Ch9 Pt2 On the Ranchi to Suez

In the past the authorities at Australia House, despite a pile of correspondence and repeated interviews, had always regretted that they could do little to help us. Now they made up for all their previous dilatoriness. Medical examinations and an interview with a selection committee followed each other rapidly. Finally, four months after Oll’s nomination, on my twenty-seventh birthday, we received a telegram from Australia House saying that we were due to sail within the week. 

Hurried goodbyes were said. It was impossible to visit all our friends and relatives. I resigned from the London County Council and got my severance pay. In twenty four hours, Irene sold all the furniture and other articles in our flat which we had saved every penny to buy. We made arrangements for a carrier to take charge of a large trunk containing all the personal belongings we wanted to take to Australia. Getting that trunk down four flights of narrow, twisting, old-fashioned stairs was a back-breaking job.

One late morning in May, we said goodbye to my father who had come to see us off at St. Pancras Station. We had taken leave of my own mother and Irene’s mother previously. Neither had wanted to come to the station for fear of becoming upset.

Even in 1949, if one went to Australia, one did not come back for a long time. The airfare was beyond the capacity of the ordinary working man, and the duration of the trip was such that most people could only afford to make it once or twice in a lifetime. In a way it was, to most English people, still a sort of transportation sentence.

We were never to see my mother again. We saw Irene’s mother once more. I was privileged, however, to enjoy four protracted visits with my father, some in Australia, some in England, before he eventually passed away.

Our train had been specially laid on for migrants bound for Australia, and we thus had a sense of common destiny, and of leaving the land of our birth quite possibly forever. We piled out of the train at Tilbury, on the Thames Estuary. The railway terminus was very close to the dockside. We had barely time to touch the English earth of the quay in valediction before we found ourselves walking up the gangplank and aboard the P and O liner Ranchi.

We were ten people to a large cabin, males in one cabin, females in another, of course. It was certainly not a luxury cruise, but compared with what we had known in the army, and considering the fact that the journey was free of cost, neither Irene nor I had any complaints at all. We thought that it was a very fair thing. When our bags were stacked, we went up on deck. My thoughts were mixed as I looked at the broadening estuary as it merged with the sea. We were taking our last look for many years – perhaps for always at the “Old Dart” – England – the country which had moulded me, the country which had confined me, my parents and my grandparents to the “lower orders” of society. Yet it was also the country that had offered Irene and her mother, and many other thousands of refugees, protection from a tyrannical Nazi regime. It was ironic that tolerant, kindly England, which had given life to so many of the downtrodden, had at the same time forced so many of her sons and daughters to seek a better life elsewhere. As I leant on the paint encrusted rail of the SS Ranchi, looking at the cranes on the murky wharf side, the waving groups of well-wishers, and the squat sheds became silhouetted against a lowering sky. I reflected how strange it was that a worldwide English speaking brotherhood had evolved, very largely as a result of an enormous emigration from this tiny island.

The voyage of the Ranchi was uneventful. From Tilbury docks we made a straight run for Port Said. One afternoon ten days later, we drew slowly towards the indistinct outlines of the ships and buildings of this gateway to the east. An hour later we were steaming slowly into the actual harbour.

As we drifted past the big ocean-going ships, the palm trees, the buildings with their signs in Arabic and English, a mosque-like edifice which appeared to be a hotel, and the yellow cement police station, we were surrounded by rowing boats filled with merchandise. Below us swam a brilliant array of multi-coloured handbags, pouffes and tapestry work. As the oarsmen of the little cockleshell bumboats pulled frantically to keep abreast of us, vendors stood upright and shouted hoarsely while waving brightly coloured wallets with extravagant designs of the Pyramids, camels and palm trees on them. Strings of beads, green unripe bananas, peanuts and wide brimmed straw hats were offered. As we slid to a standstill and ropes secured us to the wharf, strings with bags attached to them were thrown up to us with remarkable accuracy, money passed downwards, and Egyptian curios upwards.

A fussy little launch chugged around, flying a flag with a white crescent moon and a star on a green background. White uniformed policemen stood at its sides, with fezzes and rifles. Some of them finally climbed aboard our ship. “Watchmen” were there too, in European clothes, to see that fair trade was carried out between the passengers and the Arab salesmen below.

Egypt is a country of mixed races – African, Arab, Greek, Italian and Turk mingle here. Some of the vendors and policemen have white skins, others dark, and there are all manner of shades in between. All this I have seen before, but I got the same thrill as when I first steamed into Port Said with a boatload of troops one black and silent night in 1946. As for Irene, she was as excited as I had ever seen her, dashing here and there and talking to everybody in Arabic.

I noticed particularly that the vendors took great care to exorcise the more colourful flights of English from their conversation. No doubt one converses with tourists, (which they undoubtedly thought we were), on a slightly higher plane than with the rough and licentious soldiery. However, they exercised their usual technique of asking three times as much for an article as it was really worth, and then allowing themselves to be beaten down. Irene bought a wide brimmed straw hat for four shillings when twelve and sixpence had been originally asked. I got a piece of tapestry work depicting mosques, minarets, camels and Bedouin for Alma P, wife of our sponsor in Australia. The price asked originally was three pounds fifteen shillings, but we got it for one pound five shillings and six cigarettes. We had still probably been swindled. But bargaining is fun.

Night falls at last. The dirty waters of Port Said twinkle and shimmer in the glare of the wharfside lights, just as they must have done every night since my last visit there; just as they would do for interminable nights into the future. Astern of us, dancing on the skyline, are the winking lights of the city’s night spots. A few vendors still row around hopefully below us, with lanterns illuminating the wares in their little boats.  

The big, black water barges pull away, and the floating pipe, which has been pouring oil into the Ranchi from ashore, is withdrawn. We are due to sail at half past ten and for the greater part of the night we shall be creeping through the Suez Canal.

At exactly ten thirty a police launch comes alongside, and a Suez Canal official climbs aboard. His business does not occupy him very long. He leaves. The gangplank is hauled up by a team of Indian seamen, and we begin to crawl through the Suez Canal. The sandy banks are walled up to a few feet above water level so that they will not cave in. The scenery is mostly barren – sand – the odd clump of palm trees – occasional bare military encampments. At night, every ship passing along the Canal switches on a powerful searchlight in its bows, and the murky waters, with their navigable depths marked by buoys, are lit up for many yards ahead. During the day the waters of the Suez Canal are green, and seem faintly stagnant. Often clouds of mud appear in the ship’s wake as it slides cautiously along. According to the charts, the average depth of the Canal is between 35 and 40 feet.

The Suez Canal was opened in 1869, and is 87½ miles in length. Of this 66½ miles is actual canal, and the rest of the distance is made up of channels dredged through Lake Timsah, and the Great and Little Bitter Lakes. Traffic is controlled by thirteen signal stations alongside the Canal. We passed through the greater part of the Canal at night, but in the morning crept slowly through Lake Timsah and were able to see the township of Ismailia, looking strikingly green and prosperous against the barren yellow landscape. This town was to be badly shelled in one of the later Israeli-Egyptian conflicts. We saw also big, dirty dredges, with their equally dirty crews. Approaching Suez we passed a massive war memorial erected on a hillock of sandstone, and bearing the legend: “Défense de Suez 1914-1918.”

It was on the day that we passed through the Suez Canal that our stewards appeared in all-white uniforms. The head steward, with his black and gold epaulettes, looked like some South American admiral.

In the late afternoon we came to the end of the monotonous Suez Canal. During the last stretch, between the Bitter Lakes and the Gulf, we came across bomb craters by the side of the Canal, and the twisted and torn hulls of ships which had been sunk during the Second World War and hoisted out of the water on to the sandy bank. Suddenly, there was Suez on our right: white houses, palm trees, macadamised roads, square harbour, and an Egyptian ship lying at anchor and letting off vociferous steam. A busy tug approached, our pilot climbed down the side of our ship and stepped into it. The tug veered away, and suddenly the Ranchi’s engines thundered and we started to put on speed.

That night we steamed at full tilt down the Gulf of Suez, while behind us the waters tumbled and foamed madly. Earlier in the evening, while the light lasted, barren rocky desert had been visible on either side. Now it was pitch black and we were really pounding along. A following wind, created the effect on deck that the air was still, and it was very warm. The smoke from the Ranchi’s huge black funnel poured straight up into the sky, and the night was glorious with stars.

Ch9 Pt1 Sponsorship to Australia

“They’ve published it,” said Irena. 

She held out a short typewritten note to me.

Dear Sir,

Your letter to The Editor was published in ‘The Sun’ today, and we have pleasure in enclosing a cutting.

                “Yours faithfully ………..”

It was signed by The Associate Editor of the Sydney Sun.

“Well,” I said, “let’s hope it will help us to get on our way to Australia.”

Irene and I were in the small upstairs flat near Notting Hill Gate that we had been lucky enough to rent after our marriage early in 1947. The letter, which had just reached us after journeying half way across the world from Sydney to London, was the result of our latest effort to obtain a sponsor to bring us to Australia.

We had decided many months ago that our future lay in Australia. The idea of migrating had been at the back of my own mind for a long time. After the war it was resurrected by the publicity given to the country by its “Food Parcels for Britain” scheme. The Australian Government also initiated a drive for British migrants. The problem was to obtain berths on the limited number of overcrowded ships.

During the war in Britain we had seen quite a few Australian airmen who were regularly engaged on bombing raids over Germany. Also one saw occasional Australian sailors. I do not recall ever meeting any Australian soldiers. After their stint in the Middle East the Australian Prime Minister of the time, John Curtin, had withdrawn them to Australia to fight the Japanese in New Guinea. This was after a ferocious but well-concealed row with the British Prime Minister Churchill who thought that Australia was expendable, and could be liberated from the Japanese after the defeat of the Germans in Europe and North Africa.

Irene had known a few Australians in Cairo. They were rather notorious for misbehaving themselves and taking bars and bistros apart. She said that basically they were lonely and frustrated, and weren’t really bad at heart.

The Agents General for all the Australian States were in the west end of London, and most of them in The Strand. Thus I could walk across Waterloo Bridge from the Headquarters of the London County Council where I worked and read the Australian newspapers, which were always on display during the lunch hour. I did this for two years so that when the time eventually came for us to go, I felt that I knew as much about modern Australia as I did about England, and when we got there, I would not be a stranger. I also read as many books on Australia and Australian history as I could find in the library with the object of making mental preparation for the future.

Irene was not happy with the London climate after the openness and sunshine of the Middle East. The dirty streets oppressed her and the cold winter chilled her to the bone. Moreover, she viewed with alarm the renewed activities of Sir Oswald Mosley’s fascist hooligans, and wondered how many of her friends who thought she was German would still have been her friends had they known that she was not only German but Jewish. Remember that the clap-trap mouthed by these young fascist thugs who openly began to hold meetings in London was identical with Hitler’s ravings which had encompassed the death of most of Irene’s family little more than three years previously.

Sir Oswald Mosley, by the way, who addressed fascist meetings in the east end, dressed in jackboots and black riding breeches and shirt in pre-war years, had been interned during the war. It was always a mystery to me why the authorities did not shoot him. Instead, with that tolerance for which Britain was at one time famous, they let him loose again.

If these things made Irene begin to doubt the wisdom of continuing to reside in London, I saw the city as a huge stone and concrete prison. A kind of claustrophobia gripped me when I walked its dusty streets, devoid for miles of a single blade of healthy green grass.

The general economic situation at this time was also most depressing, and a sense of urgency began to prick at my mind. I was in my late twenties, beginning to look towards thirty, and I had achieved nothing, neither did I seem to have any prospects. Apart from these things, however, there was another even more important matter thrusting me towards pulling up stakes and starting afresh. Quite simply, I had a quite dreadful personal vision of the England of the future.

I saw the rich getting continuously richer and the poor getting poorer. I saw a country with decreasing access to raw materials and a need to rely increasingly on superior technology to import food and resources necessary for its survival. But who could guarantee that with increasing competition, English manufacturing excellence would continue to be triumphant? Beyond this, the tight little island was grossly overcrowded. Furthermore, the nation had always been riven by class distinction and had never been a true meritocracy with equal opportunity. I saw this inequality and class distinction tearing England apart.

I did not foresee racial strife, because West Indian and Commonwealth immigration had barely begun. What I did see, however, was the spectre of nuclear war.

Already we had been almost brought into conflict with our recent allies, the Russians, over the Berlin question – where that city had been divided into four segments under British, American, French, and Russian control.

There was no way in the world that I would have joined up again to fight the Russians, and I am sure that a very large number of ex-servicemen at that time would have been of the same mind. But it was crystal clear that Russia was to become the next enemy. Nuclear bombs had won the war against Japan, with what terrible effect everybody knew. How long would it be until the Russians mastered the technology and laid waste to England?

These, then, were our reasons for wanting to get to Australia. We were held up because of lack of shipping following the war. The Jumbo aircraft of the modern era had not yet been developed, and all travel to the Antipodes was by ship. The Australian Government, in its drive for migrants, was offering free passage to ex-service personnel. But in order not to prejudice the housing situation in Australia, which was very restricted after five years of war in which little building had been permitted, it was necessary for each migrant who was not a skilled tradesman to have a sponsor. This individual would guarantee board and lodging for six months in Australia. Irene and I had no known relatives in Australia, neither had we discovered any friends who had contacts. Therefore, to accelerate processing of our immigration application we had to find a sponsor. This was the reason for my letter to the Sydney Sun. The letter read as follows:

           Waiting, Hoping ……..

                My wife and I first decided to migrate in 1946, and long before the present ‘free and assisted passages’ scheme came into operation, we were investigating at Australia House here in London, generally gleaning all the information about it that we could.

                There are now about 750,000 applicants for free and assisted passages registered with the authorities – and the list is getting longer every day. So it would seem that if government-assisted migrants eventually leave at the rate of 50,000 a year, a wait of “some years” for those without priority such as my wife and myself may mean 15 years!

                In desperation my wife and I booked private passages with the P and O Line. We should be broke when we reached Australia, but at least we should get there while still young enough to feel ourselves part of the country.

                We were told at the time that we would have to wait 18 months for a berth. Today, more than a year afterwards, we are informed that the shipping position has worsened, and that a wait of three years is envisaged before tourist berths become available.

                When such difficulties and delays are put in one’s way, one feels at times like accepting the fact that one is beaten. Only at times, however, because we intend to come to your country no matter how long it takes, and to settle there.

                I wonder, nevertheless, if there is any reader of your newspaper who would care to nominate a would-be immigrant and his wife — both ex-service, and not afraid to work and learn? 

                When we get settled in Australia, we know at least one family whom we in turn shall nominate.”

About a fortnight after receipt of notification of publication of this letter, we received a further letter from a Mr P, of Campsie, Sydney, New South Wales. Mr P informed us that his parents, to his everlasting regret, had christened him Oliver, and begged us to call him “Oll” for short. He also told us that he would nominate us for a free passage if we received no other offers of help. As it turned out, we did not receive any other offers. Thus, a few weeks later Oll, true to his word, and despite the fact that he and his wife had five children, and his own house was, if anything, overcrowded, had nominated us.

Oll was employed at the GPO in Martin Place (now Martin Plaza), in Sydney. He was an upright, honest, hard working Australian gentleman, who took a chance on a couple of complete strangers. I added him and his wife Alma to my very special list of people whom I regarded it as a privilege to have known.

Ch8 Pt4 Jugend Aliyah, the kibbutz, and the ATS.

Irena was transferred in 1939 to the newly founded settlement of Beit Ha’aravah – “The House in the Desert” — on the shores of the Dead Sea. The only other outpost of civilisation in this wilderness where the Bedouin roamed was the Potash Company premises. The sandy desert road from Jerusalem led past the Potash Company for two or three miles to the newly established kibbutz of Beit Ha’aravah. Here, in the hottest part of the Middle East, in a landscape of unbelievable aridity and unrelieved mournfulness, young men and young women were attempting to work valuable potash deposits and establish agriculture.

There were no longterm buildings at the kibbutz as there had been at Ashtoth Yakov. Here everybody lived in tents and permanent huts were a long way off, for each kibbutz was charged to become self-supporting in the quickest time possible. The interiors of the tents at Beit Ha’aravah were carefully looked after by the kibbutzniks and soon, with floorboards, home made cupboards, chests of drawers, all sorts of decorations, and partitions in the larger tents, they began to resemble real homes inside. To the outside eye they were nothing but huddles of canvass. 

Everything was done on a communal basis. The work was hard and mostly manual. There was little attention paid to the segregation of the sexes. Clean clothes were drawn from the communal laundry once a week. If they fitted, that was good. If they didn’t fit, one made do as best one could. The single object of the kibbutz at this time was survival. Night attacks by hostile Arabs were frequent. As little reliance could be placed on the Palestine Police, who would normally always have arrived too late to prevent a massacre, the “pioneers”, after a day of back-breaking toil, stood guard around their settlement. Irena took her turn on these guard duties, her rifle held tensely, her ears alert for the slightest sound, eyes strained for the tiniest movement. 

At first the kibbutz could not afford a watchtower and searchlight. Therefore exchanges with marauding Arabs often became a hit and miss explosion of rifles into the surrounding darkness. Despite the apparently disorganised nature of these encounters, the kibbutzniks sustained fatalities and casualties from wounds. This was the common pattern amongst kibbutzim all over Palestine at this time as rifles crackled at night and searchlights installed in the watchtowers quested around in the darkness for advancing Arabs.

Death at other times came unannounced, and with frightening suddenness. One day Irena was fishing in the River Jordan with a sixteen years old youth who was well known for his habit of whistling Strauss waltzes. They knew each other well, for they had escaped from Germany on the same refugee train. Suddenly a shot was fired from the bushes on the opposite bank and Irena’s companion fell dead. Terrified, she ran all the way back to the kibbutz, zigzagging in case the unseen assassin should draw a bead on her.

At night the closest guard of all was maintained around the crèche where the babies slept. For these Israeli-born “Sabras” were the country’s most valuable immigrants. Palestine – or preferably Israel – would be their country and their home. The ancient Hebrew speech, the language in which the Bible was written, would be their native tongue. Knowing nothing of anti-Semitism these young Jews – from the blue eyed blonds of northern Europe to the brown eyed olive skinned people of the Yemen – would face the world completely confident of themselves, unashamed of either their religion or their origin, bowing their heads to nobody.

On the outbreak of war in 1939, all the kibbutzim called for volunteers to join the army and fight against the Axis powers. The response was enthusiastic and many thousands of young men and women flocked to join the British forces. Irena was still too young to volunteer, and stayed at her kibbutz. However, towards the end of 1942 she could no longer put up with the long hours of labour, the continual denial of self, the lack of personal possessions extending even to the clothes which one wore and exchanged at the communal laundry every week. She had worked for no wages for over four years to advance agriculture in the Jewish homeland. Four years’ unpaid labour was enough! 

Here, in 1943, some months prior to her twenty first birthday, she volunteered for the British Army and became a member of the Auxiliary Territorial Service — ATS for short. In her army paybook her nationality was noted as “Russian”, the reasoning being that if by some mischance Hitler won the war, or Rommel with his Afrika Korps panzer divisions swept through from Egypt to Palestine, any person in the British Army shown as a German national would immediately be shot for treason. With most of her family exterminated in concentration camps by the Nazis, there was no way Irena felt she was committing treason. Rather she was pleased to be of help in paying back in their own coin those responsible for the cold blooded murder of countless innocents whose only crime was that their ancestors had professed the wrong religion.

She signed up at Sarafand Cantonnement, where she underwent a short period of training. She was then sent to Egypt, where she worked in a munitions dump at Tura, an Arab village just outside Cairo. Subsequently she served briefly in Italy, then in Egypt and Palestine as an interpreter.

During the war she had learnt that her mother Berta had escaped to England and remarried, a London furrier. In 1945 Irena was allowed to take 28 days’ leave in England on compassionate grounds, for she had not seen her mother for eight years. Berta’s new husband pulled as many strings as he could when Irena arrived, and she was demobilised in London, once again on compassionate grounds.

I met Irena at her bed-sitter in North West London about a year after this happened. 

CH6 Pt1 Recovery then Egypt via France.

After spending six weeks at an American transit camp in the small town of Weissenfels, I was flown, cooped up in an uncomfortable aircraft, to London. I had weighed a little under eight stone when the Americans had liberated us. However, they were most hospitable and kind, and fed us well. I looked quite healthy again when I got back home.

I had only been in England for a few short days when I was sent on indefinite leave. But either my friends were in the services or they had grown away from me. Also I was experiencing that peculiar, disheartening feeling which soldiers have when the war seems to be suddenly over, but they have not yet been returned to civvy street. It is a time of frustration when the excitement of ever-present danger has disappeared. Yet it is also a time of self-doubt and fear of one’s ability to cope with the problems of civilian life.

However, there was still a war on in the Far East. Germany and her European allies were beaten, but perhaps I could rejoin the First Airborne Division, who had been sent to Malaya in preparation for the onslaught on the Japanese islands. I wrote to the OC First Airborne Div Signals asking to be taken back on the strength. I later heard that some of my old mates had had the letter read to them. However, there was no way anybody was going to make a special effort to fly me out to Malaya. But, of course, I did not know that at the time.

The crowded streets and dirty buildings of London were becoming intolerable to me. I had a feeling close to claustrophobia. I tried to get myself recalled from leave so that I could resume my service with the army.

I now had the utmost difficulty in getting myself recalled from leave. The army had successfully disposed of me and no longer wanted to acknowledge my existence. But eventually I succeeded, only to find myself sent to a rehabilitation camp for ex prisoners of war. Here army instructors insisted on teaching me all over again how to fire a three-0-three rifle, despite the fact that I had been firing rifles for the past four years. I also learnt anew how to stand to attention, stand at ease, dress by the right, and most importantly, how to “salute the officer.” (Longest way up, shortest way down, fingers together, at the correct angle, almost touching the base of the forage cap). I suffered this very important training for several weeks. Then began a series of shifts from one camp to another during which my chief duty was to peel potatoes.

It was at one of these camps, on the racecourse at the Yorkshire town of Thirsk, that we learnt one day that following the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki the Japanese had capitulated and World War Two was finally over. I am quite sure that we all realised that an era in the history of mankind had finished and that a new and vastly more dangerous one had begun.

By now the pointless fashion in which I had been sent hither and thither had thoroughly annoyed me. Demobilisation was to be extended to avoid a glut of ex-soldiers on the labour market and consequent industrial problems. The fact that I had a job to go back to at the London County Council made no difference. I had at least another year to serve in the army. I therefore resolved to spend it abroad at the army’s expense.

Eventually, after making a nuisance of myself to everybody, I reached a drafting camp outside Newcastle on Tyne. No sooner had I arrived, however, than they stopped sending men to the far-east, and I found myself on a draft to Germany instead. At that time Germany was the one country I did not wish to revisit. My sojourn there as a prisoner had been too recent, and my memories were still bitter. After a prolonged interview with the OC of the camp and frantic negotiations with a comrade to take my place, I finally got myself on a list for a posting somewhere further east.

The war with Japan had been over for a number of months now, and rumours began to circulate that the camp was going to close down. Finally a special order came through that all ex-prisoners of war were to be sent on special Christmas leave, and I journeyed south to London, although I would far sooner have stayed behind.

I came back in time to discover that a further draft – probably the last – was being collected. I was friendly with the sergeant clerk in the company office and with the Company Sergeant Major, and thanks to their influence I was included in this batch of young men who were being sent through France across the Mediterranean to Egypt. They made me a corporal at this stage, as one of the more case-hardened old sweats in this young band of hopefuls. It was the dizziest promotion that I ever obtained in the British army. I was reduced to the ranks some six months later, as I shall relate in due course.

We gathered together on the parade ground one evening, kit-laden and sweating, and journeyed in trucks to the railway station. We spent the following night at a camp outside the twisty-streeted port of Newhaven, and early next morning boarded the sturdy little cross-channel ferry “Isle of Thanet”.

We remained half an hour below deck, awkward and clumsy with our kit bags, valises and life-jackets. Then the motors began to pound, and we set our bows seawards. I climbed on deck, and behind us saw a foaming white wake losing itself in the grey, choppy sea. The chalky cliffs of England, already indistinct, were sinking into the waters of the Channel. Every time that the bows of our ship cut the greyish-blue waves, every time that a little hillock of salt water drenched the deck, the droplets being carried right away to the stern by the cold wind, we were nearer to France.

France! I seemed to have spent half my short life learning her beautiful language. I had also known many of her people. And I had heard many heartbreaking stories of their exile. Yet how many dramas, about which I had never heard, had played themselves out in France during the four years of German occupation! Well, in a few hours we should be treading French soil.

Mack, from Glasgow, one of my new friends, leans over the rail, gazing back towards England. His wife had fallen pregnant to an American soldier. Mack loved her dearly, but had never been able to forgive this infidelity, and they had drifted apart. The memory of her tortured his mind. His reason for volunteering for the draft was to try to forget.

Mack waves sarcastically towards the disappearing shore.

“Bye-bye England. And a soldier’s farewell to everyone, you shower of rotten bastards.” 

I find there the echo of my own thoughts.

Towards midday we drew alongside the silent quay of the little port of Dieppe. This is where the Canadians made their abortive and costly landing in 1942, a rehearsal for the real invasion, which was to come much later. Chains rattled, a narrow gangplank was thrown out and secured by two French seamen in blue caps and jerseys. Then we disembarked and found ourselves in France, a little lost, heavy packs on our backs, and rifles to lean on. Presently some children approached uncertainly, like street mongrels, not sure whether they are going to be welcomed or chased away with kicks. The soldiers dig into their pockets, into their packs and into their gas mask cases, producing sandwiches, which they offer to the children. For the aftermath of war is still with us, the economy of Europe is broken, and food and shelter are at a premium. Chocolate, coffee and cigarettes are the international currency with which one can buy anything.

Some of our soldiers address the children in English, some murder French in the way that only Englishmen can, but communication is established with these hesitant, frightened youngsters. Clearly they see only armed soldiers and do not know what to expect. A kiddy of six or seven years is standing a few yards away from me, his eyes wide, a finger playing with his lower lip. I search in the pockets of my great coat.

“Come on, then. I’ve got something for you to eat.”

Something to eat! His eyes light up. He takes a few hesitant steps. But he is reluctant to come any further.

“Viens ici, mon petit. Don’t be afraid.” 

He comes a little nearer, never taking his eyes off me. During all his childhood his parents must have told him to avoid German troops who have been notorious for picking French people off the streets and sending them straight to forced labour in Germany, or for taking hostages in reprisal for the killing of German soldiers, standing them up against a wall, and shooting them out of hand. In his young mind, all soldiers must be suspect.

The child comes a little nearer, never taking his eyes off me. I have found a bar of chocolate and hold it out to him.

“Du chocolat. Tu le veux? Here, take it.”

We hold our breath, both of us. He is only a couple of feet away from me, but clearly he is scared. But he is tempted. Suddenly he snatches the chocolate from me, scuttles away and takes refuge near a pile of planks. He holds the bar of chocolate against his breast and looks at me, eyes staring, mouth open – a frightened sparrow.

I step forward, but suddenly he turns tail again. Never have I seen an urchin move so quickly. In a moment he has disappeared.

I look at the row of houses opposite. Their walls are still pitted by shrapnel – no repairs have yet been made. To the left, all that remains of a house is a heap of bricks and plaster. A solitary green shutter is still fixed to one wall, and hangs sideways, like a drunken man ready to fall, but clinging stubbornly with one hand. Railway lines run the length of the quay, but higgledy-piggledy, fantastically twisted, no good for anything any more. Maybe the war has twisted the minds of men in the same fashion. To the right a long, white chalky finger, surmounted by a lighthouse, points out into the Channel. How beautiful its whiteness must be when the sun shines, and the waves dance, and the seagulls fly about, at one moment skimming the joyful sea, at another circling the lighthouse.

But the sun is hiding sullenly behind grey clouds, and it seems as if some giant with an immense club has rained down blows upon this town. Dieppe, indeed, has been beaten and ravished by war, which gives death and ugliness in exchange for life and beauty. Even that pretty chalky peninsula is eaten through and through with tunnels, formerly the lairs of German canon, awaiting the approach of the British invasion barges. It is like looking at a beautiful woman whom you know to be eaten up from within by a loathsome disease.

The sky is moody over Dieppe. A cold wind begins to blow, but it cannot blow away the stink of death. This same stale odour pervades bombed habitations everywhere. Only time can cure this stinking illness.

We wait for half an hour, then a dozen lorries – those huge, roaring American lorries, painted grey and with the name of the driver’s wife or girl friend inscribed on the bonnet – come to fetch us. The lorries circle, drive off, and in next to no time we are leaving behind the houses with the picturesque shutters and the hilly streets of Dieppe. On the outskirts of the town, we enter a large camp – a patch of ground, which has been cleared of obstructions and planted with wooden huts. Here we eat in a big communal dining room where pleasant French women show us our places and wait on us. Afterwards we draw blankets and line up at the NAAFI for our rations of cigarettes. 

It is starting to rain as we begin to queue for four o’clock tea, and the dull sky hangs like a pall over the camp. We are happy to receive the order “On the lorries”, and to cross Dieppe once again, this time on our way to the station. The town seems almost deserted. Only a man here in a blue beret or a woman there running her errands glance at us, then turn and continue on their way.

Our train was standing in the station, but we had to wait two hours before it left. During this time workmen with the characteristic French blue beret walked up and down the platform, trying to buy English cigarettes from us. I had a conversation for about half an hour with a young man in his middle twenties who came into the corridor. He had just bought fifty cigarettes and was broke. He told me that the average workman in France received a thousand francs a week which was at that time equivalent to about two pounds ten shillings English, a very low wage. Potatoes, butter and bread, he told us, were rationed, and the cost and conditions of living were worse than under the German occupation. One was free, of course … followed by a Gallic shrug of the shoulders. In further conversation it turned out that he had been a prisoner of war in Germany for five years.

Our train gave a jerk and he quickly turned to get off. I stopped him.

“Attends. Tiens.” I gave him a packet of twenty cigarettes.

“But I have no money to pay you.”

“Forget it. We were prisoners of war together, n’est-ce pas?”

The train groans, moves. We hurriedly shake hands.

“Au revoir, and thanks for the cigarettes.”

“Au revoir, my friend, and good luck.”

He turns again and descends to the platform. I am so sorry for the French. God knows, we have suffered enough from the war in England. But the French were invaded by the Germans, suffered death and deportation during the occupation, then were invaded once again by the allies. It seems to have become the practice that in any European war France is always a battleground. Now once more they have a country to reconstruct. I do not envy them their task.

The windows of our coach had no glass, so we were obliged to improvise curtains from blankets and block up the holes as best we could. The fields outside were covered with snow, and as the train rattled along, a piercingly cold wind sought entry. We were soon bitterly cold, and the position was aggravated by the fact that the heating system had gone wrong between our coach and the one in front.

At every stop I got down, hunted out the stationmaster or the engineer and asked what the chances were of mending the break in the heating pipe. Railwaymen squeezed in between the coaches and made learned examinations. Promises that somebody would do something were given lavishly, and sympathy for us in our travelling refrigerator was extreme. Yet somehow or other the heating system remained useless until the end of the journey.

Camps had been set up by the railway track, and from time to time we stopped to have a meal in some huge barn in the country and to draw sandwiches and chocolate to sustain us on our further travels. At these stopping places, no matter how deserted the countryside, women and their children appeared beside the train, and it was to them that the bulk of our chocolate ration went.

We drew into Toulon at about eight o’clock on a clear, mild morning with the sun shining in a watery fashion. We followed a short, underground passage and found ourselves in the street, the object of curiosity of the passers-by. All traces of snow had disappeared, and a tall, slender palm tree signalled that we had arrived at the Mediterranean coast.

Ch4 pt1. In His Majesty’s Service.

I got up early in the morning of 21ST October, 1941, ate a hearty breakfast, then caught a bus to take me on the first part of my journey to join the army. The bus was held up in a traffic block in the cobbled Essex Road. Slowly it crawled on to “The Angel” public house and then accelerated downhill and arrived quite rapidly at King’s Cross railway station.

I boarded my train with a few minutes to spare and found myself a seat as we began to move out of the dim, curving platform. The sun shone through the windows and foretold a fine day. There were several soldiers sprawled about the carriage, but they did not talk much. Mostly they sat and read with quiet, serious expressions on their faces, or they lay back and slept.

I did not feel any regret at leaving home. I now detested London. At one time, as a boy during the peace, I had thought it romantic to trudge through the dimly lit streets of the dock district and watch the big ships arriving from strange lands; or to stand on Tower Bridge and gaze at the magnificent display of light from up river. However, I had now come to perceive clearly that there were two Englands: the haves and have-nots – and my people belonged to the latter. I saw equally clearly that the war had to be won, for Hitler’s philosophy of the superiority of what he was pleased to call the “Aryans” and the inferiority of everybody else was intolerable and would have led to the ruination of all of us. Yet by the same token I was as sure as I had ever been of anything that the successful conclusion of this war would have to be followed by a radical change in English society.

I was thus entering the army as a young and very inexperienced lad who already had an inbuilt suspicion about the competence of the officers in charge of that army to lead it. As for London, I saw it as a huge repository of working class industrial cannon fodder with mansions, sumptuous restaurants, limousines and theatres for the fortunate minority who had mostly inherited their wealth. For people of my class, the city was an ugly, petrol stinking ganglion of streets; a prison that had confined me since childhood and my mother’s people for generations.

But I was escaping from the prison. The sun gleamed brightly through the windows, and the train clattered merrily along the rails. Escaping! Escaping!

The small Yorkshire station became quite crowded as the train ejected a disproportionate number of passengers, all carrying cases like myself. I surrendered my ticket at the gate and walked into the street. I felt that I would have known this was a Yorkshire town if I had been dropped there out of the blue. Half a dozen coal-begrimed miners passed, and the small, box-like houses were built in long parallel rows.

The young men with cases were milling together into something like three ranks under the direction of a lance corporal, and I squeezed myself between them and shuffled into line.                                                                                            


A scrape of feet.                                                                     

“Right turn!” 

Clumsily the line faced to the right.            

“Gawdelpus,” barked the lance jack in charge. “What a sloppy lot. You’re a shower ….. What are you? Pull your stomachs in! You look like a bunch of pregnant ducks.”      

This sally was followed by what might have been described as a pregnant pause while stomachs were duly pulled in. 

“Quick march! Left, right, left, right.”                                                           

The line moved off. A group of young men in khaki grinned sardonically as we passed. They had been in the army five weeks, and considered themselves old sweats. Someone in the front started to sing, and soon the song spread along the whole column. The lance corporal barked encouragement.                                            

“That’s the ticket, lads. Sing up. Swing those arms, now. Straighten your backs. Bags of bull.”                                                                                                

We lengthened our stride and duly straightened our backs. We stopped walking and began to march. We were passing through the town centre, and people turned to stare as we swung by. We held up our heads and sang lustily. Stare, you civvies, stare! We’re in the army now. We’re soldiers of the King! 

At the small Yorkshire town of Osset we were subjected to six weeks of intensive foot and arms drill commonly known as “square bashing”. We were also instructed in the art of firing the three-0-three Lee Enfield rifle and received some instruction in the working of the Bren gun and Thompson sub machine gun. We were all then very relieved to be sent to various technical training battalions in and around the drab, cotton-spinning town of Huddersfield – ‘Oodersfield’ to the locals. This was where my Yorkshire grandmother had been born and bred. We were now members of the Royal Corps of Signals, often abbreviated to “Royal Corps of Sigs”, but known to its irreverent members as the “Royal Corps of Pigs.” I was to be initiated into the mysteries of wireless operating, and found myself with several hundred other men billeted in a huge disused factory filled with rows of double-tiered bunks. We were split up into squads, and I became a member of 93 Ack Squad, composed of nineteen year olds like myself.

We were a noisy, unruly squad, and since the accent was now on technical training rather than on discipline, we got away with our unruliness. We were young and did some silly things. I remember the occasion when, as some sort of a gesture of independence we got together and all agreed to grow moustaches. Beards were forbidden, but moustaches were permissible. Thus after a few days every face in the squad – and there were some most unlikely ones – began to sprout whiskers. They called us the Clarke Gable Squad.

Tiny Mac, who was barely nineteen years old, grew the best moustache of the lot. Despite his small size, he had a fierce beard, and grew a huge black walrus moustache that practically covered his mouth. Poor Mac. He was wounded in an engagement with the Japanese at Imphal in Burma, and later they came and blew up the hospital where he was a patient.                                                                                    

Good luck, Mac. You are not forgotten.       

At the end of our course, the whole squad was sent on draft to India, but some star guiding my life decreed that I should catch mumps. For a couple of weeks I mooched about the isolation hospital with a face swollen grotesquely to twice its normal size. Then came convalescence. But when I was ready to face the world again, Squad 93 Ack was on its way to the Far East.                                           

I envied what I considered their luck in being sent abroad, but could do little about it when I was posted to an armoured brigade stationed at Staines, on the River Thames, just outside London. I was consoled by the fact that I got regular weekend leaves from here, but after a month the unit suddenly packed up in the perverse way that army units have, and we moved north to the Scottish border. We cruised around aimlessly for a week or two, then settled down at the village of Clifton, three miles outside the small town of Penrith, in the Lake District. Penrith itself was about twenty miles south of Carlisle, close to the Scottish border. Here we were to remain for two years as part of the 35th Tank Brigade of the 79th Armoured Division.       

In many ways I enjoyed my stay here. I came to appreciate what life was like in a very small town as opposed to a very large one, and the hospitality of English north-country folk to strangers came as a revelation to me after the indifference of Londoners. I also had the opportunity of getting to know the beautiful Lake District of north England. I saw Ullswater in shifting mist and Ullswater in sparkling sunlight. I marvelled at the glorious views from windswept Hellvelyn, and I tasted the cold water of clear mountain springs. All this I much appreciated, even though my travels by lakeside and over steeply rising fell took place during the course of gruelling battle training arranged by a diabolical O-C.

I had two special friends in this unit. One was Basil, a black haired, blue-jowled, slim young man, the original Mr Nice Guy. Basil was studying theology and trying to make up his mind whether he was divinely inspired to take up holy orders. (He finally decided that he was not, and contented himself with lay preaching). Basil was always sincere and ready to help others in any way he could. Some took advantage of him at first, but his honesty and friendliness eventually gained him the respect of all who knew him. Basil was a Methodist, the first I had known, and for the rest of my life I was always predisposed to look upon any Methodist of my acquaintance with favour until such time as they gave evidence to the contrary.

My other friend was Tony. Tony was the same age as Basil, but was notwithstanding rapidly losing his hair. He was smallish in build and rakish in character. His intelligence was considerable and his cynicism unbounded. He had a taste for strong drink and an eye for pretty young women, having in this latter connection a way of leavening a searching stare with a flattering compliment. We made fun of him by attributing the bags under his eyes to dissipation, but nothing could annoy Tony

“Eat, drink and be merry, comrades, for tomorrow we die. Jimmy, are you going to buy me a pint of beer?”                                                                      

Tony had been a journalist in civvy street, but had given it up to go into the Post Office. Like me, he still had a hankering for scribbling and, like me, he doubted his ability to make a reasonable living out of it. 

We had a good time during our two years at the little town of Penrith. We got to know all the people and we were well acquainted with the local pubs. We scraped acquaintance with one or two of the local girls and “got our feet under the table” at their homes – that is, we were welcomed and treated like members of the family. Every Saturday we visited the local hop at the large hall in the centre of town with its rustic orchestra. I even started to attend a Penrith evening class to brush up on my shorthand and learn a little bit more about English literature and the French language.

My principal dislike was for the army discipline that became increasingly pettifogging and irksome. This discipline seemed to mirror the class structure of English society. You simply did not become an officer in the British Army unless you had received instruction in a certain type of accent, which betokened your superior class. In addition, you behaved with arrogance to those below you and made it always clear that they were expendable, at the best slightly idiotic, and always beneath contempt. It was the “them” and “us” syndrome we had known all our lives. I had no illusions about it, and found it completely unacceptable, although there was nothing that I could do.

We were all becoming restive, and would have welcomed transfer overseas and some concrete task to help finish the wretched war, rather than the necessity to continue vegetating in England.

At the time that we were in the Lake District, the Germans and the Russians were locked in bloodthirsty and seemingly interminable battles on the Russian Steppes, costing each nation the flower of its manhood. In North Africa the British Eighth Army under Montgomery had broken out of Egypt and chased Rommel’s Afrika Korps westwards across Libya. The Americans, who had invaded Algeria had raced in the other direction to close the jaws of the trap, and the German North African Army had been evacuated across the Mediterranean back to Europe. The Anglo-Americans had then invaded Sicily, crossed the Straits of Messina, and were now engaged in pushing the German-Italian armies up the boot of Italy.

In the Far East there was another war. This was much less publicised in England. There the British had finally secured the gates of India against the Japanese, and were forcing them back into Burma. One saw occasional film clips of Australian troops in action in New Guinea. And the Americans were doggedly thrashing the Japanese on land and sea in the Pacific wherever the opposing forces met. 

In the Atlantic, the German U-boat menace was being met and mastered. And now the combined English and American Air Forces were beginning to mount horrendous bombing strikes against German cities. The Allied superiority in men, material and technology was plain for all to see. Victory was not yet within our grasp. But it was clear that this terrible conflict, now working up to a murderous crescendo, would see the final victory of the Anglo-Americans and their allies.

Ch3 pt6 Friendship at the Fire Station

My work at the Homerton Fire Station was that of wages clerk to the firemen on our station’s ground – the same job that I had carried out at Burdett Road. The Accounting Officer was Harry S, a middle-aged man with a lined, tired face and a hacking smoker’s cough. Harry had a withered right hand, which he still managed to use for writing although with a degree of awkwardness. This was the result of shrapnel wounds received in the First World War in the Palestine Campaign. He was seventeen years old at the time. Harry S and I became very good friends, and our friendship prospered, even into the future when I was in Australia, until he suddenly died from a cerebral haemorrhage at the early age of fifty-eight.

The other clerical assistant was Harry F. He was a small stooped man with a long wandering nose, black hair flecked with grey combed straight back, and thick horn rimmed glasses. He was very intelligent and had an enormous capacity to drink pints of beer. He tried to get into the army while I was at the Homerton Fire Station, but was rejected because of defective eyesight. Harry F and I also became good friends but lost touch after the war. 

One day we heard that the authorities had decided that we were overworked and had allocated an extra clerical assistant to us. We were upset when we learned that it was to be a female. We imagined an angular, horsey looking old crone who would cramp our style when we wanted to get away early on Friday for a couple of beers at the pub. Also we would have to moderate our language. Harry S said there was no way he was going to moderate his language. A good expletive relieved the tension when he had added up a column of figures incorrectly. If the old crone didn’t like what she heard, she could bloody well get.

A few mornings later I came into work, and Harry S was already there. 

“We’ve got our new clerical assistant,” he said to me. “She’s in the toilet powdering her nose.” In a few moments the new assistant came out.

“Jimmy,” said Harry S, “I’d like to introduce you to Julie. Julie, this is Mr Foxon.” 

I blinked my eyes and a little alarm bell rang in the back of my head. I was confronted with a vision of loveliness such as I had never expected to see. The new clerical assistant had black, beautifully combed hair, smiling eyes and white teeth surrounded by moist red lips which reminded me of a magnificent single stemmed rose on the front of an invitation card to a birthday party. She wore a medium length black dress with a modest neckline, belted tightly at her slim waist. From there it dropped in pleats to just below her knees. She had dark silken stockings and dark shoes with Cuban heels. I suppose I must have murmured some formal greeting and she must have done likewise. We returned to our desks and got on with our work.

After a couple of days, Harry S said to me, “How do you like our new clerical assistant, Jimmy?” 

I told him that I thought she was all right, and he said to me with a conspiratorial air, “From tomorrow morning, I’m going to call her Julie.” 

From the next morning, she was “Julie” to everyone. All of a sudden life at the office was gay. Julie had a bubbly personality, an irrepressible sense of humour, and a capacity to laugh in even the most awkward situations. She also had enormous compassion and seemed incapable of committing an unkind act against anybody. She was the life and soul of the office, our mascot and our joy. I do not think that I have ever enjoyed coming to work so much anywhere before or since. Although Harry S was nominally in charge of the office, we were all friends and comrades and liked each other’s company tremendously.    

Julie was supposed to be a typiste amongst other things, but clearly she had not done a great deal of typing. Nevertheless, she set to work with a will to learn. One of my jobs was to type out a daily attendance report of fire fighting personnel. I always disliked detailed time-consuming reports of things that did not greatly interest me, so under the guise of improving Julie’s typing ability, I popped the daily report on to her. She made no objection, to my secret relief, because I was a little bit ashamed of playing such a dirty trick on her. However, after a little while, I began to wonder how I could make use of this situation to obtain a few laughs in the office.

I began a campaign to wreck Julie’s typewriter. Every time Julie went out of the room, I would make some small adjustment to put the typewriter out of action. Sometimes I would disconnect the spring so that the carriage would not move. At others, I would tighten up the spring so that the carriage moved too fast. Sometimes I would put the ribbon on “stencil” or on “red” so that either no typing came out at all, or the colour would change. On other occasions I would remove the ribbon altogether and hide it. Sometimes I would shift the roller slightly so that only half the typeface was imprinted on the paper. At other times I would take the roller out altogether and conceal it in her drawer. Julie would come back, sit down at her typewriter, and begin with very great care a one-finger effort to copy the daily report. Often it was several minutes before she would wake up to the fact that something was wrong.

Of course, everybody in the office was in the know, and they would have one eye on their work and one on Julie to see how and when she would react. Suddenly she would realise that something was wrong and give vent to a cry of frustration. Then she would turn around to the rest of us with a huge grin on her face. 

“Somebody’s wrecked my typewriter.” 

Everybody pretended to be completely unaware of what had happened. After many expressions of surprise that I should be suspected, I would finally agree to examine her typewriter and rectify the situation. Sometimes I would rectify one fault but leave her with another, giving rise to further frustration on the part of Julie.     

All this nonsense was followed by gales of laughter in which Julie was always the leader. In those wartime days when we were under continuous tension of one sort or another, we needed to let ourselves go sometimes. So when we laughed it seems in retrospect that we did so more freely and happily than at any other time in our lives. I have often wondered why Julie never belted me over the ear for some of my silly antics. But she never did – she always laughed, and her good humour made the rest of us laugh too.   

Julie was twenty years old at this time. She had been married at eighteen, and Dave, her husband, was about to embark for army service in India, where he stayed until the end of the war.

When he left, Julie remained scrupulously faithful to him. She was a most attractive young woman, and could easily have found herself masculine company had she wanted. Many people separated from their partners by the war entered into extra marital liaisons, and with the stress that war brought, this was often understandable. But Julie never wavered. Her marriage was of supreme importance to her. She saved her money carefully and tried consistently to make a decent home in a flat she had in Phillip Street, Hoxton, for Dave when he returned. Yet she was always in good spirits, always friendly, always helpful, always concerned about other people.

In a way, Julie was the least “Jewish” girl I ever met. She was not orthodox in any way whatsoever. But when it came to quiet and serious concern for the importance of the family unit and kindness to all members of the family, then she was the embodiment of all that was best in Jewish life, and I admired her greatly for it. Of course, I suppose I was not a particularly “fromm goy” either, so from the very first moment that we met Julie and I accepted each other exactly as we were. The artificial barriers of religious orthodoxy which people erect to shut themselves off from others never rated a mention as far as Julie and I were concerned, and that was simply wonderful.

When Dave returned at the end of the war, he and Julie had grown apart from each other. It was a common enough phenomenon which most of us experienced who had to make the traumatic change from life in the services back to civilian life, and no doubt the civilians had to make their adjustments too. Nevertheless Dave and Julie settled down to get to know each other again. He got a job in a cigarette factory where he eventually became foreman. His income was not great, and Julie often went to work to help out. They later moved to a Council flat at Woodberry Down, between Upper Clapton and Finsbury Park. Dave might not have been rich, but he was utterly reliable and never missed a beat. I came to have considerable respect for him. Between them they raised two fine children, a boy and a girl, of whom any parents could be proud.         

Julie became my dear and lifelong friend. I regarded her as my number three sister. As I write these lines, forty-one years later, we still exchange regular letters. And the friendship we have is for me, and I believe also for her, one of those intangible things in life which cannot be bought, but which give enormous pleasure and satisfaction.

The blitz tapered off. Work at the Homerton Fire Station settled down to a steady routine. And peace once again descended on battle-scarred London. The ruined houses remained, but were tidied up as much as possible and in some cases fenced off. In Europe, now occupied from the Baltic to the Mediterranean by the armies of the Third Reich, the German Air Force licked its wounds and regrouped and re-equipped for a new battle. This was the battle now raging on the Russian Front, following Hitler’s insane attack on that country. In the background, General Winter was already gathering his forces of cold and snow to deal the Wehrmacht the same deadly blow that he had dealt to Napoleon’s Grande Armée a century and a quarter before.

In London, I awaited my call-up to the army.

Ch 3 pt 5 Jack and Fred’s Courage

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.

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. 

Ch 3 p 2. London County Council 1939

I was becoming dissatisfied with my job at the “Hairdressers Journal”. It was obvious that I stood no chance of doing any writing for this purely technical paper whose articles were all contributed by hairdressers of long experience, most of them with their own salons. There was no such thing as reporting as it is known on a newspaper. I was clearly not going to progress. So I wrote again to several small London newspapers for a position. But either there were no vacancies, particularly as my shorthand was not yet up to standard, or premiums were requested for my training, which my father could not pay. I had no money of my own. My wages from the “Journal” merely paid for my fares and my keep. I had two shillings a week pocket money after I met all my expenses, which would buy newspapers and three packets of cigarettes. There was no way I was going to get rich like this.

The peculiar thing in those days was that we had been born and bred poor and never looked for anything else. If we did no more than pay our expenses and just keep our heads above water, we thought that we were well off. So many people slept in the parks or on the Thames Embankment, wrapped up in newspapers. At least we got a feed, and a roof over our heads and a regular job.

Frustrated by my lack of success, and reluctant to spend my life working to make the owners of the “Hairdressers Journal” rich, I allowed myself to be persuaded by my family to enter an examination for clerkships to the London County Council. With my schoolwork only a few months behind me, I could hardly fail, and I duly became a General Clerical Officer in the service of the body regulating the life in the County of London. I had a grandiloquent title, but more to the point, I earned two shillings a week over and above what I had received at Ogee’s.

I started work at County Hall, that huge building of endless corridors facing the Houses of Parliament across the River Thames, and I was allocated to the Highways and Main Drainage Committee. I saw nothing of highways or drains, however, and had only the vaguest notion of how the Committee functioned vis-a-vis the Council. My chief job was to make tea, and after that I did a little filing and batching up of papers. Much of my time was spent reading the Bressey Report, a praiseworthy plan for speeding up London’s traffic by means of viaducts, tunnels and roundabouts.

It was, however, a safe job. I was reminded of this time and time again by my parents, who had never themselves known such a luxury. Also there was a pension at the end of it and, although that meant nothing to me then, I would begin to understand its value after a few years.

I found myself in a dilemma. What was I to do? Should I make this local government my career? I felt the lack of movement after the busy days at Ogee’s. A job at County Hall meant a lifetime of unworried, unhurried paper shuffling. The majority of people seemed to carry few responsibilities. The tall poppies were hidden away in plush offices with carpets. (The majority of us made do with timber floors). What was I to do?

I had left school in the latter part of 1938, and started work at Ogee’s some weeks after. I transferred to the London County Council early in 1939 about six months later. Every morning and evening as I went upstairs on the grinding, sickening double decker electric tram, the air would be filled with cigarette smoke, and people would be hawking and spitting all over the place. We must have been a very unhygienic lot in those days. I would bury myself in books about the structure of short stories, novels and various types of newspaper reports. Sometimes I would read popular novels by Edgar Wallace and “Sapper”, who made a small fortune from lurid tales about a true blue British type called Bulldog Drummond. Drummond was always locked in mortal combat with an international criminal of indeterminate nationality called Carl Peterson. The “Saint” novels of Mr Leslie Charteris were also favourites of mine. I was beginning to read and enjoy the short stories of Guy de Maupassant in the original French. In my more serious moments I would attempt to understand the art of newspaper editorials better and also improve my bilingual ability by translating editorials into French, then rendering them back into English and comparing my efforts with the original.

Although my ambitions were journalistic, all this left me little time to read the newspapers as closely as I should have done. I was going off on a quasi-artistic kick. I read somewhere that Hitler and Stalin had concluded a non-aggression pact, and felt my heart sink, then tried to dismiss it and hoped that somehow we should muddle through.   

My main worry now that I worked at the County Hall was what my next move was going to be. 

A decision was forced on me by the inexorable wheel of history. German troops massed on the borders of Poland. The patience of the certifiable maniac in charge of Germany was once again exhausted. 

I was suddenly transferred from County Hall to a fire station at Burdett Road, in the east end of London, half way between Hackney, where I was born, and Limehouse. Two days later, war broke out. I was seventeen and a half years old. We all knew that we were for it. Obviously the only thing I could do now was to stick to my job until I was called up. 

In the Munich days of 1938, when the English Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain was flying to placate Adolf Hitler – the black hearted, utterly wicked psychopath who led Germany – war seemed imminent. In London, volunteers worked all day long digging up parks and open spaces to construct the air raid shelters that should have been provided long ago. Passing strangers left the pavements, took off their coats, grabbed shovels and sweated. The green fields of Hackney Marshes became striated with trenches and battlements of black earth. When daylight had gone, the feverish digging continued by the light of oxy-acetylene and naphtha flares.

Chamberlain came back to England with a fluttering slip of paper held in his hand guaranteeing “peace in our time”, but at last the man in the street was alive to the danger, and although he longed for peace, was no longer really hopeful that it could be maintained. A country-wide campaign was set on foot to organise air raid precautions services, and as many men and women as possible were urged to join the Auxiliary Fire Service. A.R.P. and A.F.S. became key words in the language. 

In London, the regular London Fire Brigade run by the London County Council was to be the backbone of the new service, and the volunteers, most of whom would become full time in the event of war, were to work under the supervision of this experienced body of men. This was the plan. The ironical fact was that when full-scale air raids on London eventually began, many auxiliaries acquired as much fire fighting experience in a few weeks as their professional colleagues had had in years and some were finally promoted and made senior to them. 

When I arrived at the Burdett Road Fire Station, I found that a certain Mr G was to be my colleague. Mr G was a tall, thin, middle-aged man, always very neatly dressed and polite, with a habit of fingering his large, horn-rimmed spectacles. He had been “something in rubber”, but a market crash had forced him to seek other employment, and he had eventually taken a job with the London County Council as a fire station clerk. For although the burly, tattooed ex-navy men who seemed always to drift to the London Fire Brigade were excellent at their job of putting out fires, their powerful fingers seemed to become less capable when it came to putting pen to paper. 

There was at this time a rush to join the auxiliary fire service, and Mr G and I used to sit at a table in a little upstairs room of the fire station, explaining the conditions of service to would-be recruits, and getting them to fill out the necessary forms. Then we would turn them over to the mercies of the regular firemen downstairs. We were joined a day or two later by Len, a tall, pipe-smoking young man with black hair, and a pair of thick framed spectacles to rival Mr G’s. Len was to be in charge. He was to be known as the Accounting Officer, and Mr G and I were to be his assistants. Our job was to make out pay sheets for the three hundred odd auxiliaries who would eventually be allocated to the several evacuated, sand bagged schools on our station’s ground. We would calculate their sick pay and injury pay deductions, draw money from the bank, and pay it out. We would balance anything left, and redeposit it in the bank. If it be thought that we were not fully occupied, remember that this was in the days before computers and office machines. All records were manually kept, and all calculations were worked out in the skull.

The bank was situated in Limehouse, and I always looked forward to the journey there by A.F.S. car or some dirty old requisitioned taxi with ladders strapped to the roof and a coil of fire hose in the back seat. The fan tan and opium dens of the Chinese quarter might be things of the past, but I could still let my imagination wander when I saw the unusual names over the chop suey restaurants in East India Dock Road and the tattered notices in Chinese characters pasted on the walls of the dingy houses in Pennyfields.        

One other duty of ours was to stick stamps on hundreds of health and unemployment cards each week. Back to the old stamp licking again! This was an awkward business, since the stamps had to correspond exactly to the pay sheets, and there were many irregularities due to adjustments in respect of sickness or absence. The law said that once an insurance stamp was stuck on a man’s card let no man put the stamp and the card asunder! But since we were obliged to make the pay sheets up in advance and our information regarding attendance was not always correct, it was inevitable that we made mistakes. Then we had to indulge in minor illegalities and remove the wrongly affixed stamps. So we put the kettle on the stove in the little room next to the office, brought it to the boil, and steamed stamps off one card in order to stick them on another. What a ramshackle, improvised way to help run a war. But somehow we muddled through. And after Len was called up for the Air Force several firemen expressed their appreciation of the efficient and understanding, if slightly unorthodox way in which he had run his side of the station.

When I left the fire station between five and six in the evening, the streets were completely dark due to the strict blackout that had been imposed. Double decker trams were still running in the Mile End district at that time, although they were later replaced by trolley buses. Occasionally vivid flashes from the tram rails would light up the street like lightning coming from the earth. The large electric headlamp at the front and rear of each tram was obscured by a black metal disc, only a shaded slit of light being allowed to escape, and the lights inside the tram were dimmed and similarly shaded. The conductors, unless they made use of small battery and bulb contraptions attached to their uniform jackets, generally had to bend over the seats to see where they were punching their tickets.           

It was an anxious time during those first few weeks. Everyone waited on doorsteps during the long twilight. The isolation and unfriendliness of people in the big city disappeared. For a while everybody went out of his way to be friendly to everybody else. People called each other “chum” or “mate”. In this way it was a good time, despite the anxiety of waiting for the first air raid. I always expected an air raid to catch me in the tram mid way between the fire station at Mile End and my home at Hackney. However, no air raid materialised in the first months of the war. Thus we soon became blasé, smoking in the blackout, flashing torches, and not taking any notice at all of the hoarse-voiced wardens in blue dungarees and black tin hats who would angrily shout at us to “Put that bloody light out”.