My father died of prostate cancer in 2005. For reasons I will not bore you with, I had to get a 1.44 floppy disk (remember them !) up and running for a client a little while back, to read some old data, and having kitted out his system, I went looking round for something in my office to use to test it, I chanced upon a dust covered box left idle for over a decade. I last opened it to fetch out the front disk with my name on it, the one that had the documents I guess every terminal cancer patient is encouraged to write. There were several other disks in the box and I loaded one of them out of curiosity.
Here’s what I found on it. Something Dad wrote a year and a half before he died, describing his memories of what was then wartime suburban London.
From what I **NOW** know, it’s quite interesting that even this account, penned some sixty years after the events, is quite “interestingly” censored. But for those who want to know what life was like when London was a bit like downtown Aleppo is today …
RECOLLECTIONS OF BEING A CHILD DURING WORLD WAR 2
(I cannot remember the correct sequence of events, as it was over 60 years ago.)
Before the war started we were issued with gas masks, and shown how to use them. They had a rather nasty smell of rubber so that if you put it on you were almost gassed anyway. They were issued in a cardboard case with a shoulder strap. I cannot remember when children started being evacuated, my elder brother went to Devon â€“ my mother thought I was too young to go away.
At the beginning of the war I was living in a bungalow in Hainault, Essex, virtually on the outskirts of London. The railway station was about a quarter of a mile down the road. The branch line ran from Ilford to Newbury Park, Barkingside, Fairlop, Hainault, Grange Hill, Chigwell and on to Woodford.This branch line was changed after the war to part of the Central Line of London Underground from Newbury Park to Woodford. Our nearest bus route was about three quarters of a mile away (my junior school was a little further). I only mentioned the list of stations as you might recognise Grange Hill (TV school) and Chigwell (Birds of a Feather on TV).
With public transport being so far away, I used to cycle often. In fact as long as my parents had some idea where I was going, I was allowed to roam freely â€“ except during the period of daylight raids. My bicycle came in useful to make a quick dash for home if the siren sounded, or pedal like mad in the opposite direction to the path of a doodlebug. In those days very few people owned cars, and with petrol unobtainable, except for special reasons, the roads were practically empty. I saw buses converted to run on gas, they were equipped with a large sort of balloon on top holding the gas.
I was almost nine years of age when Mr Neville Chamberlain (Prime Minister) made his speech at 11.00 a.m. on Sep 3rd 1939 declaring war on Germany. We heard this on the wireless (as they were called), there was no television but cinemas had newsreel programmes. Ten minutes into the Prime Ministerâ€™s speech, the air raid sirens sounded. I remember wondering, â€œWhat happens now?â€ I think we just stood there, knees shaking with our gas masks over the shoulder ready to use. But nothing occurred. We later heard that the alarm was raised when one of our reconnaissance planes forgot to switch on his friendly identification signal.
What may be of interest to present day children is that at one period schools were shut, as it was considered unsafe to have a large number of children in one place. Schoolteachers came to pupilsâ€™ houses to give lessons to small groups. This probably lasted until the daylight raids were over, as I remember being back in school. I also remember knuckles being rapped with a ruler for inattention or misbehaviour â€“ no chance of compensation, if you were punished there must have been a good reason!
During the â€˜Battle of Britainâ€™ which is when the Luftwaffe were trying to destroy the RAF, most of the â€˜dog-fightsâ€™ were over the southeast area, so I did not see any of these. We did not have an Anderson shelter for a while so my parents did the best to protect me. I quite often slept on the floor under the dining table with a mattress on top for protection. One night during the concentration on fighter airfields, they bombed Fairlop airfield (it was about a mile away as the crow flies) nearly all night. I was not very happy as the bombs were whistling down time after time. Every time that they heard another stick on itâ€™s way down my parents would kneel down and put their heads under the table â€“ like an ostrich burying itâ€™s head in the sand! Fairlop airfield never seems to be mentioned in any reports in papers or television, probably because Hurricanes based there were not as â€˜glamorousâ€™ as the Spitfire. French, Poles and Czech airmen flew these Hurricanes.
My father was an inspector in a factory producing parts to do with the war effort; this was called a â€˜reserved occupationâ€™. He joined the LDV (Local Defence Volunteers). The LDV soon after became the Home Guard. After a while he was issued with a .303 Lee Enfield rifle. Bullets for this gun were issued, but I remember thinking that five bullets were not an awful lot to stop the whole German army. Later, due to having served in the Navy as a radio operator, he was asked to join the Royal Observer Corps, given a powerful radio receiver in order to eavesdrop on enemy communications. I expect that he was given certain times and particular frequencies to use. I presume that he reported back to the equivalent of the present day GCHQ in Cheltenham.
Employees in his factory took turns to do firewatching, one day my father and a colleague were watching through an open window when a bomber approached firing machine guns. One called to the other â€œSHUT THE WINDOW!â€ â€“ I do not think it was long before they realised how useless that was!
Most of the daylight raids stopped after the â€˜Battle of Britainâ€™ as the Germans were losing too many planes in daylight. We had air raids every night for a long time. I sometimes wonder why my parents allowed me to go out in the garden many evenings to watch the â€˜fireworksâ€™, but only if I wore my fatherâ€™s tin hat. I was fascinated to see what was going on, but suppose I did not realise how great the danger was since the anti-aircraft guns were usually in full voice, there was plenty of shrapnel raining down. If it hit the roof then it would come clattering down together with a piece of tile. You could hear the pieces of shrapnel coming so could avoid them, but note where they landed in the garden. The following morning you could find them, as they were now cool. You showed off your finds to your friends, particularly the larger ones, but nosecones from shells were very rare.
Being on the edge of London, the area was heavily defended to try to shoot down as many enemy aircraft as possible before reaching the centre of the capital. There were lots of barrage balloons â€“ if you saw these being raised, you knew that it would not be long before the sirens were sounded. There were quite a few heavy anti-aircraft batteries not far away; these shook the ground when they were in action. These guns had searchlights working with them by night; they seemed to be aimlessly wandering around the sky. I only saw an aircraft caught in their beams on one occasion. There was also a light anti-aircraft gun mounted on a railway truck, this used to â€˜barkâ€™ a few times, then you heard the tank engine puffing further up the line in case the flashes from the gun gave away itâ€™s position. This railway line was about a quarter of a mile from us, Hainault station is on this line with a bridge over the road. One day whilst in the area I heard and saw a low-flying plane firing machine guns. I hid under the bridge until he was past.
One morning we heard that a Heinkel 111 had been shot down near us. I walked across the field, finding nobody in authority there I went very close to this plane. In those days I had not seen any aeroplanes close up, I imagined a bomber would be very large in order to carry the crew and lots of bombs. So I was very surprised to see how small it was, and wondered how it was possible to shoot down such a small target. After this I had more respect for the work of the searchlight and gun crews.
Later at home we had an Anderson shelter installed, but we could not use it much since it was normally full of water. However our elderly neighbours did have one and we often went in theirs. There were often five adults, two children and three dogs in this shelter. The dogs slept in the middle of the floor with the humans spread around as best as possible. One morning I woke up to be told I had been sleeping on a spade all night. A spade was taken into the shelter in case you had to dig your way out.
One night my parents made up a bed for me using a put-you-up chair placed in the hall. Our neighbours persuaded my parents to use their shelter, which we did. Later that evening my father and neighbour were watching outside the shelter when our neighbour remarked that it was a full moon. My father agreed, then realised they were looking NORTH so recognised that it was a land mine. They tumbled into the shelter and closed the door. Soon after there was an extremely loud explosion â€“ this was very frightening. After a short wait they opened the door saying, â€œItâ€™s all goneâ€, meaning our house.
But what had happened was the mine had landed in the street opposite to us, several houses up, and everything was obscured by dust. I think two of the bungalows were destroyed, but nobody was killed. In the morning we returned to see the damage, I expect the roof had mostly gone plus all the windows. I cannot remember the damage, or the repairs being done, but what sticks in my mind is the state of my temporary bed. It was covered in glass from the front door (in spite of a thick curtain) and loads of plaster from the ceiling.
Another night, whilst in their shelter, there was a funny noise as if something was dragging across the top of the shelter and then across the shed roof in our garden, which was next to their shelter. There were rumours going round at the time of secret weapons, so this subject was brought up. Nobody went outside to look â€“ all too scared. In the morning everything seemed to be normal, later we were told that a barrage balloon had broken free from its moorings and what we heard was the cable dragging across the roof.
I remember during the extensive incendiary raids on London the distant skies were red due to the burning buildings. Closer to us was a burning gasometer which lit up the sky for three days.
Later on during the war one evening when my father was outside he called in â€œthey have got one â€“ his tail is on fireâ€. There was a loud bang, we found that a large crescent-shaped piece of glass broken in one our front windows. Three days later it was announced that the Germans were firing V1 or doodlebugs at us. So we had one of the first. These doodlebugs were a common sight; there were a lot of them, particularly after the Normandy invasion, when the Germans moved the firing sites towards Holland, their path toward London now being closer to us. They were easy to pick out due to the noise from their engines and were no problem until the engine cut out. Once that happened, if you were anywhere near, you ducked quickly, as they then came down in a steep dive, hitting the ground soon after.
The last things to endure were the V2 rockets. These were very scary. The first you knew was a very loud bang followed by the sound of it coming down, since they exceeded the speed of sound, I think it may have sounded as if they were going up, but it was a bit weird. There was absolutely no warning, there were no air raid sirens, just a loud explosion â€“ if you were still alive, then it had missed you. I was cycling to the library to change my books one day when a V2 exploded not far away. I nearly fell off my bicycle, either in shock or surprise, luckily there was no traffic near me.
I recall being in the â€˜Superâ€™ cinema Ilford one afternoon during the daytime raids. The noise from guns and bombs made it difficult to hear the soundtrack until the noise worsened and the film stopped, the manager came onto the stage asking us to leave the cinema. I was a bit worried about going out into the open to catch a train home. I thought that the smoke from the railway engine would make a good target. But I think that the worst of the raid was over. Later a V2 rocket destroyed this cinema. Luckily for us, although some were close, none of the doodlebugs or rockets was close enough to cause us further physical damage. However I was beginning to jump at loud noises, and by early 1945 my mother felt that she had stood enough and persuaded my father to ask for a transfer to another location. We came to Cardiff. We were rather surprised to hear the sirens sounding an â€˜all clearâ€™, we were told that the sirens were being tested out. We replied that we were more used to them being worn out!
Most food was rationed during the war, but bread rationing was not introduced until later. The weekly allowance of meat was one shilling (5p) per person per week, two pennyworth had to be corned beef. Other foods like butter (two ounces), sugar, something that passed for cheese and other food allowances were only small. Sweets were also on coupons, about three quarters of a pound a month. Vegetables were grown in this country, so were not in short supply. Tins were on a points system, only one point for government stamped Meat and Veg. â€“ you did not ask what the meat was! Eggs were rationed but we kept two chickens, we exchanged our egg rations for chicken food. We had more eggs this way.
I think that I was hungry at mealtimes, but there was always something to eat. My mother did the same as others to see we did not starve. But whatever we had it was probably far healthier than take-aways or ready meals of today.
The government did try issuing suggestions for example; boil some parsnips, mash them, mix in some banana flavouring. This was supposed to be a substitute for bananas – which were completely off the menu. My mother tried this once, it was revolting, and we never tried it again.
I vaguely remember that the government opened â€˜British Restaurantsâ€™ â€“ something like a works canteen. The food there was not very appetising, but it did help the rations to go further.
Because the railway station was nearer than the bus stop we usually caught a train to Ilford, our main shopping area. Before the war the chocolate machine on the return platform was filled with penny and two-penny Nestles chocolate bars. If I was lucky I had a bar of chocolate. When I was about twelve I used to catch the train to Ilford on my own to buy horsemeat (stained green to denote unfit for human consumption) for our dog. The chocolate machine was still there, it made my mouth water, but of course there was no chocolate due to rationing.
Ray Voisey (Deceased) Circa 2003