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Keep Smiling Through, Part Two: London Ablazeicon for Recommended story

by gentlemenBillClavey

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Contributed on: 
19 February 2004

For Part One, go to A1942454

Night Raids

So it came quickly to the time of regularly using the air raid shelter at school and our own shelter in our cellar. Suddenly to be woken up at night, especially at the commencement of the night raids, and being told to dress quickly and hurry to the cellar, was to me very alarming. Especially seeing the searchlights already sweeping the night sky, and knowing that you had to get down two flights of stairs before you reached the relative safety of the shelter.

The cellar was dank and still smelt of the coal that had once been kept there. Just Mum, Ron and I were, in the main, the only users of the cellar. Of the two people who lived in the top part of the house, the man had gone into the Army and his wife was staying away at her mother's. Dad seemed to come and go, spending some time with us, but mostly in the fire duty room over at the factory, and popping back occasionally to see how we were faring. Mostly he was on stand-by, waiting for a fire call from his parent fire station at West Hill. The Slumberland fire crew had been requisitioned, and were now under the direct control of the London Fire Brigade - and available to be sent anywhere.

It was in the cellar that I first heard the sound of German bomber aircraft overhead, and the reverberating barrage of gunfire that met their approach - and experienced the first shudder and crunch of bombs exploding. Although at this time we were in late summer months, I felt cold, in spite of a blanket around my shoulders. I feel certain this was because of fear. Here we came to recognise the sound differences between the Allied aircraft and the German bombers, whose heavy engine drone had an undulating throb, whereas our planes had a good steady rhythm.

In these early bombing raids the German planes would drop sticks of bombs numbering around about eight bombs, the exact number I cannot remember, but they would fall with a loud whistle. I believe these were called 'screaming' bombs, but we could count them as they fell, and knew how many more there were to come - we would uncross our fingers when we knew the remaining bombs in the stick were falling beyond us.

Our shelter
Dad, who by this time seemed to be in charge of everything over at the factory, had decided that it made no sense for the air shelters there to be standing empty at night. He decided to ask, and obtained, permission from Birmingham head office, for them to be used by those workers and their families who wanted to, and also by local resident families living close by. I feel the original idea for this came from Mum, who had decided that our cellar was not the place she wanted to be.

The Slumberland factory shelter system consisted of four air raid shelters - Green, Yellow, Blue and Orange - which were interlinked around a command centre, known as the Squad shelter, with a fifth one, the Red Shelter, on it own at the other end of the factory.

During the day, and when an air raid was in progress, it was from the Squad shelter that the factory workers received intruction to hurry to their designated shelter. This was given when advice that German aircraft had been sight by the plane spotters on the factory roof. Instructions to return to the factory floor after the 'all clear' had sounded were issued in the same manner. The Squad was also the entertainment centre! It was from here the popular records of the day were played and the BBC's programme 'Workers Playtime' and the like were relayed over the factory Tannoy system.

We were given a corner in the Squad; I suppose you could say it was for the night time duration of the war. Decent mattresses were supplied from the works and it was all very warm and comfortable. We shared it with three or four other management families, and I guess it could have been called the officer's quarters, or being up with 'The Jones's, and it could be said we had moved up one rung on the social ladder. There were no calls for a classless society then.

My bed was tucked into a four foot high recess, above which was a massive block of concrete that was the foundation to the supports for a large metal and wood conveyor that carried produced goods to the loading bays above.

Each night before I went to sleep I would look up at this huge piece of concrete, and petrify myself with thought, as to the outcome of a direct hit by a bomb above, and picturing this vast lump falling and obliterating me.

The interconnection of the shelters were via small metal blast proof doors and I feel that the adults must have been sometimes pretty browned off with what must have seemed a constant caravan of children passing in and out of these doors, and through various shelters.

The atmosphere of each shelter varied. In some a continuous buzz of conversation ensued till quite late and many card schools became a regular habit. The local residents' shelter I recall as the quietest, and where everyone tried to settle down for the night at a reasonable time, and where the lights were dimmed early. It was in this shelter, when late roaming children were going through, and I was often with them, that a voice would call after them 'Why don't you kids get back to your own shelter!'

Air raids, London ablaze

It had been a glorious late summer September day and the sirens having sounded early; we were away quickly to the shelter. Nothing forewarned us and we could not possibly have known or realised at the time that this night would be one of the worst nights of our personal war and the start of nightly air raids. This was to be the start of the London BlitzSaturday 7 September 1940.

Dad and the fire crew had already been ordered away, and they had left in the fire tender at 16.45 for Old Kent Road Fire Station where they were to stand by. We settled into our spot in the shelter for the long evening and night, but it was obvious by the barrage and commotion going on outside that it was turning into something a bit more than normal. There was more tension and worry going around the shelter occupants that night, than there was usually. It seemed like the early hours of the morning, but it was certainly sometime during the night, when word was coming through the shelters that London was all afire.

Because there was a lull in the raid, people gradually filed out through the catacomb of shelters, me amongst them, to see what was going on. Coming out behind the main office block, we floundered, in the dark and in small groups, along a cobbled stone footpath to the corner of the building. As I turned the corner and looked out through the main gates, eastwards towards London, it appeared as if the whole world was about to come to an end.

The sky was alight, from a deep red above to a cauldron of yellow fire behind the housetops that were a few hundred yards away. Everyone was awe-struck and little was being said. I overheard and remember the words well 'they're up there', obviously referring to the fire crew, but can not recall whether they were Mum's words or those of a wife of another member of the crew.

The next morning around 9.30 am, Dad and the others all returned safe and sound, although soaking wet and stained with soot. They had been all night in the thick of it, fighting fires in the Canada and Surrey Docks, where at one time they had had to avoid machine gun bullets from the planes above. They were out again that same night dealing with fires up town, and at this stage, although only classified as auxiliary firemen, were called away regularly to fight fires in many other parts of the capital.

It should also of course be remembered that they had essential day work in the factory that could not be neglected. Slumberland was now heavily into Government contracts, which didn't only involve the making of beds for the military, but also the making of parachutes, emergency rubber water tanks, military webbing, to repairing RAF aircraft gantries, and many other types of war equipment.

During that first week of the Blitz, Dad was slightly injured whilst fighting a fire at Kingwood Road School, just off Fulham Palace Road. They had been fighting a blaze for about two and half hours, when a delayed action bomb exploded close by. The blast of this threw him and his colleague to the ground, causing the hose that they were manning to snake away well off the ground and coiling about dangerously, so fierce was the water thrust. The incident did not prevent him being in the factory the next day or reporting for duty the following night.

Normal life - and Slumberland bomb

Nightly, and for many weeks, air raids were to continue - and were unrelenting - but somehow our daily domestic lives went on, including having to attend school, with Ron now old enough to go.

You got used to seeing in a road, sections of terraced houses now just a pile of debris, and roads suddenly becoming 'No entry' because of extensive bomb damage, or even to having an unexploded one there. At the end of a street that had one of these, in the centre of the road, would be a red notice board stating 'Unexploded Bomb - Keep Away' with just a 'special' constable or the like close by, to make certain folk did stay clear.

East Hill Congregational Church was fire bombed on 15 October, and in spite of the Slumberland's fire crew being in attendance, the church itself was gutted, and sadly that original interior could now only be put to memory. On Tuesday 29 October, at 1.30am, the Slumberland factory received a direct hit by a high explosive bomb and several incendiary bombs. The main bomb hit the top of a dividing brick wall and ricocheting into the factory workshop next us, rather than towards us. The wall gave us protection from the main blast and our shelter was only covered with light debris, but its exit was blocked.

Because of the shelter system, there were other exits, so we were not trapped, but we stayed where we were until morning. The fires that had been burning around the factory had been successfully put out, and Dad appeared with others, having cleared the entrance of debris, through the door at 7.30. I think his words were something like 'That was close', and with that we scrambled out and trooped home for breakfast.

During November the intensity of the air raids slackened a little, although they were still severe, as Hitler's bombers turned their attention to other British cities, and for a period London was not the main target and we started to have longer intervals between raids.

Morale, and a Christmas Day party

By now we had become toughened and very wide-awake to the dreadful weeks that we had just come through. There was no one to complain to, for Londoners at this time, it had to be a case of grin and bear it and just a matter of keeping your head down, and praying it was God's will that you would get through this. At that time it was difficult to see how we would, for it seemed as if Hitler might have been winning the war. Fortunately we had Winston Churchill, who had the ability to install a 'Bulldog Spirit' into the people at this time.

Soon after midnight, at around 1 am Saturday morning 16 November, West Hill Fire Station (88 W) received a direct hit from a high explosive bomb, and Slumberland fire tender was summoned to give immediate assistance. They spent the night helping to rescue survivors, but unfortunately six of their fellow AFS comrades had perished in the explosion. The men had been in the rest room awaiting their order to proceed to a fire incident when the bomb struck. They hadn't stood a chance, in spite of diving under the billiard table. The bomb had exploded too close, just above their heads. Next day in school, one of the girls from my class was not in her desk. One of the firemen who had died had been her father.

As we came close to Christmas that year, surprisingly - and how we knew I cannot remember -we learnt that Hitler was not to send his bombers to England on Christmas Day, and indeed this is how it turned out. The country was free of fear that one day, and seemed to make the most of it. In our household, before our Christmas lunch, Dad with Sid Robertson had gone to West Hill fire station, which was again functioning, and had taken for the permanent station members a Christmas box on behalf of The Crown Bedding Company.

After the four of us had had our Christmas meal, and during the afternoon, most of our relations arrived from Battersea and Clapham. How the arrangements had been made I shall never know, as there were no telephones in our family homes in those days, but we had a party that lasted all the rest of that day, and until around 6 o'clock the next morning.

Sometime during that morning, after a short uncomfortable sleep, in varied uncomfortable chairs, they braced themselves, kids as well, against the freezing winter weather and our kinfolk walked the whole distance back home. So ended our short respite from the bombing, for before the New Year had arrived the air raids had begun again. On 29 December a devastating fire bomb raid on London destroyed many famous buildings and churches, and killed over two thousand people. Since the start of the air raids, nearly 21,000 British civilians had been killed.

Some hits, and some misses

It indeed was an extremely cold winter and the nightly preparation and walk to and from the shelter became mentally draining, especially for my Mother and we began to become a little indifferent to the uncertainties of the times. We had of course by this stage become very practised in preparation for air raids, and we had started to have the tendency not to go to the shelter until the air raid siren sounded. This was with the hope it wouldn't go off that night, and we would get a restful night in our own beds. Although occasionally at first, and as the war progressed more regularly we did get to sleep in our beds.

However this new practice led to many a time having to make a dash for the shelter, with the sound of gunfire and the drone of enemy bombers echoing in our ears. One icy cold, bright moon lit night in January we had indeed left it rather late, for while in Indian file we were traversing the planks of wood that lay across the frozen mud on the factory forecourt, the sound of gunfire was immediately overhead. I could hear the tingle of shrapnel as it hit the surrounding rooftops. Suddenly in front of Mum, a slither of shrapnel, around six inches in length pierced the plank we were on, only some six feet away, where it remained erect and shimmering silver in the moonlight. It had been a close shave.

One night in April 1941, Wednesday the 16th to be precise, Mum woke me up; saying a raid had started. Ron and I, by now slept in the ground floor bedroom that had been our parent's room. We quickly dressed and hurried with her to the kitchen. The guns were already banging away outside, and the three of us got beneath our dining room draw-leaf table. Dad had earlier left and was on stand-by at the factory.

Waking from a deep sleep, and with frightening events taking place very close too, is a very harrowing experience for anyone, let alone a child, so it was not surprising that both Ron and I quickly wanted to wee, but in no way were we prepared to go out to the lavatory. Mum got out and got a child's enamel chamber pot, which in those days was affectionately known as a Jerry, and which both of us boys gratefully used.

We stayed there for sometime, huddled together, and Dad popped in to see that we were all right, and felt it was best if we stayed where we were for the time being. Not long after he left us there was a violent explosion, which was obviously a very close and large bomb.

The windows blew in, and there were sounds of things smashing all around us. Our light went out, and obviously the electricity had been put out of action. Mum had her torch with her, the customary necessity those days, but before she used it, she had observed in the darkness the glowing embers of our kitchen fire from the evening before.

Realising the fire danger, she crawled from beneath the table and emptied the contents of the Jerry into the grate and extinguished them. What I didn't know was that at this period Mum was over six months pregnant. Naturally, as soon as she had ascertained everything was all right with us, her concern went to Dad, who had only left moments before the explosion.

Dad, after leaving us, had stopped to chat with the air raid warden, at the air raid post opposite our house. Suddenly they observed a parachute some hundred or so feet high above them, and drifting on along the road opposite.

Their first thoughts were that it was a German flyer, and they immediately gave chase, but just before the parachute, and its object below, plunged into the roof tops of the houses in Geraldine Road they realised their mistake, and turned and started to run as hard as they could. The bomb exploded, and they were blown by the blast several yards back down the road, with debris flying around them. It had been a large, 1,000lb, parachute bomb.

Fortunately both Dad and the warden were perfectly okay, and were able to join in with the first rescuers at the scene. The bomb had destroyed a complete block of houses and including our superb 3-year-old library, but tragically we also said goodbye that night to 17 civilians, who had been friends and neighbours. One middle-aged lady, whom I knew well by sight, had at the time that the bomb struck just left her front gate, to give her small white scotch terrier his late-night walk. Her body was found lodged on top of a telephone box at the bottom of Dault Road, over a hundred yards away.

The damage to our own house was not severe, but we lost all our windows in the blast. In our bedroom the glass French door had blown, and Ron's bed, which had been in a direct line, was covered with broken glass, and the wooden dividing doors alongside his bed was embedded with fragments of glass. If Ron had been in the bed there was no doubt he would have been injured.

Dance hall disaster, a grim tale

In writing this story it is not my intention to relate all the sadness and tragedy of what I saw and heard of during the war, but more to recall experiences that did not seem amusing at the time, but on reflection can now bring a smile.

However, before I progress somewhat more light-heartedly, I must recall the disaster and destruction caused by a bomb that fell in Putney, that left me with a lifetime memory of horror. It was first thing the next morning that we learnt of a high explosive bomb having scored a direct hit on a dance hall, and that 200, mainly military, personnel had been killed.

It would appear that it had been the only bomb to have fallen on Putney that night. And it had been felt at the time that the reason for this bomb to have been dropped was that a blackout curtain had accidentally been pulled aside, to allow a shaft of light to escape skywards. A German bomber, having dropped its main payload further back into London, dropped its one remaining bomb in the direction of this stark beam of light.

I have to admit it was childlike morbid curiosity that led me with two or three other friends to walk to Putney to see the destruction. By the time we got there, the bomb scene had been vastly tidied up, but the fire service and Civil Defence were still in attendance, and hosepipes and other rescue paraphernalia littered the scene.

The smell of dust, dirty water, the cabbagey smell of gas, a whole concoction of smells that in those days you associated with newly destroyed buildings, hung around the area. To one side lay a large pile of service uniform items, mainly greatcoats, which probably would have been taken from what would have been the cloakroom.

We watched for a time the work going on, which was making the site safe and clearing up the fringe rubble, but eventually we decided to go down to the river, which was close by. The tide was out and we meandered along the foreshore, just near to the starting point of the University Boat Race. There were always something left behind by the ebbing tide, to take the interest of youngsters. This morning the Thames had left behind something dreadful.

Several sea gulls, which had been scavenging around, took off as we arrived at the spot, to see what had been their interest. Lying close to the water's edge were what appeared to be two or three large pieces of flesh, which were now white and bloodless through their immersion in river water. Our small group stood around one of the pieces of flesh, which someone prodded with a stick, and another of us put a toe into, trying to make out what it was.

It was not immediate, but suddenly in a flash we all realised that what we were looking at were pieces of human bodies. The bomb blast had carried them into the river. Whereas all of the dead and injured had been removed, and anything horrific had been taken away from the bombsite and the surrounding area, the River Thames had concealed anything that had fallen into it until it was at low tide.

We children had discovered these remains that had gone unnoticed and we did no more than to depart the vicinity quickly, and with horror at what we had discovered. We did not report what we had found, I think we were too young and not proficient enough to have considered doing that, but I should imagine my friends of that day, like myself, would carry that macabre image for the rest of their lives.

Interludes of fun

Fierce and regular day and night raids were to continue throughout the next months, indeed all the way through the spring. During one period of non stop nightly raids, on one of Dad's rare nights off-duty, it was arranged that a Slumberland delivery lorry should be used to take a group of those people who wished to, out of London for the night into the country.

It was an opportunity to get away from the continuous air attacks, and to experience a restful night - or that was the idea. Of course, our little family was part of the group, and in fact Ron and I were the only children who went, apart from the little two-year-old Iris Robertson. The rest of the party was made up, in the main, of some factory girls and a few men who up till then had not been called up into the forces. There was a total of some 26 of us, and it was a happy-go-lucky band. Mum, Dad, Ron and I were to share the Luton, that is the part of the van that protrudes over the driver's cabin, and up there the four of us were to sleep, wrapped in our own blankets and on a double mattress from the factory.

The lorry travelled out through West London, with its rear doors completely open, and with the crowd inside having a good sing-song. Arriving in High Wycombe, it pulled into a pub car park and this was to be our resting-place for the night. It didn't take long for all the adults to disappear into the pub, but for Ron and I it was a question of watching the open end of the van going from daylight to twilight and eventual blackness.

A visit from Dad a couple of times with lemonade and a packet of Smith's Crisps broke our boredom. Eventually, and after I had just dropped off to sleep, the others started to return, amidst lots of subdued laughing and noisy attempts to get up into the lorry. Of course I was now very much awake again, and like the others got very little sleep that night, what with the talking and giggling that went on. So much for a restful night away from the bombs!

Their enjoyment, though, did indicate having this short break had had a benefit, but ironically the Luftwaffe hadn't bomb London that night, so everyone would have achieved a longer sleep at home.

Even in this bad year of 1941 Dad managed to take us away for a short holiday in the early part of the summer. We must have travelled by Southern Railway, as I can remember leaving the train at Chichester and being thrilled at seeing the wooden level-crossing gates being opened by hand, and letting the local bus through. The bus we were to catch went to East Wittering.

We boarded the bus, together with a large crate of chickens that was to be dropped off at a farm along the route. We travelled some six or so miles before getting off at a small parade of shops in Wittering, and this was about half way round the bus's circular route back to Chichester.

East Wittering at this time was a small seaside village, made up of several modest bungalows, a few shops and a couple of pubs. Through a friend of a friend, arrangements had been made for us to stay in one of these bungalows, and Iwanasta we found in the second lane from the seafront, one of a pot pourri group of unpretentious bungalows.

A few were converted railway carriages, some were no more than shacks, and others had been nicely built, but with whatever material had been available at the time. They had all been built around the late 1920's apart from a couple that had been built in the 30's and were modern and quite Art Deco, and a sign of future times for the area. However at this war time period, the immediate locality was very desolate, with most of the properties without residents.

Some of the local shops were closed for the duration, but the local bakery had remained open, and the smells that issued from there had been delectable. The property next door was one of the modern places and had a roof terrace, and from there I could see the sea. From the bungalow the sea was a couple of hundred yards, but that was it, no longer could one get to the beach.

The Army had confiscated the land and property on the front. I can remember, with Ron, going as near as we could and up to the barbed wire, peering between two bungalows. Bungalows with their windows broken and their doors off and with sand blown by the wind in piles up the side of the walls and into the open doorways, that had once someone's home, now desolate and uncared for. Looking through the gap we could see further barb wire and metal framework, which were tank traps, and just a little further the waves breaking on the shingle beach.

So near, yet so far, and how we felt cheated. Suddenly into the gap strode a uniformed guard, complete with tin hat and rifle. He stopped and peered out to sea. That was it, we had had enough, feeling that we were likely to be arrested if seen and caught. We made a rapid retreat and I do not think we went anywhere near that beach road again during that holiday.

One night, after we had all gone to bed, we heard the sound of aircraft and the noise of distant gunfire. Getting up, we watched from the veranda a heavy air raid on Portsmouth, which we could see at a distance across the field behind us. The searchlights were stabbing the night sky, waving back and forth. The flashing from the gunfire and the exploding bombs was electrifying and on this occasion not at all frightening, because I was watching the whole event quite detached from the affair.

On 2 July 1941, my sister was born at home and so completed our family of five. She seemed to arrive in a very large cardboard box, but that had turned out to contain her gas mask, one that would envelop her completely.

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