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- 13 August 2003
Recollections of Life in the East End of London between 1938 and 1945, by Alice Beanse:
One of the most traumatic days of my life was 7 September 1940, when Hitler decided to unleash his fury on the East End of London, and my mother, father and I endured, along with thousands of other people, the worst bombing attack on that part of London. That day will live with me forever.
The run-up to war
Before describing the events of that day and the next seven months, it would be well to examine the period leading up to this. As we know from history books of 1933 to 1939, the affairs of Europe revolved around Hitler. The governments of the democratic countries, and Britain in particular, tried to ignore the demands that Hitler was beginning to make on other countries and decided to remain neutral, especially during the Spanish Civil war between 1936 and 1939.
When Hitler's troops marched into Austria and declared it part of the German Reich, Britain and France did nothing. He then demanded part of Czechoslovakia where many people were of German decent. The Czech government refused his demands and with this Hitler's powerful propaganda machine went into action, inspiring great enthusiasm on the part of the Germans. By September 1938 a meeting in Munich, organised by British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, along with the French Prime Minister, awarded part of Czechoslovakia to Hitler. With Britain and France supporting Hitler, the Czech government had little choice but to agree.
We come now to the celebrated piece of paper that Neville Chamberlain held up on his arrival back in England, saying 'this means peace in our time', which became a symbol of hope and joy to the people of Britain. One of my strongest memories is of my mother being so happy when these words came over the radio, but I also recall my father saying to her, 'There will be a war in Britain before another year is out.'
How right he was. Six months later, Hitler marched into Prague, the Czech capital. The Munich agreement was torn up and it became very clear that appeasement with Hitler was a failure. With the encroachment of Hitler's army, Britain began to make promises of support to other countries including Romania and Poland, both of whom were being threatened with Nazi acquisition. Russia though were to shock the West by signing an agreement with Hitler in August 1939, and although the Americans were sympathetic to Britain they did not want to get involved in another war.
By now Hitler had added Austria and a large part of Czechoslovakia to the Reich, and had designs on Poland. Once again his threats were becoming stronger and stronger and international tension was reaching breaking point. Hitler really believed that Britain and France would not come to Poland's assistance, but this time he was very wrong with Neville Chamberlain feeling we had a clear obligation to defend Poland. When Hitler invaded Poland on 1 September 1939 it was swiftly followed by the British and French governments declaring war on Germany on Sunday 3 September 1939.
Life in the East End
My memory of that Sunday morning is very clear, but to put that memory and those to follow into context I must first tell you a little of life in Wapping Island where I lived with my parents, my two sisters and my small brother, who was just five years old when war broke out. We lived a pleasant life, my father working in Fleet Street on the newspapers and my mother looking after the home and children.
Home was a large flat overlooking the River Thames, and I have fond memories of lying in bed listening to the ships going by and the mournful cries of their horns. All in all, life was very happy for me, my brother and sisters - although my father was a very busy man, both through work and being a local councillor, our mother was always there for us and our parents were able to take us to the seaside on holiday every year.
We were indeed blessed with a good standard of living, something which many of our friends and acquaintances did not enjoy, for unemployment in the 1930s was high, and many of my friends' fathers, most of them dockers, were unable to find regular work. These men had to endure a most dreadful routine. They had to turn up at the docks in the early hours of the morning in the hope, often forlorn, of getting a day's work. The dock overseer would point to individuals saying 'I want you and you.' The other men, not selected, would have to turn away to return the following day and run through the same routine.
This was the way of life then, and it was only later when I grew up that I realised what a miserable existence most of these families had. Many of the children were undernourished and poorly clothed, to the extent that sometimes they had no shoes to wear to school. Only a few years ago my sister told me of the time she called on her friend to go to school only to find that she could not go as she had no shoes to wear. My sister promptly returned home, took a pair of mine and gave them to her - an act which much to my sister's relief was never discovered. This was life in Wapping just prior to the war.
Following Chamberlain's return from Munich in 1938, distribution of gas masks commenced. We had to go to a nearby hall to be fitted for these, and to me this was quite frightening. I felt as though I could not breathe, nevertheless we all had them and always took them with us, especially during the early years of the war. Later we became quite careless of them, perhaps through the familiarity of death - maybe familiarity does breed contempt.
At war with Germany
Prior to that Sunday in September 1939 my sisters and brother had been evacuated, initially to Brighton and then to Cornwall. We all missed them very much but my mum, although heartbroken, still felt it was the right decision. In later years though she was to say that with hindsight she wouldn't have let them go. I saw them very rarely and was very glad when they were to finally come home. So it was that it was just me at home with my parents listening to the radio when Chamberlain announced, in a very quavering voice, that we were at war with Germany. My parents looked at each other, and my mother wept.
Within 20 minutes of the broadcast the sirens started to wail. Everybody was panic stricken, at first frozen with fear and then hurrying for shelter in the wharves as we had been told to in the days since Munich. The all clear sounded quite quickly as it was apparently a false alarm - as it was to be on a number of occasions to come. Thus began the nine months of what later was to be called the phoney war, during which life went on, but not really as usual. My mother blacked out all the windows, so no light could be seen after dark. She also got herself a part-time job. For me, the last part of my schooling was to prove very erratic as most of the children had been or were sent away. That is how life was through that period.
Life starts changing
Men were recruited into the armed forces, sandbags began to appear outside large buildings, barrage balloons appeared in the sky and the government started to distribute Anderson shelters. These were curved structures, rather like a kennel with a roof of corrugated steel. They were dug down deep into gardens to protect people during air raids and people were glad to have them. They were to be well used, although water would seep into them and they became very cold and damp.
In other parts of London, and with the coming of the Blitz, people would go each night into the tube stations for shelter, staying there all night. This people were to become used to, with Londoners making the best of what little they had.
We ourselves would eventually shelter in the wharves, amongst the tea, rubber, spices, canned goods, wine, brandy and other spirits. This cocktail of goods and the obvious target they presented was to make ours one of the most dangerous areas of the world under attack. As I write this the memories come back and once again I can smell the spices amongst which we sheltered. But prior to the Blitz, up to the time 1940 came, people had begun to relax.
Come the April of 1940 things began to change. Hitler was embarking on new conquests; Neville Chamberlain resigned to be replaced by the new Prime Minister, Winston Churchill. He was to become the embodiment of all that was strong and brave about Britain. To his advantage he had been one of the few Members of Parliament that had warned the government of the dangers of German aggression. He was to lead the coalition government through to 1945.
This too, was the time of Dunkirk, when the British Expeditionary Force was driven out of Belgium and then France. Lots of our soldiers were to be captured during the retreat and withdrawal, including my mother's youngest brother, who was to become a prisoner of war held in Germany until freedom in 1945. I corresponded with him all this time and on his return he explained how grateful he had been to receive my letters.
The rescue of the thousands of troops stranded on the beaches of Dunkirk was to become one of the most memorable exercises of the war, as hundreds of tiny boats crossed the English Channel to haul the troops from the shore and ferry them to the larger ships at sea. Although many of the troops were to die on the beaches and many of the boats and their often civilian crews were not to return, the operation itself was seen by many as a triumph.
The summer of 1940 was for the British a time of waiting, and although through that time there was a few spasmodic raids in various parts of Britain, it wasn't until the beautiful late summer day of Saturday 7 September 1940 that things altered.
The full force of the Blitz
Wapping Island was only accessible by bridge. It was surrounded by four bridges including Tower Bridge, all of which would be pulled up once the sirens sounded, as this reduced the risk of damage to them. Nobody was able to cross either onto or off the island during a raid. At about 4:30 that Saturday afternoon, my mother asked me to run an errand which meant going off the island across one of the bridges. As I neared the bridge the sirens sounded. As we were all by now quite blasé about the sirens due to the number of false alarms, I considered crossing the bridge - but as luck would have it I decided to return home instead, something which to this day I am very thankful I did.
This was the day the German air force set out to destroy London. Their main target was the docks, and in this they nearly succeeded. My father hurried my mother and I to the wharf where we were to shelter. Being an air raid warden he then left us to assist the elderly, infirm, young and mothers with babies into the shelters. For two solid hours without remit we were bombarded with high explosive bombs. We could hear them dropping, and the building shook with each impact. There is no adequate way to describe the feeling, it was truly horrific.
Finally the all clear sounded and we returned to our home. The whole of the dockside was burning, in fact we were ringed with fire and my father knew he had to get us out as soon as possible, which was not easy as the bridges were still up. Eventually we managed to get a large black cab shared with about ten other people to Tower Bridge, from where we walked across by a narrow lock.
We went to my grandmother's house (she was living in Cornwall at the time), where we met my mother's eldest brother. We all decided to travel to North London where we had relatives, but before we could leave the sirens sounded again. This time we sheltered in the basement of a dress shop along with around 100 others. We were packed in like sardines and had to stand up all night long. When the all clear sounded we made our way to North London as intended the previous night, and there, along with other aunts, uncles and cousins who also made their way from East London, were greeted by our relations with open arms. Although the house was full to the brim, everybody was glad that we were all just safe.
On Tuesday 10 September, mum decided to go home to collect some clothes, so we both set of by bus for Wapping, an hour's journey. The stench of burning, the dirt and the sight of the destroyed buildings was quite frightening, but there was worse. As we neared home one of my mother's friends told us that our home was gone. My poor mother was quite distraught. When we arrived it was to find our lovely home completely destroyed as an aerial torpedo had ripped our maisonette from the block. It was the only part of the building damaged during that particular raid. I recall my mother weeping and me holding her hand saying, 'Never mind, at least we are all alright.' She replied that I did not understand but I would when I was older - and she was right.
We returned to North London and stayed with an aunt until my father got another home for us, in which my mother soon settled - albeit with very little furniture and very little in the way of clothes. Nevertheless, you still counted your blessings. The air raids continued ferociously for seven months. London was not the only city targeted - Liverpool took heavy damage and Coventry was all but destroyed - but the Blitz on London, and in particular the docks, was the longest sustained bombardment.
The East Enders really took a beating with Whitechapel, St George's, Wapping and Limehouse being prime targets, as these were the areas around which the ships unloaded. There were two miles of river patrolled by fire fighting boats that were often on fire themselves. During those seven months 788 high explosive bombs1 fell on the area of Stepney alone. Acts of extraordinary bravery earned some policemen, ARP wardens, fire fighters and members of the public the George Cross. Whether right or not, it has been said that if the two miles of river and surrounding buildings had been paralysed, Britain would have been defeated.
Father called up
The end of 1941 saw life returning to some sense of normality, and then my father was called up into the Royal Navy. Very soon he was sent abroad and we did not see him again until 1945. My mother went to work full time and I myself had a job in the City. One day in 1942 I came home to find my mother weeping again and to hear that her second brother had been killed in action in Italy. Then in 1943 her eldest brother was sent to Singapore, was captured by the Japanese and died in one of their camps. For ours and most other families, the war was a very sad time. Eventually my sisters and young brother returned from evacuation, and apart from my father we were all together again.
In 1944 we were beginning to think that all could be well again soon, and believing that the war was drawing to an end, but there were new horrors ahead for us. These were the buzz bombs which were launched from French soil and landed indiscriminately, anywhere, with no warning. Thirty-six2 of these buzz bombs landed on Stepney alone. Worse was to come. Later that year a deadlier weapon, the V2 was unleashed. When its engine stopped, it dropped like a stone, killing people and wreaking destruction where it landed.
By this time everything was rationed. Mothers would queue for hours at butchers and bakers. Some previously common foodstuffs such as bananas disappeared completely from sale. On a given day after the war all children were given a banana, this day became known as 'banana day'.
However amongst my many sad memories I recall a very happy one. On answering the phone early one morning (it was an early morning alarm call for my sister) the operator said 'the war is over'. Thus began the slow return to a normal happy life, my father returning home, my mother's remaining brother returning from the PoW camp, and life beginning to be lived properly again. The end of the war was to bring a sense of joy to everybody.3
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