- Contributed by
- People in story:
- Brian Hester
- Location of story:
- Home Front
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 20 June 2005
Members of the Local Defence Volunteers (or “LDV”), later to be known as the Home Guard, accomplished all this work in a matter of weeks. As the war progressed, this force would be armed with old rifles but for the moment they drilled with pikes! All the men were volunteers from above or below the age group that was called up for the regular army. Veterans from the previous war were very much in evidence. Ancient officers came to life all over the country to lend a hand with training. Initially the LDV were identified solely by their arm-bands that bore the letters LDV but they were soon to be given regular army uniforms. With their intimate knowledge of the surrounding country, they would have given a lot of trouble to an invading force.
It was announced that church bells would cease to be rung except to announce an invasion. Sunday mornings were to be silent until May 1945 except for one Sunday in 1943 when they were rung to celebrate the winning of the Battle of Alamein in North Africa..
To keep people on their toes and aware of the possibility of a gas attack, someone from the military would drive up to a place where people were gathered, such as a shopping street, and throw out a tear gas grenade before driving away. The air raid wardens would have been tipped off and would appear wearing their gas masks and waiving their warning rattles. Woe betide anyone who had left home that day without their gas mask!
Fortunately for us, Northolt airport, although a fighter base, was never bombed. The Germans concentrated on the airfields nearer the coast from which our fighter planes could be more of a nuisance to the bombers.
Once school was finished in the summer of 1940, I was sent to Princess Risborough in the country to be with my grandparents, uncle Ray and cousin Derrick. I had passed at the appropriate level of the ill-famed “eleven plus” examination, and bane of all schoolchildren, to gain a place next term at Harrow County Boys School in Harrow, about four miles closer to London than my home at Ruislip. The eleven-plus examination was abandoned about thirty years later following a contentious debate that still continues.
The summer weather ended and the Germans’ daylight raids stopped just in time to save the British who were having trouble replacing aircraft and pilots at the rate the Germans were destroying them! I went off to my new school at Harrow just at the end of the daylight raids. To reach school I had to travel four miles by train. Several of my friends were at the same school so I was not completely among strangers.
The school had an enrolment of about 750 boys (girls went to a different school). We were divided into classes, or forms, each consisting of about 35 pupils. For the first four years, there were four parallel forms (A to D) for each year of induction. At the conclusion of the fourth year we took what was then known as the General School Certificate examination in about eight subjects. Passing this was considered the key to good jobs. At that time, the school leaving age was fourteen. There was little money around so for many families it was essential to have another breadwinner in the house as soon as possible. Our school got these boys into the labour force at age 15 as opposed to other schools of this type that took an extra year. Many boys left after passing the examination, while others went on into what was called the sixth form where they took up to four subjects in the Higher School Certificate examinations two years later. At this point, the real achievers could take university scholarship examinations as well. We were started off with one hour of homework a night with one and a half at weekends but the rate was built up quickly to two hours a night after three years, and three hours in the sixth form. There was not much else to do in the evenings to distract us. At eighteen, you went into one of the armed services. Nobody had much ambition beyond that or gave much thought to the longer term.
By the time I started at this new school the air raid sirens were going on and off all day. The rule was that if an air raid warning was in progress when we arrived at the station, we would go to a nearby shelter, otherwise we were to go directly to school. At the school, a basement floor had been shored up with big timbers and all windows and doors shielded with sandbags that were later replaced with brick walls. When the warbling note of the warning sirens went during classes, we were herded downstairs until the steady note of the “all clear” blew. No schoolwork was attempted in these circumstances. We sat and played games such as chess and battleships, a mindless game in which you had to guess the coordinates of squares on a sheet of paper on which your opponent had
distributed his fleet of hypothetical battleships. As long as we kept reasonably quiet, nobody on the staff seemed to bother.
An important distraction in our lives was to get the teachers to interrupt the lesson with their reminiscences of “their” war. We became adept at asking leading questions!
The whole concept of shelters struck me as illogical. If bombs were to fall on us, the further we were spread about the fewer of us would be hit. The basement shelter was particularly ridiculous in hindsight, as any bomb on the school would have crashed through all the floors until it exploded in the basement where we were gathered. We would have been better off in the classrooms except for the hazard of flying glass. Sometimes on our escorted trips to the station on our way home, we would stand on the bridge over the tracks and look eastward towards London to see the vapour trails of dog fights between the planes of the two sides. Incongruously, the bridge was plastered with fascist symbols which had been painted on using a stencil for a fascist demonstration a year or so before the war started.
If the air raid warning was still in force when school was over, the teachers would hold a staff meeting to decide what to do, should we stay or leave? If things looked quiet, those of us going to the station would be formed into a crocodile and marched to the station under the guardianship of a master. Quite a responsibility for the poor fellow but nothing ever happened. Among the masters given this job was a Dr. Hartland, who taught French and who, because of his round body and characteristic bouncy walk, was known as “sorbo”, after the name given to a form of rubber. There was no doubt he knew the nickname because it was common practice to refer to him as Dr. Sorbo when talking about him to new boys who would then address the poor chap with this name. He was a dedicated teacher and good sport but none of us appreciated this at the time.
With the deterioration in the weather, the daylight raids stopped and the Germans settled down to night bombing raids. These seemed interminable with sirens every night. For most of the time we would hear nothing more, but occasionally an enemy plane would come over Ruislip and the searchlights and anti-aircraft guns would come into action. My father and I used to guess which model bomber it was by the sound of the engines. Engines of the Heinkel 111 had a characteristic throbbing note that we thought, incorrectly as it turned out, must indicate a diesel engine. All the aircraft used for bombing by night had two engines. The Germans had learned that by not synchronizing the engines the resulting throbbing noise disrupted the direction finding equipment used to guide the searchlights and anti-aircraft fire.
London was being heavily bombed at this time. Great Victoria Street in the City, where my uncle George had his accounting firm was completely razed. One evening, just before I went to bed, my father called me outside to see the glow on the horizon of the Surrey Docks burning nearly twenty miles away.
It was generally supposed that the German bombers navigated at night by identifying the various bodies of water scattered around west London. How this story arose I do not know but it was finally confirmed to me in East Africa in 1986 by an old German acting as navigator for an aerial photography contractor who admitted to having previously been a navigator on a Heinkel which bombed London during 1941. He also confirmed what we all suspected at the time that the bombers would release all their bombs the moment the searchlights found them. The loss of weight would cause the plane to pick up speed and rise several hundreds of feet and so escape the lights. We would regularly pick up in the streets pieces of shrapnel from anti-aircraft guns on the morning following a raid.
Later, when the Germans had realized the nature of the radar the British had developed, bombers would routinely dump rolls of black paper edged with aluminium foil that apparently caused great confusion on the radar screens. We would collect these souvenirs to show them off to our friends.
There were always jokes going around about “secret weapons”. Radar fell into this classification and the government did its best to explain in other ways the sudden success this invention brought to our fighter planes in shooting down enemy bombers at night. Later we learned that the early version of airborne radar was so precise that some of our fighters actually crashed into the enemy planes on dark nights before they had a chance to fire. At the time, we were treated to propaganda photographs supposedly showing pilots in sun glasses resting in arm chairs. The text beneath explained that medical science had found it possible to improve the night vision of these pilots by a combination of the dark glasses and a diet in which carrots figured prominently. Rabbits like carrots. Rabbits live in dark burrows so must be able to see in the dark. Hence it was “logical” to conclude that carrots help rabbits see in the dark! A story of the same kind had circulated during the previous war when soldiers rumoured to have been seen passing through a London railway station had been recognized as Russians by the snow on their boots! It seems that at times of great national jeopardy, citizens can be persuaded to believe just about anything if it is told with an air of authority.
By the end of 1940 everything was in short supply. Whatever industry had stockpiled at the beginning of the war had long since been consumed. We were constantly being asked to contribute to scrap drives. At one time everyone was asked to contribute spare aluminium pots and pans. We wondered how many good pots found their way into the homes of the scrap collectors! Crews of men with cutting torches cruised along residential streets cutting down the ornate iron railings installed during the previous century. Newspapers were collected for recycling. Nothing that could be re-used was thrown away. I collected blunt razor blades.
Even while “relaxing” in the evening and listening to the radio, my parents were busy doing patriotic things. My mother would crochet mittens out of cord that were worn over regular gloves by sailors on mine sweepers. My father would sit with a pair of pliers straightening out the springs for the newly devised Sten gun. The springs were manufactured mechanically but never came out of the machine as straight as the designer intended so they were distributed from places of work so that volunteers could utilize their spare time to give the springs the required delicate twists.
The newspapers were printed on a poor quality paper and consisted on bad days of a single sheet, or four pages. More commonly we got an extra half page in the middle. They did not take long to read. There might be as many as two photographs in the entire paper — generally the King, Winston Churchill or some other well-known figure doing something patriotic. One enterprising local resident who found he had exhausted everything of interest to him in the paper long before his daily reached his destination. For the balance of the journey, he would scan the birth announcements in order to record the relative popularity of names chosen for children. Each year, even after his ultimate retirement, he would report his findings in a letter to The Daily Telegraph.
Early in 1941 the First Canadian Fighter Squadron was moved away from Northolt aerodrome and the Canadians billeted around Ruislip of course went too. Our friend Carl Briese, was to return for leaves occasionally throughout the war from his new base at Middle Wallop, a name he found most amusing. A Polish Squadron equipped with Spitfires (fighter planes) replaced the Canadians and their obsolescent Hurricanes. I don’t recall ever having met foreigners who spoke no English before the Poles arrived and some were billeted next door. Our neighbours, the Fryers, accommodated the Squadron Leader, Zbigniew Czaikowski and his wife Christina. He spoke enough English to get along but she was fluent in French as well as English. Few of their compatriots spoke a word of English. Meeting all these foreigners was all very exciting. This was the first time I had been in close contact with people who spoke another language in preference to English. The Poles had arrived in Britain by a circuitous route through the Balkans that was never completely explained to me.
Once they were trained to fly the Spitfires, the Poles did a good job. On their return from a successful operation they would fly “victory roles” over Ruislip at zero altitude in fits of joie de vivre. The population was not amused but tolerated the exuberance as a patriotic obligation. These manoeuvres were very impressive but were stopped eventually when one or two planes came out of the roll at a wrong angle and crashed! Some particularly impressive displays of victory rolls were performed right over our house, in all probability by the lodger next door for his wife’s benefit.
Several kinds of bombs now fell routinely near our house and we spoke knowledgeably of 100, 500, and 1000 pounders (it never occurred to us that the enemy likely measured the bombs in terms of kilograms) as well as land mines and D.A.’s, or delayed action bombs. The first three were simply bombs of different weights, real or imagined. (How well can you tell the weight of a bomb when you are on the receiving end listening to the pitch of the whistle changing?) What we called landmines as far as I ever learned were simply bombs on parachutes. They would arrive silently well after the plane responsible for dropping them had gone into the night. One such bomb landed in the woods near home one summer’s night. We were all out next day to collect pieces of the parachute. Blast from such devices was very large but damage was usually light. The one in the woods was over a mile away and although the blast sucked all our curtains out through the transom windows there was no damage. I did not even wake up. As a terror weapon, they were particularly useless. Nobody seemed to get upset by them.
It was the task of the air raid wardens to listen to the bombs coming down and try to find where they landed so they could arrange first aid, ambulances and fire brigades. When no explosion was heard, we all knew a D.A. was in the neighbourhood. No matter what the time of day or night a warden would knock at the door and ask to be allowed to examine the property. Generally my father would have done this already.
The sirens would signal an “alert” or “all clear” without any apparent relation to what was going on. We generally ignored them in the evenings and just ‘carried on” until we heard a bomb coming down and would then fall flat on the floor. The thought that I might get killed by one of those bombs never really bothered me and I was surprised one night when my father lay across me as a bomb came hurtling down.
One night in early 1941 we heard the inevitable Heinkel come over with its engines throbbing away. All of a sudden every anti-aircraft gun in the district seemed to open up and in characteristic fashion, down whistled a string of bombs this time right across our street. My father, in his methodical manner, later plotted all the craters on a street map. His interpretation was that the ten or so bombs had all been light in weight except one, the heavy one, and that had drifted off line. Had it followed the trajectory of the others, it would almost certainly have landed right on us. As it was, my parents threw themselves on the living room floor in time for the shards of broken glass to fly over their heads and cut their way into the wall above them. The bomb had fallen just across the street in someone’s back garden.
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