- Contributed by
- Glenn Miller Festival 2004
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 01 September 2004
The following story was submitted by the author at the Glenn Miller Festival.
It was early in 1939 that at the age of seven Michael began to notice the shadows of war. This was no doubt triggered by the issuing of gas masks to everyone and in particular, by a man visiting his small village school to fit one to each of the children. Each mask came complete with a cardboard box, which was carried by a string handle slung round the neck. The firm instruction, which accompanied the mask, was that it should carried everywhere at all times, including to bed! Michael, like many of his school colleagues was somewhat upset by the whole business and a few tears were shed.
Fear of the “Germans” intensified as the year went on but by the declaration of hostilities on September 3rd, Michael had resolved to resist attack if only to save his Mum and Dad. Having equipped himself with a tin hat from Woolworths for six pen’orth of hard earned pocket money and a wooden rifle which he made out of a bit of old bedstead, he was ready for battle.
His bravery ebbed somewhat at the sound of the first air raid siren, which occurred early in the morning on about September 4th, when Michael was to be found sitting up in bed with his gas mask on, struggling to get his vest over the top. Clearly he was determined not to let the Germans catch him in his pyjamas! He was aware of this first air raid warning because his Dad’s ARP job was to drive a ten-mile country route in the family Austin 7, sounding a hand-wound siren attached to the windscreen pillar of the car. Warnings and “all clears” were so frequent at that time that Dad was always out of phase, the all clear coming through just after he had set off to sound the warning and vice versa!
To combat the perceived threat from the air, all sorts of precautions were taken. Apart from “Morrison” and “Anderson” air raid shelters which continued to be issued by the authorities long after the threat had passed, holes were dug in gardens and covered with corrugated iron, chicken houses were converted by giving them a tin covering and large crosses were painted on the outside walls of houses adjacent to where the family slept. The reason for this was that it was assumed that the outside wall would remain standing after the rest of the house had been demolished, so the rescue people would know where to dig for the bodies!
Very quickly it was realised, particularly in country areas where Michael lived, that the chances of a direct hit from a falling bomb were about the same as winning the lottery, so from then on, everybody simply went outside during the day to watch the air battle proceeding and at night to watch the firework display created by the anti-aircraft barrage surrounding London.
Michael’s bravery continued to increase with the build-up of his military capability, particularly as the threat of invasion began to recede. One reason for this was that with Canadian soldiers billeted all around the area where he lived, Michael was able to increase his equipment status with the odd forage cap, bullet case or cap-badge, to say nothing of a chewing gum wrapper or an
empty “Sweet Caporal” cigarette packet, which was always a treasured item because of the aircraft identification pictures on the back!
By this time one or two friends had been recruited into Michael’s army and he felt that in order to combat the Germans effectively his “unit” would need to be mechanised. With considerable ingenuity an old pram was converted into a fighting vehicle and, thanks to the provision of paint by the Canadian soldiers, was duly camouflaged and adorned with the necessary military identification signs. Later, further vehicles were acquired and by the end of hostilities his army was fully mobile with three vehicles, one with pram wheels [and no tyres], one with iron wheels and the third with bicycle wheels; a formidable force indeed.
However that is jumping forward a bit, so back to 1940 when Michael was to experience his first taste of action. It was during the Battle of Britain when, on a sunny Sunday afternoon and the other personnel of his unit were on weekend leave, an “escaped” balloon from the London barrage came drifting across his house. Immediately he gave chase, bare-footed as he was at the time, and after about a mile the balloon became caught in some trees with the lower part of it not more than a few feet above the ground. Michael was of course there first but a little later, amid much noisy bravado, a squad of the local Canadian soldiers arrived on their fully armed motorbikes. The sergeant in command immediately took charge and seeing a hole in the lower part of the balloon, decided to have a look inside. Unfortunately he was smoking a cigarette at the time. Following a resounding and satisfying explosion, from which the sergeant escaped relatively unhurt due to the fact that all the flames shot upwards, Michael gathered together some unburned bits of balloon fabric for his “war” collection and retired from the scene, satisfied that he had made his first capture, a barrage balloon!
As the months droned on things became increasingly grim for Michael and his friends. Ice creams had disappeared altogether and the sweet ration had gone down to two ounces [one bar of chocolate] a month. Quite suddenly however, things changed when a room in Michael’s house was requisitioned by the army and two soldiers moved in to run a Canadian Salvation Army section, the organisation which provided home comforts for the soldiers. There, under his own roof, were sweets and chocolate bars by the box load. The names “Oh Henry” and “Sweet Marie” may not mean much to today’s readers, but to Michael in 1940 they ranked somewhere just above heaven. Sadly he was soon to learn that all good things must come to an end and when Canadian soldiers moved away, so did the “Sally-Ann!” detachment and so did the supplies of chocolate!
As the Battle of Britain raged above his head, Michael’s arsenal of war materiel increased considerably as more and more cannon shell cases and machine gun bullet cases were found. Later, with British soldiers training all around the area, rifle magazines and bullet clips were acquired including occasionally, the odd “live” round of ammunition. Being a bomb disposal expert Michael was able to deal with these by pulling the bullet out of its case and tipping out the cordite for the subsequent manufacture of fireworks!
This aspect of his war got even better during the night “blitz” which followed the Battle of Britain when, one morning after an overnight raid, Michael and his army picked up over four hundred incendiary bombs, which had failed to ignite. The technique he used to deal with these was to take off the fin, unscrew a plug below and tip out what should have been, and sometimes was, the phosphorous incendiary mixture. However on this occasion he found that most of the bombs were filled with sand, which try as he would, he could not get to burn. The explanation for this was the sabotage work of forced labourers in Germany.
As the character of the war changed the chicken house very quickly outlived its use as an air raid shelter and so became the headquarters of Michael’s unit. The acquisition and application of some khaki paint soon turned it into what was clearly a significant military building. From here the war was directed and Michael’s “troops” were frequently to be seen on manoeuvres with a convoy of vehicles, or patrolling the local vicinity or hunting paratroops in the local woods.
Undoubtedly Michael felt his unit to be more effective than the local “Dad’s Army” platoon of which his father was a member. He became a detached observer of one particular Home Guard exercise in which the platoon had to find and capture a group of “German parachutists” who had been seen to fall somewhere in the local woods. The parachutists, not having been found by the end of the day, retired to the local pub to be joined later by the searchers bitterly complaining that it was not fair! Michael reckoned he could have rounded them up OK!
His second piece of action came when it was thought that an aircraft had come down somewhere in a particular woodland area but had not yet been found. Michael’s army went in search and a day or so later discovered the aircraft, a crashed Messerschmitt Me110. Fortunately by that time there were no “Jerries” about, though had there been, it is not clear how convinced they would have been by the home-made wooden armament of their captors! At another crash scene later in the war, Michael was to discover evidence that the Germans were using female aircrew!
As the war progressed various army units came and went, using the requisitioned buildings around the vicinity where Michael lived. Initially these were infantry companies who, much to his amazement, used live ammunition for training purposes. Although he could not see the point of shooting at your own side, it had the distinct benefit of providing an almost inexhaustible source of spent “303” bullet cases, increasing his stock to such an extent that by 1945 he probably had enough brass to build a tank!
The strength of Michael’s army remained at three until, in 1945, VE Day arrived and he was able to celebrate not only the victory but also his part in it! Although he had used up all his incendiary bombs and live bullets, he had, during the course of the previous five years, managed to acquire a number of thunderflashes. These were very large “banger-type” fireworks, which unlike the incendiaries and cordite from the bullets, he could not easily set off without it being noticed. Come the victory celebrations however, when the night sky was lit up with massive bonfires all over the country, it transpired that a number of the grownups had also quietly “liberated” their own supplies of thunderflashes, so Michael was able to set his own off with impunity. There is no doubt that present-day “Health and Safety” experts would have been horrified at the casual way with which the various kinds of explosive were being chucked around on that spectacular and memorable night. But no one got hurt!
And so, in 1945 Michael’s army was disbanded, partly because the war had been won and partly perhaps, because Michael and his friends had grown out of being soldiers. But his was a war record of which to be proud. In his imaginative play he had repelled invaders, captured numerous German airmen, taken part in daring commando raids and been involved in various risky espionage activities. In reality he had captured a barrage balloon, found a misplaced German aircraft, cleaned up the environment of much discarded war materiel and contributed noisily to the celebration of victory.
The war was horrific for many people, not the least for Michael’s parents who, in 1939, could have seen little hope for his future. For Michael however, once he had overcome his initial fears and trepidations, it was an exciting time, and one which, having lived through it so happily, he has always felt both grateful and privileged to have been afforded the experience.
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