Written by Joe Scotchie Friday, 02 October 2009 00:00
Roslyn may be a small town, but it contains much history, including those who were eyewitnesses to historical events.
Recently, The Roslyn News did a profile of Pauline Mattana, a survivor of the Battle of London, a lady who reminded us that World War II began 70 years ago this fall on Sept. 1, 1939.
Pauline wasn’t the only local resident who survived the war while living in England. Kay Gardner Bergl, a longtime resident of East Williston, was also there when Britain was the West’s last line of defense.
Kay and her husband, Ralph, lived through the war in various parts of the country. Kay herself served in the British Army, working for the Signals Division at Whitehall, while later being stationed in occupied Germany.
As with Pauline Mattana, the Bergls are dismayed by the lack of historical knowledge in the United States concerning the seminal events of 1939-1941. They, too, give all credit to Winston Churchill for both confronting the Germans and keeping Britain afloat until America’s entry into the war swung the tide in favor of the Allies. Ralph also noted the great sacrifice made by British pilots during the Battle of Britain. He said that during that fierce conflict, the lifespan of the average Royal Air Force pilot was a mere 90 days.
Ralph was a native of Germany, where his grandfather once owned the largest music-publishing house in all of Europe. In 1937, Ralph was sent to live in England, where his family had numerous relatives. In 1939, his parents joined him in England. And so, Ralph spent six weeks in London during the blitz, where he was “bombed out” of two inner London residences before leaving the city altogether. German fighter pilots, he recalled, were “very punctual” in their air raids, all of which usually began at 8 a.m. During one raid, a bomb hit his residence. However, the pin of the bomb, Ralph said, had been sabotaged and so no great damage occurred. But that was an exception.
“The Germans had a very lovely habit of dropping land mines with parachutes, all of which went off when they touched lead,” he said. As it turned out, many London residences had lead roofing, all of which resulted in thousands of casualties during times of heavy bombing.
Later on in the war, in the early and mid-1940s, both Ralph and Kay became more than familiar with German V-1 rockets. As both recalled, when the noise from the rockets was humming, there was no great danger. It was only after the noise stopped that collateral damage was imminent. The rockets, as Ralph remembered, were often pilotless and British Spitfire pilots had mastered their own maneuvers against them, often sending the aircraft right back to Germany territory and to unsuspecting German pilots.
During the Battle of Britain, residents of London had at least siren warnings to alert them to incoming raids. However, when attacked by both V-1 and V-2 rockets, there were no such sirens. Ralph claims that if the Germans had “several hundred” more V-2 rockets, then London would have been destroyed.
From Cheshire to Whitehall
A native of Somerset, a town in southwest England, Kay lived all over that island nation during her growing up years. As the war started, her father’s work had taken the family to Cheshire, a town in the north of England. She was 12 when hostilities commenced. In 1944, at age 17, Kay joined the British Army, where, as noted, she served in London in the Signals Division. Pauline Mattana was acquainted with Churchill’s daughter, Mary, while Kay had offices in the same tunnel as Churchill himself.
Unlike Ralph, who survived German bombing raids, Kay has fond memories of her time in London.
“We had a wonderful time,” she said. “The theaters gave free tickets to military personnel.” Kay recalls seeing such greats as Vivien Leigh and Sir Laurence Olivier on the London stage. On a sadder note, she attended the last concert American music legend Glenn Miller ever gave before the latter took his ill-fated airplane ride to Germany, where he was to perform for the troops.
The singer in Miller’s band, Johnny Desmond, was a popular English performer. During that concert, Desmond and other band members climbed into the audience to dance with their fans. As it turned out, Kay was the lucky girl who got to dance with the great Desmond.
Kay was also in Trafalgar Square during V-E Day to hear Churchill’s famous speech. After the war, she remained in the Army, where she was stationed in General Bernard Montgomery’s headquarters in Berlin for the British occupation of The Rhine. While there, she also worked in the Signals Division. Life in occupied Germany was not as interesting. “Germany was in a terrible state,” she recalled. “The German people couldn’t ride the trains and the German currency was useless. We weren’t allowed to speak with any Germans.” At the same time, Kay and her colleagues also stayed at a “beautiful house” in Bad Oeynhausen where they had free access to a spa and a swimming pool.
In 1949, both Ralph and Kay were employed by a Belgian steel company, which had offices in the Bloomsbury section of London. The two were co-workers who promised to stay in touch. In 1950, Ralph moved to America to join his father, who had earlier relocated in the States. By then, England, as Kay recalled, was also in “a terrible state.” Food rationing, for instance, went on until 1950. And so, she too moved to America where she worked, first, at the British Consulate, and then for British Overseas Airway (now British Air).
Ralph and Kay married in 1951. Five years later, Kay gave birth to the couple’s first child. Kay was temporarily out of work, but in time she would find employment doing publicity at John D. Rockefeller’s Asia Society and later at the American Institute of Graphic Arts. The couple has lived in the Roslyn area since 1969, where both of their children graduated from Wheatley High School.
Kay is also a proud member of the Daughters of the British Empire, which recently celebrated its 100th anniversary of existence in America.
As with Pauline Mattana, their native land is never far from the Bergls in both thought and action. The couple visits England occasionally and last October, they both journeyed across the Atlantic on the final trip of the famed Queen Elizabeth ocean liner.