- Contributed by
- People in story:
- Alfred Nicholls
- Location of story:
- East End, London
- Background to story:
- Royal Air Force
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 06 February 2004
I was 13 years of age when war was declared. The youngest of 8 surviving children living in a small Victorian terrace house in Silvertown, London E16 — neighbouring the busling dockyards.
Following the declaration of war, formal schooling fell by the wayside as the authorities of the time busied themselves with the planning and implementation of mass evacuation from the cities. As you can imagine, this lack of schooling was greeted with some jubilation by us children. The seriousness of the situation did not hit home for quite sometime.
Being 13 meant my parents had to consider whether or not to send me to the countryside for my own safety. In the end, my mother felt it too risky to send me off to an unknown family, in an unknown place miles from home for a completely unknown period of time. Her instinct was to keep the family together and face whatever was coming as one. It is worth pointing out at this stage that although a number of my elder brothers and sisters had married and some had children of their own, this had only served to expand the family circle. Everyone lived within a few streets of one another. The very furthest away was the other side of the Thames — merely a mile or two. The little Victorian terrace in Parker Street was open house to friends, neighbours, aunties, uncles, nieces, nephews, cousins, cousins twice removed, grand children etc. Not unusual for the day — a very typical family.
Not having been evacuated my boyhood thoughts turned to the war. At the time it seemed exciting and almost glamourous. I was anxious to do my bit. As my eldest brother George went off to serve in the desert, my main worry was that the whole thing maybe over before I was old enough to join up!
I watched the preparations gather momentum, the farewells as men went off to fight, leaving their loved ones behind.
As my fourteenth birthday approached the idea of joining the Home Guard was muted. This held no appeal to me although I had deep respect for the men who often worked 12 hour shifts, then donned a uniform to drill and prepare for the promised invasion.
From as far back as I could remember living in the shadow of the dockyards had given me a yearning for the sea. I would gaze in awe as enormous ships arrived and departed. A never ending cycle depositing exotic cargo from far flung places with mysterious names.
Fiercely patriotic and brought up on such silver screen heros as Dan Dare and similar Saturday morning tales of adventure, I was desperate to do my bit for Britain and join the Royal or Merchant Navy.
Naturally, I shared these dreams with my parents. Looking back I see now how they must have shuddered and quietly thanked God I wasn’t yet old enough to understand the risk such dreams entailed.
Later, even the shock, disbelief and horror as countless lives were lost at sea, the sinking of HMS Hood (the very heart and pride of the British fleet), did nothing to diminish these dreams. Reports seemed to come in daily of tonnage after tonnage going to the bottom but I still held onto my dream. I don’t know if this was down to youthful ignorance or the sheer hope and will of the people surrounding me.
I well remember the hot summer which became known as the ‘Phoney War’. Lots of rumours and nervous speculation along with an unmistakable air of foreboding. At times even panic as air raid sirens sounded but nothing actually happend. The tension was always there.
All around the East End public swimming pools were drained and no secret was made of the fact that these were to be used as make-shift mortuaries. By now we had seen the news reels of Warsaw, the total and utter destruction.
People braced themselves and resolutely got on with things (defences, building air raid shelters, ‘digging for victory’ etc).
At this time I found work at a local oil refinery — again in the shadow of the dock yards.
I was working with an ‘Old Soldier’. He had been through WW1. As the wireless reported the German advance on Paris I always remember him saying ‘The French will turn it in — there won’t be a shot fired in Paris’. Unfortunately, he was right.
The so called ‘Phoney War’ came to an abrupt end on 3rd September 1939. People ran for their lives as the full weight of the Lufwaffe was unleashed. I recall the pounding, the burning (the Thames itself was alight — blazing a trail for the Luftwaffe pilots to pick out). The raid went on for hours — it was relentless.
Across the river my brother Charlie could see the whole skyline ablaze. The destruction ferocious and immense. He was desperate to reach the rest of the family (although looking back I’m not sure what he thought he could do). He wasn’t alone in his plight. Throngs of people were trying to cross the river and rescue loved ones or simply be with them.
The Woolwich Tunnel and ferry were closed to avoid further disaster. Destraught, all Charlie could hear was a policeman shouting ‘you’ll never get to them mate’. He couldn’t bring himself to leave the scene. He just stood there helplessly watching the onslaught, deafened by the noise and chaos.
Over 900 people died that night. I can not tell you how many were wounded or made homeless. Later, the Pathe News showed a gleeful Goebels on the cliffs in France, laughing and cheering on his pilots.
It was the first of many such raids.
People took on at least 2 jobs but I don’t recall resolve lessening or the fatigue which must have been part of everyday life.
Rather than the Home Guard, at 14 I had volunteered for fire watching duties. I would work throughout the day and three nights a week stay on at the refinery as part of the fire watching team.
Sometimes, after a raid I would go out on my bike with my brother John — listening for the cries of people trapped in rubble and reporting back to the Fire Warden. The sheer scale of the destruction meant that some people got help, others did not. It is rather sad to think there are still bodies buried beneath newly erected structures in the East End.
Seems strange to say, but air raids became a routine. Sometimes my sister Edie would arrive home from work and almost immediately make her way to the shelter. There didn’t seem to be a lot of point in waiting for the siren to go off!
During one particular bombing raid my eldest sister Kath was injured and consequently lost her hearing. Despite this, and the fact that she had a very unglamourous job in a flour warehouse, she would get all dressed up in the evenings — determind to go dancing and get at least a little fun out of life.
Sleep didn’t figure too highly on our agenda but community spirit did.
As one of the biggest factories in the area, Tate and Lyle sugar factory openend up their basement to be used as a shelter. Fitted with row upon row of bunk beds (plus a piano for the now famous sing alongs), this was one of many communial shelters.
Being still very young, I was always reluctant to go to any shelter. I wanted to be out and about — to get a birds eye view of what was happening.
I recall one particular night whilst trying to reach home during a raid. Somehow you just knew when a bomb was heading your way. This one was close. I threw myself to the ground and covered my head as I had been instructed. Out of the blackout came an almighty explosion and the ground shook violently. Immediately, slap bang in the middle of the very next road a huge crater openend up. All around me people picked themselves up, checked for casualties and hurriedly went on their way.
The raid continued for quite sometime and I recall my sister Jessie almost stumbling into this very same crater (it was still dark when she emerged from the air raid shelter.) Deprived of sleep she found nothing funny in almost being killed twice in one night!
Looking back on this time it is truly remarkable what you can get used to. I recall cycling to work following a raid. Bodies would lie by the roadside or amongst the rubble. Where possible bodies would be covered by blankets or coats during the big clean up, but not always. You just cycled past — got on with the job in hand.
Sometimes even the bodies could not be found. A direct hit on a family house nearby meant they could not even find enough remains to organise burials.
Family get togethers and helping each other out became all the more significant. Rationing meant that we did not have to face the starvation conditions of WW1. I must be one of the very few people who actually enjoyed powdered eggs and remember the taste fondly!
At one time a delivery of pigeons came in from the country. To us Londoners pigeons belonged in Trafalgar Square or racing events. They didn’t get eaten.
In general people got on with their lives. My sister Bett got engaged and then married. I remember my cousin Tommy caused quite a stir at the wedding. Barely into his twenties and a good looking fella, he had trained overseas and arrived at the wedding in full RAF uniform having obtained the rank of Pilot Officer. Quite an achievement for a working class lad. To me he seemed charming and gallant — a hero. We were all so very proud of him.
Shortly after, his Stirling plane was shot out of the sky returning from a 1000 bomber raid on Germany. The plane crash landed but the entire crew were lost. Tommy is buried in Amersfort, Holland.
The 1000 bomber raids were a tremendous morale boost to us all. We were always hungry for news and family gatherings round the wireless were common place.
When Tommy was killed I remember his parents sitting in our living room, listening intently to the news reports of the raid. We were so pleased to be finally hitting back.
The telegram came just a few days later. In particular, Tommy’s mother was never quite able to come to terms with his death, although nothing much was said. A part of her died too.
I was still working at the oil refinery. Turning up for work one morning we found an unexploded bomb had left another huge crater. With no sense of danger men went about their work throughout the day, occasionally stopping to gaze into the dark hole. Some hours later an explosion rocked the very foundations of the surrounding buildings. The Lufwaffe were now dropping bombs with a delayed detonation mechanism. Mercifully, nobody was killed or hurt on this particular occasion.
I never did get to go to sea. They turned me down on the grounds of a scar on my lung. I ended up in the RAF — “a brill cream boy” I told my mother indignantly! She must have breathed a sigh of relief as by now the tide of the war had turned in our favour.
In all we were a lucky family throughout the war. Most of us survived and were able to pick up our lives. We have much to be grateful for.
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