BBC HomeExplore the BBC
This page has been archived and is no longer updated. Find out more about page archiving.

15 October 2014
WW2 - People's War

BBC Homepage
BBC History
WW2 People's War Homepage Archive List Timeline About This Site

Contact Us

Living Life During World War Two

by frankhubertsmail

You are browsing in:

Archive List > United Kingdom > London

Contributed by 
frankhubertsmail
People in story: 
Frank Hubert Smail
Location of story: 
Medway, Kent
Background to story: 
Civilian
Article ID: 
A5897497
Contributed on: 
25 September 2005

Our wedding day, 21 December 1940

I finished my apprenticeship training as a “Joiner” in Chatham Dockyard on 31 August 1939 and normally would have become a tradesman the following day. However the prospect of war and the resultant need to strengthen the Armed Forces had been realized since the beginning of the year and I was offered the chance to become a draughtsman following my extended training period in the Drawing Office during the 5th year of my apprenticeship due to the shortage of draughtsmen and the length of time it took to become proficient as one.

This was how the war first affected me. Had I remained a joiner I might, as a young man of 22, have been conscripted to join the Armed Forces. I was not, however, immune from serving in other ways to assist the war effort, and over the 5-year period of the war “Reservists were called upon to join other defence organisations such as the Home Guard, Fire services, Street Firewatchers, Ambulance Services etc provided of course your own essential work was not jeopardised. As time went on, women helped out on these sorts of duties, and as a married woman my wife was called on to return to work in the retail shop she had left when we got married. Shops were in having some difficulty in retaining their staff as many young women were being called up or volunteering to join the Forces as "Wrens", "WAAF's" and the Land Army etc. She also had to join Street Firewatcher Parties during the night as joining an Ambulance crew. The fire watch duty had the unofficial ,effect of doubling my own fire watching as, being only just into her 20's, I didn't like the idea of her walking the streets alone at night. Also, whenever my own duties made it possible, I accompanied her to and from her ambulance station which fortunately was within easy reach of our house. We didn't go around in cars in those days and even if you had one you needed to get special permission to use it or buy fuel for it

The purpose of fire watching was to keep a look-out for incendiary bombs. They could be dropped so they fell widely apart or in clusters to "saturate" a smaller area and in residential areas they often lodged in crannies and set roofs alight before anyone in the house was aware they were there. At first the German incendiaries were similar to a giant fireworks and their danger could be reduced by piling sand on top of them to prevent them flaring too much. It was also possible sometimes to use a long-handled scoop to move them to a safer place where there was less chance they would start a large fire. It wasn't long though before the Germans began adding explosives to them, timed to go off several minutes after they had started burning, and this made them much more dangerous to deal with. The fear of widespread fires taking hold was why almost everybody was called upon to do a street fire watching stint.

Although the Dockyard had its own Home Guard unit - [and even had a rifle I heard] - my own HG service was in the Anti-aircraft battery on what was, before being commandeered for war purposes, a golf course. There was also a similar battery on the other side of the River Medway which meant that the town was between two sets of guns. These batteries were not in any way connected with the dockyard, and each was manned by 8 separate “troops” made up of civilians from all walks of life. Each troop had its own hierarchy of Captain, Lieutenant and NCO's who dealt with all matters relating to the 100 or so men of their particular troop. Each troop manned the battery every 8th night from 7pm in the evening until 7am the next morning. We wore full Army uniform [the trousers irritated my skin so much that I was compelled to wear my pyjama bottoms underneath them] and were given a supper and a breakfast. We got no time off our normal job to compensate for any loss of sleep we suffered due to having to turn out whenever enemy aircraft were around, nor was any allowance made for any other commitments you had concerning your job or fire watch duties etc

The regular Army remained responsible for daytime manning of the battery and all matters to do with maintenance of the site and the weapons themselves. They also provided the ammunition and instructed us "Dad's Army Soldiers" how to load and fire the weapon. We were also required to attend various instructional sessions so that we could learn how to assemble our ammunition and what made our weapon "tick". We were also taken to a firing range to practice firing live rounds out to sea.

I found both these operations somewhat scary. Our battery comprised 64 "projectors" each of which fired 2 anti-aircraft rocket-propelled shells to put up a "box barrage" of 128 explosions against the enemy aircraft you were firing at. Each complete "ammunition rocket" comprised a normal A/A shell screwed to an altitude type detonator and a 3ft long cordite tube which provided the motive power required to send the shell "aloft". The detonator regulated the height at which the shell would explode and when fully assembled each "rocket with shell" weighed the best part of a cwt. We were given the task of assembling a large number of these "units" to form a stock-pile of rocket ammunition for use on both the A/A Batteries. The shell and the detonator had to have 2 discs of tracing linen placed between them----.

[As a point of interest, tracing linen was a material formed by coating strong linen cloth with a pale blue coloured, transparent and flexible "wax". It had a matt finish on one side to accept special Chinese tracing ink which was delivered in very hard black sticks, rather like sticks of sealing wax, and had to be ground with a small amount of water in a bowl similar to the action of a mortar and pestle. The ink so produced was very opaque to the bright light of the print machine. Some ship drawings were anything up to 12feet long although I mostly worked on submarines, with somewhat shorter drawings of 6 to 8feet, for the whole time of the war. The tracers were allowed to do nothing but mix their ink for the first hour of the day as it could not be kept overnight. The tracing linen had a matt surface on one side to better take the ink, while the other side had a very smooth and glossy surface to allow it to slide easily through a printing machine to produce good quality "blueprints". It was used extensively by all the Dockyard Drawing Offices in those days by our lady "tracers" who would trace drawings prepared by the draughtsmen to enable as many "blueprint" copies of the original drawing as were required to be made . "Stick" Chinese ink was preferred for making tracings on the tracing linen in preference to the "Indian Ink in bottles that the draughtsmen used to make the original drawing on cartridge paper, because its superior density produced much whiter lines in contrast to the blue background of the print. However it's density required the tips of the drawing pens - the blades of which were shaped rather like two canoe paddles with a screw adjustment bar so that the gap between their tips could be made wider or narrower to draw the thickness of line required - to be kept sufficiently sharp to make good clean lines. When the lady tracers discovered that I was a Joiner by trade and well used to sharpening things like blades and chisels they soon started to bring their pens to me to renovate and I became their acting, unpaid "official" drawing pen restorer!]

To continue----We were instructed to make absolutely certain that the discs were placed shiny side to shiny side as otherwise there was a real risk that friction could later set off the delicate detonator mechanism with potentially disastrous results. On looking around the enormous building we were in, and the large number of part-time "soldiers" from all the troops of both batteries trying to perform this task, I thought of many members of our troop that I knew were completely ignorant of all things technical, and saw the care-free attitude of a lot of them who seemed to regard the whole thing as a bit of a lark, I confess I was a bit worried and was really pleased when that day was over. Thankfully I did not have to do this task again as the next time it became necessary I was in the Command Post.

Our projectors required a "crew" of two - a No1 who received orders from the Command Post via a telephone head-set, of the bearing and elevation to set the projector before firing. His job was to set the elevation and fire the projector when instructed to do so. He also had to relay the required bearing to his No2 to set the bearing required and who was responsible for loading and re-loading the ammunition before and after each salvo. Every projector was independently set so that pairs of shells would explode at different heights and bearings to create a large "Box" of explosions. We practised loading and firing dummy ammunition every time we came on duty - mostly in pitch darkness of course - and I well remember that on one early occasion a real air-raid alert was sounded before we reached our stations and on hearing bombs being dropped I made a dive for cover under something near-by only to discover later that what I thought would provide temporary cover was in fact a large pile of live shells for our projectors!

When the day came for us to practice firing live ammunition for the first time, we were all taken to the test range where there was a single projector facing out to sea. The first two volunteers stepped forward and the rest of us crowded around to watch and await our turn. The Regular Army NCO in charge told us not to worry - "It's just like setting off a large Guy Fawkes firework" - he said. Some Firework! I was among a group of about 10 others standing some 20 feet behind the projector and when it fired there was the most almighty roar and flash coupled with flying stones, smoke and the smell of burning cordite. I heard the chap standing beside me give a sort of yell and he pointed to his mouth. He said two of his front teeth had been knocked out by a flying pebble! We all lost no time in moving much further back. When my turn came to fire I could swear the whole projector lifted a couple of feet off the ground when I pressed the firing lever! That NCO must have been feeling extra helpful that day as he offered some other hints for our well-being. He explained that our rocket propelled ammunition should be loaded by laying each of the 2-shells gently on its set of double rails clear of the electric contacts and then pull it back by a tail fin to make sure proper contact was made. He said that he strongly recommended that this operation should be performed by standing as far as possible to one side and not when you were directly behind the projector. The reason was that if there was a malfunction and the rocket fired accidentally "you stood a good chance of only losing your arm and not your head".
I thought that was very comforting advice!

I was later promoted to Corporal and moved into the Command Post where we tracked enemy aircraft and received orders from a much higher level of command as to if and when we could open fire. The reason for that was because most enemy aircraft were under orders to drop their bombs on London which was only 4 or 5 minutes flight time away. There was also more open country and other defences between the River Medway and London for a safer attack and the other Battery was better situated in that respect than ours was. However there were frequent occasions when the Germans unloaded their bombs in our area after they had been driven off by the London defences and had to head back to their home base to avoid running out of fuel. As a result we were treated to our fair share of bomb damage and casualties then, but because of the danger of us bringing enemy aircraft down in the town we were usually required to wait until they were to the East of our battery where there were more open areas.

My most memorable time manning the Battery was the night the V1 flying bombs were sent over for the first time. Our usual routine had been to arrive at the site for a roll call and parade for our start time of 7pm when we took over from the Regular Army. We had a practice session on the projectors and were then given our supper after which we retired to our quarters to get what sleep we could before the night raids began. We manned the guns if enemy activity was detected until the "All Clear" was sounded. We could then grab a bit more sleep before we were roused to have breakfast and were free to leave at 7am to return to our normal daytime work - which in my case started at 8am. On the night the V1's started we loaded the guns shortly after supper and from then until after 7am the next morning we were unable to stand down due to the number of these "planes" flying over us. At that time we thought these planes were normal aircraft as the existence of the V1's was quite unknown to us. In the Command Post could hear them but could not see them but when we spoke to some of the gunners afterwards they described them as "planes with an engine stuck on top which made a huge flame out the back". [A pretty good description as it turned out] We had our guns loaded and ready to fire many times that night but each time orders came from above to abort. What we didn't know was what we thought were bombers were in fact unmanned 1-ton bombs flying at a speed faster than any of our fighter planes except one. I got my first look at what had been passing overhead for most of the night when I was walking to work after being given my breakfast. On that morning, after the sort of night we'd gone through, breakfast had consisted of a bowl of porridge with a tinned pilchard floating in it - a breakfast I've never forgotten. The cook did however have the decency to apologise, saying it was all he could think of as our troop was well behind time in leaving. I was more than 2-hrs late for work that day.

These "Doodlebugs", as they became nicknamed, were sent over in hundreds at a time and were truly terrifying to Londoners because they arrived at their target with little or no warning. Although they were very noisy in flight, and their sound was very distinctive [just like the 2-stroke motorbikes that were around at that time], they had a fuse operated by a small propeller which automatically primed the explosive some miles short of the target and stopped the engine. The bomb then glided on before another device caused it to drop vertically and explode when it hit the ground. I found a good vantage point overlooking the Weald, from where it was possible see the Balloon Barrage protecting London. Sometimes you could see V1's trying to get through. Once I was picnicking after a swim in the river with some friends, when we saw and heard a fighter plane chasing a V1 in the distance. It had to give up the chase because the V1 got too close to the Barrage. After that little show was over I became aware of a faint "swishing” noise and on looking up we saw another V1, no more than a couple of hundred feet above our heads, gliding in. As we watched, it nose dived into the river and exploded harmlessly about 500 feet away from us. Another time I was in a London Stores in Oxford Street - Selfridges if I remember correctly - and had paid for what I wanted and was waiting for the assistant to give me my receipt when the air raid warning sirens sounded and like a flash every assistant on that floor simply vanished and left the customers to fend for themselves. I was told by somebody afterwards that they had been given authority to go to their designated shelter immediately a warning was sounded and was a graphic illustration of the fear the V1's had generated in London workers in a very short time.

© Copyright of content contributed to this Archive rests with the author. Find out how you can use this.

Archive List

This story has been placed in the following categories.

London Category
icon for Story with photoStory with photo

Most of the content on this site is created by our users, who are members of the public. The views expressed are theirs and unless specifically stated are not those of the BBC. The BBC is not responsible for the content of any external sites referenced. In the event that you consider anything on this page to be in breach of the site's House Rules, please click here. For any other comments, please Contact Us.



About the BBC | Help | Terms of Use | Privacy & Cookies Policy