Ch3 pt 4 Destruction gets personal.

Senor Morato’s classes were always closing down, due to lack of pupils and the restraints imposed by the increasingly serious air raids. When this happened, he would tell us with a sad spreading of his hands and hunching of his shoulders. Then he would go on to explain that he was about to open a class at another institute if we would care to attend. So a small band of faithful students followed him all over London, from one institute to another, until eventually the Spanish class collapsed never to reopen. In this way we tried to advance our education but were overtaken by world-shaking events, which wiped our insignificant personal ambitions off the slate for the duration.

To help me with my language studies, I joined the Linguists’ Club, which at that time had its headquarters in the basement of a cafe opposite Baker Street Underground Station. In a long softly lit room, smelling of Turkish cigarette smoke, one found several tables with chairs around them. When the Club was full, a babble of talk filled the place. At each of the tables a different language was spoken, the conversation being led by a person whose mother tongue was that language. No English was permitted, and if one walked the length of the room, one heard German, French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese; in brief, all the major European languages.

My family and I and our immediate circle of acquaintances were on the whole extremely lucky during the air attacks. My memories are of terrific damage done to buildings and installations, and on one or two famous occasions the fires in the city would light up even the east end – not that the east end was short of its complement of fires on occasion – especially in the docks area.

The residential area close to the Burdett Road Fire Station, which itself was close to the docks, suffered major damage. Long stretches of terrace houses were reduced to rubble by aerial bombardment, and I would not care to estimate how many civilians died in these attacks. When a very old house has been destroyed in this way, an unpleasant smell lingers which it is hard to describe. There is the odour of tortured earth, which has not seen the daylight for a hundred years and is now suddenly exposed to it. There is the smell of old timber and plaster suddenly broken apart. There is somehow a lingering smell of the explosives that have caused the damage. And over and beyond this is the uneasy knowledge that people have been killed and maimed in this new silent rubble. And that the odour, which assails the nostrils, is also the odour of violent death.

The serious air raids occurred at night when I had left the fire station and was seeking my own salvation at the shelters on Hackney Downs. However, there was the occasional daylight raid. These diminished as our anti aircraft defences improved. But I clearly remember one afternoon when a hit and run raider dropped a bomb on a motor car a hundred yards along the road from the Fire Station, a piece of shrapnel neatly severing the driver’s head from his shoulders.

I was working on some pay sheets at the time, and a few moments later a passerby was brought into the station with shrapnel wounds in his back. One of our firemen cut away part of his bloodstained jacket with a pair of scissors and gently turned the victim in my direction to do so. I shall never forget his face. He was a tall, thin man, possibly in his early forties, with long, greasy hair combed straight back. His mouth was loosely open, and he kept blinking his eyes with shock, screwing up his heavily lined features as he did so.

On another occasion, we were counting out money in the upstairs office, preparatory to paying out wages, when a sneak raider, taking advantage of cloud, dropped a bomb on a house on the opposite side of the road. The house crumpled, a cloud of smoke rose in the air, and we, our money swept quickly into a bag, were speeding downstairs far faster than our own professional firemen when the bells went down.

On another occasion, my father confronted me suddenly at the Fire Station as I was in the middle of my morning’s work. 

“What’s up, Dad?” 

All sorts of terrible possibilities suggested themselves to my mind, for the whole city was at the mercy of the German Air Force and nobody was safe.

“There’s an unexploded bomb up the street from last night’s raid and we have to clear all our furniture out of the house until they’ve got rid of it.”

So back I went on the tram with my Dad to remove our meagre possessions to a safe spot until the bomb had been defused.

These unexploded bombs were a common occurrence, and gave much work to the unexploded bomb squad whose job it was to get rid of them. When they had been lifted, they would be placed on a truck that would dash screamingly through the streets with everybody getting out of the way for who knew, if the thing had not been properly defused, when it might go off? The destination was Hackney Marshes, that peaceful expanse of green fields where my uncle and I used to go fishing in the River Lea for tiddlers when I was a child, and the local teams used to play football on Sunday mornings. Those wonderful days of peace and innocence were far behind us now. Hackney Marshes were a closed area and many an engine of death, safely removed from the residential quarter, was exploded there by remote control.

The Blitz was about a third of the way through, and our family members were all sleeping together in my grandparents’ bedroom, on the ground floor for safety, when I awoke in the early hours of one morning. It was still dark, and the explosion of the land mine, which had burst just opposite, had been muffled by sleep. However, I heard the tinkling of glass as the windows shattered and felt the small pieces fall on the blanket that I had pulled over my head. Everybody else had awoken also, but our guardian angel had been at work again, and nobody was hurt. The land mine had come down by parachute and burst on a nursery just obliquely down from us, so we had caught the blast only partially. Several weeks before, the far end of Frampton Park Road had been badly bombed and many people had lost their lives. We felt now that we must have had our quota of bombs for the war, but as subsequent events proved, this was not so. A few weeks later, just down in Well Street, where my grandfather had run his butcher’s stall many years before, a concrete-roofed above-ground shelter, proof against anything except a direct hit, received just that, and many people were killed outright.

The landmine explosion reduced our Frampton Park Road house to a state where my parents were forced to move out. They, my brother Harry and my two sisters, Nellie and Dolly, after spending a week at a school which had been turned into a rest centre for bombed out persons, moved into a Council flat near Hackney Downs, in the better class Clapton area. It had taken a war to procure for them reasonable living quarters. However, my grandfather and grandmother insisted on staying in the old house, although the ceiling had fallen in upstairs, and one could see the sky through the gaps in the slates on the roof. My uncle also stayed on, and I spent some evenings at the house and others at my parents’ new flat.

The visits that Jimmie and I paid to the Hackney Downs shelters became less urgent. My French girl had been spirited away by her mother, and although I had met a Spanish refugee called Abilie, from whom I tried to obtain further fluency in the Spanish language, he also had disappeared. Jimmie was trying to give his girl friend the cold shoulder, as she was becoming too possessive. So one evening we stayed away from Hackney Downs. When the usual air raid came on that night, our shelter received a direct hit. When we visited next day, the trench where we used to sit with our friends was a tumble of earth, upturned wooden benches and bloodstained sheets. We never again saw any of the people we knew there, but the news was that many of them had been killed.

Jimmie and I were both young and therefore a little callous and lacking in understanding about the feelings of others. But on this occasion the narrowness of our own escape and the tragedy for those who had been caught up in this dreadful happening were brought very closely home to us. 

My grandfather, who had been rather shaken by the bombing which had come so close to us personally, now began to accompany my uncle to the tube shelter at nights. I remained out for most of the evenings, but returned late to sleep at the house with my grandmother. I did this partly to keep her company, partly because my mother’s natural anxiety for her children during a raid used to set my nerves on edge, and I preferred to be as much as possible by myself.

One evening, several weeks later, my uncle and grandfather went to the shelter as usual. My grandmother remained in what was left of the living room, peering through her wire-rimmed spectacles (which she always bought straight off the counter at Woolworths) at the evening paper. I left to meet Jimmie Abbott, and although the usual evening air attack developed quickly, we followed our habitual custom and left our shelter to take a walk as soon as the main bombardment shifted two or three miles away to another part of the city. We always felt more at ease if we were on the move, provided always that the attack was not in the immediate vicinity and severe. Anyway, we could always take refuge in a street shelter if things got really bad. 

We were walking past the baths in Mare Street, where Jimmy H and Mr B had so often taken us swimming in our schooldays, when we heard the explosion. There was a brilliant flash in the distance, followed by a rumbling roar. We felt the ground shake beneath us and heard the shop windows rattle.

“That was a big one, “remarked Jimmie. “Must have been over Mile End way.”

We walked further along Mare Street until we came to a large furniture store whose basement had been turned into an air raid shelter. Friends of ours slept here, and they told us a lurid tale of the shelter doors being forced open by the blast from the explosion we had heard, and of a man standing at the top had nearly been blown down the stairs. We took the tale with a pinch of salt, because there were no traces of blast outside. Nevertheless, the explosion must have been nearer than we had thought. We agreed that it had probably been caused by one of those land mines that the Jerries were dropping by parachute at that time, and shortly afterwards parted company for the night.

As I walked along Frampton Park Road to the section of the street where our house stood, I began to notice signs of damage. This became progressively worse the nearer I got to home. First, the panes had been blown out of windows, and glass littered the street. Then the sightless window frames themselves had been ripped out and flung into the street by blast suction. The crunching debris underfoot became greater, and with a dagger of fear I suddenly realised that the land mine whose explosion Jimmie and I had heard had dropped directly opposite our house, more or less in the same spot as the one that had damaged it previously. I stumbled across the brick-strewn road. The heavy door of our house had been blown in and lay splintered in the passage. The passage itself was filled with bricks, dust and spars of wood over which I tripped as I forced my way to the living room. The living room door hung askew and the interior was a shambles. The ceiling had fallen in, a beam of wood lay against one torn wall, and the place was scattered with broken ornaments, upturned chairs and hanging laths.

Hurriedly I struck matches. There was nobody downstairs. Nobody either on the dusty, ruined, nasty-smelling upper floor where we had once lived. The air raid wardens must have taken my grandmother out.

CH 3 p 3. Youth in The Blitz

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.