Bombs dropped in the ward of: Plumstead
Total number of bombs dropped from 7th October 1940 to 6th June 1941 in Plumstead:
- High Explosive Bomb
Number of bombs dropped during the week of 7th October 1940 to 14th of October:
No bombs were registered in this area
Number of bombs dropped during the first 24h of the Blitz:
Memories in Plumstead
Read people's stories relating to this area:
Contributed originally by Mike Hazell (BBC WW2 People's War)
I used to love working over the Easter Weekend even though it meant extra hours of overtime and no day off for two weeks or longer. Very few employers gave their workers a paid holiday every year but London Transport did. Of course, like everything else, it was done at each garage or depot on a rota basis and the less fortunate among us had to take our holiday outside the summer months. The holiday rota stretched from 1st March to 31st October and we all volunteered to do rest day working throughout that period to cover duties of those on holiday. Provided the services were kept running, the authorities were very lenient, especially if a husband arrived home on leave and the girl’s holiday was still months away. Either her holiday would be swapped with someone due to start the following week or a call would go out for volunteers so the week’s holiday would be covered, day by day, with rest day workers. The girls would invariably put a cross alongside their name on this list to signify that they would do the duty without pay and several of the men conductors would do so too, although the extra pay of time and a half for rest day working was a very great sacrifice for those among them with families to keep. Of course, we all knew that the same would be done for us if the occasion arose but, even so, it was really a great deal of comradeship that bound us all together. I only wish the same spirit prevailed today - regrettably it does not.
Unfortunately the lighter evenings encouraged people to go further afield for their evening drinks too. Instead of slipping round to their local and staggering home at closing time they would take a tram ride or travel a short distance from pup to pup along the road until they found themselves miles from home. Then I would have to memorise where each of them was going and shake them awake or stop them in mid-song when we reached their destination. Some were so drunk it is a wonder they ever made it and my heart would be in my mouth when I saw them half climb and half fall off the platform and lurch through the traffic. Of course, there wasn’t the mass of cars on the road as there is now, petrol was strictly rationed for business journeys and only the well to do could afford cars anyway. But, even so, alighting from a tram in the middle of the road in the blackout always involved some element of risk. To enable us to be more easily seen by other traffic we had a broad band of white shiny material (similar to plastic) above the wrist on the left arm of our jackets and overcoats which could be wiped clean with a damp cloth. The whiteness gradually turned to yellow as the months went by till we wore white again after our yearly renewal of uniform.
The crews would sit in the canteen on meal breaks and swap stories involving drunken passengers - some amusing, some pathetic and others not pleasant at all. I still remember a few of my own. One dark night, along the Old Kent Road we were hailed by a young sailor who, somewhat dismayed to find he was talking to a woman conductor, asked if I would mind him bringing his mate along. He explained that they both had to get to Woolwich and from there a train to Chatham where they were due to join their ship at 7.30 a.m. “I’m afraid my mate is a bit under the weather,” he said, “but we’ll be in dead trouble if we don’t catch that train. I’ll look after him, Miss; I promise he won’t be any trouble if you will take us to Woolwich.” Well, with my Bill in the Navy I always had a soft spot for sailors but “under the weather”! - his mate was so drunk he was almost in a coma, propped up against the wall of a pub, dead to the world. They both had fully packed four-foot long kit bags with them and a small suitcase each too. So we loaded the luggage on first and I took it under the stairs so they didn’t have to buy luggage tickets (no string!). My driver came round to find the reason for the delay and he must have felt sympathetic to the Fighting Forces too because he leant a hand, between us, we managed to carry the unconscious sailor into the lower deck where we laid him out on the long seat. Regaining consciousness for a few seconds he opened his eyes, said, “Goodnight, Mum,” and lapsed into oblivion again. I dissolved into a fit of giggles - he was about ten years older than me anyway - and his young mate broke into a torrent of apologies - he was only about nineteen years old himself and a teetotaller into the bargain and so scared they would both be turned off again if his mate upset anyone. Of course, we had lots of passengers between the Old Kent Road and Woolwich but everyone understood and sympathised with the two blokes on last night of their leave, going out to sea the next day to face the elements - to say nothing of the German U-boats. When we reached Woolwich half a dozen passengers got out of their seats to assist the sailors and luggage off the tram and safely on to the pavement. Two chaps volunteered to help with the source of all the action (now slumped at a foot of a lamppost with an angelic smile on his face). They had both taken tickets to Plumstead but assured me they could take a later tram or even walk home if necessary after seeing the two sailors safely on their train. I waved them good-bye with many thanks and hoped another lovely crowd would do the same for Bill should the occasion arise!
Another drunken sailor provided an episode which was not so amusing - to put it mildly. To begin with, he insisted on trying to go upstairs - a manoeuvre I judged to be unwise - if not impossible in his state. After several stumbles, lurches and not a few strong words he finally made it to the top deck with me in close attendance behind in case he should fall backwards. I sighed with relief when he collapsed on a seat and I returned to the platform. We were running late, having stopped for a while in an air raid and the driver was really pushing it along. So down the empty road we rattled, swaying and lurching as usual till we reached Woolwich Ferry where I had to swing the pole and fasten it down while we took up the plough. As I regained the platform I heard a shout from the window over the platform and I looked up - and the sailor was sick all over my face and head. Now the smell of vomit is nauseous enough under normal circumstances but when a man has been drinking both beer and spirits, and it is literally right under your nose - it is indescribable. It was in my eyes and hair and dripping down on to my shoulders and all down the front and sleeves of my tunic. I dashed round to my driver nearly crying and he tried to wipe away most of the foul stuff with an enormous red and white spotted handkerchief, but it was obvious I couldn’t face the passengers or continue my duty in that state. So he told me to climb up onto the driver’s platform while he went round to ask all passengers to alight and wait for the next tram. When we explained the reason the passengers went up and dragged the sailor off the tram, telling him just what they thought in no uncertain terms.
Then away we went, down the road, non-stop to Charlton works where all the trams were serviced. There was a hurried consultation with the Chief Engineer and I was escorted into the washroom. I was on entirely male territory here as no women were employed at Charlton, so the engineer and my driver posted a man on the door to keep everyone else out. Then they helped me off with my tunic and set to with a sponge to clean the worst off while I washed my hair. They went outside while I took off my blouse and washed it and wrapped myself in a clean overall several sizes too large. While I was escorted into their canteen my tunic and blouse went off to be dried in the boiler room and, two cups of tea later, I returned to the tram fully dressed and clean and dry again. We had to make out a full report when we reached the Depot and I was told to bring in my uniform the following day (we always had two uniforms every year). Within three days it had been replaced, but I imagined I could still smell it for ages afterwards.
That little sliding window over the platform was the only one that a passenger could open or shut himself - the rest were all wound down or up with a turning handle kept in the locker, so if someone asked for a window be opened, everyone on that side of the tram had to be consulted, as they all opened or closed together. Our passengers must be a very tolerant crowd because I don’t remember anyone objecting when I asked.
The only other story I remembered telling didn’t involve a drunk at all. We were cruising along near the Elephant and Castle one summer evening when a man dashed out of a side street just short of a request stop and ran into the road, waving to the driver who pulled up for him. As he swung on to the tram the passenger shouted, “Ring her off, mate - quick!” The reason for his state of panic soon hove into sight around the corner; a really tiny middle-aged woman in a flowered apron and man’s cap and brandishing the biggest rolling pin I’d ever seen. I had rung the tram off by then and the expression on her face, at seeing the tram pull away with her man safely on board, was really comical - she stood there, rolling pin in one hand and the other arm shaking a clenched fist till we drifted out of sight. Well, I’d seen dozens of cartoons depicting the angry wife greeting her drunken husband with a rolling pin at the ready behind the front door - but never met a woman who chased him out with one! What did he get on his return I wonder?
Another time my driver and I provided an inspector with a good story to laugh over and it came about like this. One quiet night we were cruising along with no passengers on board, my driver on this night was a jolly sort of chap whom I had worked with several times before, and he slid open the connecting door to enquire if we had anyone on board. “No - we’re as dead as a doornail,” I replied - the usual expression when referring to an empty vehicle. “How would you fancy learning how to drive?” said he. Would I - wild horses wouldn’t have stopped me - so I ran through to the front platform to receive my first - and last - lesson on driving on a tram.
Now the tram driver stands behind the control box four feet high and controls the tram with an iron lever, somewhat resembling a spanner, which is always called a “key”. This key fits around a nut on top of the box a turned through a series of notches, each notch bringing more power and thus increasing the speed of the tram. To pull up and stop, the key turns back through the notches until all power is cut off and a brake engaged and finally a handbrake is applied by turning a big wheel alongside the box. Driving a tram is as simple as that - no steering - no gears - a child could operate it. I stood there, proud as Punch, bringing a tram to a halt at every stop, becoming quite proficient in bringing it nicely in line - with the platform outside the stop - and then gliding off again - so that when we reached some traffic lights the driver even let me pull up - wait and pull away again entirely unaided while he lit a cigarette. We were some yards beyond the lights when a voice behind us remarked, “Not bad, gel - we’ll make a driver of you yet.” At least I had the sense to bring the tram to a halt, while the driver gasped and threw the cigarette over the side, then we both turned to find a Road Inspector standing behind us.
Just in case it had escaped our notice, the Inspector totted up our list of crimes while busy writing on his board: No 1 The connecting door was unlocked - No 2 The back platform was unattended on an empty vehicle - No 3 The driver was not at the controls - No 4 The driver was not in possession of the key - No 5 The conductor was driving without a licence No 6 The driver was smoking on duty and No 7 We were now (looking at his watch) four minutes late. Points Nos. 1,2 and 7 merited nothing more than a severe reprimand but Noose 3 & 4 were serious crimes and Nos. 5 & 6 were not only breaking company rules but were police offences too. We were really in trouble and no mistake. But it must have been our lucky day because, after a telling-off which lasted several minutes and left me feeling about three inches tall, the inspector showed me the board which he had been writing on while detailing our various crimes. On it he had written “Tram Correct” and told me to sign it - bound us both to secrecy and told us that if it ever happened again he would be down on us like a ton of bricks. Then he pulled a packet of fags from his pocket and gave us one each! “Just got back from hospital,” he said, “Our first and it’s a boy - after fifteen years wed!” So it was his lucky day too! He jumped my tram several times after that and neither of us ever mentioned the night his first child was born and I drove the tram. That boy must be thirty-five years old now, although that makes me very ancient indeed.
Contributed originally by Ivy (BBC WW2 People's War)
THE START OF IT ALL
Aged seven and with a cardboard box containing my gasmask hanging from my shoulder I had been one of a bewildered crowd of youngsters gently but firmly ushered on to the train at Waterloo by the nuns from St. Joseph's Convent School in Abbey Wood, London. 3 million children were to be evacuated from London by the authorities in the first weeks of the Second World War but ours was a private arrangement and we were off to Canterbury - a ludicrous decision when with hindsight it is remembered what that city suffered. The little girl I was billeted with was definitely not my favourite friend. While she made the best of things I snivelled my way through the days. Letters home pleaded for my beloved teddy bear and soon the parcel arrived. I can remember vividly the feeling as I opened it that here was just one thing of my own in this alien world into which I had been catapulted.
During the first ten months after war was declared on 3 September, 1939 all remained quiet in this country - the phoney war as it became known - and the expected raids had not yet made any appearance. After sleepless nights on the part of my parents and begging from my grandparents to "bring the poor little chicken home", my mother flung caution aside and decided to do so. A marathon effort was required to obtain any long-distance transport, attempts to find a train from London to Canterbury met with the delivery in tones of great scorn the question "Don't you know there's a war on?" Trains were being commandeered for troop movements and there was no knowing when any normal passenger service would be running. Later, we became used to seeing billboards reminding us that "Careless Talk Costs Lives" and demanding "Keep It Under Your Hat" - we learnt to see spies round every corner. But I think that the first of these posters was the one that shouted "Is Your Journey Really Necessary?" at every station. My mother insisted that hers was and, not one to be easily deflected, eventually found a Green Line coach. Of the reunion I can remember no details. Only that "Mummy is here and I'm going home".
The problem of my education now had to be dealt with. My parents sent me to the nearby Council school. The cold stone of the walls, painted in the regulation dark green below and grubby cream above, the bare concrete steps, the echoing corridors.... did nothing to cheer my unwilling soul. The day came when a school inspector entered our classroom and as a new girl I was called out to meet him. The inspector beamed, asked my name and then said "What does 'dog' spell backwards?" I remember replying with some hauteur "God", whereupon I was vouchsafed due praise and allowed to sink back into oblivion. But the standards there were far behind those at the Convent and I was gaining nothing. After a few weeks I left.
Not long after this school also was evacuated and now there was scarcely a child to be seen in the streets. The air-raids had still not begun. As summer approached I spent happy days in the garden where stood the Anderson shelter that my father had installed, one of two and a quarter million distributed by the Government around the country for private citizens. He excavated a large area and walled it in with fifteen sheets of corrugated iron, those forming the sides curving inward at the top to make the roof. A small opening was left at the front covered by sacking. The excavated soil was heaped over the top, back and sides for added protection and insulation. Piled up sandbags formed a solid "porch" in front of the opening so that, during a raid, shrapnel and other debris would not fall into the shelter. Lastly, my father shortened a ladder by which to descend. That very ladder has only recently disintegrated after standing in my present garden behind the shed. All those years....
But the war in Europe was worsening. The British Expeditionary Force, sent to defend Belgium, had been beaten back to the coastal town of Dunkirk, in France, where they were surrounded by the Germans. Then began the almost miraculous rescue, Operation Dynamo, when 222 naval boats and 800 small private vessels of all kinds - trawlers, yachts, small motor boats - crossed and recrossed the Channel over a period of about nine days to take nearly 340,000 men off the beaches. But 68,000 men lost their lives, strafed by German fighters as they queued on the sands waiting for a boat.
The "phoney war" that had left us civilians in relative calm ended in June 1940 when France capitulated. Then Hitler turned his attention to this country. On 10 August he began the bombing of our airfields spread over south-east England with catastrophic damage to our air defences. That having been achieved the next target was London.
On 7 September, late on a warm afternoon, my parents were enjoying a peaceful rest dozing in the sunshine or catching up with the news from the Front, while I was playing on the lawn, collecting discarded sparrows' feathers. Insidiously a distant but steady drone began to invade our consciousness. It was strangely ominous. I noticed my parents glance questioningly at each other and caught their uneasiness, suddenly feeling frightened but not knowing why. The insistent sound grew in volume and became recognisable as the throb of many aeroplane engines.
All at once an air-raid siren wailed faintly in the distance but we did not need it, already we could see the oncoming mass of bombers. My parents grabbed me and we scrambled into the shelter. I did not know what was going to happen but was terrified as pandemonium took over outside. Other sirens joined the first, screaming their warning nearer and nearer as the planes advanced up the Thames. But all too late. After the devastation of our airfields over 900 German aircraft were able to reach London almost unopposed. We had been within inches of our refuge, but God help the poor souls caught out in the street for almost immediately the Germans were overhead. The uneven beat of those Heinkel 111's was to become a signal for terror for many months to come. The shelter was damp, cold and dark but we had had no time to fetch anything from the house with which to make ourselves comfortable. Why had there been such an appalling lack of warning?
Then began the most horrific night of the war for London. "Black Saturday", we came to call it. A black memory indeed.
We were in the middle of a three dimensional battlefield. The army was soon on the spot with the mobile artillery, lumbering along the street firing at the bombers with shattering reports which slammed our ears as the reverberations echoed around the enclosed spaces between the houses, and then moving on to a different location to avoid being pin-pointed by the enemy overhead. Up there everything was taking place at such low altitudes that we could hear the rattle of the firing as gun-turret levelled at gun-turret. As my mother held me tight, trying to shield me, I heard the first piercing whistles of falling bombs not understanding what they were until the explosions sent me frantic with fear and I knew there was something horrible happening.The bombs exploded all around, some with that extra crack in the sound that only those who have heard it would recognise as "a near one". The clink of shrapnel and debris constantly showering the shelter told us that there were plenty of those.
Afternoon lengthened into evening, light faded but the raid continued, wave after wave of bombers following the moonlit ribbon of the Thames to reach and destroy London. All night long the dogfights overhead, the whistling of sticks of bombs hurtling down, the ear-wrenching scream of aeroplanes falling out of the sky - victims of the Spitfires now weaving and diving frantically amongst the bombers, and probably at times one of those valiant young fighters themselves - had us hugging each other tight on the hard wooden bench. We shrank into one trembling, cowering mass waiting for each cru-u-ump which told us that we had escaped again, but only at the expense of some other life.
Had our own home been hit? It may have been only a few yards away but then so were many of the explosions we heard. My father tried to look outside once or twice but my mother grabbed him back with a "No, Jack, no".
About six the next morning there was a lull. Bombing ceased. The sound of planes receded.
The all-clear had not sounded but we climbed stiffly out from our shelter, cold, hungry, thirsty and weary, oh so weary. The deckchairs were still on the lawn. The dawn sky was lurid with the light of fires and the air was thick with acrid smoke which tingled in our nostrils. We dreaded what we might see, for there had been so many explosions during the night, so much debris raining down on the Anderson roof.
But our home still stood. It had not escaped damage. As we walked down the three steps into the yard we saw the big kitchen window frame leaning out at an angle, glass and broken slates littering the concrete and as we went indoors the floors were inches deep in plaster - all the ceilings were down. Joey the canary was a fluffed-out golden ball huddled at one end of his perch, eyes wide and unable even to squawk. Plaster littered the floor of his cage, too.
I think I was too exhausted by the terror we had been through really to take it all in, perhaps this was a nasty nightmare and I would wake up soon. I trailed after my parents as they hastened through the rooms checking for damage. Plaster crunched beneath our feet and covered everything in sight while the thick dust still hung in the air so that we tried not to breathe in too deeply. We went out into the street. Another sound had taken over from the bombing, a clinking and rattling as people swept their shattered glass, broken slates and plaster neatly into the gutters, trusting even in their exhaustion that order would soon take over and the debris be removed by the Council. There was a parade of three shops opposite us, one of which carried billboards advertising the programmes of the local cinemas. These were soon to be closed for the duration of the war as were all other places of entertainment. The billboards now carried posters announcing "Charlie's Aunt - still running" and "Gone With the Wind". After the night that we had had our laughter had a hysterical sound.
We lived about three-quarters of a mile from Woolwich Arsenal, one of the country's biggest armaments factories, and of course both it and the docks at North Woolwich on the other side of the Thames had been major targets for that night - and would be for many more. The Arsenal had been clearly illuminated in the moonlight and the Germans made the most of the opportunity. Massive fires raged. I stood petrified, staring at the flames leaping into the sky and expecting them to burn their way to our house.
The all-clear had still not sounded but we hurried down the road to see how my mother's parents had fared. They also had come up for air after a night spent in the dank mustiness of their shelter and hastily made a cup of tea for us all. But we scarcely had time to feel the warm comfort of the drink slipping down our parched throats before that uneven engine beat could be heard throbbing up the river once more. Could it really be starting again? We fled into their garden and down the shelter hardly daring to hope that we would survive this fresh onslaught.
But the all-clear did finally blazon out its relief and we were alive. We returned home for the big clear-up. But this was just the start.
THE NEW DAILY PATTERN
Raids became routine, day and night. Over 1500 civilians were killed in the first four days of the blitz, while casualties rose to nearly 6000 killed and 10,000 injured by the end of the first month. But on 15 September the RAF hit back. 175 German planes were shot down. At this unexpected setback Hitler ordered that day-time raids be stopped although at night the onslaught continued until 2 November, 57 nights in all. The Government went all out to increase production of aircraft. Buildings - private and official, church and cottage - were stripped of their railings and appeals were made for surplus metal tools and utensils to be handed in at specially organised collection points. These were all melted down and used in the factories now going day and night to get more planes into the air.
The brewery where my father worked threw open its underground shelter in the paddock at night for use by workers' families who lived near enough to reach it in time. During the daytime, of course, it was available only for their employees, so we used the Anderson when things became bad. But my parents considered that the paddock shelter would be safer, so each evening we hurried to clear the supper things and get ready for the night before the sirens went. The little portable mattresses, made of strong card with a padded surface, were rolled up and bundled together with the grey blankets my mother had managed to buy, a flask of tea and some sandwiches were prepared and we would make our way up past the high wall of the public house next door, to the brewery paddock and its shelter. Sometimes we grew fatalistic, or just plain defiant, call it what you will, and left it late. Sometimes the raids were early and the overhead fighting had already begun before our preparations were complete. Then, heavy jagged pieces of shrapnel pinging all round us in the darkness, we close-hugged that pub wall, ran in through the brewery gates and then faced the frightening final dash across the open paddock to the shelter, where we rattled down the steps as fast as we could.
One evening I must have been feeling particularly indignant at the way the raids were dictating how we should live our every moment. I had had a sudden fancy for a big bowl of bread and milk. Tucking in as if I had been starved all day I was savouring every mouthful when, of course, the sirens started in the distance. "Leave that", said my mother abruptly and moved to lift our coats down from the hooks in the passage. Our bedding was ready - up till then routine had been followed that night as it was every night. But I rebelled. Muttering my equivalent of "I'm damned if I will", I carried on spooning up what was to me now as the best caviar to a gourmet. The sirens sounded nearer. My mother's urging became stronger. Whhether I carried on to the last or whether I gave in I do not remember, but eventually off we went.
By then the planes were overhead and bombs were whistling down. Searchlights swept the sky and crisscrossed to pinpoint the bombers. Down at our level the streets were deserted and the two of us (my father was on nightshift) were the only ones out. It was unearthly, as if we had been abandoned while everyone else had rushed for safety and locked the doors behind them, leaving us to the mercy of the night.
We ran as fast as we could up to the brewery gates and along the path. But here it was my mother who paid the penalty for my stubbornness. It was pitch black, no moon, and as we turned past the brewer's house we both crashed into an object that had not been there the previous night. I found myself bent over something with my arms up to the shoulders in water while beside me there was a scream and an almighty splash as my mother overbalanced and fell right into what later proved to be a static water tank. These were now being placed about the streets and in building complexes to provide water for fire-fighting, firebombs having been added to the high explosives and land mines that rained down on us day and night. As she fell in, my mother had hit her head on the metal crossbeam of the tank and was knocked out. If I had been taller I would have gone in, too. I remember screaming in terror - there was no movement from the water, no sound from my mother and the raid was still exploding all around.
Suddenly my mother's head rose above the water. "All right, dear, all right", she said. The bombs no longer mattered. My mother was there again. She said afterwards that it was my screams that had brought her round. Somehow she scrambled out and we stumbled on towards the paddock. Despite the distance and the sounds of the raid my yells of "Mummy, Mummy" had been heard down in the shelter. They had guessed that it was "young Ivy" and by now several of the men were rushing up to see what had happened. They helped us along, supporting my mother, until we were all safe underground. There were exclamations as everyone found out what had happened, and gave vent to their feelings at the dangerous siting of the tank - it was moved the next day. Men took off jackets, women cardigans and coats to try to peruade my mother to discard her sodden clothing and put on something dry. But she insisted that she would be alright and remained all night soaking wet and frozen. Her right eye had taken the brunt of the knock on the metal beam and the flesh was swollen and badly discoloured for weeks. Fortunately the sight was not affected.
For a brief spell early in the war we had a Morrison shelter in the living-room, a great steel cage with a solid roof which would no doubt give protection from all but a direct hit. But it filled most of the room and after a while it was taken away. It was while its dark green bulk dominated our daily lives that I made the momentous decision that Father Christmas was not the chap who came down the chimney once a year, but merely a cover for my parents. And it was for such a slight, almost indefinable reason.
I had come down that morning in a state of great anticipation to find my presents. Somehow, there was something about the way the furniture had been moved a little in the cramped space that the shelter left us, moved so as to give room to display my presents properly. It was not the sort of thing that Father Christmas would have done, was it? He, if there were a "he", had so many other children to visit and he would have left the presents where he could and hurried off. Wouldn't he? And I had been harbouring suspicions for quite some time.... I had long ago decided that the fluffy yellow chicken on my Easter Egg plate had definitely not laid those miniature sugared almonds. But, I thought scornfully, I was just a baby then. Now I had learnt to run for my life. My last illusion fading, I was growing up.
Some time later my mother learnt that my school had returned from Canterbury, having discovered the error in choosing that unfortunate city for a refuge. Day-time raids had eased and my parents decided that I could go back. Well I recall that day I did. My father had been home for breakfast - morning shift started at 6 a.m. and although he always had a cup of tea and sandwiches which my mother prepared for him, he was ever ready for a good fry-up at 10 a.m., the only advantage of living two minutes from the job! He had returned to work, my mother had cleared away, then without warning surprised me with "Come on, we are going to see about you returning to school". I could scarcely believe my ears - could hardly wait to go back.
Getting off the bus we entered the Convent gates. All was quiet because it was mid-morning and classes were in full swing. As we went through the door of the Prep School a nun was coming down the stairs, Mother Roberta the kindergarten teacher, young, rosy-cheeked and affectionate. She stopped in astonishment, then - and I can hear the echoes of her voice now - cried out "Ivy!" She hurried down the last few stairs, ran up to us and enveloped me in such a bear-hug that I was almost stifled against the voluminous skirts of her habit. Then "Wait, I must tell Mother Theresa". This was the head of the Prep School and in contrast to Mother Roberta was the classic idea of a nun, calm, serious almost majestic as she moved about the corridors. But her face also was wreathed in smiles as she came down to see us. We went into her office and no doubt my mother filled her in on the hiatus in my education since my precipitous return from Canterbury, I must have been about 18 months without schooling. But all I can remember is the warm feeling of having come home and excitement at the thought of seeing my classmates again after so long away.
Night raids continued but not so frequently, and we stopped the routine of going up to the brewery shelter each night after supper, cautiously getting used to the luxurious feel of our own beds once again for as long as the bombing would let us. But we were certainly not free from it. I can remember waking up at nights already sitting on the edge of my bed, an automatic bodily response to the siren which had penetrated my sleep. My mother would come running into my room as I tried to keep my eyes open while hastily pulling on my clothes and I would hear my father moving quickly about in the other room. We would rush downstairs and decide whether to go into the Anderson, up to the brewery shelter or brave it out under the table.
HITLER'S SECRET WEAPONS
The intensity of the bombing had eased by the first week in December, 1941 as the war became concentrated in the battlefields of Europe. The Prep School had continued with a full day as usual but in the Senior School a shortage of teaching staff mean that it operated at first on a half-day basis. There were still sporadic raids throughout 1942 and much of the work was carried on down in the shelters. I remember photos in the school magazine of pupils taking their School Certificate exam. down in their depths. That the buildings never suffered a direct hit is almost something of a miracle, for in the fields next to the Convent was an army camp with its anti-aircraft gun emplacements.
But gradually people were able to gather together some semblance of "normal" life. For my mother there was time to concentrate on getting the housework done without fleeing to the shelter three or four times a day. There was time to worry about how to feed the family as, going to the butcher's to see if she would be able to buy a little meat with the weekly ration allowance, she would be met with the news that there was none - another ship had gone down. That brief comment needed no further explanation for we all knew how convoys of merchant ships, defying the U-boats to carry supplies for home consumption, suffered with many casualties despite the vigilance of the escorting corvettes and destroyers.
Then June 1944 saw the appearance of the first V1 rocket. It fell on Rye, Sussex. They were being launched around the clock and soon, of course, the scarred streets of London were targeted by this new peril, which were promptly christened buzz-bombs or doodle-bugs. Over 3000 are said to have been launched in the first few weeks. But anti-aircraft guns and specially adapted planes shot many down and by the end of August only one in seven reached London. But still about 2,400 fell on the city altogether. To stand and watch these things was an experience difficult to describe, even though the image is crystal clear in my mind to this day. The unearthly pulsing sound, the flames belching out at the rear and the menace of this flying bomb's gradual approach used to fill me with a kind of sickening horror that even the blitz had not given me. If at school, we would be shepherded down to the cellars should "it" seem to be coming our way. At home the distant sound of that terrifying drone would have us cocking an ear with a resultant sharp "Yes, there's one". I would run into the garden to watch for it to appear over the rooftops, calling to my mother once I had it in view. If I considered that the bomb's path was taking it on past us I would go back indoors but should its proximity be too uncomfortable I would yell "Mummy, quick, shelter". If, despite a response of "All right, dear" she did not appear immediately I would dash down the steps into the back-yard, my strangled cry of "Come ON" filling the yard and my heart pounding as the black shape with its short, square ended wings and streaming tail of flame pulsed nearer. The dread was, of course, that the V1's engine would suddenly stop. That meant that the bomb would then start its downward glide. Hearing my yell my mother would rush out of the back-door, probably more from an anxiety to get me down into the shelter (she knew I would not leave her indoors) than from fear for own safety. Like most people, she harboured a resentment against these "things" for causing so much interruption to everyday tasks. It was not bravado, just a weary doggedness, trying to get on with life in the midst of it all.
Having run into the shelter we would crouch together, trembling as the engine cut, listening to the unearthly rush of air as it passed overhead....waiting.....praying for it to keep going. Then, as we heard the crunch and felt the blast of the explosion, our throats would go dry as we "saw" the scene. Relief at our own survival but simultaneous misery at others' deaths were two sides of a coin I could never quite handle.
There was an assumption at first that all the time the engine was pulsing a V1 would pass on by but as soon as it stopped you'd better dive for cover. Later on such a guide to survival became unreliable. Sometimes the bomb's elevation would alter and it would come down with engine still going while another day the engine would die but it would glide on quite a distance before descending. Whether this was a malfunction or a fiendish refinement to add to the terror we did not know. Best not to trust any of them. 8,900 people were killed by these V1's and 24,000 injured.
One day I came home from school to say that Colleen, a girl in my class, had asked if I would like to evacuate with her to Heswall, in Cheshire. Her mother had friends there and had been told that two neighbouring families were willing to take evacuees. Discussions took place between our respective parents and eventually Colleen's mother escorted us northwards. I recall, as we alighted from the train at the other end, gasping at the glorious spread of the Dee estuary below us, the sunlight glittering on the water. It was another world.
My friend was billeted with a delightful elderly lady and her daughter, the latter informing us that her nieces called her Brighteyes. So Brighteyes she became for us, too. Next door, I was with a family who had two sons, one older and one younger than I. Peter did not think much of having a temporary young sister in the household. His attitude was reciprocated, particularly one day when I went into the larder to raid my sweet tin - we had one each for our own private supply, and I found that the level in mine had dropped considerably. It could have been either of the boys but for me, of course, it had to be that horrible Peter. I cut off diplomatic relations immediately. But little Ian was delighted at my arrival - someone to play with, scoffed at as he was by big brother. He was somewhat clinging, but the poor little chap was lonely and I used to play with him when Colleen and I were not out together.
It was the summer holidays while we were there and as September approached Colleen's mother made arrangements for her to start the next term at school in nearby West Kirby. The buzz bomb attacks had been tailing off and I was longing for home. But suddenly the newspapers were full of something new - the V2. At first brushed aside by official cover-up reports of exploding gas mains, Londoners had their own ideas and sardonically christened what they assumed to be the latest secret weapon "the flying gas mains". But reading these first newspaper accounts I was so worried for my parents and my longing to be back with them increased at this new danger. Reluctantly they agreed to my pleading and I returned to London, glad to be back in my own surroundings and looking forward to being at my own school.
On the Sunday before the autumn term was due to start, my parents and I took the bus to nearby woodlands and went for a stroll. Without warning there was an almighty explosion and I went to pieces. The blitz had become a way of existence and we learnt to fit what we could of life around it, while once we had got used to the sight and sound of the buzz-bombs we tried to leave them out of our everyday reckoning until the moment that one actually appeared. Since the age of about eight I had grown used to bombardment of one kind or another and although I knew deep terror it was a familiar spectre and one lived with it. Yet during those few weeks up in Cheshire I had somehow shed war from my consciousness. The habit of stoicism I had acquired, the blind doggedness that made you carry on each day in a kind of defiance of fear seemed to have dissipated, so that now, at 12 years old I was trembling like a baby and half crying with fright, saying "What is it? Let's go home, quickly, let's go home".
But the old way of life soon returned and I calmed down. Hitler's latest surprise flew faster than sound so that the first intimation you had was the massive explosion, followed by the rumble of the rocket's approach. Weird, but if you heard all that then you were still alive while if you were killed you would have had no warning and no time to be scared. So we reasoned, anyway! And carried on.
But this was Hitler's last stand. The unbelievable day of 8 May, 1945 came with the proclamation that it was all over, at least in Europe. Union Jacks hung waving from windows (we had a huge one!), blackout curtains were ripped down and window shutters removed so that at sunset lights streamed out on to the pavements with no warden hammering at the front door yelling "Put that b........ light out". Church bells rang and people spilled on to the pavement from the pub next door with raised tankards and singing that became more unintelligable as evening wore on. Street parties took place with lamp-posts decorated and bunting wreathing everything in sight. A few months later, in August after the horror of the atomic bombs on Japan, the Pacific war finished.
The first New Year's Eve of peace I lay in bed, 13 years old and still trying to believe that there would be no more bombs. We could experience the beauty and calm of a moonlit night instead of dreading what it would surely bring. A nearby public clock sounded the first stroke of midnight and was joined immediately by a siren from a ship lying in the George V Dock across the Thames. That was joined by another, then more until the night was filled with the clamour of hooters and sirens from the boats and the ringing of church bells. A miraculous din, a joyous din which made my heart pound with excitement. The New Year welcome.
Contributed originally by mikeellismartin (BBC WW2 People's War)
I lived at Plumstead, we were going to have the wedding at Hornchurch, cos we used to go to the church there. I think it was about 7 o’clock. We’d been up all night, down the air-raid shelter all night. The air-raids were on. I think it was about 7 o’clock the all clear went. We got up, my brother came….
Was the air raid shelter big?
It was in our back garden.
Oh, that was the Anderson shelter?
That’s right, at Plumstead.
We had to catch the bus to the ferry, the free ferry over Woolwich, then we had to get the bus to East Ham station and the train from East Ham station to Hornchurch. The whole time we were on the journey we didn’t have a raid. As soon as we got there we had an air-raid. So there was a big cellar under Woody Bay, and … an Anderson shelter in the garden. Some of us went down one, and some of us went down the other. Then we came up. The wedding was at half past two, and we got ready. I think there was another air-raid. No, the air-raid…we got there about ten, no there must have been just one air-raid then, but there had been air-raids all night. We got dressed, and no flowers came. Just before we left for the church the flowers came. They’d been held up because of the air-raids, there was so much damage done in Hornchurch.
We went to the church. We had the reception…we had the service. Being Brethren you had to have a registrar there, the registrar didn’t come, until about half way through the service, and then he came. Of course we had to sign the register. We’d just got back, and the warning went again. So we went down the cellar, half way down the cellar. Three or four of our friends didn’t come because one’s mother had been killed in the raids.
We had a photographer, official photographer, and he was the photographer for one of the Romford local papers. When we came out, when the all clear went…the Hornchurch aerodrome was right near there. There was a megaphone thing, ‘cos there was all black smoke and they’d got Van Den Bergh’s the margarine people. That’s what all the black smoke we could see was. They said “It’s allright it’s the margarine factory that’s gone up.”
So we went and had the reception, and then the siren went again, and we went down again. Then we came up again and I got dressed and Ken had ordered a taxi to take us up to Marylebone. We were going to Chalfont St. Peter for our honeymoon. We went in this taxi, and it was awful because there were water mains out and there was water coming up in the air, and there was gas pipes. You couldn’t go down this road, and you couldn’t go down that road because there were fires and that. In the end, when we got to Marylebone, we got in the coach and the warning went again and the people in the train were saying “It’s been terrible down at High Wycombe, there have been dog-fights down there.” I thought, “Oh, what are we going into!” So we got to Gerard’s Cross, that’s as far as the train goes. Then we got a taxi to Chalfont St. Peter, and it was a friend of Ken’s.
It was his aunt had a greengrocers shop, cos it was only a little village then. He got this lady who she knew, an old lady, had a cottage there. Her husband was in the colony for epileptics. She was on her own so she always used to go to the lady opposite, to her cottage to sleep the night. When we got there she had a meal for us. We had just got into bed, when we heard this…the warning had gone, and I said to Ken “ooh…”. We hadn’t got lights we’d got candles. You know I don’t like the dark, so I said we’ll light the candle. Of course he had to get up and draw the curtains before he could light the candle. As he went to get back we heard this thing coming and he went to get back into bed again and he put his elbow right in my eye. Course we got up then and went downstairs, so we sat on the couch underneath the stairs. This eye came right up, the wedding was on the Saturday, on Sunday…we went to church Sunday morning and the man on the door was Ken’s old Sunday School teacher, and he knew we were a honeymoon couple, and there I was sitting there with this black eye!
I think there were about eight air-raids all together, you know with the night before. If you went down the old Anderson shelter at night and the all clear went, you didn’t bother to get up because you knew the warning was going again so you just stayed down there till the morning.
What about your dress and everything?
Well my aunt made my dress, because it was coupon time. All her friends who worked in the dressmakers gave me coupons. she made their dresses as well. We had a cake, oh the cake didn’t come. It was a three tier cake, I think.. But we didn’t get any official photos because, unfortunately the photographer was killed as he went back on the first one he did after me. But the paper had got his pictures or something, and that picture was put in the window of the shop where the paper was printed. One of our friends saw it there, and that is the only official photo we got.
Do you know which paper it was?
Oh, some Romford something. Romford Times or something.
So where did everybody…did everybody come to the wedding from their homes, or did they stay anywhere or what?
No, my brother got a car down to bring my grandmother, grandfather and aunts. They had a car from Woolwich down there, and then to Hornchurch then took them back afterwards. Of course Joan and Ruth and their mum and dad lived there. His friend’s mum was killed in the morning.
Of course the ladies decorated the hall in the morning with flowers, they went home when the warning went. When Ken got there he had to clear all the flowers away where they’d been doing them and left them.
Quite eventful then?
It was a very eventful day, yes.
When we came back the next week it was the Battle of Britain, and we came home on the Saturday, the seventh of September. No sooner had we got home than the warning went, and we went down and it was a very bad raid, and Ken said to me “Now perhaps you’ll come down.” He wanted me to stay down at Chalfont St. Peter you see. So I said, “Well I want to go and see Gran first.” You couldn’t get letters through, and we hadn’t got a telephone or anything. We tried to get through. We got to East Ham, and we got on the 101 bus to North Woolwich. The siren went, so we all had to get off. Well it hadn’t been going along the main road because that had been bombed earlier in the day. Of course the docks were all alight. We had to go round the back streets. We didn’t know where we were. And we came along, and the shops were all in front of us, at a sort of “T” junction. You could see the fire in the shops, it was all reflected in the windows. We said to a warden “Where are we? Can you tell us where there’s a shelter?” Because they were private houses in the road we were going along. He just said, “I don’t know nothing.” You know he was proper dazed. Anyway we walked a little further and there was this sign outside the house. If you had a shelter and not many people in it you put a notice up. If people were walking by they could come in, and you had to leave your front door open, see? So I went to the front door and said “Can we come in?”
She said “Come in, come in. I’m just making some sandwiches for my lodger. He won’t come downstairs; he will stay in bed in these raids. If you go through to the garden, the children are in there.”
So we went down, and there were three little wee children. I think the eldest must have been about six. They were all tucked up, in their cots, you know? She came down, and she said,
“My lodger won’t come down, and my husband’s working in the docks. I’m ever so worried.”
Well you could hear the bombs dropping and the guns going you know. They’ve got a funny noise the guns, sort of “Whoomph! Whoomph!” sort of thing. Anyway, about five O’clock her husband came home, from the docks and of course she was pleased to see him. And about five O’clock the all clear went. We went to get out, and he said, “No, don’t go out yet. They know to come back and machine-gun people coming out of the shelters you see.”
So we waited for about an hour, and went to go. Then he said “Oh no, you’re not going now, you’re going to have a cup of tea”
Of course, tea and sugar were all rationed. But he would make us have a cup of tea. So I’d got a box of chocolates for Gran and some flowers you see, so I left the chocolates for the children and the flowers to her. But they wouldn’t take any money.
Then when we got to the end of the road there was a church hall, being used as a mortuary. They were full up and there were bodies lying outside, you know. I think it was near Catherine Road, because I think we got the bus from Catherine Road. She told us where we could get the bus, and when the bus did come along, it had been in London all night. Quite a few people were waiting there, and the driver said, “Hornchurch people only, Hornchurch people only!” He said, “I’m not stopping till I get to Hornchurch now.”
We got on the bus and dad went to pay and he said, “Don’t want no money!” So dad got a free ride, oh he was pleased, you know how he liked to get something for free. Then when we got home, Ken said, “Now perhaps you’ll go back?” So I said allright.
So we went to go back and his mum and dad came with the dog, and us. We had a big old spaniel. Joan, dad, mum spaniel, Ken and I. And his mum had used all the rations, put them together and made a steak and kidney pie. It was for Sunday, so we had this steak and kidney pie. When we all went down to Chalfont St. Peter we stood on poor old Mrs Colwell’s doorstep. She was an old lady, and she didn’t know what she was going to do, but anyway we went in, and she’d got one of those old ranges. So we put our steak and kidney pie in the oven. We got somewhere for his mum and dad to stay, and we stayed where we were. Anyway, on the Monday, Ken's mum and dad came back, and Joan had to come back because she worked at Black Nottley Sanitorium, and she was on duty. Monday morning, when Ken went back to work, early in the morning, the firm had been bombed, so he was out of a job. I had to keep him for three months!
Then we found two rooms.
So were you working then?
I had to go to work then didn’t I? Anyway, if you were married you had to go to work, you weren’t called up, but you had to work. If you were not married, then you could be called up for ATS, Land Army or factory work. If you were married, you got your own job near home. I got a job at the “Renown Assurance Company”. It was just along the hill, typist you see. So that was quite good really, I got me money and I got a job and kept him. Three months, that was the 7th September, no, the 9th September, on the Monday. He went in the army on the 5th December. He couldn’t get another job because he was waiting for his call up papers.
Of course, the wedding presents he got from the firm, he hadn’t brought home, they were all gone you see.
Did you enjoy your day?
Oh, I think so. It was a frightening day, you know.
Was it exciting or frightening?
Frightening. You never knew what was going to happen next, you know. The bombs dropped. You could hear them dropping, because they whistled. That’s what makes me so cross with people who love to see these war films on television. They want to live though it, then they wouldn’t like it so much. You just stand there, and anything can happen to you. You were relieved really, when you heard the bang. You felt a bit guilty; you wondered where it was. Specially if you were near home and your friends were all around you. You’d think, “I wonder where that one is, I wonder who’s got it?”
Did you lose many of your friends?
Before I was married, when I used to work at Greenwich, I used to work for British Oxygen Company, at Tunnel Avenue. Two or three of them were killed, you know. Just didn’t come in next morning, then you’d hear. One girl was killed in a shelter; they had a direct hit above. Quite a few were injuries, you know.
Somebody would phone the bosses up and you would get to know.
Winnie, my brother’s wife. A landmine fell on their house and they were dug out. They were injured a bit, but not badly. Yes it was rather a frightening time, you know. You sort of got used to it, a bit blasé, but it was still frightening.
How long were you actually in the thick of it?
Well I went down to Chalfont, it wasn’t so bad down there. The bombing didn’t go on for the whole war. There was a big lull, and then, when June was born, I was in a nursing home. Then the warning went, and then we heard this noise, “Chug,chug.” Just like a motorbike, and all of a sudden it stopped. So we said, “Ooh, they’ve shot that one down” and then there was a bang. They were the first buzz bombs. We didn’t know anything about them before then. It was the first we ever knew of them in this nursing home, in Devonshire Road, four doors down from Woody Bay.
The other lady’s husband was on leave, and he came in, and was laying listening. If they went over you were allright, but if they stopped you ducked, you didn’t know if you were going to kop it. I never had any experience of the V2’s. They fell on London.
But of course Dover got it worst cos they used to shell Dover from France.
My father’s landlady (he was working on a barracks down there) her son was a tramdriver, and he was killed.
Yes, it was rather frightening.
We’d taken the wedding dress and everything over the week before. The day before we helped make the jellies and that, cos we did all the reception. So I went home the night before then Chas took me over.
We never got to see my Gran. After we’d all turned up at Mrs Colwells on the Sunday, on the Wednesday, my brother turned up. He had my Gran and grandad and my aunts cos they just couldn’t stand it any more. Gran hadn’t changed her clothes for three weeks; she’d been down the shelter. They were afraid to get washed, because they had to get undressed. But we got them rooms, then the house was bombed, or at least, Ancona Road was bombed. So they never went back to Ancona Road. It was only rented, and they didn’t go back even after the war. After they left it, my brother and his girlfriend lived there. Gran was terribly upset, it wasn’t done in those days. Eventually they got married, but they didn’t want us to come up for the wedding, I suppose because of the bombs.
Anyway, Gran lived with Ada. Then when the lady down the road moved back to Lee on Sea, they said to gran “Would you like to rent the house?” They didn’t charge her much at all. Then they sold it to Auntie Grace for a very small amount.
Gran had nothing when she left Ancona road, just the clothes she stood up in. And they’d been married 60 years. They brought one or two bits and pieces like Charlie and Gracie.
Contributed originally by Thanet_Libraries (BBC WW2 People's War)
The first indication of the approaching war came when our next-door neighbour came home from work and said that on Plumstead Common a large team of men were constructing an air-raid shelter.
This was in the early part of the summer of 1939. After tea that evening we all walked along to the common and there, opposite the “Links” Co-op store were 50-60 men working under floodlight using machinery that I had never seen before. Even the hand held electric saw was an item to be stared at in wonder.
All this was taking place after PM Chamberlain came back from Germany waving his piece of paper and saying to the waiting crowd “Peace in our time”.
A few weeks later, on a lovely summer Sunday morning, September 3rd, we all walked down to our local greengrocer and bought some bananas. While walking back a man came out of his house and said “Get home quick, war has been declared!” We hurried home, but before we got there the air-raid siren went and we ran the rest of the way, looking skywards expecting to see a German plane at any minute. None came, it was a false alarm and the “all clear” sounded soon after. The air-raid siren for a coming raid rose and fell as if it was being switched on and off. The “all clear” was a continuous note for about two minutes.
In the next few weeks many things happened. A man went door-to-door giving out identity cards to everybody. The adults were given buff coloured cards and the under 18’s were given blue. We were all given a number, mine was AZKW-91-3, the last digit meant that I was third in the family.
My mother had to go down to the town hall to collect our ration cards for food and clothing. The amount of food we were given each week would not last us a day now. My uncle, in Canada, read in the newspapers that we were starving, and sent us a large food parcel. The only two items I remember was a big tin of jam and a big tin of butter. We had never seen butter in a tin before, or since.
Sweets were also rationed but were almost unobtainable. Petrol was only given to important people, like doctors. People that had cars, and there were not many, jacked them up on bricks and covered them up with waterproof sheets.
About this time people were advised to “black out” their windows. We covered our windows with rubber sheeting, which found its way out of the Woolwich arsenal, stolen of course!
I was ten years old at this time and one day we had a mock evacuation at school. We all had to take a suitcase full of clothes to school and we had a label with our destination on it. We also had to take our gas masks, which had been delivered, to our house one evening. Most people had a standard mask, but children under five were given a blue and red mask to fool them into thinking it was a Mickey Mouse mask. Babies were given a container about two-foot long and eighteen inches in diameter. The baby was placed in this and a manual pump was used to provide filtered air for the baby to breathe.
In the following weeks we had an “Anderson” shelter put at the bottom of the garden. Two men came and dug a hole three-foot deep and the shelter went into this and was covered with the excavated soil.
At this time the “ARP” was formed (Air Raid Precautions) and wardens were recruited to man purpose built, bomb proof posts on pieces of vacant ground. London taxis were garaged in schools and fitted with ladders and fire-fighting equipment. The latter consisted mainly of several buckets of sand and a stirrup pump.
“Dads Army” was formed, but at first it was called the “Local Defence Volunteers” later to be called the Home Guard.
For the next few months very little happened, people started calling it a “phoney war” and most people thought it would be all over by Christmas.
Weeks went by and a glorious summer turned into a wet and cold winter. After Christmas a decision was taken to evacuate school children to the country and most children went away. A small band of children, including my brother and I stayed behind, mainly because their parents did not wish them to go, the idea being that if we were going to be killed, it was better if we all went together. Those of us left, played quite happily in the woods close by and in the streets. On the edge of the wood was a council yard, ready to build some houses. While playing around there, we uncovered an enormous pile of what, we at first, thought were boxes but these were grey painted coffins ready for use when the air raids started.
Playing in the street one day, we were approached by a strange man who took our names and told us he was a teacher and we were to report to a nearby working mans club the next day for school lessons. Here we were given homework, which we had to do and return the next day. The working mans club smelt of stale beer and cigarettes and was not very nice. This arrangement went on for some time. Eventually they organised “Plum Lane School” and all of us strays went there full time.
One night I was woken up by the sound of a policeman on a bike, blowing a whistle for all he was worth. Dad came into my bedroom and said we had better get up and dressed. We all went downstairs, the siren went and we went out into the garden. Our next-door neighbour came out and we stood listening for a while, but it was very quiet. After about twenty minutes we all went into our house for a cup of tea, and talked until the “all clear” went. A shared cup of tea with our neighbour became the normal thing after a raid for the rest of the war.
By now we were getting two to three air raids every week. The first afternoon raid in our road demolished a house on the corner. Later in the day, when people came home from work, a hole was found in the back garden of the house on the opposing corner. The bomb disposal team were called in and started digging for an unexploded bomb. A large section of the road was cordoned off and remained so for two weeks while they removed the bomb. Although we were having air raids we could not use the shelter in our garden as it had three foot of water in it. Eventually the council came to concrete the floor and walls up to ground level, and slowly the shelter dried out.
The air raids continued to increase both by day and night, and most people slept in their shelters. By now our shelter was nicely equipped with bunks and we were able to get a good nights’ sleep, in spite of all the noise.
A lot of people painted a V sign for victory on the wall alongside their front door. Three dots and a dash usually followed this. This was the Morse code for “V”. Just inside the front door on many homes was a small notice that said, “There is no depression in this house and we are not interested in the possibility of defeat, it does not exist”.
Much has been written about the “Battle of Britain”, the history books will tell you that it lasted from the 7th to the 15th September 1940. Germany lost 1733 planes and we lost 915, when you think that most German planes were bombers, and held at least five men, our fighters only held one man, their losses in terms of manpower were considerably more than ours. However, my memory tells me that most of the battle only lasted two days. In this time we saw planes fighting one another in the sky in flames. Some fell cart wheeling down; leaving a trail like a comet and making a tremendous screaming sound.
One spitfire dived down, quite close to us, leaving a trail of smoke, it levelled out and the pilot jumped out using his parachute. As he floated down, a German plane machine-gunned him and he continued to float down, probably dead. We spent these two days trapped in our shelter, after the first horrible day, the “all clear” went at six o’clock. Dad and I decided to go and get some fish and chips, and we rode our bikes intending to go to Herbert Road where there was a fish shop that was nearly always open (most were not). When we got to the top of Plum Lane we stopped and looked down at the River Thames. From our vantage point we could see St Paul’s up to the left and on our extreme right, the Ford motor works. In between these two points was a mass of fires, seven major fires and dozens of smaller ones blazing away into the gathering dusk.
I remember Dad saying, “It looks as though the war is over.” While we looked the siren went again and we raced back to the shelter. We never did get our fish and chips and all we had that day was bread, margarine and cups of tea.
We spent that night and all the next day cowering in the shelter while the sky was filled with German bombers going over in tight formation. Anti aircraft guns blazed away and shrapnel came down like rain. (When the shells exploded the resulting pieces of torn metal was called shrapnel.)
It is true of course, that the battle went on for a few more days, but not a ferociously as before. One of the German planes landed in the back garden between Ann Street and Robert Street, in lower Woolwich, and word soon got round that one of the tenants was selling pieces of the plane to raise money for the war effort. I bought an unrecognisable piece of aluminium for 3d and was delighted with my bargain.
All the children, myself included, started picking up pieces of shrapnel; the reason was that if you collected a certain amount you were given a shiny spitfire badge, which we all wore proudly.
After things quietened down again we started patching broken windows in our house with white sheeting, supplied by the council. It was not long before people found that if this material was boiled, it made excellent pillowcases, and a lot was misused in this way. Our house had sliding doors between the front and back rooms and we fixed these as they had been blown down by the blast from a nearby bomb.
On the second day we had a lucky escape, we came out of the shelter during a lull and found a pile of grey ash on the grass, we looked up and saw a few broken tiles on the roof. An incendiary bomb had hit the roof and bounced off into the garden where it burnt itself out. If it had gone into our loft, the house would probably have been destroyed.
After this horrible weekend, Dad went back to work and Mum, myself and Rex were in the shelter when a bomb fell no more than thirty feet away from us. The shelter lifted up at least six inches and rocked violently, dirt fell down from the joints in the shelter and Mum said, “That’s our house gone.” After a few minutes I opened the door of the shelter and saw the house was still standing. Looking the other way I saw a large hole in the woods at the back of us, and that’s where the bomb had landed.
One silly thing I remember is that after all the damage had taken place, the council gave every house in the area five pounds to buy new curtains. I do not think anyone did, but I am sure the money came in handy.
We had a searchlight battery down the road from us, and a barrage balloon site up the road, both being about a quarter of a mile away. One evening after a raid we walked up to the balloon site because we heard that they had been hit. When we got there we found that the sleeping hut had received a direct hit, and the pile of wood and corrugated iron we were looking at contained the bodies of twelve airmen. We did not stay long.
About this time the school I was at was bombed quite badly. Luckily I had the afternoon off to go to the dentist. Nobody at the school was hurt as they were all in the air raid shelter. This school closed, and we all went to another school. My father, who was too old for military service, was sent down to Plymouth to help build a hospital for the American troops down there. I went down to the station with him and could hardly walk the short distance back to school for the tears in my eyes. My new school was the Woolwich Polytechnic and had already been bombed, but it was such a large school that a big hole in one wall did not make any difference.
Our local newsagent asked me if I would do a paper round for him, which I did for 6s/- a week (30p) I started delivering at 6am every morning, very often there was still an air raid on, and I wore a tin hat. Due to the dark mornings and the blackout I had a torch, which I used sparingly in case there were any German bombers around.
By now there were dozens of houses bombed and abandoned. One paper I had to deliver was to the only occupied house down the bottom of Duncroft Hill. In the dark with all the temporary paper coverings on the windows flapping about, it was very spooky.
After two months my father came home and started work on what we later knew as the “Mulberry Harbour”. His job with hundreds of others was to build and enormous wooden box in a large hole alongside the Thames on the mudflats. This box was filled with concrete to make a hollow concrete structure, about 80 foot by 60 foot.
From the top of Plum Lane we used to see barges floating down the Thames and wondered what on earth they were for, even the men working on them did not know. Once pouring of concrete started on these barges it could not be stopped until the barge was finished. This meant the men used to work “ghosters”, day and night and sometimes part of the next day. The result of this was a very fat wage packet, and for the first time we seemed to have enough money.
Until this period money had been so short that on several occasions my mother and I would go down to Woolwich to pawn her engagement ring for a few pounds. This was usually done at dusk in the hope that nobody would see us. Even now when I see that ring, the sad memories come flooding back.
The air raids continued and for a week we slept in the shelter. The optical buildings were about half a mile away from our house. This was a small factory that made bombsights, binoculars and range finding equipment. A couple of times this was obviously the target to be raided. Magnesium flares were dropped on parachutes and because of the heat rising from them, the parachutes acted as hot air balloons and hovered in the sky for five or six minutes. The light from them was so bright that although it was late at night you could have read a newspaper in our garden quite easily. Several bombs were dropped, but missed the target and fell on adjacent allotments. I do not believe the factory itself was ever hit. On these local raids the Germans dropped silver and black tape to interfere with our radar systems.
During the war we would see German bombers flying over in formation and apart from anti-aircraft fire, it seemed very little was being done to stop them. Barrage balloons used to be flown to try to make the bombers fly at a greater height, but were more of a nuisance to us on the ground. In thunderstorms they were frequently struck by lightening and burst into flame. They also broke away quite often, causing the wire holding them to fall down across the roofs of houses causing damage to chimney pots. Very often the RAF men spent longer retrieving wires than flying their balloons.
One day I came home from school during an air raid and found myself locked out. As I stood by the front gate a small German bomber dived down over Welton Road, as I watched, a bomb left the plane, which then zoomed away towards London. The bomb exploded in the gardens between Welton Road and Duncroft. I don’t think anyone was killed, but I do know a baby, sitting in a high chair was badly cut with flying glass. Mr Heron picked up the high chair with the baby in it and ran the four or five hundred yards to Timbercroft Lane School where there was a first aid post. Mr Heron was Dad’s roommate in Plymouth and passed on the above story.
By now I was getting up at 5 am to help the newsagent get the paper rounds together, delivering my two rounds, going down to the Arsenal station to collect the evening papers and collecting money Saturday and Sunday mornings. For this I received 24s/- a week (£1.20), it does not seem much now, but at that time if a man was earning £5 a week, he was doing very nicely.
Another terrible incident took place in Alabama Street, under cover of darkness a German bomber dropped a sea type mine on a parachute. When it hit the ground it exploded causing devastation over a wide area. Ordinary bombs buried themselves in the ground and damage was not so widespread. Thinking back on it now, the scene I saw was very much like Hiroshima, a whole block of houses between Lucknow Street and Pegwell were completely flattened. Up in a tree were the remains of a green tarpaulin parachute. I never did know how many people were killed, but it must have been 50 or 60 at least.
Every night a broadcast from Germany was beamed our way, and someone who called himself “Lord Haw Haw” used to feed us with outrageous propaganda. Lord Haw Haw’s father lived in a big house in Shrewsbury Lane, close to the top of Eglington Hill. He was a very short man, always wore a flat cap, brown overcoat and shiny leather leggings. Why he was not interned I do not know. Lord Haw Haw’s real name was William Joyce and I think his father’s name was Harry Joyce.
One night he apparently said that the German paratroops were going to take over London. It had previously been decided that if paratroops landed all the church bells would ring. If gas was used the police and air raid wardens would sound football rattles.
The rumour of paratroops landing spread like wildfire and as my father was away some nights, I decided to do something about it. I had a Colt 45 revolver and one bullet that fitted it. On nights that Dad was away, Mum, Rex and I all slept in the same room. Without my mother knowing I used to put the loaded revolver under the bed on my side. My stupid plan was that if a German soldier burst into our room, I was going to shoot him, take his gun and defend us from the top of the stairs. Luckily, the occasion never arose.
After the war the revolver mentioned, along with another smaller one, was buried in the back garden of our house because of a government amnesty. When the house was sold, I tried to dig them up, but I could not locate them. I expect they are still there today.
At the age of 13½ my friend and I put our ages up by 2½ years to join the Air Training Cadets. We trained as pilots and navigators, received flying instruction in a link trainer, which was an early type of flight simulator, and we did the usual foot drills. This was very useful when I was called up some years later. We also did a little bit of real flying at West Malling and Felixstowe. While at Felixstowe we had a bad air raid and the only shelter we had was a deep trench dug at the side of the field we were camping in.
Every night at Felixstowe we used to see a flotilla of motor torpedo boats going out on submarine patrol. One afternoon we were taken out to look for submarines and at the time, bobbing about in the North Sea for two hours seemed a great adventure. Looking back on it, I marvel at our stupidity because not many of us could swim.
One night after our visit to Felixstowe, a list went up on the notice board saying that if the list of cadets did not volunteer for service in the RAF they ran the risk of being called up for the coal mines as a “Bevan Boy”. Both me and my friend’s name were on the list so we had to come clean and admit that we had lied about our ages. The officer in charge was very nice about it, and let us stay on in the ATC.
After Easter 1944 I left school and started work for a relation of ours. He taught me a lot about building and plumbing, and very early on, because of the shortage of men, I was being trusted with jobs on my own. I built a wall about 20 feet long and 6 feet high, I did small plumbing jobs and when nothing else was urgent I built a large greenhouse. This greenhouse was built with materials diverted from war damage repairs being carried out in Westmount Road at the back of the Welcome Inn, Eltham. After the greenhouse was completely finished it was filled with plants and four weeks later it was blown to pieces by a nearby bomb.
The air raids had slowed up by now and one night after the sirens had sounded we stood and watched what looked like planes with a light on the back, going up towards London at a very low level. We watched dumbstruck as these planes flew past every five minutes or so with no opposition at all. We realised after a time that the engines of these planes (which sounded like a motor bike) stopped after a time and the planes were not coming back. We concluded that at long last the Germans were landing troops, and we feared the worst.
Next morning it became known to everyone, via the radio and an air raid warden that lived near us, that what we had been watching nearly all night, was Germany’s new secret weapon. It was, of course, a “Doodle Bug”, an unmanned plane with a bomb in its nose. In the next few months, dozens of them fell on London and the suburbs causing considerable damage and deaths.
One grey and misty day, during a raid, I was coming home for dinner down a country lane known as the “Red Road” when I heard the engine of a doodle bug approaching. I continued to walk, when suddenly the engine stopped. As I looked ahead into the mist this thing was coming straight for me. It was only a few hundred yards away and making a fluttering sound. I am not a believer in religion, the whole thing seems so illogical to me, but this thing coming straight for me, I dived into a ditch and prayed as I have never prayed before or since. There was an enormous explosion and realising I was still alive I looked up to see hundreds of pieces of metal fragments, which appeared to be floating in the air. I ducked down again and covered by head with my hands hoping that none of the pieces would hit me, which they did not.
I picked myself up and walked shakily up the lane, about three hundred yards away on some allotments was a big crater. The doodle bug must have side slipped away from me, had it continued, I would not be writing this now. On the way home a fire fighting taxi stopped and asked me if I was alright. I expect I looked pretty dreadful, smothered in mud and shaking like a leaf. He offered me a lift home but I said I was okay and I continued home. I had to go back to work in the afternoon as I had left a pile of cement mixed up.
In 1944 I had saved up enough money to buy a small car. The deposit was £25 with repayments of £1 a week. This bought me a very nice “Morris eight” in excellent condition with red leather upholstery and an unmarked black finish. There was no petrol available, so for a few months all we did was polish it inside and out.
Eventually because Dad and I were repairing bomb-damaged houses he was granted two gallons of petrol a month for emergency use. This did not go very far, but we were able to buy black market petrol coupons from our local butcher and this enabled us to visit the coast occasionally. The roads were so quiet I was able to drive even though I was not old enough and did not have a licence.
Our firm commandeered a house in Llanover Road, right opposite the house where I had been born. We set up a carpenter’s workshop in a bedroom and over the next few months we made hundreds of replacement window frames. Downstairs was a glazing room and storerooms for all kinds of building materials. It was wintertime and quite cold so our first job in the morning was to light a fire and make tea.
Some few months later Dad and I were walking home from work at about 5 o’clock. As we got to the junction of Garland Road and Red Road there was an enormous flash, followed by an equally large explosion. Looking up we saw a great cloud of debris falling down, mostly over the RAC abattoir but some falling on the road in front of us. As we turned the corner, a policeman came up from the Optical Buildings and started picking up the bits and pieces that had fallen on the road. We helped him and we took our collection of bits of pipe and glass fibre down to the factory gate for someone to examine. To the best of my knowledge this was the first “V2” to land. This one and a few others malfunctioned. Apparently as they came through the atmosphere, they overheated and exploded too soon. A few of these rockets fell locally; the first indication of their arrival was violent earth tremors, and then the explosion followed by the sound of their engines as they came down. The reason for this was that they travelled faster than the speed of sound.
‘D’ Day was the 6th June 1944. Some man stopped me in the street and said we had made a landing in France. As the day progressed more and more aircraft flew over. Some were going to France and some coming back. Those that were returning were doing ‘victory rolls’ so we knew things were going well. How they missed the top of Shooters Hill, I do not know.
Our troops continued to make rapid progress and we did not have many more air raids. Over the next few months the news got better and better, and for the first time we knew we were going to win.
On May 1st 1945, I went to bed as usual in the dark as we had not bothered to put the blackout curtains in the bedrooms. Laying in bed with the curtains wide open the room was suddenly lit up with our nearby searchlight coming on. Thinking it was a raid coming, I jumped out of bed and I started to get dressed. Looking out of the window, I saw dozens of searchlights sweeping the sky and waving backwards and forwards. I rushed downstairs where Mum and Dad had the radio on and they were just announcing the end of the war in Europe. Our next-door neighbour rushed in and we sat talking until the early hours of the morning.
The next day nobody went to work and we had an impromptu party down at the corner of the road. People took cakes and sandwiches down to be shared out and a radiogram was fixed up to provide music for people to dance to.
The next Saturday afternoon we all went to a much better organised party down at Timbercroft Lane School. There was a load to eat and drink; even ice cream had come from somewhere. Various people did their party tricks and I think we all had a good time.
May 8th was the official ‘VE’ day and was declared a national holiday. At work we were so busy that it was decided that we should work and have the day off later. We never did get it but nobody minded very much because the extra money came in handy as always.
That’s the end of my account of the war in Woolwich and how it affected us.
On 6th August 1945, the Americans dropped the atom bomb on Hiroshima, but this was overshadowed in our family by the death of my grandfather.
2nd September 1945 was victory in Japan day, but this did not affect us very much as our war was really over before that.
I would like to say that we all lived happily ever after, but that was not so. Shortages continued for many years and we went without quite a few things. Rationing did not finish completely until 3rd July 1954. I think meat was the last to come off ration.
I do feel that if the country had left Winston Churchill in power, things would have recovered much quicker. For some unaccountable reason he was thrown out in favour of a labour government at a time when we really needed a good leader. I suppose in better times we would have received counselling, but none was available for us.
I think the only lasting effect on me is that if I hear an air raid siren on TV, it still sends a chill up my spine. At night if I look out and see a moonlit sky with a few clouds, I still think “nice night for a raid”.
I must finish this the way that I started, by saying every word you have read is true.
I have written this account of my war in the hope that my children, grandchildren and possibly their children should understand what we went through.
At the outbreak of war I was ten years old. I lived with my mother and father, Julia and Eddie Robinson, and my brother Rex, who is eight years younger than me. We lived at 86 Warland Road, Plumstead, London, SE18. Our road was aptly named, as we had no less than thirteen bombs and many small incendiaries dropped on it.
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