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A Bomb in the Basket

by Isle of Wight Libraries

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Archive List > Childhood and Evacuation

Contributed by 
Isle of Wight Libraries
People in story: 
Jackson Willacy Roberts, Faith Mary Roberts, Frank Chetwin Roberts, Grace Hannah Roberts, Esther Roberts
Location of story: 
Ilford, London, Kidmore End, Oxfordshire, & Reading, Berkshire
Background to story: 
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
14 November 2005

“There is a bomb in my basket”, said Aunt Cissie as she placed it carefully on the Air Raid Warden’s desk.

Some six weeks before this event, I was sleeping soundly. Outside in our road, my mum, dad and sister, together with all the neighbours, were running up and down in the dark. They carried buckets of sand, stirrup pumps and buckets of water. Falling from the sky, like rain, were incendiary bombs in one of the worst fire bomb raids of the blitz. Frantic efforts were being made to extinguish the fires.

As I woke in the morning, my sister (who was seventeen) threw the tail fin of an incendiary bomb at me. Much to my indignation I had slept through all the excitement. They had left me sleeping (I was only eight). A bomb had come through our roof bringing down a ceiling, but not exploding. My dad had found the tail but nothing else. Weeks later, exploring the roof, he found the bomb. Bringing it downstairs, he stood it on a window sill in the garden. I wasn’t to touch it, but of course I did. Later that day, Aunt Cissie (who lived with us) carried the bomb in her shopping basket to the warden’s post. I don’t know what the wardens said, I wasn’t told!

We lived in Ilford, Essex (Greater London hadn’t yet swallowed up the Borough of Ilford). Our home was a five-bedroomed large Victorian house which my grandmother had paid £500 for in 1901. Even in the 1930s, field were not far away. We were close to Wanstead Park and you could walk from there through strips of woodland through to Epping. We were however close to Barking and the river, so vulnerable to any bombing.

The first thing I remember about the War was actually some time before. In 1938, aged six, I can remember standing in my mum and dad’s bedroom with a label on, holding a little suitcase. They were trying to explain to me about my being evacuated. There was a scare and people thought there was going to be a war.

When we listened to Mr Chamberlain announcing that we were at war with Germany, my mother clutched me to her and said, “Whatever will happen to the children?” As Chamberlain finished speaking the sirens sounded. We rushed outside to see two planes fly over. They were ours.

The blitz started in 1940. We had an Anderson Shelter in the garden, half sunk in the ground. My dad used to grow marrows on the top. It was like a big mound. My sister and I used to sleep in the bunk beds each night. As soon as the sirens sounded, the rest of the family and Mrs Estall and her son from next door trooped down to the shelter. (Mr Estall was in the Home Guard and wasn’t home much.) We had night lights and cocoa in the shelter. There we stayed listening to the drone of the planes, the bombs whistling down and exploding, the firing of the ack-ack guns. Some of these were driven around the roads so they would fire just outside the house. We lost some of the glass from our windows, but they were covered with green sticky strips of tape to stop them sending splinters of glass everywhere. Buses and trains (and tube trains) all had this protective tape to prevent splintering. Once the all clear went everyone went back into the house and my sister and I went to sleep. However, many nights it seemed like one continuous raid all night.

After a time we stopped using the shelter and all used to sleep in what we called the long room, so called because it stretched from the front to the back of the house, sleeping on the floor. I was usually on the sofa. Eventually we went back to staying in our beds, though we stayed awake listening to the bombs still. We had a theory that if you could hear the bomb it wasn’t going to hit you. We also thought that we could distinguish between German bombers and our planes. Two maiden aunts in Streatham were bombed out. They didn’t hear the bomb, only woke up to a room full of dust, no idea where there clothes were and with the window frame, complete with un-shattered glass, leaning against the side of one of their beds. They were unharmed and subsequently re-housed. Apart from the incendiary bomb through the roof and several broken windows, we didn’t experience any major damage. Houses in the road were hit, however, and neighbours killed, including some school friends.

At the beginning of the War we had to take a tin box to school, filled with iron rations; chocolate I remember because I ate it at the end of the War — still edible! This was to use in the event of being buried by the school being hit. We used to go down into the basement when the sirens sounded. One night I was woken by a swishing sound over the roof followed by an explosion. I was upset because my glasses had been blown off the table and broken. When I got to school in the morning half the school was in ruins. An aerial torpedo had passed just above our roof and hit the taller school building. We then entered a period of school in people’s houses in the mornings, five or six of us at a time. Eventually we got back into the school building remaining. We used to have gas mask drill at the school, putting them on and checking they worked. Everyone carried a little cardboard box sling around the neck with a gas mask inside.

I walked to school just a few roads away. At one time we had a number of unexploded bombs in the road, marked off by barriers. I thought that if I tip-toed past them I would be safe. In the event none of them exploded.

Bombing was mostly at night, but we used to have daylight raids as well. Sometimes single planes zoomed over low dropping bombs and machine gunning. Bombs and blast did peculiar things. One bomb entered a neighbour’s front door, travelled down the hall, turned left and went down into the cellar, didn’t explode. Two neighbours were standing talking in the street when a bomb exploded a couple of streets away. The blast came over their roof, stripped all their clothes off, left them standing naked, somewhat shaken. My mother was speaking to the milkman at the front door when a bomb exploded nearby in another road. The blast picked her up, carried her the length of the hall and dropped her on the back doormat unhurt. I don’t know what happened to the milkman.

The doodlebugs used to glide for miles sometimes after their engines stopped. My mother had a drapers’ shop and looking up she saw a doodlebug silently passing just over the roof. It went some way before exploding. Another time she had the cable from a barrage balloon draped across the roof.

As schoolchildren we collected shrapnel and swapped pieces with one another. Nose caps were particularly sought after.

We used to watch the dogfights and also the shells exploding around the planes, sometimes planes bursting into flames. On one occasion a German pilot in a parachute became tangled up with a barrage balloon cable. The barrage balloon crew had fun pulling the balloon plus the parachute up and down before hauling the poor man down.

My Aunt used to go around collecting money for war savings. On one occasion I was with her when a woman burst into tears as she opened the door. She had just heard that her son, a pilot was missing. Sadly about half a dozen of my school friends were killed during the blitz.

When I was eleven years old — in 1943 — I went to join the Beal School at Kennylands, Kidmore End, Oxfordshire. This was a camp school set up under the Camp Act, 1939. In 1940 the entire boys’ school from Ilford was moved to Kidmore End, having previously been evacuated en bloc to Ipswich. We had five dormitories, assembly hall, a dining hall and 20 acres of ground; also our own hospital and sewage disposal plant. Academic work was supplemented by pig-rearing and bee-keeping, together with gardening. It was like being at boarding schools, even to the point of returning home to war-torn Ilford for school holidays. We integrated with the village, attending the parish church on occasions. We had an adventurous time in the woods and field nearby, but also helped out with potato picking on a local farm. Despite being sent away for safety, one of the earliest doodlebugs was spotted high above the school. We had occasional panics when rumours spread that Ilford had been bombed flat.

Parents came down by special coach and usually left behind food of some sort or another. We had a good share-out system, and woe betide anyone who wasn’t willing to join in. Food was important to boys of our age growing up during the war. We could buy loaves from the village baker, which we ate hot from the oven. A memorable experience.

On Saturdays we were allowed further afield, walking Sonning, Mapledurham or Reading. The school used to provide sandwiches. These were very dry and almost inedible, so a friendly donkey down the road was happy to oblige us, and was well fed, thanks to us. Reading was about five miles away. We walked ourselves an appetite, so we could enjoy a meal of fish and chips at a Churchill restaurant. These were set up to provide cheap meals off the ration.

I was in Reading with my mother when the D-Day gliders went over. The sky was covered with them. Near to the school were a number of American camps. They were preparing for D-Day (though we didn’t know this at the time). A friend and I used to visit the camp (out of bounds to us) to cadge food and chewing gum. I walked into Reading one day with an American soldier, and initiated him into looking for birds nests. I can remember showing him the perfect dome of a great tit’s nest and the soft warm feel of the feathers lining the inside. We used to have films in the assembly hall. Will Hay was popular, but we also had documentary films about Welsh miners and Russians, factory work and farming; very much propaganda with loud, stirring music. We used to fit our own words to some of the Welsh male voice singing. I do remember a film set in Wales mirroring the village of Lidici, where all the inhabitants were slaughtered by the Germans.

While we were on holiday back in Ilford, we experienced doodlebugs. Sounding like a heavy motorbike, the worst part was waiting in the silence after the engine stopped. Sometimes they would come straight down, sometimes glide for miles. We heaved a sigh of relief when we heard the explosion. The V2s, the rockets, of course gave no warning, just a loud explosion, much more unnerving.

At times during the War we could hear the rumble of distant gunfire, said to be from France or Belgium. My dad said guns could be heard during the First World War. Presumably we would have heard guns from ships at sea, not being far away from the river. We certainly could hear tugs whistling, and sometimes the distinctive “whoop whoop” of a destroyer.

Somehow in our childlike way we knew we would win the war, even in the worst times. We read comics like the Wizard and others similar. Japs and Germans were always depicted with graphic horror, always losing to the brave allies. I was definitely anti-German, even though I had German cousins. After the War one of these cousins turned up at home, only a young man. He had been in a concentration camp. To me, however, he was a German and I refused to meet him or join the others at the tea table. I never knew his name, or how he was connected, and I am sorry for that now. Feelings linger. My tummy still turns when I hear the warning siren in a film or whatever. I can remember the silence as we sat and watched the cinema newsreel about the discovery of the concentration camps.

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