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In March 1939 I was 17 and became a Post Office telephonist in Wimbledon near London. Six months later, on September 3rd, we listened to the radio at 11 a.m. to hear our Prime Minister, Mr. Chamberlain, tell us that we were at war with Germany. Just half an hour later, we were to hear an Air Raid warning for the first time; fortunately it was a false alarm. From that day, we were on a war footing; all windows were to have black-out curtains, no lights were to be shown and street lamps were put out. All London school children under 14 were evacuated to country areas, air-raid shelters dug in parks, public buildings sand-bagged and we were all issued with gas-masks. Rationing began: first food; later clothes and materials; ration books were issued, also identity cards. For the first 6 months nothing much happened, but from March 1940 bombing raids began. The telephone exchanges were first to get notice of these from R.A.F. H.Q. at Stanmore. We passed this onto the police who set the sirens wailing.
Barrage balloons now ringed London to stop low level attacks and that summer was fought out the so-called 'Battle of Britain'. The Germans sent over great numbers of planes but, warned by coastal radar and guarded by a wonderful plane called the Spitfire, they were gradually beaten. The climax came on Sunday, September 15th. The day was clear and we could see our planes chasing the Germans by the vapour trails in the sky. We were told our boys shot down 175 enemy planes that day. After that the Germans turned to night bombing of London.
On land earlier that summer our soldiers had to be evacuated from Dunkirk on the French coast, for the French had surrendered, leaving thousands of our men stranded. Aided by the Royal Navy, an armada of little ships, manned by brave civilians, rescued them. Even so, many lost their lives as the Germans bombed the evacuation beaches continuously. Altogether some 333,000 were saved.
On August 15th 1940 I was at home with my mother when the air-raid warning went at 4.30 p.m. In the distance, we heard a low hum like a hive of bees, gradually coming nearer. My mother hurried to take in her washing as she 'didn't want to get it shot through'. Soon the German planes were passing overhead dropping bombs and machine gunning our houses. I suppose it only lasted a short time, but it seemed never ending. Then, just an eerie silence. I went to look out of the window, but it was just a thick fog where the bombs had sent up so much earth. The bombing of London was haphazard. One night the main target was the East End docks. I was at the Exchange and in the distance it looked like a huge sunset - dockland was on fire! We were bombed every night in London and other cities. Many people were killed or injured. In one incident a bomb hit Balham Underground Station; a bus driving by couldn't stop in time and went down the crater.
A funny incident occurred as I walked home one winter night in 1941, though it didn't seem so at the time. We'd had a heavy fall of snow and the ground was white and frozen (and, of course, there were no lights). I got to a crossroads where we had a number of tank traps; these were solid lumps of concrete about 4 foot high. As I went to cross, I saw a dark shape lying on the ground by one of them. There wasn't a soul about, so thinking it might be a drunk, I walked on. Then I thought, perhaps someone might have been taken ill from the bitter cold. I re-crossed the road and went back to see if I could help. I must say I was very scared as I approached, ever more slowly, the still, black body lying there. As I got close, it got up and trotted away! It was a big dog, perhaps waiting for someone.
In 1944 our forces and the Americans landed in France again on 6th June and on the 15th the Germans launched the first of their Flying Bombs or V1s. On the 18th one fell near my home. It was said each one broke all windows for a square mile round. There were very many in number flying all over the sky as, once launched, they were uncontrollable and kept on going till their fuel ran out, when they fell to earth and exploded. But worse was to come - the V2s, rockets that exploded before you knew they had arrived, since they travelled faster than sound. The strange thing was that we heard them coming after the explosion. Our Government had known the Germans were building some sort of long-range bomb and continuously bombed what was thought to be its testing site at Peenemunde on the Baltic Coast. Fortunately, our troops in France and Belgium soon began to overrun the launching sites and, after many set backs, brought the war to a close.
On 8th May 1945, we all heard our air-raid sirens sound the last 'All Clear'. Joining them were all the church bells, silent for so long, ringing out the joyous news of victory.
I was was born in the light industrial town of Luton, Bedfordshire, England in 1928 when Luton was known for Vauxhall cars and a third division football club. The boy was born to an Irish mother and an English father who grew up in a small village and joined the army when he was 18 to see the world.
A picture of myself and my sister standing by my dad's ice-cream van at Luton, Bedfordshire. I believe it was taken in 1938 or 1939 just before the war started. Dad went off to the army the first day war was declared and there was no more ice-cream until 1945.
The boy saw little of his father through his teens, because his father was in the army fighting WW11. His father was an extremely honorable hard workingman who climbed his way through the ranks to the position of Regimental Sergeant Major in the RASC. The boy had the utmost respect for both of his parents.
The school leaving age in those days was 14 and the boy's father arranged for him to stay on another year hoping to improve his knowledge. Although the boy tried as hard as everyone else, the information just went in one ear and out the other as though there was nothing in between to absorb it. He was never a good student and the crowded school conditions caused by the evacuees from London during the war exacerbated the situation. However the truth of the matter was that the boy just didn't have what it takes, which they now say is the result of unfair genomes distribution (Biological makeup). So what he's trying to say, is being a dum-dum wasn't his fault and he's not guilty your honor.
The backslider's problem was mainly a lack of recall and his spelling, which was atrocious and although he improved it considerably over the years, it is still atrocious. These shortcomings affected many other things and most importantly discouraged him from pursuing further education. An example of the difficulty caused by his problem, was the boy's failure to pass the Morse code and Semaphore tests in the Sea Cadets. If he could remember the codes, he couldn't spell the words and if he could spell the words, he couldn't remember the codes.
He was never keen on history and considered it to be dull chronological events of the past, which had no importance in his life. No one made him aware that if you don't learn from the past you are doomed to repeat some of the bad parts - Now practiced with regular monotony by heads of state that know the history, but just ignore it.
Unsupervised during the war the boy enjoyed the company of numerous kids from the neighborhood and had many friends, however his closest companion was always trouble, which just followed him around all the time. Climbing over fences, he was always the one to tear his pants and cuts and bruises were a way of life. He was a menace with fireworks and enjoyed all the other questionable boyhood activities.
Being a rather small boy was a disadvantage at the hands of bullies and not appreciating their attention he devised ways to thwart them. One such ingenious idea was to run away, which was not very successful, because they could always run faster than him. Realizing that the aforementioned scenario could be turned into an advantage, the boy modified the exercise by stopping in full flight and rolling himself up into a ball.
The result was that the pursuer, running at full speed, couldn't stop and would run right into the back of him and emulate a glider for a few feet before dropping to the ground with an agonizing thud. (Don't try this at home!) From then on these bullies passed him on the other side of the street as if they didn't recognize him. The boy will always have fond memories of the first flyer whose name was Reggie Peat, but he doubts if Reggie shares his sentiment.
The boy's father told him that bullies are cowards and insisted that he punch them straight in the nose whenever they attacked him in the future and the advice turned out to be as good as the source. It goes without saying that the bullies were the biggest boys in the school and were considered the best fighters. Armed with the experience gained from combating the bullies on the street, some instruction and encouragement from his father, the boy was well prepared when he started school. One at a time the boy put the aggressors in their place with his speed and skill and undaunted determination, which was lacking in his adversaries. It became apparent they didn't have the stomach for this activity when it wasn't going in their favor and to assure that it never would, he was motivated to continue improving his skills. The unexpected outcome of all this physical stuff, which was basically all self-defense up until this point, was that other boys who he had no quarrel with also challenged him to fight. Never one to back down, he always convinced the antagonists of the error of their ways and was eventually considered the schools ' best fighter.' The major benefit of this exalted position, which carried a lot of respect, was that he was no longer picked on and seldom required to defend himself.
As some of us find out when we are complacent, things have a way of changing and the evacuees from London during the war altered the routine at school for a long time. First the evacuees would use the school in the mornings and the natives in the afternoons, and then it was changed to alternate days, which remained. The large influx of evacuee children included many with pugilistic aspirations and the contenders for the 'best fighter' title began to surface. It was not unlike the Wild West movies where ambitious gentleman in spurs challenged each other to gunfights to satisfy their egos. Groups of evacuees would lay in wait for the titleholder and the hopeful contender would offer up customary insults in the best Marquis of Queensbury tradition, until there was an exchange of bare knuckles. Again the boy exceeded expectations and maintained his title until moving on to secondary school. There his reputation preceded him and the Wild West nonsense started all over again. After a number of altercations the folk hero worshippers bestowed the questionable title of 'Best fighter' on him again, where it remained.
Later the boy enjoyed the sport of boxing where he developed an excellent defense as a result of his natural instincts and fast reactions, which saved his bacon on a number of occasions outside of the ring when particularly large individuals became physical. For reasons, which he never understood and could only assume that it was the embarrassment in front of people, these large antagonists would cease and desist, when they were unable to connect with his swift moving frame after a certain period of time.
The boy who tried his luck at amateur boxing received a swelling on one of his ears and was told that the next time it happened it would have to be lanced resulting in a wrinkled configuration known as the cauliflower ear. Not wishing to be known as the greengrocer, he quickly found other interests outside of the ring. He was no angel and derived satisfaction from the pure skill of boxing, never liked hurting people, never struck anyone first outside of the ring and always disengaged at the first opportunity.
His first commercial venture was in the newspaper business as a private contractor, which he felt was an honorable profession and his propensity for hard work and natural business acumen was a good formula for success. He chose this enterprise because he owned the necessary transportation and the merchandise was available at no charge. Unfortunately it was a seasonal business, which was not exactly what he wanted, but he made the best of it while it lasted. It was actually a two-part operation starting in the beginning of November and finished abruptly on the 5th. The first part was to position his soapbox cart with a stuffed effigy at a busy intersection and suggest passers by contribute a penny for the Guy and you know who the guy was! The other side of the business which was equally as lucrative was to collect newspapers door to door for the bonfire on the 5th and sell them to the fish and chip shops for 1 penny a pound. He wasn't concerned that the newspapers were not being used for the implied purpose, because he felt that there was something immoral about burning items which could be put to better use such as keeping fish and chips warm for the populace and providing sweets for small boys. It was also felt that no one would really mind except Guy Fawkes, who probably enjoyed fish and chips in his day also.
He was an industrious boy, which was the only trait in common with his father, but most of what he learned was obtained the hard way. The following story is a good example: A neighbor gave the boy a metal fireplace surround, telling him to sell it to the scrap yard and keep the money, which the boy did and received 2 shillings. Seizing on the opportunity to get rich, the boy organized a number of friends with soapbox carts to scour the countryside for old metal parts. At the end of the day they converged on the scrap yard with their carts piled high with metal, where the man placed it all on a large scale and handed them 4 pennies. "How can that be" remarked the boy, "You paid me 2 shillings yesterday for only one piece of metal." The man patiently explained that the fire surround was made of brass, which has a much higher value than the other stuff, which was iron and steel. The boy then realized why the metal was dumped in the fields in the first place. Now being able to relate to the subject, the boy had no difficulty learning about the characteristics and value of metals and alloys. One thing about learning the hard way is that you rarely forget it!
While the boy was growing up his father was away in the army. When the father returned, the boy was busy chasing the girls, drinking and gambling. His father, a man of few words, gave him little advice, but what he did tell him turned out to be pearls of wisdom. On reflection, the boy couldn't have been all that stupid, because chasing the girls, drinking and gambling has remained some of the most exciting pursuits for the male persuasion.
What compares with beautiful females and their stimulating effects? What compares with the pleasure of drinking with good company and the excitement of winning money? Few would turn away from fast horses, friendly women and a little libation!
The boy the army conscripted the same month he turned 18 in 1946 was a 5 feet 5 inch healthy lad with a premature receding hairline. He was almost completely uneducated, having forgotten much of what he learned in school, but he was somewhat wise in the ways of the street after wasting his youth in places like billiard halls and gambling with unsavory characters. The boy's only accomplishment was learning the art of fisticuffs, which gave him a needed confidence and although he respected everyone, he feared no one - A mindset, which has disadvantages, but probably an asset on balance.
Another shortcoming causing the boy a lot of difficulty later in life was his reluctance to accept nonsense from people. He could only hold his feelings in for a certain period of time and eventually would have to blurt out something regrettable. He resented insincerity, politics and politicians - people of little substance, manipulators, Philadelphia, small dogs and the army. Not necessarily in that order. He empathized with the less fortunate, always believing - ' There but for the grace of god go I.'---- Unknown.
Continually in trouble as a boy and recalling some of his exploits in latter years he asked his father how bad he really was when he was young. "You were never malicious," replied his dad, which was an exceptionally welcome compliment.
I have a many more stories, true accounts of the ridiculous situations the boy experienced in the British army 1946-1949, which now appear incredulous and funnier in retrospect. Army life would have been so much more acceptable had the humorous events been fully appreciated at the time. On second thoughts they probably would have certified him for being a laughing idiot! - So swing the lamp and come with him on a journey into another place and another time. Enjoy reading his memoirs as he did recalling and writing them.
A LIGHTED MEMORY OF WHAT MAY HAVE BEEN ....THE BATTLE OF BRIGHTON
There have been many famous battles fought by the British throughout history, and many people will know of the exploits of the Royal Air Force in the Battle of Britain, or the eight Army in the Battle of El Alamain in North Africa. There have been many war time conflicts that have not been so well recorded and but for the prescience of sheer good fortune did not occur. The Battle of Brighton was one of them. Well it wasn't actually Brighton it was Hove, well almost; it was a little to the west of Hove, Portslade on Sea to be precise. Although no battle actually occurred, there may have been one, and if there had been, well my two service mates and myself would have been in the thick of it in the autumn of 1943.
Like so many other youngsters at the beginning of the war, I could not wait until I was old enough to join one of the Services. In retrospect, foolishly thinking that it would be an exciting adventure. As soon as it was possible I volunteered for the Royal Navy at the age of seventeen but did not receive my calling up papers until a day or two after I had reached eighteen years of age. Overjoyed at receiving the long awaited notice, ordering that I report to Chatham Royal Naval Barracks, I arrived there early on the appointed Wednesday morning, April 1943, full of enthusiasm.
Disillusion was reached quicker than the eagerness of the anticipation of now serving as a member of His Majesties Royal Navy. Frustration came faster than the previous thoughts of achieving glory. Boredom rescinded the hopes of excitement. The first realisation that I may have made a mistake came within five minutes of reporting at the main gates of the Barracks, from where I was conducted by an ordinary seaman to the new intake area, about a quarter of a mile away. Stepping from the road onto the pavement, a voice issued forth from the main gate area only yards behind, bawling out. "Get orf that footpath, Orff-is-sers only". It did not take long to be aware that the person with the gravel voice, was one of many whom it was refereed to as being an issue of unwed parents.
Within a half an hour of arriving at the barracks I had been registered in, and the rest of the day was available to do; ---absolutely nothing. So a boring morning was followed by a boring afternoon that proceeded a boring evening accompanied by dozens of other bored personnel. The next day boredom was broken for at least a half an hour the in morning with a medical examination. This virtually consisted of ensuring that new recruit was breathing and free of crabs, lice and any visible form of an anti-social decease. An hour in the afternoon was taken up with a simple trade test, which could have been passed by anyone with the minimum aptitude for the trade which had been followed in civilian life, and to which was about to be entered in a service capacity.
A restricted freedom was permitted when we were allowed to go ashore in the evening. Ashore! Weren't we already ashore? Not when one is in the Navy. The acres of Tarmac, the miles of dockyard buildings, the concrete jetties, were HMS something or other. So that evening, along with new friends we left HMS whatever it was and went to the cinema. I have no idea what the main film was but the first programme to appear on the screen was the Newsreel. This created both nostalgia and considerable excitement for me for on the screen I immediately recognised the High Street of my own hometown. Not only that I had been present several months earlier when the film of Black American Solders performing marching drills had been photographed.
The following day being a Friday, we were told that we would not be needed over the weekend so that anyone who wanted to take leave could do so provided they returned by 8am on the Monday morning. I, like so many others naturally took advantage of the opportunity of returning home for the comforts that we had so quickly deserted.
In the first full week at HMS Thingy, a full set of uniform and necessities was received, as well as inoculations and vaccinations, to be followed by six weeks of square bashing. On completion of basic training and performing at a passing out parade before the Commander in Chief, of whatever he was C in C of. We marched in line abreast formation the full length of a large parade ground, right wheeled at the end to be obscured from view by a row of dockyard buildings. Then in the true British tradition of presenting a display of manpower to impress the top brass, out of sight we ran like hell to the starting position to repeat the performance. Not once but twice.
After seven days leave, a boring month was spent at another HMS shore establishment to receive specialise training. An event that could have been carried out by a modern day industrial training establishment in a couple of days. After this a drafting was given to what was to be our appointed unit for the duration of hostilities.
My appointment being to Combined Operations force at HMS Lizard at Hove, Sussex, and another shore-based establishment that was previously a posh pre-war Hotel. HMS Lizard had a lot of Naval personal who as previously mentioned were reputed to be the offspring of unwed parents, and these persons had the privilege of having their own dining hall or as they are known in service quarters, their Mess Hall. A place for them to dine and relax away from the other lower classes of serving men. To this hallowed ground I was appointed to be a Mess Man. Having technical qualifications which were supposed to be appreciated by the Royal Navy and that being one of the prime reasons that I chose that branch of the services, the last thing that I wanted to do was to act as a servant, to a group of ungrateful over privileged Petty Officers.
Of course there are exceptions in peoples nature and one day one of these exceptional persons arrived late for lunch to an empty mess hall. He took one look at me as I handed him his lunch and told me that I didn't look very happy. Telling him that I was bored with the job he said. "Something will turn up lad"
A day or two later, the same Chief whose parents must have been a happily married couple approached me to say that he had another job for me if I had a couple of mates that I could call upon to join me. Quickly rounding up a couple of my Pals we set off with the Chief to a bungalow situated on the shorefront at Portslade on Sea. There we were told that the bungalow was to be our base until such time as when our unit was to be called to take up it's appointment. Our duties we were told was to defend the Country against any invasion that the Germans may carry out at Portslade on Sea. Should such battle ensue we were issued with a 1914-18 war time rifle and five rounds of ammunition. Not each. Just between the three of us. The Chief informed us that we were to make our way back to HMS Lizard for our meals, and if we wanted to go ashore in the evening we could do so providing we were back in the Bungalow before midnight. Just in case of a sneaky invasion at night we supposed. Our weekend leave's we could continue take as normal we were also happily informed. That we took to imply that it was most inconceivable that Hitler would consider an invasion at a weekend.
So for almost a month, three of us vigilantly guarded our Country, alert and ready to defend its citizens against the Nazi enemy. Boredom we never accepted, as it was a righteous duty we had to perform, and in between the card games we would see who could throw a pebble into the sea. We were aware that if we should run out of bullets in conducting the defence of our Island, then we would repel the enemy with pebbles. Didn't Winston Churchill say "We will fight them on the beaches" It could have been possible that, that beach could have been the one that Winston was referring to if there had been a Battle of Brighton. Well Hove. well actually, Portslade on Sea.
Edward J Eassom.
Well before my tenth birthday in April 1939 I was sufficiently well aware of current affairs to know a war was expected, so I was not surprised when one was actually declared on September 3rd of that year. To a small boy, the concept was very exciting. It would be a glorious success in which we, the British, would of course show Hitler the error of his ways in a very short time. After all, had we not won the previous war with Germany only 21 years previously?
Looking back, I suppose my main source of information was the newsreels that were shown as part of every cinema show I went to see. Television was in its infancy in Britain and was still nothing more than an experimental novelty enjoyed by the wealthy, and my friend across the street, Hugh Metcalfe, whose home was equipped with a set made by the firm his father worked for as an electrical engineer. Over the years of our childhood attendance at cinemas my friends and I sat transfixed at the newsreels as we watched the Germans under Hitler invading first Austria then Czechoslovakia and finally, Poland. Interspersed with these were newsreels of the Italians under Mussolini invading Ethiopia and Albania and, a year or so earlier, shots of the Spanish civil war. There were also confusing newsreels of Japanese attacking Chinese. We did not know which side to cheer for! We thought we knew what to expect when war came upon us, especially from the air.
In those uncertain times, my parents listened to a lot of news programmes on the radio. The contents of these radio reports also did not evade me and were the subject of regular discussion. I could relate particularly to Ethiopia because one of the emperor Haile Selasie's daughters was my nurse when I had my tonsils taken out at Great Ormand Street Hospital for Children in London in 1936. The other countries were nothing more to me than places on a map that produced stamps for my collection. We encountered few foreigners in England at that time. To hear someone speaking a foreign language was most unusual.
I also remember hearing the broadcast of the announcement describing the treatment of Jews in concentration camps in Germany. That must have been about 1938. There was a general air of shock that re-enforced everyone's feeling that the war was not far off. When it arrived, we would right all these wrongs; and of course, we would win!
My friends and I were very conscious of being British, the upholders of fair play, winners of the previous war, the hub of the British Empire, on which the sun never set. These were the days when Empire Day was celebrated each year to remind everyone what it was all about. Those children belonging to Guides, Brownies, Scouts or Cubs would wear their uniforms to school, and we would spend the afternoon in the school hall singing the patriotic songs we had been practicing for weeks - "Land of Hope and Glory", "The British Grenadiers", "Jerusalem" with its "And did those feet in ancient times." and such. (It has always amused me that the tune of "Land of Hope and Glory" should have been chosen to be played at graduation ceremonies throughout the U.S.A. while the words never heard in that country, would constitute a much better national anthem for the British than "God Save the Queen".) Our headmaster, Tom Wilkinson, sometimes accompanied by the vicar, would stand beside the lectern on the stage beating time vigorously with both arms in a paroxysm of patriotic fervour. Our teachers, except for the one pounding the piano, stood facing inward along one side of the hall, ready to rush down a line of singers to thump over the head with a hymnbook any backslider who had the temerity to display lack of patriotic spirit such as pulling the pigtails of a girl in the row in front.
These were also the days when Armistice Day, November 11th, was observed with great dignity. Again, everybody who owned a uniform would wear it to school. This was the day on which the previous war had stopped - the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. Wreathes were laid on war memorials in villages throughout the country and there were parades at which the old soldiers would wear their medals. Everyone wore a red poppy cut from canvas mounted on a piece of green wire. They were supposed to resemble the poppies that grow wild in Flanders where much of the fighting took place in World War 1 and millions of British soldiers lie buried along with others.
The whole poppy scheme had been dreamt up and organized by a General Haig who had planned a good number of the mass slaughters which had gone, during the war under the misnomer of "battles". Volunteers sold the poppies everywhere during the weeks before on behalf of the British Legion, an organization of old soldiers organized by Haig. For the rest of the year the British Legion was a social club for old soldiers devoted to giving them a place to drink beer and chat, and to looking after welfare of the down and out amongst them. We bought our poppies from ladies who came to the school. These were depression times so nobody had much money. The usual poppy cost a penny but there were more elaborate ones for the larger givers, like for six pence, and there were even arrangements which the affluent could mount on top of the radiators of their motor cars which in those days had chromium plated filler caps. Income from sales went to the support of the blind and wounded ex-servicemen who manufactured the poppies.
At eleven o'clock, at the precise time the Armistice was signed, everyone stopped for a minute's silence. A service at school was timed to incorporate the moment. We would hear the field guns boom from their site in Hyde Park in the centre of London about fourteen miles away. My mother would stop housework, women would stop in the streets, and there was a general cessation of all activity, even of traffic. 1939 was the last year of such devout observation.
We felt especially important when we wore our cub uniforms to school because our troop was sponsored by Field Marshal Lord Milne whose name appeared beneath the number of our troop on our shoulder patches ("1st Ruislip Cub Troop, Lord Milne's Own"). None of us had the slightest idea who he was or what he had done but he must obviously have been a war hero of some kind. When he came to inspect us one day we were very deflated. We had expected him to arrive in military uniform resplendent in the red tabs of staff rank and mounted on a horse but here was a short, stooped man wearing a bowler hat and overcoat! It was a cold afternoon and he hurried away to his chauffeur and car without addressing us. Years later I looked the gentleman up in a reference book. It seems he conducted himself quite well in the Balkans campaign. In peacetime he rose to become chief of the imperial general staff so must have had some merit. At least he did not organize any of the mass slaughters. I was always puzzled as to how our troop had become "his own". Many years later, it turned out that when Milne was campaigning in the Balkans, he met and became friendly with a young medical officer called Max Wilson who, in the course of time, moved to Ruislip and became involved with scouts. Wilson simply asked Milne, who agreed.
Another celebration that was held for the last time was Ruislip Day. This festivity was organized by the local residents' association of which my father was a member. A huge crowd would assemble at the Manor Farm situated at the end of the High Street, which was bought about 1936 from owners and changed to public use. The old tythe barn was made over very skillfully into a library, a bowling green made where there had been a rickyard, and the orchards set aside, as far as us boys were concerned, to be plundered at will by the youth of the town! On Ruislip Day there would be races, competitions, talent shows, bowling for pigs, and, to our great amusement, a demonstration by the ladies of the League of Health and Beauty who would perform a series of graceful callisthenics to music while dressed out in white blouses and navy blue knickers. Such activity was regarded as rather avante garde as adults were not thought to need to take any more exercise than they encountered in their daily toil. Adult women running around in knickers was also not a common sight!
My mother rather admired the women of the "League" under the direction of their leader Daisy Dormer, but would never have considered joining. She stuck to voluntary work for the infant welfare programme. For years every Thursday afternoon she would join her friend and near neighbour, Mrs. Wilfred Wilson, and walk to the church hall on Bury Street where they would register mothers who brought their babes in to see the doctor or nurse under this government-sponsored programme.
My job was always to deliver the programmes for Ruislip Day on our street before the event. The principal and owner of one of the many private schools that flourished at the time (and put out of business by the 1946 Education Act) was a leading Scouter and related to a comedian of the time called Gillie Potter who was usually prevailed up to perform. His line was "good afternoon England" as he introduced his patter dressed in a dark blue blazer with the broad red arrow of a convict on the pocket. None of this was to come back in pre-war form although the Ruislip Days were continued after the war.
History tells how Britain was grossly unprepared to fight a war but to me at the time we had everything ready. My father took me to an Air Display at nearby Northolt airport in 1938 where we were in the crowd when a Hawker Hurricane fighter swept overhead at the astonishing speed of 400 miles per hour! How could the Germans stand up to this? The fact that Britain had only about twelve of these planes at the time escaped me, as I suspect it did many others. This was 1938 and the rest of the planes were biplanes with fixed undercarriages that gave demonstrations of aerobatics. They belonged to a different era, and it had already passed.
Wilkinson, our school headmaster, was like all the males of his generation, a veteran of the previous war. He had been lucky and survived it without any evident wounds. He lived just a few doors from my home, as did the school caretaker, Mr. Emery. Each would walk to the same pub each evening but on different sides of the street as far as the pub where they would sit in different bars. I don't think they ever spoke outside the school.
Millions of other men who had avoided death in the war, were not so fortunate and carried evidence of wounds in the form of facial scars, limps, an eye covered with a patch or replaced with a glass one, and lost limbs, while others coughed their lives away as the result of breathing poisonous gas. These men were all between 38 and 55 in 1939. Many were fathers of school friends. My recollections of childhood trips to London include one of the groups of be-medalled old soldiers, often including some maimed or blind, walking in lines along the gutters displaying their medals and playing musical instruments rather badly as they begged for money. My mother always gave me a penny to hand them. Theirs, they had been promised, was the war to end all wars. Britain would be made into "a country fit for heroes". How badly they were led and mislead! A German general is credited with saying of the British army that it was a group of lions led by donkeys! Now we were approaching another war.
Some of the unfortunates from the previous war carried mental wounds of one kind or another - generally lumped together as "shell shock". One of this kind, who had also lost a leg, rode down our street every day on his bicycle which had been modified by the removal of the free wheel capability and removal of the pedal on the side where the artificial leg hung stiffly down. He was a watchmaker at a shop on Ruislip's High Street and would ride by shouting remarks such as "take your damned watches to Jericho" at nobody in particular as he pumped away with his remaining leg.
Not only had the previous war taken the lives of millions of young men, but the ensuing influenza epidemic had taken even more of both sexes. So many deaths reduced the number of men available for marriage that many young women were left without hope of ever finding a partner. These ladies had to support themselves and provided not only the many unmarried women teachers we had in the schools but a substantial portion of the work force in general. It was not unusual find they had no remaining relatives. We had a substantial number of these ladies and war widows living around us. One or two had private incomes but the rest worked. One lady, a Miss Kershaw with modestly independent means but not a relative in the world, spent much of her time walking her dog. She carried a large whip that she would use to drive off any other dog that got within reach! In her sober moments she was pleasant enough but she succumbed to alcoholism during the war and finally suffocated in a fire started with a cigarette she was smoking dropped on the furniture when she dropped off to sleep. A sad tale but unfortunately not unique.
Anticipation or the coming war had been general for some time. As part of the air raid precautions (ARP), we were all fitted and issued with gas masks before hostilities began. Millions of these had been manufactured. Apart from the standard version, there was a coloured Mickey Mouse version for small children and a big bag version to accommodate babies. There was a general agreement that it was only a matter of time before the Germans would use this weapon on civilians much as both sides had used it on each other's armies during the previous war. Now they had the capability of dropping it from the air. This time, we were convinced, gas would come in bombs dropped from planes. We all had our gas masks fitted in neat cardboard boxes that, we were told, would have to be carried by everyone once hostilities began. A great mistake was made in the design of the gas masks of the type issued to our family and we all had to return to the distribution center to have an extra filter taped on! I have often wondered what it was that had been overlooked. Manufacturers made a small killing by marketing tin tubes in which to store and carry the gas masks as the card board boxes would not have lasted more than a short while. It was an offence not to carry your gas mask on the street.
Scouts and cubs from the Ruislip area put on a great demonstration of air raid precautions drill during the summer of 1938. My part in this was as a member of a class of children. After what seemed like months of practice the great day arrived. With other cubs I was seated in an assortment of school furniture in the middle of a field where we stood at the appropriate moment to sing a song. When the signal came we all ducked under our desks while a plane flew over at low level simulating a bombing attack. Scouts, acting the roles of firemen, messengers, etc. rushed about. If someone had told me then that it would be six years before I would be required to duck under a school desk, in all seriousness, I would never have believed it. When the war came we were sure it would be short. The same misconception had been held in the previous war when, on its declaration on August 4th, 1914, everyone was convinced it would be over by Christmas. In this war, the enemy missed the chance to invade Britain in the late summer of 1940 when the country was virtually unprotected following the fall of France. If Hitler has taken the advice of his generals to invade right away, the war would have been over by Christmas 1940!
In 1938, my father had bought his first car. By the summer of 1939 he had mastered driving well enough to take my mother and me to the extreme north of England to visit my mother's parents, my Gardner grandparents. Driving around in those days was a laborious business. There were no main roads as we understand the term today. The road to the north of England was a two lane affair, one going each way as it snaked through every village and town. Many of the larger commercial vehicles were restricted to speeds of less than 20 mph so cars would be stuck behind trucks for miles before an opportunity to overtake came along. We seldom drove at over 50 mph.
The only photograph of the whole of my mother's family together was taken during this holiday. My youngest cousin Michael only just made it as a visible bulge! We had not long since returned from this adventure when the radio announced the German invasion of Poland. Prime Minister Chamberlain told us that after the invasion of Czechoslovakia, Hitler had promised not to invade anywhere else. The wisdom of that appeasement is still being discussed and the photograph of Chamberlain emerging from a plane and waiving the note supposedly bearing Hitler's signature to a promise not to invade anywhere else remains among the outstanding news photos of all time. To the best of my knowledge, this piece of paper has never been reproduced anywhere, or exhibited in a museum. I suspect it was ruse on Chamberlain's part. Perhaps it was a receipt for his dry cleaning! Hitler announced that the occupation of Czechoslovakia was "his last territorial demand". Neither Britain nor France could have done much to prevent Germany moving into Czechoslovakia. They were not prepared for one thing.
I was waiting for the end of the school holiday in order to begin my last year at primary school when Hitler sent the German army into Poland. Chamberlain gave the Germans an ultimatum - either they pulled out immediately, or Britain would declare war. France promised the same. Just how much of all this was public knowledge at the time I do not recall. On the Sunday morning, September 3rd, when my friend Robin Hood came around to play, my father suggested we both do something both patriotic and useful by going to the Ruislip fire station to fill sand bags.
Off we went feeling very conscious of doing something useful. The sandbag filling proved hard work but we laboured away. Some of the men drifted off about eleven to hear Chamberlain's speech on radio at Mr. Chapman's quarters at the farm - he being the chief fireman and in charge of filling sand bags. About eleven thirty Chapman returned and announced very formally "Gentlemen, we are at war with Germany", adding "You lads get on home". We had no sooner started off than the siren heralded an air raid.
Newsreels and radio reports had left none of us in doubt about the results of air raids. We had all seen pictures of the damage wrought by German bombers in Spain during the civil war. I had seen Spanish children who had been brought to Britain from Spain to avoid this bombing. (It was the first time I had heard children talking a foreign language). Now we were hearing similar tales from Poland. Robin and I began to run down the deserted streets expecting the dreaded Stuka dive bombers to appear at any moment.
Halfway to my home we were met by an elderly man (probably no more than fifty, but old to us) who had clearly responded to the call for volunteers to become Air Raid Wardens. He took his training seriously and was armed with everything the authorities had issued to him - his military type steel helmet with the letters "ARP" (standing for 'Air Raid Precautions') on it, his special gas mask in a canvas bag, a whistle with which to attract attention, an armband bearing the letters "ARP", and a rattle to warn of a gas attack. Again we were advised to "hurry along home".
Home was tranquil indeed. My mother had a roast of lamb on the table for Sunday lunch as usual. Later we learned from the radio that the air raid warnings had been sounded over the whole south of the country because a single unidentified aircraft had been seen approaching the east coast. The plane was later identified as "one of ours". In retrospect it is surprising that we were led to expect air raids as the range capabilities of the German bombers of the time would barely allow them to reach the English coast from their bases in Germany.
To prevent repetitions of such disruptions and to keep track of aircraft in general, the Observer Corps was formed. Volunteers came from the same group of men as our Air Raid Warden. My father's two elder brothers, both wounded in the previous war, were among them. Their uniform was a set of dark blue dungarees with chrome buttons and a black beret, both with suitable badges and of course their medal ribbons. Their duties consisted of taking shifts for the continuous manning of one of a series of "observation posts" which were set up across the country from which every aircraft seen was first identified then its rough position and direction plotted. This information was transmitted by telephone to a network of Royal Air Force bases. Such an organization was necessary as these were the days before radar. Few women were recruited into the Observer Corps for in those days the divisions between what it was considered men could do and what women could were strictly drawn.
In 1941, Rudolf Hess, who was Hitler's deputy at that time, defected and flew in a twin-engined Messerschmidt 110 fighter to Scotland. His declared objective was to renew his acquaintance with the Duke of Hamilton and persuade him to intercede with prime minister Churchill to negotiate a peace. All across Scotland the Observer Corps tracked the plane that they correctly identified but the Royal Air Force discredited the recognition because they knew that model of plane lacked the range to return to Germany! Hess crash-landed on the Duke's estate and was imprisoned. After the war he was transferred to Berlin where his imprisonment at Spandau was supervised in rotation by soldiers from America, Britain and Russia until when he died at the age of 92 he was the last war criminal left in the prison. Both Britain and America considered his release but the Russians were adamant he should remain in Spandau as indeed he did until as a lonely old man, he killed himself.
So certain was the conviction that widespread air raids would start immediately that when school began it was only for an hour or so each morning. We hurriedly copied homework from the black board and rushed home to complete our tasks. One day the Rev. Watkins came to talk to us. He had been one of the two curates at the Anglican church to which our school was affiliated but he had left to become an army chaplain and was now posted with the British Expeditionary Force in France. He was with a British unit on the French Maginot Line, a huge string of defences strung out along France's border with Germany to dissuade any advance in the direction of France and prevent reliving the "glory" of Verdun and other slaughters of the previous war.
The Germans had built a similar 'Sigfried Line' on their side of the border. When France announced plans to extend their Line along their frontier with Belgium, the Belgians complained loudly and made a diplomatic incident out of it so the extension of the line was not built. Eventually the Germans did exactly what they had done in the previous war when they wanted to invade France - they simply went through Belgium and turned the French flank. At this time however, all was quiet. Belgium was still neutral and the Germans were busy mopping up in Poland. In any case, why worry when the Germans were still engaged in mopping up in Poland?
The popular song of the time was "We're going to hang out our washing on the Sigfried Line, have you any dirty washing mother dear?" Just how this was to be accomplished was never explained in the song! Both sides were convinced their line was impregnable, as it probably was. The Rev. Watkins enthralled us with his description of the defensive features of Maginot Line and showed us the gold coloured badge that gained him entry to the fortifications. We never saw him again and I used to wonder what became of him when hostilities really got going and the remains of the British force that was not outflanked left from Dunkerque.
One surprising fact is that in 1944 when the allied invasion force reached this area, no mention was made in the press about either of these lines of defence. Guns of the Maginot line would of course be pointing the wrong way for the defenders of Germany, but not those of the Sigfried line. I do not recall the Sigfried Line even being mentioned in the press at the time.
At the time of the German invasion of France and the Low countries there was a substantial influx of Belgian refugees into England. Until more permanent accommodation could be found for them, they were billeted in private homes around the country. They stood out as many of the men wore carpet slippers while walking around outdoors. I was never to learn the reason they did not wear proper shoes.
I was considered still too young to be left unattended at home so accompanied my mother on voluntary work she did going around the streets knocking at doors assigned to her to find out how much spare accommodation there was. Anyone who spoke French sufficiently well for them to act as an interpreter immediately achieved high social standing. I have no idea of the background of these Belgian people but many were quickly absorbed into the community. Several of my friends had Belgian schoolmates who were highly valued for the help they could give with French homework! The only trouble was that the vernacular twists of French spoken in Belgium deviated from the Parisian French that we were taught so that the 'help'was easily detected by the masters!
My greatest concern at the time was that all the sales promotions by various manufacturers were cancelled as soon as the war started. I had collected about 950 of the 1000 wrappers from Oxo cubes (a meat extract drink) that could be redeemed for a football. Needless to say I never did receive the ball. Along with several other incomplete collections of coupons and wrappers my collections were consigned eventually to the scrap paper drive.
Diptheria had long been a scourge of British life. Sufferers from the disease were incarcerated in an isolation hospital under they either recovered or died. In the middle of all the adjustments to war, a vaccine against the disease was perfected and immediately all the children were required to take the injection. This once feared disease is never heard of these days.
No sooner had war been declared than my mother's Aunt Aggie and her husband, Uncle George, moved in with us. Their home at Herne Bay was right on the coast on the southern side of the Thames estuary which they were convinced would not only be bombed to smithereens but that the German Navy would sail up the Thames shelling every town as it went.
George, unquestionably wealthy by our standards, was able to buy many luxuries in the food line to supplement the elementary food rationing which had begun. I recall especially an expensive and very tasty anchovy paste he and I would spread on bread and enjoy with great relish so much relish that I suspect George discontinued buying it. My first anchovies and there was a war on!
Aggie, who at 58 was convinced she was suffering from some heart illness yet to be diagnosed, spent much of her mornings in bed sipping a hot milk preparation called Bengers Food and only ventured out of the house once a week when George took her by the car to a specialist in London, who I now suspect was a quack, for colonic irrigation. I held both George and Aggie in awe. They tipped me generously and bought me expensive presents at Christmas but were both very conscious of their imagined social status. Some would call them snobs. Let's just say they were very conscious of their social position.
Instead of eating the remains of the Sunday roast cold with home-made pickles as we had always done, George showed my mother how to make curry, which I enjoyed very much. He also brought beer into the house, a treat my father had previously only enjoyed at Christmas and while on holiday in the summers.
George had an accounting business with partners in London that he visited once a week. For the rest of the time he puttered about helping my mother put up fittings for the blackout curtains. In retrospect, I think George must have made a lot of his money on the stock market but it would have been intrusive to ask.
Two years later Aggie was to die during an operation to remove her appendix. She was only 61. I do not believe the cause of death was ever determined but suspect there was a problem with the anaesthetic. Doctors were too busy at that time!
Aggie's funeral was nothing if not dramatic from my mother's report of the occasion. Cremation was still regarded as something of an innovation. This was the first my mother had attended. It was held at the then fashionable crematorium at Golder's Green in north London and attended by George's business associates who were uniformly attired in top hats and tailcoats. No sooner had the service begun than the air raid sirens sounded. Handel's Largo was being played on the organ as the coffin glided slowly out of sight. Just at the moment the coffin reached the curtains and was about to disappear, there was a tremendous crash of anti-aircraft fire overhead and Aggie slipped from sight with a multiple gun salute. My mother came away most impressed with the symbolism of it all.
George and my father decided that when the raids became really bad, we should all shelter in the back sitting room. This room had glass doors that opened onto the back garden. My father produced some ancient cork linoleum about one centimetre thick that George and he cut up and hung from hooks on the insides of these doors and the adjacent windows to serve as both blackout material and protection from flying glass. George and my father went all over the house pasting adhesive strips of brown paper in cruciform patterns on all the windows, again to prevent flying glass. Details of how to do this were advertised by the government in the daily papers that were becoming slimmer with time. How effective these paper strips was never discussed in any publication I saw. Later, when air raids came every night, I slept with my parents in the downstairs room.
By Christmas 1939 George and Aggie decided the war would last longer than they had expected so they moved into more permanent quarters at the Peahen Hotel in St. Albans. Simply nothing was happening in the progress of the war as far as we could see except that more and more men were being called up and we heard disturbing reports about ships being sunk at sea.
A great blow to morale came with the sinking of HMS Hood, a battleship and pride of the British fleet. During the chase into the North Atlantic of the Bismark, a German battleship and the heaviest battleship afloat, a stray shell hit the magazine and blew up the Royal Navy's flagship Hood. Only three of the crew of over one thousand were saved. Every effort went to find and then sink the Bismark. That was effectively accomplished in what was really the end of battleship warfare. From then on, war at sea was fought using aircraft based on carriers. At least, the side with the carrier born aircraft was the side that won as the Japanese were soon to demonstrate in the Pacific.
By now the air raid wardens were a force to contend with. Volunteers from our street were formed into "Post H5" which was manned around the clock until the end of the war. These wardens would walk up and down the street at night looking for any leaks in the blackout curtains but their main duty was to be first on the scene at any bomb damage and to report accordingly. Catch phrases of the time were "Hey, put out that light!" and "Don't you know there's a war going on?" The two elderly Misses Cook lived together in a house across from the buried shelter that constituted the "post" on a triangular piece of ground at the junction of the Manor Way (the street on which I lived) and another, called Midcroft. Every night at eleven o'clock throughout the war one of these ladies would take a tray of coffee and cookies across to the wardens on duty. I still value the plaque in calligraphy one of the wardens drew and presented to these ladies at the end of the war commemorating this act of duty that they never once failed to perform.
The blackout and the food rationing were the only signs that a war might be on during this first six months of what is now referred to as the "phoney" period of the war. The blackout was particularly trying. Not only were all the houses completely "blacked out" at night but the street lights (using coal gas) were dimmed, and shut off completely at 10:30. Gasoline rationing had begun but there were still a number of cars about. Headlights were shielded so as to give only a glimmer of light. No shop windows were illuminated at all. People took to carrying flashlights (or torches) at night and it was not long before the supply of batteries was just about exhausted. Until then, nobody bothered much to read the print on the batteries, but now everyone knew what a "No.8" was! That was the kind you needed for the most commonly used light, but could never find.
Bananas disappeared from the shops, not to return for six years. Oranges when available were reserved for children. People were encouraged to make a jelly from rose hips, the seed pods of wild roses which we were told are high in Vitamin C. Black currants were cultivated and converted into the jellies reserved for mothers with young children. For a while onions were hard to find and became the subject of jokes. A school friend was shocked to discover that some neighbours saved their urine in a bucket for pouring onto their onions in the belief this promoted growth! I have never heard of anyone doing this since. We all felt this practice was carrying patriotism too far.
The government by this time had established a Ministry of Food that extorted us all to grow vegetables under the theme "digging for victory". Vacant land was divided into allotments on which people could grow more vegetables. In some places, strips along the railway tracks were given over to gardeners. Articles and advertisements appeared in the ever-shrinking newspapers telling us how to get the most nourishment out of the food we ate. Peeling potatoes became almost a crime! They had to be scrubbed. At home, we sliced the green beans we grew and preserved them in salt for use during the winter. Boiling vegetables was discouraged in favour of steaming to preserve the food value. The water so used was saved and used for making soup.
I just read (July 2000) in The Economist the obituary of a lady named Elsie Widdowson who was an expert in nutrition. It seems she and a group of others had demonstrated just before the war that all the substances the human body needed could be provided by a diet of cabbage, potato and bread! This must have been music to the ears of the government who must have been extremely worried about what the population was to eat.
The most famous Minister of Food was a Lord Woolton (whose commercial background before entering politics had been in the department store business) who became the brunt of many jokes about food. He even had a vegetable pie named after him that was widely consumed at the time but did not stand the competition when food became available in greater quantities. I often wondered where he found the recipe and now believe it was Elsie Widdowson who provided it!
Pig clubs were started by groups throughout the country. After hours of gruelling work, our local club was disbanded when the pigs all developed swine fever and had to be destroyed. We were glad not to have participated!
Meat was among the first food items to be rationed and was difficult to control. The basic ration was defined in terms of money. The size of the ration changed depending on the degree of scarcity. In the old money, we would be allowed, say, two shillings and four pence worth of meat each week. The buyer had to balance the desire for quality against the desire for quantity in the light of what was available, while steering clear of any cut with a lot of bone or fat in it! Balancing all these choices could pose quite a challenge. Chicken, rabbit and offal, such as oxtail, kidney, and liver were off the ration and dispensed to favoured customers on whatever basis the butcher chose.
On one well-remembered Christmas my mother managed to find a turkey that had been imported from Ireland with nothing more done to it than its neck wrung! To me, with all my rabbit experience, fell the job of cleaning it up for cooking. My mother stood by glowing in admiration of my skill, such as they were, while my father fumed his pipe in the expectation that the smell of smoke would cover up any smells from the gut of the bird! Provided you don't break the intestines of course there is no smell.
About 1942 in the darkest days of the war, a new shop opened on the High Street that sold nothing but horse and whale meat. Neither of these meats was rationed. My parents could never bring themselves to try either meat but many of our friends did and they spoke well of both. For a while even bread was rationed. Great queues developed outside the fish shop whenever it received a shipment of fresh fish. Despite the shortages, people kept in very good health even though they all look thin in photographs. The general level of health was said to have been excellent with a very low level of obesity.
In 1941 I bought a couple of domestic rabbits and bred them for food using garden and kitchen scraps gleaned from neighbours and shops. A group of my school friends did the same and with them I learned which weeds rabbits liked and went around collecting the leaves from anybody who would let me onto their property for the purpose.
Rabbit meat was a welcome treat. Meat of the domestic rabbit is white and indistinguishable from chicken. My mother made gloves from the skins that I dried and tried to cure. I kept a cashbook with which I was able to demonstrate a small profit. By joining the local rabbit club, I qualified for a bran ration with which to feed my rabbits that then grew more quickly.
Fresh milk became scarce and was extensively replaced by powdered milk that was acceptable when mixed with something but not very appetizing when simply mixed with water and drunk. Each night at bedtime I would mix powdered milk with sugar and powdered cocoa in the mug given me at school in 1936 to mark the coronation of King George VI and drink the resulting hot cup of cocoa.
We were given free milk of the regular kind at school every morning at 10:30. Later the one-third pint glass bottles (made especially for schools) fell from use and the milk came in regular quart bottles. Monitors were chosen from the senior pupils to supervise distribution. When I became a monitor we made sure all the cream that separated near the top of the bottle went to the monitors. We saw to it that the bottles were never shaken as they were supposed to be in order to homogenize the cream with the milk! We were hungry growing boys so thought nothing of drinking a pint of cream.
The conviction that terrible depredations would come from air raids continued to haunt the community and many children living in cities were evacuated to the country. Photographs in the newspapers showed train loads of children massed on platforms of city stations with their names written on luggage labels tied to buttonholes of their coats. My grandmother Hester, living at Princess Risborough in Buckinghamshire had a young cockney boy billeted with her. She was a very prim Victorian in her ways and quickly took the upper hand in the ever-present battle between generations. In no time she had the young fellow fully instructed in the many niceties of behaviour that she regarded as indispensable in small boys! He seemed to take it all in good part, even when she referred to his short trousers as "knickers" - a turn of phrase my cousin Derrick and I always resented. In the course of time the young lad returned home and his parents came especially to thank my grandmother for the job she had done in improving their son's manners and deportment!
A far more ambitious form of the evacuation programme involved shipping children off to countries overseas. Many children were sent privately in addition to those who went under the government-organized scheme. The Heslewoods, old family friends from Wandsworth and of my grandparents' generation, had moved to Ruislip at my father's suggestion. The family unit consisted of Willie's wife Nan and her widowed sister Phaikie who was otherwise known as "Auntie Campbell". Phaikie would stay the night at our place when my parents went out for the evening. She had returned to Britain from Vancouver when her husband, a lawyer there, had died. I loved it when she stayed with me as she would keep me entranced with stories about the Indians in Canada.
Mr. Heslewood had been instrumental in getting my father his job with the Geological Survey. They were originally from Scotland. During the summer of 1939 cousin Sandy Grant and his wife arrived from South Africa where Sandy was postmaster at East London. They were childless and took such a liking to me that they were anxious for me to return with them for the duration of the war. My parents were on the point of letting me go, but relented so the Grants went off home to South Africa never to be seen again. Had I gone, I am sure to have returned eventually to England with a South Africa accent and strong Presbyterian beliefs!
Many of the children evacuated to the British countryside remained there for the duration of the war but the overseas evacuations ceased in 1940 when a shipload of children was torpedoed in the Atlantic. Very few were lost but that incident finished the programme. A boy I knew who was on the ship spoke little of his experience but was held in awe by us all for a long time. A girl from our class and her two younger twin brothers successfully reached New York under some private arrangement. We were all very impressed when the photograph of the three children appeared in the London evening paper. The two young boys were still wearing their school caps - bright red with a silver bishop's mitre as a badge.
No sooner was 1940 upon us than the school authorities decided we should start attending full time again so the homework finished. For several months, the "phoney" war continued with nothing happening. With the arrival of spring weather, the Germans moved their troops out of Poland and back to the west. The First Canadian Fighter Squadron arrived at Northolt and its crews were billeted around Ruislip. We took in a country lad from Saskatchewan called Carl Briese who flew a Hurricane fighter. He quickly became my idol. The war business was building up and intruding into our lives more and more.
In early summer of 1940, the Germans did exactly what they had done in the previous war and drove through Belgium to get at France. This time they wanted to consolidate their seaboard against Britain so for good measure invaded the Netherlands as well. Churchill took over from Chamberlain as prime minister. Some of the British troops stationed in France were cut off but a lot got away in the famous evacuation from Dunkirk. Where was the Rev. Watkins? We never heard.
These were dark days. Carl Briese was suddenly very busy flying sorties over the English Channel. He always looked the same to me but my father said he saw him change from a carefree boy to a haggard man over a few weeks. He was always glad to get away from the base and relax in our garden. It was a beautiful summer for those of us who had time to notice it!
The army had volunteer bomb disposal squads who would be called to de-fuse any unexploded bomb as soon as it was found. The disposal engineer (a hero to all boys) was generally an officer whose job was indicated by a badge of a bomb on his arm. These men performed a dangerous job and many were killed. They and the pathfinder pilots of the bomber squadrons were our heroes! Not all delayed action bombs were found in time and on one memorable morning we were showered with great fragments from someone's rock garden that had harboured the offending bomb overnight. None of the larger blocks hit our house but neighbours had as many as seven lumps come crashing through. One or two houses had to be demolished but nobody was hurt. If the building inspectors thought the house could be saved, crews of men would arrive and throw tarpaulins over damaged roofs and nail tarpaper over broken windows until permanent repairs could be made, which in many cases would not be until after the war.
By August 1940, France had capitulated and Britain was on its own. Now they had occupied France and the Low Countries, the Germans were much closer to Britain so could reach us with ease by bomber. Everyone expected the Germans to attempt a landing before the end of summer but to our surprise it never came. All they did was bomb the British airfields where fighter aircraft were stationed. Years later we were to learn that this strategy by the Germans resulted from a difference of opinion within their High Command. The military wanted to press on while they had the advantage and invade Britain in what would almost certainly have proved successful. Hitler was more cautious and chose the bombing. It was a serious mistake on his part as he could have overrun Britain with ease and prevented its use later as a base for invading continental Europe. Instead he listened to Herman Goering who was a fighter ace in the previous war and now was in charge of the Luftwaffe. Goering wanted to bring Britain to its knees by air power alone. Hitler went with Goering in what must be classed as the major mistake of the war.
In the meantime, suitable precautions were taken in Britain to make such an invasion as difficult as possible. Any foreshore considered suitable for beaching landing barges was quickly fortified with rows of concrete cubes designed to keep tanks at bay. Little cement forts, or pillboxes, were constructed all over the country at strategic points, many of which remain to this day. Slots were cut in the roads into which iron rails were to be set in such a way as to jam the tracks of enemy tanks should there be an invasion.
The Germans had used big gliders to land troops throughout the Low Countries and later for the invasion of Crete. To prevent these from landing safely in England, telegraph poles were erected in the middle of all fields thought large enough for gliders to land. A steel pin was driven into the stump, a hole bored through the lower end of the tree trunk that was then set on the pin. The top of the tree was cut at a suitable point and a cartwheel attached to it. In the event of an invasion, these trees were to be wheeled across the roads to slow down enemy troops.
All this work was accomplished in a matter of weeks by the newly established Local Defence Volunteers, or LDV, which was later to be known as the Home Guard. As the war progressed, this force would be armed with old rifles but for the moment they drilled with pikes! All the men were volunteers from above or below the age group that was called up for the regular army. Veterans from the previous war were very much in evidence. Ancient officers came to life all over the country to lend a hand with training. Initially the LDV were identified solely by their arm bands that bore the letters LDV but they were soon to be given regular army uniforms. With their intimate knowledge of the surrounding country, they would have given a lot of trouble to an invading force.
It was announced that church bells would cease to be rung except to announce an invasion. Sunday mornings were to be silent until May 1945 except for one Sunday in 1943 when they were rung to celebrate the winning of the Battle of Alamein in North Africa..
To keep people on their toes and aware of the possibility of a gas attack, someone from the military would drive up to a place where people were gathered, such as a shopping street, and throw out a tear gas grenade before driving away. The air raid wardens would have been tipped off and would appear wearing their gas masks and waiving their warning rattles. Woe betide anyone who had left home that day without their gas mask!
Fortunately for us, Northolt airport, although a fighter base, was never bombed. The Germans concentrated on the airfields nearer the coast from which our fighter planes could be more of a nuisance to the bombers.
Once school was finished in the summer of 1940, I was sent to Princess Risborough in the country to be with my grandparents, uncle Ray and cousin Derrick. I had passed at the appropriate level of the ill-famed "eleven plus" examination, and bane of all schoolchildren, to gain a place next term at Harrow County Boys School in Harrow, about four miles closer to London than my home at Ruislip. I was fortunate in having a school record that was consistently at a level that I was not required to take the examination. Under the school system of the time, pupils who passed this "eleven plus" examination were siphoned off into the grammar schools where they received academic training up to age sixteen at least suiting them for professions and universities. Those who failed went to either technical or regular schools from which they went into the employment pool at fourteen. This system was abandoned about thirty years later following a contentious debate that went on forever.
The summer weather ended and the Germans' daylight raids stopped just in time to save the British who were having trouble replacing aircraft and pilots at the rate the Germans were destroying them! I went off to my new school at Harrow just at the end of the daylight raids. To reach school I had to travel four miles by train. Several of my friends were at the same school so I was not completely among strangers.
The school had an enrolment of about 750 boys (girls went to a different school). We were divided into classes, or forms, each consisting of about 35 pupils. For the first four years, there were four parallel forms (A to D) for each year of induction. At the conclusion of the fourth year we took what was then known as the General School Certificate examination in about eight subjects. Passing this was the key to good jobs. At that time, the school leaving age was fourteen. There was little money around so for many families it was essential to have another bread winner in the house as soon as possible. Our school got these boys into the labour force at age 15 as opposed to other schools of this type that took an extra year. Many boys left after passing the examination, while others went on into what was called the sixth form where they took up to four subjects in the Higher School Certificate examinations two years later. At this point, the real achievers could take university scholarship examinations as well. We were started off with one hour of homework a night with one and a half at weekends but the rate was built up quickly to two hours a night after three years, and three hours in the sixth form. There was not much else to do in the evenings to distract us! At eighteen, you went into one of the armed services. Nobody had much ambition beyond that or gave much thought to the longer term.
By the time I started at this new school the air raid sirens were going on and off all day. The rule was that if an air raid warning was in progress when we arrived at the station, we would go to a nearby shelter, otherwise we were to go directly to school. At the school, a basement floor had been shored up with big timbers and all windows and doors shielded with sandbags that were later replaced with brick walls. When the warbling note of the warning sirens went during classes, we were herded downstairs until the steady note of the "all clear" blew. No schoolwork was attempted in these circumstances. We sat and played games such as chess and battleships, a mindless game in which you had to guess the coordinates of squares on a sheet of paper on which your opponent had distributed his fleet of hypothetical battleships. As long as we kept reasonably quiet, nobody on the staff seemed to bother.
An important distraction in our lives was to get the teachers to interrupt the lesson with their reminiscences of "their" war. We became adept at asking leading questions!
The whole concept of shelters struck me as illogical. If bombs were to fall on us, the further we were spread about the few of us would be hit. The basement shelter was particularly ridiculous in hindsight as any bomb on the school would have crashed through all the floors until it exploded in the basement where we were gathered. We would have been better off in the classrooms except for the hazard of flying glass. Sometimes on our escorted trips to the station on our way home we would stand on the bridge over the tracks and look eastward towards London to see the vapour trails of dog fights between the planes of the two sides. Incongruously, the bridge was plastered with fascist symbols which had been painted on using a stencil for a fascist demonstration a year or so before the war started.
If the air raid warning was still in force when school was over, the teachers would hold a staff meeting to decide what to do, should we stay or leave? If things looked quiet, those of us going to the station would be formed into a crocodile and marched to the station under the guardianship of a master. Quite a responsibility for the poor fellow but nothing ever happened. Among the masters given this job was a Dr. Hartland, who taught French and who, because of his round body and characteristic bouncy walk, was known as "sorbeau", after the name given to a form of rubber. There was no doubt he knew the nickname because it was common practice to refer to him as Dr. Sorbeau when talking about him to new boys who would then address the poor chap with this name! He was a dedicated teacher and good sport but none of us realized it at the time.
With the deterioration in the weather, the daylight raids stopped and the Germans settled down to night bombing raids. These seemed interminable with sirens every night. For most of the time we would hear nothing more, but occasionally an enemy plane would come over Ruislip and the searchlights and anti-aircraft guns would come into action. My father and I used to guess which model bomber it was by the sound of the engines. Engines of the Heinkel 111 had a characteristic throbbing note that I thought must indicate a diesel engine (but did not!).
London was being heavily bombed at this time. Great Victoria Street in the City, where my uncle George had his accounting firm was completely razed. One evening, just before I went to bed, my father called me outside to see the glow on the horizon of the Surrey Docks burning nearly twenty miles away.
It was generally supposed that the German bombers navigated at night by identifying the various bodies of water scattered around west London. How this story arose I do not know but it was finally confirmed to me in East Africa in 1986 by an old German acting as navigator for an aerial photography contractor who admitted to having previously been a navigator on a Heinkel which bombed London during 1941. He also confirmed what we all suspected at the time that the bombers would release all their bombs the moment the searchlights found them. The loss of weight would cause the plane to pick up speed and rise several hundreds of feet and so escape the lights. We would regularly pick up in the streets pieces of shrapnel from anti-aircraft guns on the morning following a raid.
Later, when the Germans had realized the nature of the radar the British had developed, bombers would routinely dump rolls of black paper edged with aluminium foil that apparently caused great confusion on the radar screens. We would collect these souvenirs to show them off to our friends.
There were always jokes going around about "secret weapons". Radar fell into this classification and the government did its best to explain in other ways the sudden success this invention brought to our fighter planes in shooting down enemy bombers at night. Later we learned that the early version of airborne radar was so precise that some of our fighters actually crashed into the enemy planes on dark nights before they had a chance to fire! At the time we were treated to propaganda photographs supposedly showing pilots in sun glasses resting in arm chairs. The text beneath explained that medical science had found it possible to improve the night vision of these pilots by a combination of the dark glases and a diet in which carrots figured prominently! Rabbits like carrots. Rabbits live in dark burrows so must be able to see in the dark. Hence it was "logical" to conclude that carrots help rabbits see in the dark! A story of the same kind had circulated during the previous war when soldiers seen passing through a London railway station had been recognized as Russians by the snow on their boots! It seems that at times of great national jeopardy, citizens can be persuaded to believe just about anything if it is told with an air of authority.
By the end of 1940 everything was in short supply. Whatever industry had stockpiled at the beginning of the war had long since been consumed. We were constantly being asked to contribute to scrap drives. At one time everyone was asked to contribute spare aluminium pots and pans. We wondered how many good pots found their way into the homes of the scarp collectors! Crews of men with cutting torches cruised along residential streets cutting down the ornate iron railings installed during the previous century. Newspapers were collected for recycling. Nothing that could be re-used was thrown away. I collected blunt razor blades.
Even while "relaxing" in the evening and listening to the radio, my parents were busy doing patriotic things. My mother would crochet mittens out of cord that were worn over regular gloves by sailors on mine sweepers. My father would sit with a pair of pliers straightening out the springs for the newly devised Sten gun that he brought home from the office. The springs were manufactured mechanically but never came out of the machine as straight as the designer intended so they were sent for distribution from places of work so that people could give them the delicate twists they needed.
The newspapers were printed on a poor quality paper and consisted on bad days of a single sheet, or four pages. More commonly we got an extra half page in the middle. They did not take long to read! There might be as many as two photographs in the entire paper - generally the King, Winston Churchill or some other well-known figure doing something patriotic.
Early in 1941 the First Canadian Fighter Squadron was moved away from Northolt aerodrome and the Canadians billeted around Ruislip of course went too. Our friend Carl Briese, was to return for leaves occasionally throughout the war from his new base at Middle Wallop, a name he found most amusing. A Polish Squadron equipped with spitfires replaced the Canadians. I don't recall ever having met foreigners who spoke no English before the Poles arrived and some were billeted next door. Our neighbours, the Fryers, had the Squadron Leader, Zbigniew Czaikowski and his wife Christina. He spoke enough English to get along but she was fluent in French as well as English. Few of their compatriots spoke a word of English. Meeting all these foreigners was all very exciting! This was the first time I had been in close contact with people who spoke another language in preference to English. The Poles had arrived in Britain by a circuitous route through the Balkans that was never completely explained to me.
Once they were trained to fly the Spitfires the Poles did a good job. On their return from a successful operation they would fly "victory roles" over Ruislip at zero altitude in fits of joie de vivre. The population was not amused but tolerated the exuberance as a patriotic obligation. These manoeuvres were very impressive but were stopped eventually when one or two planes came out of the roll at a wrong angle and crashed! Some particularly impressive displays right over our house were probably performed by the lodger next door for his wife's benefit.
Several kinds of bombs now fell routinely near our house and we spoke knowledgeably of 100, 500, and 1000 pounders (it never occurred to us that the enemy likely measured the bombs in terms of kilograms) as well as land mines and D.A.'s, or delayed action bombs. The first three were simply bombs of different weights, real or imagined. (How well can you tell the weight of a bomb when you are on the receiving end?) What we called landmines as far as I ever learned were simply bombs on parachutes. They would arrive silently well after the plane responsible for dropping them had gone into the night. One such bomb landed in the woods near home one summer's night. We were all out next day to collect pieces of the parachute. Blast from such devices was very large but damage was usually light. The one in the woods was over a mile away and although the blast sucked all our curtains out through the transom windows there was no damage. As a terror weapon they were particularly useless. Nobody seemed to get upset by them.
It was the task of the air raid wardens to listen to the bombs coming down and try to find where they landed so they could arrange first aid, ambulances and fire brigades. When no explosion was heard, we all knew a D.A. was in the neighbourhood. No matter what the time of day or night a warden would knock at the door and ask to be allowed to examine the property. Generally my father would have done this already.
The sirens would signal an "alert" or "all clear" without any apparent relation to what was going on. We generally ignored them in the evenings and just 'carried on" until we heard a bomb coming down and would then fall flat on the floor. The thought that I might get killed by one of those bombs never really bothered me and I was surprised one night when my father lay across me as a bomb came hurtling down.
One night in early 1941 we heard the inevitable Heinkel come over with its engines throbbing away. All of a sudden every anti-aircraft gun in the district seemed to open up and in characteristic fashion, down whistled a string of bombs right across our street. My father, in his methodical manner, later plotted all the craters on a street map. His interpretation was that the ten or so bombs had all been light in weight except one, and that had drifted off line. Had it followed the trajectory of the others, it would almost certainly have landed right on us. As it was, my parents threw themselves on the living room floor in time for the shards of broken glass to fly over their heads and cut their way into the wall above them. The bomb had fallen just across the street in someone's back garden.
I was recovering from measles and had just gone to bed in the back room where I was severely bounced about by the effects of another bomb that had landed on the bungalow backing onto our house. The screens of old linoleum held up very well so I was safe enough but the lady in the bungalow lost a leg and bled to death before anything could be done for her. The heavier bomb landed further up the street where it killed another neighbour in one of the seven houses that had eventually to be demolished. On the next morning we were busy carrying out and dumping in the street buckets full of broken glass and lumps of clay. Now our windows were covered with tar paper! All but one of seven downstairs windows was blown out but upstairs only one was gone.
As part of the air raid precautions, shelters had been built in the streets. They consisted of brick walls with a concrete slab roof. Nobody used them except for amorous escapades. The government also distributed shelters of corrugated steel to home owners who elected to take and erect them. Few of our neighbours bothered. To assemble these shelters (known as "Andersons" after the Minister under whose guidance they were issued), the owner had to dig down about four feet. No cement was available for a floor so wooden duckboards had to be made. I suppose some lives were saved by people spending the night in these shelters but I never heard of them. The many nights spent in the damp cold must have done a lot of lasting harm in effect increasing the mortality rate among civilians just as the bombs were intended to do.
Food was becoming progressively shorter in supply. Just about everything was rationed. Ships bringing food were being sunk by submarines at an ever-increasing rate. Britain was slipping into the position of loser until it acquired the German codebook without the Germans knowing. After that, the positions of the submarines could be tracked and appropriate actions taken. It was about this time that we saw our first canned pork meat from America. It was called Spam and its arrival caused quite a sensation. Immediately the papers were full of ways to cook it! There was no Spam ration as such but its distribution was controlled by a system of "points" which we were all allocated. Whenever there was something different to be had, it was rationed out at a certain number of points. Later, we were to receive two-pound cans of ground lean pork meat. Immediately the papers carried recipes on how to cook it. All the tips told us that it was far too rich and should be diluted with lots of breadcrumbs! Even so, I remember it as being incredibly tasty. Towards the end of the really hard times, probably late 1943, a shipload of canned fish arrived from South Africa. The fish had been packed under the Afrikaans name of "snoek". It was actually quite tasty but was the brunt of much humour when members of parliament would ask the minister of food how to pronounce the name, etc. The music hall comedians did not let it go lightly.
Offal was not rationed at all but was given out by the butchers as they thought fit. Needless to say there was a lot of bribery and ill-feeling when ox-tail, liver and kidneys were distributed but otherwise the rationing system worked well and, we were to learn later, much better than the one organized by the Germans. The local shop of the J. S. Sainsbury chain where my mother shopped for most of our groceries was very different from the supermarkets that would come after the war. Our "Sainsbury's" sported counters where you stood in line for the commodities each supplied. Cold meats and bacon were cut in front of the customer with a slicing machine. Meats were laid out on cold marble slabs. The carcasses were cut in a room off the shop where a butcher would obligingly cut what you ordered, or at least he did when the supplies allowed him to do this. The floor of the entire shop was made up of little hexagonal bits of white marble over which clean saw dust was sprinkled each day. The manager, an imposing gentleman called Biddlecombe (he entered local politics as a councillor for the Conservative party), dressed in a blue and white striped apron, would hold court at the end of the counter at the back of the shop where there was an opening into the "back". From this position he would invite regular shoppers into the "back" for various treats such as liver. I always thought he tried to be fair in the distribution of largesse but it must have been difficult for him to gratify so many obsequious women but I believe he tried his best!
Economy of bulk cooking and feeding was utilized throughout the country by the establishment of "British Restaurants" in church halls and other suitable buildings. They had a distinctive, rather unpleasant smell that I can still bring to my imagination and hope to never smell again! These establishments provided a two-course meal, cafeteria style, for six pence. Even in those days before inflation, that was cheap! When I returned with my own family to live in England in 1966, I was surprised to find school meals were still the same price.
I bought a hot lunch every day at school for the same sixpence. One boy at each table would collect the money and deliver it to the master at the head table, where he sat with the senior boys. The rest of us sat twelve to a table, six to a side. Everything had to be eaten. Desserts consisted mostly of variations of rice pudding and prunes until Japan came into the war and interfered with the supply of rice. At least that is what we all thought was the cause but now I suspect it came from the U.S. After that we had various forms of semolina flavoured with fruit concentrate that was supposed to keep our vitamin intake at an acceptable level. The dollop of coloured fruit concentrate in the middle of the bland semolina conjured up many names - mostly disgusting! We were at an age when we could eat forever so we would try to get the squeamish to give up their dessert. One lad called Miller had a glass eye that he would pass around on a spoon in the hope of finding a second dessert. By having both my father and I eat our main meal out each day, our rations went a lot further. What my mother ate at noon I do not know.
Everyone "did their bit" for the war effort. Not to contribute was to earn approbation of friends and neighbours. I collected salvage material and of course looked after my rabbits. Many older women took up voluntary pursuits while all those below an age that was progressively raised were called up to take full-time work of a specified kind. My mother started off with the Women's Voluntary Service (WVS) which had a multiplicity of duties, door to door surveys, looking after evacuees in transit, running canteens for service people, etc. but eventually she was posted to full time work at the Royal Air Force records office in Ruislip where she helped keep track of the payroll records of airmen when they were posted overseas. She raised a smile when she told the person interviewing her for the job that she could not possibly work full time because she had a child at home to look after. I was fourteen at the time! Her weekly wages were a little over three pounds, then the equivalent of twelve dollars and now a modest tip after a meal for two in a good restaurant. So much for inflation! This job allowed her to eat daily in a canteen as well. The size of wages meant little as there was nothing much to buy in the shops beyond the rations.
Rather than put up the income tax, the government introduced "post-war credits" which were deducted from wages and were to be repaid after the successful conclusion of the war. This was actually done years later by paying off the elderly first and then the younger until all had been repaid.
Nobody had time off to rest and there were no vacations. Everyone worked full-time and spent weekends digging vegetables. All around Britain, a security strip three miles wide along the coast was made inaccessible to anyone except residents so there was no opportunity for the "seaside holiday" so loved by the British. In any case, the beaches were rendered inaccessible with strings of barbed wire and concrete blocks designed to thwart tanks and landing craft.
Other women's voluntary organizations included the Citizens' Advice Bureau (which explained the intricacies of government regulations to bewildered citizens), and a variety of money-raising groups ranging from selling national Savings stamps to nursing. For the younger women who were recruited to national service, there were the women's organizations for the three armed forces, the Women's Land Army (which helped on the farms), the Auxiliary Fire Service, ambulance driving, etc. For those few who could fly, or were lucky enough to be chosen for instruction, there was Ferry Command that flew aircraft from factory to air force bases. As the war progressed the planes from North America became available, Ferry Command would bring them over the Atlantic. Everybody it seemed had a uniform of one sort or another. I had bought a book to help me identify the multitude of badges these uniforms bore.
Churchill discarded the formal clothes of a politician and was pictured dressed in boiler suit of coveralls that became known as a siren suit. Women's hairdressing shops were left without help or materials so few of the women had their hair curled anymore and it became fashionable to wear a "turban". Women with long hair controlled it by means of a net, or "snood" which was very popular in factories, or simply braided it. Some popular film stars were prevailed upon to cut their long hair in the hope that factory workers would do the same and so reduce the number of accidents caused by long hair becoming caught in machinery.
As soon as school was over for the summer of 1941 I was dispatched to Princes Risborough again to stay with my uncle Ray and Hester grandparents. It was only 30 miles from home but well away from most of the bombing. My grandfather had been stone deaf for forty years. When he learned the army was about to detonate an unexploded bomb he got through the cordon somehow and hid behind a fence as close as he dared to the site. When he returned home triumphant claiming he had heard the explosion, we rejoiced with him although we all believed what he sensed was the concussion! I was to stay there for the whole month we were off school.
My father joined me for a week while my mother went north to her parents. On one of these days my grandfather Charles Edward Hester, who was then aged about 76, took my father and me by bus to West Wycombe where he had been born in 1867. With him we toured the sites of his youth that included the house in which he had been born and the school he attended. Like most village schools, this one was built following the Education Act of 1871 and was ready for occupancy about 1875. My grandfather showed us the hawthorn bush behind which he and several friends had hidden before rushing to be first into the school when the teacher opened the door for the first time. We borrowed candles from a nearby house and explored the artificial caves which had been dug as a "make work" project 150 years previously to help alleviate unemployment in the village. Many years must have passed since he was last in these caves but he remembered his way around very well. It was one of the days one would wish to have had a tape recorder but this was an invention yet to come!
All brand names of consumer goods like clothing, shoes and furniture were disbanded and production for the civilian market concentrated in one or two factories only. Products were marketed as "Utility" items with a trademark 'CC41'. The 'C's looked like pies with a quarter segment cut from them. We had utility suits, utility furniture, utility hats, utility shoes and so on, including of course "utility " jokes. The long cotton underwear favoured by my grandfather Hester was no longer manufactured and so became unobtainable so my grandmother had to "make do and mend" as the saying went. My grandmother also was most concerned as the nightwear he wore to bed consisted of a style of long flannel nightshirt that reached down to his ankles also became unobtainable. Neither came back into style! Wearing of long cotton underwear was a habit of his youth acquired before the dry cleaning process had been invented. In order for a suit to be cleaned, it had first to be taken apart at the seams and each piece washed separately before being sewn back. This was expensive and time consuming so it was prudent to keep perspiration away from the suit.
I was thirteen at the time and had never been at all interested in mastering the bicycle. My father determined he would teach me. By the end of the week I was sufficiently proficient to ride the seven miles to Thame to see my uncle Percy and aunt Vi Hester who lived there. Until then I had never wanted a bicycle, but now I realized how useful one would be to get around there were none to be bought! Eventually someone in the army lent me his "for the duration" and I was off on my own exploring roads around my home.
During the course of one such excursion the following winter I became overheated and succumbed to tracheitis, or inflammation of the trachea. Sulpha drugs had just come on the market and were prescribed. The doctor told me mine was a very patriotic condition to have as Churchill had the same thing at the time! The pills I had to take every four hours for two days were stamped "M&B 693" and were enormous but effective. Their after-effect was to leave me feeling very tired and I would lie in bed all day scanning the short wave radio dial.
Uncle Percy was my father's eldest brother. While in north Wales recovering from wounds received in France during World War One, he married my aunt Vi who had been a volunteer nurse's aid. They had no children. Perce came away from the army with "shell shock" which in his case left him with a distaste for noise. Perce worked as a watchmaker in the family shop in Thame. His life was very routine. Each evening he would spend an hour in the pub then go home for a cup of cocoa, bread and cheese with a sample of the onions he had grown and Vi had pickled for his enjoyment. He never complained of indigestion or sleeplessness!
Perce was deeply involved with the Freemason movement. His other pursuit was amateur radio. At one time he combined both pursuits by joining a Masonic lodge given over entirely to amateur radio enthusiasts!
Perce built his own short wave transmitter that he operated from the spare bedroom. He concentrated on Morse code key and would not even consider a microphone. His Morse speeds were at the high end of human ability, somewhere in the forty letters per minute range. Early in the war he had joined the Observer Corps for which he spent regular shifts at "the post" recording the movements of aircraft. His ability with Morse code led to his recruitment by what must have been a branch of the secret service to use his radio expertise to read code on assigned frequencies at assigned times. He did this for several years during the war but never knew who the sender was, or what the messages were about, everything was in code. His sessions were in the middle of the night.
The following morning he would use the envelopes provided to post by registered mail the texts he had recorded.
At the end of the war he received a certificate of thanks for his contribution to the war effort, but he never did find out exactly what he had done!
Shortly after the US entered the war in 1941 we were bombarded with bad news from the Far East where Americans, French and British were singularly unprepared for the attack by Japan. Not long before, the British navy had used torpedo carrying-aircraft based on aircraft carriers to launch a surprise attack on the Italian fleet as it lay in Taranto harbour. The fleet was just about annihilated. A Japanese military team went to inspect the site. Nobody realized how they would use the information they gathered to plan their attack on Pearl Harbor in November1942.
While idly turning the short wave radio dial for something more cheery I once picked up a fluke propaganda transmission from a Japanese station in what is now Indonesia in which British prisoners of war were broadcasting home. After the war I read a magazine article about these transmissions. A photograph illustrating the article showed soldiers supposedly making a broadcast of the kind I had heard but the text read that no such broadcast was ever picked up. I should have been writing down the names of the soldiers but of course never did and have often wondered who the men were that made the broadcast.
My tracheitis illness kept me from school for about a month. By the time I was in shape to walk around the three week Easter holiday had begun so I was shipped off North to my mother's parents, my Gardner grandparents who lived in the small village of Humshaugh (pronounced "humshalf") on the North Tyne River in Northumberland. I had last been there several years earlier and before the war. It was a new world to me and I wandered about exploring the countryside. The house was the first of a row of six of a terrace built at right angles to the road. Toilets were of the 'dry" variety built of huge limestone blocks in a row parallel to the houses. These toilets had to be mucked out periodically. The only water for the whole row consisted of a tap just outside my grandparents' back door.
A washhouse next to the tap was available for the tenants each of whom had a set time on a set day each week. Sunday washing was not allowed!! On her washday, my grandmother would fill the copper boiler the night before with cold water drawn from the tap and lay the coal fire ready for the morning.
On washday she would be up at five to get the fire started so the water would be boiling after breakfast. Clothes would be washed on a scrubbing board then wrung out through a great mangle, or wringer, which I would turn when I was there. Groceries would be bought at the village shop and then lugged up the hill to the house in a basket. All cooking was done on the coal range in the kitchen that had to be lit every morning before we had breakfast or could have a cup of tea.
A great holly tree grew between the end of the houses and the road. All the men from the "terrace" would pause by it to urinate! Such was the peaceful village life my grandparents chose to retire to! To me it was a great adventure but to them it became a progressively worse imposition.
My grandfather passed the time hauling coal, splitting and stacking wood (a task he delegated to me whenever I arrived) and tending a great patch of raspberries. He also helped with the dishes. For the rest of the time he sat by the fire smoking his pipe and listening to the radio. He was exceedingly deaf by this time but refused to even try any form of the rudimentary hearing aids that were just coming into use. The only way he could hear the news was with the radio turned to top volume that deafened everyone else in the room. I used to go to the sitting room until the news was over.
Each of the three bedrooms upstairs was equipped with a washstand where we washed each morning. The clean water had to be carried upstairs of course and the dirty water, along with the contents of the chamber pots, carried down.
My grandparents slept on a feather mattress that had to be turned and pounded every morning. My grandfather believed "night air is not good for you" so the window in his room was never opened. The subtle blend of stale sweat, urine and lavender was quite memorable but the old folks did not seem to notice!
I spent quite a bit of time up at Greens' Farm that was worked by brothers Willie and Jimmy Green. Their old father was in the early stages of senility. These three men were looked after by my grandmother's friend, Miss Landers, who, although called a housekeeper, actually lived with Jimmy. In those days, this sort of arrangement was not talked about. The old father was supposed not to know and it was not until years later that I learned what had been going on!
Old Mr. Green was quite a handful as he insisted on touring the farm in a horse and trap with the boys every evening after tea. He was adamant that no motor vehicle be used on the farm and thought the boys worked the place entirely by horses in the time-honoured manner. Each afternoon before the sons came in for tea, the tractor was carefully hidden behind the cowshed away from the old man's view! Both boys were very kind and let me sit for hours on the tractor while they did their spring ploughing.
The Green boys recounted some great run-ins with the local advisers of the County War Agricultural Executive Committee who had tried to advise the brothers on improved farming practices. One such exchange reached the point where Willie informed his adviser that after the war he, Willie, "would still be on the farm doing things his way while the adviser would be back where he was before the war". "And where was that?" the adviser asked. "Why, back on Grangers Street (the main thoroughfare in Newcastle) shovelling up the horse shit" responded Willie. The story caused great merriment and went through the village like wildfire!
When the Greens killed a pig, Miss Landers showed up with a gift of the various sausages she had made from the offal and blood. These products were all new to me and I enjoyed them very much. These were the days before anybody had heard of cholesterol and we feasted on blood sausage and bacon with lots of drippings (fat) without a thought for our health. It tasted good!!
The village butcher killed animals to supply meat for local consumption. He would starve the beasts for several days beforehand and we would hear them crying out and bellowing by the hour. Once the noise stopped, we knew there would be fresh meat in the shop!
A single woman called Harriet Wragg lived a few doors away. Once a week she would bake bread for whoever of the neighbours wanted it. I would go down to help stir the dough in her kitchen. I would bring home bread for the week and a teacake stuffed with sultanas in which I took particular delight, especially when spread with the white buter Miss Launders used to make. My mouth waters even now.
Each day, two trains, each consisting of two carriages, steamed each way through the station a mile and a half away but carried few passengers because the buses charged half the train fare.
Great aunt Mary, who was my grandfather's sister, was a prim, retired schoolteacher who always maintained buses made her ill. She would always arrive by train in solitary splendour. We were honour bound to walk to and from the train for each visit both to meet her and see her off on her return. Aunt Mary gave everyone jobs. Mine was to remember to remind her not to forget her umbrella.
Two bus lines served the village - Moffats (blue) bus which went to Hexham, the market town, and Foster's (orange) bus which went to Newcastle. Arrivals of these buses were often the most important event of the day. Everyone liked to know who had arrived and left on the bus. Apart from these, there was not a great deal of movement!
We arrived by train on the few occasions we travelled by that means from London to Newcastle because the onward journey to Humshaugh was at virtually no extra cost. Our luggage would be brought by handcart the mile and a half to the house by Willie Herdman the local odd-job man.
Willie also cleaned out the "night soil" from the outside toilet when the need arose and fired his shotgun up my grandparent's chimneys each spring to get rid of the nesting jackdaws that interrupted the flow of the smoke from the fire place, which was hardly ever lit anyway.
Willie was my idol! He would reach into the dry stonewalls surrounding the fields and bring out a live rabbit for me. When it came to killing and cleaning the rabbits I kept in our back garden I knew how to do the tasks from watching Willie.
At that time the whole countryside was overrun with rabbits. When out walking with my grandfather, he would stop at a field gate and clap his hands loudly just so we could watch the rabbits run to their burrows. At harvest time the men of the village would turn out with sticks to kill the rabbits as they fled from the ever diminishing island of standing wheat left ahead of the reaper as it spiralled around just before harvesting the field was complete. All these practises, and the role of rabbit in people's diet, ceased in the early fifties when South American disease of myxomatosis was introduced with fatal effects on the rabbit population.
Great interest was aroused one day in the village when a long line of soldiers came through on what was evidently a gruelling route march. It was all some of them could do to put one foot in front of the other. When they stopped for a rest outside the "Terrace", the women took out tea but it was not long before the sergeants were running along the line blowing whistles to alert the men to fall back into line. Nobody seemed to know where the soldiers came from or where they were going. To ask would have been inappropriate. We were continuously being cautioned about the importance of security by advertisements such as "Be like Dad, keep Mum" so it was considered patriotic not to be inquisitive.
I would accompany my grandmother to church on Sundays. She would give me a small, silver threepenny piece for the collection and slip peppermints to me during the sermon. A retired colonel who was said to be much more generous to the church than we were, sang both loudly and out of tune at every service. His generosity was such that the vicar agreed with his request that every service should end with the congregation singing "God save the King". Our colonel rendered this with great patriotic gusto in tones just as bad as he used for hymns.
Our entertainment at home was necessarily simple and revolved around the cinema and the radio. Both ran news programmes that we listened to eagerly despite the obvious propaganda. At the cinema the operator would flash a message on the screen when the air raid sirens sounded but nobody took any notice. We had adjusted to air raids! The radio broadcast a whole range of programmes which none of us missed. They provided all the humour in our lives. One widely popular show was on Thursday nights and called ITMA - standing for "It's That Man Again".
I honestly believe the British war effort stopped every Thursday evening for the half hour the show occupied. The writer and star was a Tommy Handley. There was no plot, just a series of skits with characters each having a stock phrase - Mrs. Mopp the cleaning lady with her "can I do you now sir?", a deep lugubrious voice which came up with "don't forget the diver", the alcoholic Colonel Chinstrap who turned every phrase into an acceptance of a drink with his "I don't mind if I do" became stock phrases on everyone's lips and part of the language of a whole generation. George Gorge would pop up with "lovely grub" which in those austere times caught many an imagination. Towards the end of the war, Handley died suddenly of a heart attack between shows and ITMA ended. It seems he did most of it himself.
The plays broadcast every Saturday night were a source of pleasure. Also there was "Saturday Music Hall" with compère Jack Warner whose common role, both on radio and on film was that of a policeman. He would supposedly wheel his bicycle through the audience admonishing them to "mind my bike", another phrase that was widely used. Another was "evening all".
Each morning my father would turn the radio on at 6:30 in the back room where I slept with my parents. He would get up and make my mother a cup of tea. Until that arrived my mother and I would like in our respective beds listening to "the Morning Exercises" which were broadcast every morning by two very enthusiastic people. Neither of us ever stirred! At the end of that, her tea finished, my mother would get up to use the bathroom while I would lie in bed listening to the news in Norwegian which occupied the remaining fifteen minute until the English news at seven. This news was preceded each day by a remarkable piece of music played part of the time with drum sticks on a base fiddle and a singer who sang "The big noise blew in from Winetka and he blew right out again". When the song finished, it was my time to get up. My father and I would listen to the news and then the bathroom would be free for me. Both parents would be out of the house by eight and I would leave half an hour later after feeding my rabbits and doing the dishes.
In December 1942, the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbour brought the U.S. into the war. On the Home Front as it was called, the first noticeable effect was an improvement in the quality of food that I presume resulted from greater numbers of ships available to defend the shipping convoys. Things generally began to improve early in 1943. Even if the food was strange, at least we got it. The Germans had started a disastrous campaign in Russia ignoring the experience of Napoleon. The British efforts in the Western Desert of North Africa were beginning to show progress.
Perhaps the greatest reason for this improvement in successes which we were not to learn for several decades after the war, was that the Allies had managed to solve both Japanese and German coded messages.
The streets of London became crowded with soldiers from all over the world. Observing Americans became a pastime we all indulged in. They were different from the other foreigners we had become accustomed to as they spoke English and there were so many of them! I made a hobby of studying uniforms and badges and bought a book with them all in. There were so many to spot. On a rare trip to London I encountered a group of airmen from Brazil. We did not even know that country had declared war!
All the boys I knew had their collection of bits of shrapnel, be they from anti-aircraft guns or enemy bombs, bits of parachute and aeroplane fragments and such. The most sought after were cartridge cases from machine guns, and, best of all, live ones. These ultimate of prizes could only be obtained by crawling under the fence of the firing range at an aerodrome. The British cartridges measured only 0.303 inches in diameter while the U.S. ones were a full half-inch. These were the most desirable as they were big enough to be made into cigarette lighters by the commercially inclined.
You could always convert a live cartridge into an empty case by firing the bullet. All you had to do was cinch the cartridge in a vice and hit the detonator using a nail and hammer. This was a risky method as your fingers tended to get in the way of flying objects as one or two class-mates found to their detriment! The missing joints on their fingers were admired in the same way I suppose duelling scars were admired by German students of a bygone age.
Summer of 1943 found me 14 years old and me grown enough to spend my summer holiday helping on the land at the school harvest camp. We were all anxious to go as not only were we to be paid but the break away from home routines was looked forward to - we lived a very quiet existence as everything was shut down for the war. What a surprise it was to learn that we were to camp in the elementary school at Haddenham, England's largest village and only a few miles from my Hester grandparents at Princes Risborough. Two of my grandfather Hester's cousins (he had 57 of them!) whom I had not met previously, lived in the village. Off we went with our bicycles by train to Aylesbury and then by bike to camp. The woman who cooked our school meals came along as cook as well as several masters. We ate very well. One the science masters constructed a wooden box that he filled with hay so it could be used to insulate a large pot of boiling porridge. The porridge would be placed while very hot into the box so that it could cook overnight and be ready for breakfast in the morning. In this way, the cook did not have to rise so early to get it ready and we all learned a practical lesson in physics.
The camp was divided up into two sessions lasting two weeks, but many of us stayed for the full month. Each morning we either rode our bicycles out to the farm to which we had been assigned, or were taken there by truck if it were far. We showed up all eager to start helping with the harvest but nothing was ripe until later in the month of August. So, for the first while, we were out either hoeing rows of turnips or slashing weeds with billhooks in carrot fields. The latter was more fun as we found the fields full of frogs that we could throw up in the air and chop with our billhooks as they fell to the ground.
Three friends and I had managed eventually to get jobs away from the rest and had a much better time of it.
At one farm just outside the village we worked for a Mr. Rose who, I was to learn years later was a distant relative. We were only thirty miles from our homes but I was the only one of the group who could understand what he said! So much for the Bucks dialect of the time. Of course, when he indicated one of us should go to the farmhouse to bring back tea, or do some other job that relieved the monotony, I would tell my friends that I had been selected for the job, while they stood wondering what Mr. Rose had said!
We finished up the camp with a two-week job on a farm at Hardwick north of Aylesbury to which we were driven every day. The farmer was very good to us and tipped us each a pound. This was great money as we were being paid only eight pence an hour and it took 240 pence to make a pound. A pound represented thirty hours of work. We kept the money and did not put it in the general pool as we were supposed to.
The farmer must have forgiven us the occasion he returned early from his lunch to find us re-enacting the chariot race from Ben Hur as we raced the horses and carts around the field. His face got very red and he told us in his best Bucks accent "boi Chroist if Oi were your bloody schoolmaarster Oi wouldn't half give it to 'ee". Strong stuff for those days!
Part of the crew consisted of two Italian prisoners of war. They were decent enough fellows but spoke little English so we could do no more than laugh with each other and teach them disgusting expressions in English. They wore Italian army uniforms with great multicoloured patches on their backs and knees covering holes which had been purposely cut out of their uniforms. They would never get far dressed like that if they escaped - something neither seemed disposed to try. Each lunch time they would get away from us all and cook their own meal then go to sleep. As soon as the end of lunch was heralded by the return of the farmer we would be sent to find the Italians and wake them up with a gentle prod from our pitchforks.
Harvesting was a labour intensive job. Combine harvesters had either not been invented or simply not introduced into England. First the reaper would go around the field cutting down the wheat and tying the sheaves. We did not participate in the slaughter of rabbits at the conclusion of the reaping but arrived later to stand the sheaves up into stooks each of eight to fourteen sheaves. Once the wheat was considered dry enough, it would be carted and built into a rick to keep it dry until the threshing machine arrived. The farmer showed me how to build the sheaves up on a two wheel cart which had extension "ladders" over the horse in front and projecting from the back as well. I liked doing this and got pretty good at it - at least none of my loads fell off! I had to rely on the good offices of a friend to throw the rope over the load and tie it down to provide the means by which I could descend to ground level.
Once the threshing box arrived, it was all hands to the task. Power for the thresher was provided by a long belt turned by a stationary tractor. One day the belt broke and there were about 100 feet of 4 inch belt flaying all over. You never saw people scatter so fast. By the time someone had turned off the tractor and we all stopped running we saw the farmer already in his car on his way for a new belt.
My job was mostly as one of the two who fed the sheaves into the top of the threshing box. We spent the day bent over with a knife tied to our wrists, cutting and discarding the string from the sheaves before spreading the straw and dropping them inside. It did not require much intellectual skill and was hard work. When sheaves were not spread well the machine would utter a nasty sounding thud that invariably drew a yell from whoever was in charge. Presumably our lack of attention to the job caused a grievous mechanical injury but I never discovered what. On other occasions I would work on the baler where I threaded wire with which the bales were tied.
We were glad of the tea breaks in mid-morning and afternoon. A Polish airman on leave was helping on the crew. He gave the best demonstration I ever saw of the use of a scythe to cut wheat from the corner of the field missed by the reaper. After that we all tried our hand with mixed success during the tea break.
By now I had become more accustomed to foreigners. Had I not met Americans, both black and white, Canadians, Italians, and Poles? - but no Germans. The gentleman who was to correct this deficiency was of course a prisoner of war. We met him quite by accident while touring some of the less impressive remains of the Roman occupation along Hadrian's Wall near my grandparents' home at Humshaugh. We stumbled across a group of German prisoners working on parole and consequently unguarded on the excavation of the remains of the abutment of a Roman bridge.
One of the party strolled over to greet us, his grey uniform patched on the back of the jacket and the knees of his trousers in the usual manner. My mother turned to my father "Oh Syd, he is going to speak to us. What are we going to do?" There was no escape. There were no guards around. My father decided to see what happened. We were uncertain how to behave but he overlooked our obvious coolness and addressed us in perfect English. This was to be the first of our surprises as he continued to give us a detailed history of the Roman occupation and when the bridge was built and how it fit into what had gone on! He was certainly nothing like what I had been led to expect! Our informant seemed well-pleased to be out of the war and my father, who was clearly somewhat embarrassed in the beginning, allowed that the man seemed a decent sort of fellow who, as he reminded us "we are not all savages you know". Other prisoners of war, who would not give their parole, went to work on heavier duties and were guarded all the time.
Early in 1944 the newscasts were always mentioning airborne rocket attacks against "enemy installations in the Pas de Calais area". We suspected this had something to do with the "Second Front" as the expected invasion of France became known. "Second Front Now" had been scrawled on walls for years especially by sympathizers and admirers of the fight Russia was putting up. It was only a matter of time until one was started. The raids did seem to be rather more concentrated than we would expect.
It turned out that the targets were launching sites for the German "reprisal weapons" which our Intelligence had known about for some time. These were terror weapons known for short as V1, V2 and V3. The V1 was a jet-propelled bomb, the V2 a rocket, and V3 a rocket propelled shell. All these devices were intended for use against London. The V1 was used extensively, the V2 only a little and the V3 not at all.
Had Adolf Hitler seen the reaction of our neighbour Mrs. Fryer to the supposed terror weapons, he might have changed his opinion about their impact on the civilian population. When a "buzz" bomb, as the V1 weapons became known, came over in the daytime she would run out into the back garden and shake her fist at the plane as it flew over. "Get away, go on home" she would shout! This was hardly the scared reaction Hitler had hoped for!
The V1 attacks got into gear early in 1944. The Germans had little navigational control over these devices except for the quantity of fuel. When that ran out, the device would glide to the ground and explode. With its jet engine, it was faster than the propeller fighters so there was little that could be done to bring the device down. The scary bit came at night when you heard the engine cut out but of course could see nothing. Where would it land? We got plenty of the bombs in the northwest London but the news programmes always spoke of serious attacks in the southeast of the city.
We learned later that this was a ruse to mislead the Germans into thinking they had put enough fuel on board only to bring the bombs down short of the centre of the city which was of course the target. British intelligence was trying to get the Germans to put in even more fuel so the bombs would overshoot! They caused a lot of damage and would come at any time of the day or night. Had they been used early in the war they really would have been a terror weapon but by now we were hardened to such devices.
By this time, Herbert Morrison had replaced Anderson as the minister in charge of home defence. Anderson was remembered for the shelters he had distributed to those who wanted to build them outside their houses at the beginning of the war. Now it was Morrison's turn. The shelters named after him were like enormous dining room tables made from steel. Underneath was a layer of bedsprings on which we slept for several months during the worst of the V-1 raids. The sides were of stiff wire. The whole outfit would withstand the collapse of the house and I am sure they saved many lives. My father and I had quite a job putting the shelter together and even more trouble getting it taken down later! My mother produced tablecloths she had inherited which had been made to cover the large tables used by the big families of former times.
Years later we were to learn that the British intelligence had known all about the V1 for several years. In fact a model on test flight had gone astray allowing the Polish underground to capture it and arrange for it to be flown surreptitiously to England on a dark night! The story eventually leaked to us at the time was that the nature of the device had been interpreted by intelligence from the shadow cast by an early V1 at the weapons testing station at Peenemunde on the Baltic coast of Germany.
There was little point in sounding air raid alerts as the bombs would come over at any time. Many of the larger office buildings and schools appointed watchers to stay on the roof to spot buzz bombs coming in. When one looked like landing near the building or school, the watchers
rang a bell and everyone would duck down until they heard the explosion. By this time, the air raid warden system was very efficient so the effects of the bombs were reduced quite a bit, certainly the terror the bombs were supposed to invoke never developed.
At school we would spend the day ducking down while appointed monitors pulled the curtains in the hope of slowing any flying glass. At school the job of standing on the roof and ringing the bell when a buzz bomb came into view was eagerly sought but I was a year too young. Fire watching teams stayed on the roof all night and were trained to immediately extinguish fires that might be caused by incendiary bombs. These had to be doused right away before they spread. Every building and household by now had a "stirrup pump" which could be stood in a bucket of water to produce a stream which could be directed at any fire. We all knew the procedure! Our stirrup pump at home served as a spray for our apple trees for years after the war.
This was the year 1944 and the one in which I took the School Certificate Examination that was then a major milestone in the education system. The examination was supposed to be taken at age 16 but our school took it a year earlier. I had avoided the stress of having to take the "eleven plus" exam but there was no getting around this one. Exam papers were prepared and printed for all the examinees to take at a set time. Nobody knew what the questions were to be until the master invigilating the exam would open the envelope containing the questions in front of us with great ceremony and pass them out. Half way through the French dictation we had to duck under the desks for ten minutes so we were rewarded with a second, unplanned hearing much to everybody's relief! Apparently the rules required the dictation be given without interruption.
Latecomers to school were always called upon to give an excuse. At this time we could always invoke a buzz bomb! One boy called J. B. Rose (we never called each other by first names) arrived late and was asked for his excuse. "I was sitting on the toilet when a buzz bomb went off and blew the window frame onto my head. My father told me to stay home for a while to help clean up the glass, sir." The master responded that this was the first time he had heard that excuse and continued with the lesson. "Sit down, Rose". Rose always maintained the story was true!
Each school morning we started the day with a fifteen minute service, called 'assembly', at which the headmaster officiated. He had recently taken holy orders in the Anglican Church in preparation for a second career as vicar after his impending retirement. It was generally a lot of fun with uninhibited singing of rousing and inspiring hymns. Those boys whose voices had not yet broken formed a choir that was chosen to sing one or more verses on their own.
Before dismissing us the headmaster would make any announcements. On one memorable day he waived a note received from a resident of a neighbouring house. The resident wrote that he appreciated he would have to put up with the occasional unseemly noise from the school but "a nigger minstrel show at two in the morning" was too much. The miscreants apparently could not be apprehended so we all got the lecture for that one! At least our firewatchers had been awake!
I should point out that the "nigger minstrel" show was a popular singing event on radio at the time by the BBC's men's chorus. They would sing songs from the southern U.S. accompanied by banjoes, etc. With the advent of television the chorus dressed up in the striped jackets and white trousers and blackened their faces. To put more visual appeal, there was a troop of white ladies in tights who performed dances. The show was eventually renamed "The Black and White Minstrel Show".
During the spring of 1944 the radio news began reporting "explosions of gas mains in the South East of London". The explanation offered was that there had been no maintenance during the war and the pipes had deteriorated. In fact, the explosions resulted from the landings of the first V2 rockets. It was learned later that aborted take-offs of these rockets killed as many people at the delivery end as the successfully launched ones did at our end. The V2 was my first exposure to supersonics. You would hear the explosion before anything else and then the noise of the rocket coming! They were really not very effective. So many blew up on take off while others would explode in the air on re-entry.
I was walking along a road in Harrow one noon when one went off both above and in front of me so I had a grand opportunity to pick up souvenirs from the bits that fell down onto the road. Surprisingly I saw nobody get hurt. It never occurred to me that people might get hurt by the falling fragments, some half a metre in length, that were clanging to the ground all around me.
By now I had become a cadet in the school's Air Training Corps that met every Sunday morning as well as after classes one or two evenings during the week. Some of the masters served as officers and others as instructors. We studied aircraft recognition, Morse code, drill etc., in preparation for joining up when we became eighteen. The organization was really a pool for aircrew training. At least being in the ATC gave you entry into the Air Force which was generally regarded as better than the army and excused you the first six weeks of basic training. Nobody gave much thought to training for a job in civilian life. The ATC was nationwide and even had its own radio programme on Saturday mornings with a rousing theme song "We're the sons of the lords of the air, the ATC" We were given tickets to attend a broadcast and I joined a group that went to London for the occasion. Instead of the young, manly types we had envisaged singing our theme song we were shocked to find a row of tubby, elderly men! This was only reasonable as all the young singers would have been in the services. We were taken to airports for experience flights and to camps in the spring. It was all fun and we got to see a lot.
On one memorable Sunday morning we were addressed by an old boy from the school, probably no more than four years older than the youngest among us, who had been a member of the crew of a bomber shot down over France. With some of his crew, he had, with the aid of the French Resistance, managed to escape to neutral Spain without being captured. It was an enthralling story and well told. One of the crew was captured when he rode a stolen bicycle into a village in broad daylight while still wearing his British uniform! Our hero kept a lower posture until found by the resistance people.
Incredibly the whole crew, except for the cyclist, travelled together in French clothes to the Spanish frontier by train. Our hero spoke enough French that hew as allowed to speak when addressed but if asked where he was from he was to account for his strange accent by telling the Germans he was a Flemish speaking Belgian. An American among the escapees was not to speak on any account but was obliged to say something when he accidentally trod on the toes of a fellow passenger. His tortured rendering of "pardonnez moi" elicited the reply of "that's alright old chap" in English from the apparent Frenchman he had offended. It turned out two independent groups of the Resistance movement had put Allied Pilots on the same train without each others knowledge!
One of the greatest attractions of the ATC was to go to Bovingdon for the day, generally on a Sunday. This was an American air force base about an hour away by truck where we would sometimes be taken for flights and be given American food cafeteria-style attended by black men, the first I had ever encountered. One such occasion was the first time I ever ate corn. We would sit and look at the food wondering what some of it was! Dessert would be canned fruit, a luxury none of us had seen in years.
What the attractions were in the experience flights I cannot now understand because many of us would be airsick into a bucket that was passed up and down the aisle as need dictated. There were none of the discrete little envelopes seen today for use by the ailing traveller, paper was too scarce for such niceties to be manufactured. I don't think we even wore seat belts as I remember one friend lying prostrate on the floor of the plane calling to God to bring us all down quickly!
The planes we flew in from our local RAF base were mostly old twin engined biplanes no doubt very nostalgic to some but not my choice for comfort. The Americans gave flights in Dakotas but I was never lucky enough to get one. We all kept logs of our flights with the registration numbers of the planes, the minutes we had flown and an officer's signature! Most of the flights were for twenty minutes or so. The big thing was to be able to brag about how many hours flying you had! Flying was still very much a novelty to the average person. I don't recall ever meeting anyone who had flown before 1939 and I was certainly the first among my family to fly.
ATC camps were a lot of fun and as good as the holidays we missed. I attended two. One was at a Wellington bomber station in the Midlands and the other a naval Fleet air Arm station on the northern coast of Cornwall where Swordfish biplanes training for torpedo attacks were stationed.
We got more experience flights at each and for the first time I was not sick! Great amusement was caused at the Naval Station as we were required to sleep in hammocks. At the bomber station we were impressed by the Commanding Officer who sported a classic wide moustache and all the language affected by many aircrew of the time. He gave us an explanation of how radar worked which made us feel we had been given secret information. I think everyone by that time knew what radar did but nobody talked about how it worked.
Troops from all over the world were by now a common sight. Everyone knew it was only a matter of time before France was invaded. Our classroom was on the upper floor of the school. We heard marching feet on the road outside. Our French master always an extrovert, threw open the window to waive with one arm at a column of troops from New Zealand while he encouraged us in the singing of the Marseilles with the other. Before the end of the first line we were all at the windows singing and waiving too. How he got us all to settle down afterwards I do not recall.
D-Day, the appointed time for the landing in France came on June 6th, 1944. The landing had been delayed several days by bad weather but we knew nothing of this. All we knew on the appointed day was learned from a brief statement on the morning news that Winston Churchill, the Prime Minister, would broadcast an important announcement at one o'clock. Those of us considered old enough to behave and to be interested in what was going on, were allowed into the chemistry laboratory where there was an ancient radio (even by standards of the time), at the appointed time during lunch hour, along with many of the staff, to hear what was going to be said. The announcement of course was that several landings had been successfully accomplished early that morning. It turned out later that Churchill insisted on doing this job himself whether the landings were a success or not.
It was by no means certain that the landings would be successful. Not only was the weather uncertain but several trial raids and landings had not all gone well. One by the Canadians at Dieppe is still remembered as one that went tragically wrong. This time there were several landings, and all more or less accomplished their objectives. The German command had suspected landings would be made during these summer months but had guessed the wrong beaches to defend. Selection of the beaches on which to attempt landings was not made lightly.
It was essential that the beaches be of the right composition to support tanks. A public appeal was made for photographs taken by the public during beach holidays in France. The army also engaged a geologist who was skilled in the science of soil technology. He would be landed on a beach of interest with a small group of commandos. While the commandos made a diversion, the geologist would conduct whatever sampling and testing he could. For the convenience of the moment the geologist was made a colonel however he refused to shave off his beard as required by Regulations and had to be given a special dispensation from the War Office!
Bombing was thought to be the way to get the Germans to give in. The fact that it had only strengthened morale in Britain seemed to be overlooked. "The Germans are different and do not have our moral fibre!" was the thought pattern of the time. The U.S. planes were far better armoured and equipped with more machine guns to battle enemy fighters than the British planes were. While being so much better protected they could not carry the weight of bombs the British planes could. These differences between the aircraft of the two nations lead to the Americans bombing by day and the British by night. By the end of the hostilities, the British were mounting 1000 bomber raids with some planes carrying "blockbusters" weighing 12,000 pounds each. We could only hear these planes passing overhead at night on their way out and back. They were led to their targets by "pathfinder" aircraft equipped with special navigational aids. Pilots of these aircraft wore special insignia and were heroes of schoolboys everywhere.
The American planes we could see. They would pass over in great clouds composed of groups of twelve each made up of four clover leaf patterns each consisting of three planes. On their return the planes would keep in the original pattern but there were often spaces left where planes had been lost in action. Great holes were visible in the wings and tails of others. We were amazed how some of them kept in the air let alone stayed information. Occasionally we would see a flight of fighter aircraft flown by French pilots. These could be easily distinguished by the custom of arranging the aircraft in the pattern of the cross of Lorraine. This custom was adopted as a morale booster for the French who would be pleased to know that their own kind were flying overhead.
The outcomes of the battles that raged back and forth over France and the Low countries were not always in our favour but the progress of the front eastward was something we all watched keenly. Eventually the first troops were into Germany and reports of the conditions found in concentration camps filtered back. Several boys a couple of years my senior had chosen to attend medical school before joining the army. (University courses during the war were run on a system of four terms per year so a three-year degree was completed in only two). The medical schools were cleared out and all the students sent to the concentration camps to administer care. The boys I knew spent their entire time injecting people against typhus and cholera. After several weeks they returned to their studies. They appeared quite nonchalant about the experience.
Once the allied troops were in Germany, air raids of all kinds came to an end and at school we were allowed to eat the iron rations we had stored in our desks for the five war years. Mine consisted of chocolate rye vita crisp bread of a variety long since gone from the shops. Everyone had much the same and I can remember us all eating whatever we had with great relish. Like my friends, we were at an age when boys can never get enough to eat. We would slip out of school
after lunch to buy a small loaf of bread or a fruit pie to eat before afternoon classes began. The iron rations in our desks were meant to keep us going in the event of a prolonged raid.
Because part of our school had been demolished as part of a scheme to enlarge and rebuild it when the war started, some classes for senior boys had to be accommodated away from the main school building. As seniors we had licence to roam! Some of our classes were held in te middle of town at the Technical School so we could roam around th shops with impunity. We even had a favourite spot for morning coffee but that stopped when the headmaster took the governors out for coffee and found he had to wait for boys to leave so he could have a table!
The other building we used was the science building of Harrow School. This is the very elite place where Winston Churchill went to school and is amongst the most expensive of its kind in England. We did all our chemistry and physics laboratory work there as well as took several classes.
We also were invited to join "the Boys" for scientific demonstrations after school. The "Boys" generally seemed a stuck up lot but I could never decide whether this was true arrogance on their part or whether a school rule forbade them from talking to outsiders.
The war years with their lack of distractions were ones of considerable scholastic achievement at the school I attended. We did not have the money to go to the cinema more than about once a month, there were few dances held, the street lights went off at ten thirty to save power, and so on. On weeknights there was really nothing else to do but go home listen to a bit of radio and do homework.
The war in Europe seemed to just taper off in the end as there was no formal surrender. The enemy was just over-run. Other enemy countries such as Italy had quit earlier and were now on our side! Whatever happened to erstwhile enemies such as Romania, Bulgaria and Hungary never seemed to make headlines. They just faded away! Somehow or other it was decided that May 8th was to be Victory in Europe Day, or VE Day, and both it and the following day a public holiday. The church bells were duly rung for the first time in five years, there were the inevitable parades and the pubs did a roaring business. I finished up at Hayes at the home of our neighbour's niece, Pam Jones. (Pam came to the school dances with me for several years. She eventually married and moved to Windsor in Ontario where she died at a young age.) We wandered around town joining in the throng and finished up at a great open field where there was a bonfire going. A great gallows had been erected from which an effigy of Hitler hung. I remember a drunken soldier sitting on the cross-piece. When it came down to it, nobody really knew what to do (except of course the pub owners!) but felt they should be out milling around with the rest.
The war in Asia continued but seemed very distant. Most of the British effort had gone into the European area and it was the Americans and Australians who really carried things in the east. We could now buy gasoline so we got the car down off the blocks it had rested on for about two years. The gasoline left in the tank had evaporated leaving a horrid thick liquid that bunged up the pipes and carburetor when my father tried to start the engine. We eventually found that methylated spirits (crude alcohol) would dissolve the mess so eventually got the machine running again. With my parents, I went off by road for the first holiday we had had away from relatives for years and spent two weeks on a farm on the north coast of Devon near the village of Morthoe.
The farmer's wife showed me how she scalded the thick cream used as an accompaniment on "cream teas" in which the cream is spread on top of strawberry jam. This was a treat indeed for those of us who had been starved of fats for several years. Several years later, when my parents took their first holiday in Europe, they were to discover just how their bodies had lost the ability to digest fat. While waiting for a connecting train at Basel, they treated themselves to a rich cream concoction that made them both ill.
Men who had been prisoners of war in Europe came home and began the challenging job of settling back into civilian life. Several of our friends never did this successfully and simply drifted around for years. Slowly, service men came back from overseas. My mother's brother Leslie, who had been with the Air Force police in India suddenly arrived. We had kept in touch by writing letters to him on special forms. These were microfilmed by the post office then sent by air to where the recipient lived was before being enlarged. This reduced the bulk of mail and allowed it all to be flown instead of relying on sea transport. Such are the innovations brought by war. I can remember my uncle as the first to use the word "bullshit" in my hearing - a strange saying which I presumed came from his experiences in India. He had enjoyed that country. Whenever he was sent to the plains, the combined effects of humidity and heat would give him prickly heat so he was sent to the hills of Khashmir for the duration of his stay.
With the scare of air raids gone, the blackout was over. Trips to London on Saturday mornings and other days when there was no school could be taken without fear. Museums and the like that had been closed for the duration began opening again. With my friends, I began frequenting exhibitions and whatever else was to be seen. Two of these stand out in my mind. One was an exhibition of the combined works by Picasso and Matisse that was lent by the French government for display at the Victoria and Albert Museum. The other, an exhibition of German weapons and inventions was held just across the road at the Science Museum. I visited both with my friend Paul Chiverton. Art by Picasso and Matisse was a revelation to us. We had never seen anything like it and were not sure what to make of it. A heavily bearded man dressed in naval officer's uniform from which the insignia had been removed (a common enough sight at the time) was on the verge of hysterical laughter in front of one painting. He seized us by the arms and nodded towards the painting asking us "have you ever seen anything like that?" and dissolved into laughter again. The piece, "View through the garden window" has probably been sold for millions since. The exhibition was a major display of the works of both artists but at the time we did not realize the significance.
News programmes, be they radio or film, were now devoted to the war in the East. Slowly the Allied forces closed the net on the Japanese and we were exposed to all the horrors of prisoner of war camps and the condition of the inmates as they were freed. A second cousin, Deryck Syred of High Wycombe, who had gone straight into the navy upon graduation from medical school, had been medical officer on a destroyer lost in the battle of the Java Sea in 1942 that had been a triumph for the Japanese and almost resulted in the invasion of Australia. Syred's ship had last been seen going into a smoke screen. When he finally turned up at the end of the war, it seems he had been captured and spent the war working in a coal mine in Korea. He had not been heard from for four years. My father could not stand this relative in his pre-war form, regarding him a stuck up prig but admitted to meeting a much changed and improved person! He married and went into medical research at a London hospital but died of cancer at the young age of forty.
UPDATE: The information about Deryck Syred has been corrected by his son Gerald:
My father married his fiancée of several years (later to become mother to me and my brothers and sister) in October 1939. He qualified as a medical practitioner in April 1940. He joined the Navy as soon as he was allowed to in July 1941 as Surgeon Lieutenant RNVR. He joined his ship, the Destroyer HMS Encounter, in January 1942 at Singapore.
His ship survived the First Battle of the Java Sea on 27th February 1942, but along with the famous cruiser HMS Exeter and the US destroyer USS Pope was sunk on the morning of 1st March 1942 in what I believe was called the Second Battle of the Java Sea. The ships had been trying to escape the Japanese, who far outnumbered them. Encounter's crew were ordered to abandon ship after she had run out of ammunition and had been disabled. After spending the rest of the day and all the following night clinging to a makeshift raft with eleven companions (one of whom was a Spaniel dog), my father was rescued by a Japanese destroyer. Most of Encounter's crew survived and were taken prisoner.
My father never worked in a coal mine in Korea. He was at first imprisoned at Macassar in the Celebes, but was transferred to Fukuoka No 2 POW camp in Nagasaki Harbour in October 1942, where he remained until the end of the war. He spent most of his time there caring for sick and injured allied prisoners, most of whom had to work in the nearby Mitsubishi shipyard under harsh conditions.
My father was listed as missing until March 1943, from which time he was in correspondence with his family, very intermittently, some letters taking over two years to reach their destination. He eventually arrived in England in November 1945 and was demobbed in September 1946. I don't think he was ever in medical research, but certainly by the end of 1948 he was working in the radiodiagnostic (X-ray) department at Northampton General Hospital, where he continued to work until he died of a brain haemorrhage in September 1954, shortly after his forty-first birthday.
Political differences in government had been set aside under the government led by Winston Churchill. His cabinet had consisted of men from every party chosen solely on the basis of their merit. When the war was clearly close to an end, it was decided to hold a general election so a new government could be in place to organize for the coming peace.
It was 1945 and at the age of sixteen I was suddenly made aware of politics. Our neighbour allowed her home to be used as a Labour (Socialist) committee room. I was most interested and volunteered as a teller to the polling station to gather a count of the way people voted, or at least from those who would tell me! The outcome of the election was a surprise as the Labour, or Socialist party won. Churchill won his own constituency but his party lost so he could no longer be prime minister. Churchill's place was taken by Clement Atlee, a bright but colourless individual with a squeaky voice. All my friends were caught up in this new game of politics. Many joined the
Young Communists. To a man, we were all very left wing for a while. After a couple of years we all joined the Conservatives! It was a sad time for Churchill but his moment of glory was passed anyway and he would continue to earn everyone's respect.
Churchill will forever be lionised for his leadership of Britain during the grim days of the war. The qualities of leadership he displayed as first Lord of the Admiralty during the first war have been questioned but he always had the tenacity to stay with what he thought was best. This ability showed through in the second war. From all accounts he must have been more or less drunk much of the time and it turned out later that he had the a great advantage of being able to read the German coded messages! I believe his lasting contribution was as a proponent of Basic English that was developed towards the end of the war and encouraged all over Europe as a sort of lingua franca. Use of the language has now spread across the globe. It is reported that the radio programme garnering the most listeners in the world is the BBC programme directed towards teaching English to the Chinese. I believe the initial impulse for this came from Churchill although he never was remembered for it.
It was while we were spending our holidays of 1946 at Sidmouth on the south coast of Devon that the war in Asia finished. VJ Day as it was known came about when Japan sued for peace following the dropping of the two atomic bombs by the U.S., one on Nagasaki and one on Hiroshima. The VE Day proceedings were repeated with nobody really knowing what to do by way of celebration, except for the owners for the pubs. There was a general air of relief and the papers carried great articles on how the writers thought the atomic bombs worked.
I was just seventeen and after nearly seven years the war had finally come to an end. It had consumed most of my teen-age years. Historians would later interpret this war as the one that finally settled the problems left unresolved by the 1914-18 War. Certainly the distribution of power in Europe was changed with Germany knocked to the floor and Britain on its knees, even if we did not realize where we were at the time. Rationing and austerity conditions would continue for nearly ten years more but we were convinced everything would soon be easy because after all, we were convinced we would soon be using free atomic power for everything!
In 1946, the first ballpoint pens hit the market. One of the sales pitches used to sell them was that we would soon all be flying everywhere and these pens did not have to be emptied like ordinary fountain pens which would otherwise leak their ink at the lower pressures encountered at altitude. The first ballpoint pen I saw cost four times the price of the gold-nibbed fountain pen I used! It was a graduation gift from a rich uncle to a friend of mine. The cost represented about 25% of a week's wages for a newly graduated engineer!
The word "spiv" went out of everyday use when austerity finished. Spivs were people who could always be relied upon to, for a price, supply something in short supply. Around the end of the war, spivs started to offer what was known as "soapless soap" or "teepol". It was the advent of detergents. If you knew the right person, he would get you a bottle of the unscented, amber-brown liquid in an unmarked bottle. Presumably it was drawn from a drum of the stuff but where
it came from was anybody's guess. All we learned was that it was made somehow by the oil industry and our friendly local spivs knew where to get it! How the stuff came to be marketed for the first time at the end of the war with absolutely no advertising fanfare remains a mystery to me.
The British Empire was about to start its decline with India being given its independence, and Russia was about to set up its "Iron Curtain" across Eastern Europe. We knew nothing of this but it was clear that there would be no return to the world we knew in 1939. About 50.000,000 people had died and great movements of population were taking place all across Europe. Virtually every country in Europe that had been involved in the war, be they winner or loser in the conflict, was bankrupt, just like after the previous war. In retrospect, the whole event seems the ultimate idiocy - all those deaths and all that destruction. All those unsettled lives, and for what purpose? The best that can be said is that it was possibly the ultimate eradicator any will to employ warfare in Europe as a way of settling differences.
For better or worse, a new world was surely at hand.
As for me, did the war experience leave any scars? All that I can point to that I am aware of by way of lasting effects of which I am conscious is the austerity. This experience during a decade of my formative years has left me reluctant to this day to throw food away. Added to that I suppose is my cynicism about the abilities of public officials in high places. After all, their collective inadequacies caused the whole conflagration.
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