|To those under 40 years of age, the following reminiscences of wartime England will be only a second-hand experience as related to them by their elders; but to many of my generation, they will probably bring back memories of that period.
The summer of 1940 is sharply etched upon my mind. In 1940 most people in the United Kingdom lived like small children in a small world. Petrol rationing restricted travel. The use of the telephone was discouraged. The newspapers drastically reduced in size, worked under a censorship. As a result, the average citizen knew less than usual about what was happening during one of the oddest and most critical periods in our history.
At that time I lived in Rushden and I tried to imagine what might happen if the apparent impending invasion of Britain by Nazi Germany should materialise.
Would Nazi tanks thunder up the road dealing death and destruction on my own townsfolk? Would soldiers in field-grey uniforms carrying flamethrowers work their way along hedges towards airfields being constructed in the vicinity?
Would gliders containing airborne infantry descend around Rushden to be engaged by members of the Home Guard with their antiquated weapons? The whole affair took on the appearance of patriotic melodrama, rather than images of what could be a dreadful reality.
Britain had escaped invasion for more than a thousand years, was she now to be subjected to this cruel experience?
The British civilian carried and amount of paraphernalia about with him or her during that fateful summer. These consisted of a gasmask, slung from the shoulder in a canvas container. Each day he was supposed to wear it for a brief period to accustom himself to the restricted air conditions inside the mask, but I am afraid very few of us made this a practice.
Next in importance came the National Registration Identity Card. This recorded his number in the National Register, his name and address and signature. This would help matters if he became a casualty in air attack. Many of us also carried a petrol coupon and ration book which served for both food and clothing.
Any large, flat field that would be suitable for landing enemy aircraft was blocked by old farm carts, disused machinery or anything suitable to frustrate the use of gliders containing air-borne troops. Concrete pill-boxes were built at vulnerable points and manned by Home Guards. Their arms varied from first war rifles to shot guns and revolvers and every town and village contributed men of all ages to stem the invader.
On May 31, orders were given for all signposts to be taken down, milestones torn up, names in railway stations, streets and villages removed in order to confuse enemy parachutists. On June 13, the ringing of church bells was prohibited. In future they could only be rung by military and police, to give warning of an imminent attack by airborne forces.
During a warm night in July of 1940 I was on police duty just over the county boundary in Bedfordshire. It was a still, clear night and from all sides searchlights were probing the sky, moving easily and quickly, fingering the stars. There was complete silence and nothing seemed alive but the questing antennae of the searchlights; long sprays of yellowish silver waving around like the gigantic legs of a spider.
Then two searchlights from either side came together like closing fingers, till there were only two bars of light a cross on the sky. I saw a tiny, silvery speck in the cross and there came the faint throb of aircraft engines at a great height. When the aircraft was almost directly overhead I heard a curious whistling sound and this was followed by two explosions which echoed among the surrounding woods".
"They were ruddy bombs," said my companion. And they were the first to be dropped by the Nazis in Bedfordshire. The next morning I went to look at the bomb craters. The bombs had fallen in a cornfield at Pertenhall and made two shallow craters among the ripening corn. The only damage had been inflicted at an isolated farmhouse, where windows had been blown out and a hen-house overturned.
In August and September came Hitler's massed air raids. Hitler possibly thought that an all-out air attack would cause Britain to capitulate or at least be softened up to make invasion possible.
In October of that year I experienced a typical air attack by a lone raider on a small, undefended town in the East Midlands. On that particular morning, the weather was atrocious, a high wind and driving rain kept people indoors and the usually busy High Street of Rushden was almost deserted.
I was in my shop at 27 High Street and about mid-morning there was a series of heavy explosions, followed by the crash of falling glass and masonry. Lights flickered for a moment and then went out.
Hurrying into the street I saw a thick cloud of smoke and dust hanging over the town and just overhead an evil looking Nazi bomber flew beneath scudding clouds. It flew so low that I could pick out the German cross marked on the wings and I recognised the plane as a Dornier "Flying Pencil" so called because of its extremely slim fusilage.
Fearing more bombs were about to be dropped, I took cover in a cellar under shop. However, the Nazi pilot had released his full load and was apparently making a reconnaissance of the town to discover the extent of the damage he had caused.
I donned my gas-mask and tin hat and set out to give any help that was necessary. When I reached the National Provincial Bank, pieces of masonry blown from the roof of this building, lay scattered in the road and I helped to clear this rubble on to the pavement to make way for passing traffic.
Walking down College Street, I found a crowd of onlookers grouped outside Alfred Street School, which had received a direct hit. Members of the A.R.P. and National Fire Service were bringing put the bodies of small children, which lay buried among the tangled wreckage of bricks, desks and tables blown into the street.
Further down the road a fish and chip shop was completely destroyed but no one was in it when the bomb dropped. A couple in Church Street had an amazing escape from death or injury when a bomb ploughed through the roof of their house and plunging deep into the ground, failed to explode.
They were indeed dramatic days and those events of some 35 years ago have all the qualities of a dream and one wonders if they were ever real.