Bombs dropped in the borough of: Harrow
Total number of bombs dropped from 7th October 1940 to 6th June 1941 in Harrow:
- Parachute Mine
- High Explosive Bomb
- Parachute Mine
Number of bombs dropped during the week of 7th October 1940 to 14th of October:
Number of bombs dropped during the first 24h of the Blitz:
No bombs were registered in this area
Memories in Harrow
Read people's stories relating to this area:
Contributed originally by Sister (BBC WW2 People's War)
I was eight years old at the beginning of the war, and my first memory is of being taken to the local school hall, where the gas masks were being issued. The man gave me a Mickey Mouse one to try which nearly asphyxiated me! These masks were made with two separate eyeholes and a funny red nose to try and make them appeal to young children. It was decided my head was too big for that, and I was issued with a standard black one. I remember feeling horrified that adults could consider killing other people, and I felt so helpless. We had always been told fighting was bad behaviour.
Strange how adults could change their minds.
The first siren went off while I was out playing in the street with my dolls’ pram. I can remember the panic as I tried to pull it up the kerb to go home, the more I pulled the less able I was to budge it. Then my Dad appeared from nowhere, and saved me!
The siren was a false alarm and nothing at all happened. Soon after, my parents thought it safer for my mother, older sister and myself to go and stay with an aunt and uncle in Wallingford, Berks.
After about three weeks as all was quiet we returned home to the London suburb of Harrow Middlesex.
The raids started. The siren wailing up and down made my tummy turn over. Nearby we had Northolt Aerodrome, so the noise of planes taking off became commonplace. We used to count them going out, and count them returning, always hoping it would be the same number…. We had an Anderson shelter in the garden. The lady next door with small children had a Morrison shelter indoors, which was like a big reinforced rabbit hutch. They used the top as a table. Every night after I was in my pyjamas I would be sent down the garden to the shelter, and when no-one was looking, I would get up and go down the back alley to play with my friends. Raids were frequent at this time. Every day the children would go out looking for shrapnel, and the competition was quite keen to find the biggest bit..
My father was working in London on something that he was not allowed to discuss with us. We later found out it was to do with the construction of the amphibious craft used in the invasion. As he was a well-qualified St. John first aider, he was also required to help with rescue work. He was always so tired.
While on his rescue duties, he would sometimes find an unexploded shell, or incendiary bomb, which had to be thrown in the water tanks on the streets. I have an unexploded shell, which he made into a table lighter, having made it safe!
I remember the bomb disposal crews on their lorry having completed a job. Sometimes they would actually sit on the land mine or bomb that they had disarmed. They always received a cheer. - Just, as aircrew would not be charged for admission into our local cinema. Everyone felt they had done more than enough for us. During daytime raids we could often watch the dogfights above us as our planes intercepted the Germans. We could always tell the difference between our aircraft and the German’s even at night. Our planes had a steady hum and the German planes made a pulsating noise.
Our house remained intact, but a nearby house had a landmine suspended inside it. The parachute had caught on the roof, and it was hanging suspended a couple of inches off the floor! We had to evacuate our house while the brave disposal team came and made it safe. They drove off with it on the back of the lorry. I was told the German bombers would take Harrow-on-the Hill church as a landmark
And drop a stick of bombs, hoping to hit Northolt Aerodrome. This meant they passed close to us.
The raids became intense. Our Anderson shelter had flooded, and we had to go to the nearest communal shelter. During the day if the siren sounded on our way to school, we were told to run home if we were nearest to home, or carry on to school if that was the nearest. We had a large underground shelter built on the playing fields at school, and we spent a lot of time sitting on the hard benches around the walls. At home we had decided we were tired of running to air raid shelters at night, so we decided that if the bomb had our name on it, we would get it! We stayed in our own beds.
When I was twelve, I was evacuated to my grandparents in Wales. My mother took me there, and we caught the train from Paddington. Opposite us in the carriage a tired looking lady sat with a baby on her lap. They had no luggage, as they had been bombed out of their home the previous night, whilst they were in the shelter. Her husband was in the army, and she was making her way to the home of relatives.
We arrived at my grandparent’s house. My mother stayed overnight and then went back to Harrow. I found this to be a disconcerting time. Hardly any air raids occurred. There was just the difficulty of fitting into new surroundings. I attended the local school. The local children called us the “Vacuees” and regarded us at first with suspicion. Whist I was there I remember two servicemen returning to the village. They had been prisoners of the Japanese, and looked like walking skeletons. The village held a Benefit Concert for each of them. The concerts were well attended and raised some money to help them recover. I got to know my Welsh relatives, and there were some good times, but there was always the overwhelming homesickness. After nine months things must have quietened in Harrow, or my constant pleas to come home worked. Whatever the reason, I received a letter saying my mother was coming to take me home. Such joy!
We arrived home, and things were quieter. Food was extremely short. I would help my mother to buy the weeks’ groceries for four people and we could carry it home in two bags. If we went to my Aunts’ for tea, we would take our slices of bread and margarine with us. Meat was very short; so on Saturday we would take turns in queuing outside the Butchers’ shop. My mother would queue from six until seven o’clock, my sister from seven until eight and I would do from eight until nine, when the Butcher opened his shop. My mother would reappear at this time and if we were lucky we would have a small piece of meat for Sunday. If we were unlucky, we had to take the ration in Spam. Just very occasionally a neighbour would rush down the road telling everyone she came across that the greengrocers had oranges. We would hurry to the shop and queue hoping that there would still be some left when it was our turn. Usually the allowance was one orange for each child’s ration book. The sweet ration was very small, and we children were encouraged to eat raw carrots instead.
After I returned home from Wales, it wasn’t long before we had the start of the attacks by the V1 and V2 missiles. The V1 was a pilotless aeroplane which carried a large amount of explosives. The engine noise was distinctive, and if you could hear it you were safe, but when the engine cut out, you knew it was on the way down. I was on my way to school, running as the air raid warning had sounded, when suddenly the pavement came up and hit me! A man behind me had been aware of the V1 heading our way and had pushed me to the floor. We were lucky.
Then it was the V2. This silent rocket was unpredictable. No air raid warning, just a huge explosion from nowhere.
The next thing I remember is everywhere being crowded with servicemen of all nationalities. Then of course it was D-Day. The newsreels at the cinema kept us up to date, and also showed us the horrors of camps like Belsen as they were liberated.
The man next door was discharged from the army because of shell shock. I imagine it would be called post-traumatic stress now. He spent all day in his garden, speaking to no one, but gradually he started to communicate again.
VE day came at last, followed by VJ day. We had a street party, I was thirteen years of age and it seemed a long time since I was eight.
Contributed originally by Herts Libraries (BBC WW2 People's War)
This is Mr D Barkshire's story; it has been added by Herts Libraries, with permission from the author, who understands the terms and conditions of adding his story to the website.
Part One — In Prison as a Conscientious Objector
Having been a member of the Peace Pledge Union since its inception, when the war started in 1939 I registered as a conscientious objector. I was 27 years of age at the time and into my confident, rationalist period. In due course I received an appointment to attend before a tribunal to have my conscientious objection tested. These tribunals were always of a standard type with a legally qualified Chairman, either a barrister or a retired judge; a member of the working classes, generally a trade unionist; and a member of the employers’ organisation, the CBI. My tribunal application was refused.
Then, after I had refused to attend medical examinations, a very pleasant police constable appeared on my parents’ doorstep with a summons for me. “You are a very silly chap,” he said. “You might very well fail the medical examination.” I said to him, “That really isn’t the point”.
In Wealdstone Magistrates Court the clerk read out the charge — ‘that you were ordered to attend for a medical examination for army purposes… How do you plead? Guilty or not guilty?’ Full of my own confidence I said “I admit the facts mentioned in the charge sheet but I feel no sense of guilt”. “Take him down for twelve months” said the magistrate, so I was taken to the cells beneath the court and in due course a police vehicle, popularly known as a Black Maria. Eventually we arrived at Wormwood Scrubs prison — actually quite a nice location because if you stood on a chair in your prison cell, as I did, you could look over the open meadowland of Wormwood Scrubs.
Now the first thing that happens as a prisoner is you are taken to see either the Governor or Deputy Governor who reads you the rules which you must obey and these include the fact that you will be prohibited from holding arms for five years after the end of your sentence. I didn’t feel this a terrible loss, I must say. After that I saw the Chaplain — always, of course, the Church of England Chaplain — in this case a very pleasant chap called Tudor Rees. He said to me ”you know many men have spent useful times in prison. John Bunyan wrote wonderfully well in Bedford Prison”. I suggested that Voltaire was the better for having the freedom of Europe in which to write. Well, we shook hands and I was taken then to the showers.
You may have had a good bath that very morning but you are still pushed into the shower. You are thrown some grey flannel underwear and clothes. A pair of grey flannel trousers and a grey flannel coat. You are not measured for it to any extent so when taken to your cell you may be quite a comic sight actually, with trousers halfway up your leg or like concertinas around the ankles. But you do have a chance during your stay in prison to improve this garb because in the wash house during the week prisoners quite frequently change their clothing with the chap in the adjoining shower to find a better fit. Some look comparatively smart, with clothes that fit their frame.
For the first six months I was in Solitary confinement. The only time I was out of the cell was when I was released in the morning to clear the po and to wash. The cell was small with a hard bed and a flock sort of mattress and a couple of blankets, a table and a chair. There was a bell in the cell to ring if you were in dire trouble. In theory a warder should call and unlock you and deal with the problem. In practice, I heard from other prisoners, this did not always work out.
On the first day some porridge was passed in to me and I could only eat perhaps a quarter of it and the rest was taken away. But by the end of the week I was eating everything that was given to me. I remember that, perhaps about 6 O’clock in the evening you were given a small cob loaf and there would be no more food for the day. Even though hungry, I always put that cob up on the shelf by the window for a little time before I started eating it, so that I wasn’t absolutely starving in the morning.
Anyway, a special workshop was set up for conscientious objectors. Their sole enterprise was the production of mailbags. Newcomers were given a big ball of black wax and a whole skein of thread. They had to run the thread through the wax to coat it. This was done for a week or two, perhaps a month, then you moved on to the sewing, stitching pieces of hessian to make the mailbags. The next pressing job was collecting up the finished bags. Finally, if you were lucky, you were given the job of handing round the cut pieces of hessian and the wax to men who did not come to the workshop but stayed working in their cells.
After six months you came ‘off stage’ and this meant that not only could you take your meals in communion in the main hall but you were allowed out for some hours in the evening where there were games available, chess and drafts and what-have-you. I was not very fond of board games but I remember how nice it was to lose a game to another prisoner because it made him happy. That suited me very well.
Either every week or month, I can’t remember now, you were allowed either a visitor or a letter but not both. I generally chose a visitor because, although I had not then joined the Quakers — the Society of Friends, I had very strong contacts with Maurice Rowntree. Before going into prison I used to visit his house every Friday. I was visited frequently by Maurice and by John Lord, another Quaker, who was a member of the Golders Green Meeting.
One good thing about prison is that there was time to think, time to read. I had taken in to prison with me, J W Dunn’s ‘Experiment with Time’ and I remember Maurice Rowntree asking me, when I came out of prison at Christmas 1942, whether I had made any progress on it. Well I had, but right then the big thing as far as I was concerned was that I was out of prison. Now it was time to do something more useful.
Part Two — The Volunteer Relief Service Unit
After my stint in prison for being a conscientious objector I went back to the Volunteer Unit in Poplar where I had previously been working at weekends. There I found that quite a few of the members were working as nursing orderlies for terminally injured ex-servicemen of the First World War at a residential nursing home in Ealing. This establishment was run by one of the nursing orders of the Roman Catholic Church, the Sisters of St Vincent. I worked there from the beginning of 1943 until after the end of the war.
There were times when one felt extremely low and extremely sad. I remember going in, the first day I was there, to feed a badly injured man. Feeding him was very difficult. I almost dropped the plate of food. After, I went straight into the kitchen and sat down, right out. But I was soon back doing everything.
Another memory I have of that is the time when I had the job of laying out, after he had died, one of the patients there who had an awfully badly damaged back. I can’t describe it. And for about seven days after it was as if I didn’t see any sunshine at all, it was so awful. But apart from that I enjoyed the work there and the company was definitely good.
As part of the relief service unit at Poplar, I took round buns and tea to the people in underground shelters and also tried to find accommodation for those who were bombed out of their homes. We all of us knew what accommodation was available, where church halls were, where the vacant property was. Our unit was based in Plimfole Street, Poplar, in the first floor and basement of a bombed out Baptist Chapel. I remember that one of the members of our team was a very good pianist and he liked Chopin sonatas particularly. By great luck there was a grand piano on the stage in the basement of that old Baptist church and there he would sit down after he had been on his rounds and be perfectly happy.
The First World War was a war fought on the same lines, really, that had been in use over centuries. And those men who were not willing to fight because they were conscientious objectors were regarded as criminals. Indeed, many of them were sent abroad under armed guard and on one occasion a number of them were lined up, blindfolded and stood ready expecting to be shot, though they were not, in fact, killed. (The record of that I read in a book dealing with conscientious objectors of the First World War.) During the First World War a procedure of “cat and mouse” was regularly employed: a man who did not attend for a medical was given a year’s sentence. Out he came to receive another appointment for a medical examination and in due course he was back in the same cell within a month or so. England wasted a large proportion of her mankind in the First World War.
In the Second World War a better culture prevailed and those who did not take part in military endeavours were still used in hundreds — Bevin’s boys, those who worked on the land, some in my position who voluntarily took up relief work.
Contributed originally by crissycross (BBC WW2 People's War)
Written by Arthur C Brougham, Northwood Hills, Middlesex
The second great war was in progress then (September 1942) and everything was blacked out after dusk. Every room had to be completely curtained or screened so that no light at all could be seen outside. Otherwise the police or Air Raid Wardens wanted to know the reason why! I was then in Civil Defence in the Northwood-Ruislip Council Area being firstly in the Ambulance Section then in the ‘Mobile Unit’ section (a sort of travelling hospital unit) and finally in the ‘Light Rescue’ section which was a mixture of first aid workers and rescue squads. I could only get one week’s holiday and so we didn’t have a long honeymoon.
The war was very near home at times and through the latter half of 1940 and the first part of 1941 we were heavily and frequently raided by German bombers. Day raiding turned to night raiding as their day losses got heavier and then we had night after night of raids. As the nights got longer in the Autumn of 1940 so did the raids and eventually they started at dusk 6.30 - 7.00 o’clock and went on for 12 or 13 hours. Before we were married I used to spend one or two nights each week at your mother’s house and this being in the area of Greater London proper, was frequently raided. Bombs often fell in the district and the gunfire was sometimes terrific, but fortunately little damage was done to their house — just a little glass blown out. Eastcote and district also had its bombs though, of course, not so bad as London. Haydon Hall, Eastcote, our Civil Defence Depot had some small bombs in the grounds and was twice bombed with incendiary bombs, but without much damage.
Sometimes your mother came to my house and then we (your grandma, Auntie Ethel, your mother and I) all slept on the floor protected as far as possible by the table and piano. The raids gradually diminished and left off and the ‘war’ got quiet. In 1944 a new series began but these were about ‘tip and run’ raids by fast fighter-bombers and our defences were then so strong that they had a rough time. However they did damage of course and it was in one of these raids that 48 Chichester Road, N.W.6. (where I was born and which belonged to your grandma) was struck by incendiary bombs and burnt.
All the time I was in Civil Defence (from September 1st 1939 to July 1945 when it was disbanded) I spent certain hours on duty daily and after we were married I was on shifts of 24 hours on and 24 hours off duty. Your mother, therefore, spent every other night alone and when the raiding was severe this was very worrying and unpleasant. She was very courageous, for it is always lonely in a house by oneself at night and especially so when all the windows and glass doors have to be heavily secured and one dare not switch on a light for a moment without making sure the windows were covered. We had a ‘Morrison’ shelter - a kind of heavy steel table with a mattress underneath — in which she slept when the raids were on. I always felt more nervous at home in raids than when I was on duty at the Depot, and I should have hated to have been home alone. Your mother’s pluck was all the greater as she had always been accustomed to a busy home and you should be proud of her courage accordingly.
Your mother was a designer of soft furnishing embroidery and was in charge of the department at Brook Bros and Dean Ltd of Rathbone Place, Oxford Street, W.1. She carried on work after we were married firstly because my Civil Defence pay wasn’t very high and rent and cost of living was, and secondly she would have been compelled by the Government Officials to work part time anyhow so she decided she’d keep on at the work which she liked and knew.
In 1944 (June 6th) the allies started the great landings in France. I was on duty that morning and I shall never forget the sight of formation after formation of aircraft, bombers, fighters, troop carriers and gliders being towed, hundreds and hundreds, for hours. The whole arc of the sky would be filled with columns of aircraft in a steady and continuous procession. A pause as the sky would clear and as the tail end of one lot disappeared so the van of the next great contingent started. It was a wonderful and awe inspiring sight and we only saw part of the great invading force. It was a day of excitement and great hopes. The landings were announced during the morning over the radio although we suspected great events by the masses of aircraft passing over earlier.
The Germans were not long bringing in their last desperate effort. On the 12th June (I think it was) I was off duty and at home that night and during the night we were awakened by sudden and violent gunfire very close. As things had been quiet for months we had given up sleeping in the shelter for it was a bit hard and cramped, and had returned to our proper bed.
We had heard no warning syren but only the loud guns and the noise of a loud, rattling and apparently low aeroplane. I lay petrified for a minute and then as the ‘plane’ faded away and the guns stopped, I jumped out of bed and went to the window. As I reached it there was a distant flash and a loud ‘boom’ suggesting the explosion of a bomb. The guns were those protecting Northolt Aerodrome and surrounding factories and I’d never heard them fired before. All became quiet and I returned to bed and sleep. In the morning I went on duty and then found that an air raid warning had sounded at night and what was more, was still on - after 8.00am.
My squad was on duty away from our depot, being stationed during air raids at a nearby depot by Ruislip Manor Station in a converted shop. We waited there and about 9.30 the “all clear” syren sounded. A few minutes later, however, the “warning” was repeated and I saw what I took to be a small plane flying past which was being fired at by every gun in the area. It disappeared and soon after the expected “boom” suggested another bomb. All sorts of rumours began to get around. It was strange after all this long time to be getting day raids again and such long “warnings” too. It was said that German paratroopers were being dropped. That a counter-invasion was taking place! The warnings continued on and off all day and night though we heard no more local guns. Then the truth was announced. We got it first through official channels (I was a Civil Defence Instructor and lectured on High Explosive bombs, gas etc and so was given some information) and soon it was publicly announced.
The Germans were sending over small pilotless planes (VIs) of which the nose was a bomb and a biggish one. These “Fly bombs” as they were officially called or “doodle-bugs” as they became known to the public, were powered by a simple jet type engine (like a blow-lamp) and travelled fast and low — about 400 miles an hour. When they reached the distance their makers intended, the engine cut out and the plane dived straight to earth, exploding on contact. They were fiendish but ingenious contrivances and were launched from sloping ramps all along the French Coast. In a few days they increased to hundreds and although many were destroyed by gunfire and fighters, many got through to London. When their nature became known they no longer fired at them in London for even if they were hit they still exploded on impact, so once they got past the barrage and fighters in Essex, Kent and Sussex, they were left alone as some over-shot London and landed in open spaces beyond. We were entertained by these pleasant contrivances for weeks — day and night — at frequent intervals and they were usually sent in batches, so one would get first the syren — a pause — then a peculiar humm as it approached — a sudden silence and then the “boom” of the explosion. As this died away the next “engine” could be heard and so on. When they got close the humm became a violent vibrating rattle — distant yet undismissable but horribly menacing and when the engine stopped! Well, you dived for cover and hoped for the best.
The explosion was heavy and violent and the damage by blast was severe. We had several in our area and many houses were damaged and a number destroyed. I had to assist in getting out bodies from a row of small houses destroyed by a Fly bomb at Uxbridge and it was very disagreeable and the little houses were just heaps of rubble. All through this period your mother was at business. Her company had been destroyed by fire from enemy action in 1941 and had been removed to New Cavendish Street where they still are. Fly bombs fell near her business several times though fortunately they were not damaged. I spent two or three Sunday afternoons up there with her when she was fire watching and there were plenty of warnings and “booms” but all some way away. At night either at home in the “Morrison” (to which we had returned) or at the Depot Shelter, I used to hear the buzz-buzz of the engines and the sound of explosions and we used to wonder where they were falling and if our various relations were safe. Fortunately they were, although there were several near misses. It was a very trying time for they came at all hours and especially during travel hours, during lunch time and early evening. Then they started again at night and frequently continued all through.
Personally, I found the frequent syrens and droning engines with their inhuman and ruthless efficiency more nerve racking and I hated those Fly bombs more than the earlier raids. They gradually subsided as we overran the French coast and captured the launching sites and although later a few were launched from aircraft over the North Sea, the main attack was broken down. Then, before the Fly bombs had entirely stopped, but when they had been reduced, news came that the Minister for Defence (Morrison) had examined an explosion at Chelsea. It was referred to as a “gas explosion” but no official explanation was given. As the days went by we used to hear periodic and irregular explosions of considerable heaviness but none were near us. No warnings were sounded and the explosions just boomed and that was all. They became more frequent and then we began to hear that they were German Rocket bombs. Soon after this it was publicly announced but many had fallen before the officials made a statement. These weapons (V2s) were huge rockets with an explosive war-head and they travelled to immense heights (40 miles or more) and at speeds so much faster than sound that nothing was heard of their passage till after they had passed and frequently after the explosion had died away. Speeds of 3000mph were probably reached. They were not very accurate but London was a large target and most reached their objectives. The damage they caused was even greater than the Fly bombs taken individually, and the noise of their passage was like a roll of thunder — a long and loud rumble. In view of their speed, no warning of approach could be given so one had to grin and bear it. They were fired well back from the coast so took longer to stop. In fact they were being used till almost the end of the war.
Your mother just missed one when in the train one day and another time one exploded in the air very high up right over Ruislip. I was on duty at the depot in Eastcote when we heard the terrible rumble. We half reached our feet when the explosion occurred. It burst like a puff of smoke high in the air which spread out like a cloud before long. It was about 2 or 2.30 in the afternoon and Air Raid Wardens after, collected a whole van load of bits and pieces which fell on Ruislip. If it had not exploded when it did it could probably have done a lot of damage to Ruislip.
After this, we over ran the Germans and finally joined up with the Russians and the war with Germany was over. VE Day (Victory in Europe Day) was a public holiday, with great crowds and jollifications. We, with others, crowded outside Buckingham Palace and cheered the King and Queen and Mr Churchill who appeared with them. It was a great day and night.
The war was still on with Japan though and at last on August 6th 1945 the world’s first atomic bomb was dropped by the Americans upon the Japanese city of Hiroshima with devastating results. Some 200,000 were killed and injured and a second bomb a few days later on Nagasaki finished the war. Then we had another holiday for VJ Day (Victory in Japan Day) with more jollifications. The atomic bomb was a terrible weapon to use, being the equivalent of 17,000 tons of TNT and similar ordinary explosives, but it undoubtedly saved the lives of many Americans and British by bringing the Japs to collapse.
The war itself will be a matter of history, albeit recent history, by the time you read this, and you will no doubt be able to read Mr Churchill’s book (just published) and those of others to obtain all the official details. I can only give the personal perspective. I will add that during the air raids I was frequently frightened and on a few occasions, had acute “wind-up” and yet, when the war had ended, I found that I missed the tension and thrills of air raids and the various excitements incidental to a great war. Even now the sound of air raid syrens in plays given on the wireless and in films gives me a kind of morbid thrill and it is almost an old friend.
Contributed originally by simon-ashworth (BBC WW2 People's War)
My father left school in the summer 1939 and went up to university. When war was declared,he joined up and went into the RAF. He was selected to go into flying duties and was sent,to complete his flying training,to an airfield in Texas called Tyrel. This is a small town east of Dallas Fort Worth. In those days it was really out of the way.
One has to remember that the USA was not yet in the war at this time,so to the pacifists of the time to have the light blue uniform of the RAF in their country would not have been at all popular.
My father said that there were hard times as well as good times. There was not only the fun of learning to fly in lovely weather,you had lots of classroom learning to complete. Every week there was an examination. Fail; and you were out and sent back home.
One has to remember that back home in Harrow,rationing was in place and everyday items were either not available,in short supply or rationed. In the USA, nothing was in short supply. Meat,no problem. Fruit,as much as you want. Clothes,what ever you fancy. I can remember my father saying that they used to have BBQ's most weekends. Large steaks,salads,ice cream and lots of beer! Food only to dream of back home.
Because the were in the RAF,they got paid their usual salary. This was topped up with an 'overseas allowance'. This was to cover the extra expence in living overseas. However they lived in barracks on the airfield and were treated 'royally' by the local population. They were treated as a member of the family and no expence spared.
So as you can imagine, at the end of the month,the airmen managed to save quite a lot of their salary.
So what did they do....go into town and purchase for the family back home,items that were unavailable in Britain.
We now move to Harrow in North London. The postman arrives at the door,with a note to say that you have a parcel to collect from the post office. You go down to the Post office in anticipation and excitement.
You collect the parcel and carry it home full of excitement. Once opened,you find that it is full of tins of fruit,chocolate,nylon stockings,tinned butter,tinned meat. For those days, 'mana from heaven'.
The next month,the postman comes again and tells you that there is a parcel to collect. Whilst there is a sense of excitement,you are not quite so quick in collecting the parcel,though the contents make you a favourite of your street.
Come the third month,the fourth month and fifth month and so on, you dread to hear the postman. You want to hide from him, in spite of the goodies inside the parcel.
The reason being,that in spite of the goodies inside and the ability to increase the amount of your food and other rations..
You had to pay a very large amount of duty on goods being imported!! It was breaking the household weekly budget....
Even in war, you cannot escape the taxman.
Contributed originally by Michael McEnhill (BBC WW2 People's War)
When I got up on to my props to answer a question from the bleak, fat-faced schoolteacher, in the blackboard-fronted,inkwell desk and wooden pen-knibbed classroom era of London Colney Primary School, there was much hilarity.
Someone had shouted out 'Colney Hatch' and that was enough for the class to break into great shrieks of laughter, and for my face to shrivel to the size of a dried up cherry.
Of course, these kids with their spud holed socks and dirty snot nosed hankies for pimply war disturbed faces had got it wrong.They identified loose talk of the raving mad lunatic assylum of 'Colney Hatch' with the newly built one at Shenley where my father worked, with equal prejudice and unholy vehemence.
However,in truth, they were not far off the mark for my home backyard was literally in Shenley Hospital, and that housed some pretty seriously deranged patients.
And since the start of the Second World War it had taken on the dual role of serving as a military hospital.
It was to be here that Field Marshall Rundstedht was to be brought as a prisoner- of- war after being captured in the planned German breakout, Battle of the Bulge.
He was one of Hitler's top generals.Having seen action in the first World War he was brought back by the fuehrer to galvanize his forces to fight the immensely fierce, cruel battles along the Eastern Front, during the Second World War.
However, after defying Hitlers authority during this period he was redirected to another theatre of war, only to fall into the hands of the American forces.
By way of Wales, he came as a prisoner- of- war to serve out his time in our local hospital.
Of course, he could not have reckoned on taking on the North Avenue kids,(An English version of the Hollywood Dead End Kids) who lived in the mean hospital staff houses a cinder track away down rook caw croaking Cow Bank Woods.
Being a top commander in Hitler's highest echelon, part of his inner circle, he shared responsibility, in my eyes, for all the deadly incendiary that came out way. Less than twenty miles out of London, we came not alone within the orbit of De Havilland and Handley Page aerodrome, but within the compass of fighter command which was hunched down in a large bunker in Bentley Priory,Stanmore Hill a small bus ride to the west.
It was an invidious position for any wayward bombs directed to the capital and important airfields and military back-up would most likely descend on us. It was a terrifying prospect.
In fact, I remember many fear filled nights when we tumbled out of bed hearing the sharp drag, like barbed wire across glass, shrill scream of the air raid siren as it told of impending bombers in the night sky.
It was the signal for the adrenaline rush of panic as we fumbled for the bedroom door knob to quickly open it and scramble down the stairs.It was difficult to find the way for there were no street lights to cut through the dark and besides the windows were covered with sheets of black paper curtains.
At the very start of the war, I was just a small mite of a child, and was scooped up in my mother's arms and carried to the nearest hidey hole under the stairs, or if we thought there was more time, a dash would be made to the Anderson Shelter, a lawns length away from the back door.
Petrified we would hunch together and say some prayers. It was hard to believe we would survive.
I can remember the night we made a frantic run for the shelter and I was swaddled in my mother's arms. I felt a sliver of hot metal glance my bare arm and instantly my mother break in tears. She was besides herself with worry, maybe thinking I had been mortally hit. She tenderly kissed my arm,and stroked it until content in herself that some miracle had deflected the shrapnell that few millimetres away from causing permanent damage.
And when we were inside the shelter we were hardly less afraid. We felt little real safety there, it was always back to the prayers. The shelter was composed of a few sheets of corrugated iron holding up a bank of clay, sunk a few feet in the ground.
When bombs dropped close,the shelter would appear to take off, rising from the ground with cement and dust powdering the air, smothering the atmosphere and making its way into our nose and lungs leaving us brokenly tearful, gasping and cleaving for deliverance.
After the war the shelter served a more peaceful purpose as a concrete base for a small pond.
A number of incendiary bombs dropped in the hospital during the early part of the war drifting from the cricket pitch end to the front gates so that the whole place was covered in smoke.
Later on a huge landmine was dropped in the vicinity of the two hundred feet tower which having large water tanks at its topmost reaches supplied the wards with their precious supply.
Fortunately some of its parachute cord, its filigree of lace caught up in the branches of a large oak right next to the boiler house and within the shadow of the tower.
With great urgency it was tackled by a naval bomb disposal squad who managed to extricate the fuse safely. Had it exploded it could have sent a large part of the hospital and all the staff houses to smithereens, killing many people.
As it was apart from some structural damage to door jambs and a numbers of windows during the various bombing raids the hospital came through largely unscathed.
However, a large number of trenches were dug in the hospital grounds along with numerous air raid shelters for the protection of the patients.
As a family we of course would come across all sorts of military apparatus including anti-aircraft guns and searchlights, confounding our progress to get to the shanty sort of chapel as it were tacked on as a sort of afterthought to the long low built sanatorium blocks,almost alongside the domestic block, above the rookery wood and below the dense smoking, high chimney stack of the tower.
It would have been here that we would have witnessed the parephernalia of war in all its extremes.
Patients lay out under the glass roof of the sanatorium both day and night.Heavily bandaged war wounded and patients who sufffered from respiratory illnesses were treated in this part.
There would be a large red fire engine ready to roll housed in between the two sanatoriums. What looked like heavily built men with thick black brass buttoned jackets and strong looking headgear would alway be running back and forward priming the vehicle.
In the seemingly ramshackle put together chapel, Father Foley, a tall ascetic looking priest conducted the service with his back to the mixed congregation of nursing staff and their families, the war wounded and recovering, some soldiers, sailors and airmen, on leave and perhaps visiting patients, against a background of helmets,green camouflage scrim covered and loosely laid down with crutches and army packs, brass glinting.Through this would the waves of thurifer incense would waft into the solemn air while the stinky cloud of war tried to percolate through closed doors.
Fatty Johnson with his three pips as a captain in his territorial army uniform would sweat most profusely swiping his forhead, as he intoned the latin while kneeling on the bottom step of the altar.
It would have been at this point that I saw the chapel doors opened and an old man in striped pyjamas and dressing gown with some remnant of military poise was brought halteringly between two military policeman there contrasting fine blancoed bright dress absurdly contrasting with this down and out looking old gentleman, so obviously an enemy prisoner, allowed out for the small concession of fulfilling his habitual Sunday duty.
My father must have got wind of the arrival of our notorious prisoner by way of the Black Lion Pub which he frequented of a night after his stint of duty and where he got most information rather sooner than he would, from the higher ups in the administration.The Pub was located by the main gate of the hospital,at the top of a ridge, something like four hundred feet above sea level, looking north over St.Albans City, six miles distant. As a Charge Nurse he would have been in his uniform, sombre, dark grey and covered with a black mackintosh which reached below the knees.
I think they kept Von Rundstedht in the quarters by the male nurses home, The Jubilee, as it came to be called.
When you have a hospital designed to take two thousand patients and the many numbers of different grades of staff to manage them along with ancillary staff it would have been a miracle if his presence had remained a secret.
There is no doubting the fact that the eagle, even if wounded in flight, had landed in the very heart of Shenley, it would have excited such curiosity and emotion impossible to contain, that from the very first rumoured whisper of his arrival, the news would have gathered strength and redounded round the long dull corridors of the hospital.
It would have been from this period that the North Avenue kids went on an orgy of vandalism through the hospital grounds.
The rose garden alongside Jubilee was trampled and broken by vengeful hordes. Bamboo bushes served as cushions for desperate kids to jump on from tall brick built bomb shelters screaming and whining like stukas and spitfires diving into the morass. Stones were fast flung with a vengeance to break with a splintering crash the many panes of glass around wards.
We made up mud balls to fit onto long arrows of branches we got from the many bushes and trees within the grounds, made into primitive weapons we would launch the missiles high into the blocks breaking windows like ice.
A large fire was started into an immense oak tree, it was stuffed with dry grass and dry twigs, set afire and burnt out its guts while the fire engine had to be summoned to Cow Bank woods.
Reconnaisance missions were carried out at the tennis lawns by the nursing home, anyone suspicious was reported on.
We commandeered a neglected a mortuary trolley and when the lids were fastened down on one of our number we pushed it around the corridors at high speed rattling past mentally disturbed patients who were amazed to see this metal box like rocket ship bearing down on them.When there was any dangere of being caught we parked our deadly vehicle by the mortuary and climbed up, using any convenient object, to look above the glazed glass to see if there were any stiffs laid out, no doubt expecting to see some German opened up on the mortuary table.
It came to me, that it was like some poison gas was in the air, or sharp hot stink of fox contaminated those lads from the avenue, sending them half crazy in wanton damage in and around the hospital grounds.
Contributed originally by Mark_Plater (BBC WW2 People's War)
Each school morning we started the day with a religious service fifteen minutes long, called ‘assembly’, at which the headmaster officiated.He had recently taken holy orders in the Anglican Church in preparation for a second career as vicar after his impending retirement.It was generally a lot of fun with uninhibited singing of rousing and inspiring hymns. Those boys whose voices had not yet broken formed a choir that was chosen to sing one or more verses on their own.Before dismissing us the headmaster would make any announcements. On one memorable day, he waved a note received from a resident of a neighbouring house. The resident wrote that he appreciated he would have to put up with the occasional unseemly noise from the school but “a nigger minstrel show at two in the morning” was too much. The miscreants apparently could not be apprehended so we all got the lecture for that one.At least our firewatchers had been awake. I should point out that the “nigger minstrel” show was a popular singing event on radio at the time by the BBC’s men’s chorus.They would sing songs from the southern U.S. and elsewhere accompanied by banjos, etc.With the advent of television the chorus dressed up in the striped jackets and white trousers and blackened their faces.To put more visual appeal, there was a troop of white ladies in tights who performed dances.With the advent of “political correctness”, this popular show was eventually renamed “The Black and White Minstrel Show”.
During the spring of 1944, the radio news began reporting a succession of “explosions of gas mains in the South East of London”. The explanation offered was that there had been no maintenance during the war and the pipes had deteriorated.In fact, the explosions resulted from the landings of the first V2 rockets.
It was learned later that aborted take-offs of these rockets killed as many people at the delivery end as the successfully launched ones did at our end.The V2 was my first exposure to supersonics.You would hear the explosion before anything else and then the noise of the rocket coming.They were really not very effective.So many blew up on take off while others would explode in the air on re-entry.
At noon hour one day, I was walking along a road in Harrow when one of these rockets exploded far above the ground both above and in front of me so I had a grand opportunity to pick up souvenirs from the bits that fell down onto the road. Surprisingly, I saw nobody get hurt.It never occurred to me that people might get hurt by the falling fragments, some half a metre in length, that were clanging to the ground all around me.
By now I had become a cadet in the school’s Air Training Corps that met every Sunday morning as well as after classes one or two evenings during the week.Some of the masters served as officers and others as instructors.We studied aircraft recognition, Morse code, drill etc., in preparation for joining up when we became eighteen.The organization was really a pool for aircrew training.At least being in the ATC gave you entry into the Air Force which was generally regarded as better than the army and excused you the first six weeks of basic training. Nobody gave much thought to training for a job in civilian life. The ATC was nationwide and even had its own radio programme on Saturday mornings with a rousing theme song “We’re the sons of the lords of the air, the ATC” We were given tickets to attend a broadcast and I joined a group that went to London for the occasion. Instead of the young, manly types we had envisaged singing our theme song we were shocked to find a row of tubby, elderly men! This was only reasonable as all the young singers would have been in the services.We were taken to aerodromes for experience flights and to camps in the spring.It was all fun and we got to see a lot.
On one memorable Sunday morning, our group of cadets was addressed by an old boy from the school, probably no more than five years older than the youngest among us, who had been a member of the crew of a bomber shot down over France.With some of his crew, he had, with the aid of the French Resistance, managed to escape to neutral Spain without being captured.It was an enthralling story and well told.One of the crew was captured when he rode a stolen bicycle into a village in broad daylight while still wearing his British uniform. Our hero kept a lower posture until found by the resistance people.
Incredibly the whole crew, except for the cyclist, travelled together in French clothes to the Spanish frontier by train. Our hero spoke enough French that he was allowed to speak when addressed but if asked where he was from he was to account for his strange accent by telling the Germans he was a Flemish speaking Belgian. An American among the escapees was not to speak on any account but was obliged to say something when he accidentally trod on the toes of a fellow passenger.His tortured rendering of “pardonnez moi” elicited the reply of “that’s alright old chap” in English from the apparent Frenchman he had offended.It turned out two independent groups of the Resistance movement had put Allied Pilots on the same train without knowledge of each other!
One of the greatest attractions of the ATC was to go to Bovingdon for the day, generally on a Sunday.This was an American air force base about one hour away by truck.We would sometimes be taken there for flights, and were always given American food cafeteria-style attended by black men, the first I had ever encountered.One such occasion was the first time I ever ate corn. We would sit and look at the food on our plates wondering what some of it was. Dessert would be canned fruit,a luxury none of us had seen in years.
What the attractions were in the experience flights I cannot now understand because many of us would be airsick into a bucket that was passed up and down the aisle as need dictated. There were none of the discrete little envelopes seen today for use by the ailing traveller, paper was too scarce for such niceties to be manufactured.I don’t think we even wore seat belts as I remember one friend lying prostrate on the floor of the plane calling to God to bring us all down quickly.
The planes we flew in from our local RAF base at Northolt were mostly old twin-engined biplanes no doubt very nostalgic to some but not my choice for comfort.The Americans gave flights in Dakotas but I was never lucky enough to get one.We all kept logs of our flights with the registration numbers of the planes, the minutes we had flown and an officer’s signature.Most of the flights were for twenty minutes or so. The big thing was to be able to brag about how many hours flying you had.Flying was still very much a novelty to the average person.I don’t recall ever meeting anyone who had flown before 1939 and I was certainly the first among my family to fly.
ATC camps were a lot of fun and good replacements for the regular holidays that we missed.I attended two such camps both for one week.One was at a Wellington bomber station in the Midlands and the other a naval Fleet air Arm station on the northern coast of Cornwall where Swordfish biplanes training for torpedo attacks were stationed.
We got more experience flights at each and for the first time I was not sick! Great amusement was caused at the Naval Station where we were required to sleep in hammocks.At the bomber station we were impressed by the Commanding Officer who sported a classic wide moustache and all the language affected by many aircrew of the time.He gave us an explanation of how radar worked which made us feel we had been given secret information.I think everyone by that time knew what radar did but nobody talked about how it worked.
Troops from all over the world were by now a common sight.Everyone knew it was only a matter of time before France was invaded. Our classroom was on the upper floor of the school.We heard marching feet on the road outside.Our French master always an extrovert, threw open the window to waive with one arm at a column of troops from New Zealand while he encouraged us in the singing of the Marseilles with the other.Before the end of the first line we were all at the windows singing and waiving too.How he got us all to settle down afterwards I do not recall.
D-Day, the appointed time for the landing in France came on June 6th, 1944.The landing had been delayed several days by bad weather but we knew nothing of this. All we knew on the appointed day was learned from a brief statement on the morning news that Winston Churchill,the Prime Minister,would broadcast an important announcement at one o’clock. Those of us considered old enough to behave and to be interested in what was happening, were allowed into the chemistry laboratory where there was an ancient radio (even by standards of the time),at the appointed time during lunch hour,along with many of the staff, to hear what was going to be said.The announcement of course was that several landings had been successfully accomplished early that morning.It turned out later that Churchill insisted on doing this job himself whether the landings were a success or not.
It was by no means certain that the landings would be successful. Not only was the weather uncertain but several trial raids and landings had not all gone well. One raid by the Canadians at Dieppe is still remembered as one that went tragically wrong when it was discovered after the landing that the movement of the troops on the beach was impeded by the very coarse pebbles on the beach. The soldiers could barely stand.This time there were several landings, and all more or less accomplished their objectives. The German command had suspected landings would be made during these summer months but had guessed the wrong beaches to defend. Selection of the beaches on which to attempt landings was not made lightly.
It was essential that the beaches be of the right composition to support tanks.A public appeal was made for photographs taken by the public during beach holidays in France. The army also engaged a geologist who was skilled in the science of soil technology. He would be landed on a beach of interest with a small group of commandos.While the commandos created a diversion, the geologist would conduct whatever sampling and testing he could. For the convenience of the moment the geologist was made a colonel,however he refused to shave off his beard as required by Army Regulations and had to be given a special dispensation from the War Office.
Bombing was thought to be the way to get the Germans to give in.The fact that bombing had only strengthened morale in Britain was overlooked.“The Germans are different and do not have our moral fibre” was an indication of the misguided thought pattern of the time.The U.S. planes were far better armoured and equipped with more machine guns to battle enemy fighters than the British planes were. While being so much better protected they could not carry the weight of bombs the British planes could.These differences between the aircraft of the two nations lead to the Americans bombing by day and the British by night. By the end of the hostilities, the British were mounting 1000 bomber raids with some planes carrying “blockbusters” weighing 12,000 pounds each. We could only hear these planes passing overhead at night on their way out and back. Specially equipped “pathfinder” aircraft equipped with special navigational aids led the main force of bombers to their targets. Pilots of these aircraft wore distinctive insignia and were heroes of schoolboys everywhere.
The American planes we could see. They would pass over in great clouds composed of groups of twelve each made up of four clover leaf patterns each consisting of three planes. On their return the planes would keep in the original pattern but there were often spaces left where planes had been lost in action. Great holes were visible in the wings and tails of others. We were amazed how some of them kept in the air let alone stayed in formation. Occasionally we would see a flight of fighter aircraft flown by French pilots. These could be easily distinguished by the custom of arranging the aircraft in the pattern of the cross of Lorraine. This pattern was adopted as a morale booster for the French who it was thought would be pleased to know that their own kind were flying overhead.
The outcomes of the battles that raged back and forth over France and the Low countries were not always in our favour but the progress of the front eastward was something we all watched keenly. Eventually the first troops were into Germany and reports of the conditions found in concentration camps filtered back. Several boys a couple of years my senior had chosen to attend medical school before joining the army. (University courses during the war were run on a system of four terms per year so a three-year degree was completed in only two). The medical schools were cleared out and all the students sent to the concentration camps to administer care. The boys I knew spent their entire time injecting people against typhus and cholera. After several weeks they returned to their studies. They appeared quite nonchalant about the experience.
Once the allied troops were in Germany, air raids of all kinds came to an abrupt end and at school,we were allowed to eat the iron rations we had stored in our desks for the five war years. Mine consisted of chocolate rye vita crisp bread of a variety long since gone from the shops. Everyone had much the same and I can remember us all eating whatever we had with great relish. Mine would not have sustained me for long. Like my friends,we were at an age when boys can never get enough to eat. We would slip out of school after lunch to buy a small loaf of bread or a fruit pie to eat before afternoon classes began.
The other building we used was the Science Building of Harrow School.This is the very elite place where Winston Churchill went to school and is amongst the most expensive of its kind in England. We did all our chemistry and physics laboratory work there as well as took several classes. We also were invited to join “the Boys” for scientific demonstrations after school. The “Boys” generally seemed a stuck up lot but I could never decide whether this was true arrogance on their part or whether a school rule forbade them from talking to outsiders.
The war years with their lack of distractions were ones of considerable scholastic achievement at the school I attended. We did not have the money to go to the cinema more than about once a month, there were few dances held, the street lights went off at ten thirty to save power, and so on. On weeknights there was really nothing else to do but go home listen to a bit of radio and do homework.
The war in Europe seemed to just taper off in the end as there was no formal surrender. The enemy was simply over-run. Other enemy countries such as Italy had quit earlier and were now on our side. Whatever happened to erstwhile enemies such as Romania, Bulgaria and Hungary never seemed to make headlines. They just faded away!
Contributed originally by Mark_Plater (BBC WW2 People's War)
Members of the Local Defence Volunteers (or “LDV”), later to be known as the Home Guard, accomplished all this work in a matter of weeks. As the war progressed, this force would be armed with old rifles but for the moment they drilled with pikes! All the men were volunteers from above or below the age group that was called up for the regular army. Veterans from the previous war were very much in evidence. Ancient officers came to life all over the country to lend a hand with training. Initially the LDV were identified solely by their arm-bands that bore the letters LDV but they were soon to be given regular army uniforms. With their intimate knowledge of the surrounding country, they would have given a lot of trouble to an invading force.
It was announced that church bells would cease to be rung except to announce an invasion. Sunday mornings were to be silent until May 1945 except for one Sunday in 1943 when they were rung to celebrate the winning of the Battle of Alamein in North Africa..
To keep people on their toes and aware of the possibility of a gas attack, someone from the military would drive up to a place where people were gathered, such as a shopping street, and throw out a tear gas grenade before driving away. The air raid wardens would have been tipped off and would appear wearing their gas masks and waiving their warning rattles. Woe betide anyone who had left home that day without their gas mask!
Fortunately for us, Northolt airport, although a fighter base, was never bombed. The Germans concentrated on the airfields nearer the coast from which our fighter planes could be more of a nuisance to the bombers.
Once school was finished in the summer of 1940, I was sent to Princess Risborough in the country to be with my grandparents, uncle Ray and cousin Derrick. I had passed at the appropriate level of the ill-famed “eleven plus” examination, and bane of all schoolchildren, to gain a place next term at Harrow County Boys School in Harrow, about four miles closer to London than my home at Ruislip. The eleven-plus examination was abandoned about thirty years later following a contentious debate that still continues.
The summer weather ended and the Germans’ daylight raids stopped just in time to save the British who were having trouble replacing aircraft and pilots at the rate the Germans were destroying them! I went off to my new school at Harrow just at the end of the daylight raids. To reach school I had to travel four miles by train. Several of my friends were at the same school so I was not completely among strangers.
The school had an enrolment of about 750 boys (girls went to a different school). We were divided into classes, or forms, each consisting of about 35 pupils. For the first four years, there were four parallel forms (A to D) for each year of induction. At the conclusion of the fourth year we took what was then known as the General School Certificate examination in about eight subjects. Passing this was considered the key to good jobs. At that time, the school leaving age was fourteen. There was little money around so for many families it was essential to have another breadwinner in the house as soon as possible. Our school got these boys into the labour force at age 15 as opposed to other schools of this type that took an extra year. Many boys left after passing the examination, while others went on into what was called the sixth form where they took up to four subjects in the Higher School Certificate examinations two years later. At this point, the real achievers could take university scholarship examinations as well. We were started off with one hour of homework a night with one and a half at weekends but the rate was built up quickly to two hours a night after three years, and three hours in the sixth form. There was not much else to do in the evenings to distract us. At eighteen, you went into one of the armed services. Nobody had much ambition beyond that or gave much thought to the longer term.
By the time I started at this new school the air raid sirens were going on and off all day. The rule was that if an air raid warning was in progress when we arrived at the station, we would go to a nearby shelter, otherwise we were to go directly to school. At the school, a basement floor had been shored up with big timbers and all windows and doors shielded with sandbags that were later replaced with brick walls. When the warbling note of the warning sirens went during classes, we were herded downstairs until the steady note of the “all clear” blew. No schoolwork was attempted in these circumstances. We sat and played games such as chess and battleships, a mindless game in which you had to guess the coordinates of squares on a sheet of paper on which your opponent had
distributed his fleet of hypothetical battleships. As long as we kept reasonably quiet, nobody on the staff seemed to bother.
An important distraction in our lives was to get the teachers to interrupt the lesson with their reminiscences of “their” war. We became adept at asking leading questions!
The whole concept of shelters struck me as illogical. If bombs were to fall on us, the further we were spread about the fewer of us would be hit. The basement shelter was particularly ridiculous in hindsight, as any bomb on the school would have crashed through all the floors until it exploded in the basement where we were gathered. We would have been better off in the classrooms except for the hazard of flying glass. Sometimes on our escorted trips to the station on our way home, we would stand on the bridge over the tracks and look eastward towards London to see the vapour trails of dog fights between the planes of the two sides. Incongruously, the bridge was plastered with fascist symbols which had been painted on using a stencil for a fascist demonstration a year or so before the war started.
If the air raid warning was still in force when school was over, the teachers would hold a staff meeting to decide what to do, should we stay or leave? If things looked quiet, those of us going to the station would be formed into a crocodile and marched to the station under the guardianship of a master. Quite a responsibility for the poor fellow but nothing ever happened. Among the masters given this job was a Dr. Hartland, who taught French and who, because of his round body and characteristic bouncy walk, was known as “sorbo”, after the name given to a form of rubber. There was no doubt he knew the nickname because it was common practice to refer to him as Dr. Sorbo when talking about him to new boys who would then address the poor chap with this name. He was a dedicated teacher and good sport but none of us appreciated this at the time.
With the deterioration in the weather, the daylight raids stopped and the Germans settled down to night bombing raids. These seemed interminable with sirens every night. For most of the time we would hear nothing more, but occasionally an enemy plane would come over Ruislip and the searchlights and anti-aircraft guns would come into action. My father and I used to guess which model bomber it was by the sound of the engines. Engines of the Heinkel 111 had a characteristic throbbing note that we thought, incorrectly as it turned out, must indicate a diesel engine. All the aircraft used for bombing by night had two engines. The Germans had learned that by not synchronizing the engines the resulting throbbing noise disrupted the direction finding equipment used to guide the searchlights and anti-aircraft fire.
London was being heavily bombed at this time. Great Victoria Street in the City, where my uncle George had his accounting firm was completely razed. One evening, just before I went to bed, my father called me outside to see the glow on the horizon of the Surrey Docks burning nearly twenty miles away.
It was generally supposed that the German bombers navigated at night by identifying the various bodies of water scattered around west London. How this story arose I do not know but it was finally confirmed to me in East Africa in 1986 by an old German acting as navigator for an aerial photography contractor who admitted to having previously been a navigator on a Heinkel which bombed London during 1941. He also confirmed what we all suspected at the time that the bombers would release all their bombs the moment the searchlights found them. The loss of weight would cause the plane to pick up speed and rise several hundreds of feet and so escape the lights. We would regularly pick up in the streets pieces of shrapnel from anti-aircraft guns on the morning following a raid.
Later, when the Germans had realized the nature of the radar the British had developed, bombers would routinely dump rolls of black paper edged with aluminium foil that apparently caused great confusion on the radar screens. We would collect these souvenirs to show them off to our friends.
There were always jokes going around about “secret weapons”. Radar fell into this classification and the government did its best to explain in other ways the sudden success this invention brought to our fighter planes in shooting down enemy bombers at night. Later we learned that the early version of airborne radar was so precise that some of our fighters actually crashed into the enemy planes on dark nights before they had a chance to fire. At the time, we were treated to propaganda photographs supposedly showing pilots in sun glasses resting in arm chairs. The text beneath explained that medical science had found it possible to improve the night vision of these pilots by a combination of the dark glasses and a diet in which carrots figured prominently. Rabbits like carrots. Rabbits live in dark burrows so must be able to see in the dark. Hence it was “logical” to conclude that carrots help rabbits see in the dark! A story of the same kind had circulated during the previous war when soldiers rumoured to have been seen passing through a London railway station had been recognized as Russians by the snow on their boots! It seems that at times of great national jeopardy, citizens can be persuaded to believe just about anything if it is told with an air of authority.
By the end of 1940 everything was in short supply. Whatever industry had stockpiled at the beginning of the war had long since been consumed. We were constantly being asked to contribute to scrap drives. At one time everyone was asked to contribute spare aluminium pots and pans. We wondered how many good pots found their way into the homes of the scrap collectors! Crews of men with cutting torches cruised along residential streets cutting down the ornate iron railings installed during the previous century. Newspapers were collected for recycling. Nothing that could be re-used was thrown away. I collected blunt razor blades.
Even while “relaxing” in the evening and listening to the radio, my parents were busy doing patriotic things. My mother would crochet mittens out of cord that were worn over regular gloves by sailors on mine sweepers. My father would sit with a pair of pliers straightening out the springs for the newly devised Sten gun. The springs were manufactured mechanically but never came out of the machine as straight as the designer intended so they were distributed from places of work so that volunteers could utilize their spare time to give the springs the required delicate twists.
The newspapers were printed on a poor quality paper and consisted on bad days of a single sheet, or four pages. More commonly we got an extra half page in the middle. They did not take long to read. There might be as many as two photographs in the entire paper — generally the King, Winston Churchill or some other well-known figure doing something patriotic. One enterprising local resident who found he had exhausted everything of interest to him in the paper long before his daily reached his destination. For the balance of the journey, he would scan the birth announcements in order to record the relative popularity of names chosen for children. Each year, even after his ultimate retirement, he would report his findings in a letter to The Daily Telegraph.
Early in 1941 the First Canadian Fighter Squadron was moved away from Northolt aerodrome and the Canadians billeted around Ruislip of course went too. Our friend Carl Briese, was to return for leaves occasionally throughout the war from his new base at Middle Wallop, a name he found most amusing. A Polish Squadron equipped with Spitfires (fighter planes) replaced the Canadians and their obsolescent Hurricanes. I don’t recall ever having met foreigners who spoke no English before the Poles arrived and some were billeted next door. Our neighbours, the Fryers, accommodated the Squadron Leader, Zbigniew Czaikowski and his wife Christina. He spoke enough English to get along but she was fluent in French as well as English. Few of their compatriots spoke a word of English. Meeting all these foreigners was all very exciting. This was the first time I had been in close contact with people who spoke another language in preference to English. The Poles had arrived in Britain by a circuitous route through the Balkans that was never completely explained to me.
Once they were trained to fly the Spitfires, the Poles did a good job. On their return from a successful operation they would fly “victory roles” over Ruislip at zero altitude in fits of joie de vivre. The population was not amused but tolerated the exuberance as a patriotic obligation. These manoeuvres were very impressive but were stopped eventually when one or two planes came out of the roll at a wrong angle and crashed! Some particularly impressive displays of victory rolls were performed right over our house, in all probability by the lodger next door for his wife’s benefit.
Several kinds of bombs now fell routinely near our house and we spoke knowledgeably of 100, 500, and 1000 pounders (it never occurred to us that the enemy likely measured the bombs in terms of kilograms) as well as land mines and D.A.’s, or delayed action bombs. The first three were simply bombs of different weights, real or imagined. (How well can you tell the weight of a bomb when you are on the receiving end listening to the pitch of the whistle changing?) What we called landmines as far as I ever learned were simply bombs on parachutes. They would arrive silently well after the plane responsible for dropping them had gone into the night. One such bomb landed in the woods near home one summer’s night. We were all out next day to collect pieces of the parachute. Blast from such devices was very large but damage was usually light. The one in the woods was over a mile away and although the blast sucked all our curtains out through the transom windows there was no damage. I did not even wake up. As a terror weapon, they were particularly useless. Nobody seemed to get upset by them.
It was the task of the air raid wardens to listen to the bombs coming down and try to find where they landed so they could arrange first aid, ambulances and fire brigades. When no explosion was heard, we all knew a D.A. was in the neighbourhood. No matter what the time of day or night a warden would knock at the door and ask to be allowed to examine the property. Generally my father would have done this already.
The sirens would signal an “alert” or “all clear” without any apparent relation to what was going on. We generally ignored them in the evenings and just ‘carried on” until we heard a bomb coming down and would then fall flat on the floor. The thought that I might get killed by one of those bombs never really bothered me and I was surprised one night when my father lay across me as a bomb came hurtling down.
One night in early 1941 we heard the inevitable Heinkel come over with its engines throbbing away. All of a sudden every anti-aircraft gun in the district seemed to open up and in characteristic fashion, down whistled a string of bombs this time right across our street. My father, in his methodical manner, later plotted all the craters on a street map. His interpretation was that the ten or so bombs had all been light in weight except one, the heavy one, and that had drifted off line. Had it followed the trajectory of the others, it would almost certainly have landed right on us. As it was, my parents threw themselves on the living room floor in time for the shards of broken glass to fly over their heads and cut their way into the wall above them. The bomb had fallen just across the street in someone’s back garden.
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