SELSDON  1938-1945 Part Five

It is the night of 10/11th May, 1941 and there is a very heavy raid.. The drone of the bombers and the ack-ack gunfire is unrelenting.. We have returned to the depths of our dug-out shelter, trying to sleep as best we can. Then, unusually, the sound of a low flying aircraft. It is circling and obviously in some difficulty. The engine sounds like that of a Merlin and has moments of spluttering and faltering. We deduce that it is one of our night fighters, clearly in trouble and trying to find an airfield on which to land. It gets lower. Then the engine stops and there are sounds of a crash. Outside, we look northwards. About half a mile away, there are flames. A short time after, there is the sound of exploding ammunition which continues for some time. We all feel sad and troop back to the safety of our shelter.

The next day, I find that the aircraft has crashed in Paxton’s orchard, one of the smallholdings in Selsdon Park Road (where Middlefields is today). There is little wreckage left to be seen but we are led to believe that it was a night fighter Hurricane flown by a Czech pilot. (Recent research confirms that he was indeed a Sergeant Behall of Czech nationality.)

Our accommodation is adapted to house sister Elsie, husband Lionel and baby daughter Sandra, who arrived on our doorstep having been made homeless by the bombing. One concern is how to squeeze everyone into our shelter during the nightly raids.  We need not have bothered. Suddenly and inexplicably, there were no more raids after the 10th May. We were then not to know  that the Luftwaffe squadrons were being withdrawn from France to locations in the east, to prepare for the onslaught on Russia some six weeks later.

Brother-in-law Lionel is a policeman stationed at Hither Green near Lewisham. Being on shifts, he commutes by bicycle most times. He has evidently undergone some bizarre experiences during the London blitz, about which he says little. One anecdote I do manage to extract from him. One day, he was called to a bomb incident in Lewisham. His task was to ascertain whether there was anybody, dead or alive, in the wrecked houses. One house had its side blown away. He entered the wreckage carefully and negotiated his way up the stairs which were rickety and unsafe, calling out to see if there were any survivors. He reached the toilet door which had been blown off its hinges and looked in. All that remained was the lower half of a torso. He completed his search feeling distinctly queasy.

The respite from the nightly bombing enabled  all of us to regain more of a normal life; the luxury of sleeping in an own bed and not  in a damp subterranean dugout. Our morale was lifted somewhat during 1941 when the R.A.F. took the initiative with bombing raids over northern France. The fighter escorts included those from Kenley. Because of the prevailing south-westerly winds, their landing approach was often made over Selsdon and we used to watch them return; the early ones in formation followed by individual stragglers, some pilots clearly nursing their engines and possibly low on fuel. The Battle of Britain had made celebrity heroes of some of the pilots (helped by the propaganda of the Ministry of Information.) One such was Squadron Leader Paddy Finucane. We heard he was now stationed at Kenley and had adopted the old RFC practice in the Great War of flying coloured streamers from his aircraft wings.  It was cheering to see him return overhead. (Alas,one day in 1942 he did not.)

Hitler’s onslaught on Russia in June, 1941 was a big surprise. Suddenly, our enemy had become an ally.

Although we had survived the onslaught in 1940, the war was not going well for us.

When Italy invaded Egypt in June 1940, the Suez Canal vital link to India became threatened.  We were able to inflict widespread defeats and took thousands of Italian prisoners, our Eighth Army invading Cyrenaica and Libya to the west. It was a shock when in March 1941, the German army under Field-marshal Rommel entered that arena. We eventually hear from my namesake cousin, a lieutenant in the 7th Hussars, who was there in the armoured division. He was fortunate to survive the extended and confused tank battle at Sidi Rezegh in November 1941. Our Crusader and Cruiser tanks, although speedy, were no match for the Mark III Panzers, being outgunned in  range and penetration. The desert war fluctuated with the vital port of Tobruk under siege much of the time. (Corporal Reg Stone, later to become a committee member of the SRA, narrowly missed being ‘put-in-the-bag’ when driving back to a base depot from there.)  After the fall of Greece and Crete, this was the only land-based theatre of war in which we were facing the Germans directly.

The battle in the Atlantic between the U-Boat and merchant ship was having a serious effect on our supplies. Back home, rationing was in full force and becoming more stringent. In June 1941, clothing was rationed, leading to the epithet: ‘Make Do and Mend’. (The white nylon parachutes of descending pilots became coveted items, being ideal for wedding dresses!)

The rationing system was generally fair but necessarily bureaucratic. Everyone was issued with a rationbook. It was not possible to shop around  – one had to register with one shop for groceries and for meat. For commodities not on ration, one relied on word of mouth and queued in hope. Supplies of fish was one example. On conclusion of the purchases, the shop assistant would laboriously cut out the necessary coupons with scissors. There evolved a standing joke, known as ‘Under-the-Counter’ trading. Most either benefited or suffered by it some time or the other. A stranger might enter a shop and the assistant would apologise for the absence of that particular titbit (perhaps kidneys or sausages). Perhaps a few minutes later, a regular customer or friend of the assistant would go into the shop. From the hiding place under the counter, the assistant would produce some of the things which a moment before were ‘out-of-stock’. It was well-known that the young and attractive females were somehow able to achieve many ‘u-t-c’ prizes, particularly with male shop assistants.  Men became annoyed when they could not get cigarettes or tobacco without pandering to the system. One complaint by the residents of Selsdon was the absence of a food office locally. For the issue of new ration books, one had to take the roundabout journey to Purley via Croydon (no direct bus route then.) Journeys by car were limited by petrol rationing.

The response to rationing shortages was to encourage a massive growth towards self-sufficiency. Gardens became tilled for fruit and vegetables rather than flowers; hens were also kept in many back gardens for the supply of eggs or an occasional rooster for the table. Spare plots of land were converted into allotments. The area behind Selsdon Farm (Somerfields site) and land in Ashen Vale were used for this purpose. Selsdon Park Hotel also allocated some land for use as allotments. The Government’s exhortation was: ‘Dig for Victory’. The smallholdings came into their own during this time and it was possible to supplement the meagre rations with fresh fruit, vegetables and occasionally other ‘under-the-counter’ items. There were no domestic freezers in those days, of course. The practice was to bottle produce in Kilner jars; tomatoes, plums and suchlike. These became a valuable stored resource. My infant years were during the depression. By 1938,  things were definitely improving in terms of the quality of life. Suddenly, we were plunged into a situation of severe shortage. Exotic fruit, such as bananas, oranges or pineapple were just not available. Even sweets became rationed. Strangely, however, I can never recall being hungry throughout those years of deprivation.

Of course, there were folk about who would capitalise on the shortages. There was always somebody who could supply one with a can of petrol or a bottle of whisky at premium prices. The character of Private Walker in ‘Dad’s Army’ portrays this type of person accurately.

Despite the travails and anxieties of that period, it was still possible to enjoy oneself, particularly as the trauma of nightly raids had finished. Cinemas flourished. I can recount no fewer than ten between Purley and Thornton Heath. The gem of these was, of course, the 3000 seat Davis Theatre with its impressive entrance foyer. This was known as the Rotunda, overlooked by a balcony restaurant which gave regular tea dances. As well as cinemas, there were stage shows and repertory at the charming Edwardian Grand Theatre. Also in North End was the Empire variety theatre. It was possible to enter this magical emporium at any time during a continuous performance and pick up the programme item from the illuminated sign by the stage. I recall seeing many of the notable music hall stars including George Robey, Harry Tate junior and Max Miller. Magic indeed.

Nearer home, the Red Knight café (next to the Gravel Hill garage) became a popular venue for the Canadians and the local talent at their twice weekly dances.

Back to Selsdon, I found myself as an undistinguished choirboy at St. John’s church. This was under the tutelage of the choirmaster, Mr. Forde. He tended to suffer what he considered foolish choirboys not gladly, particularly if the timing or an entry went awry. There was only a grand piano to accompany, the organ having been demolished by the bombing a year before. The incumbent vicar was the long standing gentle and pious Cyril Wayneforth. The downside for us young and impatient choirboys was the length of his sermons which encouraged much furtive passing of some rude notes between us. Later a curate arrived, a one Arthur Stevens who did some good work in initiating youth activities. He had a more informal approach to church life and we enjoyed his sermons – they were no more than five minutes long! He tended to be forthright and more than once I detected signs of discomfort amongst some more traditional members of the church establishment.

At that time, there was a plethora of entertainment put on by local groups. Tom & Doris Cooper (of the Selsdon Players) put on a series of revues at the Croydon Civic Hall, all in aid of charity. They were backed up by more local talent from Selsdon, including Floss Moseley and Marcus Spurway, local builder and scoutmaster who had superb comic talent and timing. (Marcus opened the first shop in Selsdon and is commemorated by a plaque in the St. John’s scout hut which he rebuilt after the war.) Tom Cooper ran a children’s dancing school and I recall one show at the Croydon Civic Hall at which his children performed a version of  The Fantastic Toyshop which was received rapturously. Doris Cooper was a superb accompanist and her talent was also matched by Pam Moore’s mother, Edna Medrow, who freely gave her pianistic talents to local shows. The Croydon Police Concert Party was formed and became a versatile and talented company with a growing reputation which raised considerable amounts for charity during the war years. Brother-in-law Lionel had now transferred to Croydon and, being gifted with a fine tenor voice, became known as ‘Croydon’s Singing Policeman’. There were many individual performers of note, at least one comedian, Sandy Sandford, became known nationally on the radio. My  mother was delighted to become this group’s resident pianist. (From our editor’s meticulous research, I discover that they gave a performance at Bailey’s Hall in April 1942.)

In December 1941, the United States entered the war arena following the sudden bombing of Pearl Harbour by the Japanese. One memory, shortly before that Christmas, did not however concern the war. It was simply a local incident.

My sister announces she is going to visit the shops. She takes my infant niece with her who is sitting upright in the pram. They have only been gone a few minutes when there is a loud and protracted crash, followed by a cascade of smaller explosions.

I run out quickly and find that, at the junction of Kingsway Avenue, Sundale Avenue and Abbey Road that there has been a vehicle collision. A Vauxhall saloon has been upended at the bottom of Abbey Road and inside are two elderly people. In the middle of the junction is Moore’s local wine merchant’s delivery van, completely wrecked. It is a three-wheeler and has been torn asunder by the impact. The driver has a cut head and is concussed. Mr. Moore’s eight year old son is a passenger and unconscious with a bump on his head the size of an egg.

Strewn over a wide area are scores of wine, beer and spirit bottles, some of which are amazingly unbroken. My sister with a strong presence of mind quickly secures the pram, tears off sheets and starts administering first aid. Someone has telephoned for an ambulance and help from other residents is already taking place. The ambulance shortly arrives and the injured are taken to hospital. Happily, we learn later that all fortunately recover from their injuries. My sister returns to the pram where my niece is still sitting up. There on the pillow behind her is a full quart bottle of beer which had flown through the air in a parabolic curve  after the impact and somehow missed her.

There was an interesting postscript to this incident. Mr. Moore visited the scene and was able to account for every bottle that had been broken. Unfortunately, a number of the unbroken bottles were missing.  Some locals had obtained an unexpected liquid bonus to their Christmas celebrations.  Or perhaps Private Walker had got there first?