A wartime childhood
People ask me sometimes, when they discover where and when I was born, if I was ever scared during the war. Children aren’t scared of things like war, it’s too big a concept, unless of course it is in the immediate vicinity. The war for us was kind of at a distance. Planes flew over and dropped bombs or there were flying bombs, but there were no foreign soldiers in the streets, thank heavens. What is really scary to a child is losing mum in Woolworths, but seeing a bright light in the sky that sounds like an airborne motorbike doesn’t have the same effect at all.
That airborne motorbike that I saw just before being bundled into the dug-out, landed on the public toilets at the top end of Greatfields Park. The Perth Off-licence across the road got turned into a colander that night and most of Perth Road was laid flat. There were many casualties, which included a girl from my nursery school class. The odd thing was that not a window in Mover’s Lane was broken. That was the peculiar thing about V-1 bomb blast: it usually went one way rather than radiating from the centre. I suppose it had something to do with the angle at which the thing arrived. I never saw another doodle-bug, which is what we called V-1s, and I only got to see that one because I badgered my mother. “It’s all right as long as the engine is still running” people used to say. If the engine stopped running directly above you, as mine did, then you were safe, because it would glide and turn before landing; hence the landing site, which was half a mile north and to the east of our house. But if the engine stopped before reaching you, and if it was somewhat to one side – Take cover! And hold your breath!
Many people had an Anderson Shelter at the end of their garden. There were alternative shelters, some brick built and one that was like heavy dining table with a cage around it. That was the Morrison. Designed by Herbert Morrison, but I bet he never used one like it. The Anderson was the safest. Half of the corrugated structure was dug down into the ground, (hence the nick-name dug-out), and the earth that was dug out was placed over the top. Inside there was room for two double bunks, one each side. We spent many nights in ours during the blitz, but after that it depended on how far away the sound of bombing could be heard. During a lull in bombing one evening, mother went into the house and fried us a pan of chips, which she then carried down to the dug-out in the frying pan. I can see her now, walking down the garden with the frying pan in her hand. I have the feeling that if the jerries had dropped a bomb on the garden that night, that she would have back-handed it with the frying pan into the river. She was that kind of woman.
Greatfields Park was just at the top of our street and the army occupied part of it as a location for anti-aircraft guns, searchlights and barrage balloons. It was off limits to people most of the time, but there was one night when we got a close-up view.
The River Roding was only a hundred yards behind our house and on the 23 September 1940 an unexploded bomb was found in the middle of the river. The book “On the Home Front” published by Barking Library gives a full account of the bravery of the men who defused the bomb that night. I was not quite three years old at the time and was woken up by my mother and sister and helped to dress quickly. An ARP man had just knocked at the door and told us that we must evacuate because an unexploded bomb had landed just behind the house. What excitement! Everybody who lived nearby was hurriedly assembled in Greatfields Park at the top of the street and I suddenly found myself standing beside a searchlight. Searchlights were common, of course. We saw them all the time at night searching the skies. Beams of light that seem to have no end, but here I was standing beside one. It was like standing at the end of a long, straight rainbow.
I started school after Easter 1943 at Westbury Primary School. The route to school took me out of our estate, across the road by the Volunteer Pub on the corner of the A13 and River Road, where there was always a policeman on duty to see the children across the road, up Movers Lane and to school. My instructions from home were that if I hadn’t crossed the A13 when the air-raid siren went, then I was to run home. If I was between the road and the top of Greatfields Park I was to go to the nearest house in Mover’s Lane and ask for shelter; and if I was past that point I was to run to school. How times change. It would now be unthinkable today to allow a child of five or six to walk that route to school, though because of quite different dangers. The siren went only once on my way to school and on that occasion I ended up sheltering in the cellar at Westbury.
Barking received its share of bombs, doodle-bugs and V2s but life carried on as it always does. It would be interesting to compare the statistics of wartime deaths and injuries, with today’s road casualties during a similar length of time. Unfortunately, a bomb dropping somehow has a more dramatic effect than a road accident, even though the loss of life is just as tragic.
Towards the end of the war, I was getting older and becoming more aware of life around me. By then German bombers had stopped their nightly visits and the skies in the evening were now filled with our own bombers, flying in formation on their dangerous missions. There was now, however, a much different and real fear in the air; this time from V2 rockets. These came out of a clear blue sky without warning. The most well known one to hit Barking was that which demolished St Paul’s Church in Ripple Road at midday on Sunday 14th January 1945. The reports state that 8 people were killed, 52 seriously injured and 157 slightly injured. Memory plays tricks, as we all know, but I have a recollection of standing with my mother, who was talking to a friend in the street, and hearing them say how terrible it was that the church had been filled with children at the time it was hit. It is now known that censorship controlled newspaper reports during the war and that some bombing raids were never fully reported. The Bank Underground Station in London is one of the most well known examples. Could it be that the report of the St Paul’s Church bombing was also censored? Certainly, a direct hit by a V2 rocket at midday on a Sunday would suggest a bigger death toll to be more likely. If the 157 reported injured had instead been killed and the 8 killed reported injured it would have been more believable.
Sound and smell can be very evocative. There are now very good, interactive displays of shelters and bombing raids at the London and Imperial War Museums for anyone who wants to get the feel of what it was like. One evening, though, about forty-five years ago, when I still lived in Barking, I went for an evening walk on Guy Faulks Night, the 5th of November. Firework bangers were still quite common and loud and almost every house with children had a bonfire in the back garden. I walked along Alfred’s Way to the bridge over the railway and stood listening to the sound. There was very little traffic in those days. Bangers being let off around the town sounded almost like anti-aircraft guns. The air was filled with the smell of burning chemicals from fireworks and the night sky was lit-up by hundreds of bonfires. All that was missing were the searchlights.
VE Day arrived eventually and street parties were arranged. There was a party for us kids during the day and a bonfire in the street that evening. I was very annoyed at not being allowed out late that evening. But my sister was allowed to dance into the night because she is ten years older than me. A year later it was all repeated when VJ Day was celebrated. It was all finally over. All that was left was another ten years of rationing and austerity before the sixties and a new life could begin.