Wednesday, 14 September 2011

A Wartime Childhood

We were on a family holiday at Prestatyn holiday camp in North Wales when we heard about the outbreak of the Second World War. Returning home with Britain at war marks the real beginning of my remembered childhood. We lived at 22 Cambridge Road, Ely where I was born in 1934. Betty, my only sister, was born in 1929. My father was now an accountant with the British Sugar Corporation at the sugar beet factory.

The declaration of war jolted everybody into panic and feverish activity. One of the first civilian operations was to evacuate thousands of young children out of London away from the immediate threat of bombing. The children were sent away from their homes without their parents' immediate knowledge of exactly who they would be staying with or where. Meanwhile families in other safer areas had these frightened and confused children billeted on them with no prior warning.

We returned from holiday to find an evacuee virtually on our doorstep. She stayed a few days but I believe she couldn't cope with the shock of such a traumatic event so was probably allowed to go home. We had another evacuee to replace her; this one was older, called Renee, and I suspect my sister Betty looked after her.

I was too young to really understand how difficult it was for everyone to adjust to the reality of war, although I was aware of the presence of the armed services being built up around us in the camps and airfields of East Anglia. We even had a prisoner-of-war camp just up the road which contained Italians captured before the fall of Mussolini. They were allowed to move freely in the local community as they provided labour on the farms. They wore brown battledress uniforms with large yellow patches on their backs and trouser legs. As prisoners-of-war their conditions were a far cry from those in the German concentration camps.

East Anglia and the South East became the base for much of the air force, not just the RAF but for the United States Air Force later in the war. Near us was RAF Bomber Command, based at Waterbeach Aerodrome, flying Lancaster Bombers. On summer evenings we would watch the bombers take off and circle around before flying off in formation to bomb targets in Germany. In the early hours of the morning I would wake to hear the returning aircraft flying in low over the house. On one night I remember seeing a crippled plane being followed by a German fighter determined to make a kill and firing tracer bullets into the rear of the bomber. The local news informed us the following day that the bomber had crashed, killing all those on board.

At night-time the blackout was in force: no street lamps or neon signs, all windows blacked out with special material. Air raid wardens used to tour the streets looking for any chinks of light which might help a German aircraft seek out its target. "Put that light out!" was a familiar warning and was immediately obeyed. Even vehicles were fitted with special hoods over their head-lights to avoid clear beams of light on the road. Obviously I wasn't allowed out into the front street at night but the dark back garden provided all the opportunities a boy needed to play soldiers.

Playing soldiers or airmen required a pal and mine was Bobby Reynolds, with whom I played for hours. He had been evacuated from North London and lived a few doors away. Soldiers, cars, lorries and motorbikes constantly passed our house on the main road and often filled up with petrol at the small garage next door. Bobby and I would pretend to be army despatch riders and ride our tricycles onto the garage forecourt to fill up with imaginary petrol. Occasionally we would venture as far as the bus garage down the road, although we were soon chased out of there. Cambridge Road wasn't very long but as a child I thought the pavement was wide and the slope to the top of the road very steep. Our world hardly stretched to the other side of the street, it was like a foreign land.

However as I grew older my interest in the opposite side of the road grew. Pamela Ward was her name. She was older than me and had a runny nose but this did not deter me from crossing over to the other side from time to time.


  1. Thanks so much for sharing this with us, Trish.
    I have very much enjoyed what I have read so far, and I am looking forward to more stories. xx

  2. I know quite a bit about my granddad's life in the navy during WWII but so little about what life was like back home... this fills in a few emotional blanks. Thank you.

  3. @Funky Wellies - so glad you've managed to comment (since I've adjusted the settings) and pleased you're enjoying the stories.

    @Steve - My pleasure, Steve. There's another post worth of wartime memories to come, plus plenty from his National Service, so hopefully you'll find it useful.