wartime

Memories of a wartime childhood

William (Bill) Howard

I was born before the Second World War, in July 1939. I don’t remember very much until I was about 3. From then on I was aware that the sound of the air raid sirens meant trouble. Whenever German bombers were approaching, the sirens started with a loud, eerie WoooOOOOooooOOOOooooOOOOoooo noise. That meant we had to get indoors or into an air-raid shelter as soon as possible, before the airplanes arrived and dropped their bombs. Luckily I was never very close to any bombs but I certainly heard them exploding in the surrounding area and at night you could see the sky over London, thirty miles away, glowing with the massive fires caused by the destruction. Once the immediate danger had passed, the siren sounded the ‘All Clear’ which was a steady, reassuring Woooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo.

On one occasion I was with my Dad in the garden. He was gardening, something most people had to do to grow fruit and vegetables which were otherwise in short supply during the war – ‘DIG FOR VICTORY’ was the slogan at that time. Suddenly there was an enormous explosion and a great cloud of black smoke. It was a bomb falling some miles away but very frightening. Later on in the War, the Germans started using Flying Bombs called VI’s. We called them ‘Doodle-bugs’ and they were like small aeroplanes filled with explosives. They were launched from enemy territory across the English Channel, aimed at targets around London. These Flying Bombs had no pilot but were controlled by a complicated automatic system which aimed them towards their targets. The engine made a very unusual noise, an unmistakable sound a bit like a motor bike going slowly. When it ran out of fuel, the Flying Bomb tumbled out of the sky, exploding as it hit the ground. I remember watching one fly over on a lovely summer day. I was sitting in a friend’s garden. We were with her father, who was an air gunner in the Royal Air Force, home on leave. We watched the ‘Doodle-bug’ go over quite high up and after a while the motor noise cut out. By this time it was quite a way from us so we were not too worried as we watched it fall, glinting in the sun as it tumbled out of the sky. It hit the ground with a mighty bang, about five miles away. It landed in open farmland and did little damage other than making a big hole.

My father’s brother was also an RAF air gunner on Lancaster bombers. I remember him coming home on leave and he would let me wear his flying helmet which made me feel very proud. He was always great fun to be with. Sadly his aircraft was shot down in France in 1944 while returning from a bombing raid over Germany and he was killed. I was 5 years old at the time.
Sometimes we used to go out to the site of aeroplanes that had crashed or been shot down and pick up pieces as souvenirs. Not very nice I suppose if you think about the fact that the crew might have been killed – even if they were the enemy. But as children we didn’t see it like that. It was just exciting to own a bit of an aircraft, particularly a German one.

At infants’ school, whenever the sirens sounded a warning of an enemy air raid, we all had to leave the classroom and move into the cloakroom and lie together on the floor -like sardines! I’m not quite sure why – we just did as we were told. Perhaps the roof was thicker there and gave more protection. We were also given gas masks to wear in case the enemy used poison gas. I hated my gas mask as I was always afraid it would stop me from breathing! School dinners were pretty unexciting, usually mutton with mashed potatoes and cabbage or swede, followed by pink blancmange. Milk was also supplied in small, one third of a pint bottles. A pretty dull diet but we had to get on with it, as food was scarce. By 1945, things got a lot easier. There were fewer and fewer air raids and we all felt a lot safer. My Mother even used to take me up to London for a day. I remember seeing all the massive bomb damage caused by the London blitz, although I can’t recall it making any great impression on me. Having known no life at that stage other than a Wartime one, I just regarded it as normal I suppose. That was just the way things were.

One of my nicest memories was a visit to the school, near the end of the War, by a group of Canadian Air Force airmen from nearby Bovingdon airfield. They brought a present of a large box of drinking chocolate powder with them and we had all been told to bring in a cup to collect a share of it. Some people brought in huge pint mugs, but still only got the same ration dished out to them! I suppose it was enough for about two drinks. For us, who spent the War with everything rationed, particularly sweets and sugar, this little portion of drinking chocolate was worth more than gold-dust.

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