In 1939 the government evacuated a million and a half people from London to the countryside in an attempt to keep them safe from the bombing raids that everyone believed was coming. I think they had run out of money for the bus and train fares by the time they thought about evacuating our area because we never got to hear anything about it. By the following summer, next to nothing had happened and life went on pretty much as normal. The Germans seemed to be intent on destroying our coastal defences and airfields so they left us alone, more or less. Because of this, people became apathetic and thousands of evacuees who had been sent away for their own safety, managed to return home just in time for the bombing. In August a few German planes got lost and dropped their bombs on London instead of their intended targets. This pissed Mr Churchill right off, so he sent the RAF to bomb Berlin. This pissed off Hitler even more, so he decided to spend the next nine months dropping thousands of tons of explosives on London; especially the East End, where we lived. The Germans called it the Blitzkrieg but we shortened it to, the Blitz because it was easier to say and we wouldn’t sound like we were speaking German if we used the word in public.
Mr Churchill made a speech to the country saying, ‘I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat.’ Fritz’s mum, an Irish woman who hated Mr Churchill, said that wasn’t good enough as she gave all of those things every day of her life but she didn’t expect to become Prime Minister. She said we should get that nice Mr Chamberlain back, give Churchill a two-fingered salute and send him over to Ireland to explain himself.
The summer of 1940 was a very busy time for Mr Churchill. He wrote so many speeches that he didn’t have any time left to organise our armies, the result was Dunkirk. In May we tricked Hitler into thinking we were going to attack him, but instead, our army thumbed their noses, jumped onto a flotilla of little paddle steamers, rowing boats and punts and sailed back to England leaving the French blubbering because they would have to fight on their own. They didn’t of course, they never do; they just surrendered and let Hitler have what Uncle Barry called, ‘the fleshpots of Paris.’ We had no idea what a flesh pot was, but Uncle Barry, who had been to Paris after the first lot, said they were like Lancashire Hot Pots made with frog’s legs. The Germans must have liked French flesh pots a lot because they stayed there for years.
Mr Churchill made another speech saying, ‘we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills, we will never surrender.’ The French said he was a liar and we ran away the first chance we got. The bloody nerve, it was their country, their fight, they waved the white flag at the drop of a beret. Uncle Barry reckoned that the French are taught to surrender in infant’s school, He said their bowels turn to mush after eating all that soft cheese. He said that if they had something with a bit of rind on it they’d start to develop guts.
In June, Mr Churchill made another speech. This time he told us, ‘the Battle of France is over: the Battle of Britain is about to begin.’ Mum said he must visit Madame Rosa, the Gypsy tea leaf reader who lived at the bottom of our street, because he was bang on yet again. A few days later the Battle of Britain did begin.
Hitler tried to wipe out our air defences so that he could invade without too much trouble. The invasion plan was called, Operation Sea Lion. Unfortunately for him and the Luftwaffe, our Hurricane and Spitfire pilots were a bit too good and over the course of the late summer we shot down thousands of their planes. Hitler was a bit peeved by this, so he sent in the bombers and tried to flatten London. Mrs Marriot from three doors down, said that we won because all of our pilots had nice, manly moustaches and the German pilots couldn’t grow them. Fat Ernie said they couldn’t grow balls either.
For the kids, the whole war suddenly took on a new, exciting perspective. Our little back street army scoured the streets looking for invading sea lions. None of us knew what a sea lion looked like so I went to the library and found a picture of one in a book. When I made my report to the gang I said that they didn’t look too menacing and they’d be really easy to spot if they came shuffling down the High Street, but if they carried hand grenades in their flippers, we could be in trouble.
Fritz speculated that if the Germans could train sea lions to invade us then they could probably train storks as well. ‘Imagine,’ he said, ‘thousands of storks flying overhead carrying bombs instead of babies.’ He was also worried about the fact that there were probably lots of sea lions in London Zoo. Fritz’s dad had been arrested on day one of the war for being German so he thought it was only fair that the sea lions suffered the same fate. Fritz was so concerned that he wrote a letter to Mr Churchill but our glorious leader was obviously already on the case regarding the stork threat, because he didn’t bother to reply.
We had our own Battle of Britain when our gang faced off against the George Street gang. Before the war George Street had been called Wolfsburg Street but it was renamed at the start of hostilities. We always used it as an excuse to attack them for their ‘obvious,’ German sympathies. To make it real, we all pretended to be planes. I was the lead Spitfire because I could spit the furthest and I was always first into the fray with all guns, (teeth, claws and fists,) blazing. Fat Ernie was a Wellington bomber whilst most of the other kids were Hurricanes. Fritz was a Stuka, the dive bombing plane, it was a German aircraft but nobody seemed to care. Fritz could mimic the whining drone perfectly. The enemy, although they thought they were flying Hurricanes and Spitfires, were actually Messyshits and Fockes. We used to beat them every time we flew over their territory. It was close once, when I was shot down by one of the enemy’s big guns. (He was a teenager who was visiting his relatives when we attacked,) but I was rescued by Fritz who came flying in, all guns blazing. The big lad lost two teeth and Fritz earned himself a cracked rib but he fought on until victory was assured and the enemy had retreated to Berlin, or Harry Bull’s grandma’s garden as it was better known.
We made a parody of one of Mr Churchill’s speeches and we used to chant it as we went into battle. Our version went; ‘we shall fight them on the beaches we shall fight them in the street, we shall kick their Nazi arses we will never taste defeat.’ It took One Eyed Harold ages to learn it, mind you he never was the sharpest knife in the drawer. We chanted it in assembly instead of the Lord’s Prayer one morning. Unfortunately for Harold, Mr Spearman, the RE teacher, was on the row in front and heard it. Harold was made to stand in front of the whole school and apologise to God before being caned and forced to sit with the infants on the front row for the rest of the week. We were proud of Harold for not dropping us all in it; we made him a cardboard medal for bravery under fire. Fritz quoted one of Mr Churchill’s speeches as he pinned it onto his pullover. ‘This was your finest hour,’ he said.
On September 7th, the Blitz began in earnest, London had 57 days of continuous bombing. There was no let up, the bombs fell day and night. By January most of the East End was in ruins. After a near riot, the government finally opened up the underground stations for people to shelter in. That was to lead to disaster for the people of Bethnal Green a couple of years later when their station suffered a direct hit. In late 1940, early ‘41 though, the underground stations were the safest places to be. The authorities even built bunks down there for us. Me and Fritz used to walk between stations and travel around the rest of the underground for free. We played games, sang songs and cursed Hitler. We thought we were indestructible. Then, in February, we found out we were not.