War was declared in 1939, and although many children were sent to the country (evacuated) immediately – mainly those living in the East End of London - I continued to live with my parents and sister in Hampstead, London. I went to primary school there until, in 1943 at age 10, I took what would be the equivalent of the 11+ examinations today. This resulted in me being awarded a scholarship to Westminster City School, which as the name would suggest, was in the heart of London.
At this time, things were getting a bit tense in London, and we were being hit regularly by the German bombs, V1 Buzz-Bombs and later, the V2 Rockets.
My War Injury. Every night, my Mum and I would sleep on camp beds in the cupboard under the stairs. We had basic tea-making stuff and biscuits so we could survive if the house got hit. One night, a V2 rocket-bomb hit the library, quite close to our house, and demolished it. The explosion rocked our house, rather like a moderate earthquake would feel, I suppose. This caused a quart bottle * of milk to fall off the shelf where the tea-making stuff was kept and it hit me on the head, causing much pain and a minor cut! I never did get any compensation from the War Injuries Commission either!
* Quart bottle: Large thick glass bottle holding 2 pints of milk –(approximately one and a quarter litres), and very heavy, particularly if it lands on head!
Because of the bombing in London (the Blitz), my new school had already moved out of London to Exmouth, South Devon, and so it was that I was to become an……….
My Mum was given a list of what I needed to take with me HERE. We packed all my stuff into an old cardboard suitcase and made sure that I had my Identity Card, my Ration Book, my Clothing Coupons, my Gas Mask and some writing paper and envelopes.
Identity Card: Everybody carried one during the war years.
Clothing Coupons: As the name would suggest, these were required to purchase any clothing, bedding, towels, handkerchiefs or virtually anything made of cotton or wool (no synthetics around in those days!).
Gas Mask: The British government believed that some form of poison gas would be used on the civilian population during the Second World War. It was therefore decided to issue a gas mask to everyone living in Britain. By 1940 the government had issued 38 million gas masks.
Adult gas masks were black whereas children had 'Mickey Mouse' masks with red rubber pieces and bright eyepiece rims. There were also gas helmets for babies into which mothers would have to pump air with a bellows. Air Raid Wardens wore gas masks with a long hose and a speaking box, which was attached to his belt. The tin canister at the end of the mask contained charcoal, which soaked up poisons such as mustard gas.
The government recruited qualified chemists and formed them into local Gas Identification Squads. To help them in their work the tops of Post Office pillar-boxes were given a coating of gas detector paint. The government also published leaflets that helped the public to identify the various types of poisons that might be dropped by the Luftwaffe.
The government threatened to punish people not carrying gas masks. However, a study at the beginning of the war suggested that only about 75 per cent of people in London were obeying this rule. By the beginning of 1940 almost no one bothered to carry his or her gasmask with them. The government now announced that Air Raid Wardens would be carrying out monthly inspections of gas masks. If a person was found to have lost the gas mask they were forced to pay for its replacement.
That’s mine in the cardboard box in the picture above.
The Baby’s GasMask.
Anyway, I digress - Having checked we had packed everything, a brown parcel label was filled out with my name and the railway station I was going to (Exmouth) and tied to the lapel of my jacket.
My Mum then took me on the bus to Paddington Station, where I was put on the train with other children also being sent to the country. I cried a lot……..
The train arrived at Exeter, where we had to get off to catch another train to Exmouth. It was all very confusing for a 10-year old who had never been away from home before, apart from Cub’s Camp! However, most people were very friendly and helpful and we eventually arrived, very tired, hungry, thirsty, confused, missing my Mum, fed up, seriously hating Hitler for doing this to me, at Exmouth station.
There we were met by some of the teachers from our new school, who ticked off our names from a big clipboard, and we then set off to our new “homes” for the “duration” (of the war).
I was “billeted” with a couple (whose name I have long forgotten), but I could not settle down – in the house there were strong feelings of resentment because they had been forced to take in this “poor unfortunate boy from London”, which they didn’t really want to do. I’m sure there were many thousands of good people who took in “evacuees” willingly” and made them feel very much at home, but this couple wasn’t one of them.
I was very unhappy, very homesick for my Mum and cried a lot….
After a while, I was moved to another family's house, but things didn’t get much better and I became even more depressed.
However, the school itself was housed in a huge mansion called “Hele” and some of the rooms had been converted to dormitories. I was moved into one of these, and from then on things just got better. I suppose it was just like going to boarding school. I loved it, and I didn’t cry any more.
I also fell hopelessly in love with the Headmaster’s daughter (she was about 21 at the time!), who, because I was still quite depressed from my experiences with being “billeted”, took me off to the pictures (cinema) one afternoon - just her and me – Wow, I was in heaven!
She eventually broke my heart by marrying the woodwork teacher…
We stayed on at "Hele" in Exmouth until the war ended in 1945 when the school moved back to it’s original buildings in London, and I went back to living at home with my parents.
However, after my experiences, I never really settled down and later, at the age of 15, I ran away from home and spent some time working my way through France to the port of Marseilles, in the hope of getting a ship to Australia. When I was eventually caught by the authorities and brought back to England, I decided that enough was enough and in March 1949, I took the King's shilling and joined the Royal Navy.
But that’s another story!