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Joan Windsor's WW2 Experiences in Canonbury Road, London

by stjohnscentre

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Joan Windsor
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05 July 2005

Joan Windsor 1942

Recalling the declaration of war

We had been told to listen to the wireless at 11 o’clock. Neville Chamberlain, the Prime Minister then, announced: ‘we are now at war with Germany’. Almost immediately, an air raid siren went off nearby. I went into my bedroom and caught a glimpse of my face in the dressing table mirror - it was absolutely white from shock.

Preparation at home

We really all thought that once the sirens went off we should all be under the table or out of the flat. We’d got an Anderson Shelter in the garden. They were half under ground, dug into a sort of pit. Inside we had bedding and an oil stove. Additionally, we had gas masks. I never wore mine for any length of time but we had to try them on initially. They were horrible. We were told there would be a special warning if there was a gas attack. For the windows, we were provided with wide sticky tape, every window had to be done.

Brick shelters were provided along roadsides to protect you from shrapnel, you’d dive into one of these if necessary. I remember going into one, looking up and realising they hadn’t put a roof on! I got out again quick!

Life In The Civil Defence

I joined The Civil Defence in late 1939. As a young married woman, I was not eligible for call up to the forces, but would be liable for doing some form of National Service. I had first aid training so decided the Auxiliary Ambulance Service was the place for me.

Civil Defence was made up of sections — Heavy Rescue, Light Rescue, Stretcher Parties and the Auxiliary Ambulance Service. Heavy Rescue dealt with damaged buildings. Light Rescue extracted people from the ruins of their homes. The Stretcher Parties dealt with the injured and brought them out to the ambulances who then took them to hospital.

I was posted to a station at Highbury Corner in the premises of a closed down garage. One particular evening, there had been a heavy raid and we were called out to an incident in Essex Road — a pub, that I believe was called The Thatched House, had been hit by a bomb. Fires were burning and the banks of the New River had been breached, water was pouring down the road.

We had very little uniform then and I can still see myself in a thin dust coat, a 1914 tin hat and a pair of men’s wellies — I had big feet! I was fascinated to watch an enemy plane lit up by searchlights and I was convinced the pilot had his eyes on me! The noise and confusion was terrifying, but we got our casualties to hospital.

I don’t think people realise now, what both young and old, ordinary people endured as a matter of course.

The Arsenal Football Club Air Raid Shelter

My flat was in a house in Highbury Hill, right opposite the West stand of the Arsenal Football Club. This was a huge building containing changing rooms, offices etc. It had become a habit to use it as an air raid shelter — people would come by taxi and on foot, carrying with them bedding and necessities, seeking shelter for the night. Some enterprising owner of a coffee stall had set up shop there.

One evening, I found myself without a shilling for the gas meter and had gone across to get one. I was standing in the entrance of the stadium talking to a young air raid warden. We were watching a jerry plane lit up by searchlights — there was a battery in Highbury Fields near by. Suddenly the young man turned to me and gave me a hefty push, which knocked me to the ground, he fell on top of me and at that moment there was an almighty explosion. A bomb had fallen just down the road by the Arsenal Underground Station and debris was flying everywhere.

The Arsenal Stadium and that young man saved me from death or serious injury. No wonder, sixty years later, I still support the Arsenal!

Witnessing the bombing of the East End

One beautiful Saturday afternoon we heard planes and lots of noise. The garden was very high up, being on Highbury Hill, so we ran out to have a look. It was a horrible sight. We could see squadrons of planes coming up the river and the little Spitfires circling around them. That was when they bombed the East End so badly and we could see it happening. It was pretty ghastly. It was unreal.

A passenger on a fire bombed train

The worst bombing I remember being personally involved with was when I was travelling back from Colchester one weekend by train. They decided to fire bomb the train. Firebombs were little devices that didn’t actually do a lot of damage themselves, but set fire to everything they touched. They fell either side of the embankment whilst we were still aboard the train.

There were three or four Yankee soldiers in my carriage and they had been trying to chat me up. When we got to Liverpool Street Station it was such a ghastly sight, I can still see it now, so vividly. All the glass in the canopy had been broken. There was a mass of people but they wouldn’t allow anyone out of the station. There was an awful red glow in the sky and fires all around. It was when they did so much damage in the city.

Yet, amongst all this, the Yanks came up to me and started again — as long as it wasn’t actually hitting you, you didn’t seem to worry. Their Sergeant came over and asked ‘haven’t you got something better to do than chat up young ladies?’ so they had to go! I thought how do I get home? The underground was the only way but there were masses of people — some were already asleep down there. I did make it safely back home, but it was very scary.

Coping in London

I was very young during the war, only 21 years old, but we just weren’t afraid. I think the people that were afraid had got out. You either left London or stayed put and I’m the type of person who stays put. It was the excitement.

One of the awful things to see though, was that at about 4 o clock in the afternoon, if you were anywhere near a tube station, you’d see everybody out congregating in the streets - especially at Holborn because it’s a double decker station. You’d see people arriving with their children and their bundles of bedding. They had to go early to get a place. It was smelly and horrible down there. I think they just had pails for toilets. You never knew what you would find when you came back up again the next day.

There were some real characters around in the Civil Defence — East Enders who were taxi drivers or market traders, unable to go to war because they were too old etc. They were fun. I was at Cannonbury Road one night and it had been particularly busy. We all reported back and one man, a real character, a trader in Petticoat Lane came back laughing. We asked him what was so funny and he relayed how a house had fallen down and they’d dug a bloke out. Apparently, once rescued he said, “I thought it was a bit strange, I was only sitting on the toilet, I pulled the chain and the house fell down”! That is a story that has stuck in my mind. We did laugh about that.

The station was very happy. I was the youngest and so I got teased a lot. We had to wear trousers and in those days that was quite something for a woman. We had old car seats to sit in and a billiard table for entertainment. Once, they tipped my seat back and poured billiard balls down my trouser legs!

We were on 24-hour duty, so you had to sleep if you could. We used to go and sleep in the backs of the ambulances on the stretchers. The London County Council (LCC) sent an inspector down one time, because they’d heard there were ‘immoral goings on’ in the ambulances! They got us all out and the only couple they found together were husband and wife!

Doodle bugs and rockets

I don’t remember exactly when doodlebugs or buzz bombs started, but I do recall how the air raid sirens would go and then the noise of the nasty things as they approached. You knew you were safe whilst you could hear them, but when the noise cut out you dived for cover fast.

I remember being at Marble Arch one day, on my way to Selfridges and a young Canadian airman had been trying to chat me up. The sirens went and a buzz bomb appeared in the sky coming from Tottenham Road direction. I wasn’t that bothered because I could hear it and turned to reassure the young man, only to find him flat on his face on the pavement! I was not too impressed by his ability to assist me should I have needed it.

In 1943 David, my son, was a baby. I of course had left the LAAS. I was on my own by this time and living in a top floor flat near Marn House. I used to put David to bed under the table, which was just as well, as one day, a rocket fell by the reservoir on Green Lanes and my ceiling came down with a crash.

I still remember grabbing the baby and trying to get downstairs over the rubble which was all over the stairs — not easy with a 10lb baby in your arms. I took David down to my sister in Southwick while they came and patched up my ceiling with hard board - it wasn’t very pretty.

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These messages were added to this story by site members between June 2003 and January 2006. It is no longer possible to leave messages here. Find out more about the site contributors.

Message 1 - Joan Windors WW2 Experiences in Cannonbury Road, London

Posted on: 06 July 2005 by Ron Goldstein

Dear Joan
Thank you so much for posting this first class story of London during the blitz.
As an 'old timer' myself I know you won't take offense if I remind you that it was Neville Chamberlain and not McMillan who told us that we were now at war.
This slight error is easily altered from your end by going in to EDIT.
Still a cracking story !
Best wishes


Message 2 - Joan Windors WW2 Experiences in Cannonbury Road, London

Posted on: 06 July 2005 by stjohnscentre

message from centre worker, ray gibson:

Thanks Ron, I'll pass that on, and glad you enjoyed reading Joan's wonderful entry!

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