Chapter 9 (1940-1941)

Bombers over London

My mother and I did not openly grieve: we were much too shocked to accept that my father was no longer there, and events around us moved with such speed that we seemed to be simply swept along. Although in later years they had grown apart, my mother and father had been very attached to each other for most of their lives. Teenagers have notoriously little interest in others' emotions and I was no exception, but with the understanding of maturer years I can now appreciate how shattering it must have been for her to have to face her declining years alone and filled with uncertainty. But the Victorians and Edwardians were nothing if not tough and she showed none of her fears to me.

German bombers now appeared regularly over the skies of London, though the city's size meant that only parts could be hit at a time. Thanks to radar and improved RAF interception, assisted by unwise escorting orders issued to Luftwaffe fighters by their Chief, Reichsmarshal Göring, the bombers had a most dangerous journey both ways. Many still got through but their determination was inevitably blunted. I remember going to Putney on my motor-cycle from night watch one morning to visit Aunt Nell and seeing a huge cloud of bombers high in the clear blue sky - 80 to 100 of them I should think - and coming towards me. I was just about to cross Putney Bridge at the time, a prime target. I leapt off the bike and cast about for a place to hide, finding none. At that moment a tremendous barrage of anti-aircraft shells began exploding all around the enemy planes and the sky was filled with puffs of black smoke. To a man, they slowly wheeled round and disappeared to the South. Unfortunately, they would simply jettison their bombs on such occasions, with disastrous results to those below.

Bombers over London

German bombers over Loondon in daylight

Germans' Undoing
This extension of the Battle of Britain to daylight raids on London proved to be the Germans' undoing. Each day newspapers had banner headlines giving numbers of enemy aircraft destroyed. The climax came on 15th September 1940 when a delirious press announced "186 Destroyed!". The reality was rather different and in fact both sides consistently over-estimated their victories. In the Germans' case, inflated figures led Hitler and Göring to believe that the RAF had been effectively neutralised and consequently to adopt fatally wrong tactics. Post-war research put RAF losses in the Battle of Britain at 790 fighters and the Luftwaffe's at 1389 aircraft of all types. The significant factor was that planes could be replaced but aircrew could not; RAF pilots who survived being shot down went back to work but the Germans went to prison camp.

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The Battle of Britain Ends
After September 15th there was a strange lull. German planes failed to appear in our skies. We now know that the Germans had given up the idea of invasion, called Operation Sealion, and were dismantling the huge maritime force of barges, tugs, troops, tanks and guns which had been assembled in French, Belgian and Dutch ports. In truth, the danger we had faced was infinitely greater than most of us realised at the time. Study of German documents after the war showed that the true obstacle to their plans was the English Channel and the Royal Navy's control of it. To have any chance of success, they had to have supremacy - not just superiority but complete supremacy - of the air. That was why the Luftwaffe was instructed to destroy the RAF and why, having failed by a narrow margin to do so, they were forced to abandon the whole idea.

Goodbye to 7 Berne Road
I think it must have been during this lull that my mother and I put our furniture into store and went to live with Vera and Reg at Mill Hill. Peter Aris, with that innate kindness which I later came to know so well, came to 7 Berne Road on several occasions to cheer us up and help with sorting the accumulated bric-a-brac of a lifetime. We did not have anything of great intrinsic merit, but many articles which nowadays would be valued went into the dustbin. I was given the smallest of Vera's three bedrooms to myself and I think my mother shared the back bedroom with Julie, while baby John slept in his parents' room. The Polish airman had gone by then, fortunately. Through several months of overcrowding, Vera and Reg extended the utmost kindness and generosity to us.

The Blitz - The Battle of London at Night
During all of this, the relentless pattern of day and night watchkeeping continued at the Admiralty. After briefly gathering their strength, the Germans now began night bombing in the belief that Britain could be forced to sue for peace by the inexorable destruction of her cities. At that time we had virtually no defence against the bomber by night, though a huge barrage of fire from anti-aircraft guns on every vacant space made their life uncomfortable, spoiled their aim and brought down a few. The firm discipline of the Teutonic mind required them to appear as soon as the sun sank below the horizon, and the dismal wail of air raid sirens would promptly echo across the city. But at least we knew where we were: they came, they bombed, they went. Later, as the tide of war turned, the fiendish British enjoyed keeping German towns guessing when and where they would strike, and would often double back for a second go.

My journey to work was now by the Northern Line of the Underground railway, from Edgware to Strand Station (today part of an enlarged Charing Cross). However, I frequently visited friends in the Croydon area and would travel to work from there by bus, motor cycle, Southern Railway or Underground, depending on where I stayed the night. As the days grew shorter, the air raids started earlier and people changing watch at 9pm found they had to struggle through a raid, either to get to work or to get home. It became an extraordinary battle of wits to devise the quickest and safest route to take. Word travelled fast that a particular area was under attack, or that a road or railway line was impassable that night.

I was safe enough on the Underground from Golders Green into London; in fact the stations soon became vast air-raid shelters and one would have to pick one's way round rows of people sleeping on the platform. It was all surprisingly good-natured and each station had its own sub-culture. However, the line was in the open from Golders Green to Edgware, from where I would get a bus to Mill Hill if not too late. The windows of all public vehicles were covered with fabric netting to stop splintering from bomb blasts, making it quite difficult to to see where you were in a world with no street lamps, no light from houses, cars or buses, just utter blackness.

The Perils of Bad Timing
The stations of Underground lines passing beneath the Thames had heavy flood gates which were closed during a raid. This meant that the train stopped at the last station but one before the river and everyone was turfed out. Travelling to work one night from Croydon, I misjudged my timing and found myself on the South Bank side of the Northern Line after a raid had started, which resulted in everyone's unceremonious ejection at Lambeth North. I emerged from the station entrance into an inferno, with burning buildings filling the skyline and ambulances and fire engines rushing here and there. A woman was having hysterics at being urged to take refuge in a church, because she insisted that Hitler made a special target of such buildings.

I made my way to Waterloo and thence along the riverside to the footwalk beside the railway lines on Hungerford Bridge, conscious that the night was bright with a full moon and that the rails and river must be crystal clear to the German bomb-aimers. But there was nothing else I could do and I arrived safely. An ever-present danger was that of shrapnel from exploding anti-aircraft shells which hissed and pinged around uncomfortably close - nasty, jagged splinters of steel two or three inches long and half an inch thick. We were eventually given helmets as a protection but they were pretty soft metal and were mainly to boost morale.

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The Long Night Watch
Eventually the powers-that-be decided to change our watchkeeping hours to coincide with sunset, allowing a small margin for those going off watch to get home. This meant that by December the day watch had shrunk to seven hours and the night watch became a staggering seventeen hours, at the end of which we were well and truly on our knees. Bunks were then provided where two, and later three, hours' sleep could in theory be snatched; but for most people the resulting hang-up was scarcely worth it. Many of us, therefore, would sneak up into the world above to see what was happening. It was a strange experience to walk out of the front door of the Admiralty, never knowing what we would find. Sometimes it was deathly quiet. More often, the air would be filled with smoke and bits of ash, with the glow of burning buildings lighting the sky and the throb of dozens of Coventry Climax water pumps assailing one's ears - a sound I shall never forget. I was on duty the night of the great fire of London on 29/30th December 1940 when much of the old City was destroyed. Whitehall was almost as bright as day in the reflected light from the furnace less than a mile away.

Occasionally German planes would still be lurking overhead; the trick was to discover this before venturing too far. I remember strolling out of the door with a colleague into what appeared to be a peaceful night. We examined the sky and suddenly heard an express train rushing towards us. We looked at each other, then realisation instantly dawned: it was a bomb. We hurled ourselves back into the building and onto the floor. A tremendous crash followed us; the bomb dropped about fifty yards away on the edge of St James's Park, killing a naval officer, like us unwisely taking a walk. Although a number of people's houses were bombed, the large staff, now totalling over a thousand, suffered hardly any injury going to or from work. Punctuality was also remarkably good, aided by the fact that public transport endeavoured to maintain pre-war standards and was considerably more frequent and reliable than it is today. Except when enemy aircraft were actually overhead and dropping bombs, buses and trains carried on as usual. The major difficulty was damage to roads and rails, which meant that one could be conveyed over quite unexpected and unknown territory. There were many tales of diverted bus drivers asking passengers if they knew where a road led to; and I remember finding myself late at night at Kingsbury on the Stanmore Line instead of Edgware on the Northern, necessitating a four mile trudge home, and in deep snow at that.

“Dangerous Moonlight”
Cinemas usually remained open till the last minute. I took my mother to Hendon to see "Dangerous Moonlight", a moving story about the fall of Warsaw and famed for its Warsaw Concerto theme music. During scenes of the bombing of the city with their accompanying sound effects, the audience suddenly became aware that some of the explosions did not synchronize with the action of the film, and the cinema would shake a little. This was not surprising since they were in fact real and happening only a short distance away. There was a typically British ripple of embarrassed unease where no-one wanted to be seen making a fuss, and after waiting a short time to see if the management were going to clear the auditorium most people settled down and saw the film through.

London was not the only city attacked during this period. Coventry, Liverpool and very many others suffered as much if not more because of their smaller size. At one point Goering launched his “Baedeker” raids, so-called because they were aimed at the most beautiful cities in the famous travel guide. And German aircraft over Britain in daylight would not hesitate to machine-gun anyone on the ground. Thus did Germany sow the seeds of hatred and revenge which led to the pitiless destruction of her own cities.

War Registry was something of an oasis in that it was full of young men and women, still civilians, and social life outside the harsh watchkeeping hours was quite good. There were three watches and contacts were necessarily restricted to those on one's own watch, in my case Watch B. We saw Watch A struggle wearily home as soon as we arrived; they had no inclination to stop and chat except to convey matters of operational interest. Watch C seemed like creatures from another world, arriving refreshed and red-cheeked from the fresh air while we propped our eyes open with match sticks.

The “Bismarck”
Among the matters of operational interest was the escape into the Atlantic of the German battleship Bismarck, a truly fearsome monster, faster and with better armour and better guns than our older ships. She met the battle-cruiser HMS Hood, the biggest ship in the British Fleet though less heavily armoured than a battleship proper and now over twenty years old, together with HMS Prince of Wales, a new battleship. After a short engagement, the Hood was hit and blew up. Just three men survived out of over fifteen hundred. The Bismarck was also slightly damaged in the action but should have come to little harm were it not for tactical mistakes on her part and a remarkable piece of luck on ours. Every warship we could muster - some 48 of them - was sent after her, yet she evaded them and was well on her way to Brest when she was found by a cruising Catalina seaplane. Several torpedo attacks from HMS Ark Royal's ancient Swordfish biplanes failed to register a single hit, until one last torpedo in failing light just struck her rudder. She could almost certainly have survived a hit anywhere else, but as a result of this the rudder jammed hard to one side and the ship could only turn in circles which, in spite of desperate efforts to free the rudder or even blow it loose with explosives, she was forced to do all night long. At dawn our battleships were waiting and pounded her to destruction on 27th May 1941 with the loss of most of her crew. We breathed again.

Early Bismarck

The Bismarck in 1941

HMS Dorsetshire Bismarck survivors

Bismarck survivors being picked up by HMS Doresetshire

(The Bismarck’s full story can be read here:

Russia Invaded
As summer approached, the raids on our towns died down and we were able to relax slightly. We could not understand why this should be, until on 22nd June 1941 the world was dumbfounded by the news that Germany had invaded the Soviet Union. Although he had predicted just such a move in his famous book "Mein Kampf" (My Struggle), I do not think anyone has satisfactorily explained just why Hitler embarked upon this while Britain was still an active if relatively impotent adversary, but it is a measure of how confident and immensely powerful Germany had become. The prevailing British view at the time was that it served the Russians right for concluding the pact of non-aggression which had contributed to the outbreak of war. For the moment, however, the heat was off Britain - except at sea, of course, where U-Boats now hunted in packs under sophisticated direction from the German Admiralty and ships and seamen were being lost at a faster rate than we could replace them. What Churchill called the Battle of the Atlantic now became as crucial to our survival as the Battle of Britain had been.

Nevertheless, for me that summer was full of interest and was the nearest I came to normal late teenage life. In addition to activities and outings with office colleagues, I kept up regular visits to my friends in the Croydon area, where the motor-bike gave me wonderfully easy and cheap mobility in good weather. I used to envy chaps a few years older than I who had been to peacetime holiday camps. Their accounts, no doubt much embellished, endowed these establishments with an irresistible aura of young romantic pleasure and adventure. However, romance did flourish in the heated air and corridors of War Registry. The younger people generally behaved fairly discreetly but liaisons of a deeper and more irregular nature soon appeared among the older ones.

During this time I was put on "Number One" Desk which handled all incoming signals. A small hatch opened into the cypher room where a team of two young ladies, Joan Pearce and Freda Power, had established themselves as the speed champions. It started with my flicking paper clips with my pencil through the hatch at these two diligent workers but soon blossomed into real romance with the latter. Her home was actually in Cardiff but she was in lodgings at Tooting Bec, at the southern end of the Northern Line. The journey from Edgware to Tooting took (and no doubt still does) one and a half hours, encompassing twenty two stations.

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Pearl Harbor
My friends now began to be called up as they reached the age of 18. Derek went into the Army and was sent to the Middle East. Even so, quite a number were still around as 1941 drew to a close and Freda met several of them at the Davis Theatre The Dansant, which still flourished. Among them was Peter Charman, a most delightful classmate who later became a Spitfire pilot and died when his aircraft hit a mountain in Malaya in bad weather. Bob Mendoza's family extended wonderful hospitality to me at their house at West Wickham, where I stayed with him quite often. One evening in December we both visited Pete Charman's parents at Ballards' Farm in nearby Selsdon, he having recently joined the RAF, and were invited to stay the night. Next morning we heard on the radio that the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor. Most British people had never heard of Pearl Harbor and the event's significance was lost on us. The realisation, when it came, that America was also at war similarly raised awkward questions. Would they now be preoccupied with "their" war and indifferent to ours to the extent of no longer supplying us with vital materials? Would we, through our Far East possessions, be swept into a Pacific war?

The answer came unexpectedly. In a swift decision which historians have never adequately explained, Germany and Italy declared war on the USA. They had no obvious need to do so, indeed many reasons for keeping out of this startling new situation. It may possibly have been their supposed obligations under the Axis Treaty and Hitler's belief that Japan would now honour her side of the bargain by invading Russia from the East, swiftly leading to the latter's demise. Instead, over the months that followed, the Japanese attacked Hong Kong, Malaya, Burma, French Indo-China (now Viet Nam) and the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia) because of the wealth of raw materials there and the realisation that none of the previously dominant colonial powers could stop them. Britain and the USA instantly became Allies in the same war. What is more, and of overwhelming significance to us, Roosevelt with great statesmanship and far-sightedness persuaded his own countrymen to treat Europe as a major war zone comparable with the Pacific. Materials of all kinds then flowed even more freely from the massive industrial base of America while the Russians also became our allies and fellow-beneficiaries of American largesse, though getting material to them was a frightful and costly effort for which they never seemed particularly grateful.

Disaster in the Far East and North Africa
The keystone of the defence of Britain's Eastern Empire was the great Naval Base at Singapore, with massive guns facing any invasion fleet. However, we had not expected to be fighting for existence in Europe at the same time, and the resources we could spare for the Far East were meagre. Even so, they were squandered by incompetence and a refusal to recognise that the non-white Japanese had overtaken us both technologically and militarily. On 10th December 1941 Freda and her partner received an urgent radio message whose decoded contents they did not at first believe, saying "Prince of Wales and Repulse sunk by torpedo". The Prince of Wales was one of our latest battleships and the Repulse an older but powerful battle cruiser. Both giant ships went down near the coast of Malaya under a rain of bombs and accurately delivered air torpedoes. On Christmas Day the Japanese walked into Hong Kong and on 18th February 1942 Singapore surrendered to a relatively small force of Japanese who had made their way down the Malayan Peninsula on bicycles, of all things, unsportingly ignoring our beautiful guns which could only fire out to sea. A British and Commonwealth Army of a quarter of a million men surrendered shamefully without a murmur and were swept into ignominious slavery while the Japanese made their irresistible way across Burma to the very gates of India.

To cap the winter's misery, we faced new difficulties in North Africa. In a series of campaigns, British and Australian troops had successfully cleared the Italians out of most of their ill-gotten gains in Ethiopia, Somalia, Sudan, Libya and Tunisia; but we neglected to secure the entire North African coastline. Instead of finishing the job, we sent most of our victorious troops to try to defend Greece against a German invasion, in which enterprise we failed utterly and were thrown into the sea, losing the island of Crete into the bargain. The Germans meanwhile landed a relatively small force at Tunis, in the bit of North Africa we had foolishly left in Italian hands. Under the brilliant leadership of General Rommel, the Desert Fox, the German Afrika Korps resolutely began to push us back towards Egypt, over a thousand miles away. After several months of bitter fighting, they came to the edge of Cairo where fortunately their extended supply lines and a final British rally forced them to halt at an unknown village called El Alamein.

Thus 1941 gave way to 1942, with the war now spanning the globe and its ramifications completely unpredictable. The Fascist powers seemed to hold the initiative everywhere. Britain however was no longer alone, while Germany was now destined to fight on two fronts having failed to take Moscow before winter set in. Ironically, or perhaps it was Providence again, the futile British intervention in Greece allegedly caused the Germans to delay their invasion of Russia by a few weeks, which turned out to be of crucial importance in enabling the Russians to survive that first winter.

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