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Infant on the Home Front: In Norbury

by CobalBirdie

Contributed by 
CobalBirdie
People in story: 
Anthony Mundy
Location of story: 
Norbury, London, SW16
Article ID: 
A2117611
Contributed on: 
08 December 2003

Infant on The Home Front

Prologue
Born the youngest of three boys, sons of a single parent, a mother who had lost a fourth son (from meningitis) and a husband (from tuberculosis), I was just eight when the war started.

We were what today might be described as a family with a ‘deprived background’. Early widowhood had driven the surviving family from home ownership at Oakhill Road Norbury into a terraced LCC council dwelling for a weekly rent of ten and fourpence receipted in a rent book with twopenny orange stamps. (Firstly, Edward VIII and then George VI)

Five of us slept in two rooms. An out of doors lavatory; the bath with a copper in the kitchen to heat the bath water weekly; and a ‘kitchener’ in the living-room for warmth. Those were the basic facilities of 3 Bavant Road, Norbury, London SW16 and the adjacent dwellings.

Mother worked as a telephonist in Saville Row for the SBAC (Society of British Aircraft — now Aerospace — Constructors-Telephone No: Regent 5215) and we three children were cared for by our resident grandmother who was then about sixty. She had experienced the horrors of the First World War and feared what the ‘Boche’ would do this time. My eldest brother was 19 and my elder brother 15 at the outbreak of war. Both started working in the City of London when they were about 14.

Wars and Rumours of Wars
Spain, Abyssinia, Nazism, Hitler, Munich, Poland and finally the 3rd September 1939 dawned.

Preparations included the issue of gasmasks (with a sour smell of rubber and a misting lens); making black-out blinds; taping-up the window panes; eldest brother called up as he was a TA volunteer; trees and gate-posts painted with broad black and white stripes, kerbs painted with yellow segments; vehicle head-lamps fitted with filters; the London Defence Volunteers emerged: a ‘Civic Restaurant’ opened in a disused cinema in the High Street; blackout rehearsals at night initiated by air-raid sirens wailing; the issue of identity cards (CLDD 110 3), ration books and arrival of ‘square’ scissors.

Funny Incidents
There was a demonstration at the top of Streatham Common in a corrugated iron ‘theatre’. Bales of straw were stacked on the stage and ignited by a man in a boiler suit. A very lively blaze ensued. Was there a fire engine to hand?

Not so. We were shown how one person would be able to extinguish the fire with a bucket of water and a stirrup pump. This taught us how we could deal with incendiary bombs if they pierced the roofs of our houses. We were urged to clear our lofts and attics of all combustible material.

Suddenly iron railings, gates and chain linked fencing were removed seemingly overnight from all public parks and buildings and schools.

Directional road signs were removed.

We were urged to ‘Dig for Victory’ and informed that ‘Careless Talk Costs Lives’

Bus and tram windows were sealed with a yellow mesh to prevent glass fragmentation during air-raids. This prevented passengers from seeing their progression along the route.

Before long passengers, to improve visibility, would peel off the corners of the mesh.

London Transport put up notices:
‘I trust you’ll pardon my correction but that stuff is there for your protection’

to which a wag had added:

‘Thank you for your information but I cannot see the ruddy station’

and another:

‘Face the driver, raise your hand, you’ll find that he will understand’

and modified:

‘I know he’ll understand, the cuss — but will he stop the ruddy bus?’

Personalities of people changed. The quiet and inconspicuous spinster next door in the corner house with Northborough Road suddenly emerged as an Air Raid Warden resplendent in a navy blue uniform, with gas mask, hand-rattle, white lanyard, whistle and steel helmet.

The First Air-Raid
And when the 3rd September arrived, Chamberlain’s broadcast brought the crisis to a head to anyone who could listen to a wireless set (some were still powered by an accumulator). For us, it was our family and the United Dairies milkman doing his morning delivery from his horse drawn cart.

Immediately after the announcement the first air raid sirens of the war sounded and, not knowing what was to happen, I panicked, put on my gas mask and rushed into the garden sunshine. I was re-assured by my eldest brother and his girl friend and relaxed when the ‘All-Clear’ sounded.

There were rumours soon that Croydon Airport had been attacked.

That was to be the first of many raids.

Our Air Raid Shelter
One morning there was a commotion in the road. A lorry had arrived with a gang of men. They were delivering the Anderson Shelters to our front gardens. Each terraced house received six curved sections of corrugated iron, six straight sections, four with angled corners, four large red girders, a few smaller girders, a canvas bag with nuts, bolts and fittings and printed instructions.

A bit like flat-pack furniture.

Watching the activity progress up the road towards our house, I noticed that a strong man in the gang could manage to carry simultaneously three curved sections on his back from the lorry to the gardens. Less able men managed only two such sections. It didn’t take very long to supply the components of a shelter to each house.

The following weekend my eldest brother (now a Corporal) was home from the army on a short leave having just been vaccinated. He and my elder brother dug out a large rectangular trench in the back garden. It was about four feet deep and six and a half feet square. The four red girders were placed at the perimeter of the trench, squared up with string across the diagonals and bolted together at the corners. The curved sections were slotted into the girders and bolted at the top. Finally the back and front sections of the shelter were assembled. The front sections provided access to the shelter through a small entrance hole.

I entered the newly erected shelter and smelled the dank atmosphere arising from the mud floor. This ‘dug-out’ was to be our family’s protection during air raids. It occupied most of the little back garden.

The excavated soil was loaded onto the top of the sunken shelter until a great mound was all that could be seen of our refuge apart from the entrance hole.

Whenever it rained the shelter let in water. My elder brother, by mixing and laying a thick fillet of concrete onto the mud surface, solved this problem.

As time went by, neighbours competed for the best-cultivated garden on their shelters and the warmest degree of comfort within. This led to my elder brother painting the inside walls white and installing some means of illumination together with bunks and a small arm-chair just within the entrance.

It all became rather snug.

The Evacuation
The SBAC was evacuated to Harrogate but my mother was found a telephonist’s job for the duration of the war in London with the Finnish Legation.

We have all seen newsreels of large crowds of very young children at railway termini waiting to be transported to safer parts of the country with their luggage, gas masks and identity labels.

But what about the plight of any child left behind?

For a long time there was no school to attend. Similarly placed infants and I played in the streets, some of us collected horse manure in our wooden trolleys (converted from prams) for sale to neighbours and scrumped apples via the network of neighbourhood alleyways.

Friends and I frequently visited the Westminster Bank Sports Ground at Norbury. This had been taken over by the army and an anti-aircraft gun battery installed in the centre of the playing fields.

Armed sentries guarded the entrance gate and we would spend much time watching their routines of arms drill, marching up and down and changing guard each two hours.

At home, we copied the soldiers and mounted guard at our front garden entrances with our toy rifles. I am sure that we became just as smart as the soldiers in our arms drill and sentry duties.

We could see to the North that the sky above London was becoming infested with barrage balloons. There were hundreds of balloons with great tail fins glistening in the sunlight; wires to winches on lorries tethered them.

After a time some private schools opened. A lady with a hearing aid opened a class in the church hall of the Norbury Methodist Church. Mum paid a small fee for my attendance where a dozen or so children sat on the floor in a circle at teacher’s feet to receive lessons.

Later it was full time attendance at a private preparatory school where the standards of other children in the class were high. Suddenly, ‘joined-up’, writing, French lessons and homework presented insoluble problems. Still later I attended a convent school in Thornton Heath where nuns taught us.

Gradually the evacuees returned home and the demand for schools increased. This led to my brief attendance at Kensington Avenue School.

Finally, my school - Norbury Manor - re-opened under the superb leadership of the Headmaster Mr Harry Albon and his excellent teaching staff.

The period of this first evacuation of children had lasted from September 1939 until March 1940.

On my return to Norbury Manor I saw that the cloakrooms had been converted into windowless air-raid shelters and we were each instructed to bring in and store in the shelters an Oxo tin with ‘Iron Rations’ in case of an emergency.

Air Raids
News was bad. The Norwegian Campaign failed. Hitler’s forces advanced across Europe. The Russians defeated the Finns. Russia formed an alliance with Germany, France fell and then there was Dunkirk evacuation.

Winston Churchill had become Prime Minister and now we expected to be invaded by the German Armies from across the English Channel.

As children we might watch the Battle of Britain dogfights in the summer sky and hear the rattle of machine gun fire from the planes above. Sometimes we would see the Spitfires or Hurricanes fly the Victory Roll after a battle. We were near Croydon, Kenley and Biggin Hill Airports.

If we were at school during a daylight raid we would be led into the converted cloakroom air-raid shelters immediately the sirens sounded. The teachers were excellent in maintaining our morale and made us sing songs very loudly throughout the duration of the raids to drown the noise of the battles raging in the neighbourhood.

Then it was the Blitz. Air-raid sirens wailed every evening and into our Anderson shelter we would go. At first it was a novelty to watch the masses of searchlights piercing the dusk and darkness, criss-crossing in the sky in the search for intruders and sometimes illuminating the barrage balloons. A light would suddenly extinguish and then quickly re-light and a pencil of light thrust upwards into the darkness.

The characteristic throbbing of the invaders’ engines could be heard and sometimes an enemy plane would enter a searchlight’s beam, pass through it, and then several lights would quickly sweep over to concentrate on locating that plane that had at first avoided detection. If it were found three or more beams would lock onto the raider and hold it in view for the anti-aircraft guns to try and destroy it.

The noise from the guns was terrific especially when the battery about a mile away at the Westminster Bank Sports Club opened fire. It is not possible to describe the intensity and impact of the noise of an air raid. Sirens wailing, aeroplane engines throbbing purposely to worry the civilian population below, whistles blowing, guns firing and firing and firing, shrapnel from the anti-aircraft shells striking the roofs of the neighbouring houses and sometimes the whistle of descending bombs and the explosions that followed.

And the raids became a nightly routine. Down we went into the dugout as soon as the sirens wailed. Sleeping in the bunks except grandmother who always sat every night in the chair within the entrance. She would leave the wooden door ajar and we could just see the flashes as the anti-aircraft guns fired. When the throbbing of the enemy planes came near she would close the door and we would wait for whatever was to happen.

Looking north from the shelter entrance, the sky sometimes glowed red as London, seven miles away, burned.

A keen interest of my friends and I after raids was to collect shrapnel from the roads and gardens. We gathered masses of it and competed for the best piece. This was the largest and shiniest bit. Sometimes it was still warm from the explosion of the shell; you could detect the pungent odour of the burned TNT. The very best and rarest piece was the remnant of a time-fuse, conical in shape with graduation marks around the surviving part of the circumference.

As I walked to school one morning I saw that a bomb had destroyed a house in my road. It was a heap of rubble but exposed the bedroom wallpaper and fireplaces in the party walls. Heavy Rescue men were clambering over the rubble to recover the occupants.

On another occasion there was a rumour of an interesting event near a factory on Mitcham Common. I biked there and saw that an enormous land-mine had fallen in the back garden of a house near the Common. The mine had not exploded and presumably had been made safe by the army. We were allowed to watch the soldiers who, with a large lorry, were trying to haul the mine out of the ground by ropes slung from the rear of the vehicle and around the mid-riff of the mine. The mine was stubborn and did not budge.

So, as a matter of routine, winter evening after winter evening my grandmother, mother, elder brother and I would leave the back door of our house for the dug-out and remain down there until dawn and the sirens sounding the ‘all-clear’.

Disaster
The bomb landed on our Anderson shelter on the night of Friday the 29th November 1940 during the 92nd raid on Croydon,

The bomb demolished the house beyond our air-raid shelter and wrecked the house next door to that — both in Northborough Road. My house and the house each side of it were rendered unstable. All the five other houses in the terrace were badly damaged at the back. And the roofs of four more houses in Northborough Road were damaged.

A profitable bomb.

It had rained heavily during daylight hours on that day and, exceptionally, the Anderson shelter was flooded. So, prevented by the flood from following our normal routine, the family slept on the ground floor of the house under the dining room table during the air raid.

In the night, there was the scream of bombs falling and a great thump very close to our house. My elder brother (now 16) investigated the situation together with wardens and discovered our bombed Anderson shelter.

After viewing the damage, the authorities pronounced that the bomb had exploded. Re-assured the four of us completed our slumbers until daylight.

In the morning I (now 9) went down the garden to look at the shelter. There was a hole about two feet in diameter that had been punched directly through the corner of the shelter where my head would have been had there been no rain. It was all very interesting. I started to throw stones and lumps of clay down into the hole. It was obviously very deep as there was a delay before the splash from my missiles hitting the surface of the water below.

I felt some personal pride in our having been so targeted and invited a few friends in to see the hole where the bomb had fallen. With me, they threw some more missiles down the shaft.

Later that morning, my eldest brother (now 20) quite by chance arrived at our house. He had recently returned from Norway and had been detailed to drive from Folkestone to Leeds in an old three-ton civilian lorry loaded with signal stores but called in at Bavant Road on the way.

In due course the police and wardens arrived and together with my two brothers re-examined the newly made hole in our shelter. It was then pronounced that the bomb had not, after all, exploded and the house was evacuated forthwith.

Bedding and some personal effects including my small bike and our black cat ‘Blackie’ were loaded onto the three-ton lorry and we were all transported to the home of the girl friend of my eldest brother. That was in Goldwell Road, Thornton Heath. There we were to stay for the time being.

By the following Monday morning, my eldest brother had left for Leeds, my mother and elder brother for work in London. I cycled to my school in Norbury.

On the way I passed by my home in Bavant Road. Everything seemed different. It soon became clear that the bomb had exploded over the weekend. Our house was still standing but the windows were blown out. Houses at the foot of the garden had collapsed. For the second time in the war I panicked. I turned my bike around, and sobbing, cycled back to Goldwell Road with the news.

What happened after that is unclear. Blackie was reported to have found his way back to Bavant Road but was never seen again. In a day or two I was taken by my grandmother to reside with her second daughter in Strood, Kent. It was again the habit to sleep downstairs during the German air raids, which appeared to have focussed on Chatham Dockyard and the Short Sunderland factory on the Medway at Rochester.

There was another period without attendance at a school.

The Aftermath
During this 92nd raid on Croydon seventeen high explosive bombs had dropped on the Borough. Seven of the bombs caused no damage five of them having fallen on golf courses and a farm. Our bomb was a delayed action bomb.

While I was not at school in Strood my excellent class teacher at Norbury Manor, Miss L M Scott (Scottie), wrote to me. She set up a procedure of sending to me books of exercises on arithmetic and intelligence tests. I had to post the exercises back to her for marking. This was her way of doing whatever she could to prepare me for entering for the ‘Scholarship’ examinations of which the first was to take place in a few months later in 1941.

Back in Surrey my mother and my elder brother were involved in finding a new home for us. They were introduced to various Requisitioned Properties and, on the basis of the rent she could afford to pay, she decided upon 50 Mayfield Road Thornton Heath.

After some weeks my grandmother and I returned to the new family home and what a home it was.

It was again a terraced house but with very large rooms, three bedrooms (one of my own), a bathroom with a lavatory upstairs, hot running water from the boiler behind the dining-room fire, ’French’ windows that led out to a very long garden with a lawn, strawberry bed, chrysanthemums and horseradish. Our furniture, some of it damaged, had been recovered from our Bavant Road house. In time, a Morrison indoor air-raid shelter was installed in the front room.

I continued my education at Norbury Manor School under the careful tuition of Scottie. I failed the ‘Scholarship’ examination that I sat in 1941 but was successful in 1942.

That gave me a grant-aided place at the Whitgift Middle School, North End, Croydon.

Epilogue

The heroine of this story is my mother who, in her thirties had in the space of a few years, suffered the loss of an infant son, a husband and two homes. The angels were our grandmother for looking after the family and my teachers and the headmaster of Norbury Manor for the outstanding support they gave to all the children particularly during the war years.

There is a note recorded by Mrs Rosemary Sharp a teacher at Norbury Manor in the souvenir booklet published to celebrate its Golden Jubilee in 1982:

‘ I remember too the shock of hearing of the death of a little girl in my class who was killed by the bombing one night and the awful feeling as I wrote ‘deceased’ by her name in the register.’

The SBAC returned to London and my mother worked for the Society until her retirement.

My eldest brother married his girl friend in 1942 before being transported to Egypt where he was baptised, confirmed and commissioned into the Indian Army. He returned home as a Major via El Alamein, Italy and Jubblepore. He and his wife celebrated their Diamond Wedding Anniversary last year.

My elder brother volunteered for the Royal Air Force and won his ‘Wings’ as a Sergeant Navigator having been trained in South Africa. Fortunately, the war ended before he had to fly on operations and he lives now in Surrey with his family

Mother and grandmother survived until their eighties.

In due course the properties in Bavant and Northborough Roads were rebuilt.

As for me at Whitgift Middle School from 1942, I was taught my Catechism and embarked on the mysterious road of adolescence, experienced the doodlebugs and, in due course, attended VE and VJ celebrations in London.

What happened to me after that is another story.

Anthony Mundy 8 December 2003

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