Journey Through World War II

By David, 84. Hackney, SA

I was born in Guernsey, in the Channel Islands, not far from the French coast. In 1939, dad accepted a call to a church in Ilford, a suburb of London, because he believed the Germans would invade the Channel Islands once the war started. He was right. The German occupation of the Channel Islands lasted for most of World War II, from 30 June 1940 until liberation on 9 May 1945.

We moved to Ilford, where I started school just after the War began.

Me and my parents. Ilford, 1941.

The following letter from dad to his family in Brighton provides a graphic account of life in Ilford during the early part of the War — this was before the Blitz had started!

My Dear All,

Just a line to say we are all safe. Praise God, what a night! Hell let loose, worse we’ve ever had, started before 9pm fires breaking out all around, glow in the sky from the City, flares dropping from the sky, fire engines dashing about, etc, well about 11 we thought we’d go to bed, we were so tired, terrific gunfire kept us awake the night before, after 12 midnight it seemed to get worse, we’ve never heard the guns so loud, well it gave me a headache in bed, the noise, well about 1 o’clock (of course bombs had been dropping, shaking the house every time), there was a sudden red glare (we always keep one of the folding doors open for fresh air, also so I can hear should the whistles blow) I said to Edith “duck your head”, that was under the pillow, Look out, then a — well words cannot describe it — seemed to almost blow the house over, I knew it was a mine when I saw the glow, they are devilish things, oh it’s an awful feeling, well there were 8 of them fell in Ilford, one by the Station just the other side blew out all the shop windows in the High Rd and all around here, Post Office, etc…

The Blitz started on 7 September 1940 and continued for 56 of the following 57 days and nights. Our daily routine would be school for me in the morning, come home around 2pm then we would all go down to the Anderson shelter for the rest of the day and night. We would stay there until the ‘all-clear’ sirens sounded in the morning.

This photo shows a typical shelter, which would not work with a direct hit from a bomb or mine but would shield us from any flying debris from bombs in the neighbourhood. I can still smell the damp cement that was the predominant smell in the shelter and today’s fire sirens still create a moment of anxiety for me as they are the same as the air-raid sirens used in London.

One time, when we heard what sounded like machine gun fire, mum and dad thought it was the invasion. Turned out to be light bulbs popping at Phillips factory after it was bombed with incendiary bombs. Only time I can remember being scared.

The government had initially tried to keep people from using London Tube stations as shelters during the nighttime bombings, but it was quickly forced to relent. Some families showed up at stations regularly, others only during times of heavy bombing. Between 100,000 and 150,000 people might be found in the stations on any given night.

One night, dad came back from serving communion in the air raid shelters very excited. King George VI and Queen Elizabeth had turned up and quietly sat with the crowd. He spoke to them and they asked him not to say anything so very few knew they were there. This was typical of the way they identified with the people of London during the War.

Perhaps one other time I was scared was when the buzz bombs came over and everyone held their breath waiting for their engines to stop — that was when they would drop! When we were eventually evacuated, our house was the only one left standing in the street — we were very near the docks which were a constant target for the German bombers.

We were evacuated to Barry Island, South Wales, when the V2 flying bombs started in London. They were far more dangerous than the buzz bombs because they were silent, very fast, and very deadly. In Barry most days, the sky was filled with puffs of white smoke from the ack-ack guns firing on the German bombers as they bombed the Cardiff docks. As a child I found it a fascinating sight. I had no appreciation of the havoc being created by it all.

When I was 11, we moved from South Wales to Romsey, not far from Southampton in Hampshire. It was there that I had my last experience that was linked to the War.

There was a German prisoner-of-war camp in Romsey and the prisoners were allowed out on Sundays to walk the streets. We would go out and invite them to a meal at church followed by a service for them during which they would sing several hymns in German — they formed a choir and were great singers. At Christmas time they said “thank-you” for these efforts by putting on a party for the church kids. We weren’t allowed into the hall until a certain time and when they opened the doors the only light was from the candles on the Christmas tree and the German choir sang Stille Nacht (Silent Night) as we came in — I remember standing there crying like a baby. They had made hand-crafted presents for all the kids — mine was a beautifully carved wooden butterfly (about twelve inches square) with the wings done like latticework. Several of the prisoners kept in touch with us after they eventually returned to Germany.

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1 year ago

Hi David, thank you for a fascinating story of war times in England. It often must have been horrendous for you all, and I never realised that so many people were in the tube stations during air raids. The part about the German POW’s was heartening, as they were offered hospitality at the church and then gave back to the community with a party for the kids. Years ago, I watched a BBC TV series called ‘Forgive our Foolish Ways’, in which a German officer befriended a woman and her son and he made some wooden toys for the young boy. The woman however, was ostracised by other villagers because of her friendship with the German officer. Don’t know if you ever saw it?