- Contributed by
- People in story:
- Allan E Robinson
- Location of story:
- Background to story:
- Royal Air Force
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 26 April 2004
The first indication of the approaching war came when our next-door neighbour came home from work and said that on Plumstead Common a large team of men were constructing an air-raid shelter.
This was in the early part of the summer of 1939. After tea that evening we all walked along to the common and there, opposite the “Links” Co-op store were 50-60 men working under floodlight using machinery that I had never seen before. Even the hand held electric saw was an item to be stared at in wonder.
All this was taking place after PM Chamberlain came back from Germany waving his piece of paper and saying to the waiting crowd “Peace in our time”.
A few weeks later, on a lovely summer Sunday morning, September 3rd, we all walked down to our local greengrocer and bought some bananas. While walking back a man came out of his house and said “Get home quick, war has been declared!” We hurried home, but before we got there the air-raid siren went and we ran the rest of the way, looking skywards expecting to see a German plane at any minute. None came, it was a false alarm and the “all clear” sounded soon after. The air-raid siren for a coming raid rose and fell as if it was being switched on and off. The “all clear” was a continuous note for about two minutes.
In the next few weeks many things happened. A man went door-to-door giving out identity cards to everybody. The adults were given buff coloured cards and the under 18’s were given blue. We were all given a number, mine was AZKW-91-3, the last digit meant that I was third in the family.
My mother had to go down to the town hall to collect our ration cards for food and clothing. The amount of food we were given each week would not last us a day now. My uncle, in Canada, read in the newspapers that we were starving, and sent us a large food parcel. The only two items I remember was a big tin of jam and a big tin of butter. We had never seen butter in a tin before, or since.
Sweets were also rationed but were almost unobtainable. Petrol was only given to important people, like doctors. People that had cars, and there were not many, jacked them up on bricks and covered them up with waterproof sheets.
About this time people were advised to “black out” their windows. We covered our windows with rubber sheeting, which found its way out of the Woolwich arsenal, stolen of course!
I was ten years old at this time and one day we had a mock evacuation at school. We all had to take a suitcase full of clothes to school and we had a label with our destination on it. We also had to take our gas masks, which had been delivered, to our house one evening. Most people had a standard mask, but children under five were given a blue and red mask to fool them into thinking it was a Mickey Mouse mask. Babies were given a container about two-foot long and eighteen inches in diameter. The baby was placed in this and a manual pump was used to provide filtered air for the baby to breathe.
In the following weeks we had an “Anderson” shelter put at the bottom of the garden. Two men came and dug a hole three-foot deep and the shelter went into this and was covered with the excavated soil.
At this time the “ARP” was formed (Air Raid Precautions) and wardens were recruited to man purpose built, bomb proof posts on pieces of vacant ground. London taxis were garaged in schools and fitted with ladders and fire-fighting equipment. The latter consisted mainly of several buckets of sand and a stirrup pump.
“Dads Army” was formed, but at first it was called the “Local Defence Volunteers” later to be called the Home Guard.
For the next few months very little happened, people started calling it a “phoney war” and most people thought it would be all over by Christmas.
Weeks went by and a glorious summer turned into a wet and cold winter. After Christmas a decision was taken to evacuate school children to the country and most children went away. A small band of children, including my brother and I stayed behind, mainly because their parents did not wish them to go, the idea being that if we were going to be killed, it was better if we all went together. Those of us left, played quite happily in the woods close by and in the streets. On the edge of the wood was a council yard, ready to build some houses. While playing around there, we uncovered an enormous pile of what, we at first, thought were boxes but these were grey painted coffins ready for use when the air raids started.
Playing in the street one day, we were approached by a strange man who took our names and told us he was a teacher and we were to report to a nearby working mans club the next day for school lessons. Here we were given homework, which we had to do and return the next day. The working mans club smelt of stale beer and cigarettes and was not very nice. This arrangement went on for some time. Eventually they organised “Plum Lane School” and all of us strays went there full time.
One night I was woken up by the sound of a policeman on a bike, blowing a whistle for all he was worth. Dad came into my bedroom and said we had better get up and dressed. We all went downstairs, the siren went and we went out into the garden. Our next-door neighbour came out and we stood listening for a while, but it was very quiet. After about twenty minutes we all went into our house for a cup of tea, and talked until the “all clear” went. A shared cup of tea with our neighbour became the normal thing after a raid for the rest of the war.
By now we were getting two to three air raids every week. The first afternoon raid in our road demolished a house on the corner. Later in the day, when people came home from work, a hole was found in the back garden of the house on the opposing corner. The bomb disposal team were called in and started digging for an unexploded bomb. A large section of the road was cordoned off and remained so for two weeks while they removed the bomb. Although we were having air raids we could not use the shelter in our garden as it had three foot of water in it. Eventually the council came to concrete the floor and walls up to ground level, and slowly the shelter dried out.
The air raids continued to increase both by day and night, and most people slept in their shelters. By now our shelter was nicely equipped with bunks and we were able to get a good nights’ sleep, in spite of all the noise.
A lot of people painted a V sign for victory on the wall alongside their front door. Three dots and a dash usually followed this. This was the Morse code for “V”. Just inside the front door on many homes was a small notice that said, “There is no depression in this house and we are not interested in the possibility of defeat, it does not exist”.
Much has been written about the “Battle of Britain”, the history books will tell you that it lasted from the 7th to the 15th September 1940. Germany lost 1733 planes and we lost 915, when you think that most German planes were bombers, and held at least five men, our fighters only held one man, their losses in terms of manpower were considerably more than ours. However, my memory tells me that most of the battle only lasted two days. In this time we saw planes fighting one another in the sky in flames. Some fell cart wheeling down; leaving a trail like a comet and making a tremendous screaming sound.
One spitfire dived down, quite close to us, leaving a trail of smoke, it levelled out and the pilot jumped out using his parachute. As he floated down, a German plane machine-gunned him and he continued to float down, probably dead. We spent these two days trapped in our shelter, after the first horrible day, the “all clear” went at six o’clock. Dad and I decided to go and get some fish and chips, and we rode our bikes intending to go to Herbert Road where there was a fish shop that was nearly always open (most were not). When we got to the top of Plum Lane we stopped and looked down at the River Thames. From our vantage point we could see St Paul’s up to the left and on our extreme right, the Ford motor works. In between these two points was a mass of fires, seven major fires and dozens of smaller ones blazing away into the gathering dusk.
I remember Dad saying, “It looks as though the war is over.” While we looked the siren went again and we raced back to the shelter. We never did get our fish and chips and all we had that day was bread, margarine and cups of tea.
We spent that night and all the next day cowering in the shelter while the sky was filled with German bombers going over in tight formation. Anti aircraft guns blazed away and shrapnel came down like rain. (When the shells exploded the resulting pieces of torn metal was called shrapnel.)
It is true of course, that the battle went on for a few more days, but not a ferociously as before. One of the German planes landed in the back garden between Ann Street and Robert Street, in lower Woolwich, and word soon got round that one of the tenants was selling pieces of the plane to raise money for the war effort. I bought an unrecognisable piece of aluminium for 3d and was delighted with my bargain.
All the children, myself included, started picking up pieces of shrapnel; the reason was that if you collected a certain amount you were given a shiny spitfire badge, which we all wore proudly.
After things quietened down again we started patching broken windows in our house with white sheeting, supplied by the council. It was not long before people found that if this material was boiled, it made excellent pillowcases, and a lot was misused in this way. Our house had sliding doors between the front and back rooms and we fixed these as they had been blown down by the blast from a nearby bomb.
On the second day we had a lucky escape, we came out of the shelter during a lull and found a pile of grey ash on the grass, we looked up and saw a few broken tiles on the roof. An incendiary bomb had hit the roof and bounced off into the garden where it burnt itself out. If it had gone into our loft, the house would probably have been destroyed.
After this horrible weekend, Dad went back to work and Mum, myself and Rex were in the shelter when a bomb fell no more than thirty feet away from us. The shelter lifted up at least six inches and rocked violently, dirt fell down from the joints in the shelter and Mum said, “That’s our house gone.” After a few minutes I opened the door of the shelter and saw the house was still standing. Looking the other way I saw a large hole in the woods at the back of us, and that’s where the bomb had landed.
One silly thing I remember is that after all the damage had taken place, the council gave every house in the area five pounds to buy new curtains. I do not think anyone did, but I am sure the money came in handy.
We had a searchlight battery down the road from us, and a barrage balloon site up the road, both being about a quarter of a mile away. One evening after a raid we walked up to the balloon site because we heard that they had been hit. When we got there we found that the sleeping hut had received a direct hit, and the pile of wood and corrugated iron we were looking at contained the bodies of twelve airmen. We did not stay long.
About this time the school I was at was bombed quite badly. Luckily I had the afternoon off to go to the dentist. Nobody at the school was hurt as they were all in the air raid shelter. This school closed, and we all went to another school. My father, who was too old for military service, was sent down to Plymouth to help build a hospital for the American troops down there. I went down to the station with him and could hardly walk the short distance back to school for the tears in my eyes. My new school was the Woolwich Polytechnic and had already been bombed, but it was such a large school that a big hole in one wall did not make any difference.
Our local newsagent asked me if I would do a paper round for him, which I did for 6s/- a week (30p) I started delivering at 6am every morning, very often there was still an air raid on, and I wore a tin hat. Due to the dark mornings and the blackout I had a torch, which I used sparingly in case there were any German bombers around.
By now there were dozens of houses bombed and abandoned. One paper I had to deliver was to the only occupied house down the bottom of Duncroft Hill. In the dark with all the temporary paper coverings on the windows flapping about, it was very spooky.
After two months my father came home and started work on what we later knew as the “Mulberry Harbour”. His job with hundreds of others was to build and enormous wooden box in a large hole alongside the Thames on the mudflats. This box was filled with concrete to make a hollow concrete structure, about 80 foot by 60 foot.
From the top of Plum Lane we used to see barges floating down the Thames and wondered what on earth they were for, even the men working on them did not know. Once pouring of concrete started on these barges it could not be stopped until the barge was finished. This meant the men used to work “ghosters”, day and night and sometimes part of the next day. The result of this was a very fat wage packet, and for the first time we seemed to have enough money.
Until this period money had been so short that on several occasions my mother and I would go down to Woolwich to pawn her engagement ring for a few pounds. This was usually done at dusk in the hope that nobody would see us. Even now when I see that ring, the sad memories come flooding back.
The air raids continued and for a week we slept in the shelter. The optical buildings were about half a mile away from our house. This was a small factory that made bombsights, binoculars and range finding equipment. A couple of times this was obviously the target to be raided. Magnesium flares were dropped on parachutes and because of the heat rising from them, the parachutes acted as hot air balloons and hovered in the sky for five or six minutes. The light from them was so bright that although it was late at night you could have read a newspaper in our garden quite easily. Several bombs were dropped, but missed the target and fell on adjacent allotments. I do not believe the factory itself was ever hit. On these local raids the Germans dropped silver and black tape to interfere with our radar systems.
During the war we would see German bombers flying over in formation and apart from anti-aircraft fire, it seemed very little was being done to stop them. Barrage balloons used to be flown to try to make the bombers fly at a greater height, but were more of a nuisance to us on the ground. In thunderstorms they were frequently struck by lightening and burst into flame. They also broke away quite often, causing the wire holding them to fall down across the roofs of houses causing damage to chimney pots. Very often the RAF men spent longer retrieving wires than flying their balloons.
One day I came home from school during an air raid and found myself locked out. As I stood by the front gate a small German bomber dived down over Welton Road, as I watched, a bomb left the plane, which then zoomed away towards London. The bomb exploded in the gardens between Welton Road and Duncroft. I don’t think anyone was killed, but I do know a baby, sitting in a high chair was badly cut with flying glass. Mr Heron picked up the high chair with the baby in it and ran the four or five hundred yards to Timbercroft Lane School where there was a first aid post. Mr Heron was Dad’s roommate in Plymouth and passed on the above story.
By now I was getting up at 5 am to help the newsagent get the paper rounds together, delivering my two rounds, going down to the Arsenal station to collect the evening papers and collecting money Saturday and Sunday mornings. For this I received 24s/- a week (£1.20), it does not seem much now, but at that time if a man was earning £5 a week, he was doing very nicely.
Another terrible incident took place in Alabama Street, under cover of darkness a German bomber dropped a sea type mine on a parachute. When it hit the ground it exploded causing devastation over a wide area. Ordinary bombs buried themselves in the ground and damage was not so widespread. Thinking back on it now, the scene I saw was very much like Hiroshima, a whole block of houses between Lucknow Street and Pegwell were completely flattened. Up in a tree were the remains of a green tarpaulin parachute. I never did know how many people were killed, but it must have been 50 or 60 at least.
Every night a broadcast from Germany was beamed our way, and someone who called himself “Lord Haw Haw” used to feed us with outrageous propaganda. Lord Haw Haw’s father lived in a big house in Shrewsbury Lane, close to the top of Eglington Hill. He was a very short man, always wore a flat cap, brown overcoat and shiny leather leggings. Why he was not interned I do not know. Lord Haw Haw’s real name was William Joyce and I think his father’s name was Harry Joyce.
One night he apparently said that the German paratroops were going to take over London. It had previously been decided that if paratroops landed all the church bells would ring. If gas was used the police and air raid wardens would sound football rattles.
The rumour of paratroops landing spread like wildfire and as my father was away some nights, I decided to do something about it. I had a Colt 45 revolver and one bullet that fitted it. On nights that Dad was away, Mum, Rex and I all slept in the same room. Without my mother knowing I used to put the loaded revolver under the bed on my side. My stupid plan was that if a German soldier burst into our room, I was going to shoot him, take his gun and defend us from the top of the stairs. Luckily, the occasion never arose.
After the war the revolver mentioned, along with another smaller one, was buried in the back garden of our house because of a government amnesty. When the house was sold, I tried to dig them up, but I could not locate them. I expect they are still there today.
At the age of 13½ my friend and I put our ages up by 2½ years to join the Air Training Cadets. We trained as pilots and navigators, received flying instruction in a link trainer, which was an early type of flight simulator, and we did the usual foot drills. This was very useful when I was called up some years later. We also did a little bit of real flying at West Malling and Felixstowe. While at Felixstowe we had a bad air raid and the only shelter we had was a deep trench dug at the side of the field we were camping in.
Every night at Felixstowe we used to see a flotilla of motor torpedo boats going out on submarine patrol. One afternoon we were taken out to look for submarines and at the time, bobbing about in the North Sea for two hours seemed a great adventure. Looking back on it, I marvel at our stupidity because not many of us could swim.
One night after our visit to Felixstowe, a list went up on the notice board saying that if the list of cadets did not volunteer for service in the RAF they ran the risk of being called up for the coal mines as a “Bevan Boy”. Both me and my friend’s name were on the list so we had to come clean and admit that we had lied about our ages. The officer in charge was very nice about it, and let us stay on in the ATC.
After Easter 1944 I left school and started work for a relation of ours. He taught me a lot about building and plumbing, and very early on, because of the shortage of men, I was being trusted with jobs on my own. I built a wall about 20 feet long and 6 feet high, I did small plumbing jobs and when nothing else was urgent I built a large greenhouse. This greenhouse was built with materials diverted from war damage repairs being carried out in Westmount Road at the back of the Welcome Inn, Eltham. After the greenhouse was completely finished it was filled with plants and four weeks later it was blown to pieces by a nearby bomb.
The air raids had slowed up by now and one night after the sirens had sounded we stood and watched what looked like planes with a light on the back, going up towards London at a very low level. We watched dumbstruck as these planes flew past every five minutes or so with no opposition at all. We realised after a time that the engines of these planes (which sounded like a motor bike) stopped after a time and the planes were not coming back. We concluded that at long last the Germans were landing troops, and we feared the worst.
Next morning it became known to everyone, via the radio and an air raid warden that lived near us, that what we had been watching nearly all night, was Germany’s new secret weapon. It was, of course, a “Doodle Bug”, an unmanned plane with a bomb in its nose. In the next few months, dozens of them fell on London and the suburbs causing considerable damage and deaths.
One grey and misty day, during a raid, I was coming home for dinner down a country lane known as the “Red Road” when I heard the engine of a doodle bug approaching. I continued to walk, when suddenly the engine stopped. As I looked ahead into the mist this thing was coming straight for me. It was only a few hundred yards away and making a fluttering sound. I am not a believer in religion, the whole thing seems so illogical to me, but this thing coming straight for me, I dived into a ditch and prayed as I have never prayed before or since. There was an enormous explosion and realising I was still alive I looked up to see hundreds of pieces of metal fragments, which appeared to be floating in the air. I ducked down again and covered by head with my hands hoping that none of the pieces would hit me, which they did not.
I picked myself up and walked shakily up the lane, about three hundred yards away on some allotments was a big crater. The doodle bug must have side slipped away from me, had it continued, I would not be writing this now. On the way home a fire fighting taxi stopped and asked me if I was alright. I expect I looked pretty dreadful, smothered in mud and shaking like a leaf. He offered me a lift home but I said I was okay and I continued home. I had to go back to work in the afternoon as I had left a pile of cement mixed up.
In 1944 I had saved up enough money to buy a small car. The deposit was £25 with repayments of £1 a week. This bought me a very nice “Morris eight” in excellent condition with red leather upholstery and an unmarked black finish. There was no petrol available, so for a few months all we did was polish it inside and out.
Eventually because Dad and I were repairing bomb-damaged houses he was granted two gallons of petrol a month for emergency use. This did not go very far, but we were able to buy black market petrol coupons from our local butcher and this enabled us to visit the coast occasionally. The roads were so quiet I was able to drive even though I was not old enough and did not have a licence.
Our firm commandeered a house in Llanover Road, right opposite the house where I had been born. We set up a carpenter’s workshop in a bedroom and over the next few months we made hundreds of replacement window frames. Downstairs was a glazing room and storerooms for all kinds of building materials. It was wintertime and quite cold so our first job in the morning was to light a fire and make tea.
Some few months later Dad and I were walking home from work at about 5 o’clock. As we got to the junction of Garland Road and Red Road there was an enormous flash, followed by an equally large explosion. Looking up we saw a great cloud of debris falling down, mostly over the RAC abattoir but some falling on the road in front of us. As we turned the corner, a policeman came up from the Optical Buildings and started picking up the bits and pieces that had fallen on the road. We helped him and we took our collection of bits of pipe and glass fibre down to the factory gate for someone to examine. To the best of my knowledge this was the first “V2” to land. This one and a few others malfunctioned. Apparently as they came through the atmosphere, they overheated and exploded too soon. A few of these rockets fell locally; the first indication of their arrival was violent earth tremors, and then the explosion followed by the sound of their engines as they came down. The reason for this was that they travelled faster than the speed of sound.
‘D’ Day was the 6th June 1944. Some man stopped me in the street and said we had made a landing in France. As the day progressed more and more aircraft flew over. Some were going to France and some coming back. Those that were returning were doing ‘victory rolls’ so we knew things were going well. How they missed the top of Shooters Hill, I do not know.
Our troops continued to make rapid progress and we did not have many more air raids. Over the next few months the news got better and better, and for the first time we knew we were going to win.
On May 1st 1945, I went to bed as usual in the dark as we had not bothered to put the blackout curtains in the bedrooms. Laying in bed with the curtains wide open the room was suddenly lit up with our nearby searchlight coming on. Thinking it was a raid coming, I jumped out of bed and I started to get dressed. Looking out of the window, I saw dozens of searchlights sweeping the sky and waving backwards and forwards. I rushed downstairs where Mum and Dad had the radio on and they were just announcing the end of the war in Europe. Our next-door neighbour rushed in and we sat talking until the early hours of the morning.
The next day nobody went to work and we had an impromptu party down at the corner of the road. People took cakes and sandwiches down to be shared out and a radiogram was fixed up to provide music for people to dance to.
The next Saturday afternoon we all went to a much better organised party down at Timbercroft Lane School. There was a load to eat and drink; even ice cream had come from somewhere. Various people did their party tricks and I think we all had a good time.
May 8th was the official ‘VE’ day and was declared a national holiday. At work we were so busy that it was decided that we should work and have the day off later. We never did get it but nobody minded very much because the extra money came in handy as always.
That’s the end of my account of the war in Woolwich and how it affected us.
On 6th August 1945, the Americans dropped the atom bomb on Hiroshima, but this was overshadowed in our family by the death of my grandfather.
2nd September 1945 was victory in Japan day, but this did not affect us very much as our war was really over before that.
I would like to say that we all lived happily ever after, but that was not so. Shortages continued for many years and we went without quite a few things. Rationing did not finish completely until 3rd July 1954. I think meat was the last to come off ration.
I do feel that if the country had left Winston Churchill in power, things would have recovered much quicker. For some unaccountable reason he was thrown out in favour of a labour government at a time when we really needed a good leader. I suppose in better times we would have received counselling, but none was available for us.
I think the only lasting effect on me is that if I hear an air raid siren on TV, it still sends a chill up my spine. At night if I look out and see a moonlit sky with a few clouds, I still think “nice night for a raid”.
I must finish this the way that I started, by saying every word you have read is true.
I have written this account of my war in the hope that my children, grandchildren and possibly their children should understand what we went through.
At the outbreak of war I was ten years old. I lived with my mother and father, Julia and Eddie Robinson, and my brother Rex, who is eight years younger than me. We lived at 86 Warland Road, Plumstead, London, SE18. Our road was aptly named, as we had no less than thirteen bombs and many small incendiaries dropped on it.
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