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15 October 2014
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What’s a War, Dad?

by gloinf

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Archive List > Childhood and Evacuation

Contributed by 
People in story: 
Mr John Lawrence
Location of story: 
Patcham Brighton, Eastbourne, London, Yorkshire, Doncaster,
Background to story: 
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
18 July 2005

This story was submitted to the Peoples War site by Jas from Global Information Centre Eastbourne and has been added to the website on behalf of Mr Lawrence with his permission and he fully understands the site’s terms and conditions

It was a nice day and I was a very happy five year old, my parents having just given me my first’ proper’ three wheeler bike — it was blue and second hand and it was mine!

We had recently moved to a rented bungalow in Patcham on the outskirts of Brighton, and I was ‘test driving’ my new bike on the very large forecourt of the adjacent shops.

The driver and conductor of a local bus were sitting on the platform of their stationery bus having their tea break, whilst teasing me about my obvious inexperience.

Suddenly there was this very loud wailing noise, coming apparently from the roof of the flats above the shops. The bus crew shouted at me to go home as quickly as possible.

They need not have bothered as within seconds my Dad arrived, snatched me off my bike and ran up the slope towards our home. I protested loud and long that we had abandoned the bike — all to no avail — and we were soon indoors — my Mum and Dad and I sitting under the kitchen table-!?

Then the wailing started again — only this time it was a different sound, and my Dad said “that’s the All Clear”. We got out from under the table; my Mum put the kettle on for a cup of tea.

I was very confused about all this activity but really had just one thing on my mind — my bike!! My Dad came with me back to the shops (just in case) — and there it was, exactly where it had been abandoned.

The incident was soon forgotten, but a short time later I was interested when my Dad & Mum made a large ‘curtain’ from a large grey blanket to cover their bedroom door, together with a large draught excluder for the bottom of the door.

Inside the bedroom a large reel of tape hung on the wall next to the door and I was instructed not to move or touch it. Similar tape was put around the opening windows.

I was told that this was to keep the gas out! I had no idea what ‘gas’ was — our home was all electric! Then we were all equipped with gas masks and us children were shown how to use them at school This was beginning to look serious! I can’t say that I was frightened but I was certainly apprehensive.

Then my Dad cut a large rectangular hole in the hail floor? This turned out to be a trap door which led via breeze block steps to a spacious storage area underneath our bungalow (built on a slope of the downs).

Non perishable food, water and a small oil stove together with saucepans, kettle and cutlery were stored down there and bunks were made. When not in use the trap door was covered with a rug with a wooden cabinet on top.

Then nothing much happened every so often the siren went but no signs of any activity to cause concern, and little use was made of our underground shelter This was the period that later became known as the Phoney War.

My question (in the title) was answered with “just a squabble between two countries “At that time to a 5/6 year old it appeared that the ‘squabble’ was over.

As the ‘Phoney War’ came to an end in the Spring of 1940 the ‘squabble’ escalated and daylight raids by the Luftwaffe bombers started in earnest — and we witnessed a twin engine bomber (Dornier) release his bombs over Patcham — Patcham of all places — a quiet suburb of Brighton — wholly residential.

One of the first bombs destroyed a house or possibly houses in nearby Portfield Ave about a quarter of a mile from our home. The next was about 200 yards away falling harmlessly on the downs behind bungalows in Ladies Mile Rd.

We didn’t witness the explosion as by that time we had scurried down the trap door!! Other bombs from the same aircraft fell beyond houses and bungalows into agricultural land behind Braeside Ave.

My lasting memory of this incident was the sight of large quantities of chalk from the downs littering the roofs of nearby properties, as a result of the explosion.

Whilst there were other air raids in Brighton, including a sustained attack on the railway viaduct in London Rd, and a direct hit on the Odeon cinema in Kemp Town, with the benefit of hindsight we got off pretty lightly compared with Eastbourne along the coast.

They suffered over 100 raids, getting on for 200 fatalities and a large number of serious injuries. It is said that over 450 properties were destroyed by enemy bombing in Eastbourne.

I have just vague memories of the Battle of Britain — largely vapour trails from high flying German aircraft and our Spitfires and Hurricanes and the occasional parachute in the distance.

The Nazi Blitz on London followed and night after night we would hear the thump thump droning of the German bombers en route to London.

Small boys became experts at identifying the enemy planes by sight and sound.

Many children had been evacuated from vulnerable areas early on during the war and my parents cared for two evacuees from London for a short time during the Blitz.

In 1941 parents of children in the Brighton area were encouraged to agree for their children to be evacuated.

My parents were reluctant to let me go but I wanted to go because many of my friends were going, and it seemed like a big adventure.

So it was that I and my friends complete with suitcase, sandwiches, gas mask in a cardboard box, and a label tied to my jacket button hole — and just two days before my 7 birthday, boarded one of a number of buses outside Patcham school, heading for Brighton Railway station.

The sight of my desolate mother, weeping outside the bus was enough to give me second thoughts. By the time the train left the station I was convinced.

This had been a very big mistake and there was nothing I could do about it!
We were going to Yorkshire.

The journey was awful and took all day. The train was packed tight with screaming infants, crying children and a few anxious parents and helpers.

We arrived in Doncaster tired and bedraggled, and were paraded in front of a group of possibly reluctant ‘foster parents’.

I was one of the last to be picked — hardly surprising — who is going to want a grubby little boy — looking as if he had been living rough! The family I stayed with were, I think a little shocked at having to take an evacuee, but were very kind to me and had a son of around my age — which was a bonus for me.

The local school, however, was a very different kettle of fish. It was an old Victorian building with a playground that looked like a temporary car park. The headmistress/teacher took no prisoners and carried a cane and used it regularly throughout the day.

One friend of mine Dougie when threatened with the cane for the umpteenth time, grabbed it from the said lady and broke it in hate, adding that he was going to get his big brother to give her ‘what for’.

Every morning we queued for a dose of cod liver oil out of a gallon jar. Each child was given a piece of toilet paper to wipe the wooden spoon after he or she had swallowed the awful brew. Failure to take or swallow was rewarded by a slap and persistent offenders were slapped until they complied.

The focal children were fine — some teasing us as ‘cockneys’ or posh kids which we were clearly not.

We were living in Warmsworth a suburb of Doncaster and some wooded land and the river Don were nearby — a great area for our free time.

I will always remember those woods with its mixed scents of wild garlic and bluebells.

Ironically during my stay I was evacuated for a second time when an unexploded shell fell nearby and local families were evacuated for a couple of days until the offending missile was disposed of.

It seemed I was in as much danger there as I had been in Patcham.
I stayed for around six months, I learned nothing (a major setback when I returned to Patcham school I) and longed for home throughout my stay.

I can clearly remember sitting on the pavement outside the house waiting for my Mum to arrive to take me back to my real home. That day was one of the happiest of my young life.

Back in Patcham little had changed. My Dad had turned the back garden into a vegetable plot and chicken run — the chicken ensured that we had eggs and meat on a regular basis and later he took on rabbits which were sold as meat or pets.

Indoors we had been provided with a Morrison shelter — comprising a floor level bed and four corner posts supporting a steel roof over the bed — very reassuring — and a useful surface for playing table football with a ping pong ball!

Occasional dog fights continued and I witnessed one of our aircraft (a Typhoon I believe) crashing about half a mile from our school.

The siren sounded from time to time but it seemed that we were taking everything in our stride and rushing to the shelter was no longer a priority. The authorities had obviously noted this and the siren was upgraded to include ‘The Pips’. Morse like beeps, indicating that a local raid was imminent.

For a while people would respond appropriately, but again people got used to this new phenomenon and continued to go about their normal business.

What did grab our attention was Hitler’s revenge weapons — starting with the VI Flying Bomb or ‘doodlebug’. The attacks started shortly after D Day and were aimed at South East England including London.

When the distinctive note of the VI ‘s engine was heard people very quickly took cover as best they could. When their engines cut out you had about 15-20 seconds to find shelter.

Many were shot down by our fighters and some were even turned around by the fighter locating his wing tip under that of the VI and ‘flipping’ it round so that it flew back across the channel.

Again, as time went by we became complacent and regularly watched them fly by — or if their engine stopped at some distance away — we’d count the seconds to the explosion as it hit the ground.

The ‘doodlebugs’ were followed by the V2 - a rocket propelled bomb, and a forerunner of what became the inter-continental ballistic missile in later years. No engine noise from this weapon— it arrived silently giving any time to take cover.

As late as March 1945 over 200 people were killed by a V2 at London’s Smithfield market. An awesome weapon. The V bomber attacks came to an end shortly before the end of the war in Europe when the allies - captured the launch sites.

By May 1945 the war in Europe was over and we all celebrated VE Day.

In the Far East the war against the Japanese continued until August and my friends and I celebrated in style.

We were at our church youth group summer camp in the New Forest had a huge bonfire to finally celebrate the end of World War 2.

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