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Crossed Wires: Childhood Memories of Stepney

by brinkie

Contributed by 
People in story: 
Albert Coster
Location of story: 
In England
Background to story: 
Royal Navy
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
21 March 2004

I was 9 years old when the war began and my brother and I were evacuated with our school to the village of Naughton, in Suffolk. By Christmas we were home again in Stepney, and there we stayed through the Battle of Britain until the end of 1940, when we were evacuated again, partly because our house had been bomb damaged, and partly because my mother was, as she said, "at the end of my tether". This time it was to Great Hormead in Hertfordshire.

My father, known as Ike to friends and relations alike, was a postman/sorter working at the Head Office of the Post Office in King Edward Building in London. Night after night he spent fire watching on the roof of that great building when he had finished his shift. I think he did this because it was lonely at home without us, and at least he had some company. The watchers used to spell each other so that each had the chance of a "quick kip", otherwise they would have been in no condition for work in the morning. He had many tales to tell of near misses and actual fires that he had helped extinguish. From Great Hormead
we often watched the glow at night above London in the distance and worried about him. About once a month he would bicycle from Stepney, some thirty-eight miles, to see us, and he always pulled a small cart he had built containing fresh fish and delicious, plump kippers from Billingsgate Fish market, and these were shared amongst the villagers and were much appreciated for fish were a scarce commodity. It was a sad and yet exciting time.

One particular weekend,in 1941, he said he had something special to tell us - he had been called up for service in the Navy. Once we had overcome our surprise, he told us how it had come about. In the post one morning there was an OHMS letter telling him to report to a certain office at the Admiralty, for his call-up interview - this seemed strange to him because he was almost 42 years old, and conscription had not yet reached that age group. He had no special skills except that he had won the Silver Medal for Rifle Shooting at Bisley for his regiment, and he had been building radios for many years. However, he decided to take along his Army discharge papers from WW1, his birth certificate, his marriage certificate and anything else he deemed relevant.

When he arrived he was invted to sit down and the officer began by saying that he had his records from the RAF which showed that he had not proved to be 'up to scratch'. My father protested that he had not been called up into the RAF in no uncertain terms. (He could be rather forceful if the occasion demanded it). The officer replied by saying that if that was his attitude he could understand why the RAF had let him go. My father insisted that he had the wrong man, produced his evidence and laid it on the desk before the officer, who grudgingly read it through. His attitude changed and he became quite conciliatory. It appeared that the "other man" was also a postman but at the Eastern District Post Office in Whitechapel. He was 29 years old and his name was Gilbert, my father's name was Albert and they shared the same surname. Someone, somewhere had crossed wires. When it was agreed that my father was who he said he was the officer informed that, much to his regret, his call-up would stand and he was to report to Portsmouth the following week.

The second time wires were crossed for my Dad was during the build up to D-Day in June 1944. We had been back in London for over a year and had been bombed out twice. Temporary repairs enabled us to live in the kitchen and scullery and sleep in the shelter in the backyard. Doodlebugs abounded and people were here today and gone the next. My father was serving up north in Scapa Flow on the boom defences. By this time he had 'graduated' from being a wine steward to being the Captain's personal steward. A message arrived saying that his family had been killed in London - after the initial shock his Captain said he would do his best to help Dad get to London. As we know, all movement was restricted at that time. However, papers were secured and endorsed by the Captain and Dad was on his way, by helicopter and aeroplane. On one particular plane, it might have been at Aberdeen or Prestwick, I am not sure which, he was told the flight was full. However, after preenting his papers, a Colonel was turned off the plane and my Dad boarded in his stead. When he reached London a car was waiting and a matelot drove him to our house. You can imagine his amazement when my mother came to the makeshift door - his first words were "You're alive!"

It transpired that is was his brother and his wife, his sister and her husband who had been killed by the blast from a doodlebug, which had landed on their house a few streets away. His niece's body had fallen across her baby daughter and she was the sole survivor.
After sorting things out my father flew back to Kirkwall in the Orkneys. All this time he had wondered why he had been given special treatment, and it appeared that the papers he had been given stated that he was in Naval Intelligence and on a special mission to London.

I believe that the time he spent in the Navy were the happiest days of his life. What his experiences taught me was never to take things for granted and never to accept things at their face value.

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These messages were added to this story by site members between June 2003 and January 2006. It is no longer possible to leave messages here. Find out more about the site contributors.

Message 1 - crossed wires

Posted on: 22 March 2004 by Harry Hargreaves

Somewhere along the line this story (probably oral history) came unstuck. First, even with a proven paper work mistake, no man at the age of 42 with a family could be conscripted. Maybe he volunteered. Secondly I never saw or heard of a helicopter being available during those years. They came much later. There are other discrepancies but these two stand out like a sore thumb.

Message 1 - Crossed wires.

Posted on: 23 March 2004 by Frank Mee Researcher 241911

Hello Brinkie,
Problems. We did not have Helicopters at that time there were some Autogiro's a crude machine very unstable and it did not carry passengers.
There was no official RAF passenger service up in Scotland at that time. Unofficial passengers often got a lift in planes flying South but in cramped spaces and only a couple at a time. It was long cold and miserable journey if you could manage to srcounge a lift. That is from an 83 year old friend of mine (this morning)who served his whole war in that area as a RAF specialist.
He told me there was an official Airservice run by Scot Air with De Haviland aircraft. They went to Renfrew or Glasgow and you got the train South from those places. That would be a paid service though they probably took travel warrants to be collected from the government as cash. That is a guess and my friend did not say that to me.
Memory is fallible and often when we remember the stories of our relatives our own memory intrudes.
You can edit the story yourself by going to the edit sign on the story only you can see if you wish to do so.
Regards Frank.

Message 1 - Scapa Flow

Posted on: 22 April 2004 by Peter - WW2 Site Helper

Winston Churchill visited Scapa Flow three times during the war. Each time he went by special train from Kings Cross, travelling overnight to either Wick (1st visit) or the Clyde (2nd visit), or Caithness (3rd visit) in northern Scotland, and from there by ship to Scapa Flow; and these were urgent visits. There was no other way to get there, except by train and ship.

The first British helicopter, the Cierva-Weir 9, crashed during a test flight in 1946.


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