I was 12 years old when the war started, on the 3rd of September, 1939, and lived with my parents and sister in Runwell, Essex.
Our side of the church was considered a safe area, so we were not issued with an ‘Anderson’ air raid shelter. These were reinforced corrugated iron shelters, set about 4ft into the ground. The top was covered with more soil for added protection, and some people grew plants on top for camouflage. Deck Chairs were used to sit on, but the shelters were very cold, and a lot got water in when it rained.
Most towns had public shelters, and a lot of people would take food and blankets, and spend every night in them.
At the outbreak of war, all government offices, banks and important buildings had piles of sandbags outside for protection, and blast walls were built in front of doors.
People living in London used to go down to the underground tube stations each night, and there were hundreds of bunk beds all along the platforms, although the trains ran as usual. Every night was a ‘Party Night’, with sing-songs, and many well-known stars would entertain them. There was one tragedy when a bomb fell at the entrance to one of the stations; it went straight down the escalator and killed many people. Fortunately, this didn’t often happen.
War was declared on a Sunday, and as soon as it got dark the first air-raid siren sounded. A neighbour had told my sister and me so many dreadful tales about how Hitler was going to use poisonous gas on us, that we put on our gas masks and would not take them off again until after the ‘All Clear’. The warning proved to be a false alarm.
As we had no air raid shelter, our beds were raised up on bricks, with another mattress on the floor. When the air raids got bad, we went under our beds, hoping the upper mattress would protect us from any debris.
When the war first started, we did not return to school for the autumn term because there were no shelters, so we did not go back until around Christmas. There were still no shelters, so we had to go to various parts of the school when the sirens went, as far away from windows as possible. The windows were all covered in a very fine sticky net to stop glass flying around if a bomb came too close. My class had to go the girls’ cloakroom when the siren went.
When we first returned to school, the local children went on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. The children who came by the school buses came on Tuesdays and Fridays. The next week we changed days.
We all had to stay for dinner as we only had half an hour. The dinners cost 4d a day, or1/6d if we paid for the week.
School finished at 2pm. so we could all get home before the ‘blackout’, and before the raids started. We could always tell when we going to get a raid, as the radio went silent, and of course there were no televisions then.
We did finally get shelters at school. They were built out on the playing fields – five for the girls and five for the boys. They had no lights in them, so we spent hours sitting in the dark, singing songs.
All the male teachers were called up for service; one lady teacher, called Miss Freitog, was interned because of her German connections. (Many doctors and staff at Runwell Hospital were also interned for the same reason).
A lot of children were evacuated from the town to the country for safety. Some went overseas to Canada, America, New Zealand and Australia, but one of the ships carrying children was torpedoed and many lives were lost, so no more children were sent overseas.
Children from the Southend area, and inland as far as Rawreth, were mostly evacuated. Many houses stood empty, especially around the airport. Police were on duty at all railway stations, and turned back people who wanted to go into Southend area, unless they worked there, or had a good excuse for going there.
Barrage balloons were attached by long wires to boats off Southend, and when a raid was expected they went up very high, so that shipping could not be bombed. If the planes came in low, they would have got caught up in the balloon wires. London and many aerodromes also had barrage balloons.
There were huge coils of barbed wire all along the seafront, so we could not go on the beach throughout the war.
Tank traps were built on some roads. They were usually at the bottom of hills or around sharp bends. There were two or three rows of them staggered across half of the road, so as to let cars through, and others were nearby, ready to be dragged into place and bolted into position when necessary. They were made out of reinforced concrete and looked like huge sand pies.
Every house was issued with leaflets telling us how we could put a tank out of action. One method was to wedge big logs into the tracks. All of us kids thought we were going to wipe out the whole German tank force on our own!
There were no lights anywhere after dark. All windows had to be blacked out with heavy curtains, and if we wanted to go outside, we had to make sure no lights showed when the door was opened, or the wardens would be after us. Torches had to have a thin layer of tissue paper on the inside of the glass so there was not a bright beam. Batteries for torches were very hard to get. Trains and buses had dark blue bulbs inside, which made it quite impossible to see if anyone was sitting in the seat. So quite often we sat down on somebody, or they sat on us, or we fell over each other’s feet. Car headlights, for those allowed to use their car, had hoods over them with 3 or 4 horizontal slots in the mask, so light was kept down on the road and would not be seen from the air. All road signs and sign posts were taken down in case of invasion, and all railings were taken from the parks or gardens and melted down for munitions. All paper, rags, bottles and bones were collected and recycled. A mobile unit would come to the school to show us how everything was used. The bones were used to make glue, much to all of the dogs’ disgust!
After France fell, the air raids were non-stop. At one time we did not go to bed properly for three months. We used to change into a new set of warm clothes, lay on top of our beds, then dive underneath when things got ‘too hot’. Sometimes the sky would be full of searchlights, and when they caught a plane, all the anti-aircraft guns started to fire at it.
At our home in Runwell we had a very long garden. The furthest part was like a little copse, with small oak and hawthorn trees. One afternoon, a group of soldiers marched up the garden and set up a machine gun nest, which they covered with camouflage netting. They stayed a day or two, then went away as secretly as they arrived.
An Englishman, named William Joyce, managed to cut into the BBC programmes, and gave out propaganda for the Germans. On one occasion he even said which troops were stationed in our area. It was frightening to know that a local person was passing on secrets. Later William Joyce was caught and hanged for being a traitor.
On very dark nights the German planes would drop flares. These were a horrid green/yellow light, rather like the colour used today in horror films. It was most eerie and rather frightening.
One of our friends was still able to use her car, so when a plane was shot down, she, her son and I would pile into it and go and see the wreckage. There were always soldiers on duty, but they let us have little pieces of plane for a souvenir. I had quite a collection – little pieces of Dorniers, Heinkels and Messerschmidts.
No church bells were allowed to be rung during the war. They were only to be used to warn us that the invasion had started.
One afternoon, my grandmother and I were out picking blackberries when we saw what we thought were parachutes coming down. We were very frightened as we thought the invasion had started, but it turned out to be the sun shining on the tops of some distant barrage balloons!
The turning point of the war was on what became known as ‘Battle of Britain Day’. 132 German planes were shot down. I think it was also a Sunday. The sirens had gone early in the afternoon, and we saw three columns, each of 50 bombers, coming over. One group was following the Thames up to London, one group was coming towards us, and the third group was passing on the Chelmsford side. Suddenly, seven Spitfires came whizzing in low from their airfield at Hornchurch. All the bombers broke formation, the Spitfires went in and there was a terrific battle. One plane was shot down and the pilot came down on a parachute. It was the first time my sister and I had seen anything like this and we were yelling our heads off with excitement, only to find that out later that it was one of ours that had been shot down.
Going back to the raids, when we heard a bomb whistling down, we all dived under the nearest piece of furniture, usually the table. Our heads would be covered but our bottoms would be sticking out into the room. If we happened to be doing a job like washing up, we never seemed to put down whatever we were holding, so quite often we would take a saucepan, or something like that, under the table with us. When the ‘all clear’ sounded, once more we all piled into the car, and went to Battlesbridge to inspect the wreckage. Two soldiers were guarding it, but they let us have a good look round. I rather fancied the little tail wheel, but they would not let me have it, so while my friend talked to the soldiers, I helped myself to a belt of tracer bullets and a belt of machine gun bullets. These were the pride of my collection, and I kept them with all my other ‘trophies’ in my bedroom. There were some Royal Engineers stationed in the village hall opposite our house, and this is where I made my big mistake when I proudly showed them my bullets. They nearly had a fit when they saw they were all live! So, they set about taking the gunpowder, or whatever it is called, out of them. The bullets never seemed the same after that. We had to scrape my mother off the floor when she realised I had been keeping live ammunition in my bedroom!
As the bombing raids slowed down, the V1s, or flying bombs, started. They were nicknamed ‘doodlebugs’ or ‘buzz bombs’. I did not mind these so much, as they made such a noise and they had flames coming out at the back of them. We could always hear and see them coming, day or night. The only trouble was once the engine stopped, they nosedived straight down, so when that happened, we all threw ourselves on the ground and covered our heads. These bombs caused an awful lot of damage. They were aimed at London, but sometimes they ran out of fuel too soon, so we never knew where they would come down.
Later came the V2s. They were huge rockets which travelled so high they could not be seen or heard. (These were really the first space rockets). When they exploded, they flattened vast area of property. We had only one V” in Runwell, and fortunately it landed in a ploughed field and went so deep.it did not do any damage. This was when we were issued with an indoor ‘Morrison’ shelter. It was like a huge table made of iron, with very strong metal mesh sides, and it nearly filled the room. We all slept in this, and when inside, the mesh side came down to keep any debris away from us. We slept in this shelter right up to the time peace was declared. As we had been lucky so far, we did not want to try our luck by not using the shelter.
Throughout the war we were rationed with food, clothes and coal. Everyone was issued with a ration book – green for children and fawn for adults. We had to register with a butcher for meat, and a grocer for everything else. The meat allowance was only a few pence a week per person. Families used to save up their coupons so as to get a small joint about once a month. We also had offal, such as liver, kidneys and sausages. These were very scarce, so the butcher used to serve his customers in alphabetical order, so it was often 26 weeks or so before our turn came round. ‘Dads’ Army’ on TV showed how they went on with rationing – it was very much like real life.
Fish, bread fruit and vegetables were not rationed, but sometimes in short supply. Nothing was imported, so people grew as much as they could. Flower gardens and lawns were dug up so that vegetables could be grown. Some people kept rabbits to supplement their meat ration, while others kept chickens, either to eat or for their eggs. They were allowed a ration of corn for the chickens, but if they had this, they had to forego their egg ration.
Our rations varied. Sometimes we only got 2oz of butter,4oz of margarine, 2oz of cheese, 2oz of cooking fat, 4oz sugar and one egg each week. Sometimes it was one egg which had to do 2 weeks. Agricultural workers got extra butter and cheese because they had to take sandwiches when working in the fields. We also had 2oz tea and 2oz of bacon a week each. This was the worst period, but our rations improved later. Sweets were rationed, sometimes we had 2oz a week, and later 4oz, but there was not much choice.
Toilet soap and washing powder were also rationed, and people started to use household soda for washing up, and nearly all ended up with very sore, red hands.
There were no brand-labelled goods of any kind. About twice a year, if available, we got a tin of fruit, a small tin of salmon or a tin of instant coffee per family, but not always one of each. These goods came at the end of the war.
Things like rice or custard powder only appeared in the shops once in a blue moon. Horlicks and Ovaltine were reserved for injured soldiers in hospital.
Sometimes we got tins of dried egg, (it looked rather like dried milk, only it was yellow) which was fine in cooking, but when mixed with a little water and used for scrambled egg was revolting. Babies and young children got concentrated orange juice, which was a very dull orange colour. A couple of teaspoonfuls were added to water. They also had cod liver oil, and both came from the local clinic.
We had to queue for everything. If we saw a queue we joined it, not always knowing what was being sold at the other end! If the queue was very long, we used to think it was something worth waiting for. Quite often, when it came to our turn the goods were sold out. As fish was not rationed, it was very hard to get, so the fish shops only opened once or twice a week. When they started to fry, people came from everywhere.
In the towns, they had ‘British Restaurants’. They served hot lunches for workers and were very cheap, so the people who could get to them saved on their rations.
We got 20 coupons every six months for clothes. If I remember rightly, a dress was 7 coupons, a coat half lined was 15, or if fully lined 18, a pair of shoes 7, a pair of stockings 1 1/2 , a pair of knickers 3. A man’s suit was 26, so he had to wait for the second issue of 20 coupons before he could buy one.
All dress material, knitting wool and household things, like sheets, also required coupons. In the markets sometimes we could buy linen-type sacks that had contained flour. These were opened out, bleached and then made into table cloths, etc. Sometimes we could get panels from parachutes. These were like silk and could be made into underwear.
Because we children were still growing, we would have a frill sewn onto the bottom of a dress to make it longer. Perhaps two dresses would be taken to pieces and the good material was used to make another one. Then if the elbows of hand-knitted jumpers got thin, the garment was unpicked and the wool used for something else. This was called ‘make-do-and-mend’. We tried to wear things that matched colourwise, but it was very difficult
In the autumn we bottled everything we could lay our hands on, in old jam jars. These were then sealed with some sort of wax. Some people made apple rings; apples were peeled, cored, cut across and hung up to dry. When they were needed, they were soaked overnight in water, then stewed. They often looked rather brown, but tasted quite good. We were lucky living in a country area, as so many people had fruit trees. We were able to buy boxes of apples and pears that would keep throughout the winter.
The food rationing went on for several years after the war; in fact, my second son, who was born in 1951, also had a ration book and identity card.
There were a lot of slogans, such as ‘Dig for Victory’, to encourage people to grow as much food as possible, ‘Careless Talk Costs Lives’, and ‘Walls Have ears’ to make people aware that enemy sympathisers could be living in the local community.
Men who were not able to go into the Services were formed into the Home Guard (Dads’ Army). In 1940 they had a weekend exercise against some of the army, and the Red Cross and Women’s’ Voluntary Service were also involved. The Home Guard were supposed to capture the road bridge over the river in Wickford. They were all in the water under the bridge and all the kids from the village were hanging over the bridge to see what was going on; a right give away for the enemy! Another time they were crawling along on their tummies, holding their guns in front of them, in a field used for cows. Cows are the nosiest of animals, and they all started following behind. Every time the men stopped, so did the cows! No shots were fired, I think they just had to say,” Bang, bang, you’re dead”.
Also in 1940, the Germans dropped some land mines. These came down on parachutes and one got entangles in some trees in Wickford, exploded and the blast killed hundreds of chickens at a nearby chicken farm. Everybody in the village had roast chicken that weekend!
My father worked in the Registry Department of the Eastern Division Post Office, in Whitechapel, next to the London Hospital. He was always on night duty, but they had a very deep underground shelter, so he was able to work right through the ‘Blitz’. Sometimes he came up in the morning, after a raid, and he had to pick his way through all sorts of debris, (the East End of London was very badly bombed) and he came home looking like a chimney sweep, and smelling of smoke.
Tilbury was also very badly bombed and the people were rehoused in the empty houses in our area. After the war there was a lot of trouble when the owners returned and wanted their homes back.
Soldiers from the Royal Engineers built ‘Pill Box’ gun emplacements which are still dotted around the fields. In winter, when there are less leaves on trees, you can see just how many there are. If we had been invaded, this whole area would have been an enormous battle ground.
Everybody, including all of the children, had to carry their gas masks and identity cards with them at all times.
When bananas appeared in the shops for the first time, a man in Chelmsford slipped on a skin and broke his leg; this was when they had been on sale for only half an hour! Children under 5 had never seen one before, and most did not like them.
Songs in time of war were very important. They included ‘The White Cliffs of Dover’, ‘We’ll Meet Again’, ‘We’re Going To Hang Out The Washing On The Siegfried Line’, ‘Kiss me Goodnight Sergeant Major’, ‘Lillie Marlene’ (a German marching song). ‘Run, Rabbit, Run’ by Flanagan and Allen, of the Crazy Gang, was written because the first bomb to fall in Scotland only killed a rabbit. Vera Lynne was an extremely popular singer, and was known as the ‘Forces Sweetheart’. A girl called Zoe Gail sang a song called ‘I’m Going To Get Lit Up When The Lights Go Up In London’. She was badly hurt in an accident, and lost a leg. She was given the honour of switching on the lights in London when peace was declared.