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go back to the last page you were on The Summer of 1940

Len Denham

I remember in the summer of 1940 trying desperately to try to identify the fighter aircraft as the 'dog fights' took place above us in a clear blue sky. Like most boys I had the identification silhouettes of every aeroplane in the air forces of Great Britain, Germany and Italy but it was not easy to sort them out when they were mere silver specks so high in the sky.

Dad and Mum, like Mr and Mrs Strutt upstairs, had decided against using the Anderson shelters built on the allotments nearby. These were corrugated metal sheets formed into the shape of an arch. The straight sides were sunk into a pit and concrete half walls constructed within up to a height of about three feet. Each shelter consisted of about four bent sheets joined by bolts at the centre of the roof to four matching metal sheets on the other side. Earth was then piled on the roof and the rear. Two straight sheets of corrugated iron formed the front joined at the top by a smaller sheet so creating an entrance about two and a half feet square over which was hung a blanket to keep in the light and to keep out the wind and rain. There was also a type of shelter for use inside the house, called I believe a Morrison shelter. This was rather like a reinforced steel table with mesh sides forming a cage as I recall.

We often had air raids at night. Both Dad and Mr Strutt, whom Dad called Min, were firewatchers during these nighttime air raids. At first, when the alert sounded, we would be awakened from our sleep and taken in pyjamas and a blanket to settle with Mum into a narrow passage in our council flat which led to the kitchenette. No prospect of lying down as the passage was only about thirty inches wide and not more than six feet or so long. But it was the strongest part of the flat. It was not many weeks before Mrs Strutt and her two daughters Rose and Joan came to join us every time the siren sounded. Soon the raids increased in intensity and frequency and for months we spent many hours each night with the seven of us crowded into that small space.

Incredibly the Westcroft Estate escaped any bomb damage throughout the war despite its proximity to Handley Pages, Smiths Industries and one of London's biggest railway goods marshalling yards. Dad did have a narrow escape one night when he was struck a glancing blow by an enormous piece of jagged shrapnel that would have gone through his helmet and his skull within it had it hit him more directly. That was cause for a short break in the fire watching activities whilst he and Min repaired home for a swift glass of something alcoholic. Whilst concerned to see my father clearly shaken by his narrow escape I must confess to some annoyance that he did not manage to salvage the shrapnel so that I could add it to my collection. For, just as children used to collect cigarette cards, stamps and bird's eggs, so, during the war, they collected shrapnel.

About now I had begun a paper round for old Mrs Stanton who had the rival newsagents to Pryke's, a little further up Cricklewood Lane. This meant that I was out at about six thirty each morning and thus was able to spot fallen shrapnel and select the choicest pieces for my collection. The most treasured items were those with calibrations upon them or writing of some sort, especially German. But this all came to an abrupt halt when the enemy started to drop 'butterfly bombs' designed to be attractive to children and explode when touched. We were strictly forbidden to pick up anything thereafter.

As the frequency of the nighttime raids reduced we came to accept the restrictions of wartime. The disappearance of road signs did not worry us as we knew where places were without their aid and the removal of iron railings was in many cases a blessing. One benefit was that it stopped our game of racing across the little lawn in front of our block of flats, hurdling the small iron railing with the upright rods bent to form a series of interlocking semi-circles at the top, crossing Besant Road and repeating the hurdling on the other side before touching the wall of the opposite block. I was therefore prevented from repeating my 'trick' of catching my foot in the loop of the railing and crashing face first onto the pavement. The limitations upon motoring caused by petrol rationing and the blackout did not bother us, as we had never been inside a car.

We learned that there were opportunities to earn a little extra pocket money if one was discreet and kept one's activities beyond the knowledge of parents. We found, for example, that the blast from bombs frequently blew garden fences down. On more than one occasion we tidied up a back garden fence, earning a few pence from the grateful owner, took the debris home where we chopped it up and sold the resultant firewood back to the owner of the fence. Another ethically suspect activity was to collect apples from orchards exposed by the loss of railings and sell them to the American officers billeted in the grand houses in West Heath Drive.

Somehow in the midst of all this, Dad and Mum occasionally used to take us for a Sunday trip on the bus to St Albans or to Uxbridge. These trips involved long bus journeys and I recall several occasions when the bus conductor would tell Dad to keep his money in his pocket and refused to take the fare on the understanding that if an inspector boarded the bus we were to say that we had got aboard at the last stop.

Written by Len Denham