- Contributed by
- People in story:
- Stanley Wood
- Location of story:
- Stafforshire and London
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 05 February 2004
Teenage Memories of World War Two
(only then they were NOT called teenagers!)
In 1939 I was working in a semi-underground building on a machine where my foot depressed a pedal and punched .303 calibre bullets into blued steel clips which my hands linked together. The end product was a measured ammunition belt ready to feed one of the eight machine guns in the wings of a Hurricane or Spitfire fighter aircraft.
By an ironic twist of fate, and a year later, I stood in a busy London street on the periphery of Shepherds Bush listening to, and watching, those same fighter aircraft spiralling vapour trails and firing their guns at attacking German war planes. I couldn’t help thinking:” I wonder if I filled those machine gun belts?” It was 1940 and I was now seventeen years old. The Battle of Britain soon escalated to the indiscriminate bombing of towns and cities in Britain.
I didn’t know it at that time but I would not return to my previous place of work until many decades later. Then it would be only to see the monstrous crater and mourn some of the victims I once knew who were killed in the terrible explosion at 11.10am on the morning of the 27th November 1944 at Fauld in Staffordshire. Then, thousands of tons of high explosive bombs that had been stored in the excavated caverns of Ford’s Gypsum Mine, blew a gigantic hole out of the hill at Hanbury causing death and devastation.
But I digress and deviate from my situation in 1940. I lived with my family (father, mother and younger brother) in a flat off the Uxbridge Road in Shepherds Bush. On that road, towards Acton, I had found work at a factory that made Aircraft controls.
Up above, in the wide blue yonder, fat, floppy, grey blobs of the Barrage Balloons dotted the London skyline. Sometimes these Blimps, as we called them, would break away from their moorings and dance erractically in the sky, dragging their distructive cables across the rooftops.
At the factory they formed a section L.D.V. an abbreviation for Local Defence Volounteers but better known at that time as Look Duck and Vanish. Later they became the Home Guard.
That autumn of 1940 saw many daylight air raids. When the warning sirens wailed we stopped work in the factory and crossed the busy Uxbridge Road to the shelters. These were the standard type resembling a long concrete tunnel buried half way into the ground with the excavated soil piled up on top. Hard, wooden slatted seats extended the length of those cold, damp musty smelling ovoid walls.
The daylight raids became so frequent the firm decided to employ men as spotters to watch from the roof. The siren was then ignored until the spotters sounded the internal alarm for raiders overhead. Then we could all go to the shelters. The sound of droning aircraft was very clear. Then the anti-aircraft guns stationed in Hyde Park and Wormwood Scrubs would open up forming a ‘Box-Barrage’ (a big square of exploding shells to divert enemy aircraft and perhaps assist our fighters). On one memorable occasion I watched fascinated as a big square was formed by many puffs of smoke from the exploding shells in the clear blue sky.
Well, as you know, what goes up must come down. Some people call it shrapnel but it wasn’t. The large, jagged slivers of metal, some about six inches or more long and maybe an inch wide were the exploding cases of the anti-aircraft shells. In this incident a shower of these shards clanged musically and frightfully on the road and pavement amongst us only to bounce high once more before coming to rest with a reverberant echo. Naturally I picked one up to add to my collection which included a nose cone and later a number of tail fins from incendiary bombs and a durolumin shaft and base of a container used for dropping clusters of incendiary bombs. None of these souvenirs were kept very long.
When the night air raids started, a multitude of searchlights stabbed at the dark sky. Most were white light but a few coloured ones mingled with the illumination all highlighted by the enforced blackout. No anti-aircraft guns were fired, and after several days of obvious inaction people began to ask why. Nobody bothered whether the guns were accurate at night or not, they wanted to feel that we were fighting back. When, without warning, it suddenly came the action was deafening. Every anti-aircraft battery in London seemed to be firing in unison. After that I saw no more searchlights piercing the night sky. There was a new noise to get used to though. It was the shrill screech of falling bombs. The blast of those near ones shook the house and the light bulbs danced erratically on the hanging flex.
Perhaps you’ve seen films of the so-called Blitz with families moving out to their cold and damp Anderson shelters? If so, spare another thought for those people who had no gardens to dig them in. I don’t remember anyone who had a metal in-door Morrison shelter. Queues would form long before dark with shadowy figures clutching bed rolls and personal belongings to enter the cellars of larger buildings. There were, of course, the brick-walled pavement shelters with a thick concrete, flat roof. These were notorious for collapsing like a deck of cards from an adjacent explosion. So, like many others, we made sure the black out devices were in place and just stayed put. When the night raid was really bad the family in the only flat above would join us and we would sit in the hallway. Under the stairs was supposed to be the best place. The hall or passageway from the front door was the nearest we could get. It was almost under the staircase of the upstairs flat.
Most nights the all clear would wail before daylight. The way I walked to work would reveal the tragedies of the night. The acrid smell of burning or the odour of premature demolished buildings would tinge the air. Deep craters in the road, some with ignited gas pipes flaming powerfully like an angry dragon in its lair. Houses reduced to debris. It was pitiful to see baths and lavatories hanging from broken walls and half collapsed floors. Churned up in the shattered bricks and mortar were the possessions of people, who for a while anyway, you wondered how fate had treated them. The cinema on the main road was one day a pile of rubble except for the entrance at the front. Ludicrous in a grotesque sort of way the still standing front wall advertised the film ‘Forty Little Mothers’ starring Eddie Cantor. Sometimes the air raid warning would sound again before I got to work and sometimes we could have a day or two’s respite without the wailing siren. On one such day, as brother and I returned to work at mid-day, a Heinkel bomber flew very very low over Shepherds Bush green and then opened up with its machine gun along the Uxbridge Road. Then, after we got over the shock, the siren on the green wailed its late warning.
But we were lucky really. Apart from a shard of metal smashing the back room’s sash window and an incendiary bomb which crashed through the roof. Yes, we nearly got it hot that night.
With no near explosions we decided to go to bed and catch up with some sleep. Startled, I heard a bang hitting the roof of the flat above us and then the hammering on our front door by one of the older girls from upstairs who was shouting that we were on fire.
When the fire-watchers arrived with their bucket and stirrup-pump they couldn’t get any water. Seemingly, in a panic, the bloke upstairs had turned off the water and the electric supply. Stupid as it may seem now, both brother and I dashed up and down the dark stairs carrying water in pots and pans to fill the fire-watchers bucket. We spilled more water over ourselves in the process. Eventually the fire was extinguished; but not before the bomb had burned its way through our ceiling and into our water logged front room. A burnt out sofa was pushed through a smashed upstairs window onto the pavement below. The horrible smell of burning lasted for days. There were many fires in the city that night but the worst was still to come.
It was Sunday evening and December 1940 had only two days left. Brother and I decided to walk into Acton and go to the pictures. The film was nothing special but it was somewhere different than sitting at home listening to the wireless. Halfway through, and superimposing itself on the mediocre black and white picture, a notice read:-
THE AIR RAID WARNING HAS SOUNDED.
THOSE WHO WISH TO GO TO A SHELTER
SHOULD LEAVE NOW
THE SHOW WILL CONTINUE.
Not many people left. There wasn’t many in the cinema anyway. We stuck it out for another half an hour then, bored stiff, we decided to walk home.
Once outside in the cool of the night air we got the shock of our lives. The sky towards Shepherds Bush was blood red. We watched in amazement as the crimson sky swirled in what looked like agonized torment to the accompaniment of screaming bombs and the roar of anti-aircraft guns. Overhead, the intermittent drone of enemy aircraft engines seemed to follow us on that long, terrifying walk home. Houses that we had walked past on our way to the cinema had disintegrated into ruins. A long wooden fence beside the pavement we had earlier walked upon was pitted with the jagged holes of bomb fragments. The horrible thought that if we had left the cinema when the warning flashed on the screen we would probably have no legs now, hurried our homeward steps. A row of terraced houses in the street leading off to our right looked completely demolished and the vehicles of the rescue teams stood in silence, waiting.
The air raids continued into the new year of 1941. By March of that year my father's job had transferred him to the North of England. They called it Cumberland in those days. Mother, brother and I were left in London awaiting a letter to say a new home was available. When that day came we saw our furniture and belongings loaded into the van. With insufficient money for train fares, arrangements were made for us to travel north in the back of the van; but not that day. The furniture van was scheduled to set off at first light from a lorry park somewhere in Chiswick. We had to find the place and the only way to do just that was to walk.
As the evening sky darkened to night the wailing siren heralded another raid. That final night in London, as the whine of bombs preceded the house shaking explosions, we made tea from an old kettle and drank our fill out of glass jam-jars.
It was still dark when we left our flat in the very early hours. The raid had ebbed and flowed all night and the guns still blasted their shells into the sky. I think we turned left into Uxbridge Road where luminous strips on the forever darkened lamp post glowed in guiding light through the dreary blackout.
From Goldhawk Road I think our aim was to find the Chiswick High Road. As dawn broke over Chiswick the all-clear sounded. We were more relieved to have located the van and a disgusting and distasteful smelling lavatory than to hear the sound of that long, wailing note we had heard so many times before. The conventional air raids would continue for another couple of months.
You don’t want to know that somewhere near ‘Rutland Water’ the half-shaft of the dilapidated van broke with a loud crack followed by a big skid and a stink of burning rubber, or that a year later I received a four shilling postal order (which I still have) and a leaflet which said :- ‘YOU ARE ABOUT TO BECOME A SOLDIER’. That’s another story.
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