- Contributed by
- People in story:
- George Sudbury
- Location of story:
- Mostly West Wickham, Kent
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 11 November 2003
A Child at War
This is an episodic reflection on the lasting impressions of childhood during the period, which we can only hope will never recur, when the developed nations were engaged in six years of total war. It seems timely to set down these recollections; that period is now over 50 years away but nationalistically-fuelled destruction of towns has once again broken out in Europe. This may help someone to understand what it is like to be on the receiving end. It is also within sight of the time when, statistically, my memories will have gone with my body.
It is not an especially dramatic story. I did not suffer the rigours of being an evacuee, far from both home and family. My father was not called away to fight; although his activities in London were certainly not insulated from the dangers of war, for most of the time he came home every night. Our home, in what is now called the 'leafy suburbs', (in the same area and similar to the ‘1940s House’) although overflown to get from France to Central London, was not a primary target of attack and we were not 'bombed out'. There were, perhaps, only a couple of times when I was personally conscious of danger to myself and a few more when I was more generally conscious of what the aerial traffic meant in terms of risk. Perhaps as the view of an innocent spectator the narrative will show the minimum implications of being 'a child at war'. As such, I have tried to keep the perception to that I had at the time, largely uncoloured by subsequent knowledge except where this may illuminate the story.
The first indications I recall that momentous things were going on was when my father started lifting the patch of lawn which lay beyond the vegetable garden, furthest from the house. Our house plot was of the type common in 'between the wars' ribbon suburban development, long but fairly narrow. The back garden was a gentle rise from the house, terraced by my parents into a small lawn backed by a rockery, then a larger lawn rectangle, a deep flower bed ('the border'), a vegetable patch, and this patch of grass before the fence. Beyond the fence was a railway cutting, perhaps 10 metres deep, in which the electric passenger trains ran on one more stop from West Wickham to the terminus (Hayes).
Up came the turf, then a large hole, perhaps 2 metres by 3 metres and a metre deep, was excavated. At the bottom, a further central pit, cemented at sides and around. Then into the main space came the corrugated iron sections, an arch and end pieces, solid metal doors in one of them. Finally, steps down to the entrance, a board floor placed over the pit, and the earth piled back over the top to make a mound. It would be good, my parents said 'for anything except a direct hit'. I wondered what they meant. It was clearly important, they had spent a little extra to get one like this and to half-bury it as a ‘dugout’ where some neighbours had simply put theirs above ground and piled earth on top or even just had an inverted J of corrugated iron against the interior house wall.
Ours was to be 'The shelter', cosy if humid bedroom for four, becoming five, for many, many nights.
My father was particularly proud of 'the sumps' in the shelter. One gravel pit at the foot of the steps was covered by a grid. Inside the shelter, the deeper pit under the floor boards kept a dry space beneath us. We were to hear of others whose dugout shelters became unusable because of flooding. However, I now suspect the gravel subsoil and the proximity of the railway cutting would have saved our shelter from all but perhaps the worst downpours.
My parents also had a plan to hang a wet blanket over the door of the shelter if there was a gas attack. I imagine this might have stopped chlorine gas, and perhaps mustard gas. Fortunately not tested!
Soon after, preparations began for ‘the blackout’. Blackout material was a thick, heavy black sheeting and every window in the house had to have these over it. I remember the result had to pass the test that no light came in during the day. At the time - I was four-and-a-half - I found this puzzling if they were supposed to keep the light from getting out of the house.
When the war finally broke out - 'the day war broke out' was a catch-phrase for many years, even taken up by comedian Rob Wilton - there was a panic that the bombing would start quickly. We had been due to take a holiday in the Isle of Wight, a prospect that fascinated me as to what it would be like, living on an island that really felt like one. That had to be cancelled, needlessly as it turned out, and it was to be nearly twenty years before my mother and I took a trip to Ryde! (It was also to be some years before we had a 'proper holiday'.) Anyway, in the panic, with the trains full, my mother hired a taxi, a black London-type, and we went to Somerset, with me being car-sick all the way.
We had some female relative there, who lived in the country, and accommodated us. My only recollection is of my first encounter with a very smelly cow-pat, which put me off 'Somerset' for many years. After a week, the reality of 'the phoney war' began to emerge, my father was no doubt making it apparent that he did not like being separated, and we came back again. I do not recall the journey back so I suppose it was by train. Thus ended our first spell as refugees from the expected field of war.
Some time between the digging of the shelter and the outbreak of war we must have had our gas masks issued. It came in a tough brown cardboard box with a strap to hang it over your shoulder and you were supposed to 'take it everywhere with you'. That included to school and until nearly the end of the war putting your gas mask box on your shoulder became as much a part of going to school as brushing your hair and tying your shoes. The gas mask itself was made of black rubber with a plastic window and fitted over your face completely so as to make a tight seal across your forehead, down your cheeks, and under your chin. The chemicals to stop the gas were in a cylindrical protrusion like a large pig's snout hanging down and out at mouth level. When you breathed in the air came through this filter, when you breathed out it came out at the side of your mask, by your ears, making a 'rude noise' if you puffed vigorously. There was a plastic window to see through but after wearing the mask for a short time it got steamed up in a cool room. Of course, you could not eat or drink with this on and speech was hard to understand as it was muffled.
We were supposed to be warned of a gas attack by the Air Raid Wardens going round ringing handbells, as I recall. There would be no confusion with church bells as these were silenced ‘for the duration’ (of the war) to be rung only if there was an invasion. We had to practice putting the masks on and taking them off properly regularly at school. Fortunately we never had to use them seriously, though my mother and I did once go to a demonstration in a caravan where we put our masks on and sat around while a man let off a capsule of tear gas and showed, by taking off his mask so that his eyes streamed, that our masks really were working (against tear gas, anyway, says the adult cynic).
All the tops of the pillar boxes were painted with a greyish paint which was supposed to change colour if there was an attack with mustard gas. As far as I remember, the idea was that if you were walking down the street and saw this, you got inside the nearest building as quickly as possible, with all the windows and doors shut.
Ration books were issued at the start of the war. They had two kinds of coupons in them which were cut out or cancelled whenever you bought something which was rationed. One lot of coupons were for basic foods, which were sold at controlled prices and the food was specified on the coupon - meat, milk, eggs and so on - with a coupon identified by number for each week. This ensured everybody got enough of the essentials to the extent that they were available. From time to time the amount of the food which the coupon allowed you to buy would be changed, as supplies varied. Most other foods were 'on points'; each book had so many points valid for a period and a tin of golden syrup, for instance, might be five points. This gave people choice and enabled them to save up points for special occasions; it also gave the government the ability to vary the points tariff according to what was available. Children got bigger rations of milk, eggs, and such-like.
Sweets were separately rationed, though kind adults often passed theirs on to children. Although the normal weekly sweet ration, four ounces I seem to think, sounds quite a lot, remember that sugar, biscuits, and so on were also rationed and many other things did not have sugar in them as they do today. Also, we needed calories with limitations on protein and fats. We also did not have a car, (and if we did would not have had petrol for it) and houses were mostly heated only by rationed coal, usually a hot water boiler and a rather inefficient open fire in the living room, plus a portable electric fire, so there was more scope for burning off the calories.
The margarine ration was usually 'pooled' in the family for cooking and we spread our teatime bread with butter. Anyone who was greedy got shouted at; at one time our family cut up the butter ration and put it on separate saucers for each person so we could see how to last the week with it. One weekend I scraped mine on very thinly all the week and then had the rest - about two ounces (50gms), I suppose - very thickly on one slice at the end of the week. I felt quite sick afterwards.
The weekly meat joint, eaten on Sunday, usually produced a surplus of fat, which cooled into dripping. In addition to using that for frying (no corn oil or olive oil then) we used to like it spread thickly straight on bread, especially with a little Marmite or some of the 'jelly' under the dripping mixed with it. Just imagine the dieticians reaction today - but our diet was otherwise low on fat!
Younger children were also entitled to regular bottles of concentrated orange juice, cod liver oil, and rose hip syrup (for Vitamin C). The cod liver oil, straight from the bottle, tasted foul, the orange juice quite good, and the rose hip syrup OK. In fact we got our cod liver oil as ‘cod-liver-oil-and-malt’, a brown gooey substance which we ate by the dessertspoonful and enjoyed because it was sweetish.
Another early impact of the war on daily life was in the doorstep (horse-drawn) delivery of milk and bread. The milkman had been twice daily in summer but reduced eventually I think to alternate days, a real problem in hot weather with no fridge and shops not selling milk as they do today. We had earthenware devices part filled with water as milk coolers but they were not very effective. Bad milk was not wasted; we strained it through muslin and ate the ‘cream cheese’ (curd cheese). The daily visit of the baker to the door, with his choice of bread in a big wicker basket, also declined to twice a week and the bread itself to the greyish ‘National Loaf’, which we came to believe included sawdust, instead of white, which had been the normal preference at that time.
Although there may have been the occasional air raid warning, nothing much eventful happened in the war until the Germans began to advance westwards early in the summer of 1940. I remember one sunny morning when the man who used to come once a fortnight and clean the house windows told my mother that 'France had capitulated'. Capitulate was an interesting new word which I knew must be very serious from the reaction and the way it was passed on. From then on, war got to be a serious matter. Having delivered his dramatic message, the window cleaner never re-appeared - ‘called up’ (conscripted) we supposed.
It must have been soon afterwards that we had a picnic in an open field at the top of a hill a mile or so from home. One reason I remember it was because it was the last time until the end of the war that we had bananas, today a staple picnic diet. Suddenly, there was firing and planes swooping around at low level - hedge-hopping was another new term I learnt that day. We ran to shelter in the big trench which had recently been dug by the edge of the field as a 'tank trap'. When we were down in it, my mother insisted we lay absolutely flat. That was very painful, as I was only wearing swimming trunks and the bottom of the tank trap was new gravel. I did not understand at the time why I had to lie flat, only that when I tried to raise my stomach off the sharp stones, I got shouted at. The Battle of Britain had begun.
The schoolmaster of the nearby school where my brother went claimed that, in that raid, he had been able to see from the window of his house in the school, the pilot of one of the German planes as it went across on its low level attack (I do not know if they were really machine-gunning the ground or whether it was simply planes firing at each other). The schoolmaster had gone to get his sporting shotgun to fire at them if they came past again! Real Dad's Army stuff. My parents also muttered afterwards that the tank trap was a ‘military objective’ and perhaps not the best place to hide, though in fact it seems very improbable that the German planes that day had any interest whatsoever in our tank trap. Never mind, military objective was another interesting phrase, to be used when playing at bombing with darts.
That was one of very few times when we did not get warning from the air-raid sirens of a coming raid. The sirens, which were mostly set up on top of fire stations, had a wailing call for a warning and a steady note for 'All Clear' (just like I heard on the radio from Belgrade this morning). After the war these sirens were used to call out the Fire Brigade. For some years after the war, the start up of this sound would make our stomachs 'turn over', from what it had indicated to us. But the 'All Clear' felt like a rainbow after the storm, the signal to relax and once again resume our 'normal' lives, or just go back to sleep.
Because of the effectiveness of the warning system, I saw little of the summer daylight Battle of Britain, recalled by adults with the contrails of the dogfights between circling planes, but I remember the white puffs of the exploding anti-aircraft shells against the blue sky. By this time, our area was substantially protected from lower level attack, the dreaded dive-bombing which had systematically destroyed Guernica and Rotterdam, by the Barrage Balloons. These rather delightful silver objects (rubberised and metallised silk?) characterised the skyline until nearly the end of the war (they came in useful again for the V-1 flying bombs) and were tethered so as to float at about 200-500 metres, with, I suppose, the steel tethering cables as well as the balloons themselves forming a hazard for low-flying aircraft.
Anti-Aircraft gun defences were known as Ack-ack, so Barrage Balloons were known as Beer-beer.
So then, in the fit of spite which was eventually self-defeating, Hitler turned his planes from strafing (a great Anglo-German word) of the airfields to night mass bombing; The Blitz began. That Autumn and Winter we washed our faces, scrubbed our teeth, took a bath once or twice a week (not more than five inches of water), and then put on our dressing gown and slippers, took our torch and my Teddy Bear, - and our gas masks I suppose - and went off down the garden to sleep in the shelter.
Usually, as children, we would get some sleep before the sirens went, the ground would shake as the guns started up, and the mournful throbbing drone of massed bombers would lead to further shaking of bomb impacts. Like the soldiers in the first war, my parents amused themselves and gave us something to listen out for by nick-naming the Ack-ack guns, (Big Bertha, etc.) which fired in different strengths and rhythms. As we were on the path into central London, the regular pattern would be to hear the air raid alerts coming nearer and passing us towards London, then the sound of guns and planes following, the bombs in the distance, then the 'wave' of guns and planes returning and receding, followed, ideally, by the wave of 'All Clears', distant ones and then 'ours'. However, as the Germans got more enthusiastic, second or third waves of planes would sometimes follow.
The thrumming of massed piston-engined bombers, as the rhythm of their engines beat against each other, was to be one of the memories to remain. My parents onomatopaeised it as 'and here's one for you, and here's one for you' while the higher varying note of the fighters said 'where are you, where are you' singly. With primitive radar, that was just about what they were saying!
In the quiet of the morning, we would emerge from underground to see what was different. Usually, there was shrapnel (not a German word as I had thought) from the exploded Ack-ack shells to be collected, jagged lumps of shell-case metal typically 10cms long by 1cm wide, partially buried in the ground. Occasionally we would find the shiny brass or steel nosecap of the shell or the odd piece of aircraft aluminium. We could quite see why adults who had to be around in the open while the raid was on wore 'tin helmets'. Shrapnel falling on the roof would break the house tiles. Occasionally there would be other evidence of the night’s destruction; when the dockland warehouses were set alight, paper ash was still fluttering down the next morning on our garden 25 miles away.
One morning I came down the garden to find the carpets out on the lawn and windows broken. My parents were amused that I had slept through the raid which had included a bomb in the road only about 25 metres from our house. Cousin Jeanne had been in the house with her Canadian soldier boy-friend, in the living room when the bomb fell, and all the soot had come down the chimney, over them and the carpets, from the blast of the bomb. Their blackened appearance had given much relieved hilarity to my parents in the night.
Other bombs, from the same bomber on its way down to crash, had fallen up and down the road. One had taken away part of a house about 200 yards away. I think this was the one where the lady of the house had been in her bath and found the opposite wall suddenly disappeared. The Air Raid Warden had a more interesting job than usual rescuing her, since she did not dare to move until he came in reply to her shouts for help. A more serious experience was a teenage boy who was blown up in the air on his mattress and landed on it some distance away. This seemed amusing but apparently his spine was injured.
The nearest bomb of that 'stick' had fallen in the road, three houses away, creating a large crater in which the gas main flared until cut off and repaired (during which interval we had no cooking except on the coal boiler or open fire). The bomb crater had the benefit of restricting the road and slowing traffic. Soon after, I saw a boy wanting to cross the road, who told me he had been instructed by his mother only to cross at the bomb crater. I generously offered to take him across outside our house, turned round to cross back again - straight in front of a van. Fortunately it only cracked my collar-bone.
The more ordinary events of life and death went on. My grandmother was dying in a nursing home in London. A kidney disease was finally killing her slowly by gangrene, another word new to me and a disease at that time without remedy. Although Grandma had 15 children, my mother was almost the only one left in the vicinity at that time to visit - her sisters had left the action. I remember a shadowy figure in a twilight room, the only memory I have of that Grandma. She died at the height of the Blitz. I have always felt that, though we cannot choose when to die of natural causes, that was a particularly sad time to go, with the London she had known being blown apart and the real possibility still of her country, and much of her family in it, falling under Nazi occupation.
Meanwhile, over in nearby Forest Hill, Aunt Lil, having lost her husband before Dunkirk, was then ‘bombed out’ twice. On one of the occasions, we heard how she went back to rummage in the ruins and salvage some possessions, not knowing that lying under the rubble there was a ‘time bomb’ which exploded a few hours later ....
The possibility of invasion seemed real even at the age I was. I recall reading an Enid Blyton story about children in one of the Channel Islands under German Occupation which conveyed to my imagination what it would be like to have hostile soldiers in control of one's own home area. There was much defence preparation in various ways. I have mentioned the tank trap. There were also, on the corners of main roads, 'pill-boxes', defendable concrete huts with machine gun slits, one or two of which still exist round the English coast. My father had joined the Cadets, initially with the rank of 2nd Lieutenant, I suppose on the strength of his service in his School Training Corps in the World War 1; he eventually rose to be Captain. My brother Michael joined the Cadets later in the war and I suppose our mother must have been calculating the odds he would end up in the army. She was ready for invasion too; she kept a very sharp and pointed carving knife and planned that, if a paratrooper landed in the garden, she would go out to greet him with a smile, invite him in for a cup of tea, and then knife him at the kitchen table.
She later also said that the carving knife would also have been for cutting her children's throats so that we would not grow up as Nazis or be enslaved. She pointed out that as I was very fair haired I would probably have been adopted into the 'Aryan race' while Michael, dark of hair and less light-skinned, would be less favoured. She did not intend either to happen. She was a very determined person and I think she might have carried out her plans had invasion happened.
We were aware of the happenings on the ground battlefields in Europe and North Africa. My father matched his military status with a map on the dining room wall, one of the 'Daily Telegraph' War Map series, and with pins he outlined the front line as far as he was able to deduce it from the war news (which was, of course, censored). I think the German onslaught in 1940 was too swift and overwhelming to be tracked in this way but the desert war in North Africa had its line of pins and in due course some more pins showed us what was happening and where on the Russian Front. This was very good for education in geography!
But I jump ahead; it was of course the opening of the Russian Front which brought the Blitz to an end. We had a break for a few weeks at Christmas 1940, when we decamped to my Aunt Ella's in Cheshire. She and her husband, with their teenage daughter and son, had managed to acquire the use of a large former vicarage in a village near Knutsford and there was plenty of room for us. My brother and I were there long enough to attend the local village school. There were only two classes. I was with the younger ones, with a young teacher who nevertheless believed that failure to achieve was worthy of a ruler on the hand. This was particularly upsetting for me when it happened to a girl I fell in love with, Maureen, who was no good at sums.
Fortunately, having already had over two years of private schooling, I was far ahead in the three Rs so was not directly under threat. My class was about 25 but the other class with my brother in it must have had 50 at least. It was ruled with the cane by an enormously ancient master who probably had early Parkinson's Disease, from the way I saw his hand shook on the odd occasion when our classes were merged. Of course, with the master's reputation, I was terrified on these occasions but I recall him being quite helpful when I had difficulty with some paper-folding exercise.
There was a huge snowfall in January that year, recalled recently by a Met Office columnist as one of the weather events of the century and the lanes around were pile high with snowdrifts for weeks - no snowploughing then. I started a rolled snowball with a brick which quickly became so enormous it eventually took the whole family to push it. I guess it was getting on for 2 metres across and my aunt’s report was that it lasted about 2 months. One of our village friends ventured on a pond, put a foot through the ice, and was duly beaten with a strap by his parents. He seemed to accept that as fair punishment.
My parents felt that Aunt Ella used my mother as a skivvy and so we returned to West Wickham and the night raids.
I did not know directly of anyone definitively being killed - alive one day, dead the next - in the war. Two people were reported as 'missing' but it seemed, to my innocence at that time, that this implied they might turn up, like something lost around the house.
My Uncle Victor I do not recall as a person. A dentist by profession, but an enthusiastic volunteer soldier, he was in the Expeditionary Force (strange, archaic expression) which went to face the Germans in 1940 and was last reported to have been engaged in a rearguard action during the retreat to Dunkirk. I was certainly aware of the distress when he was reported 'missing' but it seemed to me to be premature. Alas, not.
Then there was Alan Lundy. Mrs Lundy was all that a next door neighbour should not be, in the eyes of my family. A shrill chatterer, she used to try to engage my mother in a conversation which, for some reason, my mother found it hard to break off, whenever my mother emerged from the (facing) back door. As a mother to her only child, Alan, she was particularly notorious in our family for having stamped on tadpoles she had thrown out onto the driveway from the jar in which Alan was keeping them. If she had any redeeming points, I did not know of them. Unfortunately for both of them, Alan, a gentle lad by repute, was old enough to be 'called up' into the Air Force (which I think was his choice) around 1942, in time to be flying in a bomber over Germany, in the mass raids which built up in 1943/44.
I recall him in his RAF blue, with his newly acquired 'wings' badge, on his home leaves. My mother said that he had walked back up the drive to kiss his mother good-bye a second time before returning to his base prior to the 'missing' telegram arriving. As bomber crew of that time who did not survive, he was, of course, in the large majority.
Knowing the price, we still took a fierce pleasure in each morning's news of targets in Germany 'getting what they gave us' though the 'scoresheet' of bombers lost - 'missing' - was ours not theirs, now. With the Americans in the war, and mastery of our own airspace, we knew the German ordeal would go on until the war ended, or 'for the duration', as the expression went.
Not that they did not occasionally hit back. One day my mother and I had gone to the ‘British Restaurant’, a subsidised cafeteria run by the WVS with the aim of saving on the fuel costs of home cooking; my mother always called it the ‘communal kitchen’, a derogatory term perhaps derived from the Great War? We had left someone in charge of brother Pat, born in 1941, who was lying in his pram in the garden. When we returned, we found that there had been a brief burst of anti-aircraft firing in response to a raid, presumably, which in the British Restaurant we had not heard. The minder had brought Pat into the house. In the garden, just where his pram had been, we found a substantial nosecap embedded in the lawn.
Mention of the ‘scoresheet’ on the radio, or the wireless as it still was then, reminds me of the significance of broadcasting for us all at that time. Radio broadcasting in Britain was less than 15 years old when the war started but those who had not already got a set quickly acquired one. With only three ‘programmes’, Home, Light, and Third, going out, for a first time there was something which almost everybody had in common from their previous night’s listening, whether it was Churchill’s famous broadcasts or the comedy programmes, of which the most famous was ‘ITMA’, It’s That Man Again, that man being comedian Tommy Handley.
ITMA’s half-hour weekly programme followed a predictable pseudo-sitcom pattern with Tommy meeting various characters who became national folk-objects and their ‘catch-phrases’ entrenched in everyday speech. Those of us from that time still recall Mrs Mopp, the epitome of the office charwoman, always entering with ‘Can I do you now sir’ and signing off with TTFN - Ta-ta for now (which seems to have re-emerged as an e-mail abbreviation). Colonel Chinstrap was the alcoholic retired officer for whom almost every line of Tommy’s could be twisted to make an invitation to have a drink - ‘I don’t mind if I do!’ - while Mona Lott always signed off her catalogue of disasters with ‘It’s being so cheerful as keeps me going’. Then there was the mysterious Funf, who was supposed to be a fifth-columnist - spy - with his trademark ‘This is Funf speaking’. We somehow seemed to relate this to the propaganda (German word!) broadcasts from Germany of William Joyce, whom we called Lord Haw-haw, which was supposed to undermine our morale. In fact we took pleasure in listening to them sometimes, knowing that one thing which differentiated US from THEM was that we were allowed to listen to German broadcasts but they would be sent to a concentration camp if they were caught listening to the BBC.
We were similarly conscious that, on those occasions when something momentous was happening, we were part of a audience across Europe, most risking their lives to listen, as John Snagge, the BBC’s chief announcer, would intone after the Big Ben chimes ‘This is London’ as all the BBC programmes came together for the big announcement. We could also tune to the Overseas Service, which had adopted as its call sign the opening motto of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony de-de-de-DA, which some bright spark had realised was also the Morse Code for V - for Victory.
I was asked, in a psychology weekend class not long ago, to recall some traumatic event falling between my 5th and 8th years. Other members of the class had their quota. I could only recall that, as the period 1941-44, it was relatively peaceful after the Blitz and before the V1s! From time to time, the Luftwaffe would remind us of their potential but we slept in our beds, becoming skilled at waking instantly when the siren sounded, getting from the bed to the light switch in the pitch dark , putting on our dressing gown and slippers, picking up a torch, and moving swiftly down the garden to the shelter. This became so reflexive that it would sometimes be a surprise to wake up in the shelter after having gone to bed in the house. On other occasions our confidence in the raid being a ‘one off’ would be enough for us to return to the comfort of our own beds in the middle of the night, perhaps after a little ‘midnight feast’ of hot chocolate and biscuits.
Also part of the return to normal was trips to the cinema without concern as to what might be happening outside. Cinemas would put up a flash warning on the screen ‘The air raid warning has just sounded’ but it was not customary to react if the film was good. However, my parents spoke of their concern being not so much the accepted risk from the bombs as such but of being crushed in the ensuing panic. In this quieter mid-war spell I was able to go on my own to ‘Saturday Club’ on Saturday mornings at the local Odeon, which was quite a grand place with a theatre organ for singalongs. For sixpence (2.5p), which was nearly a week’s pocket money, we got about 2 hrs of entertainment to a formula which was usually a main cowboy film, always ending in a chase, one or two educative ‘shorts’, and a serial with its ‘cliffhanger’ designed to get you back next week.
Gradually, the line of pins on the wall map, which had advanced round Leningrad and Stalingrad, gone almost to Moscow, and dangerously far towards the oil wells of the Caucasus (we knew about the significance of those) began to move back westwards. The pins had already gone westwards across North Africa after El Alamein, as our Monty got our revenge on Rommel, and having cleared that continent, were advancing up Italy. The graffiti (I don't think we had that word) from our own Communist Party said OPEN SECOND FRONT NOW, but our Canadian soldier friends had seen their companions thinned out in the Dieppe raid of 1943 and that was a warning of what might come. Our food and supplies - 'if anyone hinders our coming, you'll starve' - had been depressingly scarce in 1943, in spite of the Liberty ships the Americans were mass producing to counter the attacks of the German submarines. But by Spring 1944 we knew the 'Second Front' (in fact the Third Front, after Russia and Italy, not to mention Burma) would come soon. In June the good news came and by July it seemed we had Adolf on the run. But he had not finished with Londoners. If the blitz had been the first movement of Beethoven’s Fifth, with its defiant victory motto, the second, calmer, movement was ending but the nightmare of the scherzo was to come.
It was unusual to have an air raid warning, by July 1944. The siren sounded after dark in the evening, we decamped to the shelter, nothing much seemed to happen but a few aerial noises with some ack-ack fire and isolated bomb-like bangs, but the alert went on, into the night, without the respite of an ‘All Clear’ siren to encourage us back to bed. Something was going over, making a motor-cycle noise, with a light on it, strange enough in those blacked-out years. It was a grey dawn, just as they say in books. Mother went into the house and fetched some breakfast out while we stayed by the shelter to eat it. Then for the first time we saw the 'doodle-bug', moving at an extraordinary speed and without a propeller. My parents recognised it for what it was, a robot plane, and my mother promptly brought up her breakfast into the vegetable plot, at this evidence of Wells' visions here with us. I think this was the first time she let the war really get through her defences.
The radio made vague noises about 'enemy action over North London' but told us nothing of the new V-weapon, which kept us on the alert all day; the early bombardment was one every five minutes, continuously, and we could hear their distinctive noise passing across in the distance even when they did not come near. Each time the noise stopped, there was silence and then a bang. There was no school that day, or any more for the term.
It was a glorious July and the fruit shops were hardly able to give away the locally grown strawberries left by the population which steadily fled London over the next three weeks. As a family, at first we lived up at the top of the garden with my mother making excursions to the house to bring out food. Father, of course, continued to go to work as he had in earlier bombardments. Our defence systems began to get the measure of these new devices, so the siren warnings became more reliable and of shorter duration.
We also got attuned to listening for the characteristic sound and to know that, as long as this motorcycle noise of the ‘doodle-bug’ (country name for the July bug which makes a similar buzzing noise) was running, you could expect to be OK about your business; when it stopped, your heart stopped as you moved for shelter in the few seconds while it dived to earth. Occasional stories circulated of rogue machines that dived into the ground with their engines running, so giving no warning, glided on instead of diving when the fuel ran out, or even turned round and came back, catching out those who had breathed freely after the thing passed over on its Northwesterly track. The great majority behaved to plan, and we learnt that their relatively slow descent allowed the explosive blast to make much more devastation than from a similar payload of ballistic bomb.
There was no longer room for all five of us to sleep in comfort in the shelter sized for two adults and two small children so father moved his garden shed from its position by the house to a position opposite the entrance to the shelter. There my parents tried to sleep on camp beds while listening out so as to be ready to dive down amongst us if a doodle-bug appeared to be on track to go overhead, or, I guess, as they got more tired and more blasé, if it was nearby when its engine stopped. I certainly remember them coming in at great speed on one occasion in the dark; at that time, it being summer, we did not have any doors on the shelter so their momentum ended up on us.
After two weeks, in fact just when some of the defence measures and the advancing D-day armies were beginning to make an impact on the 5-minute fusillade, London was declared an ‘evacuation area’, which meant that all those, children especially, who had no necessary business in the capital were required to move to safer areas. So we began our travels again.
First we went off on the Flying Scotsman, leaving King’s Cross at 10 a.m. as it always did, to stay with my uncle Charles and aunt Amy in Edinburgh. ‘Flying’ it was not; it took nine hours to do the 400 mile journey, with passengers standing most of the way. At one point I wandered off and was found by my mother watching intently the sailors I had found sitting on our cabin trunk in the Guard’s van, playing poker. As I had at that time determined to be a sailor, I was excited to be amongst real ones, and was convinced that saying ‘thrappence’ as they did was my first qualification for the career.
My mother was not happy in Edinburgh; Aunt Amy’s house was noisy with her four boys, ourselves, and an Alsatian dog, not a haven of peace for bomb-raddled refugees, and again my mother felt ‘put upon’. So after a week we moved to the peace of a farm in Yorkshire, near the home village of my mother’s good friend ‘Auntie’ Hilda. This was a new life for us suburbanites, with hills and streams, rabbits to be caught, great carthorses bringing in the hay and corn, and the nearest town a half-hour or more in an overloaded and rattling bus. Also new were the toilet experiences. No hot running water, no bath, and, worst, no flush lavatory.
The loo was in fact just a hole over a bucket in a shed in the farmyard and the contents were tipped on a classical ‘midden heap’ just behind. This was within easy house-flying distance of the open windows of the kitchen and my stomach succumbed readily more than once to the unaccustomed coliform bacteria recycled by this route and giving me a rare acquaintance with a fevered nightmare. This took off some of the pleasures of the relative freedom from food rationing enjoyed by the farming community - eggs and meat every day instead of one a week!
My father spent his holiday with us, helping to gather in the harvest which would mean bread for the nation. No combine harvester; the grain was first cut by a reaper-and-binder, pulled by tractor or horse, which left a trail of sheaves behind it. These had to be gathered up by hand and leaned against each other in stooks, four to a side. Later, after (with luck) drying a little in the field this way, they would be pitchforked onto a cart and carried to make into a rick, ready for threshing at a later time. Likewise, hay was still raked in lines by horse-drawn rake, then hand-raked into haycocks before being carted away for a real haystack or to go in the barn, where we could slide down it. The harvest time fields, with their stooks and haycocks, looked much more satisfying than today’s litter of parcels.
My father went back to work in London but we stayed away a while longer. His letters reported much less V1 activity but strange occasional explosions which were not being officially talked about. Nevertheless, we were allowed to return to home and school (by now I was, at my request, at the ‘elementary school’, learning fear of the cane or the ruler for such misdemeanours as talking in assembly).
The unwarned bangs became more frequent as the V1s became rarer but official information was vague, with, we later learned, the intention of not allowing the Germans to know which of their rockets was arriving at the target. Eventually, it was officially recognised as a rocket bombardment, which explained the curious effect we had noticed; first came the sound of the explosion, then a thunder-like rumble going upwards into the sky. This was, we learnt, the sonic shock-wave, heard after the impact of the rocket itself. That made the thing even more ‘science fiction’ - we had not had anything going faster than sound before and V2s, we later learnt, came down at 3000mph.
My mother finally felt totally helpless to protect her children against bombardment. Here was death and injury which came without warning, randomly in time and place, and unheard by its victims. The warhead, the same weight as the V1s, was in fact less destructive because it hit so fast and formed a crater, but where it struck it devastated without chance of seeking shelter. The death toll, 4000 in all, was therefore relatively high, though we now know that five died in the V2 factories for every one killed on the receiving end.
The advancing Allied armies, now halted near the Rhine, had pushed London out of range of all but the occasional air-launched V1 but the V2s had a longer range and, as the slave-manned factories deep in the German mountains built up the production rate, the bang and rumble in fact became more frequent. So we planned to move away from this suburban house my mother had long disliked and which now had so many more unpleasant memories. One snowy winter’s day we found the house we wanted near the sea ont the North Kent coast at Birchington, where my grandparents had lived and we had holidayed before war came. In March 1945 we moved, just as the concrete walls, which had barred access to - and from - the beaches, were being demolished. In May the European war ended and my father celebrated with the bangs of a jumping cracker, our first fun firework for six years. I chattered excitedly at the statistics, now revealed in the newspapers, of the V2 rocket - 3000mph, 70 miles high, a first step into space.
In August 1945, the biggest bangs yet, the final lunge into science fiction come true, brought VJ day quite unexpectedly. Where it had taken 1000 bombers to reduce a city centre to smouldering rubble, it took one plane and one bomb. Two planes, two bombs, two cities and 200,000 people destroyed, war at an end.
My mother said the atomic bomb would end all war or would end humans. I wrote in my school essay at the beginning of the next term how we had now replicated the power of the sun (I did not know at the time that these were mere fission devices) which, from my readings in astronomy, I knew would give us access to immense resources of power from hydrogen, one gram sufficing to ‘drive a liner across the Atlantic’ - an ocean liner, not an airliner! Well, The Bomb does seem to have averted a major war, controlled fission has been practical but problematic, and we have still not, strictly, ‘tapped the power source of the Sun’, fusion, for power generation rather than bombs.
The War had ended. Fighting went on here and there against the communists or to maintain our imperial possessions, and so did shortage, some of the worst. In 1947, one of the worst winters of the century, potatoes were rationed for the first time, because they could not be got out of the frozen ‘clamps’, the coal could not be moved, and power cuts lasted all day - or if the power was on we were not allowed to use it. I recall lying in bed with ‘flu and watching the electric fire, the one source of heat in the bedroom, go out. Before then, my Uncle and Aunt, survivors (just - my Uncle had been picked off a pile of ‘dead’ bodies) of Changi Jail on Singapore, had passed through on their rehabilitation, as had various other prisoners of war, including one New Zealander with whom my widowed Aunt Lil had a brief fling.
In 1953, my ’gap year’, I sailed for Canada leaving food (meat) rationing behind. By the time I returned to become an undergraduate, 20 pounds (8 kilos) heavier than when I left, ration books had gone, after 14 years, the last official relic of ‘the war’. Alas, by then there had already been a fresh big and bloody war in Korea and conscription continued for another ten years or so. But in Europe the traumas were not forgotten and the European Union was taking shape to bind Western Europe, at least, into ‘jaw, jaw, jaw’ which, as Churchill said, is much better then war, war, war.
Epilogue - Kate's poem.
This seems a suitable way to close a reminiscence of such times. Kate was a Winchester Quaker who had lived on the 'enemy' side. It was 'our boys' - Alan Lundy? - who risked and lost their lives to topple the buildings in the poem.
The sixth stanza is particularly evocative to me, the memory of emerging in the quiet morning light after another night's routine acquaintance with Armageddon.
Linden trees have the most exquisite scent
when they are in bloom
in early summer
when the air is a little damp
after a gentle shower of rain
in late evening
Warm air carries the fragrance
up and up the facades of tall houses
hovering over balconies,
wafting into rooms
through open windows, curtains moving,
and lilac blossoms send their own sweet smell.
Sunrise brings its own fresh, cool scent
of pine and pure, clear water
from ancient woods and fathomless lakes,
surrounding the city,
present since time immemorial, before man appeared,
But suddenly the world turns upside-down
and fire falls out of the sky,
a fierce ferocious downpour,
and the heat of the night explodes
the facades of the tall houses.
Down, down, down they come
down topple the balconies, the curtains rent.
Burning buildings bring their own acrid stench
which seeps through newly opened spaces
rubble now chokes and stifles the lilac-blossoms
sending out its own menacing message:
This Spring has its own season!
A man-made season,
offensive to Nature.
Plants and trees have vanished under rubble of tall buildings.
Time passes and quiet returns.
Slowly, hesitating, as if drawn by bright sunlight,
like Spring-flowers, heralding the return of life,
people emerge from the ground,
from cellars and shelters.
And with the tools of the far-distant past,
their own bare hands,
they pick up the broken stones,
former facades of their houses,
and clearing the ground
begin planting and building again,
unimpeded by the poison of bitterness.
Summer-sunrise brings again its own, sweet scent
of pine and fresh, clear water
from ancient woods and fathomless lakes
present since time immemorial.
And the air is a little damp
from the dew of a fresh, new day
in early morning
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