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The Shelter

by Ian Billingsley

Contributed by 
Ian Billingsley
People in story: 
Gladys Wade
Location of story: 
Background to story: 
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
04 May 2005

I was twenty years old at the outbreak of the second world war, and one of my earliest memories, is of sheltering during an air raid. A bomb exploded and blew all the tiles off a nearby garage roof trapping me inside. I lay on my back pushing the door with both feet to try and dislodge the obstruction. My feelings of panic soon disappeared, when the rescuers turned up within five minutes.
I was married in March 1941 and we had our first child in 1943. My husband John was an engineer and working on the radar system at Beckenham in Kent. He would have liked to have joined one of the services, but he was not allowed to do so being in a reserved occupation. He did work long hours and also worked as an A.R.P. Warden when needed. There was an incident near the factory one day that shook him a great deal. A bomb had landed on the local cafe during lunch time and forty people were trapped or killed. Another incident he recalled, was when the bus station was bombed. He turned a body over and the man’s head fell off. He saw more active service than any of our three brothers, who were all in the services. Fortunately, they weren’t posted to any of the combat zones.
During these years, I learned how to make Rock Cakes and Scotch Shortbread with liquid paraffin because the fats were rationed. We made scrambled egg from dried powder, which wasn’t too bad. My family had to save up sugar, fat and dried fruit for almost a year before we were married, just to make one standard wedding cake. Because there was no shortage or rationing of fish, we had lots, but we were only allowed one shilling’s worth of meat per person per week. Many meals consisted of three or four baked potatoes with vegetable toppings. It’s no wonder we were all healthy.
I made a pinafore dress from John’s plus fours and a grey flannel skirt from his wide bottomed trousers. Singlets and panties were made for my daughter from his cotton underwear.
One of the more frightening episodes, was the first night the Germans sent over the V1’s. It was the night of 15/16 June 1944, when about sixty of these missiles were making their way to the London area. Bromley and Beckenham were along the route. My brother Peter was staying with us when the raid started and he had already gone to bed. He wouldn’t come into the shelter, which we had erected in the dining room, so I pulled the covers off him. He begrudgingly joined us.
At the time, we didn’t realise just what the missiles were. With the sound of the engines cutting out and the explosions, we thought that it was our guns scoring direct hits. But we were soon to learn. As one cut out overhead, I held my body over the baby and braced myself. The explosion lifted up the house and blew the roof off. The Morrison Shelter jumped across the room and landed a couple of feet away from it’s original position, crushing the wheels of the baby’s pram.
The room filled with dust. The V1 had landed on a block of four terraced houses one hundred yards away, killing six of our neighbours. We spent the night commiserating with four other families, then at dawn, we returned to the house to rescue some of our clothes. The house could not be lived in, so I had to go with the baby to a friend’s home in Lincolnshire for three months. John could not leave his work and had to go back and live with his mum and dad.
Our furniture was bought new, in 1941, but now it was all embedded with glass splinters. It was everywhere, especially in the wardrobes and dining furniture. Even the heavy curtains that were lined with Blackout material were ruined. By October, it had been repaired and we returned home to find that the Land Mines had become the latest weapons from Germany. One landed at the top of the road but it only rocked the house. Again, we knew we were safe because we had heard it.
Being bombed out of house and home at the age of twenty five, certainly helped me grow up quickly and I consider myself very lucky to have been a survivor when so many of my friends had died.

Gladys Wade.
Seacliffe. South Australia.

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