Authors: Sean Longden
‘In 1939 I was fifteen years of age, and I remember discussing with a friend whether or not there would be any fighting left for us when we reached military age. Unfortunately there was, and I have the scars to prove it.’
Peter Richards, Post Office Messenger Boy
‘War had started and for us little boys it was a big excitement. I remember my mother crying and I said to her “What are you crying for?” Well, you know what little boys are like. I thought war was going to be great.’
Tony Sprigings, Merseyside
3 September 1939. It was a day that everyone knew was coming. Ever since the rise of the Nazis in Germany, many had been predicting war. After the Munich crisis of 1938 it had seemed that the world was balanced on the edge of a precipice. Then, on 1 September 1939, Hitler’s Germany invaded Poland and the world took a step into the unknown. For the next two days the people of Britain were on tenterhooks, knowing that war might be declared at any moment. Parents became withdrawn, veterans of the Great War grew quiet, fearful that their own sons might be sucked into a war every bit as horrible as the one they had known. For all the chatter about the likelihood of war, there was a dreadful silence about what it might mean.
For fifteen year olds Peter Richards and John Cotter, there was no reason why the declaration of war should interrupt their routine. 3 September was a Sunday and they would do what they always did: go
for a cycle ride. The two boys had been firm friends since attending grammar school in Kingsbury, north London, where they had ‘palled up’ and stayed together.
After leaving school, the two boys had gone their separate ways, but kept in touch and met regularly. In February 1939 Peter and his family had moved to Camden Town and he found employment as a boy messenger with the Royal Mail, in central London. His family was relatively poor and, as such, every penny he earned – of his twelve shillings and sixpence weekly wage – was precious. On 1 September, with war looming, he had gone to the cinema to watch the latest Will Hay comedy. When told there was to be blackout that night he was unconcerned as he did not really believe there would be a war. He was convinced by newspaper articles claiming it would be averted. Like so many others, he had seen the film of the H. G. Wells novel
The Shape of Things to Come
, which fixed in his mind the vision of a London destroyed by war. Surely no one would risk such horrors?
Despite his seeming nonchalance, Peter Richards was a child of his time. Born in May 1924, for him the deprivations of the 1930s had inspired a fascination with politics that stayed with him all his life. He had watched the rise of fascism at home and abroad. And having followed the Spanish Civil War with interest, he was well aware of the horrors of modern warfare. The conflict drew him towards left wing politics:
I wasn’t a convinced ‘Labour’ person at first, but the thing that shook me was the Munich Crisis. Then at fourteen I can remember going out for a walk with a friend of mine. Just by chance we went to a Communist Party meeting that was being held in a school. The main speaker was Wal Hannington, a well-known leader. He was the first person who put the idea into my head that the government wasn’t doing the right thing. So I began to get interested in government policies.
His mate John Cotter was no less a product of the same times. He lived in Edgware in north-west London, having moved around during the late 1920s and early 1930s as his father struggled financially in the Depression. The two boys had become friends despite their political differences:
We were at opposite ends of the political spectrum. Peter was a communist and I was thinking of joining the young fascists. I wasn’t anti-Jewish, because I lived in a Jewish area. I was brought up reading the
It said that Mussolini ran the trains on time and everything worked well. They were also pro-Franco, which I was. On the way home from school I used to have fights with other boys about it: they’d be supporting the republicans, I supported the nationalists. So Peter would take me to meetings held by pro-Republican factions and I would sit there fuming. I was pro-Mussolini but I wasn’t pro-German.
With youthful disdain for the lofty affairs of State the boys, whose political views seemingly mirrored the conflict that was about tear Europe apart, set out on their regular Sunday morning cycle ride, heading towards St Albans. As Peter later recalled: ‘We were young. It was just a normal day.’ They had not gone far when they pulled up at the roadside to buy a drink from a corner shop. By chance, the lady behind the counter called them over to listen to the radio. There they heard the words that would mean so much to their generation, as Neville Chamberlain told the nation: ‘This country is at war with Germany.’ This was followed by the dejected voice of the shop-owner: ‘Oh no, not again.’ Her dejection was not shared by the two youngsters, who cycled on merrily calling out to passers-by: ‘War’s declared! War’s declared!’
Within minutes of the declaration, the air raid sirens sounded for the first time. It was a false alarm that sent most of London scurrying around looking for their gas masks before running off to the shelters. Indeed, pre-war Air Ministry estimates concluded that London would be hit by 100 tons of bombs on the first day of war. Blithely, the two teenagers continued on their way to St Albans, unconcerned by the potential realities of war. The reality felt by the older generation was not revealed until the boys returned home later that day, with Peter Richards being asked by his mother: ‘Why didn’t you come home earlier?’ In the Cotter household it was similar: ‘My father was in a bit of a funk. They’d had the air raid alarm, which we hadn’t heard. He had got my mother, my sister and my brother ready to go to the air raid shelter and I wasn’t there.’
And so the first day of the war came to an end and Peter Richards noted:
On that day, apart from concerns over military service, a hundred & one questions quickly surfaced. Could London survive the expected air raids, would poison gas be used and how long would the conflict last? Would we get enough to eat? Such questions were answered with the agreed, ‘we will have to wait and see!’. As night fell, people prepared for bed in a sober mood. The day seemed to have changed everything. In the small hours of the morning the air raid sirens wailed again, but it was another false alarm. Unknown to us the ‘Phoney War’ had begun.
The whole country experienced the outbreak of war on an individual level. The wide-ranging emotional impact of war differed from person to person, but fell into a number of general themes. The youngest children had no understanding of what it meant. For older children, buoyed by the natural exuberance of youth, the threat of war was easier to ignore, meaning many of the nation’s teenagers were unmoved. They had a life to live. Whether still in education or out taking their steps into the world of work, they inhabited a world they wanted to enjoy. For the boys, there were girls to chase, sports and games to throw themselves into and a world to explore. For the girls, there were boys to impress, clothes to buy, make-up to experiment with and a similar world to explore. For teenage newspaper vendors, the first change to their routine was that Sunday newspapers rushed out special editions and they had to head out on to the streets to sell the papers to a concerned public.
For twelve-year-old Sylvia Bowman war seemed almost unintelligible: ‘I didn’t really understand what it meant. I knew it was a fight between countries for whatever reason, and they were short lived, maybe just a few weeks. The whole concept was too much for a youngster like me.’ However, the situation became clearer when her father announced he was glad he had five daughters since women did not have to go to war. In Hainault, five-year-old Colin Furk was also too young to understand what was going on, but realized something had upset his grandmother, asking her: “‘What have you done wrong?” She said, “I haven’t done anything wrong. It’s somebody else.”’
Eight-year-old Sylvia Bradbrook was in a cake shop with her father when the news was broadcast. He grabbed her hand, barked ‘Quick!’ and they ran back to their house. As they ran, the sirens sounded. She
had no idea what the sound meant. There was no Sunday lunch that day. Her mother was too occupied putting sticky tape across the windows, to prevent the shattering when bombs dropped, to bother about cooking.
In London’s Bethnal Green, nine-year-old Alf Morris found the coming conflict confusing. No one he knew wanted a war; instead, everyone just wanted to get on with their lives. Men wanted to work to provide for their families, not go off to war to fight an enemy that had been defeated just twenty years before: ‘I had no understanding of what it meant. Everyone said it would be over in a few weeks. The men who’d been in the First War said nothing would happen.’
Some older children were excited by the announcements. Young men were either concerned about how war might affect them or fired by a desire to do their duty. Older men, veterans of the earlier world war, felt their hearts sink, knowing the impact it would have on the younger generations. Women feared for their husbands and sons, whilst optimists thought it would all be over quickly and wasn’t worth concerning themselves with. On the other hand the pessimists expected to die as soon as Chamberlain finished speaking.
Anthony Wedgwood Benn (as the politician Tony Benn was originally named) was immediately struck by the implications of the declaration of war: ‘It was very frightening when the war began. I sat there with my two brothers – one who was going into the air force and I knew might be killed. He was.’
In Portugal, where he was on holiday from Winchester public school, sixteen-year-old Patrick Delaforce was struck by the tone with which Chamberlain spoke: ‘I can remember very clearly the sad, dejected, defeated voice of Neville Chamberlain. I certainly thought, “This man is not a leader.” I wanted to return to Winchester.’ In north London, fourteen-year-old errand boy Stanley Scott was listening to the radio with his bus-driver father, a veteran of the Great War:
We were listening to old dreary pants bloody Chamberlain. He said, ‘This country is now at war with Germany.’ I shot across the road because the family didn’t have a radio. I banged on the door, the wife opened it: ‘What’s the matter, Stanley?’ I went in and told old Joe – who’d lost his leg in the first war. His reaction was ‘Gawd help us.’
But Stan Scott was enthused by the idea of war and had long dreamed of being a soldier. With his father having been a regular soldier, and his uncles all being veterans of the Great War, this seemed an ideal time to be living. As a child he had played with spurs brought home from the Army by his father, a former artilleryman, pretending the family’s sofa was a horse. War, it seemed, was a time of opportunity for the military-minded. Though just fifteen, he was already determined to do his duty.
Others had a less optimistic view of war. In Huddersfield, thirteen-year-old orphan Eric ‘Bill’ Sykes had some idea of what the conflict might mean:
I was vaguely familiar with the events in Europe leading up to this moment, but I must admit that those words filled me more with a feeling of excitement, than a realization of the horrors that the world was about to witness. Due to my youthful optimism, or my lack of a realistic approach to the seriousness of the situation, I failed to recognize that in a matter of a few years I myself would be very much involved in a personal fight to survive the rigours of war.
Bill later recalled feeling exhilarated by the prospect of war. In many ways, this was a strange emotion. His own father had met a premature death brought on by wounds sustained in the Great War. Before he died, Sykes senior had taken his son to the cinema to see
All Quiet on the Western Front
: ‘I think my father’s objective was to show that war is not full of heroics like John Wayne dashing up a hill to plant a flag. War is bloodshed and killing.’ Despite their differing experiences and outlook, both Scott and Sykes would later take similar steps towards playing their part in the conflict.
Whatever their position, those who were old enough to understand seemed to agree on one thing: the war was right. It was a case of standing up to the aggressor and protecting the weak. As Clydebank teenager Jeanie, a girl who lived in a cramped and crowded home in an area blighted by poverty, later noted:
The outbreak of war was exciting. Everyone knew it was right. There was never any question that we shouldn’t be doing this. It was the right thing
to do. Nobody talked intellectually about the rights and wrongs – there was just a feeling that this was absolutely right.
The timing of the declaration of war – eleven on a Sunday morning – meant that many children first heard the news whilst at church. It was an appropriate setting to hear news that would inevitably lead to the deaths of so many. In Staines, twelve-year-old Bill Edwardes, whose school had just been evacuated from London, was at the local Catholic church when the service was interrupted:
In the middle of the mass the big doors opened and there was the heavy clonk of footsteps down the central aisle. We all looked at this guy in his steel helmet, with his gas mask on his chest and an ARP armband. He walked up to the altar, whispered into the priest’s ear, then walked out again. The priest walked to the front of the altar and said, ‘I have some terrible news. We are now at war with Germany.’
The news was not a shock, after all, Bill Edwardes and his classmates had already been evacuated from London and had spent the entire preceding week going to school carrying bags of spare clothing in case a further evacuation was announced. But now reality hit them. As the priest announced the news, a shiver of excitement ran through the boys, whilst the adults were visibly moved. As he listened he could hear the sound of people crying: these were the people old enough to understand the true meaning of war. These emotions were not shared by Edwardes: ‘Why are they crying? This is great!’ Within minutes the air raid sirens sounded and they streamed out of the church, into a field, where they lay in rows. The Air Raid Precautions (ARP) warden reappeared, this time riding a bicycle and waving a rattle, telling them to put their gas masks on. Amidst the combination of excitement and trepidation, Bill Edwardes had but one thought in his mind: ‘This is a big adventure.’ In the years ahead, he would learn war was anything but an adventure and would discover exactly why the people in church had been crying.