Friday, August 22, 2008

Wartime in Feltham, Middlesex

We had been bombed out of our home in St. George’s Buildings, in the Elephant and Castle. So, off to Feltham we went.

This was only till we could get a place of our own somewhere. It was now September 21st 1940, two days before my birthday. I little realized how long I would stay in Feltham.

We boarded a train at Waterloo Station. Feltham could have been the other end of the earth for all I knew and I gazed at all the greenery as we as we flashed by in the train. London was soon left behind. Once we passed Barnes there were only odd rows of houses and both Peter and I marvelled at the miles of grass and trees, Bedlam Park paled into insignificance when compared to open spaces like these.

Feltham was still a village at that time. It had some estates of brand new semi-detached houses with gardens both front and rear. We left the station, passed a few caravans and then crossed a huge field along a little track that ran round an immense lake that I learnt later was a disused gravel pit. There were many gravel pits in Feltham. We stopped at a neat house with a green door, a garden in front and a huge back garden too.

We only stayed there three days. Feltham had a number of nearly new houses, all empty, as well as lots of picturesque old houses. It was easy to find a house we liked. We liked all of them and were spoilt for choice. We soon settled on 107 Hounslow Road, a big family house with a big garden and a field behind it. The field had horses in it! At first we had scarcely any furniture but Dad’s Boss said he could borrow the horse and cart they used to deliver windows with and the driver volunteered to drive it down to our new home on a Sunday. Dad rode all twelve miles from the Elephant up beside the driver with what they could rescue and we had a semblance of a home again.

It was strange at first. I was used to the noise of air raids which, at the time, Feltham had very few of. I was not used to living in a modern house like this. I had been brought up amongst rows of small Victorian terraced houses and large blocks of flats. The Elephant had been a busy place with shops everywhere. The quiet of our new home with no trams (made in Feltham!) going past the door took some getting used to.

The furniture had to be cleaned before being used. It was covered in dirt and brick-dust and the big book bureau that they had somehow managed to get out of our flat had all its glass broken and its back, which had been against the wall, was full of bomb-splinter holes. Dad soon mended the glass, but the back of the bureau had those splinter-holes to the day it was sold.
The one thing that arrived before the furniture was the gas cooker. Dad was dismantling it and bringing it piecemeal down to Feltham, a bit each night on the train from Waterloo. We no longer had to cook on the iron range, known as a Kitchener; we had a proper gas cooker and a place to put it. We had a purpose-built kitchenette with a gas point to fit it to and we also had electric lights! We had never had electricity laid on before and Pete had great fun switching lights on and off every time he entered or left a room.

But back to the cooker! First came the burners, next the grill and so on. That grill was the cause of a panic in the train carriage when it came down. When a raid started, as it always did, the train came to an abrupt halt and the one dim electric light bulb, which was all that illuminated the carriage went out. The passengers all sat in the blacked-out carriage, silently praying to themselves, waiting for the bombs…This particular night a stick of bombs came down, thankfully too far to do any damage but with one accord everyone in the carriage threw themselves to the floor.

A sudden yell rang out. “Oh my God! I’ve been hit! I’ve been hit!”

Everyone was shuffling around in the dark trying to find the wounded man and they carefully laid him on the seat. “Where have you been hit?” they said. “In the foot! In the foot! Oh my God! They’ve blown my foot off!” he groaned. Unable to see a thing in the dark they carefully felt around his legs only to find both feet firmly attached. “It’s all right” they assured him. They’re both still there, there’s no blood! You must have banged it“.

While the train’s lights were still out, Dad cautiously picked up the offending parcel and quietly tucked it under his overcoat. He sat there hugging it the rest of the way home.
Furniture was at a premium. Being bombed out of our old home entitled us to enough “points” to furnish most of the rooms in our new one and the “Utility” furniture we were supplied with was quite ample for our needs. The new furniture was “new” in style also and was well made for the times. It was marked with the Utility brand. This was like two little Dutch cheeses with a narrow slice taken out of them. Even now, in some house-clearance shops and charity shops you can still come across some Utility articles today!

I started to attend Longford Senior School. Ashford County School was the nearest Grammar School. Unfortunately, it would not accept me because I hadn’t been resident in Middlesex when I passed my scholarship examination. I was born in the Elephant and Castle, in South East London and had lived South of the river. In Middlesex my scholarship counted for nought.
Wartime schooldays in Feltham were still very short and punctuated by frequent trips to the air raid shelters. We continued our lessons in the shelters and I was getting more schooling than I had had for a long time. But the incentive was gone. I knew I’d be leaving school at fourteen and now I had no chance of going to University, as I’d hoped to. Hitler had put paid to that.

The lessons were very different from those I’d become accustomed to in London. Longford seemed to concentrate more on sports. Unfortunately I had no interest in sport; gardening was also one of the school’s favourites. I learned how to grow long, straight carrots.

The trick was to time your journey to school just right, so you would get to the school gates as the siren sounded, then about face and dash home like mad so that we got to our field before the teacher on duty at the gate could usher us into the school shelters. My memories of that period seem to consist of dashing to and fro between Longford School and Hounslow Road.

We had a Morrison Air Raid Shelter. It was like a huge iron table. We erected it in our back downstairs room against the centre wall of the house. It had a thick steel mesh on all four sides. At one end the mesh lifted off and we all crawled in with our Thermos flasks and a sandwich or five, the ever-present gas mask, the dog and we spent our nights in relative comfort.

We had this type, mainly I suppose, because we had had such faith in our old deal kitchen table that had saved us when a bomb landed on our buildings in the Elephant and Castle. But we had now added a thick black curtain all the way round the shelter. We knew just what damage flying glass could do.

At the end of our garden there was a big field with a hatch-work of trenches about four feet deep criss-crossing it. These were originally intended for foundations for an estate of houses that eventually became Field Road, off Hounslow Road. The war held up the building of that estate for several years. The first houses to be built there after the war were pre-fabs.

We ran wild in that huge field, about eight of us. Oh, and two horses, which we left severely alone. They didn’t bother us much. Most of the time they were out pulling Mr. Dillon the Greengrocer’s cart; except one of them, the mare, used to occasionally run wild in the field and we would all scatter and cower in one of the trenches till she quietened down.

There were plenty of places around us just made for youngsters. Toys were scarce in those days. A stick became a gun if you looked at it right, and we spent our time as Tom Mix or Buck Rogers and there were enough trees about to give us a good game of Tarzan, the youngest always became Cheetah. We made full use of what we had around us.

And then a new threat entered our lives. As the tide of war began to turn slightly more in our favour both the Nazis and ourselves began to realize Germany wasn’t going to bomb us into submission. Sending over bomber planes was proving too costly in men and machines. So they turned to a new weapon they had devised, the Flying Bomb. These “Buzz- Bombs” or “Doodle-bugs” as we swiftly named them, were a small, pilotless jet plane.

The first one to reach London came over on June 13th 1944. They were launched from Pas-De-Calais in France from secret ramps they built there and they flew in a semblance of a straight line till they ran out of fuel. When they crashed the 2,000 lbs. of explosives that they carried caused devastation.

The R.A.F. pilots soon worked out a very risky but effective way of dealing with them. They would fly alongside them, edging closer till their wing tip crept under the wing of the Doodle then give a flip and throw the Doodle off course so it crashed early.

This manoeuvre took place over Kent where the bomb would, hopefully, explode relatively safely, thereby saving many lives. The Doodlebugs had no pilot so the Germans obviously intended to kill men, women and children, indiscriminately.

The first time I saw one I was in our back garden. We knew nothing about this new weapon yet and when I heard this strange, coarse-sounding engine I scanned the skies. You could easily recognise a German plane from an English one. The German engines had a kind of a droning sound while the English ones had more of a roar. But this one sounded wrong. Suddenly I saw this strange little plane and it was on fire at the back. It came over our roof and flew straight up the garden. Then the engine stopped without even a splutter and the plane nose-dived somewhere in the distance, beyond Feltham Lodge.

I dashed up the garden to our back door and called out to Dad. “Dad! Dad!, I just saw a plane crash, over there!.”

As I spoke excitedly another one followed the first and did exactly the same. It dived down to crash just as the first one had done.

That was the first time I saw a buzz bomb. They became fairly commonplace after that. They did a terrific amount of damage though but we soon learnt that if you heard one cut out and it was overhead you were pretty safe; it was going explode somewhere else. Only if it cut out before it reached you was there any real danger.

Then the Germans developed another, more potent, terror weapon. This was the V2 rocket. A rocket-propelled bomb packed with high explosives, far more deadly than the buzz bomb because nobody could hear them coming. There was no defence against the V2. So until the launch pads were discovered and bombed or over-run by our advancing troops they caused great damage and loss of life. But as there was no shelter that you could take to escape from them they didn’t interrupt normal life to a great extent. If you heard a buzz bomb cut out before it reached you, you ran like mad for shelter. The rockets, no one knew about them till they exploded and by then it was too late.

Soon came the time for me to leave school. The leaving age was fourteen in those days and I left Longford happily to become an indentured apprentice Printer, a job I came to hate. Dad told me I would reap the benefit of my job when I finished my apprenticeship. Which was true. But try telling that to a teenager when his friends were earning ten pounds a week in an aircraft factory.
I worked in the machine room of a small jobbing printer’s in Bedfont Lane. It was a small shop that had been converted into a print shop on the corner of Manor Lane, The Caxton Press. The windows at the front and side were covered in wooden shutters but still had the glass behind. We worked in there through the air-raids that were still happening because the noise of the machines covered the noise of an air-raid and nobody told us there was a raid on and there was no shelter in any case. One day we came out of work to find a shop on the corner, five doors from ours, had been partly demolished by a nearby bomb and we hadn’t known anything about it.
There were four lads working at Caxton’s, no men were employed there except for one old man, he was the Compositor - the typesetter. He was so deaf he wouldn’t have heard a bomb if it had dropped on his head. And one other man; he was in the Auxiliary Fire Service and was so seldom at work he might as well not have bothered.

Living was very hard during the war years, apart from the bombs. We never had enough to eat; everything was on ration, except vegetables. The clothes you wore were rationed. The food you ate was on ration. Some foods you never saw again until the war was over. The furniture you sat on was on a points system; you only got the barest essentials and all stamped with the ubiquitous Utility mark. We had a certain priority here as we had been bombed out, but that only got us the bare essentials

Mothers worked miracles to feed their families with leaflets telling you how to make things like “Woolton Pie”. This was invented by a politician named Lord Woolton. It was mostly made of “Pom”, a desiccated potato meal. It tasted nothing like a real pie because “Pom”, an American invention, tasted nothing like real potatoes.
I’ll bet Lord Woolton never ate it!

Women dashed for the shop when the word went round, “Reeves have got meat in” and then stood patiently for hours in long queues that wound into the distance only to get to the shop front just in time to see the shutters go up and be greeted by “Sorry love, that’s it for today, maybe next time”.

We were lucky to have Grandma. She could work miracles with stuff that before the war would have been consigned to the bin.

But there were so many things that had disappeared from our lives completely: oranges, we hadn’t seen one since 1939; bananas: there was a song about a banana… “Bring me back a banana, sailor boy”, but we never saw one.

Submitted by Bill Cole.

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