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- England, particularly East London
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- 12 November 2003
From WW2 I have hundreds of memories. In many cases the adults were distressed but growing up with war, many children accepted much of it as normal. People’s experiences depend so much upon where they were.
Born in February 1936 I have just a few pre-war memories from 1939. One is of a sunny lunchtime in our Walthamstow (London E.17) house, another is of our Anderson air-raid shelter being constructed at the end of the garden (most winters it needed baling as it would get several inches of water in it, being deeper than the adjacent sportsfield ditch).
A great trench was dug by steam shovel across the middle of that neighbouring sports field (and through our local Epping Forest) as defence works. Concrete blocks about a metre cube were prepared where the trenches met the main roads, ready to be moved into position and block the road if we were attacked. For the next 10 years us kids loved to play on/around the blocks and the spoil heaps lining the muddy trenches.
In 1940 my father’s employer moved from Smithfield to Brasted near Sevenoaks (Kent) where I started school. With the call-up of most male teachers, my huge class was for 4~7 and the other class was for 8~11.
While there, I knew of the rationing, so one day while my mother was shopping I picked, then boiled buttercups on the kitchen range hoping to make butter.
My mother went to First Aid classes and I was used as a child subject for bandaging. One spring day we walked up our lane to the top of Toy’s Hill to see the remains of a German plane shot down the previous night.
Our cottage was on a hillside so when the warehouses near to Tower Bridge were badly blitzed one night, we all stood in the garden to see the big red flickering glow.
Quite a few times in 1940 we travelled back to Walthamstow and I particularly remember several times walking from London Bridge station to Liverpool Street station after a previous night’s bombing. On one occasion we were allowed to walk along Gracechurch St. while the buildings on the other side of the street were on fire and the firemen using their hoses. Other times we had longer diversions to avoid fires or buildings in a dangerous state (some remained propped up till the 1950’s).
Platforms carrying pumps were built around the piers of some bridges so as to pump Thames-water into the city via cast iron mains in the gutter or on the pavement (or both). Where the mains were in parallel and pedestrians needed to cross them there were wooden boards across. Branching off the mains were lots of hoses.
When dad had been called-up, mum and I returned to our Walthamstow house There were about 45~50 in my class and my school held about 600 on three floors but the air-raid shelters weren’t ready. If the air-raid sirens went during school hours we would all squeeze into the cloakrooms and onto the staircases to avoid any flying glass from a blast as there were only tiny slit windows there.
My teacher’s mother had gone to the window in the middle of the night to look at the searchlights, but died from lacerations when a bomb fell nearby.
Many buses had blast netting on their windows and some had blackout curtains.
Some double-decker buses had a bag on top containing gas as fuel instead of petrol and others pulled a little trailer for their gas.
When paper became short at school, many of us took our 4 page (1 sheet) newspaper to school and wrote our sums and spelling tests in the margins. The papers were then gathered up and some went to the local fish shop for him to wrap his customers fish in, while the rest was torn into squares and issued by teacher from a cupboard if you needed to use the toilet.
Quite often while in the playground we saw fighter aircraft in dogfights at altitude weaving condensation trails. The alert seemed to go only if there was a risk of bombs.
By 1944 we often saw squadrons of 27 allied bombers heading for Europe. Sometimes 5, 10 or even 20+ squadrons would fly eastwards in succession presumably navigating by the white concrete of our local North Circular Road (A406) and then the Southend Road and the railway to Harwich much as the airliners heading for Heathrow still do (in reverse) in 2003.
(Not built with tarmac as concrete gave employment in the early 1930’s depression.)
There were about 6 phones in our street of 56 houses. One day in 1940 a neighbour came to say my dad had phoned her that he was moving camp and would be at Kings Cross station till 2 pm. Mum got us there in time and found the special train loading about a thousand men. She asked a corporal at the gate and the word was rapidly passed up the platform that AC2 Wakefield’s wife was at the gate and he was allowed to come and speak to us.
In early 1941 we got away from the bombing for a week to see dad in training at Bridlington. I remember Flamborough Head and the passing convoys of colliers and steamers hugging the coast.
In January 1942 the bombing got mum down again so we went for a break to Helston (Cornwall) and took the bus which was full of airmen to Mullion. Mum got plenty of attention as the only woman and I was passed from father to father to briefly sit on their knees as they were missing their own children. Mullion Cove and the Lizard Point featured in many of my school compositions thereafter.
A similar scare later in 1942 took us to Bath unannounced. While mum went to contact dad that we had come and to find overnight accommodation, she told a porter what was happening and left me for a couple of hours with our suitcase (and a luggage label on me) by the water crane on the platform where the London to Bristol trains would stop to refill. Most of the engine crews spoke to me. You wouldn’t leave a 6 year old like that now !
One winters night in 1942 the bombing was worse so mum and I went to the communal shelter at the end of our street. Only families without husbands were there. One lady realised that she had slammed her front door without her keys being in her handbag so, during a lull in the bombing at about 4 am, I ( as the oldest male) and the ladies 2 daughters (all of us under 10) were sent to see whether their back door was unlocked. It wasn’t, but a fanlight was open so the girls pushed me through to get the keys off the sideboard and bring them out via the front door.
As our Anderson shelter was so often wet we mostly sheltered in the small cupboard under our stairs. We could just squeeze in 4. (1930’s houses used substantial timber.)
On rare occasions with daylight raids, passers-by would shelter with us, e.g. our milkman, leaving his handcart outside (he had a struggle to push it up the local hill).
If we went by tube in the evening, then in some central London tube stations you would have perhaps only 3 feet of platform edge to walk on, the rest being occupied by scores of families in sleeping bags or blankets on the platform. Sometimes you had to step over a persons legs or belongings. Some stations had bunks 2 high lining the wall. It was very good-natured. Pushing would have been so dangerous !
If we were caught out in an air raid in the evening I would be fascinated by the searchlights scanning the sky as we walked through the blacked out streets. Even the cars had their headlights covered with only a 4x2 cm slit (and a 1.5 cm shield above).
Sometimes the searchlights would latch onto a German aircraft, then the guns in our neighbouring sports field would fire. One day I had to hand in my collection of shrapnel (supposedly to help the war effort by recycling, but perhaps because of my blisters from the phosphorous on the tracer bullet remnants).
Tilers were often needed in our street because so much shrapnel was falling, breaking the rooftiles and then the rain would get in and damage ceilings, etc..
Around town, bomb damage was common. Perhaps 2 houses in a terrace gone but bits of a bedroom hanging there on an adjoining wall. In one case an upright piano up there on a small piece of bedroom floor. Blast would blow out shop windows so they would be boarded up and they continued to trade, often by a single lamp bulb
Our nearest bomb obliterated the tennis court at the end of the street, so it was turned into an allotment garden. We dug up part of our garden so as to grow vegetables. Our fox terrier had to be put down in 1940 because there was insufficient food and he was upset by the noise of guns and bombs.
Letters from dad meant so much, especially with his sketches of his colleagues. Sometimes he sent a biscuit tin of blackberries, etc. picked from around his camp.
By 1944 convoys of troops and equipment mostly eastbound along our narrow North Circular Road passed almost hourly and some took a rest on the ground allocated for the second carriageway. Local ladies would offer up tea etc. to the lads. I remember seeing a convoy of tanks move off while the lads were pouring their tea, they handed the teapot to another lady up the road who brought it back to it’s owner. With rationing, I don’t know where they got so much tea from. There was so much goodwill, especially to those who were travelling.
The doodlebugs started in 1944, often coming without the air-raid siren sounding. Their chug-chug was alarming but while they chugged they were not falling. The terror was if their motor stopped before they had passed over you, then you waited what seemed ages for the bang. Again, the adults were more worried than us kids.
I only heard two V2’s. Falling from up to 70 miles above they were supersonic, so first you heard the bang and then you heard the approaching scream getting fainter, then you knew that you had survived ! Out one day, one fell a quarter mile away.
Late 1944 we moved to Bretforton in the Vale of Evesham (Worcestershire) and then Badsey village bakery before moving into the servants half of a 14th century manor house that hadn’t been occupied since it held German prisoners of war in 1919. The dark solitary confinement cell was upstairs with the regulations in german. The kitchen was stone flagged and some 40 x 15 feet while the door key was iron and weighed almost a kilo. It was unheated so we lived in the buttery (lined with copper to keep out the mice we were told). Sanitation was a bucket.
3 feet outside the back door was a wooden cover over a 4 foot diameter well.
The farmer in the main house once moved his large table to show dad’s colleagues a large slab that tilted and a tunnel below that went out under the orchard.
The villagers still talked about the one bomb that had fallen in fields 3 miles away a couple of years earlier.
The day we moved there, while my mother looked after my newly born handicapped sister, I was sent 3 miles to the butcher in the next village (past an airfield) with our ration books to sign on with him and bring back some meat to cook. Would you ask an 8 year old these days.
One day in 1944 while walking home from school, I met an American sergeant, the first negro that I had seen. He shared his packet of chips with me while showing me some pictures of his own wife and kids back home in the USA.
At Xmas 1944 many local children were taken by Air Force lorries to a party in Evesham Town Hall where we were given toys (mostly of wood and painted with aircraft dope) made by the servicemen at various local camps.
After D-day I learnt my geography of Europe by putting a map out of the Daily Mail onto the wall and inserting pins joined by wool to show the state of advance as it was reported on the radio. Pathe-News at the cinema supplemented newspaper reports.
I helped pick fruit in a market garden in 1945 and went with the horse and cart to the local single siding alongside the London to Worcester line and helped load the wagon.
On VE-day everybody celebrated, especially the Canadian airmen (who had a giant bonfire of unwanted aircraft bits).
By VJ-day we were back in London. I had attended 7 schools between 1940 and 1945.
Most classes I had been in had over 40 pupils (two had 70+ with the walls folded back) and some classes spanned several years. One school had a lady teacher for the beginners and a man for a huge class of up to school leaving age.
Teachers were mostly women and with the class sizes, were friendly but strict and were backed by parents. A slap, hands on head, stand outside, lines, ruler or cane depending upon the offence. Once I couldn’t hold a spoon at table for 2 days.
Teachers often selected the abler pupils to assist those finding a subject difficult. I was o.k. at reading and arithmetic but useless at crop rotation and recognising plants, i.e. what was taught to 8 year olds varied around the country.
In 1946 my father was demobbed. He found a way into the Mall for us for the Victory Parade. The crowd was thick, but as usual us children were passed to the front (some over peoples heads) and sat in front of the policemen. Afterwards the crowd helped us to rejoin our parents. It was a memorable view of the service contingents and those on the Reviewing Stand including King George VI, Winston Churchill and General Montgomery.
So, as I started out by saying, for a child it was a fascinating time if sometimes scary, but for the adults there was so much worry, fear, suffering and loss of possessions and loved ones. An uncle’s ammunition convoy blew to bits.
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