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- London and East Anglia
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- Contributed on:
- 22 November 2003
Salehurst Road SE4 to Brunswick Road IP??
1938 - 1953
The period of 'My War'.
Born in August 1938 I was of course too young to know much about the early days of WW2 until it affected me. Outings on foot with Mum to one or other of the grandmother's homes, or shopping trips to the meagre stocked shops at Catford or Lewisham, past the familiar infrastructure of war was about as far as it went. The Anti Aircraft 'Ack Ack' battery on Hilly Fields or the Barrage Balloon at Blythe Hill, picking up shrapnel, the blitzed houses just round the corner from Gran and Grandpa, the cleared bomb site with the (EWS) Emergency Water Supply tank on the corner of Ewhurst and Croften Park Roads, men from the council cutting down everyone's garden railing's to build tanks for the army, 'so they said', were the things that impacted on the mind of a small child that there 'was a war on'.
Of course there were ration books, and no bananas, pitch black unlit streets, no cars to speak of, and black out screens each evening to be put up at the windows, air raid alarms, and waiting for the all clear, to go outside and look for shrapnel, but even things like this weren't really interesting. In fact as I'd never known anything different, it was just the drab and colourless monotony war, and war was all I had ever experienced. Peace was just a word and as incomprehensible as was the idea of a, 'banana' or 'orange'. You don't miss what you have never known.
Dad was never at home it seemed. During the day he was building aeroplanes and at night he was on duty as a Auxiliary London Fire Brigade, Fireman. He kept an incendiary bomb in the 'out house' next to 'the lav.'. He said it was 'a dud' and had been made safe. It was a dud OK but years later I found out from him that it was 'still live' and could still have gone off and caused a fire. Fortunately it never did. So it was just Mum and me at our house most of the time. If Dad was at home, he was asleep.
Just before I started school I caught whooping cough and as my baby brother was due to be born any day I was packed off to live with Gran for a fortnight in her flat at Lewisham. Different walks over Blackheath and new Searchlights and things to inspect. Bit dull still though!
Bob was born on the 19th of January at home in Crofton Park. On the 20th a flight of FW 190 fighter bombers flew up our street strafing the houses with 20 mm canon and bombing the nearby Sandhurst Road School as the children were in the playground at lunch time. 44 children and teachers dead from that raid. We had taken casualties of course throughout the war, but in my young life the war it seemed had gone on fairly quietly after the blitz but all of a sudden it now became alive, cogent and personal. I was after all just about to go to school myself and children being killed in these numbers in a school nearby, worried me.
Eventually it was time to go home to a very new and very different home. As Mum was 'lying in' the FW 190 had, she said, almost come through the bedroom window firing its guns. I had a new brother with who I had to share my Mum but from now on life would be very different. War had finally entered my life.
Came 1944 and the baby blitz, tonnes of incendiaries each one targeted on a neighbours feather bed it seemed. Sand buckets and Stirrup pumps by every front door ready for action. The red OXO tins of collected shrapnel multiplied, - and then the apprehensive but expectant joy of D Day in early June.
Somewhere along the lines we had acquired a Morrison air raid shelter. This beast was erected in the front room, a huge double bed size steel construction. Plate steel above and below, angle iron uprights in each corner and sheet steel 'in fill' on three sides, and a strong wire mesh screen for the fourth. Now Dad insisted that we use it as from the 13th of June the V1's, doodle bugs buzz bombs or flying bombs had started coming over. In the first twelve hours 155 crossed the channel and they kept on coming. Most of them it seemed, our way.
Ours arrived ten days later at 2:15 am on Friday the 23rd of June. A pivotal day in my young life. Dad had made Mum promise to sleep in 'the Anderson' as he went on 'fire brigade duty' in the evening. No doubt that it saved our family that night. Dad was stationed at Stillness Road School where I had just started, and pretended to have been inspecting my work when he came home in the mornings. I certainly had peeped into fire brigade's duty room, - 'the place where my daddy worked' - when at 'my' school. Few other memories of that school survive, other than my wool colour coded tea spoon from home in my top jacket pocket and lining up for a bottle of milk and teaspoonful of cod liver oil and malt each morning. Oh yes and the coloured paving slabs in Stillness Road. Mustn't tread on the cracks or 'the enemy' will get you!'
By 3 O'clock that morning most of those who had survived that bomb, and some didn't, were gathered in the municipal shelter on the corner with Ewhurst Road. Oh what a long night that was. We were all safe, but Dad did not know that. Being June it was light very soon after the bomb fell and there was no chance of sleeping. I wanted to go outside see what had happened, look for my toys and find my day time clothes. All the adults seemed to be dressed already. They mostly slept in their clothes in those days.
Eventually, being just a bit older my little friend Jill did escape and went looking for my Dad who she knew was coming off duty. Motivated my parents always thought by some natural instinct that told her my father must be told that his family had all survived as soon as he turned the corner and saw that his house was gone. That was almost the last we ever saw of Jill, because our lives from that point took off in different directions. Dad never stopped talking about the service that little girl did for him that morning though, until the day he died.
Before Dad turned up, Vi Boothby the Girls Brigade Captain arrived, and went looking for some clothes in the ruins of the houses for us children to wear. She found me a pair of trousers and a red aeroplane jersey which I hated. It was too small and it prickled. Others began to arrive and the neighbours started to leave with friends and relations not knowing if they would survive the war but promising 'to write' and look one another up 'after the war'. So the local community broke up and went their various ways. With few exceptions, never to meet again.
We had only a few hundred yards to walk up Sevenoaks Road to Gran and Grandpa's house. Don't tread on Gran's white step. Step over it. Bombed out or not, I knew that particular ritual. Once over the step though excitement and childish delight could no longer be contained. Gran! we've been Bombed. WE'VE BEEN BOMBED!!! Mum dissolved into tears of relief that we had all come through unscathed, - except for the loss of our home, and we were refugees with no where to live. She of course did not then know that over in South West London another buzz bomb had killed her brother that very night.
Dad disappeared again soon after and was gone for most of the day. Mid afternoon though he drove up in a grey, Fire brigade van with all he and his mates could salvage from the wreck of our home. The Council War damage team would not enter the building because it was too dangerous, he said, and were going to bulldoze it straight away, but he and his fire brigade colleagues went in and recovered a van full of our belongings including some clothes that were wearable after a good wash.
Why, my cousin asked, when the grey fire brigade van pulled up outside, aren't fire engines painted red now? No one seemed to know the answer to that one, which rather surprised me, as for a long time we had been listening to the news about the advancing war on the Russian, or eastern front. The answer was so obvious to me I replied almost contemptuously. "Don't you know there's a war on, and red paint is scarce because it's all given to the Russians to the 'Red Army' to paint their tanks!" The simple logic of the young and innocent before the days of TV, and in the time where generation of mental images illustrated 'the news'.
That in one sense was really the end of my 'hot' war, but it continued to impose its uncomfortable unpleasantness into my young life. There followed a succession of 'new homes, living in rooms in relatives houses or with the half forgotten school friends of my parents. Different schools in different towns with no longer than a term in each. Playing with other children's toys, feeling, out of place, unwanted and insecure.
Eventually we arrived in Ipswich, once again in rented rooms in someone else house. This time a strangers home, relatives of a new acquaintance. Another new school.
This though was relative peace as far as I was concerned. No siren 'warnings', no 'all clears' but still many, many service men, mostly American. The locals spoke of how dreadful the war had been there in Ipswich 'with all this bombing'. "Don't you know we had a landmine land as close as Rushmere Heath". That was a good 5 miles away on the other side of town. If only they new what I knew, but it was not worth trying to explain.
Eventually proper peace did come. First VE day and then VJ in September 1945. Street celebrations and soon after the prospect of a home of our own. This came in the form of a tiny council flat late in 1946. There were still more moves and more schools to come before we were finally settled in what Mum and Dad said was a home of our own again, just before the Coronation in 1953, and by that time I was getting ready to leave school. So I suppose my war and its consequential aftermath must have lasted pretty well from the time I was born and right through my school days.
Pray God we never have to endure another.
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