- Contributed by
- Bob Franks
- People in story:
- Robert James Franks
- Location of story:
- Penge, South East London.
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 04 July 2005
THEY TOOK AWAY OUR RAILINGS.
When the Second World War was declared my family lived in Blenheim Road, Penge, South East London. I was born in 1936 so I was very young but I recall my father being in the army and my mother struggling financially to cope with me and my older brother Bert and my younger brother Peter, born in December 1939.
With three young children to care for, my aunt Else, my mother’s sister, became a great help to my mother, like an unpaid Nanny. My father only came home on leave some weekends and I didn’t really know him. Aunt Else lived with my grandparents in the same road as us at number 61 and next door at number 63, another of my mothers sisters lived with six of my cousins.
Air raids began and when the howl of the air raid warning siren filled the air, my mother seemed to go frantic. If I was playing in the street she would call me in, of course I used to protest because I didn’t understand what all the fuss was about. As far as I was concerned it was a nuisance because it interfered with my play time and I couldn’t see the aeroplanes fly over from indoors. Bert and I were made to sit and sometimes sleep under the back stairs during an air raid in case our house was bombed; that being the safest part of the house because of its load bearing structure. I can recall sitting under the stairs on the lumpy coal with my knees right up under my chin and getting told off for stretching my woollen jersey over my legs to keep warm. We had an Anderson Air Raid Shelter in the back garden but we couldn’t use it because it was always very wet inside.
Most of my memories as a young boy are about the war, carrying a gas mask around in a small square cardboard box, the sound of aeroplanes and heavy gun fire, air raid sirens and exploding bombs, puffs of black smoke high up in the sky as shells exploded, the sight of searchlights criss-crossing in the sky at night, searching for and fixing on German aeroplanes.
Children were being evacuated from London, they had labels tied on to their clothing and were put on trains and sent to live in the countryside away from the bombing. My mother wouldn’t allow us to be taken away so I enjoyed myself collecting shrapnel after the air raids. I had a big box full, all shapes and sizes, pieces of aeroplanes, bombs and shells.
The windows of our house had strips of pale brown sticky paper stuck on them to prevent them from shattering if they were blown in. It wasn’t long before all of the windows were shattered and the glass replaced with a kind of white fabric. You couldn’t see through it but it allowed some light to penetrate into the room. All the windows had to have some means of stopping the light shining out at night, usually by way of a black-out curtain, in case the German planes could see where to drop their bombs but I don’t believe our flickering gas light would have given them much of a clue.
As the air raids began to get more frequent and houses were being bombed in the area, my mother decided that sitting under the stairs in the coal cupboard was not safe enough. So, we then had to run down the road to my grandmother's at 61 and get into the shelter in the back garden which was a lot dryer than ours at number 14. That was alright in the day time but I have vivid memories of sometimes sleeping in the same bed as aunt Else; quite often during the war she would sleep in our house. She would wake up at the sound of the air raid siren and drag me half asleep down the road to number 61 in the middle of the night, night after night, to get into the shelter. Bert would be close by and mother, bringing up the rear, would be scurrying along carrying Peter and her handbag, she didn’t go anywhere without her big black handbag.
My grandfather would never come out of his room even while an air raid was in progress. He would just sit and lean on one of his sticks whistling softly through his teeth and I am told, he would swear his head off every time the house was shaken by a nearby bomb. Bombs landed at each end of Blenheim Road, which was only about one hundred and fifty meters long. The first one took down a few houses in Franklin Road at the junction with Blenheim Road, my aunt Flo’s house was bombed so She moved to another house about a kilometre away in Oak Grove Road, later on in the war her house was bombed again, how unlucky can you get. At the other end of Blenheim Road, about fifty metres from our house, a bomb made a direct hit on an air raid shelter in the back garden and killed the entire family, my school friend Brenda Slater was killed there.
My mother suffered badly with her nerves because of the bombing, I understood when I grew up but at the time, I couldn’t understand why she would suddenly cry. It all seemed normal to me, that was how it was, I knew no different and being so young I obviously didn’t realise the gravity of war.
They took away our railings. Men came and cut the ornamental railing from the copings on the little walls outside of the houses, along the whole length of the road, they were taken away to be melted down to make weapons. The only good thing about that was that I could then sit comfortably on the coping outside of our house.
One particular air raid began just as school finished. I was nonchalantly strolling home, I could hear the sound of gunfire and aircraft engines and could see people running about but it didn’t mean anything to me. As I turned the corner from Maple Road into Franklin Road I saw my mother running towards me shouting my name, even that didn’t encourage me to move myself. She screamed at me to hurry then took me by the hand. I seemed to sail through the air, my feet only touching the ground about every three metres, as she ran with me for cover across the previously bombed open ground on the corner of Blenheim Road and Franklin Road, where my aunt’s house used to be. As we ran I saw a very low flying plane coming towards us firing its guns, apparently at anything that moved, mostly school children at that time of day. It was so low I could see the pilot as it flew past.
Although it made no sense to me I used to listen to the comments of the grown-ups about the progress of the war. I could tell by their reactions and gestures whether it was good news or bad.
There seemed to be a lot of men in uniform about. If my friends and I saw who we thought was an American soldier while we were playing in the street, a few of us would shout; “Got any gum chum?” and sometimes we were given some chocolate or chewing gum.
Men would come home on embarkation leave; I didn’t have a clue what that meant but I would hear the grown-ups talking sometime later, that someone had been killed in a battle somewhere. If a telegram boy appeared cycling along the street everyone would watch, with grim expressions on their faces, to see whose house he was delivering to. Then I would hear them talking about men being taken prisoner and being tortured. The worst stories were about the Japanese. I heard someone say that they used to throw babies up in the air and catch them on their bayonets.
Sir Winston Churchill came to Penge, not to stay of course, he was driven through Penge. His open car was driven along Maple Road and crowds of people gathered to cheer him. I stood in the front and was given a small Union Jack flag on a stick and was told to wave it and cheer. I didn’t know what it was all about really and I was even more confused when someone asked me if I saw his cigar.
Somehow I acquired a grey coloured Air Raid Warden’s steel helmet, I used to put it on every time the air raid siren was sounded. It made me feel indestructible, so I always wanted to go out to the street and walk about wearing it when the siren sounded but was never allowed to, can’t think why.
Bombed buildings became the playgrounds of the youngsters. I once followed some big boys and climbed out of a window and on to the roof of a bombed house. On all fours I crawled up to the ridge and looked over the top, it was frightening. It took me a long time to make my way down again and the most scaring part was hanging from an old piece of rusty cast iron guttering, stretching my leg out to reach the window sill so that I could get back in the house. I was terrified that my mother would find out because she forbade me to even enter the bombed houses never mind climb on to a roof.
In our kitchen we had an old valve type wireless. Having no electricity we had to run it by a battery or an accumulator as it was called. The accumulator was made of glass and the acid and cells were visible. It always seemed to work when the grown-ups were listening to the news of the war but whenever ‘Just William’ came on, the sound would fade. Someone would fiddle with the aerial which was in the form of a long length of wire stretching right along the garden like a washing line, with the end wound around a nail. When it was realised that the accumulator had run down, poor Bert had to trudge all the way to Avenue Road to exchange it for a fully charged one. Sometimes I had to go with him and I didn’t think that was very fair, so I would trail behind him moaning all the way, refusing to have a turn at carrying the accumulator because it was too heavy. Anyway I couldn’t see anything wrong with it the new one looked exactly the same.
Time marched on, the war progressed. The sound of an aircraft’s engines could usually identify it as being either friendly or a German one. Everyone would listen and someone would declare.
“It’s OK, it’s one of ours.”
I remember looking into the sky and seeing squadrons of our bombers groaning their way across the sky like flocks of migrating birds. I also remember the sound of German bombers and the scream of the bombs as they descended, followed by the loud explosions as they hit the ground. Looking in the direction of Croydon Airfield, I saw a dog fight. Aeroplanes seemed to be chasing each other all over the sky.
When the flying bombs, or doodle bugs, as they became known, began to bombard us, their sound was unique and everyone instantly recognised the drone of the rocket engine. People would turn their faces skywards towards the direction of the sound of the aircraft and wait for the sudden silence as the engine cut out. Then they would wait for the sound of detonation as it hit the ground and wonder how many victims it had claimed.
Luxuries like sweets and fruit were in short supply during the war; I didn’t know what an orange or a banana tasted like. Sweets were rationed so my mother used to cut the occasional Mars Bar into small squares and share it out. My dream was to buy my own Mars Bar and bite great big lumps off of it and fill my mouth so full that it would be hard to chew it.
I moved up from Melvin Road Infants School to Oakfield Road Junior School. One half of the building was the juniors and the other the senior school, a traditional old brick built school on three floors. For some reason or other, probably because of the shortage of teachers, we spent a lot of time in a church hall just along the road, having stories read to us. I believe I missed out in my education during that period and it showed up in later life. Bert did well though. He passed the necessary examinations which allowed him to attend the local County Grammar School, eventually he passed other examinations and won his school certificate. I know our mother was extremely proud of him.
Then there were explosions without the pre warning of aircraft engines. The V2 Rocket had arrived. They just fell from the sky without any warning at all. That was when my mother finally lost her nerve to sit out the war at home.
Arrangements were made with relations for my mother and us three children, my father being away in the army, to go to Devonshire to live near a small village named Thorverton. My twin cousins, Dennis and Fred Jones, on my mother’s side of the family, had been evacuated to Thorverton for most of the war. With the arrival of us four the house was a bit crowded as I remember.
I watched the harvesting of the golden wheat and joined in the chase when a rabbit bolted from the security of the ever decreasing protection of the standing wheat stems. Lots of people wielding thick sticks would run shouting as the terrified rabbit constantly changed direction in an effort to reach the nearest hedgerow. Unavoidably it would run too close to a pursuer and collapse from a blow from a well aimed stick and was then finally dispatched by stretching its neck until it snapped.
I watched a large pig having a ring put in its nose, it screamed so loud it must have been heard for miles around. Milk had to be collected from a neighbouring farm and the first time we saw cows being milked we stood staring in amazement. It was while we were in Devon that we heard that my school friend Brenda Slater and her family had been killed. I remember seeing my father in his army uniform standing in the lane by the gate to the house. When my mother saw him she started to cry because his visit was unexpected. She looked at him and said.
“It’s our road again isn’t it?”
“Yes” my dad replied, “It was at our end, the Slater family were killed.
Although mother was very upset, she was also very relieved to know that my aunt Else and grandparents were safe.
My mother apparently had a problem getting along with the people in whose house we were sharing. Once again she made arrangements for us to go somewhere else. After a long journey we arrived at a Kent Hop Farm, living in one of a terrace of corrugated iron huts, next to my aunt from 63 Blenheim Road.
The bed in the one roomed hut was made by laying fagots (bundles of long twigs tied together) on the floor and spreading a thick layer of straw over them, before putting on the blankets and old coats etc. Everyone slept together in the one large make-shift bed.
All cooking was done over a bonfire made from dry twigs or old fagots and the toilets were one up from the Devon design because they had buckets below the hole in the wooden seat.
One day I heard a bit of a commotion going on and saw people looking skywards and pointing. When I looked up I saw a British Bomber, obviously returning from a raid, flying very low in the sky with an engine on fire, it had come from the direction of the Kent coast and was obviously trying to reach an airfield. Women stood in silence with tears in their eyes, just staring upwards when one of them whispered “God bless those poor souls.” I didn’t realise the seriousness of the situation and wondered what all the fuss was about. I thought it was great and stood around for some time hoping to see some more. I will always remember the image of that aeroplane on fire.
At the end of the picking period we got a lift home to Penge on the back of a lorry. Although we had only been away for a few weeks, everything seemed different. The houses at the end of our road, where the Slater family lived, were not there any more, just a heap of rubble. Some other nearby houses had walls missing exposing their damaged contents which were spread about in total disarray. Both ends of the road had suffered bomb damage and there was a dry dusty smell in the air, everything appeared very strange.
The bombed buildings were like a magnet to me and other children. I used to go inside and search them. It was like an exciting adventure. Bombed buildings were our forbidden play grounds.
The war finally came to an end and everyone celebrated with street parties. My father then lived at home and that was something new. My third brother was born, he was named Leonard Victor; Leonard because mother liked the name and Victor because we had won the war.
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