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Growing up in the second world war: In Brentwood

by John McCaul

Contributed by 
John McCaul
People in story: 
John McCaul
Location of story: 
Brentwood Essex
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
29 December 2003


While my father was away fighting we stayed with my Grandparents for five years, in Brentwood, an Essex town less than twenty miles from London. Apart from family support I imagine it helped my mother to live on her army gratuity which she often mentioned, she also used to talk a lot about coupons.

There were coupons for all manner of essentials kept as pages in books with covers of different colours for different items. All the covers had a crown printed on the front and the words, 'Ministry of Food', I seem to remember. They quickly became dog-eared as a succession of retailers thumbed through them to detach the required number for the items purchased. Once they were gone nothing more could be purchased until the next issue, so to lose one was a terrible thing. My mother would go out with a handful of them if she shopped for all the family.

We would walk the couple of miles into the town usually, passing various bombsites where people had been killed. My mother usually knew who they were, but she did not dwell on it. We only occasionally took a single Decker bus into town, they were not frequent and they cost money so people walked everywhere mostly. With that and the rationing people were pretty slim.

Few cars and no lights.

My Grandfather had a car but it never left the garage because the 'rocker' arm had been removed from the engine of his 'Morris 12' by the police as an inessential vehicle. Essential vehicles had their car headlights fitted with slatted shades to reduce the possibility of them being spotted by enemy aircraft at night.

The blackout was everything and everywhere and rigidly enforced by 'Air Raid Wardens' who could knock on your door any night. Windows were covered in special 'Blackout material' usually tacked onto wooden laths above the windows and were carefully pulled each night to cover any chinks. There were no street lamps alight so at night people carried torches.

On public buildings and schools the windows were also criss-crossed with brown paper tape to reduce the splintering of glass from bomb blasts. The absence of cars meant that as children we played constantly in the roads, usually cricket but I would sometimes sit on the kerb playing with the dust in the gutter.

Dig for victory and waste nothing.

In the street we would sometimes be disturbed by the electric baker's van, the horse drawn milk cart or the coal cart drawn by two huge cart horses. Nobody wasted anything, my aunt would give me a coal shovel and bucket so that I could be the first to run out into the road after the horses had passed by to pick up the steaming dung for the garden, before anyone else got it. If any coal had been dropped well and good, I would pick that up as well for the fire.

What little waste food there was was put into Pig bins, which were metal dustbins placed at intervals along every street and which stank to high heaven and always seemed to be overflowing.

Every man women and, yes child, 'did their bit' as the expression went. Posters exhorted people to 'Dig for victory' or to 'Refrain from dangerous talk'. The 'Squander bug' posters fascinated my young eyes; they depicted a figure that looked a bit like a potato with horns a tail and an evil expression, who wasted electricity or gas or food, money or any number of materials. Anyone who acted like him was not supporting our boys overseas. I am sure he has a big influence on my parsimonious nature even today.

Everyone was encouraged to grow their own food in their gardens or on allotments. My Grandfather grew vegetables on his allotment and on the one belonging to my Father. He filled his garden with fruit bushes, red currants, black currants, gooseberries, raspberries, loganberries and strawberries and grew apples, pears and cherries in his orchard and grapes and tomatoes in the green house. He kept chickens and rabbits for food and even tried growing nut trees.

What we did not eat he sold in his shop and my Grandmother preserved excess eggs in isinglass in a big earthenware basin in the garage. She also preserved fruit and made jam, anything to allow us to eat more volume and variety. The alternative was to eat powdered egg, powdered milk, powdered potatoes,'Spam', and grey looking bread and jam with foreign seeds in it.

Death, illness and kindness.

There were moans but there was plenty of stoicism too because everyone knew the cost of imported food in terms of human lives. I often heard my mother say,"That woman has lost her husband; his boat went down". It was a common understatement that covered up the enormity and horror of the event that must have occurred, to reduce its pain. I was touched more personally by this when the little girl next to me in hospital lost her father."He went down on the 'Hood'", my mother said, speaking of the battleship that was the pride of the Royal Navy.

So as not to worry my father, who was at the front in North Africa, my mother did not tell him about my illness and bore the worry herself. Sometimes her letters did not reach him and he would write accusing her of not writing. She would only know his location vaguely for security reasons but she and my relatives would boast about where he was fighting if anyone dared to talk about the exploits of their own relatives.

The home guard however were figures of fun and I remember my mother laughing at the thought of these men, whom she knew and who were too old for call-up, facing an invading German army. It was too much for her if we passed them while they were doing manoeuvres and she would burst out laughing to my eternal embarrassment.

A few weeks after I came out I was in hospital again, this time with a broken leg, it was said because I had become so weak. I could see snow from my hospital bed and I remember a young woman in WAAF uniform, a friend of my aunt's, coming to see me on Christmas day with a present of a model of a Russian soldier in a white snow suit on skis, she stayed and chatted to me and let the soldier ski down the tent over my broken leg. There was a tree and not many children in the ward but some carol singers came round to sing to us. It was a strangely happy moment.

Going to church.

At Christmas or on my birthday I would get a card from my father eventually, all in grey. like a poor copy, but it proved to me at least that I still had a father.

He was an Irish Catholic and I was living in an English Protestant household. My mother however sent my brother and me to Mass every week, In doing this It remained a proud boast of hers, all her life, that she had done what she saw as her duty by her husband.

The Yanks

We lived near an army barracks and the church was always filled with Dutch and Polish soldiers. At school, later in the war, we were given allocations of chocolate powder, which I think had come from America. Apart from Dutch and Polish troops the Americans could be instantly recognised in their smartly pressed uniforms and distinctive forage caps. Some children were invited by them to parties and came back with stories of how they had eaten jam with turkey and ham with pineapple. The combinations were unheard of at that time and the ingredients unknown in wartime Britain.

There were many stories, told in disapproving tone, of women going out with Yanks, there was a lot of it about and it did not seem right with our soldiers being killed abroad in their unfashionable battledress.

The kids would love to see a Yank though because they would go up to them and say "Give us some gum chum" and would invariably come away with some chewing gum that could not be obtained in any other way.

The Normandy Invasion.

I was playing in the road one day with my friends when a couple of army lorries came along and suddenly a man, partially dressed in army uniform, jumped from the back in a flash and leaped over a 5ft high chestnut fence into a wood and ran for it. We stopped our game of cricket with pounding hearts as soldiers with rifles also tumbled out of the lorry but, to our disappointment, did not jump the fence after him. Was he a German prisoner? We learned later that he was a deserter, we never ever heard if he was caught so everyone roundabout made sure they kept their doors locked.

Before the Normandy landings there was a lot of troop activity near us. One day there was much excitement as our road was filled with the sound of marching feet as columns of troops drew nearer and 'Fell out' on the kerbstones outside the houses of our road, putting their rifles and full kit down on the pavements. They had marched long distances and were tired. Immediately all the women in our house and in every other house brought out hot mugs of tea and whatever tit bits they had for the refreshment of the soldiers.

They chatted and laughed while dozens and dozens of vehicles passed by. Lorries, Bren gun carriers, jeeps and field guns. It was very exciting and later that day we went for a walk and saw the vehicles covered in camouflage nets in a local wood. The next day they had all gone, I wonder how many survived?

Rockets and Doodlebugs.

About this time the air raid sirens seemed to go off more than usual as the Germans sent over the 'V1 Flying bombs' or 'Doodlebugs' as we called them. They had a distinctive throaty roar, which we were pleased to hear because if it stopped it meant that it was about to come down and explode. One day we heard one and rushed into the back garden to see it flying low over the wood beyond our orchard its distinctive rocket motor clearly visible above the fuselage.

Then the 'V2 rockets' came over, playing in the street one day I saw one exploded in the sky above me by a chasing fighter plane and ran in doors excitedly to tell my mother. She was not at all impressed and told me off for not lying on the ground.

Another night we heard a loud explosion where a 'V2' had fallen on two houses opposite my church. All the people were killed including three children, the body of one of them was found in the branches of a tree wearing a dressing gown, and the houses were totally destroyed.

At this time on the way to school in the mornings we would often find bits of twisted metal scattered around and strips of material black one side and silver the other. I think it was called 'chaff' and was used by planes to avoid radar detection.

My brother saw a German aircraft so low over the road one day he could see the pilot. We had strict instructions from my mother never to pick anything up in case it was a personnel bomb. Boys however would sometimes come to school with cartridge cases they had found which gave a bit of realism to the drawings they would make of battle scenes during lessons.

A sort of evacuation.

Because of the rockets and doodlebugs my mother took my brother and I away to north Wales to stay with my father's sister whose husband was a foreman in an armaments factory. We made the journey on the famous 'Irish Mail' train, which was packed with all sorts of service personnel. My mother put me on her knee and a smart old gentleman drew me a magnificent picture of the steam train we were travelling on.

My aunt lived in a prefab, which was not quite what I was used to. She was good looking and scatter brained and being Irish had very little sense of time so our meals were always late. I was missing my Grandmother's pies and would cry myself to sleep through homesickness at first.

I got used to it though and started to enjoy feeding the horses in the field at the back with my brother and cousin and shuffling in the dusty gutters of the lanes in my sandals. We went on horse drawn canal boats in Llangollen, saw the horse shoe falls and had a picnic with home made 'Maids of honour' tarts. We went to Chester Zoo ate candy floss and spent a day at the sea in Llandudno. There was no barbed wire on the beaches here as there was on the east coast.

As things got quieter my mother took us back home again, one day she met my very severe headmistress who, though not given to emotion, said with some pride,"I always said they would find a way of stopping these Doodlebugs and Rockets, and they have!".

The Wireless and Winston Churchill.

The following Christmas my mother's sister put on her blue costume and hat and went to the wedding of the WAAF girl I had met the Christmas before who was marrying an airman, it snowed again.

I was very excited when I opened my pillow case Christmas morning because it contained a wooden railway engine, which looked as though it could have been made by my grandfather, and an annual which had clearly belonged to my brother, I recognised the scratches on it.

Each day my grandfather would listen to the news on the 'Murphy' wireless with its 'dry and wet batteries'.A spare wet battery was always kept to replace the one that was away being 'charged'.

I loved to listen to the music, which was always played before the news came on and would ask my mother what it was called. She laughed one day when I asked her if they would have anything to talk about on the news when the war was over. We would all gather round the set to hear the voice of Winston Churchill, who was regarded almost as a saint, there was a bust of him on the mantelpiece smoking his cigar.

Sleeping in the Anderson air raid shelter.

My Grandfather always seemed to be able to produce cigars at Christmas, which he had prudently saved from before the war, together with bottles of port and sherry, which were hidden in a place known only to him and my Grandmother. Sometimes I was allowed a sip when we played cards of an evening. Since he was a tobacconist as well as a greengrocer and confectioner my Granddad was almost always wreathed in clouds of cigarette, pipe or cigar smoke. Which were clearly exempted from the war effort. He always seemed to wear baggy grey trousers with 'Long johns' over incredibly white legs with knotted blue varicose veins. I never ever saw him in shoes, only black boots. He wore the same clothes when we all rushed out to the Anderson shelter when the air raid sirens went, sometimes we would be out in the garden all night, sleeping in the bunk beds with the damp smell of the earth surrounding us and my grandfather's snores ringing in our ears.

We were going to win.

One night the sirens had not sounded but the clear sky was filled with the heavy sound of what seemed like hundreds of our bombers flying low overhead, wave after wave, and east towards the North Sea to strike terror into the hearts of the people of Germany.

The news the next day on the wireless would include a short statement perhaps about heavy raids on Dresden or Hamburg or a week or two later at the cinema we might see grainy pictures on Pathé News of images taken from the bombers of a German city in flames. Everyone spoke of the 'Germans' rather than the 'Nazis' because they were all German and the same people we had fought in the first war.

Apart from these media my impression of the war was formed by the powerful black and white photographs in the magazine 'Picture Post' and through the cartoons of 'Low' in compendiums of his work which fascinated me and about which I would seek explanations from the adults in the house.

We were jubilant, we were hitting back, and we were going to win the war. No one ever doubted it; no one ever considered any other outcome. Never did I ever hear anyone speak of losing, that would have been considered traitorous, and anybody speaking like that would be shunned like a conscientious objector or a 'Conchy' as they were known as.

Even men of mobilisation age who were in protected jobs or who could not serve on medical grounds, were viewed with suspicion or contempt while husbands, sons and brothers were fighting for their country. There seemed to be no higher cause than to fight and win it did not seem barbarous, it was life or death, a noble cause, and win we did.

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