Eastenders’ War

September 3 1939 is the date usually associated with a start of the Second World War. For me it actually began three days earlier. On that Thursday I was playing outside our florist’s shop in Leytonstone High Road while my mother cleaned the windows. Suddenly I noticed that she was crying, and when I asked what was wrong she told me that my father (who was in the Territorial Army) had been called up and would be leaving for Aldershot Barracks the next day.

Early the next morning my brother and I ran to our local school, Mayville Road, for we’d heard that many of the children were being evacuated. As we approached the school we could see them boarding the trams ready to go to the country. I can remember proudly telling them that my dad was in the army. At nine and half I had no idea what lay ahead or how things would change. Two days later war was declared.

It had been decided that my brother and I would remain in London to keep the family together as much as possible. My father had fixed boards to the kitchen wall and covered them with mattresses on which my brother and I slept. My mother slept in a chair nearby.

Just four days after the war was declared the mother of one of my school friends urged me to rush home. Dad had managed to get special leave, although only for a few hours. Early next morning he left to catch the 4 am train back to Aldershot, and two hours later he was on his way to France.

At 7pm on the Sunday war broke out. We had our first air-raid warning and promptly dived under the shop counter for cover. It was a welcome relief to discover from the local policeman that it had just been a practice run.

This was our first experience of what were to become regular raids. One of the earliest bombing raids claimed the life of one of my friends. When the siren sounded and she and her family ran to the shelter at the bottom of their garden. The house remained standing, but the shelter took a direct hit and three generations of one family lost their lives.

As the war progressed my mother, brother and I moved to East Ham to live in my great aunt’s house (she’d decided to go to the country for the remainder of the war). This part of the East End had seen its share of bombing – many of shops around the station had been razed to the ground. Soon after we arrived a land mine flattened the four corners of one road. The area was still a mass of devastation when my brother and I passed by on our way home from school one dinner time (some of the schools having recently opened).

As we got nearer we could see crowds of people. We ran over and craned our necks to try and see what was happening, but being so small we stood no chance and ran on home. Later we discovered why the crowd had gathered, and what we’d missed – a visit by the King and Queen and Winston Churchill, one of a number to the East End to inspect the bomb damage and meet the people.

If only we’d known…if only we’d been taller.

The war meant changes in our daily routine and the loss of things we’d come to take for granted, like sweets. Our local sweet shop, Larkin’s opened only once a month, and the coupons we’d been given were only sufficient for a quarter of the sweets. As a substitute we’d slice up carrots to eat them at the
cinema. Sometimes as we left the cinema we were caught in an air-raid, and with no time to get to the shelters my friends and I would often take refuge in the doorway of a shop nearby. It was only later that it occurred to us that the shop had a huge glass front. Even if the shop had saved us from falling bombs, the inevitable shattering of the glass would have killed us instantly – perhaps not the safest shelter in the world!

We became used to the routine of putting up the blackout curtains each evening and listening to the wardens as they patrolled the area to make sure that not even the smallest chink of light showed through, and we grew familiar with the nightly propaganda by ‘Lord Flaw Flaw’ on the radio.

One of the most popular pastimes for young children was the ritual collection of bits of shrapnel and parachutes. A shop in East Ham Fligh Street placed a stall outside with a number of boxes, one labelled ‘Shrapnel’, one ‘Parachutes’. On the window of the shop the owner had written :

Little bits, big bits, parachutes as well

All go to make an A A shell

It was great fun collecting the shrapnel, and we felt we were helping the war effort in some small way.

Early in the war I developed meningitis masteroids and was rushed to Whipps Cross Hospital. For security reasons the ambulance men had to show their passes and I can remember the ambulance stopping at the gates. My next memory is of walking along the middle of the ward helping the nurses push a trolley

– it was a week later.

After the first stay in hospital I became a regular, yearly patient and witnessed at first hand the carnage caused by the bombing. On one occasion a bomb hit a bus just as another bus, filled with passengers, was passing. The casualties were brought to the hospital and extra beds were lined up along the middle of the ward to cope with the number of injured. As a ‘walking patient’ I helped the nurses as much as possible, making beds, emptying bed pans and pushing trolleys around the wards – I enjoyed playing at being a nurse.

One of the worst aspects of the war was the ‘Doodlebug’. A pilotless bomb with wings that resembled a plane, it droned as it flew overhead. As long as it made a noise you knew you were safe, but as soon as the droning stopped the bomb would fall. Once, when I was in hospital, we heard the incessant droning overhead and rushed to the window to look out. This particular bomb had only one wing and flew menacingly for what seemed like hours. Eventually it fell, thankfully missing the hospital.

Whenever the air-raid warnings sounded the nurses would lead all the patients down to the hospital basement, where we often spent the night on stretchers laid out on the stone floor. There were sometimes young babies to be cared for and they had to be placed in gas masks that covered their entire bodies

– they must have wondered what was happening.

I was almost 16 by the time the war ended . East Ham Fligh Road was closed to traffic and the residents celebrated with a huge street party. Food was still rationed, but the local grocer’s shop presented us with a huge tin of biscuits – luxury.

The war ended a long time ago, but the memories remain and are especially poignant just over 60 years since it all began,

Kathleen Draycott