A Laindon lad's memories of World War II
As the phoney war ended and daylight bombing ensued we spent a lot of time in the school shelters, singing songs.
I was five years old when war broke out on September 3, 1939.
I started school at Langdon Hills Primary School in Mrs Hanson’s class, labelled “infants” a few days later. Throughout the rest of 1939 and the first half of 1940, during the lull which came to be called the phoney war, five or six Morrison shelters were built around the perimeter of the playground. As the phoney war ended and daylight bombing ensued we spent a lot of time in these shelters. The teachers all remained upbeat and refused to let fear become a factor, at least to we young school children.
Primarily the time in the shelters was spent in group singing. “Sandy he belonged to the mill, the mill belonged to Sandy Still. Two blue pigeons. One was black and white. Pom!” (This never made sense even at five years of age.) Or: “London’s burning, London’s burning. Fetch the engine. Fetch the engine. Fire! Fire! Fire! Fire! Pour on water. Pour on water”, an old English song dating back to the Great Fire of London in 1666. In retrospect, of course, rather inappropriate for the particular circumstances.
In June 1940 or thereabouts, the air war began in earnest. The summer of 1940 was one of the most brilliant on record. Day after day, with the sun shining and not a cloud in the sky we young lads would watch as the German planes, spotting on the Thames, (no German radar at this time) made their way over us to their targets in London. The RAF fighters would take off and meet the German planes before they got to their targets (i.e., usually right over us) and the most incredible dog fights would take place in the sky. The Hollywood productions depicting the Battle of Britain show but a shadow of the true scope and the reality of the 1940 wars in the sky.
Cries of dismay would come from the lads when an RAF plane would start to smoke, turn, and spin toward the earth. Within a few minutes we would be uttering shouts of joy as a German plane caught fire and headed to earth, sometimes with its pilot bailing out. On one occasion we saw that the German pilot was descending over us. An immediate army, growing in numbers by the minute, of young lads with sticks and stones and old men with spades and pitchforks (the younger men were all gone to war of course) pursued to make sure the Hun was captured. “Up the Crown Hill. Looks like he is coming down in the Crown woods.” “No, no. It’s the cow fields. The wind’s taking him in that direction.” And so the rag tag army ran, most of the old men trailing by now as they laboured to keep up. Finally the scared young German, probably not much older than some of the older lads pursuing him, landed and immediately surrendered to the rag tag army; probably grateful to be out of the war and simply to be alive. Imprisoned on an island, with no sympathetic underground to give aid and shelter, as the allies had on the continent, the young German’s war was over.
During the summer holiday in 1940 the school continued to operate. I think it was only for the younger classes and only for half a day and was, in essence, a kindergarten service allowing war time mothers some freedom to continue working without child care problems. There was no school work per se. Extended breaks, teachers reading us stories, and lots of singing, sitting on the floor in the main hall. Religious singing that certainly would never be allowed today, not that it ever did us a jot of harm. Hymn number 23: “There Is A Green Hill Far Away.” What a dirge! However hymn 24 made up for it. “Fight The Good Fight With All Thy Might.” No one fell asleep during that!
It was around this time that the British Restaurant opened in the Memorial Hall in the High Road. Whether this was opened and run by the Billericay Urban District Council as part of the local war effort or was part of a wider national scheme I do not know. They were only open in the middle of the day for the main meal and there was only the one meal on the menu. Take it or leave it. We would walk down there after the morning spent in kindergarten at Langdon Hills School and for some ridiculous sum (tuppence perhaps, I cannot remember) enjoyed some of the most delicious and filling food that this young lad ever experienced. It remained open for most if not all of the war. Five women were employed there. A supervisor, whose name I never knew. A Mrs. Dunlop who seemed to deal with the tickets and the money and three women who did all the cooking, serving, and clean-up detail. Mrs. Pierson who lived in New Avenue off of Berry Lane, Mrs. Ringwood who lived in Lincewood Park Drive off of Berry Lane, and my mother, May Davies. We lived in Raglan Road also off of Berry Lane. All from the same end of the village!
I never had an up close and personal encounter with a butterfly bomb but there were many warning posters at school and verbal warnings given in class about what to do and what not to do should one be encountered. Butterfly bombs were small anti-personnel bombs weighing three of four pounds. They were dropped in clusters so wherever one was found, others were nearby. They were designed NOT to explode upon contact with the ground but to lie there peacefully until disturbed. Lying at the side of the road, it would be just the thing for a young lad to kick down the road on his way home from school or to pick up for closer examination. And then…
It became a common site to see German prisoners transported in open lorries to and from the POW camp over the Crown Hill to the local farms for a day’s work. Seemingly they were minimum security. Where were they going to flee? No one took much notice of them and they kept a low profile. No equivalents of the allies “The Great Escape” or “The Colditz Story” were attempted. I never heard of any clandestine romances with the Laindon girls either during or after the war had ended when they were waiting for repatriation. Nonetheless, love (and lust) usually finds a way and it might be fertile soil for a budding writer to attempt to unearth any such long-ago illicit romances. A sort of village edition Montague and Capulet.
We had an Anderson shelter in the back yard. We used it religiously until the advent of the bad weather. Then it developed nine inches of water in the bottom. Permanently! That was the end of using the Anderson shelter. Similarly we were all equipped with a gas mask (very claustrophobic) which never left our side from morning till night. After a while that got to be a bit of a bore and the gas masks slowly disappeared.
My grandmother on my mother’s side was referred to as nan-up-London to differentiate her from my other grandmother, who lived next door to us, who was nan-next-door. Nan-up-London had three daughters still at home ages 16 to 19. They lived in the East End and were continually getting bombed out. Much of the East End population had left by this time and vacant houses with varying degrees of damage abounded. Some without gas or water. Some without windows. Some with furniture. But empty!! They several times moved (squatted would be the more accurate term) from house to house as they were bombed out again and again. Eventually the ARP warden, recognising them and what they were doing, convinced them of the danger and kindly arranged for them to be evacuated to a camp of some description in Ongar, Essex. My father discovered where they were and went to Ongar and brought them to live with us. Our little two bedroom bungalow now housed six adults and two children. Cozy!
On the right hand side of Berry Lane halfway between Raglan Road and the corner shop was a road sign which read DRIVE SLOWLY THROUGH THE VILLAGE. With petrol virtually non-existent and the road through the village going nowhere but to Dunton Plotlands, the sign seemed superfluous. Perhaps one car every few days drove by it. Maybe! Diagonal from the sign was a magnificent oak tree. Ideal for climbing, its main branch extended halfway over Berry Lane. In season, my brother and I, and Rose Stanley, a very good tree climber (despite being a girl), perhaps a year older than I, from Prescott Avenue, would purchase bread rolls and a bottle of delicious-tasting Galloway’s cough syrup from the Homestead Store, the second little grocer in Berry Lane, further south, halfway between Vowler Road and Samuel Road. Then to pick blackberries. Finally, to climb the oak tree, find a comfortable niche overlooking the road, cut open the bread rolls with a boy’s trusty pen knife, stuff the rolls with blackberries, open the Galloways, and…bliss!
My father, unfit for the armed forces, was a member of the ARP. He was attached to the ARP post that stood at the junction of the High Road and Lee Chapel Lane (I think that was its name) in Langdon Hills, at the foot of the last and steepest ascent of the Crown Hill. One night he came home with two disarmed German incendiary bombs. Made of metal, perhaps an aluminium alloy, 12 to 15 inches high, three or four fins on the top end for rotation, perhaps three inches in diameter. The bottom unscrewed, revealing an open cavity where, before being disarmed, the explosives resided. For the rest of the war they rested one on each side of the clock on the mantle piece.
My father had a large map of Europe which was always spread out on the living room table awaiting the evening news on the radio. He had innumerable little flags (one by one inch on a pin) of the different warring nations. The various theatres of war were delineated by the different flags as Italian flags faced Greek flags in Macedonia or German flags faced French flags on the Siegfried Line. As the news came over the radio of the Russians advancing on a 50 mile front around Kursk or Rommel driving the Eighth Army 20 miles back closer to Cairo, he would carefully move his Russian, German, and British flags to their new positions.
Every family needed to register with a particular grocer and butcher and of course everyone had ration cards. The greengrocer, bread store, and locally grown foodstuffs were not subject to ration as I remember it. We registered with the corner shop (earlier Townsends and later Lungleys) at the junction of Berry Lane, Beatrice Road and Bridge Street, and Goddens the butcher in the High Road. In retrospect, I realise that the daily shopping trips down the High Road were virtually as much social as anything. An hour’s break for the Laindon housewives and mothers from what was a very hard and unrelenting life.
Nan-next-door enjoyed a flutter on the horses. Too infirm to make her way down the High Street with any frequency, she would hand my mother an envelope with money and indications of her new wagers inside. My mother’s instructions were to quietly slip this to Eric Cole, the greengrocer, and wait for him to go in the back and come back with a second envelope which would contain her previous results and winnings, if any. Off-track betting was illegal at the time and Eric Cole was apparently the High Road bookie. Or one of them!
Many bombs, mines, and rockets fell around Laindon during the war but the one that impacted us was the V2 rocket that fell in Vowler Road. At the junction of Vowler Road and Berry Lane, on the north side of Vowler Road, was a house occupied by the Hayes family. Mr Hayes was the projectionist at the Radion cinema. The V2 rocket fell, in the middle of a cold night, on the bungalow next door or next door but one to the Hayes. Reportedly, the house was occupied by two retired spinster school teachers. The house no longer existed and in its place was a large hole in the ground which soon became a small lake. The only thing which remained recognisable from the blast was a large iron bath tub. Within a few days, we lads stuffed the drain with rags and attempted to sail across the lake. Success was minimal!
We lived in Raglan Road which was a small mud track running about 50 yards north of and parallel to Vowler Road. There were only two small bungalows on the right down Raglan Road before it dead-ended into myriad bushes and underbrush. As the crow flies, we were about 60 yards from the impact of the V2. The blast blew out all the glass and lifted the roof, turned it about 15 degrees, and dropped it back down. The pressure caused the asbestos ceiling to crack into several sharp and jagged pieces. My youngest brother, about a year old, was asleep in his cot next to my parents’ bed. Two pieces of sharp-edged asbestos fell either side of his head forming a steeple or cone and completely enveloping him. My parents thought he was dead and carefully removed the asbestos to discover he was totally unharmed. Me? I slept through the entire episode.
I distinctly remember my thoughts in May 1945 when the radio was full of the talk of peace. The war is over! That was all I had ever known. The war! What on earth will it be like without the war? Uncles and cousins coming home? Barely recognisable. My father no longer passionately interested in the evening news on the radio. What about his map with all the little flag pins? What about other changes incomprehensible to a lad of 11 who has no memory except that of the war. What on earth is everyone going to do now that there is no war to fight? Little did I know that there would be plenty of others!