War is declared

I find it a bit difficult to describe how the declaration of war affected me as an under seven year old. News and what was going on in the world was a lot more remote at that time, there was no television to show you world happenings as they happened, therefore, adults relied on newspapers and the radio and cinema newsreels to keep pace with events. At that age I was not good at reading, in any case I would not have understood what was happening even if was good enough at reading, which I was not, my father disapprove of us touching his paper anyway but the ‘News’ on the radio was never missed and so we children would begin to understand the seriousness of the situation not only by the tone of the news reader but also by the look on the faces of our parents.

There were very few pictures in the newspapers, those that were published were in black and white and of poor quality, however, I do remember very clearly the then Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain declaring war on Germany in a speech on the radio and equally as clearly I remember my father, who was profoundly deaf, cupping his left ear hard up against the radios speaker to hear Chamberlain speak, and that as Herr Hitler had ignored the request to withdraw his troops from Poland, we were at War with Germany. From that speech and from the look on my father’s face I knew that whatever war was, it was not going to be much fun. My father had fought in the trenches in the Great War [ I now know a little more about my fathers time in the army, more about that later] and although he and his two brothers survived physically unscathed, mentally they were greatly affected and rarely mentioned the horrors they had experienced and actually felt guilty because they had survived where so many of their fellow soldiers had been killed or gassed. Surprisingly he had no hatred of the Germans but had little time for the French. He had no great love of King and Country and the ruling classes that he thought had led us into the war and even less for the officer class that ran the war from well out of harms way at the rear of the actual battles.

At the time that the second war started nobody really knew what course this latest war would take and whether it would again be bogged down in trench warfare as the previous one, however, as nothing really happened after the declaration and the defeat of Poland, the optimists were confident that it would all be over before Christmas, nevertheless, preparations for the war had started sometime before the declaration and proceeded to affected everyone. At school, we children had all been fitted with gas masks, this was one of the things that happened before war was declared, they were very claustrophobic to wear, expelled air escaped from the mask along your cheeks with farting noise and the clear visor tended to mist up. The masks were fitted into unsubstantial cardboard boxes with a string handle to go over your shoulder, and were to be carried with you at all times. The poor quality of the boxes, which would quickly fall apart led to a substantial industry making rain and knock proof cases covered in various coloured oil cloth, artificial leather or other hard wearing material or your parents made them. At sometime after the start of the war an extra filtering system was added to the masks with white sticky tape making the snout a lot longer and clumsier. Being aware of the nastiness of gas warfare in WW1, it was the fear of a gas attack which scared me and many adults most. To that end there was much publicity to make one room in your house ‘gas proof ‘. I still have several cigarette cards of a series of not only how to ‘gas proof ‘a room but how to make blackouts and bomb shelters.

At school we were immunised and inoculated against small pox and diphtheria and had regular check ups from a school nurse mainly to inspect our heads for lice, it was considered a disgrace to be sent home with a note if such creatures were present. Childhood illnesses we rife back then and would account for most absentness, every year there would be an outbreak of one disease or another or more than one, which nearly every child, who had not already had it, would catch, which meant that most children would have had measles, chickenpox , hooping cough, german measles, mumps and some the more serious diphtheria and scarlet fever, which then meant going to the Isolation Hospital, located off of Oakmount Road in a remote spot and surrounded by a high green vomit green corrugated fence. If you had older brothers and sisters, there was a fair chance that you would have caught most of these infectious diseases before you went to school, which I suspect I had because I think it was at the end of my first year at school that I received a prize in the form of a book for best attendance, having not missed a single school day during the year.

The first thing that happened every morning once you were in the classroom was that the teacher would ‘call the register’ which was a ledger with ever child’s name listed in alphabetical order, when your name was called you answered ‘present Miss’. If you were absent from school without a good excuse, then your parents could quickly expect a visit from the School Board man to know the reason why, it was therefore almost impossible to play truant without being found out.

Other things occurred which had no direct affect on me, one being the blackout where the top half of all street lights, car lights and even torches were painted blue to reduce the amount of light going skywards. When total blackout was imposed all the street lights were extinguished. Any obstacle likely to walked into in the dark such as lampposts, trees, poles etc., had bands of white painted round them, the edges of vehicle mudguards were also painted white to make them more visible. One aspect of the blackout that did have an impact on everyone was that no light was allowed to escape from windows or doors, resulting in having to make them light proof with either shutters, heavy dense curtains or any other means that stopped the light escaping. Dad, being the craftsman that he was, made shutters from battening and sacking, in two halves for the sash windows for the kitchen and living room, which fitted neatly over the top and bottom sections of the windows each secured in place with four swivel wooden clamps. The shutters were of a lightweight structure to make it easier for mum to fit. Those two rooms were the only ones in the house to ‘blacked out’, consequently we could not have lights in any of the other rooms after dark, thus we learnt to get undressed and in to bed without lights during the winter months, something that I have done ever since.

Air Raid Wardens patrolled the streets to make sure the law was obeyed. I don’t know what the consequence were if you were caught showing a light, probably a fine or maybe prison, I don’t actually know. Double British Summer Time was introduced, I’m not sure exactly when, so that it was almost midnight before it got dark at the height of summer, therefore, we children were in bed and asleep long before nightfall. Many windows, particularly public buildings, had tape, about 2.5cm wide stuck diagonally across each pane to reduce or stop glass from flying from bomb blasts and this included the school. Some private houses in Chandlers Ford also went to these lengths but most did not, thinking that the village would not be a target. Under the stairs was regarded as the best place to take cover in a raid if no other shelter existed. To this end, my father did build a Dugout shelter into the bank of the stream that was at the bottom of garden. It was built of railway sleepers and probably to a designed based on those he used in the trenches in WW1, it was snug and dry, but we never used it because the government supplied Anderson Shelters to all families with young children, ours was sited close to the house which I suppose was considered a better site than Dad’s effort.

The Anderson Shelter was of prefabricated corrugated galvanised metal sheets which when bolted together was set approx: 3ft.[ 90cm] into the ground, forming a shelter roughly 6ft.[ 1.8m ] x 8ft.[2.4m] and 6ft [1.950m] high. The end sheeting stood higher than the curved side sheets so that they retained the spoil from the hole when it was piled over the top of the shelter, keeping the entrance hole clear. Sand bagged soil was then stacked up to form a barrier around the entrance. Householders had to dig the hole, the site being of their choosing, government workers fitted the shelter together and the householder finished the job off. On one side of the shelter my father built two wooden framed bunks with chicken wire springing, with an old kitchen chair for my mother on the other, he made no provision for himself as he worked away from home and was only ever present at weekends and would stay outside even during air raid and not without risk from falling shrapnel. The shelter was much nearer the house than that built at the bottom of the garden which dad demolished and filled in.

To complete the preparation for war an air raid siren, which become known as a ‘moaningmini’ was fitted on the roof of Hendy’s Showroom on Bournemouth Road, [recently demolished] which was then an agricultural equipment dealers and approximately half a mile away as the crows fly, it was regularly tested and was very loud and clear, a noise that even to this day, if I hear it on television, sends shivers down my spine.

Most rationing did not came about until 1940 but there was shortages of most things with sweets and ice cream almost disappearing, not that either of the items greatly affected my family or indeed most other working class families, as they were a rarity anyway, in fact, we had more sweets as a result of rationing because they had become an entitlement and people took that entitlement, which I believe was one quarter of a pound per person per week. Before the war, my father gave my sister and I one penny a week pocket money, my older brother probably got more, which we usually spent on a small bar of chocolate or during the summer months, on a triangular stick of frozen fruit juice in a cardboard sleeve which we purchased from an Walls Ice Cream vendor who would tour the streets at weekends in the summer months, on a tricycle with a cold box between the front wheels, soon after the war started the Ice Cream man no longer came but not only did we miss the ice cream but the penny as well, as my father deemed that as there was no longer anything that we could purchase for a penny, he stopped the money as well. If that gives the impression that my father was a bit mean, well he was where money was concerned.

Amongst the many luxuries to disappear or became scarce was oranges, bananas and grapes and although these fruits were real luxuries to working class people they were badly missed at Christmas time where oranges in particular were used as stocking fillers, in my case, along side a lump of coal and a potato and very little else. Despite this meanness, I still believed that Santa had brought it and continued to believe in him even though the orange also disappeared.

Shortages also affected the school with all the disposable items such as paper, pencils, chalk and pen nibs etc., so that every piece of paper had to be used fully and sparingly, pencils were used up to the point that they were just stumps and so short you could hardly hold them. The War effort was such that almost everything was in short supply and that included school equipment such as desks and chairs and other such gear. The newly opened Senior School in Leigh Road called North End which served secondary children from both Eastleigh and Chandlers Ford was particularly badly hit by shortages as it was still not entirely equipped when the war started. My brother [ cousin] was one of the first pupils in the new school, he became House Captain, Sports Captain and Head Boy and Head Prefect, none of which my sister nor myself ever achieved, often being told by some of the teachers that we did not measure up to his abilities, nevertheless we were very proud of him. Rod was good at all the academic subjects and all sports and which I was average at but to compensate I was better than him in a number of subjects including geography, woodwork and throughout my whole school life I was top of the class in art and craft and pretty good at singing, however, his subjects were considered more important and counted for more praise.

At this point in time the reality of war was still a bit remote for we children but that was about to change. At this point it is necessary to recap on the events that had happened in Europe after the declaration of war.

Three days before our declaration of war on the 3rd September 1939, the Germans were already fighting in Poland and by 5th October Hitler had a victory parade in Warsaw, meanwhile Russia had also attacked Poland from the East. With Poland defeated, Hitler could now concentrate his efforts on their western front, having come to an agreement with Russia for Germany to occupy the western side of Poland with Russia to occupy the other half. It was after that time that Hitler decided to launch his attack in the west. But there was a period of time between the defeat of Poland in October 1939 to the following April 1940 before his attack in the west, which became known as the ‘phoney war’, where nothing happened on land although a great deal was happening at sea, it was during this period that the Graf Spey was scuttled in the River Plate in South America after an epic battle with Royal Navy.

It was when Hitler attacked Demark and Norway that the reality and closeness of war was to become apparent. On the 9th April 1940 the Germans attacked and conquered Norway through Denmark which offered little resistance with only 13 dead and 23 injured, on the 19th May he attacked the rest of western Europe through Belgium and Holland which surrendered on the 14th May, on the 17th Brussels was captured, such was the speed of the Germans advance that Mussolini, also a fascist, who seeing that Germany was making mincemeat of the Allies, sided with Hitler and declared war on France and Britain on the 7th June, on the 20th June, attacking France from the south. France surrendered on the 25th June. Thus in just over two months Hitler had captured Denmark, Norway, Holland, Luxembourg, Belgium and France and with Italy siding with Germany a good deal of the Mediterranean had also become alien, Britain had now become very isolated, as Spain had already become a Fascist country in 1938, and had close links with Hitler’s Germany.

Why was it possible for this rapid advance to happen? The French had built the massive Maginot Defence Line extending from Switzerland along the French, Luxembourg and German border but it did not extend along the border through Belgium, however the German Siegfried Defence line on the other hand, which opposed the Maginot Line, extended up to the Dutch border and it was across this undefended Belgium border that the Germans attacked France cutting off the British Expeditionary Force resulting in the famous evacuation from Dunkirk. By attacking France through the undefended Belgium border made the Maginot Line completely useless.

Numerically the opposing armies were much the same in size but the French army was both badly trained and equipped the British although much better trained were also very badly equipped, they also had the antiquainted view that this new war would be much like the previous one and fought from trenches. The British Navy however far exceeded the Germans in numbers at least but what the Germans lacked in numbers was made up to some extent by the quality of their ships and their submarines. As far as the air forces were concerned, the Germans not only outnumbered the Allies but their planes, apart from the Hurricane and Spitfire, were far superior, a large number of our aircraft were still old fashioned biplanes including some of our bombers which really belonged to the First World War.

With such a rapid and overwhelming defeat of the western European countries Hitler was upbeat with his chances of also defeating Britain that his intention was to invade Britain in September 1940 and so just over two weeks after the fall of France that on July 10th he started to bomb targets in England, Southampton being one of the earlier targets and I remember a daylight raid when we were at school and seeing a German plane, probably a Stuka dive bomber, diving on Eastleigh Airport, as we crossed from the school to the shelter. In the shelter we sat on wooden benches in the semi-dark with just a little light filtering in from entrance, I can’t remember for how long the raid went on but I do remember that that was the only occasion that we used the school shelters. After the raid we returned to our class rooms as if nothing had happened after school walking home on my own as usual. This bombing attack was aimed at the aircraft industry at the air port and the shipping industries at Southampton along the River Itchen. I don’t know what damage was done nor how many casualties there were but I do believe there were a number killed. I was seven and half years old at the time of this raid and it was my first experience of the reality of war and seeing that diving plane is imprinted in my memory.