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Keep Smiling Through, Part One: A Child in Wandsworth, Digging for Victory, and First Bombsicon for Recommended story

by gentlemenBillClavey

Contributed by 
gentlemenBillClavey
People in story: 
Bill Clavey
Location of story: 
London
Article ID: 
A1942454
Contributed on: 
31 October 2003

False alarm

'And that consequently this country is at war with Germany.' These momentous words, that were part of the statement that was spoken by the Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, from the Cabinet Room in 10 Downing Street, sounded from our Philco wireless at precisely 11.15, that Sunday morning, 3 September 1939. The rest of the Prime Minster's statement was listened to but I do not think absorbed by my parents, who were physically stunned and found it hard to believe that their greatest fear had actually happened.

It had been just over 20 years, when they themselves had been only children that the last devastating war had ended. The war that had been spoke of as 'The war to end all wars'. Now with a family of their own perhaps they were to face an even greater threat.

Within half of an hour of the announcement, and of being at war, the warning siren, which we had previously heard in practice, sounded its dreadful ominous undulating wail. Surely not, they can't be coming already, and with uncertainty and not quite sure of what action to take, we all went to the front room window. The siren had stopped and the road outside was deserted apart from two middle-aged gentlemen, who were running like the wind and crossing the road almost opposite us. The news of war had obviously reached them and the siren had urged them to leave wherever they had been and make haste for their homes. One man was small and slim, the other a much larger and corpulent person, who wore a brown suit and was holding a brown bowler hat tightly to his head.

Their appearance and attitude reminded me of Laurel and Hardy and a memory, which stayed with me throughout the years. Yes, that comic recollection at a frightening moment was my first memory of the outbreak of the Second World War. Incidentally that first warning alert was a false alarm, for what had been thought to be enemy hostiles flying in over the Kent Coast, turned out to be six friendly aircraft reporting back to Britain after they had received news of the war announcement.

Evacuation

Monday morning came and a lot of activity was going on behind the scenes, which I didn't comprehend or appreciate. Dad had come to realise that most evacuation groups were full to the limit they could take and indeed most groups had already left for their destination. Mum had been told to prepare to go at short notice and he was to see what he could organise. Around late morning he returned expressing some urgency for us to leave. Outside was a firm's car into which Mum, Ron and I were hastened, together with the small amount of luggage we were taking and of course our gas masks. Also coming with us in the car and on our impending journey was Sid Robertson's Wife Renee and their very young daughter Iris.

We travelled to Plough Road School in Battersea, close to the Granada, Clapham, where the evacuation party had not yet left and Dad had managed to fix it for us to join it at the last minute. He also had arranged for my Aunt Lil and my cousins Bob and Bryan to go too, and they were waiting for us when we got there. Mum gave Dad a last minute message, to get Gran and my Uncle George to leave their home in Clapham and use our house in Wandsworth, as it would be safer. Mum's yardstick being the further from the dead centre of London the smaller the risk.

After hurried goodbyes to the few fathers that could be there, we were whisked off in LCC coaches to Paddington Station where we boarded a steam train that had already a number of evacuees on it. The three ladies in our group managed to get seated altogether and there may have been seats for us children, but I cannot recall, as I am certain I never had any intention of spending much time sitting down.

This was the first corridor train I had been on and spent much of this part of the journey out of the compartment and up and down the corridor with a mob of other kids. We pulled into Bristol Temple Mead Station where we had to wait for a time, while our engine was changed for a local steam engine. Our engine replaced, we pulled out from the station bound for what was to be our intended destination, and some adult cheerfully implied that us children would all be on the beach the next day.

We arrived in Weston-super-Mare, where we waited in the station for some considerable time; eventually the news was filtered back through the train that the town could not take us, as it was already bursting at the seams with evacuees. After some further time the train started travelling back in the direction from where we came, but obviously we must have transferred onto another track, as we arrived at the town of Clevedon where to we were also told we could not be accommodated.

The day was now turning into early evening and the only food we had had all day was the small amount of food we had brought from home and weariness was starting to get to everyone. I feel certain by then, resignation and the thought of the possibility that we wouldn't get in anywhere and that they might yet have to take us all back home, was starting to creep into our mothers' minds. However when at last we arrived in the town of Portishead and with relief it was realised they could take us, we knew our journey was over.

After disembarking from the train, a large group of us were taken to a village hall, with our small group of eight, all the time, trying to keep together. We joined a group already in the hall, but stood a little apart from them. These folk turned out to be the local people who we were to stay with. From a small stage, the billeting officer, an elderly gentleman who with a couple of assistants, started to call out names.

Gradually someone from our group would join up with someone from the other group and together they left the hall. Renee Robertson was the first of us to go and she left, with her baby Iris in her arms and a small wave goodbye and she left with quite a smart young couple. Aunt Lil was called next and she went off bustling Bob and Bryan along in front her like a couple of ducklings, and following a sour looking not very endearing couple.

Slowly and progressively the hall was emptying and by now I felt tired and I am certain Mum and Ron were to. Eventually we were standing there alone, and it was then the billeting officer came over to us and placing his arms around Ron's and my shoulders, said to Mum you are coming with me. We got into the benevolent old gentleman's car and we were driven up the hill to Tower Farm. Our first visit to Somerset had started, although a surprisingly short visit as was to turn out to be.

Made welcome at Tower Farm, Somerset

Too tired that night to take in or remember anything, as it must have been straight to bed, although, I slightly recall as we entered the house in the evening twilight, the smell of lavender and the smell of oil lamps. However it was all very different the next morning, having slept in the cosiest bed ever with beautiful white linen sheets and the plumpest of pillows I was now raring to explore.

Firstly waking with the sun streaming through the leaded light windows into the dark wood panelled room that was really comfortably furnished in a delightful country style, and this was to be the bedroom for Mum, Ron and myself. However what was really exciting was the realisation that our room was the top room in a castle tower, from which you could only leave by descending a winding stone staircase that circled down to a grand entrance hall. In this hall stood a large grandfather clock but more important a wooden aeroplane propeller, which to me was awe inspiring. The propeller, and sadly as it turned out, was from the aeroplane in which the pilot son of Mr and Mrs Beasley had been killed, in the Great War.

Mr and Mrs Beasley was a delightful old couple who made us immediately welcome, and by coincidence Mr Beasley had been an acquaintance of Mr Jack Seccombe, the company Chairman of Slumberland in Birmingham and Dad's supreme boss. It would appear that they had played golf together on many an occasion. A small world!

From the house, the drive, which ran to the front gates, was lined both sides with wooden sheds of great age and character and were full of old farming implements. Flower and vegetable boxing and crating was carried out in these sheds and it was in one of these that Mr Beasley took from the wall a rifle and handed to me, saying 'We will be taking you to shoot rabbits in the not to distant future'.

Now in all honesty I know not whether the promise was meant or even if the rifle worked, but to my young mind, I now possessed a real gun and I was going hunting. I can remember walking around with the rifle over my shoulder like some Great White Hunter. Behind the sheds were large walled gardens, which were full of produce. The walls were high and made of red brick and on one beautiful sunny evening I remember Mr Beasley picking a fully ripe peach from a cordon tree attached to a sun drenched wall and giving it to Mum, and this had been unbelievable to us Londoners.

After us boys had gone off to bed at the end of the day, Mum would sit with the Beasleys in their sitting room and have supper. This consisted of a large cheese board with a huge piece of Cheddar cheese on it and from which a generous helping was cut and handed to her. This she ate accompanied by biscuits from a large container placed along side her, and the continued insistence by her host to have more. A large cup of cocoa went with it. A very Somerset traditional and civilised way for an adult to finish the day, but to Mum it was all very new and strange.

One evening, after bidding goodnight to the Beasleys, she made a fairly early exit to bed. Closing the sitting room door behind her, she climbed the spiralling dark staircase up to our room at the top and to where we were sound asleep. When she was nearing the top she claimed that she saw a dark shadowy figure, which was descending the stairs towards her, and she felt an icy presence, as it went by. She often recounted that experience in later years when recollections to Portishead were made. Whether it was a ghost Mum encountered, or the result of to much cheese, I shall never know, but I often wondered if it might have had something to do with the Beasley's dead pilot son. A scarey thought when you are young, but as I grew older and reflected back, I felt it would have been nice if it had have been.

Mum, whilst Ron and I stayed behind and played on the farm, had already been into Portishead by car with Mr Beasley to shop for things that had become essential. But now for the first time, since arriving, we were on our own, and the three of us left the farm to investigate the local area, but secretly though, Mum wanted to see if she could find her sister Lily. Out into the lane and needing to decide which way to go, looking left we could see the chimneys of Portishead Power Station and to the right a few house tops, so that was the way we went.

The houses were a little further than we thought, but after awhile and as we were approaching them, walking gently down hill, from around the bend by a church came Aunt Lil with Bryan in a pushchair and Bob hanging onto its side. They looked terribly exhausted and when they got to us, Mum and her Sister fell into each other's arms as if they hadn't laid eyes on each other for months. It could have been at the most only two or three days since they last saw each other.

It would appear they had set out to find us and had walked for miles. From the conversation that followed it would have appeared their accommodation and the people they were staying with, were nowhere like ours. The people had hardly spoken to them since they had arrived and they had been pushed off to their room with an oil lamp and they had hardly left it. I believe that later it was always referred to as Cold Comfort Farm. Aunt Lil had news of Renee Robertson. She had seen Renee, with the family she was accommodated with, outside the house where she was staying. Renee had given her the impression that she was very happy, and after Aunt Lil had spied the tennis court in the garden she felt that Renee had come out of things rather well.

Dad arrived out of the blue on Saturday morning with Sid. They had left Wandsworth early that morning to spend a relaxing weekend with their families. This seemed the happiest time ever, for me now Dad had arrived and I had wanted to show him all the exciting things that were around Tower Farm. What I hadn't realised that Mum was unhappy and indeed homesick and she was already expressing to him her wish to go home.

Sid went off to see his wife with the news that we were going home, and within a short time had returned with Renee who had decided that she wanted to go home too. It appeared her situation at the house where she was staying, was not as comfortable as had seemed by appearances, for she had been looked on as a domestic servant by the people she was staying with. Into the car we piled and over to where Aunt Lil was billeted, and in what must have been no more than two minutes the three of them were squeezing in the car with us.

So it was then that ten of us (five adults and five children) in a 1934 grey Austin saloon car left and said farewell to Somerset, after perhaps one of the shortest evacuation periods of the war, to return to London and home, but why? How could we have left that paradise? Of course I hadn't been in on the discussion. I have often wondered since about old Mr and Mrs Beasley, and how thy must have felt, One minute they had three evacuees, who they had made at home and had appeared very content, and the next minute they had gone, those three evacuees, who had been hand, picked by Mr Beasley himself, as the billeting Officer.

On many occasion I have wished I could have returned to Tower Farm as I grew older, but the Beasleys were of an age that it would have been doubtful if they had been alive by the time I could have visited under my own steam. Tower Farm itself was demolished in 1968, to make way for a large housing development, and on a recent visit of nostalgia to the area barely anything was recognisable, for only one small section of wall remained on just a small stretch of lane. Even the power station chimneys that I had seen from the farm gate had been pulled down and had gone.

Journey home

The journey home was a long one, for it must be remembered that there were no motorways and very few dual carriageways in those days. Sid had already driven the journey down that morning and he would be driving all the way home, as Dad couldn't drive at that time. The car was seriously over crowded and we were weighed down with luggage as well, so with the old fashion leaf springs well compressed and having to deal with uneven roads, it all led to a very bumpy ride.

The journey started very well for me, as I was standing on the front passenger seat with my feet between Dad's legs and with my head and shoulders out of the sunroof. The use of seat belts was also along way off and not yet dreamt of with regard to cars. This grandstand position to start with was exhilarating as we sailed through the centre of Bristol and on towards Bath. From there and on through Chippenham and Marlborough along the A4, and by then the journey was starting to drag out. The late afternoon sunshine was still bright but it had now started to turn decidedly chilly and so I was content to share the available space in the front passenger well, with Ron, but it was cramped with no space to curl up for a sleep.

After a couple of stops at roadside cafes and by the time we had got to Reading it was dark, and the first effect and experience of the new blackout restrictions were encountered. There was no street lights or lights in the shop windows. The traffic lights had been shield and not so easy seen, as were the car headlights which made it that much harder to see the way ahead, so driving was that much more difficult and progress that much slower. Travelling through the outskirts to the western approaches of London the roads were quite desolate and no lights could be seen from the houses on either side. Buses, with their interior lights at just a low wattage became visible only when they were almost on top of you. Finally we reached Hammersmith Broadway and turned off towards Wandsworth, and nearly home.

I think we arrived at our front door around 10 o'clock at night, all bedraggled and quite worn out. Dad gave a couple of loud knocks on the door, before opening it with his key. Through the stained glass of the front door, the light of the kitchen, as its door open, showed along the hallway. Down the passage came my Gran, escorted by Uncle George and Uncle Bert, obviously wondering who this could be at this time of night, and maybe even thinking that it could be the Nazi invaders! 'Oh my goodness what are you doing home' had said Gran in disbelief at seeing us. The house smelt of the piece of smoked haddock that had been cooked for George's tea, and it could be seen that Gran and the others were comfortably settled in for the duration.

The next day, my Gran, my Uncles, Aunt Lil, Bobby and Brian went back to their homes. In less than a week our complete change of life as evacuees in Somerset had taken place, was now over, and we had reverted back to life as normal in 'number 51'. Yes it was 'Take Two', and we started our war over again.

Preparations for war

And it was to be life more or less as normal. After the initial apprehension and dread in the first few days of the outbreak of the war and after the two or three false air raid alarms, the urgency subsided. Of course preparations for war and defence continued, more and more service uniforms and civil defence uniforms were appearing on the streets, and the barrage balloon had arrived on the common along with a half dozen or so WAAF personnel.

The councilmen converted our coal cellar into an air raid shelter, and at the Slumberland factory, shelters were being built for the workers. In the streets broad white bands were painted around all the trees and lampposts and kerbs received a strip of white paint about every six foot. This was to assist people after dark, in the black out.

Because of the insatiable need for metal for the manufacture of munitions, the government had decided that it needed to confiscate all the available metal in the country. One day, slowly down the road came workmen who were systematically removing every cast iron railing and front gate and throwing it into the lorry that moved along side it. Our squeaking gate and railings were roughly hacked off and disappeared into that lorry forever. Left behind were little 2-inch stumps that remained like that for decades.

However the weeks were going by, and although the news in Europe was not good, the feared aerial bombardment of Britain had not taken place. The threat seemed to be diminishing with the public’s awareness of Britain’s continuing preparedness and the thought that perhaps the Germans had more than enough to cope with elsewhere. In fact complacency set in and the war was being spoke of as the 'Phoney War”.

With the Civil Defence preparations more or less complete, its service members were getting bored with the long hours of watch duty and hanging about. Games of darts and cards became the order of the day. The public were finding such restrictions as the blackout getting them down, and fed up with being shouted at, should a chink of light escape, with “Put that light out”, from the local constabulary or air warden.

School and 'digging for victory'

School had very soon restarted, but only one classroom was needed in the large school building of three floors, and initially lessons took place for only two or three days a week. However soon and as other children started to returned home from evacuation the school quickly increased to having several more classes. Two classrooms on the ground floor had their large windows covered completely with stacked sandbags, to a thickness of about eight bags; these classrooms were our air raid shelters for our use during school hours.

Shortages had not really started to take place yet, and I remember it was around this period Ron and I, both had like fawn colour overcoats with large matching soft flat caps, bought for us on the “Never, never”. Mum, at that time paid a few shillings each week to a collector who called and every so often she would receive a chit for an amount that she could spend. It would be then that us two boys were taken over to Hugh Wylies, a tally firm, who had a showroom in a small parade alongside Lambeth Town Hall, to be fitted out.

This method of purchase was a popular and generally accepted way of buying clothes and household goods amongst ordinary folk. It also was about this time Mum got her first Hoover vacuum cleaner, although our carpeting then only stretched to a few rugs. We continued to eat more or less the same variety of food as in the past, and I cannot recall any particular food shortage at that early stage of the war.

It was around this time though the instruction came from the Ministry of Food that we should “Dig for Victory”, and so it was that Dad became a vegetable gardener. The back lawn disappeared, and I made the attempt to do the same, but it seemed I was an essential requirement in the tilling of at least one row of earth each day. I can not recall how much success we had in the production of vegetables, but I do remember included in this new husbandry of the garden, was a Light Sussex cockerel and six hens, a Rhode Island Red cockerel also with six hens, plus a couple of tiny Black Leghorns.

One of the Leghorns was nicknamed “Spitfire” because she was the fastest thing you ever saw on two legs, plus she laid the biggest eggs we had ever seen. Our two cockerels were two fine looking specimens, but because of inexperience, we hadn’t realised that we should not have kept two such birds in so closer quarters, and there were often instinctive fights between them. The Larger Light Sussex Cock always seemed to come off worse against the smaller Rhode Island Red, and sometimes he looked a sorry sight with blood covering his pure white feathers.

To make up our miniature farmyard, came several rabbits, installed in individual hutches that had been made by Dad, as indeed the chicken house had been, from wood off cuts from the factory. We had now guaranteed our egg supply, and the occasional chicken or rabbit dinner. The two cockerels would separately and in due time become our Christmas dinner. The battle worn Light Sussex eventually had some respite, as his opponent was first go to the oven. Unfortunately when it came to his turn, he didn’t go without a fuss.

Dad could never manage the knack of wringing chicken necks efficiently, especially when it came to cockerels, so he chose to use his fireman’s axe, and behead them. This he did with their heads in a sack so that he didn’t have to see the deadly deed, but this seldom led to an effective accomplishment. Just as with the Duke of Monmouth in the “Civil War”, it took about five strokes of the axe to put away our Light Sussex.

We kept chicken and rabbits for about three years, and it was Ron and my weekly chore to visit the corn chandlers to collect their food and bedding materials. Crouch and Son were in Garrett Lane about three quarters of a mile away, and every Saturday morning we could be seen struggling back home with 7 LB bags of balancer meal for the chickens and oatmeal for the rabbits. A large bale of straw and a bundle of hay were either dragged along or carried on our head. The mixing of the feed and the feeding was mainly down to us, although Mum cooked the potato peelings on the gas stove.

Our war effort also entailed us going out on a regular basis, with a bucket and a shovel and search for horse manure, that was good for the garden and left behind by the traders’ horse and carts. On many occasion after Ron and I had reconnoited for the daily deposits, Dad would come in and chastise us for dereliction of duty, as he had just seen some down the road, and off we were sent again. Sometimes just to miss out as some else that got there first.

Rationing, and first bombs

The time of not being to inconvenienced by war and not being threatened was however fast running out, and it wasn’t to be long before the German U-boat menace, started to have its effect on our food convoys in the Atlantic. At the beginning of January 1940, during one of the coldest recorded winters, which was unimaginably cold, food rationing started and with certain foodstuff disappearing from our diet, for several years.

The German Luftwaffe’s first raids on the British Isles were on the Shetland and Orkney Islands, and the first bomb to fall on British soil was in Shetland, killing a rabbit. Which was great propaganda, and led to the song “Run Rabbit Run” gaining renewed popularity and which was repeatedly sung on the radio. It stayed a war time favourite and was sung in many of the impromptu sing-a-long sessions that were initiated by people in the air raid shelters to distract their attention away from the turmoil of the raid going on outside. But perhaps purely to while away the long monotonous hours that could occur between raids.

Suddenly in the middle of May 1940 there was an obvious turn for the worst in Europe, with the German Army starting to overrun the Low Countries and invading France, there was the start of evacuation of the British Exbitionary Force from Dunkirk and the Channel Ports. On 14 June, which was my ninth birthday, Paris fell to the Germans, and by the middle of June the evacuation of the Allied armies from Europe had been completed and the battle for France was over. The Battle of Britain was now about to begin.

At the end of June 1940 the sirens wailed out again in London, for the first time since September 1939. The German bombers had started to make spasmodic raids on the capital, during daylight hours and at night, but at this stage its main concentration was on coastal installations and shipping in the Thames estuary, together with the RAF airfields of Kent. On these airfields the growing number of Hurricane and Spitfire fighter squadrons were flying almost continuous missions against a vastly stronger enemy machine that was now starting to make its raids, in an ever growing horde of heavily laden bombers and fighter planes, further inland.

Battle of Britain - and visit to the cinema

For the next three months the battle in the air over southern England was to be fought at such intensity that it would cost thousands of lives and aircraft. The air battles were fought in the main over Kent, but I can clearly recall watching, high in the late summer blue sky, above Wandsworth, the large swirling vapour trails of the RAF fighter aircraft locked in conflict with the German planes, “dog fights”, as they were known.

It was somewhere around this period, when air raids were few and far between in London, and with the sirens mainly sounding during the day and with very little or no bombing yet to be experienced in most of the London area that the family went on an outing. There must have been no tension or feeling of threat that evening when Dad decided to take us all to the pictures, and we took the bus to Putney. I suppose we had been in the Palace cinema no more than three-quarters of an hour, when the set of three coloured lights on either side of the screen changed from the green lights being lit to the yellow lights coming on.

There were three colours, the green indicated 'All Clear' when there was no enemy activity expected, the yellow light indicated a caution and that the warning had sounded and enemy aircraft was over the coast and approaching the capital. The red of course was for danger, and indicated enemy aircraft virtually overhead. As the yellow lights came on, a loud groan went round the cinema and a large proportion of people, including us, left.

Outside, the evening sunshine was still just about there, but dusk was coming in. The siren had already stopped and it was very quiet everywhere, apart from the people who had just left the pictures, striding out down the road. There were no buses; these had probably stopped because of the impending raid, so Dad got us marching as fast as he could back home along Putney Bridge Road towards Wandsworth, with all of us using our eyes to scan the sky and our ears straining to hear the first sound of gunfire or the sound of aircraft.

By the time we reach Wandsworth, which is a fair walk from Putney, we still hadn’t seen a bus, but also fortunately hadn’t seen or heard any enemy activity. We broke off through the back turnings to make a bit of a shortcut for home and I knew now we were not going to catch a bus, and were going to walk the whole way. It was now getting dark and searchlights were starting to pierce the night sky with an urgency and expectancy. The Alert was still in operation and so the enemy must have been still about. But I was by now not only fearful but also tired, and when we reach our front door very relieved. I remember that just about the time we arrived home the “All Clear” sounded, but I don’t think we went to the pictures again in the evening, anyway not for at least a couple of years.

For Part Two, go to A2314720.

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