Bombs dropped in the borough of: Camden
Total number of bombs dropped from 7th October 1940 to 6th June 1941 in Camden:
- High Explosive Bomb
- Parachute Mine
Number of bombs dropped during the week of 7th October 1940 to 14th of October:
Number of bombs dropped during the first 24h of the Blitz:
Memories in Camden
Read people's stories relating to this area:
Contributed originally by vcfairfield (BBC WW2 People's War)
Over the Seas Two-Five-Four!
We’re marching right off,
We’re marching right off to War!
No-body knows where or when
But we’re marching right off
We’re marching right off - again!
It may be BER-LIN
To fight Hitler’s KIN
Two-fifty-four will win through
We may be gone for days and days — and then!
We’ll be marching right off for home
Marching right off for ho-me
Marching right off for home — again!
Merry-merry-merry are we
For we are the boys of the AR-TIL-LER-Y!
Sing high — sing low where ever we go
TWO-FIVE-FOUR Battery never say NO
The 64th Field Regiment Royal Artillery, Territorial Army has roots going back to the 1860’s. It first saw action in France during the Great War 1914 to 1918 when it took part in the well known battles of Loos, Vimy Ridge, River Somme, Ypres, Passchendale, Cambrai and Lille.
Its casualties numbered 158 killed.
Again in the Second World War it was called upon to play its part and fought with the 8th Army in Tunisia and then with the 5th and 8th armies in Italy. It was part of the first sea borne invasion fleet to land on the actual continent of Europe thus beginning its liberation from Nazi German domination. Battle honours include Salerno, Volturno, Garigliano, Mt Camino, Anzio, Gemmano, Monefiore, Coriano Ridge, Forli, Faenza, R. Senio Argenta.
Its peacetime recruits came mainly from the Putney, Shepherds Bush and Paddington areas of London up to the beginning of World War II. However on the commencement of hostilities and for the next two years many men left the regiment as reinforcements and for other reasons. As a result roughly one third of the original Territorials went abroad with the regiment, the remainder being time expired regular soldiers and conscripted men.
Casualties amounted to 84 killed and 160 wounded.
In 1937 I was nineteen years old and there was every indication that the dictators ruling Germany in particular and to a lesser degree Italy, were rearming and war seemed a not too distant prospect. Britain, in my opinion had gone too far along the path of disarmament since World War I and with a vast empire to defend was becoming alarmingly weak by comparison, particularly in the air and on land. It was in this atmosphere that my employers gathered together all the young men in their London office, and presumably, elsewhere, and indicated that they believed we really ought to join a branch of the armed forces in view of the war clouds gathering over Europe and the hostile actions of Messrs Hitler and Mussolini. There was a fair amount of enthusiasm in the air at the time and it must not be forgotten that we British in those days were intensely proud of our country. The Empire encompassed the world and it was only nineteen years since we had defeated Imperial Germany.
The fact that we may not do so well in a future war against Germany and Italy did not enter the heads of us teenagers. And we certainly had no idea that the army had not advanced very far since 1918 in some areas of military strategy.
In the circumstances I looked round for a branch of the forces that was local to where I lived and decided to join an artillery battery at Shepherds Bush in West London. The uniform, if you could call the rather misshapen khaki outfit by such a name, with its’ spurs was just that bit less unattractive than the various infantry or engineer units that were available. So in February 1937 I was sworn-in, with my friend Ernie and received the Kings shilling as was the custom. It so happened that soon afterwards conscription was introduced and I would have been called up with the first or second batch of “Belisha Boys”.
I had enlisted with 254 Battery Royal Artillery and I discovered, it was quite good so far as Territorial Army units were concerned, for that summer it came fourth in Gt Britain in the “Kings Prize” competition for artillery at Larkhill, Salisbury. In fact I happened to be on holiday in the Isle of Wight at the time and made special arrangements to travel to Larkhill and join my unit for the final and if my memory serves me correctly the winner was a medium battery from Liverpool.
My job as a “specialist” was very interesting indeed because even though a humble gunner — the equivalent of a private in the infantry — I had to learn all about the theory of gunnery. However after a year or so, indeed after the first years camp I realised that I was not really cut out to be a military type. In fact I am in no doubt that the British in general are not military minded and are somewhat reluctant to dress up in uniform. However I found that many of those who were military minded and lovers of “spit and polish” were marked out for promotion but were not necessarily the best choices for other reasons. There was also I suppose a quite natural tendency to select tall or well built men for initial promotion but my later experience tended to show that courage and leadership find strange homes and sometimes it was a quiet or an inoffensive man who turned out to be the hero.
Well the pressure from Hitler’s Germany intensified. There was a partial mobilisation in 1938 and in the summer of that year we went to camp inland from Seaford, Sussex. There were no firing ranges there so the gunners could only go through the motions of being in action but the rest of us, signallers, drivers, specialists etc. put in plenty of practice and the weather was warm and sunny.
During 1939 our camp was held at Trawsfynydd and the weather was dreadful. It rained on and off over the whole fortnight. Our tents and marquees were blown away and we had to abandon our canvas homes and be reduced to living in doorless open stables. Despite the conditions we did a great deal of training which included an all night exercise. The odd thing that I never understood is that both in Territorial days and when training in England from the beginning of the war until we went abroad there was always a leaning towards rushing into action and taking up three or four positions in a morning’s outing yet when it came to the real thing we had all the time in the world and occupying a gun site was a slow and deliberate job undertaken with as much care as possible. I believe it was the same in the first World War and also at Waterloo so I can only assume that the authorities were intent on keeping us on the go rather than simulating actual wartime conditions. Apart from going out daily on to the firing ranges we had our moments of recreation and I took part in at least one football match against another battery but I cannot remember the result. I always played left back although I really was not heavy enough for that position but I was able to get by as a result of being able to run faster than most of the attacking forwards that I came up against.
The really odd coincidence was that our summer camp in Wales was an exact repetition of what happened in 1914. Another incident that is still quite clear in my memory was that at our Regimental Dinner held, I believe in late July or early August of 1939, Major General Liardet, our guest of honour, stated that we were likely to be at war with Germany within the following month. He was not far out in his timing!
Well the situation steadily worsened and the armed forces were again alerted. This time on the 25th August 1939 to be precise. I was “called up” or “embodied” along with about half a dozen others. I was at work that day at the office when I received a telephone call from my mother with the news that a telegram had been sent to me with orders to report to the Drill Hall at Shepherds Bush at once. This I had expected for some days as already more than half the young men in the office had already departed because they were in various anti-aircraft or searchlight units that had been put on a full war footing. So that morning I cleared my desk, said farewell to the older and more senior members who remained, went home, changed into uniform, picked up my kitbag that was already packed, caught the necessary bus and duly reported as ordered.
I was one of several “key personnel” detailed to man the reception tables in the drill hall, fill in the necessary documents for each individual soldier when the bulk of the battery arrived and be the general clerical dogsbodies, for which we received no thanks whatsoever. The remainder of the battery personnel trickled in during the following seven days up to September 2nd and after being vetted was sent on to billets at Hampstead whilst we remained at the “Bush”.
The other three batteries in the regiment, namely 253, 255 and 256 were mustered in exactly the same manner. For instance 256 Battery went from their drill hall to Edgware in motor coaches and were billeted in private houses. The duty signallers post was in the Police Station and when off duty they slept in the cells! Slit trenches were dug in the local playing fields and four hour passes were issued occasionally. There were two ATS attached to 256 Battery at that time a corporal cook, and her daughter who was the Battery Office typist.
I well remember the day Great Britain formally declared war on Germany, a Sunday, because one of the newspapers bore headlines something like “There will be no war”. Thereafter I always took with a pinch of salt anything I read in other newssheets.
At this time our regiment was armed with elderly 18 pounders and possibly even older (1916 I believe) 4.5 howitzers. My battery had howitzers. They were quite serviceable but totally out of date particularly when compared with the latest German guns. They had a low muzzle velocity and a maximum range of only 5600 yards. Our small arms were Short Lee Enfield rifles, also out of date and we had no automatics. There were not enough greatcoats to go round and the new recruits were issued with navy blue civilian coats. Our transport, when eventually some was provided, was a mixture of civilian and military vehicles.
Those of us who remained at the Drill Hall were under a loose kind of military discipline and I do not think it ever entered our heads that the war would last so long. I can remember considering the vastness of the British and French empires and thinking that Hitler was crazy to arouse the hostility of such mighty forces. Each day we mounted a guard on the empty building we occupied and each day a small squad marched round the back streets, which I am certain did nothing to raise the morale of the civilian population.
There were false air raid alarms and we spent quite a lot of time filling sandbags which were stacked up outside all the windows and doors to provide a protection against blast from exploding bombs. In the streets cars rushed around with their windscreens decorated with such notices as “DOCTOR”, “FIRST AID”, “PRIORITY” etc, and it was all so unnecessary. Sometimes I felt more like a member of a senior Boy Scout troop than a soldier in the British Army.
After a few weeks the rearguard as we were now called left the drill hall and moved to Hampstead, not far from the Underground station and where the remainder of the battery was billeted in civilian apartments. They were very reasonable except that somebody at regiment had the unreasonable idea of sounding reveille at 0530 and we all had to mill about in the dark because the whole country was blacked out and shaving in such conditions with cold water was not easy. Being a Lance Bombardier my job when on guard duty was to post the sentries at two hourly intervals but the problem was that as we had no guardhouse the sentries slept in their own beds and there was a fair number of new recruits. Therefore you can imagine that as there were still civilians present, occasionally the wrong man was called. I remember finding my way into a third or fourth floor room and shaking a man in bed whom I thought was the next sentry to go on duty only to be somewhat startled when he shot up in bed and shouted “go away this is the third time I have been woken up tonight and I have to go to work in a few hours time!”
Whilst we were at Hampstead leave was frequent in the evenings and at weekends. Training such as it was, was of a theoretical rather than a practical form. However we very soon moved to “Bifrons House” in Kent, an empty stately home in very large grounds near Bridge and about four miles south of Canterbury. Here we resided until the middle of 1940.
In this position we had a bugler who blew reveille every morning while the Union Jack was raised, and lights out at night. The food was quite appalling in my opinion. It was prepared in large vats by a large and grimy cook and by the time it was distributed was almost cold due to the unheated condition of the dining area. Breakfast usually consisted of eggs eaten in the cold semi darkness and the yolks had what appeared to be a kind of plastic skin on them that was almost unbreakable. Indeed all meals were of the same poor standard and there was no noticeable improvement during our stay here.
The winter of 1939/40 was very long, very cold and brought a heavy fall of snow which stayed with us for several weeks. Christmas day was unforgettable. I had a touch of ‘flu and the first aid post where another soldier and myself were sent to was an empty room in a lodge house. There was not a stick of furniture, no heating, the floors were bare and we slept on straw palliasses on the floor. I recovered very quickly and was out in two or three days! On one day of our stay at Bifrons, on a Saturday morning there was a Colonels inspection and as a large number of sergeants and bombardiers were absent from among the gun crews I was detailed to take charge of one gun and stand in the frozen snow for the best part of an hour on what was I believe the coldest day of the winter. And so far as I remember our Commanding Officer decided not to include us and eventually we were dismissed and thawed out around the nearest fire.
In general however I think most of us quite enjoyed our stay here. It certainly was not like home but we made ourselves comfortable and parades finished about 1630 hours which gave us a fair span of time until “lights out”. At weekends we spent the Saturday evening in the pub in nearby Bridge and occasionally walked or begged a lift to Canterbury which was four miles away. In our spare time we played chess and various games of cards. From time to time we were entertained by groups of visiting artists or had sing-songs in typical army fashion. Looking back it was in some ways I suppose like an of beat low class boarding school with the battery numbering some two hundred and fifty men billeted in the bedrooms and stables of the house. Nevertheless we did a lot of training. We even went out in the cold snow covered countryside at night in our vehicles as if we were advancing or retreating, for two or three hours at a time. We had to take a certain preselected route which was very difficult to follow because with everything hidden beneath the snow, with no signposts and with trying to read an inch to the mile map at night with a hand torch giving only a very restricted light because of the blackout the odds against making a mistake were fairly high. We would come back cold and hungry to a mug of hot tea or cocoa and a bite to eat. By day we practised other aspects of artillery warfare either as part of the battery as a whole, sometimes with our signallers but more often as not as a group of specialists going through the many things we had to learn, time after time. When the weather improved this was a most enjoyable way of spending the morning or afternoon session for we could take our instruments out to an attractive bit of the countryside within walking distance of our billets and do some survey, map reading or a command post exercise.
Contributed originally by kenyaines (BBC WW2 People's War)
After a few months of the tortuous daily Bus journey to Colfes Grammar School at Lewisham, I'd saved enough money to buy myself a new bicycle with the extra pocket money I got from Dad for helping in the shop.
Strictly speaking, it wasn't a new one, as these were unobtainable during the War, but the old boy in our local Cycle-Shop had some good second-hand frames, and he was still able to get Parts, so he made me up a nice Bike, Racing Handlebars, Three-Speed Gears, Dynamo Lighting and all.
I was very proud of my new Bike, and cycled to School every day once I'd got it, saving Mum the Bus-fare and never being late again.
I had a good friend called Sydney who I'd known since we were both small boys. He had a Bike too, and we would go out riding together in the evenings.
One Warm Sunday in the Early Summer, we went out for the day. Our idea was to cycle down the A20 and picnic at Wrotham Hill, A well known Kent beauty spot with views for miles over the Weald.
All went well until we reached the "Bull and Birchwood" Hotel at Farningham, where we found a rope stretched across the road, and a Policeman in attendance. He said that the other side of the rope was a restricted area and we couldn't go any further.
This was 1942, and we had no idea that road travel was restricted. Perhaps there was still a risk of Invasion. I do know that Dover and the other Coastal Towns were under bombardment from heavy Guns across the Channel throughout the War.
Anyway, we turned back and found a Transport Cafe open just outside Sidcup, which seemed to be a meeting place for cyclists.
We spent a pleasant hour there, then got on our bikes, stopping at the Woods on the way to pick some Bluebells to take home, just to prove we'd been to the Country.
In the Woods, we were surprised to meet two girls of our own age who lived near us, and who we knew slightly. They were out for a Cycle ride, and picking Bluebells too, so we all rode home together, showing off to one another, but we never saw the Girls again, I think we were all too young and shy to make any advances.
A while later, Sid suggested that we put our ages up and join the ARP. They wanted part-time Volunteers, he said.
This sounded exciting, but I was a bit apprehensive. I knew that I looked older than my years, but due to School rules, I'd only just started wearing long trousers, and feared that someone who knew my age might recognise me.
Sid told me that his cousin, the same age as us, was a Messenger, and they hadn't checked on his age, so I went along with it. As it turned out, they were glad to have us.
The ARP Post was in the Crypt of the local Church, where I,d gone every week before the war as a member of the Wolf-Cubs.
However, things were pretty quiet, and the ARP got boring after a while, there weren't many Alerts. We never did get our Uniforms, just a Tin-Hat, Service Gas-Mask, an Arm-band and a Badge.
We learnt how to use a Stirrup-Pump and to recognise anti-personnel bombs, that was about it.
In 1943, we heard that the National Fire Service was recruiting Youth Messengers.
This sounded much more exciting, as we thought we might get the chance to ride on a Fire-Engine, also the Uniform was a big attraction.
The NFS had recently been formed by combining the AFS with the Local and County Fire Brigades throughout the Country, making one National Force with a unified Chain of Command from Headquarters at Lambeth.
The nearest Fire-Station that we knew of was the old London Fire Brigade Station in Old Kent Road near "The Dun Cow" Pub, a well-known landmark.
With the ARP now behind us,we rode down there on our Bikes one evening to find out the gen.
The doors were all closed, but there was a large Bell-push on the Side-Door. I plucked up courage and pressed it.
The door was opened by a Firewoman, who seemed friendly enough. She told us that they had no Messengers there, but she'd ring up Divisional HQ to find out how we should go about getting details of the Service.
This Lady, who we got to know quite well when we were posted to the Station, was known as "Nobby", her surname being Clark.
She was one of the Watch-Room Staff who operated the big "Gamel" Set. This was connected to the Street Fire-Alarms, placed at strategic points all over the Station district or "Ground", as it was known. With the info from this or a call by telephone, they would "Ring the Bells down," and direct the Appliances to where they were needed when there was an alarm.
Nobby was also to figure in some dramatic events that took place on the night before the Official VE day in May 1945 when we held our own Victory Celebrations at the Fire-Station. But more of that at the end of my story.
She led us in to a corridor lined with white glazed tiles, and told us to wait, then went through a half-glass door into the Watch-Room on the right.
We saw her speak to another Firewoman with red Flashes on her shoulders, then go to the telephone.
In front of us was another half-glass door, which led into the main garage area of the Station. Through this, we could see two open Fire-Engines. One with ladders, and the other carrying a Fire-Escape with big Cart-wheels.
We knew that the Appliances had once been all red and polished brass, but they were now a matt greenish colour, even the big brass fire-bells, had been painted over.
As we peered through the glass, I spied a shiny steel pole with a red rubber mat on the floor round it over in the corner. The Firemen slid down this from the Rooms above to answer a call. I hardly dared hope that I'd be able to slide down it one day.
Soon Nobby was back. She told us that the Section-Leader who was organising the Youth Messenger Service for the Division was Mr Sims, who was stationed at Dulwich, and we'd have to get in touch with him.
She said he was at Peckham Fire Station, that evening, and we could go and see him there if we wished.
Peckham was only a couple of miles away, so we were away on our bikes, and got there in no time.
From what I remember of it, Peckham Fire Station was a more ornate building than Old Kent Road, and had a larger yard at the back.
Section-Leader Sims was a nice chap, he explained all about the NFS Messenger Service, and told us to report to him at Dulwich the following evening to fill in the forms and join if we still wanted to.
We couldn't wait of course, and although it was a long bike ride, were there bright and early next evening.
The signing-up over without any difficulty about our ages, Mr Sims showed us round the Station, and we spent the evening learning how the country was divided into Fire Areas and Divisions under the NFS, as well as looking over the Appliances.
To our delight, he told us that we'd be posted to Old Kent Road once they'd appointed someone to be I/C Messengers there. However, for the first couple of weeks, our evenings were spent at Dulwich, doing a bit of training, during which time we were kitted out with Uniforms.
To our disappointment, we didn't get the same suit as the Firemen with a double row of silver buttons on the Jacket.
The Messenger's Uniform consisted of a navy-blue Battledress with red Badges and Lanyard, topped by a stiff-peaked Cap with red piping and metal NFS Badge, the same as the Firemen's. We also got a Cape and Leggings for bad weather on our Bikes, and a proper Service Gas-Mask and Tin-Hat with NFS Badge transfer.
I was pleased with it. I could definitely pass for an older Lad now, and it was a cut above what the ARP got.
We were soon told that a Fireman had been appointed in charge of us at Old Kent Road, and we were posted there. After this, I didn't see much of Section-Leader Sims till the end of the War, when we were stood down.
Old Kent Road, or 82, it's former LFB Sstation number, as the old hands still called it,was the HQ Station of the District, or Sub-Division.
It's full designation was 38A3Z, 38 being the Fire Area, A the Division, 3 the Sub-Division, and Z the Station.
The letter Z denoted the Sub-Division HQ, the main Fire Station. It was always first on call, as Life-saving Appliances were kept there.
There were several Sub-Stations in Schools around the Sub-Division, each with it's own Identification Letter, housing Appliances and Staff which could be called upon when needed.
In Charge of us at Old Kent Road was an elderly part-time Fireman, Mr Harland, known as Charlie. He was a decent old Boy who'd spent many years in the Indian Army, and he would often use Indian words when he was talking.
The first thing he showed us was how to slide down the pole from upstairs without burning our fingers.
For the first few weeks, Sid and I were the only Messengers there, and it was a very exciting moment for me to slide down the pole and ride the Pump for the first time when the bells went down.
In his lectures, Charlie emphasised that the first duty of the Fire-Service was to save life, and not fighting fires as we thought.
Everything was geared to this purpose, and once the vehicle carrying life-saving equipment left the Station, another from the next Station in our Division with the gear, would act as back-up and answer the next call on our ground.
This arrangement went right up the chain of Command to Headquarters at Lambeth, where the most modern equipment was kept.
When learning about the chain of command, one thing that struck me as rather odd was the fact that the NFS chief at Lambeth was named Commander Firebrace. With a name like that, he must have been destined for the job. Anyway, Charlie kept a straight face when he told us about him.
We had the old pre-war "Dennis" Fire-Engines at our Station, comprising a Pump, with ladders and equipment, and a Pump-Escape, which carried a mobile Fire-Escape with a long extending ladder.
This could be manhandled into position on it's big Cartwheels.
Both Fire-Engines had open Cabs and big brass bells, which had been painted over.
The Crew rode on the outside of these machines, hanging on to the handrail with one hand as they put on their gear, while the Company Officer stood up in the open cab beside the Driver, lustily ringing the bell.
It was a never to be forgotten experience for me to slide down the pole and ride the Pump in answer to an alarm call, and it always gave me a thrill, but after a while, it became just routine and I took it in my stride, becoming just as fatalistic as the Firemen when our evening activities were interrupted by a false alarm.
It was my job to attend the Company Officer at an incident, and to act as his Messenger. There were no Walkie-Talkies or Mobile Phones in those days, and the public telephones were unreliable, because of Air-Raids, that's why they needed Messengers.
Young as I was, I really took to the Fire-Service, and got on so well, that after a few months, I was promoted to Leading-Messenger, which meant that I had a stripe and helped to train the other Lads.
It didn't make any difference financially though, as we were all unpaid Volunteers.
We were all part-timers, and Rostered to do so many hours a week, but in practice, we went in every night when the raids were on, and sometimes daytimes at weekends.
For the first few months there weren't many Air-Raids, and not many real emergencies.
Usually two or three calls a night, sometimes to a chimney fire or other small domestic incident, but mostly they were false alarms, where vandals broke the glass on the Street-Alarms, pulled the lever and ran. These were logged as "False Alarm Malicious", and were a thorn in the side of the Fire-Service, as every call had to be answered.
Our evenings were good fun sometimes, the Firemen had formed a small Jazz band.
They held a weekly Dance in the Hall at one of the Sub-Stations, which had been a School.
There was also a full-sized Billiard Table in there on which I learnt to play, with one disaster when I caught the table with my cue, and nearly ripped the cloth!
Unfortunately, that School, a nice modern building, was hit by a Doodle-Bug later in the War, and had to be demolished.
Charlie was a droll old chap. He was good at making up nicknames. There was one Messenger who never had any money, and spent his time sponging Cigarettes and free cups of tea off the unwary.
Charlie referred to him as "Washer". When I asked him why, the answer came: "Cos he's always on the Tap".
Another chap named Frankie Sycamore was "Wabash" to all and sundry, after a song in the Rita Hayworth Musical Film that was showing at the time. It contained the words:
"Neath the Sycamores the Candlelights are gleaming, On the banks of the Wabash far away".
Poor old Frankie, he was a bit of a Joker himself.
When he was expecting his Call-up Papers for the Army, he got a bit bomb-happy and made up this song, which he'd sing within earshot of Charlie to the tune of "When this Wicked War is Over":
Don't be angry with me Charlie,
Don't chuck me out the Station Door!
I don't want no more old blarney,
I just want Dorothy Lamour".
Before long, this song was taken up by all of us, and became the Messengers Anthem.
But this little interlude in our lives was just another calm before another storm. Regular air-raids were to start again as the darker evenings came with Autumn and the "Little Blitz" got under way.
To be continued.
Contributed originally by saucyrita (BBC WW2 People's War)
Rita Savage (nee Atkinson)
A child’s view of the war.
In 1939 I was nine years old and living in Peckham, London S.E.15. It was 3rd September 1939 and I remember sitting on the back steps that led into the garden listening to my mum and dad discuss the advent of the Second World War. My parents had of course lived through the First World War. My dad served in the Army along with his brother and father; they were all in the same regiment I am told. My uncle Ernie was killed in France but my dad and my grandfather both survived.
This particular day as I sat on our back step, dad had switched on the wireless and we heard our then Prime Minister, Mr. Chamberlain broadcast that we were at war with Germany. A few minutes later we heard the distinctive wail of the air raid siren and I remember thinking that we were all going to die on this the first day of the war. All the tales I had been told about the First World War came back to me and I was terrified. My sister Doris would be about sixteen years of age then and she seemed to take it in her stride. My brother Brian was only about four years of age and too young to understand.
We didn’t have an air raid that day of course, the all clear sounded straightaway. We were simply being prepared for what was to come.
The first few weeks of the war went by and nothing significant happened that I was aware of except all the schools were closed in London where I lived anyway. I suppose all the teachers eligible were called up or they enlisted in our armed forces.
I got over my initial terror and enjoyed the freedom from school which I didn’t like very much anyway.
The next thing that happened was for me a very traumatic one — gas masks! I remember all the family going along to this large building, probably the Town Hall, I can’t remember now and waiting in a queue to be fitted for these horrible looking contraptions. My mother was very worried about my little brother Brian thinking that he would act up and cause a fuss. She didn’t worry about me; I was older and never made a fuss about anything.
Wrong! When it was my turn I did more than make a fuss, when they tried to put the mask over my face I remember becoming hysterical. I couldn’t bear to have my face covered; I have been like this all my life. Claustrophobia is the word of course but I didn’t know that at the time. My brother on the other hand wouldn’t take his off he wanted to keep it on. We were supposed to practice wearing these masks on a regular basis and I would always disappear and go into hiding.
My parents decided to move house at that time, only into the next road. Later on in the war the house we had moved from was flattened taking with it the house next door where some of our friends lived. There were five children in that family and they along with their parents were all killed. The house we had moved into was never bombed and had we known it then of course we could have stayed there throughout the war and gone to our beds to sleep every night and not to the Anderson shelter in the back garden.
The war had been going for about a year by this time with no air raids and the schools were beginning to open their doors once more when the blitz on London started in earnest.
That first air raid was a daytime one, I remember I was playing on the front with my friend and when I heard the siren I immediately ran to my mother who at the time was talking to someone at our front door. She hadn’t heard the siren at first and she was very cross with me for interrupting her, children were indeed seen and not heard in those days. I was forgiven however once my mother realised what was happening. We only just made it to the Anderson in time before we heard the enemy planes overhead and the bombs dropping all around us. My mother was in a state because my sister and my dad were at work. My dad and sister were all right thank goodness but they were both very shaken when they eventually arrived home.
That night the raids started in earnest. We spent every night after that in the Anderson shelter or as I will tell you later in other shelters. We would lie awake at night listening to the noise of the falling bombs and the noise of our ack ack guns and wonder if our house would still be standing in the morning.
My brother and I would lay either side of our mother and cover her ears with our hands. My mother was a complete nervous wreck after a few weeks of this bombardment of our city.
In retrospect I realise she was so afraid for us her children. In later years when I had my own children I would think back to these terrible times and only guess at her agony of mind and her fear for us her three children.
One day the lady next door said they were going away for a little while and as their shelter was a bit more comfortable than ours we could use it if we wanted to. So that evening off we all went with all the paraphernalia that was needed to take down the shelter with us, i.e. flasks of hot drinks, candles, matches, a torch etc, not forgetting the gas masks of course, making our way into next door’s garden and their shelter. When the door was closed we were completely sealed in and it was padded out so the noise wasn’t so horrendous. When we were settled later on and it was time to try to get some sleep dad blew out the candles. Fortunately for us my brother started to cry and complained of tummy ache so dad tried to re-light the candles but they just wouldn’t light. It was a few seconds before my dad realized they wouldn’t light because there was no air coming into the shelter. We got out of there pretty quickly and made our way back to our own shelter. But for Brian, my little brother, we could have all suffocated.
We next tried the cinema at the end of our road — I remember it was called “The Tower” — they had cellars underneath that were opened to the public at night to use as a shelter. We had quite a job to get somewhere to sit. They had these wooden benches covering the floor space and mum tried to make up beds for us children underneath these benches on the floor. We didn’t hear the noise so much but to my mother’s disgust a few of the older men sitting nearby every so often would spit on the floor quite close to where we lay. We were only there one night my mum wouldn’t go back again.
The next night mum dragged us all to the underground railway, the Oval at Kennington, the trains were not running at night and people made up their beds on the platforms. We thought we were early but when we got down there we had to step over bodies trying to find somewhere for ourselves. We had to give up as there was no room and we went back to our own shelter again. We heard later on that just after we had left the Oval a bomb was dropped at the entrance. Our guardian angel must have been watching over us that night.
My parents decided that we children should be evacuated as so many of the children were. Mum sewed our names in all our clothes and off we went to the railway station, I can’t remember which one it was, probably Euston, where daily trains would come in and children were packed in, gas masks around their necks, saying their goodbyes to parents left standing on the platforms. At the last minute mum couldn’t let us go — what a decision for a parent to have to make, not knowing where your child was going and if they would be treated well and looked after properly. This was probably just as well since my mum wanted my older sister to go too in order to keep an eye on us. This would not have worked of course for one she was seventeen and for another when the children got to their destination families were more often than not split up. My mum didn’t know this at the time though. So once again we all went back home.
I remember one morning in particular, we hadn’t been up from the shelter for long from the night before and the wail of the siren started up again. My mum and dad sent us children straight back to the shelter. Incidentally we had a dog called Trixie and as soon as she heard the siren she would make straight for the shelter, she was always in first. Anyway, the raid started almost before the siren had ended and bombs were dropping about us and our sister and parents were trapped in the house, they dived under the kitchen table for some protection. We children and our dog clung together praying that the rest of our family would be safe in the house but we both thought that they would surely die.
By this time my mother was so distraught she begged my father to give up his job so we could all move away from London together as a family. We had endured months of these terrible raids. My father was a milkman with the United Dairies and he would come home from work in a terrible state, collapsing into a chair and burying his face in his hands and really cry, at the same time trying to tell us how he had gone to deliver milk to his customers in the East end of London only to find whole streets wiped out and people he had known for years, laughed with, had cups of tea with, were all killed or made homeless their houses just smouldering rubble.
One night Brian had a very high temperature, he was prone to fits when he was a young child, my mum wouldn’t leave the house for the shelter in case it did him some harm so we all huddled under the stairs for some protection.
Later on that night the air raid warden knocked on all the doors in our road informing us that we had to get out of our homes because it was believed a land mine had been dropped at the end of our road. Mum would not leave, she said that if our number was up, so be it. She was not going to take Brian outside. Fortunately for us it turned out not to be a land mine after all just an unexploded bomb which was eventually defused by the bomb squad.
After this my dad did not need any persuading to leave London, he was ready to go. But where to! My sister Doris had a boyfriend called Ron who had been deferred from the armed forces because he was an electrician and had been sent by his firm to Stoke-on-Trent where he was engaged in electrical work at a munitions factory. He got us rooms in a house in Boughey Road, Shelton where he was also lodging.
The day we actually left our home in London is one I shall never forget because of the trauma and upheaval this move caused us. My mother had a boarder called John living with us and I remember him very clearly. He was always very kind to us children. He was a pharmacist and we thought of him as an adoptive uncle. He promised to take care of our dog and all our belongings until we could send for them. We also had a cat called Tibby and we all loved her very much but she was old and no one else wanted her so we had to say goodbye and sadly dad took her to be put to sleep. We also had a rabbit, pure white she was and so sweet. What a wrench to have to part with her as well, particularly for Brian who was only six at the time and he thought the world of her. We gave the rabbit away to friends who promised faithfully to look after her.
We packed everything we could carry of course and we were finally ready to go. All our neighbours came out to say goodbye and wish us luck with promises to keep an eye on our house and especially the dog. When I think back now, what wonderful neighbours they were, later on in my story they all rallied round and helped John with the removal of our furniture and belongings including Trixie, our dog. Anyway we eventually left and caught a bus taking us to Euston Station to catch the train for Stoke-on-Trent. As the bus moved slowly along Peckham High Street we heard the wail of the siren and the drone overhead of enemy aircraft. All of a sudden we heard an explosion and everything seemed to shake; we later heard that a bomb had been dropped not far behind us, if this had happened a few minutes earlier we would probably have been killed.
We arrived at Euston Station shaken but all in one piece and stood on the platform with our suitcases around our feet waiting for the train to take us out of the misery of living in wartime London which was once our home. The train was late and when it did arrive it was packed mostly with service men. We had to sit on our cases in the corridor of the train and we moved very slowly forward out of London and towards the Midlands. It was a terrible journey, the train kept stopping for no reason that we could see. It seemed to us children that we were on that train for hours. We finally arrived very tired and despondent and set foot for the first time on Stoke Station. We were met by Ron, Doris’s boyfriend. It’s such a long time ago now over sixty years, I cannot remember how we got from the station to Boughey Road, perhaps we walked. Anyway we arrived eventually and found that our landlady was very nice and very welcoming. We had the front bedroom upstairs, it contained a double bed which Brian and I shared with mum and dad and a camp bed at the foot of the double bed for Doris. We were okay with this arrangement since we had all been cramped together in the shelter in London. It was wonderful to be able to go to bed and go to sleep, what bliss! We did of course hear the siren some nights but we ignored it and stayed in bed, after what we had experienced the raids here were mild. There had been bombs dropped here locally before we arrived. The Royal Infirmary was hit and also a house in Richmond Street, Hartshill, I think it was Richmond Street anyway.
My mother, after a lot of tramping about in the Potteries, finally found a house in Princes Road, Hartshill which had not been lived in for ten years. In those days houses were all rented, no one bought a house, unless you were well off anyway. My poor mother had to scrub that house several times before we could move into it because of all the grime that had accumulated over the years. We had no choice really, we had to have this house, no other landlord would rent to us because we were from London and it was believed that Londoners did not stay long in the Potteries it was too quiet for them! Everything was so hard to get in wartime, when we moved in we had no electric or gas, we had to use candles for light and in the kitchen was a black leaded fireplace with an oven at the side which mum had to use until we could get a cooker. We did get an electric cooker eventually but if it had not been for Ron, who also came to live with us, we would not have been able to use it because the electricity board had no one they could send to install it. Ron fixed all our electricity problems, we were very lucky. Getting coal to heat such a large house was a very big problem, we burnt anything we could on that fire and in the evenings we all sat huddled together round it. We couldn’t get curtain material so we had to have black paper up at all the window because of the blackout.
The day when the removal van with all our furniture and best of all our dog eventually arrived was wonderful. The removal man wanted to buy Trixie from us he couldn’t get over how good she had been on the journey, never attempting to run away. She knew he was bringing her to us because she was with all our furniture and belongings in the van. We never went back to London after the war but made our home permanently in Stoke-on-Trent.
I would like to say to all those people in London and other towns who were so cruelly bombed how much I admire them for sticking it out. They were a lot braver than we were.
Written by Rita on 4 December 2003
Contributed originally by Bob Staten (BBC WW2 People's War)
When my son asked me if I should like to take part in this exercise, I said flippantly that my war could be summed up in two words, drink and promiscuity! However, it seemed to be a worthwhile project as so much of war does happen off-stage. I shall do my best to stick to the facts. Unfortunately, I have no records except a few old photographs.
During the 20’s and 30’s my friends and I mostly played at ‘War’ and it was always against the Germans. This is understandable because the First World War was fresh in people’s minds. Every house had its photographs, mementoes and stories of lost husbands, sons and relatives. The impressive one-minute’s silence on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month is still with me. Walking with my father at Marble Arch and seeing the traffic halt and everyone standing by their vehicles with heads bowed was awe-inspiring to a young boy, and the silence so complete, on Remembrance Day.
I lived at 10, Capland House, Frampton Street, St. Marylebone, and my two friends ‘Pussy’ Hanlon and ‘Bimbo’ Jenner lived at flats 9 and 6. We often sat on the staircase and discussed which of the services we would join when war came. We assumed, quite naturally, that it would be against the Germans. In 1937, I joined the Royal Fusilier Cadets at Pond Street Drill Hall, Hampstead and learned how to drill and to use a rifle. We had .303 Lea Enfields and our own rifle range. There were trips to Shorncliffe Barracks, parades at the Fusilier memorial in Holborn and once, we took part in the inter-cadet shooting competition at Bisley. Because I liked the look of the red bandsmen’s uniform, I transferred to the band and became a bugle boy. In the summer of ’37, we went to Belgium as guests of the army. Every evening we ‘beat the retreat’ on the promenade in Ostend, which was appreciated by the holidaymakers. In the barracks, we also discovered that ‘Verboten Ingang’ means ‘Forbidden Entry’! When we visited the Menin gate, I played the ‘last Post’. This was a moving experience, especially after visiting the battlefields and extensive war-grave cemeteries with their endless crosses. The older men related their experiences to us, which made it all very real. We little thought that Belgium was soon to be overrun by the Germans once again.
I was sixteen when the war broke out, working as a motorcycle messenger boy, hoping to become a GPO telephone engineer. When it was formed, I left the cadets and joined the Local Defence Volunteers (LDV), which eventually became the Home Guard. We wore our own civilian clothes with LDV armbands. One of our tasks was to guard the Telephone Exchange in Maida Vale. We had a variety of weapons and two or three rifles with little ammunition. I remember being on duty from midnight to 0200 hours when I was supposed to wake up the next man. He looked so old and frail that I was too shy to wake him up. The sergeant was not pleased to find me standing there in the early hours of the morning. We fully expected German parachutists to descend upon us in a variety of cunning disguises. They would not fool us because we would be able to see their jackboots! I think we were quite disappointed when nothing happened!
At home, we were busy filing sandbags to protect the fronts of our flats, sticking tape on the windows and making blackout curtains. We were issued with gas masks, which we practised putting on very quickly and sometimes walked around in them to get used to it. My two older brothers, Arthur and Bill joined the LDV and RAF respectively, Arthur to become a sergeant in the Home Guard and Bill a wireless operator/ air gunner. As I had to wait until I was 17 ½ before I could volunteer for the RAF Volunteer Reserve, I transferred to the Air Training Corps.Our Commanding Officer was an old Royal Artillery gunner who gave us lectures on spotting artillery positions from a tethered balloon that he remembered from the First World War. We had instruction in air-navigation, signalling and meteorology and spent a great deal of time over smartness and drill. One day we were visited by Claude Graham-White, the famous air pioneer, who lived locally. I was asked to welcome him by playing the ‘General salute’ on my bugle. He gave a most interesting talk about his air bombing experiments at Hendon before the First World War. He told us that he had marked out the shape of a full sized battleship in chalk on the ground, flown over it and dropped bags of flour. This was to show how aeroplanes would change the shape of war in the future. He was rather bitter because he said that the ‘brass-hats’ did not fully understand the significance of what he was so graphically demonstrating to them. Whilst in the ATC, I visited RAF Manston during the ‘phoney war’, when everyone seemed to be waiting for something to happen. They had a squadron of Hurricanes, a squadron of Blenheim Mk 1s, being used as fighters with four Browning machine guns fixed under the fuselage, and a squadron of Wellingtons, which were being used as magnetic-mine detectors. These looked extremely odd with large circular white electro-magnets completely encircling the underside of the aircraft. My ATC squadron was also engaged in helping a balloon barrage unit whose headquarters were in Winfield House, Regent’s Park. This was a grand palatial mansion which had belonged to Barbara Hutton, the Woolworth heiress. The two sections with which I was involved were at Primrose Hill and Lord’s Cricket Ground. We mostly did guard duty but in rough weather and high winds, we sometimes manned the mooring ropes.
During the ‘phoney war’, air-raid shelters were being completed and were in place before the first air raids. These, once they started, became part of our lives and were so regular we knew when to expect them. We made our own fun, took out thermos flasks, sandwiches and blankets ready for a long stay down in the shelter. We had an old wind-up gramophone and a few records. The most popular were ‘In the Mood’ and ‘Begin the Beguine’. Quite often, we had a singsong with ‘Roll Out The barrel’, ‘Run Rabbit Run’, and many of the First World War favourites like ‘Pack up Your Troubles’. The older men seemed to relive the comradeship that they had known when they were in the trenches. My dad was always ready for the sirens with his shopping bag of food and drink and a pocketful of half-pennies to play his favourite game of ‘Ha’penny Brag’. In fact, he got quite impatient for the air raid to begin so that he could get settled in the shelter with his mates. ‘They’re late tonight son!’ was his regular critical comment of the enemy’s laxity.
We had two bombs on Frampton Street, one on a communal shelter next to the ‘Duke of Clarence’ and another on a block of flats next to ‘The Phoenix’. Many neighbours were killed. I particularly remember the ‘Clarence’ bomb. We heard it coming like an express train louder and louder seemingly meant for us, then a great flash and explosion, shaking and reverberations, then silence as if everyone was catching their breath. Then loud cries and screams. We were very shaken and shocked but blinded by choking smoke and dust and could taste dirt in our mouths. We had two stirrup pumps and put out some subsidiary fires in the street nearby. There were so many people helping or staggering about that the older men told us to keep out of the way. Another bomb fell, in daylight, at the junction of Luton Street and Penfold Street leaving a large crater. A local woman was injured and had to have her leg amputated below the knee. On another night, Mr Overhead, a friend of the family, was killed in his house in Orchardson Street near the fish and chip shop. During a very bad raid, we heard that Mann Egerton’s garage was ablaze so some of us went and pushed or drove out as many cars as we could and parked them in and around Church Street.
I volunteered for the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve just before my 18th birthday (January 1941) at a recruiting centre off Euston Rd. Later, I had to go for various physical and aptitude tests. These took place at Euston House. Eventually, I received a letter confirming my acceptance for aircrew training enclosing a small silver RAF badge, which I wore proudly in my lapel. I continued with my ATC training and was made up to sergeant. It seemed ages but one day a letter arrived telling me to report to No 1 Air Crew Receiving Centre (ACRC) at Lord’s Cricket Ground on 3rd September 1941. This was just around the corner from my home and was nicked named ‘Arsey-Tarsey’! My dad’s advice as I left the house was ‘take care of your boots!’ This was because on his first day in the Royal West Kent regiment (The Buffs), someone had stolen his boots and he had never forgotten it.
When I arrived at the ground, I sat in the Mound Stand, which was marked alphabetically, and listened, with the other recruits to my first roll call. From Lord’s we marched to large blocks of luxury flats in Prince Albert Rd overlooking Regent’s park Canal. One of our first tasks was to take our oaths of loyalty to the King and to be given our official numbers, which we were told to memorise. On the second day, we marched to a large garage in Park Rd where we were kitted out. When we got back to our billets, we had great fun trying on our uniforms especially the long woollen underwear in which we sparred with each other like old time boxers. We were very proud when we walked out for the first time in our ‘best blue’ wearing the white flashes on our caps, which denoted that we were aircrew trainees. Whilst at Regent’s Park we used the Zoo restaurant for meals. As we queued up the monkeys greeted us with loud screeches and whoops, which we of course imitated to get them even more excited. Our time was mostly spent in drilling and learning about RAF regulations and expectations. We did some signalling with an Aldis Lamp and were introduced to Morse Code, which I fortunately had learned in the ATC. Aircraft recognition was given in Rudolph Steiner House in Park St. Some of us who needed it were given a crash course in mathematics, with particular attention to trigonometry. After 4 - 5 weeks, we were posted to Initial Training Wing (ITW) Torquay.When we arrived, my particular group were billeted in ‘Rosetor’ Hotel. Thus began a very vigorous and demanding programme of activities. Up very early jogging along the front, lots of physical training, marching, rifle drill until we were extremely fit and smart. We were given lessons in air navigation at Tor Abbey, signalling by buzzer and lamp, airmanship, aircraft recognition, gas drill, King’s regulations, administration and more mathematics. One day, we had to march in full kit with rifles about 10 miles inland to a small hamlet. We were told that this would be our line of defence if there were an invasion. When we had finished the course we ceased to be ACII’s (AC Plonks) and became Leading Aircraftsmen (LAC’s ) which entitled us to wear the propeller insignia on our sleeves.
From Torquay, we were posted to RAF Booker, near High Wycombe to be assessed as to our suitability for pilot training. The aircraft were Tiger Moths with open cockpits. We were taken up for air experience initially, but it wasn’t long before we were being thrown about the sky in a whole series of aerobatics to see if we could cope. After two or three weeks, we were posted to Heaton Park, Manchester prior to going overseas.
At Heaton Park we were billeted in private houses and had to report to the park for roll call every morning. We had one or two ‘pep-talks’ in the local cinema. One of these, I remember was by Godfrey Winn, the writer and broadcaster. After a couple of weeks, we were divided into groups destined to be trained in the USA, Canada or South Africa, which were all part of the Empire Training Scheme. We were not told of our destinations except for having to mark a code word on our kit bags. After embarkation leave, my group entrained for Greenock, Scotland where we boarded an American ship — ‘The George F. Elliott’. We were shown to our sleeping quarters, which were well below the water line, where we were packed suffocatingly into an area filled with five-tier bunks. I had a top bunk and could quite easily touch the men on either side and at my head and feet. I also had a hot pipe just above me on which I frequently burnt myself. Soon after embarking, we left the River Clyde and joined a straggle of ships. The Royal Navy gently shepherded us into some semblance of order and although they seemed to fuss and hoot around, gave us a great deal of confidence. This was greatly needed because the night before we had a religious service when we sung the hymn ‘For Those in Peril on the Sea' and we knew that this referred to us and our journey.
End of Part One
Contributed originally by Herts Libraries (BBC WW2 People's War)
Hello. My name is Alan French, and today is the 14th October 2004. The anniversary of the battle of Hastings. Well firstly I can’t remember a lot about World War Two, because I was wearing napkins at the time. My war time experiences were spent in Abbot’s Langley and Holloway.(Not the famous part, but the region in London.)I have got a feint memory of my father being close to my face going, 'Shhh! Shhh!' and hearing some bangs in the background, which I think could have been bombs. I can also remember some blue curtains behind him. I’ve been told there was a situation where I was having a tin bath, because in those days we didn’t have bathrooms, unless you were terribly posh or very lucky. There was an explosion somewhere, and my father grabbed me out of the bath. When he looked, there were all bits of glass that had shattered in the water. So I was very lucky. Very lucky indeed. My mother had a sister, Mary. She also had a brother, George Beales. Her sister married into a family called Bishop, elsewhere in North London. The Bishops moved to Abbots Langley in the late 1930s. During the war, for a few months, my mother and I, stayed with them, in Breakspear Road. So that is why I hovered between Holloway, where I lived, and Abbots Langley during this conflict. Tom and Mary Bishop, with my cousins, had two dogs. Bob and Toby. Bob, I have been told would guard my pram. He would not let people near me. (Although, of course it could be that he was comfortable and did not wish to be interupted.)It was during my stay in Abbots Langley, that one of my older cousins, whilst in the army at the time, was married. Although some of my earliest recollections, probably took place in the war they are not all war related. One thing I can remember very distinctly, and it’s something that I’ve seen even in adult life, is that you didn’t have to go far without seeing a bomb site. I mean, quite close to me, there was a whole school that had been blown up. Things like that were common place. It was also quite common in the street, for some years, to see people who were unfortunate to have limbs, or an eye, missing. I understand that I was born during an air raid. When, a few months later, I was taken to Abbots Langley, I gather there were nasty things coming down from the sky and exploding upon landing. I was just rushed into the van, car, lorry or whatever vehicle, and whisked off. So I consider myself to be very lucky to be alive. There are many who are not. And of course there are stories you hear from your parents, and there are some you don’t hear. When I sit back and think, I don’t really know much about the nitty-gritty details of what my father did and whether he saw things that he didn’t want to talk about. He wanted to join the Royal Air Force. He went up to enlist, and I gather they said, “You’re missing”.
Apparently someone with the same name was missing from duty. He worked for a leather firm in Somers Town, which is in another part of London which comes under St Pancras. If you think about it, leather was a very valuable commodity. Soldiers used/needed it for boots, straps for rifles etc. So he was required to do some work in this field. At least one lady gave my mother bitter comments due to my father not being at the front. My mother worked for a firm called Cossor's who manufactured wireless sets, as they were called then, radio today, also radar equipment. She did say that there was this bomb or rocket or something,that severely damaged the factory leaving this huge awsome crater. The firm was based at Highbury Corner. We lived in a road called Madras Place, which is a turning sandwiched in between, Liverpool Road and Holloway Road. Appropriately one entrance is opposite the Islington Library, so perhaps I should be recording this interview there.My parents became fire watchers. I cannot find it at the moment but I know I’ve got a Fire Watchers Handbook and other hand books, Battle of Britain, What to do if Hitler Invades, and if I come across them I will come down here some day and say, 'Look what I’ve got!' I have some memorabilia here, including a letter from the desert which I will read out later, because its very difficult to transpose. (See Part two.) I’ve got a photograph of me at some celebration. I don’t know whether its 1945 or 1946. Because there were a lot of Victory parties in 1946 as well.
Q. Do you know which one you are?
A. That’s me and the lady on the end is my mother, only just in sight. The only other person I know there, is a little girl, in the front row, called Wendy, who used to live next door. There’s another little girl I played with called Denise, who also lived nearby. But I do not think she is in the photo. I don’t know where it was taken. I think it was organized by some Canadians. I was forbidden to go to one victory party. Apparently I was too young. Babies not allowed. My mother wasn’t very happy. I didn’t know this until I was well into my adulthood. In compensation, the organiser gave my mother a toy for me. She explained that I never had it. She said, ‘Well it was one of these things you sometimes get in Christmas crackers made of metal, you press it and it clicks. I thought it was very dangerous for a baby, and what's more it was made in Japan!'
Remember, the Japanese part of the conflict, ended, for the first time ever, in nuclear warfare. Nazi Germany was also on the verge of an atom bomb. See the film, 'The Heroes of Telemark.' So World War 2 was in some ways a nuclear war.
Q. It must have been very difficult for your mum and dad to have had such a small baby.
A. Yes.From what I gather, they used to live in Westbourne Road, which is in the Barnsbury part of Islington. I think they were a little worried because they were living upstairs somewhere, and with bombs coming down, if anything happened... So they moved to Madras Place, in Islington's Holloway region. We lived downstairs. We had at least one bedroom, a kitchen, a living room and a front room. There were other people who lived above us. There was Mr & Mrs Horton. Above them, at the top, there was a man I called 'Uncle' Jack. There was a lady who lived with him for a while. I am not sure in what way she was related to him. Before he moved in, there was a Mrs Bennett who died. I can remember quite clearly other neighbours. I have already referred to Wendy, who together with her brother Trevor,lived next door with their parents, Ted and Doris. On the other side of my house,there was a family called Biggs, Mr. & Mrs. Wheeler and another lady called Alice, all living above or below one and other. Mr and Mrs Biggs, had a son who was in the Navy. Thanks to him, I had my first banana. He got it from Gibraltar. There might have been a daughter called Babs. I can remember elsewhere in the street, a family called Rowbottom. The block of flats at the junction of Liverpool Road and Madras Place, I can remember being built. I can't remember what was before them. Denise, to whom I have referred earlier, lived at the end of Ringcroft Street. One of two roads that entered Madras Place from its side. I can't remember her father's name, but her mother's name was Grace. There are stories I have heard. I don’t know whether or not I should tell them on the air, because they may not be for the squeamish, so If I do tell , there will have to be some toning down. There are some nasty stories and some very comical ones. Do you want to hear the serious ones first?
Yes, tell the serious ones.
OK, I’ll try and tone down the first one because it’s not very pleasant. I gather a bomb or rocket came down and exploded. A pub's bar room floor collapsed with people on it, into the cellar. Unfortunately, there were spirits in the cellar. They ignited. There was a huge mass panic to get people out. I’ve toned that story down considerably. Another tragic one, is where a rocket came down on a house and a woman, who incredibly, had thirteen children, happened to be out at the time. All thirteen children were killed. Just like that. I have been informed by someone, who claims that he went into the building afterwards. There was nothing that could be done. It was a terrible sight. The children were just all huddled there. All that could be done,was just get their bodies out. There was nothing else you could do. I have also heard of a woman's husband being absoloutely riddled with bullets. So there were some tragedies. But I’ve also heard that sometimes, there were were things that could make you laugh. There’s the situation of a Costermonger, (Costers as they were also called as well as barrow boys) named Billy Hutchings, who when I knew him had a stall on the Holloway Road Pavement Market, as did one of my grandmothers, Lucy Offer. (Offer, by her second marriage.) Unfortunately, whilst he was taking his bath, (A tin one) a rocket came over Islington and split in half. One half just went into a roof without exploding. I don’t know if it was his house or a house nearby. Inevitably, something came down the chimney - soot, dust etc all over him. There is a story I can tell of a similar experience someone had when I moved to Hemel Hempstead but it has nothing to do with the war.
End of Part One.
The second half includes the reading of a letter from Tunisia as well as a continuation of this interview.
By the same contributor:-
'The Three English Brothers French.'
'The White Figure.' (A true wartime ghost story.)
Contributed originally by Suffolk Family History Society (BBC WW2 People's War)
Of course, 'way back in the 1930's "teenagers" hadn't been invented. In those now far off days one remained a 'child' -dependent on, and obedient to one's parents for more years than is often the case now, and the age of 'Majority', supposed adulthood, was 21, when you got the 'key of the door'. So, in the early 1930's, having moved to Acton from Kensington, where I was born in the 1st floor flat of 236, Ladbroke Grove, I grew towards my 'teens, enjoying a secure and happy childhood, doing reasonably well at School (Haberdashers' Aske's Girls' School, Creffield Rd) making friends and with freedom to play outside, alone or with my friends, and with no thought of danger from strangers, or heavy traffic.
And so, in 1939, I was 13 years old, when the war began. We had been on holiday in Oban, Argyll, where I now live, and as the news became more and more grave, and teachers were called back to help to evacuate school children from London, and Army and Navy reservists were called up, we travelled by car across to Aberdeen on Saturday 1st Sept. After a night in the George Hotel, and thinking the Germans were already bombing us when a petrol garage caught fire and cans of petrol blew up one after another, we caught the 9am train to London, Euston. The car travelled as freight in a van at the rear of the train (no Motorail then). The train was packed with service personnel, civilians going to join up and other families returning from holiday.
All day we travelled South. On the journey, there were numerous unscheduled stops in the 'middle of nowhere', and a severe thunderstorm in the Midlands added to the tension. Our car, in its van was taken off the train at Crewe to make room for war cargo (as we learned later). In normal times, the journey in those days took 12 hours to London. With the storm, numerous delays, and diversions and shunting into sidings, it was destined to take 18 hours. As darkness fell, blackout blinds already fitted, were pulled down and the carriages were lit by eerie dim blue lights. Soldiers and airmen sprawled across their kitbags in the corridors as well as in the carriages, sleeping fitfully. Nobody talked much.
Midnight passed, 1am. At last around 2am, tired, anxious and dishevelled, we finally arrived at Euston station on the morning of Sunday September 3rd.
My Mother and I sat wearily by our luggage in the vast draughty booking hall while my Father went off to see if, or when the car might eventually arrive. There was no guarantee. There were no Underground trains running until 6am, and, it seemed, no taxis to be had. In the end we sat there in the station forecourt until my Father decided that he could rouse his brother to come and collect us and our luggage. And so we finally reached home, had a brief few hours' sleep and woke in time to hear Mr Chamberlain, the Prime Minister, make his historic 11am speech. Those who remember it all know the icy shock of those words, that - 'consequently we are now at war with Germany'.
The air-raid sirens sounded almost immediately, though it was apparently a false alarm, but my parents decided that we would go and live at our country 'bungalow' at Ashford, Middlesex. Ashford in those days was little more than a village. London airport was a small airfield called Heathrow.
The 'bungalow' was simply one large wooden-built room, set on brick pillars, and roofed with corrugated asbestos, painted green, with a balcony surrounded by a yellow and green railing. Three wooden steps led down into the garden. Two sash windows gave a view of our large 3 acre garden, curtained with floral -patterned chintz curtains. Inside at one end was a sink fed by a rainwater tank, and an electric cooker, a large table, chairs and a large cupboard for crockery. Normally, we had, pre-war, used it for summer evening or weekend visits, returning home at night. It was only a six mile journey along the Great West Road.
Now, though, with war declared hurried preparations were made to leave London, as my parents didn't know what might happen in the way of possible attack on the Capital. Several journeys were made by car with mattresses, bedding, food, extra utensils, clothes and animals (two cats and two tortoises). The cats roamed free, having previously been used to the garden when we went on holiday, when they were housed in the bungalow and fed and cared for by our part-time gardener. They loved the freedom and the tree-climbing and never went astray. The torties, though, had to be tethered by means of a cord through a hole drilled in the back flanged edge of the shell (this is no more painful than cutting one's nails) until a large secure pen could be made, and a shelter rigged up.
My Father's brother joined us, his wife and son having already left for safety, and to be near his son's school, already evacuated to near Crowthorne, Berks.
After sleeping on the mattresses on the floor for a few nights (all 4 or us in the one room, of course), bed frames were brought from home and a rail and a curtain rigged up to make 2 'rooms' for privacy at night. My Father and Uncle slept in a double bed, both being fairly portly (!) and my Mother and I shared a single bed, which was rather a tight squeeze. There was no room for 2 double beds, and I was fairly small. After a few nights my Mother decided that we would have more room if we slept 'top-to-tail' and so we did this.
The lavatory was about 10 yards along a side path, and had to be flushed with a bucket of water. We were lucky in that we also were able to tap a well of underground water, for which my Father had rigged-up a pump. So even if there had not been much rain to fill the house tank, we could always obtain pure water from the well. Later we were connected to the mains. The lavatory emptied into a cesspit which my Father had dug.
This was the period of the 'phoney' war. I was enrolled at Ashford County School, which I only attended for one term, as we returned home to Acton at Christmas.
My own school had been evacuated to Dorchester with about half its pupils. Many parents, like my own, had decided not to send their children away. Later, some of those who had been evacuated became very homesick and returned home. Soon the school in Acton re-opened, with many of the Mistresses who had also returned to London. The Dorchester girls shared a local school, with both sets of girls attending on a half day basis.
Ration books and clothing coupons, food shortages and tightened belts became the norm, as, at school, did gas-mask drills in which we donned our masks and worked in them for a short while to become used to them. They smelt dankly rubbery. However sometimes we had a bit of fun as they could emit snorting noises!
My Mother had lined curtains with yards and yards of blackout material, and our large sash windows were criss-crossed with sticky tape. A stirrup pump, bucket of water and bucket of sand stood handy in case of incendiary bombs. All through the war, wherever we lived, we each kept a small case ready packed with spare clothing, wash things, a torch, and any valuables.
Wherever we went we carried our gas mask in its cardboard case on a strap over our shoulder. We each wore an identity bracelet with name and identity number. Mine was BRBA 2183. Butter and bacon rationing began on Dec. 8th - 4 oz of each per person per week.
Contributed originally by Researcher 232765 (BBC WW2 People's War)
Working and travelling to London in the wars years was no picnic; more often that not air raids shut down the underground, so getting to and from work could mean hours of delay.
My father and sister worked for the LNER (London North Eastern Railway) in the King’s Cross Station offices on Cheney Road, which have since been demolished and replaced with a car park. To help with the problem of clearing the station in the event of an air raid a volunteer fire guard duty was organised by railway staff. The duty required that the guard spend hours on the station roof listening for sirens or watching for approaching aircraft: if an attack was imminent the fire guard sounded a siren to clear the building. (My father held the record for clearing the station the highest number of times.)
My sister Connie was a typist in the typing pool. She recalls that on one occasion word went round that the greengrocer at the bottom of the escalator at King’s Cross underground station had received a delivery of cherries, so she rushed off to join the queue, quite forgetting to take a bag to put them in. She decided to use her ‘tin hat’ as a carrier. On returning to ground level she realised that there was an air raid, so she hurried through the station to get to the office shelter.
Suddenly there was the sound of a V1 and just as suddenly the engine cut out. The next thing she knew a soldier knocked her to the ground and threw himself over her as protection from the blast. As luck would have it the buzz bomb landed just outside the station, causing a great deal of damage and loss of life. She said she would never forget the screams and panic of people trying to get out of the trains. When she finally got back to the office, father was waiting for her, asking where the hell she had been, and why she wasn’t wearing her tin hat. She showed him the tin hat with the cherries in it and he went mad!
Contributed originally by Haystack (BBC WW2 People's War)
CHANGE OF LIFE
Born 1933 I turned 6 ½ on 23rd August 1939. At that age memories are not meant to span a period of over 64 years and those that do are faint, but a handful of them live with one forever. Like the memory of a gang of schoolchildren in caps, scruffy scarves and what passed as School Uniform attempting to board a smoke-shrouded train at the end of a platform on what must have been Euston Station (just like those old black and white films of troops boarding trains to go to the front being seen off by their loved ones, but with the people involved being a generation younger).
Ironically Euston Station is situated less than a mile from where I had lived since birth in Phoenix Street. Phoenix Street borders the area known as Somers Town which infills the space between Euston’s platforms and the marshalling yards of St Pancras, and is where my father’s shop (a tobacconist and confectioner’s) was situated (as No 54, later to be redesignated 58 Phoenix Road). Our flat was situated right above the shop, in one of the blocks of ‘buildings’ which characterise the area, so I suppose we were considered first in line for Hitler’s bombs. I believe we must have been evacuated before war was actually declared – if not it was immediately after September 3rd – and I recall my mother, among the crowd seeing us off, being upset and telling me not to worry as I would not be away for long. Away where? As it transpired later that day even she could not know.
This uncertainty certainly communicated itself to the rest of us, but we were far too young to realise what was happening, and my parents (perhaps wisely) had told me nothing other than ‘it would not be for long’. It was like not being warned in advance about the School dentist until the drill hit the nerve. A positive aspect was that we were all together as part of the same class – brothers and sisters in adversity, as it were – but next we were lined up in a field in Burton Latimer, a village near Kettering, facing what was obviously a group of the local families who were picking out the children on either side of me, usually in two’s or three’s (I suppose according to how many they thought they could cope with). This went on until I was the only one left. I imagine I must have been the least prepossessing of the whole bunch, and I certainly must have looked frightened. I can’t remember actually being led away, only that all my friends had been taken away from me and that I had been taken away from my parents.
There was a School in the village and I remember being somewhat crestfallen when I learned that most of my classmates were attending it, or some attached establishment but (and can you imagine regretting not being able to go to School!) not only had I been taken off alone, but the house of my new ‘keepers’ was so far in the middle of the countryside that I could not make the journey to School and in consequence saw none of my classmates (as it turned out I was never to see them again).
I recall being confined to this lovely house and enormous garden unlike anything I had ever experienced (I had only been away from Somers Town for about two ‘days out’ before) and thinking back I suppose I should have considered myself in paradise. The family looking after me were kindness itself, yet I was completely on my own – none of my own family, no friends – and feeling lost in that rather panicky sense of a young child losing his parents in a crowd. I spent day after day in this lovely house and garden (unlike anything I had been remotely used to) feeling distinctly ‘inferior’ (and very tongue-tied) in the presence of these delightful (and quite differently bred) people whose kindness I felt was beginning to turn to pity for this cockney urchin to which I am sure they found it difficult to relate. I have one distinct memory soon after arriving of the family members muttering one to another that ‘Germany had invaded Poland’ in a way which indicated that it was a matter of some concern.
My sense of desolation must have increased rather than diminished as time passed because I started bedwetting and, with the shame that this induces to a child, I hoped that each time it happened would be the last but then it happened again. This might have been the catalyst to what happened next which was that I was told that my mother could bear being parted from me no longer and was coming to collect me, which she did.
Meanwhile the problem of our living in central London had apparently been resolved by my parents moving from the flat above the shop to Pinner, in Middlesex. This, paradoxically, was still an area within range of Nazi bombs, doodle-bugs and V2’s, but Pinner was my Father’s favourite venue for a trip out to the ‘country’ (a definition for which in those days Pinner arguably qualified) and I was to live there for the next 43 years (I can’t imagine now how he thought it was so rural as it is situated these days in the heart of suburbia). Our first ‘home’ there was as lodgers in the house of a family in a housing estate north of the village. This lasted for a few weeks before my father managed to rent a semi-detached house on the opposite side, which was where I grew up throughout the remainder of the war.
My parents had to travel to town every day to run the family shop and they left most mornings soon after seven, whereupon I would clean the kitchen after making my corn flakes (that’s how long they’ve been going – and the same brand too!) and, when the house looked tidy I would set off alone to walk to school about three-quarters of a mile away (imagine a seven-year-old being trusted to set off alone to do this now). This I mostly enjoyed until the time we learned that a land-mine had fallen en route and had all but obliterated the whole area between three adjacent roads with considerable loss of life. I remember when I eventually saw this bomb site (it was in the middle of a relatively trouble-free area) thinking that it was the most horrific scene of destruction I had so far witnessed.
School was very different in Pinner. For one thing all my classmates seemed to come from what seemed to me to be ‘Upper Class’ families, which with my cockney accent I originally had some difficulty relating to. However, there is a chamelion in all of us, my life began to adapt itself, and I began to make one or two particular friends who invited me back to their beautifully kept houses to meet their (invariably kind) parents. I remember feeling too ashamed though to invite anyone back to our house (it seemed a hovel by comparison) until much later in the war when I had developed some confidence and independence. My parents had a small-town rather narrow-minded mentality which most of my friends’ parents seemed refreshingly free of and hardly spoke the same brand of English language. I suppose, to my own shame, I was becoming a little ashamed of my own parents, which was totally unfair to them as they doted on me and (I was their youngest child by 17 years) they loved me as if I was an only child. This was the norm then; these days children are considered favoured if they live with more than one parent at a time.
Meanwhile the war raged. Initially, conventional bombs and air raids, of which we had our share even on the north-west side of London, then the aforementioned land-mine and, towards the end of the war, V1’s then V2’s. Each time the tempo increased it become more frightening and the only place I felt safe was underneath a very solid-looking dining table awaiting the ‘all-clear’ so that, if the house crashed down in a pile of rubble, there would I be cocooned underneath, my only worry being whether anyone would know I was there or be able to get to get me out. I often wished I was grown up and in charge of my own destiny, like my 19-year-older brother away in the front line, instead of being so young and scared, and totally at the mercy of the unseen enemy.
I used after school to go to the back entrance of Pinner Station to await my parents’ return from town. They nearly always caught a particular train and I can’t describe how much I looked forward to that train’s arrival and my relief when the train door opened and they got out. (Perhaps that is why that climactic moment in ‘The Railway Children when the smoke clears and Rebecca chokes a cry as her father is standing there on he end of the platform never fails to move me to tears, and towards the end of my life to end up living now in the same village where the author lived when she wrote the book seems almost an act of fate).
One day, however, my parents failed to appear. I waited for train after train until there was virtually no-one alighting, and with an increasing sense of inevitability that I would never see my parents again. I knew there had been a bad air-raid and it grew dark so I thought I had better go home, not knowing quite what to do but I could not sit still and went back to the Station. The back entrance (much the nearer to where we lived) closed at 7.30 in the evening so I had to go round to the main barrier and wait there. Quite how it came about I cannot remember exactly but suddenly my parents were there, with the news that the shop had been hit by a bomb falling nearby, as they had discovered on their arrival that morning, so that everything had been affected by the blast. They had spent the whole day clearing the rubble and securing the premises and (no mobile ‘phones then) had no way of letting me know what was happening. My main memory of subsequent events is that the cat (which was my special favourite and much loved) was discovered three days later, shocked by the explosion, hiding under a pile of debris. We brought it home to Pinner where it was totally disorientated and survived just two months. Despite not being all that old and quite healthy he simply wasted away.
My main wartime memory subsequently was in 1944 when we all anticipated that the war would soon be over. Then one sunny day right overhead our house a descending V2 exploded in mid-air. Had it landed I would not have been writing this account. This was just about the time I took the 11-plus and I gained a free Scholarship to University College School, but my parents refused it on the grounds that they could not afford the train fare on the Metropolitan Line to Finchley Road. They may perhaps have thought I would be getting above myself if I attended UCS, but I ended up by receiving an excellent education at the local Grammar School instead.
I left School at 16 after sitting ‘Matric’ and my parents thought insurance was the thing to be in. I remember being taken by them for interview dressed in an open-necked shirt and feeling very self-conscious when everyone I saw around me there was dressed in a suit and tie, right down to the filing clerk (especially the filing clerk). To my amazement I got the job (in those days we might have been food-rationed but a decent job was not all that difficult to come by). My interviewer was an Actuary and he suggested to me that, as Maths was my strong suit, I might like to study to become an Actuary (I think they were short of Actuaries – when I eventually qualified the profession still numbered less than 1,000 Fellows).
Well, I now live with my second wife and our sixteen-year-old daughter in the sort of house my Burton Latimer family might not have felt out of place in. None of the things I have described would have happened to me if I’d grown up in Somers Town, at least not in the same way. Things might have been better, things might have been worse – but, one thing’s for sure, they would certainly have been very different. And I owe all this to Hitler – undoubtedly, he changed my life.
Contributed originally by David Draper (BBC WW2 People's War)
I was born on the ninth of April 1939,in the Dick Whittington Wing of St. Mary's Hospital North London, to Florence Margaret and Albert Edward Worboys.
Of course I had no idea at that time of what lay ahead of me.
Years after it was all over, in my teens and in a moment of some weird flashback, I asked my mother, "Did she ever try to stuff me into a basket, when I was a baby ?" She looked at me strangely and said: "Why do you ask ?"
I was lying on my back looking up, as this thing came down upon me it covered the whole length of my body (little did I know then, that I measured about 18 inches in full at the time)
It was shaped kind of oval and I could see a pattern similar to an Easter egg.
As it came down on me I screamed my head off and fought against it in sheer terror..... then blackness.
My mother said: "I tried to fit you into a baby gas mask chamber, you were too big for it, you were about nine months old, you didn't like it one little bit "
My first memory of the war.
I cannot remember, times, dates or even the year in which my memories of the war occured. Strangely, they are simple, vivid flashes, with nothing either side to identify what was happening before or after. Albeit, they have been with me all my life.
My father led my mother, then me, followed by my younger brother John, down the passageway of our home in Landseer Road, (off Holloway Road, Islington) Outside the closed front door I could hear explosions. My father was about to open the door. He stopped suddenly and said: "Wait". There was a high pitched pinging sound outside the door.
After it stopped, we went out to the shelter.
I often wonder, now what would have happened if my dad had not recognised what must have been shrapnel coming at and hitting our front door. I think I was about 18 months old at the time.
We had moved into my Grandmother's house at number 1 KIngsdown Road, in the next street, off Holloway Road. Air raid shelters had been built on the road directly outside the houses all along the street. Brick and concrete,shaped like giant shoeboxes.
Whenever I smell green concrete, I remember those shelters.
One miserable morning after spending the night in our street shelter,my mother and I had emerged to see a sky absolutely filled with flack. I looked up at it, there was a fireman standing near a fire engine.
I said to my mum and pointing up at the flack," Who gets that stuff out of the sky, mummy?".
Mum looked at me and at the fireman, who was smiling, then she said"The firemen do,my love" I replied "How"? My mum seemed momentarily lost for words and then confidently answered,"They go up on their ladders and clean the sky with their hoses".
I was very young then but the vision that came to me of a fireman climbing high up into that sky on a ladder with a firehose to wash out all of those little black clouds, didn't somehow ring quite true.One look at the firemans grinning face convinced me that"Mum" wasn't being quite accurate with me.
Sometime, about when it all began, I was huddled against my grandmother in the corner of the street air raid shelter, it was dark and the noise of the explosions,close by, was terrible. I said to my grandmother: "Nan, who is doing this ?"
She said:"The Germans."
I conjured up an infant's image of fire breathing dragons, I could not comprehend that other human beings were creating such terror for me and my loved ones.
As the war went on and during nights spent in the air raid shelters, my nan and I became very close.
One of our favourite times was when the "All Clear' sounded after a raid (or as it was later, an uneventful night in the shelters) I would go to her and she would take my hands in hers and I would say "All Clear Nan," and she would smile at me and say "Yes,my lovely all clear."
Now and again amid the noise, flashes, bangs and occasional screams of it's occupants the door of the shelter would open and a white helmet with ARP painted on it's front, would appear, atop the tiny head of Mrs. White, the wife of the cornershop grocer, "Everybody allright"? she would enquire, The reply was always "Yes,Mrs.White we're allright " Warm, comforting thoughts and feelings for each other were a way of life by then.
After the war we would continue to get our groceries from Mr. and Mrs. White's shop and comiserate with and help her when her husband became ill and began taking terrible fits. She was only a tiny woman but she had a great heart and magnificent patience.
I had started school with my younger brother John, at Grafton Road infants, (near Seven Sisters Road, Islington) and there we were in the assembly hall with all the other kids listening to Miss Somper the P.T. mistress telling us that "We were not allowed to take cherries on the train, which was going to transport us to the evacuation centres." "The stones and wrapping paper will make too much of a mess."
Dutifully, my brother and I did not take cherries on the train. We were the only little tots that didn't. There were purple wrapping papers, stones and stalks from one end of the train to the other. My brother and I had none.
Was it Banstead, Burk Hampstead or some other place I don't remember exactly. I do know it was an evacuation home and that ache that had been in my throat since leaving my family in London, was there as usual.
One of the nurses at the home collected a large group of us littlies and shepherded us down across the playing field to a "monkey climb" . She then proceeded to place the other kids on the "climb" and then placed me in front of it facing her. There were some other people there with cameras and one of them put a blindfold on her and then she,(the nurse)made as if to try and catch me.
I had returned to my family in Kingsdown Road(I don't think the war was quite over at the time). There was may grandmother and my mother, at the kitchen table and there was this newspaper "The Sunday Pictorial" They were pointing at it, for me to look at the front page. There I was, playing "blindmans buff" with the nurse. A full front page.
Was it that same afternoon that, as we all stood there in that room,suddenly there was a massive whoosh of air and the windows seemed to buckle in and out like balloons. My grandmother screamed and then it was all over and quiet again. I didn't know what doodlebugs were at that particular time, I do now.
After the war, the bombed areas(we as kids called them debris)became our playgrounds. On them we attended concerts organised by the local "talents", built barricades and engaged in territorial gang wars, climbed into the attics and out onto the roofs of derelict rows of condemned houses, took the lead out of the windows of the burned out church and melted it down, etc.etc.
The burnt out church in question was Saint Pauls and once stood at the corner of Kingsdown Rd. and Stanley Terrace. It must have been a beautiful structure before the blitz but had been reduced by incendiaries, to a shell whose walls and internal pillars only remained. It's pulpit was filled with a small mountain of rubble which extended from wall to wall at each side.
The door of the church had gone and the brickwork so patiently and continuously erected by workmen to seal it off was constantly being removed, just as patiently, by us kids, so we could get in and play. The floor was usually covered by about eight inches of water from end to end and made an excellent obstacle course for traversing across on old milk bottle crates and other junk.
One day whilst playing there, I and my mates, for some inexplicable reason decided to dig away at the rubble near the pulpit. We started at the left side and before long to our wonder and awe, we realised we had uncovered an arched opening over a large concrete shelf, beyond which we could see what appeared to be a small room. We clambered over the shelf,into the room one by one and as I stood there, my eyes becoming accustomed to the dark, feeling like an explorer,as I imagine pyramid explorers might have felt, entering a mummies tomb, another, strange,familiar feeling came over me.
I was looking at the walls;
They were patterned in gold diamond lattice over a purple background that I had seen somewhere before. I forgot about it and I and my mates continued on with our usual activities of getting thoroughly dirty and wet.
Weeks, maybe months later, I was talking with my Nan and out of the blue I said to her: "Nan, have I ever been in the old church, before it was burned?" My Nan looked at me incredulously and said: "How did you remember that?" I said to her: "It was the pattern on the wall in a room we discovered next to the pulpit". My Nan was amazed, she said: "You were only a baby then, we went into that room in the church to get a food parcel".
Contributed originally by wellslibrary1 (BBC WW2 People's War)
This story was added by Tricia Humphrey, Librarian, Wells Public Library, Somerset as told by Shelagh Levy Addis.
Every day during the war someone from Hampstead went up to the Whitestone Pond, the highest point in London, and if they could see the cross on the top of St Paul's cathedral, London was safe and free.
Contributed originally by winchester (BBC WW2 People's War)
I was twelve years old in 1939. I had earlier in the year passed the scholarship exam at my Junior school in Duncombe Road in North London N19, and was looking forward to going to the Grammar school named William Ellis which was situated on the edge of Parliament Hill Fields which were part of Hampstead Heath.
About a week before the 1939 war began my father received a letter from my Uncle Fred in Tiverton in Devon. He offered to have me and two of my cousins Doris and Rosie who were sisters to stay with him and his family while the war was on. It was agreed that we would go although I wasn't asked for my opinion. There was a problem developing here but it wasnt thought of at the time. Doris's mum and dad were both deaf and dumb, and Doris seemed to have an aptitude to understand what they said and was a go between between them and other people. So by going to Devon her mum and dad would be left on their own.
My sister Lily who was twenty-four at the time and her boyfriend named Bob, who had a car, said that they would drive - we three potential evacuees - to my Uncle Fred in Tiverton. So on Saturday 2 September 1939 the five of us all got into Bob's car, which was a 1935 Wolseley Hornet open-top sports car. My sister and Bob were in the front and Doris, Rosie and me were in the back with our luggage stowed wherever it would fit between us.
We left north london at about 2.30 pm and drove up Highgate Hill and in time on to the A30 road to the west country. The roads were different in those days - not so much traffic. I remember we stopped at the side of the road somewhere near Bagshot Heath for a break and to check if every thing was alright. While we were stopped a coach went by and Bob said look its a Daily Mirror eight but what that meant I dont know. Fortunately it was a fine warm day so we didn't need to have the canvas hood put up as bob couldnt remember where it was amongst all the luggage.
After we had been travelling for some time it began to get dark, Bob had put some blue paper over the headlights before switching them on because he had heard that there was to be a practice blackout this night. We had reached some where near Salisbury when we were stopped by a policeman wearing a cape waving a torch at us, he told bob to put the lights out "didnt we know there was a war on"?. On we went with no lights on its very strange that in the country when its dark and there are no lights its possible to see but not very far. We had been travelling for about another mile or so when Bob became agitated, he wasnt happy that he had no lights on I suppose that we were moving at about twentyfive miles an hour when bob switched on the lights and there we were travelling towards a brick wall as the road took a sharp turn to the right, there was a screech of brakes and a heave on the steering wheel and round the corner we went with a sigh of relief. We stopped to recover our nerves and have a rest. I got out of the car and sat on the mudguard of the front wheel it was the sort that tuned whith the wheel, I rested my head on the bonnet of the engine and fell asleep. I woke up after a while and got back in the car and we went on our way. Eventually we arrived in Tiverton at about six o'clock in the morning, but lily couldnt remember exactly where Uncle Fred lived but we found it in the end, it was about a mile outside Tiverton on the Exeter road.
Uncle Fred lived in the Lodge Gate house to an estate called Howden Court, where he was a groom but also did other jobs. On one side of the house was a drive to Howden Court which was an enormous place, and on the other was a narrow lane about half a mile long leading to a farm. They were pleased to see us and we went into a large kitchen. Doris and Rosie and I were tired so they went upstairs to have a sleep and I had a sleep on the settee in the sitting room. I woke up and went back into the kitchen in time to hear Neville Chamberlain say that England was at war with Germany. I didnt think too much about it at the time, I was too busy scouting round the outside of the house,it seemed strange to look out on to fields and hedges, seeing cows and rabbits. It came time for lily and Bob to return to london. and of they went. We three were now on our own with complete strangers who we had never seen before and so the rest of the day passed with the grownups discussing what would happen now that war was declared.
Uncle Fred had been in the Royal Horse Artillery in the 1914/1918 war and was only one of three people in his battery to survive an attack by German soldiers simply because he had taken the horses to the local village to water them. No one had any idea what would happen and we all went to bed. I was to sleep on the settee in the sitting room. The following day Monday the 4th September it suddenly dawned on me that there were no other boys about. the house we were in was a three bedroom one and where everyone was sleeping I had no idea. There were six females aunts Ella,and Lucy, cousin Eileen who was about twentytwo, cousin Joyce who was about seventeen, then there was Doris who was about fourteen Rosie who was nine, uncle Fred and me. what was I going to do ?. There was one saving factor uncle Fred had a dog called Mopsey and Mopsey was the same age as me. After a while where I went Mopsey went and we became great friends.
A week later after we had settled in I was enrolledinto the local junior school which wsnt much use as I had completed all the work they were doing back in london. I stayed in this school for about six weeks when someone decided that I should be moved to the Tiverton Boys Middle school which was the equivalent to a Grammar school, so I went there. Now the school uniform colours of the Middle school were red and green which everyone wore, except me, the school colours of William Ellis Grammar school were Royal blue jacket with a golden Oak tree embroidered on the breast pocket so it was obvious that I stuck out like a sore thumb. I had one or two arguments with other boys at the school because I spoke differently to them but I began to settle in. The only problem I had was that I had missed the initial indoctrination at the beginning of the September term so I was behind in my learning although I had had so much upheaval in the previous few weeks that I didnt much care whether I learnt French or not.
Christmas 1939 came and mum and dad came down for a holiday apparently it was very quiet in london and they stayed a few days. It was good to see them. But I dont know where they slept. Uncle Fred told dad that I wasnt doing very well at school but I wasnt bothered I think I had switched of. Dad asked we three evacuees whether we wanted to go home to london, I opted to stay as I liked the country and had Mopsey the dog. Doris and Rosie wanted to go home, I think Doris was worriedabout her mum and dad so of they all went. At least that was two females out of the way. Aunt Lucy went to stay with other relations in Tiverton, so space was getting better and the family only had me to put up with.
One night there was an air raid, planes flying overhead all night. they used the river Exe as a guide to get to Bristol and other towns further north. Uncle Fred had us all take shelter under the Morrison table shelter that had appeared one day while I was at school. The top was made of quarter inch thick steel and the legs were of half inch thick steel and it was very cold under there in my pyjamas. On this particular night raid one of the bombers was attacked by a fighter, we could hear the machine guns firing and then there was the whistle of the bombs coming down, but they missed me and fell in a field the other side of the river Exe about half a mile away. Uncle Fred had joined the Home Guard by then and kept his rifle which was a Short Lee Enfield 303 by the side of the sideboard, I wsnt interested in it.
Uncle Fred was good to me we used to do many things together, play darts,and table Skittles against each other ,the ladies did their knitting.
Spring 1940 came and the country side came to life and I was able to disappear into the countryside with Mopsey but he was getting old. The Master of Howden Court used to hold a rabbit shoot where the local gentry would gather with their shotguns, Uncle Fred was the masters loader, I was chief dead rabbit carrier. uncle Fred shoed me how to hold a rabbit by its back legs and give it a rabbit chop to the back of the neck. I did it but I didnt think it needed it after having been blasted with a shotgun load of pellets. I had them all kept in a sack and mopsey was my guard dog.We would take them back to the court stables and lay them out in a row for the shooters to choose from when the shoot was over. Mopsey would sniff at them and then follow me back to the shoot.
It came to uncle Freds notice that Mopsey was having trouble getting out of the ditches,I used to go in and get her, I didnt mind but nobody said anything, but I came home from school one day and Mopsey wasnt there. Uncle Fred said that it wasnt fair for the dog to suffer so she had been put to sleep. That was another of my friends gone. There was only uncle Fred and me as Eileen was a telltale and Joyce was making eyes at the soldiers who had taken over part of Howden Court. They were also guarding a railway bridge which went over the river which was only about a hundred yards down the road.
Spring turned to summer and before the summer holidays the school used to hold a cross country race every year which was divided into upper school and lower school, I was in lower school. Now this race was not round a flat circuit, it went through fields, cow muck, over five barred gates through hedges, across streams over the Salmon steps and anything else that happened to be in the way at the time, but if there was one thing I could do it was run. I could run for ages. I was the fastest runner in my school in london. I won the lower school section of the race which was about two miles long with no effort at all. The headmaster the next day when presenting me with the cup said he thought londoners could only run for buses. My name appeared in the local paper and my aunt Elle basked in my notoriety when she went shopping in the Tiverton shops.
I put my name down to run in the school mile race which was open to the whole school, it was held round the school playing field, but the crafty devils held the race while I was at art class. I suppose they were frightened that I might win. I was annoyed at that.
The school holidays came and I went and worked on a farm. One day we had to take two Shire horses to be shod,one of them was a real softy and would nuzzleup to us, but the other one was called pat,and he was dangerous. the farmer had to tie the harness halter to the other horse so that we had the nice horse between him and us.
The family were avid church goers, Chapel in the morning, Sunday school in the afternoon, evensong in the evening, and I had to go to all three and each session involved a mile walk each way so I was walking six miles a day on Sundays.
Uncle Fred had an allotment which was on the road to Tiverton. His wheelbarrow was broken and he bought a rolls royce of wheelbarrows with a big fat rubber tyre. It had been made by a wheelright in a village on the same road that the cross country race had started and he asked me to go and get it. I had a large piece of string tied to the handles and looped it round my neck to take some of the weight from my hands. It was a marvellous barrow.
That evening uncle Fred loaded the barrow with his seed potatoes with the early ones on the bottom then a divider and the late ones on the top. As I had wheeled the barrow home from the maker I was allowed to push the barrow to the allotment, unfortunately I lost the balance of the barrow, it toppled over and all the potatoes got mixed up, uncle Fred was upset but he didnt tell me of.
August came to an end and on 2 September 1940 my dad turned up to take me home. I hadn't known he was coming. I was sorry to say goodbye to uncle Fred and I would miss him and the country. So my dad and I caught a train tp Tiverton junction changed at Taunton and arrived at Paddington station about half past four in the afternoon of the third of September.
We walked up the slope to the street it was a beautiful day with a glorious blue sky, and all we could see were these airplanes flying round, with bombers being chased by fighters I said to my dad "I thought you said that nothing was happening." He replied, "If I had known it was going to be like this I wouldn't have brought you home". So we got on a number 27 bus and came home.
Contributed originally by lilianhenbrooks (BBC WW2 People's War)
In August 1935 my mother died of breast cancer. We lived in Dagenham at the time. She left my father, Frederick, my sister, Rose and me, Lilian. After she died we moved to Bethnal Green to be nearer family. My father was working and had found it difficult bringing us girls up by himself.
I was partially blind and went to the Daniel Street blind school but had always wanted to go to the school round the corner in Wilmot Street. My father was friendly with a lady called Ann and I knew her as Aunt Ann. She would make me tea after school. My father used to take her out a couple of times a week.
In 1939 my father and my friend, Beatty's parents, discussed sending Beatty and me to stay with Beatty's Aunty in Southport. Her surname was Chick. It was just before the start of the war and they thought it would be best for us. We packed up our things and were put on a train to Southport and told to look for the clock when we got to our destination and wait under it, where we would be picked up by Aunty, and we would recognise her because she would be wearing a brooch.
Well we got off the train and waited under the clock, as directed, which seemed to be along time, but we were determined not to move. The porter asked us in a broad Lancashire accent what we were doing. I replied, in my cockney accent, that we had been told to wait under the clock. He seemed satisfied with this and walked off. Eventually Aunty came and colected us and took us home. I went to an ordinary school in Southport then. After 7 months we returned to Bethnal Green.
We were back in London by 1940. I spent the next 2 months going to the school in Wilmot Street because troops were billeted at the blind school as the war had started by this time. This made me feel that I was the same as the other girls and I liked it there.
I was 12 years old and was about to be evacuated for the second time in June 1940. With father being at work all day it was thought best that I should go. Rose was older than me and working up town. Beatty was also older than me and had turned 14 years. She wanted to start work and wouldn't be coming along this time. A programme of evacuation had already started from London schools even though the Blitz had not begun at this time. Eventually though, many people started to return to London prematurely, thinking it was safe, only to be killed when the bombing started.
We all assembled in the school yard for 9.00 a.m. equipped with suitcase, gasmask and a numbered label on the lapel of our coats. Buses took us to King's Cross to await the trains. A few paretns did come to say goodbye and there was plenty of hugs and sobs. It was chaos at King's Cross with children and babies everywhere. Older ones in groups, babies in long prams. Officials everywhere checking numbers etc., but no one would say where we were going. It was rumourned Cornwall but no one was sure.
It was not until we reached Cardiff that we finally, after many questions, were told we were heading for Rhymney, Monmouthshire, S Wales. People didn't travel very much in those days, especially us East Enders, we thought of Wales as being another country. The thought of being so far away from home made even those that had not yet had a weep, cry. A friend of mine who was on the train, Susan Braithwaite. She had seven sisters and when she later got married in Bethnal Green all her sisters were bridesmaids. We kept in contact for a while when I moved to Leeds and then we stopped writing.
On the train also was another girl, called Phyllis, she was Jewish, she was crying and we got together for some comfort. Some of the other children were part of one family. They were saying that they were not going to be split up. Phyllis and I said that we would stick together and try to stay in the same house.
When we arrived at the station of Rhymney we were given hot cocoa drinks and biscuits by the ladies serving from trolleys on the platform and then off we set again. Two buses met us at the station to take us to a school. There we filed through a room where we were weighed, measured, examined for head lice and a spatula put over our tongues with mouths wide open and having to say "Ah"! Then into another classroom to be sorted out for accommodation. It wasn't possible for my new found friend and I to stay in the same house together, there just wasn't room but in the end we did get next door to each other.
At first I stayed with a couple called, Isaac Price and his wife and they lived in a one up one down miners cottage. They had a 16 year old daughter, called Alice. Isaac was on a regular night shift. I slept with Alice and Mrs Price slept in a single bed in an alcove of the bedroom. Before we went to bed for that first day we just had time for a snack. That first day had been a very long day. I laid in bed planning in my head, how I was going to get back to London even if I had to walk as I didn't want to stay in this strange place. People in the village were very kind and helpful and it all got better as the days went on.
The people I was staying with had another daughter who was returning home from service somewhere down South. There would be no room for me in the small house. Mrs Price's brother, Will, who was a widower, was getting married again very soon. It was arranged that I would move in with them straight after the wedding.
I moved in with them and they lived in a two bedroomed end terrace house with a back garden. I had a bedroom to myself and was so well looked after as if I was their own daughter. They had no family and I called them Uncle Will and Aunt Sally. He was a Baptist and she was a Congregationalist. They both carried on going to their respective churches. They went to church 3 times a day on a Sunday.
I used to go to Sunday school in the morning and then again with Aunt Sally and found myself singing in the choir with Aunt Sally. They had such lovely voices. There was also other things that I did at the Chapel during the week so my time was kep occupied.
One memorable Sunday there wasa terrific thunderstorm and we just couldn't leave the house for evening chapel. Hailstones thundered down like mothballs and lightening struck chimneys and roofs. We being the top house of the sloping street just had a couple of inches inside the house but below in the village centre hailstones were up to your waise and the mud washed down from the mountains ruined lots of homes. It was as bas as being bombed.
Saturday was the time to help out with the housework and I got 9d. and taken to the local cinema for the first house performance.
We went to school in a disused chapel and had equipment sent from London. We were separated from the Welsh children because of this and only came in contact with them after school when we met them in the street and played with them. We had been accompanied down to Wales by our own teachers, Mrs Meals and Miss Long. All ages joined in with all the lessons and we had good PE and both sexes played cricket and rounders etc., in the local park. Later our teachers had to go back to London and a Welshman took over. He went into the RAF later on.
When we were first evacuated some women and mothers came with us to Wales but later returned to London with their youngest children leaving the oldest in Wales.It was heard later that some of the families had been killed in the Blitz.
In December, 1940, my father died of pneumonia. A letter arrived for Mr & Mrs Price and my Uncle Will had to tell me
the bad news. He told me my father had gone to Jesus. I was in shock and couldn't believe it as I was very upset. I hadn't seen my father all the time I was in Wales, I loved my father. I yelled at him 'there is no Jesus'. I was bit hysterical and he slapped my face to calm me down.
I stayed for a further 6 months in Wales. I was in Rhymney about 18 months in all. My stay in Rhymney on the whole was a happy one and I was very fortunate to have such lovely people looking after me.
During the time I was in Wales my sister, Roase, had met her fiancee. He went through the awful experience of being at Dunkirk. He came from Leeds, West Yorkshire. Rose had met his family and had written to me to tell me about them and how they were willing to take me so that we could be together. They were also willing to look after Queenie, our Yorkshire Terrier. So later on in 1941 Rose took charge of me and came to collect me to take me to Leeds and I had to say farewell to my new found family in Rhymney. I eventually
settled down in Leeds where I made my home and had my own family, this being another story.
Contributed originally by Ernie-the-Author (BBC WW2 People's War)
Extraordinary Schooling in WW2 - Part One
This account is chiefly about my wartime school experiences.
Despite its name, St. Mary's School was an independent (private) non-denominational co-educational school. To many of us former pupils, however, it was more than this - it was a remarkable and unique learning experience —albeit not particularly academic.
St. Mary's school had Froebel leanings with group and experiential learning practices. To what extent the school was "progressive" is debatable - as, for instance, we still addressed our teachers formally (viz: Mrs E., Miss Gardener, Mrs Paul). The school seemed heavily biased to the learning of languages and the arts from an early age, sacrificing time devoted to the sciences and technology.
The school was owned and run by Elizabeth Paul, assisted for most of this time by her husband Heinz Paul. They were of German Jewish origin and had previously run a school in Berlin. They bought the school as a going concern in 1937 when it was still at 1, Belsize Avenue, Hampstead (where I believe the original school was founded a few years earlier - in what form I know not). The Pauls relocated and restarted the school in a pair of adjoining "semi-detached" houses at 16 Wedderburn Road (between Fitzjohn's Avenue and Belsize Park) in Hampstead, London N.W.3. during the summer of 1937, initially as a day school.
With the outbreak of world war two in September 1939 St Mary’s became a boarding school on evacuating London. (Shortly after the war ended in 1945, the school split and was renamed St. Mary’s Town & Country School. The main part returned to within half a mile of its pre-war location - to 38-40 Eton Avenue (into another pair of leased semi-detached houses) just off Swiss Cottage - where it remained until its demise in 1982. The "country" boarding section moved to Stanford Park in Leicestershire - but this only lasted for a few years.)
Formal education started for me at St. Mary's School in 1937, about a couple of months before my fifth birthday. As Mrs Paul’s purchase and rebirth of the school was that year, I must have been among its first pupils. I remained there for my entire primary education, or what Mrs Paul later termed the "Junior School." At the end of world war two in 1945 I transferred to The Beltane School - now also defunct.
On my first morning, I recall being told on arrival to play in the sand pit, which was located in a large ground floor bay window. Unfortunately, the school cat(s) had been there before me! Nothing else of note comes to mind from my first couple of happy years at school, except that I was much more enthusiastic about graphic art and finding out how things and nature work, than about the three "R’s".
Another memory was my appendicectomy, at The London Clinic, when I was almost six. A huge get-well card arrived at my bedside from all 15-18 of my school class mates. Five days after surgery I was allowed up from my hospital bed for the first time. This was to see, from my hospital room window, the 1938 Guy Fawkes fire works across London - the last before the war put an end to these more festive rocket missiles and explosions.
We had a rather late summer holiday in 1939, in Llanmadoc on the Gower peninsula in South Wales. This was a farmhouse holiday, with the five of us, plus my baby brother Peter's nanny - Evelyn, alias "nurseydear" - and our closest friends, the Flemings (originally Fleischmann): Oscar, Nina and their then teenage son Cecil. I remember that there seemed to be endless expanses of sand and dunes, which were about ten minutes walk through bracken and sheep cropped grass from the working farm. It was there, on the third of September, that we learnt that, because of Hitler's invasion of Poland, Britain declared war on Germany.
My father had to hurry back to London. St. Mary's School was about to evacuate to the south west coast - so it was arranged that Oscar would drive my sister Marian and me direct from Wales to the school's new Devonshire location. I recall that we had to bed and breakfast en route and the first time that I had a cooked English breakfast: egg and bacon. Oscar was far more Jewish than we were, yet he enjoyed his bacon too! Marian, aged five and I, not yet seven, were suddenly about to become boarders. Along with about twenty other children of various ages, we were expected to be relatively safe in rural England.
Marian and I had no idea then, of course, how heart-wrenched and devastated mother must have felt, not knowing when she would ever see us again. She returned to our London home to care for her ageing and ailing parents, toddler Peter and with Robin already well on the way.
St. Mary's School left London to escape from the imminently expected blitzkrieg. So, it changed from being a day school to a boarding school. Beesands is a tiny village on the Start Bay shore between Torcross and Start Point in the southern most part of Devonshire known as the South Hams. This beautiful fertile region of English countryside lies between the English Channel and perhaps the most rugged barren "last wilderness" in the southern half of Britain: Dartmoor.
The school house was a fairly large farmhouse, situated about a quarter of a mile along the shore just north of Beesands, towards Torcross It housed a total of about two dozen staff and pupils. The garden bordered the beach and was enclosed by a very high thick hedge - a very effective wind-break.
We had one of England's finest beaches on our doorstep - a vast expanse extending to about six miles north of Torcross, Slapton Sands and about three miles south to Hallsands. But these are misnomers, as the beaches are almost entirely shingle.
Tragically, the sea had almost totally eroded away the village of Hallsands and I believe that only two cottages were still inhabited when we left there in 1940.
There were no caravans on the foreshore then and for the first few months we had the beaches entirely to ourselves. Bathing was treacherous, with steeply shelved shorelines and severe undertow, other than at low tide and even then, never without a teacher being present was the strict rule, I recall.
We had a wonderful time. During that first "Indian summer" we, the younger groups, often ran around naked within the enclosed garden. Even during the first winter, we played mostly on the beach and foreshore.
I recall little of class sessions. I think that we were split three ways: a few under six years of age, about six of us between six and eight, about the same number between eight to 11 and a very few older children. I remember only three staff during that first year: the heads, Mr and Mrs Paul and Mrs E. (with her two children, Priscilla and her younger brother John, who was two or three years my senior).
Elizabeth Paul was a large, vibrant woman, who was enterprising, imposing and assertive. Beneath her larger-than-life macho image, I felt that there was some warmth and empathy, which she kept hidden most of the time. She was a linguist, being fluent in English, French and German. Heinz Paul (we nicknamed him "Higgy" - quite why escapes me) supported his wife, mainly behind the scenes and quite possibly was a tour de force there. I do not recall him actually teaching, possibly not being qualified. He appointed himself largely as the general factotum. Mrs E. was a gem of a primary teacher, with infinite patience, warmth and kindness.
Strangely enough I was not homesick, although Marian (still only five) was at times. Marian and I remained at the school over that first Christmas holiday, our parents deciding to visit us for the festive weekend instead, with a few very basic presents and extra clothes. The main reason for this, I believe, was that our London home was still filled with Jewish refugees (from father's escape line) awaiting clearance and passage to the States. Our parents had to come by train to Kingsbridge (this branch line later became a casualty of the "Beeching cuts") and then by taxi, as cars and petrol were allowed only to "essential" (and privileged) users during the war. I recall startling mother with my total rejection when she suddenly switched to speaking German to us (which I explain later).
I remember the arrival of Paul and his cousin Natasha, Jewish refugees from Vienna, who actually witnessed the Nazis marching into the Austrian capital - a situation which I found astonishing, in that they still managed to escape. Paul and I became firm friends for much of our childhood. (Paul went on, via Aldenham School and the Architectural Association, to earn quite a reputation as an architect. It is a small world - many years later, Marian met him and his own young family at the Caversham Centre in Kentish Town, London - the pioneering group practice/health centre, when it was still in Caversham Road - where Marian was the practice nurse!)
We had some beautiful walks: the Devon South Coast footpath to Start Point lighthouse, about seven miles round trip from the school. To Torcross too, via the mini fresh water newt pond in a glade (with many dragon-flies, newts and water-boat-men) and climbing Jacob's Ladder up a small rock-face to the top of the little headland to descend to the village. Behind Torcross lay the large fresh water lagoon of Slapton Ley alongside and just behind the beach, created by the natural silting-up process. (I found this path again over 40 years later and the vertical iron ladder, very overgrown but still there, exactly in proportion as I had remembered this at the age of seven.)
Naturally, we also explored the deeply hedged Devon lanes inland, into the farming areas, with the rich red clay soil and hedgerows dividing cattle from crops. Red squirrels were then still quite common, before being ousted by the grey.
The farm adjoining the school was mainly a pig farm. We were all upset with the slaughter sessions, as we could hear the pigs squealing for their lives. In those days they cut their throats and let them bleed to death, harvesting the blood. A nature walk for the entire school was organized on these afternoons, to allay our distress.
Most mornings, we had a before breakfast run: the older kids ran about 500 yards to the village store, called The Crab Pot (I believe it still is) and back, the younger ones ran about half way. Breakfast was certainly welcome after that. Despite food rationing, we always seemed to have had plenty.
Half a day each week was dedicated to maintaining the "sea wall" just below the high tide line as best we could, due to the immense tides causing erosion. This meant piling up stones and filling gaps with as many flat stones we could find, but setting them in a vertical plane with edge to seaward, to combat the lateral power of the waves along the beach. Frequently, we saw massive schools of porpoises or dolphins playing and "show-jumping" in the inshore waves.
By the time of our first holiday at home in 1940, I had deliberately forgotten all my German, despite the boast that the school specialized in being multi-lingual! There were three reasons for this. Firstly, anything German I was determined to scorn and reject, as Germany had rejected us and then became the dreaded enemy. Secondly, maintaining two languages may have exacerbated my speech impediment - a severe stammer (which I have long since learnt to manage). Lastly, in contrast to most refugee kids, my living-in (at home) grandparents knew sufficient English to not have to converse with them in German. So Marian and I lost our German, though for quite a while we could understand when we were not meant to!
One morning we discovered that a U-boat (German submarine) was trapped in Start Bay by a sandbank at low tide. We were rushed inland and out of sight, lest they opened fire on us. Apparently, they surrendered and a coast guard boat went out to officially take them prisoner and a trawler towed them in, probably to Plymouth.
On another occasion, we were all ushered to the back of the house when one of us noticed what looked like a mine floating in the waves. Very bravely, Mr Paul crawled Indian fashion down to the waters edge to investigate, eventually to return somewhat sheepishly (and wet) with a large medicine ball bladder (like a double sized football)!
Our world was beginning to feel a little less safe than that desired. Then, in late June 1940, about a month after the Nazi occupation of Belgium and Holland, France capitulated to the Germans. This meant that the Hun were amassing just across the water, with the invasion of England due next. Thus, the school had to evacuate again, from a potential combat area to a safer more central inland location. This move was indeed timely and fortuitous, as a stray torpedo (I know not whose) blew-up much of what had been our schoolhouse a few weeks after we vacated it.
This was my initial year at boarding school during the first year of the Second World War. I remained at the same school for the rest of the war at its new location in the heart of rural England, which is described in my follow-on article: Extraordinary Schooling in WW2 - Part two.
Contributed originally by Wymondham Learning Centre (BBC WW2 People's War)
This story was submitted to the BBC People’s War site by Wymondham Learning Centre on behalf of the author who fully understand the site's terms and conditions.
I was born in November 1926 and was almost thirteen when the war began. We lived in a small house in East Acton, near Wormwood Scrubs in London — my father and mother, myself, and my three sisters. My two older sisters, who were sixteen and almost eighteen, went to work in factories. My father, who was about forty-one, had been in the army in India and was in the Territorial Army. He was called up at the start of the war. Later an Irish girl doing war work came to live with us. I think one of my sisters might have met her in a factory. The house was always full of girls during the war.
My younger sister was only seven and was evacuated to Oxford. Because she was so young I went with her. We boarded with a young couple with a baby. The wife was a wonderful cook and the food was lovely. She made delicious lardy-cakes.
I don’t remember how long I stayed in Oxford, but I remember seeing some of the wounded from Dunkirk laid out on the lawns at the front of one of the Oxford hospitals in 1940. A sea of blue hospital uniforms. It’s a sight I’ll never forget.
My younger sister stayed in Oxford but after some time I went back to East Acton, left school and started work. My first job was as tea boy and general dogsbody in a garage where my father had worked as a mechanic. I was paid 16 shillings and four pence for a five and a half day week. I learnt to drive there.
The Germans were bombing London. An Anderson shelter was built in our garden but it leaked badly and was constantly flooded. The interior was concreted so often that in the end it was too small to be any use and we didn’t bother with it. We got used to the bombing. They say you can get used to anything, don’t they? When the doodlebugs first started coming over we’d hide under the table, but the bombs didn’t stop my older sisters from going out and having a good time. There were dances in every pub and in many factory canteens, and they’d be out nearly every night. I used to save up my clothing coupons for them in return for cigarettes or other things, like butter- I can’t stand margarine. I often went to visit a friend in Harlesden and had to walk home — buses stopped at 9 p.m. It was a long walk through an air raid, but I just kept going. We never used Underground station shelters because where we were the line ran mostly above ground, where there were none.
Shortages are what I remember. Our family hadn’t had a lot before the war, when my father was often out of work and my mother skinned rabbits and washed jam jars in factories to keep us afloat. But we didn’t need a lot — not as much as people seem to need today.
Most factories had good canteens selling good solid British food very cheaply — better than you could get at home. There was a good British restaurant on the estate at East Acton selling the same. We were pretty well off for food, really.
Eventually I got work at Dubilier, a factory making electrical transformers.
I joined the Home Guard when I was at Dubilier. We trained in the factory canteen, using rifles with no bullets. The use of the rifle was demonstrated with blanks. In fact I never saw any ammo when I was in the Home Guard. One Saturday evening we went on an exercise in Hanger Lane, some of us positioned with our empty rifles on the balconies of the flats having cups of tea with the tenants while we hung about waiting for the “Germans” to arrive.
I was also a firewatcher. We’d work on a rota, usually two of us watching from the factory roof for fires started by incendiary bombs. If we spotted a fire one of us would run down and alert the fire-fighters.
It wasn’t easy changing jobs during the war — you had to get permission from the Ministry of Labour and were only allowed to move from one type of war work to another. I managed to transfer to a better-paid job at an aircraft factory on the North Circular Road, making Mosquito bombers and parts for Halifax bombers. Lots of girls worked there.
When the bombing got bad I left and joined a building firm that worked for the “Flying Squad”. It was good money. When the doodlebugs started coming over in earnest teams of men, many Irish, would go wherever they were sent to clean up the mess and put tarpaulins up to make places watertight as fast as possible. We went all over London.
My team was called out when a London bus fell into a bomb crater when a bomb landed immediately in front of it. I don’t know whether anyone survived. Heavy machinery was needed to haul the bus out of the hole.
While I was working on the roof of a place in Kilburn, three storeys high, I slipped. I slid down the roof on my back, digging my heels into the tiles to try to stop myself. My feet hit the guttering, which gave way, and I fell off the roof. I landed on a huge pile of broken tiles that had been tossed off the roof, and they broke my fall. If they hadn’t been there I’d almost certainly have been killed. I was sent home for the day. I must have been bruised, but I had no broken bones.
In 1944, the year I turned eighteen, I was called up, so for a while my father and I were both in the army, though we only saw each other once on leave during the war. I was put into the Grenadier Guards. I was given a warrant for railway travel and sent to barracks at Caterham in Surrey, where everyone went for initial training. I remember the jazz trumpeter Humphrey Littleton, who was also in training in the Grenadiers, playing in the NAAFI. It was winter, and we were made to gallop around in the snow in our vests and shorts to toughen us up. I was already pretty tough, as I’d had a hard life. Some of the men probably suffered more than I did.
After initial training we went to Windsor, where there was more marching and running around in Windsor Park, and night training on the river. Then to Minehead in Somerset to practice landing from barges — doing the opposite of lemmings, trying to leap out of the water and up cliffs.
Then we were sent to Scotland, near Hawick in the Borders. There was a German POW camp there and one of our duties was to guard it. It wasn’t a big camp — about two hundred or so prisoners. Hawick was a small place and there wasn’t a lot to do for entertainment. There were Polish soldiers stationed nearby. There was a regular hop in the village hall, and there were lots of fights with the Poles over girls. I didn’t get involved in any myself. One of my mates had an auntie in the town and when we had leave we’d visit her, and she’d give us some homemade cake to take back to camp. The grub was good in Hawick. We had good porridge with sugar.
Sometime after VE day in 1945 we were sent abroad. We were given seventy-two hours embarkation leave in London. I stood for eight hours on the train from Carlisle to London with all my gear, and then had to travel all the way back to Scotland with it before being sent down to ship out at Southampton. I don’t know why we couldn’t have been sent to the port from London. They talk about red tape today, but there was a lot more of it then.
We went on an old, rotten French tub, the “Champollion”. The food was foul. A battalion of South Wales Borderers travelled with us and we organised boxing matches with them for entertainment. We thought we were headed for the Far East, but we ended up at Haifa in what was then Palestine. Of course we weren’t told why, but later we thought that probably the atom bomb had been dropped on Japan while we were at sea, and we had been diverted.
Although the war was officially over there was still trouble in Palestine, which was being flooded with Jewish refugees. Palestine was under British mandate and the British were attempting to limit Jewish immigration because of protests from the Arabs. At one point we were called out to back up the Red Caps in an incident with a ship full of illegal immigrants — men, women and children - that had been refused entry into Haifa. Some of the refugees jumped overboard, others refused to leave the ship. The ship was rusty and conditions on board filthy. They were all taken off. Some of them had to be dragged. They were stripped and sprayed with DDT to delouse them and taken away to detention camps.
We thought the local Jews were friendly, until two British Sergeants were taken out of a bar by members of the Stern gang and hanged in an orange grove. The gang, led by Abraham Stern, were Zionists extremists who objected to the British administration. We never had any trouble from the Arabs.
I got dysentery in Palestine. It just struck me down. I was out of the Regiment for three months, and my weight went down to seven stone. I was at a convalescence centre outside Haifa. There was a horse-changing centre nearby and I learnt to ride a horse there. Camel trains ended up there as well — it must have been a staging post, because we’d see hundreds of camels milling around on the beach overnight and they’d be gone next day.
In the winter of 1947 I was given leave. I was sent home by what was called the MEDLOC route, on a US Liberty ship via Port Said to Toulon in Vichy France, where we stayed in a transit camp for three days during which we were forbidden to have any contact with the locals because the Vichy regime had collaborated with the enemy. It must have been someone in the camp who made the postcard containing my photo in a rose-wreathed heart, which I sent to my mother. We then travelled across France by train. It was bitterly cold. I’ve never been so cold in my life. The train stopped at Lyon or Dijon, where German prisoners served us food. They were better off than we were. They had tins laid out in which they were collecting foreign coins, and were selling cigarette cases made from old mess tins — beautiful filigree work.
I eventually got a boat to Liverpool and was demobbed at the end of 1947. I was twenty-one. I was given three months demob leave and then I had to find a job.
Contributed originally by Judy Stevens (BBC WW2 People's War)
From Hendon to Hiroshima
In many ways I was fortunate in the war. Although I did a lot of things which were, with the benefit of hindsight, stupid, I came off lightly and unscathed.
Instead of taking a year as a reserved occupation at London Transport, I
decided all my mates were going in the Forces and I didn¹t really want
to beleft behind. The other stupid thing that I did as well was to volunteer
tothe reconnaissance, which is the most dangerous unit apart from commandos
you could find. But fortunately, although I didn¹t realise it at the time,
they decided to put me in the Royal Army Service Corps and that¹s where I
stayed for four and a half years.
I was fortunate in other ways as well. When I returned from embarkation
leave to Aylesford, I and four others discovered that Unit 902 of the
RoyalArmy Service Corps had left while we were on leave. We were allocated
toEight Unit and went to Banstead before being posted to India and then
Japan.I did hear afterwards, though I don¹t know if it was true, that 902
Unit had gone to France where they became involved in the Battle at Caen and
very few of them survived.
People say that the dropping of the atom bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki
was a war crime, but as far as I was concerned if they hadn¹t dropped that
bomb then I had a good chance of not being here. We were told by our
officers after the Japanese surrender that they had been expecting 75% casualties in
the first two days of our landing and I would¹ve been going in on the third
day, I remember some wag saying ³Would that day have made a lot of difference?² and the officer replied; ³It might have made a difference by about one in every thousand.² In other words it wouldn¹t have made a
lot of difference at all. So from my point of view I¹ve always looked upon the
dropping of the atom bomb as saving my life. Far more Japanese were
killed in the bombing raids of Colonel Curtis Le May, Commander of the
American Airforce, whose idea was to bomb Japan into submission. There was an
area of sixteen and a half square miles in Tokyo, which I went to, where
everything was burnt and destroyed, where there was nothing higher than knee level
and over 360,000 Japanese died in seven days. That¹s far more than died in
Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
A little group of us, 14,15.16 year olds used to go around together and
one of the boys had a father who became an officer and said to us ³Right
you lotyou can join the Home Guard that I¹m in charge of.² So we all went
along to the hall in Hendon Technical College three nights a week and weekends,
Sundays cause you used to work Saturdays half day you were working a 48-hour week. Occasionally we used to go to Mill Hill Barracks where they had a rifle range. You had youngsters firing standard army issue rifle with the idea of actually killing somebody. A lot of people think of Dads
Army as a joke but at that time it wasn¹t a case of if the Germans were going
to invade, it was when, so at the time it wasn¹t a joke it was dead serious.
We did guard duty at the college because in the basement there was the
control for the fire brigade for the north west sector of London. Although
we were guarding it, we didn¹t really know what we guarding, we were just
young kids and it was all a big game. We had a rota and did a Guard duty
once maybe twice a week depending on how many people were off sick or if
there had been a rush on and people had to work overtime, there were a lot
of armament factories all the way along the Edgware Road. The commander was
a little fat man, I think he was about 4¹6² which was a bit of a joke because on parade you had all these great big blokes, well over 50% of them had seen First World War service and you had this little fella coming along,I don¹t think he¹d ever seen a gun fired in anger, but because he was a
Director of a tobacco company, he was automatically the commanding
The first drink I ever had was when I was 16 and we¹d been up to Boreham
Wood on an exercise. Three units were competing to capture an empty
house and retrieve a lantern from it. I can¹t remember if we won but I do
remember that an old coach that should have been on the scrap heap years before
brought us all back to Hendon and we went into the Chequers. A lot of the
older blokes went home but we went in this pub for a drink. The fella who
owned the pub was called Taylor and he was a real stickler for the law and
had no time for the Home Guard. So when he saw us all in there and the Major
had ordered drinks for about ten or fifteen of us, he said, ³I am not
serving them because they¹re not old enough² so the Major turned round
and said ³If they¹re old enough to wear a uniform they¹re old enough to
have a drink. Now give them a bloody drink or we¹ll break the place up.² With
that he promptly decided to serve us. It was more bravado than anything
else. But he did serve us and that was the first pint of beer I ever had.
Anthony Eden made an appeal on the radio for people to join local defence
units and so many people turned up that they just couldn¹t handle them. You
had this enormous army of men volunteers, it was the biggest force of
the three, the Navy, the RAF and the Army. And then they introduced conscription
into the Home Guard. Troops were out in the desert taking a pasting, France
had collapsed and you had all the soldiers there and they were out in India.
But at home you had all these blokes on reserved occupations and a lot of
them, let¹s face it, had managed to con their way out of the forces one
way or another. It was not unknown for a little bit of bribery to go on and
all they were interested in was how much money they could make. A lot of
them would get coaches or big vans and put seats in them, especially around
the East End of London where the raids and the blitzes took place, they
used to take anybody, mostly women and children who could afford a shilling or
two out into the country for the night. They would only go out to the other
side of Romford or just into Essex and they would pull up alongside the road
out in the country and they¹d all have blankets and flasks of tea and the
coach driver and the people who supplied the coaches who were collecting the
money didn¹t want to know about the army did they? So when they brought this
conscription in the idea was to make the actual soldiers feel a bit better
that these people were having to spend two or three nights a week away from
home in the cold up on Hampstead Heath or wherever, doing guard duties.
Because we were in the original Home Guard in an infantry unit we were
asked to go up to Hampstead on anti aircraft guns. Really the officers conned
us into doing it saying what good fellas we were and we were made up to
corporals. There I was, 17 or 18 ordering these blokes about who were
twice my age, if not more, except they had been conscripted in to the Home
Guard and they didn¹t like it. You know, they were a real handful, they used
to disappear and go down the pub, it was horrendous really.
We were billeted at Flask Walk in big old 4 storey Victorian houses and
we used to sleep there at night on palliasses, sacks filled with straw.
Because of the war you would have a bath once a week but you always had a good
wash but conscripts¹ standards of hygiene were well below ours, it was a bit
disconcerting and when you had breakfast in the morning you¹d think knives
and forks had never been invented, you know, they would literally use a
piece of bread to eat with.
Although there were quite a few air raids while I was there we only
fired the anti-aircraft guns once. They were very easy to fire, you put
rockets on two long rails. You had one man on either side, one responsible for the
elevation and the other for the direction of it. But both men had to do
something to make it fire, the bloke on the right stood on a pedal, the
fella on the left pulled the leaver towards him and then they fired on a
little electric circuit and these two rockets shot off. We were trained
to do it, they were very heavy those blimming things.
On this particular night we fired them, the direction was given so all the
guns were rotated round and they were elevated and all pointing in the
same direction and you waited for ³Fire!² And they shouted, ³Fire!² so you
did and it was absolutely miraculous because everybody¹s fired at the same
time,there was a terrific whoosh, flames, the place was lit up. There were
54 of these rockets each one with two rockets, so 108 rockets fired and they
all exploded in a big square in the sky. The idea was that it covered an
area half the size of a football pitch, exploding, shooting shrapnel all
over the place, if there was an aeroplane anywhere near then it had to be badly
damaged. All of a sudden as it died down, two rockets went off in the
opposite direction and only missed the top of a block of flats by about
ten feet. Nobody could figure out where these two rockets came from but
they had a rough idea, there was a couple of old boys, talk about Godfrey in
Dads Army it was nowhere near it. One of them must have been about seventy
and the other one must have been about the same age but he hadn¹t really
got all his marbles, he shouldn¹t have ever been there in the first place, and
they had got it completely wrong. They thought everybody else has fired, so
Lanark, Aylesford & Southend
I decided not to take the opportunity of an automatically reserved
occupation for a year at London Transport where I was a trainee mechanic
and, like my mates, I joined up when I was eighteen in 1943.
I did eight weeks primary training in the barracks at Lanark where I was
interviewed. Being young with delusions of grandeur, I volunteered to
be in the reconnaissance. Fortunately, although I didn¹t realise it at the
time, they decided to put me in the Royal Army Service Corps and that¹s where
I stayed for over four years.
Initially I went to Aylesford where I was a learner artificer for six
months and then I got made up to a third class mechanic, I came out a first
class mechanic. I got posted to a company in Wembley High Street to do a
trade test to get up to a third class mechanic. I had a job on a Humber staff
car, great big thick tyres, a sloping back, an enormous great thing. I had
another couple of blokes with me in the car and we switched the engine
off and let it run down a hill in gear for something like a hundred and
fifty yards and then we switched the ignition on and it made an enormous bang
and people ran in all different directions. We thought it was funny but of
course it wasn¹t very funny, it was a stupid thing to do.
On the days leading up to D Day our Camp was like a great big café for
the convoys going through to the coast, they would stop for fuel,
sandwiches that sort of thing. I was mending lorries at the time. We thought it
was funny; there were no drivers for the lorries, we were just fixing them
and lining them up. After the landings of course we realised that they were
going to be used to move ammunition around for the anti aircraft guns
shooting down the doodlebugs.
One night we had been to party for one of the chap¹s birthdays. Beer
was rationed but, being Kent, there was plenty of strong scrumpy cider and
you could get drunk on it quickly. We¹d had a good time and got back to
camp late. Round about two o¹clock one of the fellas got up and shouted out,
²There¹s an aeroplane over there on fire². This plane sounded like a
very loud motorbike popping but no one took any notice of him. About 20 minutes
later he shouted out ³For God¹s sake come and have a look there¹s another
one on fire.² By this time one or two people got up and, sure enough,
there was this thing flying through the air with flames coming out the back
of it, making this odd sound. Nobody realised at that time it was a flying
bomb.Of course, after the anti aircraft guns were mobilised and a balloon
barrage was mounted, there were thousands of them. A balloon was bigger than a
double decker bus with cables hanging down, the idea was that the doodle
bugs would fly into them causing them to crash. The draw-back was that occasionally the balloons would drift away, I remember one day we had onedrifting over the Camp and a couple of Typhoon Fighter Planes came over to shoot it down, but they were concentrating so hard on shooting the
balloon down they didn¹t take into account the bullets hitting the camp. There
were blokes rushing all over the place trying to get out of the way of these
machine gun bullets!
Before I was posted to India, I got nine days embarkation leave, actually it
was seven days, but you said you were going to the Lizard lighthouse or
somewhere so you got an extra two days travelling time. When I got back
to Southend we were issued with new overseas kit and we got paid and they
stopped everybody nine pence barrack room damages. I don¹t know what
happened to the money but obviously somebody was making a lot. We were
all in this cookhouse with all our gear packed because we were going on the
train that night, so we ate our meal on china plates for once.
Everybody said the same thing, ³Now I¹m going to get my barrack room damages
back², and we all promptly smashed the cup and the plate.
We boarded a train packed with troops, God knows how many carriages.
Mum came and said goodbye. Later, in the pitch dark the train stopped on a
bridge over a road with back-to-back houses, with outside loos. You
could almost lean out the window and shake hands with the bloke in the
bedroom. We was hanging out the window all hollering about 2.30 in the morning. So
the people in the houses leant out their windows in their pyjamas or with
nothing on at all, telling us to shut up. You can imagine the ribald remarks
that were being made well it was hilarious! You know, blokes were
piling into the various carriages to join in the fun so you were being crushed
out the window with everybody shouting at these people. I often wonder how
many times that happened.
We got to the ship, the Almanzora, it was on its way to the breakers
yard when the war started, brought back into service as a troop ship and
coincidently took Uncle George to Italy a year or so before. In the Bay of
Biscay, one of the engines broke down and it was going very slowly and
everybody was so seasick. It was my turn to go and get the meals, you had a
long table with six blokes either side and the two at the top went down into
the galley to collect the food. I collected the composite salad, diced carrots and swede and haricot beans and all that sort of thing, it was revolting, but it was either that or nothing. I had a bowl of rice in one hand and composite salad in the other and as I came down the iron
stairway, the ship rolled, the front lifted and I let go of these two cans, and
everyone got their meals spread all over the place. I crawled back up onto
the deck and stayed there for about three days. The engines kept breaking
down and the lights kept fading and one of the merchant seamen used to come
and unscrew a little plug in the deck and lower down a piece of string with
a weight on the end and knots tied in it all the way up to see how much
water there was still in the boat.
When we got to India we got into troop trains, the seats were wooden and you
could turn up the back of the seat into bunks with six blokes sleeping in
each carriage. The train went through Bombay, through the Ghats, mountain
passes and then we got to a big holding camp. In peacetime Deolali was
a hostelry where soldiers from the Indian Army or who gone out to India
between the wars and were suffering from any mental disorder went.
Hence the expression ³He¹s doolally.²After a few days I met a fella there who was
an orderly corporal I¹d known when I was at Maidstone. He¹d been in India
for a few months and he told me they wanted a tactical guard corporal doing
twenty four hours on and two days off. He said ³Don¹t forget if you¹re on this
and they make you a corporal you¹ll get grade I artificer¹s pay, about five
shillings extra a week² normally a corporal¹s rank was unpaid but if
you were an artificer, a tradesman, then you got paid for it. Someone
cleaned our kit when we went on this parade, it was right in the middle of the
camp with buglers and the gear had to be spotlessly clean and you were
inspected by the officer. Once he went then it was just standing, walking up and
down in this big guardroom, where there were cells with soldiers who had
committed various offences, deserting, insulting or hitting officers,
all sorts of crimes like that and they were locked up in the cells in the
guardroom awaiting trial or being sent to glasshouses. A glasshouse is
a military prison, the original one at Aldershot had a glass roof and
looked like a giant glasshouse. That¹s how that name came about.
It was quite good, for three days you were walking around the camp, swimming, staying in bed till late with a note tucked in the end of your bed saying Œtactical guard¹ so if you were asleep and the camp guards came
round they left you alone. The cinema was a big old shed run by Indians. We
saw Casablanca every night for seven days, in the end we knew the blimming
words by heart.
I was posted to eight company Royal Army Service Corps which was going
to Japan. The Americans had lost twenty odd thousand men in the battle of
Okinawa, mind you the Japanese had lost nearly a hundred thousand both
civilians and soldiers. It was a very, very bloody battle - the Japanese
literally did fight to the last man. Now the next stop was mainland
Japan. Although we didn¹t know this at the time the military assessment was
that there would be at least a 75% casualty rate on the first couple of days
that we landed on Honshu, the mainland. The American Government knew that
their people wouldn¹t stand for all these casualties, if the allies weren¹t
involved but the American army wanted to make this solely an American
operation to equal the score over Pearl Harbour. But when they
confronted the figures and realised the political implications they decided to
invite the British, Canadians and especially the Australians who had played a
big part in the Pacific. We were issued with special equipment and a Jungle
Mark 1V, which was a rather deluxe version of a sten gun, much more
accurate, and we were issued khaki colour clothes with big tubs to tie dye them in a
darker green. So we spent days doing this and training for all sorts of things, beach landings and all that but, of course, there weren¹t any beaches where we were because we were miles inland.
One night there was a whole lot of us sitting in the Naafi having a
drink and all of a sudden a bloke came running in, jumped up on the table and
shouted, ³Listen everybody, listen everybody², and everybody started
shouting, ³Oh shut up² you know, ³No, No listen, listen the war¹s over!²
And of course having shouted that several times, everybody went quiet
and said, ³What do you mean the war¹s over?² And he said, ³They¹ve dropped
a bloody great bomb on Tokyo, the war¹s over and the Japanese have packed
it in.² And that¹s the first we knew that the war was over. The following
morning we were on parade and one of the officers, a Captain, explained
to us that two cities in Japan, Hiroshima and Nagasaki had been bombed and
consequently the Emperor of Japan had made a complete unconditional surrender to the Americans.
Then we sat kicking our heels in India, parades, marches, various
exercises, anything to try and keep us busy. Months later we were told that we
were going to Japan with the army of occupation. At the time that we were
packing up to go to Japan, the Indian Navy mutinied because they wanted
independence and there were riots in Bombay so when we went by train from Deolali to
the docks in Bombay we were all issued with our arms, rifles, sten guns and
ammunition as well. The position was very serious and a lot of people
thought that if they attacked the train with a load of troops on it
especially in the Ghats a lot of us would have got hurt. The rioters tried
to break in the gates of the docks but they kept them up and by the morning
it was quiet and so we got on the boat, I think it was called the Empress of
Australia, and left for Japan. Much bigger than the Almanzora, it was
more reliable and luxurious.
A Japanese pilot took the ship down the narrow channel into Kure
Harbour, at one point it looked as if you were at a dead end but he got this big
ship through, like they had all those battleships and aircraft carriers that
they had built there. We stayed on the ship for about two days until a
temporary billet was found at a Japanese Naval Camp. We had no idea whether the
Japanese were going to be hostile or what so we were walking around
with sten guns or pistols or bayonets. The first night we went out it was
dark and through the high street an enormous great train came along,
food for the civilian population. I had never seen anything like this
American type of train with a cow catcher on it and about a hundred
carriages, the rails were like tram rails, they were sunk into the road.
Actually, I must admit I was never very keen on the dark and the four
of us that had gone out for a walk had got split up. So I was on my own
walking down a narrow street with low-lying two storey and one storey wooden
houses either side, totally different to anything I knew and I heard this
shoo..shoo.shoo noise behind me. Quite honestly, I was frightened to
look round, and where there was a little gap between two of these houses I
stepped out of the way and looked round and there was a little old man
in a black kimono with his arms tucked inside big sleeves and he had what we
called hubba hubba shoes, a piece of wood with a piece down at a right angle
and where he was shuffling along it was that that made the shoo..shoo
He had a long wispy beard, he must have been about a hundred years old
and there was me being this soldier, all brave, but frightened because of
this funny little man coming down the road.
The people were perfectly polite; they walked off the pavement into the
gutter and bowed to us as they went by. We asked the American Military
Police, commonly known as Snowdrops because of their white helmets and
gloves, why this was and they explained, ³Well we¹re the victors, we
won the war and they didn¹t, they lost, so they walk in the road, you know.²
Eventually they did stop because the idea was it was making the Japanese
feel down-trodden and that is what the Americans didn¹t want.
They lived in small wooden houses built around a little square garden
in the middle, some of them were only about four foot square it was amazing.
It had a little pond in it with probably a few carp, and bonsai trees and
indoor plants and they were spotlessly clean, oh you¹d never see cleanliness
like it. They used to have barges for carting coal, wheat, rice, anything,
and after every voyage you¹d see them in the little docks in the towns
being scrubbed down. The girls wore sort of balloon type trousers that came
in tight at the ankle and were rather big around the hips like ill-fitting
pyjamas and quilted jackets with a blouse or pullover underneath and
the men wore a sort of assortment of bits of army uniform and more or less sort
of Westernised clothes. A lot of Japanese, more women than men, wore
kimonos so it was quite colourful. The Ashanti News was written in English and it
was the largest selling newspaper in Japan, you could find people that
could read in English but couldn¹t speak it but you were never far from
somebody who could speak English in Japan.
The Americans had taken over this completely dysfunctional country, the
economy had collapsed overnight and the only thing they wanted was to get it
all back on an even keel. So they employed as many Japanese as they could.
We had a camp out at a place called Warashima which was a big aerodrome
that had been used for training the pilots that bombed Pearl Harbour. We
employed so many Japanese, I think there were about one hundred and fifty two
hundred soldiers in the camp, and I think we employed about five hundred
Japanese labourers. We had them doing everything, sweeping up the runway: we
got a load of witch¹s brooms and a line of about one hundred and fifty of
them swept the runway. It was a complete waste of time, but we had to find
something for them to do. They worked in the cookhouse, repairing the
trucks, they knew as much about them as we did because their lorries
had a standard engine which they used in landing craft, motor boats and in
lorries which were an exact copy of a six cylinder Bedford engine, which we
built here, this was also the same as a General Motors Chevrolet in America
so even the spare parts were no problem You know, they¹re still benefiting
by it today and my personal view is that General Macarthur should have a
statue in the middle of Tokyo, because he did more for that country, liberated
that country from their various oppressive laws, like the bonding of women
and boys, ill treatment in the coal mines, all that was stamped out. So
were the land laws where absentee landlords were supplied so many sacks of rice
as rent first and then if there wasn¹t enough the people starved.
Progressive parties in Japan had been trying to do this for thirty years but when
General Macarthur came along and took over the Dalhachi Building, the
biggest building in Tokyo for his Headquarters, he called all these
Japanese ministers in and said that¹s what he wanted to do and that¹s what he
Every village had a big well from four foot across the top to maybe ten to
twelve foot deep with water in and all the household and toilet waste went
in there and it was left to ferment. This was then put into barrels about
four foot high, and about eighteen inches round with a tapered top which
were a stained yellow colour with tight fitting lids. Between ten and
fifteen barrels were put on carts about ten-twelve foot long and a couple of
feet wide with rubber wheels, we called them honey carts. Between the paddy
fields there were narrow dykes and these carts were pulled by hacking horses
to the top of each field.
A foot operated pump system like a small water wheel took the water
from the dyke onto the paddy because the rice always grew on about eight to ten
inches of water so, they would tip these barrels on their side with the
lids partially removed so that it just trickled out into the water and then
they used to pedal pump the water into the dyke and the stuff used to flow
in with the water so it fertilised the whole of the paddy field. This was
essential because if they didn¹t do that they wouldn¹t have enough rice
to feed the population. So although it sounds disgusting it was a necessity.
The stench of these pumps was terrible, it had another effect, but you could
be on guard or sitting at a table just talking and you just closed your
eyes and you nodded off. This disease was known as encephalitis type B which
is sleeping sickness, but it comes out of these blimming wells and the
paddy fields. The Americans didn¹t want the Japanese to know there was any
weaknesses in the forces, so immediately the camp was confined to barracks.
But all these labourers were still coming in and they could see what was
happening. We were all given two injections of broth of mouse brain in
little phials. For a month or so though it was very bad, some people were
very ill and had to be flown home to England. The food was terrible, I
think it came from Hong Kong or Singapore because by the time it got to us it
was rotten. Everything was tinned, tinned bacon, Soya links, they were
supposed to be a sausage - they were about six inches long and were packed
inside tins triangular shaped, long ways and there was a lot of grease. We had
Pacific rations, a packet that was greaseproof on the outside and on
the inside biscuits, cheese, composite which was a squashed bar of dried
fruit and raisins, nuts, hard tack biscuits, four tablets to give you energy,
and five cigarettes.
Now these cigarettes caused a big problem because these rations were
about two years old which we got from the Americans, they were so dry and
they had mould on them The blokes didn¹t know about this and so they were
smoking them and of course they were getting sore throats and they were making
people ill. So what they did was open all these blimming packets, take
all the cigarettes out, Camels, Lucky Strikes, Marlborough, various makes
of American cigarette. The only thing that you had in tins that you could
really eat was corned beef and we had porridge, and fruit we bought
from the Japanese, which we weren¹t supposed to do because they said you might
get dysentery. Little barrows at stations sold hard boiled eggs, boiled
squid, sticks with steak on - probably horsemeat but anyway it was edible and
it was better than the food they were supplying us. When the Americans
found out that we were all suffering from scurvy, there was a big row between
our Officers and the American Medical Officers and after that we got our
food supplied from Australia. That was the first time I ever had pineapple
juice for breakfast, it used to come in tins, I used to get a lot of mince
meat, that was good because they used to buy local onions and we used to make
up boiled up mince meat and vegetables, you even used to get fried eggs but
they were tinned, I think they came from China probably.
When we left, more shops had opened, selling kimonos, cloth, clothes.
The majority of shops were very small, cause in Tokyo they had big shops.
But when I was in India, I went to Bombay several times, and I would say
that the Japanese were better off with the war than the Indians were
without,because of the weight of population and the economy.
Published by heirloompublishing.net
Words: Reg Berthold
Research: Judy Stevens
Design: Gary Curtis
Printed: AbbeyPrint Ltd
Cartoons: Derek Abel
Photographs: Reg Berthold,
Memories of Hendon
National Maritime Museum
First published 2004
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