More Memories – War Time

Battle of Britain.

Tower Bridge and London Burning

With World War 2 ongoing and the Battle of Britain just starting, the house I lived in was located  in the German planes flight path as they headed into one of the most historical battles of all  time being fought over London, only 50 miles or so away.  A lot of these raids were at night especially in the beginning as a part of the German plan was  to bring Great Britain to its knees. Terrify the British people and break their spirit was the call of the day. At night, we could hear wave after wave of German planes heading towards London with a load of bombs and then on the return journey as they made their way back to Germany. Located not too far from where we lived were Anti Aircraft Batteries and Searchlights as they lit up the sky with their strong beams interspersed with the tracer fire from the guns. Along the coast which was only 8 miles away, we could see more guns and searchlights and Air Craft Balloons swinging in the wind. These were a bit like the old Zeppelins except they were anchored. The theory being that the planes had to clear these obstacles or get entangled and crash. We were close enough to the city that we could see the sky lit up at night with the massive fires as London burned. It was very scary to all of us as we watched and we could hardly imagine what the Londoners were going through.

Dogfights in the sky

Planes of both countries fighting in the air were known as Dogfights. It was commonplace to see the British Spitfire and Hurricanes as they did battle with the German Luftwaffe on an ongoing and almost  daily basis. These planes were performing intricate patterns in the sky as they attempted to shoot down or evade being shot down which many of them were on both sides. My house was on a hill and between it and the nearest  neighbor was about a hundred or so feet. One of the German planes that had been hit flew between both houses no more than 20 feet above the ground and was so low that I saw the pilots face as he went by. He managed to pull up enough to get over the bank on the other side of the road but crashed another half mile or so beyond. I was probably the last person to see that pilot alive. What a chilling thought. I wonder what fear was going through his mind in his last desperate attempt to land his plane and save his life. Or maybe he felt he was fulfilling his duty to the Fuehrer and the Fatherland and was glad to give up his life. We shall never know.

German plane dropping bombs

Because of World War 2 and our location in the flight paths., we had in our house, a Government Issue contraption called an Anderson Shelter. Ours was of the indoor variety. It was like a steel table about the size of a full size billiard table. The theory was that if the house fell down and as long as it was not a direct hit from a bomb, the Anderson shelter would provide a place of safety as long as one got under it in time.  A bit like the American theory of getting into the smallest room or under a door frame in the case of a tornado blowing the house down. I can remember many nights sleeping under that thing. Luckily for us, we never had any bombs land close enough to do any damage to the house. Prior to getting this modern safety marvel, we would join the two families that lived in the houses below us in a home-made bomb shelter belonging to one of those neighbors. This shelter was tunneled into the ground, covered by dirt and was located away from the houses. We would all huddle together listening to the planes as they flew overhead and anxiously waiting for the scream of a bomb dropped by one of them. I need to say that we were never the targets but if the German planes got into trouble, they would jettison their load and that could have been anywhere.

Doodlebug in flight. This one is on its way down to explode

History shows that the Battle of Britain was not won by the Germans but that did not stop them from trying to make life difficult. After they lost the supremacy in the air and being the clever scientific nation they are, they continued the fight by use of unmanned rockets that we called Doodlebugs. They looked a bit like a small aeroplane with a rocket engine attached to it with the nose packed with explosives. They were not very fast and they had no guidance system other than to get them over England. When the fuel was used up the thing would come down and explode and it could happen anywhere at any time. We were not so concerned with these things and unless they looked like they were going to land close to us, we would watch them all the way to the ground. I watched the pilot of a Spitfire manoeuvre his plane so that his wingtip was under the wing of the Doodlebug and after making sure it was open country, he flipped his wing sending the rocket into the ground. Precision flying at its best. We never took these things for granted even though they represented little danger to us. We always had reminders of the fickleness of life and death. There was this house that stood in the middle of a 20 acre field with nothing else around it for a mile or so and one of the rockets landed right on top of the house killing all of the occupants. It could have landed a 100  yards in any direction and they wouldn’t have been hurt. Such are the vagaries of war-time.
Not content with Doodlebugs, the Germans invented the V-2 which was a real rocket as we think of them today. They would send them up, point them in the right direction and they would crash creating much havoc. The word in England was that if you ever heard a V-2, you were probably close to being dead as they really did travel at a high rate of speed. Straight up and straight down with the English Channel in between.

By then, the war was coming to an end at least on the Home Front. There were many more planes outgoing than bombing and in truth, the German pilots of the daylight missions would jettison their bombs over the Channel or as soon as they were over land. Not too many bothered to fly to London as the defences were much stronger and they risked being shot down. In 1944 I stood in the garden and watched the planes flying in formation as they flew to Arnhem to take part in that landing. There were flight after flight and many were towing gliders. It seemed that it went on for ever there were so many planes. Over 17,000 of those troops never returned.

Another time, I watched as a crippled Boeing bomber made its way back with a wing so shot up it was literally flapping up and down. The Pilot had ordered the crew to bail out and one of them landed at the top of the lane. By the time he hit the ground, he was surrounded by all of my neighbours patting him on the back with genuine concern for his safety. It wasn’t long before the local squire drove up and whisked him away from us rabble as if he was the most “important person”. Well, he did have a car.

Jeeps, Jeeps amd more Jeeps

When America joined the war, many of them came to England in preparation for the invasion of Europe. They were boarded in any large building that would suit there needs or in our case, the local Manor which was standing empty at the time. The entire southern half of England was transformed into one large parking lot for all of the accoutrements of war, large guns, rocket launchers, tanks, Bren gun carriers and trucks. There were jeeps everywhere tearing around at breakneck speed. It seemed that every Yank as they were known to us, was an ex stock car driver and they were always willing to show of their driving skills, good or bad. Fraternization was an ongoing thing and I can remember what seemed like an endless stream of Yanks visiting my house. I didn’t mind as I found them interesting and they also brought candy and chocolate. What better way to win over a young boy as I was still only about 8 or so. One of them made a big fuss over me and provided first aid after I fell down some stone steps whilst carrying a glass jar (I still have the scars) and another literally did a spit and polish job to clean my shoes when we were all going out together probably to the Half Moon as the closest Pub. I distinctly remember him as French Canadian by the name of Henri.

I didn’t know it at the time but one of those Yanks was destined to be the reason I ended up in America. I was not to know that he would become my stepfather as following the end of the war, my Father and Mother were divorced and she made her way to the States to marry this guy. But again, that’s another story…

Both of my brothers and my sister enlisted in the Services to fight in the war against the Germans and were sent overseas. My middle brother, Peter, contracted rheumatic fever resulting in his discharge. This was the second time he had contracted the disease and he spent almost the entire year in bed at home in an effort to rest his heart. That was the treatment way back then, bed rest and no activity. Little did we know that this would eventually kill him as he died of a massive heart attack before he was thirty. My brother and sister saw the war out and came home with most of the other returning troops around 1946-47. Norman brought with him his Egyptian wife whose name was Eleftaria.  We called her Libby and to this day, I have no idea what the connection is between her names. She spoke good English having come from an upper middle class family. She and I had a great old-time unpacking the many crates of her personal items that she had shipped over.  I was caught up in the wonders of it all and this “foreign” and to me, strange looking stuff that she kept producing .

Back then, 50 miles might just as well have been the other side of the Universe as it was considered a long way away. Most people had bikes or walked or caught the bus to where they were going. If it was a longer journey to a city, the train was the chosen means of transport. Cars were for the rich and that was not us. Many people were born, lived and died without travelling very far outside of their community. For many, being in the Armed Forces to fight a war got them to places unknown that they would never have seen in a normal lifetime.

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