My name is Michael Bassey and these are my wartime memories as a child living in Orpington, 20 miles south of London..
I was seven years old when the war broke out: we lived in Orpington, a few miles south of London. I still shudder when, on vintage films, I hear the air raid siren. But it is of my parents’ fortitude and response to crisis that I want to write, which no doubt mirrored that of thousands of others at that time.
My father was a local government officer working for Westminster City Council in what was called “a reserved occupation”, ie he was not called up for military service. One of his minor duties in 1939 was to prepare a plan for the mass evacuation of Westminster if there should be a German invasion. My mother was a house-wife spending her time shopping, cooking, washing clothes, keeping the house tidy and walking me a mile to and from school in 1939. We didn’t have a car. Father and I had bicycles. Mother walked. Longer distances were by train or bus. They both had grim memories of the 1914-18 war: she lost a brother and his elder brother was badly gassed.
In 1938, with war clouds looming, my parents dug an air-raid shelter in the garden: at first it was just a trench lined with table tennis boards and corrugated iron over the top. They fitted blackout over all the windows of the house and then glued brown paper strips over the glass to reduce any damage from blast. A builder made the garden trench into a strong brick-lined, concrete-covered shelter where we spent many nights during bombing raids.
Father had been pacifist beforehand, but now that the chips were down he joined the Home Guard, and regularly did fire-guard duty overnight on top of Westminster City Hall. One night, almost single handed, he put out a major fire in the building: my memory of it is my mother complaining that his suit was damaged beyond repair. Walking across the lawn to the air raid shelter that night mother and I had seen a red glow across the sky – London burning. I was probably ten when father brought home an incendiary bomb, set it off in the garden and had me extinguish it with a hand-operated stirrup pump: “aim at the bottom of the flame, Michael”.
The V 1 s were pilotless jet planes carrying high explosive and aimed at London. At night you could see the flare from their jet engines. I remember one dark night in June 1944 when we were on the way across the garden to the shelter mother saying, “What a cheek. That German bomber is coming over here with its lights on”. Father told us that he’d heard a confidential report about these new weapons that the Germans were about to launch from bases in northern France. We saw lots of them fly overhead towards London, making a distinctive droning noise. It was safe while you could hear them, but if the engine cut out that meant it was diving to the ground and would explode on impact. More than once in the kitchen I remember mother pushing me under the table as a droning noise stopped.
Later came the V 2 s. These were powerful rockets that arrived without warning – causing an explosion enough to destroy several houses and marked by a plume of smoke. Father and I were at Orpington station in a train for London (early 1945 probably) when one landed nearby and we saw the plume of smoke in the direction of our home. The train rocked and then departed. Arriving at Charing Cross we telephoned home, father must have been very fearful, but mother was ok. It had landed in Elm Grove a quarter of a mile from us and some of our windows were blown in. We returned immediately and spent the rest of the day clearing up broken glass, and nailing thick card across window frames –. Aged twelve I put on my scout’s uniform and went to help neighbours board up their windows. We were fortunate to sustain no other damage and no injury throughout the war.
My mother joined the British Red Cross, learned first aid, gave blood at Orpington Hospital to wounded soldiers (I remember her sadness when one, who had had a direct transfusion from her, died), and kept an eye on the houses of several of our neighbours who had moved to safer parts of the country. Later she went to work at the Council Offices in the Fireguard Department – before marriage she’d been a short-hand typist and her skills were valuable. When father’s shirts wore thin at collar and cuffs she reversed them with needle and thread: likewise worn sheets were cut and re-stitched ‘sides to middle’. ‘Make do and mend’ was the slogan. When I naively asked, “Will we win the war?” she answered, “Yes. Of course.”
They belonged to a local tennis club and when waste land at the club was apportioned for allotments they took one. Throughout weekends in the summers of the 1940s they alternated between playing tennis and growing vegetables – potatoes, carrots, greens, marrows, beetroot, peas and beans. They had to learn how to double dig, sow seeds, nurture the plants, when to harvest, how to store, how to rotate the crops year by year. The slogan, of course, was ‘Dig for Victory’. Mother kept garden fruit in Kilner jars, made jams, salted runner beans, preserved eggs with water-glass. We didn’t keep chickens, but some of our friends did, and I recall one late summer going out into nearby fields, after the wheat was cut, gleaning – picking up what ears the machines had missed, for chicken feed. I think our waste food – there wasn’t much – was collected for pig food.
Notwithstanding the peril from the skies we were a happy family, and I am sure that my parents felt that they were making a valid contribution to winning the war.
Thousands of families could tell similar stories. I tell it to illustrate the way in which, at a time of grave peril, families responded with resilience and courage and learned to cope with new ways of living.
Michael Bassey September 2019