Monday, 21 November 2016

Time-bomb!

Since it's still November, you can have a last blast from my wartime past.

Most people in Britain now would recognise the aerial photograph I saw in a magazine. The outline of the Isle of Dogs and the meanders of Bow Creek have become an iconic television opening sequence. But this pilot’s eye view gave me a shudder that had nothing to do with the start of “Eastenders”.
     The photograph was dated 24.5.39; the notes beside it were in German; two target circles marked A and B were uncomfortably close to my grandparents’ house at 107 St Paul’s Road in Bow.
     On September 7th 1940, the house was full. It was a farewell party for my two uncles before they went back to active service with the RAF.
     Air raid sirens began to wail just after teatime. There were too many of us to go into the Anderson shelter dug into the back garden, shored up with timber and corrugated iron and covered with a thick layer of earth. We tried to make ourselves comfortable in the cellar. It would turn out to be a long night. As in many houses, it had been prepared for an emergency with beds and chairs.
     There had been light raids by the Luftwaffe in the preceding weeks but no one was prepared for this onslaught. By the end of the night, nearly a thousand bombers had attacked the central area of London and the East End. It went on for hours. We could hear the bombs falling and the explosions when they landed. I can’t remember being frightened; I’d heard bombs before. Some of the children managed to sleep. My brother Brian was under three; two of our cousins were even younger.
     At some time in the night, one particular sound grew louder, coming nearer . – the sound of a falling bomb. One of my uncles shouted, ‘This one’s close! Get down!’ Every adult grabbed the nearest child and held it. This is my clearest memory of that day, because nobody grabbed me.
     There was an ear-splitting crash, a concussion that shook the walls and the cellar filled with dust.
     The cellar walls were cracked but still standing. My uncles went to investigate. They climbed from the cellar up to my parents’ bedroom on the first floor, looked up and saw stars and searchlight beams, even the planes overhead. There was another huge hole in the bedroom wall. They climbed through and followed the diagonal trail of destruction down into next door’s cellar.
     During their service, they had seen many a bomb before but there in the concrete floor, in a crater of its own making, was one of the biggest. Mercifully, the neighbours were in their shelter in the back garden.
     ‘My God, Ernie, the bloody thing’s ticking!’
     They rushed back to us. ‘We’ve got to get out. There’s a bomb next door – delayed-action. Everyone, quick as you can! No, no time to stop for anything. Go as you are. The whole house could blow up any minute!’
     We crowded into a large public shelter in Robeson Street. Someone found the ARP wardens and they evacuated the area. At three o’clock in the morning we heard the massive detonation as “our” bomb exploded. It took half the terrace with it - six substantial Victorian houses.
     Only one thing worth salvaging was picked out of the rubble. My brother still has it: a heavy cut-glass vase about fourteen inches tall.  It was found on a sofa, covered by the cushions that had fallen on it. It is perfect, except for one little chip on the base.