WARTIME EXPERIENCES – Bernard Gladstone

I was only six years old when it happened, but some things you never forget.
In 1935 when I was born, my parents and sister lived in Welling, in Kent and I was only four when WWII started in 1939. So I don’t remember the anti-aircraft gun site being set up in Danson Park, about 600 metres from our house.
But I do remember the night of 11th January 1941. We’d been to the cinema. Afterwards, Mum, my sister and I walked back home. Mum lit the fire and we sat round it. I’d a pair of scissors and was cutting pictures from a magazine. The siren must have blared out its warning that German planes were on their way but we stayed in our house. We couldn’t run to the safety of our Anderson shelter because it had filled with water.
Dad wasn’t with us because on the way home from the cinema, he’d stopped at the barber to get a haircut. We could never have guessed how lucky that would be. As he walked up the short path to our front door, keys in hand, our house took a direct hit by a high-explosive bomb and blew up in his face.
Dad was only slightly hurt, thank goodness. When the dust settled he could see Mum’s hand sticking out of the rubble so he was able to rush to try to dig her out. Other helpers came quickly, so together they managed to free her.
My sister must have been blown out of the house. She was found unscathed in our back garden. I was lucky to be only half buried, still clutching the pair of scissors in my hand!
Mum’s ankle had been partly burned away. She was taken to Joyce Green hospital in Dartford. Her ankle never healed properly due to ulceration, but she rarely complained. I was taken to the War Memorial hospital on Shooter’s Hill for treatment for severe burns on my right leg. I don’t remember much about my stay there, but I do remember when the plaster was removed, it was so painful. I also had a cap of mud which the heat had baked onto my head. It couldn’t be cut off until my hair grew enough to push it up away from my scalp, so they could get the scissors in under it.
When I left hospital, Mum was still recovering, so I was taken to see her. Then I went to live with an Irish family in Swanscombe, Kent. Every evening, we went to shelter in the chalk quarry tunnels, taking our gas masks, which we carried everywhere, as well as bedding and other essentials – just in case! The tunnels were poorly lit, and crowded with bunk beds and people. It all felt quite scary. My sister wasn’t with me. She had been sent to stay with an Aunt in East Ham, the area now called Tower Hamlets.
Mum’s ankle took a long time to heal and later that year she was still in hospital. That may be why I found myself standing on a station platform with a luggage label on my coat, my gas mask looped over my shoulder, and surrounded by lots of other children I didn’t know, but all with the same luggage labels pinned to their coats. I didn’t know why I’d been taken there. Didn’t know what was going to happen to us. No-one explained anything to us. I was completely bewildered. And quite scared.
I remember how confused I was as a seven year old, waiting on the station platform with no idea why I’d been taken there, or what was going to happen next. Perhaps the other children knew because their parents had told them. But my mother was still in hospital, my dad was working, and the family I’d been sent to live with didn’t explain why I was being taken away.
We waited for what will have seemed like a long time, until a train eventually pulled up, and we were told to climb in. A day trip to the seaside was as far as most children ever went in those days, so the long journey to Leeds, our destination, was a new experience for most of us, but that is where we got off the train.
Somehow, an older boy and myself got separated from the other children. Not knowing where to go, or what to do, and in a town completely strange to us, we just drifted about. Later, we were rounded up and driven to a roped off area in the coal mining village of Rothwell.
This was where the ‘Selection Process’ had taken place. The ‘Evacuees’ were herded into the area. The local people who had agreed – or been told – to give shelter to us until the London Blitz ended and it was safe for us to go back home – chose which one – or two – of us they would take in. But by the time we two got there, the Selection Process was just about over. Most grown-ups and evacuees had already gone. But an elderly lady called out ‘I’ll take that one’, which is why I went with her to her house, where we were the only occupants
A few days later, the billeting officer came round and took me to a house at the ‘posh’ end of the village. This detached house was the home of a mineworker. Having suffered a mining accident, he now worked above ground. His wife worked in the school canteen. They’d a son, Terry, and the pair of us got on very well.
My sister and I hadn’t been together at the station or on the train, but somehow I did find out that she had been evacuated to the same town. She was billeted in the real miners’ area, a long line of small terraced cottages. During the year and a half we lived there, I was allowed to see her, but only 3 or 4 times. They had a girl of similar age and a lovely old grandma. In the winter visits, there was a blazing fire and lots of laughter. To be honest, I was a bit jealous.
In my family, every weekday we had 2 slices of bread and dripping for breakfast, which I loved. Most Fridays, the family went to the cinema, with a fish and chip supper on the way. Every Sunday, we had sausages for breakfast, then, if it was a nice day, all the family went for a bike ride, finishing up at the same pub by a river. Sometimes, on the ride back home, we’d visit an elderly relative. I couldn’t understand a word he said. He spoke with such a broad Yorkshire accent you could have cut it with a knife.

 

Tony had good toys, but we were only let to play with them for a couple of hours on Sunday afternoons in the best room, the parlour. My favourite toy was the Hornby train set.
To be honest, I was a bit scared of his Mum. Tony had piano lessons on Saturdays. He would do his practice while his Mum was doing the washing. She must have been listening to him because if he made a mistake she would rush in to punish him with the copper stick. I remember one terrifying time when she knocked him right off the piano stool.
One night a week was bath night and to save water and heating costs, we’d bath together. If we used too much hot water so the mirror and windows steamed up, we’d be really told off. It was on a bath night that we plotted to run away.
We worked out that we’d go to a local shop to collect the week’s rations – butter, cheese, raw bacon, sugar, perhaps a couple of eggs – but instead of going home, we’d run away and eat them to live on. But we weren’t careful enough, though, so our plans were overheard. Confronted by two very angry parents, we hung our heads, said we were sorry, and were sent to bed. And heard nothing more about it.
That wasn’t our only scheme either. Tony and I went together to Sunday School every week with 3 pence each to put in the Collection Plate. One Sunday we didn’t go, but sneaked off and went out on the Moors. We couldn’t take the two three-penny bits home, so we hid them in a hedge.
Our freedom didn’t last. We were sent to Sunday School every week, and were given a mark for attendance, which we wouldn’t have got if we didn’t go. At the end of the year a prize was given to whoever had the best attendance record. We realised if we didn’t get a mark because we’d sneaked off, questions would be asked. So after that we made sure we went every week always afraid that our one day of truancy would be noticed. It wasn’t! We got the end of year prize anyway. I remember what a relief that was.
I stayed in Rothwell until towards the end of 1943, when Mum came to collect myself and my sister.

When Mum came to Rothwell in 1943 to collect us to take us home, it would have been about two years since I had last seen her when I visited her in hospital. Of course, as our old house had been blown up, we didn’t go back there, but went instead to a house which had been requisitioned by the Council. Its owners had gone overseas to escape the war, so it had been left empty.
In our new house, the air raid shelter was inside. A ‘Morrison’ shelter, it had been set up in the front room. It was made with stout metal corners supporting a thick, flat steel roof and had steel wire mesh panels round the four sides. We were now on the south side of Danson Park, about 1000 metres from the anti-aircraft battery. During a raid, when the guns were firing to bring down the bombers, the noise and vibrations inside the metal shelter were terrifying.
Dad tried to comfort us, telling us ‘not to worry. We’re giving the blighters what for!’ Dad worked in the London Docks, a prime target for the German bombers. He took his turn on Fire Watch, dealing with the fires started by the incendiary bombs which the Germans dropped.
The War Years were a period of uncertainty. I felt like a stranger and not belonging. Of not knowing when it would all end. Not knowing why Mum and Dad weren’t there. They were becoming strangers, and I’d almost forgotten what they looked like.
Our original house wasn’t rebuilt until 1951. That area of England had been hit by the latest German V2 rocket bombs. Had we still lived there, we might not have survived. After our amazing escape the first time, in 1941, we couldn’t have counted on a second lucky escape.
Interestingly, the crater left where that first bomb had destroyed our house, constantly filled with water from an underground spring. This is the likely reason why our Anderson shelter had flooded.
When the War did end, for a couple of years afterwards I wore a built-up right shoe meant to correct the damage caused to my leg by the bombing. And once a week at a clinic, I did foot exercises which included learning to write my name holding a pencil with my toes.
Yes, I did go again to Rothwell, but not until 1956. I didn’t recognise anything much, as Rothwell was now a new town. I did find the house I’d lived in for that time, but didn’t meet the people who lived there as they had gone to the Lake District in their caravan. The miners cottage where my sister had been billeted had been swept away to be replaced with modern houses.
As an interesting postscript: my daughter married in 2009. This year, 2017, I learned that her husband’s grandad had been in the Royal Artillery during WWII and had served on the anti-aircraft battery in Danson Park during 1941/42. He may well have been on duty the night our house was bombed.

 

Edited, on behalf of the Editor, by Jean Marler

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