(With apologies to Spike Milligan.)
I was born at a very early age, in St. Mary’s Hospital, Paddington on Winston Churchill’s 60th. birthday. Now it appears it is a favourite venue for Royals to be born. My parents were living in Seaview, Isle of Wight at the time and my mother probably pulled a few strings with some of her friends to give birth there.
So I was nearly five years old when war was declared and obviously did not know what that entailed until six anti-aircraft guns were deployed not far from our back fence. We were right on the coast and had a panoramic view of the Solent right across to Portsmouth and Southsea from an upstairs window. What we did not know at the time was that we were in a direct line between Ventnor which had a CH Radar and Portsmouth an important naval base. We often found complete incendiary bombs in the garden which we used to collect up in the morning after a raid. The filings of the case were ideal for making sparklers as it was magnesium. We did not have an air raid shelter as such but a reinforced room within the house and used to shelter in there underneath a large strong table.
Father was in the Home Guard and was the sergeant of the local platoon. He had been wounded in WW1 so was not eligible for call-up. My brother was an RAF apprentice and my sister was a Land Girl. One day Father arrived home with a Lewis gun, covered in grease and it had probably been in storage since WW1. He had been told to strip it down, clean off the grease and re-assemble it in readiness in case it was needed. My brother was home on leave at the time and helped him with the task, I was told to keep well away but I could watch if I wanted to. Just as well I did watch as neither of them could re-assemble it so I did it for them.
Later on things were starting to get a bit more difficult, the Channel Islands had been occupied and they thought we would be next. Our local sweetshop closed and the owner who was Jewish thought it wise to leave the island. I was put down to be evacuated to Canada but fortunately the ship was full and I would have to wait for the next crossing. I say ’fortunately’ because the ship, the SS City of Benares got sunk by a U-Boat just off the coast of Ireland with great loss of life. Food was getting difficult to obtain despite rationing as it had to be shipped across the Solent. Meat in particular was in very short supply so it was decided that we would breed rabbits primarily for their meat but we also had fur as a bi-product. Another thing we were advised to do was to assemble various tinned foods, to place them in large biscuit tins and bury them in the garden as an emergency supply in case we did get occupied. I often wonder how many tins are still buried in gardens.
We were fairly lucky as we had a large garden so vegetables and fruit were in plentiful supply. Also being right on the coast fish were available with a little bit of luck. If there had been an air raid during the night and bombs had been jettisoned in the Solent then if the tide was right we could collect ‘bombed fish’ on the beach. A bit burnt but mostly edible.
The view from the upstairs window was one of my favourite spots if there was any action but I was often reprimanded for watching dogfights in case any stray bullets came our way. The shipping was also quite spectacular and safer to watch but the Dunkirk evacuation went by almost unnoticed as we did not know what was going on until it was virtually over. The Navy took over Seaview pier and I suspect something top secret went on there probably with small boats. We befriended one of the Petty Officers from there and naturally did not ask but we were not even allowed to know his name. We always had to call him PO. Someone had the bright idea of getting all the kids to collect waste paper during the summer school holiday with a prize for the one who collected the most and a party with the prizes given out. I collected the most as it happened and was awarded First Prize, a box of pencils. I was a bit miffed about this actually because I thought I should get third prize. No one had explained to me that First Prize was better than Third Prize.
When I was about 8 there was a bit of a lull in the fighting around us and for some reason we moved to Berkshire where we hardly knew there was a war on. We lived in Sunninghill in a house virtually opposite the entrance to Windsor Park and not far from the end of Ascot racecourse. It was obviously after the Americans had joined in the war as one time we were queuing in the local fish and chip shop, and I always remembered an American serviceman in front of us ordering 36 portions of fish and chips. So another late supper for us.
I think we only stayed there for just under a year and then moved to Surrey. I was a bit older then and more independent so I got more involved in what was going on. We moved to a farm labourer’s cottage in Abinger Hammer directly on to what is now known as the A25. There was the railway line behind us which went from Redhill to Reading, known as the ‘Reading Rattler’ and we had a narrow lane alongside us known as Beggars Lane which led up to the North Downs past a sand pit and on to two chalk pits. The chalk pits were used by the army most days for rifle practice and for grenade throwing and after school we used to go up to see what souvenirs we could find such as spent cartridge cases and pieces of hand grenade. One lad took home a complete sticky bomb that he had found but I don’t think his dad was well pleased with that as it was probably still live. The other side of the A25 we faced a large area of watercress beds which were fed with water from the river Tillingbourne. It was not very deep and could be waded across in most places but that was not good enough for us as we wanted to swim. So several of us boys used to build a dam across the river until it was just about deep enough. We were enjoying ourselves there one summer afternoon when we could hear a lot of gunfire and thought it a little strange as we could also hear bullets whistling overhead. On investigation we discovered that an ammunition train had caught fire and was stationary just outside Gomshall station and bullets were flying everywhere. We managed to get home OK by keeping low and crawling along in the watercress beds sheltering from the bullets behind the banks of the cress beds.
Things were building up to D-Day by then and convoys of troops and armour were continuously passing on their way towards Portsmouth along the narrow A25 in the front of our cottage. It was also very narrow through Shere where I went to school . We had to cross this busy road at lunchtime to go to the village hall for our school dinner and it was there that I witnessed a young lad get knocked over by an armoured car in his haste to get across the road.
In the days just before D-Day a lot of military vehicles parked up along the road side hidden from above by the overhanging trees so we knew something big was going on. We heard the news of the invasion on the early morning BBC news and I remember it was lovely sunny morning with barely a breath of wind just like it was this year. Not long after D=Day we started to receive the V1 Doodlebugs which were so unpredictable as they appeared in all sorts of odd places. One arrived fairly close by just skimming over the hedge tops, one landed in Abinger Common Churchyard and one arrived just as us kids were sitting down to our school dinner. Later on the V2’s were being launched but none came near us thank goodness. One Saturday morning when we were playing in the sand pit we heard a strange whooshing sound which grew louder followed by a bang. We had no idea what that could be so rushed home to discover we were OK but the neighbouring cottage had been hit by something which did not explode. The old lady who lived there had been killed and we were totally mystified as to what it was until we learnt later that it was a reserve fuel tank from a Mosquito that had been jettisoned in error.
We naturally followed the progress of the war on the BBC news and were overjoyed when VE day was announced. We didn’t live in a street as such so did not hold a street party but were invited across the road to a bunch of houses where the watercress workers lived and shared in their party. About this time I took the school exam which was the pre-cursor to the 11 plus and passed to go to the Grammar School in Guildford.
We heard the news of the nukes being dropped in Japan on our trusty old Phillips wireless set and looked forward to peace being declared there. We were back in Seaview on holiday when Victory in Japan was announced and joined in the celebrations there. I managed to get my leg burned by a Thunderflash that exploded too close to me but that was all. Eventually the prisoners that the Japanese held were released and shipped back to UK. I remember that our neighbour’s son came back minus his tongue which the Japs had removed.
Very soon after that we moved to Holland-on-Sea so I never went to Guildford Grammar school and the Clacton County High was full so I had to go to the local Secondary School for two years and then take the exam that got me into Colchester Tech. But that is another story.