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- People in story:
- Small Boy
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- 15 November 2003
I was nine years old when the Second World War ended so you can see that my memories of the Home Front were of a young boy of Infant School age. We lived in Horsham, West Sussex. This was an area where the German armies would, most probably, have invaded England in the early years of the war.
It was an area where strong defences had been laid out against invading troops. Near our home we had barbed wire strung out alongside the road and trenches just yards away from our house.
Nearby there were pill boxes or block houses, as they were sometimes called. In a nearby field there were small corrugated-roof ammunition dumps all ready for use. Along the border of a nearby field a stream had been dug out to form a tank trap
to help foil the advance of tanks. My friends and I used to watch German prisoners of war being marched up and down our road to dig tank traps,
trenches and other defences. We used to 'sneak'
them an apple to eat as they passed by.
Upon the hill, not far away was a Canadian army camp where the soldiers spent some weeks in training prior to being transported to fight with
the allies on D-Day and later in France. We
swapped apples with the guards in exchange for cigarette cards and had a chat with them on many
There were times when the soldiers would steal our neighbours' hens from their chicken run during the night. I remember the local 'bobby' spending one night hiding in wait to catch them at it but without success. My mother also kept hens to ensure that she always had eggs to supplement our food rations. She used to glean corn from the local field after the harvest to feed her poultry. My father was in the R.A.F. and so looking after the family and my elderly grandmother fell almost entirely upon her. However when Dad came home on leave he helped to dig our allotment and tend the vegetables so that we had enough to keep us going.
During the early years of the war I had to walk to Infant School, as distance of about one mile. I usually went with my friends, down the road across some fields and by the tank trap where we often slid down the banks on our way home after school. We carried our gas masks over our shoulders. My mother told me to lie flat should an attacking German aeroplane appear overhead.
At school we had our lessons and at least once a week we had gas mask practice. We were taught how to fit our gas masks over our heads correctly. When there was an air raid the sirens would sound and our teacher would quickly usher us across the playground into the shelters which were half submerged under the ground. The teacher lit the hurricane lamps and fixed them to the ceiling whilst we sat on concrete benches in the semi-darkness waiting for the 'all clear' to sound. To keep us occupied we would chant our tables, have spelling practice or be told a story.
School dinners were pretty awful. I remember trying to swallow some gristly meat and beetroot before the supervising teacher arrived at my table. Should I swallow it or suffer a blow across my back for not doing so? I decided to attempt the operation and to this day can still experience the ghastly feeling of the gristle passing down my gullet.
At home we had a Morrison shelter, built of a steel frame and with a metal roof. It stood about waist high and had wire mesh sides. Inside it had a hair mattress, wide enough to sleep about three people. My mother, sister and initially grandmother slept in there during air-raids. However, as grandma had difficulty in stooping down and was often too late for the start of the air-raids my mother made her a place to sit on a chair in the stair cupboard.
I remember one air-raid in particular when the deep-throated noise of German bombers was sounding above the house. We listened from our bed in the shelter. Suddenly the whole house shook. A bomb had fallen at the far end of the field which we crossed on our way to school. We were so relieved when the noise of the aircraft faded into the night and we were still safe.
The Battle of Britain was very visible where we lived. We saw many dog-fights in the skies above us and for a young boy they were exciting to watch. On one occasion, during early morning there appeared, without any warning, flying at tree level, a German fighter plane being tailed by a Spitfire. What excitement and fear at the same time! I had taken the day off from school with a 'suspect' tummy ache (I could fool my mother sometimes but not always!). The German plane was firing canon shot as it flew over the tree tops and the chasing Spitfire was probably waiting until it could safely shoot down the plane away from the town. Next morning at school there was a buzz of excitement as my mates told me that they were under their desks, there being no time to go to the shelters,when a cannon shattered the window and went into the blackboard of the classroom. Other houses had received damage from this attack. I believe that the Spitfire shot down his victim in the end.
On another occasion, just before blackout time, I was with my mother and sister in our lounge when there was a roar of aircraft engines in the sky. Suddenly there was a massive explosion as two aircraft collided with each other, right in front of our view. The sky lit up with a blaze of light, one fireball descended to the west and the other to the east. Huge explosions and tongues of fire leapt into the sky where the two planes hit the ground. The ammunition from the planes sent up a memorable and massive 'firework display' which lasted for what seemed to be ages. It gave me a sense of awe but terrifing at the same time. My mother put my grandmother in charge of my sister and I and went out into the night to see if any of the pilots had bailed out. She was gone for over an hour. She wondered if they might be lying injured,unseen and needing help. The pilots were not found at that time but a year later when the farmer was bringing in the harvest he found the body of a German pilot in the field. Evidently he had bailed out from his plane and, of course, did not survive.
When the 'Doodle Bugs' (or Flying Bombs) started to fly over, replacing the attacks of the German bombers, there was a little less nervousness of their danger. They were generally aimed at London and ony a few which had fown off course or had run out of fuel would fall in our area of Sussex. We used our ears at night to listen to the Doodle Bug's engine to see if would stop. Then it was time to be frightened! When this happened we waited for the explosion to come as it hit the ground. When they came over, guns fired at them and I remember watching with my grandmother as one passed overhead whilst we were going for a walk. Puffs of exploding shells, fired from a battery near the town, appeared around the bomb but all missed and it passed on its way to cause probable damage in London. During the night searchlights would scan the sky to spot the flying bombs and we could hear our guns firing at them.
During the last two years of the war we watched wave after wave of our bombers flying overhead on their way to bomb Germany. Their return was always of interest as some of the aircraft had their engines shot up and not working. We looked up and made a guess on whether or not they would make it back to their airfield.
The war was particulary hard for my mother. She was anxious for my father's safety and for the safety of her family. I guess that she was most worried in the early years of the war on the threat of a German invasion. Had this happened our chances or survival would have been significantly reduced.
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