I was asleep in bed when my mother woke me. She told me that the house opposite had been hit by an incendiary. These were silver coloured, probably of aluminium, tubes about nine inches to a foot long which were dropped in bunches and scattered on their way down, bursting on impact and setting fire to anything combustible within a small radius. In this case it had gone through the scullery roof and was setting fire to the laundry.
The ARP issued what was called a stirrup pump, really a garden spray, two buckets, one for water and one for sand, and a long handled shovel which I believe was only a broom handle with a small, square mouthed coal shovel fitted, the sort of thing one might buy for lifting dog excrement rather than digging . One was supposed to lift the incendiary with this and set it in a bucket of sand to burn itself out. The water was to be used for putting out the fires. It was totally useless for containing the incendiaries and a conflagration greater than a smouldering cigarette end would have presented a problem – just another cosmetic exercise to hoodwink the populace.
I put on my tin hat, and in a pyjama jacket, ordinary trousers and gum boots, I climbed on to the roof of the scullery and opened up a hole to put the stirrup hose through. The whole exercise was a total waste of time and in the end we just chucked buckets of water in . There was no point in trying to open the door into the yard, the place below was an inferno. On another night, I was fire watching at an office when there was a shower of incendiaries and one lodged behind a stone balustrade. Too far to reach with the long shovel I decided to slide down the roof and wedge my feet against the balustrade to tip the incendiary out through one of the holes between the columns. The idea seemed safe enough and that was what we did. It was only when we went up in daylight to see what damage had occurred that we discovered that the balustrade had one or two larger holes at intervals, holes a body could have slid through and shot down to the road some five floors below. They do say ignorance is bliss.
Fire Watching I seem to remember that there was a proviso in the compensation act which required business owners to have fire-watchers on a shift basis throughout periods when the business was not open. I became a fire-watcher. I don’t think my mother or I really evaluated the dangers of our actions, probably most people didn’t, they just accepted their lot and got on with living as best they could. My Aunt had a friend who worked in a tea warehouse at the London Docks and the friend was looking for firewatchers to fulfil their statutory obligation. The pay was phenomenal, ten shillings a night, and when one understands that the average weekly labourer’s wage was between three and five pounds a week, a week’s fire-watching was tantamount to a week’s wages and one spent most of the time sleeping. I jumped at it.
It was great. We arrived at about six o’clock in the evening, sat and listened to the radio, chatted and then took turns to sleep under army-type blankets. The duties required a regular patrol to see everything was fine and in the event of an air raid we all patrolled and spent most of our time on or near the roof in case of incendiaries. It was only later I discovered what I had let myself in for. On a night when I was not on duty another warehouse close to ours was hit. It, like ours, was mostly constructed of old, heavy, dry timber beams and floors, probably a century or more old, and stacked with plywood boxes of tea, it was an inferno in minutes. That put paid to fire watching in dockland, always the target for the night bombers, and always easily found by the configuration in the water of the Thames estuary. It was just near there that the stupidity of improvisation, when it comes to air-raid shelters, was highlighted yet again. There was a rail viaduct for a number of lines coming into London, not far from where I was fire watching. It consisted of a contiguous series of huge brick arches supporting the rail roadbed and most were used for workshops and stores. However, one had been converted for the local people to hide in during air raids and huge doors had been provided at each end. About the time I was looking after the tea warehouse, a bomb fell in the road outside the shelter and blew the two doors up the tunnel formed by the arch with devastating effect.
I am making a film about the Blitz for the BBC please contact me on 0776 433 5633 or at firstname.lastname@example.org regards