--- The Blitz Cometh ---|
As the summer of 1940 moved along, The Battle Of Britain filled everyone's mind. I would have loved to be a fighter pilot. I ran around, my arms outstretched, making machine gun noises as I single-handedly destroyed the Luftwaffe . I truly believed that good fighter pilots were invincible and of course I chose to be one of those. The Germans commonly known as "Gerry" were bombing and strafing the RAF aerodromes in an effort to destroy the Royal Air Force. So fighter squadrons were often dispersed to places around the main airfields to stop the destruction of aircraft on the ground. This occasionally offered curious children a glimpse of the aircraft and the young celebrities who flew them. For a child, I had a precocious knowledge of the planes on both sides. Jim, as he courted my mother, brought me "recognition models" made of black bakelite. They were used to train anti- aircraft gunners to recognize silhouettes so they would not shoot down their own planes. My cousin, Arthur made me little solid model Spitfires and Hurricanes. He was good with his hands and I loved them. So, a very young child was able to tell a Messerschmitt from a Spitfire, and recognize Heinkels and Dorniers and Ju88s to name a few.
A large anti- aircraft battery with several different guns and searchlights moved in across the Bypass on the other side of the Southern Railway embankment. Suddenly, Barrage Balloons appeared above the embankment. These were used in case of attack to stop to the Stuka dive bombers and the strafing Me109s from getting at the guns. One sunny late summer afternoon we heard the sound of many aircraft and went outside to see. The sky was filled and the neighbourhood stood outside cheering the display. "Go get them boys!" was the general call. I was a little confused because they seemed to be going the wrong way, towards London not France. Frank wanted a better look so he went inside and got his binoculars. Looking through them, he swore like I had never heard before. "They're Huns!" he yelled. The cheering ceased as the shocked onlookers realized the sky was filled with the enemy. Frank acquired his military sword and threatened to destroy the invader himself. Mr.Graves was brandishing a dustbin lid like a shield. What he was going to do with it, I could only guess. The Blitz had begun and in broad daylight.
It seems that the RAF had somehow managed to bomb Berlin. This apparently upset Hitler and he decided to destroy London and leave the RAF until later. Hugh Dowding head of Fighter Command had earlier decided to defend instead of attack and so the RAF was waiting. As the raiders flew toward London, in plain sight they were "bounced" by Spits and Hurricanes who dove on them out of the sun. When the RAF attack ended and it didn't last long, the "Ack Ack" anti-aircraft battery behind the embankment opened up. From the houses and gardens we watched the war, while everyone prepared for the worst.
It seems the daylight raids were too costly to the Luftwaffe so they moved to the evening and then to night bombing to avoid the fighters. We were now directly under attack and everywhere people prepared for the worst. Anderson shelters were installed in back gardens. ARP wardens prepared us for night raids. They showed us how the staircases and chimneys usually remained standing when houses collapsed. People hid under the staircases. At 48 Hook Rise, we had no shelter to start with. So, my mother, Frank and Annie took shelter under a large old dining room table and I clad in my siren suit was stuffed in the fireplace. Every house had to be blacked out. Blackout curtains went up every night. Then we waited and waited listening until we heard the wail of the air raid sirens in the distance. Air Raid Wardens could be heard yelling "Put out that light!" Fear and frustration meant that these orders were often accompanied by profanity. "Put out that Bloody Light" being the least of these. Then closer air raid sirens began to wail. They were coming. They were closer. The sound of many bomber engines soon filled the night. All of us quickly learned to recognize the sound of "Gerry". Jim Allan, my soon to be stepfather, put words to the sound. "Whereyouwantum! Whereyouwantum! Whereyouwantum!" We really didn't want them! Searchlights pierced the sky, then the Ack Ack batteries opened up. The woof woof of the Bofors gun was intermingled with rapid reports from a multiple barrelled weapon that my mother nicknamed "Quacky!" Rain began to fall on the roof composed of white hot metal, shrapnel from our own high explosive shells. What goes up must come down.
We lived right on "Bomb Alley" the direct route the Luftwaffe took from the South Coast to London. Wounded aircraft jettisoned their bombs right on us. We would hear them whistle overhead. One old Warden told us that if you heard the bomb whistle it had already passed. Then to keep up our spirits he added that we would never hear the one that killed us. Well, we were no longer watching the war. We were in it.
Night time bombing soon became our way of life. Everything revolved around nightly air raids. Everything was keyed to the sound of approaching air raid sirens. Without a shelter, the Malins' at 48 were far from safe. One night, during a particular frightening raid there was a huge explosion and the whole house shook. Glass broke from the concussion and dust filled the room. The chimney was immediately swept and the soot descended on me. Frank crawled out from under the dining room table to investigate and when he reached the front door it came off in his hands. The air was blue as he told the Germans what he thought of them. Fortunately he was interrupted by the ARP who told us that we must evacuate the house. My mother had retrieved me blackened as I was. We had nowhere to go. The Wardens barged into the Grave's Anderson Shelter next door and deposited all of us there without any consideration for the Graves family at all. Well, there wasn't enough room. We were not welcome. Still, we made it through the night to the all clear. Our relationship with the Graves family, I remember, was never the same. We had to remain outside and wait until 48 was inspected to determine if it was safe to occupy.
Still dirty, I busied myself collecting shrapnel, all children collected and traded it. The refuse of war was highly prized. Right on the front step of 48, I discovered a large chunk of shell casing, from one of our own guns of course, this became the centrepiece for my collection as it grew daily throughout the war. 48 was still livable. Workmen arrived to rehang the front door and board up the windows. The adults went inside to tidy things up. It seems a high explosive bomb had landed in the grassy verge (median) of the bypass and had created an underground crater big enough to park a bus in, at least, that was the rumour. Bombs frequently threw the concrete slabs that made up the bypass against houses and destroyed them completely. We had been lucky. Still, the neighbourhood was in a tizzy over the close call. Others were not as fortunate, people had died.
Shortly, after this there was much activity in the back garden between the Popel's and the Malin's residence. An above ground brick shelter was erected and the two families that didn't get along were ordered to share it. The ARP also ordered that the house be evacuated before and during every raid and that the shelter was to be occupied by both families. Every night at the first sound of approaching sirens we left the house and entered the shelter . It was dark and cold and dank. The only light came from candles. There was no door. Our blackout was an army blanket hung over the entrance. We had to leave to relieve ourselves. On every occasion all the candles had to be extinguished before the blanket was moved. The smell of unburned paraffin nauseates me to this day.
The Popels sat on the left and the Malins on the right. We talked amongst ourselves but rarely to the people across from us. Mostly we simply sat and waited for the Luftwaffe to strike us down and when they tried we prayed that they would miss. Meanwhile, as searchlights probed the night,we were treated to a hail storm of hot metal from our own guns. One evening when Jim Allan was home on leave, he rested his boots on the far wall and as he fell asleep his feet slid down the wall and made a noise that startled Frank who was nodding off. My grandfather woke with a start and screamed that he'd been killed. I thought it was funny. No one else did. In truth, few were able to sleep. We struggled to stay awake. What we learned to do most, young and old alike, was to wait and listen, above all listen! Conversation interfered with this so it ceased and we waited in silence ......
Much has been written about the resilience and courage of the British public. What was surprising to me was how quickly the Malins and others settled into a daily routine and simply went on. It was much easier for me. I had no idea that I was mortal. I assumed that I was more of a spectator than a participant. Looking back, I still cannot grasp the fear and indeed terror that must have been experienced by the adult community. In the 1970s, John Cleese intoned on Monty Python, "Welcome once again to another evening of Death, Devastation and Horror!" Most every evening and night was that for us. Our salvation, in the early dawn hours was the long awaited sound of the sirens blowing the All Clear.
People crawled out of shelters and returned to homes, if they were still standing. They prepared and ate breakfast. Canteens were set up for the "bombed out". Otherwise, the adult work force went to their jobs while others stayed and looked after the homes. Children went to school. Shops opened for business and the sun could choose to come out. It was amazing to see people calmly digging up their lawns to plant Victory Gardens. Daily life really was business as usual with randomly added high drama to highlight the day.
One day my mother and I were walking along Hook Rise. We were going to my friend Michael Gay's house. Suddenly,there was the high speed sound of an approaching aircraft engine. I remember looking across the bypass toward the railway embankment as an extremely low flying fighter plane popped up from behind it, headed right for us. I remember to this day, it had a yellow spinner. It was an ME109, a German, the yellow spinner meant the pilot was an ace. More significantly. the spinner had a hole in it that housed the barrel of a 30mm cannon. My mother threw me to the ground against a low stone garden wall and jumped on me to protect me. All hell broke loose as cannon shells spattered the wall. It was all over in an instant. the Messerschmidtt was gone. We were uninjured. An elderly man in the garden behind the wall was cursing out the German pilot. It seems, he was bending over pruning his roses when a cannon shell hit the brick wall of his house between his legs. Exciting moments like this were quite common. Anecdotes abounded. What was related much more soberly was the results of cannon shells when they struck flesh and slaughtered people. Just down the line in New Malden where Uncle Wally lived, nuns and children were machine-gunned while standing on the station platform in broad daylight that same afternoon.
--- Rationing! Rationing! Marriage! Marriage! Name! Name! Day In Day Out! ---|
As a child and after I was always hungry. I've had a life-long love affair with food and lifelong hatred of boiled cabbage. Somehow, between the All Clear and the next air raid. Granny Fiddler and sometimes Mummy cooked for the family. Cooking was seen as women's work. Feeding the four Malins, on a daily basis, sometimes including Jim Allan and the cousins, uncles and aunts for family gatherings, became a demanding task. Everything was rationed. We all had Ration Books. Children got extra rations but I never realized that. The Malins food chain dictated by my grandfather was medieval. Frank was first. The other adult males were second, Then came the women and children. I came last. Jim Allan was an outsider but even he came before me. Meat was scarce. Cabbage wasn't. So when it came my time to be served there was little meat left but lots of that snotty cabbage. Complaint was unacceptable. "Little children should be seen and not heard!" was the operant rule. Orders of the day were always, "Eat what's put in front of you and be thankful! If you don't you'll get nothing else!"
I developed a taste for things my Granny saved for me. The crispy bits stuck to a macaroni cheese dish. Residue of suet pudding and treacle. I became the garbage disposal for all the kitchen scrapings but never the cabbage. Licking the spoon when Annie cooked could be heaven.
My mother married Jim Allan in 1941. She was 40. She lied on her Marriage Certificate, giving her birth date as 1911, To my knowledge Jim never discovered his wife was 10 years older than he thought. Regardless, this Canadian Staff Sergeant whom I disliked became my stepfather and a fixture in my existence from that point forward. With him at 48 Hook Rise, I often shared my favourite breakfast served in bed on Sundays after the All Clear. My bed was in my parent's bedroom They ate in their bed and I in mine. We had powdered eggs and bacon bones fried bread and tea. The bacon bones Jim obtained from the camp cook shack, the Depression had taught him well. Though the bones were waste, fried in a pan they yielded bacon fat and if chewed with great diligence delivered little morsels of salty bacon. The bacon fat was used to fry the bread and cook the powdered eggs. A box of powdered eggs was like flour. Mixed with water not milk, it made a paste that fried into what can best be described as tasteless cardboard. Bacon fat saved the day again. This weekly repast turned me into the best bone cleaner in the universe.
Today, people struggle with their weight. Not then, by and large we were well malnourished. Farmers did generally fare better. The wealthy, of course, had: their wealth; their position; their greed and the "black market!" Social separation did not end because there was a war on. The privileged were still privileged and often did their 'bit' by bestowing charity on the lesser folk. Beside food, I had another dilemma, my name. I was David Kimber. I was David Malins. Now, I was David Allan. When I first attended St. Ann's Primary School. I called myself David Kimber-Malins-Allan. Seventy-four years ago I understood the dilemma faced by present day children who don't know who they are because of conditions in the parent community beyond they're control.
The war itself became part of the daily routine. Everywhere people were in uniform and those dressed in 'chivvies' were often a minority. Sandbags in front of buildings, piles of rubble and other reminders of devastation became commonplace. For young children there was the constant search for shrapnel and other war artifacts. Live cannon shells might lay under a rose bush and a land mine could be found hanging from a tree next to the cricket grounds. The most prized stuff came off crashed German aircraft. The authorities did everything they could to keep children and the public from looting bomb and crash sites but they had a soft spot for the very young and would occasionally sneak us a special bit or two. Unexploded bombs and land mines however, were something else. They had to be reported. They were deadly. It was not ok to beat on them with the family hammer. The land mine Michael Gay and I found caused the whole neighbourhood to be evacuated until it was disarmed.
The land mine incident gave me a new respect for Jim Allan as he was on a bomb disposal squad. Imagine sitting astride a 500 pound bomb while you tried to disarm it. He survived many months of this duty which killed many of his peers only to be told years later that he was ineligible for certain benefits because he had never been in a war zone. Well, neither had Mummy and I. We didn't go to the war it came to us. Before I started school, I honed my aforementioned aircraft recognition skills and could recognize by sound and sight most German aircraft. I knew a Heinkell 111 from a Dornier 17 and a Junkers 88. Ju87 Stukas were not ME109s and so on. I was just as good with Wellingtons known everywhere as a Wimpys, Halifaxes, Mosquitos, Hurricanes, and Spitfires of the RAF. Most of the children were as good if not better than me. We needed no teacher or class to master this curriculum. We all got A.
Yes, death devastation and horror became commonplace. Still, life went on until the sirens began in the evening. Then up went the blackout curtains and off we went to the shelter.
--- Run Away! Run Away! Run Away! ---
Today families plan vacations. In England such events are known as holidays or simply 'hols' The four who lived so long ago at 48 Hook: Annie, Frank, my Mummy and I became a group that embarked repeatedly on a singular holiday quest: running away from the bombs! Staff Sgt. James Edward Allan R.C.E.M.E. M5165, my new stepfather, became the primary facilitator of these adventures. Between the outbreak of war in 1939 and D Day in 1944 Southern England in the countryside outside London became home for 3 Canadian Army Divisions. Jim was in the First Division arriving in 1939. He finally found himself transferred to the RCEME, The Royal Canadian Electrical Mechanical Engineers. He was stationed at Aldershot, Banstead and then Farnborough. As a married man, he was allowed to have his dependents visit and he could be issued a pass that allowed him to be billeted out of camp as leave. Well, Jim got more than his wife and stepson. In addition, he got his mother and father-in-law, Annie and Frank and a Pekingese named Pixie. He got the whole works. When we all arrived one evening at Farnborough Station, I learned he was a religious man. "Jesus Christ!" he said.
There was a single constant that plagued us wherever we went to get away from the bombs. Inevitably, on the night we arrived the air raid siren would go off. It seemed that the Germans followed us wherever we went. So much so, that when we arrived in Victoria BC in 1946. and got ready for bed on our first night in our new Canadian home the air raid siren went off. My mother was horrified, after all the war was over. We soon found out that this siren was blown every night at 9:30 to signal a curfew and we wondered, at that moment, if the war was truly over.
--- The Yanks Are Coming! The Yanks Are Coming! ---|
Several major historic events all reported by Alvar Lidell for the BBC served to take the pressure off us and to give us hope. Yes, the Germans blew up HMS Hood and the UBoats sank the ships that tried to bring us food and supplies. But we sank the Bismark and we all felt we'd had a part in it. Coming out of the shelter in the morning was somewhat of a victory for everyone. Then, on June 21, 1941 Hitler turned away and attacked Russia. Just before Christmas, on December 7th Japan bombed Pearl Harbour. Now, Russia and America were in the war and losing just like us. I was in my first year of school with uniform and short pants. I made friends with the school's old tortoise and since I could already read, I began to learn Pounds Shillings and Pence. Running around the playground with my arms outstretched making machine gun noises, I instantly became an ace Spitfire pilot.
One day something strange happened. The bypass was ominously empty. Then a convoy appeared. It was the wrong colour. At first we thought it was the Germans but the lorries (trucks) were an Olive Green not Field Grey and they had white stars painted on them. The soldiers uniforms were strange too. They weren't our khaki. They were olive drab and their helmets were more like the Germans. They weren't our tin hats. They waved and yelled at us. They spoke English. They were friendly. The Yanks had arrived and they brought everything with them and I mean everything.
There was nothing subtle or quiet about the Yanks. They were overwhelming and they had stuff all kinds of stuff to bestow on us. A truck pulled out of line and stopped and an American soldier yelled "Hey kids! Do you guys want some Coke?" Well kids were young goats to us and coke was something you burnt in the fireplace. I was about to experience sudden culture shock. In the United States, kids were children and coke was Coca-Cola. The young Americans showered us with gifts. With the help of Michael Gay, I struggled home with a wooden case of Coca-Cola. My pockets were stuffed with chocolate bars and chewing gum. Mike and I unwrapped, Babe Ruth and O Henry and chewed Wrigleys and Chiclets. The Yanks were good enough to explain to us that gum was for chewing not swallowing.
I quickly learned that our sweet shops were candy stores in America, a whole new vocabulary was about to be learned. I had to hide my loot from Frank. He would have turned me in for sure. I did wonder why items like cigarettes and silk stockings neither of which interested me were reserved for young women like my cousin Val. I asked my mother and she quickly and sharply told me it was none of my business.
With the Canadians already in Britain and the Americans arriving steadily and setting up camps. The British troops sometimes got lost in the shuffle. There was resentment mostly directed towards the Yanks who were frequently referred to as "Bloody Yanks!" When I asked my mother why the Canadians weren't resented like the Yanks, she told me it was because Canada was part of the British Empire and America was not. It was 1942. I was six and England began to fill with troops. The British, the Empire troops, the Canadians, the Poles, the French and others had been at war since September 1939. This was the brash Yanks first taste of death, devastation and horror. In the remaining years of World War 2, they got more than their fair share. They paid a huge price for stepping in to help in winning the war. They may have been the "Bloody Yanks!" but we were surely glad that they were in England and in the war.
During the day the sky began to fill with planes with white stars on the wings, the US Eighth Army Air Force was arriving. I quickly became interested in the new planes. The Flying Forts as the B17s were called, the B24 Liberators, the B25 Mitchells and others were later joined by the fighters, first the Thunderbolts and then the Mustangs. As the months passed, we children saw more of the Eighth Army Air Force than we saw of our own RAF which included airmen from all over the Empire. The Yanks went about their business in broad daylight while the Lancasters, Wellingtons, and Halifaxes of Bomber Command flew at night. Still whether they flew during the day or at night, the price paid was awful. I wonder today how the young men who survived their first mission could ever bring themselves to get back in a plane to go again. But their fear and suffering was remote from us. What we saw were these wonderful machines that we were sometimes allowed to gawk at and clamber on.
Our only real glimpses of this air war came after school when the Forts returned. The ones we gazed at were usually the "wounded ducks", the damaged aircraft limping home with gaping holes and pieces missing. Flying low and slow sometimes on fire with wounded engine sounds, they were plentiful. The losses were huge. Sometimes early in the morning, we glimpsed the "wounded ducks' of the RAF as they too struggled homeward to their nests. My cousin Art was apprenticed in an aircraft factory. He was very good with his hands. As I said before, he carved me beautiful little solid models of both German and Allied planes. With them I was able to dogfight and bomb to my heart's content. As young as I was I was a student of the war and its weapons. What I learned then. I remember to this day.