A Childs View



I must warn you that the account below is the war as seen through the eyes of a child, as I was only nine when it started!

The Peter Steele Story

In 1939 I was a nine year old living with my widowed mother in south-east London. Mother being the only bread-winner, we were, needless to say, rather poor, however, such things did not worry a nine year old, and they were happy times as I recall.. In the early summer grown-ups always seemed to be talking about someone called Hitler, and said a war was coming soon. One day mother and I had to go to the local town hall along with lots of other people to be fitted with gas-masks. To me it was just a game, and I thought people looked silly with these rubber things pulled over their heads, with just their eyes peeping out through a celluloid window. They told us that we had to go home and stick tape in a criss-cross pattern over all our windows, so that when the Germans started to bomb us, the blast from the bombs wouldn't throw glass allover the room. Mother didn't do that; she was very house-proud!

Later in the summer the government decided that all children living in the London area were to be evacuated out into the country where they would be safe. Mother packed a large case for my cloths, and we took it to school, the idea being that the whole school would all go together. There were three false starts, first we were going, and then it was cancelled at the last minute, but one day the head-master came into the class and told us all to pack away our things as we were leaving that morning We were loaded onto buses and taken to the local railway station where we found hundreds of other children from different schools around the neighborhood.

Somehow mother who was at work heard that we were leaving and she rushed down to the station where she was in time to give me a hug, and of course to tell me to be good! I did not see mother again for two and a half years. The train set off and even the teachers did not know where we were going. Eventually we arrived at a town called Tonbridge, and were taken in buses from there to a village about eight miles away. At the village school we were met by a fleet of cars which took us to houses allover the place. Many children finished up in homes where they were very unhappy, in fact quite a number ran away, back to London.

I was very lucky however, and was placed in a lovely home where the people were very kind. I called them aunty and uncle, and they were very rich. It seems that uncle came from South Africa originally, and his family owned a gold mine. Although they had two sons, one a major in the army, the other a Lt.Cmdr. in the Royal Navy, they treated me as one of their own. Uncle went off to join the army which left just aunty and I together. I had been living there for just over a week when war was declared on the 3rd. of September 1939. Within minutes of the announcement on the radio, the air-raid siren sounded and we all had to put on our gas-masks. You had to carry your gas-mask with you wherever you went. Mine was in a card-board box which came with it, and I carried it over my shoulder on a piece of string. The supposed air-raid on that occasion turned out to be a false alarm.

Nothing happened in the first part of the war. Winter came and we had lots of snow, and I learned to ice-skate on the lake which was in the grounds of a neighbor. There did not seem to be any shortages that I was aware of, and life was good; not least from my point of view because there was no school. They hadn't got anywhere to teach us, as the local village school was full up with local children and there just wasn't room for all the London children. Summer came and the grown-ups would gather round the radio each evening to listen to the six 'o'clock news. There was a lot of talk about a place called Dunkirk, and everyone seemed very worried.

I found that very difficult to deal with, after all it was in France somewhere and that was ever such a long way away! The days went by and finally France fell, and what was left of our army was brought back in little boats. They consisted of all sorts, from tired old paddle steamers to tiny little cabin cruisers which belonged to just ordinary civilians who happened to live near the coast, and just jumped in their boats and set off for France to bring the soldiers home. It was just something they did off their own bat A group of them were stopped in the middle of the English Channel by a British destroyer who asked them "Where the hell do you think: you're going"? The reply "Dunkirk to pick up the lads" left the destroyer captain speechless, and when he looked ahead there were over fifty other little boats bobbing along behind the first lot..

When France fell it finally came home to me just how bad things were. The Germans were now only twenty miles from the Kent coast. Our army was in tatters and in no fit state to fight anyone. We were quite alone. The whole of Europe was under the Nazi jackboot. All we had was a small air force and the Royal Navy, whose ships were scattered around the globe. The rest of the world said England was done for, but they were wrong.

Restrictions of all sorts were introduced. Invasion was imminent, and everybody had to carry identity cards which had to be produced on demand. A total blackout was brought in which meant that all windows and doors had to blacked out in such away, that not even a tiny chink of light was allowed to show after dark. The whole country was in total darkness. Cars had to be fitted with special head-light shields which only allowed a very tiny beam to show, and in the event of an air-raid at night all vehicles had to stop and switch off their lights until the raid was over.

People volunteered for all sorts of jobs, such as nursing, fire watching. (Keeping a lookout through the night for any incendiary bombs, and dealing with them when they fell) Air- raid wardens, and Special Constables (Part-time Police). The Home Guard was formed, which consisted of old men too old to serve in the armed forces. They were issued with a khaki uniform and a rifle, and their job was to keep a look-out for German Para-troopers and invading Germans (they became known as 'Dads Army). At about this time food rationing was introduced, quickly followed by clothes rationing. Everyone was issued with a ration book; even the Royal family! You were entitled to a set amount of food, and a set amount of clothing. As far as food was concerned you had to register at a particular shop, and a particular butcher. You were not allowed to buy your food anywhere else, with the exception of certain tinned foods, but more of that later.

A week's ration for one person was as follows

Bacon and Ham 4 ozs (1OOg)  

Meat one shilling and two pence worth {about 25 cents in your money today}

Sausages were not rationed but were hard to get. (people said they were 70% saw-dust anyway)

Offal (liver, kidneys, tripe) was originally un-rationed, but became part of the meat ration later.

Butter 2 ozs (50g)

Margarine 4 ozs (1OOg)

Cheese 2 ozs (50g) although some workers such as those in heavy industry, and farm workers were allowed 4 ozs

Milk three pints [1800ml] occasionally dropping to two pints

Household milk in the form of skimmed or dried milk was available, one packet per month

Sugar 8 ozs (225g) Jam 1 lb (450g) every two months

Tea 2 ozs (50 g) Coffee unobtainable

Eggs. One fresh egg per week if available, but often only every two weeks.

Dried egg one packet every four weeks

Sweets. 12 ozs every four weeks, but children could seldom afford to buy them anyway.

All children had to have one spoonful of Virol every week; a sweet and sticky malt extract. This was supposed to ensure they got enough vitamins. All the above were allocated when you presented your ration book to your registered shop-keeper, who would then cut out the appropriate coupons from your ration book.

Also in the ration book were food points. These were used to purchase certain tinned foods, such as meat, tinned salmon, fruit [pine apple, peaches or pears] condensed milk, rice and cereals. A tin of salmon cost 20 points, so you didn't buy that very often, as your total monthly allowance was only 16 points.

The fact was that there just wasn't enough room on our ships to bring in many of the items that we had always taken for granted. Things like oranges and bananas just disappeared completely, which meant that any children born during the war did not know what an orange or banana was, they never saw any until after the war! Vegetables were not rationed although some types were hard to come by, onions for instance. People were encouraged to dig up their lawns and flower gardens and grow their own.

Cloths rationing was also on a points system, and each adult was allowed 60 points per year. This was equivalent to one complete outfit per year for the average adult. Growing children needed more cloths so their points were of a lower value. There was a shortage of fabric and a range of so-called utility fabric was brought into being. This used a minimum amount of cloth, and was devoid of embroidery or any sort of decoration. Men and boys jackets were allowed two pockets and three buttons. Trousers [slacks] had no turn- ups, which had been fashionable up until then. Women and girls dresses had no pleats, elasticated waist-bands, or decorated belts. Silk stockings were unobtainable, as all silk was required to make parachutes, and barrage balloons. Girls would cover their legs with watered down:-gravy, or weak tea, to make it look as though they were wearing stockings. The seam down the back of the leg was drawn with an eye-brow pencil. Women would make their, own cloths out of any material they could find, even old curtains and blankets would be snapped up. Old wool jumpers and cardigans were carefully un-picked and re-knitted into a new garment. Knitting became very popular with the ladies, and Knitting for the forces was almost a national occupation amongst the women.

Many other items were in short supply. A Utility range of furniture was introduced; basic and hard wearing it was all that was available for people who had lost their homes in the bombing or were just starting out in married life.

Petrol was rationed severely; so much so that people put their cars away in a garage for the duration of the war. Other than the armed forces, the only people allowed a special ration of petrol were people like Doctors, Police, Fire Brigades, and Air-raid wardens. Many private lorries and buses resorted to converting their vehicles to gas, and carried huge black bags on their cab roofs full of gas. They looked quite ridiculous, but they worked. Thus the pattern of every- day life for the ordinary man in the street-was set for the rest of the war.

After Dunkirk everybody was on edge. People were talking about spies that had been seen or captured, none of it true of course, but all sorts of rumours were flying around. A ban was put on the ringing of church bells; they were only to be used to warn people of an air-borne invasion. At about that time I saw an Air-warden pin a poster on the village notice-board. It was entitled "Know your enemy" and it depicted a German soldier, an airman, a sailor, and a Para-trooper. I looked at it and the Para-trooper was the most evil looking man I had ever imagined, and I was terrified of anything German for a long time afterwards; often was the night when I would wake up, convinced I could hear church bells ringing in the distance.

It was mid-summer, and I was playing in the garden with a model airplane, and like most boys playing with such things I was making all the aeroplane noises that you would expect to hear. Suddenly I realized that the noise I was hearing was not being made by me, but were in fact, real aircraft. I looked out across the garden towards Tonbridge, and the sky was full of airplanes, there seemed to be hundreds of them, and they were all German flying in perfect formation. I called aunty and she came into the garden. We stood looking at them as they came towards us. They were very low, so much so that you could see the crosses on their wings, and in some cases actually see the pilots in their cockpits. One actually looked down at me as he flew over. Suddenly we heard aero engines screaming, and turning round we saw three Spitfires streaking down out of the sky with machine guns blazing. We ran for the house as empty machine gun bullets were falling out of the sky all over the place.

The next minute the sky was full of twisting and turning aircraft. The noise of machine gun and cannon fire, and roaring aero engines was to me quite frightening. Some of the Germans turned and fled, dropping their bombs as they went, but others stayed to fight. I saw a Dornier 17 bomber gently roll over onto its back, and with smoke streaming out behind it dived in a gentle arc, to disappear behind some far off trees. There was a loud explosion, and a column of smoke rose into the sky where he had crashed. Soon the battle drifted far to the south, but not before two other German aircraft were shot down. Some Hurricanes flew over on their way to join the scrap, and I ran into the garden to give them a cheer! Within a short while it was all quiet, except for the sound of exploding ammunition coming from the direction of the column of smoke. Far away towards Tonbridge two parachutes were hanging in the sky. British or German, there was no way of telling, and the only other sound was a Skylark singing up in the high blue sky.

They came every day after that but now they were much higher; so high that as they fought each other they looked like little silver butterflies twinkling in the sunlight, high up amongst the con-trails. Aircraft crashing in flames became a common sight, and even to-day there are still over 350 aircraft unaccounted for in the south of England. It was as recently as 1975 that a young couple stopped their car in a lay-by on the Ashford to Canterbury road to go and pick black-berries in an adjacent wood. They found an M.E. 109 (German fighter), virtually intact, with the skeleton of the pilot still in the cockpit. His clothing had pretty well rotted away, but his wrist-watch was still on the bone of his arm, and had stopped at twenty past three. It was subsequently proved that the aircraft had crashed in June 1940. The Battle of Britain raged all through that long hot summer, and as youngsters we spent our time rushing from one crash site to the next on our cycles, hoping to get there before the police or the army, so that we could grab some souvenirs.

By August, things were getting very serious, although the general public were unaware of just how bad things were. We now know that the R.A.F felt that they could last another week and no more. However, Lady luck smiled upon us, because a German bomber crew bombed London, allegedly by mistake, and this was contrary to Hitler's' orders. He had given specific orders that London was not to be bombed, and that the Luftwaffe were to bomb only airfields and aircraft factories. He apparently believed he would be in London in three weeks, and did not want it touched. Winston Churchill said "They have bombed London, we will bomb Berlin", and that very night the R.A.F. did just that. Hitler was. beside himself with rage, and ordered the German airforce to bomb London to extinction.

So began what was to become known as "The Blitz", but it gave the R.A.F. the break they needed. They were able to repair their airfields, and replenish their aircraft and pilots, and after a tremendous air battle over southern England, when the Germans lost 143 aircraft in one day to the R.A.F's 24; it was over. We did not realize at the time, but one day the Germans did not come, no air raid sirens sounded; it was uncanny, and everyone wondered what they had up their sleeve next. Slowly as the days passed, and all was peace and quiet we knew that the Germans had given up the idea of invading England; we had won the first battle.

With autumn came the dark nights, and German bombers started to come over at night. Nearly always singly, but one after another, all heading for London. The air-raid warning would sound at about eight 'o'clock each evening, and they would be droning over all night long, with the All Clear being sounded about seven in the morning.. This went on throughout the winter. One dark night, they were flying over as usual, and I lay in bed listening to the steady throbbing sound of their engines, and the anti-aircraft guns thundering away at them. In the distance I heard a bomb come whistling down followed by a rumbling explosion, this was followed immediately by another, and another, and each one getting closer. The next two were close enough to make the house shake, and then a bomb came whistling down, and sounded very close. I sat up in bed just as there was a blinding flash which showed through the black-out curtains, the explosion that followed made my ears ring, and I heard glass breaking somewhere in the house. I leapt out of bed and ran to find aunty. We met in the hall just as there was another big flash and another loud explosion. The front door flew open and a strong wind flew through the house. Aunty was frightened as well as me, but we went outside. German planes were overhead, and there were flashes in the sky where anti-aircraft shells were exploding, whilst search-lights probed the night sky. We did not go back to bed that night and when we looked out of the back door there was a red glow in the sky that stretched right across the horizon. London was ablaze from end to end. I said to aunty that mother was over there, but she tried to assure me that she would be alright. In the morning we found a large, bomb craters in the garden, and another just over the fence in the next field.

At about this time I had joined the Boy Scouts, and as it was felt that the Germans would try to burn an our crops to help their 'u' Boats to starve us into surrender, the scouts were given the job of patrolling the fields of wheat at night, armed with fire-beaters to put out any incendiary bombs that fell. Although I would never had admitted it I was still a little afraid of the dark, and when I was given two fields to look after all on my own, I was not a very happy chap. The old fear of German Para-troopers came to the fore, and every sound I heard I was convinced was a German creeping up behind me. I peered behind almost every tree expecting to see a Para-trooper crouching there. One night a bomber dropped three incendiary bombs in the fields I was watching, and while I was doing my best to beat out one, the other two were blazing away; fortunately another scout, older than me who was looking after two fields not far away came to help me, and we stayed together for the rest of the night.

In London, a lot of people were killed in the raids, and many hundreds of houses were destroyed. Mother was bombed out twice, and the second time she lost everything and had to start making a home all over again. In central London many Londoners slept on the platforms in underground railways, which of course were pretty bomb-proof. The so-called 'Blitz' fizzled out by early 1942, and all we got after that was what we referred to 'nuisance raids'. The high light of the year however, was that America had entered the war. It did not mean very much to the people of Kent because we never saw any of them. They were all based in East Anglia (Norfolk:, Suffolk, Cambridge and Essex) However, as the war dragged on we did see American bombers flying over on their way to bomb enemy occupied Europe, and would often watch them coming home, often with pieces hanging off of them and or streaming smoke behind them. We would cheer them on and hope they got back to their airfields safely.

In Norfolk the Americans made a huge impact on the local population... The people consisted mainly of farming stock:, what we called the yeomen of England. They had always led quiet unassuming lives, in quiet peaceful villages, and now suddenly the Americans arrived. People were shocked, suddenly airfields sprung up all over East Anglia. Long convoys of lorries came rumbling through their country lanes full of Americans in strange uniforms, and soon they were followed by huge four engined bombers which dropped out of the sky to land :where once cattle had grazed and sugar beet had grown. They roared around the countryside in things called jeeps and seemed to acquire just about every pedal cycle in the county! People began to notice that these Americans were very friendly, and what's more they seemed to love kids. It was not too long before friendships were formed, some of which endure even to this day.

Americans were invited home to spend Christmas in an English home, and I firmly believe that the 'special relationship' often referred to by politicians actually started around the airfields of East Anglia. Even today, if you speak to the older folk you will soon discover that the 'Yanks' are still fondly remembered and long will it be so. When you walk through a local church yard where there happens to be a memorial to those Americans who fell, do not be surprised to see a bunch of flowers lying at the foot, and on Remembrance Day, there is always a reef of poppies.

The bombing of Germany continued night and day, and The Germans retaliated with the first of their 'V' weapons; the Flying bomb, or Doodle-Bug, as we called them. Nasty things, you could hear them coming miles away, and you watched them carefully as they flew over with a long flame shooting out behind, because if the engine stopped, then you dived for cover because they were coming down in a steep dive, and they carried a lot of explosive, certainly enough to knock down five or six houses. These were followed by the 'V'2, a rocket which carried a ton of high explosive. And one could destroy a whole street, and frequently did. The big problem with them was that you only heard them coming after they had exploded. The first you knew was a huge bang followed by a noise like rolling thunder, and that was the sound of them traveling through the air, as they were faster than the speed of sound.

Then the great day came when it was announced that D-Day bad arrived. British and American forces had landed in France, and as the troops advanced through Europe .the 'V' 1 ' s and 'V' 2' s finally stopped coming. When the great day came and we were told that General Montgomery had accepted the surrender of all German forces at Luneburg. The country went mad. There was a party in every street in,. London, and in most towns and villages throughout the land.

At last it was all over. Rationing continued long after the war had finished, finally finishing in 1950, but there followed many years of austerity. In 1947 I joined the R.A.F. and flew on the Berlin Airlift, and later flew Mosquitos, and tangled with the Russians, but that is another story.


Peter Steele - is now the Curator of the Shipdham Museum - A repository of 44th Bomb Group Memorabilia

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