I was only three when World war II started, so was in the very fortunate position of growing up with the situation and having no first hand knowledge of those long gone halcyon days called “peace” to which my Mother often referred. I often wonder how the present generation of young people would handle the circumstances of the early forties - I expect they would act in the same way that we did.
To us, death and destruction where commonplace; when I look back and realise that any day that I left the house for school might well have been the last time I would ever see my Mother, it seems strange to recollect that these thoughts never once crossed my mind. Such was the degree to which we were accustomed to those times.
But what were those times like exactly? Well, as I have already said, I was used to growing up in what effectively was a front line battle zone. In those days everyone pulled together to help their neighbour. I remember the lounge of the next door house being filled with racks of clothing which belonged in a shop owned by a friend of our neighbour who had been “bombed out” - this being the term used for such unfortunate circumstances. If you were out anywhere and not close to a public air raid shelter, you would be invited into the nearest private one by the occupants, some shelters where actually inside and it is hard to imagine nowadays inviting perfect strangers into your home.
The highlight of life was, after a raid, to go out to collect shrapnel which was collected and recycled (incidentally, that word was unknown then, the shrapnel simply went towards the war effort), and when you were lucky enough to find an intact shell nose cone - well, wow! you were head of your gang for the rest of the day! I remember personally finding several and the receipt of the accolades which went with such a find.
Of course every thing was on ration with endless queues for their purchase, and so many things we take for granted now were simply unavailable then, I didn’t taste a banana until I was gone ten, oranges, lemons too where unavailable. But, for some reason which I cannot understand, rice was in plentiful supply - we always seemed to be having rice pudding for school dinners which is why I hate it so much. Fuel for private motoring was not allowed, many people laid their cars up for the duration but some discovered the possibility of running cars on town gas. You would see a car with a large bag on it’s roof, this contained gas filled from a domestic gas point indoors. Another method involved having a trailer which carried some sort of furnace which produced gas (methane I think in this case). I recollect seeing buses towing these gadgets.
Some enemy pilots considered it good sport to shoot up innocent civilians, a school friend of mine was walking down the road when he hears the unmistakable sound of an ME109 (we all knew them all) He dived for cover into a shop doorway but in so doing left his brightly coloured scarf lying on the pavement. The fighter having passed over, he picked up his scarf only to find it riddled with bullet holes!
Later on, we had the first of the V1’s or “Doodlebugs” as they were called. The first came over on June 13th 1944, and I recollect very clearly leaning out of my bedroom window wondering what it was. The drill soon became established, if you heard one and the engine stopped, throw yourself flat and hope, you had about ten seconds before the explosion to sort yourself out. Far deadlier and sinister were the V2’s. These were the first ICBM’s, they arrived without warning and the philosophy was that if you heard the explosion you had survived, if you hadn’t then it didn’t matter anyway.
I always liked it when either the King or Mr Churchill broadcast on the wireless on account of my being allowed to stop up late to listen, and when, on May 8th 1945, it was over at last, I recollect all the great rejoicings and street parties which took place. By then I was coming up to my ninth birthday, so my most formative years were spent in a war situation. Thanks to my parents, at no time was I worried or scared although they must have been frightened over the possibility of a Nazi invasion in the summer of 1940. The two legacies I have most inherited from this period are a reluctance to throw anything away and being a heavy sleeper - we lived some five miles from Biggin Hill airfield during the Battle of Britain. The guns never kept me awake!
© Henry Dallimore