My Grandmother, Edith, apparently didn’t send my father to school when he was 5 years old, because she wanted him to stay at home with her and help around the house and with his younger brothers, namely ‘Fred’ (Arthur Frederick), ‘Bert’ (William Albert) and Peter. The Authorities eventually found out though and insisted that it was a legal requirement that he went. However, Dad was over seven years old before he did eventually start attending the local Benfleet Primary School. The latter part of his education was also adversely affected by WW2. He told me that he used to bunk off quite a lot to go over the marshes and watch the German bombers and fighter planes flying up the River Thames on a mission to bomb London. The resulting aerial dogfights high above the fields at the back of his house were apparently quite spectacular when the RAF Spitfires and Hurricane fighter planes turned up to show the Germans that they would really rather that they didn’t make it any further up the Thames.
One day, during such an air raid, a German plane crashed in the marshes near Bowers Gifford which was quite close to where my Dad and a couple of his friends were bunking off. They wasted no time getting over to the wreck and quickly collected pockets full of live ammunition.
Back at No.3 Stanley Villas, they dismantled some of the cartridges in the back garden and then my Dad tried to light the house coal fire with some of the cordite. They only succeeded in creating an explosion and showering themselves and everything else in the room with debris and soot and nearly blowing up the chimney. My Grandmother was not impressed.
On another bunking off day, they found a dead German airman laying near another crashed plane. In the wreckage of this plane, they found a loaded Luger revolver which, obviously, they took home to play with. Apparently, my Dad made his younger brother Alf run about in the field at the back of the house while he took pot shots at him. Luckily for Alf; although he was an incredible marksman with a homemade catapult, my Dad wasn’t yet a crack shot with a pistol, and there were quite a few deep bomb craters in the field that Alf could dive into for cover.
In the 1950s-60s, there were still some bomb craters left dotted about in the fields and marshes where we used to play. Most were full of water and weeds though by then and we used to catch sticklebacks, pondskaters, water boatmen and newts in them (and get gnat-bitten).
Whilst out one day in the Marshes with my Dad picking wild mushrooms, I asked him why there were so many bomb craters in the fields, so far away from anything worth targeting. He explained that when returning from bombing raids on London, the German bombers would often jettison any left-over bombs for [their] safety, in case their plane was hit on the way home by anti-aircraft fire from the air defence gun emplacements dotted along the River Thames.
My Grandad, also called James, was stationed at Deepcut Barracks for the duration of the Second World War, so my Dad being the eldest, although still only about fourteen years old, assumed the role of Head of the No.3 Stanley Villas Household. I can imagine him taking to the role with enthusiasm and having very strict rules for behaviour.
According to Uncle Alf, sometimes during an air raid, my Dad would make his siblings take it in turns to go down to the end of the back garden path, holding an upside-down enamelled metal washing-up bowl on their head for protection against flying shrapnel and bullets, and look out over the Marshes for incoming enemy aircraft. If they saw anything looking like a plane, they were to run back in and shout “Air Raid!” so that the family could evacuate for safety to the semi-underground air raid shelter in the back garden, where they would sit and wait with their feet in the stagnant rain water that had seeped into it.
Just off the High Road, near to our house, in Hall Farm Road, there was a large, pole-mounted WW2 air raid siren that would alert local inhabitants to the danger of an imminent air raid. This could be heard from a very long way off. The siren was maintained and still functioning and tested every week in my childhood in the 1950s and 60s, but, after the terrible floods of 1953, it was repurposed to warn instead of imminent danger from flooding.
In 2020, talking to my Dad’s younger sister, Margaret (aka ‘Jane’, for some reason nicknamed after the family duck), she said that she was never made to do a shift as ‘Air Raid Observer’ as she was then the only girl sibling and treated differently by my Dad. Instead, he made her do things that would benefit her ‘deportment’, like sit up straight, straighten her neck, back and shoulders and with a book balanced on top of her head, walk around the house.