Mum’s Memories of the Blitz
Machine-gunned in the streets. Sheltering in a metal cage under the table, as rockets destroyed rows of houses around them. These are some of the terrifying memories of my mother, Joyce Wait and my Uncle Ed, as they grew up in London during the Blitz – experiences that are hard for us to imagine today. We have all seen the films and read about WWII, but personal accounts of life at home during those dark days are rare and equally as important. This is their story – revised and updated.
In September 1939 the British Government declared war on Germany. The following year London and its citizens, were in the front line and at times under day and night bombing by the German Luftwaffe’s Blitzkrieg- or ‘lightning attack’. From 7th September 1941 for 76 consecutive nights, London was pounded mercilessly. Forty-thousand civilians were killed and one million houses were destroyed. From the 7th October 1940 till 6th June 1941, approximately 482 high explosive bombs and four parachute mines landed on Tottenham, where mum and her family were living.
At the age of eight, my mother was evacuated along with her sister, Dorothy (Dolly), away from London to Peterborough. They travelled by coach to stay with a Mr and Mrs Eric Collier, who owned a garage in Norman Cross, Wansford. The 1939 Register shows my Auntie Dolly living there on September 29th. (Mum’s name is not shown because of privacy regulations).
Mum and Dolly took with them a tin of corned beef, a bar of chocolate, and a gas mask, with their name and school written on a large label pinned to their coat. Mum was put in a church school and was the only girl amongst 28 boys! She remembered regularly being pinched on the backside by one particular boy, who sat next to her with a constant runny nose.
Eight weeks later, the two girls returned to London because Dolly was due to start work. But the bombings had got worse and they were evacuated once again, this time along with their brothers, Reg and Ken, to Farcet in Peterborough. The two boys stayed with an elderly couple called Mr and Mrs Osborne. Mum and Dolly were sent further up the road to live with a Mr and Mrs Gilbert (daughter of the Osbornes) and their three children, Bobby, Betty and Gillian.
After about six weeks, the two girls were very homesick. Dolly was expected to do a lot of housework and they both were very miserable. So, although London was facing terrible bombing, the girls once again returned home. But, Reg and Ken stayed with Mr and Mrs Osborne – even though, before school, they both had to saw-up railway sleepers, and at weekends work in the brickyards!
Meanwhile, their mother, Ada Coward (my nan), had also been evacuated. She had been living in 117 Tiverton Road, where she appears on the 1939 Register as a criptaless (confectioner), probably at Maynards sweet factory. Nan was sent to Cambridge, with her youngest child, Eddie, to live with two old retired female schoolteachers. On arrival, she was shown her bedroom up in an tiny attic and given a boiled apple for tea. The ceiling was so low, she couldn’t even sit up in bed, and kept banging her head. She was sick with worry about her children. So next morning, she packed her case and told them in no uncertain terms that she was going home!
Uncle Ed can remember several occasions when he got up early and caught a coach with his brother John, to visit their brothers Reg and Ken in Peterborough, 85 miles away.
It was while mum and her brothers and sister were living in Tiverton Road, that they had their first experience of the devastation that was about to come. One night, the Edward Webber wood factory at the top of their road was hit by a large bomb. Half the building was destroyed. But the bomb had not exploded, so the street was temporarily evacuated for a week. Mum and her family spent the night-time at Manor Park tube station. My Uncle Ed remembered a photograph in a local paper:
“…It showed the large defused bomb being hauled up manually by groups of men holding ropes slung under it and one dancing on top of it, to show the public it was safe. Where the building had been, they eventually put a brick built water tank, about 25 foot square and about six foot deep. This was to help provide water quickly for any local fires (and provide much amusement for kids-myself included).”
The morning after that bomb landed, mum could remember seeing a river of raw sewage running down the street, as she made her way to school.
The bombing raids intensified, both day and night. In Woodlands Park, a barrage balloon and an ‘ack-ack’ gun (anti-aircraft gun) were set-up. Some evenings, mum would sit up with her sister and watch the ‘dog-fights’ between the British and German planes out of their bedroom window.
Uncle Ed recalls the worst days of the Blitz in 1940 and described to me how the Germans dropped incendiary bombs. These were relatively small bombs, but loaded with phosphor, which caused fires on the roof of any house they happened to hit – hence the need to have water tanks nearby.
Like many young boys, he remembered picking up the pieces of shrapnel, some of it still warm, after a nights bombing raid. Pieces that were unusually shaped were the most popular amongst his friends. These jagged scraps of metal, often very sharp, were eagerly stored in their pockets.
When he was about 5 years old, Uncle Ed had a friend called Annie. She was a very pretty young girl. One day, while in the local park with her mother, the warning siren sounded. They rushed to the nearest air-raid shelter, but tragically it received a direct hit – both mother and daughter were killed instantly.
Next door to mum’s family in Tiverton Road lived Mrs Crevie. She lived on her own, and my nan often felt sorry for her. So one night, after the siren had sounded, she invited Mrs Crevie to join them all in the air-raid shelter.
As they all huddled together, with the bombs dropping around them, my Uncle John suddenly said he could hear machine-gun-fire. They all listened intently, until they suddenly realised it was Mrs Crevie’s foot, nervously tapping on the floor.
While mum was at school, my nan cleaned for a lady called Mrs Recognitzer. She was Jewish, and had escaped from Nazi persecution and moved to London. Tragically, the rest of her family had been shot. Mrs Recognitzer was a very kind woman – she always called nan, ‘my Ada’. Nan knew her as ‘Mrs Rex’.
At weekends, nan often took mum and Eddie to visit their grandfather, James Harris, at Chadwell Heath. But, usually on the return home, during the Blitz, there was a black-out. All trains were cancelled. So, they had to walk the five miles back from Liverpool Street Station, to their home in Netherton Road.
Devastation in December
The bombing raids got steadily worse and later it wasn’t just bombs that landed on London, but rockets as well. My Uncle Ed recalls the dreaded V1s which came a while after the actual blitz and were pretty terrifying:
“Unmanned small jet propelled aircraft loaded with high explosives. They were programmed to fly a certain distance, then the engine would cut out and it would just drop straight down. As far as the public were concerned the terrifying part was listening for the point where the sound of the engine stopped, and then to the hear just deadly silence, looking at each other while waiting for the explosion. I vividly remember one such occasion, one afternoon kneeling underneath our Morrison shelter facing Auntie Dolly, both of us looking at each other with our fingers over our ears in case the expected noise deafened us. Actually it fell about a mile and a half away, but one never knew exactly their position. There were others there at the time, but I can’t now remember who they were.
On two separate occasions, when I was out in the street with pals, I saw one come over. Looking back it seems funny now, but we all tore off in opposite directions to where they were flying.
The other weapon of terror devised by Germany to follow on from the V1s were the V2s.
They were fairly large rockets with high explosive warheads. They were, of course, unmanned and they travelled faster then the speed of sound so it was impossible to have any warning of their pending arrival. I believe (but cannot be sure) that they were all programmed to fall on London. They caused tremendous damage where they fell and it’s a good thing that the RAF managed to destroy a number of their launching sites otherwise the damage would have been so much greater.
I knew one lad at school that went to the pictures with his older sister, but when they came home their whole block of houses had gone (with their parents). My impression of the boy some while afterwards was that he was not permanently affected by this, but who can say?”
All this took their toll on my mum. She had a terrible experience in December 1941. It was a Sunday, and nan had taken mum, Ken and Eddie to the cinema. After watching the movie, they returned to Netherton Road in Tottenham for tea. At about 6pm, while nan was frying eggs and bacon for their evening meal, a V2 rocket landed a short distance away.
Mum described a horrific crash. The ceiling collapsed and the windows were sucked firstly inwards, then outwards and smashed into smithereens. Everybody dived into the Morrison Shelter.
Morrison Shelters were a way of protecting people in their own homes from falling bombs. This was an alternative to the Anderson Shelter in the garden (Nan’s shelter had filled with water) and the public shelters. This type of protection was named after the Home Secretary, Herbert Morrison. They were made of very heavy steel (almost like a cage) and could be put in the living room and used as a table. Underneath were springs for a mattress. One wire side lifted up for people to crawl underneath and get inside. In Mum’s home, it was Toby, their dog, who was always first inside the cage!
Everything in my nan’s house was covered in soot and rubble. The V2 wiped out Moreton Road, a short distance away and the whole surrounding block, including Fladbury Road. It left a crater about 30 feet across, which eventually filled with water. Uncle Ed explained to me that there was absolutely no prior warning of a V2’s arrival.
Whole families were killed. That night my nan and her children slept down the tube station.
This was in December, and Stamford Hill School had been rehearsing for a nativity play. In assembly the next day, the headmistress, Miss Lloyd, read out a list of children that had been tragically killed. Everybody was crying. My mum recalled that one of the dead girls was due to play the the Virgin Mary in the school’s nativity.
Mum has many memories of those dark days. She described to me how, after an air raid, her brother Ken dug out a man buried up to his neck in brick rubble with his bare hands.
One day, my mum was shopping with her sister Dolly and my nan. On their way back, they intended to visit a friend of the family, ‘Aunt’ Annie. But, suddenly there was the intermittent drone of a plane overhead. They knew straight away it was German, by the sound of its engine. Nan called out, “hurry up!” They ran as it began machine-gunning along the road. The plane then looped around and began shooting at them again. Luckily, they saw a door slightly open across the street and headed towards it, as fast as they could. “Come through,” a voice called from inside. After the plane had passed over, my nan thanked the owner who told them that she always kept her front door open for that reason.
At the start of the Blitz, mum’s eldest brother, John, lived for a while with Granny Coward (Harriet Diana Coward 1863-1947). He then volunteered to join the Royal Navy. His brother Reg, also wanted to join the Navy, but was disappointed when he was called up into the Army. Dolly also wanted to enlist, but due to her heart problems, she couldn’t. Instead, she worked in a munitions factory, which included making rivets for airplanes. After the war, Ken became a steward in the Royal Navy and Eddie joined the Royal Air Force.
Thankfully, none of mum’s family were killed or injured during WWII.
My Uncle Ed recalls the celebrations in London on VE Day:
“I remember the trip with your Nan and ‘Uncle’ Frank and some of the family to see the King and Queen on the balcony of Buckingham Palace. The huge crowds and afterwards trying to get home. At one stage the adults in our group linked arms to encircle the youngsters (your mum and me) in an effort to avoid us being squashed by the crowd. A bit scary for me, and I suppose also for your mum, but everyone was in a jovial mood. Then after a week or so there was the children’s street parties.”
Family history is not just about names and numbers. It is about people’s lives and how they lived them. So the importance of recording their memories is vital. They give us a priceless insight into life as it was, revealing details that can never be found in a text book. Sadly, one day this information could be lost forever. So, make sure those stories told by your parents and grandparents are not forgotten.
Very special thanks to my dear mum and Uncle Ed, for sharing with me their memories of those terrible times xxx.
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