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A 1940s Childhood
From Bomb Sites to Children's Hour
By James Marsh
The History PressCopyright © 2014 James Marsh
All rights reserved.
A Decade of Challenge
September 1940. You should be tucked up warm and snug in your bed. Mum will start shouting for you to get up soon because it's a school day. But there's more than one mum shouting this morning. You're not in your own bed, or even your own home. This is the platform of Piccadilly Circus Underground station, where you were rushed last night because of the air raid that took place before bedtime. We've had to put up with this sort of thing ever since our Prime Minister, Mr Chamberlain, told the whole country we were at war with Germany. Boys and girls everywhere will remember the broadcast, sitting around the wireless on that Sunday morning:
It soon became apparent that the Underground was the safest place for London people to shelter from the constant bombing of the capital. (London Transport Museum)
This morning the British Ambassador in Berlin handed the German Government a final Note stating that, unless we heard from them by 11 o'clock that they were prepared at once to withdraw their troops from Poland, a state of war would exist between us. I have to tell you now that no such undertaking has been received, and that consequently this country is at war with Germany.
Children received this news with a mixture of excitement and fear. The world we knew, both school and home life, would change beyond all recognition. Some were already being sent to safer places to get away from the bombing. Towns and cities around our country were supplying gas masks and strangely named things like Anderson shelters. First of all I helped dad. Then he went away, to fight, according to mum, so I helped granddad dig a blooming great hole in the back garden for these to be put up. And for what? Well, ever since that man your mum calls Adolf Hitler started having his aeroplanes drop bombs on us, we need somewhere to get safely away and hopefully stay alive. Here in London most of us rush down to the Underground and spend the night there. It's okay really because there's a lot of fun to be had as you race your mates along the platforms making plane noises. But the grown-ups don't like it and tell us to pipe down all the time. Where's their sense of adventure?
Children everywhere are coping well, even the ones who emerge from wherever they are sheltering (Underground stations, Anderson shelters in back gardens, strong brick shelters in roads and parks all over Great Britain) to find their houses reduced to rubble. It's not only family possessions that are gone, but all of your toys as well. Imagine your horror at finding not only toy soldiers crushed and melted, but your precious toy cars as well. Some had models of Spitfires and even some of Great Britain's amazing battleships, the mighty Hood, the Prince of Wales and the Rodney taking pride of place in most collections. The German Navy had better watch out when those ships start fighting with them. In later months news starts to come in from all over the country of towns and cities that have been bombed. That man Adolf Hitler claims he and his armies are soon going to invade England; the cheeky blighter says he is going to take over Buckingham Palace. No fear, he certainly won't ever get anywhere near there. Our troops will stop him, you'll see.
Coming up from the Underground into the daylight, it's embarrassing to have to hold your mum's hand. After all you're nearly grown up now and can certainly look after yourself. This war, that we were told would be over by Christmas, is getting far more serious, so mum holds on to you as you made your way home. The question is, will your home still be there? If not, then the civil defence blokes will tell us to go down the church hall, where bombed-out families are being given tea, blankets and stuff like that. Arrangements will then be made for re-homing. This usually means moving in with relatives.
News coming in on the wireless is making the grown-ups very angry and upset. Towns and cities have been badly damaged again by the Germans. Coventry is the one most of them are talking about. It was hit by such a big air raid on the night of 14 November 1940 that the whole place was reduced almost to rubble. Children can't even imagine what this must have been like, because they haven't the understanding their parents have. After all, their own city or town was also hit and a lot of houses have been bombed. There are ruins all over the place, and in some areas German bomber planes were shot down by our men. What a lot of fun can be had with these, if you can get anywhere near one. Souvenirs from a shot-down German plane are priceless. What if you could handle one of the machine guns, or even get a piece of one? Just a tiny bit with German writing on would make you king in your playground when you showed it around. But first you need to get near, and that was something us children very rarely get the chance to do because the wreckage is guarded so closely by those civil defence blokes, the local police and the army. But shrapnel, found lying all over the place in the days after an air raid, quickly finds its way into short trouser pockets of boys as they make their way to school, carrying their gas masks in cardboard boxes slung over their shoulders. Sometimes you can find bullets as well, which have come either from German planes or our own guns that are shooting back. Though it's great in the morning doing this on the way to school, those who stay in their own homes and hide under the stairs during a night-time air raid just cower in fear as they hear the bombs falling.
It is during the Battle of Britain that the new Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, who took over from Mr Chamberlain on the 10 May 1940, says of our air force pilots: 'Never in the field of human conflict has so much been owed by so many to so few.' This was to become such a famous phrase that our pilots would be known as 'the few' from then on. Spitfires and Hurricanes are fast and adaptable, so are able to account for many German aircraft in the skies above Great Britain. They are called upon so many times to scramble and take to the air as more and more German raiders approach, wanting to destroy our Royal Air Force on the ground and in so doing take control of the skies above us. Then the German troops would be able to make their way across the English Channel and occupy our wonderful country.
Pooh, they'll never get a chance to do that, will they? Haven't our schoolteachers told us so many times that British is best? Our soldiers, sailors and airmen will soon put a stop to their little game – at least that's what your mum keeps telling you as well. Children all over England have to practice putting on the gas masks that were issued in case the Germans started to use the mustard gas they used against our troops in the First World War (1914–18).
What a farce this is. The boys did it fine, but the girls have all sorts of trouble pulling them over the carefully made up hair that their mothers seem to spend so much time brushing and styling for them. All the boys have to do is put a comb through theirs every morning before starting off for school. Not for them the shoulder-length, carefully brushed hairstyles, just a very simple short back and sides. That's if you're lucky enough to be taken to the barber's, to sit on a plank put across the chair so you're high enough for him to cut your hair properly. The alternative is having your mum or granddad doing it, and if this happens you end up with a basin cut. A pudding basin is plonked on your head and any hair showing beneath is cut off as neatly as possible. At any other time, boys who went to school with this cut would be ridiculed unmercifully by their schoolmates. But this decade is so different from any other, as the war rages on and more and more houses and business premises are wrecked by German bombs. There is much more to take up the interest of children, so something as trivial as a basin haircut quickly passed down the ladder of things to wonder and laugh at.
At home and school, children have to practise getting into air-raid shelters as soon as the sirens sound. Leaving everything you were doing at once, it is single file and walk as quickly as you can to get to the relative safety. At home, in towns and cities outside of London, it is to the bottom of the garden or the big shelters outside in the roads. But at school this usually means going underground into the cellars where the school equipment is stored. Everywhere, too, kids help their mums and teachers stick brown tape crosswise over the glass of all the windows. This is to prevent bomb blast injury; any shattering glass will be caught up in the sticky tape instead of flying all over the place.
Some boys, who were getting used to these raids, start counting as the bombs impact on the ground. They know these are dropped in sticks of eight at a time. So if eight explosions sound, then that lot of bombs has at least missed the spot where you are sheltering.
Families have to bring everything of utmost importance with them to the shelters, and high on this list are ration books. Issued in 1939, every family has to have these in order to buy anything needed for their own use. Food, clothing, and household requirements are only available when accompanied by coupons taken from these books. There are different colours for different things: grey for food, red for clothing etc. It is necessary to do things in this way because Great Britain is already very short of everything its citizens need on a daily basis. Our ships are being unmercifully torpedoed and sunk by German submarines (U-boats). Other merchant ships are quickly being commandeered to help in this situation, which means things like bananas disappearing from our shops because they are non-essential. That man Hitler – he thinks that if he sinks all of our merchant ships Britain will starve and have to make peace with him as a result. He doesn't know us at all. We can take anything he dishes out. Sitting down to breakfast before going to school with bread and dripping to eat isn't so bad, but the powdered milk and eggs your mum is now buying – urgh!
'Eat it up, it's just as good as the milk and eggs we had before the war, it's just powdered to make it go further,' is what your mum tells you. None of the children agree with that. How can anything be made to taste so awful?
Some boys and girls, well a lot actually, are sent to safer places to get away from the bombing. They are lucky in many ways – not having to eat this powdered stuff, for a start. But they do have to suffer separation from homes and families. They turn up at the railway stations in all the big towns and cities with gas masks and labels pinned to their coats with their names on. What is that like? Saying goodbye to your mum, and probably your gran as well, then watching them disappear as the train pulls out of the station. Where is it going? What will happen to you now? For them, though, in many cases it is to a life free from the fear of bombs and with more food available, the lucky ones ending up on farms with the joy of seeing animals and going to small country schools. There, many of them do things city kids never even thought about: country dancing, fishing and swimming in idyllic country rivers and streams.
Dunkirk really showed that Hitler bloke what our men are made of. His army trapped our forces on the beaches of a French place with an unusual name, Dunkirk. Well we wouldn't let him do that for long would we? Wasn't our new prime minister, Mr Churchill, telling us, 'we will fight them on the beaches'? Well that's exactly what we are doing, even if it is in a foreign country. Mums and grannies have their own ideas about this: 'You can fight on the beaches if you want to mate, but you won't catch us doing that.'
Then, what news! It's all round the playground at school. On 26–27 May 1940 the great evacuation of British and French troops begins. Hooray! The British Navy, our air force, then a whole load of small boats go over there and bring our men home, along with some French ones. It won't take our troops long to get back into the fight – then you had better look out, Mr Hitler!
With bombing a regular occurrence, boys are soon taking advantage of new playgrounds. Here is the chance to have your very own headquarters in what was once someone's home. Furniture that was more or less still intact can be used, and camps and secret hideouts are springing up all over the country. The families who lived here before they were bombed don't think it is so great but what joy it is for us. They can become a cowboy sheriff's office or anything you want it to be. Adventure all the way. Girls come in sometimes, though. How do they do that? Boys don't do the same things as them, like skipping or playing with dolls. They takeover and want to play houses, and mothers and fathers. They tidy up and stuff like that.
Although things like Bonfire Night and sporting activities have been cancelled, children who live in villages outside of some of the major towns and cities can still enjoy the wonder of fireworks. The Germans don't drop bombs on these places, which is why so many have been evacuated to them. But looking out through holes in the blackout curtains at night, as long as there isn't a light on in the room, it's possible to see searchlights probing the skies and bombs going off when they land. This is so thrilling that it's like having Bonfire Night every night of the week.
In early 1940, parts of the London are bombed and set on fire. There are stories of boys and girls thrilling to the sight of the horizon lit up in red every night as the fires raged. It is just like firework night for them and they enjoy a cup of cocoa as they watch this spectacle. But as the bombing moves ever closer to where they are living the nightly display is no longer something to wonder at; the danger becomes all too clear. So no more watching the flames leaping skywards and, alas, no more cocoa either.
Boys mainly still have the job of collecting old newspaper and such. Well we are all experts at this, but instead of it being once a year starting in September for the 'bommie' it is now an all-year-round thing. This waste paper, along with anything metal, old saucepans, small tin baths and anything else us eager beavers can get our hands on, is horded until there's enough to be collected for the war effort. If there's enough, the ones who have collected the most are rewarded with chocolate. Keeping girls away from this activity and the rewards it can bring is not easy to do. They argue that they're just as good at this as boys, and who can really argue with that? Even mums tell us the girls should be involved because this war affects us all. Well, what can you say to that? Most boys still think girls should be playing with their dolls or helping their mums in the house. They do this all the time and help with the shopping as well. After all, that's what girls are supposed to do, they are told. Not be out in the roads picking up things like shrapnel, cigarette packets and matchboxes. Things found on the ground are dirty, so let the boys do that. Girls must stay clean and help their mums as much as they can.
And what about sport? Wolverhampton Wanderers get to the Cup Final at Wembley in 1939 and play against Portsmouth. This southern team has done well to get to the final, but surely they have no chance against Wolves who, along with the national side, are captained by the great Stan Cullis. The result is a shock to the whole country. Portsmouth 4, Wolves 1. That's not what anyone expected. Portsmouth's goals were scored by Bert Barlow, John Anderson and two by Cliff Parker. Wolves' goal came from Dicky Dorsett. After that the flipping war starts, and football, along with all other sports, is discontinued. The team that sprung such a surprise on the best in the country and won the FA Cup is holding on to it, and will do so until the war is over.
The Hood and the Bismarck
Then comes news that our most famous battleship, the mighty Hood, has been blown up and sunk by a German battleship, the Bismarck, on 24 May 1941. What could possibly have gone wrong here? The Hood was indestructible. No ship afloat could possibly stand up to her. Your mum is telling you that the German ship just got lucky and caught her unawares. That must be true. The Prince of Wales was a brand new ship with workmen still aboard her, so once the Hood was sunk she couldn't fight that German ship on her own, could she? Especially since the Bismarck had another ship backing her up. It had a funny name, the Prinz Eugen – we can't even pronounce it (the prinz eeyoogen). Whoever thought up a name like that? But the Bismarck herself is sunk only a few days later on 27 May, when one of our swordfish planes hits her rudder with a torpedo. She can't steer, so our mighty Atlantic fleet catches up with her and blows her out of the water. Well, that's what they say on the wireless, anyway.
Excerpted from A 1940s Childhood by James Marsh. Copyright © 2014 James Marsh. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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Table of Contents
One A Decade of Challenge,
Two Home Life,
Three Streets: Playing On and Bomb Damage,
Four Games, Hobbies and Pastimes,
Five Entertainment, Radio, Music and Clothes,
Six Food, Drink and Sweets,
Seven School Life,
Eight School Holidays,
Ten Memorable 1940s Events,
Eleven Whatever Happened To?,