- Contributed by
- People in story:
- Ken Spalding
- Location of story:
- Kent & Evacuation
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 16 November 2003
The following is an extract from ‘’ A Boyhood Remembered ‘’ by Ken Spalding
THE WAR ARRIVES
In September 1939, Britain declared war on Germany after protracted appeasement talks with Hitler by Neville Chamberlain, the Prime Minister. I can remember kneeling on the mat in front of our fireplace whilst my mother listened to the war declaration broadcast, the words of which can remember from that time. I remember looking at our clock, and knew that I was only four, as I recognised the numbers, and thinking it would be a long time before I had to go to fight. I was too young to think about the implications of this broadcast, but conditions were about to change dramatically, and we would be in the home front front line. My father was in the navy at this period, but I think only on the reserve list, having been a regular sailor beforehand, at least he was during the twenties and early thirties. If war had been declared four months later, he would have escaped his reservist obligations and probably not had to go to sea to fight. As it was, he was thrust immediately into the thick of things, and was probably one of the oldest able seamen serving, with most of the conscripted men much younger. I will deal with further naval exploits concerning my father later on.
From the start of the war the civilian population was in danger from bombing by German aircraft, and we all soon got used to hearing the air raid sirens, a wailing sound when a raid was imminent, and a steady sound when the all clear was given. Other preparations that were made, although I can't remember exact dates when these measures came in, were blackout curtains on all windows to stop light being emitted to aid the enemy, issue of gas masks, and rationing of food. In the road outside, the street lamps were extinguished, and some kerbs were painted white to aid pedestrians in the dark. In our immediate home vicinity other changes came about. Jim Shipp from No 91 decided to provide his own shelter, as the government had not yet issued the first Anderson shelters to each house. He and other neighbours dug a hole in his back garden close to the back gate leading onto the back alley, and I suppose it must have been a cube of about ten feet. It had steps of wood down into it, was lined with wood throughout, walls and ceiling, with benches all round to sit on. We were invited in if there was an air raid, and we took advantage of this as soon as the first air raid warning siren was heard, and I can remember sitting on one of the wall benches and seeing a mouse pop his head out of a knot hole in one of the planks. I suppose he needed shelter too. The excavated earth from this hole was piled up on top of the wooden roof to provide some safety, but a direct hit would have killed any occupants for sure. Nevertheless, it was an achievement to dig this shelter by hand with picks and shovels, as there were no excavators in those days. I have related earlier about the lack of cars in the road; now even these were withdrawn due to rationing of petrol, and most vehicles were laid up for the duration of the war. Essential services, such as a doctor who had to travel to house calls, retained a ration, and the buses still ran of course, so the bulk of the population could still get about. The buses had blackout blinds on all the windows as soon as the internal lights were switched on at night, lowered into position by the conductor whose job it became.
I have mentioned rationing previously, but this did not strike home to us initially, life seemingly went on, although certain items seemed to disappear, almost without noticing. Oranges, bananas, pineapple and various tinned fruit gradually became unavailable. On my level, my mother would occasionally give me a penny, and I was entrusted to go alone across the road to Mr Monk's makeshift shop at No 74, and upon producing the coin would obtain about two ounces - "a pennyworth" of sweets. One day I performed to the above system, but was asked "Where are your coupons?". I didn't know what coupons were, but was told "If you haven't got any coupons you can't have any sweets", so had to return across the road without any. I asked my mother what coupons were - Mr Monk wouldn't give me any sweets, even though I had got the money. She explained, and so I was introduced to rationing. Sugar, fats, meat and bacon, eggs were all on ration now; no excesses in the rations, but just enough to keep you alive. In all probability it was probably a very healthy diet. The population became ingenious at making do and supplementing their diet by means other than rations. We started keeping chickens, and soon had enough eggs to keep us going. We bought the chickens initially as day-old chicks off a stall in Deptford High Street on one of our visits to Gran's, and these would be then transported back to Sidcup in a cardboard box with a few holes in it for air. Once home, these chicks had to be kept warm and watered, until they were big enough to go out into the garden. Sometimes they died, which always used to make us sad. The days of first layings were eagerly awaited after the early care. Once grown, they would be fed on pealings and scraps from the kitchen, which my mother would boil up on the gas stove, supplemented by a reddish power called Karswood Poultry Spice, which apparently helped to increase the egg supply. Whether it actually did so, I do not know. Our next door neighbours at No 87, the Wests, kept rabbits, which were used to supplement the meat supply. Some people were squeamish about killing animals that were pets, but this was overcome as war went on, meat became scarce, and people got hungrier. Occasionally the local butcher got wild rabbits for sale, or neighbours would sell you any surplus or swop for eggs, and so we all got to eat rabbit, a meat that I still like to this day, and very healthy too.
THE WAR GETS SERIOUS
One morning I was awoken early by my mother. It was still dark, and, although there had been an air-raid warning, we had all remained in the house and had not gone to any shelter. Some air raids had no effect on your immediate vicinity, no bombs were dropped or planes heard, and the raid passed off without incident. On this occasion my mother told us that a bomb or bombs had dropped nearby and all the soot had come down the chimneys in the rooms downstairs. It was light outside, so I suppose it must have between seven and eight o'clock in the morning. On going outside, we found that No's 83 and 81 (we lived at 89) had been hit by bombs and were totally wrecked. Mrs Sparham at No 85 had been cooking breakfast in the kitchen when the wall separating them from No 83 had been blown in on them as the bombs fell. I had never seen a bombed house before, and I watched as the rescue services went in amongst the debris to find any survivors. I was too young to know the neighbours in these houses, but overheard one woman say to another "There were eleven killed in there. They found a baby's body up in the rafters, poor little soul". The rubble was eventually cleared away, including all the house remains that were knocked down, and including No 85, which was now uninhabitable for the Sparham family. They moved away to relatives, and only three houses, ours in the middle, remained of the block of six that were there before. The Sparhams told us to help ourselves to anything in the garden that we might want, and we commandeered a small apple tree and some white and red currant bushes which we planted in our garden. The evacuation of British forces from Dunkirk was common knowledge as it was portrayed in the newspapers and on the radio as a gallant retreat, using small pleasure boats and steamers to rescue troops off the beaches. I will not dwell in detail on this episode, only to say that it marked the end of the war on the continent, with the Germans having overrun all of the Atlantic bordering nations. It meant however that the enemy attention was diverted to the south of England, with the ultimate aim, I am sure, of invasion and subjugation, which would be fostered by gaining air superiority. The Battle of Britain commenced during 1940, and has been well covered by books, films and television programmes. We lived only a few miles from Biggin Hill RAF station, and parts of the battle took place directly overhead, within sight and sound of the action. That summer seemed to me to consist of clear blue skies, with some vapour trails etched across it, small black dots circling high in the air above, the sound of their machine guns reaching us below on the ground. These scenes and sounds were repeated day after day, although I of course did not realise the gravity of the situation. I can remember some aircraft going down trailing smoke and flames, and one occasion when my father lifted me up on the back doorstep to watch one spiralling down in flames, down behind houses at the back of our house. News broadcasts at the end of the day gave details of our losses, which always were less than that of the enemy. I don't believe this was propaganda, it was simply that there were less allied pilots. The Few in fact. How different life would have been but for these brave men. Eventually the battle was won, these scenes became less frequent, and the German attention was diverted to bombing the cities, particularly London, and, since we lived about twelve miles to the south east of the city, we were on the route to and from the target. The government had now got around to issuing metal Anderson shelters to each household, consisting of curved corrugated steel sheets, with two end pieces, one of which had a door space cut out of it. These had to be buried half sunken into the ground, with all the excavated earth thrown on top for added protection, although a direct hit would destroy the structure. My mother's brother Harry was killed in this fashion where he lived with his wife Rose in Dagenham, Essex, by a lone raider with a single bomb, at this time. The shelters were delivered by lorry in pieces to each household, with the necessary fittings, but no help or erection crew accompanied them. So it was up to you to put it in place and erect it. Some men were away serving in the war, some were at home but in reserved occupations, whereby they were not in the services. The effect of this was that everybody who could helped with shelter erection, in your own and the neighbours' gardens, all pitching in together to get the job done. I can remember the base of ours was concreted in, by whom I am not now sure. Inside were a couple of wooden framed bunks, one each side of the length, with cloth slats to take a mattress or blankets. Some people ran electricity to their shelters, so that they could see to read, although any lights were still subject to blackout regulations, and they could also listen to the radio. The idea of the shelter was that you "took cover" and went into it every time there was an air raid warning, until the all clear sounded. Lots of shelters absorbed water, sometimes a couple of inches deep on the floor, and they always smelt a bit damp. Others chose not to go into them, professing that if they were going to be killed they might as well be in their own home. My grandmother never went into her shelter in Deptford, and the only use I can remember it being put to was my Uncle Charlie growing mushrooms in it after the war. But I digress. We used to go into our shelter whenever there was an air raid, which became more and more often. The sky would be lit up by searchlights, anti-aircraft batteries would endeavour to shoot down the enemy, mostly on their way to bomb London, and in the shelter we would try to sleep. I think children rested and slept better than adults, as they were less likely to think about any outcome, even though we had already seen death at first hand. Roy Shipp from number 91 and his mother would often come into our shelter, I suppose for companionship for the ladies, and he and I would play aircraft games, pretending to be aircraft and shooting each other down. He was the proud possessor of a leather helmet and goggles, and looked very realistic as a pilot. We were known jointly by the parents at "Zim" and "Zoom", as no doubt we played continuously. We all got used to hearing aircraft overhead, and could readily identify if it was a "Gerry" or "one of ours".
It would have been during 1940 that I saw my first film at the cinema, being taken to see a Walt Disney classic "Pinocchio" at the Odeon cinema at Lewisham in London, by Mr and Mrs Shipp, with their son Roy, one afternoon. This was one of the first animated cartoon films, made in 1939, but not reaching England until a little later. America was not yet in the war of course, but sent a continuous stream of films to us, all set in peacetime, which it still was in America. Musicals were very popular, and westerns too, but mostly they were black and white films, with occasionally technicoloured ones.
I do not propose to mention all the film history from this period, suffice it to say it was a great escape for many from the war. Entertainment for children generally was at home, but without television which lay somewhere in the future for us. Specific entertainment for children was confined to Children's Hour on the radio at five o'clock each afternoon, prior to the six o'clock news. As I remember it, my favourite programme was "Romany and Raq", which was a nature programme about the countryside, featuring a gypsy and his dog, living in a horse-drawn gypsy caravan, or "vardo". Romany would visit the farm where there were two children (so that we could identify with them) and would take the children out for walks in the fields or by the river, and would explain to them all manner of interesting facts about everything found there, whether it was fish, birds, animals or plants. It fired my imagination, and I have always been interested ever since. Ordinary suburban dwellers like us saw gypsies fairly frequently, as they called at houses like ours to sell clothes pegs made from hazel, or "lucky" heather at very low prices. Other entertainment consisted of reading, books or if we were lucky a comic, perhaps the "Beano" or "Dandy", which were the most popular, or "Radio Fun" or "Film Fun". We had paint boxes, so would sometimes paint, or we would play board games such as "Snakes and Ladders", Ludo, Draughts or Halma. Jigsaw puzzles were also a good pastime. Apart from the radio, the only other form of mechanical entertainment was the wind-up gramophone in our front room, which was only used if we had visitors or "company". As children, my sister and I were allowed to play some of the old 78 rpm records on the gramophone, which had to be wound up by means of a handle on the side for every record. We also had to change the gramophone needle on the playing arm every few records, as a blunt needle did not provide such a good sound and wore out the record. I can still remember some of the titles - "The Blue Danube", "The Wedding of the Painted Doll", "Rio Rita", "Bugle Calls of the British Army", and several records by an orchestra called Roy Smeck and the Hawaiian Serenaders. What a selection! Not to inspire the children of course - we were more interested in the mechanics of the operation. In this front room also was a large pot containing an aspidistra plant, no doubt due to the recording by Gracie Fields which everyone seemed to have - The Biggest Aspidistra in the World", along with "Sally", both of which could be found in our gramophone. The room also contained a piano, a black lacquered instrument by Sidney Brinsmead of London, which my mother would occasionally tinker on, and which my sister used for piano lessons later on. Many houses had pianos in their front rooms, and some entertainment centred around the piano, particularly at family get-togethers or at Christmas. Usually somebody could knock out a tune. Most public houses had pianos before and after this time, and anybody who could play was never short of a drink, the pints being lined up by the pub customers along the piano lid, in appreciation of the playing and community singing by the customers. The other furniture in our front room was a china cabinet containing my mother's best tea set, and various cakestands, and some smaller ornaments and items from her wedding. There were two bronzes of semi-naked nymphs on the mantelpiece over the fireplace, our best clock which chimed, and, on the piano lid, family photographs and a flower vase. This vase was square, and black lacquered with depiction of flowers and birds below the wire mesh lid. Two armchairs in green fabric with leather fronts to the arm uprights completed the furniture, except for a carver chair from the dining room set, and of course a piano stool containing sheet music for popular songs of the day. The armchairs also had little brass ashtrays buttoned onto leather weighted green straps which fitted over each arm, one for each chair. The brass ashtrays could be removed for cleaning. Most people smoked cigarettes then, so this was by no means unusual. All the cinema films portrayed smoking as very glamourous and sophisticated, so there was no stigma attached to the habit, and one could smoke in the cinema or upstairs in a bus if a doubledecker, or at the rear if a singledecker. There were certainly no health warnings, and anyone who didn't smoke was considered slightly unusual.
THE WAR CONTINUES - EVACUATION
During this time, air raids continued on a nightly or daily basis, but as a child there seemed no difficulty in sleeping, unless one had to get out of the house to go to the shelter. Public shelter signs appeared in public places, illuminated dully to guide you there in the dark, and also signs which said "EWS", which I didn't understand at first, but which transpired to be Emergency Water Supply. This was needed to put out incendiary bomb fires, but which was no use to extinguish the bomb itself, which contained phosphorus, only extinguishable by sand. These bombs could fall anywhere, and did. Air raid wardens appeared in every area of population, making sure all regulations were obeyed, and obviously spotting any fires that started, or rescuing anyone who was trapped in a damaged building.
As the bombing became more frequent and dangerous, I was sent off on my first evacuation, to the Kent countryside away from the proximity of the London bombing. My father's brother, Frank, was married to Auntie Win (Winifred) whose maiden name was Fielder, and my mother, sister and I went to stay with her brother, Bert Fielder, who lived in a small village called Ightham, near Sevenoaks in Kent. This was a family arranged evacuation I suppose, but now do not remember any details of this being arranged, or the journey there. The house in which we stayed was one of a pair of cottages at the bottom of a steep hill, and was very small to accommodate three extra bodies, even if two were children. I remember the stairs were behind a door in the main living room, and lifting the latch on the door gave access upstairs. The only other details I can remember was that the toilet was at the bottom of the garden, so a night-time visit meant using a torch, and the fact that Bert Fielder kept a large piece of rock crystal on the front window sill, absolutely transparent in nature. Opposite this pair of cottages was a large piece of commonlike ground, with bushes and footpaths, where children from the locality played, and where my sister and I joined in. I did not yet go to school, and so did not become a pupil at the Ightham village school, although my sister did go there. I can remember going with my mother to meet my sister at the end of the school day, and that there was a see-saw in the playground. I remember this item well, as I managed to get a splinter, from the wooden plank, in my bottom, which my Gran removed on one of her visits. The other ailments I seemed to get at this time were sties on the eyes - my mother said from playing with Gran's glasses - and cut knees from falling over. I must have had one of these grazed knees at Ightam, as I can recall sitting on a chair in the cottage garden and bathing off the blood-soaked bandage with warm water. In the scheme of things boys did not wear trousers of any length until they were about fourteen and quite well grown. Up to then, we wore short trousers all the year round, with shoes and socks of course, although most boys went into boots once they were about eight or nine. These ankle boots usually had steel "blakeys" or metal tips to the sole and heel added, and perhaps studs all over the sole, to give longer life to the leather. If you went out in the dark, you could make sparks on a road surface, by scuffing your boots along instead of walking properly. I hadn't got boots yet, but all boys had bare knees all the year round, and a bandage around a grazed knee was a common sight. The other memory I have of Ightam is going with a crowd of children, mostly older than me, up the hill from the cottage and turning left to where the road ran out at the edge of woods. We went into the wood to go along the path until we reached the "Roman Caves" as they were called by the older children. The caves weren't very large, excavated into a sandstone cliff about twenty feet high, but made an excellent base for all kinds of imaginative games. I was obviously in my sister's care. I did make one friend at this time, a boy called Kenny Luck, who lived in a house at the top of the hill, and was the son of the local policeman. He took me to the house one afternoon for me to be shown a secret, and this transpired to be a collection of wild birds eggs, which he kept in an Oxo tin hidden in the ivy that grew on his house wall. I was sworn to secrecy, especially not to tell his father, who obviously did not know about the collection. Although this time seems to be quite idyllic to a small boy, I suppose it must have been very awkward for my mother, being away from home. there were no air raids where we were now, so that was good, but there must have been friction within the cottage, I suppose, with no end in sight for Bert Fielder and his wife. My mother must have been lonely, although there were visits from her sister Nancy and my grandmother. At any rate, things must have come to a head, as I can recall the three of us moving into the adjacent cottage, owned by a Mrs Raefield, perhaps Rayfield, who lived there. I cannot recall her having any children or even a husband being present, so she seemed to have more room. I do remember that she wanted to adopt my sister, and keep her there, and I think that this led to more friction between my mother and her, and we eventually went back to Sidcup, via a bus to Borough Green and Sevenoaks, and a train to our local station. I suppose I must have been about five years old at this time.
In September 1940, I suppose, I must have started school. There was no pressure in those days for anything like pre-school or playgroups as most parents were content to have their children at home with them until they reached the age of five. I would have been five in June 1940, but would not have started in that month, the school holidays started in July, and thus would have gone in September. I think I was accompanied by my sister and mother on the first day, but thereafter with my sister only, and this gradually tailed off as time went by, and I was able to go on my own or with friends. In one trip to school my sister and I, and indeed all the other children going to school, were machine-gunned by a German Messerschmitt 109, which strayed along the road to school, Sherwood Park Avenue. Luckily we saw the plane approaching at low level parallel with the road, and managed to dive into one of the house gardens and get down by the front hedge. I did see the bullets kick up little puffs along the road, and the plane flew off along the road, up and away. I do not consider we were a military target, and the only effect was to make us hate the Germans more. The friends that I went to school with all lived close by in Harcourt Avenue, and consisted at this time of Roy Shipp from No 91, Joe Aldridge from No 70, and John Chapman at No 56. What usually happened was that you picked up with whoever you met at the time you left home, and you all went together, although not always by the same route. We used the back alleys at the rear of all houses in the area, and sometimes cut across allotments or the field behind the houses opposite our house. This was known as "The Field", and was no doubt the remnant of the farm that was originally on the site before houses were built. Electricity high voltage cables ran across this field, from a pylon in Sherwood Park Avenue, another in this field, to a further one in our road, and beyond. At this time of the war the field had large telephone poles erected all over it to prevent gliders or aircraft landing easily, as this was a distinct possibility. There was a set of swings and a see-saw at the far side of the field, and a small paddling pool nearby for summer use.
I do not remember an awful lot about the mechanics of primary school, by which I mean the actual process of learning. There are one or two things that stick in my mind, but not really related to the learning process, except learning to knit in my third year at school. I can also recall asking the teacher, on the first day, to go to the toilet, as I had been carefully instructed by my mother. the teacher refused permission for whatever reason, perhaps it was early or near break time, and told me I couldn't go to the toilets which were outside the school building. I promptly did it on the floor, and the pool of water no doubt revealed that I indeed wanted to go. As far as I know I wasn't punished for this, and was allowed to continue playing with the toys and go into the Wendy House which I can remember being in the classroom.
The other incidents I can remember from primary school all involved bullying, so I suppose that this must always have existed in some form, but not with such serious consequences as today to the bullied one. I was a small pale skinny child, who must have looked the ideal victim to a bully, and I was soon picked on by the then school bully, a boy called Bryce Wallace. The usual method was to make some remark to you about your appearance, parentage or whatever, accompanied by banging or shoving repeatedly in the chest until you retaliated or your temper rose. This would then develop into a wrestling, punching fight until one submitted and gave in, or the teachers stopped it. I can remember beating this kid, mainly by the use of fists, until I had him on the ground and submitting. The word soon went round the playground that Bryce Wallace had been defeated, but it didn't make a lot of difference, as I still looked the same weedy thin child. The next one to pick on me was a boy called Donald Blacklock, but this ended in the same way except that I gave him a black eye, which he had to wear for some days. His mother complained to the school about me, and I was warned but not punished by the teachers, as I explained that I hadn't started it. I was not bullied after this second instance, and indeed was asked to join Jimmy Wood's gang, an honour indeed. No child I ever saw ever fought with any weapon, and kicking was not allowed in a fight, although girls fighting were allowed to pull each other's hair.
As I have mentioned previously, my father was in the Royal Navy from the outbreak of war in 1939, and I can remember that his first ship was called "Imogen", and was a destroyer escort on Transatlantic convoys. I suppose it must have been one of the American destroyers sold to Britain at the outset of the war, when this type of vessel was desperately needed to protect convoys of merchant ships coming to Britain against submarine attacks. These attacks on merchant ships were very successful, and it was a fact that unless they were countered, the nation was in serious trouble and may have starved in the end. The name of my father's ship was American in origin, so I suppose this is where it came from. At any rate, this ship was sunk quite early on in the war, either by torpedo attack or a collision in the Atlantic. My father had suddenly reappeared in our house one morning unexpectedly, looking very upset, more strange because he was not due on leave at that point. I still did not know what had happened, but at some stage overheard a conversation that I think must have been between my father and his brother Sid, who was also in the navy. I can remember my father saying to this relative, whoever it was, that after the damage to his ship they had managed to be taken in tow, or a line had been connected to another ship, all this in the dark at night. My father had had to go along this line hand over hand to be rescued, and eventually reached the other ship. He said that he felt like letting go, but held on "by thinking of the kids" and made himself survive. He was very upset that his ship had sunk. "All those poor young boys going down with the ship, trying to climb up the sloping decks all covered with oil, and the ones trapped below all calling out as the ship went down". It has to be remembered that my father was 39 when the war started, and most of the rest of the crew would have been much younger, and perhaps he looked on them in a fatherly way, because of his age. This was the only time I ever saw him in tears.
During this period, and indeed throughout the war, one was liable to come downstairs in the morning, and find a few sailors, brought home by my father to sleep at our house because these sailors couldn't get home, either because of distance or lack of transport. They would always be very friendly to my sister and I, giving us chocolate or money when they left. It was also at this time that my father lost one of his younger brothers, Walter, or Wally as he was known, killed by enemy action when his ship was sunk off of Alexandria. He was a stoker, I believe, and his ship was bombed. I can remember being taken to his brother's house, and meeting his wife and his daughter Cherry, who was about five years old, and had lost her father of course, and I can remember feeling sorry for her. I never saw her after this, although I did write to her subsequently when I traced her working in Rome, to give her a copy of a family tree, as she knew nothing about her family.
My father had also been involved in the convoys to the far north of Russia, after 1941 when Hitler invaded Russia, to either Murmansk or Archangel. I can remember him telling me that the crew had to continually chip ice off the upperworks of the ship, otherwise the weight of this would turn the ship over. Either of the two journeys, up to Russia where they would be constantly attacked by aircraft from now occupied Norway or submarines or surface ships, or the journey across to America where the submarines were the main danger, would have been quite awful and terrifying. I cannot imagine going below after your watch duty to try to sleep. If you were lucky there was no call to action stations, and the thought that a torpedo might slam into the ship would be ever-present. There was always the chance of a full-blown gale.
At any rate, after the "Imogen" went down, I think my father spent the rest of the war as a land-based sailor, initially at Pembroke in South Wales, and finally at Hatston, near Kirkwall in the Orkney Islands. The family at home would occasionally receive parcels from these bases, containing items to supplement the rations at home. I can particularly remember Mars Bars, Fry's Chocolate Cream bars in my little world, and tins of corned beef for the kitchen. One parcel we received in a long wooden narrow box contained these items all packed around a scale model of a destroyer, which was an amazing present for a boy at a time when there were no toys. The model was to scale, with movable gun turrets, torpedoes made from match sticks and nails representing the smaller guns. It gave me hours of pleasure.
Throughout the rest of the war, my father would occasionally turn up on leave, although there were long periods when we did not see him. It was always a good time when he came home, and there would be much visiting of relatives to see how they all were, and exchange news. Usually my parents tried to mark it in some way, and try to forget the war a little, I suppose. If we knew he was coming home, my mother would try to book seats at the New Cross Empire, a variety theatre which I can remember visiting to see various music hall acts. The performances might be interrupted by an air raid warning, but this generally didn't stop the show, which went on regardless. Acrobatic acts were my favourite. My father was eventually demobilised at the end of the war aged 45, quite old for a serviceman then.
At one point, I remember my mother took in some refugees from Belgium, a man and wife and, I think, two children, to help them as they had nowhere to go. My father came home during their stay, and we were surprised to find that he could talk Flemish to them, a language we didn't know he could speak. He told me once that he had been to every country in the world, I suppose during his naval service in the twenties and thirties before the war. I imagine countries that had ports at which naval ships called.
Whenever my father came home on leave from Hatston in the Orkney Islands, my mother, sister and I would go to London Euston to see him off back to base. These trains were always packed with servicemen of all types going back off leave to all points north. My father's mainland destination was Wick in Scotland, from whence no doubt it was a ship to the islands. We would go by train from Sidcup to London Charing Cross, thence by underground to Euston. It was fine going, as Dad was with us, but when the three of us came back, we invariably got on an underground train going in the wrong direction and had to get off and get on one going the right way. All these departures must have been sad for all concerned, especially not knowing if they would return.
THE WAR CONTINUES FOR CHILDREN
At home the air raids continued as before. Whenever there was a raid at night a mobile anti-aircraft gun was brought to the crossroads about eighty yards from our house, positioned where Harcourt Avenue met Rowley Avenue. this would fire all night that the raid was on, especially if an enemy plane was caught in a searchlight beam overhead. We got used to this, and can't remember that it kept me awake especially. There were also larger permanent gun emplacements in "The Field", and in one corner of Danson Park in the area nearest to Welling. The lake in the park was drained of water, as it was recognised that moonlight shining on the water might aid enemy aircraft to find their bearings. I couldn't quite see the logic of this, as we were very close to the River Thames, leading directly to London, and presumably would have been a better signpost. After each raid, and on the way to school in the mornings we would all search for shrapnel or bits of bombs or shell nose cones to add to our collections of war debris. I kept mine in the long narrow box that had brought the model destroyer, and much examination of each collection was done by boys together, occasionally swapping one for another, or cap badges and military buttons, which were also collected avidly. We all still travelled frequently to my grandmother's house, and can remember barrage balloons being operated quite close to the main road at Kidbrooke Park. These were huge gas-filled balloons, like a fat grub, but with ears, which were floated upwards on a cable, supposedly to stop aircraft coming low as they would catch on the cable. If were were lucky as we passed this site, we would see one go up. Sometimes, a balloon broke free, and would trail along with the cable hanging down, hopefully to snag somewhere so that the balloon could be recovered. During one or more of these trips to my grandmother's house opposite the public house I can recall seeing a barrel organ being hand turned by the old man operating it, and with a monkey on top, holding a tin cup for donations. We were allowed to put money in the cup, a penny or so, but were not allowed to touch the monkey "as it will bite, and you might catch the fever". "The fever" was any undefined illness of dubious origin, and was used as a threat to children, to avoid any dirty or unsavoury place, that your mother didn't want you near. I can also recall the odd funeral taking place in Deptford, where the coffin was transported in a black coach with clear window sides, pulled by two or four horses, these dressed for the funeral with black plumes on their heads. The professional mourners would walk ahead of the funeral carriage, all very solemn in black. If a funeral passed, everyone in the street would bow their heads, men would take their hats off and everything fell silent until the funeral passed. Not all funerals had horses, there were some funeral cars, so I suppose there must have been a petrol ration for a hearse.
Back at home in Sidcup again, large underground shelters were dug out of the clay under "the field". These two shelters had a slope down into them with steep sides, and the underground part had walls lined with concrete and a concrete floor. they were always filled with water of indeterminate depth, caused by rain running into the entrance, or seepage from above, and I never knew anyone who used them. Still, good places for boys to play in, and wade from one end to the other in the dark. Gangs of boys would gather at each end, a small ball of clay put on the end of a stick and whipped over quickly so that the ball of clay flew off, hopefully to hit someone at the other end. There was plenty of clay available at the entrances, and some good battles took place, but without much damage to the combatants. This game was known all over the area as "Flappy Stooge", although the origin of the name is unknown to me. Mums didn't like it, as it meant dirty clothes.
Whilst on the subject of these shelters, a couple of other incidents come to mind, although they were probably a little later in the war. The first concerned a boy, older than me, called Ronnie Sargent, who, after one incendiary bombing raid had found an unexploded incendiary bomb. Word went round like wildfire that "Ronnie Sargent's got an incendiary bomb and is going to set it off in the shelters". All the children in the neighbourhood rushed over there to see the phosphorus inside the bomb ignited, out of sight of any adults, although I cannot say I remember how the chemical was extracted. Probably the bomb was screwed apart. The second occasion concerned a friend of mine, Brian Callow, who lived at number 82, and whose father was in the Royal Marines, and kept a gun and ammunition at home. To cut a long story short, Brian had stolen some of the bullets, and he and I took these to the underground shelters, together with an old bicycle tyre. We arranged the bullets around the tyre and then set fire to it, hiding around a corner as it blazed. There were several corners in the zig-zag underground system, so I suppose we considered ourselves quite safe, never having heard of a ricochet. As the tyre blazed, the bullets exploded one by one, until all were finished. We considered this was quite a lark and didn't see the dangers, and, as far as I know, his father never found out about the stolen bullets or how we set them off.
Throughout the war everybody at home took a keen interest in the progress of the war, and boys were no exception. Information was received via cinema newsreels, the radio, and the daily newspapers, which showed maps giving battle areas, with black lines and arrows showing lines of advance. During the early part of the war we mostly retreated, both in North Africa and the Far East, but as the war progressed and advances were made, very close attention was paid by all to the progress made on the maps. Action pictures were shown in the cinemas, but these were usually a bit out-of-date due to the logistics and distances involved, and usually showed our troops doing a good job. There were, however, many pictures showing action by the enemy, designed I suppose to make the allies more determined to fight. I can remember newsreel in the cinema of Pearl Harbour, the Germans advancing into Russia, devastating and burning as they went, merchant ships being sunk by submarines, and many scenes of bombing devastation by the Germans, particularly the London blitz and Coventry. The population in general had their heroes in Winston Churchill, who was always inspirational in his speeches, and the example of the King and Queen, who remained in London throughout the war, even though they could have gone abroad to safety.
A TASTE OF THE COUNTRY
Sometime during the middle part of the war, around 1943 or 1944, I must have made my first contacts with the surrounding countryside, having now gone to school by myself for a while, and thus considered old enough to wander a bit further from home alone or with friends. Up to this time I hadn't wandered very far, mostly concerned with going to school, or forays into "the field" or down back alleys on the way to school, which was disrupted by air raids. When lessons were interrupted the pupils would go into the shelters, carrying their gas masks, where we would usually recite our multiplication tables which we had to learn by rote. Teachers were forever giving you a snap question, such as "What are seven eights?", and woe betide you if you didn't know the answer. Back to the countryside.
I can recall going to the small stream that flowed through Bexley Woods, called the Shuttle, which eventually emptied into the River Cray, and thence into the Thames at Purfleet. The Shuttle was very clean, and supported a good population of sticklebacks, and we fished a length of about a mile or so, catching fish as we went, and releasing them at the end. When I say we, I think I started with my sister, but afterwards usually with friends, Brian Callow or Roy Shipp, using home-made nets. These were made of the top of a stocking, knotted at the bottom, wire passed through the top and fixed into a bamboo cane or tied firmly onto a stick. We soon learned to start fishing at the downstream end, so that any disturbed silt was washed away behind us, and gradually worked upstream against the current, thus always having a clear view of any fish we might disturb and an idea of where it had gone. A couple of cut feet soon made us realise it was better to wear an old pair of shoes when walking in the river, so this problem was avoided. Out of breeding season, all the sticklebacks were of a silvery colour, but in spring and summer, when we mostly fished, the male sticklebacks with their breeding colour were known as "red throats", and the pregnant females as "bellybusters", as they would sometimes spill their eggs when caught, although mostly not. We must have played havoc with the breeding season of the species, mostly through ignorance, but the population always seemed thriving, and there were always plenty of fish when we went, although they did get distributed further up stream. We became adept at finding their hiding places under bankside vegetation, and thrusting the net under some weed at the edge of the stream often resulted in the catch of an unseen fish. If it was disturbed and shot upstream, we would note where it went, to be caught a few yards upstream. Any turning downstream were usually safe. We also learned that there were often fish hidden under the couple of waterfalls, about a foot high, in this stretch, and a prolonged scoop all along the length of the waterfall often produced a multiple catch of four or five fish together. The fish were transported in jars or cans with string handles attached, until we reached the end of the piece of river we fished nearest to home. A count was made, the winner declared, and the fish released before going happily home. It was usual to have some refreshment with you, some water, perhaps flavoured with lemonade powder, which turned your lips and tongue yellow; maybe a jam sandwich or a piece of cake in case hunger should strike. Sometimes we fell in, in which case the trousers or shirt was removed and banged on a tree until the worst of the water was removed. Sometimes just our bottoms got wet when crouching low to look under the bank. We just put the wet clothes on again and they gradually dried, so your mother never knew when you had had a mishap. If you ran out of refreshment, it was quite normal to drink out of the stream, which was perfectly healthy, although we didn't tell our mothers about that either.
Bexley Woods was a kind of paradise in itself, lots of hazel, oaks, hornbeam and ash, and very well populated with birds which we could identify as they were mostly common species. In spring these woods were carpeted with bluebells and wood anemones, and we would sometimes pick bunches of the former to present to our mothers, taking care to break them off above ground so that no white stem was exposed. We believed that if you pulled up some of the white stem, the bluebell would not bloom next year. Anemones we did not pick as they generally drooped before you got home. There was only one pussywillow bush in the woods, at the far end towards Old Bexley, and we knew when this would bloom early in the year, and would usually get some of this and some hazel catkins to make a nice spring bunch. Needless to say we knew our way all over these woods, roaming all over them at different times, totally unsupervised and not considered by anyone to be in any danger, alone or otherwise. Children today do not have anything like this freedom, and are the poorer for it. Most of the men were away in the war, so there was really no barrier to where we might go.
One of the places I was allowed to go was shopping for my mother to the shops at "the top", probably to buy something simple like bread or potatoes. I can remember purchasing loaves of bread with farthings (four parts of an old penny) as the loaf was priced at fourpence three farthings. We saved farthings for this purpose. Potatoes were around two pence a pound. Whilst on the subject of money, there were nicknames for most of the coinage, some of which I will relate below:-
Silver 3 pence piece - a "joey", or "silver joey"
Silver 6 pence piece - a "sprazi"
One shilling - a "bob"
Half a Crown - a "tosheroon"
Five shillings - an "Oxford (Scholar)" - a dollar, the US equivalent.
Ten shilling notes or pound notes generally were out of small boys' reach except perhaps on birthdays or Christmas, and were red, ten shillings and green or red and blue respectively, the pound note. Five pound notes were white with black lettering, and were much larger than notes today.
INVASION OF EUROPE - MISSILE ATTACK
However, Hitler and the Germans had not quite finished with their onslaught on Britain, and proceeded to use a new weapon which had never appeared before in any war, a pilotless aircraft packed with explosive, aimed principally at the civilian population. These pilotless aircraft were aimed primarily at London, but numbers fell short and could land anywhere in the home counties. Some were shot down by fighter planes, or were tipped off course by fighter pilots nudging the wings of the V1, or "doodlebug" as it was known by the British population, and some by anti-aircraft fire. As this weapon had never been seen before, at first it had devastating success, landing and exploding without any pattern. The usual warning to the civilian population was still aired, but one could not see anything, and the first intimation of an approaching V1 was the droning rocket engine, perhaps a sighting, then the engine would cut out as the fuel was finished. There would be a few seconds of silence, followed by an explosion as the V1 hit the ground. You were only in danger if the engine cut out near you, otherwise the V1 would pass on overhead to land on some poor unfortunate souls elsewhere. Several passed daily.
By this time, our Anderson shelter in the rear garden had been replaced by a Morrison indoor shelter, which was considered more effective as more people were liable to use it as it was indoors. Our outside shelter had become unusable due to dampness, and others had refused to use their as the raids became less and people had become less inclined to seek shelter. The Morrison shelter consisted of a large sheet of steel, supported on thick steel legs, thick wire mesh sides all round, the last piece of which was fastened from the inside as the last occupant got in, in our case my mother. The base consisted of interwoven steel strips, which supported your mattress and bedding, and once inside it was like being in a strong cage, and we slept there nightly irrespective of air raid warnings or not. I suppose it measured about eight feet by six, and about three feet high, and was situated in our front room.
One morning we awoke following a nearby explosion, to find all the windows in the front room blown in, and the glass strewn all over the floor, inches deep in places, all around the shelter. The voice of the warden outside enquired if we were alright. A V1 had landed in "the field" behind the houses opposite, and the blast from this explosion had rushed between Nos 74 and 76, straight onto the front of our house. I suppose the explosion would have been about 150 yards away, the V1 having hit electricity pylon wires which passed over the corner of "the field". We were completely unhurt in our shelter, but there was substantial damage to the house at the front. The front door had been blown off its hinges, bolt and locks, and deposited at the top of the stairs. Most of the tiles were blown off the roof, upstairs windows blown in, and bricks from the main chimney block blown off, down through the roof and onto my parents' bed in the front upstairs bedroom. Generally speaking, there was debris everywhere. I can remember relatives being summoned from New Cross and Deptford to help with the clearing up and making the house secure, with the bomb damage squads clearing the debris in the road and surrounding area. At this point in time, I had chicken pox, and would not normally be let out into the street, as I was spotty and contagious. On the occasion however, the normal rules did not apply, and I was allowed out. The first port of call was to the site of the "doodlebug" explosion. There was a depression in the ground, with some mangled bits of metal, which were the remains of the weapon. The two nearest houses, which were bungalows in Rowley Avenue were totally wrecked, and would be demolished. The houses in Harcourt Avenue and Rowley Avenue backing onto the field were severely blast damaged, with windows and roof tiles almost completely gone. The local children were all pretty interested in all this, somewhat awestruck to see so much damage, but seemingly unaware of how near they had been to being killed. I can remember thinking that the V1 wasn't very big for the damage it had caused, but nevertheless we were "bombed out", and once the house was made safe and secure, we were off on our second evacuation. My mother had decided it was not safe to remain where we were.
It was arranged, by my grandmother, I believe, for the three of us to go to Northumberland to stay with her brother, Harry Mitchell at No 2 New Houses, Swarland, Felton, nr Alnwick, Northumberland. this was a part of the country that none of us knew, and I reckon the date was end of June or beginning July 1944. I can remember that there was only a short term piece left of the school year, and it wasn't considered worth it for me to start a new school with only a short time of term left. The house that we went to was a bungalow at the end of a lane off the main road to Felton, the nearest village. The bungalow was actually in a cul-de-sac, on the right hand side, with an oak tree standing in the centre of the circle at the head of the cul-de-sac. The bungalow stood in about an acre of ground, with another road on the other side which also led down to the crossroads, turning right to Felton. In the other direction this road led out past a farm on the right hand side into some really beautiful countryside, as I was to discover.
The relatives who lived here were my grandmother's brother Harry, his wife Annie, their son Donald, who was about 20 or so, and their two daughters Lilian, the eldest, and Gladys, the youngest, I suppose about 15. They all had lovely Geordie accents, which took a little getting used to at first, and if Auntie Annie said something like "Dinna Fass Yoorsel", we soon learned this meant "Don't Fuss Yourself", or "Don't Worry". After a while, general conversation in the accent posed no problem, and even faint traces can be readily recognised, even now.
The family here were quite rural, having about an acre of ground, and keeping a cow for their milk, and butter, which was churned by hand in the kitchen by anyone who had a spare moment. It was here that I had several goes at making butter, and attempts, some more successful than others, at milking the cow. Even now I can still hear the sound of a milk squirt from the udder hitting the metal of the milk bucket, or the chunk, chunk of the milk/butter churning. There were also a couple of lean-to sheds at one end of the acre of land, one of which contained a small tractor. Donald, I think, was a farm labourer, and as such had a protected occupation as far a joining the forces was concerned. The land was not big enough to give him a job exclusively there, and he must have worked elsewhere. Lilian worked in the woollen mill in the village of Felton, about a mile away, a small local industry. From the road on the far side of the bungalow, looking down towards the school and crossroads, it was possible to see towards the sea in the far distance. On one occasion I can recall seeing German bombers over the nearest coastal town, which I suppose was Amble, and hearing faintly explosions sounding on the wind.
That summer was great for a boy of nine who enjoyed the countryside, but I suppose not so much of a pleasure for my mother, who was away from home again. I suppose to the family Mitchell, even though we were relatives, there was some imposition having three extra persons in the house, although I never heard a word of this or any evidence of a row within the family.
At some point I must have made a sortie up to the farm on the hill, as I can remember the two boys who lived there with the farmer and his wife, and we spent lots of time together. Their names were Peter and David, but I cannot remember the surname. I suppose we were of comparable ages. The farm became the place where I always headed, as I had plenty of spare time and boys to play with. The smell of this farm is very familiar, and is recalled instantly whenever smelling manure or a barn and straw. It must have been mixed dairying and arable, as there were cows, and, whilst I was there one grain harvest of wheat. I can recall this well, having been briefed by the boys when it was to happen, and then had to be there early to help once cutting started. The machine used for cutting was a binder, which would progress around the field cutting the stalks and depositing tied sheaves of corn onto the ground. Half the boys in the village must have been present at this, watching the binder paddle going around and the square of standing corn getting smaller. The boys were all equipped with sticks, as it was known that there were plenty of rabbits in the corn, and occasionally one would dash out, generally evading all the blows from the sticks, although not always. A fresh rabbit was a great prize. The rabbits were gradually driven to the last remaining square, when several would exit together, and much chasing and flailing of sticks took place to try to catch the quarry. When all this fun was over, the sheaves of corn had to be stacked in stooks, which was about half a dozen sheaves, stacked with ears uppermost, together, and left for awhile until picked up to go to be thrashed. I cannot recall seeing this part of the harvesting occupation, but it is still good to recall sheaves and stooks and, of course, haystacks once the grain was thrashed from the stalk. None of these are seen now. There were always plenty of birds around the farmyard, house martins and swallows mainly, but others that fed on the spilt grains that seemed to be everywhere. We were allowed pretty free access to the barns and stores, but did get told off by the farmer for throwing stones. I think I must have broken a slate or something similar.
One day we decided to trap birds in the farmyard. We propped up a wire mesh box with a stick, tied string to the stick, and scattered a few grains of corn under the mesh box and just around the propped up entrance. The string was concealed under some mud and dirt, and we hid, a little distance away. Birds came down, fed a little, and sooner or later one went under the mesh box. The stick was then pulled away, supported wire mesh box fell down, over the bird, trapping it inside. Once we had examined the bird, one of the only chances as a small boy, we invariably let it fly off, none the worse for wear. We repeated this, I suppose, until we tired of the game. I suppose it was cruel in a way, but we didn't harm the birds, and, after a while, they learned not to come near the trap.
Peter and David and I made several trips out into the country, turning left out of the farm, and just wandering where fancy took us. I can remember the countryside being really beautiful, unspoilt and with practically no houses or humans beyond the farm, although I suppose there must have been. I can recall that the small streams were full of fish, brown trout of a decent size, and a far cry from the sticklebacks I had known. Every time we neared a stream there would be lots of fish moving away to escape the disturbance. It was on one of these trips to the river that the eldest boy showed me how to tickle trout, which he had already learned. The trick was to approach the bankside, where a fish was lying facing upstream into the current, usually done slowly and quietly on your stomach. When reaching the place above the fish, you had to bring your hand from behind the fish until it was around the main body of the fish, taking great care not to touch its tail. If you did this, the fish would shoot away immediately. Once your hand was around the body of the fish, it was closed swiftly to grip the fish, at the same time tossing it up onto the grass of the bank above. We managed to learn to do this after many unsuccessful attempts. It is called "tickling" because your fingers were gently moved to and fro around the fish before gripping it. The fish didn't seem to mind being gently tickled along the flanks, and I suppose it recognised it only as water current moving against its flanks. None of the fish caught were big enough to eat.
On one of these trips to the river we spied a hornets nest, at least they said it was a hornets nest, suspended from a tree branch over the river. I had heard of hornets, but had never before come across one. The brothers assured me that they were very dangerous if disturbed and would certainly sting, painful as they were larger than wasps or bees. At any rate one or all of us decided to test this out, and we all took turns in throwing a stone at the nest. Sooner or later, one stone hit the nest full on, making a hole in the side, and the hornets became agitated and started to fly around the nest. We all took one look and fled along the riverbank, before they found us. Nobody got stung, and I suppose the hornets soon repaired the nest. You may realise from all this that boys together always seemed to get into mischief, but none of it was vicious, and mostly done through ignorance. There was really nobody to point us in the right direction, and conservation and understanding lay some way in the future. I am most ashamed of one episode on the farm, which I have remembered and regretted all my life. One morning I was up in the hay loft, where I had found a rubber knife, belonging to one of the boys, on the floor. I practised throwing it a couple of times, and tried stabbing myself with it. Swallows were nesting in this barn, and were flying up and down under the roof apex to reach their nest at the end. For some reason or other, and not expecting to hit the bird, I threw this rubber knife at one of the swallows. A direct hit and instant death, I am ashamed to say. I was absolutely devastated, not at all wishing to kill anything, but too successful for my own good. A dead swallow, killed by yourself is not a pretty sight to say the least.
One day I recall that I went with my sister to pick wild strawberries, about a mile from the house, being directed by Aunt Annie where to go. On reaching the site out in the country, we found a whole field full of wild strawberry plants, with small red strawberries all over the place, plenty to pick and eat, if we wished. We were equipped with baskets, which we proceeded to fill even though the fruit was very small, eating as we went. We walked home again once we had got as much as we could carry. I have never seen a field full of this fruit since, only little patches of wild strawberry in remote places. I don't know what the fruit was used for, jam perhaps.
Other small things that I remember from this evacuation were of a differing nature. I can recall visiting the small cloth manufacturing factory in the middle of Felton, and can still remember the noise of the weaving machines working, and the shuttles flying to and fro. This noise was extremely loud to someone who had never been in a factory before, and I think I resolved there and then never to work in such a place. Nevertheless, the process itself was interesting, and had explained to me what a "woof" and a "warp" was, and how it all worked, I think by Lilian Mitchell, who worked there. I think I was taken there on the horse and trap belonging to the local dairy, who delivered to the factory. The trap, horse-drawn of course, was driven by a young girl called "Topper", although I never did find out her real name. I suppose she must have worked for the dairy. I must have been a regular passenger and helper, as I was allowed sometimes to have control of the reins, and drive the horse. It was not dangerous, I suppose, as there was practically no other traffic and the horse no doubt knew the way.
It was also on this evacuation that I drove my first vehicle, which was a tractor, driven by Donald Mitchell whilst harrowing a field normally, but which I was allowed to steer when I took his lunch down to him. I don't know exactly where it was, except that I could walk to where he was working, and I expect this was my reward, sitting on his lap whilst I steered and he worked the pedals, up and down the field. Again, no danger to anyone else, even when I was allowed to steer on the road later.
Eventually this idyllic period came to an end, at the finish of the school holidays in September 1944, when I had to take up my education again, at the small school at the crossroads below the house. I can recall going there alone on the first day, and standing very isolated in the playground, watching the local boys playing football. I suppose they would have been keen followers of Newcastle United. I had never played football at this juncture, and felt quite out of place. Eventually these lads must have taken pity on me and said I could join in if I wished, but, of course, was quite useless at it, never having played before. I suppose my existence at home in Sidcup must have been too sheltered.
At this time in the education system, all children were checked regularly to see that they were growing up well and clean. Height and weight were checked, teeth looked at in case of decay, which would necessitate a visit to the school dentist. Our hair was also checked for signs of fleas or nits by the nit nurse, and, on one of her visits, both I and my sister were found to have head lice. As we had never had these before, I can only suppose that we caught them in the house where we were staying, although it is just possible from other children at school. I seem to remember there wasn't time for that to happen in the numbers we had on our heads. Many sessions were employed in washing our hair and using a small-toothed comb to try to eliminate these pests, which we squashed under our fingernails if we located one. My mother was horrified, to say the least, and we returned home to Sidcup pretty well straight after this, although the flea-searching sessions continued after we were back in Kent. I think it safe to say the thought of her children having fleas was more frightening to my mother than anything Hitler might throw at us.
HOME AGAIN TO MISSILE ATTACK
So we three returned again to the house in Sidcup. The war was still continuing, and boys still followed the fortunes of war in the newspapers, and looked at the maps to see how much progress was being made in France, Italy and Russia. At this time there seemed to be a lull in the numbers of V1s arriving, I suppose because the launching sites had been bombed by the allies, as were the factories making them. The war generally was going well for all, although there were still some holdups in progress. I can remember that Montecasino in Italy took a long time to fall, and wondering why. It wasn't until well after the war when I read a book about this particular battle, that I realised how hard it had been to conclude. The other big battle that stuck in my mind was the resistance of the Russians at Moscow, and again in Leningrad, and, if you remembered those battles, you could understand later why the Russians had no mercy when they entered Germany.
It must have been around this time that I developed large sores under my armpits, which would not heal, that the doctor advised my mother was caused by malnutrition. My diet was not very good or plentiful, I suppose, exacerbated by my finicky appetite for things since whooping cough, explained earlier. Being away from home probably also meant we would have been short of eggs and protein from chickens and rabbits, which had been available before evacuation. Rationing was still going on, and I can remember whale meat being sold in the local fishmongers, to supplement the civilian diet. I can also remember the fishmonger selling a fish called snoek (pronounced snook), which came from South Africa, for the same purpose. I don't recall either of them appearing on our plates at home though. To supplement my diet, the doctor recommended two daily tablespoons of malt, and my mother duly procured a 2lb jar, which I had to take twice a day. Eventually the sores healed. I seem to remember my sister took cod liver oil, although I don't believe I could stomach that. I do recall the bottle though, with a picture of a fisherman in thigh boots carrying a cod over his shoulder and down his back, almost as big as he was tall. I think I took the malt for a couple of years, until the food shortages eased and our diets could improve.
The lull in Hitler's terror weapons was not to last long, and we soon became aware of a new one - the V2 - which was a ballistic missile - a rocket with a warhead of high explosive, fired up into the space above earth's atmosphere before dropping down to explode somewhere. There seemed to be no precise targets for these rockets, and of course, there was no warning siren to tell you one was approaching. They simply arrived out of the sky and exploded, without any of the victims being aware of their impending fate. This weapon, although none of us appreciated it, was the beginning of man's entry into space and space flight, and was the technology to enable man, in later years, to escape from the earth. To return to the war, the nearest one that landed to our house, was about a mile and a half away, close to Sidcup railway station, falling on a residential area and wiping out an area probably 200 yards square. I don't recall how many were killed, the houses were simply obliterated and the whole area flattened. Everybody locally had a walk around there to have a look, hoping I suppose that nothing like that would ever happen to them. The random nature of this weapon was emphasised locally when one fell on Woolworths store in Lewisham, a part of London on the way to my grandmother's house. This particular V2 fell in the middle of the day and killed 200 people, when the store was crowded, suffering a direct hit.
I think it was this happening that caused my mother to take us away on our third evacuation, this time to Brighton in Sussex. Once again, we were off to stay with relatives, although I think in the first instance we went to stay with a friend of my mother and her sister Nancy. This friend was also called Nancy, but was known to all at "Fat Nance", as I suppose opposed to my mother's sister Nancy who was undoubtedly thinner, to differentiate between two of the same names. I can remember the journey down to Brighton by train, as we had to stand in the corridor all the way, and I had a really bad headache, so I cried a lot of the way. The house that we went to was in an area called Whitehawk, and I think the house was a council house like all the others in the neighbourhood, lying just below Brighton racecourse and the downs. "Fat Nance" lived there with her husband, called Jack, I think, and her daughter Katherine. I can recall arriving at this house, my mother carrying a suitcase, and my sister Rita and I walking beside. We passed a group of children playing in the road, and turned into the house and knocked on the door. Katherine must have been one of the children playing in the road, for she detached herself from the group and came in after us. Now, I don't know if our descent upon this household was arranged by letter or telephone, or if we had simply turned up, hoping that someone my mother knew as a friend would take us in. People did that in the war in case of need, until better plans could be made. We seemed to settle in alright, but it must have only been for a short time as there was no mention of us going to school, and we were too many for a house of this size. The only other thing I can remember about this brief period was being visited there by my mother's brother, George, and his wife, Nell, and probably my grandmother. I can recall one evening there when the family all sat around drinking beer, and Jack playing the banjo. People playing instruments then was quite common before manufactured entertainment, and generally formed the basis for a get-together and a sing-song. Every pub would have its local resident piano player who would perform most of the evening for a few beers, generally lined up on top of the piano. If you could play, you were never short of a drink or two. It was also at this time that I can recall being taken by my grandmother to see her brother, Will, our meeting taking place on his allotment, somewhere in Brighton. This was the only time I can recall meeting him, the second of my grandmother's brothers.
We did not stay long in Whitehawk, and we all moved again to another part of Brighton, 113 Whippingham Road. This house was owned by an Uncle Bob and an Aunt Daisy, but I don't exactly recall the relationship to my mother. I suspect that either Uncle Bob or Aunt Daisy were brother or sister to my grandmother, and we certainly didn't arrive at this house by chance. We were welcomed in, and joined the rest of the family living there, in what to me was a large house in three storeys and with a basement. The other members of the family living there were a married couple - Aunt Edie and Uncle George, a young man in his late teens or early twenties called Bob, and a younger girl of about twelve called Iris. I suspect that Edie, Bob and Iris were all children of Bob and Daisy, but I am afraid I just don't know for sure. All I will say is that they were all very friendly and took us in without protest, even though we must have arrived unexpectedly. I can recall a discussion about where we were all going to sleep, and on the first night there I slept in a small room at the top of the house on two chairs tied together with rope to stop them coming apart. Very cosy though, being tucked in by Auntie Edie.
The senior man in the house, Uncle Bob, did not, as I recall, appear in the house except at weekends, or maybe returned at night after I had gone to sleep. He appeared quite stern to me as a small boy, not as friendly as all the others. He had a ritual on Sunday afternoons of going to bed with Aunt Daisy, a thing that I found a little strange, as I couldn't imagine being tired so early in the day! I was carefully and sternly instructed to bring up two cups of tea at a certain time in late afternoon, by Uncle Bob, and to very careful to knock on the bedroom door and wait to be told to come in before entering. This was all a bit strange to me, but could be explained if he was away all week. Nobody had explained what they might be doing. At any rate, we all settled in.
From this house, I went to further my education at Lewes Road School, where my teacher was a Mr Winter, who took us for all subjects, as I recall. He was a stern disciplinarian, and ruled generally with a cuff around the ear if you were naughty. If you were really bad, you could expect two or three blows across your fingers with a tawse, in front of the class to impress and deter the others. If you moved your hand out of the way, the punishment was doubled. This object of punishment was quite lenient in relation to the cat-of-nine-tails that was on exhibition on one of the walls of the Northumberland school, although I never saw that used. One or two pupils seemed to get punished almost on a daily basis, but nobody seemed to protest on behalf of the punished pupil. Certainly, at this time, if a boy was punished and his parents found out, he was likely to get further punishment from one of his parents. During this time at Brighton, I made friends with a boy called Roger Guy, who lived close by in Bonchurch Road, and we used to go to and from school together, and sometimes would meet up at weekends. One place I can remember visiting was Wild Park, a bus journey away to the edge of the town, with vast expanses of downland, which we explored and played upon, with no thought that we might be in any danger. I doubt you could do that nowadays.
It was about this time that I seemed to surface in the Brighton classroom as a pupil that might be cleverer than average. I didn't seem to have any problems with the school work, and, after having come top or close to it in some of the examinations, began to be questioned about my future, about which I had considered very little. "Was I going to go to Grammar School?" was one question that was frequently put to me by Mr Winter. I, however, had never heard of Grammar School, so was unable to answer the question. My mother did explain what it meant at the time, and later on as I approached the 11-plus examination. I must say that at the time all this seemed unimportant, and I can't recall paying particular attention to it. The other thing that I found strange was that this school had no playing fields, being completely surrounded by housing, although I had not yet taken a really keen interest in either football or cricket. Boyhood heroes had not yet appeared on my horizon, certainly not sporting ones, only Allied leaders, generals, fighter pilot aces and some sea captains from the Royal Navy.
Brighton was quite a safe area to live at this time, and air raids were not a thing that occurred there whilst I was there. One occurrence that demonstrated the safety of the area, and illustrated the good progress of the war, was the re-opening of the Brighton beaches during my stay. I can recall two boys, one called Stepney, who played truant on the beach opening day, returning to school the next day with large bags full of glass. This had been polished by beach action of pebbles, which is what Brighton beaches consisted of, and had been undisturbed and uncollected for years, as the beaches were cordoned off with barbed-wire entanglements and were mined. These coloured "jewels" were of many different shades, of mostly green but with some red, blue and clear glass, and were much admired by the more orderly pupils who had not been on unauthorised visits to the beaches. Stepney and his companion were much admired. I suppose we all made visits to this new playground in due course. It had not been possible for children to play on the beach, certainly in southern England since 1939, and I couldn't recall any made before the start of the war. The two boys were punished with the tawse, but gained more from the other pupils anyway in admiration of their daring.
HOME IN A CAVE
It must have been shortly after this that we returned home again to Sidcup, as it would appear that the air raids had lessened, although I suspect that was only in the Brighton area, as we were to take up a new form of shelter almost as soon as we returned. Bomb damage was still evident when we returned, and boys still played amongst the rubble and on the bomb sites, but our pastimes were a little more sophisticated and dangerous. One pastime I can remember from this time was making reproduction cap badges and buttons out of lead purloined from the bombed buildings. Having obtained the real thing from a member of the services or by swapping, we would impress this badge or button into a block of clay, obtained from the underground shelters in "the field". We would light a fire, and melt lead into a can, and then pour this molten lead into the mould. After allowing it to cool, we would then turn out a silver-coloured replica of the real thing; not of any particular use, and probably re-melted more than once. To say this pastime was a bit dangerous would be an understatement, but our mothers probably didn't know about it and we were not about to inform them.
There were still some V2s falling and some raids, and rather than be evacuated again, we started to use a new form of shelter that my mother had heard abut on the mothers' grapevine, Chislehurst Caves. These were an extensive cave system tunnelled into the chalk, mainly being about 150 feet below ground level, but dry, and made an excellent air raid shelter. They were quite a journey from home in Sidcup, requiring three bus journeys, or a good walk and two journeys on the bus. Taking a 132 from the bottom of our road, to Blackfen, taking a 241 to Sidcup Station, then a 228 to Chislehurst Common and finally a 227 to Beckenham, which dropped us off at Chislehurst Station. From there, we walked past the station, down the hill to the entrance to the caves. The system seemed to be if you turned up you were not turned away, particularly if you had children. At any rate, we were led into the cave complex by a warden, who took us to where there were spare bunks, quite far off from the entrance, and we bedded down for the night. I don't remember if we were issued with blankets, but suspect we brought our own, otherwise it would have been a logistical nightmare, with several hundred people using the caves each night. Underground in the complex we could not hear any sounds of bombing, sirens or anti-aircraft and slept soundly, more so for my mother than for my sister and I. The complex had shops, a cinema, a hair-dressers for ladies, although our needs were relatively simple, mostly food and drink that we took with us. The journey time after school was quite long, I would think about 11/2 hours, and of course we had to do this again in reverse in the morning before reaching home, having breakfast and going to school again. As far as I can recall, we did this every day, although we may have missed a day or two in places. Two things stand out for me from this time. The arrangement in the caves was that my sister slept on the lower bunk, and I slept on the higher. No problem, except that I turned over in my sleep one night and fell out of the bunk straight onto the earth floor, banging my head and cutting my head a bit. The second thing was concerning the food we sometimes had with us when returning home. We always used to feed chaffinches on Chislehurst Common whilst waiting for the bus to take us back to Sidcup Station, and can remember that they got quite tame and used to feeding close by. Our next door neighbours, Mr and Mrs Shipp, had a cocker spaniel called Peter, that they used to let out for a roam round in the mornings at about the time that we returned home, usually walking along Rowley Avenue to turn into Harcourt Avenue by the pillar box. This dog would spy us three from some distance away, and would sit by the pillar box, and would sit up still and beg as soon as we approached, often in the begging position for a few minutes as we approached. Needless to say, he was always rewarded with a titbit or two, usually a piece of bun left over from the night food.
I cannot say how long it was that we used the Chislehurst Cave complex, and suspect it was months only. I can recall that the air raids ceased to bother any of us during that time, as it must have done us good. My sister tells me it all ended when a child, who regularly went to the caves, caught meningitis. We never went back, even to recover our own bits and pieces of bedding and any private possessions once my mother heard of the sick child, and remained sleeping at home after that. The caves are still in existence, and I believe you can visit them, no doubt set out in part as they were in the war, although I have never felt the urge to return.
THE BEGINNING OF PEACE
The progress of the war in general was now much better than it had been in the earlier nineteen forties. America had entered the war in 1941 after Pearl Harbour, and now their forces were to be seen in greater numbers everywhere. In the skies "Flying Fortresses" were quite common, seen on a daily basis, after returning from air raids in Germany and occupied countries after bombing missions. On his periods of leave from the Orkneys, my father now would take us into London on sightseeing trips, and showed us all the usual sights of St Pauls, including a visit to the Whispering Gallery, the Tower of London, Big Ben, Buckingham Palace and so on. Americans in uniform were everywhere, and, running to see some pointed out by my father in Hyde Park, I fell over and cut my knee badly, probably ruining everyone's day and their handkerchiefs used to bind up the wound. I still have the scar, so will always remember this episode. Our own soldiers, sailors and airmen were also a common sight, especially in London, together with those from occupied countries, France or Poland, Australia and South Africa, New Zealand and Canada. Women as well as men, of course. We did not know, of course, as civilians, what was approaching, as D-Day, the invasion of mainland Europe, was about to take place. There was a tremendous build up of men and equipment all over southern England, with miles of roads leading to the coast packed solid with lorries, tanks, guns and men. We could see all these parked up waiting to go, and civilians walked around talking about "something big about to happen", which was the D-Day landing, of course. When we awoke on that morning and heard the announcement, we realised what the build-up had meant, but visits to the main roads revealed all the men and equipment gone, away on the invasion. British fighter planes had new white rings around their wings from that day, as we boys all noticed. I will not write about the invasion itself, it has been covered many times elsewhere. Suffice it to say, boys all followed the progress of the allied armies even more avidly than before, and would discuss the latest news amongst themselves. We scanned the newspaper maps showing Allied advances from D-Day onwards until the end of the war, but this time in 1944 was memorable for the landings themselves, battles around Caen and St Lo, capturing the Cherbourg peninsula, and the last desperate throw of the Germans in the Battle of the Bulge, as well as British losses at Arnhem.
We still hated everything German of course, as we had been suffering for some time at their hands, and practically every family had lost relatives or friends. My own score was two uncles killed. Dislike for the Germans was compounded by the allied forces reaching the concentration camps, when it became known what they had been doing to Jews and anyone else that opposed them. There was no television at this time, but cinema newsreels showed us a glimpse of what had been going on, supposedly unknown to the general German public. We could not believe what we were seeing, and could not understand that human beings could do this to other human beings. Belsen was the main camp which had been pictured, and the piles of bodies and desperate starved remnants of people still just alive shocked us all. We hoped all Germans would be wiped out, and thought they deserved all they got.
MORE LIFE IN THE COUNTRYSIDE
Life for a boy went on in other directions apart from the war. I was still roaming all over the countryside whilst the war was going on around us, mainly in company with Brian Callow, known as "KELLOGGS", and Roy Shipp. We would cover miles walking, to collect frogspawn ( we knew where all the ponds were that contained frogs), or to collect wild violets for our mums. One pond miles beyond Bexley held frogspawn and was surrounded by violets on the banks, so this was very convenient, and we still transported pussy-willow and catkins back to our mothers in the spring. Sometimes we caught a bus to a bus request stop beyond Blackfen called Rennets Wood Road, on the way to Eltham. We had discovered a pond complex here that contained newts in abundance, and we duly rescued a few of these to stock makeshift ponds in our gardens, although I fear little of the frogspawn and newts survived, and we eventually stopped bringing this home. Roaming through the empty woods gave us ample opportunity to display our knowledge of swear words, and we would march along to wherever we were going shouting these at the tops of our voices. We were not allowed to swear at home, and indeed did not in general conversation, so we found shouting them in the woods gave vent to our repressions. We would string the words together sometimes in a string of three or four, trying to outdo each other, invariably collapsing with laughter at the result. Sometimes we would sing a rude song that we knew, such as:-
Matthew, Mark Luke and John
Went to bed with no clothes on.
In the middle of the night
John wan-ted to shite.
Shite, shite, shite, it must be done,
So out of the window poked his bum.
Willie Winkie passing by
Smelt the scent and looked up high,
Crash Bang Wallop came the dollop,
Right in Willie Winkie's eye!
Once again collapse into hilarious laughter. It was all very innocuous.
Boys pastimes seemed to have seasons, marbles, cigarette cards, conkers, and so on. Marbles were not manufactured during the war, so any that we played with were made before 1939, and they came in various sizes and colours. Most were of a standard size and could be won with a single hit from the opponents marble. Slightly larger ones counted as "two-ers", and could only be won with two hits from the opponent's marble. The sizes continued up - "three-ers", "four-ers", fivers" and up to "six-ers", but nothing over this size. If the marble was red, it counted double. So to win a standard size red marble you had to hit it twice; a red "four-er" had to be hit eight times before it could be won, so these larger marbles did not change hands very often. The game was played anywhere, but seemed mostly to be along the edge of the roads in the gutters, taking care not to lose marbles down the road drains. The game was started by one of the players saying "Lardy", or it may be spelt "Lardi", for I have never seen this word written down, after which the opponent would pitch his marble away to a reasonably safe distance. The other player would then try to hit it. Sometimes three or four players would be engaged, but it was mostly two, playing all the way to school if it was a weekday. The start of the game "Lardi" would sometimes be accompanied by the words "Everything in the game", by which it meant that you could adopt a trick to have your shot at the opponent's marble. This might entail you calling the name of the trick when it was your turn to shoot, for example "Bombsy" called when it was your turn, entitled you to pick up your marble and stand over that of your opponents. You then had to drop your marble from above, and if lucky in lining up the target marble, could win it with a fairly simple dropped shot. If you missed however, your marble would likely be lying very close to your opponent's marble, which would then mean an easy shot for him. "Nothing in the game" called along with "Lardi" meant a simple game of straight marbles, hitting and winning in a normal fashion.
I seem to have been quite good at marbles, as I can remember keeping those that I had won in an empty drawer in a chest of drawers in my bedroom, to be inspected in all their glory before going to bed each night. When I went out to play marbles, I would carry a few in a white ankle sock, taking this to school with me every day, and hopefully adding to the number during the play periods as well as going to and from school. I must have been seen to have had a good day one day, as I was waylaid by two bigger boys on the way home, who demanded that I hand over the white ankle sock with the marbles in it. To appear menacing they crowded in close to me, which made them bigger but within range, so to speak. I cannot remember the conversation that took place, but do remember whacking both of them across the head with the sock full of marbles, a wonderful weapon wielded strongly. I took to my heels and fled across the allotments homewards. Strangely, I never had any retaliation from that incident which I suppose was an early mugging. Resisting bullies is always the best policy.
Boys also played card games with cigarette cards, those printed pieces of card, contained in cigarette packets before and during the early part of the war. One side held a picture of the subject, whilst the back contained printed information about it, and the subjects were usually in sets of 50. There was a good deal of swapping to obtain cards if you were collecting a set, and another boy had the card you wanted to complete it. Mostly, however, we were concerned in winning cards from other boys by way of the two main games which were "Longsy" or "Topsy". these cards could be flicked and skated through the air, so "Longsy" simple meant doing this further than your opponent, whereby you won his card. "Topsy" was played up against a wall from about four feet away, each taking turns to flick a card up against the wall. The player who was first to land all or part of his card on top of another took all the cards on the ground. There were hundreds of cards involved in the games, and good players carried large wads of cards with them. A variation on this game involved standing two cards up against a wall and flicking cards to try to knock them down. The first one to knock the card down won all the cards on the floor.
When autumn arrived, boys would go out to get conkers, the seeds of the horse chestnut tree, to play the game called "conkers". Having roamed all over the countryside within several miles radius continually, we all knew where the trees were to be found. The main areas that were visited were Danson Park and an area beyond the river Cray which was parkland surrounding a large country house, known as "The White House". The three of us - myself, Brian Callow and Roy Shipp, seemed to be the only ones who went as far as "The White House", as we never saw anyone else doing what we did. When we started out, we would collect conkers for our own use, generally stuffing them in our shirt to carry them home. After a while, however, it was realised that there were so many conkers in the area that we collected bagsful, I remember on one occasion even a sack was used, and we proceeded to sell this harvest to other boys at ten a penny. We divided the proceeds. After a while, as the craze came to its seasonal end and customers became fewer, with the conkers going a little mouldy on the surface, we dropped the price to sixteen a penny to use them all up. We also went to the same area to collect holly at Christmas time, but conkers were the main harvest, some picked off the floor as they were shed by the tree naturally; others were knocked down by hurling sticks up into the branches to dislodge the fruit. The game itself was relatively simple. A hole was bored in the conker, string threaded through and knotted at one end, after which you were ready to play. One player would hold the end of the conker string, with the conker hanging down, resting on the knot. The other player would then take aim and hit the hanging conker with his own, until, after taking turns, one conker was shattered. The winner would be the one whose conker was left intact, whereupon it would become a "one-er". If it demolished another, it became a "two-er", and so on. High scoring conkers were protected by not being played with much, only against similar high value conkers. Nobody wanted to lose a "six-er" to a fresh conker. After each blow the conkers would be examined for cracks, usually starting around the string hole, and if your conker was still intact after a few whacks, you were lucky, for they didn't last long. Hence the successful selling. There were ways of cheating at this game, mainly to do with the preparation of the conker, although I have to say I never tried them myself. It was said that slow baking of a conker would harden it t concrete-like consistency, as would soaking conkers in vinegar, but I cannot testify to such.
Autumn time was also the time of the fruit harvest, and children seemed to be more in touch with the seasons as they occurred. As it was wartime, there was practically no imported fruit, oranges only appearing very rarely and then only towards the end of the war, and were, in any case, rationed. The harvest of the fields and orchards locally were all the more important, and children would all go blackberrying, with knowledge of where to go very important. Boys also would go "scrumping", which meant stealing apples belonging to someone else, climbing over a fence or two and filling your shirt with the stolen fruit. The three of us would not go scrumping locally in gardens via the back alley, I suppose mainly for fear of being recognised or caught by someone who might know your parents. A little was done at dusk though, when there was less chance of being seen. The ripening apples were observed and talked about as to when they were likely to be ready, but we were invariably too early, being too eager, and the first fruits could sometimes be sour and cause some discomfort. At any rate, we generally preferred to go further afield, and knew one or two orchards attached to farms beyond Old Bexley, where we knew there was less chance of being caught, although even there this sometimes happened. I can recall one occasion when the three of us had targeted an orchard, which was divided by a public footpath, fenced but affording close inspection of ripening fruit and easy access. It was very close to farm buildings, but there didn't seem to be anyone about and Roy Shipp and I urged Brian Callow over the fence, although he didn't need much urging, as he was generally the most daring of the three of us. He duly climbed over the fence and was well up the tree when the farmer appeared under the tree suddenly. Two of us watched in silence to see what would happen, not having seen the man approaching and warning Brian, who very soon saw him beneath the tree. I can't remember what the man said to him first, but we suddenly heard Brian saying "I don't want to go to jail! Please don't take me to jail" in a loud voice, repeating it several times and eventually bursting into tears when reaching the ground. Eventually the farmer let him go after a severe telling off and warnings to all of us not to come back, otherwise the police would be called in.
I must say at this time that children generally respected authority, whether in the shape of parents, teachers or police, even though most of the men were away in the war. No child really was prepared to argue with the authorities, any such attempt bringing swift retribution by way of a clout around the ear, or a swipe from the buckles on the end of a policeman's cape. Certainly there was respect for the elderly, and anyone causing them any kind of trouble was dealt with severely. Boys would be cheeky of course, but, if so, were usually dragged off to their mothers by one ear, when the incident would be related and dealt with by the mother of the offender. Graffiti was not a problem at this time - it didn't exist - and nobody would have thought it a good idea, I'm sure. As far as serious crime was concerned, there was the ultimate deterrents of the birch, prison and hanging. Even criminals of a serious nature did not carry guns for fear of using them whilst engaged in crime, for if they killed anyone in these circumstances they would be hung. The same rules applied to male and female. If anyone killed a policeman, the whole population knew that the perpetrator would be caught without a doubt, and hung. My own personal belief, looking back now over several decades, is that that system of severe justice, practised early in a criminal's career had a great deterrent effect and stopped things before they got out of hand. Unfortunately, we cannot turn the clock back, and the do-gooders, soft on criminals and bad behaviour, have a lot to answer for.
THE END OF THE WAR
By now the end of the war in Europe was in sight, the progress of the armies in Italy, Germany, France and Eastern Europe being watched and rejoiced about as we finally defeated the enemy. Peace finally came in 1945, and there was an immediate transformation in our lives. Most of the changes were in our immediate surroundings, with celebration the order of the day, starting with a street party for Harcourt Avenue, to be held almost all of one day and into the evening. As children, we had never seen anything like this before. There were tables erected in the road at the bottom of the hill, laden with all the food that could be scraped up to celebrate victory. Special treats like jelly and blancmange and tinned fruit appeared, items that were only seen very occasionally at this time, as food was still severely rationed, and would be until into the 1950s. Four of the indoor Morrison shelters were taken out of houses and pushed together to form a bandstand, blocking the pavement and two entrance gates. Electrics were rigged up to give power to a microphone, and word went around that Mr Hutton, from the newsagents at the bottom of the road, had some fireworks saved from before the war which would be let off once it was dark. I had never seen these, so looked forward to this with interest, despite the fact that we had seen more spectacular fireworks during the bombing raids. Another "first" was that the same Mr Hutton had saved camera film, which was not obtainable during the war, and proposed taking pictures of the celebrations. All the children in the road duly formed a group in the road about midday, and were pictured together for posterity. I still have this photograph. I cannot remember much detail of the remainder of the day and evening, except to say that there was music, played live on the makeshift bandstand, and people danced in the road, albeit more women than men forced some ladies to dance with the same sex. Another noticeable thing was that the blackout regulations no longer applied, and people left their curtains undrawn and doors open, flooding light onto a street that had not seen the like for over five years. It was a wonderful day, boosted by the victory after so long and the fact that our father would soon be home. Some shops had neon signs or window lighting that was now switched on and left all night, something we had not seen before.
There was still no television, of course, so any pictures of celebrations in London and New York were only to be gleaned from cinema newsreels. We had already seen celebrations when Paris was liberated, earlier in the war, but now saw amazing scenes in our own capital city, celebrating the end of the war in Europe. I suppose delirious joy would be the best way to describe it, fear of death having been removed from millions. There were tremendous crowds outside Buckingham Palace, where Winston Churchill and the Royal Family appeared on the balcony, cheered by everyone. My mother decided, after a few days, to take my sister Rita and I to London to see the lights around the west end, now all switched on again, together with the street lighting which had been off for the duration. We went up by train and then walked from Charing Cross station towards Piccadilly Circus, which was the centre of this activity. There were huge throngs of people everywhere, civilians from all over, but mostly southern or home counties, mingling with soldiers, sailors and airmen from many nations. We must have walked all around the west end, and remember going down to Buckingham Palace, along with many others, to see if we could see the King and Queen, but, by this time, they would have made innumerable appearances. At any rate, they didn't appear for us, and we made our way up the Mall towards the west end again. This was fine until we got to Admiralty Arch, when really dense crowds compacted through the side arches, going both ways, and I was swept off my feet. I suppose this crush was dangerous, being swept along with no feet on the ground with the danger of being crushed. A man whom we didn't know helped us all to get through to the other side and into safety once more. Fancy coming all through the war and being crushed to death in the victory celebrations!
My father was soon demobilised, and returned to civilian life complete with his "demob suit" - all servicemen got one - and started work again following a short period of leave. I imagine he must have had a small amount of demob pay which funded a few parties to celebrate the peace. I can remember the purchase of small beer barrels delivered from the "Three Blackbirds", the barrel of beer forming the basis of the party drinks. Who could blame them having a good time after what they had all been through?
The Pacific war against the Japanese came to an end with the dropping of two atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. We all were amazed to see such destruction from one bomb, in newspapers and on newsreels in the cinema. This war was far away from us in effect, although we often saw newsreel pictures of men fighting in the jungle in monsoon conditions, using mules for transport. We had also seen heavy America losses on small islands such as Iwo Jima and Guadalcanal, and realised that if they invaded Japan these losses would be truly awful. We all reckoned the bombs saved countless American lives, and were a good thing. The start of the Atomic Age.
Bomb damage repairs were being completed on those houses that had suffered damage from the onslaught, paid for by the government, providing some immediate work for returning servicemen, before industry got back into full swing. There was obviously going to be a gap between wartime and peacetime production, a gap that was primarily filled by an extensive house building programme to replace those destroyed in the war. Basically, I would say the country was bankrupted by the war, and it would be a long time before it was able to pull itself out of the mire. There were severe shortages of any kind of material, food was still rationed, and the population was tired from its exertions.
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