- Contributed by
- Peter Wood
- People in story:
- Edward "Ted" Wood
- Location of story:
- Coulsdon, Surrey
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 07 July 2004
The first few months of the war was in many respects an uncanny period during which the life of the average household was not disturbed to any great extent. For several years preceding the declaration of hostilities, Britain had been fed on the terrible effects of aerial bombardment and the devastating consequences of poisonous gas attacks. It therefore came as a surprise that these dire threats were not carried out from the very beginning. It's true that the issuing of gas masks had been put into effect as were the erection of Anderson shelters, although the latter were were by no means constructed for everyone. Children from London and other vulnerable target areas began to be evacuated to parts of Wales and the West Country, but the initial quiet period - the 'phoney war' - prompted many parents to bring their children back home, not appreciating that it was only a matter of time before the bombs would start to fall.
Not wishing to subject the family to spending their nights in a hole dug in the garden, I decided to have the corner of a downstairs room shored up with heavy timber and a high anti-blast brick wall erected outside the french windows of the same room. Little did we realise how inadequate was the protection of this wall. At the end of the war I removed the wall and found that the mortar between the bricks was a weak mixture of about nine parts of sand to one of cement. All I had to do was to knock the layers of bricks away with a heavy hammer. The war profiteers had stated their criminal acts at a very early stage! The wall gave a feeling of security but it was really a death trap since if a bomb had landed in the field at the end of the garden it would have blown every brick straight through the 'protected' room.
For several months the duties of Air Raid Wardens were mainly confined to patrolling the area and seeking out residents with ineffective methods of blacking out their lights. A few raids took place but these were of the incendiary variety and, thanks to the open nature of the district, most of the fire bombs fell on gardens and open fields.Any house fires were quickly dealt with by the use of stirrup pumps and buckets of water. There was more danger from falling shell fragments from our own anti-aircraft guns than from enemy action as we went about our patrolling.
Then came the Dunkirk evacuation and for several days one could see trainloads of troops passing over the railway bridges spanning the roads down in the valley. During the Battle of Britain, one of the first mass air raids was on Croydon Aerodrome. This took place on a late sunny afternoon when, after a day at the office, I had decided to go to the Astoria Cinema in Purley. As I approached the cinema I stood and watched a wave of high flying aircraft approaching from the south-west. There had been no air raid siren and I therefore assumed, as did others, that the unidentifiable aircraft must surely be our own. No sooner had I bought my ticket when all hell was let loose. I ran out onto the street and saw the formation peeling off and driving down. The bombs could be plainly seen falling away from the screaming aircraft and disappearing out of sight behind the the rising ground known as Russell Hill. Loud explosions filled the air as I dashed for a bus in order to get to my air raid post and stand by in case of need. The aerodrome didn't suffer very badly but there were many civilian casualties on the housing estate at the northern end of Purley Way adjacent to the airfield.
From then on, aerial dogfights became almost a daily occurrence as August made way for a most beautiful sunny September.It was a pleasant Sunday morning in that month when the Germans attacked Kenley Airfield in force. I was playing golf at Coulsdon Court when the attack began. My friend and I bolted for the nearest bunker from which we watched the bombs falling and the dog fight which quickly developed. Calling the game off, we gathered our clubs and made a dash for home, half expecting to be at the receiving end of a stray bullet as we ran. The fight was still raging as we nipped smartly indors. Later we heard of the pounding the Germans had inflicted on Kenley and the ground crew members killed by direct hits on a crowded air raid shelter.
Then came the devastating London Blitz, as the Germans turned their attention to the capital itself. My daily journeys to London after each nightly raid were filled with speculation as I wondered what fresh damage would be seen or whether there would be any office left to go to.
One night in the winter of 1940 I climbed to the summit of Farthing Downs while on ARP patrol and looked to the north. It appeared that the whole of London was ablaze. The entire sky was a great orange glow which grew in intensity as fresh bombs exploded below. I confess I wept openly and cried out with a rage of helplessness that each new explosion signalled the deaths of yet more and more innocent civilians whilst here was I standing in the safe countryside far away from it all. It must have been at that moment when I made up my mind to do something more positive than remain a civilian for the rest of the war.
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