Selsdon 1938 - 1945 Part Nine

I now had a job in London and bought my first rail quarterly season ticket. Seemed expensive at the time - £3 pounds, eighteen shillings and seven pence.

I was first struck by the large numbers of people in various uniforms, of polyglot nationality.  Britain mobilised a higher proportion of its population than any other combatant nation. By 1944 22% of the working population was in the services and another 33% in war work. Women had replaced men in factories, public transport and on the land. Men were not only drafted into the forces but down the mines as well.  Walking  about in London, the proportion in the armed services seemed very much more, enhanced no doubt by the attraction of London as a venue for leave taking and by the various nationalities. The Commonwealth was much in evidence; Canadian, Australian, Indian, Sikh, Gurkas from Nepal, South African and the Caribbean. Others included the Free French, Polish, Czech, Norwegian, Dutch and Danish. Piccadilly Circus was awash with Americans, attracted by the American Red Cross Rainbow Corner centre just along Shaftesbury Avenue. By 1944, about one million Americans had arrived in this country. It is true to say that there was some resentment of them by some Brits. Not only were the Yanks very well equipped with high quality and attractive uniforms but they also appeared to have loadsamoney!  They were never short of luxuries or food and had tempting attractions for the indigenous ladies, for example, high quality nylon stockings! A common critical remark heard was: “They were late for the first lot – now they are late for this one!”  All in all, however, they were generally welcome although many Brits enjoyed taking some down a peg or two when meeting what they thought was a bragging attitude by some of our ex-colonial allies.

The London transport system amazed me by its excellence, considering the war damage and continued running of old rolling stock. Trains, although crowded, generally ran on time. The bus and taxi services were first rate, helped no doubt by the relative absence of vehicles on the road. Some cars, vans or taxis were converted to gas and were driven around sporting huge balloon-like bags on their roofs.  An absorbing attraction was the Kingsway tram tunnel which ran from the then new Waterloo Bridge to Southhampton Row.

Clambering the 400 or so steps to the Stone Gallery at St. Paul’s Cathedral, I was amazed at the acres of complete devastation around  and marvelled at how such a building could have possibly escaped destruction or serious damage.

During the summer months, the hitherto unseen cellars of the demolished buildings were covered with the light blue flowers of the rosebay willow herb, from seeds which had lain dormant for many a century. All bomb sites housed circular tanks filled with water and marked ‘EWS’ – Emergency Water Supply’. This was a lesson learnt from 1940 when the fire service had insufficient water supplied during the blitz and particularly when the Thames was at full ebb.

Despite the limitations of rationing, it was possible to get reasonably good quality meals or snacks. The Lyons’ Corner Houses in Coventry Street, The Strand or Tottenham Court Road were very good value with a choice of self-service, a Salad Bowl or waiter/waitress service. The Lyons tea shops with their waitress ‘Nippy’ service were also well patronised. (Their individual fruit pies were four and a half old pence!) There was always the splendid sandwich bar in Great Queen Street run by an Italian family where one could get  a cheese or ham roll. But for a really slap-up home cooked pie and veg with a sumptuous roly-poly sweet, it was not possible to beat the ‘Somervilles’ greasy spoon at St. Giles’ Circus.  I was astounded by the large number of milk bars which existed, one in the middle of the journalistic ‘booze’ centre, Fleet Street. Opposite the office in Kingsway was the ‘Laughing Cow’ milk bar where I first sampled a delectable iced coffee.

At home, we learn that my namesake cousin, now a captain in the 7th Hussars, has landed in Taranto, Italy on the 4th May 1944. From then on, his regiment battled their way up the Adriatic coast. We have sad news of another cousin, Cecil Rhodes, a pilot in Bomber Command. His plane is shot down over Rumania after bombing oil fields there. He does not survive. (He will be just one out of 55,000 casualties of Bomber Command.)

The deputy managing director invites me to join him on a trip to the Castle Bromwich aircraft factory at Birmingham. We go in his SS Jaguar (wow!) and travel along the A.5. Well known names are encountered along the route; Dunstable; Fenny Stratford, Stony Stratford and Daventry, then home to the forest of BBC transmission masts. We pass Meriden, the so-called centre of England.  The next day, I am given a tour of the truly huge Vickers Armstrong aircraft factory which makes Spitfires and Lancaster bombers.  For the first time, I now begin to have a true understanding of the vast organisation and human toil involved in the war effort.

I am to be overwhelmed by the experience.

The morning after arriving in Birmingham, I am given a guided tour of the massive aircraft factory at Castle Bromwich which, I am told, employs some 10,000 people.

My guide takes me first to the Spitfire assembly plant. The building must be at least one quarter of a mile long and two assembly lines are in progress. At the beginning, the pre-stressed metal plates are being riveted on to the airframe. The noise is deafening and one has to lip read throughout. I am surprised by the fact that this work is being done all by women. As we go  along the line, the fuselage grows, sprouting a tail plane, followed by a cockpit, then the wings. As the construction progresses, the work is then taken over by white overalled technicians as engines magically appear on overhead gantries to be fitted. Whilst on the jigs at the end, the electrics and hydraulics are tested before the aircraft is lowered to the ground to rest on its undercarriage. The completed aircraft is then towed outside to the apron and engine tested.

The adjacent assembly building is even more impressive with one production line of huge Lancaster bombers. The procedure is similar but on a far larger scale, there being four Merlin engines to be fitted and far more complex electrics and hydraulics to be tested.

With the final testing  approved,  the aircraft are then towed across the road to the adjoining airfield to be flight tested. There, the pre-war record breaking flyer, Alex Henshaw and his test pilot team put all the completed aircraft through stringent flying routines. If these prove positive, the approved aircraft are allocated to airfields across the country and are flown to by members of the Air Transport Auxiliary. I am introduced to their crew room and am surprised to find that  most are young women. They are a jolly crowd. How do they get back after delivering the new  airplanes, I ask? Sometimes, they are lucky to get a lift back by friendly aircrew in an Avro Anson or suchlike, otherwise it means  public transport.

The next visit is to ‘Q’ Block, the administrative area. This is also a massive enclave, housing hundreds of draughtsmen and women. Here it is possible to indent for blueprints or technical drawings of any component, running into many thousands. The scale of the enterprise I find difficult to comprehend..

My final visit is to the very large canteen which is run by our company. Three  lunchtime sittings are organised between the hours of twelve noon and two o’clock, each for 1000 workers. High regard is paid to the nutritional value of the meals. In one corner of the canteen is a large stage which sometimes hosts the radio ‘Workers’ Playtime.’  The scale and efficiency of this operation I also find impressive. In addition, a mobile trolley service is provided throughout the workplace  twenty-four hour shifts to save any undue interruption to production. Tea is served at 1 penny a cup and I am told this generates a generous  profit which helps subsidise the canteen meals service.

I leave the factory with a far greater insight into the war effort and the sheer energy and organisation which is involved.

The effect of that memorable visit has left me with an abiding impression. The beginning of my company’s involvement with the catering was interesting. In June 1940, the Castle Bromwich factory actually went on strike, soon after Dunkirk and when the threat of invasion was very real! The alleged complaint was about the lack of tea breaks and adequate catering facilities. It was said that this potentially ruinous strike was inspired by communist union members who were against the war, particularly after the Russo-Germany peace pact. When Russia was invaded in June 1941, this view was rapidly changed! (As a contemporary postscript, it is interesting to learn that Alex Henshaw is still with us at the age of 93 and took part in the recent 70th anniversary of the first flight of the Spitfire in 1936.)

Back in London, I had to make several visits to the Ministry of Information based in the impressive London University art deco building near the British Museum. This had a strange ambience, a centre where strict control was made on all matters concerning censorship of information about the war and judgements made about what could be released or not for public digest. I enjoyed visits to Fleet Street which, in those days, had a wonderful atmosphere and imparted a smell of hot metal printing plates and newsprint. Occasionally, I would increase my age and mingle with the Lunchtime O’Booze reporters in the lunchtime pubs, such as the Old Cheshire Cheese. It was possible there to eavesdrop and discover all matters not privy to the general public.

In the meantime, it was still possible to find good entertainment and leisure activities in wartime London. With a friend, we visited to dynamic new show at the Prince of Wales theatre. It was  called ‘Strike a New Note’ and featured a newly discovered comedian, Sid Field. This itself was a joke as he had been a success on the halls in the provinces for some twenty-five years. The show was peopled by a very young and energetic cast. (I recently discovered the programme in my attic – listed in the supporting cast were two nineteen year olds, named Eric Morecambe and Ernie Wise!)  Zoe Gail sang the new Hubert Gregg hit, “I’m Going to Get Lit Up When the Lights Go On in London”. Sid Field had a superb technique in working the audience. It was sad that he died young at the age of forty-nine some five years later and before his talent was more widely appreciated. We stumbled out of the theatre into the stygian darkness of the blackout, our ribs aching due to almost continuous laughter.

Other leisure activities were abundant other than cinemas and theatres. The summer Promenade Concerts had settled in their new venue at the Albert Hall, following the bombing of the old Queen’s Hall in 1941. There were lunchtime concerts at the National Gallery. Museums and art galleries were still attracting visitors although displays some displays were limited.  Kew Gardens was popular (entrance fee one old penny!). Back in Croydon, the attractive ice rink at Purley was also popular and attracted a large clientele where I achieved great exercise in falling over.  I had also undertaken explorations by bicycle.

It is difficult today to convey the freedom that cycling gave at that time. There was little traffic on the roads. Safety helmets were unheard of and the thrill of the air in one’s face whilst speeding down hill was one of unrestricted delight. Armed with only a pre-war motoring map, I spent  hours exploring the byways of the Weald of Kent, at times getting hopelessly lost. This was all too easy as all signposts and location signs had been removed in 1940. Just as the buds of springtime were breaking in 1944, I commenced such a journey of exploration.

I gather speed down the early descent of Titsey Hill, culminating in a breathtaking acceleration at the bottom attaining enough  impetus to give me half a mile of freewheeling. I pass through Limpsfield village and cross the common. There, by the golf course and continuing to almost Crockham Hill is  parked a large convoy of American Sherman tanks. They have stopped for a break and I pass the time of day with a sergeant who is nonchalantly leaning against his vehicle. He pulls out a packet of Lucky Strike cigarettes to light up and throws me a packet of gum (what else?) I venture to ask: ‘Is this ready for the big one?’ He replies with a drawl of an American southern state (which I recognise courtesy of Hollywood):

‘Could be, boy – could be.’

On returning home, I report my theory  that perhaps the invasion of Europe by the Allies could be imminent. My parents treat my information and conclusion with some diffidence. Then, some weeks later:-

It is Thursday morning,  6th June 1944. At about 9.30 a.m. the Cockney newspaper vendor outside the office starts shouting, at least two hours earlier than usual. Her call usually advertises the three London evening newspapers as a portmanteau expression:- ‘TarNoostandard!’ We lean out the windows and see that newspaper vans are arriving in quick succession with a special edition. Someone turns on a radio in the office and we hear the announcement by General Eisenhower of the invasion of Europe. A galvanised excitement runs through the office. This suddenly turns into a quietness. I become aware of small groups of women  employees, secretaries and suchlike exchanging hushed  concerns. I then realise that all have menfolk serving in the armed forces. Some have not been heard from their loved ones  for a while, others have received  letters which the censor has blocked out certain lines  with his blue pencil.

Many of the women understand that all this has implied ‘something is up’. They have been proved right.

At about 11.00 a.m. we hear a thunderous noise of aircraft. Overhead are scores of medium bombers, American Marauders and Bostons, all heading in a south-westerly direction. This is certainly for real. Overriding the emotional concerns ,there is a feeling of elation.   

This feeling of elation was to be short-lived. Exactly one week later, it would be replaced by anxieties caused by a totally unexpected menace from the skies.