John M's story

The happiest day of my life

 

On Sunday, 8th September 1940 there was a big raid on London and we had to spend the night in our Anderson shelter in the back garden. We hated it because it was cold, damp and full of spiders. Indeed my father refused to use it. He went upstairs to bed. When the air-raid got particularly noisy he came and joined us; then, when things eased up a little, he said, "You stay here," and went back to bed again.

He had rigged up a plywood door to try and make the shelter more cosy. During the night there was a loud thump as something hit it. I was convinced it was an unexploded bomb which would blow up as soon as we opened the door. I recall screaming at my mother not to open it. It turned out, however, to be a large chunk of shrapnel, a great joy, because the main hobby of us small boys during the Blitz was collecting shrapnel. The one with the biggest piece was champion, and this chunk certainly put me somewhere up in the premier league.

The following day a cousin came to visit. He was ten and older than me. We went for a walk together on the common behind the house. In the middle was an anti-aircraft battery. It must have been one of the key sites for the defence of London, since it was placed in the last open space before the city began and looked over the Thames, which was used by the Luftwaffe at night to find its way to London. The noise of the guns was louder than the bombs and they did far more damage to the local houses. The flak would go clean through the roofs and, being red hot, would set fire to the furniture. On the common I spotted the largest piece of shrapnel I have ever seen and rushed forward to grab it. My cousin, however, kicked my hand out of the way, and said, "Don't touch it! It's still hot." It certainly did not look hot, but he was bigger than me. I was forced to leave it there. Later, after he had gone, I rushed back to retrieve it. Of course it had disappeared. I have a shrewd suspicion that he had stolen it. All that nonsense about it being hot was just to make sure he got it and not me. I have never forgiven him.

My other memory of that Sunday raid was of the bombs. It was the first time the Germans had used whistling bombs. Normally a bomb cannot be heard coming down, but the aim of this raid was to break the moral of the Londoners prior to an invasion on the south coast, scheduled for the 17th, just one week away. Of course it never took place. The Luftwaffe were unable to gain the mastery of the skies that they needed, thanks partly to the bravery of our fighter pilots and partly to the fact that Britain had a secret weapon the Germans knew nothing about, called 'radar'. So the bombs were fitted with sirens, a tube on the outside shaped like an organ pipe, that gave a shriek as the air whistled through it. As soon as the bomb was released some 15,000 feet up, you heard this terrible scream and, as the bomb came down, the scream got louder and louder. It took about 30 seconds for it to reach ground level. This was really frightening. You were certain the bomb was coming straight at you. I don't mind admitting that I was terrified. After being in a cinema the day before as it was bombed and then this, I was quite sure I would be dead before morning. When the bomb exploded you heaved a sigh of relief-- you were still in one piece. Then there was another scream... and another... It went on all night. We did not get any sleep.

In the morning we returned to the house and my mother made breakfast over a paraffin stove, since both the gas and electricity were off. Then I got sent off to school. To get there I had to walk down the road and take the second turning on the right. The school was a large two-storied building on the other side of the road. I was tired and went reluctantly. On turning right, however, I stopped dead. I could not believe my eyes: the school had disappeared! It was simply not there! I crossed the road and looked through the gate. There was just a pile of rubble in the playground. I realised It must have received a direct hit during the night. Yuppee! Good old Mr Hitler! The happiest day of my life! I feel sorry for the kids today, who never see their school destroyed.

I rushed back home and said, "Mum, there's no school."
She replied, "Of course there is. It's not a holiday. Off you go."
"There is no school," I said firmly.
"If you don't go straight away you will be late."
"There…is…no…school," I shouted.

Eventually I managed to convince her that there literally was no school. But it did me no good. Within three days I had been evacuated. When you are eight years old there just is no way you can win.

John Matthews
mattcleeve@aol.com

John Matthews has written other stories about his childhood :

 

 


 

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