Wartime adventure in the countryside

As a young boy living in London, David Henshall, experienced first hand the terrors of the London blitz and the fears about evacuation. Here he remembers his journey from Brockley to Bungay by way of Surrey.

As a young boy living in London, David Henshall, experienced first hand the terrors of the London blitz and the fears about evacuation. Here he remembers his journey from Brockley to Bungay by way of Surrey.

In 1939 the family had discussed almost nothing else but the looming prospect of war for ages. Worried parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles talked in earnest tones because, although they prayed it wouldn't happen, deep down they were sure it was coming.

They had watched Hitler break his word time and again and could see that he was going to continue to take what he wanted in his bid to build a German Empire that would last a thousand years and that, sooner or later, somebody would have to try and stop him.

His troops reoccupied the Rhineland in 1936, annexed Austria in 1938, then took a large chunk of Czechoslovakia. Britain tried desperately to find a peaceful solution, to buy time, very largely because we were, in Winston Churchill's words, “lamentably unprepared” for war. But the invasion of Poland was the breaking point.


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We lived in Brockley, a south London suburb, and by September 1939 my father Wilfred (second name Ewart, like the great Liberal statesman Gladstone idolised by my grandparents) had just paid off the �500 mortgage on our four-storey Victorian semi-detached.

Wilfred was born on 1 January, 1900, a Victorian - but only just, because the old Queen died 21 days later. My mother Rose, known as Ray from her surname Raymond, was born a year later and I was a month short of ten at the outbreak of the Second World War. My sister Madge was nearly four years older and Joan three years her senior. We were a happy family just starting to do well and enjoy life after the tough years of the 1930s depression, during which Wilfred, an engineer, was laid off and forced to shovel coal for a living for two years before being re-engaged in his old job.

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Britain had left it late, but for some time London and the other big cities had been busy preparing for the worst. Trenches were dug in the parks, ack ack guns moved in and a start made on the air raid shelters that would prove so vital. We were fitted with gas masks in St Peter's church hall at the top of the hill and the RAF already had a barrage balloon tethered on the big patch of grass across the road.

Everything moved so fast and my father told Madge and I that if war was declared we would be evacuated to somewhere safer out in the country. Joan had a job and would stay put for the time being. He took the whole family for a walk to Hilly Fields, our local park about half a mile away to take a final look at the lights of London.

Hilly Fields occupies one of the highest points in south London and you can see for miles in most directions - just three years previously at the same place, with me seated on my father's shoulders, we had watched the Crystal Palace burn down - and now, clinging together as a complete family for the last time for six years, we took in the sights and lights and tried to imagine this great city in total darkness. We were all desperately sad and lost for words.

A couple of days later, just before war was declared, Madge and I joined the largest mass movement of people in British history, the evacuation from London and other big cities involving a total of a million and half people, almost entirely children, in a very short time because it was widely expected that aerial bombardment would start immediately with the war.

It was a tremendous operation and well planned because the Home Office had been working on it since 1938. Parents were told in advance that their children should bring a bag or attach� case containing only their gas mask, a change of underclothes, pyjamas, slippers or plimsolls, spare socks or stockings, a toothbrush, a comb, towel, soap and flannel and, if possible, a warm coat or mackintosh.

Times were still hard and plenty of families did not have all the items on the list and many did not possess a travelling bag or small case. Some children took their gear in a pillowcase or carrier bag.

We were given labels carrying our names and the schools we were travelling with and instructed to bring sandwiches and a drink for the journey. We were also told where to meet. There were 1,589 assembly points and 168 entraining stations in London and nearly 20,000 Women's Voluntary Service (WVS) helped in the operation.

Not all children were moved by train. Red double-decker buses took some and a lot of East End youngsters were loaded onto the famous Eagle steamers on the Thames and shipped up the coast. They were landed on the long piers at Felixstowe, Yarmouth and Lowestoft and taken inland by coach. Soon after, large stretches of the east coast piers were blown up to prevent enemy troops using them in an invasion.

As well as teachers, a few adults also travelled, usually pregnant mothers and some handicapped. The eldest sibling took charge of family members even if they went to different schools. Madge had won a scholarship to Honor Oak Girls School and I went there with her. Parents were stopped at the gates and I watched my mother stumble away in tears after a final wave. Father was at work.

It was a fine day and we played rounders for a long time and, much later, presumably after a message or phone call, we were lined up and marched to Honor Oak station where there were hundreds more kids, many puzzled and excited, others sobbing and distressed.

We were eventually loaded onto a train and when it set off we wondered where it would be taking us and how long we would be travelling. Not long, it turned out. We were off-loaded at Redhill just a few miles down the track. I don't know why this decision was taken but it may have had something to do with an arrangement by Honor Oak School with Reigate High School for Girls.

Public schools and some grammar schools made their own arrangements with schools outside London, Dulwich College, for instance, sharing with Tonbridge and Westminster doubling up with Lancing College in Sussex. Madge's lot went to Reigate High. Many schools all over the country were forced to share and, until a better system could be organised, one school had the classrooms in the morning while the other one played games or had musical concerts, and in the afternoon the roles were reversed. It was a provision that many sporty boys in particular enjoyed.

While the plans for getting children out of London went smoothly, the system at the receiving end was often more haphazard when it came to putting the evacuees into digs or billets. With about 200 other youngsters Madge and I were walked to a church hall in Redhill where we watched a magic lantern show, The Pilgrim's Progress, about six times. Presumably they were the only slides they'd got.

We were there for hours while people prepared to house an evacuee came in and literally made a choice, peering round the hall until they saw a boy or girl they liked the look of. Madge insisted we stayed together - “Don't get separated,” was my mother's last instruction to her - and, because few people were prepared to take two children, we were among the last to go. It was very depressing and upsetting, a trauma we shared with thousands.

Finally, late in the day, a woman agreed to take us. We believe she was pressured into it by a billeting officer who knew she had large premises and no children of her own. She and her husband ran a big bakery and shop on the corner of Earlswood common and they lived well. Having eaten our sandwiches and finished our drinks hours before, I recall that we fell on the late tea that she somewhat reluctantly provided.

Anyway, at the end of the week she went to the billeting officer and said we ate too much and insisted somewhere else must be found for us. It was nonsense, she simply couldn't deal with children and clearly didn't need the money the government paid those who took evacuees - 10 shillings and sixpence for one child (52 and half pence today) and another eight and six for a second or third youngster.

Set against the �2 a week average wage at the time, an extra ten bob was useful for some people. Some children got their money's-worth; some were very unhappy; some were used as skivvies; some had never had it so good. And, of course, when the Blitz was over and the bombing eased, many were taken home - only to flee again with the second Blitz, the flying bombs and rockets.

They couldn't find anybody else prepared to take two kids, so Madge and I were split up after all. Madge was found a nice place nearer her school and I went round the corner to Mrs Roffey in Victoria Street. She was about 60 and an absolute sweetie who looked after me well. She sent a Christmas card every year after the war until she died.

When the Blitz started it could be heard and seen from Redhill and with German raiders constantly passing overhead, a stray bomb or two struck nearby from time to time. My father, senior engineering foreman at the South Metropolitan Gas Company, had to stay on the job (he was awarded a bravery certificate for continuing to shovel fire bombs off the top of a 150-foot gas holder when the rest of his team had fled) but he sent my mother and my sister Joan to pick me up and, avoiding London, we all travelled cross- country to live with my paternal grandparents, Edith and Edward, at their pub at Pulham Market on the Norfolk-Suffolk border.

Joan went off to join the Women's Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) and Madge who was happy at Reigate High decided to stay there, although father picked her up at the start of each holiday and brought her to Norfolk for a break. She must have been desperately lonely at times but she always brave and wonderfully independent and stuck it out until she took her final exams. She often walked miles between her digs and mine to ensure that I was okay while I was still in Redhill.

Norfolk was good for me, the fresh air and a no-nonsense education got rid of the asthma that had plagued me from the age of two and made me really fit for the first time. On fine days I cycled the 12 miles to school in Bungay over the border in Suffolk and 12 home. In the rain, I cycled four miles to catch a bus at Harleston and when it snowed I caught the Waveney Valley flyer, the single track railway line plied by long-past-their-prime locos with tall-chimney stacks and the rattles of old age. But only when it snowed because the one morning train got me to school at 7.45.

The line was the link between Tivetshall on the Norwich-Ipswich line and Beccles on the Lowestoft-Ipswich line. The stations, now homes or offices, and lot of the little level-crossing houses are still there but now you'd be hard put to spot where the tracks ran.

Norfolk and Suffolk became more dangerous than Redhill as the war went on and all the American air bases opened up. There were four within easy cycling distance from Pulham and Liberator bombers from Flixton took off and landed over Bungay Grammar School.

There were many crashes and explosions to add to the bombs of the Nazis and, much in the way that they swapped foreign stamps, boys also traded in 'rescued' bandoliers of Yankee 0.5 bullets, the odd pistol or automatic and incendiary bombs that had failed to go off - they fizzed fiercely if you put them in a bonfire but you had to beware those with a black band on the nose. They were explosive.

Our headmaster, Douglas Hewitt, railed endlessly against this dangerous hobby referring to all these military items as “infernal machines.” The police frequently searched bags and sachels at all schools much in the way they look for knives today.

Very dangerous were the 'Butterfly' anti-personnel bombs dropped by the Germans all over the place. Small, innocuous-looking things with metal wings that exploded when picked up.

When a Dornier 17 flew over the village we lads watched with horror as an ugly black bomb dropped away from it and headed for Pulham RAF Station because so many from the village worked there, including my mother. She was supervisor of a small unit making practice bombs which also used a certain amount of explosive and so she was surrounded by the stuff.

RAF Pulham was raided a number of times, an obvious target because it had a hangar a quarter of mile long from its days as a an airship base. The bomb blew a large hole in the hangar roof but somehow caused little other damage and no casualties. Then, moments later we were thrilled to see three Hurricanes from RAF Coltishall zoom in and, with a couple of bursts of machine-gun fire, one of them shot down the raider. The pilot died in the crash at Starston three miles away and the other members of the crew parachuted into captivity.

Another raider at Eye was so low that his bomb didn't have time to straighten out and it bounced on its side off the road, went thought the bedroom window of a cottage and out through the back wall without going off.

When a Jerry raider scattered high explosives around Pulham one night, people counting the whistles made by the bombs decided one had not gone off and the neat round hole it made was found in a field the next morning near the old workhouse. Royal Engineers dug down to it and when they took a break and weren't looking we lads sneaked up and peered over the edge,

The bomb was about 15 feet down and they had worked right round it to leave it sitting on a shelf of clay where the officer could set about defusing it. We were quickly chased away and the bomb made safe. The team slept overnight in the barn at the back of the Falcon and we were sad to hear that some of them were killed soon after working on another UXB. They were very brave men because many UXBs were on deliberate delay or trick fuses which exploded when being worked on.

School went on pretty much as normal, apart from the occasional dash to the air raid shelter. They were exciting times for a boy but constantly tempered by the deaths of people you knew and the announcements at morning prayers of old boys killed in action.

It was six years before the whole Henshall family was completely together again - six years in which I got to love the countryside so much that, although I later spent many years back in London working, I finally had to return to the corner of England that quietly invaded my psyche and never went away.

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