John M's story

Buzzbombs over Banstead

It must have been the summer holiday in 1944, the year of the doodlebug. A gang of us boys and girls went up to Banstead Downs, an area of open land about a mile away. During the war you could not go away for a holiday, or even to the coast for a day, so we kids were let loose to do whatever we wanted. We lived a sort of Huckleberry Finn type of existence, roaming for miles on our bikes, getting into all sorts of mischief and just coming home for an evening meal and bed. The next day we would be off again. Our parents never said, "Watch out for the traffic," because there wasn't any! You could go for miles along the main roads out of London without meeting anything but other cyclists. Children today can only dream about the freedom we enjoyed.

Anyway, one day we went up to Banstead Downs. Actually we were not supposed to go there because the police had issued a warning that a cluster of butterfly bombs had been dropped in the area. This was a small canister that burst open on landing to form what looked vaguely like a giant butterfly, and would remain in the grass until someone touched it -- then it would blow your legs off. But by that time people were so fed up at being told what to do, or not what to do, that nobody took much notice, and there was a sort of fatalism around. During the Blitz you knew that your life was in danger when the sirens went, and took shelter, but you also knew that life could carry on as normal once the all-clear had sounded. Now, with these flying bombs, all those certainties disappeared. You could die at any time. People coped by simply ignoring the war, carrying on regardless and hoping for the best.

It was particularly worrying at night. I would lie in bed wondering if I would actually wake up in the morning. I used to stay awake as long as possible, just in case a V1 came over. If one came whilst you were asleep, you hoped it would wake you up. Fortunately they were pretty noisy. I recall one night I was woken in the early hours by a flying bomb that was exceptionally close, but was too sleepy to get out of bed, so I just pulled the blanket over my head (as if that would have given any protection) and listened to it going overhead and rumbling away into the distance. Actually for a week my brother and I had to sleep under the Morrison shelter. This was a heavy steel table with a wire mesh around it in the middle of the living room. The idea was that it would take the weight if the house were wrecked. But it was hopeless trying to sleep there: our parents were in the same room, the light was on and they were walking about and talking. Then, at about 10.30 our parents would have supper. This was agony. We had to lie there, pretending to be asleep, listening to mother and father guzzling food just above us. We would come crawling out and demand something to eat. "Hey! You're supposed to be asleep!" my father would say.

However, to get back to Banstead Downs. We were playing 'hide-and-seek', or something, on the slopes of a low hill, when we saw a doodlebug coming straight toward us. It was very low; in fact just skimming over the treetops. One of the girls shouted, "It's going to hit the hill!" There was no time to run away - the buzzbomb was virtually on top of us - so I threw myself down under a bush, which would have given absolutely no protection the thing had blown up. I looked up and swear that V1 missed the top of the slope above me no more than 10 or 15 feet. I remember the grass waving backwards and forwards with the exhaust, and just for a minute there was a strong smell of hot paraffin. If it had been just a little lower I would have been blown to smithereens.

After that, for some reason or other, we didn't feel much like playing any more, so got on our bikes and cycled silently back home. But we were very careful not to tell our parents anything about what had happened...

John Matthews

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