SELSDON  1938-1945 : Part Seven

By the end of 1942, the war situation seemed to turn in the Allies favour.  Alamein had been won and the Afrika Corps was being pursued across Libya by the Eighth Army. The American force had landed in Algeria (in the hope that the French would not resist! They did!) Admiral Darlan on behalf of the local Vichy troops negotiated a truce which Marshal Petain immediately repudiated and the unfortunate Admiral was assassinated shortly afterwards. German troops then immediately entered  the Unoccupied Zone of  France to counter the obvious threat. As 1943 arrived, there was very heavy fighting in Tunisia, notably at the Kasserine Pass. By May, however, North Africa had been taken by the Allies and Sicily was invaded in July, the campaign coming to a successful conclusion in August. The German Army had surrendered at Stalingrad and were in retreat elsewhere. Troops from that front were withdrawn to Italy to deal with the threat there. There had been a summit conference at Casablanca in January  between Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin. What we did not know at that time was that a policy had been agreed: ‘Germany First’. As a result, the Americans deployed only 30% of their forces to the Pacific. Nevertheless, the Allies were making inroads in New Guinea and Guadacanal. My cousin’s regiment had helped cover the retreat through Burma and eventually the Japanese advance was held on the borders of India. By May 1943, the Battle of the Atlantic was also turning in our favour. Our shipping losses dropped dramatically. This enabled a build-up of men and materials in the U.K. and ensured that we would not starve!

Against this world-wide scene of conflict and mayhem, life in our small corner of the globe carried on. The prevailing attitude was ‘just to get on with it’! By 1942, the friendly Canadians billeted in Featherbed Lane and Palace Green had long since gone to we knew not where. (They left behind not one garden fence, all of which had been  used for firewood!).  Waste of any kind was to be deplored and efforts at re-cycling were paramount. Everyone was urged to put out separate containers in addition to the mandatory dustbin. These included paper, cardboard and cartons. Household bones were also kept separate for turning into glue for aeroplanes, etc., glycerine for explosives, fertiliser or feeding stuffs. One ton of metal and tins was said to provide 150 shell cases for 18 pounder shells. Rags and old clothing provided rugs, blankets and uniforms. Clean woollen waste, when graded, was valuable. Edible food waste we  were also urged to save, if not for garden compost then for feeding pigs or poultry.

Although we were spared the stress of nightly air raids, there was quite a severe one on 17th January 1943. There were also daytime ‘hit-and-run’ raids, fighter bombers flying in and out at almost ground level:

It is Wednesday, 20th January. I happen to be at home having a lunchtime snack. The sirens sound. I go outside to see what is happening and sit on the front gate looking northwards across the fields towards Addington. Suddenly a plane appears, very low and near the  direction of Gravel Hill flying from left to right. Some seconds later, a further one, nearer and then another, nearer still. Strange, I think. When the  Croydon airfield is scrambled, our fighters usually  appear above us at a few thousand feet and climbing. I hear the sound of gunfire. Then a further plane appears, even nearer. A radial engine? That’s not a Spit or Hurricane! I note the black cross. Focke-Wulf 190’s!  Then another appears, only about one hundred feet above Ashen Vale. I can see the pilot and his features very clearly. It is so quick that I am too stunned to do anything and remain transfixed on top of the gate. It is then over.  Eventually, I regain my ability to move but am not in the mood to finish my lunch.

The next day, we learn that this group had bombed a school at Hither Green, near Lewisham, killing some 53 pupils and teachers. Also at Heathfield (where Monks Hill is today)  two of  Percy Thrale’s racehorses were being exercised at the edge of the field by Selsdon Park Road. One of the horses had been killed by a cannon shell but fortunately the stable lad survived by diving into a nearby ditch.

Throughout that period and despite the many privations, there was a very strong sense of community and much was made of home-grown entertainment and social events in Selsdon. The hall above Bailey’s Garage became a focal point for these and other social activities, bearing in mind that St.John’s church hall had been demolished in the 1940 bombing. The facilities at the garage hall were excellent, with a stage, dressing rooms, kitchen and, above all, a beautiful maple wood sprung dance floor. Not only would this venue be used as a civic restaurant during the daytime but would cater for a variety of stage shows, social events, a base for the Village Club and, not least, for dances most weekends.

I am grateful to Tom Buckett for the following recollections, made on a notepad by his wife, Paddy, only a short time before she died last November (bless her.)

About this time, Paddy (nee Pullen) and some school friends decided to put on a charity show  in aid of comforts for the troops, this venture being organised by a lady in Byron Road. The whole project was actively supported by the parents and also by the headmaster of Selsdon Central School, Mr. McKay, who allowed rehearsals to take place at lunchtimes in the school hall. The show was entitled ‘Spitfire Follies’. I recall it made quite an impact at the time and the performances were sold out.  Paddy recalled the entertainers included Irene Harwood, Barbara Garland and Kathleen McDaniel. Mrs. Harwood directed, Mr. Harwood the scenery, Irene’s aunty Rose the costumes and Mrs. Medrow was at the piano. Paddy’s dad was co-opted to play several parts, being a complete change from his duties as Company Officer i/c the Auxiliary Fire Service stationed at the Selsdon Park Stables.

My mother could be a little fey at times. One morning, she related a vivid dream in which cousin Raymond was walking on crutches. This suggested that he had sustained a foot wound. We treated this story with a little scepticism. About three weeks later we learned that, indeed, he had received such an injury. Hmmm. In May 1943, his regiment was moved to Iraq, presumably to counter any move towards the Suez Canal from that direction. It was hot – boredom set in and sickness prevailed. The following month they were moved to Aleppo in Syria, which was an improvement, then in September to Suez.

In July 1943, Croydon suffered a further hit-and-run raid. The enemy aircraft scattered their bombs over a wide area between Thornton Heath and East Croydon. One scored a direct hit on the Acc & Tab factory in Aurelia Road, West Croydon, killing five people.

As the year turned into 1944, a there was an increasing mood of optimism. Slowly, but with much effort and human cost, the Allies were gaining ground in the Pacific, Italy and in Russia. There was a sense that 1944 could be a vital year and in that surmise, we were not to be wrong. I had a personal goal at this time.

It may surprise younger readers that my generation also had a gap year (or two.) This was the period after leaving school and awaiting receipt of a  buff envelope marked ‘O.H.M.S.’  This would contain what Spike Milligan euphemistically called: ‘…receiving an invitation from H.M. King to come and be killed’!

This gap period was known as ‘Getting A Job’! This would be a wartime adventure itself.