Chris Bryant Says
Subject: V2: Incident Number 1076 03:35 – Thursday 22 March 1945
This is a slightly edited extract from a memoir I wrote for my grandchildren
CB Canberra, Australia, Nov 4 2018
I was born on August 9 1936. I had a ‘good’ war. None of my family was killed although a favourite uncle was wounded at Monte Cassino. I saw my father, who was in the London Fire Brigade, fairly frequently, and while my mother worked at the Air Ministry, at Bentley Priory, she came home at night; during the day, I was looked after by my grandmother. I always had enough to eat, although the tastes I developed then are still with me and nauseate my Australian friends – I am very fond of offal and I prefer evaporated milk to cream on my (preferably) tinned fruit.
We lived at 64 Weston Drive, on the main road, in a semi detached house. At 66 lived the Hollebon family and, on the other side, across a shared driveway at 62, the Herzigs. Next to them, at 60, were the Kingsnorths. They were on the corner of the main road, Weston Drive, and Uppingham Avenue. It was on the other side of the Avenue that the V2 fell.
I remember the first air raid siren of the war. I was only three. It was a bright sunny day and I was being ‘topped and tailed’ in the bathroom sink when a dreadful caterwauling broke out. I remember being afraid, not because the noise itself was frightening – now, when a siren sounds and my stomach sinks, I believe that is a product of later experiences in the war – but because my mother and my grandmother were so clearly afraid. There was an aimless rushing to and fro, and I was scooped up, all soapy, wrapped in a towel and taken to stand under the frame of the front door. My mother had read that door frames were often left standing after houses had been bombed. Apparently, there was no account of what happened to the people who were standing there at the time, so she subsequently changed her allegiance to the cupboard-under-the-stairs. Staircases, she had heard, were also remarkably resilient to bombing.
Sometime after this, we got our government issue air-raid shelter. It was a Morrison shelter, essentially a large table whose top consisted of a steel plate, with legs, L-shaped in cross section, made from steel girders. The sides were heavy duty steel mesh, which you could attach and detach from the inside. They were supposed to stop rubble from pouring in on top of you and yet still give you a chance to dig yourself out. I quite liked our shelter, which gave me a big surface to lay out my train set, and it was far superior to Anderson shelters. These could be found lurking at the bottoms of some of the neighbours’ gardens. They were built of corrugated steel and packed earth. They were partly sunk into the ground and I never saw one that hadn’t filled up with water.
I suppose every family developed its own shelter procedures. In ours, everything centred round our ‘sporrans’, as my grandmother called them. These were bags made out of old curtains, fitted with draw strings and attached to old dressing gown cords, so that they could be worn round the waist. Into our sporrans went everything small and valuable, to be preserved in the event of a bomb. Photographs, jewellery (not much of this), identity cards, birth certificates, marriage lines and so forth and, most important, a small electric torch. They were all kept in these bags and tied on to us when we went to bed. In those days just my grandmother and I slept regularly in the shelter. There was room for my father and mother as well during air-raids.
I was sent away to Scotland, with my mother, twice during the worst parts of the war. The first visit to Scotland coincided with the Blitz, the second with the furious peak of the V1s, (buzz bombs) and the V2s, (rockets). I remember seeing buzz bombs from our house as they flew over St Anselm’s Church on their way north. By the time one got to us, it was very nearly spent so I was familiar with the drone of the engine cutting out as it went into its final glide. There was a ritual that everyone observed when the engine cut out. They stopped everything they were doing and waited for the explosion. When it came, they gave a mental shrug – “some poor soul’s copped it”- and went on with what they had been doing. I never associated buzz bombs with death and destruction – they were just part of my environment. I was told that they were responsible for the gaps in rows of houses but there were so many other gaps due to conventional bombs that it didn’t seem important.
V2s were different. There was no warning before their arrival, which gave an added, frightening dimension to their randomness. For much of the bad time, my mother and I were in Scotland again and when my father judged that the danger was pretty well past, we returned to 64 Weston Drive. On the 22 March 1945 – I find the date odd, because my recollection is of a warm, sunny day that does not fit well with my notions of March – our own, personal V2 fell. I was not yet nine years old.
My grandmother and I were sleeping in the shelter downstairs and my mother was sleeping upstairs with my father, who was on a rare leave from the fire service. (In parenthesis, it always puzzled me that when father came home my parents slept upstairs, as my mother was a great enthusiast for the shelter when he wasn’t there. The penny dropped about ten years later.) Another Penny, the dog, was in the kitchen. Suddenly, I awoke. I have no memory of any noise, or of blast, or of explosion. I just woke up and fumbled for the torch but my grandmother had found hers first and switched it on. In the light I could see that she was covered with soot. This was a distinctly odd occurrence and then I discovered that I was covered in soot, too. I found this rather funny but my grandmother told me to be quiet and listen. There was a noise upstairs, and then footsteps, crunching on glass, as someone gingerly made their way downstairs.
It was my father, who had come to see if we were hurt. We reassured him and he cleared some rubble out of the way, removed the side of the shelter and we were able to scramble out. He told us that the roof had gone and that he and my mother had woken up to find that the ceiling was half on their bed and that they were looking up at the stars. In my room, the bed was lacerated with broken glass and a wall had fallen on it. Anyone sleeping there would have been very severely injured; my grandmother would sleep there occasionally, when she had one of her ‘heads’, or was generally sick of the shelter. The other bedroom was relatively untouched.
From the dining room, where the shelter was, we went into the kitchen. Father could smell gas and was anxious to turn the main off. The kitchen was destroyed. The back door had been blown off and the ‘Eziwork’ – a 1930’s version of a Welsh dresser – was flat on its face on the floor, with cutlery spilling out of it and smashed crockery strewn around the whole kitchen. Worse still was a horrid red mess in the corner that my father immediately assumed was the remains of the dog. Closer inspection showed it to be tomato sauce, but there was no sign of Penny and we feared the worst. That was the low point for me and I wept uncontrollably.
The sun rose on a beautiful day and my whole world had changed. I didn’t see it as destruction then – it just seemed to be a part of the normal commerce of life. All the fences between the houses were down and people were wandering everywhere. Our house had got off rather lightly. The roof was missing and there were no windows and there were some cracks in the upper walls, but the walls of the ground floor were standing and one could still move carefully about the house to salvage things. The Herzig’s house, one step nearer the blast, was in a similar but worse condition. The semidetached on the other side, belonging to the Kingsnorths, was in a bad way. The outside wall closest to the blast was completely demolished. Across Uppingham Avenue, six – I think – semidetached houses had vanished and there was a huge crater where they had been. All the occupants had been killed instantly and, later in the day, my father and I came on something torn and bloody in the back garden, which later proved to be the remains of a child with whom I had occasionally played.
As the sun climbed higher my one concern was resolved. The little girls next door came running excitedly in with my dog, whom they had found looking down into the crater. Penny was uninjured, and once that important fact had been established I was able to settle down to enjoy the day.
For an 8-year old secure in the knowledge that his loved ones were unharmed, it was unalloyed enjoyment. All the standard rules of living had been suspended. There was no school for me that day as that was a complication – getting me there and getting me home – that my parents had no time for. They were worried about where we were going to spend the night, and sanitation and what we were going to eat and how we were going to cook it without gas, water or electricity. They left me to my own devices after I promised that I would not stray more than a block away and I quickly solved my own immediate personal survival problems. I discovered that a latrine had been set up for the salvage workers and the need for washing seemed to me to have no immediacy. Then I discovered that the Women’s Voluntary Service had set up a caravan in the street just outside our house and a very kind lady was distributing an unending supply of jam sandwiches and sweet tea, and children’s parcels from America. Mine had a green articulated snake, a large tin ladybird on a string, funny tasting toothpaste (Colgates, but we were a Macleans family), a toothbrush, American comics, chewing gum and a miraculous tin of sweets. A whole half pound. There were other things as well but I don’t remember what they were. There was, of course, much to-ing and fro-ing between the children, comparing notes and swopping.
The day passed in simple childish ways. Local children explored the whole area in little groups, wandering over the blown down fences into neighbours’ gardens, collecting what we fondly imagined were bits of rocket to add to our shrapnel collections but may have been bits of water pipe. I did my share of wandering with the little Herzig girls next door. Hildegard was my age, so Edith, who was eleven, was put in charge. We picnicked on the WVS jam sandwiches and scavenged in the rubble for interesting things. Edith took her supervisory role very seriously and, when we found anything useful, she insisted that we hand it in to the authorities. We found bits that were almost certainly part of the V2; we found toys, household belongings, clothes.
At the end of the day, I was so tired that I would have slept anywhere. In fact, I don’t remember where we slept. I imagine that, after the house was inspected and it was considered safe for us to occupy the downstairs rooms, I was back sleeping in the Anderson shelter. The next day, or the day after, accomodation was found for us in Harrow, in Roxburgh Avenue. We were given one floor in a stately old Victorian house. The Herzigs had gone to Pinner but the Hollebons occupied other floors. One floor was left empty, and it became a playgound for the children.
The house had a large front garden with beautiful tall horsechestnut trees which eventually produced the best conkers I ever had, and an equally large back garden with a small apple orchard at the end. The trees were eminently climbable and the apples were readily accessible. Nothing had been done to the garden for years so we had free access. It became the focus for one of the most idyllic summers of my childhood. We stayed there for the rest of the Spring, all that Summer and much of the Autumn, when we returned to our repaired and renovated home.
I wrote above that I never heard anything when the rocket fell. But some forty years later, in Australia, my father had come to visit. This, of course, awakened many memories. One night I walked in my sleep and fell through a glass partition. But the noise I heard was not of glass breaking in Canberra. It was the breaking of glass in Weston Drive all those years ago. I heard the windows blow out and the crash of glass on the concrete outside, I heard the Eziwork topple and hit the kitchen floor and the china smash, and the solider sounds made by the tiles and bricks as they blew off the roof and hit the road. It seemed to go on forever.
I awoke to find my wife picking bits of glass out of me and it was then that I realised that I must have heard something all those years ago.