Friday, 11 February 2011

A Wartime Childhood

Another piece which originally appeared in my Facebook 'Notes' section (before I started this blog). I wanted to share it with people, if only to pass on part of the lives of ordinary people who don't get to write the history books.


With the coverage of the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Britain and the beginning of the Blitz, I was reminded of a piece my dad wrote for the girls when they were doing WWII as part of KS2 History. Aged 9 when war broke out, his was very much the "Hope and Glory" type of war, but being a policeman's son, he gained certain insights into what was happening on the Home Front. His older brother was, unbeknown to us until fairly recently, taking down coded German transmissions at Bletchley Park, where the boffins were to de-code them using the Enigma machine. 

They are both now in their 80s, and these personal stories will not be around for many more years. I'm posting them for any of you who may be interested. In our self-obsessed modern world, it's humbling to think that for a generation of children there was a very real threat of death and destruction in their formative years.

Frank Hayward was born in 1930 in  Tonbridge, Kent. His dad was a policeman, and the family lived in a house at the County Police Headquaters in Maidstone. He has lots of memories of being a small boy in wartime - here are some of them.

"Well, what can I tell you about that time in history? The first thing is that I was not an evacuee and I stayed at home at Maidstone throughout the whole time. 

On the morning of Sunday 3rd September 1939 Neville Chamberlain made a wireless (radio) broadcast stating that a state of war now existed. Within a matter of minutes the Air Raid sirens started to sound. At that time I was a rather cherubic choirboy and the strains of the siren came to us through the chords of the organ while I was at choir practice. We were hurried back to the vestry where the vicar dismissed us with the words"we are in a moment of very great danger - I want you to hurry to your homes" I did not need a second telling. I ripped off my surplice and cassock and leapt through the vestry door, tripped over a tombstone and fell headlong on the ground, taking off a large piece of skin from my knee. Because of this I claim to be the first  civilian casualty of World War 2. 

Meanwhile, back home at Police Headquarters  the war machine had swung into action. All the Policemen were dressed in oilskin anti-gas equipment with their gas masks at the ready, were wearing their "tin hats" and were carrying rifles. I am told that my Mother had grabbed her gas mask, got it on sideways so that it stuck out from her right ear and proceeded to run round in circles. Let’s be fair - she could remember Zeppelin bombing raids on Ashford from the World War 1, so she was probably very scared.

And that was how it all started. Immediately the evacuation plans went into action and these were based on the idea that the areas at risk were the industrial centres mainly in the Midlands or North of the country. Most evacuation was to rural areas in this country although there were some who spent the whole six years of war in Canada or America.

We were not to know in those early days what pattern the conflict was to take. It seemed quite logical at that time that we in Kent were in a fairly safe area. More than 30 miles from London with no major manufacturing industries it seemed like a suitable place to send evacuees from major industrial cities. They were all paraded with labels attached to them showing their names, shoved onto trains and despatched to their new homes. Looking back now it must have been a dreadfully traumatic experience particularly as they were shoved into the first vacant place and were with complete strangers. 

Some homes were loving and kind but others less so and treated the children as sources of unpaid labour. In Maidstone, we were living in a very unreal world. My school had been taken over as a kitting-out depot by the Army and we had to attend another school for one half day a week. Lessons more or less ceased in those early days and quite frequently we were taken on educational walks to various local spots. The one I always remember was to an Oast House which was still functioning in its  role as a hop-drying kiln. (There are still Oast Houses in Kent but now they have nearly all been converted into expensive homes). 
Eventually things started to settle down and schooling started to return to normal.  We had a few evacuees with us from a Midlands town. One day we were reading sections of a book out loud and it came to the turn of one of the evacuees. You can imagine the howls and roars of laughter when a "dusty book" was described as a "doosty bewk". It wasn’t very kind, and I expect the poor boy is still smarting to this day but it does show some of the problems that arose from the way of life that had been forced on us. After all, in those days there was no television for us to hear people from other parts of the country and the wireless  only produced the very best ‘BBC accents’ so one end of the country had not previously heard how the other end spoke. 

We were now into what became known as the "phoney war" when nothing much seemed to be happening. People started to think that evacuation had just been a panicky move that was not really needed and large numbers started to drift home again. This was not to last and it all changed in the Spring of 1940 when phoney war turned into real war. One thing that affected us was the construction of  an air raid shelter in the school playground. Deep trenches were dug and pre-cast concrete sections were put in place, including roof sections, then it was all filled in again once more giving us a playground with ramps leading down to the underground shelter. There was electric lighting and tubular electric heating elements. In fact these shelters were not much used, just a few occasions as most of the  action took place in the school holiday, which for us at All Saints was extended due to several unexploded bombs in the area. But that all came later. [The shelter was not demolished until the 1970s, when Frank's daughter was at the same school, although she was never allowed to go down to look at them].

From now on the war became deadly serious. The Germans  had prepared for a mechanised high speed war, and the generals who were to be in charge of the invasion of Britain  realised that such an invasion could only take place when they were sure they had air supremacy. This led to the next stage which history now calls "THE BATTLE OF BRITAIN"

The situation  which led to the evacuation policy was now  changed and Kent, which had been thought to be safe was now just across the water from an enemy who was preparing to attack. Those evacuees that had stayed in the area rather than returning home were now to be part of our history and were eye witnesses to great air battles in the skies of South East England. Air Raids were a regular feature of everyday life and it was quite common to have as many as eight alarms in a day. The wailing sirens were such a part of life that after a while we tended to ignore them until the sound of aircraft made the danger very real. Then we ducked and ran for cover. We became quite accustomed to seeing aircraft falling out of the sky, both German and British, and on one occasion I can recall seeing seven parachutes in the air at the same time. This was not a display but men who had jumped to save their lives. 

I vividly recall the time when a shot down Air Force pilot was walking along the path in front of the Police Headquarters with a great bundle of white silk in his arms (his parachute) and he was laughing, as well he might, for he had got out of his Hurricane at the last possible moment when it was too late for the parachute to fully open and he was saved when the silk canopy become entrapped by the branches of the tree into which he fell. His shoes were ripped by shell splinters and his helmet was peppered with small holes of a similar nature. He was lucky to be alive and he knew it. His main worry was that it was his commanding officer’s "kite" (plane) that he had just lost but he thought he might be forgiven as he had just shot down three enemy aircraft. 

Living at the Police Headquarters gave me some special privileges, including the fact that there were cells available which were used to house shot down German airmen  awaiting collection by the military authorities. The overnight jailer was PC Harrington and his son Bill was my best friend. Bill collected autographs from many of the German pilots. I remember the first one which read :- "It has long been my desire to visit England but I hoped not in this way". Another that I particularly remember was because when he came down the steps to the awaiting car he was in his socks with no shoes. That man was Baron Von Werra, who was to achieve great fame following his escape in Canada and making his way back to Germany - these exploits were contained in the book "The One That Got Away".  One pilot demanded to be taken to the nearest German Field Headquarters as he thought the invasion had started! Others just sat there silently and sombrely not believing that it was possible that they had been captured. 

For the first time the civilian population was involved in full scale warfare. There were injuries, deaths, lost and damaged homes and this continued after the Battle of Britain with the night Blitz which hammered London. One evening my Mother had looked out of the back door and came back looking quite ill and said "The whole world is on fire." That was London burning and we could see it from 35 miles away! I fear that many evacuees who had returned home were wishing they had not done so. The Blitz was directed against London but it still affected us as we were on the flight path so were kept awake each night by the prolonged procession of bombers making their way to and from London with heavy anti-aircraft gunfire following them along the route. 

We young lads had prized collections of "shrapnel" which were shell splinters, and the really prized possession was a shell nose cap which I never had. We did not escape damage during this time as it was quite common for the raiding aircraft to fail to find their target so on the way home they would jettison their bomb load on any town that appeared in their sights. One such occasion led to a bomb landing in the sports field behind Police Headquarters, and it hit the upright of the Goal post leaving just the cross bar, the opposite upright and a large crater below. This bomb created a loud bang and a bright flash which woke my friend Bill Harrington. His family occupied a special flat over one of the offices with a corridor running from one end to the other. Bill leapt from his bed and made his way along this corridor in pitch blackness with his arms stretched out in front of him. Someone had left the bathroom door open. One arm went on either side of the door and Bill made contact with the edge of the door on his face. He ended up with a beautiful example of a black eye, a real "shiner". We didn’t laugh - much!

With the coming of Spring we wondered whether we should see a return to the pattern of the year before with daylight raids but to our surprise it did not happen. Instead the sky was full of Spitfires gathering into large formations and heading off for offensive fighter sweeps over northern France. Soon  all became clear when the German invasion of Russia started and this changed the whole balance of the war. Raids still continued for the next few years but only a shadow of what they had been. Life became fairly peaceful so far as enemy action was concerned at home but battles raged throughout Africa and Italy and the tempo increased once America became involved. With the invasion of Europe,D-Day, we thought that at last we were coming up to the end. It was not that easy, though, and as history tells us, it took a further eleven months. 

It was exactly seven days after D-Day that the first flying bomb - doodlebug -  arrived. It was no surprise to the authorities, who had known about them for some time, and  were so prepared for this new weapon that we already had a code word, (“Diver-Diver-Diver") to announce the first sighting and a heavily fortified alley of anti- aircraft guns was lined up in what later became known as "Doodlebug Alley" There is a funny story about that night, 11th June 1944. We were awakened by  strange aircraft flying in noisily with lights on. The Duty Constable  called and said the Chief Constable had requested that all families should go down to the basement under headquarters which had always been our Air Raid Shelter. No explanation was given at the time. 

Some days later the story filtered through to us. At Ashford, nearer to coast, a batch of American soldiers had arrived straight from the US, never having seen any form of action. The moon came out from behind a cloud and lit up dozens of shell bursts which had been fired at the Doodlebugs. An inexperienced US soldier mistakenly identified them as parachutes and raised the alarm for a counter- invasion. 

A little known fact is that on this disturbing night we in Maidstone had another factor to consider. Shells from the long-range guns at Calais landed on the town. One was within a few hundred yards of the bridge over the River Medway (pretty good shooting at that range - about 80 miles). Apparently, Hitler was convinced that the Normandy landings were a bluff and the main assault would still come across the Pas de Calais and that the bridge at Maidstone would be a key item. 

This was the beginning of a very nasty period and with hardly any delay a new evacuation was put into operation but this time it was taking people out of Kent instead of into it. I had an Aunt who lived near Dover who wrote to us saying "it is terrible down here, can I come and stay with you?" She came and stayed just one night before going home again. As she said, in her area there were lots of doodlebugs but they went over. At Maidstone they were being shot down all round us. 

We saw the lot. Those that were shot down, those that were tipped by our aircraft (not as many as people now think) and those that just stopped and came down. The first jet aircraft I ever saw was a Gloster Meteor, a very early one that had been flown in as it had the speed required to tackle these Doodlebugs. It whooshed in apparently from nowhere attacking head on, the Doodlebug exploded in a large orange ball of fire and the Meteor went straight through it in a powerful climb. Most impressive. The only other aircraft that could cope with the speed was the Hawker Tempest but the good old faithful Spitfire did valiant work by cruising high and then diving into the attack. This campaign lasted for several weeks but as the allied forces moved up the French coast so the Germans lost their launch sites.

Some kept coming, though, and in some cases  were released from bombers flying up the Thames Estuary. Hard on the heels of this attack from V1s (the official name for doodlebugs) came the V2s. These were large powerful rockets which had to be launched from hard fixed sites. They had terrifying destructive power and arrived at such a speed that they had hit and exploded before you could hear them coming. A lot of damage was done and many people were killed by both of the "V" weapons and fully justified the evacuations that took place. However, the progress of the armies eventually robbed the Germans of any viable launching sites and it was becoming quite obvious what the final outcome of the war would be. There were a few moments of danger  but to us it was becoming quite clear how it would end. Evacuees returned to their homes, the Blackout was replaced by a Dim-out and when it all ended on the 8th May 1945 the conflict in Europe was over. There was another war going on in the Far East against the Japanese but that was so far away and although it is not fair to all those valiant soldiers involved we tended to forget it. After all, there was no home front and we didn’t need to evacuate anybody.

So that is the end of my tale. It is important to know about events happened to create the need for evacuation and what was happening during that period that was either missed or enjoyed by those that were evacuated. I am sure there are lots of ageing men and women who now can look back and recall with pride stories they can tell to their grandchildren of those far-off heroic days when life hung by a thread and to realise the debt we owe to those who paid the price of our present freedom.

Frank always loved aeroplanes and after the war he did National Service in the Royal Air Force and was able to fly planes  himself. He still has very strong memories of wartime and what it was like growing up then - it was frightening but also very exciting at times

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