Remembering the war: VE Day and before
I remember telling myself in a hot, still, Branksome Road, Brixton, on Monday, 7 May, 1945, that I must always remember this day, because it was historic: it was the last day of the war. I was fetching the evening newspaper from Horne’s in Acre Lane. The morning paper was delivered but we went down the road to buy the evening paper. When I got home, I asked my mother whether newspapers would be printed after VE day (Victory in Europe day): what would there be to write about? I was 10 years old and all I could remember was war. Not a day passes without my remembering some aspect of it. Perhaps that applies to all childhoods. I don’t know because all I know is a wartime childhood.
I remember the street party on 8 May. It was held in Branksome Road, at the end of Winslade Road. I don’t remember what food we had, but I do remember the long trestle tables and the big bonfire which was burned in the evening. I also remember being told in school one day that week that we were to be given a personal message from The King to all the children of Britain, and how disillusioned I was to be given a printed message, heraldically printed in vivid colours, but printed nevertheless, not personal. Also in that week we were given an afternoon off school because The King, The Queen and the two Princesses, Elizabeth and Margaret Rose, were driving round London to thank us all. My sister Sally and I stood outside the Alexandra pub on Clapham Common Southside and saw the four of them as they sped past in their open car.
I also remember VJ day (Victory in Japan day) in August 1945. Sally, Mummy, Grandma and I were in Brighton, on holiday with Auntie Ivy, and cousins Keith and Beverley. We stayed at Mrs Harman’s boarding house in Kemptown. I think that my grandparents used to stay there before the war. It was one of those boarding houses where you had breakfast and then had to vacate the house until high tea at around 6pm. It was our first holiday since 1939. On VJ day night, the Royal Pavilion was lit up with coloured lights, exciting after the years of blackout, and there were servicemen of all nationalities dancing around the Steyne Square fountain, which was also lit up.
However, my father, who had been called up in 1940, was not demobbed until April 1946. He had been a Desert Rat, fighting at El Alamein and Tobruk. When the Eighth Army crossed into Italy he was very ill with diptheria and amoebic dysentery and was left behind in the Middle East. By the end of the war, he was a sergeant in the Intelligence Corps, stationed in the King David Hotel, Palestine. The King David Hotel was blown up by the Stern Gang soon after he got home, and yet more of his comrades and friends were killed. For our family – me, Mummy and Sally – the war did not end until that April. Once Daddy had been called up we had not seen him: officers occasionally got leave, according to black-and-white films, not people like us.
I remember the outbreak of war in September 1939. Sally and I were playing outside the house; she was 3 and I was just 5. I remember hearing Chamberlain’s voice through an open window and, like anyone in London on that day, I remember the rogue air raid warning that followed his broadcast and Mummy rushing out to drag us in. In that week I, 5 years old in August 1939, started school for the first time. It was at Sudbourne Road and I spent the whole morning, as I remember it, staring at a large white sheet of paper, having to copy out a lower case alphabet with a red crayon. Fortunately that horrible experience was soon over. By the end of that week all London schools were closed. Most of the children already in school in London were evacuated in that first week of the war: school buildings were needed to house civil defence units. It was not until late in 1940 that the London County Council opened some emergency classrooms for those many children who had already returned from evacuation, or who had never gone away. But by the end of 1940, we had already been bombed out of our home in Winslade Road, Brixton. Sudbourne Road remained an AFS (Auxiliary Fire Service) depot, until late 1944.
In May 1940, I can remember seeing the trains carrying soldiers evacuated from Dunkirk crossing the railway bridge in Brixton Road. They had dirty faces and were waving and cheering out of the windows to us standing below. I don’t know whether my mother had taken us deliberately, or whether we just happened to be there, but it is one of the many things I always remember, whenever I am in Brixton Road. I also remember, about the same time, my father talking about German dive- bombers swooping down over Brixton Market, along the railway. I have never found any reference to this in any war history, but as far as I am concerned it must have happened because I remember it from the age of 5. My father, his mother, and his brother, Sid, had a shop and two stalls under the railway arches on the corner of Atlantic Road and Pope’s Road. Another brother, John, had stalls in the Reliance Arcade and Market Row. They all traded under the name E.Mangan.
In September 1940, the bombing of London started and lasted day and night until about May 1941. In the beginning, Sally and I would be put to bed upstairs and would be brought down when the sirens went. I used to tell myself that the next time the siren went, I would just go downstairs quietly, but whenever I heard that siren I used to scream “Mummy, Mummy, Mummy!” Till the end of the war, I could never stop myself. My mother never showed any sign of panic. Sally and I used to be settled down on a mattress, in blankets, behind a heavy couch in the back room of our house. After a while we were put to bed behind the couch. Eventually we had an Anderson shelter in the back garden. The Anderson, named after Sir John Anderson, Home Secretary at the time, was a 4-foot hole dug in the garden by the council. It was 6.5 feet long and 5.5 feet wide. The top was covered with sheets of corrugated iron and the earth that had been excavated, to make an internal height of 7.5 feet. Inside there were two bunks on each side. I can’t remember how we lit this shelter: it must have been with candles in saucers. For the rest of our time in Winslade Road, this is where we spent all our nights and some of our days. My parents used to stand in the garden at night watching the bombs fall.
What I remember most is noise. The really frightening noise was the air raid warning which wailed up and down. The all clear was a continuous siren. There was the constant sound of aeroplanes and we all thought we could tell theirs from ours. We listened for the comforting sound of the ack-ack guns (“AA” = Anti-Aircraft) on Clapham Common and the guns mounted on the roof of the Town Hall in Acre Lane. Some bombs screamed as they came down and we would then listen for the bang. Others just landed with an explosion. There would be the clanging bells of fire engines and ambulances, and the whistles blown by the Air Raid Wardens. The other sounds I remember, trite as it seems, were songs. People did sing all the time. Singing in pubs was illegal, unless they had a music licence, but singing would always start and people often used to sing on their way home along Branksome Road. My father would bring friends back from the pub and they all used to sing. Our Sunday dinners were always family occasions and the afternoon would be spent in sing-songs.
Some time towards the end of 1940, there was a direct hit on Bonham Road, which ran along the bottom of Winslade, including 12 Bonham where we had lived until just before the war. Houses in Bonham Road and at the bottom of Winslade and Hayter Roads were demolished. Houses in Winslade Road, including ours, were heavily damaged. Our roof caved in, windows were broken and walls crumbled. Had we been in the house we would probably have been killed, but we were safely tucked up in the Anderson. There was an unexploded bomb under the road somewhere and so the whole road had to be evacuated. An ARP warden realized that our names had not been ticked off on his list so he came to get us out and tell us to leave. Sally had been bought a cellophane windmill on a stick during the day and wouldn’t go without that, so my father went into the shattered house to find it. We then walked down to my grandmother’s house at 329 Coldharbour Lane. She had a large cellar which was used as one of the local shelters. I remember walking down Acre Lane; the sky, as always, was lit by searchlights and fires. Planes were overhead and bombs were still falling. There were emergency vehicles of all kinds, and wardens in their tin helmets rushing around blowing whistles. My father was carrying Sally who was wearing a white coat. He kept hailing vehicles to take us to Coldharbour Lane. They would stop, thinking Sally was a casualty, but then drive on when they realized she wasn’t.
Possessions which could be salvaged from our house, and others, were put into a government store which I think was on Coldharbour Lane. That too was bombed a few days later. People rushed along to my father on the stall to tell him that the ARP were looting what remained and they had seen some of our things being taken (the ARP were the special “Air Raid Precaution” civilian volunteers). He went along and retrieved a few things. Perhaps the ARP were merely salvaging for later collection and identification, but they were never popular.
My father was called up around this time and, after a brief training, was sent off the the Middle East. Mummy, Sally and I went to live with Auntie Ivy, Keith and Beverley in Manor Road, Mitcham. Her husband, Arthur, my mother’s oldest brother, was in the navy. Ted, another brother, was in the Air Force and Joe, the youngest, was in the army. My grandparents, Jack and Annie Wood, had also been bombed out. Their house in Bruce Road, Mitcham, had been hit and completely demolished by a landmine. Luckily it happened during the day and they were at Auntie Ivy’s at the time, so they were not hurt. They lost everything except a carriage clock which was salvaged from the ruins of their home. Auntie Ivy didn’t have a shelter, just a cupboard under the stairs.
All of us were then evacuated to Accrington, Lancashire, and billeted on three separate families. Mummy, Sally and I were unfortunate. Our hosts, ‘Uncle’ Jack and ‘Auntie’ Lucy, were horrible. My mother and Sally were not allowed in the house during the day. I was meant to be at school but I also had to run errands for Auntie Lucy. I don’t know how long it was before someone took pity on us and we were offered a room with Auntie Tilly in Pitt Street, Accrington. Like Auntie Ivy and her two children and my grandparents, we had one small room to live in. We had a commode in the corner as a lavatory. Auntie Tilly had two daughters, Lydia and Doris, exactly 10 years older than Sally and me; aged 16 and 15, they both worked in the mill. They were very kind and friendly to us and used to come into our room in the evening before they went out dancing. They too used to sing a lot. In the early morning someone used to come along the streets, knocking on the windows to wake people up to go to the mill. I used to look out of the window and see the mill girls, including Lydia and Doris, clattering across the cobbles in their wooden clogs to go to work. Sally started school in Accrington.
All the four adults hated life in Accrington. The local people used to tell them that Londoners were cowards running away from the bombs. My mother used to say that they would talk about a bad night last night when they meant they had heard guns from Burnley, 25 miles away. My mother decided that we would be better off in London, even with the bombs, so she saved money for our fare back home. After nine months away we eventually made our way back on crowded wartime trains, constantly being shunted into sidings. All I remember is soldiers’ legs as we sat in corridors until, at last, a soldier offered us a seat. Auntie Ivy and Grandma and Granddad also returned to London.
Sally, Mummy and I went to live with “Auntie Dunie”, my mother’s cousin Julie. She and John Kelly, her husband, lived in a council house at 253 Shooters Hill Road. They had five children (later six), so it was pretty crowded. All the children slept in the Anderson. The two oldest children, Julie and Josie, were very pretty girls, already at work and with lots of boyfriends, including American soldiers. Once again every night there used to be singing. Sally and I went for a while to Old Dover Road school.
It must have been towards the end of 1941 or early in 1942 that my mother was allocated a requisitioned flat at 23 Winterwell Road, the next road along from Winslade. During the war, property left empty was rented out to people made homeless by bombing. My grandparents were put into a requisitioned maisonette in Heaton Road, Mitcham. Auntie Ivy moved back into Manor Road and Uncle Arthur was invalided out of the navy because of a duodenal ulcer. It was while we were living in Winterwell Road that I had my tonsils out. That was a strange wartime experience. Batches of children were admitted to King’s College hospital in Camberwell. That same morning we were taken to a safe location: our parents were not told where it was but my mother thought it was Queen Mary’s Hospital Carshalton. There we were operated on in a kind of conveyor belt system. I remember lying on a stretcher on the floor outside the operating theatre waiting for my turn. We were sharing the hospital with wounded soldiers who used to wear a distinctive blue uniform and red ties. When we had recovered we were taken back to Kings and collected by our mothers.
Sally and I started school properly for the first time in Lyham Road. It was the usual kind of school for the time: an elementary school for children aged 5 to 14, then the school leaving age. Our classes were around 40, sometimes over 50; our teachers were excellent. The ground floor of the school was still occupied by the AFS (Auxiliary Fire Service), or ARP. We saw their camp beds as went upstairs to the middle floor where we had our classrooms, leading off a central hall. The men teachers were all over military age, or unfit for military service. Women graduates could be directed into teaching, but they didn’t have graduates teaching in elementary schools so we were spared those. Our women teachers were all middle-aged to elderly and, for the first time, married women were allowed to teach. We had a very lengthy assembly every day, with the whole school in the hall under the direction of the headmaster. Once a week we would all, 5s to 14s, chant all the multiplication tables, from 2-times to 12-times, and then money tables, feet and inches, pounds and ounces, bushels and pecks. On other days we had spelling bees.
We sang all the rousing hymns and, regularly, “Eternal Father”, when we would pray for the merchant seamen. Always as a backdrop was the war. We were always collecting money to pay for things like Spitfires, ships and tanks; boroughs used to buy them. Behind the headmaster there were white boards with our target amounts on them and the collections were recorded there weekly. We were encouraged to buy National Savings stamps and our efforts in that direction were also marked on white boards. Very often we were shown films about life in the Soviet Union – happy workers, beautiful Metro, fantastic bakeries; those films coloured my view of life in the Soviet Union until we went to live there in 1971. On May Day we danced around a maypole in the playground. We were divided into houses named after the four Dominions – Australia, Canada, New Zealand and South Africa. We were very conscious that we were part of an Empire, that Britain was the most important part of the Empire with London, particularly Brixton, the centre of it all. As we got older, we played on the bomb sites around Bonham Road. We called them “the debris”. They were fenced off but we used to make holes in the fences. The boys made dens and the girls played house in the ruins. There was a pause in the bombing in 1942 but there was quite a lot again in 1943, in retaliation for Allied raids on Germany, although not anything like the Blitz. After a night of bombing we would look for shrapnel on our way to school and tell each other tales we had heard from our parents about where last night’s bombs had fallen.
I don’t remember exactly when, but eventually our house in Winslade Road was repaired by the council and we moved back in. My father’s mother had managed to get some furniture for us – some second-hand, some ‘utility’. Utility furniture was the only furniture made during the war and people like us who had lost their homes were allowed to buy it. My mother’s parents moved in with us and lived with us until they died. The back garden was, not surprisingly, like a bomb site, under a mountain of rubble. I don’t know what had happened to the Anderson. My grandfather painstakingly used all the thousands of broken slates to build two rockeries up around the base of two trees in the garden, and he constructed a circular flower bed with yet more of the slates. He made a network of paths at different levels with the hundred of bricks, and edged flower beds with rocky rubble. In the centre of the garden where the Anderson had been he made a tiny raised lawn. Our small garden looked like a picture in a book.
In Winslade Road we had a Morrison shelter in the kitchen. This was a steel mesh cage with an iron top used as a table. All five of us slept in it. In February and March 1944 we had the ‘little blitz’, a very concentrated burst of the last conventional bombing. One night the area surrounding Kings Avenue and Bedford Road was badly bombed and a number of children from Lyham Road school were injured or killed with their families. That was a very sad time for the school. A good friend of mine, a Jewish girl called Vivienne Kankas, was buried under her house for hours. Her sister and father were killed: Vivienne survived. For some reason Vivienne’s photograph appeared in the evening newspapers with her appeal for a banana. There were no bananas in Britain during the war, even for the children of greengrocers. People sent her dried bananas from American food parcels. The headmaster sent me to visit her at the South London hospital on Clapham Common with a card from the school, and she gave me one of those brown dried bananas. My mother was furious when she heard that I had been sent off in this way. It is a measure of the comparative safety of the times, apart from bombs, that a headmaster would send a 9-year-old on an expedition like that. As far as the bombs went, I suppose he thought, as did so many adults, that if it had your number on it it would get you wherever you were.
There was another lull in the bombing until the week after D Day when the V1 rockets started – ‘doodlebugs’ or flying bombs. They came night and day and the air raid warning siren was going all the time. It was a flying bomb, I think, which hit the food office at the bottom of Acre Lane – the place where there were always vast queues of people waiting for ration books. Every time a bomb fell, our colander would clatter to the floor of the scullery and my grandmother would haul herself out of the Morrison and go and hang it up again, saying “bloody Hitler.” The V1s became fewer as the Allied armies overran their launching sites, but in September 1944 the first V2 fell. These were the rockets which fell with no warning sounds. The last one landed in London in March 1945.
Our schooling had been reasonably uninterrupted for a while, but once the V1s and V2s started it became very spasmodic again. Sometimes we went, and sometimes we didn’t. The classes were doubled up for those children who were there on any one day and sometimes there would be about 60 in one class. Sally and I left Lyham Road at the same time in 1945. I went to James Allen’s, as a London County Council scholar; she went to Sudbourne Road, which re-opened as one of the new primary schools, taking children from 5 to 11. Lyham Road, now called Parkside School, was one of the new Secondary Modern schools.
I don’t remember being frightened during the war, except by the noise of the air raid warning. This is a great tribute to the adults who surrounded us, particularly my mother. Our teachers were also splendid people, with horrendous responsibilities. Nobody ever suggested that we might lose the war. I don’t think they ever thought we would. There were family rows but we really did have a tremendous sense of family and neighbourhood and the adults made a joke out of everything that happened. The only adverse emotion they showed was anger and their anger was always directed at Hitler, who was (quite rightly) blamed for everything.
Jane Maureen Barder née Cornwell
10 June 2001