With the outbreak of what soon became known as ‘The Blitz’ Londoners had to abruptly adjust to a new kind of existence. Everyone was exposed to the threat and there were daily reminders in the street of how serious that threat was, as the devastation mounted. Children going to school in the morning would pass bodies under blankets lined up in the street. Hitler’s ‘Terror bombing’ was to kill tens of thousands – although it was to prove to be much less apocalyptic than pre war estimates had suggested.
No area was more badly affected than the east end of London, where the docks were a key strategic target, and easily identifiable from the air by the Luftwaffe.
Henry R.J.Pilott was a schoolboy in Plumstead, East London and he describes his general experiences during this period:
From the first week in September we had continuous day and night raids for about 3 weeks, then the bombers came only at night and we had heavy raids every night until the middle of November. We had bought a Manchester terrier bitch dog during 1938 and after the first few nights she would sense the onset of a raid and let us know by howling at least 20 minutes before the air raid warning went off. She was unable to stand the anti-aircraft guns going off and the bomb explosions and we had to have her put down. During this period each night I would crawl under the dining room table (the shelter was full of water and unusable) praying that I would get through the night.
One night the street was showered with incendiary bombs and my dad with other neighbours who were on night watching duty went outside to deal with one that had fallen in the road. There was my father arguing with a neighbour about the best way to deal with it. Pick it up in a shovel and put it in a bucket or put sand over it and let it burn. He wouldn’t have done this later in the war as the Germans began dropping explosive incendiaries.
A number of houses had been hit including that of my friend David Edwards. The 2lb bomb had gone through his roof into the front bedroom and his father with the aid of neighbours managed to put most of the fire out from inside. This didn’t however stop the AFS (Auxiliary Fire Service) rushing round and causing more damage by breaking the top-floor widows and throwing out all his furniture. The next day I found a large 6ft container for all these incendiary bombs in our garden.
One morning we woke up to find an unexploded bomb had fallen into the front garden of a house eight doors away. The street was cleared and we all had to move to a rest centre that had been set up in Plumstead High Street School. There were so many unexploded bombs around that it was impossible for the army to deal with them. Many went off within a few hours and then one could move back. It seemed to me we were in the rest centre for weeks but I know it was only days. The place was crowded and many of the people who were in poor physical and mental condition had come from Silvertown in East London having been bombed out.
My father had not been able to get to work for some days. He set off on his bicycle to find what had happened in Bow: he returned to tell us that his factory had been badly bombed and no work was possible. The raids during each night continued and we were all crammed into the basement of the school, which had been strengthened outside with sandbags and bricked-up windows. Local cheer-leaders (including our own Mr Potter) got people singing songs to keep up their courage and take their minds off the destruction taking place outside.
After about a week as the bomb in our road had not gone off, my mother decided to chance it and we moved back to our house. The road was still closed to traffic and we were warned that there was still a risk of an explosion. After another week or so others moved back and the bomb was forgotten and the hole was filled in. When we had returned home as my dad was unable to go back to work to his old firm, he was directed for a short time to work on bomb damaged house by covering up the blasted windows and roofs with felt to keep out the rain.
Some years later in 1946 after the war had ended an unexploded bomb that had also been forgotten exploded off near the Elephant and Castle killing some children. As a result the numerous undealt-with bombs including our own were dug up and dealt with. In our case the bomb had gone down about 10ft and was still alive.
At this time I was not attending school as the normal organisation had been disrupted and teachers were not available. I was not getting any proper sleep at night. There were half-time lessons at my old school but there was no compunction to go and I missed some months of vital schooling. My mother decided that I could do with a rest from the bombing and sent me off to live with my Aunt Rose in Burnt Oak. Although this area was still in London and Hendon Airport and the surrounding aircraft factories were targets, the German bombers did not automatically fly over the area on their way to Central London.
We heard the sirens each night but it was rare that bombs dropped in the area and I was able to sleep in a bed and attend the local school without disruption. My aunt was a widow (my Uncle Joe had died in 1940 as the result of wounds he received in the 1st World War) but still had two children of school age, Irene, then aged 15 and Arthur, aged 6 (my cousin Joey was in the army and had gone through Dunkirk). I settled down well and my aunt was easy-going if a bit fussy. She was however liberal with pocket money and trips to the cinema. The first thing she did when I arrived was to take me to Hendon Central WVS Centre where they kitted me out with new clothes on the basis that I had been bombed out.
I liked living with my aunt and started school in Burnt Oak. When the teacher introduced me to the class she told them I had been bombed out so I was the centre of attraction for a while. I told them that I came from Dover to increase the attention (everybody had heard of Dover as it was being shelled from France across the Channel but nobody knew of Woolwich) so my teacher was a bit confused. Whilst I lived there a German plane was shot down and placed on view in a site of the present Burnt Oak library and we had to pay a penny to see it. I was doing well at school, but I think my mother was not too happy that I had settled in so easily and after a few months she sent my brother Stan to bring me home.