WW2, 1940 to 41, in order, Cluttons Part 3 of 3.

Following on from items Cluttons 1 and 2, I write this because it highlights the differences between business in the late Victorian era, my time there, and today

Aspirations outstripped resources, with ideas beyond my station, like going to the theatre. In London, at lunch time I would rent a folding seat, at the entrance to the theatre ‘Gods’, to reserve a place in the queue for the evening. In The evening I claimed and sat on it, being amused by the buskers until the seats were collected. This all cost – economies were made. I discovered the Express Dairy in Victoria Street. Lunches then had to consist of a small current loaf, cut through the middle and buttered. This I ate in the Embankment gardens or St James’s Park, swapping a roast with two veg and a sweet, for an evening in the Gods at one of the City’s theatres

My next posting in Cluttons was to the Rent Department and a certain Miss Veezey, a charming if slightly tentative young woman, not happy with being brought face to face with the seamier side of life. The Management had decided I was a more robust specimen. I was called into the Secretary’s sanctum, proof enough that I was either to be honoured or dressed down. Headmasters Studies had taught me I was unlikely to be honoured. I went with my tail between my legs. “Ah! Riggs!” No suggestion of sitting down. – a bad sign! “Do you possess a hat, Riggs?” “No. Sir.” I said mystified. “You will understand that this Firm has a long tradition. It is not long since all the staff were required to wear frock-coats and top hats,” he said with equanimity, and not a smile. I just nodded, aghast at what might be coming next, my mind distracted with the vision of tens of my colleagues going in and out of the office in stove-pipe hats and frock coats. He continued. “To represent us you will need a hat. If you can’t wear it you must carry it, and never go anywhere on business without it.” Class dismissed. As I went back to my new department and desk I thought it a bit rich, making me buy a hat, when I was paid only a pound a week, less deductions. I consoled myself that I was lucky; my predecessors had had to pay in hundreds for their tutelage, They, probably had to buy a frock-coat and a topper to go with it. I duly purchased what was then the height of fashion for the young office worker – a Porkpie Hat,.

Rent collecting was really a juggling act, especially in the rain. There was the rent book with hard cover and all the names and payments carefully recorded, held by a thick red rubber band. Then there was the cash pouch under the jacket, the inevitable hat, the pencil, the householder’s rent book and last, the rent itself, with only one pair of hands. The routine was to stick the hat between the knees, take the money, hand back the change, mark up the book, mark up the householder’s book, say a nice thank you, put the rent book under the arm and retrieve the hat. Easy? Try it with an umbrella as well. Miss Veezey was no fool. Of course that was only the basics with the silent minority, there were always the garrulous ones who were difficult to leave politely, withholding the book and cash until they had told all. Short of wrestling I was a captive audience. I needed training by a milk rounds-man. There were the flats – climbing uncarpeted stairs which children had dampened when the need arose and the atmosphere was thick, or some elderly, undernourished, bodiless hand with a greasy, brown paper covered rent book with equally mucky money would appear through the four inch slit between door and jamb. That particular house was the last straw with respect to Miss Veezey.

Once I had shown myself capable of collecting rent I was transferred upstairs to the Holy of Holies, the Surveyor’s Department. There they spoke a different language, had more freedom of movement. Instead of writing draft letters for correction, like like essay-time at school, we dictated own letters,. The dictating machines recorded mechanically onto a rotating tube of a black shellac-type material, and the playback needle was of bamboo. When the typist had typed the letters she would engage a shaving device which scraped a thin shaving ready for the next offering. I’m amazed how far we have come in so short a time, to voice recognition transference, dictated straight onto paper, a system I now use. My main job then was to take a taxi each morning and visit the areas of our property damaged by air raid since my last visit and make superficial estimates of percentage damage, both structural and cosmetic, to enable the registration of War Damage claims. Sometimes, when the raids increased and occurred in daylight as well as at night, I could actually be out recording when further damage arose. The day came when I received my papers and was about to head off to the Navy. On that day before I departed, I left a huge ‘Property Vacant, This Space For Sale’ standard notice with a little poem I have long since forgotten.

WW2, 1940 to ’41, in order,Cluttons, Part 2 of 3.

I apologise to those who remember the small part of this first paragraph I previously posted in an essay describing the marvellous institution of Cluttons of 1940. I believe it and what follows demonstrates, graphically, the changes wrought in business since then.

I was articled as a Valuation Surveyor to Cluttons. – the most august Surveyors in Britain, The building, near the Victoria Tower at Westminster, of redbrick and cream sandstone, is at least 150 years old. That first day is impossible to describe – the transformation from the schoolboy to the worker. I had my first suit, and was absorbed into the closed atmosphere of that office. They successfully fostered a sense of belonging, the man and boy ethos, once a Clutton’s man always a Clutton’s man – and it worked. The building itself had a faint aroma of polish and leather bindings, not unpleasant, which imparted a feeling of familiarity.

Then it possessed the most charming lift, in the building centre, built like a wrought-iron bird-cage, with filigree ornamentation. The wrought iron safety frame was open right to the roof with its weights and ropes naked. The lift was almost a living eccentric, it had a will of its own. One entered through a garden gate, pressed the ‘Floor’ button, pulled on a rope and nothing happened. A few more pulls. it grunted into a stately rise, or fall, under sufferance, barely obliging, We, too young to take office life totally seriously, could stop it at any time by opening a gate on another floor and strand it between floors. We dropped hole-puncher confetti down the shaft as the cage had no top,. I was the lowliest of the low. My immediate boss, a Sergeant Commissionaire, in the blue serge uniform, patent leather belt, and medal ribbons, was a tall, stern, imposing figure, and a punctilious disciplinarian. He guarded the door, was receptionist, part-time telephone operator and post boy, and promptly transferred all that to me. As relief telephone operator I could listen, if I cared to, so that I might understand the working of the office. Nothing is more boring than other people’s conversations, if one has to break off to answer other calls. I did that work for about a fortnight and then went to the Cashier’s Department, known as ‘Accounts’.

We dealt with properties of the Crown Commissioners and the Ecclesiastical Commissioners, which meant most of London, with properties as disparate as Park Lane and Kennington. Later I was to find they had odours to match. We worked at Dickensian-like desks, at standing height, with sloping tops, an ink pot set into the back, lids that lifted, to reveal personal possessions, and a high chair for when a little relief for the back was called for. The ledgers, like the desks were of another age. Leather bound, huge and thick, the size of a volume of the Encyclopaedia-Britannica, with pages twice as heavy. We recorded all payments in and out, we balanced every day, every week, every month and every quarter – and I still got it wrong. The theory of reciprocal mistakes states, that if there is the most minute discrepancy, it is likely that there are two mistakes which nearly cancel one another out. I have proved the theory to be true over and again. On my first balance I had some minuscule difference in the totals and suggested a modification in the pence column would save us all a lot of time WRONGGGGG!! When I totted up for the umpteenth time, two horrendous errors practically cancelled one another.

My huge, antique desk was one of a contiguous row and my immediate superior in Accounts, Fletcher, seated at the end of the row, would talk down to me most of the time as if I was the seventh idiot son of a seventh idiot. There was a lady clerk who was a tease. She soon discovered I blushed and, with a large enough audience, and often goaded by the odious Fletcher, she would try one of her many ploys on me to make me go red to the tops of my socks. When I would be working at my ledger, she would come tight beside me and lay her copious bosom gently on the ledger so I could not fail to see it, and the chances were I would bump into it before I was aware of its presence. It was like a gift, not an appendage to her person. At just seventeen, I was deeply embarrassed, as intended. Other times she would squeeze past me so I was fully aware of what bits of her were where and often they were coming in touch with my protrusions. Again she was right on the button, she embarrassed me and was well aware of the fact, she couldn’t have failed to be under the circumstances. In the end, not knowing what I know now about the delicacy of ladies and their appendages, I shut the ledger on her pride and that put an end to my torture.

WW2, 1940 to ’41, in order,The Guards, the H.G. and Buckingham Palace

Presumably, as a morale booster, a genius at Whitehall thought it would be a ‘terrific idea’ for the HG to mount guard at Buck H, unaware what the poor devils would suffer at the delicate hands of the Guards’ Drill Sergeants. An edict was read out at parades. I assumed it was an honour for the HG while paying homage to His Majesty, KG6. They wanted the platoon to provide men six foot in height -‘volunteers’. Skipper made us fall in, put us through arms drill, finally picking those he thought would disgrace us least – I was one.

We reported to Wellington Barracks on Birdcage Walk each evening for two hours, training in the art of guarding, that involved stamping the feet at every opportunity until the Achilles tendons ached, carrying a rifle at the ‘slope’ and marching back and forth – doing everything old Skip had taught us but with ‘snap’. ‘Put a snap in it, lad’, was the cry. There was a S’nt Mayhah, not a sergeant major, dress cap placed parallel to the ground, black peak flat on his face so he had to hold his head back to see where he was going, and a device under his left arm, called a ‘pace stick’. To assess the level of detail these guys entered into, the S’nt Mayhah invariably held this pace stick parallel to the ground, with the point held between the first finger and thumb of the left hand, with the remainder of his fingers extended, his right hand loosely closed with thumb extended on top and the arm raised to shoulder level on alternate strides. Someone in our platoon wondered who had time to wind them all up before we arrived.

The S’nt Mayhah had a voice like thunder and I assume, abused his own sergeants to impress upon us civilians the yawning gap there was between a soldier and a Home Guard. That we were held in complete contempt was patent on arrival, and as the S’nt Mayhah probably had additional duties in consequence didn’t help our cause. One other odd, peculiar particular was the Officer-In-Charge. Dressed like the S’nt Mayhah but with a Sam Brown across his chest, his hat with the flattened brim, he marched back and forth, parallel to the Birdcage Walk railings, swagger stick like the pace stick, under his arm, precisely held, but he looked neither to left nor right, he ignored what was going on beside him, of which he was in charge, and just stamped his feet as he turned round at each precise end of a the exact course of pacing. Periodically a sergeant or the S’nt Mayhah would stand in his path, sufficiently far along the track so he could put on the breaks and stamp to a halt. They would salute one another for the umpteenth time, both shout something unintelligible as if a field apart, salute yet again, stamp a few times, part company and the officer would start his pacing again like an automaton.

It was June and the weather was wildly hot, I had only a singlet under my battledress tunic, a great mistake. For hours on end, night after night, we sloped arms and ordered arms and we tried to ‘put a snap in it’, but achieving that was almost impossible towards the end of the evening because our collar bones were sore with the repeated battering they received from the rifles as we obeyed instructions, shouted in our ear, strength five, ‘don’t put it down, slap it down’. We had done a full day’s work already, we were being abused as if we were raw recruits and this our chosen profession. Resentment reigned large. My friend Farrer was becoming as miserable and bolshie as I was . The crunch came on a Saturday. Now, not only my collarbone, broken years before, but the skin was so sore I could barely take the rubbing of the uniform on it. At ‘Shoulder arms’, I tried to find a spot on which to lay the rifle, it took time. A sergeant, taller than I, and a great deal stronger, standing immediately behind me, watching me as I started to lay the rifle down tentatively, hit the rifle on the barrel when it was about six inches from my shoulder, so that it literally crashed down on all the pain – “I told you to smack it down not lay it down”, he bellowed in my ear. For a moment I was staggered both by the pain and the brutality. One minute they were implying we were no-hopers, the next we were treated as if fully trained but malingering. I took the rifle off my shoulder and turned to the sergeant and explained rather tersely that I was a civilian trying my best but as my best was not good enough I was resigning from his care. After all these years I have no idea what I really said. I walked sedately off the parade ground. Whether the automaton saw me is unlikely, whether he cared is a definite negative. none of our platoon were at the Gates of Buckingham Palace in June when the Press pictures were taken.. Probably we were all dismissed and Guardsmen were dressed in our awful uniforms and out there, pretending – serve ’em right!

WW2, 1940 to ’41, in order, The Grenadier Guards at Whitehall

In time we, in the Westminster Homeguard were chosen to man blockhouses in Whitehall. Crude, concrete structures, set across a road leading to Whitehall and with a gate making free access impossible. Our job was sentry duty outside the blockhouse on ‘X’ nights a week and at weekends. In the blockhouse it was like a squat, comfortless, and outside, bitterly cold. There were three troopers, a sergeant and me. They all had ammunition I had none, presumably for their safety rather than my own. It was here that I first came across the unthinking use of expletives, the more disgusting the better. The ‘F’ word was used indiscriminately, certainly rarely in context and often between syllables. In retrospect I find it strange how soon I became acclimatised to the whole atmosphere. Our blockhouse was beside the Liberal Club, one of the clubs in London and the Members, on duty nights, welcomed us and allowed us to use the club between bouts of duty and to have a half of Bitter in those august rooms, if we liked when we were doing duty at weekends. It was another world. The quiet smooth running of the club was like a well oiled engine which had been in service since the dawn of time; the unruffled, discreet way the staff appeared to serve, almost without being there, the over-stuffed, oxblood-coloured leather, the rich carpets and curtains and above all the almost cloistered atmosphere of the billiard room, with its raised leather benches, its green baize and cowled lights over the tables, a world away from any previous experience, and awe-inspiring. It seems it took a war to break down the barriers.

Tedium epitomises the lot of the lower ranks in all the services and I include the police in this. The aspect I have found strangest is that at the time we are not aware we are wasting our lives. The system really works, all that marching up and down, forming fours or whatever, standing to attention with ne’er a muscle moving, does seem to concentrate the mind in the physical sense rather than the metaphysical, to a point where it is incapable of critical thought. The greatest of all boring duties is ‘Guard Duty’ in whatever service one is in. In the police, especially in Ireland during an ‘Emergency’, it can be lethal, in the Navy it is a joke, unless one is caught, and in the Army it is taken very seriously, even when all that is being guarded is so insignificant that no one would want to steal it or copy it anyway. The main function of the guard is to keep on the alert in case he is caught, having a crafty pull on a cigarette, is improperly dressed, or is slouching, all deemed to be heinous crimes with unspeakable punishment if caught. In wartime there are innumerable sergeants and officers creeping about trying to catch these guards committing these diabolical offences.

At the time we also had the Blitz to contend with. I was on guard duty outside the blockhouse in Whitehall on a very black night, when a shadowy figure approached. I said the obligatory ‘Halt! who goes there? Approach and be recognised.’, feeling like a total idiot, knowing full well it was one of the Regiment, nobody else would be fool enough to be out in the small hours on a wet and cold night. It was the Guards Officer doing his rounds, and I suspect my lack of sincerity must have come through. “Who the f…. are you?” he said with all the venom of an embittered mother-in-law. There was absolutely no way he could have thought I was other than what I represented. . I was sure the officer, even if he were dim, could not have been unaware of what and who I was. Anyway, it would have been on the order-paper or some typically bureaucratic sheet. “Home Guard, on duty. Sir.” I replied reasonably, with my bayonet still pointed at his supper.” ‘X-ing Home Guard!” he said and pushed past me with hardly a glance at anything but the bayonet which I was now waving about as I grounded the rifle. The poor Guards sergeant, who was a decent fellow, if also scathing about the Home Guard, got an earful, which carried out to me even through the layers of sacking, which acted as blackout curtaining. If one had the opinion one was aiding the war effort by being in the Home Guard, a few weeks with the Guards soon made it clear one was as useful and as desirable as another head.

WW2, 1940 to 41, in order, The Army, Home Guard an Nortover Projector

The Army and the Guards in particular need no recommendation from me, their records over eons speak for themselves, but the relationship between them and the Home Guard I found amusing and worth relating. Loosely attached to The King’s Royal Rifles, a swank regiment, with a history of valour, we wore a black cap badge in the form of a Maltese Cross, surmounted by a crown, the regimental name on a central roundel, backed by red baize, – very smart. We had been told the badge, had been changed from bright brass to black so it would not attract the attention of snipers in the trenches, all stirring stuff to a sixteen year old.

The discrepancy between the uniform of the Home Guard and the rest of the Army had to be seen to be believed and there was the same steep step between the smartness of the regular soldier and the Guards. If the Germans had notions of infiltrating the Home Guard they would have been discovered in a minute because they could never have duplicated our uniforms. I’m sure we had been issued with whatever had been rejected by everyone else. Nothing fitted and to crown it all the gaiters we were forced to wear were a terrible oxblood colour, which was a badge in itself. The Guards were the other extreme, they were vain to a man, jealous of their reputation and standing, so they bastardised every piece of uniform capable of modification, from the peak of their caps to the surface and polish of their boots I’d guess many had their uniforms tailored as well

Some lunatic inventor had thought up the Northover Projector.- an enlarged version of a toy cannon I had as a child. The toy worked on the principle of a leaf-spring fixed tightly up against the back end of the barrel while one slid bullets (match sticks) into the business end. They slid down the barrel, when one pulled back the spring the match followed it. On release the spring propelled the match out of the gun and hit toy soldiers with considerable force at least 36 inches away. The Northover Projector had a wind-up spring instead of the leaf-spring, otherwise the thing was much the same as the toy cannon – made by the Germans in the twenties – a symbol of the efficiency of the War Office in general, and the their thinking with regard to the Home Guard in particular.

Representatives of all the platoons of the Westminster area were taken by bus to a secret location which we reckoned was Box Hill, formed up and marched into a forest. arranged in a semi-circle in a clearing, at the centre of which stood the Northover Projector (NOP) along with Mr Northover (I think). I remember it was a squat little thing, the gun, not Mr Northover. The NOP was shiny as if cobbled together out of spare bits of aluminium. We were then instructed on the ammunition, which was a form of Molotov Cocktail, consisting of petrol with a cube of phosphorous floating on the top in a lemonade bottle. We were informed that the phosphorous would burst into flame when exposed to the air and ignite the petrol, and they were right. A huge target of corrugated sheet steel had been erected against the forest backdrop and the NOP faced it squarely. We were told how tricky phosphorous was and how to aim the thing, then someone stepped forward and dropped a bottle of lemonade down the barrel, pulled a lever and off went the bottle.

It reached the steel sheeting, cleared it by feet and then went on to explode against a tree and start a forest fire, an eventuality no one seemed to have envisaged because it took a while to put out, especially as it was mid-summer. Indeed that was all we saw of the demonstration, we were loaded up, late in the evening and returned home. I never again saw or heard of the Northover Projector from that day.

WW2, 1940 to ’41, in order, Clement Atlee and the Home Guard

Those of the Television Era would not appreciate the shock of misconception suffered when brought face to face with a politician whose appearance and mien have been conjured from only newspaper articles, radio interviews and radio comment, when there was no TV. Recently, all we see is the top few of our leaders and their cohorts . Prior to then they were constantly in the public eye, on TV, in newspapers and magazine. We could assess their physique, their mien, whether they were arrogant, self-seeking or evasive. In 1940 it was a matter of forming an impression on little or no true evidence. Such was the shock I received when, in the Home Guard I was paraded for the benefit of politics, patriotism and publicity.

One day Skipper informed us that on the following weekend we would be going for an exercise on Epsom Downs. End of story. In those days everything was secret, so what we would be doing on Epsom Downs would be a mystery until we did it. The only part of the weekend which stands out is the time we spent parading in front of the stands awaiting the arrival of Atlee, the Deputy Prime Minister. The day was as hot as I have experienced, one of those scorchers typical of the South East, which are not helped by being slightly humid. Standing there in our battledress serge, with a tin hat on, awful leather puttees and heavy, studded black boots, one could feel the perspiration running down the spine.

There used to be a macho tradition in the Guards Regiments that if a soldier fainted flat on his face while on dress parade, he was left there until the order was given to cart him off. I’m assuming the logistics of the alternative, of people rushing about being compassionate, was less important than keeping the ranks nice and tidy just as the King (as he was then) was about to take the salute. Actually, if one thinks of the size of the spectacle and the complication of the manoeuvres at the Trooping of the Colour, if a couple of them did collapse and his mates did rush about, there really could be chaos. It also had something to do with malingering, making sure the soldiers really did faint. I understand that if they fainted they were on a charge; – such is the way of the army, or was then. There we were, then, hundreds of us lined, up in the heat, being made to stand at ease, stand easy, and all the other ways soldiers have to stand including presenting arms, all in the interests of making us smart and keeping us alert, in the sweltering heat. Every now and then there would be an almighty crash. Some poor sod had hit the dirt. Then nothing; we were on parade after all, even if the criminal who had the temerity to faint was only a clerk out of ‘Rents’ doing his bit for K & C. Minutes would elapse and then someone would gather him up and his day of glory would be over, our torture would continue.

Atlee was heard to arrive several hours late and the remnants of us could not have cared less by that time. We were drilled for his delectation and then he sauntered down the ranks peering at us and stopping to say words of encouragement to men with campaign medals from the First World War. It was at this point I became disillusioned with politicians for all time. I have since read and been told that Atlee was a very clever and astute man. I saw someone entirely different. I saw a small, hunched, unprepossessing man with a glazed stare, tired and feigning interest unconvincingly. What a waste of time for both of us,

WW2, 1940 to ’41, in order,The Blitz, Balham Tube Station

Under The Stairs As far as I was concerned I could never be bothered to get out of bed unless the bombing was so heavy my mother insisted and then she and I sat in the cupboard under the stairs. It was there that I witnessed real fear, almost to the point of terror for the first time. My mother had always been a cool customer in all circumstance. Whatever her emotions, and I have seen her white round the mouth with sheer anger; she was always dignified, usually kept her own council and apart for some slight indication as I have just described, one would not know her real reactions. On many nights when she insisted I join her, in what she referred to as the ‘cubby-hole’, we would hear bombs falling, windows rattling, but on only one occasion when I was at home did a stick of bombs actually threaten us. There were about six in a row. We could hear each explode with barely a second between them, which seemed an age, and there was a steady increase in the vibration of the explosion and in the noise each made. Inexorably they came, as steady as time itself and we were both sure one would hit us. It was then I saw my mother, she was white knuckled, rigid with such a fixed look on her face that I was more worried for her than where the next bomb might fall. It landed beyond us and the house shook. In the light of the torch, with the drama increased by the oblique shadows and sharp contrasts cast by it, I saw her slowly relax, but it was some time before she fully recovered.

The Balham Tube Station Disaster A considerable number of people in London generally, and our district in particular, took shelter from the blitz in the underground railway stations, sleeping on the platforms. There were other shelters, there were brick structures with heavy reinforced concrete roofs, a very common sight on the street corners of Belfast when I arrived there in ’42. Some people used Anderson shelters, made from corrugated steel and provided by the ARP for the householder to erect. You had to dig a hole about half the depth of the shelter height, then the body of the shelter which was like a tiny Nissan hut was put in place and covered with sandbags. The idea was fine if the base of the shelter could be drained and water prevented from getting in, otherwise within months of being erected they were useless. My grandmother was issued with a Morrison shelter some way through the war. This was nothing other than a dining table made from steel and capable of supporting beams and similar debris, should the house be damage. The idea was that the family slept under this thing every night.

It is only as the years have gone by that the true price, of what the Continentals and Russians paid in the Hitler War, has come to light. It dwarfs what I write here, but at the time we, on the receiving end, thought ourselves hard done by. On the night in question my friends and I had been off somewhere and were on our way home when we heard the air raid siren wail. Almost as soon as the guns opened up we heard the most awful bang and reckoned rightly that a bomb had fallen in Balham High Road, but we didn’t hang around to find out what had happened, for once discretion took over. It was therefore the following day before we heard of the disaster and the full extent of what had happened. The story we heard was that the bomb had fallen in the centre of the High Road over the platform area of the tube station, but that was all the damage that was done at that moment. Unhappily though, almost immediately, one of the last buses of the evening ran straight into the hole left by the bomb and burst a huge water main, this in turn poured gallons of water into the tunnel.

It was a disaster contrived by contributing circumstances, each of which, while serious would not have been catastrophic. The authorities knowing about the water main, had taken it into account in the planning. They had assumed that if the pipe received a direct hit the water would flood the street and then descend the escalator, so to avoid that eventuality they had installed water-tight doors which were shut at night. Coupled with this the station was at the lowest part of the line so that any water entering the station could not flow out, and last but not least, it had been designed as a station in peace-time, it was therefore merely an emergency measure, not a purposely designed air raid shelter in the accepted sense. I don’t remember the death toll, it is a matter of record, but most people knew someone who had experienced that awful night or perhaps perished.

WW2, 1940 to ’41,in order, Incendiaries and Fire-warching

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.

WW2, 1940 to ’41, in order, The London Blitz.

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.

WW2,1940 to ’41, in order, Cluttons, Part 1 of 3

I’ll describe the marvellous institution of Cluttons of 1940 in detail elsewhere, but refer to it here to set the scene of the Westminster Home Guard. Someone misguidedly told me that going to university during the war was a waste of time, with evacuation the degree would be worthless and I would probably be called up halfway through the course. WRONGGGG!! But the decision was made and I was articled as a Valuation Surveyor to Cluttons. – the most august Surveyors in Britain, The building, near the Victoria Tower at Westminster, of redbrick and cream sandstone, is at least 150 years old. That first day is impossible to describe – the transformation from the schoolboy to the worker The building itself had a faint aroma of polish and leather bindings, not unpleasant, which imparted a feeling of familiarity. There was a little self-contained flat at the top of the building, where ‘Skipper’, the Janitor lived with his wife. Skipper was ex- regular army. His additional duty was to train the section of Home Guard which had been formed from members of staff and a few from other offices. Sam Clutton, a Partner, was the officer in charge and actually had converted a Rolls Royce into a troop carrier, for us, his little band of followers. We paraded in the basement like ‘Dad’s Army’, had bayonet practice and the sergeant’s description, instructions and logistics were so bloody and graphical, I opted for the Navy on the spot. In the office basement Skipper had erected a firing range and had fitted some 1914/18 0.303 rifles with Morse tubes so we could fire 0.22 ammunition. The basement ran some considerable distance under the building so we were able to lie, kneel, stand and fire at targets which were stationary and moving. Apart from the odd exercise, the visit to see the Northover Projector and standing guard on Buckingham Palace our duties were mainly to swell the numbers of the Grenadier Guards in blockhouses round Westminster.

Our office platoon, of the Westminster Battalion, had to perform exercises, which could take place in parks, on Wimbledon Common, anywhere. Of them all this was the oddest. They generally consisted of creeping about in an ill-fitting uniform with an empty rifle, drinking tea at an all night stall with big wedges of sandwiches and /or a pink and white coconut cake to fill the corners, and riding in the back of the Rolls. However, one night we were told we were going to enter into an ‘exercise’ with another HG unit from, I believe, Transport House. The idea was we would be the invading army and were to attack HQ, which was to be Transport House, while they, the enemy defending Transport House, would stop us. I used to play games like that when I was in short trousers I forget the details but several things stand out clearly; there were no ground rules laid down about how the sortie was to be carried out, we were formed into groups of about four and sent out to follow different routes. We set off. Half way between our office and theirs, standing in the centre of a square, was a church that had recently been severely bombed. My mate and I, with a couple of others, started walking towards our objective and it soon dawned on us that there was absolutely no hope of passing undetected in those streets unless one could hide. There were a few buildings with steps leading down to a basement entrance, but they were traps for sure. Then we saw the church. Immediately we realised that if we could climb into the half-torn bell-tower and stay there undetected, the defenders would pass us by, which is exactly what happened, although our perches were precarious, to say the least, and today the Health and Safety Act would preclude soldiers from being allowed to take cover like that for merely a practice, We duly arrived at our goal and said that we had captured it. This was obvious as there was only one man there manning a telephone, and there were four of us. When we retired to the basement of our office we felt pretty satisfied with our evening’s work.

During the following week all hell broke loose. We thought we were going to be praised for initiative and inventiveness, instead we were castigated by the powers-that-were for not playing to rules they had thought up after we had beaten the enemy, though not by Sir, who agreed that we were right. The British Military seem to be totally crazy and have strange ideas about war. I sometime wonder if it has dawned on them even now, as it seems to have done on most other nations, that the idea is to kill the other side by any means at all and not get our own chaps killed at all – after all dead is dead. I often think they have always had it the other way round – ‘it’s not cricket, old man, to hide in a church.