- Contributed by
- Roger Mercer
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 05 August 2003
My daughter asked me to recall some of my wartime memories since my grandson was due to study World War Two at school. A major caveat in what follows is that such memories are inevitably patchy and selective, so much so that my younger sister's memories are very different. When we discussed her memories in the 1990s I realised that we must have been living in parallel worlds.
I was born in 1932. In 1937 my father was taken ill and had to spend 18 months in hospital and, in the days before antibiotics, in a convalescent home. So I was sent first to doting grandparents in Liverpool where I went to a modern Infants' School. Later I went to loving grandparents in Countesthorpe, Leicestershire: there I attended the three-class village school - infants, juniors and seniors. The seniors left school at 14. I was in Miss Williams' class. She was a little woman, dressed in a long black dress, who was both loved and respected by her charges. I did my sums on my slate.
Some time before the start of the war we had to go into West Wickham County Primary School, Welling, Kent to be issued with gas masks. It was assumed at that time that if and when war broke out, poisonous gas would be used on the civilian population. We were instructed to carry our gas masks with us at all times.
The Phoney War (September 1939 to early 1940)
We moved from Welling to Charlton in South East London a few days before war was declared, so as to be nearer to my father's work at Imperial Wharf just by Blackwall Tunnel (opposite the Gas Works where the Millennium Dome now stands).
At the end of August I joined the pupils and teachers of Sherington Road School in what I now realise was the mass evacuation of children from London. Our crocodile walked down to Charlton Station where we boarded a long green Southern Railways electric train - and we were off, no one knew where.
The highlight of the journey was spotting several Sunderland flying boats on the Medway. Eventually we reached Tunbridge Wells, where a fleet of double-decker buses and a mug of cocoa (which was cold) were waiting for us. We were taken to the village of High Brooms by bus. I was the first to be billeted. In the weeks that followed, 'our' school and the locals went to school mornings and afternoons, turn and turn about. Since I must have appeared like a lost soul, however, I went to both sessions. The only thing I remember was sitting at a desk at the front of the class for hours on end with nothing to do.
My mother brought me back to Charlton in November because I had scabies and wasn't happy. We arrived back at New Cross station in the blackout and were thoroughly disorientated.
Until the outbreak of war, women who were civil servants or teachers had to resign if they got married. With the war, however, women were needed to take over the jobs of men who were conscripted into the Armed Services. So, my mother got a job with Britannic Assurance in Woolwich, while my father failed his medical and was ordered to stay in his own job. As for me, I went to a childminder. Since no school was functioning in London at that time I didn't go to school, but a teacher came to the childminder's house for half an hour a week to give me some 'sums' to do. By this time my four-year-old sister had, I think, probably already been sent to stay with grandparents in Countesthorpe.
Early in the war there was a collection of aluminium ware - pots and pans etc - to be melted down to make fighter planes. Everybody's garden railings were cut down to be turned into weapons. Rationing was introduced (and was to last for 13 years). Clothes were rationed. Sweets were rationed. Bread and potatoes were never rationed. Oranges and bananas disappeared, so we had to pick blackberries and rosehips. Dried eggs (a yellow powder) appeared. My wife Margaret still has her identity card, issued on 6 May 1949, and her 1953-1954 Ration Book. The latter still lists meat, eggs, fats, cheese, bacon, sugar, tea and sweets.
Clothes were remade and reused: 'make do and mend' was a phrase that was often heard. My wife was evacuated to her aunt's house in Ossett, Yorkshire. Wool from old cardigans and pullovers was used to make new things. She and her cousin remember the 'new' swimming costumes which had been knitted for them. When they first went in the water they sagged and went out of shape. How they hated those swimming costumes!
A hole was dug in our back garden and an Anderson shelter was erected and protected with sandbags and soil. As 'Dig for Victory' became the cry, allotments appeared in most parks and marginal land was bulldozed into production.
After the Battle of the River Plate in the South Atlantic, I was taken to watch the crews of HMS Ajax and Exeter march past on Westminster Bridge.
1940 - 1943: Evacuated again
At some stage, possibly before the Blitz, I was evacuated again, this time to my mother's aunts, Lizzie, Mabel and Grace Ellingworth in Glenfield Road, Leicester. With hindsight I am extremely grateful for the kindness, patience and loving care of my extended family; but at the time, as a normal eight- to ten-year-old boy, I certainly gave them a run for their money.
At Hinkley Road School I received an excellent normal 'peacetime' education. One memory sticks in my mind. In the playground we were shown how to put out an incendiary bomb with a stirrup pump - I remembered that because my dad had written to say that he had just dealt with one in our back garden in London.
At midday, in those days before school dinners, I used to go into the centre of Leicester by tram to have lunch at the aunts' shop in St Martins. One day I forgot my gas mask and had to get off the tram and go back for it. I used to like watching the lamplighter come round on his bike balancing his short ladder on his shoulder to light the gas lamp in St Martins.
At weekends I would quite often go by bus, again by myself, to my grandparents' house in Countesthorpe, where my sister was staying. I would worry whether I was on the right bus, whether it was going via Wigston or Blaby and whether it was going to take the right turning. During an air raid on Coventry (40 miles away) a stick of bombs landed on the local allotments, giving village children a field day in their hunt for shiny pieces of shrapnel.
Sometimes we'd go back to our London home for a little while. For much of the time the glass had been blown out of the windows. At first the windows were glazed with a sort of tarpaulin, which meant that we always had to have the lights on. Later we had some translucent woven plastic stuff which was a bit better. Later still there was glass again, at least until the next time it was blown out.
In the garden was the Anderson shelter which my parents had used during the worst of the Blitz. I never used it. In front of the entrance was a blast wall made of sandbags and in front of that was the rabbit hutch (the rabbits ate our domestic scraps and provided fur for mittens to keep our hands warm, but they were destined for the stew pot).
Later we had a Morrison Shelter in the back room: this was a 'table' - and used as such - 3m x 2m x 0.5m of quarter-inch steel. It was a bit big for a table and a bit hard if you accidentally bumped into it. However, I felt relatively secure when I slept under this 'table' which my mother had covered with a green cloth. From what I had seen of bombed houses I reckoned that the whole house could be destroyed and yet you could still survive under the 'table'.
1943 - 1945: Back in London, and the doodlebugs arrive
By 1943 my sister and I were back in London. The Blitz was over and things had calmed down, apart from the odd night raid. In September, I became a pupil at the Roan School for Boys, Greenwich. That summer the Canadian Army moved out and the school returned from Evacuation in Amanford, South Wales. That winter a stick of three bombs straddled the school, bringing down the plaster from the ceiling of the school hall and killing people living in the house opposite. Rather more chilling was a daylight raid which, I think, killed or seriously injured 100 children at Catford Junior School; my sister, I subsequently found out, went to secondary school with some of the survivors.
When there was a raid the sirens would wail and I would come downstairs half awake. You could hear the sound of anti-aircraft fire from the nearby Blackheath, the drone of enemy aircraft, the patter of shrapnel falling and the smell of cordite and brickdust, and then the noise of the Heavy Rescue vehicles grinding up our road.
One night I looked out of the window and saw a plane on fire heading for central London. Next day in the newspaper we learnt the we had seen a German 'Revenge Weapon', the V1, the so-called robot, buzz-bomb, flying bomb or doodlebug - the 1944 version of today's cruise missile. While you could hear the V1 you knew that you were safe, but when the engine ran out of fuel the buzz-bomb went quiet, banked to one side, and glided down to deliver a ton of explosive on South East London.
The Germans had intended to unleash 200 V1s an hour on London. Fortunately, however, bombing of the launch sites in France, communications networks and the German storage sites meant that only 200 V1s were launched per day. V1s were cheap to make, temperamental to launch and, by 1944 standards, very fast. At first, RAF fighters tried to pursue them, and were fired at by anti-aircraft guns!
Only a few of the very fastest fighters could tackle the doodlebugs, and they seemed impervious to machine-gun fire. So a range of techniques were employed: making the fighters go faster by reducing weight to the minimum and by tuning the engines. Some pilots flew alongside the flying bombs and flipped them over like tiddly-winks.
A major difficulty in planning a defence against these weapons was their speed and the short distance between the French coast and London. Fairly quickly, however, a plan evolved. Over the Channel, fighters tackled the V1s. Then, along the South Coast a 'wall' of anti-aircraft fire was provided by massed gun batteries, including several American regiments: gunfire was coordinated, so instead of each gun being aimed and fired by its individual gun crew, all guns in a given battery were remotely aimed and fired at a single target. Then, between the coast and the North Downs, the fighters were given a second chance. Finally, all the barrage balloons in the country were sited along the North Downs to provide a last protective 'hedge'. After all that, 20 per cent of the V1s that were launched still reached their target. That meant that 40 V1s a day (each carrying a ton of high explosives) did quite a lot of damage in London - and it wasn't good for anybody's nerves.
Worse, however, was to come. The next 'revenge weapon', as these rockets were known in German, arrived. The V2 was a rocket with a range of 200 miles which could be launched from a mobile rocket launcher - it was the 1944 version of the Intercontinental Ballistic Missile.
V2 rockets (which also had a warhead of one ton of explosive) crashed down at 3,000mph - you couldn't hear them coming, since they travelled at more than the speed of sound. Seimens Cableworks in Charlton, the Roxy cinema near us, New Cross station (on a busy Saturday midday), New Cross Gate station and Lewisham market (100 killed) were all hit. With hindsight I realise how chillingly accurate these rockets were in hitting road junctions and railway stations at times of the day when they would cause maximum havoc; thank goodness that by this time Germany was being overrun.
I think my mother must have panicked, so one Saturday morning she decided to take us both to Countesthorpe. So, so for the last six weeks of the summer term 1944, I got on the bus with my cousin Robert and went to Lutterworth Grammar School.
Whereas boys today know a lot about cars and football clubs, we used to know about aircraft and their recognition - it was a useful skill to be able to distinguish friend and foe. I remember seeing the skies over Leicestershire filled with Flying Fortresses in formation; and, later, the returning bombers with gaps in the formations. Even more dramatic, on a couple of occasions, was seeing formations of Dakotas, each one towing two gliders.
Back in London in the summer of 1945, I was in bed but not asleep when I became aware of a lot of noise - ships' sirens and hooters - coming from the Thames several miles away. It was VE Day. On holiday at Herne Bay later in the year, we read in the Daily Express that an atomic bomb had been dropped on Japan. VJ Day followed.
Countesthorpe in the early 1940s
My grandparents' house was in Station Road. The railway line, the steam trains, the station and the level crossing (which was operated by a great big wheel like the steering wheel of a sailing ship) all disappeared with the Beeching cuts in the 1960s. Now Countesthorpe is a big commuter village near Leicester: then it was a quiet medium-sized village.
The house had no mains electricity, just oil lamps and gas lights. There was a gas stove, but also in the kitchen was a range with open fire, oven and a hob to provide hot water. To supply electricity for the wireless - a word I still find myself using in preference to 'radio' - there was an accumulator (a heavy glass battery) which had to be taken into the village shop each week to be charged up. The toilet was 15m down the garden, so we had chamber pots under our beds at night.
Although by that time all the farms were worked by tractors, Mr Ringrose, the farmer from Glebe Farm, brought the milk round in churns with a horse and trap every day, and then ladled one or two pints into my grandma's jugs.
At that time there were no refrigerators, deep freezers, washing machines, dishwashers or plastic containers. Instead, there was a large cool step-in pantry with a thick stone thrall (a stand for barrels), solid ceramic and glass containers and muslin gauze to keep off any flies. My grandparents had a large garden, and next door my uncle also had a large garden. They kept a pig, chickens and, I think, ducks. They grew apples, pears, plums, damsons, potatoes, cabbage, savoys, sprouts, lettuce, carrots, parsnips, turnips and beans. So we always had meat, eggs and vegetables.
Even today old habits die hard. The injunction 'waste not, want not' still lurks in my subconscious, and is juxtaposed with newsreel images of the time of ships bringing supplies to England being torpedoed in the Atlantic.
One further personal memory, this time a 'taste' one that, to my surprise, lasted for some 40 years and more. Now that I have to watch my calorie intake, cut down on sugar and drink skimmed milk, I have to confess my surreptitious pleasure when away on holiday at having half a pat of real BUTTER on my toast. This craving I put down to the fact that the butter ration was so small during the war, and rationing lasted from when I was 7 (in 1939) to when I was 21 (in 1953).
London in the early 1940s
In winter I remember the blackout and the smog. At a time when there were practically no private cars on the road, the buses had their headlights blocked out except for a 10cm slit (and even this was shielded by a hood).
In the parks and open spaces were allotments so that everybody could 'Dig for Victory' and grow vegetables. And, strategically placed on waste land, were circular EWS (Emergency Water Supply) tanks.
My bedroom had a porcelain washbasin and ewer, which I was supposed to use for washing in the summer months. Young boys no doubt are still rather perfunctory in their ablutions. In winter the water in the ewer froze, and there was ice on the inside of the window. Since there was no central heating, and there were no duvets or electric blankets, we piled blankets on the bed. We also had a hot water bottle. If it was really cold my mother used to warm my bed with a warming pan; this was a metal container with a lid and a long wooden handle, into which she put the glowing embers from the fire.
My sister, Catherine Mercer, has written a novel set in France in 1944-45. It centres around a young boy and the true story of the local Resistance group. See www.CatherineMercer.co.ukAbout links.
My step-mother, also called Catherine Mercer, wrote a short document called Kit's War for the pupils of Countesthorpe College. Kit was a nurse and served in the Queen Alexandra's Nursing Service in the 8th Army for the whole of the North African campaign from the Sudan and into Italy. She recalled that a RAMC doctor called Colonel Fleming used a white powder called penicillin to great effect on battle wounds.
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