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WW2 Experiences of a Hertfordshire Schoolboy

by john heathcote

Contributed by 
john heathcote
People in story: 
John Heathcote
Location of story: 
Waltham Cross Herts
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
19 October 2003

Below is a brief account of my primary school life which, more or less, co-incided with the second world war. This was not written with the History Channel project in mind but seems relevant butto give my children a picture of what life was like in contrast to their own. It is mostly trivia but was what I saw through the eyes of a young boy. I have recently seen Alan Bennett talking about his experiences on TV and John Barry (who was slightly older) in Omnibus who was in York and who remarked on the great influence the war had on his personality and I have tried to think what it had on mine (aged 4-10.) One’s life, as I recall, was totally taken up by what was happening at home and abroad and every interest I had was to do with the war. I suspect I was well in advance of children today in many ways but well behind in others.

I was born 5th May 1935
Spent 1935 to 1953 at Waltham Cross Herts, northern suburb of London

My first memory in life (aged 4) is the first day of the war when I had gone to a corner shop with my mother and the siren went and my father came running to fetch us back home. I believe this was just a test of the air raid siren (moaning minnie) system.

My first day at Kings Road C.C. School (Sept 1940?) was spent in the school air raid shelter which was an underground concrete corridor with wooden benches along the sides where we sat while the teacher read stories. I must have thought this too uncomfortable for the second day because when I got to school I threw the cushion I had brought at my mother and ran all the way home but imagine I must have finished up back in the ‘dug-out’ for the rest of the day.

As time went on people must have become more blasé about shelters - my father built a superb Anderson shelter in the garden of our council house half underground and lined with concrete with a blast wall of earth in wooden shuttering in front of the entrance but after a couple of nights my mother decided that she preferred to take a chance with the bombs to putting up with the discomfort. We did sleep downstairs in the worst air raid times afterwards however - during the Blitz and towards the end of the war when air raids increased again - with me under the table. My uncle, who we visited quite often, had a Morrison shelter which was a table made from a steel sheet on steel angle legs under which you slept and even if the house fell you would probably have been safe underneath barring a direct hit. I used to crawl under and go to sleep if my parents stayed there late.

I clearly remember being fitted out with a gas mask at the local library and we boys quickly realised that it was possible to blow super raspberries if the mask was not a tight fit under our chins. Being so young the true danger of the situation did not strike home to me as it must have to parents and older children. As time went on I did really feel frightened at the later bombing particularly and I was conscious that, after a waking night listening to the aircraft and bombs, I would wake up feeling I was glad that I was still alive. My grandmother lived a few hundred yards from us and her roof was blown off by a ‘land mine’ - in those days land mines were bombs on the end of parachutes not those buried in the ground which were just ‘mines.’ Bits of parachute cord from these were collectables in the universal hobby of ‘collecting shrapnel’ which we used to do in the mornings after a heavy raid. My uncle, aunt and cousins were bombed out without injury and could not move back until they built a new house after the war. Most of the shrapnel was steel fragments from anti-aircraft shells but there were all sorts of bits of copper, aluminium and other stuff but I never achieved my ambition of finding a tail fin from an incendiary bomb which a friend had. On one occasion we found our Mecca when we came across what must have been a lorry load of heavy calibre machine gun bullets dumped in a gravel pit presumably from a firing range. Unfortunately a policeman turned up and told us to clear off - spoiling our collecting but I believe we managed to smuggle a few away. Just as well because I recall that there were quite a few ‘duds’ which had not fired and were still in their cases along with their gun-powder.

We lived quite close to the Enfield small arms factory and the Waltham Abbey ‘gun powder mills’ where explosives had been made since gun powder was invented both of which were important targets for bombers.

There was a searchlight battery near us and the mobile AA guns would drive around and stop at different places making a tremendous din but, as I understand now, hitting very little - I have read that they probably injured more people on the ground than in the air. I remember seeing bombers in the search lights when they seemed to be luminous but I don’t remember knowingly seeing a German aircraft in daylight because we were some way from the Battle of Britain, although close to North Weald fighter base and I was very young then. Certainly our pockets would be bulging with the jagged bits of steel we collected and you could see why ARP wardens wore helmets. We soon had a shed full of the stuff. In my working life later I could never take safety as seriously as one is supposed to now. I well recall coming home late one night with my parents during the Blitz when, as throughout the war there was a total black-out with no street lamps or other visible lights as there are today and seeing the whole sky over London, ten miles away totally red with the fires from the bombing.

I can only recall one boy from where I lived being evacuated because he had a grandmother in Devon. Most of our games involved guns and soldiers, my father was a toolmaker and in a reserved occupation and he made me a super Tommy gun - he was in the Home Guard as a Bren gunner and from his discussions with my uncle I suspect that ‘Dads Army’ was very near the truth. I was very keen on aircraft and had several books on identification and knew all the armament details etc. At the age of 8 or 9 I entered a competition on aircraft identification when 20 or so local shops placed an aircraft model in their window which had to be identified. I got through to the final and found at the event, where we shown slides of aircraft, all the other contestants were teen-agers mainly from the Air Training Corps and I remember being furious because a British aircraft which I could identify I had ruled out because it had German markings and when I complained to the others afterwards I was regarded as being really naïve.

School was somewhat different from nowadays. For a start leaving age was 14 and so you stayed at the same school from 5-14 unless you managed to get a scholarship and went to the ‘grammar’ which became somewhat easier when I was 11 and secondary schools became the norm and I was able to ‘pass the scholarship’ and go on to a grammar school. In the early part of the autumn term the boys in the top class of my primary school went off ‘spud picking’ which seemed a good excuse to get out of school but I guess they must have found it hard work.

You were not allowed to speak at all in class except to the teacher and were in trouble if you did.
I am sure that there were 48 in a class because I was always good at maths and can remember 6 rows of 8 children across the class room. All resources were short including teachers eg there was only one male teacher - all the others being in the forces - and I well remember one very elderly lady, presumably brought back from retirement, going off to sleep during a lesson and we could not decide what to do so we just sat there until she awoke. Discipline was generally much stiffer and speaking to each other in class was totally banned.

I well remember in one particular year (age 8) on one afternoon a week the teacher would take the girls for needlework while the boys were given the task of doing ‘sums’ all afternoon and one of the girls was given the task of standing at the front of the class and calling out the names of any boys who spoke and they were given a sharp rap across the knuckles by teacher with a heavy pencil to the tune of "Do not do that again Mr …………". In my last year at age 10 we had the only man teacher in the school who used a cane quite often on those who misbehaved. I particularly remember when we were being shown an experiment to show how oxygen was burned out of the air with a candle under a glass jar stood in a bowl of water. I thought I was being clever by whispering what was going to happen to a friend. Unfortunately the teacher did not appreciate it and I was given the cane across the fingers to such a degree that they were blue with bruises and I found it painful to wash my hands for a couple of days after. I got no sympathy from my parents.

The school buildings were solid but fairly primitive and the toilets were across the playground which was uncomfortable in wet weather especially as the urinal area of the ‘boys’ had no roof. Seeing who could p. highest up the wall was a regular contest but I never believed those who said they could go over the top of the wall. There was, at least, central heating but on occasions coal used to run out because it was in short supply and on those days we wore our overcoats in class and every so often we did ten minutes of exercises like marching on the spot or arm swinging. I never had a games period in all the 5 or 6 years I was at primary school - there was no equipment as far as I know and we certainly never had football boots or any other kit.

My grandfather had been a painter and decorator and I was very popular with the teachers when I was able to bring books of wallpaper samples which we were able to use for drawing on with chalks in the lower classes. Paper was very scarce as were most materials and at one stage, only for a short time, we had to write on slates which were usually used for making plasticene animals, using a slate pencil which was like a very hard chalk. Pencils were also scarce and we only had scruffy pieces about 5 or 6 cms long. The ball-point pen had not been invented and when we were about 8 we had to use a pen and ink which was a bit messy for children at that age and there were quite a few blots. Pen nibs had to be carefully looked after because they could be easily bent and were difficult to replace and the ink-wells in every desk had to be watched carefully. Putting chalk into them was a major crime because it caused an interesting chemical reaction giving a fascinating white and blue sludge which bubbled up out of the well on to the desk. Text books were very ancient and falling to pieces and totally out of date. The 3Rs took up all of our time and I doubt if many children did not reach a reasonable level.

Bullying was prevalent to a slightly greater extent than today, I think, and there was a much greater tendency to pick on or make fun of, for instance, handicapped children or adults. I can still picture, in the school playground, a less bright neighbour of ours who was 3 or 4 years older than I being cornered against a wall and taunted by probably 20 boys while his step-brother who had been adopted from a home (and who was very dishonest) defended him against them all. There were gangs of lads in each locality and fights between them took place from time to time with stone throwing being the main form of warfare and I can remember being hit but, surprisingly, do not recall anyone being seriously hurt. I suspect that we used to stand sufficiently far away from the opposition to avoid too many direct hits on either side.

All forms of material were short because they were being used for making weapons or because they had to be brought from abroad by seamen under appalling conditions and hundreds of ships were being sunk. So there used to be ‘salvage drives’ when there would be a campaign to collect a certain material such as metal, rubber or paper. I recall that we were given paper badges with army ranks on them according to the amount of paper we collected eg corporal for ten books, colonel for fifty. I hate to think how many valuable books were destroyed but I expect some people knew their value and kept them. I remember a friend of mine won a wooden wheelbarrow for collecting the most rubber although old tyres were greatly prized as hoops as were old bicycle wheel rims. I never had a bicycle until I was 11 and passed the 11-plus but several of my friends did although they were very old and second hand because you could not buy a new one even if you had the money. I recall that second handbikes seemed to cost either one pound for a fairly rough one or two pounds for a somewhat better one.

There were no toys available apart from those which had survived from before the war and games like football and cricket could only be played with a battered tennis ball. I never saw a football until after the war. I had a few lead soldiers and ships from pre-war but I don’t think many of my friends had any. Sword fighting was a frequent pastime with all forms of sticks being used and quite a few bruised knuckles sustained. Home-made bows and arrows would be all the rage if a Robin Hood film was about. Fortunately catapult elastic was unobtainable but old car inner tubes were highly prized as a substitute and I cut my leg quite badly while trying to cut one up with a knife.

Of course there was little public entertainment and no television but we enjoyed the cinema and there were several near us and I probably went once a week. At the better ones we paid a shilling (5p) to go in but there was another which was known as the flea-pit or bug-hutch where we could go in for sixpence (2½p.) I can clearly remember that this cinema never opened until 2.30 on a Saturday afternoon but for some reason we used to get there and queue with a lot of others from about 1.30. This was a ritual I can never understand. At times when bombing was prevalent my mother would not let me go to the pictures - much to my annoyance - which I could never understand because it was well known that if a bomb had your name on it you had had it wherever you were. As boys we mainly liked westerns and war films. The wireless, as it was universally known, was a great part of our lives as TV is today and both myself and my parents listened frequently both for entertainment and news. I owe a lot to Children’s Hour which Alan Bennett talked about in his ‘Telling Tales’ TV series recently.

There was plenty of reading material in the form of comics which were avidly ‘swapped’ between us. The Beano and Dandy were popular as were Tiny Tots, Chicks Own, Film Fun and Radio Fun. Later on we graduated to Wizard, Adventure, Rover, Hotspur and Champion all of which were almost totally text rather than pictures and, although frowned on by teachers at the time, must have been a tremendous aid to reading skill especially among those who were probably not encouraged with books at home.

Nobody I knew had a telephone and I never went in a car until I was eleven (to hospital.) This is why films were so popular - seeing such sophisticated items.

The great interest in life for me was food and although nobody starved we were often hungry. Rationing was strictly adhered to and everyone had a ration book, green for babies, blue for children and buff for adults. I cannot remember what extras the green book produced but I know that my blue book meant that the coupons in it entitled me to oranges occasionally. Bananas were totally absent and there was a popular song on the wireless ‘When can I have a banana again.’ I remember seeing a picture of a grapefruit in a book at school and it was my ambition for years to have one which I did after the war and it was one of the biggest disappointments of my life when I peeled it and ate it like an orange and found it to be bitter. My father had one week’s holiday from work every year and would take me out for the day on the bus and the highlight of this was the purchase of a peach, from a posh green grocers (they would have been grown in a glasshouse locally) which were relatively expensive and that would be the only peach of the year. I believe that the meat ration was something like ‘one and twopence-worth’ (6p) a week so that if you had the more expensive meat you got only a small amount. However bread, potatoes and vegetables were not rationed so I suppose we filled up with those. Our council house had a large garden where my father grew vegetables. There were daily newspapers (less than1/2p) which contained only one sheet ie 4 pages but magazines were unobtainable except an occasional American one would appear from somewhere, presumably discarded by an American soldier and I loved these simply to look at the food adverts which usually showed pictures of tinned ham and tins of peaches which one might only see in reality at Christmas. Chicken was a total luxury. Fish and chips were never rationed and I can remember when it was possible to buy a penn’orth of chips but later two penn’oth (less then 1p) became the minimum. The only restriction was that occasionally you could be refused because you had to supply your own wrapping paper and if you saw someone going along the road with a newspaper they were probably heading for the chip shop. If the ink was a bit fresh you could very often read the chips. The proverbial bread and dripping was a good standby and I used to thoroughly enjoy it but my mother never allowed me to eat what some of my friends were given ie bread and sugar or bread and condensed milk.

Rarely my mother would take me to a ‘British Restaurant’ which were set up by the Government and where you paid at the entrance and were given a tokens for a main course, soup and sweet. I believe the food was reasonable value but can only recall the soup which was probably the proverbial Brown Windsor variety which was thick, brown and of doubtful origin. I attended school dinners at various periods which were not bad but I always had a second dinner at home. They cost 4d(2p) a day and we paid the teacher 1s 8d on a Monday morning plus 2½d per week for milk of which we received a third of a pint a day which was poured from quart bottles into our mugs by the teacher. We had to take our mugs to school every day which in the case of the boys were necessarily metal and I had a unique stainless steel one made by a relative which was carried on my belt. I remember that my mother used to drink ‘Camp’ or ‘Bev’ coffee which was coffee and chicory essence and was liquid poured from a bottle and diluted with boiling water. I have never drunk coffee and it may be due to being put off for life by that substance. My mother used to take a patent medicine called Iron Jelloids which were very small black tablets sold in a tin at the chemist’s which were supposed to be good for the nerves and which she swore by.

At one stage I had what I thought was a pet black rabbit, and will never know whether it was bought for that purpose, but I do know that it was killed and we had it, roast, for Christmas dinner about which I was devastated - but I still ate my share. There was, of course, no ice cream at all and sweets were strictly rationed. I think my mother, father and myself probably had about two bars of chocolate a week between us. Two ounces at a time was the usual purchase.

The father of one of my friends kept chickens in his back garden and although he used to sell eggs to some of his neighbours he still had to go through the process of taking coupons from their ration books. He and my friend used to go gleaning ie picking up corn which was left after harvesting which must have been quite laborious as they used to go on the bus although fares were very cheap and would have been less than ½p for my friend and slightly more for his father. One of our gang’s rendez-vous points was the ‘pig-bin’ which was a heavy galvanised dust bin chained to a (gas, but out of use due to the black-out) lamp post near us. This was where all vegetable waste, peelings etc were put and a lorry collected the contents and took them away to Tottenham where they were made into ‘Tottenham puddings’ ie the stuff was boiled up into pudding consistency and poured into large metal buckets which were distributed to farms as pig food.

Clothing and footwear were also rationed and so we had very little to wear. Boys of my age always wore shorts, summer and winter, with long socks but I can recall having badly chapped thighs which had to be rubbed with Vaseline in the cold weather. I think I would only have had one pair of shoes and a pair of leather boots for everyday use which had iron studs and heel plates which made it very easy to slip on paving stones. Trainers had not been invented and even wellingtons were hard to get. Football boots and kit were not to be seen because there were no footballs anyway.

It is amazing that life proceeded as well as it did in view of the mayhem that was going on and the much-parodied civil servants like Harry Enfield’s Mr Chumley-Warner who frequently appeared on film news reels and information films must have done a tremendous job. Although I lived in a working class area I am sure that Winston Churchill, although a Conservative, was highly regarded as a leader and of course the coalition government contained ministers from all parties.

We seemed to be fairly healthy although I remember having most of the children’s ailments and of course there was no NHS and all visits to the doctor had to be paid for. The only immunisation was against diphtheria. I remember the sister of one of my classmates dying of tuberculosis although I recall that she looked a picture of health with blond curls and rosy cheeks.
There must have been dozens if not hundreds of people killed around where I lived but I really was not aware of this - presumably because adults kept these details from us children.

One never saw a coloured face until the coming of the American forces who were pestered for chewing gum and were usually generous - they were much better paid and supplied than our forces. At the beginning of the war we saw Czechs and Poles in unusual uniforms who worked at the small arms design establishment near us. Later came many Italian prisoners who all wore brown uniforms with black patches and mainly worked in the glasshouses of which there were hundreds of acres in the Lee Valley. I can remember hearing them singing at work as you would expect. Later came the German prisoners many of whom stayed behind after the war and worked in the greenhouses. We were not afraid of them but avoided them and the absolute hatred which was felt for Germans in general did not seem to be shown on a personal basis.

In the latter stages of the war when, I believe, German night-time bombers were bombing at random I was much more appreciative of the danger while listening to the drone above and waiting and hoping that the bangs were going away from us rather than getting nearer. There were many disturbed and restless nights - no doubt worse still for the adults. At this time my cousin’s wife and baby came to live with us having been bombed out from South London by a V1 and they stayed for some months while their house was repaired. My cousin was in the army in France and I well remember being fascinated by the code whereby he would indicate in his letters where he was at that time. This was a dangerous thing to do because all his letters were censored and he would have been in severe trouble if found out.

This period also brought the V1s (always known as doodle bugs) and V2s (rockets.) The V1 was much more frightening because you could hear it and its distinctive rocket engine was quite different from any other aircraft at that time. I can remember lying in bed on the floor under the table and we dreaded that the engine would stop which meant that a V1 was about to come down and there was no way of telling where it would crash and explode. The lull between the engine stopping and the bang seemed to take ages. On one occasion during day light my mother and I watched from our back door a V1 pass quite low over our back garden (with its engine still running) until it passed out of sight. The vibration from their engines was tremendous and I remember that next door had a tall radio aerial on wooden pole which could be seen vibrating with the percussion. It was quite safe to watch while the engine was running but once it stopped it would glide to land on some unlucky area elsewhere.

There were a fair number of V2s landed in our part of the country but they were less frightening because there was absolutely no warning until the explosion because the journey into space from Germany and back down only took five minutes or so. We would just hear a bang and hope that it had landed somewhere fairly harmless. There was one site near us called the brush factory which had made brushes before the war, but which had been converted to ‘war work’ and which suffered both a V1 and a V2 hit causing loss of life. The worst V2 event occurred about half a mile away from our house and I can clearly remember it was a particularly miserable, wet Sunday afternoon when the rocket landed in the middle of a residential area and must have caused many deaths and casualties. We were very lucky in not suffering any serious injury or damage and the only damage we did suffer occurred on a Saturday morning when I was having a ‘lie-in’ and I was walking across the upstairs landing when there was a tremendous explosion. It was a dull morning with low cloud and there was a continuous loud drone from above the clouds as ‘our’ bombers passed overhead for hours as I recall on what must have been one of the thousand bomber daylight raids.

Unfortunately one of the American planes, (who did most of the daylight bombing,) a Liberator, crashed with a full load of bombs and exploded making a cloud of smoke with ammunition trails into the sky and shaking our house to its foundations and causing me to shake equally on the landing with dust and soot dropping from the ceiling and attic. We lost a few panes of glass but nothing serious. I was reminded of the incident in the seventies when by chance I visited the American forces’ cemetery near Cambridge with my family and saw, in the chapel, a commemorative plaque to the crew of this plane, who all died.

I remember hearing that the war had finished (in Europe) while at school when a senior girl came to the class from the headmaster and simply said to our teacher "The war’s over." As I said earlier it was the custom that no-one spoke in class and this was rigidly observed but the second the door shut behind the teacher, who had gone along to see the ‘gaffer,’ absolute pandemonium broke out in the classroom. Most of the children would have had fathers in the forces and many would have been fighting in Europe and it was easy to imagine their relief.

With the eventual final peace with the surrender of Japan - we shed no tears over the dropping of the atomic bomb - there were great celebrations and street parties which we had never experienced.

It was not until immediately after the war that we received the worst effect of it from our family’s point of view. The housing shortage was very bad and made even worse by the returning ‘demobbed’ soldiers. My grandmother had been taken ill and my mother had to look after her and we moved round to stay there for only a week or two but we left our council house unoccupied and as a result we got notice to quit. This is hard to believe nowadays and people do not believe me when I tell them. I am sure, knowing my father, that we had been model tenants up to then. He wrote to our local councillor and to our MP to appeal against the decision to no avail. He vowed that he would never vote again in an election and kept to his word until he died. Moving to a sub-standard house with no bath or electricity with my grandmother and aunt proved to be a disaster for my family with the ill-feeling generated and things were never the same again. At the time there were many newly-married couples where the husband had just returned from the war who had to live with parents and it was clear that a neighbour, in that position, had complained about our house being empty.

This letter may not be of use or interest but at least it has been of interest to me to recall and write down these experiences as I saw them. I have tried to avoid using hindsight.

John Heathcote

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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 - Wartime memories

Posted on: 19 October 2003 by Stanley H Jones

It was very interesting to read of your wartime memories. I was born in 1934 and so the early years of our lives cover largely the same years. Living in another part of the country of course meant that our experiences were different but those days are still vivid. I have written regularly on WW2 as memories come - and greatly enjoy this - but my real aim is that these memories will be read and be a help to the up and coming generations who only now know the war as part of history. I did write this earlier but somehow deleted it. If you read my reply twice you will know why. I still blame the computor if things go wrong - which they often do!


Message 2 - Wartime memories

Posted on: 27 January 2004 by johnheathcote

Pleased to see someone has seen my effort. There are some interesting accounts here which may be of use to future generations. Pity we cannot find out more about our ancestors' day to day lives.

Keep your memory ticking.

John Heathcote

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