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Ted's War, Home Guard and before..

by Diane Taylor

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Archive List > United Kingdom > London

Contributed by 
Diane Taylor
People in story: 
Edwin Knighton
Location of story: 
London
Background to story: 
Civilian Force
Article ID: 
A8715675
Contributed on: 
21 January 2006

" Teddy, why should England tremble?" asked Ted's mum. Home Guard at 17 - 1941 75 Swan Way, Enfield

7 September 1940 —19 Benledi Street E14

This was the night of 7-8 September, 1940. We’d been having spasmodic air raids through the week, getting used to going down in the shelter and sitting there staring at each other with water running down the bare corrugated steel shelter, which was half submerged in the ground, obviously half out. A semi-circular part of it was out of the ground and in that there was a door, about 3ft x 2ft, which you could just about get through. I don’t know what these outsize people today would have done. Couldn’t have got through there. I spent the week sawing, banging, cutting and knocking out a pair of bunks, one on top of the other. I had to get them down into the shelter and at least provide two of us with a lie in and platform. I had forgotten, of course, that the hole they had to go through was only 3ft x 2ft and the bunks I was building were about 5ft high and 2ft wide and 6ft long. You learn from experience but I had to try and get them through. Subsequent events, however, made that unnecessary. I came home during the afternoon, Saturday afternoon, September 1940 and we were watching down the garden and back yard, looking up — this is quite near the docks — just down the road from the docks — East India Dock Road, I think it is. Our fighters were sort of dotting in and out - these bombers — it was quite a spectacular sight, I can tell you. You could hear the machine guns going up there — rat a tat tat. Funnily enough, I never really heard anything falling around me. We all had tin hats, all doing something or other. I don’t know what I was doing, but I was doing something. Then they dropped incendiaries. Straddled the docks with incendiaries, setting it really well alight. They were blazing all the way up and down the river, the docks. Now, when they’d gone, they left behind this horrific conflagration. I went out on my bike to see what sort of damage they had done — burst water mains; fire engines screaming here, there and everywhere. A Fire engine stopped beside me and said where’s what — I can’t remember what they asked me — where’s so and so street?
“Follow me, follow me.” And I set off down the road as fast as I could go and the fire engine was haring along behind me and I hit a brick. There were several bricks in the road and I hit one. Front wheel went crunch on this brick. Over the top I went and the ambulance screeched to a halt behind me, fortunately. And I ruefully looked at my front wheel, which was a little bit buckled and finished up telling them how to get the rest of the way. I wheeled the bike home and put it in the passage — didn’t call it a hall in those days — this was a passage, which was only about 3 ft wide. The stairs were straight in front of you as you went in and there was a sort of dog-leg, which went past the stairs into what was laughingly called the kitchen with a black range. Through there was another room which we called the scullery, which had a brick-built boiler in the corner where mum used to do her washing over a coal fire, and boiled the Christmas puddings at Christmas. Outside, by the back wall, was the outside toilet, no indoor toilet, of course. And beyond that was the air raid shelter sticking out of the ground, which the council had kindly put in for us.

That was the last time I used my bike for ages. It stood in that passage with a flat front tyre and buckled front wheel. Having set the docks alight, the whole area was lit up with all the docks blazing away, they came back again, I don’t know when, about 8 or 9 o’clock at night, and started dropping the big stuff. We were sitting there in this shelter again, looking at each other. I can’t remember what we had for lighting. I suppose we had some sort of oil lamp — didn’t have the luxury of any electrical equipment — we didn’t have the luxury of a radio or wireless as we used to call it. As for TV, well we hadn’t even heard of it!
The house at 19 Benledi Street got a smackeroo (direct hit during bombing) on that night of 7 September 1940. We all had to get out and spent several nights — much to my dad’s delight I believe — in the cellar of a pub where Mr Levi used to give him the occasional short of whiskey. Oh, yes, that went on for several days. Mum and dad had been out trying to find a place over at Forest Gate to live in — a house. There were plenty there, but in amongst all the debris, as our American cousins would say. They came back a bit desolate, disconsolate, only to find Auntie Soph and Uncle Phil kicking around outside the pub waiting for them to get back to tell us that we had got to go home with them immediately. I was at work, of course, and when I got home, there was a sad farewell to Rene’s friend who she’d worked for. I still can’t remember — Levy or Levi. Lovely girl — crippled. One leg was a bit withered, I think, and she managed to get around all right but it was obvious that she was disabled in some way. So there we were, having packed our carrier bags again we went off to Edmonton, where Auntie Soph and Uncle Phil lived.

This meant that there would be eight of us in their shelter, night after night. Well, the bombs were dropping and walls were running with wet — condensation, I believe it was delightfully called. It was, of course, condensated or condensed human breath on the bare surfaces of the corrugated iron walls of the half-submerged air raid shelter. Not surprising tempers got a bit frayed.

Uncle Phil was Aunt Soph’s second husband. Uncle Mike had died several years earlier. They had no children but Uncle Phil had a girl, Elsie. Very invalid-type girl, unfortunately. I think she had what was known in those days as TB, consumption — galloping consumption, or whatever it was. It was a delightful atmosphere for her to have to be in night after night. Anyway, there was four of us still down in the shelter early one morning and we could hear these raised voices coming from the kitchen of the house. We’d been sitting bolt upright on these wooden seats; (your arse went to sleep, even if you hadn’t), and we wondered what the hell was going on out there. So we gradually got ourselves out — the four of us — me with three girls, would you believe, in a tiny space like that? We got up inside and they were having an almighty bloody row; they really were, all about a spoonful of tea. My mum just wanted to put another spoonful of tea in the teapot. She wanted to give us a reasonable cup of tea when we came up out of the air raid shelter to go with whatever was going for breakfast, which might have been a bread and marg, marmalade if you were lucky.

We came in during the middle of this argument with dad sort of bringing back his fists as if he was going to put one on Uncle Phil and Uncle Phil wouldn’t have stood that at all. Poor old sod. He was like a beanpole, he really was. Smashing man, too, a real gentleman. He claimed that he was a mason, a member of some sort of society, silversmiths’ society I think, Honourable Society of Silversmiths. We had no evidence of it, but he could have been. He had all the mannerisms, long silver grey hair, Pinnochio nose that turned up at the end. He was quite a nice, charming man and yet my dad couldn’t get on with him. He wasn’t a labourer, was he? He wasn’t a dock labourer. He was a man who had experience of other things. Don’t suppose he was any better than anybody else and probably didn’t even claim to be better than anybody else, but there you go. It’s the way you’re taken, isn’t it? It’s the way I’m taken at times.

I then had to cycle twelve and a half miles down to Poplar to go to work and the girls had to go somewhere — goodness knows where they were working. I have no idea of what they were doing at the time. Rene was five years older than me, about 22, I was about 17; Jessie would have been 24; Elsie would have been somewhere along the line of 18, 19 — something like that.

Anyway, we all set off on our respective journeys — wherever that might have been — and left whoever was left back at the house to sort out the problems.

Home Guard

When I was in the Home Guard, I was living at 75 Swan Way, Enfield, Middlesex. This is the story of a weekend, not in Havana, but in Cheshunt and Hoddesdon when I was in the Home Guard. We assembled about midday Saturday; we had full gear, packs on backs, tin hats — we looked the right part, you know, we were going to do somebody up, and we set off to Cheshunt. In the afternoon we were in one of those octagonal, pentagonal — whatever it was — pillboxes on the pavement, would you believe — in Cheshunt High Street. Just two of us with our guns, bayonets fixed — the lot — and we’re on manoeuvres. There were people strolling around doing their shopping; a couple arm in arm; a couple walking along. They walked past, bent down, looked inside and said: ‘Oh, look! There’s somebody inside here!’ And we’re saying ‘Go away! Go away! Go on, shoo!’

Anyway, this went on most of the afternoon and it was beginning to get a bit comical — Mainwaring was just up the road, he was the spitting image. Lieut. Mainwaring — Oh, no he was captain, wasn’t he, in Dad’s Army. Captain Mainwaring was the dead spitting image of Lieut. Lee. Now I don’t know whether that’s spelled Lea, Lee, Leigh — I don’t suppose it matters a tinker’s cuss. He was the size of Arthur Lowe and had all the mannerisms. Where they got this guy from, I do not know, but Arthur Lowe was the spitting image of Lieut. Lee. Smashing man. I was in ‘D’ company of the 25th Battalion of the Middlesex Regiment Home Guard. There, that’s a title for you, eh?

Eventually, this torture finished and we all went off to a college and it was a college for clergymen. Not being in use of course, at the time, but for training clergymen in Hertfordshire or Herefordshire or wherever it rains or doesn’t rain. And we’re ensconced on bare boards — there was not a stick of furniture — if that’s the right word, for that matter. Not a stick of furniture in this college; bare boards. We had a couple of, they were called, inter-linking mess tins. Very rightly so, too. They made a right bloody mess! You had a pint of tea in one and whatever it was going for eats in the other one. That was probably sloppy, as well. So you would try to walk along with these two oblong cans balanced one in each hand to find somewhere to sit to eat and drink whatever it was they were dishing up. This was for your nightly meal. Then of course, there was nothing else to do no telly, of course, no Match of the Day to watch. We settled down (to sleep) and all we had was our overcoats. Now what do you do with your overcoat? Do you lie on it, or do you lay over it — do you lie on it or do you lay with it over you, or do you try and get it round you. We finished up by putting them on. It seemed to be the only way to make full use of the material that was available. The idea was of course to keep you warm enough to sleep during the night. The next morning (if you could call it next morning, because this must be about midnight by the time we’ve finished with all this messing about) — early morning we had to be out in the fields somewhere.

Anyway, about five o’clock in the morning, we were all dragged out again, chilled to the bone. It was freezing cold of course, and I was stuck up a tree: put up a tree with a Bren gun. Now a Bren gun is a fairly heavy machine gun. If I had fired it from the tree where I was sitting on a branch, it would have knocked me off. It would really have knocked me off, it was that heavy. I put it down to Sergeant Wilson who put me up there with a machine gun. It was powerful enough to knock me off the bloody branch as soon as I fired it. Anyway, I was stuck up this tree for hours on end. Every now and again — I won’t call him Captain Mainwaring — Capt. Lee would come along and walk underneath, saying ‘You’re alright up there?’

God knows when that was, I suppose it was towards the end of — somewhere in 1941, possibly towards the end of ’41, maybe the beginning of ’42. But I had been in the Home Guard for about a year, I suppose, and I joined in January 1941. Anyway, I was up this tree. I had just been asked if I could see anything.
“Well, keep looking.”
“Yes sir.”
So I was up there on this branch, thinking, “Christ, hope I don’t have to fire this thing.”
It had live ammo; half inch diameter bullets. These were not little peppercorn 303 things. (303 is actually .303 of an inch: about a third of an inch or about 5/16” diameter if we can still talk in English. Something like 5 mm — about 6 mm — about 8 mm.) Not too small, 8 mm and it made a little tiny hole going in but a nice big one coming out. But this one was half-inch diameter — 12 ½ mm or just under 13 mm. So you have it in English, French, German or whatever you want.

I stayed there as long as it’s black. This is what Henry Ford was supposed to have said about his £100 Ford: you can have it any colour you want, so long as it’s black. Anyway, just to get rid of this manoeuvres business: it wasn’t long after that, it was getting towards Sunday night, when the umpires with their little white flashes around their arms came over the brow of the hill and said ‘You can all go home, you’ve been wiped out.’
So of course, there was the usual howl of disbelief. ‘How could we be wiped out? We haven’t seen anybody all day long, or yesterday for that matter. Who’s wiped us out?’
And they said ‘Well, D Company of the Essex Home Guard have wiped you out. You’ve been up against them and they’ve been aiming down on you from over that ridge over there with shellfire and they’ve just wiped you off the face of the earth. You can all go home now. Thanks very much.’
(Ted was in hospital suffering from lung cancer when he dictated these stories. He died 24/12/1999.)

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