A friendship formed through war memories

HELEN MCGURK finds out more about a Coleraine nursing home which offers reminiscence workshops for its residents

By The Newsroom
Wednesday, 8th January 2020, 12:44 pm
Johanna Walker and Vera Ravenhill MBE
Johanna Walker and Vera Ravenhill MBE

Johanna Walker, 91, and Vera Ravenhill, 97, had no idea their paths had crossed so closely during WWII until they shared their stories during a reminiscence workshop in Ratheane Nursing Home, Coleraine.

The two residents have now struck up a firm friendship based on their shared similar history regarding the war years, how they met their loves, and the fact that their husbands fought in WWII in the same town in Holland, where Johanna is originally from.

Theirs is a story of love and survival through the toughest of times and how reminiscing about these times can be so beneficial.

During the war Vera Ravenhill MBE was living in Belfast and has lots of memories about that turbulent time.

She remembers the darkness in the streets, the gas lamps in the houses, the blackout blinds, she remembers the wardens coming round if there was even a chink of light at the window.

Vera remembers running to the air raid shelters built in the Belfast streets.

“When you heard the sirens you just ran for the shelters”, she said.

And she recalls the day that Belfast was first bombed.

“It was Easter Saturday and Belfast was nearly flattened.’’

During the war Vera worked in a factory making army uniforms.

She started out making soldiers’ trousers. She remembers the heaviness of the worsted material and she was very glad when she got promotion and was then creating stripes for officers.

Vera didn’t know it, but during this time, she was being watched.

A young Welsh soldier, Bill, was in Belfast training for the war.

Bill was billeted near to where Vera worked and each morning when he was looking out of the window, he saw this beautiful girl with stunning brown hair and blue eyes walking past on her way to work.

He asked people who she was and as luck would have it his next-door-neighbour knew Vera and was able to get them introduced.

Love was in the air and the 21-year-old Vera married Bill before he went off to fight.

Bill and Vera were only able to spend a few short weeks together before he was sent overseas and she didn’t see him again until their baby daughter was one- year-old when Bill came home to see her for the first time.

Bill had received a head injury when fighting for the liberation of Nijmegen in Holland where another one of Ratheane Nursing Home residents, Johanna Walker, lived.

The young Johanna Haarlem lived in Nijmegen, Holland. During the war this city was bombed repeatedly.

Nearly every night Johanna heard the sirens booming out.

“When you heard them you ran for shelter. Under the stairs, the air raid shelters or even under the kitchen table,’’ she said.

“The air raid shelters were horrible, hot, overcrowded places”. Johanna remembers “standing, crushed, shoulder to shoulder for nights on end.’’

She tells of entertainment being put on for children in the shelters, as people tried to keep the horror of it all away from the little ones.

Food was very scarce.

“People tried to grow their own food anywhere they could, but they couldn’t really.’’

She added: “There was no petrol and families used to walk miles out to farms to buy anything they could, but food was so expensive and hunger was rife.’’

No news of how the war was going got through.

Johanna did not know of the British soldiers advances until a British soldier was standing at the front door.

It took about six months before the fighting in the streets eventually stopped.

During this time residents were moved around the city depending on where the fighting was.

Residents opened up their homes and British soldiers lived in people’s houses.

Seven soldiers lived in sixteen-year-old Johanna’s house.

A friendship began with Norman from Northern Ireland and four months later when he left to continue fighting in Germany he left Johanna a ring to keep safe until he came back.

Johanna said the worry was really awful but so also was the hope.

One day about six months later. Johanna’s mum said to her “Johanna there is someone waiting for you in the front room”.

Johanna had no clue who it was but when she opened the door ”her” Norman was there waiting for her. She had to wait until she was 18 before they could get married. As Johanna says “She was liberated and then she was captured”.