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Victor Flack - Part 1 - Early War Years

by rayleighlibrary

Contributed by 
rayleighlibrary
People in story: 
Victor John Flack
Location of story: 
London - Enfield.
Background to story: 
Civilian
Article ID: 
A7818843
Contributed on: 
16 December 2005

Everyone has a story to tell and this is mine. I am Victor John Flack, born in the Enfield area on Christmas Day 1922.

At the beginning of the war I was working at the Enfield Rolling Mills. My job was in an office in the sheet Mill where sheet non-ferrous metal was produced, brass in this case, which is an alloy of copper and zinc.

On September 3rd 1939 WW2 started. I noticed that the large placard advertisements rapidly disappeared, and the hoardings soon carried propaganda posters, such as ‘Careless Talk Costs Lives’, ‘ Dig for victory’, and so on, also road signposts were removed, making it just as difficult for friends as for foes.

We dug a slit trench at the bottom of our garden at Cecil Avenue, and filled a biscuit tin with emergency rations to take down there, should we have an air raid. On that first day of war, and soon after Prime Minister Chamberlain declared that we were at war, the sirens sounded! It didn’t take us long to learn that the fluctuating-wailing tone meant ‘take cover’, the continuous tone was ‘all clear’. Everyone was apprehensive, the cinema newsreels and newspapers had given us an idea of what to expect, like being machine-gunned, bombed, and possibly gassed. Thankfully the ‘all clear’ sounded shortly afterwards. It had been a false alarm due to an unidentified aircraft, which turned out to be friendly. We must have been taking cover in our trench for no more than about half an hour,--just gave us enough time to make a start on the more tasty parts of the emergency rations.

A complete ‘Black Out’ was ordered, so curtains and blinds needed to be checked to ensure that no light could be seen from outside. Car owners had to blacken the lower part of the headlamp reflector, and the upper part of the front glass. A torch was a must — the streets being pitch black, with no street lamps of course. People’s house windows began to be taped, to reduce the risk from flying glass. Rationing began; having a sweet tooth, I soon discovered the more serious side of war, shortage of sugar meant trying to get used to chemical sweeteners like saccharin.

So started the ‘phoney’ war as it was called in those early days, when nothing much seemed to be happening.

Now that I was a wage earner, my sights were set on becoming a car owner. Most existing car owners were laying theirs up, or selling them cheap, petrol was rationed, people were getting called up into the services, good time to buy, thought I. About six pounds was my limit, and I had not considered tax and insurance. My enthusiasm waned a bit after viewing a few at my price, they didn’t look much better than the three pound Morris I’d learned to drive in. Then Vic Lowell told me of a two-year-old Ford 8 going for seventeen pounds ten shillings, -- they were one hundred pounds when new — the owner working for one of the Ministries which was moving out of London. Beyond my limit of course, but when I described it to Mum, to my surprise she was very interested and offered to lend me the money. I had no idea that they had that sort of money to lend.

So I became a motorist, garage round the corner, one shilling a week (5p) — only worth that, being home made with old wood, leaking, and occupied by spiders — but it was illegal to leave a vehicle on the road without lights at night, so it was worth it. Mum and Dad then got a ride down to Aunt Betty’s in Kent a few times, thus enjoying a small benefit from the loan. Very few cars on the roads then, and we didn’t mind being stopped at check points to explain what we were doing there, Dad had a permit which allowed us through. There were no driving tests at that time, they had been suspended, but a learner could drive unaccompanied on a three month provisional licence, -- still have my first one, July 1940 to October 1940.

The Sheet Mill was busy now, brass sheet in great demand, mostly for Ministry of Defence, and Jack Strutton and I had our hands full keeping up with the paperwork. A colleague of ours, Ted, left and joined the R.A.F. as air crew. Within months he was in a P.O.W. camp in Germany.

Being patriotic, I joined the factory unit of the L.D.V — Local Defence Volunteers (or Look, Duck Vanish) Prior to this, I had volunteered my services at an A.R.P. post at Main Avenue, Bush Hill Park, as an ambulance driver, but, probably owing to me being the holder of a provisional licence only, had to settle for other duties. They issued me with a steel helmet marked S.P. (stretcher party, not special police) and I was instructed to attend every other night. Getting back to the L.D.V. — later to be called Home Guard — there they issued me with a cape, in lieu of an overcoat, and a sturdy pair of boots; no tin hat as I already had one. Thus I was able to cycle from Enfield to the factory in Brimsdown to my L.D.V duties, proudly sporting my SP hat, cape and boots feeling like Dick Turpin, with cape flying in the wind, and probably looking a right Charlie (I was only seventeen)

Then the air raids started, putting an end to the ‘Phoney War’. Barrage balloons were sent up, and at first that seemed to be the only defence we had. We got used to hearing the drone of bombers overhead, but we never did use our slit trench down the garden. At last the anti aircraft guns began firing. They were a great morale booster. So in the latter part of 1940, on alternate nights I attended the A.R.P. post, the following night I cycled to my L.D.V. duty — mainly fire watching from the roof of a high building, the Cosmos factory, two hours on, four off.

The novelty of my nocturnal activities was wearing off by now, I was losing a lot of sleep, so I offered my resignation to the L.D.V commander, Captain Foster. He didn’t accept it. If ‘they’ come, he said, I would be of more use to the L.D.V. than the A.R.P. (Me, a Pike look-alike), so I was put on indefinite leave, still keeping my cape and boots.

A neighbour from Cecil Avenue, John Ilines, also attended the A.R.P.post, he was older than me, and he was an ambulance driver. We cycled home together on the mornings after out stint, and it was not until we turned the last corner into our street, did we know if our houses were still there or not, the ‘blitz’ being in full swing by now.

The A.R.P. post was in the grounds of Bush Hill Park school, and when all was quiet we slept in an air raid shelter just below ground level, in the school playground. During the evening, we had quite a social life. The school clinic doubled as our headquarters, a piano appeared in there, someone would sing, a lot of talent showed up, I suppose it would be called a karaoke nowadays. Inevitably, some ‘boys’ and ‘girls’ would take advantage of the blackout, and get together in the playground, as a result of which a notice appeared on the notice board, -- ‘Would volunteers please refrain from petting in public’ . At my tender age, I was not involved, although, looking back, I was getting invitations, which, at that time I did not recognise.

Brother George was called up in September or October 1940. I’ve been unable to discover when brother, Ern, went, must have been shortly after George went.

The war was not going too well for the Allies at that time. Our army had been brought back from Dunkirk, and Britain was almost defenceless. We are told now, that if we had been invaded, it was planned to use Mustard Gas to back up whatever resources we did have. The country was getting geared up to produce the tools we needed, and the role of women in society was changing permanently. They were being trained to provide the skilled labour in factories, to drive vehicles, anything to release more men for the forces. It occurred to me, that as the war was dragging on, it was not going to be a walkover for us within a few months, and I dreaded the thought of being ’cannon fodder’ in an infantry unit, - being a statistic in the carnage Dad used to tell us about. I needed to give the matter some serious thought!

Ern’s army career began in the RAC Royal Armoured Corps, - tanks. George was in the Royal Artillery, - so no Flack boys in the infantry — yet

The initial excitement of the changed way of life in wartime was fading fast. What was I going to do? Not long before I would be called up, -- no choice then. Having no particular skills, I was not in a reserved occupation, anybody could do my job. What experience had I got which might be of use? In the Scouts, l’d learned to tie a sheepshank and a reef knot, and had helped to collect tons of waste paper for re-cycling, from houses and factories. Couldn’t see a future for this sort of experience in the forces. My stint in the L.D.V. had best be forgotten, - we had been taken to Edmonton to learn about firing a rifle, a useful skill in the infantry, and the A.R.P. post experience was not going to be a lot of use either.

Now, I was wishing for the lights of London to shine again, and everything get back to normal. Little did I realise that it would be years before it would be all over.

So I made up my mind. Forgetting about Ted, now languishing in a POW camp, so I would join the RAF. No flying experience was required for air-crew; they gave you training for that, much better to be up there in a nice comfy aeroplane, than dodging shrapnel in a muddy trench.

During the winter of 1940-41, there were heavy air raids, and Winston Churchill needed all of his oratory skill to boost our moral. His growling defiance and encouraging words in those anxious days are still quoted all these years later. Food was severely rationed, and it was not only the housewives who struggled with the shortage, I must have been desperate too, because I took on an allotment on what had been waste ground behind Chaseside Engineering factory on the Cambridge Road, Enfield. Me-at 171/2, no previous experience of vegetable growing, no wonder my crops of cabbage were soon on the road to being annihilated by caterpillars, and had to be rescued with the aid of DDT.

Everybody seemed to be busy doing something. Gas masks had been issued to all civilians, carried in a rectangular pack made of cardboard. Most people learned to handle a stirrup pump, to deal with incendiary bombs which occasionally showered down. Anderson shelters were delivered to many people, free for some, or £7 if you had to buy one. They were made from heavy gauge corrugated steel, and arrived in pieces with instructions for assembly in the garden. For use in the house, Morrison shelters were available, made from steel sheet.

My dad re-enforced a downstairs room, using stout timber beams, making it more comfortable during raids fro them both. (I used some of that timber after the war, to make a workbench). If I was at home during the night raid, I settled for sleeping under a sturdy table in our ‘front room’.

In the blissful ignorance of youth, I didn’t think that anything would happen to me, whereas my mum and dad, being older and wiser, and with memories of the 14-18 war, must have been very apprehensive, but never showed their anxiety.

During my alternate nights at the ARP post, although my tin hat boasted the lettering ‘SP’ (Stretcher Party), I never did support one end of a stretcher, I was the odd job man most of the time. One night, when the phone lines were damaged during a raid, I was sent on my bike to call out a doctor. Just before I set off, a casualty had been brought in with his knee shattered by the nose cone of a spent AA shell.

Aerial activity was intense as I cycled towards the doctor’s house, the vision of a shattered knee still fresh in my mind. Searchlight beams were sweeping the sky, and AA guns were firing continually. What goes up must come down! My knees were at risk. I wished that my tin hat was large enough to cover them. Shrapnel pieces were tinkling on the road around me. There was nobody about. I must admit I was relieved to get back after delivering the message without mishap.

In March 1941, with the fear of conscription looming, it was time for me to make a move. I volunteered my services for the RAF, hoping they would snap me up as suitable material for training as air-crew.

Ad-Astral House in London was where I had to go for my two day assessment. The place was crowded with other hopefuls. There was a medical and a form filling session, then a board test. At one stage an interviewer barked, “What are the four strokes of a four stroke engine?” This was not too difficult for me, having known the basics since my visits to Clay Hill, and our experience on Mr Whitby’s old Morris, which I mentioned in Instalment 2. It was like being a kid again, with Rex firing the same question at me. “Induction, Compression, Ignition, Exhaust.” I barked back. That, I like to believe, was sufficient for the Board to pass me, not as air-crew, but for training as a flight mechanic. Back home I went, delighted, I was to get a free course on aero-engines.

As soon as I was given the date to join, 15th May 1941, I informed the LDV commander, who had given me indefinite leave. My cloak, I had to hand in, but the stout boots I was allowed to keep on payment of a small sum. My dad tried the boots on, found them a good fit, suitable for gardening,-he had two allotments by now-and a deal was struck.

At the ARP post, I handed in my steel helmet, and said my goodbyes. Some “Goodbyes” are sorrowful, some are not. This was the former.

My job at the Rolling Mills was coming to an end to. When it was known that I was leaving, another lad was brought in to sit with me to learn the job. It didn’t take long, as I hadn’t been there long myself,-so not a lot of Knowledge had to be transferred.

These were my last days as a civilian; for me, at age eighteen, I had no idea what to expect when I was accepted into the service. What would it be like? Wouldn’t miss the home comforts, like sleeping under the table. No mum to perform miracles with the food rations. No familiar faces around but of course, many had gone already. Too late to have second thoughts, will have to make the best of whatever was in store.

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