World War 2 Stories for Sheffield

                                              David Rees

 

A WARTIME CHILDHOOD

By actiondesksheffield

People in story: David Rees
Location of story: Leyton
Background to story: Civilian

 

This story was submitted to the People’s War site by Roger Marsh of the ‘Action Desk – Sheffield’ Team on behalf of David Rees.
A WARTIME CHILDHOOD
By
David Rees

Background:
As a small child at the outbreak of WW2 my memories are rather disjointed, being a mixture of isolated events that are clear memories and things I was told later by my parents. However you may consider these to be a relevant example of how the war affected a small child and his family.

I was my parents’ first child, born on 10th September 1936, thus being a week short of 3 years old when war was declared. At that time, my parents lived at Osborne Road, Leyton. Leyton Orient football club was at the end of the road.

On 3rd of September my parents had taken me to Southend and we had a lovely family day out at the seaside. On the return journey - train & bus - my mother remembered wondering why the streets were deserted. Although she was generally not superstitious she refused to ever visit Southend again.

London Bombing:
My own earliest memories are of the bombing of London. I'm not sure of the sequence of these incidences but they include the following.

I don't know when our Anderson shelter was built, but I do recall sleeping in it every night. I am not sure if we only went there when there was an air raid or whether this was routine. However I can't remember sleeping in the house or being transferred during the night. As the war went on and more people left London, the number sleeping in our shelter increased. My father built a small bed across the end of the shelter for me and although occupancy varied according to the number on night duty, our peak rate was 6 adults and 1 child - my parents, Aunt Winnie, Bill Dunn (a neighbour whose family had left London) had the 4 bunks, whilst a young couple slept together on the floor in between the bunks. I assume I had a 'potty' but with 7 people in such a small space, I often wonder what it smelt like in the mornings.

We must have also gone down the shelter during daylight raids as I can recall sitting on top of the Anderson shelter at the bottom of the garden and being very excited by the perfect formations of large planes flying overhead. Buzzing about them like gnats were smaller planes. I think I was cheering for the bombers before being told very firmly that they were the German planes, the little ones were ours - I was a bit disappointed.

I do remember coming out of the shelter one morning to see that a huge lump of clay had been thrown up by the bomb which had destroyed the houses at the end of Osborne Road. The clay had bounced off the top of our shelter and landed on the concrete garden path, breaking it up and leaving a fair sized crater. I believe it also badly damaged the roof of our home, with pieces of this, breaking the cot in which I would have been sleeping if in the house. This resulted in our moving to the next door house.

On another occasion, incendiary bombs were dropped. I think they burnt down one of the stands at Leyton Orient football club and several also landed in our garden (not sure about the roof of the house). I do remember having to stay in the shelter whilst the adults `put out' the incendiaries and the next morning my father showed me where his 'prize' dahlias had been destroyed. The method of putting out these fires was to cover them with sand, which, I think we had in small bags. We also had a stirrup pump to use with a bucket of water. I remember, towards the end of the war wondering how this worked as it pumped on both the up and down strokes.

On another occasion I was taken out of the shelter during the night to see the whole sky was red caused by the fire in the City of London. My father was on APR duty in the fire area as was one of my uncles who were in the Fire Service (see section on my father).

As the intensity of the bombing increased, my father arranged for my mother and me to go into a part of the Underground system. We used to go there at night, but for a time we lived there for quite a long period. I really enjoyed this, as there were lots of other children to play with. When there was a lull in the bombing we played outside but at other times we had to stay underground. I'm not sure which part of the Underground this was, but I remember my father saying that it was one of the deepest sections, too deep for bombs to affect it. The tunnel must have had a floor fitted as I do not remember any rails, and there were rows of bunk beds down the sides, two high I think. I recall sleeping in a small hammock hung between the bunks, which was rather uncomfortable. At the end of this 'dormitory' area the tunnel was sealed off. There was a door in the wall and we children would peer through the keyhole. In this 'forbidden' area, there were men working on large machines.

KEY POINT Since the war I have never seen or heard anything about this use of the Underground system, either as a dormitory or as a (munitions?) factory.

Toys Games and Entertainment:
As a small boy life stilt involved games and toys. I think one of the main hobbies for small boys was getting a really good collection of shrapnel. Like most other lads of my age, in the morning after a local raid, I couldn't get out quickly enough to search for shrapnel in the garden and street. It had fascinating shapes and colours - to me silver and gold. My other main hobby was collecting the front of cigarette packets. These were mostly found in street gutters. Being in London, there was a wide variety to be found, including the occasional foreign one. I remember being very disappointed when the American ones started to arrive because instead of a cardboard outer sleeve with an inner container, they were just a simple paper packet, far less impressive and more easily damaged.

New toys and books were not available, so I was given one or two toys that neighbours' children had outgrown. The toys that I didn't really appreciate at the time were two wooden scale model ships, an aircraft carrier and battleship that my father made `between shifts' at the ARP. These were quite beautiful models, painted Battleship Grey, but for me at that time, not much use in the naval battles I had with Mason Dunn next door. For these, the piece of 2"x 2" into which I had hammered every nail I could find - each representing a gun - was far more effective. Towards the end of the war Mason's father Bill made two wooden Tommy-guns for us. These had a ratchet on the side and a plywood striker that made a (too realist for our mothers) machine gun sound. We were kings of the street with these.

The game that we mainly played as children was "war". This was a constant factor. I can remember one day (it must have been towards the end of the war - no bombing) when a group of us had gone to watch Leyton Orient play football. We became bored with watching and went behind the stand to play wars. After a while, we were all worn out and stopped. We then realised that it was very quiet, much too quiet! We crept out and found we were alone. The match had ended, everyone had gone home and the gates were locked. Luckily for us a member of the ground staff was still there and after a good ticking off, we were let out. I think we also played football in the street and I remember right at the end of the war (I would have been 8), Mason came back from a visit to friends/family in the country with a strange implement that he called a cricket bat. He insisted we played using a lamppost as the wicket, however this was very boring compared to playing war games and we soon dropped it.

As far as entertainment went, I recall going to concerts and shows where `ordinary' people performed. In fact my own father with 4 others from the ARP won a singing 'talent' contest as the "Happy Harmonisers". What I do remember is another of the ARP man coming to our house and tearing newspaper. He would fold a sheet many times, make a few tears and then reveal to my utter amazement, a string of figures or animals. People seemed to do a great deal to keep the spirits up, perhaps particularly for the children. I think we had 'shows' and singsongs when we were `living' in the Underground. The APR also had concerts with members of the teams performing `turns’; the paper tearer was one of these acts.

Rocket Attacks:
Some years ago I saw an actual V1 rocket in a museum. I was amazed that this terrifying monster was so small. I say terrifying, as, in my opinion, these were far worse than bombs. Every child who lived through the war in any major European city can recall the sound of falling bombs, very frightening for a brief moment. The "doodlebug" was something else. You could hear it droning on from miles away. That wasn't too bad as you knew it would not come down whilst the rocket was firing. However when the rocket engine spluttered and stopped you lay waiting to hear the sound of it gliding down. Heart stopping moments that seemed to last for ever, finally the relief of the explosion told you that it had fallen on somebody else. There was then a guilty feeling because you were pleased that someone else had `copped it'.

There are two very clear memories of doodlebugs that I will never forget. The first is walking home with my parents on a lovely sunny Sunday morning. Suddenly my father threw my mother and me to the ground and covered me with his body. We were on the right hand side of the road and my father had me `pinned' against the tow garden wall. The next moment a V1 rocket glided over the houses on our right. I could not see anything but heard the rush of air; it clipped the roof of a house on the left hand side of the road and crashed into the next street. Death was that close.

On the other occasion, I think I was alone in the Anderson shelter with my mother. We heard a V1 rocket approaching; it passed close by and then faded away. Relief, safe again, only it then started to come back. It passed close and again it faded away only to come back again. I think it repeated this 5 or 6 times, each time getting lower and louder before the engine cut out and it finally crashed close to where we lived. I was told later that the wind had affected its rudder and that it was going round in circles. I just remember being absolutely terrified, and I'm sure my mother was in the same state.

(Possible KEY POINT?) After the war I was told that the next morning my mother took me to see the doctor. I was in such a state that the doctor said, "Get him out of London within 24 hours." This led to my second evacuation and having 3 months off school.

My mother and I returned to London after the V-1’s had been stopped. There were still V-2 attacks but these did not hold the same fear. I remember being told at the time that if you heard a V-2, you were safe.

 

Evacuations:
At the start of the heavy bombing, because we lived between the London docks and some important railways sidings/junctions my parents thought we were in an area of high risk, therefore I was taken to stay with my mother's sister, Marjorie at Thornton Heath, which they considered to be safe. I don't know how long I stayed with my Aunt and Uncle but later my parents took me back home.

My second evacuation was after the V1 incident. One of my mother's brothers, who had fought in WW1, had been moved by his company, Meredith and Drew, to Brighouse in West Yorkshire. He had a very large stone house and my mother and I went to stay there. The house was full of women and children. As well as my three cousins, my Aunt had her sisters and their children. I don't know how many people were there but my mother and I shared a small bedroom with another mother and son. I think we moved to Brighouse in the early summer. I do know that as a result of the V1, the local doctors confirmed that I should not go to school. So I remember playing in the local park until my cousins came out of school. Having lived in East London all my life, a park that had a stream with fish in it was another wonderful world.

I think I was off school for three months and I re-started school at the end of the summer holiday. The break from learning did not appear to do me any harm, as when the end of term results were announced, I was top of the (very large) class. The school must have been rather overcrowded because of the number of refugee children in the town. I remember that there were many `gang' fights between the local children and the evacuees, the latter being heavily outnumbered. However as I was with my cousins, I was regarded as a `local' and left alone.

My Father:
My father was born in 1905. Before the war he had been the manager of a large butcher's shop on Stratford Broadway (Green Bros.?). He has told me that it was a poor area and his shop did most of its business after the pubs closed on a Saturday night. The secret of success was to draw a large crowd and then `auction off joints of meat, street market style (the joints having been previously priced up). To get a large crowd, he needed entertainers. So the butchers in the shop were also expected to fulfill this role. They included singers; jugglers and I think the paper tearer referred to above. I think some of these men were with my father in the ARP and performed at the concerts

When war broke out, my father was too old to be called up. I remember at one time he was doing two jobs - in a laundry during the day and as an air raid warden at night. After a time, he stopped this, partly as it was too much work and partly because of the amount he was being taxed. He then joined the ARP and was a shift leader working as a "Light" team - their job was to "follow" the bombs and try to rescue people and/or recover bodies from damaged buildings. Like most soldiers who saw serious action, he seldom talked about what he saw or did, but my mother told me that his background as a butcher came in useful, he knew where the parts went. His brother Harry was also in the ARP, but he worked on a "Heavy" team. These went in after the "Light" teams had finished, pulling down dangerous buildings, dealing with unexploded bombs etc.

There are only two incidents I can remember him telling me about after the war was over. One was of a block of flats that had received a direct hit and it was known that the residents would have taken shelter in the basement. He said they dug in vain for 3 days but in the end, had to give up - after all the bombing was still going on and there were other people to rescue. The second incident was during the night the City of London burnt. It was towards the end of the night and they were leaving the city to return to the depot. The lorry was travelling along a long straight road – Whitechapel(?) when one of the men in the back called out that a plane was lining up and following them. My father was in the front of the lorry and yelled out to Ginger the driver to "get off the road". Ginger swung up a side street just in time as the plane strafed the road they had just left.

One very strong memory for me is of my father's catapult. My grandfather retired in 1940 and my father and his brothers had moved their parents and youngest sister to safety in the Essex countryside. I remember going to visit them with my parents. My father gave me a job - find all the round stones I could. These were for his catapult. He had made this, by sawing the "Y" shaped handle from his garden spade. It was fitted with a leather pouch and a quarter of an inch square elastic. I couldn't pull it back even when I was in my early teens. He told me that the members of the ARP had been asked to "arm themselves" for street to street fighting, and a catapult was ideal as it was a silent weapon. That weekend he spent hours practising "killing Germans" in the field behind my grandparents' home. I remember him telling me that other ARP men had made bows and arrows, again a silent weapon.

KEY POINT I have often seen references to the Home Guard training with broom handles but never heard any examples of them being asked to make their own weapons.

Food:
As a small child, I have little recall of the food I ate. Food was limited, but I have no recall of ever going to bed "hungry", which I think is the real test. I do however remember some of the things my parents did to ensure we have adequate food. I'm sure we grew potatoes and other vegetables and I think my father had an allotment, but I can't recall going there. I do however remember that we had 4 hens in a pen in the garden. These were feed household scrapes etc., and we had a few eggs every week. We also bred rabbits. The house had an extended kitchen/scullery at the rear. Down the side of this, my father built a whole bank of hutches to house a buck and several does. The youngsters were fattened up for us to eat, my father doing the killing and dressing. My role was to help my mother get food for the rabbits; this was mostly grass and weeds from the numerous bombsites in the area.

On a very rare occasion we had a joint of pork. My father was part of a group that shared the raising of a pig, which when `ready' was slaughtered and shared out.

Towards the end of the war one of my uncles who was in the Merchant Navy, brought me an orange. Although I must have been 7 years old, I did not know what it was or how to eat it.

I was recently asked how we were fed during the period we 'lived' in the Underground. Sadly I have absolutely no recall of whether my mother fed me or if there was communal catering.

Victory:
I have very clear memories of both VE night and V.J. night. For the former the children in the road raided all the bombsites in our area - no shortage of these - and made a huge bonfire in the middle of the street. I imagine we must have had adult supervision. I have no idea how much notice we had but it all seemed to happen very suddenly. There were also fireworks; I can remember rockets and jumping jacks. Everyone had a wonderful time. As most of my hobbies had evolved around collecting things found in the street this gave the opportunity for a brand new tine - burnt out fireworks. My problem was that I was too keen and rushed into a group of women just after a jumping jack had been dropped at their feet. The final bang startled one of the group so much that she jumped round and caught me in the eye with her elbow - I had a wonderful shiner the next day.

For me VJ night was a complete disaster. My parents were visiting the Thornton Heath relatives when the end came. Instead of going home to join my friends we went to Croydon town centre and watched the formal fireworks display. I think I was a complete pain to my parents that night, as I didn't want to be there and cried most of the time. When we did go home, all my friends told me what a smashing time they had had - it didn't help.

Impacts that the War had on my Family:
A direct result of the war was that my parents, together with one of my father's brothers and his family moved into Essex to be near my grandparents. I think this was to escape to a safer environment and as they started a Market Garden, this may have reflected the `farming' they had done during the war. My mother's brother and his family stayed in Brighouse and we didn't see them again for many years. Whilst the `Rees' lineage had only moved to London circa 1830, other parts of my father's family can be traced back to living in London in the mid C18 and my mother's family had been in east London from at least the early C18. So what for generations had been close family links became stretched. With transport and communications being far more difficult than they are today, family ties and support grew much weaker.

Of more direct consequences to my immediate family is that my parents, who had intended to have 2 or 3 children, decided that it was too late to try for another child. I think the family photographs give some clues to the background behind their thinking. This is most noticeable in the difference between a picture of my mother and me at Southend in Sept 1939, and another taken outside our Anderson shelter late in the war. Whilst I am clearly about 5 years older, my mother appears to have aged by 20 years.


Pr-BR