THE SECOND WORLD WAR
By Mary Lawrence
I was 17 when the Second World War started and lived at Peckham Rye with my parents — I was also engaged to be married to Fred, my fiancé. It didn’t come entirely as a shock when Neville Chamberlain (the then Prime Minister) announced on the wireless (there was no TV then) that we were at war with Germany. There had been unrest between us and Germany for the past year and Chamberlain had come home from a meeting with Hitler waving a piece of paper with Hitler’s signature on it, saying it would be ‘peace in our time’.
I had the same feelings and emotions as everybody: I liked going out, enjoying myself — going to the pictures, going dancing, having a crafty fag, talking about boys, falling in love - all the things you do at that age. But from that Sunday, my life was going to change drastically. Fred (as I shall refer to him from now on) and I had made arrangements to visit my sister on that Sunday morning. Fred had an old 1929 Austin Seven, so after Chamberlain’s speech, we set off. About half way there — half an hour after war had been declared — we heard the awful wail of the air-raid warning siren. We were stunned and frightened, imagining all sorts of things. People were running about, not knowing what to do. Policemen were blowing whistles and telling us to get to the nearest air-raid shelter or take cover.
Being young and foolish, we decided to carry on. We arrived at my sister’s place to find her and her husband with gas-masks on and gloves handy in case poisonous gas was dropped. We didn’t have our gas-masks with us — everybody was issued with one and you were supposed to take them everywhere with you. Babies went into a sort of box, which could be carried around, to keep them protected. After about an hour, the ‘all clear’ sounded, nothing had happened — it was a false alarm. Little did we know, that siren going was to become a very familiar sound.
After that, began a period which was called ‘the phoney war’, at least as far as we were concerned. On August 11th 1940, Fred and I were married. The vicar who married us was a very nice young man, putting meaning into the service, and he gave us a talk about ‘give and take’ in marriage and not letting the sun go down on a row or argument without making up. Some time later, he was in the scouts hut with two other men when it received a direct hit in a bombing raid and all three of them were killed.
A week after our wedding day, the daylight bombing raids began, with the target being Croydon Airport. After a while, the Germans had lost so many planes that they switched to night-time bombing. One day, I’ll never forget — it was a Saturday morning — my mum and I were in our back garden and we heard the sound of a plane and knew it was a Jerry. There was no air-raid warning — this plane had got in under the barrage balloons. It was so low and as it swooped over our heads, we saw the pilot in his leather helmet and goggles and a black cross on the side of the plane. He seemed to be looking straight at us; he went on to Lewisham, where he dropped a bomb on Woolworth’s, killing about 200 people — most of them women and children. It was devastating — I never knew how he managed to get to London without being detected.
The barrage balloons were a grey, fat, sausage shape with fins and they were secured to the ground by a cable, which men turned to bring them lower or make them higher. A lot were up all the time, but in an air-raid a lot more would go up; the purpose of them was to keep the Jerry planes up high so they couldn’t pick out their targets so easily and they also kept them in range of our anti-aircraft guns.
When the bombing began in earnest, everyone had the option of having an air-raid shelter: an Anderson for outdoors or a Morrison for indoors. The Anderson was the safest and my dad made a very safe shelter at the bottom of our garden. It was nearly all underground, with a load of earth on top and a huge blackberry bush covering it all. We had a mattress down there, some spare food and drink and some candles. It was to become my sleeping place for a long time — and also my baby’s, when he arrived. He never went to bed in his cot upstairs, I’d put him straight down in the shelter when it was his bedtime — even if the siren hadn’t gone, as I knew it would later. It saved waking him up and rushing to the shelter when the warning did go. At the front of our house was a railway line and during the war, there was a mobile gun on it during an air raid, firing at the planes. The noise was horrendous: as well as the sound of the bombs screaming down and the explosions, there was this huge gun letting rip.
In the Blitz, indeed during the whole war, we had a blackout — no lights must be showing anywhere; people had to hang black curtains up at their windows. Even if only a chink of light was showing, an air-raid warden would be knocking at the door telling you a light was showing. Cars could not have any lights, no torches could be used — total blackness, so that the Jerries wouldn’t know where they were.
At night, I would often go out of the air-raid shelter for a breath of air and the Jerries would drop flares to try and see where they were. The area would be lit by a bright glow as the flare floated down — it was quite eerie.
My sister had a close shave one night: the house next door had a direct hit — she had stayed indoors that night, wanting to sleep in a proper bed for a change. A big walnut wardrobe in her bedroom crashed down on her baby’s cot, trapping him. In a way, it saved him from falling debris; the wardens got the baby out and he was unharmed, except for being covered in dust — as she was also. Her house was uninhabitable for a time, so she went to the country for the rest of the war.
At one period of the Blitz, the sirens went at 6 o’clock every evening and the all-clear at 6 o’clock very morning. This went on for weeks and weeks without a break. Most people slept underground every night: the bombs dropped incessantly, but Hitler couldn’t get us down. Coventry was bombed, for the factories making tanks etc, Plymouth, Swansea and Southampton because of the docks, to name but a few places. They all took a terrible battering, killing hundreds and destroying most of the cities, but the civilians carried on. A special bond sprang up between us Londoners — everybody tried to help each other, people were friendly to strangers, they looked out for each other, it’s a shame it didn’t stay like that after the war ended.
After a bad night of bombing, the streets would be littered with shrapnel, which came from the shells our soldiers were firing at the planes. I collected many pieces — some quite large. Once, I picked a bit of dog mess, mistaking it for shrapnel — I soon dropped it, as you can imagine!
The City of London was set alight by incendiary bombs one night. It was the biggest fire I have ever seen, the sky was a brilliant red, the docks getting it very badly. Although the incendiary bombs weren’t as explosive as the ordinary bombs, the damage they did by fire was immense.
During the very bad night-time bombing, we slept under a shop my father-in-law had at Victoria. He had made a room under the pavement — it was a store-room really. We slept there for months. Once, we were going to Streatham, where my father-in-law lived, for a bath and to wash our hair, when we were caught in an air-raid and had to take shelter on Clapham common. It was crowded with people — all singing — and we joined in. Close by was an anti-aircraft gun, firing away at the Jerries overhead. We were trying to drown out the noise that was going on outside.
As the crow flies, Peckham isn’t far from Kent, over which the Jerries used to come on their way to bomb London and it was very usual to see a dog-fight going on between our Spitfires and their fighters, wheeling about and firing their guns at each other — the Spitfires had 8 machine guns. There were losses on both sides, but the Spitfires saved London from a lot worse bombing — as Mr Churchill said: “never was so much owed, by so many, to so few “.
The bombing had to be seen to be believed. Fred was on a course at Walthamstow, he used to cycle back and forth, from there to Peckham. His route took him through the Elephant and Castle district and he did this for a while. He got home as usual one evening and that night there was a very bad air-raid. The next morning he went on his usual journey to Walthamstow, but when he got to the Elephant and Castle, he just couldn’t recognise a thing — it had been completely flattened. It was chaos — hose-pipes everywhere, firemen putting out fires, people being dug out of bombed buildings. He didn’t know which way to go — that gives you some idea of what London looked like in the Blitz.
My own experience of being blown down a shelter by a bomb, causing me to lose my first baby was harrowing enough, but not compared to what a lot of Londoners had to suffer — death of their loved ones and some were maimed for life.
Because the Germans lost so many planes, instead of bombing us, they began their onslaught with ‘doodle-bugs’. These were unmanned jets — a flying bomb; the distance they covered was governed by the amount of fuel they held. We had no warning of these unheard of things, so we were unable to take shelter. They were long, with flames coming out of the back, when the engine stopped, they dropped like a stone, doing untold damage and causing lots more loss of life. How much more could us civilians cope with?
This went on for months, meanwhile the Germans were inventing something even more evil — the V-2 rocket — to try and bring England to its knees. I stood the bombs and the doodle-bugs, but these latest unmanned missiles really got me down. They were long, like telegraph-poles and were launched in Belgium or Holland, they went straight up in the air, out of range of our fighter planes, into the upper atmosphere, so we had no warning they were coming. They dropped straight down and the first we knew was when they exploded. They did more damage than any bombs or doodle-bugs, as people couldn’t take shelter; thousands were killed in their beds; they came day or night, killing 200 to 300 people at a time. My nerves went to pieces at that time: worrying for my baby, my family, about being buried under piles of debris. Luckily, these terrifying things didn’t go on for long, as the launching sites got over-run by the British army and the war was nearing its end.
So, after nearly 5 years of bombing we could begin to think of living a normal life again. As I said, I was 17 when it started and 23 when it ended, so I lost six years of my youth. Like millions of others, I was lucky to come out alive — with my baby. I didn’t lose anyone close to me, but to live through the Blitz is something I won’t forget till my dying day.