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- David Pearce
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- 01 November 2003
I was nearly six years old when war was declared. At this time my family was living in a gloomy, three floored terraced house in North London.
My family consisted of my father and mother, two sisters and a brother. My siblings were considerable older than I, my youngest sister being eight years older. My parents were in their late forties, in those days rapidly approachng late middle age. My father worked as a Coal Agent. Hs job wsa to travel the district on his bicycle collecting payments for coal supplied by his company.
On this day in September 1939, my parents are standing listening to one of or few luxuries, a wireless set. This is a large device, perhaps two feet high, covered in a honey-coloured veneer. When the tuning knob is turned it makes, to me, all kinds of exciting howls and sqeales as remote stations struggle to make themselves heard. I am aware of a sense of expectation. A sonorous voice makes an announcement, none of which makes sense to me. My mother sinks into a chair and my father puts his hand on her shoulder in a rare moment of empathy. We are at war with Germany. I have no idea what this means. I amnot at all sure if I know what Germany is. I know thst, in his younger days, my father had been a soldier, I had seen pictures of him in uniform. To me my father was unimaginably old, far too old to become a soldier again. What seemed to be upsetting my mother was the fact that my brother, some twelve years older than I am, was certain to be called up.
Life goes on as normal. I attend the local Infants' School. The walk to school is short and apart from the occasional bus, a very few cars and lorries and one or two horse drawn carts, the walk is traffic free.
The war does not seem to materialise, in spite of the shelters that are being built and the appearance of Air Raid Wardens, one of which is my eldest sister. I move to the junior school. This is another ten minutes walk away. Part of the school adjoining the playground has been partitioned off. We can still see through the windows and much speculation develops about the sides of meat that we can see hanging there. Later, I was to learn that this was an emergency supply in case of invasion.
Life goes on much as usual. It is noticeable that there are fewer men around and even less traffic. One of our sceret excitements on the way to school is to peer through a hole in a fence to see a car without wheels, propped up on bricks for the duration of the war. Blackout cutains are installed and the glass is criss-crossed with strips of brown paper tape in order to prevent the glass from splintering under the effects of bomb blast. It is a peaceful time, with little noise as there is almost no traffic around, even in a suburb of London.
At last come the air raids. We live near to a railway marshalling yard, a tempting target for the bombers. For a small child there is no sense of danger, no fear of being killed. The prospect is just not understood at that age. What is terrifying is the noise. The wail of the air raid sirens, followed by the drone of aircraft and, worst of all, the crash of the anti-aircraft guns. The explosion of bombs is a much less worrying noise. Soon, we have a new craze. This is collecting shrapnel. As the anti-aircraft shells explode in the sky they spray out pieces of the shell casing, known as shrapnel. These lethal pieces rain down on streets and houses. There must have been more danger from shrapnel than from German bombs. Most shrapnel is just jagged pieces of metal, but sometimes is found a section, perhaps from a fuse setter, that has numbers and a scale engraved upon it. These are much sought after and are the focus of much envy among collectors. There are even unexploded incendiary bombs found in such collections. One such device stood on our mantelpiece until my father was persuaded of its dangers and took it to the police station. They, of course, refused to accept it and it was left in the station yard in a bucket of sand.
Eventually I was evacuated to my grandparents' cottage in Cambridgeshire. I have vivid memories of my time there. The cottage was primitive; thatched roof, whitewashed walls,an outside chemical toilet, a well for water and cookin upon a paraffin stove. The only lighting was from oil lamps. For a young child, in effect on his own, this was bad enough. The cottage,at night, is full of dark corners and strange shadows cast by the flickering lamps. To add to this there is the proximity of several airfields on the flat Cambridgeshire countryside. To a child already fearful of the noise of raiding aircraft the constant roar of aircraft landing or taking off is sheer torture.
I go to the village school. This has two classrooms, one for the older children and one for the younger. The village children are far from friendly to an incomer and take every opportunity to make our lives a misery. Eventually my mother decides that I shall return home, bombing or not.
The Battle of Britain
I return home to a different world. Workmen arrived and dug a pit in our garden to erect an Anderson Shelter. This is a hole in the ground, walled and floored with concrete, with a roof of corrugated iron. The soil excavated from the hole is used to cover the iron and give it some extra protection. The shelter is used a few times, but it is damp, in fact it fills with water in the wet weather and so its use was very limited. In the daylight raids I am sent to the shelter, while my mother continues with her housework. I sit in the entrance to the shelter and watch the condensation trails of the British and German aircraft as they battle overhead.
By now my father has joined the Home Guard or Local Defence Volunteers, as they were then known. He eventually brings home a Lee Enfield rifle and a clip of five bullets. I am allowed to clean the rifle by tugging on the pull-through with its piece of oily rag on the end. The only time when the rifle is near to being used is when a German aircraft flies low up and down our street. It eventually drops a bomb on the local railway station and machine guns the area. My father wants to go to an upstairs window and shoot back, but my mother vetoes the idea.
The air raids that we have known now pale into insignificance against what we now experience. Night after night the sirens wail. A period of quiet and then we hear the sound of anti-aircraft guns getting nearer and nearer as the bombers approach. As the planes fly nearer there is the distinctive growl of unsynchronised engines; a steady two tone beat that, even for a young boy, sends shivers of apprehension through the body. We do not go to the public shelter. My mother has the idea that these are unclean and full of bugs. Soon, the bombs start to fall. At this time they are only small bombs and the blast effect is fairly local. The house opposite is hit, but we only sustain cracked windows.
One evening the bombing is so intense that we decide to go to the public shelter. As we make our way up the blacked out road we stumble over rubble and realise that the house a few doors away has been hit. There is a single Air Raid Warden digging in the rubble, the only aid available. We reach the shelter in a rain of shrapnel only to be turned away, it is full.
And so to school the next day. I cannot remember any of my classmates being bombed out although this must have occured. The intensity of what is happening tends to make a barrier grow up around you, so that you shut ot the world that is causing you distress. When the siren sounds we are led off to the shelter, where we are given maths books to work through. Whenw e reach the end we start again. It is an efficient means of creating a dislike of a subject.
School and family life go on as normally as possible. Rationing has taken hold and food becomes scarce. We children find a new game. We use the hollowed out stems of large weeds as pea shooters. There are no peas but one boy finds that pearl barley can be bought. This is ideal ammunition and we are soon in full battle in the play ground. Our game is short lived. One of the teachers discovers what we are doing and reports to the Head Teacher. The result- a public condemnation and a lecture on wasting food in war time.
The Home Guard is becoming more visible. My father goes off to parades in full uniform with his rifle. They hold exercises in the street that attract crowds of interested children as onlookers. My father goes off to guard the local gas works agianst Fith Columnists. These are Nazi sympathisers who are waiting to create havoc when the invasion comes.
Christmas comes round again and my father manges to find a chicken from one of his cutomers. Presents are few, but a lull in the bombing makes up for the deficiency. Or so my elders and betters tell me.
By now we have fallen into a routine. Air raids are accepted as a normal part of life. We are told to 'Dig for Victory'. In other words grow vegetables in your garden. My father buys a pair of rabbits to breed for extra meat. I am sent with one of the does to a neighbour in order to mate the doe with his buck. I suspect that this was as far as my parents were prepared to go with sex education! We also bought some day old chicks, but they failed to survive, probably because we could not obtain the correct food.
Tis was a period where nothing seemed to change.As small children we were shielded from the horrors of war as much as possible. On one occasion the Home Guard gave a party for the local children This was held in a church hall. The entertainers were a group dressed as cowboys, singing cowboy songs. During their performance we were dimly aware of explosions outside, but the performers just sung louder. Afterwards, we found that there had been a major air arid on the ditrict, but we children knew nothing of it.
The Home Guard keeps my father busy. They are called out to search for anti-personnel bombs that have been dropped. these are small bombs that, on landing, extend wings. If these are disturbed the bomb explodes. The main concern is that we children might find them.
The Americans arrive. My father instructs me to give up my seat on the bus to an American soldier. He, in return, gives me a packet of chewing gum. I have no idea what it is.
And then come the VIs or doodlebugs. These fly in wih a throaty roar like a badly tuned motor bike. When they tip up to start their final dive the engine cuts out. When this happens we dive for the Morrison shelter in our living room. This shelter is nothing more than a table made from steel. It does give protection if the house collapses in a a raid. All the family, five of us now that my brother is in the army, sleep within its protection. It is not someting that I would recommend.
I go to grammar school in Islington. This means a thre quarters of an hour bus journey. I am not yet eleven and travelling by myself, with the possibilty of a V1 attack at any time. How attitudes have changed! Soon the V2 rockets are falling on London. There is no warning, the explosion is the first and last warning. Waiting for the bus home one day, one falls nearby and the chimney pots come tumbling. Fortunately the intervening buildings shield the blast.
As the invasion of Europe approaches we see waves of Lancaster bombers fly over London, I suspect to raise moral. We have a wall map at home with flags to show the position of allied troops. When the advance over runs the launching sites we have a welcome return to peaceful days.
When 1945 arrives we realise that the war is almost over. There are bomb sites everywhere and people are shabby and tired. Finally the Geramns surrender and VE Day is celebrated. I am taken to central London to see the celebrations but am overwhelmed by the crowds. For us this is the end of the war. VJ day has yet to come , but the Japanese are on the other side of the world. Afterwards we wil suffer austerity in an impoverished country. But that is to come.
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