Our member Peter Huggins contributes some interesting, observations and impressions drawn from his recollections of life as a schoolboy in wartime Britain both under the bombs and as an evacuee.
The Royal British Legion
Childhood Memories of WWII in London
My parents and I spent most of WWII in an area then considered particularly dangerous, Shooters Hill in South East London on the side facing the Thames, Woolwich and Greenwich. Woolwich Arsenal was at the time the most important arms factory in Britain. It was a major target for bombing, along with the Matchless/AJS motorcycle factory close to the Arsenal. Motor bikes played a major role in the war and my father worked as a maintenance electrician in the factory which manufactured them. He had been transplanted there as a key war worker from an agreeable peacetime job supervising the installation of giant ceiling fans in ocean liners and restaurants of the Café Royal ilk.
Woolwich, Greenwich, Poplar, East and West Ham were major dockland bomb targets. Woolwich and Greenwich, with the Royal Artillery barracks, the Royal Military Academy near Shooters Hill and the Royal Naval (RN) College in Greenwich were also prime targets. In nearby Kidbrooke, there was a Royal Air Force (RAF) glider base and some intelligence activity, a precursor of the Joint Services School for Linguists (JSSL). (After several moves over the years, the JSSL settled in its final home at Crail near St. Andrews. I learned Russian there during my national service in the RN.) On the Kentish side of Shooters Hill, on the site of a peacetime golf course, there was an anti-aircraft battery and camps for German and Italian prisoners of war (PoWs). PoW football teams played British teams, perhaps mainly from the Royal Artillery, on Saturdays. Below these was the only farm in London on the boundary with Kent. Some PoWs worked there towards the end of the war. When he was not tending machine tools at the motorcycle factory, my father had spells of duty with the Home Guard on the anti-aircraft battery above the PoW camps. Sustenance for this job included sausages (bangers) which were a rare treat for the civilian population. My father would sometimes smuggle a pre-fried portion home to the delight of the family.
The name 'Shooters Hill' suited the anti-aircraft battery well. The name probably derived from the many highwaymen who prowled the hill in earlier horse-drawn stage coach days. This reflected the importance of the road from London to Canterbury and Dover as well as the extensive woodland on the hill providing them cover. There are still stone steps at the top of Shooters Hill which were used for mounting stage coaches.
I was born in January 1938 in Greenwich. Hoping that the war would be short, in 1939 my father sent my mother, elder brother and myself to stay with my mother's parents at their farm in Ardfield, near Clonakilty in West Cork. Ireland was a neutral country so not militarily involved in the war, although it was economically much affected by it .We stayed there for about a year spanning the Phoney War (Sep. 39/May 40) period. My grandparents' farm sloped down towards the sea and some very beautiful coves and beaches. The farmhouse was called Ballyva House and was quite big. It is no longer owned by my family but the present owners have retained the house name. Although it had a spacious lounge with a grand piano, it lacked both running water and electricity. I spent happy holidays there in later years, even milking cows and driving a pony and two-wheeled trap. Milk had to be taken to the Ardfield creamery by cart every day. On Sunday we had a luxury varnished trap to go to Mass. I learned to make 'soda bread' on a turf (=peat) fire using a huge iron pot. My brother went to school in Ardfield during our 1939/1940 stay so he was well known to people in the village when he visited Ballyva in later years. He learned some Irish which was compulsory at school. My mother's parents spoke Irish as their first language. The schoolmaster, the doctor, the parish priest and the Church of Ireland vicar were key figures in Ardfield. Many of the pupils at school with my brother were poor but they all learned to read and write well. The village schoolmaster commanded great respect, set high standards and did not allow any of his pupils to leave school without a good basic education. We returned to London in time for the Blitz. This lasted from September 1940 to May 1941. Our return did not foresee this. In 1940 people still expected the war to be short.
Evacuation; Birth of a Brother
After the return from Ireland, my elder brother Bernard spent much of the war as an evacuee in Torquay. We had frequent letters from him and visited him once for his birthday. It was a long journey then in trains with steam locomotives and with delays because of war damage. Torquay seemed to me very exotic and my family visited it many years later. We stayed several times with friends in Brixham to the West within Torbay. During National Service I was to learn from a fellow coder that not only did Torquay have palm trees and an elegant promenade but was also the home of Callard's bread, the finest in Britain.
My younger brother John was born in May 1942 in Paddock Wood, Kent, in a maternity unit moved for safety from Greenwich. Perhaps my earliest really vivid memory of childhood is the taxi expedition with my father to fetch my mother and the new baby. The taxi hire doubtless involved special permission. Fuel in 1942 was scarce and most private cars were stored away for the duration. My father dug a clump of wild primroses from a roadside bank near Paddock Wood. They were planted at home to thrive in our garden, a happy memento of an exciting excursion in beautiful Kent far from much bombed Woolwich. Paddock Wood is in the land of hops and oast houses, the heart of the garden of England.
Shooters Hill in the War; The Royal Herbert Hospital
The Eltham side of Shooters Hill is woodland. It is in the direction of Croydon, then home to a major airport. It was the site for a set of anti-aircraft barrage balloons at the highest point in South London. Others were sited near the anti-aircraft battery on the other side of the hill facing towards N. E. Kent and the Thames estuary. At the foot of Shooters Hill, towards Kidbrooke, was the Royal Herbert Hospital. This was very busy during the War because getting injured soldiers back to the front was a top priority. The Royal Herbert Hospital was the army's main orthopaedic centre as it had been ever since it was founded in 1865 by Sidney Herbert under the inspiration of Florence Nightingale. She provided guidance based on her experience of nursing in the Crimean War (1853/1856). This was reflected in the pavilion lay-out of the hospital which maximised light and ventilation in the wards. During WWII the hospital had some 650 beds. The HQ of the Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC) was across the road. The Royal Military Academy was a short walk away towards Woolwich. Patients there were mostly Royal Artillery soldiers but there were others from all the services and even Luftwaffe aircrews shot down along the Thames. There were separate wards for Luftwaffe officers and non-commissioned officers (NCOs). A few nurses fell in love with German prisoners and subsequently married them at the end of the war. Amor vincit omnia.
The Herbert Hospital Chapel
My recollection of the Royal Herbert Hospital is vivid because, with my family, I attended Mass in the Chapel of the hospital every Sunday morning at 8.30. We were guests of the Anglican community who were the custodians of the chapel. In those pre-oecumenical days, we had to emphasise our distinct faith and we had a small movable altar which was wheeled in and out before and after Mass. Surprisingly, I don't recall any checks on entry to the hospital. We just walked in and found our way to the chapel. We carried Roman Missals which were perhaps our unofficial entry pass. Much of the congregation consisted of servicemen in light blue hospital suits with white shirts and red ties. I suppose that many of them were hoping that their recovery would be slow enough for them not be sent back to active service hastily. There were also benches with doctors and nurses. There were always a few Indian soldiers, I suppose mostly from Goa and Kerala. Several benches in church were reserved for German and Italian PoWs from the Kent side of Shooters Hill. They were guarded by armed British soldiers at the end of their benches. After a certain date, the Italians were no longer PoWs because Italy surrendered to the Allies in September 1943. They were a jolly bunch, merged with the rest of the congregation and worked around Shooters Hill as gardeners and odd-job men. Many of them, as well as the German prisoners freed later, stayed in Britain after the war. Some of the Italians set up cafés in Woolwich, the gastronomic heart of which had previously been Manze's 'Eel and Pie Shop'. Espresso coffee replaced coffee substitutes.
Mass was sometimes said by our parish priest, an austere French Canadian, Canon Monk but there was also a jolly Irish priest, Fr. Flanagan. There was also a wonderful German priest, Fr. Schultz and an equally marvellous Dutch priest, Fr. Veenrother both of whom had been stranded in Britain at the outbreak of war. We went to the hospital chapel because it was close to our home. Our parish church was St. Peter's in the centre of Woolwich, one of the first Catholic churches to be built in Britain after the Reformation. I was an altar server at the church under the professional command of our Master of Ceremonies (MC) who was a Brigadier. The church was handsomely designed by Pugin and, inter alia, served Catholic deportees to Australia in its early years. They were quartered on hulks moored along the Thames at Woolwich whilst awaiting their long journey.
For adults, the air raids were terrifying. For a small boy, they were an exciting adventure. Sometimes the raids were huge and spectacular. Occasionally we could see St. Paul's illuminated by the flames from surrounding buildings. The Blitz lasted from 7th. September 1940 to 11th. May1941. As the war progressed, with my mischievous friends, we would search fresh bombsites for items of interest. Once, close to my Kindergarten near the Herbert Road half way between Shooters Hill and Woolwich centre, a school was destroyed overnight by bombing. The one thing left standing in the smoking ruins was a piano with a stool. With two or three friends I sat in front of the keyboard bashing out what noise we could until a policeman or fireman caught up with us and sent us flying. Within the bombed buildings, we planted 'camps' where we could make fires and bake potatoes. We collected shrapnel, attributing high value to bits that had any distinctly German characters. A bit with traces of a German place of manufacture was worth a premium. We occasionally saw aerial dog-fights over Woolwich and further down the Thames. The British fighters came from Biggin Hill, a few miles into Kent from Shooters Hill. Some of the German planes came from just over the Channel between Calais and Boulogne. One German plane was brought down about half a mile from my home. It was quickly surrounded by firemen, air raid wardens and the like. I think the crew survived and were sent to the Herbert Hospital. Some older boys claimed to be able to recognise German planes by their engine noise: Messerschmidt, Fokker-Wulff, Heinkel, Stuka and so on. A somewhat forgotten aspect of the bombing is that the blackout led to many night-time accidents. Vehicles moving with hooded lights were involved in frequent crashes. Pedestrians were often struck by vehicles in the darkness
The Royal Family in the War
Shortly before WWII, the Royal Family and the monarchy as an institution had been severely challenged by the Edward VIII abdication crisis. King George VI had inherited the throne in difficult circumstances. Although well-liked, the King was somewhat shy and unassuming. He did, however, have valuable assets in the Queen and two charming daughters. Very special bonds were to grow between the Royal Family and the British people during WWII. At the very beginning of the war, on 3rd. September 1939, the King gave an historic speech to the nation. This consolidated the trust between the monarchy and the people which was a major asset in facing difficult times. The King and Queen decided to stay in Buckingham Palace to face the same dangers as other Londoners. The first bomb fell on the Palace just ten days after the speech now made famous by the film 'The King's Speech'. The title was intentionally ambiguous as to whether it referred to the solemn address or the speech impediment which the King had overcome. The royal daughters were to take residence in Windsor Castle just to the West of London and within easy reach of their parents.
Princess Elizabeth, one year later, at 14, made a radio broadcast to children being evacuated. It was much applauded and appreciated by the young people concerned. At school we were kept informed about the Royal Family, especially their visits to bombed-out Londoners. People of all ages were given the feeling that 'we're in this together'. There was a virtually universal and unquestioning conviction that Britain was on the right side. The role of the then Princess Elizabeth was not forgotten. Much of the aura that now surrounds the Queen reflects the WWII experience. At eighteen she was in uniform and driving army lorries.
School and Lessons during Raids
I went to a Kindergarten run by Notre Dame nuns. They were a kindly and happy bunch. Surprisingly my class teacher was German, the ever-smiling Sister Francis. She was probably on a teacher exchange at the beginning of the war, decided to stay in England or, like the two priests I have mentioned, was stranded. I have very happy memories of the school and recall the hilarious story of Chicken-Licken told to a class full of laughing children. We often had classes in the school bomb shelter. We had to carry gas masks which had grotesque Disney faces. I suppose that they were designed to provoke laughter and make children feel happy and safe. We did find them amusing and could produce naughty noises by blowing through them. Paper was in short supply so that we learned to write in tiny script to avoid waste. We had school lunches which were doubtless better in quality than those of state schools. The nuns were good gardeners and cooks. Sadly, our happiness was sometimes shattered when a child was killed overnight and we came together in the morning to pray for them and their families.
Anderson and Morrison Shelters
In the first part of the war we had only an Anderson corrugated metal shelter in the garden. Up to six people could sleep in it but with much discomfort. Anderson shelters were very cold in winter. Ours was heated with a foul-smelling paraffin stove until my father made an electric heater from waste from his factory. My mother's sister Julia lived with us for much of the war and shared the shelter with us. She worked in Woolwich Arsenal. Her husband, also from West Cork, was a Chief Petty Officer (CPO) with the RN. He spent much of the war on the Murmansk convoys. I remember great rejoicing when once, after long absence in the Arctic, he turned up out of the night bearing a bottle of Johnnie Walker. (None for me!) Later I understood how much people suffered from the privations of the war, even having to drink blended Scotch.
Later in the war, we acquired a second bomb shelter for the interior of our house. This was a Morrison shelter which was a sturdy cage almost in the form of a cube. These shelters were very effective in protecting those inside from all but direct rocket hits. Their ceilings were thick steel plates. We slept inside the cage with wire mesh pulled into place. During raids, rubble could pile up above and round the shelters. The occupants often suffered only minor injuries. Our house was not directly bombed but pieces of glass sometimes blew into the shelter through the wire mesh. Anderson and Morrison shelters were launched in February 1939 and March 1941 respectively. They were named after the ministers responsible for air raid precautions at the time they were launched.
Make Do and Mend
The war implied that production had to be concentrated on armaments and goods that were absolutely essential. Manufacture of toys had to be sacrificed to that of weapons. I was lucky in that I inherited some very good toys from my elder brother. I had a wooden castle with toy soldiers, for example, which occupied me a lot. I also had a garage with petrol pumps, mechanics in overalls and two or three toy cars. A neighbour from the house opposite ours was a carpenter and made a scooter for me. The wheels were wooden discs. It was noisy but did its job. In exchange, my father used some metal waste from his factory and an 'element' recovered from the scrap to make a second electric heater for use in the neighbour's garden bomb shelter. Within his factory my father knew everyone. The men, and a few lady workers, a wartime innovation, could rely on him to keep their machines running. When I visited the factory with him, he was everywhere treated with friendly respect. He could always count on someone for a metal or wood offcut which would serve to make a piece of furniture, a reading light or a shelf. His artefacts were inelegant but robust.
Clothes were in short supply so people used old ones patched up to be usable. There were 'make do and mend' classes to teach the techniques of turning cast-offs into usable clothes. Some new 'utility' clothes were available with coupons but most clothes worn were pre-war and re-vamped.
In 1944 and 1945, the V1s arrived and then the V2s. The 'V' stood for 'Vergeltung' in German. This has a broad spectrum of meanings including, revenge, retaliation and retribution. V1s were considered to be a bit of a joke and were called 'doodlebugs'. Sometimes I saw them shot down as they made their leisurely and noisy way up the Thames. The V2s were more dangerous. We lived in a 1930s built estate which consisted mainly of blocks of six houses, with some space between blocks. Typically, the V2s quickly and without warning destroyed a whole block, leaving houses nearby with shattered windows, blown away roof tiles, blown out doors and toppled chimneys.
The five London boroughs with the greatest density of V2 hits were Barking, Greenwich, Ilford, West Ham and Woolwich. Shooters Hill was above Woolwich. Our side of Shooters hill was heavily bombed because it faced the Thames. From our house, we could see the docklands, including the area which is now London City Airport. In the distance was St. Paul's, uncluttered by the Canary Wharf skyscrapers which now block the view. When we were not in our shelters, we could see smoke from the raids at individual sites.
Craters, Frogs and Newts
Close to us in the direction of the military academy was a large area of land which Wimpey, the property developers who had built our estate, had not been allowed to use. Some public authority had said 'enough is enough'. It was here that we had our allotment but much of the land was wild, uncared for woodland. Among the trees were several bomb craters which filled with water because the soil was heavy clay. These craters teemed with wild life, especially newts, frogs and abundant duckweed.
As Woolwich was increasingly turned to rubble by the bombing, my father arranged for my mother, younger brother and myself to evacuate to the home of a great aunt and uncle in Huntingdon. Their house was near the centre of town in Ermine Street, the Roman road through Huntingdon. My great aunt was the younger sister of my maternal grandmother and a very kindly person. Her husband was a retired soldier. He had been a non-commissioned officer (NCO) during the Boer war in South Africa and subsequently a regimental sergeant major (RSM). He was rather ferocious. In spite of the pleas of my mother, I was often in trouble. My great uncle and I were not good friends.
We arrived in Huntingdon around May 1944. On the way from London, I remember passing through long tunnels filled with smoke from our train. In the tunnels all windows had to be closed but some smoke still penetrated the carriages. For the short time before the summer holidays, I went to a local school and made a few friends. The atmosphere in the town was very lively and almost festive. Because of preparations for the Normandy landings, Huntingdon swarmed with GIs (American Soldiers). This must have been thanks to the fact that the RAF bomber base of Kimbolton was only 8 miles away. This base had been given to the United States Army Air Force (USAAF) in 1942, had been expanded, and was now busy with traffic including the heaviest bombers and transport planes. The soldiers in central Huntingdon were recent arrivals and were housed in huts in a local park near the shopping area. There were jeeps everywhere. The camp was very much work in progress. New buildings were being added constantly, mainly by Irish builders. A couple of them became my friends, sometimes gave me a cheese sandwich and one day allowed me to join in whitewashing the walls of an emerging building. This was sheer bliss. I managed to get large amounts of whitewash on my clothes which got me into trouble when I arrived home. It led to the usual scene with my mother and great aunt trying to pacify my irate great uncle.
There was a similar scene when I fell into a pond while hunting sticklebacks and came home covered in duckweed. Fortunately my great-uncle had a job as head of security at a jam factory in Peterborough some miles away so was absent most of the day. My mother was also kept occupied but at a farm. She had volunteered to help the 'Land Girls'. I remember that she was given a reward for being the champion plum picker of her group. She did, of course, come from a farming background. Huntingdon was fun. As a huge treat, my mother took me to a wonderful film on the history of jazz, Alexander's Ragtime Band. The many GIs in the cinema were very friendly and noisy. American soldiers tended to be generous, especially with (chewing) gum, a substance which my great-uncle detested and tried to ban from his house. He must have been greatly relieved when we left in early September 1944 to return to Shooters Hill. The V2s were pounding it and the most deadly to fall in Britain did so on a nearby crowded Woolworths store in Deptford killing over 160 shoppers and staff.
Press and Wireless
News was of huge importance in the war. By the time I could follow, it was generally quite good. I was probably too young to understand the huge importance of the US entry to the war at the end of 1941. My parents took the Daily Mail, then a respectable paper. In 1944 it carried in a daily message on the front page; 'British troops 503 miles from Berlin' then the next day 'British troops 495 miles from Berlin' and so on. One day the news item did not appear and, in fact, disappeared for good. I was puzzled. My parents understood what was happening. The Americans and British had given Stalin a clear run to take the German capital. The British and American sectors of Berlin had to be negotiated with the Russians not won from the Germans.
Apart from news, the BBC broadcast some very good comedy series including ITMA (It's That Man Again), with the wonderful Tommy Handley. For us, there was 'Children's' Hour' which few children missed. Larry the Lamb and Denis the Dachshund in 'Toytown' were central to our lives. We also had comics: the Dandy, the Beano, Radio Fun and Film Fun. With time, we graduated to the Hotspur and Wizard designed for older children.
I made my first Communion at my school at Easter 1945. The nuns running the school had, of course, prepared us well and it was a happy time with the end of the war in sight. We were given a celebratory breakfast with eggs and other rare treats produced by the nuns. Christa, my wife-to-be, made her first Communion in Berlin at about the same time, many years before we met. The date had been brought forward because Red Army guns were already within earshot. Two weeks later, the Red Army arrived and her family found themselves blocked in a part of Berlin which was to house the Red Army HQ in Germany. They were lucky in that they suffered little worse from the Red Army than having to surrender their watches, jewellery, cameras and other valuables.
End of the War; The Street Parties
The last V2 fell on Britain on 27th. March 1945. It hit the leafy suburb of Orpington just over the county boundary with London in Kent. This is stockbroker Tudor country with little trace of industry. Only one person was killed. This was in contrast to a V2 hit on Stepney in East London some hours earlier when over 100 were killed. With Victory in Europe (VE) day on 8th May 1945 came wonderful street parties where almost everyone in every street of Britain had the fling of a lifetime. Food was short but people improvised. Jam was available made mainly with beetroot to replace sugar. Home-grown chickens were roasted. My father and our neighbours supplied salads, fruit and vegetables from their allotments and gardens where flower beds and lawns had been replaced with vegetables. The adults celebrated with wine made from fermented elderberries. War-weary husbands were soon to arrive back in ill-fitting demob suits.
Some actually regretted the end of the war during which everyone had enjoyed a happy, intimate, family atmosphere. Many retired people had been given a new lease of active life as air raid wardens, fire watchers, auxiliary firemen and the like. I remember a poor old lady whose growth had been stunted. She loved her wartime job which was to knock on doors of houses where even tiny gaps between curtains let out light. She was the 'black-out lady'. The war gave her a job and contact with people which she would not have had in peacetime. Some people claimed that the war had been the happiest time of their lives. It did bring out good qualities in many people, gave them jobs and ensured friendly contacts with neighbours.
Rationing and the Allotment
Although real privation did not occur, I was always a bit hungry as a child. Rationing was severe. There were periods when we had, per person, per week, one egg, or sometimes just dried egg, 8 ounces/oz..(227 g.) of meat, 4oz. (113g.) of bacon, 2oz. (57g.). of butter and cooking fat or lard, 2oz. (57g.). of cheese and so on. Our family was lucky in that my father, with a bit of help from me, produced from his allotment an abundance of carrots, spuds, parsnips, onions, lettuces, marrows, cabbage and all the rest. A variety of studies have concluded that children's diet in WWII was far healthier than that they have today. The calorie intake of an eight- year-old in WWII was around 1800 per day. Today the intake is 3000. Crisps, chocolate and hamburgers produce a dramatic contrast to cabbage, beetroot, parsnips, pilchards and carrots In terms of weight, an-eight-year old in the UK today is 7.7kilo heavier than in WWII but shorter and weaker.
As a result of the bombing, there was a huge housing deficit in 1945. Churchill had already decided in 1944 that 500,000 prefabs should be built after the war. In fact, the Attlee government, after 1945 built fewer than 200,000. They did dominate the scene in SE and E London which had many bombsites but also parkland where prefabs could be located for a few years. They were of solid but light construction with walls of asbestos, not then considered dangerous. Some people grew to love their prefabs which had individual if small gardens. They were however quite expensive to build, not well insulated and mostly heated by coal of which they needed huge quantities.
Our Family in the War
As with many large Irish families, several of my mother's brothers and sisters had emigrated. Two brothers had settled in New York in the 1930s. One of these had previously joined the RN and left after some years with the rank of CPO (Telegraphist). After the war, they both sent us very generous CARE (Cooperative for American Remittances to Europe) parcels. These were an improved version of the initial standard parcel which consisted mainly of army combat rations. The parcels contained such luxuries as whole canned turkeys and chocolate powder. These were much safer than the fresh turkeys which we were sent by parcel post from Ireland. The Irish turkeys were fine if the weather was cool and the delivery swift. Otherwise they risked decay on the way.
Three of my mother's sisters were in England during the war. One who lived with us for some years worked in Woolwich Arsenal where she lost two fingers in an explosion. She eventually returned to Schull, West Cork, with her husband who had been a CPO on the Murmansk convoys. He lost much of his sense of hearing on the convoys. Another sister was a nurse. She married and settled after the war at Havant near Portsmouth. A third sister was a housekeeper for the wealthy in peacetime but had to work as a tram conductress during the war. She ended her days in Hove near Brighton which was close to my parents' place of retirement in Shoreham. Other younger brothers and sisters remained in West Cork.
In contrast to my mother, my father was an only child. His parents lived in Bexleyheath in Kent, where my father was born. It was just a few miles away from Shooters Hill but suffered much less bombing than we did. It was some way from the Thames and had little industry. It had many plant nurseries which concentrated on food production during the war. My father's parents had happy memories of Belgian refugees they had housed during WWI.
The Lean Post-War Years
The UK economy took a long time to recover after the war. Even bread and potatoes were rationed for two or three years, although they had not been during the war. There were many treats from ice cream to bananas which I got to know only sometime after the war. I remember a long queue in our local shopping street, for ice cream which many children then tasted for the first time. We knew about Mars bars, fruit and nut chocolate, Maltesers and the like, but only from adverts in pre-war comics. The last vestiges of rationing were abolished only in 1954, long after rationing had been abolished in Germany. In 1956 I joined the final wave of national servicemen. In my case this meant basic training with the RN in Portsmouth prior to learning Russian at the Joint Services School for Linguists at Crail near St. Andrews and operational work in Kiel, Germany. By the time of our arrival in Kiel in1957, Germany was a key NATO ally.