This was the time of the phoney war, that exquisitely sentimental but dangerous period of my youth when Vera Lynn sang with a sob in her voice, “We’ll meet again, don’t know where, don’t know when….” or perhaps “Somewhere in France with You”. Over the radio also “Our” Gracie Fields from Lancashire and Maurice Chevalier, the quintessence of all things French, put on Anglo-French concerts for the greater solidarity of the Entente Cordiale. At night when work was done, I divided my time equally between study at evening classes and walking about a large adjoining open space called Hackney Downs. This was the recognised monkey parade where local lads and lassies strolled up and down looking each other over and sometimes pairing off to go roaming in the gloaming. My mate on these nocturnal jaunts was a burly young man by the name of Jimmie whom I had known at school, and who was now employed on the railway, cleaning out the dirty boilers of the big coal-fired engines. Subsequently he became a fireman, feeding coal into the rapacious furnace of the London-Edinburgh express. After the war he joined the London police Force. He had had only a basic education, but he set himself determinedly to study and finished up with a very good rank. But this was in the future that we could not foresee. As we contemplated the present we became aware that disaster had suddenly overtaken us. The German Panzers in an unprecedented thrust of armoured might had turned the Maginot Line and were streaming towards Paris. The British Expeditionary Force retreated to Dunkirk where it was surrounded and evacuated back across the Channel to England in every craft available provided it was seaworthy. The French capitulated. America was not yet in the war. Australia, Canada, New Zealand were far away. England stood alone.
Thus we waited for the first air raid, having no doubt that when Hitler decided to strike he would not mess about, and we would really have to brace ourselves. The first real attack of the war occurred one evening when Jimmie and I were making our way through the darkened streets to Hackney Downs. Our pleasant dreams of an evening promenade, with two girls with whom we had earlier scraped acquaintance, were abruptly shattered by a piercing whistle, a brilliant flash and a crash like a thunderclap. This was followed by a whole series of whistles, flashes and explosions.
We quickened our pace and arrived running at one of the many wood and concrete shelters, which had been constructed all over Hackney Downs. These were really nothing more than trenches thinly roofed over with earth. They were not bomb-proof – few shelters were – but they gave protection against anything except a direct hit. In our shelter, we were soon joined by other people, not really afraid, but perhaps a little flustered by the unexpectedness of the attack. Chiefly they seemed to be curious as to what the result of the explosions would be, for this was our first air raid and a novelty.
The alert sounded, after the damage had been done, and we heard the enemy aircraft humming overhead. Then suddenly everything became quiet, and abruptly the all-clear was heard. When we emerged from the shelter we couldn’t see any damage in the immediate vicinity. Everything seemed as it had been before. However we learned later that some houses in neighbouring streets had been demolished. Jimmie and I wandered off in search of our girl friends and found them, intrepid souls, wandering around looking for us.
Subsequent air raids became much worse. The anti-aircraft defences of London were at that time inadequate, and the Germans used to come over in the evenings and do more or less as they liked. The fire service soon had its work cut out, and history has recorded how magnificently its members acquitted themselves.
Our anti-aircraft defences were negligible for quite a long time, but every park down to the smallest patch of open space quickly sported a motorised winch under the control of two or three Royal Air Force ground staff. A long steel cable led from each winch up to a fat white blimp, riding in the breeze several hundred feet high. By this means a mass of cables stretched up into the sky all over London. The object was to prevent dive-bombing and force enemy aircraft to fly at a minimum height. In this at least our defences were successful. These blimps were known as barrage balloons and became such a common sight that one felt a sense of deprivation when the air attacks eventually fell away and the balloons and their crews disappeared.
However at the beginning of the “blitz” on London, Hackney Downs was to become the nightly rendezvous in our part of the city for many people besides Jimmie and myself. Air raids rapidly became a regular occurrence and assumed a much greater severity. People from all over the neighbourhood used to drift to the Hackney Downs shelters. They would bring their sheets and blankets with them and try and settle themselves for the night along the thin wooden seats, which ran along the concrete walls of the narrow shelter. The warning would always come at dusk or shortly after. Then the questing searchlights, which had been moving slowly about the sky, would suddenly begin to swing madly in circles – this was the preliminary warning. A few moments afterwards the sirens would begin their sickening, ululating wail. One heard the stomach-contracting moan from distant sirens first. Then the local sirens would begin to howl, and when they had died away into silence, the plaint would be taken up again further away. The scamper of feet would be heard as people hurried to get themselves and their children to a shelter. The distant explosion of bombs would rumble. Very soon thunderous explosions would be occurring in our own area. Scattered anti-aircraft batteries would roar into life. Shrapnel bursts could be seen like small fireworks against the black sky.
My family became dispersed during these air raids. My parents and my brother and two sisters used to spend the night in the earth covered corrugated iron shelter in the back garden. This was the Government “Anderson” shelter which my father and I had laboured mightily to dig out and erect in the days immediately preceding the outbreak of war. My grandparents, too old to bestir themselves, set an example, later followed by us all, and generally stayed in the house. My uncle used to go to one of London’s many bomb-proof tube stations, where makeshift beds crowded the underground platforms and men, women and children slept an uneasy sleep.
Jimmie and I always went to a particular shelter on Hackney Downs because I knew a young French girl from a colony of Dunkirk refugees who lived in the neighbourhood. I spoke French in the shelter to her as the bombs fell overhead, and Jimmie had a girl friend of his own. Thus the blitz helped Jimmie and me to improve that marvellous 1938 film The Shining Hour. As we became case hardened, we often used to walk through the raids with bombs dropping a few streets away, anti-aircraft gums thundering, and shrapnel exploding like sparkling fireworks above our heads then clattering in the roadway behind us. After one of our friends put his head outside and received a dent in his tin hat from a piece of falling shrapnel, we did take a little more care about this aspect, and made sure the anti-aircraft fire was some distance away before venturing out.
Before the air raids became really serious, I was still going spasmodically to evening classes, where I was studying French and Spanish. My tutor in the latter language was a small, black haired, neatly dressed man with a carefully trimmed black moustache. His name was Senor Gomez Morato, and although he spoke English imperfectly, he had a genius for putting over Spanish. I made rapid strides in the language, due to my good knowledge of French, which was similar, and I was soon able to hold my own in everyday Spanish conversation.