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15 October 2014
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My Longest Night

by gratefulMemorylane

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22 May 2005

I was almost 17 years old when in our garden in Southeast London at 11am on that sunny Sunday morning of September 3rd 1939 I heard Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain end his address to the nation on BBC radio with the words " And so we are at war with Germany"

Born and bred in London I knew the capital well and had started work the year before in a city office travelling daily from home on trains that were just as crowded then as apparently they still are to this day.

As I knew full well that should the war continue I would surely eventually join one of the services , in the meantime , I joined the ARP as a stretcher bearer spending 3 or 4 nights a week training and sleeping at the post.

By mid 1940 the 'phony' war as it was then known came to an end with the fall of the low countries and then France followed by the miraculous evacuation of our forces from Dunkirk.

Then towards the end of August the first air raids which preceded the Battle of Britain started over London and my training as a stretcher bearer paid off and I spent more and more time on night duty while at the same continued with my job in the city. Late in September and with no respite from the raids my mother and sister left London to stay with friends in Gloucester while father and I continued with our work and ARP duties in London. Evenings when we were off duty and because we were still able to use our car albeit with a meagre petrol ration ( which was withdrawn not long after) we would drive the few miles to a village in Kent where we spent the evening in the village pub and at closing time would make our way to the public air raid shelter which the local folk chose not to use and although we could still hear the sound of the continuing raids over London, tucked up in emergency bedding we had with us, managed to get a little sleep. In the morning we returned home, freshened up, had breakfast and then went off to work.

That became our routine until during the first week of October we decided we would spend a few days with my mother and sister.
I travelled up after work on the Thursday October 3rd, my father planned to join us the next day. when he failed to arrive we were not unduly worried concluding he must have had travel problems.

On the Sunday I had to return to London to be ready for work the next morning. Although I didn't realise it, my longest night was about to begin.

I arrived in London at about 1030pm, an air raid was in progres and I had to catch a tube train accross to Victoria where I hoped I would be able to catch a number 54 tram to my home stop. Both tube stations on the way were full of people sheltering from the raid many already under blankets stretched out close to the station walls even though the trains were still running. There was even the sound of someone playing a mouth organ on one of the stations.

Amazingly late as it now was and with the air raid still ongoing trams were still operating from Victoria and I reached my home stop at around midnight. I had about a mile to walk up a hill to my home, not a soul about and by then it was raining. The sound of the air raid still audible from somewhere towards the East end. Occasionally I even heard the sound of shrapnel from spent AA shells falling onto roofs.

As I arrived at the top of the hill and just where my home was I could see the faint glow of red oil lamps that were used to indicate damage to footpaths and roads and when I reached my home, in the gloom I could see that our house along with 3 others was just a half standing enpty shell.

I can still recall the utter dismay, worry, and anxiety I felt for my father. 'Where was he?' 'Was he alright ?'. Thoughts of fear raced through my brain. I stood there for a while wondering just what to do then decided the best move would be to make my way to my ARP post where I would at least find company and shelter for the rest of the night.

I made my way back down the hill trusting the trams were still running. Thankfully they were and I caught one that took me close to the ARP post . When I arrived there the team were on their bunks resting, but the team leader was at his desk manning the phone. When I told him what had happened to me he said " Lets check the diary for October 3rd to see if we attended that incident in Bellingham Road " Then to my utter relief he read out "Yes we did, four houses destoyed, no fire, no casualties "

Dog tired by then but so relieved I made a cup of tea and stretched out on a bunk where I managed a couple of hours sleep before it was time to get up to get to work by 9 o'clock.

Just after 9am my father called to let me know that he was OK and explained that on that evening he felt he would rather spend the night in Kent rather than stay alone in our home, a decision that possibly saved his life. He discovered our home destroyed when he returned the next morning. He had spent the next 3 days salvaging what he could.

Although I went on to join the army, served for 4 years mainly in the Middle East nothing I was to experience for the rest of WW2 compared to my experience on that night.
Even now and I am in my 80's I often recall every detail of that --- my longest night.

Footnote : Following some distruption at the commencement of the raids on London after a short while most people continued to work on following an air raid warning and did not take to the shelters until it was apparent that the raid was close by and I pay my respects to the London Transport train, tram and bus drivers who continued serving the public of London even when raids were at their height.

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