River Wissey Lovell Fuller

Memories of the 1940's - Part 1

May 2014

In September 1939, a couple of days before war was declared, my brother, sister and I were evacuated to Brighton.  My brother and I were billeted with a young couple and my sister went elsewhere.  Our billet was uncomfortable, it was clear we were not wanted and had been forced on the couple.  We were rescued by the billeting officer after two or three weeks and joined my sister where she was with a middle aged widow and her adult son.  This woman was marvellous and made us very welcome.  Schooling was rather limited, we attended the local school at Patcham, but unfortunately our contingent from Brixton was as large numerically as the local kids, it was not possible to share classes and so we took it in turns to use the classrooms.   It was difficult to see any difference in appearance between the boys from the different schools because in those days school age boys almost universally wore short grey trousers held up by an adjustable belt with a single stripe and a hook type buckle shaped like a coiled snake, long grey socks with striped tops and a white shirt with a tie, usually knitted with squared end.

In December we went home for Christmas, it was the time of the phoney war and the need to be away from London was less clear so we never returned to Brighton.  All the local schools in Brixton were closed, so we never went to school – great!  A retired teacher ran a class in her home two afternoons a week, but with a wide range of ages it achieved little.

By this time it was clear that the war had changed everything:  There was a fear of gas and most people carried their gas mask at all times (but the number risking being without it increased very rapidly as the war progressed).  The masks were supplied in a cardboard box, about 15cmx12cmx12cm, and many people attached shoulder straps to the box, many covered their box and commercially made covers/boxes soon appeared.

We had the blackout; this was introduced just before war was declared.  It became a criminal offence to show a light after dark, a specific time was given daily.  Everyone had to find ways of stopping any light from leaking out, there was a big demand for blackout material to make curtains, but the government had ensured an adequate supply.  All vehicles, including cycles had to have heavily hooded lights, these threw a dim light on the ground for just a few feet in front, bright rear lights were forbidden and traffic lights were slotted and hooded.  (I recall that the bicycle lamps often used batteries with the two terminals in the form of flat strips on the top, us kids used to short the two terminals out with our tongues for the tingle that the electricity produced).  People painted bumpers and edges of mudguards white, lamp posts had white bands round the bottom few feet, kerb edges were painted white and people carried something white, often their gas mask box.  Most nights there is some natural light which was a help in getting about but on a moonless cloudy night the blackness could be so intense that it was not possible to see anything.  There were very many injuries due to people walking into or tripping over unseen objects.  Surprisingly crime did not increase greatly, but the number of road accidents certainly did.

There were ARP Wardens, these volunteers, wearing their tin hats, would patrol the streets to ensure no lights were showing, they were also to warn of a gas attack, should one occur, and to warn any members of the public on the street when an air raid warning was in progress, directing them to the nearest shelter.  They often proved to be very brave during the bombing that followed.  Public shelters were hurriedly created, mostly they were in cellars of public buildings, but a few shelters were newly built of brick.   Entrances to shelters and other public buildings had sandbags built to protect the entrance, as did ARP posts.  Signs displaying a large ‘S’ appeared indicating the location of the nearest shelter.   Our house was issued with an Anderson shelter, quite a long one because of the three families, the men folk dug a hole and erected it in the garden, the excavated earth placed over the top.

Rationing was introduced very early, a lesson learned from the first war, and it was beginning to bite during 1940, I will not dwell on the details of rationing beyond saying that they were quite tight, meat, fats and sugar especially, and they got progressively tighter as the year progressed.  Sweet rationing started at some point, it was 2oz/week, roughly 50gm, and soon there was clothing rationing.

Petrol was withdrawn completely at an early stage with only those deemed to have essential needs receiving an allowance.  An acquaintance of my father’s decided to move out of London and he offered his car for sale, it was a nice five year old Triumph Gloria Sports saloon and my father was able to buy it for £20.  It was of no use, of course, it was stored away in another friend’s lock up, nevertheless I was quite excited that we actually had a car.

Suddenly the war was no longer phoney, the Germans ripped through Belgium and soon Paris fell, People were stunned, the French and British forces outnumbered the Germans.  In no time there was Dunkirk, a very close 18yr old cousin, who was with the BEF was reported missing, later reported as a PoW.  In Brixton, as in many parts of London, the railway was elevated, supported on miles of brick built arches (even at that age I marvelled at the number of bricks that were involved), trains came through Brixton carrying troops evacuated from Dunkirk.  Many were dishevelled but they were very cheerful, they waved to the people below and threw souvenirs like cap badges and French coins down to us, the people cheered them.  No one would guess this was a defeated army.  But people were afraid that the Germans would soon be across the channel.

Conscription for the services started quite early and there were many volunteers, including  the younger brother of the cousin reported missing, only sixteen  he managed to persuade the enrolment officers that he was eighteen, later he died in Burma, a very big blow to me.

Not long after Dunkirk, the Battle of Britain started.  Once or twice we were able to watch the dog fights, but mostly they were to the south of us.  In truth it was usually quite difficult to see the planes because they were so high that all you saw were the vapour trails creating crazy patterns in the blue sky as they twisted and turned (it was a glorious summer).  It was all quite exciting to a young boy.  In late July the bombers started to target London, we were only about two miles from central London and some bombs fell quite near, we had to take to the Anderson during the day, but the bombers were taking heavy losses from our fighters during daylight.  The success of the RAF greatly reduced the risk of invasion and, there was growing confidence that we would not be invaded and, irrationally perhaps, that we were going to win this war.

In early September the Luftwaffe switched to night bombing and things got very lively, so we took to sleeping in the Anderson as a matter of course.  The bombers were mostly unmolested, apart from the anti-aircraft guns, these were fairly mobile and set up in different locations.  They were very good guns (with hindsight one might argue that they should have found other uses to a greater extent than they did).  They were 3.75inch I think, (about 95mm) and were extremely noisy, giving a very sharp BLAM that sounded completely differently from the explosion of a bomb, unfortunately the technology for accurately locating the planes was not good and I don’t think they ever shot a plane down at that time, but I may be wrong.  The anti-aircraft shells were designed to burst into jagged steel fragments that were intended to damage the aircraft or wound/kill the crew.  All these shrapnel fragments had to fall back to earth and they could be quite dangerous, I have seen one that pierced a steel helmet.  We used to go out after a raid to collect the pieces, goodness knows why, often they were still quite hot.

About two weeks into September, the buildings next door were set alight by an incendiary bomb, the fire was just the other side of our garden wall, it soon became an inferno only a few feet from our Anderson, conditions inside became intolerable and we had to relocate to a public shelter, which was a rather scary business as the raid was intense.  The firemen, who were very stretched that night, saved our house.  Two weeks later our house was destroyed by a high explosive bomb that fell just outside, the walls remained but the roof and all doors and windows were gone with significant damage to the inside, walls collapsed, ceilings down and severe damage from flying glass shards.  Anyone inside would have been very lucky to survive.

We children were sent to stay with elderly relatives in Twickenham whilst our parents reorganised their lives.  There was no assistance available to them.  Whilst at Twickenham I was able to watch a German bomber attacked by a Hurricane, on this occasion they were low enough to see them clearly.  The bomber caught fire almost immediately and I watched the crew bale out and land quite close by, very exciting.

Because so many people had left London rented housing was readily available, my parents moved to a house in the area between Streatham and West Norwood, a couple of miles further away from the centre and an improvement in our accommodation, but still a shared house.  Here the intensity of the bombing was slightly less, but not so very much.  (Our house was in a rectangular block of houses about 800yds by 600yds and over the next two years three HE bombs fell within that rectangle as well as incendiaries, completely destroying about nine houses and severely damaging many more.)

The bombing went on every night, sometimes very near sometimes more distant, our poor mum found it all very hard, she was of a nervous disposition normally and she was terrified.  It was all very stressful for her, getting established in a different house and area, ration books had to be reregistered with the local grocers and other shops etc.  My father, too old for call-up, who had been a bus driver and more recently taxi driver, was directed to driving a large van collecting furniture from bomb damaged council housing and moving it to where the families had been relocated.  This work led to a reduced income and so he did some taxi driving at night, dodging the bombs, but this added to my mother’s stress.  Nevertheless she braved it all very well despite being on the edge of a nervous breakdown all the time.

There was a school operating in our new area and we started there in early October, the only protection in the event of an air raid was the hall where all the windows had been bricked up.  They were large windows and I thought that, in the event of a bomb nearby, we would probably be showered with flying bricks instead of glass.

About November 2, I became unwell, tummy upset.  I was put to bed chancing the bombs, our mother was busy trying to sort things out after the move, trying to make the best with the stuff they had salvaged and trying to get replacements of all sorts.  Everyone was suffering from lost sleep and I was ignored at first.  My condition was deteriorating, by the morning of the fourth day I was very ill, the doctor was called, the usual nightly air raid was still in progress.  Doctors were private but I cannot remember how they operated, there was something called the ‘Panel’ but I don’t know, perhaps a reader can tell me.  They used to charge for a visit, I think 5shillings, but they were sympathetic to the poor.   Whilst waiting for the doctor the ‘all clear’ siren went,  a quarter of an hour later a bomb fell at the bottom of our road getting a direct hit on a builders merchant’s shop.   Because of the ‘all clear’ a lot of people were walking past on their way to work, there was absolute carnage, with people killed and many more suffering horrific injuries from flying glass and other debris.

The doctor arrived just after that and quickly diagnosed a burst appendix abcess, he called an ambulance immediately.  Surprisingly, considering the demand, the ambulance came quite quickly, it was I know a classic LCC Talbot.  The casualty department at Dulwich hospital was hectic, with casualties from the bomb everywhere, but by this time I was losing consciousness.


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