ANDREW PARTRIDGE’S WAR TIME CHILDHOOD, 1939-45
Andrew Partridge was nine months old when the war started so most of the memories of the early part of it are a bit hazy and date from late 1940 after the family had moved house to the back of Broadstairs town a mile from the sea. By this time a siren sounded to give warning of air raids virtually every evening and at first everyone took shelter whilst hundreds of German aircraft passed overhead. An Anderson shelter had been built in the garden and Andrew remembers being carried out there in the darkness whilst hundreds of Heinkel III bombers flew overhead on their way to London The shelter had been made by digging a hole half a metre deep, big enough to take two beds with a space between. Curved sheets of corrugated iron were put in the hole to make an arch and a straight sheet at each end with a doorway in one end. The whole thing was then covered in half a metre of soil. It would not save you from a direct hit but you would be safe if the house fell down. Andrew still remembers the anxiety of bombs falling and the sound of shells fired from Calais. Broadstairs only received relatively few bombs, mainly off-loads from aircraft returning home who had failed to find their target. There were also dog-fights between the Spitfires sent up from Manston and the enemy Messerschmits and Focke-Wulfes from France. East Kent became known as “Hell Fire Corner”.
In Broadstairs, the war had brought about some changes. The threat of invasion led to a four-metre high framework of builder’s scaffolding being built all along the beach to create an obstacle to slow down German landing craft, tanks and soldiers coming ashore if they should attempt this. Some of the roads leading down to the beach were blocked by old buses. On the beach, several boats which had brought troops back from Dunkirk lay abandoned. All the businesses, cafes and places catering for visitors were shut down and empty. Many of the houses and all the hotels were empty and a lot of shops in the town closed down for the duration, as had the array of large residential schools and nursing homes which occupied large estates both along the clifftop and inland. It is hard to imagine nowadays, but the place was virtually devoid of traffic. Very few people owned cars and for those that did, petrol was rationed to a few miles per month. You just travelled everywhere by bus, train or bicycle – or stayed at home. Part of the railway station and some buildings on the Broadway, also a large house at the top of the High Street were destroyed by bombing, but the town itself was never targeted. The station house remained a ruin for forty years.
The risk of invasion caused many people to leave the area in the autumn of 1940. Andrew’s nanny Alma was sent away with Andrew to a flat in, of all places, Lewisham. After a couple of weeks or so, parents George and Iris visited from Broadstairs to find themselves in the heart of the blitz. They had a difficult journey and were horrified to find Andrew and Alma living in a nightly maelstrom. It was not hard to decide that this was not a safe environment to leave Alma and Andrew so they brought them home to Broadstairs. Whatever the chances of an invasion the threat in London from the rain of bombs was immediate and severe, so the decision was easy. Most of the bombers headed for London and only larger towns like Dover and Canterbury were seriously targeted. Dover also suffered from shells fired from the enormous guns built at Calais in 1940. In 1942, Iris bought Andrew a wooden model of a London bus for his third birthday, complete with a bus conductor’s outfit and cap. The bus survives to this day and although it has had a repaint is pretty much in its original condition and still played with by younger family members. The shop which sold the bus, Lefevre’s in Canterbury, was destroyed by bombing not long after the bus was purchased.
It was pretty much a nightly routine from 1940 through to 1943 that after dusk the sirens would sound and bombers would head over the top. Those bombs that fell nearby were few and far between and we only occasionally had windows broken and ceilings cracked by blast. The Anderson shelter had mattresses and we took bedding with us but there was no light other than a candle and there was no heating in the shelter which was cold and uncomfortable with spiders and other creepy crawlies running about. It wasn’t long before we, like most people, decided that the small risk of being hit by a bomb did not justify the discomfort of turning out on a cold night to shiver in the shelter, much less spend the night there. Instead, a mattress was installed under the kitchen table in a passage that led off the kitchen, which meant we would not have been buried by rubble if the house had collapsed. At that time, there was no such thing as central or whole-house heating. There was a coal fire in the living room which had to be laid and re-lit daily. There was also a coke boiler in the kitchen which heated that room and water in the hot tank. The rest of the house was unheated. Cold nights were cold and you had to keep warm with the help of clothing and blankets. There was a coal shed at the side of the house and every year about half a ton of coal and coke was delivered and this was the sole source of heating. By this time the coal was delivered by lorry rather than horse and cart, but horse drawn carts were still used for jobs like street sweeping. Some people had paraffin stoves but the Partridge family did not get these until after the war.
The family did not return to sleeping upstairs until nearer the end of the war. The front bedroom was empty of furniture and became Andrew’s play room. It had linoleum on the floor but no other furniture and toys lay around in heaps. Gradually air raids became rarer as the RAF gained the upper hand over the Luftwaffe and we took the bombing to them. Just as the RAF had shot down many German bombers, many of our bomber crews became casualties after attacks by German fighters. One morning we heard that a Wellington bomber, returning damaged after a raid, had crash landed and come to a halt up against a house about a mile from us. I was taken along to see this and sure enough the bomber was sitting in the garden with its nose poking into a bedroom window. We were kept back while firemen removed the body of the rear gunner who had been killed by the attacking aircraft. Known as “tail end Charlies” rear gunners were the best chance of hitting back at attacking fighters but they also got hit first if the fighter’s bullets struck home. In September 1944, Andrew was playing in the garden of Grandma and Edie’s house with Bob Pantony, who was a year younger than Andrew and lived in the house adjoining the back garden – there was even a gate between the two gardens. It was a sunny early afternoon and the sky was suddenly filled with aircraft. Not just aircraft – there were Lancaster bombers towing gliders, hundreds of them. They were the ill-fated mission to Arnhem but to us it was just an awe-inspiring sight that seemed to go on for ages. Bob and Andrew have pretty much always been friends from about that time and ended up being best man at each other’s weddings, even going to each other’s golden wedding celebrations fifty years on. Bob’s father had been a shoe repairer with a shop near the Broadway, but he died of cancer when Bob was two and his sister June was a baby. That left Bob’s mum to bring them both up on her own on a meagre widow’s pension.
In the event no invasion took place, but there were raids and on at least one occasion a German gunboat came into Broadstairs harbour and fired on the beach and cliffs. After that, the beach was closed to the public for about a year. It was open again by 1944 and Andrew remembers learning to swim and trying to reach the soldiers who had climbed through the scaffolding to swim in the bay. By late 1943, the area began to fill up with soldiers assembling for the planned landing in Normandy in June 1944. At the end of Ethel Road was a tree-lined field which from 1943 was occupied by Canadian troops waiting to be sent to Normandy to retake France from the Germans. We got to know some of them and I remember a Canadian called Les who used to call quite often. But they all disappeared in the summer of 1944 and the place was quite empty once again. Earlier the field was also home to an ack-ack unit and shells would be fired into the night sky from 100 yards away. To encourage enemy bombers to fly higher and thus be less accurate with their bombs, barrage balloons half the size of a house would be sent up on mooring lines to about 1,000 or 1,500 feet. One of these burst and came down in our garden. This huge spread of grey canvas became Andrew’s paddling pool, with the edges supported by chairs etc. It took a bit of filling though.
Ironically, the worst damage the family home suffered occurred as late as Guy Fawkes night 1944 and was caused by a “Doodlebug” V1 flying bomb. These pilotless aircraft powered by a primitive jet engine with a very distinctive low farting sound carried a ton of explosives. They were launched from France or Belgium and aimed at London. False intelligence fed back to Hitler told him the V1s were overflying London and falling in the countryside beyond, so he ordered the range to be reduced. One of them ended up over Broadstairs when the engine cut out. There was an enormous bang as it hit a house about half a mile away, killing three people. The lights went out and most of the windows at the back of our house were blown in. They were leaded glass windows and bent lead frames had to be replaced which meant several chilly days with no windows. That was the night when Andrew took to alcohol. His Mum had poured herself a generous glass of port after the siren sounded. Andrew was quaking with nerves after the bang and when candles had been lit to give some light he picked up the glass of port and drained it. Well the quaking stopped.
It was quite a struggle to make a success of the shop during the war. It was often difficult to get supplies and a lot of the local people found it hard to manage, with menfolk away in the forces. Most food was rationed, so as well as taking cash, Alma had to ask for the right coupons to cover the items purchased. Rationing, of course would continue for seven years after the war and a Sunday job for Andrew was scrambling around on the living room floor sorting the coupons into type and value to send to the Ministry of Food. In other ways shopping was very different in those days. Most shops specialised in a much narrower range of goods than is usual today. Butchers and bakers and fish mongers were always separate shops and grocers who sold most foodstuff were mostly separate from green grocers who specialised in fruit and vegetables. The bakery in Sowell Street (150 yards from Ethel Road) sold beautiful crusty bread, but it was all white in those days and buns and stuff like that were an occasional seasonal treat. Because it was over half a mile from the nearest shop, the Vale Stores sold a wider range of foodstuff and other goods than most grocers and always did vegetables. Potatoes arrived in hundredweight sacks (ie the weight of a small man) and Alma managed these surprisingly well with the aid of a sack barrow. Most vegetables came in large boxes weighing about 40lb (20 kilos). In an era when we didn’t have fridges or freezers, a lot of food came in cans and boxes of two or four dozen cans filled the shop garage. For many years, tinned corned beef formed the meat content of dinner on several days a week. You still see it in the shops but it is regarded a s a cheap and cheerful basis for a meal. The only transport we had was bicycles and latterly a wooden barrow which Andrew used to deliver orders. A lot of customers wanted deliveries and we obliged them in those days. The shop had two long counters with ceiling high glass cases behind and customers were served one at a time with Alma or Iris finding what they wanted and putting it in their bag, whether it was potatoes and greens or cheese and bacon, packets or tins of stuff like tea and coffee, baked beans or sweets. Sweets were kept in large glass jars and Andrew never much liked the smell of them so he never got a taste for sweets. Customers usually asked for potatoes first, so you had to wash your hands every time when the next thing they asked for was cheese. Cheese (only Cheddar) came in huge 56lb (30 kilo) blocks which had to be cut first with a wire and then cut into segments to get portions of 100 or 200 grams. The customer would pay in cash (there were no credit cards in those days and most people did not even have a bank account) or have the amount owed put in a book to pay at the end of the week. And there were the rationing coupons to take as well. The till was simply a box with a bell which rang when you opened it. It did not keep count of sales or takings as the day went on. That all had to be counted up at the end of the day. On a Saturday morning there would often be a queue of seven or eight people waiting patiently to be served. Self-service and check-outs were still a thing of the future.