High Explosive Bomb at Sydenham Road
High Explosive Bomb :
Source: 24 hours of Blitz Sept 7th 1940
Fell on Sept. 7, 1940, at 6 p.m.
Sydenham Road, Sydenham, London Borough of Lewisham, SE26, London
58 Sydenham Road, Sydenham, SE26, London, UK ; Shop and house of 5 rooms damaged. 6 shops opposite and adjoining damaged by explosion. One Section officer AFS injured
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Contributed originally by Charles Nightingale (BBC WW2 People's War)
I was only one at the outbreak of war, one of four children born between 1935 and 1941. Memory starts with seeing my brother brought home after he was born in 1941, when I was just three. We lived in the road that led from Penge to Crystal Palace. At least four houses in it were flattened, and more than half including ours were damaged. I do not recall the collapse of our roof but was often told of my fathers dramatic trip up the stairs through a fog of powdered plaster, to rescue me: I was 'miraculously' lying in my cot surrounded by debris, yet unharmed. My mother has told me that one night at the height of the night-time blitz, she and my father abandoned hope, when the bombs seemed to be setting fire to the whole neighbourhood. They lay in each others arms waiting for the end with the sound of Armageddon in their ears. The sky, all around, was flickering red she said.
Mostly, though, we used to sit under the stairs wearing ghoulish Mickey Mouse gas-masks. My mother had Edward, my youngest brother inside a sort of capsule into which she used to pump air, whilst my father was fire watching. There were frequent air-raids which I enjoyed, because I was brought down stairs. I felt no fear, I didn't think we could be hit, since my mother showed no fear herself. I knew that people were hit though. At a nursery school I attended one child stopped appearing at school and I heard that she had been killed. I recall her name, Valerie, because I had sat next to her for a time. I kept her drawing book in which she had painted what she said was “A pea family”. I guess she had been told the flowers she drew were members of that botanical order.
During the raids my mother used to look into a coal fire which we could see from the door of the “air raid shelter”, and make up stories which were inspired by shapes she showed us in the fire. After the war, I boasted about her apparent courage when my first 'girl' came to tea. My mother interrupted: “I was in a state of blue funk from start to finish” she said. My father was not afraid though - he had been in the trenches and fought in the Battle of the Somme. He had got used to being shelled all day every day. “But as long as you don't have to do anything” he said, “its OK”. Neither he nor we thought anything of his Somme medal. “We all got them” he told us – no heroics then – we believed him.
Each morning after a raid we ran to school, hoping to see new bomb damage, and find shrapnel which boys collected. We backed onto the cricket field in the Crystal Palace Grounds (now a park, then being used by the army). One could trace the line of bomb craters, like a malevolent giant's footsteps stalking across the field culminating in a direct hit on a large nursing home (Parklands). This was largely destroyed leaving only a beautiful dome almost like the Hiroshima memorial. Like all the kids we played amongst the willow herb in the dangerous ruins. We and our friends 'owned' bomb-craters which remained for years after the end of the war. The water filled ones were very educational - with dragonflies, water-boatmen, water-spiders and so on. One night an incendiary bomb fell in our tiny front garden, and my mother couldn't open the sack of sand you were supposed to empty on them. She says she tipped the cat's earth box on it - but I have no recollection of that. Another time the soldiers in the requisitioned house next door, who we children had befriended, pulled us into their practice trenches when a siren suddenly sounded in the day. I looked up and saw a plane screaming across the sky with tiny sparks on the leading edge of its wings. For us it was a Spitfire shooting down a Messerschmitt, but of course it might have been the other way round.
When the V1's began to arrive it was very terrifying, as they sometimes came with no siren. When their engine cut out, the residents below had a few uneasy seconds to wonder where they were going to land. It was said you could hear them coming through the air, if they had your house number on them. We were fortunate to survive a narrow escape, but it pushed my poor mother into a nervous breakdown. She had set out with us from Crystal Palace, to visit Horniman’s museum which was situated in nearby Forest Hill. As we came out of the house, I looked up and saw what appeared to me to be an odd-looking aircraft. I was familiar with the shapes of the more common planes that flew around, but this seemed quite unlike them, having very stubby wings. Whether this was the V1 that occurs later in the story I don't know. If it was, it must have circled around for at least fifteen minutes before it fulfilled its purpose. We took a bus near to the museum - and stopped off at a sweet shop. There my mother got into an argument with the shop assistant who was talking with another person instead of attending to her. We were all obliged to walk out as an ostentatious demonstration of my mother’s anger. We children were not pleased as we walked along toward the museum. A few minutes later there was the loudest bang I had ever heard, and some of us fell down. As we got up we saw that a bus had stopped at a rather acute angle to the kerb - I don't know if it was pushed there by the residual blast or if the driver reacted in surprise. He looked at us and asked us if we were hurt. My mother was very shocked, and he offered us a free ride back to our street which we accepted. As we went past the row of shops my mother shouted that the sweet shop, from which we had walked in a huff, had been 'bombed out'. I looked and saw a lot of bricks and glass lying at the side of the road and people running out of surrounding buildings. Later on she used to swear that the shop had been completely demolished, but I don't recall seeing any actual gap in the stand of shops.
Shortly after that my mother told my father that she couldn't take any more and we left for Oxford to stay with relations. My mother just wrote them a letter and set out once she thought they had got it. On the way we saw the build up of war materiel at the side of the track. I watched a Bristol Beaufighter land amid huge clouds of smoke. My mother asked my father if it had crashed, but I think it was just dust on a hot summers day. All the aeroplanes and gliders had black and white stripes on their wings - all boys knew them to be 'invasion planes'. On the train a kind older couple agreed to take my two older sisters for the night. They later reported that they were terrified and thought the kindly woman was trying to poison them when she offered sweets. On arrival at Oxford I got lost, and was taken in hand by a WAAF who sat with me where she found me, until my father reappeared. As we approached the house of my aunt we saw her sitting in an upstairs window. I couldn’t follow the conversation between her and my mother, but in later years I heard that it went something like this. Mother – desperately: “Did you get my letter? Aunt - frigidly: “yes – but didn’t you get my telegram?” We stayed in Oxford for 14 weeks with a nice old couple who couldn’t have been kinder, with five extra people to cope with – my father having returned to London. We took a trip down the river to Abingdon, our steamer staying close to another one full of young men in cobalt blue uniforms, some with manifest injuries. “Aren’t they quiet?” my mother said to two ladies we were befriended by. It turned out they were convalescent American aircrew. “They are on our side” my mother said. I have never forgotten their white uncertain faces. They had seen the horrific face of war.
The V1 menace passed as the invading forces overran the launch sites, and we returned. On the way up the hill from the station we heard – out of the blue – a sudden huge bang. It was the second loudest I ever heard, after the V1 in Forest Hill. We got home very shaken, to hear later that a new weapon had been launched at us – the first of the V2 rockets. Even aged six I could see how crestfallen my poor mother looked. And a week or so later her sister’s flat was badly damaged when one hit one end of Park Court, the stylish apartment block lower down the street in which she lived with her son. The boy, who was my age, told me he had looked at the wreckage and seen the V2’s nose “with German writing on it”. At the time I believed him but of course it was nonsense. His mother broke down and my elder sister later acted out the sudden collapse in tears which she had witnessed. “Uncle Jim hasn’t written since he was taken prisoner”, she told us. He had been captured at some point, which my mother rather callously told us “was not very glorious”. Other husbands, sons and fathers were not so lucky. I recall a discussion between my sympathetic mother and a friend who had lost a son, where the phrase “right through his helmet” in a rising tone of distress culminated in a hysterical outburst which I found frightening.
I was in bed when news of the surrender came. All the electric trains whose tracks infested the area stopped and turned on their strange whistles. The next morning the world was exactly the same, but completely different. It was a sunny day and looking at the urban flower beds near the shops I got a picture of blue sky, green grass and scarlet flowers, and it was peace. There were lots of celebrations, and we walked up to Crystal Palace and looked out over the city where bonfire after bonfire into the distance were blazing like ever receding sparks.
The park with its bomb-craters and its reel upon reel of barbed wire and other seemingly unused equipment was cleared by the German prisoners and we befriended them as we had the soldiers before them. One said to my mother “We give you tea, we demand coffee”, just like a real German was supposed to talk, but she understood it was a confusion in the simple English they were learning. The trade was established. They used to sit in a circle at their breaks and sing snatches of English songs they were learning “Spring is coming, spring is coming, all the little bees are humming”. One man picked up my little brother who had long blond hair and danced with him in his arms saying “I am going to take him back to Germany”. I ran in, in a panic, thinking he was going to finally show his true Nazi qualities, but my mother was watching from the gate and just took my hand. Peace had arrived, and with it my little brother’s epilepsy, and a polio outbreak which raged around the area. That vision of blue sky, red flowers and green grass has stayed with me all my life – I always dream of peace. But I know now it’s the one thing you never get – that dream cannot be realised.
Contributed originally by Marian_A (BBC WW2 People's War)
Gladys’s Diary 1940, cont.
2/10/40 Was just about to sally forth this morning when the siren sounded. A bomb dropped over the green, just as I was near, in Brookhouse Rd. Bricks hurtled around me. I rushed across and took cover in Anderson shelter of a house opposite. “All clear” went half-hr. later, only to be followed by a siren a few minutes later. Took shelter in the same house till 11 o’clock. About 3 people were killed in the house including two women Mum knows. I eventually got to work at 11.45…Left office at 4.30 in a raid warning. Got home about 5.30. Siren sounded at 7.45 p.m.. Final “All clear” about 6.15 a.m.
4/10/40 Today was a terrible one. Nothing happened until lunchtime, when the siren went, just before one o’clock. During the afternoon we had to go to the shelter once or twice. Miss B went about 4.30, and I stayed to finish a letter…I had to go to the shelter twice again. Eventually I set off home at 6.15 during the warning, another having sounded after the “All clear” at 5.45. During my train journey the second “All clear” and a third warning sounded! This last proved to be the all night one — I went straight in the shelter when I got home, emerging only at 11 p.m. during a lull in the firing to change and get some food, which we ate in the shelter.
7/10/40 There was no raid during the night, and when Dad came home [from his night shift job] just before 5 a.m. we went in to bed. However, there was a warning at about 6 a.m., so Mum and I returned to the shelter. Another warning sounded while I was on the train, but nothing happened (to me!) Various warnings occurred, and once we adjourned to the shelter. I was very busy all day and did not leave the office until 5 during a warning. The “All clear” went as I crossed over to the station. Didn’t get home till half past six. Just had dinner and changed when the siren sounded at 7.40 approx.
8/10/40 The raid alarm sounded this morning about 8.45, and the “All clear” about 10 a.m. When I set out for work Mum, who was going to the shops, came with me. We got caught in two more alarms, during the first of which we sheltered in an Anderson shelter at the invitation of some workmen, and in the second we went into a public shelter. I eventually reached the office (in the middle of a fourth alarm!) at 12.45!
13/10/40 (Saturday) After breakfast Arthur put in some more work on the air raid shelter. While I was having my bath, the siren went, and just as I’d dried all of me except my feet, and was clad only in vest and knickers, I heard bombs descending. Just as I was I ran down and dived beneath the stairs! Luckily Arthur was in the garden and so did not witness my undignified descent.
14/10/40 Heard this morning that last night’s raid was very bad, with many casualties…
16/10/40 Had lunch in office. Walked to Cheapside and found, much to my joy, that some shops, including Woolworths, are open again. …Found everyone in a profound state of depression at home. Siren went about 7 p.m.. Mum very depressed in the shelter…
17/10/40 This morning there were two warnings before I set out for the office, and I eventually got a train about 11.20! …Arthur phoned … he is O.K., thank God, but said about 90 bombs were dropped in this district in recent night raids. Caught a train from Holborn during a raid. Had to leave the train between Catford and Bellingham and walk back along the line to Catford, whence I travelled to Southend Lane by lorry! Bellingham signal box has been damaged by bomb. Siren went just before 7. Heaps of bombs dropped.
19/10/40 (Saturday) I did my various jobs this morning and got ready for Arthur, but he was very late. Planes were about terribly, but no raid occurred…Arthur did not arrive until 5 o’clock … he’d had to stay to H.G. [Home Guard] rifle drill. I felt so very relieved to see him. He’d some sandbags for the shelter and we went down to the shops to get some creosote for them, and Arthur was still covering the bags with it when the siren went.
21/10/40 Had day of warnings and had to take shelter several times. Took from 4.15 till 6 p.m. to get home. Siren went at 7.10, but we heard gunfire and planes earlier, and were already in our dugout.
25/10/40 Had two bombs drop this morning before sirens went, and afterwards there was a very great noise of diving planes, and more bombs dropped. After the “All clear” Mum and I sallied forth to Bellingham wireless shop, and I purchased a portable set, on weekly terms, for the air raid shelter. Carried it home part of the way, and met Dad who took it the rest…Had pretty bad raid tonight but the wireless “took it off”.
26/10/40 (Saturday) Had a lot of air raids, and took cover once or twice, and by the time I’d done my various tasks it was late, and I didn’t reach Arthur’s until about
3 p.m….We sat and talked, and then had tea. Soon it was “siren time”, and we went into the shelter, Arthur first rescuing a white dog which had somehow got shut up in an upper room of a derelict house opposite. Arthur and Mrs B [Arthur’s mother] played cards and I knitted. We packed down about 10 p.m.
28/10/40 …I felt very tired and depressed. Jolly old siren went at much the usual time. Things were “pretty hot”, but I felt very cold. Didn’t do any knitting. Accumulator had packed up so no wireless. Just sat and listened to the guns etc…
31/10/40 …Arrived home about 5.30. It’s been a dreadful day, pouring with rain. I was drenched. The siren went very early, just after 6.30, and I’d had to put my hair in curlers in the dugout…
10/11/40 …No day alarms at all…
12/11/40 The siren went at about 6.45 p.m. A bright moon shone, and there was very, very heavy gunfire.
14/11/40 Planes zoomed about a good deal this morning, but nothing happened…got home about 5.15. Scoffed my tea, then washed my hair. Was all ready for the shelter when the siren went; as a matter of fact we were there already, as we’d heard planes and guns.
16/11/40 …The time bomb in Elfrid Crescent went off just as we were at the Post Office. Nobody hurt, but we had some windows broken and I had to clean my bedroom floor, more bits of ceiling having fallen…
18/11/40 We were awoken by terrible bomb explosion at 4 a.m. It blew our lamp out…Didn’t go out lunchtime as it became dark and poured with rain. Continued so all the afternoon…The siren didn’t sound till 8.15, but as it was a cold, dark night and the shelter was warmer than the kitchen, we went down there about 7.30.
17/12/40 …As there was no warning, we stayed indoors tonight.
25/12/40 (Christmas Day) After a peaceful night, we got up fairly early, and had our breakfast. We lit a fire in the front room in honour of the day. I did the usual tidying up etc., and heard a broadcast featuring evacuees in Wales, including Datchelorites [girls from Mary Datchelor, Grace’s school] and there was a special message to Joyce Davies, Grace’s friend who is in hospital. After dinner I sat in the parlour and opened my presents… After tea we played “Bombardo” and listened-in. No air raid occurred.
27/12/40 The air raid warning went about 7. It was such a bad raid that we couldn’t get to the dugout. We went under the stairs twice. A bomb fell on the allotment by Dr Wallace’s house, badly damaging it and several other houses around. I dragged Gran under the stairs when I heard it falling, and knocked her head! She made a dreadful fuss. Just after we managed to get to the shelter a shower of incendiaries fell.
29/12/40 …The siren went very early, at just after six, and there was a terrible raid. I felt very frightened, and Arthur was very sweet and kind. Poor Dad had to go out in it. Arthur got Gran down to the shelter... We went back to the house before going to sleep, and saw the red glow of a great fire in the sky…
30/12/40 …Our trainline is out of order, so I travelled to Cannon Street from Catford Bridge. Saw devastating scenes in the City. All along Cannon Street & Queen Victoria Street fires are still burning, and a ring of fires is round St. Pauls. St. Brides and St. Andrews-by-the-Wardrobe are gutted — also Guildhall. Fires rased also both sides of Cheapside and in Ludgate Hill etc. Everywhere in fact. Felt very miserable when I saw it all…
31/12/40 Had difficulty getting to the office. Got train to Charing Cross, and walked thence to the office, there being still no buses in the City. Fires were still burning… The Home Secretary broadcast an appeal for fire watchers. Some neighbours who are organising such a local service called, but Dad being on nightwork , he’s no good. I offered, but they only want men. No siren had sounded up to 9.40 p.m.
Contributed originally by Canterbury Libraries (BBC WW2 People's War)
This story has been submitted to the People's War site by Chris Hall for Kent Libraries and Archives and Canterbury City Council Museums on behalf of Shelagh Worsell and added to the site with her permission. The author fully understands the site's terms and conditions.
I was just 12 years old when war was declared. It was a depressing time for months prior to the declaration. I felt bewildered and numb and had difficulty understanding why mum and dad were looking so sad. One of my brothers was already in the Merchant Navy and my other brother was signing up in the RAF .My father was politically interested and had the news on all the time. We all had to keep quiet because the sound from our wireless would fade away and then come back again. Within a week or so of the declaration of war the schools arranged evacuation and my parents asked me whether I would like to go (1 think it was to Devon or South Wales). I said I wanted to stay. Dad came up and squeezed my shoulder, I knew he was pleased. Then the Vicar asked if l would join his daughter who was going to a private house in the country somewhere. I wouldn't go.
My school days became one week mornings only and one week afternoons. This way we were able to have as many lessons as could be fitted in due to the shortage of teaching staff ; a lot of them went into the forces. A number of elderly retired teachers were called in to replace them. When the air raid sirens sounded we had to crawl under our single desks. At times we were on the top floor of the building and there was no time to get downstairs. I remember shaking with fear but at the same time giggling. We could see each other under the desks and our navy blue knickers were on display; we couldn't sit under the desks but had to kneel as low as we could. At the end of the school day I felt more secure walking home because mum or dad would usually meet me. Lunchtimes, if the all-clear had sounded, the teachers allowed us home and that was a ten minute run for me. There was fear in the air about you and I ran like the clappers, mum usually meeting me halfway.
My dad decided to have an Anderson shelter. A lot of the neighbours thought he was crazy, they mostly chose the Morrison shelters which went indoors. Dad dug a great big pit in the back garden, larger than what was required for the shelter, but dad had ideas! He concreted the base and up the sides. Once the shelter was in place, about four feet in the ground, he covered it with some tarpaulin and then some earth and to crown it he replaced his wonderful marrow plant he had removed to make way for the hole! His next job was a stirrup pump. This was situated in part of the extra piece he had dug out. It was plumbed in and we had to do 500 pumps in the morning and 500 pumps in the afternoon to keep the shelter dry inside. This task was, on occasions, used as a punishment when I did anything wrong. We had an old carpet laid down inside the shelter, dad built four narrow bunks, the top bunks letting down to enable us to sit on the lower ones. It was a tight squeeze in there and I think that is where my claustrophobia started.
We had light and a radio! Also our two cats had a home. The remainder of the extra piece dad had dug was made into two bunks for the cats! And they knew it was for them. At times the puss on top would lean over and put his paw down to see if the other one was there. Our dog had to be chained up outside the back door but he was under an extremely strong workman's bench with blanket and basket, water and a few bones. When I had homework to do I would go into the shelter to do it and then have tea, either in the house or in the shelter, depending on whether the sirens had sounded. At night, anytime after eight o'clock, I soon got into the habit of going to sleep directly the sirens sounded. We all slept in the shelter every night regardless of whether a siren went. To keep warm we had hot water bottles. Looking back I realise it was not easy for mum and dad, they were only in their mid forties and had no privacy together. To this day when I have worries -I sleep.
Dad was out most night’s fire spotting or doing whatever was needed. Mum had to arrange meals to fit in with what was happening. I recall one night dad didn't come home at all. The incendiaries had been falling all night and there were thousands and thousands dropped in our area. Then came the bombs. It was such a bad night. PENGE was the most bombed area for its size during the war. It was early morning when dad arrived home. You can imagine how anxious mum and I were. He told us there was no point in trying to get to school -the main road had been bombed and there was no way across to the other side.
He had arrived home filthy, tired and oh! So sad. I remember crying for him. He had seen so much destruction and had lost a number of friends and their families. He often went in a cafe in Clock House, Beckenham, but early this morning the cafe had been full of workmen having breakfast when a bomb wiped them all out.
Surprise, surprise in 1941, I won a scholarship to a school in Bromley. I was so excited; but dad and mum were constantly worried about the journey, however, they accepted the place I had won. Occasionally the number 227 bus to Bromley had to delay its journey due to either unexploded bombs or the sirens sounding. One of the most fearful things which gave me nightmares for many years were the floating landmines. I was more frightened of them than anything else.
The girls and I had a short walk from the bus stop along Wharton Road in Bromley to the school. Just as we were going through the school gate to cross the playground a German plane flew in low and then made another sweep just as we crossed the playground and deliberately strafed the school with bursts of fire. I don't think anyone was hurt but the Germans knew exactly what they were firing on, their height made the school and us so visible to them.
When things got pretty hairy with raids, my dad opened up the fence between our immediate neighbours and ourselves so that they could join us in our shelter if they wished. They had opted for a Morrison. Another person who joined us in our shelter was a cousin. I recall the strange situation of four females sitting 'in the garden' past midnight, looking at jewellery and laughing our heads off at photographs. Dad and the Mr neighbour were busy elsewhere. Whilst we were in the shelter the heavy thump of bombers were continuously passing overhead on their way to the London Docks. Somehow or other we knew where they were heading. Midway through the war the days seemed to be long and sunny. We watched the dog fights against bright blue cloudless skies and would give great cheers when we saw a German plane smoking and descending fast to earth and then shouts would go up as we saw a parachute. I am writing this as though we took it all in our stride. I suppose in a way we did. The early fear seemed to have subsided and it proves the point that familiarity breeds contempt.
In 1943, I had left school and was working in an engineering office, when the girl I was working with was told to go home. She only lived a street away from me and I went with her. Her mum had been at their front gate saying goodbye to the son who was returning from leave to his RAF station. He was up the road when a V2 exploded. Mum was killed but the boy was o.k. I suppose we became rather blasé about the war; being in the wrong place at the wrong time was something we could not do anything about.
Dreadful, dreadful days when the Doodlebugs arrived.
It had been quiet for a few weeks and mum allowed me to go to the cinema at the end of the road for a matinee showing "Love Story". As I was walking home, still in daylight, I heard sweet melodic whistling coming from behind. The tune was "Cornish Rhapsody" from the film. Quite unconcerned and enjoying the music, I was suddenly pushed in the back and fell to the ground in the gutter with a body on top of me! It was only a few seconds but seemed to be ages and ages before I could move. Then I was gently lifted to my feet and a voice was apologising. It was a young man, a neighbour of ours. He had heard the engine cut out of a Doodlebug (which in my dreamy state) I had not heard. He apologised if he had hurt me but all I felt was tenderness towards him for we both knew the dreadful weapon had landed just a street away. I'll never forget him. I never ever regretted not being evacuated. I was, in a way, proud to have gone through the war with mum and dad (my sister had joined the WRNS early 1941 ). I know mentally for a while I was scarred; today I can not look up into the night sky at the moon, stars or any phenomena which may be there. My nightmares have often brought those dreadful years back, but I know that I grew up to be a stronger person. I have not been able to cry easily. I stopped myself crying, particularly when my brothers and sister had to return from leave to their bases. I didn't cry because I didn't want to upset mum and dad anymore than they were already.
Reminiscences of SHELAGH (PERCIVAL) WORSELL.
Contributed originally by Elizabeth Gay (BBC WW2 People's War)
World War II through the eyes of a child living in London.
Towards the end of August 1939 my family and I were on holiday near Swanage in Dorset. War seemed imminent; we had to cut short our holiday in order to return home and buy blackout material for all the windows in our house — a government decree. I had just had my ninth birthday. I attended Sydenham High School in South East London with my sister who was fifteen and it was decided that, London being too dangerous a place for children, the whole school should be evacuated to Brighton and join forces with Brighton and Hove High School which was another member of the Girls’ Public Day School Trust.
After war was declared on September 3rd we all assembled in the school grounds not knowing when we were going to leave. We had to say goodbye to our parents every day until finally the day of departure was decided and we were herded on to a train bound for Brighton. Each of us carried a gas mask and a small tin of “iron rations” which contained chocolate and raisins. The train got as far as Haywards Heath and then, because of a supposed bomb on the railway line, we all had to get off. We hung around on the platform for what seemed ages before eventually continuing on our journey and arriving after dark, tired, bewildered and homesick.
My sister and I were billeted with a Mr. & Mrs. Cook at number 25 Wilbury Crescent, Hove. Mr.Cook was a brother of our family doctor but he and his wife were complete strangers to us. An invasion by the enemy was anticipated at any minute, especially after the fall of France, so what the logic was behind the decision to send us to the south coast I shall never know. We used to sit on the beach oblivious to the danger until we saw people gesticulating madly at us and shouting above the wind that the air raid warning siren had gone off and enemy bombers were heading for the English coast.
Eventually the whole school was brought back to Sydenham just before Christmas 1939 and there it stayed for the rest of the war remaining open, even though there were at one point only 25 pupils attending. My sister and I were among them. Many of our lessons were held in the basement deep below the main structure of the school. It is worth noting that despite the constant disruption of our lessons and the disturbed nights during the Blitz, we all passed our exams.
As a family we tried to carry on as normal a life as possible. My mother refused to let the war get in the way. During the school holidays we went on bike rides to the country and had picnics. If there was an air raid warning we just went into the nearest air raid shelter and waited for the “all clear” siren.
On one occasion I went with my mother and father by bus to Shirley Hills near Croydon for a picnic. It was mid-August 1940. No sooner had we arrived but an air raid warning sounded and we had to take shelter. Peering outside we witnessed an incredible air battle going on in the sky in front of us. The sky seemed to be full of aircraft diving from every direction with dog fights raging and the horrific sight of planes on fire spiralling into the ground. The noise was deafening and very frightening. Afterwards, we realised that we had witnessed one of the early conflicts of the Battle of Britain taking place near Biggin Hill which was in the direct line of sight from Shirley Hills.
All through the Blitz our family stayed in South East London despite the nightly bombing and the windows being blown out on many occasions. We had no air raid shelter at that time, neither an indoor “Morrison Shelter” which was like a reinforced steel table, nor an “Anderson Shelter” dug into the ground outside. My parents were worried about the safety of their children so my brother and I were sent to stay with a cousin who lived in Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire to escape the relentless nightly bombing. My brother was 14½ and I was just 10. We had only been in Aylesbury for two or three days when, during the night of Wednesday 25th September 1940, a damaged German bomber, trying to limp home after a raid, decided to jettison the landmine that was still on board. The bomb exploded extremely close to my cousin’s house, The Old Barn, which was very badly damaged. I was in bed sound asleep when the landmine exploded and the first thing I remember was feeling a tremendous weight on my bed. I awoke to find that the plaster from the ceiling had fallen on the bed and I had a struggle to get out from underneath. I groped in the pitch darkness for my shoes but being unable to find them I had to make my way barefoot across broken glass and splinters and then downstairs to join the family. Mercifully no one was hurt although we were all badly shaken. My brother, who was saying his prayers at the time, was saved when the internal wall to his bedroom inexplicitly fell in the opposite direction to the line of blast. He swears to this day that it was divine intervention!
Early on, during the war, we children were warned of the dangers of anti-personnel bombs. These were innocent looking objects lying in the road in the form of cigarette packets or matchboxes which contained enough explosive to mutilate or blow a hand off. We were told never to pick up anything in the street.
The A.R.P. (Air Raid Precautions) organisation gave instruction to the civilian population on how to deal with incendiary bombs. Every family was supplied with a sand bucket and a stirrup pump to douse any fire with water except in the case of a phosphorous incendiary bomb when the use of water was forbidden because it would have scattered the phosphorous, which continues to burn on water and would have turned one fire into dozens more.
My mother queued every day for anything that was off-ration such as sausages or fish. She met people in the queue who were happy to exchange tea coupons for sugar coupons or visa versa depending on what you were short of. We were allowed 1/2d (6 pence) worth of meat per person per week which did not amount to much and 2 oz of butter each which was later increased to 4 oz. Offal, such as liver, was off-ration but a notice on the butcher’s door nearly always said “No offal”. Sometimes we were able to buy whale meat which was tough and lacked flavour. We had to economise on electricity so only 5 inches of hot water was all that we were allowed when we had a bath, which was often only once a week. We painted a line on the side of the bath and were careful not to exceed it.
I kept a diary in 1944 and on Thursday 15th June I mentioned pilot-less planes for the first time. These would have been the first flying bombs later known as Doodlebugs. They began coming over night after night, in fact the Croydon area where we lived was the worst hit. The Doodlebugs exploded all around us causing much loss of life. On Saturday 17th June I noted that we had five air raid warnings in the morning alone. We brought our beds downstairs as it was too dangerous to go to bed upstairs. On Wednesday 21st June we spent all day in a nearby air raid shelter. Our house windows were blown out time after time. On Wednesday night 28th June a doodlebug exploded nearly opposite our house killing five of our neighbours. Some other neighbours who survived came and stayed the night with us. They arrived on our doorstep coughing, bedraggled, covered in dust and deeply shocked. On July 7th my school broke up early because of the bombing. The bombing continued nearly every night all through the month of July 1944 and into August. However by the 2nd September I wrote in my diary that we spent our first night upstairs in our own beds for the first time for eleven weeks. On September 7th it was officially announced that the Flying Bomb War in London was over and the blackout was partially lifted. Little did we know that there was even worse in store for us in the form of the V2 Rockets which came out of the blue, silently with no noise or advance warning. I first mentioned a V2 Rocket in my diary on Tuesday 19th September 1944. It fell some 4 miles away from us, but then they became more frequent and gradually came nearer. One Thursday in early November, probably the 9th, a V2 Rocket exploded in the air above my school. If the explosion had happened a few minutes later all the children would have been playing outside in the grounds as it was just before break time. Luckily there were no casualties. It was a miracle because the hockey pitch where we normally played was literally covered with hundreds of huge, jagged, brightly shining pieces of metal from the rocket. From the windows of our school we had seen black specks high in the sky which fell rapidly until they clanked heavily on the roof. One or two of us went and collected some of the pieces and hid them in our shoe bags but this was this strictly forbidden and they were all confiscated. As far as I know this was the only V2 Rocket to explode in the air over Britain, if it had not done so I would not be here nearly 60 years later to tell the tale.