- Contributed by
- People in story:
- Peter Lagden
- Location of story:
- Middle East
- Background to story:
- Royal Air Force
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 17 July 2005
PERSONAL WAR-TIME EXPERIENCES ( Peter Lagden )
By comparison with many of my contemporaries, this is not a story of hardship, danger or suffering — though it has moments of all of these. All things considered, I feel I was fortunate in my experiences during the war and its immediate aftermath..
Born in 1927, I was 12 when the hostilities officially began in September of 1939. My parents and I lived a four bed-roomed terraced house, sharing it with a similar family unit comprising my Uncle, Aunt and male Cousin. This house was located in the East end of London at Barking and, having won a scholarship a year earlier, I used to travel from there to Dagenham County High School by bicycle or bus on weekdays.
In common with many at that time, my parents, who were around 40 years of age then and had gone through the 1st World War, felt that evacuation from London was the sensible course of action and it was decided that my Mother and I should join another Aunt and my female Cousin in a group from her school that was going to Weston-Super-Mare..
Accompanied by family in this way, the journey was not particularly hard but, like so many evacuees, the process of allocation to local families at the end of it was a complete lottery. In this, I was a major winner! The elderly couple who took me on were wealthy, refined, kind &considerate, and lived in a large bungalow set in almost an acre of ground within the town. I had never experienced such luxury .. a complete contrast to the crowded conditions at home. After a fortnight or so, having seen me comfortably established, my Mother (who was staying in boarding house accommodation) returned to London and, though missing her, I spent the next six months in a fairly happy state of mind..
In March 1940 my parents came to the conclusion that living in London did not constitute a danger so I returned to the East End and continued my schooling at Dagenham. As many will know, however, the ‘phoney’ war was short-lived and it was not long before we were engaged in the Battle of Britain and the air raids began. Home protection against bombing was provided, in our case, by means of an Anderson Shelter which my Father and Uncle sunk two-thirds down into our small back garden away from the house as far as possible. Thanks to their experiences in the trenches in WW1 they made a very good job of this task, making the Shelter as comfortable and as safe as possible. This was just as well, since most of the nights between September 1940 and August 1941 were spent in it …. and, with six people sleeping in a space measuring approximately 9’ x 7’ x 6’ that had poor ventilation and heating (apart from body heat), conditions left something to be desired.
I certainly wouldn’t want to go through anything like that now, but at the age of 14 I found it quite exciting, spending part of the evenings as a fire-watcher, at times helping to extinguish incendiary bombs with buckets of sand and stirrup pumps, and roaming the streets in the mornings collecting shrapnel & bomb fragments, the nose cones of shells and unexploded incendiaries. During the day, our school lessons were interrupted by occasional air raid warnings and transfers to the shelters but, despite this, the teaching staff did an admirable job in educating us all to a reasonable standard. Both at home and at school, I was extremely lucky in being spared the horrors of really close encounters with the falling bombs — though the signs of those less fortunate were all around.
Eventually, as the RAF began to achieve dominance over the Luftwaffe, a more normal life returned — albeit one of shortages etc., but, for me, a truly traumatic event occurred. In April 1943, when I was almost 16, my Mother died suddenly of cerebral haemorrhage induced, I believe, by the stresses of war-time life in London. Even now, 52 years later, I find it difficult to come to terms with this.
Although the air raids had virtually ceased, the war on the home front entered a new phase — that of the VI “Doodlebug”. Whilst its effects were horrific, somehow — for me- it was not terrifying. You could hear them coming, you could watch them passing overhead and, if the engine cut out, you had a certain amount of time to take cover. There was also the added thrill of watching RAF fighter pilots flying
alongside them and using the tips of their wings to flip over these flying bombs at an appropriate moment, causing them to plummet to earth and explode on unpopulated areas such as parks and wasteland.
Other civilian attack devices were different. Land Mines gave little warning and, with their huge quantities of explosive, caused tremendous damage, whilst the VII’s that superseded the VI’s in 1944 were, in effect, massive terrorist bombs which appeared out of the blue. I remember walking along Fetter Lane in Central London one lunch-time when one exploded just 250 yards away.
However, the war in Europe and attacks on the English mainland drew to a close as the Allies advanced towards Berlin until, as most people know, Germany surrendered on May 7th 1945. My 18th birthday came about a month after and at the end of June I joined the RAF. Like many teenagers in this era, I had dreamed of becoming Aircrew and had spent several years in the Air Training Corps in preparation for this. Unfortunately, the medical revealed that I was colour blind and this, coupled with a significantly reduced requirement for recruits in this category, meant that it was out of the question. Deeply disappointed, with the rather limited number of interesting alternatives open to me, I elected to be trained as a Motor Mechanic in the belief that this would be useful later in life.
During the course of training, whilst expecting to be sent out to the Far East at the end of it, this possibility was sharply reduced with the news on August 14th of Japan’s surrender. Instead, after the completion of training and brief postings to a few RAF Stations in England, I was sent to the Middle East.. In March 1946 I was flown out by “Liberator” to Cairo and, from there, transported by lorry across the Sinai desert to Ramla in Palestine to join No 2 Armoured Car Squadron (subsequently transferred to the RAF Regiment and renumbered No. 2502 Squadron, as I recall).
This unit, one of two formed by T.E.Lawrence in the 1920’s was normally based in Amman, Jordan, (the other was based in Aden) but had been allotted to patrol duties throughout Palestine on a very mobile basis, helping to deal with the frequent terrorist attacks by militant Zionists that were occurring at this time. Almost half the 21 months or so I was with this unit were spent in Jerusalem, attached to the Palestine Police, during which time there were a number of incidents involving shooting and bombs, including the infamous attack on the St. David’s Hotel. Having said this, it was a happy time, with the comradeship of a comparatively small unit that was constantly on the move, experiencing different cultures and seeing new places. I count myself very lucky to have drawn this particular lot in the aftermath of the war.
Not that I was able to claim great expertise in, or liking for, my duties as a mechanic. My deficiencies in this area were fairly quickly realised by my superiors, who decided that most of my time would be better spent as a driver or other member of the armoured car crews. This happy (for me) state of affairs continued until March 1947 when I was shipped back to the UK on the SS Otranto for demobilisation.
As I said earlier, I feel I was very fortunate to be spared the suffering that many civilians and members of the armed forces experienced during the war and, with the benefit of hindsight, was blessed with the opportunities of fellowship and travel that would not have been given to me in normal circumstances.
© Copyright of content contributed to this Archive rests with the author. Find out how you can use this.