What did you do in the war? Part 2

Peter Batten continues his memories of a terrifying time…

First I need to retrace my steps a little. As soon as war was declared in September 1940 children were evacuated from London. But not every child. Some parents, including mine, decided that their children would not be evacuated. Probably their thinking was, “If we are going to die we will all die together”. This may surprise you, but I am sure it is true.

In 1939 I had begun piano lessons. My teacher, who had an eye for opportunities, opened a small school in his house for children remaining in London. This was a happy little unit of about 8 boys, which I attended until the Blitz began and we departed for Essex.My uncle’s bungalow at Laindon, on the line to Southend, has long-since vanished beneath Basildon Town Centre, but in 1940 it was on the edge of a whole shanty town which had grown up after WW1. I had only to cross the road to be in open fields or to pay a visit to the local farm for eggs. Our family dog had come with us from London and enjoyed some of the happiest days of its life. Although German bombers were passing overhead every night we were in little danger. On the first weekend of our stay I went out with my aunt to collect some mushrooms from a field occupied by a herd of cows. We had just made some excellent finds when we heard machine-gun fire, probably from a German aircraft. We dived into the ditch at the side of the field and stayed there for a few minutes until all aircraft noise ceased. That kind of incident plus the shrapnel falling from our anti-aircraft guns was the only danger we faced in that part of Essex. Our own fighter aircraft from the nearby airfield at Hornchurch were constantly passing overhead.

London boy evacuees with gas masks

I really should say something about gas masks, but my memory of them is a bit vague. I am sure that as soon as the war began we were all given masks. These were very simple ones for civilians, while the police and firemen, for example, were given more elaborate, and probably more effective, equipment. When you got them they were just in a cardboard box, so you needed some better way of carrying them about. Some companies immediately cashed in by providing cases. These consisted of a bag which fitted neatly around the mask, with a strap which you could put over your shoulder. I can clearly remember that my parents bought me a smart one in some kind of red plastic. At first, everyone was carrying the masks with them all the time, as we had been advised. By the autumn of 1940 when we went to Laindon we were still carrying them, because I remember a great fuss at school when a girl’s mask got damaged. At some point, fairly soon after that, it must have been decided that there was little danger of a gas attack, so everyone gave up carrying them. I can’t remember exactly when that was.

I went to the local Essex school, which was in a quite new building, unlike my London School, which was built in the 1880s. But, best of all, this school had playing fields as well as a playground. Although the local children rather resented the few new arrivals from London, I enjoyed my time there. On quiet summer days in 1941 the war seemed very far away.

That was not the case for my father and my uncle, or for my cousin Maud, who soon began her working life. They had to be up at about 6am every day except Sunday to catch the train to London’s Fenchurch Street Station. From there they went on to work by bus. At first, as the Blitz intensified, they had no idea what they might find when they arrived. Would Fenchurch Street even be there? Would there be somewhere for them to work? Even more important, would our homes still be standing? We were fortunate to come through that dreadful time with so little loss. When I woke up each day they were long gone and did not return until about 7pm.

In the next edition, I will share my thoughts with you as I look back on those awful years.

[If you have memories of your childhood – in wartime or more recently – please send them to The Whistler at West Hill Hall, Compton Avenue, BN1 3PS or email whwhister@aol.com – Ed]

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