Down the line (11 of 16)
Chapter 4 - The War Years
This idyllic childhood came to a sudden end with the outbreak in 1939 of the Second World War. The ‘bungalow’ ceased to be a pleasant holiday retreat and became a refuge from the London bombing. The bungalow took on a different significance. There were no more visiting relations, or their children, men were called up into the armed forces, their wives and families were dispersed around the whole country, and many children were evacuated. I would guess some parents and children lost their lives; it was a time of great disruption.
The authorities in London advised all who could leave the London dock area to do so. I remember the Stepney schoolteacher making a list of children in his class who had somewhere to go, and those who didn’t were to be evacuated. I said that we were going to move to Laindon, our country escape from the expected bombing. We had so many temporary moves during the war I cannot now remember the periods of residency at Laindon. It was a confusing time.
When the German bombing became a reality, in 1940, there was a family crisis. One of the first small bombs dropped in the war was near my aunt Agnes’ little confectionery shop in St Pauls Way in Bow, wrecking the place. Aunt Ag was beside herself with worry about her home and her shop ‘stock’, this was a catastrophe with which she could not cope – nothing like this had ever happened before. So with her daughter, also an Agnes, and her son-in-law Albert Halls, they sought refuge with us at Salmon Lane, Stepney. We all somehow squeezed into the cellar that night – this really was the war. The next day, a Saturday, the bombing of the London docks started in earnest, and we spent the night with many others in the crypt of a church in Commercial Road. The next day my father decided that something must be done, and sensibly we all moved to the bungalow at Dunton. A lorry materialised, our basic household possessions together with Agnes’ seemingly all-important shop stock (in reality it was a metal trunk of cigarettes!) was loaded and we all de-camped to the bungalow. Five adults, myself and two babies were too many for comfort, it was all very trying.
However, it did give the family breathing space and freedom from the bombing. I cannot remember how it came about, but the elderly Agnes, the two Halls with their baby Geoffrey, subsequently moved out. It must have been about the time Albert was called up into the army.
We lived at Dunton long enough for me to go to Laindon School. I must have been ten years old, too old for the local primary school. We local children caught a school bus to Laindon and back. I had what I thought at the time, a very long walk from the bungalow to the Colony – actually only half a mile or so – where a school bus picked up a group of us. We school kids sat on a farm gate to wait for the bus with our gas mask boxes and lunchtime packs. My mother made me very simple and tasty sandwiches, good East London fare, beef dripping with Oxo sandwiches, or her home made sheep’s head brawn. You had to watch out for chips of bone in that. No one knew about ‘healthy eating’ in those days. The bus would return us to the same spot in the afternoon. Sometimes my mum would meet me with my sister in the pushchair and we would walk back along the Lower Dunton Road. It was all very quiet and rural. I can’t remember anything about that school, other than I went there, and coming from a London school. I was ahead of the country boys and girls and was put in a higher class for my age.
During this period, with the air raids building up, my father travelled to and from his work in the docks by a novel method. His employer wanted to get all his lorries out of London over night for safety, so they improvised a kind of armoured personnel carrier. They fixed a water tank on a lorry and the men living in Essex climbed into this tank for their journeys. The lorry with its tank was parked over night at a farm near Wayletts garage, where the Lower Dunton Road met the Southend Arterial Road. My father told how in an air raid the shrapnel from the anti-aircraft shells rattled on the tank.
These early war years were particularly trying for us at the bungalow. We had to observe the blackout of course, no lights could be shown. There was food rationing which added to my mother’s problems. But at least the German bombers flew over us on their way to London, and Laindon was of no importance to them. Some evenings my Dad and I would sit out on the veranda, listening to the German bombers going over London, seeing the searchlights and hearing the anti-aircraft guns. My father, being an ardent pacifist, I wonder what his private thoughts were? Here we were only 22 years after the end of WWI, at war again, and again Germany was the enemy. Occasionally a bomber would be caught in a searchlight cone and pounded with shells. A frightening sight was to see the glare in the sky of the fires when Dagenham and the Thames oil installations were set alight. An incident I remember was my father and Uncle Albert’s concern about a car that every night came along the avenue and up the hill, with its headlights on. Although the car had the regulation silted hoods over its lights, the men were suspicious: first a car, no one had cars in those days, especially at Dunton. And what was it doing going up the hill with its lights pointing upwards at a regular time each night? Was it a signal for the enemy planes? There was talk of confronting this car, but just as mysteriously, it stopped its routine.
The war altered the countryside too. An army camp, a motor transport pool, was built a few fields away and searchlight units appeared in other fields. Bits of the woods were mysteriously cordoned off with barbed wire. A policeman at Laindon Station checked our identity cards and asked the purpose of our visit. I remember the mass of dots high in the blue summer sky, as the German aircraft battled it out with the Spitfires and Hurricanes. I recall the whine of zooming fighters and the rat-a-tat of guns, and the confusion of vapour trails from the fighters and bombers. I appreciate now that we were witness to the actual Battle of Britain. It was exciting for us children when our Spitfires and Hurricanes flew low and fast over Dunton, on their way to and from Hornchurch and North Weald airfields. The noise was sudden and terrific, and sometimes they would be so low as to rise up to clear the 150 ft. Dunton Hills
A story at the time, and I have no confirmation of this, is that an enemy pilot parachuted out, and alighted, of all places, on the flat roof of Laindon Police station. At least a good story.
On one occasion my friend Pam and myself, were pushing our cart along the Lower Dunton Road when a twin engine German bomber came low right over our heads, and it was firing! Surely not at us? I can remember seeing the sparks from the guns as we threw ourselves under a hedge. The plane crashed a few miles further on. Another most vivid memory was the sight one evening from Laindon Station platform of a straggle of Flying Fortresses limping back from a raid. Some were smoking; some had bits of wing and tail missing. Suddenly one B.17 just fell out of the sky and crashed in a ball of fire at the side of the railway line. I think that sight, along with the London Blitz, brought it home to me as a youth what war was all about.
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