Spitfires and a Chocolate Cocktail

I spent the war years in the Southern Provincial Police Orphanage in Redhill, Surrey, and remember, as if it were yesterday, watching the Battle of Britain in the September of 1940 from our dining hall window.

As a lad of seven years old I marvelled at the dog fights taking place with the vapour trails criss-crossing the blue sky, pockmarked brown by bursting ack-ack shells. I remember cheering like mad when a Jerry was shot down and booing when one of our lads zoomed out of the sky. The noise of battle was like a symphony to the ears of the small boys as they followed the gyrations of the fighter pilots. Like swallows they ducked and dived about the sky, staccato bursts of machine gun fire heralding the death of yet another machine.

My friends and I had watched spellbound as, amid all this cacophony of destruction, white silk parachutes gently billowed in the air wafting a few airmen, friend and foe alike, down to the safety of the good earth. Before long a prefect grabbed me by the collar and shoved me under one of the heavy tables, for these were the days before the powers-that-be built the air raid shelter in the football field.

It’s strange how the memories come flooding back, and such scenes linger on. Eventually they built the shelter, and whenever the siren sounded out we would trundle from our building along the drive and into the shelter in the football field. We boys were divided into three dormitories according to age. The small fry including me initially were in the ‘Little Vic’ and if there was a night raid, bearing in mind we were in Redhill, only 20 miles from London, a master, Mr. Moon, would ring a large firebell. This was located in the passageway on the other side of the wall right behind my bed, and when it first started clanging in the middle of the night it scared me out of my wits. After lights out someone always kept watch while we had a bit of a lark about and would warn us when he saw Mr. Moon’s lit cigarette come round the corner.

Eventually they built large shelters we called The Trenches with wooden bunks and we slept all night in them during the Blitz. At first they would hang a wet blanket over the entrance in case of a gas attack and I remember a craze for French knitting, four small nails in a cotton reel that produced a long round tube of wool we made into teapot stands and the like.

Then of course there was the rationing. Dearest to our hearts at that age were chocolate and sweets. We were allowed 2oz a week ably eked out with the likes of the ration Ovaltine and Horlicks tablets. I well remember swopping bits of my Mars bar for a bit of Frys Cream and bits of other chocolate bars, putting them in an Ovaltine tablet tin lid and melting the horrible mess on top of a radiator. When it had cooled down into a solid mass, to me then my chocolate cocktail tasted like heaven.

Rationing was no laughing matter and there was a refrain we used to sing when the masters weren’t about:

There is a happy home far far away Where we have bread and scrape three times a day Eggs and bacon never see, nor no sugar in our tea And we are gradually fading away

Then came the ‘Doodlebugs’ or VI rockets. These were pilotless flying bombs that made a droning sound, so you could always tell when one was approaching. The time to watch out was when the engine cut out, with the people underneath praying it was going to miss them.

Memories of Spitfires and ‘Doodlebugs’ came flooding back last autumn when my wife and I visited the Second World War museum at Eden Camp, Malton, North Yorkshire. This is an amazing place, once a prisoner of war camp where the nissen huts have been turned into a museuni of practically every phase of the war. We were greeted by Glen Miller music playing in the NAAFI where wartime posters adorned the walls, – Dig for Victory – and bangers, mash and beans were on the menu.

Row upon row of huts depicted the war on land, sea and air, the home front, prefabs and bomb sites with even a waxwork family doing their washing using wash boards and mangles. This was nostalgia par excellence. For instance, Hut 4, Britain Prepares – building air raid shelters; Hut 7, The Street at War; Hut 8, Women at War; Hut 9, Bomber Ops, and so on through a total of 32 huts. Looking in a prefab window I noticed a child’s bedroom at Christmas with all the toys of the period and the thing that really took me back was a half crown Christmas stocking from Woolies hung on the bottom of the bed with a tin whistle, top, puzzle and other 1940s toys.

Yes, this museum has everything – the sights, sounds and even the smells of those war years, including special effects from a smoke machine bringing back the days of the blitz. If you have your own wartime tale to tell you can visit the interview room where you can record your story on video for the benefit of future generations.

On my visit I was walking along one of the paths absorbed in my thoughts when an old familiar sound came to my ears – the high drone of a ‘Doodlebug’. It was an eerie experience. The sound cut out, I rounded a corner, and there was a VI flying bomb crashed into the roof of one the prisoner of war huts.

I sat at a nearby table and shut my eyes and suddenly it was 1944 again.

Brian Hopper, Solihull