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15 October 2014
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A Boyhood During the War 1939-1945

by West Sussex Library Service

Contributed by 
West Sussex Library Service
People in story: 
Andrew Harris
Location of story: 
Croydon, Surrey
Background to story: 
Civilian
Article ID: 
A4678257
Contributed on: 
03 August 2005

A popular music-hall radio comedian, Rob Wilson, always started one of his long monologues with the words “the day war broke out”. For me, who had just turned eleven, that event, the third of September 1939, occurred at my Grandmother Deacock’s house on the Bay Estate at Aldwick, near Bognor. She was living there with my uncle and aunt and cousin Tony. In company with my mother and father we all sat round the radio to listen to Chamberlain’s words that our country had declared war with Germany. Shortly after we returned home and I may not have visited Bognor during the next five years, as the coast was a prohibited area due to the expectation of an invasion.

My father was transferred from the Post Office to the War Office, Prisoners of War section, and my next recollection probably dates from early 1940 when I travelled by car with him to Heston aerodrome where he handed over documents to the pilot of on eof the planes. This was the famous Captain O. P. Jones who had a long and distinguished career with Imperial Airways and B.O.A.C. (In one of the Heathrow Terminals there is a mural showing some of the pioneers of flight, and he is standing in uniform, easily recognisable by his black beard). I was introduced and allowed to sit in the cockpit with him in the plane which was a four-engined A. W. Ensign, the first large British monoplane airliner.

On the 15th August, 1940 I was playing with friends in Selsdon recreation Ground off Woodland Gardens when we stopped and watched a group of planes coming towards us from the Selsdon Wood direction. As they came overhead we saw black objects falling from them and quickly realised that they were bombs and that the planes were in fact German. The sirens had given us no warning but everyone rushed to the shelter. Of course the bombs did not land anywhere near us as there were aimed at Croyden Airport three miles away. Much damage was caused around the airport with many people killed, but although the ME110 bombers were reported shot down it is probable that more than half returned to France. This from our point of view was the start of the battle of Britain and my father built a rough wooden dugout shelter in the back garden where we went on many occasions during the daylight hours. At school I think we had more substantial brick built shelters,

Once one plane chased another along our road, Queenshill Road, and afterwards I picked up a squashed bullet from the steps leading to Littleheath woods. Also from the garden we watched someone come down by parachute. This incident is mentioned in “Croyden Airport and the Battle of Britain” and took place on the 1st September. A Hurricane pilot, Glendon Booth, fell into a rose arch in the garden of a house in Littleheath road. Unfortunately he had been badly hurt in the battle and dies nine months later. His plane crashed at Sanderstead and the machine gun I write about later may have come from his plane. I remember digging in a bomb crater in Selsdon Wood near Ashon Vale to find pieces of shrapnel which was highly prized among us boys and I Kingswood I found a machine gun from a crashed plane but decided it was too heavy to take home. My cousin in Herne Bay in Kent, which was in the thick of the fighting, sent me various souvenirs from shot down aircraft, including a worksplate from a Dornier 17 bomber which I still possess.

In the Summer of 1941 I spent some time at Oakhurst Farm near Loxwood and remember helping with the harvest, horse drawn reaper/binder and trying to catch the rabbits as they escaped from the last piece of corn. Also on the farm was a very large pig which removed the tiles from the roof of its sty and ate them! At one point between the fields there was a wide grass lane which had once been an old coach road, whilst on the edge was the remains of a lock and water logged channel of the Wey and Arun Canal which had been closed for many years. When cycling towards Godalming I had to travel along the taxiways of Dunsfold Airfield which was being built at that time as the road diversion round the Eastern end had not yet been built.

1941 & 2 were the Blitz years in London, when we had air-raids nearly every night. By this time we had a Morrison shelter in the dining room in which we slept, or tried to, on many nights. I remember catching the 64 bus to school and finding it had no glass in the windows as they had all been blown out when Croydon Bus Garage was hit. Rumour had it that German bombers were guided there by lights. My father by this time had become an air-raid warden when at home, based on a post in the small recreation ground off Queenshill Road. One night a bomb demolished a couple of houses near the post. One of the causalities was him — rushing to the scene he fell down a manhole whose cover had been blown off. Luckily his injuries were only minor.

In 1943 we had a holiday on a farm at Holm Lacy near Hereford. When one travelled to Hereford by bus, an armed guard boarded for part of the journey. A railway line passed the farm and I remember placing pennies on the rails to be squashed flat by a passing train.
I think that it was in the Autumn of that year that I had a short holiday at Mariners, near Chartwell in Kent. A cousin was working with children who had been evacuated there from London. I stayed in a wonderful converted oast house and would look out in the early morning over the misty Weald of Kent and hear the ghostly whistles of trains at nearby Edenbridge. It was ironic that in the following year this peaceful spot was devastated when a flying bomb fell on the children’s home killing many of the.

By this time I had joined the Youth Fellowship at our church and recall fixing blackout curtains over some of the windows at Christmas time for the Nativity plays which we produced. During the Blitz the east wall of the church had been demolished by a bomb and a temporary wall erected in its place.

During the war years we were encouraged to ‘Dig for Victory’ and I used to help my father on his allotment which he had for many years. One gave money to such things as the “Spitfire Fund” or donated aluminium saucepans to help build aeroplanes. Parades were held in the district and I remember one attended by the exiled King of Norway in Purley recreation ground. Shot down German planes were also put on show. There were no street lights and the few cars about had only little slits for their headlights. Very low powered bulbs were used in the buses and trains and blinds had to be drawn at night. Underground trains had plastic netting stuck on the inside of the windows with a small clear diamond shape to look out to see the station name. Notices in the carriages asked one not to pull netting away from the windows to which the following words were soon added, “I know its there for my protection but I can’t see my destination”.

Even my mother did her bit, working a few hours in the local British Restaurant. These were set up by the government to provide a decent meal for about 1/- (5 pence). One day she said that one of the customers had taken three pieces of pastry (made without fat) from his steak pie, stood two pieces upright with the third across the top and announced “Look Stonehenge”.

1944 brought the Invasion and the Flying Bombs and was the only time I was really scared. One didn’t have to worry if you saw one going overhead with the engine running but as soon as the engine stopped it fell to earth. This time I looked out of our dining room window and saw one already diving down only a short distance away. I threw myself under the table and although many of our windows were broken I was not hurt. It actually fell quite close by in Farley Road and several houses were destroyed. In July the school closed and I went to stay with distant relatives in Nottingham. I went to catch a train but, before the train started, there was an air raid with more flying bombs.

At some time in 1945 I went to the Imperial War Museum in London to see the Pluto (PipeLine Under the Ocean) Exhibition. The exhibition told how an oil pipeline had been laid from Dungeness to France. The pipes were wound on large floating drums like cotton on a cotton reel. The pipe was then unwound as the drum was towed across the Channel. I was in exalted company in the museum as I found I was going round at the same time as Queen Mary and Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret.

The 9th May 1945 was V.E. day with much rejoicing everywhere. With various members of the Youth Fellowship I went to London and joined the crowds of people thronging the streets. Piccadilly Circus and Buckingham Palace were the high spots.

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Message 1 - Selsdon 1940

Posted on: 27 November 2005 by Michael Smith

I was very interested in your first hand account. I am very keen to know where exactly the ARP post was in the recreation ground, as a relative served in the ARP there.

 

Message 2 - Selsdon 1940

Posted on: 23 December 2005 by Michael Smith

Further to my previous posting, I meant the recreation ground next to Woodland Gardens, not the Queenhill recreation ground you also mentioned.

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