What did you do in the war? Part 3

Peter Batten continues his memories of a terrifying time…

By December 1941 the Blitz had come to an end. There were very few night raids. So our families decided to return to London and celebrate Christmas in our own homes.

The days passed peacefully. It was time for me to find a new school. After a temporary placement for two weeks I finally enrolled at Monnow Road School, very close to my home. This was an ‘All-in’ school for pupils aged from 5 to 14 (14 was the school leaving age at that time). The range of ability in my class was considerable, including one or two children whose special needs extended to help with incontinence. The average class size was about 30. My impression was that the teachers, some of whom should have retired, did a very good job. I certainly respected their dedication.

For me, this was a quiet period in the war. I settled happily at Monnow Road, I returned to my piano lessons and I even had the chance to play football in the school team. The Nazi attempt to dominate Europe and the World was being contained and gradually defeated. I was already quite an avid reader, so I followed the news with interest.

Then one night everything changed. It must have been early in 1944. There was an air raid during the night. We woke up and went out to the shelter in the garden. Nothing much seemed to be happening, so I stood with my father in the garden, looking up at the sky to the East. German bombers usually came from that direction. Suddenly there was aircraft noise, anti-aircraft guns and rockets started to fire and the sky lit up with searchlights. Then we saw what looked like a plane on fire. It started to come down and then there was an explosion, presumably as it hit the ground. Then we saw a similar burning plane come down and another. My father and I were still outside the shelter and quite excited. “We are really shooting them down tonight” we agreed.

V1-detailsketchThe next day we listened to the news on the radio and read the paper (the Mirror was our choice). We had quite a shock. Our anti-aircraft defences had not had a night of unusual success. The burning planes we had seen were V1 flying bombs. The flames were their exhausts and when the fuel ran out these bombs simply crashed into London. So we entered a period of disruption which lasted until the end of the war in 1945. V1s, the ‘Doodlebugs’ as they came to be called, were launched at any time of the night or day, so could arrive overhead at any time. The schools could only provide limited shelter, so children like myself with a parent at home were told to stay at home to reduce the risk of casualties.

We soon became familiar with the droning sound of the Doodlebugs’ primitive engines. This meant that the pattern of a daylight raid might be like this: first, the sirens would sound, though this was not always fool-proof. Sometimes a V1 would defeat the Radar so that it could be heard approaching as the sirens were sounding. Then, the V1 would be heard. The next few moments were critical. If it passed over your head you could relax. It would fall on some unlucky people a little further on. If its engine stopped as it was coming toward you, you needed to take shelter immediately. When the engine stopped the V1 would begin to veer off and come down either to the right or left. Often people were so hardened to the experience that they would stay out of shelter to see where the V1 was heading until it was almost down. This was a risk, because the V1s carried a very powerful explosive charge.

During the spring of 1944, amid the disruption, I took the equivalent of the 11-plus exam. Some weeks later a letter arrived which told my parents that I could apply for a place at any of the Grammar schools in our area. This was a problem. Nobody in my family had been to such a school, so my parents were quite unfamiliar with the process. However, the problem was resolved quite simply because the only Grammar School which was easily accessible from my home was St Olave’s and St Saviour’s Grammar School, close to Tower Bridge and about 1 mile from our house. Fortunately I was accepted.

So the final year of the war was upon us and I was faced with a new experience. The Doodlebugs were still flying in and making everyone feel quite scared. As a boy of 11 I was fortunate; my nerves were not too badly affected by this threat. Many adults were not so lucky.

But a new source of terror was about to arrive. If you can bear one more article I will tell you about it. I will also sum up my thoughts about the experience of living through a war, when I look back after 70 years.

[If you have memories of your childhood please send them to The Whistler – Ed]

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