Being a kid in Britain during the Forties

Greg Peck  53B

Having been born in 1938, my earliest memories span the war years and the decade of the forties. The very earliest of all, which I can recall with any clarity, concern a day out at Whipsnade Zoo in the Company of my Aunt Joyce, the younger sister of my father. A very bad blister on my heel helped to make that day stick in my mind and the day out was probably arranged as a treat for my second birthday on the 17th August. The long bus trip, with a seat on the top deck, was every bit as exciting as the exotic animals I saw, as I recall from that day.

Once the war started in earnest, everything rapidly changed, rationing of every commodity soon intruded into the quality of life for every family in Britain. Such things as shoes became extremely scarce, every child old enough to go to school for instance, ended up wearing military pattern boots, and the shoe industry simply turned out nothing else. On the soles and heels of these ubiquitous military pattern boots were affixed little soft iron platelets called “Segs” or “Blakeys”. These were designed to save as much wear and tear as possible on the leather soles and heels, so the clatter of metal shod boots was a common sound wherever people gathered in any numbers. For those unfortunate folk who had no chickens of their own, fresh eggs were replaced by powdered egg, so that all you could do with that was make a sort of scrambled egg mixture by adding salt and water. The meat ration was pitifully small and pies were the normal way of eking it out as part of a meal.

In many streets in Luton, communal shelters from the expected bombing raids were being erected, in the more affluent areas people were instructed to dig out a shallow trench and wait for the issuing of Anderson Shelters. These were constructed of arched corrugated iron sheets, bolted together to form a small cell in which the entire family could shelter during an air raid. It was normal practise for dirt to be piled up and over the whole structure. In those days, many of the goods and services, such as bread and milk deliveries, were taken around the streets by horse and cart. The sight of a freshly dropped pile of horse manure would cause housewives to dash into the street with a dustpan and brush, because almost every house with any sort of garden was geared up for growing vegetables in any available dirt. Every vacant block was parcelled out to people that put their name down for these “allotments”. Once again, vegetable growing was the desired end.

After the very palpable fear and then relief of the Dunkirk evacuation it was not very long before the air raid sirens already familiar wail became a frequent disruptor of everyone’s daily life and routine. At first there was not that much to fear, unless you lived close to an airfield, but that was soon to change. My own father had been medically discharged from the Army as a result of suffering an occasional fit, supposedly as a result of being on parade in Dover when a shell from a very large piece of German ordnance known as “Big Bertha”, landed on the regimental square and killed and maimed a few soldiers. A carpenter by trade, he was offered the use of a house to rent if he would repair the damage caused to the roof and top floor by the entry of a fairly large piece of aircraft that had fallen from the sky, presumably from the results of Anti Aircraft fire. This was to be our first real home as a family living on our own.

Once it was repaired, we moved into the house and Dad requested the provision of an Anderson shelter. It was some weeks before it arrived and he was able to erect it, this was a frightening time for me because suddenly the bombing of large centres of population became the norm for the marauding German bombers. Most of the raids were by day to begin with and the first inkling of what was to come was the slow wind up of the sirens until they reached a howling crescendo. We used to cower under the sturdy table that had been placed in the under stair pantry. Within five to ten minutes of the sirens, the sound of throbbing engines would be heard. As the planes droned past overhead, the pulsating throb from the engines would be interspersed by shrill whistling noises, those in turn silenced by a loud crumpling sort of noise, as though someone had burst a huge paper bag. The whole house would shiver and you could smell and taste brick dust and plaster, I always remember the feel of fine grit in my mouth and hair whenever we had to lurk under the stairwell and endure the wait. My parents tried to reassure me that as the house had been hit once it would be someone else’s turn, not ours, cold comfort as I recall!

After some few weeks the bombing became less frequent and then began to be a nightly rather than a daylight event. With our shelter now snuggled into the soil behind the house, this was the place that we had to struggle out to, sometimes in the pitch dark of a moonless night. The Air Raid Wardens patrolled the streets at night and woe betides anyone who displayed any light whatsoever. It wasn’t all bombs and fear of course, visits to Grandparents and family were very common in those days and kids still played in the streets and parks. Early on of course we all used to run out after the all clear had sounded to check if any houses in our street had copped it. Later on, we kids just went out the next morning after a raid and did the things that kids did in those days. Played tag, or hare and hounds with a piece of the chalk so common to Luton’s soil, or flipped cigarette cards against a wall. Marbles was always popular and at the end of summer, the gathering and hardening of “Conkers” was a serious undertaking for all boys.
For a while the raids died down a bit, although the Germans would still make forays against the likes of Vauxhall Motors, followed the next morning by a lone, highflying Messerschmitt. This would be trying to take photos that would enable the effectiveness of the raid to be assessed, this soon earned the nickname of “Willie” and we knew that the squadron or two of resident Spitfires at Luton Airport would be trying to nail him.

This was the period of my life in which my lifelong love of mushrooms and the various wild berries was established. At the appropriate time of year, we would very often go out picking the wild blackberries to make into pies and tarts, while a plateful of huge fresh mushrooms was a delight, you could have as many as you wanted! Although nobody ever starved, the daily rations didn’t go very far as regards filling a plate. Sadly for us kids, sweets were very tightly rationed and there was no way that anyone would consider using their meagre sugar ration to make toffee, so even a stick of liquorice was revered if it could be obtained. The favourite sweets, when available, were the bull’s-eyes and the huge round ball like sweets called “Gobstoppers”, these seemed to last for ages and were highly prized.

When I eventually started school, I had to pass a small corner bakery as I made my way up the very steep hill that Tennyson road scaled, if I was lucky enough to have threepence in my pocket, donated by a kindly Uncle. I would dash in to the shop and buy a small threepenny loaf, then scoff the still hot dough as I walked almost to the top of Tennyson road and entered the school gates. I seemed to be permanently ready for something to eat in those days and apart from pumpkin, which I heartily detested, everything edible was grist for the mill. Two of my older cousins showed me the noble art of “Scrumping” and after that, nobody’s garden or orchard was sacrosanct.

I had my first ever fight at Tennyson road school. A big fat kid a year or two ahead of me, used to give me a really hard time whenever he spotted me in the playground, hitting, kicking or sometimes pushing me over. I used to run for my very life whenever I saw him first. A girl of about his own age would prevent his worst depredations if she was close by and after a while I would just hang around as close as I could to where she was. He trapped me in a corner of the playground one day when there was no sign of her at all. Having waited for so long to get at me he really slapped me around and suddenly something snapped in me. I have no recollection to this day of what happened next, all I can say is that I was sat astride him, his nose was bleeding profusely and a teacher was lifting me off of him as I was still throwing punches. He never came near me after that, quite the reverse actually.

Tennyson Road was deadly in winter, the road was so steep that it was almost impossible to get vehicles up it when there was ice and snow about. We had slides on the footpaths that went well over a hundred yards and the people that lived along their trajectory would be out with the salt as soon as ever the bell went and we entered the school grounds for assembly. With my father being a carpenter and by now with his own business started up, I was the proud owner of a sledge, not only that but it had steel runners, courtesy of an old tea chest that had thin metal straps around it. The favourite spot in Luton for sledge running was Popes meadow, a very steep hill leading down towards Wardown Park, the Army had a huge vehicle park alongside Popes meadow and the whole area by the trucks was covered in acres of scrim. That little sled of mine would really fly and at one place, where a footpath had to be crossed, would be airborne for yards. That was the greatest fun and my friends and I would enjoy that for hours.
The Americans had by now entered the war and were about in ever increasing numbers, we would solicit gum from them whenever the chance arose but they afforded us wealth too as a result of their frequent scrimmages with British Servicemen. Whenever we heard there had been a fight between the Yanks and the Tommie’s, invariably near a pub, we would go and search the gutters for dropped coins, tanners, bobs and sometimes a florin would be unearthed but even coppers were not scorned. A florin was wealth indeed for young kids in those days when a kid could get into the “Gods” at the “Bughole” Cinema in Wellington Street for a mere sixpence. Once inside, a visit to the toilet would enable him to open the emergency exit and let the rest of us in. That was how I got in to see the original version of “King Kong” starring Fay Wray, a year or three later, courtesy of an obliging senior cousin.

With no television available to the public at large, radio was very important to everyone. Many of the programs of those days were really good and I remember with great pleasure the antics of Tommy Handley and his cohorts on ITMA. Whereas Valentine Dyall, AKA “The man in black”, used to terrify the proverbial out of me. One story he told, in his chilling style, was the tale of the “Desecrated Hands”. I slept with the blankets pulled over my head for months afterwards. Much of the BBC stuff was designed to uplift morale, and the news was always listened to eagerly, especially when the announcer scoffed at the latest outrageous claims by such as Goebbels, the German Minister of Propaganda.

The bombers still came across and had goes at Luton, with its plethora of factories, never in such numbers as originally though, not as frequently either. Then we heard a new sound, a sort of popping cough like throb, this was the advent of the German flying bomb, the V1 as the government designated them, we soon nicknamed them doodlebugs. The ‘bugs would have fuel on board calculated to the smallest drop and could thus be calibrated for the engine to cut out over the target area as designated. To heighten the scare factor, the Germans had fitted them with “shriekers” that caused them to start a very loud whistling as the engine cut out and they started to dive to the ground. So the sudden silence as the popping motor cut out was followed by the unearthly whistling shriek and then a loud explosion. Hard on the heels of these abominations came the V2 rockets, only one of which landed in Luton. It demolished a row of houses directly opposite the factory of Commer Cars and would have done enormous slaughter had it struck the assembled night shift workers. With them there was no warning at all and the explosion from this weapon unleashed on Luton was very powerful, waking the entire township in the dead of night.

Revenge was closer than anyone realised however, because the following day, as was usual after any sort of raid, over came Messerschmitt Willie. It was a fine day and a Saturday if memory serves me correctly, the sirens started up and everyone made their desultory way towards a shelter, I was on my way to visit my cousins in Cutenhoe road and a couple of people ahead of me started pointing up into the sky. There, very high up, was the customary contrail from Willie but there also and very close to it, was another. It soon became obvious to people in the street that Willie was in trouble and after about two minutes of weaving about, a darker plume of black tainted one of the contrails and the sound of an aircraft in dire straits was soon heard. The dark contrail was falling and heading towards the general direction of Wheathampstead, the other side of the Royal estate of Luton Hoo, the noise of its distress was by now very plain and its progress towards some distant point of Terra Firma speeding up. The other aircraft had meanwhile begun a series of wide looping turns, descending as it did so, the reason for this manoeuvre became apparent as the form of a descending parachute became visible, everyone in the small crowd that had now gathered was an aircraft recognition ace and we all knew from the shape of the wings that it was a Spitfire escorting the parachutist towards the ground, the resultant chorus of cheers drew more people out into the street. This resulted in three or four score people of all ages darting into the large field of allotments that then existed between Cutenhoe road and the boundary walls of Luton Hoo as soon as it became obvious the parachutist would land in among the allotments. I watched spellbound as the German Pilot made a very creditable landing in the still air of a glorious summers day.

A Policeman and a couple of Air raid Wardens were on hand and the German removed his harness, bowed slightly and then raised his hands. The Policeman moved forward and removed a pistol from him and was talking to him, asking him if he spoke English, which he did. As we stood watching, an elderly lady from among we onlookers suddenly attempted to strike the Pilot with her walking stick and had to be restrained by one of the Wardens. A 15 CWT Army Morris truck came bumping across to where we all stood and a Sergeant and a Private Soldier got out, quickly laying claim to the prisoner and asking the Constable to place him in handcuffs. Before that could be done, an RAF utility drew up alongside the truck and an RAF Officer got out, told everyone that he would be taking charge of the prisoner, gave him a cigarette and then quickly ushered him into the utility. What a day that was!

As the war slowly but surely ground to its conclusion, the country almost empty of American Soldiers since the campaigns in Europe got into the final stages, the sight and sounds of the Doodlebugs was heard no more, neither did we see very much in the way of German aircraft. When VE day was finally announced, the whole Country went berserk, street parties were organised and everyone celebrated, there was music and dancing everywhere you looked, pubs were full to overflowing. Actually nothing much had changed in ordinary peoples lives, rationing was still there in all its miserliness and Japan fought on. The end of Japan came much quicker than anyone had dared to hope and once again the streets became a scene of wild celebrations.

Once sanity and sobriety had returned life sank back to a different pace, somehow the edge seemed to have gone off of everything and there was a sense of anti climax and torpor that seemed to hold everyone in thrall. Here I think it is fair to say that even kids such as I realised that Britain’s place in the World scene was never going to be the same, already there was talk of many countries, mainly in the far east, wishing to be independent of Britain. America was so plainly the major force in World politics. The Marshall plan was being mooted as a way that America would “Kick-start” the shattered economies of much of Europe. Including that of Britain, whose riches had been exhausted in almost six years of titanic struggle, leaving her as a debtor nation.

Even in things cultural, the American way held sway, for the last two years of the war, the music that had echoed from the Radios of Britain had been dominated by the “Big Band “sound of popular American bands such as Tommy Dorsey and so on. “Swing”, was what they called it.
The winter of 1946/47 was one of the harshest for many years in Britain, icicles hung from eaves and in many cases touched the ground so that they looked like bars around a prison, I remember playing on some like a xylophone, by pinging them with a pencil. Lines of people with wheelbarrows and prams formed up outside the gasworks where coke was being given away to prevent people from freezing in their own homes, somehow these hardy folk trudged for miles with their precious cargo. There were not enough supplies of coal, or trucks to deliver it to cover the desperate needs of the populace. Coming as it did hard on the heels of a debilitating war, this dreadful winter dropped the spirits of the British people to its nadir in my opinion, there was no end in sight for rationing, so good clothing and such was almost impossible to find. Everything was in short supply and great demand; happy smiling faces were not readily spotted!
My father had been in Australia for a couple of months prior to the advent of war and had returned only just in time before the Munich crisis set the world on the road to war. He wished to emigrate and had set in place the necessary steps for us to go as a family. In that last year before we left to travel to Australia, he bought a small Ford car and we actually took a trip to the coast at Great Yarmouth. It looked a very sad place, with most places boarded up and all the beaches festooned in barbed wire; many places were clearly marked with the Skull and Crossed bones denoting a minefield. I had only ever been to the seaside once, as a little tacker, I was taken to Clacton by My paternal grandparents on a charabanc (coach) and had enjoyed it immensely. We did try one other trip to the coast before the car had to be sold prior to our leaving. That was to Blackpool, Dad had been told that that the beaches were safe there and that the tower and amusements were opened again. We went for four days and it bucketed down all the time we were there. April was not the most fortuitous time for seaside trips really but as were leaving at the end of the month there was not much choice. At the end of April we said goodbye to all of our relatives, some for the very last time, and embarked on a six week cruise to the Antipodes.

The contrast between wartime/immediate post-war Britain and a great liner cannot be imagined. Food was plentiful aboard ship and well cooked, this, after the restricted diet in Britain, caused a plague of boils among the ships passengers, so much so that the ships chief doctor was nicknamed Lancelot! Here too the music of the late forties was much in evidence, I remember songs by Nat King Cole and Bing Crosby as being all the rage among the adults. One of the most popular songs of that era was called “Me and my shadow”. That tune will be with me until my birth certificate runs out.

That concludes my experiences of Britain in the Forties, as it was to be 1950 before fate, in the form of a terminal illness for my father, decreed that we return to Britain…..

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