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2) Life in the shelters

by Genevieve

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Archive List > Childhood and Evacuation

Contributed by 
Genevieve
People in story: 
Raymond John Lawrence
Location of story: 
Neasden, North London
Background to story: 
Civilian
Article ID: 
A6233195
Contributed on: 
20 October 2005

The air raid shelters at Addressograph Multigraph were a fascinating labyrinth of tunnels filled with that cloying odour of concrete dust and humanity. It would unkind in the extreme to talk of ‘unwashed’ humanity, for within the constraints, folk were most ‘particular’. Soap was very hard to come by. We were issued a minuscule ration that was hoarded for clothes washing. I remember Dad boiling a vile smelling mix on the kitchen gas stove in an unsuccessful attempt at soap making from animal fat and wood ash.

Life in the shelters was exciting to us boys. There was the ‘Works’ contingent of the Home Guard. To us, they were ‘soldiers’. Didn't they wear the khaki uniforms? They had none of the ridicule of 'Dad's Army' about them, they were men apart! Held in awe, they had rifles, big, dark wood and black steel. They used to stack them, barrels up, in a corner, about five or six of them. The word was, ‘Keep away!’ and ‘Don't touch them guns sonny!’ To this day I can’t tell you if it was Gerry or me, because the trauma of the noise and subsequent chaos tripped us both into coma. We only touched the trigger, nothing else. We didn't pick ‘em up and wave ‘em around or anything. One of us just reached out and touched a trigger. Just touched it really and it fired into the concrete ceiling. I don't remember much else, as the mind has a subtle defence against that kind of fear. I have taken part in weapons training since with the R.A.F. and I can tell you that a 303 rifle shot in the open air is deafening. At close quarters in the confined volume of the shelters it must have been something of a shock for everyone, to say the least! Frankly, I can't remember. What I do recall however, is that apart from some finger wagging from Mum, little was made of the event by any of the ‘soldiers’. Looking back, this was just as well, as anyone who leaves a loaded weapon, cocked, with safety catch off in a public place with 'kids' around, needs his head examined.

Did the shelters do their job, you might ask? Was all that hassle worth the candle? I suppose it depended where you were, I mean exactly where you were when the bomb actually fell. I can only recall one incident of bombs falling close whilst we were in the shelter: It must have been fairly early evening as the dim yellow lights were still on. We faced each other, like passengers in a crowded tube train; Gerry and I were either side of Mum. The air raid siren had sounded but everything was quite relaxed when the sound of the anti aircraft guns opening up killed the conversation. The random sharp ‘Pang’ and again ‘Pang’ of the guns was suddenly interspersed with a distant ‘Crump’ and conversation died. A brief interval of perhaps three seconds then a markedly louder ‘Crump!’ Then another, even louder, that shook our seats and concrete dust showered down from the roof. My recollection of what happened next is masked by severe pain as Mom grabbed a handful of hair either side and dragged her son's heads to the floor. There was an increasingly loud whistling noise then an almighty ‘Crump!’ A brief pause followed by the rattle of earth falling back onto the shelter roof, and it was all over. Someone falsettoed, “That was close!” and the men popped outside to have a look.

Another time, when we returned from the shelter, we found that the house two doors to the left of our house had vanished overnight, so did the three houses across the road, by the bus stop.

This story was submitted to the People’s War site by Becky Barugh of the BBC Radio Shropshire CSV Action Desk on behalf of Raymond John Lawrence M.B.E and has been added to the site with his kind permission. Mr Lawrence fully understands the site's terms and conditions.

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