Bombs dropped in the ward of: St Dunstan's and Stepney Green
Total number of bombs dropped from 7th October 1940 to 6th June 1941 in St Dunstan's and Stepney Green:
- High Explosive Bomb
- Parachute Mine
Number of bombs dropped during the week of 7th October 1940 to 14th of October:
Number of bombs dropped during the first 24h of the Blitz:
Memories in St Dunstan's and Stepney Green
Read people's stories relating to this area:
Contributed originally by BoyFarthing (BBC WW2 People's War)
I didn’t like to admit it, because everyone was saying how terrible it was, but all the goings on were more exciting than I’d ever imagined. Everything was changing. Some men came along and cut down all the iron railings in front of the houses in Digby Road (to make tanks they said); Boy scouts collected old aluminium saucepans (to make Spitfires); Machines came and dug huge holes in the Common right where we used to play football (to make sandbags); Everyone was given a gas mask (which I hated) that had to be carried wherever you went; An air raid shelter made from sheets of corrugated iron, was put up at the end of our garden, where the chickens used to be; Our trains were full of soldiers, waving and cheering, all going one way — towards the seaside; Silver barrage balloons floated over the rooftops; Policemen wore tin hats painted blue, with the letter P on the front; Fire engines were painted grey; At night it was pitch dark outside because of the blackout; Dad dug up most of his flower beds to plant potatoes and runner beans; And, best of all, I watched it all happening, day by day, almost on my own. That is, without all my school chums getting in the way and having to have their say. For they’d all been evacuated into the country somewhere or other, but our family were still at number 69, just as usual. For when the letters first came from our schools — the girls to go to Wales, me to Norfolk — Mum would have none of it. “Your not going anywhere” she said “We’re all staying together”. So we did. But it was never again the same as it used to be. Even though, as the weeks went by, and nothing happened, it was easy enough to forget that there was a war on at all.
Which is why, when it got to the first week of June 1940, it seemed only natural that, as usual, we went on our weeks summer holiday to Bognor Regis on the South coast, as usual. The fact that only the week before, our army had escaped from the Germans by the skin of its teeth by being ferried across the Channel from Dunkirk by almost anything that floated, was hardly remarked about. We had of course watched the endless trains rumble their way back from the direction of the seaside, silent and with the carriage blinds drawn, but that didn’t interfere with our plans. Mum and Dad had worked hard, saved hard, for their holiday and they weren’t having them upset by other people’s problems.
But for my Dad it meant a great deal more than that. During the first world war, as a young man of eighteen, he’d fought in the mud and blood of the trenches at Ypres, Passhendel and Vimy Ridge. He came back with the certain knowledge that all war is wrong. It may mean glory, fame and fortune to the handful who relish it, but for the great majority of ordinary men and their families it brings only hardship, pain and tears. His way of expressing it was to ignore it. To show the strength of his feelings by refusing to take part. Our family holiday to the very centre of the conflict, in the darkest days of our darkest hour, was one man’s public demonstration of his private beliefs
It started off just like any other Saturday afternoon: Dad in the garden, Mum in the kitchen, the two girls gone to the pictures, me just mucking about. Warm sunshine, clear blue skies. The air raid siren had just been sounded, but even that was normal. We’d got used to it by now. Just had to wait for the wailing and moaning to go quiet and, before you knew it, the cheerful high-pitched note of the all clear started up. But this time it didn’t. Instead, there comes the drone of aeroplane engines. Lots of them. High up. And the boom, boom, boom of anti-aircraft guns. The sound gets louder and louder until the air seems to quiver. And only then, when it seems almost overhead, can you see the tiny black dots against the deep, empty blue of the sky. Dozens and dozens of them. Neatly arranged in V shaped patterns, so high, so slow, they hardly seem to move. Then other, single dots, dropping down through them from above. The faint chatter of machine guns. A thin, black thread of smoke unravelling towards the ground. Is it one of theirs or one of ours? Clusters of tiny puffs of white, drifting along together like dandelion seeds. Then one, larger than the rest, gently parachuting towards the ground. And another. And another. Everything happening in the slowest of slow motions. Seeming to hang there in the sky, too lazy to get a move on. But still the black dots go on and on.
Dad goes off to meet the girls. Mum makes the tea. I can’t take my eyes off what’s going on. Great clouds of white and grey smoke billowing up into the sky way over beyond the school. People come out into the street to watch. The word goes round that “The poor old Docks have copped it”. By the time the sun goes down the planes have gone, the all clear sounded, and the smoke towers right across the horizon. Then as the light fades, a red fiery glow shines brighter and brighter. Even from this far away we can see it flicker and flash on the clouds above like some gigantic furnace. Everyone seems remarkably calm. As though not quite believing what they see. Then one of our neighbours, a man who always kept to himself, runs up and down the street shouting “Isleworth! Isleworth! It’s alright at Isleworth! Come on, we’ve all got to go to Isleworth! That’s where I’m going — Isleworth!” But no one takes any notice of him. And we can’t all go to Isleworth — wherever that is. Then where can we go? What can we do? And by way of an ironic answer, the siren starts it’s wailing again.
We spend that night in the shelter at the end of the garden. Listening to the crump of bombs in the distance. Thinking about the poor devils underneath it all. Among them are probably one of Dad’s close friends from work, George Nesbitt, a driver, his wife Iris, and their twelve-year-old daughter, Eileen. They live at Stepney, right by the docks. We’d once been there for tea. A block of flats with narrow stone stairs and tiny little rooms. From an iron balcony you could see over the high dock’s wall at the forest of cranes and painted funnels of the ships. Mr Nesbitt knew all about them. “ The red one with the yellow and black bands and the letter W is The West Indies Company. Came in on Wednesday with bananas, sugar, and I daresay a few crates of rum. She’s due to be loaded with flour, apples and tinned vegetables — and that one next to it…” He also knows a lot about birds. Every corner of their flat with a birdcage of chirping, flashing, brightly coloured feathers and bright, winking eyes. In the kitchen a tame parrot that coos and squawks in private conversation with Mrs Nesbitt. Eileen is a quiet girl who reads a lot and, like her mother, is quick to see the funny side of things. We’d once spent a holiday with them at Bognor. One of the best we’d ever had. Sitting here, in the chilly dankness of our shelter, it’s best not to think what might have happened to them. But difficult not to.
The next night is the same. Only worse. And the next. Ditto. We seem to have hardly slept. And it’s getting closer. More widely spread. Mum and Dad seem to take it in their stride. Unruffled by it all. Almost as though it wasn’t really happening. Anxious only to see that we’re not going cold or hungry. Then one night, after about a week of this, it suddenly landed on our doorstep.
At the end of our garden is a brick wall. On the other side, a short row of terraced houses. Then another, much higher, wall. And on the other side of that, the Berger paint factory. One of the largest in London. A place so inflammable that even the smallest fire there had always bought out the fire engines like a swarm of bees. Now the whole place is alight. Tanks exploding. Flames shooting high up in the air. Bright enough to read a newspaper if anyone was so daft. Firemen come rushing up through the garden. Rolling out hoses to train over the wall. Flattening out Dad’s delphiniums on the way. They’re astonished to find us sitting quietly sitting in our hole in the ground. “Get out!” they urge
“It’s about to go up! Make a run for it!” So we all troop off, trying to look as if we’re not in a hurry, to the public shelters on Hackney Marshes. Underground trenches, dripping with moisture, crammed with people on hard wooden planks, crying, arguing, trying to doze off. It was the longest night of my life. And at first light, after the all-clear, we walk back along Homerton High Street. So sure am I that our house had been burnt to a cinder, I can hardly bear to turn the corner into Digby Road. But it’s still there! Untouched! Unbowed! Firemen and hoses all gone. Everything remarkably normal. I feel a pang of guilt at running away and leaving it to its fate all by itself. Make it a silent promise that I won’t do it again. A promise that lasts for just two more nights of the blitz.
I hear it coming from a long way off. Through the din of gunfire and the clanging of fire engine and ambulance bells, a small, piercing, screeching sound. Rapidly getting louder and louder. Rising to a shriek. Cramming itself into our tiny shelter where we crouch. Reaching a crescendo of screaming violence that vibrates inside my head. To be obliterated by something even worse. A gigantic explosion that lifts the whole shelter…the whole garden…the whole of Digby Road, a foot into the air. When the shuddering stops, and a blanket of silence comes down, Dad says, calm as you like, “That was close!”. He clambers out into the darkness. I join him. He thinks it must have been on the other side of the railway. The glue factory perhaps. Or the box factory at the end of the road. And then, in the faintest of twilights, I just make out a jagged black shape where our house used to be.
When dawn breaks, we pick our way silently over the rubble of bricks and splintered wood that once was our home. None of it means a thing. It could have been anybody’s home, anywhere. We walk away. Away from Digby Road. I never even look back. I can’t. The heavy lead weight inside of me sees to that.
Just a few days before, one of the van drivers where Dad works had handed him a piece of paper. On it was written the name and address of one of Dad’s distant cousins. Someone he hadn’t seen for years. May Pelling. She had spotted the driver delivering in her High Street and had asked if he happened to know George Houser. “Of course — everyone knows good old George!”. So she scribbles down her address, asks him to give it to him and tell him that if ever he needs help in these terrible times, to contact her. That piece of paper was in his wallet, in the shelter, the night before. One of the few things we still had to our name. The address is 102 Osidge Lane, Southgate.
What are we doing here? Why here? Where is here? It’s certainly not Isleworth - but might just as well be. The tube station we got off said ’Southgate’. Yet Dad said this is North London. Or should it be North of London? Because, going by the map of the tube line in the carriage, which I’ve been studying, Southgate is only two stops from the end of the line. It’s just about falling off the edge of London altogether! And why ‘Piccadilly Line’? This is about as far from Piccadilly as the North Pole. Perhaps that’s the reason why we’ve come. No signs of bombs here. Come to that, not much of the war at all. Not country, not town. Not a place to be evacuated to, or from. Everything new. And clean. And tidy. Ornamental trees, laden with red berries, their leaves turning gold, line the pavements. A garden in front of every house. With a gate, a path, a lawn, and flowers. Everything staked, labelled, trimmed. Nothing out of place. Except us. I’ve still got my pyjama trousers tucked into my socks. The girls are wearing raincoats and headscarves. Dad has a muffler where his clean white collar usually is. Mum’s got on her old winter coat, the one she never goes out in. And carries a tied up bundle of bits and pieces we had in the shelter. Now and again I notice people giving us a sideways glance, then looking quickly away in case you might catch their eye. Are they shocked? embarrassed? shy, even? No one seems at all interested in asking if they can help this gaggle of strangers in a strange land. Not even the road sweeper when Dad asks him the way to Osidge Lane.
The door opens. A woman’s face. Dark eyes, dark hair, rosy cheeks. Her smile checked in mid air at the sight of us on her doorstep. Intake of breath. Eyes widen with shock. Her simple words brimming with concern. “George! Nell! What’s the matter?” Mum says:” We’ve just lost everything we had” An answer hardly audible through the choking sob in her throat. Biting her lip to keep back the tears. It was the first time I’d ever seen my mother cry.
We are immediately swept inside on a wave of compassion. Kind words, helping hands, sympathy, hot food and cups of tea. Aunt May lives here with her husband, Uncle Ernie and their ten-year-old daughter, Pam. And two single ladies sheltering from the blitz. Five people in a small three-bedroom house. Now the five of us turn up, unannounced, out of the blue. With nothing but our ration books and what we are wearing. Taken in and cared for by people I’d never even seen before.
In every way Osidge Lane is different from Digby Road. Yet it is just like coming home. We are safe. They are family. For this is a Houser house.
Contributed originally by Donald Stepney (BBC WW2 People's War)
MY WAR 1939 – 1946
My name is Donald William Hutton Stepney, I was born on 23/08/24 to Betty and Walter Thomas Stepney of Staines in Middlesex. Father had served as a Sapper in The Royal Engineers during the 1914 –18 War and in 1939 we were living at 44, London Road Staines. The day war broke out – with apologies to that great comedian Mr Robb Wilton – my Mum said to me, “It’s up to you” I said “me” she said“yes” I said “why” she said “ Well, your Father did his bit in the trenches in the 1914 –18 War and now its your turn”
Well, on the 3rd September 1939 I had just turned 15 years of age and was attending Ashford (Middx)County Grammar School, was commencing my third year, was not very happy there and due to the outbreak of the war was only going to school one day a week initially. I found that due to the war pupils could leave school before the age of sixteen so I jumped at the chance and found myself a job in the Costs Office of the Staines Linoleum Co as junior clerk at a wage of seventeen shillings and sixpence a week.
In a few months when I became 16 I was allowed to become one of the Fire Watchers in the area where I lived, so my war effort began! Together with David Cooper, a friend of the same age and also two older men, we took turns on a rota system of Fire Watching in the area in which we lived. The headquarters were in a nearby disused shop, we went there from 9pm in the evening until 6am the following morning. Duties were to patrol the area and keep a lookout for fire incendiary bombs dropped by enemy aircraft and if necessary deal with them with a stirrup pump if possible. We lived in Staines about 16 miles from Hyde Park Corner. We were also a few miles from the railway marshalling yard at Feltham, a favourite target for enemy aircraft. A few bombs were ditched over Staines by aircraft returning from bombing London. Whilst on these firewatch duties one could see the huge glow in the air over London during the blitz. I did these duties for a year until I was 17 and joined the Works Home Guard unit. I did not have to deal with any incendiaries during this period but do recall one night when a stick of bombs weredropped about a quarter of a mile away from our home and that was just after the All Clear had sounded!!.
Home Guard duties were vastly different to fire watching. I was a private with the unit where I worked, this was a company that manufactured linoleum but now, in wartime was greatly turned over to various munitions manufacture. It’s site covered 50 acres and consisted of some 250 buildings of all shapes and sizes. It had it’s own power station and goods railway yard. It certainly warranted its own Home Guard unit. Specialist training was done with the local Middlesex Battalion Home Guard – Training with Machine Gun firing, Grenade throwing, Rifle and Bayonet use etc; all mostly done at weekends as were military manoeuvres with various other local units. Sadly I recall one Sunday morning, on Staines Moor when grenade throwing was being practised, a member of the town Home Guard was killed. On the lighter side I remember, whilst in the factory unit Home Guard that on the top of one seven storey building Air Observer duties were done on a rota basis. There was no shortage of volunteers for duty on a Thursday afternoon – Why? – well, binoculars were used of course to overlook the surrounds of the Staines area, and it was early closing day in the nearby High Street, so the shop girls and their boy friends spent the afternoon on Staines Moor – need I say more!!??!!.
Having registered for service in the armed forces when I became 17 and having indicated a preference for the Royal Navy, on the 18th May 1943 I was very pleased to be called upon to report to HMS Bristol, at Bristol.
This particular ‘ship’ was what is known, in naval jargon as a ‘stone frigate’ – It was a collection of Victorian built buildings on Ashley Down in Bristol and had originally been built as an orphanage by a George Muller and I believe these children’s homes, in the Bristol area, still exist today under that name. Gloucestershire County Cricket Ground is next to the site.
My medical had classed me as Grade 2 due to eyesight and up to this time in 1943 the RN did not take persons graded as such. However, in May 1943 things changed, and at HMS Bristol an eight week course had been set up to put recruits through their paces, assess the medical problems etc: and if all tests were passed, they were accepted into the RN. We were called Prob Ord. Seaman.
We did plenty of physical training (running round the County Cricket Ground) Rifle Drill, Route Marches etc: Some did not make the grade but I am pleased to say that I did and even took part in a parade in Portishead where a Naval Detachment was called for. I really enjoyed my time in HMS Bristol. If I remember correctly the Commanding Officer at that time was a Captain Walker RN who had previously had a distinguished naval career at sea.
In July 1943 I went to HMS Royal Arthur at Skegness ( This was another ‘stone frigate’ – prewar it was a Butlin’s Holiday Camp) here I changed to square rig and became a Prob Supply Assistant. On the 6th Aug’43 I went to President V in Highgate, London for a Supply Branch Training course. President V was Highgate College. Whilst here I was billeted at home, in Staines, and travelling Staines to Waterloo then Underground on the Northern Line. to Archway, morning and evening!
Previous to all this at some point during my induction period. I should add, I had been asked which naval depot I would prefer to be based at – Chatham, Portsmouth or Devonport?. Naturally, living at Staines I said either Portsmouth or Chatham would be suitable!. Naturally, again! I ended up a Devonport rating!!
On the 18th October 1943 having passed my Supply Branch exams I ended up at HMS Drake in Devonport as a Supply Assistant awaiting a draft posting. That was exactly 5 months after joining.
The 23rd Oct I joined HMS Brigadier who was attached to a buoy in Portland Harbour. I was an assistant to a Leading Supply Assistant and we were responsible for all Naval Stores (Engineering and Maintenance) Brigadier had been a cross channel ferry before the war – she was the SS Worthing and did the Newhaven – Dieppe run. When I joined she was a Landing Ship Infantry, she carried 6 Landing Craft Assault (LCA’s) I did not find out her full history until this year (2005) She was built in 1928 Tonnage of 2,343 gross. In 1939 she was a troop carrier, also a hospital Carrier during the Dunkirk evacuation. In 1940 a Fleet Air Arm target vessel. From 1941 she became an Infantry Landing Ship and carried out troop landing exercises in Scotland then eventually coming south to Portland where I joined her.
Crew wise she was a mixture of RN and T124X personnel. Officers were RNR and RNVR. Ratings were mostly RN and Combined Operations for the LCA’s. T124x rating s had been in the MN and still received that rate of pay – they were usually Stokers, Stewards, Cooks and Victualling Stores ratings.
All other ratings including the two Naval stores supply assistants were RN!
From when I joined Brigadier in Oct’43 until May ’44 we were on landing exercises along the mostly Devon coast, loading up with British, Canadian and American troops either at Portsmouth or Southampton and transporting them for practising assault landings in the LCA’s
On the 5th June 1944 HMS Brigadier departed the Solent as part of Assault Convoy J10 to land troops at the Juno beach-head on the morning of 6th June 1944. As far as I can remember we lost 2 of our LCAs that day when they went in to land. We came back to Portsmouth. late afternoon, it was very sunny, just off of Arromanches, we took onboard from a MTB, 2 badly wounded soldiers and one who had died and we brought them with us back home.
On this D Day as it was known, HMS Brigadier’s Landing Craft Assault Crews were part of 513 Flotilla and as far as I recall, their Petty Officer was named Croucher and came from Sunbury and the officer was Sub/Lt McMasters RNVR. The Captain was Cdr A Paramore RNR, Ist Lt was Lt D Winters RNR, Chief Engineer was Lt Cdr McLellan RNR and the Paymaster was SubLt D Love RNVR whocame from Hounslow
Some of the Rating friends I recall were LSA Frank Dart from Newton Abbot, Supply Asst William Dummett from Plymouth and Steward Bert Waller who had been on the ship when she was SS Worthing on the Newhaven/Dieppe run.
After the 6th of June Brigadier was part of a cross-channel shuttle service carrying reinforcements of all types, men an stores across to France. Once such journey included the Royal Navy’s own Dance Band,’ The Blue Mariners ‘ under the leadership of pianist Petty Officer George Crowe and featuring the noted alto saxophonist Freddy Gardner who was also of P O rank. The compere of this group that were going to entertain Service units in Europe was Sub Lt Eric Barker RNVR noted entertainer..
We had our moments of danger on these trips, such as, disposing of floating mines with rifle fire! Then there was the time I went aft on deck and saw the 28,000 tons of SS Monowi bearing down speedily upon us! There was a scraping noise on the starboard side but thankfully no serious damage!
The end for HMS Brigadier came on the 11/11/44 - It was a Saturday evening and we were leaving Southampton with 430 troops on board when we rammed the stern of HM Headquarters Ship Hilary at anchor at Spithead. The vessels were locked together and had to be cut apart, Brigadier’s bow was pushed back to the hawse pipes. She returned to Southampton the next day and paid off on the 18/12/44. I understand she was returned to Red Ensign service again and once more became SS Worthing on her Newhaven/Dieppe run! As a matter of interest she was sold to a Greek firm in 1954 and did cruisies in the Med under the name PHRYNI. Sadly she was broken up in Greece in 1954 after an illustrious career
After Christmas leave I was back to HMS Drake in Devonport awaiting draft. I should mention I was now a Leading Supply Assistant having applied to be upgraded whilst on Brigadier,. by virtue of the fact that I had passed my original exam with an 80% plus pass that allowed me to take that step.
On the 1st March 1945 I joined a Castle Class Corvette named HMS Headingham Castle at Blyth in Northumberland. She had recently been completed and it was my job to store her for commissioning. I was the sole supply branch rating aboard responsible to the First Lieutenant for all stores. I had an Able Seaman allocated as ‘Tanky’ (Assistant).
At this stage all the crew were gradually arriving but billeted ashore in Blyth as ship’s accommodation was not ready. One Able Seaman and myself were staying with a very hospitable family in Blyth they treated us as if we were their very own family members.I have always thought very highly of ‘Geordie’ folk since that period of my life.
Castle Class Corvettes were built for anti-submarine work and it was assumed that we would eventually be engaged on such activites. Commissioning took place and we did our ‘working up trials’ around Scotland at Tobermory,. Fairlie and ended up at Greenock. By this time VE Day had arrived whilst we were still at Blyth so when we had completed our trials it was assumed we would be making our way to the Far East. Then VJ Day arrived and that changed things completely. I cannot remember why but on VJ Day we were anchored off of Southend Pier and I recall travelling home to Staines on leave that very day!
Headingham Castle did not head for the Far East but as the war was over became based at Greenock and did three week periods in the North Atlantic as a Weather Ship
For some reason, known only to the Lords of The Admiralty! The crew of Headingham Castle, some 120 men, in Feb 1946 became the crew of HMS Oxford Castle and vice versa ! So eventually on Oxford Castle we ended up back at Portland Harbour. By this time Portland was an ASDIC training base. On the 18th May 1946 I was awarded my 1st 3yr Good Conduct Badge. As my Class A Naval Release was pending, in July’46 I was back at Devonport and drafted to DrakeII to await my release.
My waiting time was spent destoring a Cable ship that was moored at Turnchapel. For this period I was once again living ashore and actually stayed with my friend from HMS Brigadier days, Bill Dummett, he had already returned to civvy street and I boarded with him and his wife at their home in Hartley Vale, Plymouth,travelling into the City and over to Turnchapel each morning.
On the 24th September 1946 I was released from Naval Service from St Budeaux to proceed on 56 days resettlement leave.
I returned to my home with Mum and Dad in Staines, Middx and after my leave resumed my employment at the Staines Linoleum Co. All the members of the family had been very fortunate to survive World War II unscathed.
Contributed originally by janineshaw (BBC WW2 People's War)
Below are the memories from the Shaws as children which has been extracted from the family book I created last year called ‘Our Tribe – our stories in your words’ which personally recorded the family memories past and present day. Five of the eight family members tell their very unique stories having been separated and evacuated to different families and how they were re-united as a family before the end of the war. Two of the eight have died (Harry and Rita though still mentioned) and the youngest Siddy was not born until after the war.
The family name was Schevitch and they lived at 160 Old Montague Street, London E1. After the Second World War they changed the family name, many foreign and Jewish people changed their name and the spelling of foreign names were changed to more English names to aid this and avoid discrimination. They became The Shaws in around 1947-8.
By Maurice 11-12-1932;
I remember when I was seven, at the outbreak of war, we all went to our school, had labels put on our lapels and were sent to Liverpool Street station. I, with my brother Harry and Leon went on a train down to Ely (near Cambridge) and then to a village called Wilburton and later to Streatham. I was evacuated there for the duration of the war. We went to a big hall where the local people came to pick out children they wanted to stay with them. First I stayed with a woman near Ely who looked after an old lady who I stayed in the same village as all my brothers. She had a clubfoot so couldn’t walk properly and we were on a farm. She was quite strict with us, it was in the middle of winter when Harry, Leon and I went for a walk near an iced over pond. We could see steps from other people who had walked over, we walked across and I fell in! I went under the ice and Harry got in to drag me out, saving me. We were freezing cold and frightened to go home because we would get told off, but eventually went home. The old lady died and her family came down so we all had to move as they sold the farm.
I then lived with the Curtis family and Mrs Curtis who worked on the railway crossing opening, and closing the gates and working the signal box. She was very strict and made me eat all my food like Yorkshire Pudding that I really hated! Mr Curtis was the local cobbler of the village. They had a son, who went into the army who I went pike fishing with which I enjoyed. I used to work on his allotment and as he was the local cobbler I helped to pick the shoes up and take them back to the customer’s houses.
He had a lot of chickens in an orchard that I fed every day and brought back the eggs to our home. In the summertime, when I was about nine, I had to take the chickens in a barrow in cages across four miles of land to feed on the cornfields after they had been harvested. After they had been there for a few months I had to bring them back, and they had grown much bigger and I had to stuff them back into the cages and some of them got suffocated! I was scared to go home as I thought I’d get in trouble and it upset me. We sold them to a few of the Jewish families in the village.
I worked hard during this time and saved my pocket money for it, which I sent home for my mum to look after. I never saw my family for months on end but she sometimes sent cake in food parcels. When my parents did come to see us they would come on the bus and arrive at the church. I was always embarrassed and would hide behind the gravestones!
I remember going blackberry picking and then selling on the berries to a man who bought them up and distributed it and sold it to other areas. I liked looking after the Chinchilla rabbits at the farm. I was also paid to dig holes in the school and distribute the sewage from the toilets in them!! I didn’t do it long. When I was still evacuated I hardly went to school but we had separate schools from the local children, being taught by the evacuated teachers from London. They would be paid eleven shillings a week to stay there and work with us.
All the locals used to call us ‘Jew boys!’ Harry used to defend us all in the village. Him and Gerald Singer were the two toughest and would fight the local boys who would pick on us. You had to stand up for yourself. Harry used to stay at the Parishes, who were farmers and cold merchants so he worked hard on their farm. The family had a son the same age as Harry who would get him into trouble so he was bullied a lot by the family.
I remember when the Curtis’s sent me to the next village, to the fish and chip shop and while I was queuing up some local thug started picking on me and I had my first fight! I didn’t know until then that I was a good fighter but I gave him a real thrashing! I was still very shy and if a girl talked to me I would go blood red in the face!
I remember when I was living in Streatham, a friend of mine from London; Ivan Saffie, came (I don’t know how he knew where to find me!) and bought me a newspaper with pictures and a story of my sisters, Helen and Sylvie who had been evacuated together in a place called Little Hampton, with the Honoured Lady Littleton. They were fast asleep holding hands in their cots (see The Daily Mirror page 7, October 18th 1940). They lived in a really big house and had maids. I almost forgot I had sisters during the war!
My sister Rita was evacuated to Newmarket with a family who worked with racehorses. She remained in contact with them for a long time after the war.
My friend Ivan Saffie went home before the end of the war, back to where his family lived in Valance Road, in Stepney. He was in a block of flats when one of the first doodlebugs bombed the area. He was killed with his family, as well as many other Jewish people and hit St. Peter’s Hospital. The queen mother came to see the debris. The head of the Brady Girls Club, who was also a judge, came to collect all the things that were found and was responsible for handing it back out to the families. Ivan and his family were wonderful people and it was really sad.
By Leon 18-5-1934;
I can’t remember much before the age of five but my first memory started in school - The Robert Monte Fury School in Valance Road, in East London. I had only been at school for about four weeks when war was declared. At that time we lived at 160 Old Montague Street, E1, and in those days we didn’t travel much further than E1. Four weeks after the outbreak of war, evacuation started and my older sister Rita went to Newmarket; she was the first to leave. Harry and Maurice went to Streatham, near Ely, in Cambridgeshire. I was sent to South Wales and a little later on Sylvia and Helen went to Northamptonshire.
About six weeks after my evacuation I was sent back to London because I was so unhappy at the time - I was crying all the time; it was such a shock to my system being away from everyone. I remember having a gas mask given to me in a square box with a piece string which we hung around our necks, and a package label saying who I was and where I was going. When I was sent back to London it had completely changed because the Blitz and air raids had started. We had to take our gas masks everywhere and black-outs took place every night from as soon as it got dark. This meant that no light could be shown at night and wardens would come around the streets to check up on this. Barrage balloons were in the sky - they were oval shaped and the idea was that the German planes would not fly low and if they did they would bash into them and crash. Rationing had started and there were queues for everything, especially for food. The radio was the main focal point for any news.
One particular night that I remember was when the air raid siren started, bombs started dropping, and I cannot remember if we had one or two babies at the time, but my mum put the baby in the pushchair, grabbed me, rushed out on the street and I tried to go around to the air raid shelter in Whitechapel Road, about a quarter of a mile away. At the time there was bangs, crashes, machine gun fire, search lights in the sky and buildings on fire, rubble and dust coming from the bombed buildings. There were parachutes with flares on, and when we got to the shelter there were wooden gates on the shelter which were locked, I presume the ARP (air raid prevention people) hadn’t got there in time and opened it yet!! My mother with other people who were trying to get in, used the pushchair to bash down the gate and we got in. There were like cellars under the shops. Even if I hear an air raid siren today I still get a bad feeling inside me, which reminds me of the scare I had at the time.
Within a couple of weeks of this incident I was evacuated to the same village as Harry and Maurice. Harry was with Cyril Parish; Maurice was with a Mrs Curtis and I was put with Mr and Mrs Bulmer. They didn’t want me and they used to let me know quite plainly! I was pushed about and given quite a lot of verbal abuse. After one very bad day with them, I mentioned this to Harry and Maurice when I saw them, and they were going to beat them up. Harry was about ten and Maurice was eight!! God bless them both for looking after me during the hard, hard years!
During the war years, when the children were away evacuated my parents didn’t have much contact with us. As far as my father was concerned, being foreign (Polish/Russian) he was treated as an alien and his travel movements were restricted. He had to register with the police and not allowed to travel. Also during this time my mother always had young children to look after. My mother would come and see the boys in Streatham about once a year yet in those days being sixty miles from London was a huge distance. Travel was only for military purposes too.
We went to school but had no real classes, all evacuees together. This meant that we had no education until we returned to London in 1945. I remember going out on a cold winter’s day with Harry and Maurice and we went over to the river into some fields and they walked straight over a pond that was frozen. When they came back and got to the middle the ice broke and they went straight in!! They just about managed to scramble out soaking wet. I didn’t do it as I was too much of a coward and stayed by the side!!
One other incident I remember was going over the fields, and after a mile we sat down by an old wooden tree that had blown down. Harry started shouting and then we could see that we had sat down on a hornet’s nest in the tree!! I remember us all running like mad, and we just about out-paced them!
Harry lived with the local coal merchant, with 95% of the homes being heated by coal in those days. He had to go out most weekdays helping to deliver the coal, which was very tough for a kid his age. On a number of occasions we discussed running away to get home, that London was only 60 miles away but in those days it was like being in another world!! There were only three cars in the village owned by the doctor, the vicar and the teacher!!
There was no early home life that I can recall with my family until I was nine because I was too young before that to remember. I remember the foster homes that I stayed in. I was three during the war almost four. We (Helen and I) went when the London blitz started (September 1940 - May 1941) it was mandatory. I remember the spaciousness of the place, the nurses that took care of us. There were twenty other children there and I had so much fun with them. We stayed an English estate home of air chief-marshal Sir Robert Brooke Popham, in Northamptonshire. I could only stay there until I was five when I was snuck off, separated from my sister and taken to a new foster home. I remember clinging to my sister as seen in the paper during the first placement.
In my next foster home I was taken to another stately home, this time of Lady Littleton and her two spinster sisters. Those times were very happy, in beautiful surroundings, with a private gardener and other people working around taking care of the property. One thing I recall was having my own playroom and the toys there waiting for me. I never sat with the spinsters at the main table in the dining room. I had my own table in the corner. The women were very kind and my needs were taken care of but I got no hugs or kisses for the whole of the war years.
Helen joined me a year later. I was taken for a walk to where she was living and we met on a hill. I was very happy to see her but I got into trouble because I was possessive with my toys and didn’t want to share them with her; I was scolded for that. We got driven around in the nice car but for some reason I have no recollection of going to school, having friends or the teachers!!
We both moved when I was seven to a farming family in the same area. They had four other children Ted and Alice I remember. It was a sharp contrast to the luxury I was in before. They were a nice family based right on the high street (18 High St., Brackley). We would have a meal called 'spotty dick' with fatty meat which I could not tolerate! I would have to hide it in my handkerchief and dispose of it when I left the table. I also remember Sunday mornings covering the whole big dining table with newspaper and everyone had to put their shoes up on the table and polish them together as a ritual. During the latter part of our stay I realised the Germans were so close to us in France and the family asked us to take off my gold star and said they would give it back to us at another day. I now understand why they did that to protect us. We also all went to church together which I really enjoyed with the family. We would be given a bag of goodies too so it was a day that I enjoyed.
They would have May Day celebrations in a park near to my house. They would have a May pole and it was the only place I remember seeing one to this day! We all of us danced around it. There was a bit of different language and funny expression that I learnt with an accent to go with it. For example they said 'you frit me' instead of you frightened me! We picked up the accent too!
In the main street there was a big building that housed Italian Prisoners of War who were allowed to sit on the side of the steps. We were told that we were never to go up to them or associate with them. I also remember the odd tank going through the country roads and being told by the other kids when we saw any American or Canadian soldiers that we had to say 'do you have any gum chum?!'. We heard the odd air raid siren but nothing like that experienced by Dena in London.
I didn’t miss my mum or my family as I was too young to remember them - we knew they existed but can’t recall hearing from them over the time. I do remember receiving sweeties from my grandmother on at least one occasion though.
On my eight birthday at the farm family they made me a dolls house made out of cardboard. It was painted and I just loved it!
By Helen 12-1-1938;
I remember an incident that I haven’t forgotten. I was evacuated during the war at aged two with my sister Sylvia. She became the closest person to me as far back as I can remember, having been taken away from my parents. We went to two stately homes which were lovely and large, with other children as it was turned into a nursery. The most upsetting thing was that at age four Sylvia had to leave and as we were so close they decided to take her away in the night. I remember waking up screaming when I realized she had been taken away.
During this first placement, I had problems with my speech and only my sister could understand me as I was always with her. She would interpret what I was saying and I had so many people trying to help me I developed a stammer because I was so conscious of it!!
We were brought back together after a year but we had to get to know each other again. I feel it was very wrong to separate us in the first place. My mum (and Rita sometimes) would come and visit but not my dad who was always working. My mum was seen as more like a friend than a mum as she was not our main carer at the time.
Harry was older and much more aware of the awful time he was having where he was. I remember reading a book which said between the ages of two and five are very important ages for attachment, so being taken away during this time had lasting affects. Both Leon and I talked about this and agreed how hard it was for us. There are a lot of people who tried to claim compensation from the government for damages done during war times and during foster placements. Can you imagine if we all tried to claim for our traumas through the Second World War?!
After being with my sister for two years, we went to Lady Littleton’s home and it was very lovely and quiet there. The women working there were kind but it was all so orderly and we had to do different things on different days. The three ladies were around a lot and there were lovely orchards to play in. They also had some Italian prisoners of war who made baskets out of branches. They wanted to make contact with us and talk to us but we were told not to talk to them. We had some happy memories there. After leaving the Littleton’s we went to a big school, and were in a hall with all these other children. We were told we couldn’t be split up and were chosen to live on a farm with six children. We helped out with the farmer and his wife, with the baby chicks and plucking the chickens. We had lots of fresh food when others were having problems with rationing. I also remember playing in the large fields and it was another lovely place.
By Dena 18-2-1940;
I wasn’t born when war broke out but in 1940 so it had been on for one year – I was a war baby!! I was born in Mrs Levy’s home, in Valance Rd., in the East End. London Hospital was the nearest hospital but this was the nearest maternity home.
When I was about two years old I remember being picked up and a blanket being put around me and being carried to the shelter while the sirens were going off. When we arrived at the shelter I remember feeling surprised that all my neighbours were there too. I looked at Mrs Cooper who owned our local grocery store and being surprised that she was there too. They all had bunk bed made up in the underground all along the walls of the platform. I know there was a shelter at the River Lea Court, off Whitechapel High St. but am not sure what the underground station was as Whitechapel was an over ground station.
I was in London all through the war until 1945 and the last six months of the war I was evacuated to Kings Langley. The lady’s home I stayed with was Mrs. Goddard and a friend of mine who lived on my street, Sandra Mildener was there too. I remember during the war years having a wonderful time, and everyone made a fuss of me. I was the youngest of seven at the time and because they were all sent away for safety but my mum kept me close to her. I remember going to the Yiddish play on Commercial Road on a Saturday night and being dressed up like the dogs dinner by my mum. I had a white fur coat, hat and muff and I used to love it.
I don’t remember having brothers and sisters and thought I was an only child. We used to go with Uncle Sam and Aunty Sarah my parents’ friends to the playhouse. Uncle Sam had come over with my dad at the age of fifteen when they had got away from Russia. He adored me and told me he wanted to adopt me!
I remember going to visit my grandparents who lived in Streatham getting on the trolley bus ride which I loved most of all those old fashioned ones. The next thing I remember was my grandmother being ill and going to visit her all standing around the bedside. Me being a kid jumped on the bed and got shouted at for making noise. She had cancer at the time.
I remember coming home one day and there was loads of rubble at the end of our street where a bomb had hit the other side of the street. It became our playground for years until there cleared it. I remember playing on the bricks and balancing on the beams as there was all that was left of these skeletons playing in the ruins. I used to stand on the top singing ‘I’m the king of the castle!’
Reunited in London
We came back to London just before the end of the Second World War. Bombing had stopped, except for the doodlebugs and rockets which came a little later, which made it much safer. It was very near the end for Hitler and authorities were allowing the children to come back. Just after we returned one of the rockets came down on London, to Vallance Rd., near where we lived. It killed a lot of people, including some family friends of ours. We had moved to 117 Old Montague Street, to a bigger house, with three floors; boys in one bedroom, sleeping two per bed, head down one end and feet the other - head to feet. The girls slept in the other bedroom. My dad would be out working in the markets from before we got up in the morning until late in the evening - he mainly sold linens. My mum worked part time jobs occasionally, what she did I didn’t remeber.
We were very poor, but with everyone around you in the area is in the same position, you don’t notice it. We had very little toys or games. One of the very best things we all had was Brady. This was a girls’ club in Hanbury Street, and a boys club in Brady Street. It was open five days a week, not on a Friday night or Sunday evening. We had a great time there, this took the kids off the street, which was an excellent thing. Anybody could belong to it, and paid a nominal fee to go. For the boys there were cards, snooker, boxing a gym, with a small canteen. We also had a summer camp on the Isle of Wight, which were the first holidays we ever had as kids. Occasionally we could go away on weekends, to a house down in Kent, called Skeet Hill house, to go to.
I don't remember actually leaving the family but I do remember arriving in London after the war getting off the train and onto a bus to go to a school. I found it frightening, smelly and quite mind boggling because of the noise. I was taken to the school and my mother picked us up. Somehow she wasn't a stranger when we saw her and she took us home. The street had a lot of bombed buildings in every direction. In particular the old Montague Street School was still standing but looked like it was ready to collapse. Within a few hours of arriving she took us to the Evada children's wear store on Whitechapel Road and bought us new identical dress each.
Our mum and dad, and brothers and sisters were all total strangers to us when we returned from evacuation after the war. I don’t recall having any feeling of apprehension about this new life situation that we were faced with. After all we were all experiencing the new adjustment. Personally I was happy and accepting even though the trauma of leaving the beautiful English countryside and seeing the devastation of the bombing of London especially our neighbourhood, was quite depressing. I guess we were a tough bunch of kids; we got acquainted with each other and resigned ourselves to our new lives. We overcame a lot of obstacles mainly due to financial hardship. However I don’t believe any of us went hungry, we also had adequate clothing. We grew to love one another and shared good times. Plenty of squabbling went on but our home was often filled with the sound of music too, all kinds of music from opera to Yiddish, to marching bands to Frank Sinatra and my favourite, Billy Ekstine and Sarah Vaughan. We made good use of our record player.
I think our parents must have been overwhelmed by the sheer enormity of the task of feeding, clothing and caring for so many of us, who all arrived on the scene so suddenly at the end of the war. We learned that our Dad’s almost entire family had died in Auschwitz concentration; camp, he never spoke of them. Not very many of either of our parents’ background was passed on to us by them, however even now when us brothers and sisters get together a new revelation might be shared. Had they lived longer, I would have pestered them to tell us so much more. We were all left at such a young age with a huge void in our lives and I don’t believe any of us recovered from the suddenness of losing our mother in her 48th year.
We were told that we were going to return to London and the daughter of the framer and his wife said that in London there were no fields or trees and it made me feel so sad!! She was wrong but right in one way because of the ruins and devastation that I found when I arrived which I wasn’t prepared for. We went off to London with our labels on our lapels and went on a double decker bus to a school hall and families came to collect them. Some children had nobody coming to collect them as their parents didn’t want to know them after the war i.e. from illegitimate children to US or Canadian soldiers.
I remember walking along Old Montague Street with my sister, dad and mother. This big dog came barking up to us! It was Queenie our family dog. We also had Succkie and Teddy afterwards and they were all Chow breeds. They were louder, a little rougher and different to suburban pets. We arrived home with bombsites everywhere and open buildings where the kids played which were death traps really. Such a complete contrast to where we had lived during our fostering.
We arrived in the kitchen and somebody said ‘listen to how they are talking!’ after I had said ‘can I have some jam please?’, in a posh accent. I felt quite different from the rest of them after my time away and it took time to get to know each other again. I was conscious of my country accent. The boys used to bully the girls because they had been disturbed by their experiences.
We had one kitchen at the back of our house, which was like a scullery. We only had cold running water, a gas cooker and wooden table, and back yard. The whole family, nine of us at the time had to wash there, but when it was bath time we only had a metal bath with water poured from the fireplace, and the three younger girls were bathed together in this boat like tub. There was a time when there was a shortage of fuel when I was about eleven and every family was rationed one sack of coal. We had to go and collect the coal from Flower and Dean Street (or Fashion Street) and had to line up. What we decided to do was to all go down there and line up and pretend we didn’t know each other and then carry them back on our backs and they were so heavy!!
The strangest thing for me was that I don’t remember my brothers and sisters coming back even though I loved them coming back. One minute there was nobody there and the next minute there was a house full it was like a party everyday. We moved from one side of the road to the other after the war, as there was more space in a bigger house. There were seven rooms, and four bedrooms, and all the girls slept in one room, my parent in the other and the boys split between the other two smaller rooms.
Contributed originally by jasstuart (BBC WW2 People's War)
All very romantic. We think of sleep in a comfy bed, with spotless sheets, a plump pillow and a coverlet; or perhaps a Duvet. Forget it! For those who have the mileage and are able to remember the war years, read on. For those that don’t, listen to your Granddad.
We were Territorial Army lads, just returned from our yearly Camp on Beaulieu Heath, in Hampshire.
Under canvas of course and lying on the ‘good earth’, to sleep.
We lads of the 10th Battalion, Tower Hamlet Rifles; gathered together from the East End of London, in the Borough known as ‘The Tower Hamlets’.
We were ‘called up’ on the 1st September 1939. We were fully equipped, therefore we were told to take our rifles home and not to hand them back to the Armoury. We reported for duty the next day, when our ‘call up’ papers arrived by post.
Having said tearful farewells to Mums and Sweethearts; we were marched out of the Drill Hall on Tredegar Road Bow and on to Bow Road, ‘then right wheel’ into Cooper’s Company School.
We were about four hundred yards away from where we started, where our loved ones had just waved us goodbye. We were there for two whole months, sleeping in our army issue of three, ‘horse’ blankets, on the Parquet Floor.
Then we were taken to Swindon, to sleep on the dance floor of the Co-op Hall. We now had three new ‘horse type’ blankets each. They had to be folded with box-like corners and laid out neatly with knife, fork, spoon, housewife and mess-tin. Everything else, stowed away out of sight behind our kit bags.
Our webbing equipment, with bayonet and water bottle attached, spread neatly over the blankets, and army greatcoats, (if you had one), folded as per ‘regulation’, according to the Sergeant. Many of us still had Busmen’s Overcoats! Then a move to another part of the town; there to sleep on the concrete floor of a High Street garage.
Months rolled by, and we were training, training all the time, in the fine arts of a mechanised army, though sadly, we did not yet have our vehicles. We were ‘fit as fiddles’ and ‘straining at the leash’ to have a go at Hitler and his mates. But did we? No, We were sent to guard the Docks and ships on the Thames in the East End of London, and sleeping rough, among sacks of produce like raw coffee beans, along with the rodents who lived there. A few spies were captured, so we were told! We guarded the Dry Docks. Dickey Seewright fell in, fortunately there was still about ten feet of water, but a long drop.
Being in full equipment, helmet, pack, Bayonet and Rifle, plus Ammo Boots, he rolled over and over. Counter balanced, you see? We made Dickey as comfortable as we could on some dry sacking, gave him a good rub down, and then returned to our duties. Between helping the police evict unwelcome people off ships, and patrolling the Docks, we got our heads down, sometimes.
We spent most of 1940 around the Dock-land, sometimes assisting, where we could, with fire fighting.
Now we were under canvas on Hampstead Heath. At least with dry ground to sleep on, in bell-tents that had seen previous wars. And sleep? That was a laugh. Impossible with anti-aircraft guns banging away night and day, close to our Company Line’s, trying to bring down German Bombers.
We were then moved to Dunstable Bedfordshire. At the foot of a hill on Dunstable Downs, a windmill became the home for about twenty-five of us. The rest of A Company, now designated as part of the 10th Battalion the Rifle Brigade: Sixth Armoured Division: were scattered in derelict houses in the neighbourhood. Talk about ‘wherever I lay my head then that’s my home!’
During 1941 we received our vehicles. Now we charged around the country, trying to kid Hitler into thinking that we had more troops than he thought we had, and more Armoured Divisions to call on
We travelled by day and night, North, South, East and West, all over the country; with short rest periods in between, mostly when supplies and petrol were brought up. One spell of about three months, we slept under the July Stands, on the Newmarket racecourse. It was a concrete floor!
The MO’s Surgery was a stable. Most fitting we thought, for to us he seemed more like Vet.
Then we travelled to Scotland; once more under canvas, in bell-tents, leaking at the seams in the pouring ran and Scots Mist, that seemed to go on forever. We were camped by the side of a river, known to overflow its banks. Everywhere was mud. The nearest town was Stewerton in Ayrshire,
Whose people were kind to us, in spite of the mud we took with us on our infrequent visits.
At the camp we were issued with a rubber ground sheet each, which kept the blankets out of the mud;
providing you didn’t roll over in a troubled sleep. Now I was a Corporal with two stripes. Now when you are a rifleman, you have only have to worry about yourself; but as a Section Leader you have seven children to worry about. ‘See that they shave, are fed and watered, kept clean and dry, with untroubled sleep’. That’s a laugh, up to our eyebrows in mud! So we trained and trained. This time as a proper Scout Platoon in our Bren Gun Carriers, the Motor Platoons in their 15 hundred weight vehicles. All very mobile and ready to face the enemy; but the training went on until the day we were ordered to ‘up sticks’ and move out. It was now November 1942.
We sailed away on the Langibby Castle, sailing down the Clyde on a ship well loaded with troops, tanks, and all kinds of vehicles and equipment for war.
We sailed round and round in the Atlantic for a couple of days, until many other ships joined us to make up the convoy. We rolled around in the rough sea, but I was happy, for I was now a Lance Sergeant, which entitled me to share a cabin and have a bunk. It was heaven to lay where it was comfortable, on a soft surface and without draughts. We made our way steadily towards the Mediterranean and the North African Coast. But not for long, we were passing the twinkling lights of Tangiers, at dead of night, when a ‘U Boat Wolf Pack’ attacked the convoy. We copped a torpedo on the port side bow, making a hole above and below the water line that two double-deck buses could have driven through. Around us, ships were burning and exploding Water tight doors were closed, which gave us the chance to limp into Gibraltar, though the ship as well down at the bows.
At Gibraltar, we transferred on to the Lansteffan, another Castle Line ship. It was already pretty well loaded, though it still made room for a couple of thousand more troops. Our transport would have to catch us up later. We were meant to land at Algiers, it as under constant bombing raids and ‘U Boat’ attacks. The harbour in the Bay was ablaze. We finally landed at Bone; where our temporary abode was a deserted hospital, with arms and legs crammed into dustbins. We lay where we were put; on a cold but beautiful marble floor, with lovely blue tiles up the walls; though not appreciated at the time.
When our vehicles finally arrived, we set off towards the ‘war zone’ to chase the Germans out of Tunisia! Not that easy!
So now as a Lance Sergeant, I commanded three Bren Gun Carriers, three men to each Carrier, including me, as part of the Scout Platoon. As soon as we hit the area, we were in action. Skirmishing by day, foot patrolling by night. No rest, hardly any sleep, no time to use our new can openers. Though our spoons and mouths were ready to sample McConnickies solidified soup; eaten cold, straight from the can, as all our meals were. ‘I mean, come on!’ Do you think the front line Tommy had someone to cook for him? No chance! After a few days we managed to wedge in a bit of eating, a bit of resting here and there, and always a mug of tea at the first chance. Quickly brewed on a cut down petrol can filled with sand and fuelled with petrol. Quickly doused with a handful of sand, and carried, swinging
from the back of the Carrier. ‘Luxury!’
Our rations were packed in ‘three man packs’ to last three men three days. Ideal for a carrier crew.
It was full of assorted tins of food; all very plain and basic, after all there was a war on. Often we would get a tin of fifty fags to share between us, and a slab of dark chocolate sometimes, plus a packet of ‘paving slab hard’ dry biscuits. Of course, if supplies couldn’t get through to us, things had to stretch a little, but petrol was the chief need for the vehicles.
Naturally, we could usually find something to grumble about, but it didn’t do any harm and it gave vent to our frustrations. We were nipping about from one part of the battle zone to another. Being Mechanized Infantry, that was part of our job; filling in gaps, holding the line, patrols, patrols, patrols,
out there in the blue yonder! With so much driving, my driver Dusty Miller, could get very tired, so we took it in turns. With me at the controls, ahead in the dark, just catching the moonlight was a silvery concrete structure, like the model on a wedding cake. It was a bridge over a deep Wadi. That was how it looked as we approached. And then it was behind me. I too had fallen asleep, and dropped off! Just for a moment. Had we gone through that parapet, it would have been a longer drop, and probably out of this world. I didn’t tell the others, it might have worried them, though I doubt it.
Then the rains came. Troops and Vehicles of all kinds were bogged down in the clinging mud.
Wheels couldn’t turn and tracks had no grip. It was the same for Jerry.
On the outskirts of Bou Arada we dug two-man slit trenches, facing across the cold terrain towards the enemy positions at Le Keff. From those trenches, we were expected to rebuff any enemy infantry attack; though in the soaking wet, up to our ankles in mud we had little heart for it.
We splashed across that open ground on foot patrols, at night. Jerry did too, and often sent up Very Lights. We were a patrol of six men, walking on a compass bearing, in the dark. We had ‘hit the deck’
as a light burst above us. We waited for it to burn out. Out of the darkness a figure loomed. “That you Sarge?” he enquired casually. With the safety catch forward on my automatic, how I refrained from squeezing the trigger, I will never know. It was Chinner Halsey, our ‘end man’. His simple explanation
for wandering, was, ‘he just wanted to go to the Lav’. I saved my swearwords until next morning, then I let him have them good and proper! Nights in the slit trenches taught us how to sleep, standing up.
Just light sleep, you understand? Then your knees gave way and conveniently woke you up.
Once the ground was suitable to allow tanks and vehicles to move. We, as a Battalion, found ourselves once again, ‘in the thick of it’. It was at the end of January 1943,that our Platoon Commander lost his life. The Battalion was spread out over a large area and receiving supplies. Lieutenant Toms had just handed out the mail to his Section Leaders. We were walking back to our Carriers, when a lone bomber made a direct hit. We were all thrown about by the impact, and Lt Toms and the Platoon Sergeant, were hit. As often happens ‘in the field of battle’, with myself as senior, I jumped the equivalent of two ranks. Bypassing the rank of Platoon Sergeant and taking on the Platoon Commander’s job.
Not that I expressed my thoughts, though I did think, ‘Aye, aye, an officer on the cheap!’ So, worrying about others increased threefold. Not counting me; now when we got up to full strength, there would be thirty-three children and eleven Bren-Gun Carriers. The Company Commander, would be like a Boss plus a Union Rep, all wrapped up in one man, for me to answer to; similar to the ‘civvy street’ business world. When a supervisor is watched from above, and depended on from below.
So off we went again, nipping in and out, wherever we were needed. Often penetrating German defences, where American tanks could not. We in our low ‘Sardine Cans’, as the Yanks called them; could use the cover of folds in the ground, and Wadis. Backed up by the tanks of 17/21st Lancer and 16/5th, or Lothian and Border Horse in their Heavy Armoured Vehicles. We in our ‘wafer thin’ armour were more suitable for getting in and getting out, quickly. The Lancers came to our aid, when a small patrol of two carriers was testing the underbelly of the German defences near Medjes-el-bab.
It became very ‘hairy’, when Jerry brought up heavy weapons to assist his infantry; and tried to outflank us. We must have been under observation from way back, because a squadron of 17/21st tanks passed on either side of us. We had taken up a ‘hull down’ position on the crest of the hill, and were trying to hold off the advancing enemy. Thankfully we were ordered to withdraw. The infantry in our Motor Platoons, were also called upon to do all kinds of tasks. Like us, in our Scout Platoon ,’They never got bored!’ Opportunity would be a fine thing! They too lived from ‘hand to mouth’. Sleeping when they could, eating when they had the time, and keeping on, keeping on!
On the 7th of April 1943 the 1st Army, which we were part of, met up with the 8th Army, just below and South West of Sfax. Now the combined forces would push towards Tunis. Not easy, for Jerry fought tenaciously. Of course we were kept busy. It was reported that an Italian position still held out, having been bypassed. A Three-Carrier Patrol was sent to check them out. The ground was terrible, one minute sand the next rock and up and down Wadis. Below a slope and entering a cactus belt, a carrier shed a track. Corporal Sid Ferris and I went forward on foot. The remainder set up a defensive position and set to repairing the broken track. A fusillade of rifle fire pinned Sid and I down, followed by rough looking blokes in Burnooses, and firing from the hip. They pinched our boots and made us their prisoners.
At the top of the hill I heard a smart looking fellow in a natty uniform and medals, speak in French.
In my rough French I told him amid many swear words, that we were Anglais. The men on the hill were Goumiers, a formidable and vicious force of Arab soldiers under a French Officer. Our men had to withdraw; the firing missing us was making things difficult for them. Sid and I followed our carrier tracks for several miles in the dark, without weapons to defend us. They had mysteriously disappeared during capture.
I didn’t see the fall of Tunis. A German Mortar Bomb sent me, to the 95th Field Hospital in Algiers. It did me a favour really. Now I had crisp white sheets and pillow and a lady nurse, named Nurse Love. Not that there was much of that about. After about eight weeks, my wound through the biceps had recovered enough for me to rejoin my unit. I could still raise a pint, if one was offered.
The Company Commander sent a truck to pick me up and convey me to our mob, in the Vale Du Mort,
to be driven barmy by mosquito’s. Then we got an order to travel to Carthage, to Guard Winston Churchill and his wife. He was getting over a sickness.
Sad to say, on the way to Carthage on the Mediterranean coast. Corporal Sid Ferris, who was a temporary prisoner, along with me, had an accident. His carrier wandered too close to the edge of a crumbling dirt road in the dark, and turned over into a Wadi. The driver dug his way out with his bare hands. Sid lost his life. I will never forget him.
So after Africa, the next centre of operations was to be Italy. A different country, and a different kind of war. This time, amid foliage and trees where snipers hide and ambush is easier. I expect we’ll soon find out!