A Family at War
IN the late summer of 1939, the council brought Anderson bomb shelters around to Graham Road, where we lived. They arrived on a long line of horse-drawn carts and the men discussed the size of our family (there were 11 of us if you include Mum and Dad) before leaving us two shelters.
Dad and us boys dug out the foundations and by Saturday afternoon we had the shelters assembled in the back yard. My dad looked at them, then up at the sky, and said: “well, I guess that’s that!”
We were all in the scullery on the day war was declared and the news came over on the box radio bracketed to the wall. I can still
remember Chamberlain’s words: “I must tell you now, that no such assurance has been received …” and my mother starting to cry. Her generation had only just got over one war, and the last thing they wanted was another one.
Then the air raids started! One day I was out walking with my brother Charlie when a Junkers came so low over Edmonton that everybody ducked. It was followed by a Spitfire. We heard a crash and all went rushing towards the smoke. Charlie was the first one there and gave me the pilot’s map. I don’t know where it is now.
Bert, my oldest brother, was in the Naval Reserve so he was called up as soon as it all
started, but then Charlie came in one day and told us he’d volunteered for the Army. There was a big argument over this, because he was only 17 and Mum and Dad could have got him out if they wanted. Dad said, however: “he’ll have to go in soon anyway and at least they can’t send him overseas yet. If he goes now he’ll get an extra year’s training, and you never know, that might make all the difference.”
I’d left school at 14 and was working in a factory all day and training with the Middlesex Regiment of the home Guard in the evenings. On the one time we’d been given a night off I’d gone to bed early when they called an emergency drill and a sergeant came running round to get me. Dad shouted : “Bill, Bill, get up – Hitler’s landed”.
One day I visited Charlie who was on guard duty over at Biggin Hill aerodrome. We walked right into the pilot’s mess and sat down for lunch! We could have got in real trouble for that – in fact I am surprised we didn’t, because I was only in my home Guard’s uniform. Still, we got away with it and during the meal he said: “Don’t go into the Army, Bill. Join the Navy instead”. That was the last time I ever saw him.
When I turned 17 I took Charlie’s advice and filled in an advertisement in the newspapers for volunteers to join the Royal Navy. I got called down the Edgware Road for a medical, and this was the first time I’d ever travelled by tube. I arrived two hours early, so decided to go to the cinema. The movie was Gone with the Wind. It lasted nearly three hours and I didn’t have a watch, so I was late for my appointment. That wasn’t a very good start to my life in the Navy.
About six weeks after the medical I was told to report to Collingwood Barracks. We were all waiting outside at 12 o’clock and an officer came out and said: “If any of you want to change your minds, go home now. Once you step through those gates, you’re in the Navy”.
On our first day we received our uniforms, two pairs of boots, two shirts, two socks, two pairs of underwear, a single pullover, an overcoat, a kitbag and a penknife. Our own clothes and effects were bundled up and sent home for us. We received our first pay as well – £3, plus a shilling for signing up. It sounds a lot – at least it did then – but it wasn’t that much, because you had a clothes allowance taken out, and when we went aboard ship a 1/6 per day food deduction was put into a kitty. At least we could buy subsidised food from the Naval stores. We always ate well in the Navy, I’ll say that for it. In fact for most of the war I was sending food home to the family.
Later on that first day they marched us into a hall where we were lectured on the traditions of the Navy, then we all went for marching and drills. We had a talk about sex and what to do and what not to do – well, what not to do mainly.
I was still at Collingwood when Hitler invaded Russia, and I remember thinking: “Good – he won’t be coming after us now”.
We got through to 1943 before we lost anyone in our family, and it was poor old Charlie whose luck ran out. he’d gone all through Africa -El Alamein, the lot – and they were in Italy, waiting to go across the River Sangro. One night Charlie was sent out on evening patrol with a Captain and two others. The Captain trod on a land mine and the explosion killed them all.
The Army sent Mum and Dad a telegram, but they already knew, because Charlie had been serving with one of the Miller boys from across the road, he’d written to his mother, and his letter arrived before the telegram.
It took Mum along time to get over that – in fact I don’t think she ever did really.