BLITZ KIDS: Poignant childhood memories of when the bombs rained down on London
Published: 8 March, 2012
by GERALD ISAAMAN
War had started and for us little boys it was a big excitement,” recalled Tony Sprigings. “If this is war, why am I enjoying it so much?” asked a teenage girl.
And Peter Richards protested: “My main concern was to obtain supplies of Brylcreem, a hairdressing product particularly popular with young men.”
That was in September 1939, and into 1940, long before round-the-clock TV coverage could reveal the awful slaughter of innocent civilians in Syria and other despots wreaking destruction.
And I felt much the same way all those years ago.
Aged six and with gasmask over my shoulder, I was bundled off by train to the village of Barnack in Lincolnshire with my three sisters, instructed by our mother not to be broken up.
So we were last to leave the church hall before a kind farmer initially found room for all four of us, followed by a gamekeeper who took me out shooting pigeon for supper while his two sons trapped rabbits to sell on the black market.
After school, wearing tin hats from Woolworths, we played soldiers, and on one occasion I sat in the cockpit of a shot-down Junkers 88 bomber and thought it was great fun handling the controls.
So we missed the initial London Blitz, along with some 339,000 children who quit the capital – the story of their mass departure to escape Luftwaffe bombs is now well recorded as they coped or cried through a life away from home.
But what about the kids who stayed behind in London, the ones who witnessed daily horrific sights of blown-up bodies hanging from trees, raging fires, whole streets obliterated?
Sean Longden is only 46, so missed what has been called a new kind of war aimed at bombing Britain into submission.
Now he has produced a significant history of those who endured the Blitz, their sad and magnificent forgotten stories now admirably recorded and brought back to stir my memories in what he calls “The children’s war against Hitler.”
It was the second Blitz of London that is embedded in my memory, the time when V1 doodlebugs sounding like noisy motorbikes, then followed by silent V2 rockets, brought further devastation in the summer of 1944.
In the first two weeks of the flying bombs 1,600 people were killed, 400 injured and some 200,000 properties destroyed or damaged.
Yet I remained oblivious, climbing into the gully on top of the five-storey London County Council flats where we lived to collect pieces of shrapnel, diving into the basements of broken homes to see what we could find once they had become deserted.
On one occasion a buzz bomb stopped overhead.
I dived under a garden hedge for protection, not knowing then that they usually glide for half a mile before dropping to earth with a mighty blast.
Disdain for the dangers was common among kids, as recorded by Peter Richards, 15 when war came and living in Camden Town, working in the Post Office, attending a youth club, becoming involved with the Young Communist League and reading the soon-to-be-banned Daily Worker.
Peter, who died age 85 in April 2010, also wrote his own war memoir, Bombs, Bullshit and Bullets.
He went out running in air raids, to the cinema and the gym treating the danger of shrapnel raining down with total nonchalance. “You became streetwise, you became wary of things,” he says in Blitz Kids.
“It was bloody stupid. I used to go out running in the middle of the bombing. It’s not that I didn’t worry but we took a calculated risk. We ran from the youth club in Bloomsbury to Regent’s Park or ran around Bedford Square.
“I just thought I’d be all right. It happens to other people – it wouldn’t happen to me.”
He was even out at the cinema on the fateful night of December 29, 1940, when more than 20,000 bombs dropped on London, including 127 tons of high explosives and endless showers of incendiaries.
Whole streets were ablaze the night it appeared St Paul’s Cathedral was doomed.
“We decided that the spectacle of song and dance that we were enjoying was preferable to the sights outside,”
Peter recalls before finally heading home to see the sky lit up over the City and London’s East End as if the sun was deliberately rising early.
And when he went to work next day he remembers the “looks of incredulity on the faces of office workers as they returned to the City. They could not reconcile themselves to the extent of the damage. I was delivering express letters but word would come round, ‘There’s no point in delivering it – they’ve been bombed out’. The day after the big December raid the devastation was horrendous. There was rubble all over the place and buildings still burning. The fire brigade were still hard at work.”
And he was confronted by collapsing mothers as they tore open the telegrams declaring that their son was either dead or missing.
Yet those who fought to save burning London as the bombs rained down epitomised that same Blitz spirit still evoked today when all seems lost.
There were bad omens, too: gangs of razor boys, looters who faced being shot dead, one small boy dashing from his shelter after an air raid to plunder food from bombed shops.
Two lessons have remained since the day when sweet rationing ended and we all shouted Hooray!
One is that we are all living much longer thanks to the basic diets we endured. The other is that since 1945 – and despite the Cold War threat – we have lived progressively enjoyable lives, society forever on an upward spiral.
Now it is crashing and crushing us down again, the lives of today’s lost generation facing a new blitz of youth unemployment and a fading future.
The return of bad times is every reason to read this remarkable book and its poignant messages, which inspires hope we all need to embrace.
• Blitz Kids: The Children’s War Against Hitler. By Sean Longden. Constable, £20