But what had happened to her? How should I find out? I cursed myself for not having stayed at home. But then I, too, would have been involved in this explosion. I stumbled into the street and accosted a man in a black tin hat with the letter “W” printed on it in white.
“Warden, excuse me. My grandmother was in that house when the land mine fell. Can you tell me where she’s likely to be?”
He scratched his head. “They’ve taken a lot of casualties to the synagogue in Devonshire Road. You might find her there. They’ve turned the basement into an air raid shelter.”
I knew the place – about a quarter of a mile up the street and a hundred yards along a crossroad. I murmured hurried thanks and set off at a run.
The synagogue basement was reached by a flight of stone steps and was filled with double-tiered wooden bunks on which fully dressed men and women of all ages lay in uncomfortable positions. Here was a sunken-faced man in a blue suit and green polka-dotted muffler. His grey cloth cap had slipped back from his head as he slept, revealing thinning black hair, and a faint snore came from his partially open mouth. Opposite him lay a fat, red-faced woman in a white cotton overall, her long, once golden hair awry.
I saw my grandmother at once. She was propping herself up on a low bunk quite near the entrance, vomiting into a bucket.
“Jim.” She put a weak hand on my arm. Tears came to her eyes as she looked into my face, and the stink of vomit rose from the bucket to my nostrils.
“Jim, I’m so glad you’ve come, dear. I was sitting in the living room when the bomb fell.” She started to sob quietly. “A piece of wood hit me on the shoulder. I got into a corner. The warden took me into the street. I didn’t know where I was. I was screaming for water. Water. I didn’t know what I was saying. I must have been hysterical. Now I’m sick. I can’t stop being sick.”
Her voice was thin and weak. Her grey hair was disarranged. I put my arm around her trembling shoulders and suddenly realised how frail and thin she had become.
My poor old grandmother. Her life had been so hard, and now it had come to this. I cursed the airmen who had dropped that landmine. If I had had them before me, I would have taught the bastards how to make war. The swine. What a murderous lot they all were. I prayed savagely that they should rot in hell.
“Try and get some sleep now, Gran,” I said, “The raid’s over. Everything will be all right. Tomorrow I’ll get the morning off from work and take you to Mum’s flat up at Clapton.”
Up Clapton way, near Hackney Downs, two persons who always used to cheer up Jimmie and me during those air raid nights were Jack and Fred, who ran a coffee stall a few streets away from the shelters. Jack was a portly, bald headed man with the Pip, Squeak and Wilfred medal ribbons of the 1914-18 War pinned across his white apron. Fred, his partner, was tall and black haired. He was middle aged like Jack, and wore thick-lensed spectacles. However fierce the attack, either Jack or Fred would be behind the counter of the dimly lit and heavily shaded coffee stall, an urn of hot tea on the cheerful coke stove.
“What’ll you have, bonny?” Jack would ask, briskly.
“Tea and a hot dog, please, Jack.”
“With or without, bonny?”
This meant with or without mustard.
Jack would seize a sausage from the oven beside the stove and hold it up for inspection. “There’s the dog, nice and hot.”
He would slit it in two with a flash of his knife, giving a little squeak as he did.
“Blimey, listen to the bastard yelp. Shut up, you bugger.”
His bald head shining in the lamp light, Jack would bend, rapidly slosh mustard on the open sausage, and snapping it between the two halves of a split roll, offer this culinary masterpiece to his customer. Jack, despite his bulk, did everything quickly. Fred, the dark, thin man, was slow but sure. Suddenly one might have heard the thundering reverberation of anti-aircraft batteries from a close-at-hand gun site. Fred’s hand would not falter as he carefully poured out a cup of tea.
“One of ours, matey. Take no notice. Take no notice.” Fred was always telling people to take no notice.
One evening Jimmie and I were walking along the main road, away from the coffee stall, and towards the block of flats into which my parents had recently moved. We were carrying out our favourite pastime of chatting up a couple of girls whom we had met about five minutes previously. Suddenly there was a screech, then a flash and an explosion some two hundred yards ahead. We stopped our nerves taut. Almost without thinking we pushed the girls to the ground and fell on top of them. I had a split second to think how it is a primeval instinct to protect the female. Then almost immediately there was another flash behind the public house on the other side of the road, followed by an explosion that nearly deafened us. We had not heard the whistle of this second bomb, indicating that the wretched thing had come uncomfortably close to dropping on top of us. But we certainly felt the blast. It gave us the impression of an immense wave of ice cold needles overwhelming us, bearing us back, and penetrating every pore of our skins. A third bomb whistled down and exploded behind us, somewhere in the neighbourhood of Jack’s coffee stall. A stray raider had apparently seen the tram lines along the road and had dropped a stick of three bombs on that bearing.
We picked our way across the road, which had suddenly become littered with glass, ripped off window shutters, slates and other debris. Part of the floor of the pub had given way, and some of the customers had evidently fallen into the cellar. After initial efforts to help, it became clear that the situation was well in hand, so we returned quickly across the road to our two girls who were standing like lost sheep, close to tears. We escorted them very quickly home, then returned to the coffee stall, wondering whether Jack and Fred had copped the number three bomb.
The coffee stall was still there. The third bomb had fallen some fifty yards away on a house that had formerly been used as a lunatic asylum. Very appropriate. War is a game for lunatics anyway.
“Hallo,” Jack greeted us, his shiny head bobbing. “What’ll you have bonny?”
“Two teas and two hot dogs, please, Jack. That was a close one, wasn’t it?”
“Pretty close, bonny, pretty close.”
“Take no notice”, said Fred, slowly pouring out the tea. “Take no notice.”
“That’s right, bonny”, grinned Jack. “Take no notice.”
He deftly slit up a sausage, giving a little squeak as he did so. “Coo, ‘ark at ‘im ‘owling. What a noisy bugger. Shut up, you sod.”
After the blitz, Jack and Fred chalked a notice on their coffee stall: “WE NEVER CLOSED.“ I hereby testify that they never did. I also testify that they were a couple of heroes. I know that in those difficult days their unfailing courage set me and, I am sure, many others a fine example. They helped us to carry on when we felt that our nerves had had about as much as they could stand.
At the Burdett Road Fire Station, work shook down to a regular routine. A few of our men were killed fighting fires during the air raids. The rest of us somehow survived with broken sleep and many near escapes. However, it became obvious that to bomb an enemy civilian population into submission was a most difficult task, something proven by allied attacks on German cities in the later stages of the war. These attacks were often heavier and more prolonged than those on London. But the civilian populations held firm.
In the early days I sometimes saw the smoke trails of fighting aircraft above London and heard the chatter of machine gums as I went to work in the morning. On a couple of occasions German fighter formations flew across London in daylight apparently unhindered. But as our aircraft and pilots became organised and as our anti aircraft defences were strengthened, the German attackers no longer had it their own way. The British Spitfires flown mostly by Englishmen, but with help from Australians, New Zealanders and Canadians succeeded in breaking the German air force. Every day the papers gave us news of the number of enemy aircraft destroyed and, if memory serves me correctly, the maximum number was four hundred shot down in one day. Memory may have played me false, or perhaps the figures were wildly doctored at the time. Some years after writing this account I read that on September 15th 1940 the maximum number of enemy aircraft claimed in one day occurred. The number claimed was 185 German aircraft shot down on this single day. No doubt these figures were doctored for propaganda purposes. But it remained equally true that the enemy was taking a punishing that he could not withstand indefinitely. Our newly invented radar helped us to scramble our fighters at the right spot to stop the attacks, but I was unaware of this at the time.
“Never,” said Churchill in one of his marvellous histrionic performances that helped to hold us together at this period, “have so many owed so much to so few.”
Thus the enemy stepped up the nighttime blitz on London, and from time to time set the city ablaze in a most frightful fashion. Casualties were very numerous. At Bethnal Green Tube Station in the east end, near Parmiter’s Foundation School where I finished my education and near the York Hall Baths where I sometimes went swimming as a kid, there was a terrible tragedy. A bomb exploded near the entrance to the tube. Hundreds of people rushed down the steps leading underground. Scores stumbled, fell, and were trampled to death by the stampeding mob.
At the junction of Threadneedle Street, Old Jewry and Victoria Street, in the heart of the City of London, a subway went under the busy intersection to permit pedestrians to cross from one street to another. This subway was used as an air raid shelter, but sustained a direct hit one evening. Over a hundred people were killed outright. In the whole of my subsequent life I have never once walked past the Bank of England in Threadneedle Street without giving thought to that tragedy.
On another occasion bombs fell all around Saint Paul’s Cathedral destroying every adjoining building for hundreds of yards, but leaving Christopher Wren’s masterpiece intact. Just down the road, Ludgate Circus, which stands half way between St. Paul’s and Fleet Street, “the street of ink” where all the major newspapers had their offices, was very badly knocked about. But amazingly the memorial plaque to Edgar Wallace, the journalist and writer, which I had admired so often when I was roaming these streets as a youngster on my old bike, was left unharmed. As a man something more than middle aged I still raise my hat to that plaque whenever I travel overseas from Australia to London.
That was the night, incidentally, when I stood at the junction of Well Street and Mare Street, in the east end, about a quarter of a mile from Frampton Park Road where I was born, and a couple of hundred yards from London Fields where my mother was born. The petrol buses, which normally went to Fleet Street and The Strand by way of the Bank of England, were parked in a long line, and their crews talked quietly to each other. The thunder of explosions came from the west end, some miles away. The city was ablaze, and the light from the west end was so intense that you could actually read a paper by it in Mare Street in the east end. The buses had stopped because to travel to the west end was not only dangerous, but suicidal.
The blitz on London finally began to slacken. At work I was transferred from the Burdett Road Fire Station to a substation at Homerton – an evacuated school just opposite Hackney Hospital where my grandfather was to pass on several months later. Subsequently we shifted to the main fire station in Homerton High Street, a couple of miles down from the flat at Clapton where my parents now lived and about a mile in the opposite direction from Hackney Marshes. Just up the road was Hackney Churchyard and the old elementary school where I had gained my basic education. I was certainly on my home ground.