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- Ken Long
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- 20 November 2003
Growing up in London, 1939-1945 (extracts from my notes for a talk to my local history society)
On Friday September first 1939, I and many hundreds of children were assembled at Napier Rd School in East Ham and marched along the High Street which was lined with hundreds of sobbing and worried mothers. We were going to the station to be evacuated to somewhere away from Londonbut no-one, not even the parents knew where ! I had my gas mask, a label pinned to my jacket and a carrier bag (not a suitcase) holding my pyjamas a change of underclothes and some sandwiches. I was ten and a half years old and without a brother or sister for comfort and support.... the eldest child was about 14 and the youngest only 5, some were unaccompanied too ! Babies and pregnant mothers were mixed in with us and it was a non corridor train too!
The Evacuation was the greatest single movement of population in history, a decision taken only the day before in which ultimately 3,500,000 children would be taken away from their homes to avoid the inevitable bombing and gas raids we had been told would come on the very first day. It was an astonishing feat of organisation, but certainly not perfect. Some fortunate children were sent to Canada and America but they were certainly NOT from East London, us lot were considered too ‘lower class’ and rough ! They were carefully selected from ‘posh’ middle and upper class areas, and schools.
Our train from Paddington went to Bristol, then to Weston-Super-Mare, we ended up at a little village in Somerset called Uphill. There we were taken to a large school recreation field, lined up and prodded, checked for head lice and scrutinised by the potential foster parents before selection and allocation to our new Billets. The best and cleanest children were chosen first ! it was like being auctioned off. Some children didn’t understand---they thought they’d been sent away because they’d been naughty ! The Foster Parent received 8/6d or 42 and a half pence per child per week.
I was very fortunate to be eventually billeted together with another boy on a poultry and cider farm, in the country, and only 200 yds from a sandy beach on the Bristol Channel and we had a Labrador dog - heaven ! The owners were a childless couple who treated us wonderfully, Mr and Mrs Howe, they were very understanding she was a most attractive and kind lady. I still visit and correspond with her at the same address, she’s 94 now. But it was a slightly different world, we found at mealtimes there were things called serviettes in rings on the table, cutlery was arranged in a special order, and we said grace before each meal and had two baths a week ! We also had to go to church three times on Sundays !! But I regard my stay with them as a wonderful period of my life. Two days later on Sunday we heard the broadcast by the Prime minister Neville Chamberlain. By early summer 1940 there had been very few bombing attacks, the miracle of Dunkirk in May was followed by the start of the Battle of Britain. As a consequence many children had gone back home to the cities and their parents, including me.
But Germany had overrun Poland, Norway, Denmark, Holland, Belgium and France. Meanwhile the RAF were still only dropping leaflets, some 6 million ! They were not allowed to actually bomb German factories because they were ‘private property’ !! The Luftwaffe had no such scruples, they’d been developed into an excellent ground attacking force as close support for the Army, fortunately they had not developed any large bombers with defensive armaments they were just so confident that no one would stand up to them, they hadn’t reckoned on the RAF. and the British people.
The term ‘blitz’ comes from the German ‘blitzkreig’ or lightning war, and we were about to learn about it. The bombing of London started on Saturday September 7th when 967 German and Italian fighters and bombers attacked the capital at 5 p.m. the air fleet extended for miles across the sky and the ground shook with the noise. The main objective was the densely populated East End dockland including Silvertown, Woolwich, Millwall, West Ham, the prime targets included Beckton Gas Works, Woolwich Arsenal, the Docks--the Albert, Victoria, Surrey Commercial, West India and Millwall. They dropped 600 tons of high explosives and 17,000 incendiaries. The effect was catastrophic, large areas were blown apart and surrounded by a walls of fire. Temperatures reached 1,000 degrees cent. in places! And we were sure there was worse to come------G A S.
One third of Britain’s overseas trade passed thru’ the London Docks, it was the heart of all our trade and imports and by 6.10 p.m. the ‘All Clear’ had been sounded and survivors emerged from their shelters into the dust and smoke filled streets, some 1,000 Londoners were dead, another 1,600 seriously injured, the rest of us were numb with shock.
Later that evening whilst the firemen were still fighting fires, under cover of darkness the bombers again returned guided by the burning fires which could be seen by the pilots as they crossed the channel ! The attack lasted 8 hours while people crouched in terror in shelters whilst an aerial pounding descended all night, the like of which had never before been experienced, and will remain for that generation forever in their memories. Heroic rescue workers worked tirelessly to free buried people.
This first big attack on London lasted 76 consecutive days and nights, thousands were killed , injured, and made homeless. Many went to live and camp in Epping Forest and over 180,000 slept on the platforms of the Tube each night. Street shelters in brick were built in the roads of residential areas but were very unpopular due to their vulnerability to blast and lack of lighting or toilet facilities. Anderson shelters in house gardens were very effective, but were prone to flooding, dampness, and condensation.
By the end of the month some 250,000 Londoners had been made homeless. After one particularly heavy attack one fifth of all homes were without gas or water supplies. Life became very tedious with dirt, dust and smoke everywhere, unable to wash, cook, bath or use the toilet for days at a time. The Blitz affected all the senses, the taste of dirt, the smell of burnt timber, the artificial smell of homes with sealed and closed windows, the blackness of blackout, the glare of flares and the blazing orange and red skies after a raid. I can remember the all pervading smell of dust and powdered brickwork, the crunch of broken glass underfoot, the bomb blasted bare gardens and leafless trees as if winter had arrived too early, another new odour was of tree sap where all the bark had been blasted and stripped from the trees in streets and parks over large areas. You’d see a house sliced in half as though cut with a knife, upstairs the floor would jut out in mid air still with the bed and mattress and a wardrobe etc, and the curtains flapping away, it was like looking at a doll’s house. You would sometimes see furniture thrown out of damaged homes and it would be coated with millions of fine slivers of glass to remind you of just how lethal blast alone was.
There were of course major raids on other large cities like Portsmouth, Southampton, Bristol, Glasgow and Liverpool, the worst of which were on Coventry and Plymouth. These created fresh evacuations from these centres.
Colchester of course received attention from the Luftwaffe but they were relatively minor attacks compared to the devastating scale of the Blitz. But no less terrifying if you were the target ! A ‘major’ attack was one in which over 100 tons was dropped on the target in a single attack. The term ‘Bombers Moon’ was coined. The so-called ‘all clear’ really denoted that gas had been cleared. The siren at the end of a raid really meant ‘raiders passing’ .
In London Zoo all poisonous snakes and insects were destroyed in case they escaped The morning after a raid we would make our way to school noting which streets had been hit, and carefully looking for shrapnel from the ack ack shells, it was still very warm !! This was used as a kind of currency at school, the most prized of which was a shell nosecap. Later at school we would note that sometimes a boy would suddenly be absent, he’d be killed or wounded probably and we’d talk about our chance of getting injured, unanimously boys always agreed on the part most dear to us, and it was never an arm or leg ! They didn’t matter !
A.R.P posts were constructed every half mile or so, Police Stations and offices were sandbagged, bus and train windows were covered in a mesh fabric against bomb blast.
We had no sweets, no chocolate, no toys, no comics, no bananas, and no oranges. But the sky was always full of ‘planes, it was never still, the newspapers and radio mainly reported war news of course, us boys all became expert in identifying all kinds of aircraft, I was even better at it than my Uncle who was a Sgt. in an anti-aircraft battery. I had relatives in the Army, Navy, Merchant Navy, A.T.S and a NAAFI manageress. Most women wore a small lapel badge miniature of RAF wings or Regimental badge of their husband/boyfriend, these were called ‘sweetheart badges’. Most women still tried to look their best in spite of clothes rationing.
Everywhere there were Government posters saying ‘Save Fuel’, ‘Make do and mend’ ‘Buy savings stamps’, ‘Careless talk costs lives’, ‘Is your journey really necessary ?’, ‘Dig for Victory’, ‘Coughs and sneezes spread diseases’. But never any graffiti anywhere apart from the communists ‘2nd Front’ slogans which appeared in 1943 .
There isn’t time here for me to go into blackout, (4,500 were killed even before the raids began) the Americans, rationing, food shortages, queues, clothes coupons,or utility furniture. It was a daily nightmare for women at home.
Meanwhile the German newspapers and newsreels gloated over our civilian casualties and damage in our cities, safe in the belief that ‘they’ would never be bombed.
By the end of 1940 the German bombers had acquired a new and accurate navigation system which meant they could home in on the London docks. In the absence of an accurate radar detection system, our gunners had to rely on the pre-war ‘Sound Detection and Prediction System’. This relied on using sound collectors to determine the bearing and angle of approaching bombers’. The Germans used to combat this by ‘de-synchronising the rhythm of their two engines’ thereby disrupting the sound detection, we always recognised it. Although Radar was our secret weapon, it was still in its infancy for gun laying.
Anti-aircraft guns rarely hit anything at night but they were a great morale booster. We felt we were at least hitting back at them when we heard them firing, the noise was tremendous and the smell of cordite lingered everywhere as did the dust and smoke. But they rarely hit anything in those days, firing 20/30,000 shells before achieving one hit! But later in the war they became far more accurate with the aid of radar and the proximity fuse.
South of London there was a continuous line of hundreds of barrage balloons as far as the eye could see, they were like great silver elephants hanging passively in the sky.
There were 4 thousand searchlights, in and around London, most were mounted on large lorries for manoeuvrability, the light was a very powerful beam that could reach 15,000 ft. During a raid the sky would have hundreds of these bright fingers of light searching to illuminate a bomber so the guns could target the ‘plane, but they mostly missed.
The strain on civilians services was extreme, the medical staff, nurses, doctors and hospitals, the fire services were magnificent and suffered many casualties, so were the ambulance drivers (both men and women) the W.V.S. (heroines all) with their Emergency Washing Service, and none worked harder than the A.R.P. During the first 22 nights of the London blitz they and the Firemen were called out to 10,000 fires!
From September to January in 1940 the city and dock areas were raided every night, this had the effect of causing the population to be constantly tired and weary due to lack of sleep, people were working every day and doing fire watching duty at night. Dec 29 1940 was the night of the second Great Fire of London. It was our initiation to Goebbels ‘Total.War ‘, no longer a war against military targets it was now deliberately directed at ordinary people, the German General Jodel said ‘our aim is to produce a total breakdown in everyday life of the civilian population by aerial terror raids and fire bombardment’.
On that night of 29th December Air Marshall Harris, later Bomber Harris, was on the roof of the Air Ministry watching the raid, he said then and it was only 1940 ’they are sowing the wind, and in due course they will reap the whirlwind’. That happened eventually to the civilians of Berlin, Hamburg, Dresden and other German cities but in far greater measure in ‘43and’44and45. Colchester Fire Brigade were there in London that night assisting the Metropolitan and other Brigades, as they’d done many times before. Essex County Standard’s report states that ‘The glare from the fires in the London docks could be seen on the horizon from Colchester at ground level’.
I particularly remember how terribly tired everyone looked, the constant lack of sleep the patriotic pressure to keep working very hard, the nightime fire watching duties and the constant stress of rationing, the blackout and the worry of what was happening to your Husband, Father, Son, Sweetheart, Brother and even the girls in the services who were at risk, and they of course were all away and worrying about us back home.
A memory that remains still very powerful to me concerns the Post Office telegram boys. These were lads of 17 or so who rode small motorcycles and delivered the dreaded War Office telegrams to next of kin informing them that their loved one was missing or killed in action. At the sound of a motorcycle you would see every front room curtain move a little as the occupier nervously watched to see where the boy stopped, and they prayed it wouldn’t be for them, it was like the finger of death for some.
The stress, real stress suffered by women in those six years was enormous, many never really recovered. My best friend’s house was hit and destroyed by a bomb, his older sister was left blinded in one eye by glass. Later the family received a War Office telegram telling them the oldest son who was in the R.A.F. was missing over Germany, as was the sister’s Canadian fiancee. The Mother always believed for many years after the war that one day the son would turn up at their home, he never did. Black armbands were seen worn by many people everywhere.
Roof spaces and attics were cleared out as an anti-incendiary measure. When we had our first incendiary bomb through the roof of our house the firemen rushed upstairs with hoses etc. to put out the fire before it spread too far. My very houseproud mother was most upset because they didn’t wipe their feet first!
At work, when the siren sounded, (and that was a sound like the wailing of the dead to me! ) employers sent their workers to the shelters, but this caused great loss of production when a small raid would have very little local risk. So Churchill introduced the idea of roof spotters to give the alarm when bombers were actually in sight, i.e. at the last moment - consequently little time was lost. But most people found going to work helped to take their minds off what was going on outside.
One in ten bombs didn’t go off, sometimes through malfunction but mostly they were deliberately delayed or ‘time bombs’. When this happened it caused enormous disruption, everyone for up to a 100 yards area would be evacuated from their homes to an overcrowded rest centre. The sound of bombs falling varied from a scream or whistle to a very loud tearing noise.
Land or Aerial mines. These were enormous steel canisters 9.1/2 ft. long containing 2,400 lb high explosive, they were dropped by a very large parachute so generally arrived silently some time after the bombers had gone, usually when the fire and rescue workers had arrived. The blast from these devices was devastating, destroying hundreds of homes for hundreds of yards and maiming or killing anyone in the area. The Germans dropped many parachute or land mines which would hang caught up in trees for days before exploding their massive charges, they were deliberately intended to inflict terror and slaughter civilians in large numbers.
There was the 4,000 lb ‘Satan’ bomb and the 6,000 lb ‘Splitter bomben’ very nasty ! Also tens of thousands of incendiary bombs would punch through slate roofs with a noise like pebbles and the magnesium or phosphorous would burn very fast and intensely to set the whole roof afire in seconds. In a raid there would be the continuous noise of fire engines racing from street to street unable to cope with the spread of fires. Next morning the streets would be littered with unignited incendiaries, we boys often collected these!! Each aircraft, Dorniers Junkers and Heinkels, would carry over 700 incendiary bombs, so, with a 200 bomber raid they could drop 140,000 of these devastating devices, on the night of the 29th Dec. they set alight the Guildhall, St. Pauls, many banks, the Stock Exchange, the Central Telegraph Office, the docks areas, and some 20,000 homes.
In a way we were lucky, for, if the Germans had developed and produced the excellent Heinkel 177 a four engined heavy bomber earlier in the war, London would have been totally levelled, and the war could have been lost within weeks and London left as a pile of rubble and ready for the occupation.
Some nights in the docks, the warehouses were ablaze as burning butter, sugar, molasses and oils produced dense smoke and pungent smells everywhere as it oozed across roads and into the water of the docks, even the puddles were hot ! There was dust, smoke and raw smells of the explosives, sewerage and leaking domestic gas, it was the smell of violent death and destruction. On some nights also there was a very low ‘neap’ tide and firemen could not reach the river Thames with their hoses, but this was another deliberate tactic by the Luftwaffe.
Our regular nightime routine -any utensils had to be left covered to keep out the dust that would cover everything during a raid. Many people turned their gas supply off as a precaution.
Air raid shelter routine - before going to bed a bag would be left by the back door containing a torch, spare blankets, candles and matches, also your ration books and identity cards. These could be snatched up if we had to rush to the garden Anderson shelter suddenly in the night AND remember to leave the front and back doors Open to minimise the effect of blast. The shelters were cold and very damp, the steel curved sheets that formed the walls would soon stream with condensation when occupied forming great pools of water and mud on the earth floor.
In the winter the fire would be dowsed on going to bed, this would enable an old sheet to be draped across the fireplace to ensure that the inevitable soot fall or hot cinders (from nearby bomb blasts) would not spread across the room. Also before retiring to bed, clothes were left hanging in a way to allow easy removal, i.e. hangers in wardrobes all faced the same way. Most nights the raid would last for many hours or even all night. On those occasions you slept in your clothes and used a bucket.
We now know that there was much censorship about the real casualty figures, also no photographs were ever published which showed Londoners weary or depressed, as many people actually were. Also the press were discouraged from publishing too many pictures of bomb damage, only cheery cockneys were wanted who were supposed to shout ‘we can take it’! The worst hit areas were the homes nearest the docks where my family lived, especially the East end, Stepney, Bow, Poplar, East Ham, Plaistow and West Ham. The poorest homes were the most vulnerable.
On the 16th of April they struck again, this was the biggest assault on the Capital so far, for eight and a half hours almost 700 aircraft punished the city with 890 tons of H.Exp. and 150,000 incendiary bombs, the destruction and death was widespread. Three nights later they were back with 712 bombers, some did 3 missions that night, they dropped over 1,000 tons of bombs i.e. 8 to 12,000 bombs plus 153,000 incendiaries. A warden later wrote ‘it was concentrated to the east of us, mainly in East Ham and Walthamstow’ . The total of civilian deaths for that month was 6,065. The climax of the raids on London came on the 10th of May 1941 when hundreds of bombers pounded the whole area causing the highest casualties. Amongst the majestic buildings to be hit were the House of Commons, the Tower of London, the Law Courts, Westminster Abbey, Buckingham Palace, St. Paul’s and the Royal Mint. On that night almost 1500 died and 12,000 were injured. There was no gas, water or electricity for many days afterwards.
This was the last of the really heavy raids on London, but not of course the last raid, there were still many more new raids to come during 1942 and 43. By June ‘44 there would be the Vergeltungswaffe eins, vengeance weapon No. one, or V.1 Doodlebugs and then the V.2. Rockets, both were totally ‘indiscriminate bombing’ designed to slaughter civilians, not to destroy military targets. This was ‘terror’ bombing which did not put German aircrew at risk, a point which seems totally forgotten these days when one often hears severe criticism of the RAF over Dresden.
One day in around 1943 we, the boys of East Ham Building College were taken to the local swimming baths to be taught to swim, we were all only 14 yrs old. On entering the pool some of the few swimmers amongst us started to do the crawl, boys always felt it to be a man’s stroke but the instructor immediately stopped them, saying ‘you must only do the breast stroke, it will keep you going much longer if you are in the sea’ so after 4 years of war we wondered just how much longer did the Government think the war would last ?
By the end of May ‘44 the build up to D’Day had begun, all the roads to the docks were choked with military vehicles nose to tail, the open areas of Wanstead Flats were covered in tens of thousands of tanks and various vehicles, the soldiers were under canvas and fenced in with guards their destination was Top Secret. When they finally all moved off to the docks they were cheered all the way along the streets, that was very memorable.
I remember the very first V.1 raid clearly, it was June 13th 1944 (just 7 days after D’Day). The siren had sounded before midnight and we, my mother and I, were about to enter our garden shelter when I heard a very unusual aircraft sound, a once heard never to be forgotten sound (I was absolute mustard on aeroplane identification but this was something new).We looked up to see a plane caught in searchlights moving very fast and about 2,000 ft above us, it made a loud noise like a big single cylinder motorbike and had a bright flame at its tail from the ‘ramjet motor’. I will never forget that noise. After a few seconds the engine stopped and the searchlights lost it as it glided down, there was total silence for about 10 seconds then, a very loud explosion as it devastated a whole street in West Ham. The sound of an approaching V.1. would freeze your conversation, ’keep going’ you would say and you held your breath when the raucous rattle of the engine cut out and dived down to the ground, the silence was deafening as you coped with your own fear, perhaps this was the one that would get you ?? No, ‘Please God let it be someone else not me’. It was a most effective killing weapon, the Fiesler 103, designed by Herr Porsche , it cost only about £125 to make, was small, it needed no pilot and carried an explosive warhead of 2,000 lb of amatol. at 400 mph.
In just 2 weeks there were 2,000 V.1.’s launched against London. The A.A. belt of guns were moved to the south coast and equipped with new radar, predictors and the new proximity fuse shells, our gunners were now becoming very skilled and accurate.
In the next 12 weeks over 5,200 of these terrifying missiles would kill over 12,000 people, seriously injure over 20,000 civilians and destroy 23,000 and damage one million homes, mostly in London. In East and West Ham over 94 V.1s fell, and a total of 10,494 were launched against England, some from underneath Heinkel bombers over the North Sea.
One of the worst incidents occurred when on Sunday morning 18th June just 5 days into the attacks a servicemen’s church service was being held in The Guards Chapel Westminster complete with military band at 11am when a V.1 made a direct hit destroying the whole building with one ton of explosive and killing 119 servicemen and over 150 seriously injured, many of whom later died.
Hundreds of A.A. guns were set up along the Kent coast on the sea fronts and a great ring of barrage balloons across S. London. At this time there were great losses in production due to absenteeism and sheer lack of sleep.
But after five years of war the population was not so capable of standing up to this renewed strain on their morale. People were now leaving London in their thousands, this was obvious from the greatly reduced queues for food. People were running out of courage, nerves were affected, hands trembled, tempers were shorter, they couldn’t take much more ‘when will it ever end’ ?.
My bedroom looked towards Beckton and Woolwich Docks, I was 15 then and I would sit for hours looking and listening for the sound of a V.1’s roar from the South , East and Kent. On hearing one coming I would press a morse key and the buzzer outside would warn my mother and neighbours. We would then rush for the shelters, because the official air raid alert sometimes lasted for days due to the continued bombardments every few minutes. We called them Bob Hopes, bob down and hope for the best or clockwork sparrows!
One day a V.1 was upon us very quickly and very low, maybe 500’ft up and losing height, it crashed with a great explosion only 4-500yds away. I, with my schoolboy mate dashed out and cycled quickly to where it had hit a public house, the White Horse, a direct hit. The pub had been blasted previously and workmen had actually been on the roof, the scene was an inferno, people shouting, screaming and crying and dying, dust clouds everywhere, some men were buried alive and others had been blown through the metal fencing of Central Park opposite. That was the first time I saw dead people, we left quickly, there was nothing we could do in that Hell.
About this time our house was damaged again so we went to live with relatives in Southend, although I still had to travel up to College in East Ham every day by train and much of the time we were having to have classes in the air raid shelters. Southend was then still a ‘restricted area’ and you had to show your pass at the station to get past the barrier.
On 7th Sept ‘44 The Air Minister Duncan Sands held a crowded Press conference and announced ‘Except for a few last shots, the Battle of London is over’. The next day the first V.2 rocket fell on Chiswick killing many ! The V.1s continued to next March! The Government would not confirm that the V2 even existed, they claimed the explosions were due to gas main leaks, this denial went on until November!
The V.2. rockets were in my opinion the worst of all the terror weapons used by Hitler to slaughter civilians, it was deadly and frightful, it would arrive without any warning. A massive, massive explosion and blue flash which lit up everything even in daylight, this was followed by the eerie rumbling sound and whoosh of the rocket arriving, due to its faster than sound trajectory. The V.2. (or A.4.) was over 46ft long 5ft diameter weighed 14 t.with a 1 ton warhead and travelled at 3,600 mph., range 250 miles to an altitude of 60 miles. The first ballistic missile, it left a crater 50 ft across and 25 ft deep. There was no possible warning or defence for it!
By now we were advancing into Holland, the wars end was in sight and yet still Hitler’s murderous hand of death could touch you. This was the most frightening weapon that civilians had experienced and the effect on morale was devastating. People would actually talk almost nostalgically about the ‘good old doodlebug or V.1.’ The Press were stopped from publishing any obituary notices for fear of its effect on morale.
There was no defence against it at all, thank God the weapon had been delayed a year by the R.A.F.’s 600 bomber raid on the Peenamunde laboratories with a loss of 300 RAF aircrew in August 1943. Without that raid we could have lost the war. The V.2 usually killed about 100 to 150 people each time, the new electronic fuse caused detonation just above ground level maximising the blast effect. In Antwerp a V.2 hit a cinema full of troops, 520 died and 1,000 injured.
Of 517 V.2’s that fell on London, 41 fell on my town, 35 in Ilford and a total of 401 in Essex the top scoring county. The final rocket fell on 27 March ‘45 barely 5 weeks before the end of the war. No one who lived through the summer and autumn of ‘44 and the winters of ’44 and’45 will ever forget the ‘Vengeance Weapons’. Life was often punctuated by episodes of terror and fear during the bombing raids, but being very young you shrug it off because everyone else seems to at the time and for us it seemed the normal way of life.
In April 1945 I went to the Odeon cinema in Plaistow with my friend Derek, we were both 16, I cannot remember the films we saw, but I will never forget the Pathe’ newsreel, it was simply called ‘Belsen’. The audience sat in stunned silence as the now familiar scenes unfolded on the screen, ‘skeleton-like’ creatures moved like sloths amidst piles of what could only be emaciated dead human bodies, a bulldozer pushed them into trenches for massed burial. The shock of what we saw simply took your breath away, it was the first firm evidence of these atrocities anyone had seen.
I felt I was witnessing the ultimate horror of Nazism. We had suffered nearly six years of war, most people were just so tired of war now, and after all, what was it all about really? Well, now we knew. Those pictures have become commonplace repeats now, and perhaps they no longer shock us today as then, but there are actually fools who deny that it even happened, nevertheless at that time the effect was profound, to this day the impact is still unforgettable. As the Pathe News ended people shuffled out in total and I do mean total stunned silence, no-one spoke, the terrible and indelible images would be with us for a very long time. I have never forgotten that cinema visit.
By Tuesday May the 8th 1945 the war in Europe was over, we, the Americans, Russians and the British Empire had destroyed the Nazi-German fascists. On that day, I was due at work in St. James’s Square but Churchill had declared a Public holiday, I and my friend decided to go up to the West End to see the celebrations. We arrived in Piccadilly Circus, it was packed with thousands of civilians and servicemen and women. Every face was smiling, some with tears of sheer joy and relief, the overwhelming noise of laughing and singing, the street parties everywhere, the church bells were ringing, musicians were playing, people were drunk, kissing and dancing with anyone they took hold of, some were on taxi roofs dancing, some danced in the streets, no moving traffic, some were up on top of lampposts, in street fountains, it was as if the world had gone mad with happiness and joy after six years of war, it was ACTUALLY OVER ! As Churchill said ’there was never in our history a day like this’. And the joy and jubilation knew no bounds, it just went on and on, even as I think of that day after all these years I can still feel the emotion returning. You had to be there to really understand how it was. It was just the happiest day I can remember ever. Many hundreds of thousands flocked to the churches to pray and to give thanks to God. But there were many who stayed home and cried quietly with their memories, their photographs and their War Office telegram, they had nothing to celebrate.
Today most of the scars of destruction have gone, but the scars of memory live on for some, the crouching under stairs or in damp cold shelters whilst an aerial pounding fell all around you with the deafening noise and flashes of explosions, the realisation and fear that you were perhaps going to die, the dust and the terror that the next one would be yours. NOTHING like it had ever been experienced before on this scale, by any nation.
But today I do feel that during the war years the British People were at their best as never before or since. It was indeed their finest hour, for the first two years they stood alone in Europe, then they were on the rack for almost six years, most people neither sought nor gloried in war, and they gained nothing from it. We lost our Empire and accrued a Great National Debt and a ruined economy, but they were a self reliant and peaceful people on whom the sacrifices and burdens of war fell hard, they still deserve acknowledgement and respect,
I was just lucky like many to have survived and witnessed a little of it!
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