Canvey at war

I was 21 years old

By Bill Gower

Photo:Neville Chamberlain at the BBC

Neville Chamberlain at the BBC

I was sitting in the driver’s seat of a 24 hp Ford saloon parked up on an unmade grass road where there was a radio shop. I wanted to hear the announcement from the prime minister. He told the nation that from this moment Gt Britain was a war with Germany. I was 21 years old.

I knew that I would become involved. In my case I knew that there would be some delay because the year before at work I had broken my leg. It was a very serious break and I still had my leg in plaster.

Canvey was well armed against any German approach by their aircraft or by sea. In fact I had previously been a train driver on the building of Canvey Fort, a massive construction on Thorney Bay and the train I was driving was a goods wagon affair hauling ballast and building materials from Kit Katts Road which was not built up as it is now. The track went right through Thorney Bay nearly to the tank farm, over field and dykes. It was an interesting job, the job I broke my leg on. There were other places on Canvey that held anti aircraft guns, machine guns and searchlights, one at the bottom of Northwick Road, the old army camp still remains and is in use for business. The other was at little Gypps, the old peoples home now exists there.

Photo:Claxton cine of Canvey preparing for war

Claxton cine of Canvey preparing for war

Although war had been declared, nothing happened for the start off, in fact nothing happened for a few months other than the odd German plane coming over here to drop leaflets and take photographs. We were doing the same to them. It was when nightfall descended on the land that more or less paralysed everything. No street lights, no shop lights, no lights from houses, no torches, no striking of matches. I think it came about far too sudden, people were walking into lampposts and telegraph poles, car lights were painted out and reduced to a glimmer just the size of a coat button and even then the car lights had to have a long shield. The drill was to stand outside your own house for about 10 minutes at night before walking the street so as to get the eyes accustomed to the darkness. After about a week people began to get the hang of it.

Photo:Searching for enemy planes

Searching for enemy planes

The first bit of enemy action I saw, was on night from Beverley Avenue. The air raid siren had given the warning and the searchlights were searching the pitch black sky for the German aircraft that we could hear roaming up and down the Canvey sea front. Suddenly one of the searchlights got it in the beam, and other searchlights joined in until the plane was well illuminated, then the guns started firing at it, big shells were pumped into the sky at it, machine guns were firing their tracer bullets at it and one of the planes gunners began to shoot back down the searchlight beams, but the plane was diving and twisting to get away and I saw one shell burst close between the wing and the main fuselage, the plane rocked and slid sideways, but it eventually reached a cloud and went into it and got away. We later learned that this German plane had been dropping mines in the water at the sea front so that ships would run into the mines and sink the ships, but our minesweepers were out the next morning clearing the mines up, big things they were too.

By now the taxi I used to drive, was one of many commandeered by the government and used by the fire brigade to tow a mechanical water pump around where needed, and I awaited the day when I had to go to Woolwich Training Battalion. I was non too happy to leave home, but on the morning I had to go I did not show any signs of reluctance in case it upset my mum and dad. I got on the train and changed at Barking and I wondered how the train got to Woolwich because I didn’t know trains went there. However, on arrival at Woolwich station there was a banging of carriage doors and a load of lads got out on to the platform where an army sergeant and a corporal were waiting. The sergeant approached us and told us to form some sort of a line and then march with him to the barracks.

This began my service in the army.

This page was added by Janet Penn on 28/03/2012.