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A Small Boy's War in Gravesend

by Gravesender

Contributed by 
People in story: 
Dr Nigel Haig
Location of story: 
Gravesend, Kent
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
12 November 2003

A small boy’s War.

The early memories
During the second world war, we lived in Gravesend, where I was born in 1938. My earliest memories of war were when we were fairly regularly bombed, at night, hearing the desynchronised engines of the bombers, seeing the flashes of explosions, hearing the strangely hollow “crump” sound of the exploding shells, and then the still-hot anti-aircraft shell fragments that we boys collected in the early mornings, lying in the roadway and our gardens. At that time, we lived in The Fairway, Gravesend, and we kids used to collect all the shrapnel, but I have no idea why! I finished the war with a bagful of shell fragments that was lost when we moved away, much to my annoyance. I often spent bombing nights in an Anderson shelter in our next-door’s garden. It had a large resident spider, which frightened me considerably more than the bombing, which I felt was a wonderful experience, since I was never actually hit! It was fascinating to go out on the morning after a raid and see where the bombs had dropped, and whose house had copped it. I well remember seeing the bath hanging out of the end of a friends’ house one morning, the whole end of terrace (at Cross Lane) had been blown away in a pile of rubble and wood splinters. (The stick of fairly small bombs fell across Woodlands Park.) There was a little shop up Darnley Road, and it had had its roof blown clean off and the front window out, but they were still doing business! The shop is still there, but is rather more pretentious, and surrounded by modern houses, whose foundations were well prepared by the bombing! I recall the smell around recent bombing, which I now think must have been the smell of freshly-exposed mortar and damp bricks.

The Aircraft
Occasionally I saw the German bombers, flying quite low, but I never recall seeing any of our fighters at night. Of course, we would see lots of fighters during the day, as Gravesend airport was at various times a training station and an active fighter station. I recall being bored by the crackling drone of Harvards doing circuits and bumps, and seeing a lot of Hurricanes, P47 Thunderbolts and P38 Lightnings. When I was at Mrs Geraghty’s (Garrity?) Nursery School, up Singlewell Road, opposite the golf course (it’s a private house now), one morning we saw a Thunderbolt coming towards us (towards the airfield) trailing smoke. As it crossed the western boundary of the golf course, the pilot baled out, leaving the plane coming straight at us. I was by this time standing on the windowsill, and refused to get down, so had a wonderful view of this plane crashing in front of us, just a few yards away, across the road. (There is a tall hedge there now, but during the war it was very short.) It spun round on contact, throwing up a huge cloud of dirt and dust and just sat there, on fire. The pilot was fine, being picked up by Mr Brand, our baker in his tiny van. I remember seeing him with his parachute all bundled loosely up in his lap, sitting in the passenger seat, being taken down Singlewell Road. I was loudly shouted at by the teacher, because in my excited efforts to climb onto the window sill, I had pulled down the curtain and its rail! At lunchtime, when school ended, I rushed over the road to the wreckage, which was burnt to a sort of grey dust, leaving the huge engine standing all alone. The engine was almost red hot, shimmering away, and there was virtually nothing else left for the US Air Force personnel who turned up in the big 6-wheeler lorries a bit later. The one abiding abstract memory I had of that occasion was the very strong smell of ammonia around the ashes. To this day, I don’t know why that smell was there, or how it was generated, but I imagine it was something to do with the burning aluminium and hydraulic oils.

Sometimes the bombs would fail to explode, and it was a bit of a worry for everybody nearby. I recall one night, amidst the sound of exploding bombs coming towards us, we heard and felt a distinct thump, but without an explosion. It was eventually said to have been a land mine that had dropped into a garden about 200yards away, and it was only traced because of the clean hole it made just outside the kitchen doorstep. I don’t know how true that was, but I hope it was defused and not just filled in! I recall someone telling me how they had been indoors when a bomb dropped in the neighbour’s garden. All their windows were blown out, but they said that the glass was blown inwards first, then it was sucked outwards, and finished up in the garden. Fortunately, we only had a few incendiaries dropped near us. However, one of the first things the wardens would do after the “all-clear” was to rush out and look on the roofs and guttering, to clear away the white-hot incendiaries, using long poles.
I remember one of our neighbours was a very good seamstress, and she used to knock up some natty numbers for my mother to wear, using other old clothes and recycled hats and curtains. She used to get hold of parachute silk, very occasionally, and it was so different from the other old material. Long after the war, I was talking with a neighbour who had been a village policeman during the war. He told me how he used to have to cycle out to crashed aircraft and guard them against looters. Once, a Junkers 88 crashed near Hartley, killing the crew. He told me that by the time he arrived, the dead crew had been stripped of their boots and jackets, and there was no sign of their parachutes. Even the German (brown) parachutes were useful.
Sometimes my mother took me away from Gravesend, to escape the German bombing, and that in itself was quite an adventure in wartime. Once she took me out to my Aunt Doll, who lived in a bungalow in The Drive at Longfield. In those days it was an unmade road, and very rough. One morning, my Uncle took me out and showed me what I thought was Christmas: In the night, a bomber had become lost or been panicked by fighters, and dropped a stick of bombs across fields in Longfield. One had dropped in the roadway outside the bungalow, and formed a huge crater in the chalk. Everything was dazzling white with chalk, and it looked like snow!

Some of my happiest memories are of staying at a Cafe, called “The Wings of The Morning” at the top of Wrotham Hill. (The field on the other side of the road is, I believe, still known by that name today, although the cafe is long gone, being replaced by a small industrial estate.) It was well away from civilisation in those days, and my mother obviously thought that the bombing would keep well away from us, in consequence. She was right, in a way, but of course in 1944 there were streams of V1s directed at us, and lots of them came directly over the top of Wrotham Hill on their way to London! I well remember often sitting down to lunch with an old gentlemen guest, named Mr Bush, and he was as interested in V1s as me. Whenever I heard one coming (you could hear them for about 4 or 5 miles), I used to shout to him, and we would rush outside and watch it coming towards us. Most times they went overhead, towards London, but one or two didn’t make it, because they didn’t all fly at the same altitude. There was a balloon barrage site just along the hilltop, and they took me to see a V1 that had flown into the trees just below the top of the hill, without exploding. It was in quite a fair condition, and I was later told that it was dismantled and taken round towns on a low-loader to raise money “for Spitfires”.
I remember noticing that “our” V1s used to come over in pairs, about 30 minutes apart, because we would get up from lunch to watch one come over, then finish lunch, and be just in time for another, following in roughly the same track as the first. Then the same thing would happen the next day, and so on. I became friendly with the men manning the balloon site, and they used to let me winch the balloon up and down. However, I have no recollection that they ever caught one. If they had, it would have come down straight on top of the cafe, so perhaps it’s as well that they didn’t! The balloon was normally kept on the precise spot that the TV transmitter mast now is at Wrotham. The V1 that flew into the trees stopped at the precise location of what is now the exit sliproad off the M20. If you go out there now and look across the weald, you can see how such an accident could have happened, as it is quite high up, and the view towards France is terrific, from where the V1s were coming.
I must have been a real nuisance to the soldiers at the balloon site, as I have great memories of playing in and out of the tents, with the smell of damp canvas, gun oil and cooking. I well remember one day when there was an inspection by a visiting officer, when I turned up at the site and there obviously wasn’t time to take me across the field to home. So I was told to sit inside a tent and be quiet till the officer had gone. Unfortunately, there was a fire extinguisher in the tent, and I fiddled with it. All I remember after that is being smothered in foam, with foam pouring out of the tent, and yelling for my mum! God knows what the officer thought.

Prisoners of War
In between watching the V1s cruise past, and annoying the soldiers at the balloon site, I used to play in the woods around there. Most of my memories of that time involve catching butterflies, and trying to catch snakes and lizards, which used to bask in the summer sun on top of rocks and chalk outcrops. Frequently I and my playmates used to come across Prisoners of War, working at coppicing and tidying in the woods. They were usually Italians, and they were very friendly and talkative. It amazes me now, looking back, but nobody was at all worried that we young children were playing with the enemy, and there were no guards visible whatsoever. The Italians used to carve the fascist symbols on the trees, and seemed totally content to be out of the war. I believe that their camp was down at Borough Green, and there may still be some old wooden huts there still, on the other side of the road from the Primary School.
The preparations for the Normandy Landings were very apparent, even to me as a small boy. When we stayed out at Wrotham, it was directly situated on the (old) A20, and the Wings of The Morning cafe had a fairly large tarmac yard. For some days, the A20 was jammed with army vehicles, most of them American tanks (I think that most of the tanks were Shermans and M10s, but after 60 years my memory is hazy on the precise models). One day, the convoy was so jammed that several tanks drove off the road and into the cafe yard. Mr and Mrs Davis, the cafe proprieters, were thrilled to bits, because the Yanks had plenty of money and lots of time to sit and drink and eat. I was quite happy too, because the Yanks insisted on giving me chewing gum, which I had never even heard of before, and I didn’t know what to do with it! However, when the time came for the tank crews to leave, poor Mr Davis nearly went mad with rage. Although he was as bald as a coot, he gave a fair imitation of tearing his hair out, while vigorously jumping up and down, as the tanks turned in the yard and drove out. Unfortunately, the tarmac was pre-war, and in a poor state, and as the tanks turned to leave, they ripped it all up, and left the yard a mess of rubble. I think that was the first time I saw a man cry! Of course, I didn’t realise it at the time, but it would have been impossible to get the yard re-tarmacked in wartime, so no wonder he was upset. Incidentally, Mr Davis had facilities for charging radio batteries, and I recall him charging up dozens of them for local people, as well as fixing the few cars in the neighbourhood. The batteries were large glass containers filled with acid, and they made excellent fish tanks, after they were well washed out!
Back in Gravesend, I used to go down to my Grandparent’s house in Burch Road, leading down to the river (Thames). We used to watch the V1s there as well, and I well remember telling my Grandpa to fling himself flat when one came over, as we were watching the shipping (and there was a lot of it in those days). My grandpa was quite disdainful, since he could see that the V1 was crossing Tilbury, on the other side of the Thames, so I never bothered to protect myself from V1s after that! Incidentally, it cut out just beyond Tilbury and must have crashed towards Grays.
One memory that still flashes back incredibly clearly even today, almost 60 years later, concerns prisoners. My grandfather often took me to watch the ships load and unload down at a place that we knew as “The Undershore” at Gravesend. It has almost disappeared these days, under columns of flats and new industrial estates. In wartime, it was a hive of activity with lots of electric and steam cranes on the wharves, and shunting locomotives for the paper mills and the factories along the waterfront. One day, we saw a ship unloading, and so we just stood on the wharf and watched. To my astonishment, a sort of platform lift rose regularly from the hold, which brought up about 50 or 60 people at a time. It was a few moments before I realised that the people were German PoWs, because they were such a miserable rag-tag bunch, dressed in almost anything at all. What really amazed me was that many of them were wearing womens hats and coats, although I realised later, in talking to my grandfather, that they were just trying to keep warm. Their uniforms were in a dreadful state, and some had hardly any clothes on at all. Whenever I see war films, with German soldiers marching smartly and proudly, I can’t help but see this miserable bunch of PoWs, in my mind’s eye. And there weren’t just a few; they kept on coming. There must have been several hundred, but I don’t recall seeing any more than a handful of guards. As soon as they crossed the gangplanks onto the wharf, beside us, they trotted out onto the Undershore, formed up into 3s or 4s, and tottered off, towards Gravesend town centre in a continuous stream. None of them seemed to be in the least interested in insurrection or mutiny; they were too keen to keep warm and huddled together on their march. Their uniforms were in a shocking condition, with the peaks of their field caps all torn and tattered. I recall one who had a very mixed uniform, with a woman’s fur coat, a very manky fox fur, and a woman’s hat, complete with a feather!

The War’s End
Other, more general, memories of Gravesend in wartime include being taken down to the Clock-Tower and my mother paying for me to sit in a war-weary Spitfire that was there as a temporary attraction. There is a photo of that very occasion in a book by Bob Ogley, called Kent at War (p.149); it even looks like me in the cockpit, complete with my school cap on the side of my head. What is not shown in that photo is the poor RAF “erk” who was sitting to one side of the Spitfire. His job was to demonstrate how to mend gunshot damage to aircraft, and as an example he had a Spitfire tailplane beside him with holes punched in it to represent bullet holes. He then demonstrated the patching technique. He invited me to make another hole, using a sharpened piece of steel, and I went berserk, punching a dozen or so, until he persuaded me to stop before the tailplane fell to bits! I also recall being shooed away from the lines of Bren-Gun Carriers that used to be parked near my grandparent’s house in Burch Road. I think they were something to do with the Drill Hall up there, by the old church. I can also recall being with my mother in our back room at The Fairway, Gravesend, watching the lightning in a thunderstorm. There was a barrage balloon on the golf course, which was being winched down, but was not deflated. Suddenly the lightning struck it as we watched. It was terrible to see how nothing seemed to happen at first, but then the whole balloon was lit inside by a massive red glow, visible even through the silvered fabric, then the fire burst through the fabric and burnt the whole thing up in a matter of a few seconds, leaving clouds of small burnt black embers, floating in the wind.
Some of my last memories of the war are the street party on VE day, of which I have a few photos, and coming home one day to find a soldier in my front room, with mum. I thought it was a bit of a cheek for him to be there, until it was pointed out to me that he was my father! I forgave him, because he proceeded to tip up his kitbag, and about a quarter of it was filled with sweets and goodies. He had been round all the American PXs that he could find (in Italy, I think) and he knew that we had had no sweets at all during the war. I was staggered by two things; firstly, the brilliant colours of the wrappers. Everything in wartime was drab, and the contrast was astonishing to me, never having known anything but drabness. Secondly, the tastes and smells, which were staggeringly mouth-watering. Our sugar ration was hopelessly too little to make, or buy, sweets, even if you could find a shop that had any, and we never found one. Mum had tried to make some ice-cream one snowy winter, to show me what it was like, but she put the mixture in a milk bottle and stood it outside on the step. Overnight, it expanded out of the bottle into a long white serpent of creamy milk, which was mostly just ice crystals, and the taste was awful! I used to get exasperated by people telling me how nice bananas were. We couldn’t get any in wartime, and I had to make do with people’s descriptions of the taste of banana. Can you imagine someone describing a completely novel taste? It is impossible, you simply have to taste it to understand what is being described. I must say, it was worth the wait. I must have had my first banana when I was about 10 years old, and I loved it!
All in all, I had a fascinating war, and some of my childhood friends, whom I have met again recently, agreed with me. Some people might be surprised about this, but it was all we knew. That was our world, and it was a very noisy, exciting, and busy one, with lots to watch and wonder at. It only really occurred to me years later that the Germans had been trying to kill me, but they had failed, so here I am today.

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