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15 October 2014
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A Wartime Childhood in North Kent - 1942 to 1945

by etherington

Contributed by 
People in story: 
John Robert Etherington
Location of story: 
Village of Higham in North Kent
Background to story: 
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
17 June 2004

The author of this article grew-up in Higham near Rochester in North Kent. He was a pupil at Higham County Primary School until 1948. After, Grammar School in Gravesend and six years at Imperial College, University of London, he has spent the rest of his life in Wales. John Etherington retired from a University of Wales Readership in 1991 and now lives in Pembrokeshire near St Davids.

The years of World War II span a period when life was very different from the present, but also remote from that earlier age of farming and village life, which was ended by railway train and motor car, between the two Wars.

I was born in mid-1937 so my earliest real memories begin at some time during the first two years of the War. Many of them, at first, concern the mundane sights, sounds and smells of everyday life

Mum often took me shopping with her to Rochester where her parents lived. We travelled on a number 26 or 57 Maidstone & District bus, there being no petrol for private cars. It is significant that Mum, a former schoolteacher, never did learn to drive. Today this would be almost unimaginable for an independently minded professional person living in remote countryside.

Dales, the grocer's shop in Rochester, our nearest town, was stacked high with sacks and wooden tubs of flour, sugar, peanut butter and who knows what else? Crystals of sugar crunched on the wax-polished stripwood floor, which was dark with age and a century of spilled foodstuffs. The grocer’s man, Mr Milton, used to call for an order once a week - he came three miles on the bus and walked around the village and outlying houses. Mum would collect the pre-packed order from the town a few days later or sometimes it would be delivered by van.

In the shop, despite the war, chunks of Cheddar cheese and slabs of butter lay on grey-veined white marble slabs, littered with black-handled knives, blades shining and worn thin by repeated sharpening on a steel. The cheese was cut with a wire and toggle, attached to a sycamore board and the butter was slapped into half-pound or pound blocks with wood "bats" which imprinted a pattern on one side.

In the later years of the war, and just after, it was my job to collect the new ration books from the village school. The memory of their manila covers and coloured coupons will be with me forever. We queued for what seemed interminable hours after school - I was in those days a bit of a "mummy's boy" and remember on one occasion becoming quite tearful about being so late. I had almost two miles to walk home, uphill, along overgrown, lonely and woodland-girt lanes.

On those shopping trips we often walked back over Rochester Bridge, crossing the Medway into Strood. This evokes two memories. The first was Short Brothers’ factory on the Rochester Esplanade with constant processions of Sunderland flying boats coming in to land on the river and taxiing up under the bridge to moorings opposite the factory. The second was much more mundane but just as exciting to a kid. Harwoods, one of the big clothing shops in Strood had a splendid overhead wire cable-way for transporting containers of receipts and money back and forth between the counters and the cash-office. This inspired several model imitations, which moved objects around my bedroom!

I first went to the village school in 1942. Air-raid shelters had been built in the school playgrounds during the first year of the war. Of yellow London-clay bricks with a reinforced concrete slab roof, they were never much used for their real purpose, despite the fact that we were in the middle of "bomb alley". Later on they were the scenes of many scary playtime games and the less sinister "kiss chase" of the older boys and girls (who remained until 14 in those far-off days). Sadly, some of the older boys also used the shelters as "torture chambers" to indulge in various physical and psychological bullying of the little ones. Today, I suppose, this would have made headlines, but then it was just part of village life.

Milk was transported from the farms in shiny steel churns. I can remember the crash of these on cobbled yards or as they struck each other. The sound is a vivid memory, now echoed in the dray-man's handling of modern aluminium beer kegs. Deliveries of milk were from a jug, dipped in a churn on the front of Mr Thompson’s pedal-tricycle, or in bottles which he carried in a couple of galvanised milk crates as well! These were quarts or pints, whilst our school milk came in third-pints. All had waxed cardboard milk caps about one and a half inches in diameter with a push-out centre designed for pouring - ideal for a straw in the case of school-milk.

The milk caps carried coloured adverts for the various farms and dairies. They were avidly collected and used for a competitive game in which the winner was the boy who could flick his milk cap the furthest - winner takes all (for some reason girls did not seem to play this, or several of the other competitive games). I was more interested in collecting than competing and finally accumulated a hundred or more of the coloured, faintly milk-smelling discs. I wonder if there are any left? - unlike aluminium milk caps they rotted away when discarded.

One local farm had a dairy, which bottled and delivered its own milk. Quart bottles came in metal crates of twelve - they must have weighed more than 50lb but, by the time we were 15 we could stack them to head-height. To tell the truth, I could only do this a few times but my best friend, nephew of the dairyman, seemed able to stack all morning as the bottles were filled, and then load them onto the little Morris delivery van. No pasteurising in those days, though the side of the van bore a notice saying that the herd was "Tuberculin tested". It was literally a cow to bottle operation.

From the time of going to school I walked the 2 miles back and forth, and when I was about seven, graduated to a bicycle. From that time we roamed further and further, very quickly getting to know all of the woodland and marshland within about 3 miles of home. When weekends and holidays came we extended the study to more miles and down to the last square inch. Nearly sixty years later, I can still visualise individual tree trunks, bushes and stones, streams, farms and wild flowers in their precise setting. No one objected, so long as we did no damage and did not steal too many apples. Fear of local PC Perch certainly prevented me from doing so, even though his son was in my class at school.

North Kent was part of “bomb alley”, so attack from the air was never far from mind. If it was not bombing it was poison gas (which never happened), a steady rain of missiles - shell cases and shrapnel which we kids avidly collected, and then in the later years, the doodlebugs (the V1 flying-bomb), followed by the scarier V2 rockets.

At first I had a red "Mickey mouse" gas-mask before it was replaced by a grown-up. Next door to Wyman’s, the village butcher's shop, which I passed on the way to school, was a sloping grey-green board, which, it was said, would change colour during a gas attack. As this was a mile away from school I remember wondering how we would know!

At least the red and grey air--raid siren on a pole just round the corner was audible for miles! Its rising-falling howl for an air raid, and steady wail of “all clear” is unforgettable and still prickles the hairs on the back of my neck. We seemed to have heard it most nights at one time, followed by the explosions of anti--aircraft shells overhead, which sounded like large timbers "clonking" against each other. Dad said that they were from the Dillywood battery a couple of miles away.

No one worried about the possibility of abduction or assault; neither did they seem to worry unduly about the bombs and missiles that rained from the skies. More than once, miles from home, we watched the puttering V-1's speed overhead with their stabbing white exhaust flame just waiting to cut-out and blow us all to kingdom come - and still no one worried (or did our parents protect us from their darker thoughts?).

By the summer of 1944 the sky was studded with silver barrage balloons - I lay on my back in the sun for hours, surrounded by the yellow hawkweed flowers of the uncut lawn, looking at the glittering pattern of balloons, but with no recollectable fear.

I knew what the balloons were for, as it created another unforgettable memory. One day at playtime we saw a doodlebug strike the mooring-cable of a balloon which was tethered in the chalk quarry below the school. The flying-bomb spun out of control toward the distant river Thames where it exploded near Cliffe and, for the next hour, the balloon gradually sagged to the ground. A loop of its cable short-circuited the electricity wires outside the playground with brilliant and exciting fireworks! No one told us how dangerous it was, or took us away from the display!

A small “kite” balloon was moored to a winch beside the lane, which linked our house to Upper Higham village. I passed it daily on the way to school, and often watched it being hauled down for a hydrogen refill - no Health and Safety in those days! So far as I know, this one never caught anything, and certainly missed the doodlebug that destroyed a neighbour’s house and took the life of old Mr Dooley. The blast also damaged the roof of our bungalow which, very likely remains slightly displaced to this day. One of the valley-gutters leaked occasionally, ever after, though I think mum and dad received “The War Damage” reparation payment after the War.

My bedroom had a large window of small-panes, facing directly toward this exploding missile and the bed was showered thousands of tiny fragments. I don’t remember being frightened, but recollect my very scared parents preventing me from moving amongst the razor-sharp shards. I emerged unscathed from what must have been the first near-death experience of my life.

Another flying-bomb struck a large ash tree on Telegraph Hill above the village whilst we were all in the garden one summer morning. I remember being knocked flat by my older brother, to avoid the blast which broke a few of our windows from a mile distance. The shattered skeleton of the tree gradually re-sprouted new branches and leaves during the next ten years, before I left home forever. A re-birth, if ever there was one.

My brother, luckily for him, was not 18 until after the end of the war in 1945. He of course had roamed the country much more widely than I could and I envied his collection of deadly artefacts. A ‘landmine’ parachute cord and an entire but de-gutted incendiary bomb took pride of place, together with fragments of torn metal ‘shrapnel’, brass shell cases and metal-foil strips (which had been dropped to interfere with radar, we were told).

Looking back, I realise that many of these bits and pieces must have been parts of tragedy. Occasionally I must have known so, even then. I can still smell the burned-oil stink of a crashed aircraft beside the road at Shorne and remember the blood smears on its mangled fuselage.

That memory also reminds me that steel posts, with stranded wire strung between them, were erected in the large arable fields between Higham and Shorne. As a child I was told this was to deter parachutists but recollecting with hindsight the gliders of the Normandy landings, I suspect it was more probably an anti-glider measure. Some of the cables remained rotting on the ground at least until the1960s.

We, of course, saw some of the Allies’ invasion gliders towed from the airfields of the South East. At the time it was just another exciting bit of air activity for us kids. Now I think more of the gut wrenching fear, which all those youngsters must have felt as they were launched into an unknown hell.

Our bungalow had fantastic views down over the long slope to the North Kent Marshes, with the Thames winding across the whole 180-degree vista. In the weeks before the gliders came, we had watched great grey concrete ‘boxes’ towed down river - the building blocks of Mulberry Harbour. I didn’t know at the time, but I believe they were fabricated at a riverside site near Tilbury.

That same panorama included the distant oil storage tanks of Shellhaven and Canvey Island (indeed our house was named ‘Canvey’as Mum and Dad had loved the view since clearing the land of chestnut trees in the 1920s). On a couple of occasions when the bombers came, the remote silvery glistening tanks were replaced by a huge rippling tower of black oil smoke with orange-red tendrils of flame at its base. Ten miles away, but still a monstrous thing.

Probably the last of these vignette memories, before war ended, was the tiny RAF monoplane which made a forced landing in the great field below our garden. It must have been an observation aircraft - similar to an Auster, and landed safely on the field which had been harrowed and rolled after sowing. We kids talked every day to the two bored soldiers, set to guard it - what else had they to do? Then, one afternoon it disappeared whilst I was at school, with just the tyre-tracks to say it was not an exciting dream.

Today I still live in the deep countryside of West Wales and rarely think of that remote time. We cycle quite often here but meet only holidaymakers, rather than local people and see few children bicycling or roaming alone. The children of the farms live something more of the old life but, once they can drive, the tractor and headphone oust the countryside. Safety regulations have ensured that farm workers no longer smell the air or hear the birds.

Because of this, we probably know more of the nooks and crannies of the fields, which surround our home than does the farmer who owns them. He probably never sees the peregrines and harriers, buzzards and kestrels with which we are blessed, nor hears the reeling of the grasshopper-warblers or the "scratchy" cries of the whitethroats. The spotted orchids in his drainage ditches would be a surprise, the polecats and their "kits" are long- gone when a tractor approaches and the moss and pennywort-filled grottoes under the hedges are only seen by the walker.

Have we gained as much as we have lost? I for one find that question very difficult to answer - but freedom from drudgery, anaesthetics and medical care seem to be the greatest recommendation of our 21st century! And, of course, we have managed to avoid a world-engulfing war for almost 60 years.

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