Woolwich & Districts
in the War
first indication of the approaching war came when our next-door
neighbour http://came home from work and said that on Plumstead
Common a large team of men were constructing an air-raid
was in the early
part of the summer of 1939. After tea that evening we all walked
along to the Common and there, opposite the 'Links' Co-op store
were 50-60 men working under floodlight, using machinery that
I had never seen before. Even the hand held electric saw was
an item to be stared at in wonder.
All this was taking place after PM Chamberlain came back from
Germany waving his piece of paper and saying to the waiting
crowd, "Peace in our time".
few weeks later, on a lovely summer Sunday morning, September
3rd, we all walked down to our local greengrocer and bought
some bananas. While walking back a man came out of his house
and said, "Get home quick. War has been declared!"
We hurried home, but before we got there the air-raid siren
went and we ran the rest of the way, looking skywards, expecting
to see a German plane at any minute. None came; it was a false
alarm and the 'all clear' sounded soon after. The air-raid siren
for a coming raid rose and fell as if it was being switched
on and off. The "all clear" was a continuous note
for about two minutes.
the next few weeks many things happened. A man went door-to-door
giving out identity cards to everybody. The adults were given
buff coloured cards and the under 18's were given blue. We were
all given a number; mine was AZKW-91-3; the last digit meant
that I was third in the family.
mother had to go down to the town hall to collect our ration
cards for food and clothing. The amount of food we were given
each week would not last us a day now. My uncle, in Canada,
read in the newspapers that we were starving, and sent us a
large food parcel. The only two items I remember was a big tin
of jam and a big tin of butter. We had never seen butter in
a tin before, or since.
were also rationed, but were almost unobtainable. Petrol was
only given to important people, like doctors. People that had
cars, and there were not many, jacked them up on bricks and
covered them up with waterproof sheets.
this time, people were advised to "black out" their
windows. We covered our windows with rubber sheeting, which
found its way out of the Woolwich Arsenal; stolen of course!
was ten years old at this time and one day we had a mock evacuation
at school. We all had to take a suitcase full of clothes to
school and we had a label with our destination on it. We also
had to take our gas masks, which had been delivered to our house
one evening. Most people had a standard mask, but children under
five were given a blue and red mask to fool them into thinking
it was a Mickey Mouse mask. Babies were given a container about
two-foot long and eighteen inches in diameter. The baby was
placed in this and a manual pump was used to provide filtered
air for the baby to breathe.
the following weeks we had an 'Anderson'
shelter put at the bottom of the garden. Two men came and dug
a hole, three-foot deep, and the shelter went into this and
was covered with the excavated soil.
this time the 'ARP' was formed (Air Raid Precautions) and wardens
were recruited to man purpose-built, bombproof 'posts' on pieces
of vacant ground. London taxis were garaged in schools and fitted
with ladders and fire-fighting equipment. The latter consisted
mainly of several buckets of sand and a stirrup pump.
Army' was formed, but at first it was called the 'Local Defence
Volunteers', later to be called the Home Guard.
the next few months very little happened; people started calling
it a 'phoney war' and most people thought it would be all over
by Christmas. Weeks went by and a glorious summer turned into
a wet and cold winter. After Christmas a decision was taken
to evacuate school children to the country and most children
went away. A small band of children, including my brother and
I, stayed behind, mainly because their parents did not wish
them to go, the idea being that if we were going to be killed,
it was better if we all went together.
of us left played quite happily in the woods close by and in
the streets. On the edge of the wood was a council yard, ready
to build some houses. While playing around there, we uncovered
an enormous pile of what we, at first, thought were boxes, but
these were grey painted coffins ready for use when the air raids
in the street one day, we were approached by a strange man who
took our names and told us he was a teacher and we were to report
to a nearby Working Man's Club the next day for school lessons.
Here we were given homework, which we had to do and return the
next day. The Working Man's Club smelt of stale beer and cigarettes
and was not very nice. This arrangement went on for some time.
Eventually they organised 'Plum
Lane School' and all of us 'strays' went there full time.
night I was woken up by the sound of a whistle being blown by
a policeman on a bike; he was blowing for all he was worth.
Dad came into my bedroom and said we had better get up and dressed.
We all went downstairs, the siren went and we went out into
the garden. Our next-door neighbour came out and we stood listening
for a while, but it was very quiet. After about twenty minutes
we all went into our house for a cup of tea, and talked until
the 'all clear' went. A shared cup of tea with our neighbour
became the normal thing after a raid for the rest of the war.
now we were getting two to three air raids every week. The first
afternoon raid in our road demolished a house on the corner.
Later in the day, when people came home from work, a hole was
found in the back garden of the house on the opposite corner.
The bomb disposal team were called in and started digging for
an unexploded bomb. A large section of the road was cordoned
off and remained so for two weeks while they removed the bomb.
Although we were having air raids we could not use the shelter
in our garden as it had three foot of water in it. Eventually
the council came to concrete the floor and walls up to ground
level, and slowly the shelter dried out.
air raids continued to increase both by day and night, and most
people slept in their shelters. By now our shelter was nicely
equipped with bunks and we were able to get a good nights' sleep,
in spite of all the noise.
lot of people painted a V sign for victory on the wall, alongside
their front door. Three dots and a dash usually followed this.
This was the Morse code for "V". Just inside the front
door on many homes was a small notice that said, "There
is no depression in this house and we are not interested in
the possibility of defeat, it does not exist".
has been written about the 'Battle of Britain'; the history
books will tell you that it lasted from the 7th to the 15th
September, 1940. Germany lost 1733 planes and we lost 915. When
you think that most German planes were bombers, and held at
least five men, while our fighters only held one man, their
losses, in terms of manpower, were considerably more than ours.
However, my memory tells me that most of the battle only lasted
two days. In this time we saw planes fighting one another in
the sky in flames. Some fell cartwhelling down; leaving a trail
like a comet and making a tremendous screaming sound.
Spitfire dived down, quite close to us, leaving a trail of smoke;
it levelled out and the pilot jumped out using his parachute.
As he floated down, a German plane machine-gunned him and he
continued to float down, probably dead. We spent these two days
trapped in our shelter; after the first horrible day, the 'all
clear' went at six o'clock. Dad and I decided to go and get
some fish and chips, and we rode our bikes, intending to go
to Herbert Road where there was a fish shop that was nearly
always open (most were not). When we got to the top of Plum
Lane we stopped and looked down at the River Thames. From our
vantage point we could see St Paul's up to the left and on our
extreme right, the Ford Motor Works. In between these two points
was a mass of fires: seven major fires and dozens of smaller
ones blazing away into the gathering dusk.
remember dad saying, "It looks as though the war is over."
While we looked the siren went again and we raced back to the
shelter. We never did get our fish and chips and all we had
that day was bread, margarine and cups of tea.
We spent that night and all the next day cowering in the shelter
while the sky was filled with German bombers going over in tight
formation. Anti-aircraft guns blazed away and shrapnel came
down like rain. (When the shells exploded the resulting pieces
of torn metal were called shrapnel.)
is true, of course, that the battle went on for a few more days,
but not as ferociously as before. One of the German planes landed
in the back garden between Ann Street and Robert Street, in
lower Woolwich, and word soon got round that one of the tenants
was selling pieces of the plane to raise money for the war effort.
I bought an unrecognisable piece of aluminium for 3d and was
delighted with my bargain.
the children, myself included, started picking up pieces of
shrapnel; the reason was that if you collected a certain amount
you were given a shiny Spitfire badge, which we all wore proudly.
things quietened down again we started patching broken windows
in our house with white sheeting, supplied by the council. It
was not long before people found that if this material was boiled,
it made excellent pillowcases, and a lot was misused in this
way. Our house had sliding doors between the front and back
rooms and we fixed these, as they had been blown down by the
blast from a nearby bomb.
the second day we had a lucky escape: we came out of the shelter
during a lull and found a pile of grey ash on the grass; we
looked up and saw a few broken tiles on the roof. An incendiary
bomb had hit the roof and bounced off into the garden where
it burnt itself out. If it had gone into our loft, the house
would probably have been destroyed.
this horrible weekend, dad went back to work and mum, Rex and
myself were in the shelter when a bomb fell no more than thirty
feet away from us. The shelter lifted up at least six inches
and rocked violently; dirt fell down from the joints in the
shelter and Mum said, "That's our house gone." After
a few minutes I opened the door of the shelter and saw the house
was still standing. Looking the other way I saw a large hole
in the woods at the back of us, and that is where the bomb had
silly thing I remember is that after all the damage had taken
place, the council gave every house in the area five pounds
to buy new curtains. I do not think anyone did, but I am sure
the money came in handy.
had a searchlight battery down the road from us, and a barrage
balloon site up the road, both being about a quarter of a mile
away. One evening after a raid we walked up to the balloon site
because we heard that they had been hit. When we got there we
found that the sleeping hut had received a direct hit, and the
pile of wood and corrugated iron we were looking at contained
the bodies of twelve airmen. We did not stay long.
this time the school I was at was bombed quite badly. Luckily
I had the afternoon off to go to the dentist. Nobody at the
school was hurt, as they were all in the air raid shelter. This
school closed, and we all went to another school. My father,
who was too old for military service, was sent down to Plymouth
to help build a hospital for the American troops down there.
I went down to the station with him and could hardly walk the
short distance back to school for the tears in my eyes. My new
school was the Woolwich Polytechnic and had already been bombed,
but it was such a large school that a big hole in one wall did
not make any difference.
local newsagent asked me if I would do a paper round for him,
which I did for six shillings a week (30p). I started delivering
at 6am every morning; very often there was still an air raid
on, and I wore a tin hat. Due to the dark mornings and the blackout
I had a torch, which I used sparingly in case there were any
German bombers around.
now there were dozens of houses bombed and abandoned. One paper
I had to deliver was to the only occupied house down the bottom
of Duncroft Hill. In the dark with all the temporary paper coverings
on the windows flapping about, it was very spooky.
two months my father came home and started work on what we later
knew as the "Mulberry Harbour". His job, with hundreds
of others, was to build an enormous wooden box in a large hole
alongside the Thames on the mudflats. This box was filled with
concrete to make a hollow concrete structure, about 80 feet
by 60 feet.
the top of Plum Lane we used to see barges floating down the
Thames and wondered what on earth they were for: even the men
working on them did not know. Once pouring of concrete started
on these barges it could not be stopped until the barge was
finished. This meant the men used to work "ghosters",
day and night and sometimes part of the next day. The result
of this was a very fat wage packet, and for the first time we
seemed to have enough money.
this period money had been so short that on several occasions
my mother and I would go down to Woolwich to pawn her engagement
ring for a few pounds. This was usually done at dusk in the
hope that nobody would see us. Even now when I see that ring,
the sad memories come flooding back.
air raids continued and for a week we slept in the shelter.
The Optical Buildings were about half a mile away from our house.
This was a small factory that made bombsights, binoculars and
range finding equipment. A couple of times this was obviously
the target to be raided. Magnesium flares were dropped on parachutes
and because of the heat rising from them, the parachutes acted
as hot air balloons and hovered in the sky for five or six minutes.
The light from them was so bright that although it was late
at night you could have read a newspaper in our garden quite
easily. Several bombs were dropped, but missed the target and
fell on adjacent allotments. I do not believe the factory itself
was ever hit. On these local raids the Germans dropped silver
and black tape to interfere with our radar systems.
the war we would see German bombers flying over in formation
and, apart from anti-aircraft fire, it seemed very little was
being done to stop them. Barrage balloons used to be flown to
try to make the bombers fly at a greater height, but were more
of a nuisance to us on the ground. In thunderstorms they were
frequently struck by lightening and burst into flame. They also
broke away quite often, causing the wire holding them to fall
down across the roofs of houses, causing damage to chimney pots.
Very often the RAF men spent longer retrieving wires than flying
day I came home from school during an air raid and found myself
locked out. As I stood by the front gate a small German bomber
dived down over Welton Road; as I watched, a bomb left the plane,
which then zoomed away towards London. The bomb exploded in
the gardens between Welton Road and Duncroft. I don't think
anyone was killed, but I do know a baby, sitting in a high chair
was badly cut with flying glass. Mr. Heron picked up the high
chair with the baby in it and ran the four or five hundred yards
to Timbercroft Lane School where there was a first aid post.
Mr Heron was dad's roommate in Plymouth and passed on the above
now I was getting up at 5 am to help the newsagent get the paper
rounds together, delivering my two rounds, going down to the
Arsenal Station to collect the evening papers and collecting
money Saturday and Sunday mornings. For this I received 24shillings
a week (£1.20); it does not seem much now, but at that
time if a man was earning £5 a week, he was doing very
terrible incident took place in Alabama Street: under cover
of darkness a German bomber dropped a sea type mine on a parachute.
When it hit the ground it exploded, causing devastation over
a wide area. Ordinary bombs buried themselves in the ground
and damage was not so widespread. Thinking back on it now, the
scene I saw was very much like Hiroshima; a whole block of houses
between Lucknow Street and Pegwell were completely flattened.
Up in a tree were the remains of a green tarpaulin parachute.
I never did know how many people were killed, but it must have
been 50 or 60 at least.
night a broadcast from Germany was beamed our way, and someone
who called himself "Lord Haw-Haw" used to feed us
with outrageous propaganda. Lord Haw-Haw's father lived in a
big house in Shrewsbury Lane, close to the top of Eglington
Hill. He was a very short man who always wore a flat cap, brown
overcoat and shiny leather leggings. Why he was not interned
I do not know. Lord Haw-Haw's real name was William Joyce and
I think his father's name was Harry Joyce.
night he apparently said that the German paratroops were going
to take over London. It had previously been decided that if
paratroops landed all the church bells would ring. If gas was
used the police and air raid wardens would sound football rattles.
rumour of paratroops landing spread like wildfire and as my
father was away some nights, I decided to do something about
it. I had a Colt 45 revolver and one bullet that fitted it.
On nights that dad was away, mum, Rex and I all slept in the
same room. Without my mother knowing, I used to put the loaded
revolver under the bed on my side. My stupid plan was that if
a German soldier burst into our room, I was going to shoot him,
take his gun and defend us from the top of the stairs. Luckily,
the occasion never arose.
the war, the revolver mentioned, along with another smaller
one, was buried in the back garden of our house because of a
government amnesty. When the house was sold, I tried to dig
them up, but I could not locate them. I expect they are still
the age of 13½ my friend and I put our ages up by 2½
years to join the Air Training Cadets. We trained as pilots
and navigators, received flying instruction in a link trainer,
which was an early type of flight simulator, and we did the
usual foot drills. This was very useful when I was called up
some years later. We also did a little bit of real flying at
West Malling and Felixstowe. While at Felixstowe we had a bad
air raid and the only shelter we had was a deep trench dug at
the side of the field we were camping in.
night at Felixstowe we used to see a flotilla of motor torpedo
boats going out on submarine patrol. One afternoon we were taken
out to look for submarines and at the time, bobbing about in
the North Sea for two hours seemed a great adventure. Looking
back on it, I marvel at our stupidity because not many of us
night after our visit to Felixstowe, a list went up on the notice-board
saying that if the list of cadets did not volunteer for service
in the RAF they ran the risk of being called up for the coal
mines as a "Bevan Boy". Both my and my friend's name
were on the list so we had to come clean and admit that we had
lied about our ages. The officer in charge was very nice about
it, and let us stay on in the ATC.
Easter 1944 I left school and started work for a relation of
ours. He taught me a lot about building and plumbing, and very
early on, because of the shortage of men, I was being trusted
with jobs on my own. I built a wall about 20 feet long and 6
feet high, I did small plumbing jobs and when nothing else was
urgent I built a large greenhouse. This greenhouse was built
with materials diverted from war damage repairs being carried
out in Westmount Road at the back of the Welcome Inn, Eltham.
After the greenhouse was completely finished it was filled with
plants and four weeks later it was blown to pieces by a nearby
air raids had slowed up by now and one night after the sirens
had sounded we stood and watched what looked like planes with
a light on the back, going up towards London at a very low level.
We watched dumbstruck as these planes flew past every five minutes
or so with no opposition at all. We realised after a time that
the engines of these planes (which sounded like a motor bike)
stopped after a time and the planes were not coming back. We
concluded that at long last the Germans were landing troops,
and we feared the worst.
morning it became known to everyone, via the radio and an air
raid warden who lived near us, that what we had been watching
nearly all night, was Germany's new secret weapon. It was, of
course, a "doodlebug", an unmanned plane with a bomb
in its nose. In the next few months, dozens of them fell on
London and the suburbs, causing considerable damage and deaths.
grey and misty day, during a raid, I was coming home for dinner
down a country lane known as the "Red Road" when I
heard the engine of a doodlebug approaching. I continued to
walk, when suddenly the engine stopped. As I looked ahead into
the mist this thing was coming straight for me. It was only
a few hundred yards away and making a fluttering sound. I am
not a believer in religion; the whole thing seems so illogical
to me, but, this thing coming straight for me, I dived into
a ditch and prayed as I have never prayed before or since. There
was an enormous explosion and, realising I was still alive,
I looked up to see hundreds of pieces of metal fragments, which
appeared to be floating in the air. I ducked down again and
covered my head with my hands, hoping that none of the pieces
would hit me, which they did not.
picked myself up and walked shakily up the lane; about three
hundred yards away on some allotments was a big crater. The
doodlebug must have side-slipped away from me: had it continued,
I would not be writing this now. On the way home a fire-fighting
taxi stopped and asked me if I was all right. I expect I looked
pretty dreadful, smothered in mud and shaking like a leaf. He
offered me a lift home but I said I was okay and I continued
home. I had to go back to work in the afternoon as I had left
a pile of cement mixed up.
1944 I had saved up enough money to buy a small car. The deposit
was £25 with repayments of £1 a week. This bought
me a very nice "Morris Eight" in excellent condition
with red leather upholstery and an unmarked black finish. There
was no petrol available, so for a few months all we did was
polish it inside and out.
because dad and I were repairing bomb-damaged houses he was
granted two gallons of petrol a month for emergency use. This
did not go very far, but we were able to buy black market petrol
coupons from our local butcher and this enabled us to visit
the coast occasionally. The roads were so quiet I was able to
drive even though I was not old enough and did not have a licence.
firm commandeered a house in Llanover Road, right opposite the
house where I had been born. We set up a carpenter's workshop
in a bedroom and over the next few months we made hundreds of
replacement window frames. Downstairs was a glazing room and
storerooms for all kinds of building materials. It was wintertime
and quite cold so our first job in the morning was to light
a fire and make tea.
few months later dad and I were walking home from work at about
5 o'clock. As we got to the junction of Garland Road and Red
Road there was an enormous flash, followed by an equally large
explosion. Looking up, we saw a great cloud of debris falling
down, mostly over the RAC abattoir but some falling on the road
in front of us. As we turned the corner, a policeman came up
from the Optical Buildings and started picking up the bits and
pieces that had fallen on the road. We helped him and we took
our collection of bits of pipe and glass fibre down to the factory
gate for someone to examine. To the best of my knowledge this
was the first "V2" to land. This one and a few others
malfunctioned. Apparently as they came through the atmosphere,
they overheated and exploded too soon. A few of these rockets
fell locally; the first indication of their arrival was violent
earth tremors, and then the explosion followed by the sound
of their engines as they came down. The reason for this was
that they travelled faster than the speed of sound.
Day was the 6th June 1944. Some man stopped me in the street
and said we had made a landing in France. As the day progressed
more and more aircraft flew over. Some were going to France
and some coming back. Those that were returning were doing 'victory
rolls' so we knew things were going well. How they missed the
top of Shooters Hill, I do not know.
troops continued to make rapid progress and we did not have
many more air raids. Over the next few months the news got better
and better, and for the first time we knew we were going to
May 1st 1945, I went to bed as usual in the dark as we had not
bothered to put the blackout curtains in the bedrooms. Laying
in bed with the curtains wide open the room was suddenly lit
up with our nearby searchlight coming on. Thinking it was a
raid coming, I jumped out of bed and I started to get dressed.
Looking out of the window, I saw dozens of searchlights sweeping
the sky and waving backwards and forwards. I rushed downstairs
where mum and dad had the radio on and they were just announcing
the end of the war in Europe. Our next-door neighbour rushed
in and we sat talking until the early hours of the morning.
The next day nobody went to work and we had an impromptu party
down at the corner of the road. People took cakes and sandwiches
down to be shared out and a radiogram was fixed up to provide
music for people to dance to.
next Saturday afternoon we all went to a much better organised
party down at Timbercroft
Lane School. There was a load to eat and drink; even ice
cream had come from somewhere. Various people did their party
tricks and I think we all had a good time.
8th was the official 'VE' day and was declared a national holiday.
At work we were so busy that it was decided that we should work
and have the day off later. We never did get it but nobody minded
very much because the extra money came in handy as always.
the end of my account of the war in Woolwich and how it affected
On 6th August 1945, the Americans dropped the atom bomb on Hiroshima,
but this was overshadowed in our family by the death of my grandfather.
2nd September 1945 was victory in Japan day, but this did not
affect us very much as our war was really over before that.
would like to say that we all lived happily ever after, but
that was not so. Shortages continued for many years and we went
without quite a few things. Rationing did not finish completely
until 3rd July 1954. I think meat was the last to come off ration.
do feel that if the country had left Winston Churchill in power,
things would have recovered much quicker. For some unaccountable
reason he was thrown out in favour of a Labour government at
a time when we really needed a good leader. I suppose in better
times we would have received counselling, but none was available
think the only lasting effect on me is that if I hear an air
raid siren on TV, it still sends a chill up my spine. At night
if I look out and see a moonlit sky with a few clouds, I still
think "nice night for a raid".
must finish this the way that I started, by saying every word
you have read is true.
I have written this account of my war
in the hope that my children, grandchildren and possibly their
children should understand what we went through.
At the outbreak of war I was ten years
old. I lived with my mother and father, Julia and Eddie Robinson,
and my brother Rex, who is eight years younger than me. We lived
at 86 Warland Road, Plumstead, London, SE18. Our road was aptly
named, as we had no less than thirteen bombs and many small
incendiaries dropped on it.
War is an online archive of wartime memories contributed by
members of the public and gathered by the BBC. The archive can
be found at bbc.co.uk/ww2peopleswar'