Authors: Sean Longden
Other children, similarly enthusiastic about the shooting down of an enemy aircraft, were more interested in seeing dead Germans. One teenage girl recalled hastily getting dressed â putting on her trousers
back-to-front â in the rush to find a German plane which she and her father had seen shot down. Her desire was to see the dead body of a hated German. In Essex, one eight year old rushed home from a crash site, his chest festooned with belts of machine-gun ammunition he had retrieved from the German plane.
In Somerset, twelve-year-old Ken Durston watched as a fighter crashed in the vicinity:
We used to have a lot of barrage balloons near us â because there was an aircraft factory nearby. The pilot of the Spitfire was a Canadian and got caught in the balloon cables â it brought him down and he was killed. Me and a couple of my mates were first on the scene. It was summer's night. There was nothing we could do for him â he was already dead. Before you knew it the Home Guard and the police were there and it was all âMove away, my son, move away.' They wanted to protect us from it but as a kid you just wanted to see what was happening. They wanted to recover the body which would have been nasty but we were too young to realize that.
These scenes were of far greater interest to most children than the classes their teachers still attempted to deliver. Evacuated to Devon from Kent, thirteen-year-old Jim Thomas recalled how war became more important than his final year of schooling:
The school had no room for use, so we did lessons in the park. When it rained we had to go down to the local railwaymen's social club. So when the summer holidays came along we were told that if any of us had a permanent job to go to we could leave then, rather than wait until Christmas. Well, we weren't learning much â every time we heard an aeroplane we were looking up to identify it. We had things that were more interesting than school. Too much was going on to bother about lessons.
He soon found employment in a newsagents shop before going on to spend three years working on a nearby farm.
In the final days of the Battle of Britain, the Luftwaffe began to bring greater terror to the cities, towns and villages of Britain, carrying out
attacks on random opportunity targets. Fighter planes flew along railway lines, firing on trains. They swooped down on roads and machine-gunned cars, lorries, buses and even lone cyclists. One teenage girl, on her way to pick cabbages from her father's allotment, faced such an attack. She ran for her life and sheltered in a shop doorway as the plane opened fire on her. Then, as soon as the danger had passed, she ran out into the road to collect the bullets as souvenirs to show her friends. In Ealing, Roy Bartlett faced a similar attack. He was out with friends when the sirens sounded. The group dispersed to make their way to their homes to take cover:
I could hear the thunderous roar of a German aircraft. I turned around in some alarm and there was a Heinkel, very low, behind me. I chucked myself off the bike, but didn't make it to the wall where I intended to take cover. Suddenly, as it passed, the rear gunner opened fire on me. These bullets went straight up the middle of the road. They were chipping the tarmac and ricocheting everywhere. There were windows smashing in the houses around me. I was absolutely bloody petrified. I was shaking from head to toe and sobbing with fright. I went into an alleyway to sort myself out. As I stood there, two Spitfires went over. I ran out shouting âGet them!'
When he got home his mother asked if he had heard the planes. He denied having seen the plane, knowing she would not let him out to play again if she knew the truth.
Fifteen-year-old Stan Scott found himself enthused and excited by the successes of the RAF in the Battle of Britain. He was also angered by the enemy's increasing aggression. After all, he had been brought up to believe âIf someone hits you â hit them back.' He decided that, if his father could run away from home to rejoin the Army, then he could, too. Furthermore, he asked himself: âWhat had Dad done in 1914 aged fifteen? Joined the Army and served in France.' To serve his country seemed to be his destiny. One morning, he left home as normal for work, but did not take his usual route:
I just had to do it. I was fifteen. I was part of a group of mates, they'd all gone and joined up. My other mates had been evacuated. Dad was back
in the Army. So I was alone. I got on the trolley bus, up to the Seven Sisters Road where there was a recruiting centre. The Sergeant said, âHello, son, wanna join the Army?' âYes, sir.' I was all innocent.
The sergeant asked for his birth certificate but Stan told him he had forgotten it and, if he had to go home to fetch it, he would not get back before the office closed. Accepting his claim, he was sent to one side to sit with another group of would-be soldiers. As Stan Scott soon realized, most of the boys looked underage; the sergeant realized the situation, but no one said anything: âThe sergeant must have heard all the answers before.'
He was immediately sent in for a medical and then signed on â opting to serve in the Queen's Own Royal West Kent Regiment, in which his father had served during the Great War. When the formalities were completed, he was asked if he needed any time to conclude âbusiness' before joining the regiment. It seemed a ridiculous notion: what business could a fifteen-year-old boy have that needed urgent attention? He declined the offer, was given some rations, his first day's pay and a railway warrant, and then sent on his way to Tonbridge.
Arriving at the barracks in Tonbridge, he was taken into the office and was greeted by an officer: âWelcome to the regiment. This is the Queen's Own Royal West Kent Regiment. I am the officer commanding the 70th Young Soldiers battalion. How come you joined our regiment?' Stan told him that his father had joined the regiment back in 1914 and considered it his family regiment. Dismissed from the office he was sent to the quartermasters and measured for his uniform:
I thought I'd get a uniform. But I was given nothing. Then on to the armoury. They gave me a Lee Enfield rifle, it was covered in thick, hard grease from muzzle to butt plate. âThere you are, son, that's yours, get it cleaned up.' I thought, how am I going to do that? I had no cleaning gear.
Then he was sent to a hut, and given a palliasse and three scratchy blankets: âI was a fifteen-year-old kid. What am I going to do with this rifle?' One of the other recruits in the hut sent him to the garage to get petrol and a brush. He then stood the rifle in a bucket and scrubbed it down: âTook a bit of time, but I got it spotless. Then I stuffed the
palliasse with straw. Got myself in the corner, undressed and got in bed. That was that. I was in the Army, I'd got a rifle, a bed, but no toothbrush, no uniform, no spoon â nothing!'
The next morning he was sent for breakfast, and was given a mug of tea, a bowl of porridge and some bread and jam:
I scoffed that down. Then it was running around. Down to quartermasters, get me kit. It was waiting for me. A set of battledress and a set of denims, and some 1908 pattern webbing â like they had in the first war. Went back to my corner, sorted out my kit and webbing. Changed into uniform. I was told to bundle up my clothes and chuck it into the quartermasters with my name and address on.
Fed, watered, armed and finally dressed in an Army uniform, fifteen-year-old Stan was ready to follow in his father's footsteps in the Army.
Back in London, with the RAF pilots emerging as the nation's new heroes, Peter Richards noticed a change in behaviour among some of his friends at the youth club. Just as the declaration of war had encouraged some to try to get fit ready for military service, so the Battle of Britain drew their attention towards the RAF. Whizzing through the skies gunning down enemy fighters became the dream of these young men, of whom Peter noted: âPeople started to study. Some of my friends, whose main prowess at arithmetic was to “take the chalk” at dart matches, began to enrol in maths classes with the aim of becoming eligible for aircrew selection.'
But that summer was about more than just watching dogfights and celebrating the victories won in the skies above southern England. For Peter Richards there was still time for sport and leisure:
We had the lido nearby. It was a great place. In the summer of 1940 the Army had been kicked out of France, but the summer was good. We carried on life as normal. We had holidays at home. I also went down to Runnymede with John Cotter and a work colleague called Ted.
Despite his increasing links to the Communist Party, Peter kept in close contact with his would-be fascist mate, John. Nevertheless, they
continued with their political arguments, with Peter having â for the moment â the upper hand following Mussolini's decision to declare war on Britain. At the end of August the two boys decided to take a cycling holiday to make up for the one that had been cancelled earlier in the year. This time they travelled to Exeter, staying overnight in youth hostels, enjoying the beautiful summer weather. For John Cotter, this trip helped him to understand the seriousness of the situation. At the youth hostels there were always a number of older people who seemed to discuss nothing except what would happen in the war. It made him realize the impact the war had already had on the older generation. The timing of the trip was serendipitous: in 1939 the two friends had missed the declaration of war because they were out cycling. In 1940 their trip to Exeter meant they were absent from London on the first days of the Blitz. It was an absence thousands of Londoners wished they could have shared.
. Quoted in Norman Longmate,
The Real Dad's Army
(London: Arrow Books, 1974).
. Quoted in Longmate,
The Real Dad's Army.
. âPrince Takes Final Dunkirk Veterans' Salute', Press Association (4 June 2000).Â
. Jay Iliff, âIt Was the First Time I'd Ever Seen a Dead Body',
(30 May 2000).
Ourselves in Wartime.
âA lot of life went on. Much depended on where one lived, or how young and silly one was.'
Peter Richards, a teenager in London
Saturday, 7 September 1940, marked a turning point in both the Second World War and in the history of London. From that day onwards the entire human geography of the city underwent change on an epic â and violent â scale. Thus far, only a number of RAF bases and a few ports and coastal towns had been raided and there had been death, but what was to follow was something different. As the teenage Bernard Kops later recalled: âThat day stands out like a flaming wound in my memory.'
On that day 375 German bombers made their way across Kent and approached London, while below the population had no idea what was happening. In his parents' Ealing home Roy Bartlett heard a noise that concerned him. At first it was a dull throbbing, somewhere in the distance. Then came the crump of anti-aircraft guns. He ran into the shop and found his parents and their customers outside staring eastwards into the sky.
Across London and south-east England, people could see the RAF fighters attacking the bomber fleet, but still the planes kept coming. As German planes reached south-east London, the bombs began to fall. Woolwich Arsenal, Becton gasworks, the power station at West Ham, Surrey Docks, Millwall, Rotherhithe, Limehouse, Tower Bridge â a vicious blow at London's industrial and trade heartland. As the docks
began to blaze, the sky lit up, acting as a beacon for the waves of bombers that followed. From eight that evening until four the next morning, a procession of 250 bombers unloaded high explosives and incendiary bombs on to the already flaming warehouses, factories and docks of east London.
Roy Bartlett ran to the top floor of the house: âWe had a panoramic view across London and on a clear day you could see the dome of St Paul's Cathedral. We didn't know what horror we would later see from that window.' As he looked across the city he watched the opening of a bombing campaign that would last for fifty-seven consecutive days. He was struck by the final realization of what war meant: âThis was real, this was it â it was the beginning of the Blitz and we were petrified. Although nothing was yet happening in West London, it was a totally new experience.' Roy, his parents and their customers all ran for the shelter where they sat as the enemy planes rained down incendiaries and high explosive bombs on to the East End. As he sat in the shelter, listening to the distant sounds of war, an ominous thought gripped him: âIs this the prelude to the invasion?'
At the centre of the inferno were the Surrey Docks where enormous stacks of timber burned with an inconceivable fury. London's firemen looked on in dismay as they pumped water on to the burning timbers. The heat was so intense that the water soon dried out and the timbers once more caught fire. In some cases the jets of water they aimed at the flames simply vaporized before they hit the target. As the fires raged, thousands of people crowded into railway arches, some of which were official, reinforced shelters, others were just part of a vast, and uncertain, sanctuary where fights broke out over floor space and prostitutes plied their trade.
In scenes that seemed like Armageddon, the vast stores of goods in the vaults of the dockside warehouses were set alight. Stocks of tea, shipped from the other side of the world, burned furiously while fireman laughed at the reversed situation in which cold water was poured on hot tea leaves. The flames also consumed warehouses full of sugar and barrels of every conceivable spirit. In the basins of the docks, burning sugar floated on the water, all the time giving off a sickly, sweet aroma. As the fires spread, even the wooden blocks used to construct some roads, caught fire, rendering streets impassable.
In the aftermath of the raid, many children poured on to the streets to see the terrible, if fascinating, results of the bombing. It wasn't difficult to locate: they simply followed the thick black plumes of smoke and the red glow that marked where the docks were burning. The temperatures rose as they got closer, until they reached the inferno. Flames were rising skywards and sparks were spitting out into the streets. Blackened and exhausted firemen were everywhere. The fires seemed to be alive, engulfing everything in their path. With the heat burning their skin and the fires threatening to suck them into the inferno, the children returned home.
That single Saturday afternoon and night cost the lives of 430 Londoners whilst a further 1,600 were seriously injured. Hundreds of homes were destroyed and business premises were razed to the ground. And it was just the beginning. The following night the raiders returned, killing more than 400 people, destroying more homes and businesses, and wrecking railway lines into the city. The Sunday night raid was the second day of what would be fifty-seven consecutive nights of bombing. That night, in nearby Bethnal Green, ten-year old Alf Morris watched the results of the raid: âThat's when I realized how bad the bombing was going to be. When they set the docks alight. You could read a newspaper from the light of the fires. It came home to you what a frightening thing war was.'
Immediately as the Blitz on London commenced, new rituals of life arrived. In the shelters, female ARP wardens took care of children who had been separated from their parents, comforting them or occupying their minds with games and conversation, in the hope that the children might forget the world outside. In the wake of the bombers came the heartrending search for family members â parents searched for their children as they tried to establish who had survived. In return, children traipsed the streets as they made their way from hospital to rescue centre in search of parents.
The morning after each raid saw whole families trudging through the streets laden with whatever they had salvaged from their homes â perhaps a clock, a few precious family photographs, a bundle of clothes or a few pots and pans. Parents carried small children or guided them by hand through the rubble, as prams were wheeled through the streets piled high with salvaged possessions. Children searched for their
favourite toys, rescuing dolls and teddy bears from the rubble of shattered homes â just something to comfort them in the days ahead as they settled into their new surroundings â wherever they might be.
In the worst hit areas, in the East End and around the docks, it seemed everyone knew someone who had been killed. On the day after the first raid one East End boy went to find his playmates, the twin boys he had been playing with the day before and had only gone in for tea just before the bombers arrived. He discovered the entire family had been wiped out.
Bereavement became a daily issue. Children found their parents blasted by high explosive or shredded by shrapnel. One child found her dead mother slumped in front of her dressing-table mirror; a single shard of glass had slit her throat. For rescue workers, there was the heartrending experience of having to rescue people from bombed homes. Awful as it was to pull dead and wounded adults from the rubble, there was the terrible issue of children's bodies. The twisted and burned corpses of children had an additional impact. Every father who did rescue work could not but imagine it was his own child or grandchild. Even when they pulled a live child from the rubble there was the terrible need to offer comfort to a child who might not survive or might live with their injuries for the rest of their life. What could they tell a child whose leg had been severed?
The people of London had something more than the horrors of war with which to contend. By night and day they rushed into air raid shelters at the sound of sirens. In an instant life stopped. Whether at work, shopping, sleeping or in a classroom, normal life was put on hold until the all-clear had sounded. The old routines were obliterated by the violence of war. Even in areas where few bombs were falling, the daily rush to the shelters turned their world upside down. It didn't take long for the disruptions to take their toll on the people. All across London, people were seen sleeping in the daytime, having cat-naps as they tried to catch up on lost sleep. Roy Bartlett remembered the scenes in his school:
Everyone was so tired, we were walking about like zombies. But we carried on going to school each day. It was not uncommon for pupils to fall asleep in lessons. On one occasion myself and some others had dozed
off. I awoke, looked up and saw that the teacher was asleep. You couldn't keep your eyes open. It was night after night after night. Then life took on a degree of normality. It was extraordinary how soon we were able to cope.
Newly returned to London, Terry Charles settled into the strange new reality of life in wartime. He had returned from evacuation just in time for war to hit London:
I only realized it later on that we had all adopted a frame of mind where you lived for the day. There was no future â tomorrow didn't exist. You might not be here tomorrow. If you were alive â good. But you couldn't think âCome summer we'll go to the seaside.' It was one day at a side. No one made a conscious decision. We all just grew into the mind frame.
Despite the horrors of the Blitz, the nation's children found a new game: collecting shrapnel. After air raids, they liked nothing more than to go hunting through the streets for the jagged shards of steel that had rained down from the skies. For collectors, some parts were more popular than others. Many children went searching for the elusive tail fins of incendiary bombs. Indeed, many children who searched for the tail fins were not actually certain they even existed. As some recalled, if the bombs burned how could there be tail fins scattered across London streets? Furthermore, whilst the children thought the pieces they found were from German bombs, most of the shrapnel was actually fragments of British anti-aircraft shells fired over the cities in an attempt to bring down the raiders.
As one of children who had remained in London when his classmates had been evacuated, and whose parents stopped him from leaving London once the Blitz started, Alf Morris had a âringside seat' for the destruction of the East End. He had watched the sky glowing as the docks burned and grown to accept the regular wail of the sirens as they announced the imminent arrival of more death and destruction. His mother had warned him not to venture too far from home, so that he could reach the shelter during daylight raids. Even at the height of the bombing, when his father suggested the whole family relocate, his mother remained steadfast: âNo, we'll be all right. We'll rough it in the shelters. We're not going to be evacuated.'
With many children having returned from evacuation, the schools had reopened, meaning Alf Morris did have some opportunities for education. It didn't last long: âWe started to get air raids during the day. It didn't matter when we were getting one a day, but when we were getting seven or eight each day, the teachers wouldn't take the responsibility. So they sent a note home to say the school would be closed.' Once again he was left to his own devices. Even when the school was open, Alf would take time off from school to work. His mother simply sent a note to school: âDear Miss so-and-so, my son wants to go hop picking in Kent.'
And so life continued against a backdrop of war. He stayed close to home in the daytime, for fear of an air raid, then at night the whole family took to the bunks of the Anderson shelter at the end of the garden, which had been built in the lee of the tall brick wall surrounding the local park. The Blitz, the casualties and the damage became the centre of conversation as people shared news about who had been killed, who was in hospital, who had been bombed out and where they were now living. As a child, Alf Morris found it easy to adapt to the uncertainty of living in a blitzed city: âSome people decided to leave the area, announcing, “I'm going to be evacuated.” You got used to it. People were being killed and buried. You got used to that, as well.' As he later admitted, the barrage of propaganda â Churchill's defiant speeches, the newspapers that proudly announced âLondon Can Take It', the newsreels â all helped. It bolstered the one thing that stood between them and disaster: their morale.
Then it was the turn of the Morris family and their neighbours to become the topic of the daily conversations:
A mine dropped in Meath Gardens, right behind our house. The mine dropped just behind the wall from our house. It hung in the trees and went off. Bang! It rocked the shelter. We all screamed and cried. When we came out, the house had gone. All the houses had gone. It had cleared the terraces all around.
Standing in the ruins of his home was an emotional experience for the ten-year-old Alf: âEverything was gone. I was crying and screaming. Mum said, “Shut it! Shut up!” Dad said, “There's no need for that.
You're not dead. You're not injured. The house is gone but it don't matter as long as we're all right.”' Pulling aside shattered wood, clambering over piles of bricks, roof tiles and shattered masonry, his mother entered the house: âShe had a dresser with all her
china on it. Every week she used to take it down and clean it. The house had gone, all the furniture was gone but that had survived.' The survival of their best china was nothing short of a miracle, but they no longer had anywhere to display it: âSo the next day Dad didn't go to work. We got boxes and recovered what we could from the rubble. We had to find somewhere to live.'
These were terrible times for children, as they saw the world they knew being torn apart. In the aftermath of air raids, Alf Morris saw dazed people wandering the streets, uncertain of what they should do or where they should go. After heavy raids, it became routine to walk through the streets, stepping over piles of rubble, tasting the dust in the air, feeling the heat radiating from charred buildings and watching dead bodies being carried from the ruins of homes. For children, there was something haunting about walking past bombsites they knew still contained the undiscovered bodies â and unclaimed souls â of so many dead.