Saturday, 26 November 2016
A Pre-Schooler's View of WW2
I was born in June 1940 and my mother always maintained this was so I would be in time to get to know The Blitz. Like all children born in that period my first five years was a time when The War with all that it entailed was simply part of daily living and it did not occur to any of us that life could be any different. In fact when I was given a red, white and blue hair ribbon and told by my elated mother that now The War was finally over, I was perturbed because I wondered what would happen to us all. How could we go about our lives with no war to worry about? It was not until many years had passed that I came to realise how great the bomb damage had been in Gravesend and the surrounding areas. I had naively imagined, if indeed I thought about the matter at all, that most English towns must have suffered similarly. The fact that the industry of the area was heavily involved in war oriented manufacture escaped me for decades. The major factories nearby were Bevans Cement Works in Northfleet where my father later worked, Bowaters on The Undershore where apparently anti- aircraft guns were made, Henley’s in Crete Hall Road producing gas masks as well as a number of essential items like under water fuel piping and wiring for Radar installation, Northfleet Paper Mills presumably producing newspaper print, and Aero Ltd engaged in churning out fuel and oil tanks for the Spitfire and Sunderland flying boats. Of course to add to the general all round attraction of the area as far as the enemy was concerned, there was also Gravesend Airport nearby which was in fact a satellite station to Biggin Hill not to mention Cooling Radio Station on the marshes. The latter was home to a highly secret enterprise engaged in relaying telephone calls between Churchill and Roosevelt. Most exciting! My introduction to bombing started when I was four days old with an Incendiary raid when over a thousand bombs were dropped on Northfleet High Street and surrounding streets. In mid August that year, one hundred and eight High Explosive Bombs were dropped on Waterdales, Preston Road, Detling Road, London Road and Bowaters Paper Mills. Apparently the school at Rosherville was badly damaged, twenty nine people were killed, eighteen seriously injured and ten had minor injuries. On the first day of September bombs fell around the Canal basin area and four days later one landed on 16 Pelham Road, Gravesend completely demolishing the house whilst more than sixty surrounding homes were damaged. The same day houses in Peter Street were destroyed as well as others in New House Lane. More mayhem reigned down on the A2 Road and the local golf course. So by the time I was three months old I had become completely accustomed to explosions of various kinds, and a mother who was, of necessity, becoming more and more hysterical and very afraid of what might happen next. You could say her heightened concern was understandable under the circumstances. Fortunately for us, York Road seemed to escape the general devastation. Perhaps at that point we even began to feel almost comfortable with the situation. However, September 1940 was to see a great deal more enemy action. Swanscombe, and Gravesend were both heavily targeted. Gravesend suffered missiles in Rochester Road, Clarence Row and John Street and there was damage to the railway line at Denton Halt, the training ship Cornwall, Denton Isolation Hospital, the Sewage Disposal Works, the Sea Wall, The Promenade and the Golf Links. In addition a number of unexploded bombs forced closure of major roads including the A2 and Pepper Hill. In one particular raid in the space of just over an hour approximately one hundred incendiary bombs fell in fields and allotments around the town. An hour later another fifty fell on open ground. Fortunately these caused no damage and no casualties. The German bombing crews were clearly not paying a great deal of attention to targeting at this stage. At the very end of the month to keep us on our toes oil bombs were dropped in fields near Bourne Road, again causing no damage or casualties. But the increasing frequency of the raids indicated that things were undoubtedly hotting up and young mothers grew even more alarmed at the prospect of what might lie ahead for their small children. Those as young as me, however, were by now completely used to the nightly blasts and general commotion. October opened with one hundred Incendiary bombs falling on the Milton Rifle Range, Filborough Marshes and East Court Farm during an early morning raid astonishingly only resulting only in slight damage to the farm house. Again those young Germans responsible for targeting were not paying full attention to the task they were engaged in. By the sixth of the month the activity was edging closer to us when the High Street in Northfleet was attacked just after midnight leaving three people dead and six seriously injured. Two days later just after eight in the evening, fifty Incendiaries fell on the marshes and along the Lower Higham Road near the river but no one was hurt. The next day when we visited Old Aunt Martha in Hamerton Road she talked a great deal about the number of devices that had landed overnight in nearby Stonebridge Road . The remainder of the month saw more lively action from the enemy including a great deal of damage around the Kings Farm Estate and Sports Ground area. Houses were flattened in Cedar Road and water service pipes were fractured. The Imperial Paper Mills Sports Field was hit, as was the Wesleyan Church in Milton Road. Various areas of the town now came under relentless attack and the village of Chalk was the recipient of its first bomb which killed two, seriously injured one and slightly injured four people. On the very last day of October two High Explosive devices fell on the County School for Boys causing widespread damage. The Prince of Wales Public House was destroyed as well as Denton Post Office and Co-op and several houses in East Milton Road, Denton Street, Elliott Street and Empress Road. Astonishingly no one was injured. November saw similarly heavy attacks though now with increasing casualties, the most significant being the raid on Swanscombe when the Star Public House received a direct hit and was totally destroyed during a darts match killing twenty seven people and seriously injuring six. The attack on The Star affected the local populace significantly because it seemed that everyone knew one of the victims. My mother said later that she walked me to Swanscombe in my pram and stood observing the completely gutted building that once had been the popular local pub, astonished that such carnage had taken place and wondering when, if ever, it would end and if it was possible that we would survive it. A major attack took place on December eighth at seven in the evening with bombs falling hour after hour on the town and its environs. Then there was a strange lull in the activity perhaps because the Germans became preoccupied with the celebration of Christmas or simply because they themselves needed a rest. Whatever the reason the next aerial attack did not happen until the middle of January 1941. Our street had survived the general conflict of 1940 with the exception of a few shattered windows. We and our neighbours were largely unharmed with merely frayed nerves and stories of what had happened to friends nearby to relate to the curious. And so our experience of the war at home meandered along in a similarly predictable manner throughout 1941, 1942 , 1943 and the first half of 1944 when I was four years old and by that time very much a pre-school war veteran. We three and four year olds of York Road were by then completely accustomed to broken sleep, air raid sirens and middle of the night dashes to the Anderson Shelter. We knew that danger came primarily from the sky and most of the boys and at times the occasional girl could identify German aircraft with accuracy and precision. We girls were generally more interested in our mothers being able to somehow appropriate parachute silk to turn into white dresses for Sunday best and weddings. We knew exactly what to do in an emergency the greatest of which would be if we heard church bells ringing. Then we must at once stop play and consult the nearest adult because the ringing of church bells meant only one thing; Invasion! We had little idea, however, what this word Invasion actually meant. Our world comprised largely of women, our over protective and increasingly nervous mothers, some of whom crossed themselves frequently and whispered prayers when the sirens went, our aunts and grandmothers and the spinster ladies who lived nearby with their cats. We were largely unfamiliar with men except the grandfathers who grew marrows and potatoes in back yards and made toys out of odd bits of wood and fencing wire. Our fathers had long gone with all the young men to serve in Army, Navy or Air Force. We were to become the generation who would within a few years harbour a great deal of hostility for the returning fathers who expected open armed welcomes from delighted sons and daughters. That euphoric greeting was unlikely to come from those of us who had been born in 1939 or 1940 and had no memory of a father and little idea of what his role in a family might be. In July 1944, however, we had little comprehension of what the future relationship with our fathers might be and so we were contented in the way young children always are when they have the undivided attention of loving mothers and grandparents despite the fact that they are living in the midst of a major war with all the deprivations that might entail. As I said, most of us were now troupers and nothing much could disturb our equilibrium – or so we thought! The bubble of well-being was about to be blown apart when in the early hours of a Tuesday in mid June the very first Flying Bomb, the V1 soon to be christened The Doodlebug fell on waste land in Swanscombe signalling the start of the Flying Bomb Offensive. The V1s did far more to rupture the collective psyche of the people of Kent than anything the previous bombing raids had achieved. From the comparative safety and security of 2016 it is difficult to describe the depth of fear they inculcated, the growing alarm when the first faint far off tick tick of the motor was heard; alarm that rapidly turned to full blown terror as the missile came closer issuing the stutter that signalled that the engine was about to die. The ensuing silence when everyone seemed to become rooted to the spot, immobile, waiting for it to fall. The Doodlebug did what all previous aerial weaponry had failed to do, seeming to break the spirit of those on the Home Front who had survived with so much determination until then! And when it was followed some months later by the V2 which came silently, totally without warning and did infinitely more damage, local mothers simply breathed sighs of relief and grasped what was left of their British Determination. Somehow the V2, said to be Adolf Hitler’s ultimate secret weapon, simply didn’t cut the mustard!