Features

What did you do in the War?

Peter Batten remembers a terrifying time…

Recently a member of my family said to me, “You are always telling little anecdotes about things that happened in WW2, why don’t you put them all together for us?” So here is my response. I hope you find it interesting.

Woman: “Is it all right now, Henry?” Man: “Yes, not even scratched.”

Woman: “Is it all right now, Henry?”
Man: “Yes, not even scratched.”

Two days stand out among my memories of WW2. The first is the 3rd September 1939. I was 6 years old. I knew that my parents were anxious about a possible war with Germany, but I really did not understand what that might involve. Even though an ‘Anderson’ shelter with great metal sheets had been delivered to our house and I had watched my father dig a hole for it in our small garden, piling the earth on top, I did not believe it would ever be needed. Then on that fatal Sunday I was in the kitchen while my parents listened to Chamberlain on the radio telling them that war had been declared.

Just over a year later, on a sunny September Saturday afternoon, I was helping my father in the garden and playing with my newly acquired dog. I believe it was the 7th. Suddenly the air-raid sirens rang out. My mother came into the garden and we stood ready to go into the shelter. My father and I looked eastwards, toward the line of the Thames. We began to see a very large formation of aircraft heading towards us. In fact there was more than one formation. I remember my father saying they must surely be “ours”, because they seem to be coming on in such a calm, confident fashion. Then, suddenly, gunfire began and we dived for the shelter.

It was the first day of the Blitz. German bombs set petrol storage tanks on fire along the Thames only about a mile from my home. That night they returned and dropped many more bombs by the light of the fires which were still burning. We spent the night in the shelter. Our situation was very dangerous. Our house was less than a mile from the river and its docks. Between us and the river, high on huge brick arches, ran the main line railway from London Bridge to Kent, Surrey and Sussex. That was to the north. To the south, less than half a mile away, was the huge rail freight depot of Bricklayers Arms, with the sheds where all the engines used in that part of the railway were stored and serviced. The Germans surely knew that any bombs dropped in the triangle formed by the Boroughs of Bermondsey and Rotherhithe would be likely to strike an important Target. Thousands of civilians lived in those Boroughs; their lives were at risk.

In September 1940 I was just seven years old. In the week that followed, the first raid of the Blitz bombs hit the streets of Bermondsey every night. We spent the nights in our shelter. When we emerged in the mornings we found that more and more of the houses around us had been bombed. At this point in the Blitz most of the bombs appeared to be small. They would destroy perhaps 2 houses in a terrace of 20, leaving ugly gaps like the teeth in an old person’s mouth. Before long it might be our turn.

One week into the Blitz my uncle John took charge. During the 1920s he had built a weekend bungalow at Laindon, a village in Essex on the railway line to Southend. He decided that my aunt Margaret and my cousin Maud, my parents and me – their only child – should cram ourselves into the small bungalow where we would hope to be safe from German air raids. So, on the second Saturday in September, we took the train from Fenchurch Street, carrying a few of our possessions. A new chapter in my life began.

To be continued in the next issue…

 

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