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Thursday, 26 June 2008

Memories of a wartime childhood

                                     BOMB SHELTER IN A LONDON UNDERGROUND STATION

Please be warned, in the nicest possible way, that this is quite a long Blog, I’m in nostalgic mood again, I must really be getting old!
In September 1939 at the outbreak of the 2nd World War, I was not quite 3 years old and lived with my parents in south-east London. During the first 8 months of the war, a period known as the ‘Phoney War’ - because nothing really happened, I remained with my mother, after which time the bombing of London became more and more severe. In common with most young children, I was then evacuated to the country – in my case to a safe haven in Sussex, my mother remaining behind in London where she joined the Ambulance Service. My destination was a very large and grand country house which had been taken over by the authorities for the purpose of housing ‘evacuee’ children from London. The house was at Chelwood Gate in Sussex, and in normal times was the residence of the Macmillan family - Sir Harold MacMillan was later to become Prime Minister of Great Britain (1957-63). I can remember little about my stay there, except sleeping in a high cot in a large room where several other children also slept, and spending a Christmas there with my mother who was visiting me, and looking up at the clear, starry sky on a cold Christmas Eve night and imagining that Father Christmas would soon be coming down from the sky with his reindeer and my Christmas present! This no doubt seems fanciful and a product of an overwrought imagination, but truly this is the one significant episode of my life at that time that has remained etched in my memory!
I remained at Chelwood Gate for no more than a few months, after which I was sent to a small residential school near Reading in Berkshire, which again was considered a reasonably safe haven for evacuees. I have virtually no memories of this establishment, but I still have one memento somewhere around, a photograph of a small boy with other small boys, dressed up as pixies! It is the sort of photograph that doting mothers love and their children hate! The sort that either your best friend or perhaps worst enemy would love to get hold of, so that on reaching a 'landmark' birthday you suddenly see this photograph reproduced in your local newspaper under the caption ‘Happy -- Birthday ----!’. I don’t really know how I come to possess this, but probably Mum kept it during her lifetime, and when she died it passed into the family collection.
My stay in Berkshire was no more than a year, for my mother decided that she would prefer me to live with her sister, my Auntie Kaye, and her two young daughters who lived - wait for it - on the outskirts of Birmingham!. I remember walking to school across a small Common, and playing marbles along the roadside gutter – you could do such things in those days for cars were almost non existent! Yes there was the occasional bus and of course quite a number of bicycles, but apart from the rare commercial vehicle the roads were remarkably quiet, although I don’t suppose things were quite like that in the centre of Birmingham! About 200 yards from Aunty Kaye’s house was a large ‘Prisoner of War Camp’ where Italian POWs were interned. A wall and masses of barbed wire separated the camp from the roadway. The inmates could often be seen strolling around the open areas behind the barbed wire, apparently quite cheerful in spite of, or perhaps even because of, their restricted but relatively safe lifestyle!
My stay in Birmingham was again quite short, probably less than a year, as my mother succeeded in renting a small house in rural Surrey not far from Banstead, and she wanted me with her. She had worked as an ambulance driver in London until about 1943 living with friends or relatives, and she was on her own with my father serving abroad in the army. Much of his war service was spent in West and North Africa and I seldom saw him during these years. He very occasionally came home on leave and although I must have seen him briefly, I can remember little of these meetings. Once he sent me a surprise present, a fine, large wooden model boat, which he had arranged to be made by Italian POWs in Africa, and which was delivered to our new address in Surrey. It was a beautiful present for which I regret that I may never have fully expressed my appreciation. It was only much, much later, that I realised the trouble and expense that my father had been to, in arranging for me to receive this gift. At the time I had considerable difficulty in getting the boat to run. It was battery powered, but I didn’t seem able to make it work, and there was always the problem of where to run it. After numerous failed attempts, I rather lost heart and the boat was relegated to a safe place in our home, where it remained for many years. Of course the boat was made to be used and enjoyed, rather than just stored away, and eventually it went to a good home, an orphanage or children's home, where I'm sure it was received with great pleasure and delight. I know that my dear Dad would have been happy with this. Once settled in rural Surrey, I had to attend the local school which meant a walk across fields and through woods, a distance of probably just under 2 miles. At this period of the war the countryside was covered in concrete ‘tank traps’, barbed wire, and similar obstacles, with all signposts removed, as part of home-defence contingency plans in the event of enemy invasion. To a small boy such things were quite exciting – and dangerous! One day whilst returning home from school, I was testing the depth of the puddles in the middle of the wood -like small boys do, when I found not a puddle, but a large open manhole into which I fell. The hole was much deeper than I was tall, I could not swim and was alone, and the only thing to hold onto was some grass and soil around the circumference of the hole, but nothing strong enough to enable me to pull myself out. My Guardian Angel was certainly looking after me for I had reached the stage when I had begun to tire, when an older boy also on his way home from school through the woods, saw me and was able to pull me out. This boy whose surname I still remember- 'Richards', took me to his house, and his mother dried me off in front of the fire and gave me some warm, dry clothes, and some tea. This boy certainly saved my life and he is always remembered in my prayers.
Our house was virtually on the flight path for enemy aircraft from Europe to London and Southern England, and it was quite common for unused bombs to be jettisoned by these aircraft on their return journey home. There was a large crater in the field opposite our house caused by one such bomb dropped earlier in the war, and a favourite boyhood activity was searching the surrounding countryside for shrapnel of all shapes and sizes from exploded shells, bombs, and damaged aircraft. During this period of the war, the V1 ‘Doodlebugs’ were in vogue and often these passed almost directly over our house. One day I was with a friend in the hilly countryside behind our house, watching a doodlebug flying in the distance, when its engine suddenly cut out and it dropped like a stone, exploding on impact with the ground. It was impossible to see whether it had caused any damage but I suspect that fortunately it had fallen in open countryside. The sound of the ‘doodlebug’ engine was unique, once heard, never forgotten! It was a steady and consistent loud, droning, noise, which you grew to recognise instantly. If you were in an air- raid shelter at home or in the garden, the thing you dreaded most was if the engine cut out when ‘the beast’ was directly overhead! The ‘doodlebug’ was a pilot-less aircraft, and I believe the RAF developed a technique for either destroying them in mid-air or even turning them around so that they returned from whence they came. Our house was quite near to both an American and Canadian army camp whose inmates would have been involved in ‘D Day’ operations. We often investigated these camps from outside, and became adept at obtaining chewing gum and candy from generous and good natured GIs. This was very rewarding for us because sweet rationing was in force, and we were only allowed three quarters of a pound of sweets per month which could only be bought with ‘ration books’. One of these camps occasionally invited the local people to their weekly film show, which invitation included a lift in a jeep to and from the camp. I recall that my mother took me to one of these evenings, and it was very exciting to be travelling in this open American Army jeep, driven by a real American soldier, in true American army style!! In common with many households in that area, my mother offered accommodation to service personnel. Different servicemen stayed for quite short periods, and once we had an RAF man who was a brilliant pianist, possibly a concert pianist in civilian life, who regularly played on our modest, but cherished piano, to the delight of my mother. At one time I found a wristwatch lying somewhere in the house, and removed the back in order to see how it worked. Unfortunately having taken the back off, I found to my horror that I couldn’t get it back on again. Being only 6 or possibly 7 years old and terrified of returning the watch without a back, to its original location, I quite irrationally decided to hide it – under the stair carpet!! Don’t ask me why the stair carpet – but that’s where it ended up! Understandably the owner of the watch was rather upset when he couldn’t find it, and I was too frightened to own up to my misdeed, with the result that the village policeman was summoned. His mere presence was enough to break me, and with profuse tears and apologies the wristwatch was retrieved from beneath the stair-carpet – fortunately none the worse except that the back had been removed. I suspect that I was forgiven by the serviceman rather more quickly than by my mother, who no doubt had been rather embarrassed by the whole incident. Still I didn’t go to prison - as I feared I might!; the watch was duly recovered and restored to its rightful owner – I can’t remember whether this included a back or not, although I like to think it did; and the policeman returned home to his house in the village satisfied with a job well done! I’m sure that it wasn’t very long before Mum forgave me – for it really was a case of genuine childish curiosity that went wrong! I must admit that throughout my life I’ve found it very much easier to take things apart than to put them together again! Things don’t seem to change!
Any resemblance to a ‘normal’ life-style must have been very hard for wives and mothers during the war, with husbands and fathers away, not seen and perhaps not even heard from, for weeks, months and sometimes years at a time, and sometimes not at all. My two sisters were born after the war, so that at that time, I was an only child living with my mother and our dog Bobbie, a pretty brown and white spaniel/ cross bitch, with a lovely temperament - my mother’s faithful war-time companion. When I was safely esconced at school for the day, my mother sometimes travelled to town, which necessitated a long walk to the Station, and then an even longer train journey. One summer day, on one such trip, she was late returning. I had arrived home from school, and as time went on became very upset when she failed to materialise. I resolved to go to meet her, and whilst walking along this interminably long country road and still not having met her, I became even more upset. A lady walking in the opposite direction, stopped as she passed me, and asked me why I was crying. When I told her that my mother hadn’t come home, she gave me a 6d piece (known as a ‘tanner’ in those days), to cheer me up. This was a considerable sum of money to a small boy and certainly was some compensation for my distress, particularly as very soon afterwards I met my long-suffering Mum on her way home! Although food was severely rationed at that time, living in the countryside had certain compensations. In the summer we enjoyed plenty of fresh fruit, with apples and succulent Victoria plums available from the farm orchard nearby. I seem to remember that you could buy a bag of plums for 1d, and even now when I think of them,I fancy that I can still taste them! We lived a long way from our nearest Catholic church and we didn’t have a car and there wasn’t any local transport available, so I’m afraid that we didn’t often get to Mass. Additionally the continual domestic demand on my mother caring both for ourselves and our live-in military guests, must have been both tiring and time consuming.
I was nearly 8 years old when my mother decided that I should go to a Catholic primary school. The nearest was about 1 hours journey away, being part of a larger school taking in older boys. The journey involved a long walk (or possibly bike ride) to the Railway Station, a train journey of 10/15 minutes, followed by a short bus ride and a final walk to school. The journey did not worry me, in fact it was quite exciting. Paradoxically, in spite of being at war, England was a much safer place for children in those days than it is today. The most dangerous part of the journey was crossing the main road near the school, as events were to prove! One day my Guardian Angel was working overtime, for after getting off the bus to walk the final stretch to school, I foolishly ran across the main road in front of the stationary bus, straight into the path of a car. Fortunately the car must have swerved slightly, for I ran into the side of the car rather than the car running into me, with the result that I bounced back off the car, ending up in the roadway in front of the bus, which happily for me, had not yet started to move. All I suffered was superficial bruising and hurt pride, for which I truly thank my Guardian Angel. I suspect that today, the idea of an 8 year old travelling alone on train and bus to and from school, would be condemned as ‘irresponsible’. However in those days, even though we were at war, children generally were safer, were more able to enjoy their childhood years, and I believe happier than most children are today. It is not that children have changed, it is not the children’s fault, it is the society into which they are born and in which they grow up- it is this that has changed. Today our predominantly Godless society has spawned evil, beginning with the legalised murder of the unborn. Materialism and selfishness have been nurtured by a liberal, humanist- based State education system, where God is so often ignored and immorality is taught under the guise of ‘sex education’, starting with children at primary school. In our modern world traditional family values are widely denigrated, pornographic and indecent literature and films are readily available, self-gratification is idealised, and legal recognition of same-sex marriages and sodomy makes that which was previously unthinkable and unmentionable, now socially acceptable! God has been sidelined, if not totally dismissed by so many in our society – to our eternal cost and with so much lost. So many children today have neither the opportunity nor the encouragement to learn of God and His creation, with modern life geared to instant gratification and material acquisition. Childhood itself has become a victim of this exploitation, which promises so much but delivers so little, promises which without God, are totally illusory and unattainable.
We remained in Surrey until early 1945 when we went to live with Auntie Kaye who had moved to Eastbourne in Sussex. She had rented a very large 1st floor flat over a butchers shop situated near to the Town Hall, and Mum and I and our dog Bobby moved in with her and her two daughters. I was just 9 years old, and attended the Catholic primary school which was a bus ride away at the far end of the town. My principal memories of this time are of the lovely Catholic church of ‘Our Lady of Ransom’ which we attended for Mass, which was only a short walk away; watching the Town football team play at ‘The Saffrons’, a superb Sports Ground adjoining the Town Hall. I can still remember the name of my hero, goalkeeper ‘Bob Mallin’; and with my friends, exploring the numerous bombed-out houses and buildings that were everywhere to be seen.
The war came to an end later in 1945, and it became necessary for people to plan for the future – something I suspect few had dared contemplate until peace actually arrived! I was dispatched as a boarder to Westminster Cathedral Choir School which re-opened that year, and within a few months my mother and father, who had been demobbed from the army, moved to a small house in a country village outside Eastbourne. In hindsight, I suspect that it took months, if not years, for my parents to re-adjust to life in peacetime England. Times were still very hard, with industrial unrest, unemployment, and strict food rationing, compounding the widespread physical and psychological problems commonly experienced as a result of 6 years of war, with spouses and whole families growing apart through absence, separation, and all too often - death.
We were very fortunate as a family, having been spared so much during the war. Even so, my parents had lost lifelong friends, both military and civilian. During the latter part of the war my mother took me to see two elderly ladies who lived in a large house in south-east London, who gave me a toy which basically comprised a round metal hoop about 26” in diameter, with a solid handle fixed to the outside. In cross-section the hoop was about 2" wide, convex in shape, rather like the inside of an old-fashioned bicycle mudguard, and the challenge was to rotate a table-tennis ball placed on the inside track of the hoop, round and round the track at a fast speed without allowing it to fall to the ground.This was done by holding the hoop by the handle, and moving it quickly backwards and forwards. It sounds and was very simple, probably a very popular Victorian/Edwardian toy giving endless hours of fun to countless children! It certainly gave me a great deal of pleasure. Anyway, these dear ladies, who were close personal friends of my mother, were both killed instantly when a V2 rocket scored a direct hit on their home late in the war. The V2 was silent, with a range of 234 miles and travelling well in excess of the speed of sound, giving no time for the usual air-raid warnings and people to take shelter. They were fired from huge mobile platforms in secret, camouflaged sites deep in the hinterland of Europe, and if the war had not ended when it did , weapons such as this, together with others being developed, particular the supersonic warplane, could have totally altered the whole course of events, certainly in the short to medium term. Thank God that this did not happen, but who knows what the future may hold? Tragically today, so many people and nations reject God and His Commandments, deny the Divinity and Kingship of Christ, ignore His teachings, and persecute His Church, the one, true Catholic Church instituted by Christ Himself. Mankind must first 'render to God the things that are God’s, then to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s'. Only then will the peace of Christ reign in men's hearts and in the world, a peace which 'surpasseth all understanding'. Thank you for sharing these memories, I hope that you have enjoyed reading them and that you found something of interest therein. ‘Our Lady Help of Christians and Queen of Peace - pray for us.'


Charles Ryder said...

Thanks for your memories. The time I spent reading this post was a pleasant break in a long day of parish meetings and other obligations.

Tiny said...

Great post umblepie, keep them coming!

Noggins said...

Dear Umblepie
Thank you I really did enjoy reading your nice long blogpost. Childhood memories distilled, mellowed and poured out for us from a gentle and humorous soul.