The Day War Broke Out
August 1939, London
It was late August 1939, everyone knew that the war was inevitable but they pretended to hope that it wasn't. There was extreme fear of air raids and the associated possibility of gas attacks. Gas masks were issued to everyone, those in the big towns getting theirs first. We got ours from Lambeth Town Hall, they were supplied in cardboard boxes, with a cut out in a false base to locate the filter. The smell of rubber can still trigger the memory of the first try-on. My sister and I weren't too bothered by the prospect of wearing gas masks and we soon discovered that, by placing a finger in the appropriate place, we could make some very rude noises as we breathed out. Our little brother soon copied us to add to the cacophony. In my naive childlike way, the thought of a gas attack didn't worry me except that the proposed method of warning of gas seemed very dubious. Volunteer Air Raid Wardens were issued with rattles, rather like those that used to be seen in football crowds, with which they were required to walk the streets in the event of an attack.
Air raid sirens had been installed and trial runs made, already they were known as 'moaning minnies', although they acquired many other names in the following years. Their sound came to generate a state of tension with an associated feeling in the pit of the stomach for most people and it can have the same effect on some of those people even today. The authorities foresaw the possibility of a surprise attack on London, they seriously overestimated the possible severity of such an attack and feared a resultant catastrophic loss of life. As a consequence they resolved to move all the children and expectant mothers out of town beforehand.
So on Thursday August 31st, my brother, sister and myself were each given a note to take home to our parents which simply stated that it was planned to evacuate the entire school to somewhere outside of London on Saturday September 2nd. The children were required to assemble in the school playground at 09.00 and to bring with them no more than their night clothes, a change of underwear and socks, toothbrush, comb, soap and towel etc. And their gas masks of course. Children often bring home notes from school but surely no other note could ever have produced a more dramatic effect on the parents. Our mum was knocked for six, she struggled to maintain composure and from that moment until the time of departure she was behaving like an automaton, a human being in a trance.
So we duly assembled on Saturday morning wearing what was almost regulation dress for the time, my brother and I in grey short trouser suits, white shirt, striped tie, grey socks with two red stripes round the turned over tops, grey belt with centre red stripe, hook type buckle shaped like a snake, black leather lace up shoes and a navy blue belted raincoat, my sister in gymslip, white blouse and similar navy blue raincoat. I was reasonably calm, just suffering that occasional shiver generated by a mixture of apprehension, excitement and the chill of the morning. My six years old brother held my left hand with a determined grip that would have needed a crowbar to release and my ten year old sister was uncharacteristically very quiet. Our mother bravely fought the tears.
The school was a large 'elementary school' that had infants and senior sections with children from the age of five to fourteen and a total roll of two hundred or more. There was the usual milling around as rolls were called, we were fitted with tie on parcel labels bearing our names and each handed a paper carrier bag, which contained, among other things which I cannot remember, a packet of crackers and a small packet of cheese. Finally we were organised to board the fleet of buses waiting outside the school gate. Final hugs from mum, nearly collapsing in tears, the noisy clambering up the stairs of the bus to try to get the front seat first, waves from the window, and we were off.
We had no idea where we were going, neither had the parents, although they were promised that they would be told later that day. Presumably the school staff weren't altogether sure. The buses took us no further than Herne Hill station. We were not on the crowded platform for very long before a special train arrived. It was a Southern Electric commuter train with coaches divided into separate compartments. There weren't enough adults for one for every compartment so things got a bit rowdy at times but most of the kids were subdued by the situation. It was our first ride on a train, which was quite exciting. For me the compartment soon became the inside of a stage coach from a wild west film, because that was just what it seemed like, and I forgot my apprehensions for a while by imagining we were being chased by red Indians.
After a slow ride with many stops and starts we finally stopped at Brighton station. --- Brighton! Hooray! They've taken us to the seaside! --- No such luck. More buses and another school in Patcham. This time we were assembled in the school hall. There was much initial confusion with large numbers of well meaning adults around, mostly middle aged women, some in uniform, probably WVS and perhaps Sally Army and a couple of hundred somewhat bewildered and scared kids.. They had drinks for us but our only food was the cheese and biscuits in our paper bag. We three sat on chairs, held hands but talked hardly at all.
What followed was something of an auction as couples that had volunteered, or had been cajoled or pressurised to take in evacuees were given some opportunity to choose. My sister and I wanted the three of us to be kept together. It was soon obvious that single little girls were the easiest to place and they disappeared in no time. It was also very obvious that the odds against placing three children in one place were not far different from the odds against winning the lottery today. The day wore on, the number of children in the hall slowly diminished and we got more and more hungry. Finally, no doubt in desperation and despite our protestations, 'they' decided to billet our sister separately and my brother and I watched her disappear through the door. Had I been a bit older I would have begun to wonder if my brother and I suffered with really bad BO, not only had all the children gone but nearly all of the adults also, and he and I spoilt the appearance of the neatly placed empty chairs that had been re-arranged all round the walls of the hall, by sitting on two of them.
To be continued...