A lad in wartime Essex

A friend of mine in Australia shared this and as I live close to Canvey Island I thought I would share as well…..

Looking up Furtherwick Road with the Haystack on the left

I was little more than a toddler at the start of the second world war and we lived at Plaistow in East London, the house we occupied was bombed during one of the first air raids and after a brief period in Berkshire we evacuated to Canvey Island in Essex. We already had family and friends there and because my father was in a reserved occupation as a ship repairer, working on damaged convoy ships, Canvey was more convenient for the train journey to Tilbury or the London Docks.

My first memory of him was that he kept a rifle in his wardrobe, part of his obligatory Home Guard issue, I could not lift it but was fascinated by the clicking sounds I could make with it every time I secretly gained access to that moth ball scented wardrobe. His importance, as a soldier, was well demonstrated one early morning when a fellow home guard soldier almost kicked our front door down in his frantic effort to raise my father. Gasping for breath, shouting, his voice reaching a high pitched crescendo, he screamed, “Harry it’s the invasion”, it wasn’t of course, but living at the mouth of the river Thames any unusual sighting was considered suspicious. I can hear them now, silver studs in army boots, sparking on the pavement, my dad, running off to war, off to save us all, or at least, me and my mum.

Canvey Island was not the best choice for an evacuation location because it was directly under the flight path of the German bombers on their route to bomb London. At such times my mother used to put me into a shelter made from thick steel and close down an iron grill with a clanking noise, rapidly diminished by the deafening sound of the air raid warning. Soon after I would listen for the monotonous drone of the approaching bombers, then the Pom-Pom sounds of the artillery batteries sending their shells skywards, a long pause, then, the distant thud of bombs meeting earth, like the funereal sound of muffled drums. My mother would try to re-assure me, saying that it was only angry polar bears outside my little iron igloo and that I should settle down and go to sleep, but I never did, I waited, just waited, because I was listening for the different sounds. Sounds of those bombers on their return flight and this time accompanied by a new, almost enjoyable sound to young ears, the rat-a-tat-tat of fighter machine gun fire.

Canvey Island during the war was very much like a village community, a rural seaside, if there could be such a thing. Even at the age of five I could freely take part in unsupervised childhood adventures with my friends, none of them much older than me, although it was war-time the fields were not surrounded with barbed wire, even the beach was accessible. Pretending to swim, in warm tidal water, was a brief pleasurable experience in past, hot war time, summers.

The Monico Hotel

The main junction of this village island, re-claimed from the sea by Dutch engineers, was at The Haystack, a public house and facing it was a large painted notice board, proclaiming that one day ‘the island would have its own hospital’ on the land that had been reserved for it. Turning right at this junction would eventually lead to the ‘sea’ front and the Monaco Hotel, an Art Deco style building which later became the honey-pot for locally based American serviceman and the attraction for many of the local young women. These young Americans, in their uniform, often sat outside of The Haystack and I would be encouraged to go and ask them, “got any gum chum?” they always obliged in an accent that sounded ‘cowboy’ to me. The more tasteful pleasure that I was introduced to was the ice cream concoction ‘Knickerbocker Glory’, a long spoon squeaking against a tall glass, scraping up the last tiny morsel of cold sweetness was a childhood pleasure.

Just along from The Haystack and facing on to the main road was the cinema and it was here that most of the war news or family news was exchanged. It was in this cinema that I first heard that the war had finished. The Chinese whisper became a shout, “it’s over”, “it’s over”, “the war, it’s over”. A jubilant audience flooded out on to the high street to join an ecstatic promenade whilst the celluloid Hollywood lovers were still locked in their black and white embrace, completely detached by the flickering light of a projector bulb from this momentous point in history, my, history.

I cannot remember if it was my fifth birthday or my first day at infants’ school. It is a remembering which, although I can see it in my mind in every detail, is lost in the rambling chronology of rememberings. I was excited and left the bungalow hand-in -hand with my mother. The sight that greeted me was wonderful to my child eyes; from every rainwater gutter, rooftop and telegraph wire hung thousands of strips of silver foil, they moved with the breeze and glistened brilliantly in the early morning sun. I looked up at my mother excitedly, but she just looked straight ahead with a sense of fear showing on her young girl face. I learned much later that these strips of foil had been dropped by the enemy bombers to confuse the Radar during their night time attack.

There were other times when my mother’s sense of fear came through to me, once, we were walking together when we heard a loud noise directly above us, like sheets being shaken in the wind. We looked up to see white parachutes opening, my mother gripped my hand tightly and we rushed home to seek its security. Meanwhile, other, older and maturely wiser women were putting on the kettles, preparing tea in case the crew of this RAF plane landed in their back garden.

As the war rolled on such incidents became more frequent. I was in our own back garden when I heard a violent flapping sound and over the top of our bungalow came a huge American bomber almost scraping the chimney pot. It was orange and black and large parts of its shredded fuselage flapped in the air-stream against other parts of the bodywork. It was being glided, without engine power, by the American pilot to avoid areas of housing and heading towards the sea. He was too low to bail out but such acts of sacrifice are testament to the qualities of men in war, mostly going un-recorded.

On one occasion, my father, much to my mother’s consternation took me in to the garden to watch an aerial dog fight. The staccato of machine gun fire, the glow of tracer as it criss-crossed the sky and the whistle of shrapnel. The sense of danger was tangible, even to me, a child. Then came the horror. There can be little more mesmerizing, more horrific than watching a piloted aircraft in a burning nose dive, crash to the ground. The unstoppable power of a totally destructive uncontrollable force over such a large machine is frightening. My father completed my induction into the destruction of war by taking me to see the crashed aircraft the following morning. We were ordered to stand well back from this smouldering pile of fuselage to avoid the danger from the bullets that were still exploding with the heat.

As a schoolboy, with newly found friends, Canvey became a countryside to be explored. This Island, with a protective sea wall, like a mediaeval fortress, was unlike any other English landscape. At the top end of our road, ‘The Driveway’, was a small wooded copse with damp soil inhabited by lizards and newts that formed an important part of our boyhood games. We played soldiers or cowboys and wrestled on the haystacks or wandered the flat , open sky, skylark singing marshes, where an oil refinery now stands. The initiation to our branch of the Cadbury Club was a ‘booter’, getting both socks and plimsolls soaked in the marshland rivulets, then walking home with squeaks and squelches amongst the sound of mischievous boyhood laughter, not one single thought of vandalism or abusive disruption; those games played by present day boys.

On Sundays, a girl, our older ‘minder’, took a handful of her young charges along the sea wall and down to The Point of the island. We passed by upturned clinker built boat hulls blackened with tar and used as houses, until we reached a flat-bottomed punt shaped boat. Painted a gleaming white, with a large house like structure on its deck, it was surrounded by a pretty baluster and bobbed gently in the tidal flow of the creek, it was the Sunday School. The motley congregation of a crew sang our little hearts out, polished up in best suits, white dresses, and shoes covered in marshland mud. I was, without knowing it, bearing witness to the last remnants of a Dickensian landscape.

The war continued with its everyday experiences, one morning I came out of the front door and as I closed it the ground and house shook violently in the shockwave of a terrifying explosion. I looked out of the porch towards a huge column of jet-black smoke rising rapidly into the sky. I shouted and screamed with fear as I banged my tiny fists against the door with frenzy in the attempt to seek the safety of my mother’s arms. It had been a ‘Doodlebug’.

I saw others, much closer, after that, large orange coloured rockets belching a loud guttural roar from the jet of flame that propelled it. Whilst it made this sound you knew that it was passing, when it suddenly went silent you dropped to the ground and waited. Apparently our fighter pilots at times tried to tip the wings of a doodlebug with their own aircraft wings in an attempt to deflect its course. Sometimes with terrible consequences. I overheard, “She was cooking at the time when the doodlebug came down, the saucepan handle went through her neck.” The image of this was distorted, nightmare like, in my child mind.

School had its own excitements, one morning a boy got his leg trapped between the classroom wall and a large heating pipe; at the same moment his shouts were echoed by the wailing of the air raid siren. The children remained silent and bewildered as they watched the teachers, in confusion and panic, trying both to release the boy and shepherd the rest of us to the playground air raid shelter.

Restricted rations and the lack of nutritious food left some of us in poor health but almost as a form of compensation there was a list of procedures that could be done even when there was no medical need. The removal of appendix or tonsils or ear nose and throat operations were a matter of course. I remember my mum and matron standing at the foot of my hospital bed, matron asking, “ whilst we have him in here would you like us to remove his appendix?”

My own ‘ear, nose and throat’, was done at a hospital on the mainland, I think it was at Hornchurch. As I came round from the anaesthetic there was an almighty explosion, the French windows at the side of my bed blew open with tremendous force as the curtains rose horizontally like flags shredded by the shattered glass as it spewed its way across the ward floor. Nurses ran to help and comfort us and I went back into my sleep. A boy of my age had been in the bed next to me on the other side of the french windows and when I awoke in the morning he was gone, his bed sheets had been pulled back and they lay open soaked red with blood.

Some winter mornings I would be taken to Leigh Beck school, breakfastly chomping on a crust of freshly baked bread from the high street bakers and a small carton of Edwards Granulated Soup. I loved crunching my way through those ox-tail or tomato granules, a taste that lingers with me still.

Apart from the jubilation at its ending my final sounds of war were on the day my mum and my aunt took me near to my father’s place of work on the Thames. We walked along a pavement close to the river along which stood a long row of soldiers, some were smoking cigarettes, some were silent, others were talking quietly but some were crying. Tears streaming down their faces these soldiers were sobbing loudly. Lowering their heads my mother and aunt walked swiftly past to avoid giving embarrassment whilst I, in childhood innocence, just stared in disbelief.

I thought about it for days afterwards but my childish reasoning could not understand why a soldier would cry. Those who each have stories to tell, told or untold they remain with us, the genes of our history, the history of a life.

Comments about this page

  • I love this posting, so well written. Do we know the name of the young lad in the article?

    By Martin Lepley (30/03/2021)
  • He is a friend of Dave Watts

    By Janet Penn (30/03/2021)
  • Damned cheek I wrote this and obviously theft of ones writing is acceptable on this site. Dave Watts or his pal in Australia were not involved with the writing of this article.

    By Terry Buchanan (13/01/2022)
  • Sorry Terry but with 6,500 pages over a period of 14 years the chances of remembering your article would have been very difficult. On a quick look I can see what you mean your article is dated 2009. But in the chaps defence he does not say he wrote it or that his mate wrote it he just said his mate had shared it.

    By Janet Penn (13/01/2022)

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