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- 03 November 2004
This is a segment from my self published autobiography. You are welcome to use it if considered suitable. Colin Piper.4-10-04.
'1939', I had turned eleven in the August just gone. As far as I can remember, it had been a beautiful summer, and in fact this September Sunday was also a beautiful day. I had gone on my bicycle to visit my Great Aunt, who lived with my Great Uncle in a lovely old Sussex flint cottage about a mile away from my home. Walking or cycling, this was always a pleasant journey, next to no traffic on the roads. The trees and bushes along the way were alive with birds and insects, all singing, chirping, buzzing or clicking according to their nature. Together they provided a soothing cacophony of sound, keeping you company this sleepy warm day, as you travelled the narrow roads that comprised a lot of the thoroughfares of the day.
There had been talk of war most of which had gone over my head; when I heard the air raid sirens wailing as I rode home, my thoughts were, just another practice . On arriving home I was to discover that in fact war had been declared that morning and the sirens, although I think later to be found a false alarm, were in fact genuine.
The thought of war I found to be a sort of scary excitement, I think it was just the vibes picked up from the general atmosphere. Nobody knew what was going to happen, and everybody was very apprehensive .
My life didn't change very much to begin with; I still went to school as usual, as did all the other kids as far as I could see. The momentum of the 'War Effort' slowly started to build up, various new activities began to occupy everybody's time.
To me, the next most exciting episode was the building of the back garden air raid shelter. I lived with my parents, two brothers and a sister in what was basically a three up three down solid brick and tile house. It was quite attractive with lots of character; it had dark earthy colouring and looked as though it could sit there for ever. Actually I think a correction is in order, I said I had two brothers at home, but by this time my eldest brother had joined the RAF and was gone, not to be seen again for four years.
At the bottom of the back garden was a large cherry tree. It was under, or at least pretty close to the base of this tree that the dugout was to be built. My next up Brother and I were to be the main excavators of the hole. I couldn't wait to get to work, for it to be actually approved of that I should dig a huge hole in Dads back garden was too good to be true.
As the hole got deeper, the ground changed from a loamy topsoil to a fairly heavy clay. Even after all these years I can still remember that it was 'Bloody Hard Work'!! but work to be gloried in because it was work I could do that was important!
As soon as I got home from school I would be down the hole and into it, soon lovely and dirty and having a whale of a time. The deeper it got the harder and harder time I had, trying to throw the clay up and over the top.
My brother Frank, five years my senior, did a bit of digging, but often seemed to have a lot of homework that had to be done when it was digging time; also he attended 'Worthing High School' which meant travelling to and fro by train, this took some of his after school time. I think father dug more of it than I would have liked to admit at the time.
So the hole was finally finished, it was about ten feet long, five wide and six foot six inches deep. As it had been dug under Fathers watchful eye, he had made sure that all of the sides were straight and all the corners square.
The next stage was that my Brother and I with a borrowed handcart, were sent off on numerous trips to the local 'Didicoy's' junk yard where, by arrangement with father, we were loaded up with heavy timbers, planks and corrugated iron. As each trip was about a mile each way, this was also very hard work for an eleven year old.
These trips were an adventure in themselves. Just to enter the yard and walk past the beautifully painted and decorated Gipsy caravans, all with highly polished copper and brass water containers on their doorsteps. There were never many people in evidence, a few women and children looking out of van doorways, and of course the man we had to see. There were always several mean and hungry looking dogs around; I was never scared of dogs so they didn't bother me. I think maybe Frank wasn't quite so confident, but they always let us in, and out, without much of a protest.
Father was a highly skilled wood worker and the next stage of construction was just about all his. This kind of rough old woodwork was a bit of an insult to his skills, but at least we were to end up with the best built dugout for miles around.
The last stage was mostly mine, this was to shovel the earth back over the top and make it look neat and tidy. I spent a long time finishing it off as that was the end of the job; I had enjoyed doing it and was quite sorry it had finished.
It’s a shame what age can do to us. A while ago I spoke with my Brother, my fellow worker on the project and he could not remember working on it at all. Maybe because he didn't like delving in the dirt like I did.
While we were digging the hole the poor old cherry tree got its roots severely pruned. It had never produced more than a handful of cherries and we thought we had probably finished it off as it was very old, but lo and behold, it took on a new lease of life and increased its output tenfold. We always looked forward to these cherries as they were one of the big black-fleshed variety with a beautiful flavour.
Still on the subject of air raid shelters, these mounds of earth were popping up in backyards everywhere. Over a period of time I got to visit a lot of them and it was curious to note that they all seemed to reflect the character of their builders. As an example, men who worked for the railways seemed to have done all sort of things with old railway sleepers. Certainly they had easy access to them, but I believe not just because of this, but maybe because of the many hours on so many days that the men spend at work, they seem to develop an affinity to the things they work with. My Father loved wood, and no matter how small, hoarded every piece that might be useful one day.
Later on there were a lot of government supplied 'Air Raid' shelter kits, known as 'Anderson' shelters. These were probably more efficient but didn't have any character. I suppose the early dugouts could be likened to the good old Aussie out back dunny, (Toilet to the uninitiated). Every builder had his own idea of what it should look like, but the basic purpose was the same.
I can't remember accurately, but it must have been quite a long time before the shelter was used for it's intended purpose. This was probably just as well as in those early days there was very little in the way of defence against air attack. ‘Woolworths’ was the biggest flat roofed building in 'Shoreham-by-sea'. On this roof was our total ground to air defence, one ‘Lewis’ machine gun on a tripod. Some of the small merchant ships that used the local harbour also had a machine gun.
The house holders of course were not the only ones building shelters, during this time large concrete mounds were appearing all over the place. Five such large dark damp monsters grew across the back end of our school playing field. As time went by us kids got to know the inside of them only too well.
You went down about six steps to go in, inside was like a long dark damp tunnel. There was an entrance at each end, at each of these there was a sharp turn, this supposedly to deflect bomb blast. The walls were lined with wooden forms and the place was lit by two ‘parafin’ (‘kerosine’ to an Aussie,) hurricane lamps.
From memory I think each shelter held about thirty kids, so you can imagine how little scope the teachers had for trying to keep us occupied, sometimes for hours on end.
Early on in the war a friend and I had been to the local cinema, we were walking home about ten PM when the air-raid siren went. Not knowing what to expect, it was all still very new to us, we headed for the nearest public air-raid shelter; it was the cellar under a Pub, proper shelters not yet having been built.
Once we got accustomed to the gloom inside this damp cold place, we could see that the only other occupants were two couples, who obviously had things other than air-raids on their minds. We sat there getting bored stiff, and very worried as to what our parents would be thinking. After about an hour, during which time, we hadn't heard a sound remotely like an aircraft, we said, "To heck with it, lets go home".
You live and learn; I don't think I ever went into a public shelter again; from then on we just carried on, diving for cover if anything came to close for comfort.
The unfortunate people who lived in cities being Blitzed would tell you a different tale. They sometimes had bombers overhead nearly all night, and were glad to go to the shelters to try and get a bit of sleep in relative safety, hoping they would still have a home when they emerged. Most people still had to go to work next day.
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