BBC HomeExplore the BBC
This page has been archived and is no longer updated. Find out more about page archiving.

15 October 2014
WW2 - People's War

BBC Homepage
BBC History
WW2 People's War Homepage Archive List Timeline About This Site

Contact Us

In the London Blitz

by Harold Pollins

Contributed by 
Harold Pollins
People in story: 
Harold Pollins
Location of story: 
Background to story: 
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
14 January 2004

My family lived in Leytonstone, in outer east London. It was then in the county of Essex even though it was part of built-up London. Now is it in the London Borough of Waltham Forest. In the summer and autumn of 1940, when the Battle of Britain began, we used to have air raid warnings but no actual bombing. The activity was in the more southerly part of the country. I recall our small fox terrier (called, for some reason, ‘Toots’) going into the garden and barking and then, some minutes later, the local air raid warning would go off. I suppose he may have heard a distant warning when he had barked. In this early part of the Battle of Britain we often spent long hours in our cellar which my father had had shored up with a steel vertical girder.
I was sixteen and wanted to continue in the sixth form of the school I was attending. I had stated that I was an intending teacher and as a result I had to undergo some teaching practice in order to have my father relieved from paying a small sum for my education (some payment, on a means test basis, was exacted before the Education Act of 1944 abolished such payments in state schools.) I therefore spent a month at a local primary school which had not been evacuated for my teaching practice. The headmaster was an old customer of my father’s. However, for much of the time we had to go to the shelters during the day and our nights were interfered with by the air raid warnings and our staying in the shelter. As a result I was only able to deliver about four lessons. I was greatly surprised and annoyed to find that the headmaster had filed a report on me in which I was judged to have failed.
Our family got fed up with the cellar as a shelter. Perhaps my parents were afraid of being buried if we were bombed. So we started using a public shelter on open ground near us, on Wanstead Flats, part of Epping Forest. This was jus a short distant under the ground and it so happened that this was when the severe blitz on London began, with attacks on the docks and on the East End of London. I am sure I’m right that in the first two or three nights of the blitz there was very little anti-aircraft retaliation but suddenly there was a great concentration of guns which fired for long periods, a marvellous cacophony. Again, I don’t think I’m misremembering if I say that everyone was highly pleased with it and, despite the noise - or perhaps because of it - people slept for the first time. A school friend, whose father was a docker, told me of the horrors his father has seen on going to work on the docks . Numerous houses were bombed and very many people were killed. Because of the damage to the docks his father was directed to Scotland to work on the docks there.
After a short period we looked for other shelters. On one occasion we went to the unfinished extension to the Tube railway in Leytonstone (work had begun in the 1930s and was to be finished after the war.) We went to the entrance but when we saw the mass of people in it I think we went home. The we began to use a surface shelter which belonged to the factory behind our house. We had to cut a way through the back fence and every night we would go to it, carrying our mattresses and accompanied by our dog, Some other locals also used it as did employees of the factory who were acting as firewatchers. I was told that as part of the war effort the workers in the factory began to improve their output. As a result, being on piecework, their wages went up. Apparently the employers thought it quite wrong that the girl employees should earn as much as £3.10s. a week and cut the rate. The girls went on strike - it was a non-union factory. I was quite annoyed to hear the firewatchers from the factory saying that they should not have struck and that the employers were right. Unfortunately the dog did not last long. It caught distemper from which it did not recover.
We made two other changes to our night-time arrangements. First, for a little time, we used to travel out each evening to Harlow, in Essex, then a small village although after the war it became the focus for a New Town. I suppose my parents had found the place. We travelled by Green Line coach, part of the London Passenger Transport Board, whose route lay on the main road in Leytonstone where we lived. At the house we used to sleep in the beds while the house-owners went to the shelter. We obviously must have thought that Harlow was in a safe area. Finally, we used to travel each evening to a farm near Ongar, In Essex, which belonged to a farmer-customer of my father’s. We, and another family from Leytonstone, took over an unoccupied agricultural worker’s cottage to which we repaired in the evenings and left in the mornings. We used to travel back from both Harlow and the Ongar farm wondering what damage had been done and whether there would be a home to find. I think it must have been on week-ends that I stayed on the farm and did some work. I hoed sugar-beet (although I sometimes wonder if, in my ignorance, I weeded the seedlings rather than weeds.) I tried to milk a cow by hand. I managed to drive a horse and cart, the horse being a magnificent shire horse. It was a very large animal but it was no trouble, being accustomed to his travail.
Although we lived in east London very few bombs landed near us. Admittedly we suffered from bomb blast; many slates from the roof were dislodged and windows were broken but nothing more. We were
lucky I suppose.

© Copyright of content contributed to this Archive rests with the author. Find out how you can use this.

Forum Archive

This forum is now closed

These messages were added to this story by site members between June 2003 and January 2006. It is no longer possible to leave messages here. Find out more about the site contributors.

Message 1 - In the London Blitz

Posted on: 03 March 2005 by Frank Mee Researcher 241911

Hello Harold,
It is a good job you tried to milk the cow and drive the horse it could have been tricky the other way round.
I always think of those early months as unsettling. We forever appeared to be getting up from a deep sleep and dashing for one shelter or another to the accompaniment of the guns firing. It was only when bombs dropped in the village we lads realised it was not just a game, a rude awakening comes to mind, it was for me I was outside dashing for the shelter and the thought came to my mind "Old Adolf has me cold this time" we survived.
Good story Harold keep plodding.
Regards Frank.


Message 2 - In the London Blitz

Posted on: 04 March 2005 by Harold Pollins

Thanks for your message. Actually I submitted In the London Blitz a year ago!
An American cousin of mine who lives in New York state told me last autumn that she was to take up a job in the city of New York but was worried. The Republican Party was due to have its conference in NY city at the same time and she was fearful about possible terrorist attacks. I sent her a reply to the effect that we had had terrorism for 30 years and that during the blitz we just got on with life. And I was suprised to read on the Internet an American writing about terrorism who quoted a bit of my article to show Americans how to behave in the face of terrorist threats! I don't think it's on the Internet now.

Just had a phone conversation with a chap living in Bristol, his home town, with whom I was in digs in Cambridge during our student year, 1942-3, before call up. He ended up I believe as an officer in the paratroops in India. Interesting that we are still in touch. He sends me books he has bought and read. He is reading one on Lenin at present and said he would sen it to me when he's finished. He sent me one on Stalin last year. Not that he's a leftie, he's just interested in history, although his father, who was wounded in WWI, a bit of a business man, was a strong Labour supporter. An interesting man whom I once met during the war.


Archive List

This story has been placed in the following categories.

The Blitz Category
British Army Category
London Category
icon for Story with photoStory with photo

Most of the content on this site is created by our users, who are members of the public. The views expressed are theirs and unless specifically stated are not those of the BBC. The BBC is not responsible for the content of any external sites referenced. In the event that you consider anything on this page to be in breach of the site's House Rules, please click here. For any other comments, please Contact Us.

About the BBC | Help | Terms of Use | Privacy & Cookies Policy