The Guns I came home from evacuation in time for the blitz on London, so all the hassle of evacuation was totally negated, except it had been an incredible experience and I had learned more about life in one year than I would have in three or four, at home.
At the time, among the younger people there was a level of excitement, which I suppose, was the same hysteria felt by our fathers, twenty-six years earlier. We were dying to get into the war, to join the others we had known at school who were two years older and already in uniform. Our only recourse was second best, if we couldn’t get into it, we would watch from the sidelines and perhaps also try to join the Home Guard. If my mother had known what we were up to in those early days of the blitz she would probably have tried to chain me to a water pipe, but she thought I was playing Ludo or some other parlour game in a friend’s house, as did all our parents. Fortunately, then, the telephone was the exception rather than the rule. Our little subterfuges, lies if you like, were easy to make convincing.
Around where we lived there were Ack Ack gun emplacements, there was one handy to Clapham South Station, on Clapham Common, and this was often our substitute for a night at the cinema. We had a rough idea when the raids would start and would go up to the Common and hang about outside the fence within which were several guns, manned by soldiers. We would hear guns and see the searchlight beams in the distance. Next there would be a sudden hiss and crack as our searchlight would arc-up and a huge, bright beam would shoot up into the air and move with a stiff but steady motion, like a bright stick of light, a gigantic pointer sweeping the sky, then the guns would open up and the immense noise of the first salvo was both startling and exciting.
What goes up, of course, must come down. The shells were timed to explode and designed to shatter into red-hot shards of jagged steel about four inches long and about three-quarters of an inch square in cross section, twisted and bent – lethal. These would fall to earth during an Ack Ack bombardment, hitting the pavement at speed, creating sparks and then ricocheting off into the darkness in any direction. Sometimes one could hear a sort of purring noise as they hurtled through the air. Everyone picked up their first when it was too hot to handle, but experience is a great teacher.
We wore tin hats we had scrounged because there was no warning when a shower of steel was likely to fall. It was not our guns that were the problem, they were making steel rain for someone over Wandsworth of Streatham. We were getting someone else’s shrapnel, and it was on you before you were aware. The cacophony of the guns obscured how close or distant the action was and therefore where the metal rain might fall. The strange thing was we were not afraid, merely afraid of missing some momentous historical moment, which we did. We were too young and too stupid. When something really serious really did happen, fortunately we were several streets away from Balham Station.
I remember the Parachute Mines, as we called them, they could clear a good many houses if they exploded . About half a mile from us, after a night’s raid the woman of a house in Upper Tooting went into her front, first-floor room to find a mine hanging by the ‘chute’ cord in the room. It had come through the roof but not exploded. Fortunately the army defused it.