It's Sunday September 3rd, 1939, and Neville Chamberlain has contacted Hitler asking him to pull his troops out of Poland, if he didn't, we would be at war with Germany. My Mother has told my Brother and myself that if the war starts we are to come straight home from church, St Augustines, in Victoria Park, where we are both in the choir, because my Uncle Fred had told my Mother that if the war starts, Hitler will send a fleet of bombers over, loaded with GAS.
Recently, I had cycled over to Stratford because the Co-op in the Broadway had bought a load of tin helmets and they were going cheap. I wanted to be prepared.
The vicar climbed the steps up to the pulpit and announced that as the PM's speech would coincide with his own, a radio had been set-up and his speech would be broadcast inside the church. If it meant war, we were all to be given the chance to leave if we wished to.
The Radio was turned on and after the crackles had died down, the announcer told us that the PM was now to make his broadcast message. A hush crept throughout the church and then it came.....
"This is London, you will now hear a statement from the Prime Minister".............then we heard
"I am speaking to you from the cabinet room at ten Downing Street. This morning, the British Ambassador in Berlin handed the German Government a final note stating that unless we heard from them by 11o/clock that they were prepared to, at once, to withdraw their troops from Poland, a state of war would exist between us. I have to tell you that no such undertaking has been recieved and consequently this country is at war with Germany".
You could have heard a pin drop in that church. The wireless was turned off and the vicar then said that if anyone wished to leave, would they now do so quietly and quickly.
My Brother Len' and I didn't need to think about it, we left the choir stalls and just flew back home to Rothbury Road, still dressed in our Cassocks and Surplices.
As soon as we rounded into our turning, there was Mother at the front door telling us to get our skates on as Hitler's bombers were probably well on the way by now.
The shelter was in next door's garden because owing to certain reasons we couldn't have it in ours, and next door to us lived a dear old lady named Liza De'ath, who, needless to say we called, Liza Death.
Liza and my Father were already in the shelter. My Father was blind, not that that is any way part of this tale.
So now Mother, Len and myself are now safely esconced in the 'Tin Coffin', as my Father calls the shelter. It's nicely done out with Bunks and shelves. Mum has tarted it up outside with some flowers and some vegetables.
After a quick look around Mother says, "Right, now, you all know that my Brother Fred has told us that if the war does start, Hitler will have by now dispatched his bombers and they are on their way here, now, and don't you forget, Fred knows what he's talking about, he was in the trenches in the last lot. So I want you all to put your gas masks on now, we don't want to be gassed do we. DO WE", repeats Mother. "No Maud", says Dad. The rest of us all say no, and commence to put our gas masks on.
Suddenly Liza starts crying and very quickly is getting hysterical. "Now come on Liza" says Mum. "Get your gas mask on straight away".
"But I haven't got one", says Liza. "WHAT" says Mum. "What d'you mean you haven't got one". "I just never got one" replies Liza, totally colapsed in tears. "Well" says Mum, "this is a fine thing and no mistake", "well never mind, it's not the end of the world". and with that she turned her attention again to Dad.
"Now you remember what Fred told us about when he was in the trenches, and as how they dealt with this situation Sam"? "Well, go into the corner and take Ralph tin hat down off the shelf and do what you know you've got to do". "WHAT", says Dad,
"Sam" says Mum, don't hang about there, poor Liza could wind up gassed, now get on with it".
Get on with what, I wondered, and where in all of this did my new, my brand new tin hat feature in the scheme of things.
"Now Sam, get on and do what it is you know you've got to do". "Oh alright then", said Dad.
Now I do not expect you to know and don't even expect you to guess just what it was that my Father had to do so I will tell you.
He had to take down my brand new tin hat, never ever been used before and he had to pee in it. And then, if that wasn't enough, my Mother the asked him for his hankie, his nice clean hankie, and she then dipped it into my helmet and soaked it, folded it corner to corner and tied it round Liza's face, just like the Cowboys in the old films, and there Liza stood with this wretched hankie dripping all down her front, whilst all the time she was now screaming and crying all the louder.
This scene lasted a long time until in the end my Father said, agaist all the protestations of my Mother, "I don't give a bugger if I do get gassed but I'm taking this bloody gas mask off right now". "I can't take any more of this sweating and farting everytime you breathe out, it's getting on my wick", and with that he ripped the gas mask off.
Thank God Hitler never heard him otherwise I feel certain he'd have sent more gas bombers over.
As it was, it all turned out to be a false alarm.
We learned later on that the Observer Corps down on the South Coast had misread a signal showing a very large flock of birds and assumed it was the first bomers of the war.