The day before WW2 started, Saturday Sept 2nd, 1939, I was evacuated to Milton Street, Maidstone in Kent. This turned out to be a mistake, because Maidstone found itself in the middle of what the RAF referred to as 'Hellfire Alley': the route followed by the German bombers flying to London. Every time London got an air-raid we got two: once when the planes were flying to London, once when they came back. For us small seven-year-olds it was an exciting time, and, despite the vain shouts from the teacher, we would rush to the classroom windows to watch amazing dog fights going on between Spitfires and Messerschmidts in the skies above. But it also meant we were in danger, not from falling bombs, but from falling aircraft, British as well as German.
It must have been shortly after Dunkirk. One day I was walking home from school. The air-raid warnings had sounded, but we took no notice-- we were not scared of Jerry. There had almost certainly been a daylight raid on Biggin Hill, the main fighter defence station for London. Bombers were scuttling over in ones or twos trying to get back to France. I was living at the time in a Victorian terraced house which did not have a back garden, only a backyard with an old kitchen table in it. On reaching the back door I noticed a twin-engined bomber coming towards me from the west, low on the horizon. One of its engines was on fire.
This was exciting. I climbed onto the table to get a better look. A small dot dropped from the plane and a tiny parachute opened. The crew were abandoning the aircraft! This was really exciting. I was up on my toes.
Then, suddenly, I realised the danger I was in. This plane was on fire, out of control, heading straight for me and was going to crash just where I was standing. I was so terrified that I was literally scared stiff. I lost the use of my limbs and could only stand transfixed and watch the plane coming toward me. Mrs Penny, my landlady, must have looked out of the kitchen window and seen what was happening. She came rushing out, scooped me up off the table and carried me down into the cellar, which had been turned into an air-raid shelter. The old widow, who lived next door, came running in to join us. She was in hysterics, screaming "Christ have mercy on us." This was perhaps even more frightening than the crashing plane, for nothing distresses a young child more than seeing adults crying.
I remember crawling under a bench and covering my ears with my hands to try and block out the sound of that airplane. It seemed to takes ages to get to us. The sound became so loud that I thought there was no point in screaming because nobody would hear me.
Then, suddenly, there was total silence. Nothing more happened. We sat around for about half-an-hour. The all-clear wailed and we came up the stairs. Everything in the house was perfectly normal. I opened the back door expecting to see a wrecked Heinkel in the backyard. There was nothing there except a broken chimney pot lying just outside the back door. Of the plane there was no sign.
It was not till a week later that we found out what had happened. The plane must have just clipped the roof and crashed into the River Medway, which was one street away. For several days nobody realised there was the wreckage of a plane in the river.
I do not know whether
my parents got to know about it but shortly afterwards I was sent back
to London, just in time for the Blitz.
|John Matthews has written other stories about his childhood :|