- Contributed by
- Pauline Tookey nee Edmondson
- People in story:
- Pauline Tookey nee Edmondson
- Location of story:
- Falconwood, Rochester Way, Sidcup
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 08 February 2004
I was twelve and Peter, my brother, was seven, and we were living on the Rochester Way in Sidcup, Kent. All through the summer preparations for war were being made. Trenches were dug in all the parks and open spaces for air raid shelters. Everyone had to tape their windows to stop the glass from shattering. We had air raid drill every day at school, filing out in order into the shelters which had been built on the school playing fields.
Everyone was issued with a gas mask which we had to carry everywhere we went. They were worn over our shoulders like a satchel. I hated putting mine on, I used to think I would suffocate, but it came in very useful for swinging round my head an bashing up all my enemies. We were also told how to protect ourselves in the event of a gas attack. Our front room was turned into a ‘safe room’ – the chimney and every crack was stuffed with paper and the windows sealed. A bowl of water and a blanket were kept in there, so we could hang a wet blanket over the door in the event of a gas attack, and we had tinned food, containers of water, and a primus stove. Nothing was done about sanitary arrangements, so I presume we were supposed to hold our breath while we crept out to the loo. Thank goodness gas was never used, but at that time it was our worst fear.
Soon we saw our first barrage balloon. It was very exciting to see this big silver object floating in the sky. It wasn’t long before the whole of London and the surrounding area was covered with balloons a far as the eye could see. We soon discovered that the edge of a balloon barrage wasn’t a very healthy place to live. When the bombing started the planes would come in low, and in order to gain height, would drop a few bombs. However, this was all in the future. Peter and I couldn’t understand why all the grown-ups didn’t want a war. It was the most exciting thing that had happened to us in our young lives. At last something thrilling was happening and we hoped there would be a war.
Looking back on those pre-war days, they were golden days for us. We were quite comfortably off – we were part of the new elite, living in suburbia in a new house with a large garden. A bedroom each, plenty to eat and ‘best’ clothes as well as school clothes.
Preparations went on. My father joined the LDV (Local Defence Force) which later became the ARP (Air Raid Precautions). He became an air raid warden and was issued with a tin hat, a whistle and an armband. He took all this very seriously, although he was very disappointed that he couldn’t get back into the Navy. I thought my father’s chief function in life would be to go round looking for chinks of light, blowing his whistle and shouting “put that light out”.
Everyone stocked up with tinned food; my mother always bought extra when she went shopping. Blackout curtains were put up in every room in the house, even in my dad’s shed. My father, who was a repairer and bookbinder at the Public Record Office in London, started to work shifts. He went to work in the morning and came home again on the evening of the next day, then he had a night and a day off. The night he spent at the office he was on firewatching duty. Although the war hadn’t started, everyone had to act as if it had. “Be prepared” was the motto.
Peter and I were allowed to go out as usual, as long as we took our gas masks along, otherwise we could be stopped by a policeman and asked where they were.
So the summer went by until September 2nd, which sticks in my mind, because it was such a hot day. It was a Saturday and we were all up early for we all knew that this was the weekend, short of a miracle, that war would be declared. Sand and sandbags had been delivered to all the houses and we spent all that day filling the bags. They were then stacked all round the front of the house, so the windows were barricaded about halfway up. I don’t remember that any were put round the back of the house, so I presume that we must have expected Hitler (we had by then dropped the Mister) to come in the front door if he came calling.
September 3rd 1939
Once again the weather was very hot, and everything was really peaceful. Every detail of the hour from 11am to 12 noon is as clear in my mind as if it were yesterday. We all gathered round the wireless to listen to Mr Chamberlain’s speech. I sat on the back steps to listen to the broadcast. Big Ben’s chimes came over the air at 11am, and Mr Chamberlain announced that Britain was now at war with Germany.
Almost at once the sirens sounded, which threw everyone into a panic, particularly my mother. It was decided that we should all go and sit in the ‘Safe Room’. So there we all sat, waiting for the bombers to come, but nothing happened. Just silence. My mother decided that she would venture into the kitchen and make a cup of tea. The first of many cups of tea that were to take us through many a crisis. As it happened we didn’t get the tea immediately because my mother thought she heard hand bells being rung. These were the signal for a gas attack. She came flying back into the room screaming “Gas Attack”. We all put our gas masks on, and there we sat waiting to be bombed, gassed, and in my case suffocated. It was then I decided I didn’t like the war after all. Soon after that we were rescued by the all clear sounding, and we were able to have our cup of tea at last.
After that first day things went on much as usual. The war didn’t seem to make much difference although a lot of the girls I went to school with were evacuated. But we stayed where we were. The British Expeditionary Force went to France, and we all thought the war would soon be over. We had our first wartime Christmas with presents and chicken as usual. Chicken was a luxury then, only eaten at Christmas.
Sometimes the sirens would sound, but nothing ever happened. The Anderson shelter in the garden filled up with water and then froze, for it was a terribly cold winter. This problem hadn’t been foreseen by the authorities. In the spring of 1940 all the shelters had to be concreted on the inside, which must have cost thousands of pounds, but it kept the water out. I have only got to smell wet cement now, and it takes me right back to those days.
It was a dreary winter with the blackout restrictions, no-one was supposed to show a glimmer of light outside. First of all transport was driven with no lights at all, but road accidents were so bad that they were allowed to use masked lights after a while. Of course there were no street lights, but people could use small torches. It became a well-known wartime saying: “Got your gas mask, got your torchlight, alright, goodnight”.
After Christmas rationing was introduced for food, but we never went hungry. Bananas and oranges disappeared for the whole of the war. Lots of things went ‘under the counter’ and the black market flourished. Half our garden was dug up that spring, and loads of vegetables planted. Everyone was “Digging for Victory”. But in the early summer in 1940 the Phoney War came to an end, and the British Expeditionary Force were evacuated from Dunkirk. Things were about to change.
The Blitz, August 1940.
The next few months were the most terrible times I had ever known. Up to then we had never used the shelter in the garden. We had a few raids and saw the odd German plane, but nothing bad; but as the raids became more frequent it became obvious that things were going to get worse. My mum and dad and everyone else who lived around us began to fix up their shelters. My father built two bunks in ours, one for Peter and one for my mother, and hung a hammock for me in the gangway. It took me ages to learn to stay in it, I was always falling out. My father never slept in the shelter; he had a chair in there which he sometimes sat on, but most of the time he was outside doing his duty as a warden. This used to drive my mother mad. She used to call out to him “Stan where are you?” and he would reply “Standing in the corner”. She used to hiss at me through clenched teeth “Where does he find a bloody corner out there?” This amused Peter and I, we used to think he only did it to annoy her. When the raids were really bad, bombs would be whizzing down, guns banging away, and shrapnel all over the place, but my dad didn’t get so much as a scratch.
By this time we had our shelter quite comfortable. The primus stove, water containers and kettle were all kept in there. We even had a strip of carpet on the floor and our shelter became a second home. As the air raids got worse we started going to bed in there, which was easier than going to bed indoors and then having to get up again. Where we lived on the Rochester Way in Sidcup, nearly every family slept in their shelter, not only because it was safer, but should the house be bombed it was easier to dig people out of an Anderson than search for them in the ruins of a house. So the summer went by, with the raids becoming more and more frequent.
September 7th 1940
The day was perfect, not a cloud in the sky, and really hot. The school summer holidays hadn’t ended. My father had been decorating my bedroom for me, and it just needed to be put straight and curtains hung. I helped my mother to do this in the morning. I was really pleased with my new room.
We had lunch and then went out into the garden to pick pears. The warning sirens sounded about three-thirty, and we heard planes and a lot of gunfire. Almost at once the sky was filled with wave after wave of bombers. The noise was awful. We had never used our shelter in the daytime before, but it seemed a good idea to go down into it. I was terrified for the next two hours. My small world was breaking up round me. The noise was the worst thing. Bombs whistling down and guns firing almost non-stop.
When the all clear sounded and we finally emerged from the shelter, it was like stepping into hell. The sight was unbelievable. The sun had disappeared behind huge clouds of smoke. Houses all around were on fire. The trees had hardly any leaves left on them, and there was debris everywhere. People just stood around dazed, looking at each other. We climbed over all the rubbish and went back into what was left of the house. The whole place was wrecked, the front door had been blown right off, gone through the house and was laying in the dining room. All the windows were smashed. My newly decorated bedroom was a wreck, and the ceiling was down on the bed. Bombs had completely demolished three houses right opposite to us and everyone that stayed in them had been killed.
As it got dark that evening the sky began to glow over London. All the docks had been set on fire, and hundreds of people living round there had been killed. Everyone was saying they will be back tonight, but we spent the remaining hours of daylight clearing up some of the mess. We managed to get the front door back on, and some of the windows boarded up. I helped my mother to prepare a meal, but I dreaded it getting dark. I was sure we would all be killed that night.
The sirens sounded again about nine o’clock. We went into the shelter, my mother as always carrying the bag she took everywhere with her, containing our birth certificates, personal papers, and most important, our identity cards and ration books.
That night’s raid seemed even worse to me than the one in the afternoon, but this was just a taste of life to come in the Battle of Britain. We were living in what came to be known as ‘Bomb Alley’, and there were raids every day and night. My school was closed and I never went back there. In October some houses at the back of us received a direct hit and we were buried in the shelter, for about half an hour before being dug out by a rescue squad. None of us were really hurt, just cuts and bruises. The Anderson shelters stood up really well to the bombing.
Although we all hated the bombing it became a way of life, and people used to come out of their shelters and joke with one another. Old Jerry still hadn’t got us beat. My father had been at work on the night we were buried in the shelter. Looking back on it, what a worry it must have been for both of them when he had to stay away for the night. Neither of them knowing if the other had been killed. By this time the house was such a mess that it was decided we would have to find somewhere a bit safer to live.
On the move
My mother had decided that she wanted to go back to Hull to her family. We set out for London of all places, for if we were to get to Hull we had to go from London. There was no public transport running, the railway line was wrecked and there were no buses. People had to rely on hitching a lift. We didn’t have long to wait before a covered lorry came along with quite a few more people in it in the same plight as ourselves. We piled our cases in, climbed into the lorry and were off. A couple of miles along the Rochester Way we suddenly came to a stop. The driver yelled “Everyone out and lay in the ditch”. There had been no warning, but a lone German plane was machine gunning the main road we were on. The driver by his quick thinking no doubt saved our lives. We lay in the ditch for quite a while to make sure the plane wasn’t coming back, then we all got back in the lorry. The canvas cover was ripped to bits by the bullets. We all thought what a lucky escape we had had, and set off once more for London.
The driver put us off at the first Underground station we came to and we made our way to Holborn by tube. I shall always remember the sight of all those people settling down for the night all over the platforms. When we got off the tube it was difficult not to walk on people. They were laying everywhere, but the trains kept running.
We finally reached our destination, a flat in Peabody Buildings in Holborn, where some friends of my father lived. They made us welcome and we sat down to eat, but were only about half way through the meal when the sirens went. Nobody stayed in the buildings at night, and we all went to a big public shelter under the Kingsway Hall, a huge cellar with hundreds of people in it. I spent the night laying on the stone floor. It was most uncomfortable and cold, I missed our Anderson shelter, and although we didn’t hear much noise down there, I didn’t feel safe. I didn’t like the thought of being so far underground, I kept thinking of all the huge buildings on top of us, and what would happen if they collapsed. We spent two days and nights in London, and then were on the move again.
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