.

Those were days of austerity, when birthdays passed without much ado. But it was July 23, 1944, Nellie's 21st birthday, and the fun-loving clerk was going to make the most of a couple of days off work.

Nellie was part of the 10,000-strong team centred at Bletchley Park, site of Britain's top-secret Ultra project. Their assignment was to intercept and process German strategic communications Hitler wrongly believed were still protected by the Enigma code.

Suitcase in hand, Nellie left the Quonset-hut accommodations she shared with 50 other women and boarded a morning train for the 90-minute run into London. From Euston Station she took the bus across the Thames to Herne Hill in London's southeast and walked the remaining few blocks for an overnight visit with her mother and father.

Home was a two-storey row house, windows mostly bomb-shattered and boarded up, walls and roof scarred from relentless incendiary raids that had destroyed her father's woodshed during the Blitz.

In the yard was an Anderson shelter, a crouching-height dugout covered with a vaulted sheet of corrugated steel and earth – the family bomb shelter, barely big enough for three to "sleep" in night after booming night.

Arriving home on this remarkably fog-free day, Nellie joined her father in tending their nearby community garden allotment, then helped carry a carpet from their glass-and-plaster-strewn house and spread it out on the road for a good sweeping.

The early-evening birthday dinner would not have made Menu of the Week. Just beans on toast! Even for that, Nellie's mother had to queue up early in the morning, so many of the supply ships were getting sunk. And cake and candles? A totally unacceptable luxury.

Just before the three retired to their Anderson shelter, Nellie's mother filled a jug with something special to cheer them up during the approaching long night. Settling down into their musty hole-in-the-ground, they sipped the cocoa, caught up on family gossip, and tried to block out anxious thoughts.

Meanwhile, across the English Channel at a camouflaged site in Pas-de-Calais, a German officer gave the command to launch yet another V-1 flying bomb, one of thousands sent toward England in the 41 days since their first use. A crude forerunner to today's cruise missiles and containing one tonne of explosives, the buzz-bomb (so named because of its distinctive droning sound) accelerated up the ramp, quickly attained its cruising altitude of a tower-skimming 300 metres and a speed of 645 km/h, and headed northwest on a 20-minute flight across the Channel and over the Vale of Kent in its mission of terror somewhere vaguely in the London area.

You could see and hear it coming, its tail flaming, the droning growing louder. Then suddenly the engine cut off. In the foreboding silence hearts stopped as Hitler's birthday gift for Nellie went into its dastardly dive. It was only a matter of seconds, but it felt like eternity. Then it tore through the roof of Nellie's childhood home and wiped out the mementoes of a lifetime.

From inside their shelter they felt the concussion and knew.

But they were alive, uninjured and grateful. Other Londoners reached out to them, and the Canadian Red Cross provided them with quilts. After a few weeks, British military trucks helped move Nellie's parents from their Anderson shelter into better accommodations.

Following VE Day, Nellie moved to Canada and eventually settled in Cochrane, where she is affectionately known now as "Grandma Nellie" among the many children she has mentored.

Nellie, now 81, has carried a special memory with her ever since being bombed on her 21st birthday – a guiding light that shines all the brighter against the darkness of war. "It's the kindness of people, how they looked after one another," she told me once over coffee. "That's the important thing for me."

© 2004 Warren Harbeck

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