V BOMB MEMORIES
I have just read John Harris’ novel, V2, and was surprised how very vivid were the memories it evoked and also that some were still disturbing. Whilst checking dates I found your website and realised that I should record what I could of those extraordinary months.
Born August 1931 in Gravesend, I witnessed the Battle of Britain in the lovely summer skies over Kent and heard the bombers fly overhead night after night, in the safety of our Anderson shelter. You could clearly see the glow of the fires in London, 23 miles to the west. Vivid memories: the raid on Tilbury docks and destruction of Tilbury Hotel that burned so fiercely you could read a book approximately 3 miles away. Also, the magical sight on a clear moonlight night of the vast silvery balloon barrage stretching all the way to London.
Living through all this most schoolboys were self-styled warplane experts and keenly interested in all developments, especially the V1 flying bomb (doodlebug to us) when it appeared in 1944. Being under the flight path we were all too conscious of their very noisy passage (and even more aware when the engine stopped!) I was a pupil at the grammar school where my form mates recorded every doodlebug’s passage by drawing a little icon in the margins of the text books in use at the time. It was a matter of honour not to cheat. My record was 32 overhead one Saturday afternoon. Inevitably, we began to compete to see who could be closest when one landed. Open country was considered best, giving clear views. If we heard an engine cut out we would give chase on our bicycles. The nearest I got was to feel a strong blast from a potato field to the southwest of Woodlands Park. When the dust cleared all the vegetation had vanished leaving a smooth, finely raked surface, and a shallow depression. I failed to find even a small piece of potato leaf.
On a rail journey from Gravesend to an aunt in Streatham in the latter part of 1944 the damage of the V bombs was visible nearly all the time.
V2 ROCKET – NUMBER 181 16:39 PM 13TH NOVEMBER 1944 PORTLAND AVENUE, GRAVESEND A MINOR MIRACLE?
My best friend, Barry Peerless, and I were cycling home and chatting as we turned from Sun Lane into Portland Avenue to be engulfed, without sound or other warning, in a violent purple flash. We found ourselves, unharmed, sitting in the road with our bikes some way off. Whilst gathering our wits a piece of metal landed by me and was promptly dropped when I burned my fingers. The dust of ages was slowly clearing, filthy black stuff. We later deduced that it was straw-dust from the old Co-Op stables near the Echo roundabout. The clearing air revealed across the avenue the flattened remains of two houses.
I think we were still dazed. I found myself standing by one of the houses wondering why they had kept a full-sized sawdust stuffed doll. Just as it was dawning on me that it was the remains of the lady who had lived there. Mr Olde the nice grocer, whose shop was nearby in Sun Lane, arrived and gathered the pair of us up saying “I think you’d be best off home lads”
Normally, there would have been a lot of schoolchildren on their way home in this area, but for an unusual combination of circumstances.
I cannot trust my memory for some of the names or reasons in the following paragraph but I am certain that Barry and I were the only people outside in Portland Avenue at the time of impact.
Two secondary schools to the south of town, White Hill and Singlewell?, were having a joint drama production. The girls’ grammar were making a visit to London whilst my school were all detained for some terrible, unspecified crime. As Barry and I had not been in school the previous day we were excused. The convent school were also not passing, for some reason unknown. I am convinced that this saved a lot of lives.
I lived two streets away, in Lingfield Road, and on my way noticed the typical zig zag blast pattern, one house denuded of all glazing and tiles, the next untouched and so on.
I arrived home looking for sympathy to be met by a very upset mother who had just had one hell of a day. Earlier that morning, after doing the weekly laundry with the wartime meagre supplies of hot water and soap, she was mortified to find that her washing line had broken landing all her washing in a muddy garden nearby. With rationing, this was nothing short of tragic, but she gathered it all up again, re-washed it and hung it out again whereupon it started to rain. She had no option but to take it all in and attempt to dry it on a clothes horse. To help she lit a meagre fire using strictly rationed wartime coal (nutty slack?). This had all taken quite a while. Telling our dog ‘Mack’ that they deserved a rest she set a tea tray by the fire and sat down, just as the blast shot all the soot and fire out over the washing. ‘Mack’ leapt up in alarm, knocking the tea tray flying – chaos !
Such is war, farce in the midst of tragedy. Clearly she had no time for me just then, so I went upstairs and found myself being violently sick. I realised afterwards, that my Mum was also suffering from shock and it took her some time to come to terms with what had happened.
We boys were only some 30 feet away from the crater – how did we survive unharmed?