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A South East Londoner's Story - Chapter 1

The day the war broke out my family were sitting out in the garden sunshine, awaiting Chamberlain's broadcast. The actual declaration was somewhat of an anticlimax and accepted as inevitable. Hardly had his closing words sunk in when the air raid warning sounded all over London, which brought us all back to reality. We looked skywards in the expectation of seeing vast fleets of enemy bombers, but the sky was empty and an eerie silence pervaded because all the traffic had stopped and people had rushed to the nearest air raid shelter. The Government had been issuing Anderson Shelters to householders with gardens but ours had not been delivered. We therefore had nowhere to run. We all began to speak in subdued tones, as if the enemy might hear, or neighbours might realise our unspoken fears. After a short time, which seemed to be ages, the 'All clear' sounded and we all were relieved.

Air Raid Precautions (A.R.P.) had been implemented and I helped my dad make wooden frames covered with black cloth to place up at the windows in the living room and the front room each night to comply with the black-out regulations. In the bedrooms my mother removed the electric light bulb, apart from her own bedroom, which had very heavy curtains. When our Anderson Shelter arrived (which I understood was to cost around £5 but was dependant upon how much one earned) it was in a dozen pieces and my dad had to dig a large 3ft deep hole in the garden as far away from the house as possible. The curved pieces, which formed the sides and top were bolted together and sunk into the ground. The end pieces completed the ensemble, leaving a 2ft square opening as an entrance. Once erected and the joints made waterproof the whole lot was covered with 18 inches of earth. I remember my brother Vic was down from college for a visit and offered us copious advice about how to erect it, but little physical assistance. Many shelters were later made more liveable with concrete and carpeted floors, electric light and bunk beds. However, for the first period of the war, ours, like many others, became a place to put unwanted household items.

Air Raid Wardens had been enlisted and ours lived fours doors away, a Mr Potter, who was normally a postman. He soon became full of his own importance, to the annoyance of his neighbours. Initially, in the absence of official equipment and information, Mr Potter was the local self-appointed source of what to do. He got my father to erect a wooden stand in the front garden with a painted tabletop, which was supposed to indicate by colour change the presence of gas. The fact that anyone noticing this change was, by that time, gassed, seemed to be missed. We had, before the war started, been issued with gas masks at Church Manorway School and were suppose to carry them wherever we went, but, very quickly, they were put in the cupboard and forgotten about. We were advised to cover our windows in brown sticky paper to prevent flying glass and it was Mr Potter who said that our strips went in the wrong direction. My dad was given a stirrup pump (a kind of water pump) to put out fires, for safekeeping.

After a few months we began to notice the Barrage Balloons going up in the sky around us, about one to two miles apart. The 800 or so balloons around London were raised whenever there was risk of a raid and sometimes they stayed up the whole day. I stood on Plumstead Common looking across to the centre of London and could see these slow moving, clumsy, elephantine objects as far as the eye could see. They were prone to damage by lightning and were at first brought down whenever a storm was brewing.

Later in 1940, when the number of balloons was increased, the nearest one was 500 yards away, alongside the railway line on a spare piece of ground, and operated by half a dozen RAF Airmen from a large lorry. They lived in a nearby Nissen hut and seemed to have a cushy life.

When my brother Stan left school he worked as a messenger in Siemen's factory in Charlton and then, about a year later, he started an apprenticeship in the Woolwich Arsenal as a Turner and Fitter. He was given a new bicycle to go to work on, which made me very jealous as I hadn't even a second-hand bicycle and had to cadge the use of my dad's old boneshaker. My friends had been evacuated along with my school to Bearstead near Maidstone, Kent, and those children remaining in London were left without any schooling. Within a very short time, as the expected air raids did not materialise, many of my friends returned to their homes and school started again and even some of the teachers returned.

In May 1940 when the Germans broke through, I remember looking with apprehension at a map of France and the destruction of our army. With the debacle of Dunkirk we were prepared by the Government-controlled radio with the idea that we might be invaded. All road signs were removed and anybody asking directions was automatically suspect. Tales of spies and German parachutists dressed up in nun's clothes abounded. I, with my friends, joined in the hunt and followed anyone who looked suspicious. Nuns were not frequently seen in Plumstead, but any we met were subjected to being tailed. Although we were often sure we had uncovered nests of spies, we never got up sufficient pluck to report our suspicions to the local coppers. I remember discussing with a friend, Alan Blake, who lived nearby, what we could do if the Germans invaded, but, apart from a vague idea of decamping to Abbey Woods, we came to few conclusions.

When the Battle of Britain started, I saw little of the aeroplane dogfights, but later in early September, the daylight raids on London began. The weather was marvellous with cloudless skies and we stood in the garden after the siren had sounded. Within a short time the sky was criss-crossed with high-flying silver aircraft that looked like toys. We counted about 20 pass over, moving towards the centre of London, and then we could see smaller silver objects falling. These, we later realised, were bombs. Some Barrage balloons were also falling, flaming drunkenly like grotesque dancers. We had no thought of taking shelter and were fascinated by the aerial battle above. Later in the day we saw our fighters attacking subsequent waves of bombers and we heard low flying aircraft in the vicinity. We later realised that many of the bombs had fallen on the Woolwich Arsenal and the Docks. Later that night the bombers returned again and soon the whole sky was filled with a red glow of the fires that raged in the docks. From our front door, as we looked towards Woolwich and the Arsenal we could see the reflection of the huge fires that had been started further up river.

From the first week in September we had continuous day and night raids for about three weeks, then the bombers came only at night and we had heavy raids every night until the middle of November. We had bought a Manchester terrier bitch dog during 1938 and after the first few nights she would sense the onset of a raid and let us know by howling at least 20 minutes before the air raid warning went off. She was unable to stand the anti-aircraft guns going off and the bomb explosions and we had to have her put down. During this period each night I would crawl under the dining room table (the shelter was full of water and unusable) praying that I would get through the night.

One night the street was showered with incendiary bombs and my dad with other neighbours who were on fire watching duty went outside to deal with one that had fallen in the road. There was my father arguing with a neighbour about the best way to deal with it. Pick it up in a shovel and put it in a bucket or put sand over it and let it burn. He wouldn't have done this later in the war, as the Germans began dropping explosive incendiaries. A number of houses had been hit, including that of my friend David Edwards. The 2lb bomb had gone through his roof into the front bedroom and his father, with the aid of neighbours, managed to put most of the fire out from inside. However, this didn't stop the AFS (Auxiliary Fire Service) rushing round and causing more damage by breaking the top-floor widows and throwing out all his furniture. The next day I found a large 6ft container for all these incendiary bombs in our garden.

One morning we woke up to find an unexploded bomb had fallen into the front garden of a house eight doors away. The street was cleared and we all had to move to a Rest Centre that had been set up at Plumstead High Street School. There were so many unexploded bombs around that it was impossible for the army to deal with them all. Many went off within a few hours and then one could move back. It seemed to me we were in the Rest Centre for weeks but I know it was only days. The place was crowded and many of the people who were in poor physical and mental condition had come from Silvertown, in East London, having been bombed out. My father had not been able to get to work for some days. He set off on his bicycle to find what had happened in Bow. He returned to tell us that his factory had been badly bombed and no work was possible. The raids during each night continued and we were all crammed into the basement of the school, which had been strengthened outside with sandbags and bricked-up windows. Local cheer-leaders (including our own Mr. Potter) got people singing songs to keep up their courage and take their minds off the destruction taking place outside. After about a week, because the bomb in our road had not gone off, my mother decided to chance it and we moved back to our house. The road was still closed to traffic and we were warned that there was still a risk of an explosion. After another week or so others moved back and the bomb was forgotten and the hole was filled in. When we had returned home because my dad was unable to go back to work to his old firm, he was directed for a short time to work on bomb-damaged houses, covering up the blasted windows and roofs with tarpaulins to keep out the rain.

Some years later, in 1946 after the war had ended, an unexploded bomb that had also been forgotten exploded near the Elephant and Castle, killing some children. As a result the numerous unexploded bombs, including our own, were dug up and dealt with. In our case the bomb had gone down about 10ft and was still alive.

At this time I was not attending school as the normal day to day routines had been disrupted and teachers were not available. I was not getting any proper sleep at night. There were half-time lessons at my old school but there was no compunction to go and I missed months of valuable schooling. My mother decided that I could do with a rest from the bombing and sent me off to live with my aunt Rose in Burnt Oak. Although this area was still in London, and Hendon Airport and the surrounding aircraft factories were targets, the German bombers did not automatically fly over the area on their way to Central London. We heard the sirens each night but it was rare that bombs dropped in the area and I was able to sleep in a proper bed and attend the local school without disruption.

My aunt was a widow (my Uncle Joe had died in 1940 as the result of wounds he received in the 1st World War) but still had two children of school age, Irene, then aged 15 and Arthur, aged 6 (my cousin Joey was in the army and had gone through Dunkirk). I settled down well and my aunt was easy-going if a bit fussy. She was, however, liberal with pocket money and trips to the cinema. The first thing she did when I arrived was to take me to Hendon Central WVS Centre where they kitted me out with new clothes on the basis that I had been bombed out. I liked living with my aunt and started school in Burnt Oak. When the teacher introduced me to the class she told them I had been bombed out so I was the centre of attraction for a while. I told them that I came from Dover to increase the attention (everybody had heard of Dover, as it was being shelled from France across the Channel, but nobody knew of Woolwich) so my teacher was a bit confused. Whilst I was living there a German plane was shot down and placed on view, on the site of the present Burnt Oak Library. We had to pay a penny to see it. I was doing well at school, but I think my mother was not too happy that I had settled in so easily, and so, after a few months, she sent my brother Stan to bring me home.

Although the raids had not ceased, they had decreased in frequency and Stan told me the air raid shelter had been made comfortable, with bunk beds and carpet on the floor and a proper front door to keep out the cold. I started back to school and we made the best of the raids by sleeping in the shelter each night. Although we had a number of bombs fall in the vicinity during the “blitz” we were lucky that we lost only windows and a few tiles off the roof. The blast of the bombs was sufficient to rock the foundations of the house and caused a vertical crack to appear in the sidewall. One large bomb, which fell in Church Manorway, uncovered many graves in St Nicholas' Churchyard and scattered bones all over the place. A number of incendiaries failed to ignite or did not completely burn through, if they fell on open damp land. My friends and I found one half burnt, which I took home and kept in the garden shed. Later in the war we filed bits off of it, as the filings, being made of magnesium, could be made into very good fireworks. We never thought about how dangerous this practice was.
The wartime clothes rationing imposed a “make do and mend” attitude on everyone and luckily my mother was very good at knitting and machining. She bought a hand-operated circular sock machine so that every scrap of spare wool could be used to an advantage. She made all my school trousers and jumpers until I got into senior school and I often went to school in trousers that she had patched, but other children were in the same boat so there was little comment.

We rarely went out at this time and my family would often sit down to play card games in the evening, and Crib was our favourite. My mother was not a very good loser and if my dad was winning, she would protest that he was sitting in her chair and make him change places.

By Henry R.J. Pilott

'WW2 People's 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'

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