Bombs dropped in the ward of: Woolwich Common
Total number of bombs dropped from 7th October 1940 to 6th June 1941 in Woolwich Common:
- High Explosive Bomb
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 Woolwich Common
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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 2nd Air Division Memorial Library (BBC WW2 People's War)
This story was submitted to the People's War site by Jenny Christian of the 2nd Air Division Memorial Library in conjunction with BBC Radio Norfolk on behalf of Frank L Scott and has been added to the site with his permission. The author fully understands the site's terms and conditions.
I was eighteen, going on nineteen, when the storm clouds of war started to gather. Life was good ; a happy home, loving and devoted parents and family, sound job prospects and a variety of interesting hobbies and out-door pursuits. All this adding up to an enjoyable and hopefully peaceful future. Life was indeed worth living!
My dreams were shattered on that morning in early September 1939 when the sirens sounded throughout the land warning 'Englanders' of an immediate air attack when the suspected might of the German Luftwaffe would rain down upon us.
Most people that could, and were able, ran for cover long before the mournful wail of the penetrating sound of the air-raid sirens had faded away.
My family consisting of Mother and Father, two sisters, three younger brothers and an elderly Grandfather took to our heels and made for the conveniently placed 'Anderson' shelter dug into the back garden. I can't remember the exact measurements of that particular type, but I do know that to house nine adults for any length of time, as it eventually did for several months to come, has to be experienced to be believed. Not only was it very uncomfortable in such a confined space but there was always a fear of the unknown horrors of bombing raids.
Within the shelter, there was the cheerful chatter to keep up our spirits but outside there was an uncanny silence which was broken some time later by the ALL CLEAR signal. A sound we got to love and hear. Nothing happened that particular day and we remained unscathed.
The sound of that very first warning at about 11 o'clock on Sunday 3rd September 1939 will long remain in the memories of many folk, the elderly and not so young, and was a discord we all learnt to live with and to rejoice endlessly to the welcome sound of the ALL CLEAR.
This situation continued for many months with warnings of imminent raids which came to nothing. So began the 'phoney war' as it became to be known. Because of the continuous interruptions caused daily when enemy aircraft were unable to penetrate the air defences, spotters were placed on rooftops of factories, offices, power stations etc., to warn workers only when there were signs of impending danger.
Unfortunately, this was rather short lived and many large towns and cities suffered badly when the German High Command decided to step up and concentrate on a more devastating and annihilating blow, in particular to the civilian population.
My personal experience of this period of time was when taking a girlfriend to a cinema in Elephant and Castle area of London and to be informed by the Manager of the cinema that a heavy bombing raid was taking place in the dock area of the East End. Not that that had much significance to a couple in the back row, who continued there until the bombing got worse and the Manager informed those remaining that the cinema was about to close.
Most people that were able to went underground that evening and it wasn't until the ALL CLEAR sounded in the early morning at daylight that they came out again and went about their business.
Living not far from this area, my first thoughts were for my family and I wished to check on their welfare as soon as possible. Because of the ferocity of the raid, there was much local damage and fires were raging everywhere, accounting for endless lengths of firemans' hosepipes to be trampled over in search of public transport which, by that time, was non-existent. Having escorted my girlfriend home which, unfortunately, was in the opposite direction to the one I would have wished to get me home quickly, but eventually I made it and found them safe and sound. A block of flats nearby had taken a direct hit during the raid.
This signalled the beginning of endless night after night bombing raids on London and 'Wailing Willie' would sound without fail at dusk about the time that mother would be putting the finishing touches to the picnic basket that the family trundled to the garden air-raid shelter. Not too often, but some nights for a change of scenery, or further company, we would go to a communal shelter but must admit that we all felt most secure at 'ours'.
So, life went on, come what may, raids or no raids. All went of to work the next morning trusting and hoping that our work place would still be there. Battered or not, running repairs would be performed and it would be 'business as usual'.
My father, being in the newspaper distribution trade and a night worker would clamber out of the shelter in the early hours but would return occasionally during the night to see that all was well. He would also drop in the morning papers which were often read beneath the glow of the searchlight beams raking the darkened sky in search of enemy aircraft. An additional item on one particular raid was when a nearby gasometer near the Oval cricket ground was hit and a whole cascade of aluminium flakes came drifting down in the light of the search light beams.
Being in 'Civvy Street' at that time, and in what was considered a reserved occupation with a company of manufacturing chemists, my only contact with the war and ongoing battles in various theatres of war was through the press. It was not until that little brown envelope appropriately marked O.H.M.S. fell through the letter-box did my involvement with the military begin.
"You will report" it began, and so I did to the local Labour exchange when it set the ball rolling with regard to medicals, which arm of the service, date of call up etc. I also remember that my company deducted my pay that day. Something I never forgave them for and therefore had no wish to rejoin them on release from the forces.
Came the day, or rather it very nearly didn't! One of the most frightening and devastating attacks on London came that night. The railway station that I had to report to for transport to camp had been put out of action and I can remember clearly seeing passenger carriages hanging onto the roads from railway bridges. Plan 'B' was immediately put into operation and road transport was made available to take us "rookies" to the next station down the line.
The Military Training Camp on the borders of Salisbury Plain became home for the next six weeks when one went through all the motions of becoming a fighting soldier, with discipline and turn-out being the Order of the Day. Whatever one says about Training Sergeants I think our Squad must have struck lucky because we decided to have a whip round and buy him a parting gift before our leaving camp and being drafted to a searchlight mob. Thus ended basic training in the Royal Artillery.
The next venue was over the border; a searchlight training camp on the West coast of Scotland. Within a very short time and very little action, boredom set in and a Regimental office notice calling for volunteers for Airborne Divisions prompted a few of my mates and I to put our names forward. Knowing the outcome of some of their eventual encounters in later battles I am thankful now that an earlier posting took me to a newly formed Heavy Anti-Aircraft Regiment of which I am justly proud.
Whilst serving with a searchlight Battery Headquarters in Suffolk, apart from the usual flak and hostile fire being an every day occurrence, Cupid's dart took a hand when the A.T.S. became part of the Establishment and a cute little red-head arrived on site. A war-time romance followed but a further posting from that unit took me to another part of the country. As the saying goes "Love will find a way" and it did for we kept in touch until distance and timing took its toll. That was over 50 years ago and through a twist of fate, a news item that appeared in a national newspaper put us in touch again.
My Regiment, the 165 H.A.A. Regt. R.A. with the fully mobile 3.7in gun had many different locations during the build up to D Day but it was fortunate enough to complete its full mobilisation for overseas service in a pleasant area on the outskirts of London. This suited me fine as it was but a short train journey to my home and providing there was no call to duty I would take the opportunity of going A.W.O.L. and dropping in on my folks for a chat and a pint at the local. However, I always made a point of getting back in time for reveille and no one was the wiser. It was also decided about that time that every man in the Regiment should be able to drive a vehicle before proceeding overseas so that was another means of getting up town for a period of time.
Inevitably all good things come to an end and we received our "Marching Orders" to proceed in convoy to the London Docks. The weather at that time was worsening putting all the best laid plans 'on hold'. Although restrictions as regards personnel movements were pretty tight some local leave was allowed. It would have been possible for me to see my folks just once more before heading into the unknown but having said my farewells earlier felt I just couldn't go through that again.
With the enormous numbers of vehicles and military equipment arriving in the marshalling area and a continuous downpour of rain it wasn't long before we were living in a sea of mud and getting a foretaste of things to come.
To idle away the hours whilst awaiting to hear the shout "WE GO", time was spent playing cards (for the last remaining bits of English currency), much idle gossip, and I would suspect thinking about those we were leaving behind. God knows when, or if, we would be seeing them again. By now this island we were about to leave, with its incessant Luftwaffe bombing raids and the arrival of the 'Flying Bomb', had by now become a 'front line' and it was good to be thinking that we were now going to do something about it !!
All preparations were made for the 'off'. Pay Parade and an issue of 200 French francs (invasion style), and then to 'Fall In' again for an issue of the 24hr ration pack (army style), vomit bags and a Mae West (American style). Just time to write a quick farewell letter home before boarding a troopship.
Very soon it was 'anchors away' and I think I must have dozed off about that point for I awoke to find we were hugging the English coast and were about to change course off the Isle of Wight where we joined the great armada of ships of all shapes and sizes.
It wasn't too long before the coastline of the French coast became visible, although I did keep looking over my shoulder for the last glimpse of my homeland. The whole sea-scape by now being filled with an endless procession of vessels carrying their cargos of fighting men, the artillery, tanks, plus all the other essentials to feed the hungry war machine.
The exact role of my particular arm of the Royal Artillery was for the Ack-Ack protection of air-fields and consisted of Headquarters and three Batteries, each Battery having two Troops of four 3.7in guns, totalling some 24 guns in all. This role was to change dramatically as we were soon to discover. In the Order of Battle we would not therefore be called into action until a foothold had been successfully gained and position firmly held in NORMANDY.
The first night at sea was spent laying just off the coast at Arromanches (Gold Beach) where some enemy air activity was experienced and a ship moored alongside unfortunately got a H.E. bomb in its hold. Orders came through to disembark and unloading continued until darkness fell. An exercise that had no doubt been overlooked and therefore not covered during previous years of intensive training was actually climbing down the side of a high-sided troopship in order to get aboard, in my case, and American LCT.
This accomplished safely, with every possible chance of falling between both vessels tossing in a heaving sea, there followed a warm "Welcome Aboard" from a young cheerful freshfaced, gum chewing, cigar smoking Yank. I believe I sensed the smell of coffee and do'nuts!!
Making sure that the assigned vehicle for my entry into Normandy and beyond was loaded aboard I settled down, anticipating WHAT, but surveying the panoramic view as we approached the sandy shore by now littered with the remains of the earlier major onslaught.
Undoubtedly one couldn't have been too aware of the incoming and outgoing tides as the water was far too deep at the beach-head and found it necessary to cruise around until late into the evening before it was decided to make for the shore come what may!! By then it was time to join the other members of the regiment's advance party in the Humber staff car which included driver, a radio operator, the C.O. and Adjutant.
Following the dropping of the anchor, the loading ramp was immediately lowered to the accompaniment of the sound of the engines breaking into life. I think at that point the two officers became aware that we were still in 'deep water' for they decided to climb onto to roof of the 'Z' vehicle as it proceeded down the ramp. In spite of seeing the sea water gradually climbing half way up the windscreen the O.Rs feet remained reasonably dry and we made the shore with the aid of the four-wheel drive.
At the first peaceful opportunity it was essential to shed the vehicle of its waterproofing materials and extend the exhaust pipe. The canvas parts of this exercise I decided to keep, as I thought that they would be useful (time permitting) for lining ones fox-hole, which I later found to be ideal.
My ancient tatty looking 1944 diary informs me that I slept in a field and awoke at 05.30hrs to a glorious sunny day, that I washed in a stream,sampled my 24hr ration pack, saw my first dead jerry and that General De Gaulle passed the Assembly Point.
I must admit that without the aid of my diary that I managed to keep throughout the war (something that I could have been very severely reprimanded for had it been known at the time) and the treasured letters that my Mother retained until her dying day, I could not possibly remember all the most intimate details of my soldiering days.
Returning to those early entries, whilst enjoying the pleasure of a quick splash in a neighbouring stream I became aware of some girlish giggling in the adjoining bushes and felt that this was an early indication that the natives were friendly.
We proceeded inland, the Sappers having done their stuff and prepared safe lanes amid endless rows of tape with the deathly skull and crossbones indicating ACHTUNG MINEN, it was decided to set up Regimental H.Q. in the area of Beny-sur-mer.
During a check halt en route I noticed that a small area of corn a few yards into a vast cornfield had been disturbed. Taking a chance and feeling inquisitive I decided to investigate. And there it was the ENEMY, but proved not to be too much of a problem. How long he had been there I do not know. He was lying on his back, his feet heavily bandaged no doubt through endless marching, his Jack Boots placed beside his body. I also notice hurriedly that his ring finger was missing? Someone's Son, someone's Father, someone's brother, someone's liebe; what a ghastly business war is !!
It occurred to me that all my observations of German manhood from the then current movies and other sources gave one the impression that they were a somewhat super human race; six foot tall, blonde and blue-eyed. That is what the Fuhrer had aspired to no doubt but I was rather taken aback to see the first column of German prisoners passing by, some short, fat, bald, spectacled etc. etc. a straggly pathetic bunch, tired, weary but some still with that aggressive look in their eyes, some glad that at least the war and the fighting were over for them.
Several moves to different locations were made in the ensuing weeks, also being 2nd Army troops, we were at the beck and call of any Corps or AGRA needing support and CAEN had to be taken at all cost.
Being on H.Q. staff one of my 'in the field' roles was to travel with the Staff car into the forward areas and reconnoitre sites prior to the deployment of the heavy artillery. Here I would remain until the last of the units had passed through that check-point with the expectation of being picked up sometime later when the whole procedure would continue again with a type of leap-frogging action.
Following days of constant heavy shelling and later to watch a 1000 bomber raid from the outskirts of that well defended town of Caen it finally fell. Having dug ourselves in and around an orchard in the Giberville area, east of Caen, some late evening mortar fire sadly killed our Second-in-Command (Major Finch) when the shell struck an apple tree under which the officers were playing a game of cards. Here again my diary notes "heavily shelled at 22.00hrs. 2nd i/c killed, Lt. Quartermaster, Padre and Signals Officer wounded." The following day we buried the 2nd i/c and felt the terrific loss to the Regiment. Several years later through the very good services of the War Graves Commission I was able to trace and eventually visit his grave lying in peace in Bayeux cemetery.
Passing through the ruined and by now almost deserted corridor in Caen I stopped to retrieve a slightly charred but intact wall plate bearing the towns name from the still burning rubble. Somehow it had survived the crushing bombardment and would now protect it as a war souvenir. This memento I eventually carried through France, Belgium into Holland and on to the borders of Germany. Here I was lucky in a draw for U.K. leave and returned home to family bringing the wall plate for safe keeping where it continued to survive the continuing London blitz.
Sadly several years later, and happily married, my wife during a dusting session knocked it from its focal point and it broke into several pieces. I could have wept, remembering its passage through time but my good sense of humour saw the funny side of it all. Having put it together again it does have the appearance of having 'been through the wars' but still has a place of honour on my kitchen wall. Have thought over the years that I should perhaps return it to its rightful owner, but just where does one start?
Returning to the ongoing war in Europe it appeared that things were going as well as could be expected on all fronts. There were occasions when having dug a comfortable hole in the ground word would come through "we're moving again". There were no complaints as such if it was felt it brought the end of hostilities a little closer. It became a bit tough when this could happen sometimes three times in one day and with the approach of winter the earth was getting harder all the time.
It was comforting, however, to hear that the Germans were retreating down the Vire-flers road. Again my old diary reveals the path taken by the Regiment from landing in Normandy through the Altegamme on the North bank of the river Elbe, Hamburg. It gives dates and places and highlights the fact that we were forever crossing borders e.g. France into Belgium, Belgium into Holland, Holland back into Belgium, Belgium into Holland, Holland into Germany where we remained.
Its mobility can perhaps be made clearer in an extract from the Regtl. Citation which quotes
"The unit has been deployed almost continuously in the forward areas, and the Headquarters and Batteries have frequently been under shell and mortar fire. During this time the Regiment has not only fought in an A.A. role but has been detailed to other tasks not normally the lot of an A.A. unit. These have included frequent employment in a medium artillery role, action in an anti-tank screen, and the hasty organisation of A.A. personnel into infantry sub-units to repel enemy counter-attacks. All tasks have met with conspicuous success. The unit has responded speedily, cheerfully and efficiently to every demand made on it. The unit is one where morale is very high indeed and which can confidently be given any task".
Following the distinctive role played during the N.W. Europe campaign the Regiment was awarded a Battle Honour and its Commanding Officer a D.S.O.
Depending on the impending battle plan the various Batteries would be assigned to individual tasks i.e.
275/165 Bty u/c Gds. Armd. Div. for grd. shooting.
198/165 Bty deployed in A.A. role def. conc. area.
317/165 Bty deployed in Anti-tank role.
All tasks having been successfully completed would again move as a Regiment under command Guards Armoured Division to support a new attack.
A day to be remembered was the arrival of bread after some 40 days without. I think it only amounted to one slice per man but what a relief after nibbling on hard biscuits for so long. The men to be pitied were those with dentures who automatically soaked it in their tea or cocoa (gunfire) before consuming.
Another welcome treat was the arrival of the mobile bath and clothing unit in late August '44. It was about that time that I heard a steam whistle indicating that the railroad was back in action.
When the situation allowed a truck would take a party of men to the nearest B and C Unit which consisted of a couple of large marquee tents adjoining. In one you would completely disrobe and proceed along duck-boards to the shower area. Having enjoyed this primitive delight and dried off you would then gather vest, pants, shirt and sox then queue to be sized up by the detailed attendant in charge, to be issued with hopefully something appropriate to ones stature. It didn't always work to ones liking and caused much amusement in the changing tent where swaps occasionally took place.
The unit did however serve its purpose at the time but things became more pleasant when one could retain their own gear and could sometimes get it attended to by a local admirer.
Four moves in as many days took us into Brussels where we were given a rousing reception. Our vehicles were clambered onto from all directions by the thronging crowd, showering us with hugs and kisses, flowers, and a very brief moment to sample a glass or two or wine. No time to stop, unfortunately, and soon to depart with a small recce party en route for Nijmegan. By now things were getting slightly uncomfortable having been attacked from the air during a night in the woods and the main body of the Regiment attacked in the corridor at Veghel.
Here our guns were deployed in an Anti/tank role, field role and CB role. Several troops were provided for attack to recapture the village of Apenhoff. A tiger tank was engaged by one gun and very successful CB and concentrations fired on enemy gun areas and infantry. It was thought that casualties sustained were justified as the attack resulted in the capture of 76 prisoners, one anti-tank gun and a considerable number of enemy dead, mostly to the West of the village where most of our men finished up and where a certain amount of mortar fire was brought down upon them.
The following day the main body of the Regiment arrived in Nijmegan and were deployed in an Ack-Ack role, minus one Troop still in MTB role. It was recorded at the time that on several occasions the guns had been deployed further forward than any other guns in the Second Army and in the case of the bridge over the Escaut Canal at Overpelt it was considered that the fire provided was one of the chief factors in the bridge being captured intact.
It was during a return to Belgium for a break just before Christmas 1944 that we had the good fortune to be billeted for a few days with a wonderful family consisting of Mother and Father, six daughters and two sons. The childrens' ages ranging between possibly eighteen and three. It was the time of celebrating St. Nicholas and homely pleasures had long been forgotten as regards a roof overhead, surrounding walls, and to mix with warm and friendly people. The chance to sit at a dining table on a firm and comfortable chair, food on a plate instead of a dirty old mess-tin were simple things to be appreciated beyond words and all were saddened when it was time to return into the line.
A returning Don, R would often bring little notes written in understandable English but as the lines of communication lengthened so contact diminished.
Some 40 years later, prior to a visit to The Netherlands with a party of Normandy Veterans, I decided to write to the Burgomeister of the small village of Beverst giving him full details of the family and hoping by chance that at least one member of the large family would have survived the war and perhaps was still living in the Limburg area of Belgium.
It was beyond belief that within ten days I had a letter from the very girl, Mariette, who had sent the odd letter to me and to this day still have them in my possession. We had so much to tell each other, on her side that all her sisters were married with children, and that one of her brothers who was three years old during the war was now a priest in Louvain.
As the conducted tour at the time of visiting did not go into the Limburg area of Belgium, it was arranged that a small party from the family circle would travel by minibus and that we would hopefully meet up at a suggested time in the town of Eindhoven in Holland. There was much rejoicing when the timing was spot on and a very brief meeting with an exchange of gifts took place before it was time to clamber back onto the coach.
Over the years when visiting the Continent we meet whenever possible. I have since met all surviving members of the family, visiting their homes and meeting their children. At one of the locations a field a short distance away was pointed out to me where Hitler, a Corporal at the time, had camped during the 1914-18 war.
During one conversation I asked Mariette how the family had fared during the German occupation. She told me that on one occasion a German Officer had knocked on the door requesting the family to accommodate some German troops. The Father replied that he had eight children which he was supporting and had no room for them and luckily they departed. She went on the tell me that when the Germans were pushed out of the village and the English and the Americans moved into the area her Father gladly accepted a few English soldiers to stay, suggesting the family would double up into a couple of rooms. We still find plenty to talk about over the years when corresponding and on meeting up.
In further praise of my old Regiment it is on record that before June '44 was out, a deputation of senior officers visited the unit to learn why, and how, they were usually the first guns in the line to report "READY" and higher formations were calling for their support as a unit.
The Order of March for the operation "Garden", the Northward dash to join up with the Airborne troop was headed (1) Guards Armoured Division, (2) A.A. Group (165 H.A.A. Regt.) leading. This alone should rank a citation for the 3.7in A.A. gun. Second in the Order of March on what must be one of the most daring and spectacular assaults in history.
The 3.7s when used in their field role were fired from positions amongst the infantry and that having no gun shield the layers positions were untenable. During the closing battle for Arnhem they were able to give covering fire throughout the night withdrawal. The 3.7s with their 11 miles range were amongst the very few guns available with sufficient range to cover the flanks of the 1st Airborne at Arnhem, and for a long time there was talk of the unit being permitted to carry the honoured Pegasus on their sleeve.
It was during the withdrawal of the survivors of the Battle of Arnhem, and watching the war-torn paras filing back through Hell's Highway, that I spotted and had a quick chat with a couple of my old mates that had proudly volunteered with me on that fateful day in June '41. In a flash I though "there, but for the grace of God go I". Should I have in fact survived that horrendous and tragic battle, and where are they now I wonder?
Word that hostilities had ceased came through whilst in a little German village called Tesperhude on the North bank of the Elbe, V.E. DAY, the war in Europe had ended. Time to celebrate. All Other Ranks were invited into the Officer's mess where 'issue rum' was being served up in half-pint glasses. This was a complete change to previous issues when, during inclement weather the rum ration would have to be taken in a mug of tea. Pushing all protocol aside it was time to let our hair down and enjoy. It was suggested that a bit of music and song would be in order and the question was asked as to who could play a piano accordion. I gave up the idea of not volunteering on this special occasion and said that I could, having had some professional lessons in my youth.
A search party set off down the street and a 'squeeze box' was produced and promptly placed in position. By then the rum was taking hold and I can remember getting through two verses of "Home on the range" before collapsing over backwards to a cacophony of sound as the bellows extended across my chest. Can't say the C.O. and other Officers were too pleased with the musical performance and I felt the effects of the vapours for a few days following. I made up my mind there and then that I never wished to experience the taste of Nelson's blood ever again, as I also felt about the thought of never wishing to see spam and bully beef, but time is a great healer?
Release from the service being on an 'Age and Service' basis meant that I possibly had another year or so to serve before being discharged. I would have been more than content to remain in the area of Hamburg until my release papers arrived, but unfortunately it was not to be. An urgent War Office posting, I was told, brought me back to England and a spell at Woolwich Barracks which I found most discouraging and ungratifying.
I was to join a newly formed contingent of mostly new recruits about to depart for the Far East, by mid November '45 I was on a troopship bound for Bombay. Christmas 1945 was spent in the Royal Artillery Transit Camp at Deolali where I spent a few weeks before entraining and travelling across India to Calcutta. It wasn't quite the Orient Express for comfort and cuisine, and I can remember being fired upon by rampaging dacoits at one point.
Several more weeks were spent in a transit camp in Calcutta experiencing all the delights of Chowringee and thereabouts – felt quite the pukka sahib at times before word came through that we would be sailing for Rangoon the following day.
Going aboard the S.S 'City of Canterbury' there was the usual rush for hammocks and best positions on deck. Arriving in Rangoon I was happy to receive my first letter from home in seven weeks and was a relief to be sure. I had still not reached journeys end and it was not until mid February 1946 that I joined my intended unit, a Field Regiment, on the borders of Mandalay in Burma.
I was finally homeward bound by the late summer of '46 to enjoy three months overseas leave and a return to civilian life.
Looking back over the years in the forces there were some good times and some exceedingly bad times but having come through it all reasonably fit and healthy I feel the WAR YEARS have shown me the true value of life and that, in retrospect, I feel proud not to have missed this experience of a lifetime.
Written in March 1994.
Contributed originally by glemsfordlibrary (BBC WW2 People's War)
Part 1 - THE START OF THE BEGINNING
I find it hard to believe that 63 years have passed since these events took place, so an old man of 83 might be excused some inaccuracy, but I shall endeavour to be precise, and avoid wandering off the story-line too much.
We join the "Hudsons" on Sunday morning, September 3rd 1939. Parents Lizzie and Jack (both mid 50s), twins Gladys and Eileen (14) and myself John (20). The two eldest girls are absent. Hilda (25) evacuated with expectant "Mums" to Clevedon, Somerset, and Rose (27) two miles away with her friend Eddie.
All present that Sunday morning are looking very glum. The voice of Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain cames from the radio: "...we have received no reply from Herr Hitler to our ultimatum, that he withdraws his forces from attacking Poland, and so, with effect from 11.00a.m. we are at war with Germany."
The silence was broken by Dad: "come on Son, let's get on with putting that bloody shelter together!" How would a man with a wife and five children feel in similar circumstances? He had lived through 1914-18! During August thousands of Anderson Shelters were distributed, (named after John Anderson, the Home Secretary at the time.) They were corrugated and intended to protect against flying shrapnel only, a bag of nuts and bolts were included with instructions on assembly, the rest was up to us. No problem(??) We continued digging until evening, and then adjourned to hear the 9.00p.m. BBC News.
A voice announced: "His Majesty, The King, has made a Proclamation from Buckingham Palace, all men between 20 and 23 will register for service with the Armed Forces on September 21st. Men will receive at least 4 months training before being sent overseas." I retired to my bed feeling anything but cheerful that night. I slept alone facing the street at the front, but awakened suddenly at midnight by the wailing of the air-raid siren, and a tin-hatted Warden blasting his whistle in the street outside. "What's happening?" I shouted through the open window. "They are on their way" came the reply, "put that light out!" Mum's voice came from within: "Come on John - we're going down to the shelter." All was turmoil at first, but order and quietness soon took over. The "ALL CLEAR" hooter came - our first taste. It was a mock alarm to keep the public alert and ready for emergency, so I returned to my bed. It transpired that whilst I slept that Sunday night, a German submarine penetrated the defences of Scapa Flow. A torpedo struck our large battleship 'The Royal Oak'. The ammunition exploded and 1,800 young men were drowned. Five escaped. THE WAR HAD BEGUN.
Part 2 - THE "PHONEY" WAR
The British called the period between 3rd September '39 to May '40 The "Phoney" War. Both sides sat behind their defences, just watching and waiting. Perhaps some old soldiers from 1914 expected them to "go over the top" when the whistle blew, but the French were deep down in the "Maginot Line" fortifications, and the Germans safe in their "Siegfried Line". We were not told that powerful "Tiger" tanks were being assembled to form Panzer Divisions, capabe of brushing aside British and French armour like sardine-tins.
The Germans were preparing for "Blitzkrieg" or Lightning War. Their plan was to strike the other side so hard after going around his concrete bunkers, that he had to retreat to Dunkirk and await paddle-steamers back to Ramsgate. This would mean going through Holland and Belgium - a repeat of 1914. It must be said that our forces were very courageous, but overwhelmed by an enemy long prepared in tanks and aircraft. They had perfected "dive-bombing" by helping General Franco in the Spanish Civil War (1936), an designed tanks to withstand direct-hits.
I must return to my story of the "London Family". The day of registration for the 20-23s arrived (21st September.) An old "codger" at my work-place gave some "tips" for the coming interview: "Ask him to send you to where the fighting is most fierce," he said in confidence, "he'll write on your reference papers: 'Mentally Unstable - Unfit for Service' - you'll be home for the duration." It was kind of him, but I decided to assure the interviewing officer that I was keen on the "Catering Corps" or maybe the "Mail Section" of the Royal Engineers. On April 2nd, I was instructed to report to Shrapnel Barracks, Woolwich, for training in the 56th Heavy Regiment, Royal Artillery.
They used 6" guns (100lb shells); unfortunately in May our big guns were left behind in the rush for France, but some with big iron wheels had been put in storage after the "cease fire" (1918).
Back to London once more - or should I say Barking, Essex. Hilda returned to Craven Gardens, where Alan was born, January 1st 1940. He was my parents first grandchild, and we all paid a visit as soon as possible to see the little fellow. They little knew that many weeks of refuge in the Anderson Shelter lay ahead!
My next episode could be called "Joining the Regiment". Mum fully expected me home for tea when I departed for Woolwich on 2nd April, 1940. Sadly, the Army had other plans.
Part 3 - JOINING THE REGIMENT
I reported to Shrapnel Barracks, Woolwich on April 2nd, 1940 as instructed. This was still in the "Phoney War" period, about six weeks before the Germans launched their attack through Belgium and France. The emergency had not begun, the British seemed to think: "Don't panic, we'll lick them once we get organised." Hundreds of men assembled in a holiday atmosphere - more like a big match-day at Tottenham against Arsenal. Two hundred men from the Post Office joined the multitude. Some were heard to say: "How is it that many of these people know each other?" The riddle was soon solved. "They've sent for a batch of sorters and postmen, God help the artillery when this lot start chucking the shells over - they can't even get the mail delivered right!"
"Pay attention!" roared the sergeant. "I'm going to divide you into two lots, one side to the 56th Heavy Regiment, the other side to the 74th Mediums, so shut up and listen for your names." Adams, Burnside, Bentine... down the list came "Hudson" and I took up my position with the 56th crowd.
The roll-call ended. "A meal is prepared" our sergeant shouted, "you will then leave and board the train for the south-coast. Men for the 56th will be in the front half, and leave the train at Hastings, the remainder will proceed and leave at Brighton for the 74th Medium Regiment. Fall out now for dinner."
It was dark when we climbed aboard army lorries at Hastings station, and rumbled through unlit streets to Holt Regis, near Blacklands Church, a mile away. Holt Regis was a large guest-house or hotel taken over by the army for the duration. It had a long drive, and we blinked at our surroundings through the darkness.
Our new guide was sergeant Tucker, a 6'3" reservist from Southend police force. "You are now 'A' Battery, 56th Heavy Regiment, Royal Artillery. This will be your home for the time being. Eight of you will be sleeping on the first floor, each man has a palliasse or straw-mattress, and four blankets. You should be comfortable on the floor. Lavatories and wash-bowls are in the corridor, so don't "pee" from the window - you are not at home now! Reveille is at 6.00, breakfast at 7.00, and at 8.00 you will parade for the Quartermaster stores to be "kitted out." Any questions? Perhaps tomorrow you might look something like soldiers, instead of a "rag-bag" shower. No smoking. No Lights. Good-night."
So ended my first day as a soldier - I was too tired to cry!
Part 4 - BACKS TO THE WALL
The first day at Holt Regis was spent collecting our "Battle Dress" and other bits to make up the full Army kit. In the afternoon we were taken out to drill and test the heavy boots for comfort. They also wanted details of our civilian employment in preparation for our future training. Men are moved around at any time. Some are trained to fire the guns, others to operate communications (wireless, etc.) These are known as the signalling group to which I was attached. Most of our NCOs were police reservists who came from all parts of England and Wales.
Our training was suddenly interrupted in May. The Germans started to move towards the Channel Ports and confusion took over - we were untrained and most of the light weapons had been lost in the stampede from Dunkirk.
From our gun-positions near Folkestone fires could be seen across the Channel, and small craft were unloading exhausted troops snatched from the beaches twenty miles away.
I think a 'state of confusion' is the best way to describe the conditions that existed, not knowing what the Germans would do next. The War Office decided that paratroops were a possibility - six-foot poles were erected in the fields to wreck any gliders that might bring infantry. New recruits were sent to block roads from the coast. Men like those in "Dads Army" appeared on bicycles, - armed with guns for duck-shooting - and wearing armbands marked L.D.V.(Local Defence Volunteers.) They were later called the "Home Guard".
Slowly, British 'calm' was restored(?) Hitler and his Generals considered that we might give up.
The French produced a new leader, Marshal Petain, an old soldier who had served in the slaughter of World War I. He considered the situation hopeless, and didn't want further bloodshed. Petain asked for peace and Hitler expected the same from Britain. Winston Churchill had a few stiff brandies and broadcast from his bunker the famous: "Fight on the Beaches" speech.
Air Chief Marshal Goering and his commanders made their plans. The Royal Air Force must be destroyed first. He reckoned without our brave lads in their Spitfires and Hurricanes. The rest is history.
My 21st birthday fell on 5th July '40 - invasion was expected. A wrist-watch arrived from Mum and Dad, and a copy of the Holy Bible from a friend - at least someone was praying for me!
An awful summer turned into an awful autumn and winter. Our poor mums and dads (and families) made themselves comfortable(?) in their Anderson Shelters in readiness for the night-bombers.
Despite civilian suffering, the Luftwaffe losses were heavy from our night-fighters and anti-aircraft guns. The raids got fewer, but changed to flying-bombs from launch-sites in Holland.
Summer arrived, and in July 1941 the Germans turned to attack Russia. This took pressure off Britain. We began to train and build up for 'D' Day 1944. A 'trial' run was made by the Canadians on Dieppe 1942. It failed after heavy losses. The lesson was to build up with massive strength with the Americans in 1944.
What of the 56th Heavy Regiment? We were given new weapons (7.2" Howitzers), extra men from Scottish units, and started to prepare for the sands of Algeria and Tunisia. Italy and France came later......to think my mum was still waiting for me to get back to tea from Woolwich!!
A cold January 1943, SS "Otranto" (40,000 tons) slipped out of Liverpool Docks loaded with 6,000 troops, reinforcements for our North African armies. The captain headed for mid-Atlantic - with an escort of destroyers - hoping to avoid German U-boats. SS "Otranto" began to sway in the heavy seas after six hours - I had only been on the Woolwich Free-ferry before, and didn't eat much that morning!!! My bunk was deep down in the ship.
I must pause to refresh my memory! Algiers was six days away - General Montgomery was busy in far-away Libya and El Alamein; I was stuck deep-down in a loaded troop-ship, dozens of sea-sick soldiers all around. I can remember one man going for a bucket of tea and tray of kippers at 6.00a.m. I can't remember eating any!...... I feel ill at the thought!
Part 6 - THE MERCILESS ATLANTIC
Liverpool Docks were important targets for German bombers in January 1943, food and other vital supplies arrived there, so our train unloaded rapidly, and we were soon boarding the "Otranto". Men cursed as they stumbled in the darkness on the unfamiliar gangplank. I was directed down two flights to a lower deck, and selected a hammock from those hanging.
I hardly had time to shake my heavy boots off before the engines started, and we were heading out of Liverpool Bay and moving north to the Irish Sea. Life-jackets were adjusted over our great-coats and in full-dress we climbed into the hammock to rest, listening to the engines as they drove the propeller below, time to think of home far away. What would my mum say if she knew I was swinging in a sack on a boat out in the Atlantic? Dad would say: "Bloody fool! I always knew that he would come to a bad end."
By dawn we were travelling fast well out in the Atlantic. A Destroyer escort had joined us during the night - I watched her, like a terrier guarding its master as we sped on. The fresh Atlantic air was welcome after being below so many hours. My tongue started to move again, it had dried up in the air below. The ship began to bury its bow into the sea, and the coming up movement played havoc with our stomachs. We were soon hanging over the rail and many were stretched out below decks, all feeling sorry that we had been persuaded to eat the fried kippers and tea offered by the cooks.
It took four days for most of us to recover, after that we were content to watch the sea rush by, and rest. We were not told as to our destination. One man's comment was: "I don't care a toss - North Africa to help 'Monty' probably." Six days passed, the sea grew less angry and the air warmer. We knew that we were nearing Africa - the sun even appeared.
Resting on our hammocks one dark night - the sea was calm, hardly a movement of the ship - someone shouted: "Wake up lads, we are passing Gibraltar!" Sure enough on the port side, we could see the dark outline of the famous "Rock." Being British, Gibraltar had a complete black-out. On the starboard side were the twinkling lights of Ceuta in Spanish territory. Spain was at peace, maybe the Civil War battles of 1936 had been too destructive. The "Otranto" engines sprang into life as if to say: "Thank God we are in the Mediterranean, away from that merciless Atlantic." - But what awaits us ahead? It couldn't be worse. Or could it?
We passed Gibraltar at night and "glided" into the Mediterranean Sea. The following day was like a holiday cruise, warm sunshine and a calm sea, so we just relaxed on deck and enjoyed it. The next morning someone shouted: "We've docked in Algiers!" It was my first sight of a foreign land. We looked down on Arab boys in small boats shouting as we lined the rail: "Hey, Tommy! You have chocolate, chewing gum, we dive for francs?" The U.S. Forces had obviously been before.
Our officers gave us the good news first. The sea trip was over, but the docks at Algiers were unhealthy at night. The German planes often called, and a large vessel with troops made a good target! We had a seven-mile march out of town to CAP MATIFOU. Out feet were a bit tender after so long in soft shoes on the ship. We were marching F.S.M.O.(or Field Service Marching Order) which was a large pack containing spare boots and blanket, small pack, webbing, rifle and ammunition. We reached CAP MATIFOU and moved into position with the British First Army in February '43. Our guns were 7.2 Howitzers, which fired 120lb shells of high explosive - "assisted" by 25lb of explosive charges - noisy monsters!
( YOU CAN FIND A SEPARATE ACCOUNT OF THE FIRST CASUALTIES IN NORTH AFRICA ON REF: A4148633 )
From Tunisia we travelled to SALERNO, south of Naples, in September '43, and fired at regular intervals for about 18 months. Activity slowed down during the snow in the mountains. We had to rip down dead-wood poles supporting the vines to burn as fuel to keep warm. Farmers were angry!!
Spring arrived, we left with the Canadian forces from LIVORNO to Marseilles, travelled up the Rhone Valley into Holland. The Germans surrendered in May '45, and we became "Army of Occupation."
I returned to my little Post Office job in August '46 - the folks there said we'd had a nice long 'holiday,' while they were being bombed to Hell by German "b*****ds."
My Mum and Dad, Gladys and Eileen, put the flags out: "WELCOME HOME JOHN!" when I came marching back to 5, Hartshorn Gardens, in my new "demob" suit. I was blessed with a loving family, and a LITTLE bit of luck.
WRITTEN BY JOHN HUDSON, NOVEMBER 2002 (Aged 83)
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 Civic Centre, Bedford (BBC WW2 People's War)
I was 21 years old, and my old school friend introdcued me to her brother when I stayed at her house. Although we didn't think about the war, the firm I worked for, Charles Letts the diary people, were asking for volunteers to take first aid courses at the local training offices nearby in London SE1. I went along and found it very interesting.
I was in the St John's Ambulance group, and I was to represent the firm, pending enemy action in 1939.
We were asked to find other employment. No redundancy payments then, so my older sister, who was in Woolwich Arsenal in World War I was still young enough to volunteer for the last one, so I did the same, and was one of the first women to go into munitions in May 1940.
In September 1940 we were on duty waiting to punch our clock cards for the 5'o'clock shift, when the warning went. We were used to the odd dogfight, etc, but when we made for the air raid shelters, German planes were coming up the Thames, machine guns blasting at us, and the Battle of Britain had begun.
WE were asked to get out if we could, my friend who knew the engineers for OICS (CIA) the small arms examinations machines managed to get through the wreckage, fire engines and heavy bombs falling.
We made our way home, and waved over the gardens to the people who had been in the shelter that we were alright. Afterwards someone made us some tea. My friend, who was married, said we could go to see if my house was still standing, so we made our way to Plumstead Common. Wally, Hilda and I spent the night in her shelter watching London burn. All along the Thames were factories, railways, and of course the Docks.
We registered for work on Monday morning and were put on three days' leave, pending the clearing up stage of the disaster, and were finally sent to outstations somewhere in Britain.
Between 1940 and 1943 I worked in numerous towns, travelling with my husband, who was a skilled electrician in the war factories, and I managed to get my release at each town to follow him, so I missed out on expenses, and my service was broken. We had some awful lodgings, but we were newly weds with no home ties.
I went back to London, to the rockets and doodlebugs in bomb alley again in Brockly and New Cross.
I trained as a lady engineer for the GPO. All top secret - London embassies, war office, monitored trunk calls, Faraday House, etc. The boys returned home from Dunkirk.
After the war, from 1945 to 1947 I worked as a GPO telephonist. I left in 1947 to have our daughter.
We moved to Bedford in 1956. My husband Reg Daniels was an electrician in war factories (21 years RAE) somewhere in the provinces including Sellafield.
Reg died of Emphysema, it was thought at first he had bronchitis. There was no allowance for industrial injury, but his illness must have been caused by the work he did in the war.
Contributed originally by J. Betson (BBC WW2 People's War)
My mother died in January 2000, at the age of 88. During the War she and my father and my elder brother, born in 1938, lived in Bexleyheath, which is on the outskirts of South East London, and not far from the rivers Thames and Medway.
Mum said that, at the time of the fall of France and the Dunkirk evacuation, for several days they, in Bexleyheath, could hear the guns all the way from the French coast.
She remembered how, during the Battle of Britain in the summer of 1940, a year when the skies seemed to be permanently clear and blue, she and the other women in her road used to stand on their back steps and watch the “dog fights” going on overhead between the Hurricanes and Spitfires of the RAF and the Luftwaffe fighters.
The women would jeer at the enemy and cheer our lads on enthusiastically, especially when they shot down one of the German planes.
When talking about the War, my mother and brother used to say: “Do you remember next door’s dog?” and they’d laugh. Apparently, they always had advance warning of when the air raid siren was going to go off, because a couple of minutes before, the said dog would come tearing out of next door’s back door, barking wildly in warning, charge along the garden path, and bolt straight down into the shelter. He always got down there before any body else. It used to amuse my brother as a little boy, and he still laughs about it now.
My parents remembered that at some point during the War, a neighbour who had been on duty down by the River told them that a large number of bodies had been washed up. He’d seen them, he said. Other local people had whispered of it too. They said that there had been some kind of disaster but nobody knew what it was, and nobody was allowed to talk about it.
My father was a mechanical engineer, working in the inspection department of Molins Machine Company’s war time premises at Ruxley Corner, Sidcup. Until 1940 he had worked at their normal base in Evelyn Street, Deptford. During the War they made machines for weighing and packing amunition, machinery for loading shells, and other items in the munitions field, so he was in a reserved occupation, and wasn’t called up, despite being only in his thirties.
He said that they had a lot of women working in the factory. He remembered one of them felling a foreman with a shifting spanner, because he’d been rude to her sister.
Dad also said that the employees of the firm voluntarily raised the money to buy a Spitfire for the RAF.
He was in the Home Guard for a while, in 1943 and 1944. One of his “spare time” occupations was driving a munitions truck from Woolwich Arsenal to the anti-aircraft guns at Erith docks
I still have his wartime National Registration Identity Card, issued by the National Registration Office on 15 May 1943. Everybody had to carry identity cards during the War.
His sister worked as a clippy on the buses, and did fire watching at night. Their mother, who also lived in South East London, but a bit further in, was “bombed out” three times during the War. Amazingly, she survived unscathed. They didn’t have a shelter in the garden, as my parents did. I don’t think they had a garden to have a shelter in. They had to make do with getting underneath a big strong table shelter in the kitchen. Dad’s father was a locomotive engineer, and around sixty, so he continued to do that during the War, it being vital to keep the trains running. He’d done similar work in Sheerness dockyard during the First World War.
Mum was hard of hearing from as early as her fifties, and she always blamed it on the deafening and continual noise made by the “Ak-Ak gun at the end of the road”, and also the bombs exploding nearby.
She spoke of barrage balloons overhead. They were there to make things difficult for enemy aircraft.
My parents kept chickens in the back garden, to supplement the meagre egg ration, and of course they grew vegetables in the rest of the garden.
When I was small, I came across a bag of different coloured balls of knitting wool with kinks in it, in the bottom of the wardrobe. Mum said that it had kinks in it because it was left over from the War, and during the War it was very difficult to obtain knitting wool, so if you wanted a new jumper you had to unravel an old one and re-knit it. She said that often people would knit multi-coloured striped garments, combining bits of wool from several different old garments, just to try to introduce a bit of variety to their clothing.
At that time she still had their old gas mask cases too. They were the size of a hand bag, black, the shape of a semi-flattened bucket, with a lid, and a shoulder strap.
Our American cousins offered to have my brother for the duration of the War, but my mother said “No. If we are going to die, we are all going to die together”. So my brother stayed. The American cousins frequently sent my family parcels of things which were unavailable here, to try to make life a bit easier. Both my mother and her sister said that they were very generous, and couldn’t speak too highly of them.
The house opposite my parents’ bungalow received a direct hit one day, and was destroyed, but the people who lived there were all in the shelter in the garden, and survived. The explosion blew out all the windows in my parents place, and the neighbours houses.
On one occasion, my brother, who suffered badly from croop, had been sleeping on the settee in the living room for several nights, because it was warmer in there than in the shelter. The first night he wasn’t on the settee, the tip of a shell came through the roof and landed right on it. If he had still been sleeping there, he would have been killed. We had that shell tip up until 1970, when it disappeared in a move. It was made of thick polished steel, about six inches across, and very heavy. We used it as a door stop.
Mum spoke of a terrifying incident which happened one day when she was out shopping, with my brother strapped in his push chair or pram. A German plane swooped down and chased people along the road, machine-gunning them. She was running, and wanted to dive for cover, but couldn’t get my brother out of his pram because he was strapped in. If she’d stopped to unstrap him, they’d both have been hit by the bullets, so she just had to keep running and pushing the pram. She made it to cover and they both survived.
Another time, my father was on his motor-bike and Mum was in the side car, and they were going along a country road in the Dartford area, when a Nazi plane came along shooting up any body on the road. They both had to jump in to a ditch. My father pointed out the spot to me one day, when I was a child, but I can’t remember its exact location now.
Mum spoke of the “doodlebugs”, V1 flying bombs which made a buzzing noise and then their engines cut out and they dropped. There was dead silence, then an explosion. She said they were called doodlebugs because they doodled around all over the place, so you couldn’t work out where they were going. They used to have lots of them coming over Bexleyheath. She said that when you heard one buzzing overhead you’d just hold your breath and pray that it kept buzzing until it was clear of you. The RAF fighters used to chase them and try to shoot them and make them explode in mid air, so that they didn’t do so much damage.
After that, towards the end of the War, she said, came the V2 rockets, which were even worse, because they were faster, struck more suddenly and were much more difficult to shoot down. Lots of those passed over, or dropped on the Bexleyheath area as well.
When my parents were demolishing their Anderson shelter at the end of the War, they found a small plain pottery gnome which they had never seen before, about one and a half inches tall, buried in the earth near the entrance. Mum always kept it, because, she half-jokingly said, it must have looked after them during the Blitz — something to do with the old country belief that if you had a goblin living beside your hearth it would keep the house safe.
Contributed originally by hemlibrary (BBC WW2 People's War)
This story was submitted to the Peoples War web site by Hertfordshire Libraries working in partnership with the Dacorum Heritage Trust on behalf of the author, John Greener. The author fully understands the site's terms and conditions.
Air Raid Precaution Units were made up of volunteers with various skills that could be used to recover people from the effects of aerial bombardment, and to give them emergency care until the rescue service could reach them. Such skills which they provided were for example; First Aid; Building and Demolition trades.
It was due to the skills of demolition workers that my Mother's life was saved when our house was demolished by a Rocket in 1944. My family home was at No. 90 Shardloes Road, New Cross. I was serving in the army in Burma at the time
and I remember my Commanding Officer asking me if I wanted to return home. I declined his offer because, having told me that my mother was safe and well, albeit in hospital, I realised that there was nothing I could do to improve her
circumstances if I were to return home. Thankfully, my Mother made a full recovery from her injuries.
Other important jobs to be done in the ARP control point were: Warden Control; Administration; Clerical and Typing work; and very important, Tea making.
There was always a welcoming cup of hot tea waiting for us when we returned to the control point. Each incident had to be recorded with Date, Time and Place. Every person rescued alive and those who were dead had to have their details recorded. Sometimes it was not easy to recognise the dead.
The control point I was attached to was set up in a local builders yard which belonged to Mick McManus, a well known middle weight wrestling champion,
Another important arm of the ARP were Cycle Messengers who with their detailed knowledge of the local district were able to deliver messages to other units. They were able to guide Rescue Services to those needing immediate aid. Their knowledge of the district and the quickest way to contact the Fire and Ambulance services; Hospitals and Doctors Surgeries, proved invaluable when telephone lines were destroyed.
Each London Borough had its own teams of ARP Control points who monitored the fall of bombs and the location of demolished properties so that they could direct the Rescue Services to places where people were known to have taken shelter when the Sirens sounded.
When war was declared at 11.00am on Sunday 3rd September 1939 I joined the ARP and became a Cycle Messenger, much to the consternation of my mother, who thought that I would be much safer at home taking shelter under the kitchen table. But I felt much safer out of the house where I could find my own shelter when the bombs were dropping.
My mother had a job with the local Money Lender as Receptionist, Clerk and Tea maker. She worked in a very pleasant office and enjoyed her work. My Step-Father worked for Southern Railway at Angerstein Works, Woolwich where he was a Semi-Skilled machine operator.
The pattern of my daily life soon fell into a regular routine. I would return home from work at 5.30. have my dinner then go to night school from seven until nine, and then be ready to set off to my local ARP control point to report for duty when the air raid Sirens sounded.
If it was a quiet night I would go off to meet my friends where we would spend the evening in the local Pub or some one's house. I remember with fondness my friends who were a pretty diverse bunch but we had a lot of fun together. Most of them are now dead, unfortunately. In particular I remember my two closest friends who were like me, an only child, so we had something in common. They were, George Nix and Ken Mullins both accomplished musicians. George played Piano and Ken played Saxophone and Clarinet. They formed the basis of a band which played at local functions, I
cannot play any instrument, much to my regret, so I became their agent, getting Gigs and buying their sheet music. We also recruited a Base Guitarist to our group, he had a hunch back due to deformity in his spine I cannot remember his name but I do remember him as an extrovert, a fine musician, with a great sense of humour,
When Harry Roy and his band visited the New Cross Empire he invited people from the audience to go on stage and conduct his band in a comedy sketch. Our friend took up the challenge, the result was hilarious with the musicians playing in different timing to the conductor. I never saw him after this, unfortunately, he was killed in a car accident while I was in the army. But, I shall never forget that night.
I became friendly with a Drummer, Eric Saunders, who had two sisters, Dorothy and Joyce. Their mother thought that Dorothy and I might develop a close relationship but I was not aware of her feelings toward me, and in any event, I would not consider a relationship during war time. The Saunders owned a Sweet and Tobacconist shop in Brockley and this became the focus for our social activities.
The shop had a large cellar, which we cleared out and decorated so we had premises for a club. Friday night was music night when we would join thousands of other listeners to the wireless for our weekly session of dancing to Victor Sylvester and his orchestra. Through the wireless he taught us the basic steps of Ballroom dancing. Each week there would be a different step in the dancing repertoire. He received many letters from people who wanted a particular dance, mostly Latin American, which was very popular at the time. He gave us many hours of pleasure.
Mr Saunders was a professional violinist and became a great help in setting up our club. He introduced us to the music of Stephane Grappelli, probably the greatest Swing and Jazz violinist of our time. It was here that we organised our activities and played out our parodies to mimic the times.
During the Spring, Summer and Autumn months, if the weather was fine, we would walk to Hilly Fields where we played cricket or football. We each had a bicycle and sometimes we would ride to another park for a change of scenery. One of our friends had a Tandem and on long rides such as a trip to Southend I would take the rear seat. Probably half a dozen of us would go off for the day, taking a picnic lunch to eat on Southend Pier, after a play on the beach and a swim in the sea we returned home. There was very little motorised traffic on the roads at that time and we felt no danger in cycling that far. It is not a journey I would fancy doing today. Unlike to-days youngsters we had very little money but we had tremendous fun.
As an alternative to the club we would go for a drink at our local pub 'The Wickham Arms'. Although we were under age for Pub drinking the son of the Publican was a member of our club so his mother, who was the Landlord, allowed us to sit in a corner out of the way of other drinkers and drink our half pint of beer, at that time the most popular drink for young lads was Brown Ale.
In spite of the war, in those early years, we spent many happy hours particularly in the winter, in the warm cosiness of the Wickham Arms planning our future activities.
During the years '40' and '41 at the height of the London Blitz my mother would make up a bed for me under the Dining Room table a large wooden structure which she thought would save me if the roof fell in but I wasn't so sure so when the air raid sirens sounded I would be off to the ARP centre ready for duty. At this time I had my job with TELCON from 9.00am until 5.00pm. Sometimes, if I had been busy during the night I found it difficult to stay awake during the following day so I used to spend my lunch hour in the office toilet where I could have almost an hour's uninterrupted sleep.
The weather played a great part in the level of ARP activity. If it was raining heavily or snowing the Germans stayed at home, which meant we had a night off. So, there was very little activity during the winter months. During the early years of the war, 1940 and 1941 London was heavily bombed day and night with High Explosive and Incendiary bombs, particularly, the docks area on the River Thames.
Fortunately, Greenwich was South East of the city centre where the main London Docks were so we did not suffer as much bombing as they did, but I watched the dog fights between the German and British aircraft as they were played out over southern England during the summer of 1940. This was the Battle of Britain.
As an ARP messenger I had my share of incidents the most common when I fell into a shell hole that I hadn't seen in the dark, sometimes there would be water in the hole and I would finish my duty soaking wet, apart from a few cuts and grazes I didn't suffer any major injury.
From my house or the factory I could see the fires from the blazing docks which cast a pall of smoke over the river. I remember the first day of the London blitz it was 7th of September 1940. A date ingrained in the memory of anyone who lived in London at that time. The closest and biggest single tragedy that I remember was when a High Explosive bomb dropped on Woolworth's store in New Cross Road, over a hundred people were killed, this became the largest single incidence locally, of the war.
I served in the ARP until I was sixteen years old when I realised there was a much bigger job for me. However, at such an impressionable age the sights and sounds of those far off days have made sure that I never forget what the people of London went through to ensure that Britain will never give in to tyranny.
THE HOME GUARD
I had reached the age where I felt that I should be doing more for the war effort, so I joined the Home Guard. A unit had been formed at the Telcon Works at Greenwich. Because, geographically, we were in the county of Kent our parent Regiment was The Queens Own Royal West Kent Regiment. Our Commanding Officer was one of our own factory managers who had ended his service in the First World War with the rank of Major, so he was naturally, given command of our unit. Unfortunately, I cannot remember his name, but I do remember him to be a very kindly gentleman whether at work or on parade.
When the Home Guard was first formed it was known as the LDV(Local Defence Volunteers). The only defence we had at the time were wooden dummy rifles, we were taught basic military skills such as marching and rifle drill, self defence and fire drill. We paraded once a week for training. Our duties were guarding the rear of the Works because of its easy approach from the river, and the threat of invasion made us particularly vulnerable.
We also did our share of Fire Watching and putting out Incendiary Bombs. I remember the visit to the Works by HRH The Duke of Kent which took place the day following a night aerial attack on the factory in which a bomb destroyed the high frequency furnaces. Fortunately the night shift had been cancelled so nobody was injured. The Factory was working again within twenty four hours although the employees suffered considerable discomfort through exposure to the weather until the roof was repaired.
Production in the Works was often disrupted due to daylight air raids. When the Siren sounded we used to leave our offices and machines and gather in a part of the Works which was deemed safest for the employees. There were other parts of the Works that had been made as safe as possible so that we didn't all congregate in the same area.
Air raids offered an opportunity to take a break from our work, to rest and relax as much as possible. It was at such times that I learned to play Bridge, which I found to be an absorbing card game. Although the Works were on the German flight path to the London Docks I don't ever remember the Works being bombed during daylight hours. The German bombers made for the docks and the city a couple of miles up river from Greenwich. My service with Telegraph Construction and Maintenance Company came to an end at the beginning of January 1942 when I left to join the Army.
Contributed originally by Braintree Library (BBC WW2 People's War)
My most vivid memory of WW2 was the time spent in an Anderson shelter. I lived with my parents in south east London near Woolwich Arsenal. Ther was a park opposite where barrage balloons, a small gun and searchlights were situated.
My mother, brother and myself used to play Ludo in the evenings which helped my mother relax a little before the air raids started. As soon we heard the wailing of the sirens we would go into the shelter which was in the garden. Sometimes it was very dark and we would carefully use a torch. Usually the sky was lit up with searchlights. Often we could see fires where the German planes had dropped incendiary bombs.
We often took a jug of hot cocoa with us as it was very cold in our shelter. Also, every evening the kettle and several saucepans would be filled wih cold water as sometimes the water mains would be damaged which meant no water in the morning.
Once in the shelter we would continue our game of Ludo by candlelight. Then the terrible noise would begin of the guns, droning of the planes and the thud of the bombs falling. It was very noisy and frightening.
We were all very pleased to hear the All Clear siren but wondered if we had any damage to our house. Sometimes there would be a fallen ceiling or a broken window. The plaster and glass were put onto the kerb to be collected later by a lorry. The ceilings and windows were patched up and repaired properly after the War.
We were always hoping for a foggy night as planes would not fly which meant a good night's sleep in our bed
Contributed originally by Henry Forrest (BBC WW2 People's War)
Few houses had electricity in those days so wireless sets had to be battery operated. These wireless sets, were cumbersome affairs, they were powered by a very heavy "High Tension", dry battery 90 volts or so. And by accumulators, which were lead acid batteries,even heavier These had to be recharged frequently by the local wireless shop. He charged tuppence for this service, which took all day. Your name was painted on the side of these accumulators in white paint, so that you could retain them, You had to be careful when transporting these devices, as the acid spilt easily, and you would suffer burns to your legs, but what was worse your trousers and socks disintegrated. Many of the children had trousers peppered with holes, as a result of carrying them home too fast. This experience was usually accompanied with a clip around the ear for alleged carelessness. Thanks indeed for an errand
We as children, had our own "wireless sets". We found out (and this defies physics) that if you connected a sensitive pair of headphones, one lead to an earth pipe and the other to a good aerial, you would hear local radio stations quietly but clearly. This was another subject we discussed. Who had got the best reception, or the farthest station, etc. One step down from a crystal set I believe. We would listen to Monday at Eight, or Appointment with Fear, (which very often terrified us).
The surrounding streets were lined with air raid shelters. These were constructed stoutly of 2 foot thick brick walls and reinforced concrete roofs. We spent many nights in these shelters, when the raids were "heavy". Inside our shelter was a large brass bed, an old settee, a few chairs and a piano. The bed housed about 6 or 7 children, who slept there, for the night, whilst the adults amused themselves by singing old tunes to this piano. One night, during the early hours, we were woken by a tremendous crash, the usual dust, screams and darkness. Eventually the ARP called through the door, and said we were safe but not to venture out until the morning. In the morning, we could see the cause of the mayhem. A bomb had landed just 20 feet away from the shelter, in the middle of the road, Furley Road, to be precise. There was a large crater, and houses on each side of the road had been flattened. The gap is still there to this day. The shelter, however. Apart from a few cracks, was intact, a testimony to their amazing strength. We owed our lives to the people who designed and built these havens.
Another shelter we used to frequent occasionally, was in the basement of a bus depot in Meeting House Lane. This was a very large shelter and housed many people. We had a piano ,a wireless set, someone had a silent cine projector, and numerous games for children to play with. We had some terrific parties here, fancy dress parties and even a Xmas Party, with a "real "Santa" who had a small gift for everyone. On one particular Christmas fancy dress party, I was dressed as a policeman, and my sister, Jean, was dressed as fairy. She won the competition, much to Mum,s delight.
We were oblivious to the nightly bangs and crashes above. The only problem with these shelters, were, that you had to get in there early to take up your position. Many people never bothered, and paid with their lives. It was a terrible, but commonplace fact, that nearly every day, news flooded in of nearby deaths. There was indeed very heavy bombing in this area. But as I said earlier, as children, we didn’t realise the full impact of it.
There was a consrant "blackout", at night, it was total darkness. Total darkness in the streets, is uncanny, and has to be seen to be believed. This you never see today. We had large black curtains or black frames in our windows, to prevent any light leaking out into the night. If you did allow any light out. This would invite a knock on your door by a policeman or air-raid warden, to rectify the matter, Or you would receive the loud and common invitation to "Put that light out!!". This was a very common sound in the streets at night. These small leaks of light, we were told would invite the Luftwaffe to bomb us. This miniscule of light, I wouldn,t have thought, would have made any difference. But nevertheless, it was an offence. An extra dose of darkness, would be experienced if there was a fog. However, foggy nights were welcome, as there no air raids on foggy nights. Cars would creep along the roads, showing dipped and diffused lights. There front bumpers were painted white. Pedestrians would be knocking into each other, or into lamp-posts. People could not find their way home, so did not venture out, if it was not necessary. White bands were painted around any obstacles. Lamp-posts had white bands painted around the bottoms. But these were not always obvious. Also the edges of the pavements, were lined with white stripes.
We were issued with gas masks, which reeked of rubber and made you feel sick. They had taped on fronts, for certain gasses, When new gas types came to light we had to have several other attachments fitted until we resembled elephants. Smaller children had unusual masks which resembled distorted Mickey Mouses, they were a sickly pink colour. Babies, like my small sister had to be inserted into rubber zip up case like device, On the out side was hand pump which you had pump up and fill up the interior and keep out harmful gasses, you could observe the occupant through a perspex window.
We were issued with brown cardboard boxes in which to carry our gas-masks around with us. These were soon in tatters, so you could buy rexine ones (plastic had not been invented yet) with press stud clips. These cases soon became an item of fashion, and you could get almost any shape and colour of gas-mask cases. We soon tired of carrying these cases around with us, and they were eventually discarded. The police and air raid wardens were the only persons who carried their masks with them. It was a blessing that gas was not used, as these devices seemed to be a little hit and miss in design.
It was at this time, that my Uncle Bert was enlisted, he had been in the T.A. and was therefore one of the first to be called up, into the Army. He was followed shortly by Uncle Bill, into the Army, and Uncle John, into the Airforce. My Dad was sent up north to work on munitions.
When Uncle Bert came home on leave, I was allowed to hold his rifle, (which they brought home in those days) and helped him to "bull" his boots to a brilliant shine. He treated me for this, which was an added bonus. He used to ask me to deliver his "date requests" to the young ladies in the neighbourhood, especially a girl named Sally, who worked in the corner bakers shop, he was quite a one for the ladies, was Uncle Bert. In return for these errands, I would ask him to take me the cinema with him, and his current girl friend.
I was quite small, and used to sit on the upturned cinema seat. I was obviously a burden, because one day, during an exciting part of the film, I flinched and fell between the seat and the chairback. I couldn,t move, I yelled out for help, but Uncle Bert was too obsessed with his girl friend to notice my predicament. I eventually managed to attract his attention. I must have been a nuisance, because he suddenly stopped taking me to the cinema. In fact when he eventually married Aunt Daisy, I was absent from the wedding photos, perhaps I "knew" too much. I know it was a splendid wedding. Uncle Bert was married in his Royal Artillery dress uniform, very smart it was too.
When we went to the "pictures", very often the film was disturbed by air raids, this warning of air-raids was flashed on the screen, and if it proved to be heavy, we were sent away and credited a return ticket, so cinemas in those days were a haphazard affair. Some of the cinemas we frequented as children, were awful. They were known as "bug-hutches". One in particular, at New Cross, was called the "Golden Domes" of all things. It was rotten, the seats were in tatters, and there were no toilets. Children would pee on the floor. In the summer you could imagine the smell. But it was only threepence to go in, and the films, George Formby or Old Mother Reilly etc. were hilarious. I can remember, on one occasion, it was a baking hot day. I was bursting to go to the loo. The film was good, and I left it a bit late. Halfway home, about an hours walk, disaster struck, and I crapped my pants. I could hold it no longer. I continued my journey home in the heat. The excrement, trickled down my legs and dried like plaster of Paris. When I arrived home, as usual, all my family were in the living-room playing cards. I sat and watched them. After a short while Uncle Bert, sniffed a couple of times, and asked of me "Have you shit yourself, Ging?" . "Yes I replied. There were no toilets and I could hold it no longer!!" I had a good hiding and a rough clean up. There were lots of these old cinemas around. The "Ideal" the "Grand" the "Palais" but the names were deceiving, they were really dirty and should have been closed down, really.
It was about this time that I really came to know my Grand-dad properly, he was, a kind and gentle man, he thought the world of me. He was almost blind, I used to lead him round to the local telephone box to dial Woolwich 2209 (funny how numbers stick in your mind), this was my Aunt Roses number. Uncle Jim, her husband, was a "Turncock" for the Water Board, in Woolwich. They had a phone in their house, for work purposes, A private telephone in a working class house, unheard of in those days.
I loved visiting my Aunt Rose. She was a very kind lady. She bought me a brand new bicycle from Willson,s in Peckham. I have never forgotten this.
My cousin Lenny also lived there, in Woolwich. It was a good fun place to be. You could ride on the Woolwich Free Ferry till your hearts content. We would wander up onto Woolwich Hill and see the Royal Artillery drilling and gunnery practice, in the Arsenal barracks. We would watch the large ships, sometimes warships, entering and leaving the Royal Docks on the opposite bank of the River Thames. Submarines sometimes moored in the river. There was always something interesting happening.
My cousin Lenny used to come and stay with us very often, in Peckham, he was a devil.
One one occaion, we got Uncle Berts, best trilby hat and passed it through the ringer, which was kept in the rear garden. The new shape it then assumed, we found hilarious.
Another time, outside our house , in Goldsmith Road, Uncle Bill, who was a milkman at the time, had parked his milk cart. It was a push cart. The road had a steep camber on it, we found that by both pushing together, we managed to topple the cart over, what a mess, we disappeared. Uncle Bill never knew what really happened.
On another occasion, we came across, in my Grand-dads room, a bottle of Sol Volatile. We thought that this was an alcoholic drink. Lenny thought that it was a good idea to have a swig. This we did, the taste was undescribable, our throats were on fire, we rushed down to the kitchen and rinsed or mouths out. We thought we had poisoned ourselves. Cousin Lenny was full of bright ideas. I bet he can remember more similar incidents.
My Grandad was blind and my Gran was deaf, we used to creep up on the staircase outside their room and start up our "humming top". We could, by undulating the speed , make it sound like an raid siren. My grandparents, thinking it was real, came out and ran downstairs for cover, we were in hysterics ouside their room, What horrors we were.
My Grandad was terrified of the air-raids, he died shortly after the war started. I remember that his coffin was laid to rest in our "front room", a regular occurence in those days. The coffin lid was laid partly back in order to see his face, which was kissed by most of the visitors, paying their last respects. My cousin Lenny induced me to play in this room chasing me round the coffin. I was about 7 years old at this time. He used to knock the lid of and say "He is coming to get you". I was terrified, what a horror my cousin was . I wonder if he remembers this?
It was in this house on a Saturday, night in 1941, a very heavy raid was in progress. It was the custom to huddle together in these circumstances. My mother, my Gran, my 2 year old sister,and myself, were all lying in a large bed in the downstairs front room. There was an almighty crash. And darkness, choking smoke and dust. My mother switched on the torch, saying that we ought to make our way to he nearest Air Raid Shelter, just down the road. She opened the door leading into the passage and was confronted with a pile of bricks, plaster and timber completely blocking the exit, we were trapped, Shortly after we heard voices outside the front window. It was The A,R.P. or air raid wardens, as they were called. We made ourselves heard and they broke what was left of the window or frame, carried us out, and took us to the shelter. On our return, in the morning, to get our possessions, we realised, that, the only room intact, was the one in which we were sleeping. A stick of bombs had fallen in Marmount Road, at the rear of our house, the whole back of the house was destroyed and was flattened except for this one room, downstairs in the front, What a lucky escape!
This was on Saturday night…….
Contributed originally by Bournemouth Libraries (BBC WW2 People's War)
I was born on 18th July 1919, in Bellevue Hospital, New York City, U.S.A.
My mother, Emily Elizabeth Ada Boyle, formerly Inseal, had married a Canadian war-wounded soldier named Patrick Boyle, whom she met in Hampstead. He swept her off her feet and they were married within six weeks of the meeting. The stories of taking her to the United States of America helped this whirlwind romance, but the fact was that he was born in Glasgow. His mother was Scottish, his father Irish. He had brothers and sisters of whom I know nothing except that they all did very well. One was an actress and one a doctor. I know nothing about my grandparents on the 'Boyle' side either, my father having been disowned by his family, this being due to his 'drinking.
He went to the U.S.A. when he was about 17 years old and worked in Hotels. His birthday was 20th July and he was 10 years older than my mother. He joined the Canadian Army at the outbreak of World War 1. He was a charming, good-looking man with blue eyes. After being wounded in France he came to England and was admitted to a hospital in Hampstead. This was when he met my mother. She did not know about the drink problem until sometime after their marriage, when, by then, she was living in a tenement flat at 47, Amsterdam Avenue, New York City, miles away from her parents and loved ones and expecting her first child. My mother had a very strong character, and having discovered what a fool she had been, set about making a life for herself. She found a job with a lady named Lillian Ellis, who was at that time The President of the American Red Cross in New York, and had a lovely house in Greenwich Village.
My mother was 20 years old 'when she first went to work for Mrs. Ellis doing her housework. She also arranged English teas in the afternoons for this lady's friends. This became very popular, so mother suggested having the English garden tea parties in the afternoon for the public. These parties were held I Mrs. Ellis's beautiful garden, and so helped to raise money for The Red Cross. This type of thing was unknown in the U.S. at that time, but very soon became very popular.
Mrs. Ellis was very kind to my mother; she let her continue working for her and arranged the booking of the hospital where I was born. I was named Lillian after Mrs. Ellis and she was my Godmother.
My father, when drunk, was very violent and punched and kicked my mother even when she was pregnant. Mrs. Ellis pleaded with my mother to leave him and suggested she should come and live in at her house, but my mother was so sure she could change him and that when her baby was born he would be different, but after I was born things were just the same. He would be charming when sober for a number of months, but the first drink after a stretch of abstinence would se him off again and he would spend every penny he could. His wages would buy drinks for all his buddies; he had to be the life and soul of the party. Then he would return home penniless having spent the whole of his wages. What had not been spent on drink had been stolen by those so-called friends who would take advantage of him.
Mother worked hard after I was born, taking me with her. Mrs. Ellis gave her a beautiful swansdown pillow to put into a Moses basket for me to lie in.
My brother Bill was born 15 months after me, and things did not change very much. Now with two children and a drunken husband and the main bread and rent provider, my mother was determined that she would save enough money to return to England. Each time she saved a few dollars my father would steal it for drink. Eventually my mother found a safe place to save some money; this was in a cocoa tin in the food cupboard. She had to be careful he wouldn't find it, so she sometimes left a little somewhere else for him to find, thus preventing him from searching further.
He knew that from time to time my mother received money from England, as No.8, Maryon Road, Charlton, had been left to her in the will of her aunt. This house was rented out and her cousin, Henry Stockvis, collected the rents, and attended to the repairs etc, then sent the remainder to her, and of course when it arrived, my father used to be after her for some of it.
Thus the savings in the cocoa tin slowly built up and by the time I was 4 years old, she had saved enough to book the passage for herself and two children to return to England. Without him knowing, she packed her case and when he was at work, she left her flat in New York and caught the boat.
I do not remember New York at all, but I do remember being on the boat, and a steward giving me a rosy apple every day. Many relations met us at Southampton, and this I also remember.
At first we lived in a flat in Vauxhall Mansions, Vauxhall. My grandmother also had a flat in these old Victorian buildings. There was a big yard at the back where all the children played, and it was not far from the river, so when mother took us out walking it was along by the river wall to Battersea Park, or across the river to the gardens at the side of the Houses of Parliament.
My mother was a very good woman. She would always try to help people; she had a very good brain and had been clever at school. She was the eldest girl of ten children, four boys and six girls. Her mother was a lovely Buckinghamshire lady, and an excellent cook. Her father was a clerk on the railway. He was very fond of the ladies. He died at the age of 48 years.
Mother had always felt she would have liked to be a barrister, in those days an unheard of occupation for a woman, and this just shows what strength of character she had.
Once back in England she started enquiring as to how she could get possession of her house in Maryon Road, so that we could live in it. It took quite some time, but as she had children and was in need of a garden she eventually got the bottom part of the house. The top still being let gave her a small income.
Of course, it was not long before my father came to England, promising once again, that he would give up the drink. For a while all was well and another baby was on the way, my brother Jim. Very soon my father started drinking again and my mother was expecting her fourth child, my sister Dorothy. By this time my mother decided she had had enough and applied for a legal separation and my father returned to the U.S.A. Mother decided it was easier to tell everyone that her husband was dead, rather than say he was a drunk who had returned to America.
She settled down and worked very hard to get money for food, as she had no settlement from my father. She let rooms, cleaned for other people and took in washing; this helped her to make ends meet, and kept us well dressed. We have a lot to thank our mother for her selfless devotion to us. She loved her four children and protected us like a mother hen protecting her chicks.
At first we all went to Wood Street School Woolwich. We used to come home every day to a cooked dinner, then return to school in the afternoon. Even so times were very hard. I hated Mondays. Mother washed all the shirts for the Charlton Football players who lived with Mrs. Haring at 19, Maryon Road. She also did washing for Mrs. Stephens, the builders in Hill Reach. The boiler was alight at 6am and the house smelt of washing all day. It was bubble and squeak for dinner with cold meat from the Sunday roast. When I came home in the afternoon after school, I had a big pile of washing-up to do as mum was washing and scrubbing all day, so washing the dinner and tea plates was my job. I loved taking back the neatly ironed shirts for the footballers along with Mrs. Stephens' sheets and pillowslips. I always got sixpence for myself for taking them back, and that was a fortune in those days. Sometimes my brothers would take them so they could have a turn at getting the sixpence. We could always get three pence for cleaning doorsteps, so there was always a way of getting pocket money.
I was 7 years old when my sister Dorothy was born and as my mother was usually working, I was left in charge of my little sister. I used to take her to Maryon Park, but when it was time for us to return home, she would start screaming and lay on the ground throwing tantrums. When I told my mother, she said 'take no notice of her and leave her there' and sure enough when I started to walk away she would stop crying and come running after me.
My mother was very proud of us all, and kept us very well dressed. She stressed upon us, that in spite of having very little money we were just as good as anyone else in the road. There were quite a number of wealthy people around us. Next door but one lived a toffee-nosed family with one daughter who went to a private school. This family were inclined to look down on my mother having no husband and always having to go to work. But as the years went by they changed their attitude, and more than once came to mother for help and advice.
I went to St. Thomas' Church, was a brownie and a guide. I was confirmed when I was 10 years old and a Sunday school teacher at 15.
During these days mothers became friendly with a single man lodging next door, where she would work now and again. He was very unhappy there, as the lady took in many borders, but did not really look after them. One day George asked my mother if she had a room he could have as he was fed up at No.10. Anyway after a few months "thinking about it" she told Mrs. Stewart, who needless to say, was not very happy about mum taking one of her lodgers. 'Uncle George' came to live in our house. He always came on holiday with us.
Every year my mother took all four of us to Ramsgate. We had a room with Mrs. Tunnicliff in Ellington Road. She used to have rooms and attendance, which meant that we bought the food and Mrs. Tunnicliff cooked it. George used to have his evening meal with us, but he used to stay in a local pub called The North Star for bed and breakfast.
George coming to live with us made life a bit easier for mum, although she still went to work, and had a regular income from George. He worked at Tate & Lyle in the golden syrup department. He was able to buy 7lb tins of golden syrup cheap, so we always had plenty of treacle tarts and boiled suet puddings with golden syrup on them. Thus the regular incomes made life much easier for us all and we had a very happy childhood.
I went to Wood Street School until I was 12 years old, then on to Maryon Park Senior Girls until I was 14. I did not take the Junior County Scholarship, because I had to look after my little sister when mum was working, and was frequently absent from school. My brother Bill passed his scholarship with honours and went onto Grammar School.
When I left school I wanted to be a nurse, but could not start training until I was 18 years old. I had a couple of jobs as a Nursemaid, then went to "Cuffs", a drapers shop in Woolwich, to do an apprenticeship as a shop assistant. This was a two-year course, and when I had finished I went to "Chessman's", another large store in Lewisham as an assistant in the trimmings department. By the time I was 18 it was crisis time and war was imminent and I was more determined than ever to be a nurse.
I tried several hospitals with no success. Then one day I saw an advertisement I the paper wanting 18 year old girls for Modem Mental Nursing, so I wrote and got an interview at Bexley Hospital in Kent. The matron, a Miss Bevan, who was the sister of "Ernest Bevan" a very important Member of Parliament, he introduced the "Bevan Boys" ho worked in the coal mines during World War II.
The interview went very well and I was accepted. It was August 1938 when I left home and started training to become a nurse. My mother was very worried about it being a Mental Hospital, but I was so keen to become a nurse that I did not care what sort of hospital it was. I said, 'just let me go, and if I find it is too much for me I can always leave". I can remember to this day the thrill I had when I put on my uniform for the first time to present myself at Matron' s office to start my first day. Miss Peglar, The Assistant Matron, took me to my first ward, which was Ward L1. We had long dresses, which had to be 12 inches from the floor, in blue and white striped material, long sleeves with a stiff round collar that almost cut your throat fastened in front with a pearl topped stud. Stiff cuffs round the wrists, black lace up shoes, and black stockings. White caps that had to be made up in a special way. We had to learn to do this - it was pleated on top and made like a butterfly at the back, it was a real work of art. Not everyone could get the knack of making a good job of it. I had always been interested in making things and took to making these caps very efficiently, so I was never without friends. I always had someone knocking on my door asking me to make their cap up for them.
We had no training before hand, and everything was learned on the wards by trial and error. My first ward was a ward for elderly ladies with senile dementia. The two charge nurses were both Irish, one named MacGarry and the other Mannouch. Our hours of duty were 6am to 2pm which was called "A" shift, and 2-m to l0pm was called "B" shift. Then there was "c" shift, which was night duty from 10pm to 6am. But we did not do "nights" while we were in our first year. We had 1 and a half off each week, and it was planned so that we had 3 whole days off every two weeks and on return to duty the shift would change. I enjoyed the work, and made friends with a girl named "Winnie Matthews" She came from Grays in Essex. I had only been there a couple of months when war was declared, and our hospital had to be split by half to give room for general patients. This meant every ward had to double up, so instead of having 50 patients it had to be 100. This was really terrible. The beds were all along both sides and up the middle. Beds were also put in the side rooms, which were usually reserved for nurses. We all had to take a turn of sleeping by the wards in case of trouble at night. These nurses' rooms had to have two and three together instead of a room of your own, because the spare rooms were being used for patients. We also had to double up in the nurses Home to make room for nurses who were joining the Civil Nursing Reserve. Winnie Matthews and I shared a room in the Nurses Home.
To return to my first day on the wards, Nurse MacGarry took me with her and showed me where everything was, and when she was giving injections or doing dressings, explained everything to me. That very first day an old lady passed away. I was so surprised that it was so peaceful. I helped do the "last offices" and was not frightened, and was very interested in everything that was shown to me.