I do not recall anything about declaration of war in September 1939. The first thing that really springs to mind about that period, was when some men came and dug a hole in our back garden and put an Air Raid Shelter in. This shelter was one of the curved metal type called an Anderson shelter, named after the man who invented it. The Anderson shelter was made of galvanised corrugated iron sheets bent in the shape of a “J”. Two of these would be put into the ground with the curve at the top and bolted together so that they looked like a U upside down, and several put end to end to form a short tunnel. Then flat pieces were bolted onto the ends to fill in the space, with at one end a gap in the middle so that it made a doorway.
This of course meant that the wind and rain could blow in if that end was not sheltered, so my father put some wooden railway sleepers on end round the doorway and then put some on the top to form a roof like a porch. He then banked all the earth, which had been dug out, up the sides and over the top of the shelter. He also connected up a set of Christmas lights into the shelter so that at least we had light when we were in there, although there were also candles as a standby. The sleepers which formed the porch round the door of the shelter not only kept out the weather, but they also acted as a buffer against bomb blast, as did the earth on the sides and roof. My father must have had foresight, for that porch of sleepers was in fact to save my mothers life, as I will describe later.
At the bottom of our back garden ran a railway line, which was on an embankment. I remember some time shortly after the air raid shelter was put in the council men had to come and put a concrete box lining round the bottom on the inside of the shelter. This was because the water draining from the railway bank was seeping into the shelter and partly filling it. In the bottom slab of concrete, I remember that they set a round tin like a cake tin so that there was a small pit into which any water seepage collected and could be bailed out. Apart from the type of shelter, which we had, there were two other kinds of shelter. One was a brick-built one in the garden, which looked like a shed but with a concrete roof about four inches thick. The other was known as the Table or Morrison shelter, named I believe after Herbert Morrison the Home Secretary at that time. That type of shelter was kept indoors and as its nickname suggests looked like a table with four legs at the corners made of angle iron and with a sheet of steel bolted on the top. Round both sides and at one end, steel mesh was bolted. The idea was that if you were in under the table, it would protect you from any rubble, which fell in the event of bomb damage to your house, but as will become evident from my memories later on, this did not protect the inhabitants from flying glass.
The house windows themselves all had gauze stuck over them, so that in the event of bomb blast, the glass did not shatter and splinters fly about everywhere, although in fact as we found later to our cost, this did not always work as expected. Blacking out the windows at night was another thing that we had to get used to. This involved covering the inside of the house windows every night with thick curtains or something similar in order to prevent any light shining out during darkness for enemy bombers to see. Woe betide you if the Air Raid Wardens going around at night saw a light for it was a punishable offence, and it was not uncommon to hear the cry “PUT OUT THAT LIGHT”.
At night when the enemy planes came over very high we would stand out in the garden and watch the searchlights zigzag about trying to find them. I recall on occasions seeing the planes caught in the searchlight beam, and they seemed to be like little white stars in the beams. In a special talk at school, we were warned about the anti personnel bombs which might be dropped from the enemy planes and which were designed to make people curious and to pick them up. We were told about two basic types of these anti-personnel bombs. One was called the PENCIL BOMB which at first glance looked like a propelling pencil but if you tried to operate it, it would explode and cause injury. The other type was called a BUTTERFLY BOMB which was like a small tin can with wings which is how it got its nickname.
We went to visit my Gran once a week travelling by train and after dark all the blinds had to be pulled down to cover the windows so no light shone out. In order to make the light from the bulbs in the train dimmer, they were painted blue all over except for a small round unpainted area underneath to shine downwards. These bulbs meant that only a very little light showed when the train doors were opened when getting in or out at stations.
Everybody was issued with gas masks which had to be carried everywhere when we went out. There were three types that I can recall.
My baby sister who had been born in November 1939 had one of the large baby gas masks. This was like a small rubber carry-cot and had a hand pump attached to it which supplied air into the gas mask. The pump was very similar to those, which nowadays are used to pump up airbeds. . Later when she was too old to be in the Baby type gas mask, my younger sister was issued with the infants gas mask.These were nicknamed “Mickey Mouse” masks. These were made of red rubber and the air was expelled out through a floppy nose valve at the front. With practice it was possible to make this vibrate when breathing out which made a rude noise, causing much hilarity to those around. My Mother, my elder sister and I all had the general issue black rubber masks. I always found these very claustrophobic when I had to put it on, and the oval window at the front which you could see out of, very soon misted over on the inside. However we were supplied with a small round tin which had some sort of cream which when rubbed on the inside of the window was supposed to prevent it misting up. The gas masks were carried in a small cardboard box with a string handle. The bottom of the mask had a black metal canister attached to it through which the air was supplied and this canister contained some sort of chemical to remove any gas from the air. At some later date a shiny green narrower canister was taped onto the bottom of the other canister, which apparently had carbon particles in it.
Because there were occasions at night when my father had to do a stint of “Fire watching” when he had to keep a lookout for fires caused by fire bombs, he had been issued with a large military type gas mask which was carried in a canvas container, and instead of the canisters attached to the bottom, it had a flexible hose attached at the bottom which led to a large red canister carried within the canvas container.
In 1940, when the Blitz got pretty bad, my parents decided that we should get away from the bombing. So apart from my father who had to remain at work in London, we all went to stay with an aunt and uncle who had rented a house in a small Devon village for the duration of the war. The night before we left for Devon, we slept as usual in the bed in the shelter in the garden and before going to sleep I spilt a cup of tea on my pyjamas. When we returned some six months later, those pyjamas were still in the shelter and were still stained with tea because my Father had never got round to washing them.
I can vaguely remember that journey away to Devon. I have learned since that it had been intended that we should go from Waterloo to Plymouth but when we got to Waterloo, the station had suffered severe bomb damage and I recall travelling in a taxi to catch a train from another station. I do not know which one it was, but it could have been Paddington. I can remember nothing of the journey down to Devon, however I do remember getting off the train in the dark at a small wayside station in Devon called Ivybridge which would have been GWR, so perhaps we had caught the train at Paddington.
When we got off at Ivybridge Station we went in a taxi the few miles to the village where my aunt and uncle were living. Whether the taxi had been arranged beforehand or not I do not know. Another occurrence which I remember from that journey in the Taxi was that my young sister, who was just a few months old, was on my mother's knee and could see the moon shining in the sky. To my sister it appeared like a flame of a matchstick and she kept trying to blow it out.
Although my father had come with us when we were evacuated to Modbury, after a couple of days he had to return to London to work as he was employed by the Railway Company in a “reserved occupation”.
The house where we stayed was in a small village called Modbury in Devon. I later found out, my Uncle and Aunt were renting this house. Although I suppose my parents were grateful for the shelter which my Aunt and Uncle gave us, years later my Mother used to say she did not like the arrangements. Whether it was my Mother's decision or not to live like that I do not know, but the four of us lived, ate and slept in a single large room on the first floor at the front of the house which looked directly down on the main road running through the village. Every day the cows used to come down the road on their way to be milked and we used to watch for the GWR van which delivered parcels, for my father occasionally sent things to us.
My mother did all the cooking on paraffin stove or on the coal fire in that room. We used to have bottles of lemonade and, my mother kept the paraffin for cooking in the old empty lemonade bottles after they were empty. These bottles of paraffin were always kept near the cooker, while the bottles of lemonade were kept in a cupboard. One day I went to get a drink of lemonade and without thinking took it from the bottles by the stove. I took one mouthful of Paraffin and was nearly sick. I can remember that taste to this day.
Although there was a bathroom immediately adjacent to the room we lived in, we were not allowed to use it and we bathed in a tin bath in the room we lived in. The only other room we were allowed to use was the toilet which was in a separate room to the bath, and I remember that the toilet paper was newspaper torn up into squares and hung by string on a nail.
I also have a vague memory that there was an evacuee boy of about eight or nine years old who was billeted with my aunt and uncle when we first arrived. In those days many children from London like us were evacuated to so-called safe areas, and they were billeted with families. Modbury had some of these evacuees and this boy had been placed with my aunt and uncle. What remains most in my memory about it is that although the house was large and had many rooms, my uncle made the evacuee boy sleep on a mattress on the floor in the open area under the staircase. What I cannot remember is how long the evacuee stayed there for although we were only there for six months, I am sure that he had disappeared long before we left. No doubt like many others, he had told his parents of his living conditions and they had arranged for him to go elsewhere or return home.
In those days there was a scheme to collect acorns for pig food and the farmers gave a shilling for every sack of acorns collected. It must have been late summer or early Autumn when we were evacuated for I can recall going with some of the other children in the village to go looking for acorns. It takes a lot of acorns to fill a sack and I do not think we even managed to fill one sack..
Modbury is about 12 miles away from Plymouth and being a Naval port, Plymouth was the target of much enemy air raids. The house we were in had no air raid shelter and whenever there was an air raid and Plymouth was being bombed, we all used to troop down to the garage which was situated at the bottom of the garden. This was a small brick structure with large wooden doors and a corrugated asbestos roof. (As I know now from my personal experience of bomb damage, it would have provided virtually no protection if we had been bombed.)
There was only one bus a week from Modbury to other places and this travelled from Dartmouth to Plymouth via Modbury and one day for some unknown reason, my Mother and Aunt took us into Plymouth to go shopping. There had been a very heavy air raid there the previous night so that when we went into one big shop, which had suffered damage, we had to pick our way through all sorts of rubble in the road outside and in the shop. On another occasion we went on the bus to Bigbury which is on the coast
Modbury is a small village surrounded by countryside and we often went for walks. On one particular occasion out walking in the country near by, my Aunt pointed to somewhere away across the hills and said, “look at that train going round the hill”. I could not see it (I now believe it must have been the track, which used to go up to Princetown where Dartmoor prison is.
Down the road was a fish and chip shop and I used to stand fascinated as they made the chips by putting the potatoes in a machine and then pushing a handle down so that chips came out at the bottom. Almost opposite the fish and chip shop was a grocer's and on the door were two big glass handles which were like large diamonds with brass handles in between. When you entered, a large bell rang and once inside the only thing I remember all those years ago was the smell of the Cornish pasties. In 1957 while on holiday in Devon I visited Modbury again and there were the same old glass handles on the door to shop. On opening the door, I heard the same old doorbell and smelt the same Cornish Pastie smell. Alas at a later visit in the 1980's, glass handles, doorbell and Cornish Pastie smell were all gone.
As I have already said, for some reason, we were not allowed to use the bathroom in the house at Modbury so every morning my mother put a large saucepan of water on the stove to heat so that we could wash. One day my elder sister, who was about eight at the time, fell over and sat down in the boiling water causing severe blistering on her backside. Although I cannot actually recall the incident, she was apparently badly scalded and as a result she had to lay face down in bed for some days. Because we only had one large bed in which my Mother, elder sister and I slept, during the time my sister was incapacitated apparently she slept in another bedroom.
Although I had already started in the infants class in the school at home, I was supposed to go to school in the village but I kept refusing. Apparently one day my cousin Mary finally lost patience and after some fruitless days of trying, literally picked me up under her arm and carried me up to the school and after that I quite happily went to school every day.
At that time my parents always made me wear boots (as most boys did then) and these always had Blakeys or metal studs in the soles like army boots. One day in the classroom, I slipped over on the polished wooden floor and hit my head on the metal strip around the edge of a desk. This made a cut over my left eye and I have a scar there to this day. Now I had two scars, one over each eye. Remember I pulled the iron off the table some three years before?