3 The Day War Broke Out

It’s that vivid that Sunday morning when they said war had broke out.  I said to myself “What are you crying for?”

Somerset Girl  I was with my mother and she was talking to someone and they must have been discussing Munich and I can remember feeling cold, a sort of fear.  That’s the one time I ever thought of war.  It made me feel quite cold.  I was fourteen.

East London Boy  I started working as a tally clerk in the wharves down in Wapping in 1937 – I used to check in waterside and book out landside – tally up the books.  I remember seeing on my way to work posters saying “The War in 1938”.  So they knew it was coming.  The ARP (1)  had exercises down the docks.

Essex Boy  We had things bunged through the letter box by the ARP – “What to do?”  I went around filling up all the cracks in the floorboards, taping up the cracks round the windows, arranging a blanket seal over the door.  That was in the sitting room.  That was going to be the gas room.  This was 1938.

2nd East London Boy  When they issued the gas masks it wasn’t panic, but there was lots of exaggeration and rumour about the possibility of gas raids.  Lots of it.  In my area, Stepney, they issued gas masks about a fortnight before the war was declared.  I was nine and a half.  They took us to a Free Church kind of mission.  They used the hall to issue them.  That was a bit of a frightening experience.  I felt horrible putting this gas mask on.   Everybody had to try them on.  I got a terrible feeling about this bloody gas mask.  When I put it on, like any mask, when you breath you can’t see out of it.

2nd Somerset Girl  We had these  gas masks which we always used to carry everywhere, which used to get bashed to bits, because we used to have fights with them.  And every time a new gas was discovered, they’d bring out a new filter, which they’d stick on the bottom of the muzzle.  Mine ended up nine inches long, with so many filters stuck on.  Heaven knows if gas had come how many of them would have been any good.

You used the gas mask cases for keeping your sandwiches and your pencils in.  It was a great thrill when they brought out a new design gas mask case.  At Christmas we had a gas mask case for a present.  Gas masks were an everyday part of your life, but our great ambition was to have one like the ARP had – a sort of one with a big tube that came down.  They got so heavy with extra bits stuck on the bottom, you had them strapped over your head, and they had to fit tight round the face.  And you’d breathe in as you breathed out, and all the air would come out of the side of your face and make terribly rude noises!  And you’d try and make the rudest noise you could!  Although we carried our cases every day, it wasn’t necessarily gas masks we’d have in them, because they got so heavy.  As I say, sandwiches and pencils and your gloves.   So every week the teachers would choose a different day to make you open your case, to see if you had your gas mask.  The gas masks used to have a terrible smell of rubber.  I remember my sandwiches having this  taste of rubber.

London Woman  It was about 11 o’ clock when Chamberlain declared war. (2)  I was indoors on my own, and the siren went at the same time.  We knew it was the warning because that’s what they said it would be, this up and down….  I was petrified – rooted to the spot.  It was the thought of all the things you had heard about war because my Dad used to talk about the First War.  Course, nothing happened.  It was just the warning.

3rd Somerset Girl  I hadn’t gone to church that day.  I can’t remember why.  My mother and father had gone.  I heard it on the radio.  It was so thrilling, and going to school on Monday, taking our gas masks.  But what did horrify me was the Micky Mouse thing for babies, and I thought “Fancy having to put a baby in something like that.”

London Man  I was down at Canvey Island.  My friend Tom and I went down every weekend.  We had this Morris 10.  It was a year old.  It cost £95.  There used to be an old couple there with a couple of daughters.  They used to think the world of me.  Down at Canvey Island it was all wooden shacks and there were a couple of Clubs.  One was Labour and one was Conservative.  In those days I was Labour.  We used to go to the dances of a Saturday night, and we used to sleep in the shack of this couple.  They were very very poor.  We used to come back Monday morning.  We used to leave Canvey at six and go straight to work in Ilford.  On that Monday when we got on the Southend Road you could see hundreds of barrage balloons that had gone up, against the skyline.  It was really frightening.  Funny feeling.

Young Glasgow Man  That sunday war was declared, me and my mates,  we were full of excitement.  The night war was declared I stood in Whiteinch, cracking jokes, looking up in the sky, expecting to see a German bomber.  Nothing happened.  Quite disappointed.

Liverpool Mother   It’s that vivid that Sunday when they said war had broke out. I said to myself “What are you crying for?”  I suppose at the back of my mind my husband would have to go to war.  When I came out onto the street, everybody must have been under the same… – when you looked at people, the expression on their faces.  It was a Sunday.  Everything was still.

Course, we had some laffs.  We expected once war broke out, air-raids and bombing.  I had gone for a walk with our Sheila with  one of the boys with me, and a siren went for the first time.  I stood still.  I didn’t know whether to run or walk.  I’d been to the library.  I pushed the little pushchair over to the Mount.  To go into the Mount it’s up St James Road but it comes onto a big slope – the hearses with the horses used to come down this.  If you started to run you couldn’t stop, so you had to trot.  And when you came there it’s a big rock been hewn out – a big tunnel part and then you’re into the cemetery.  Quite a few people made their way to this.  I was thinking “Ooh, I wonder what’ll happen to our Jimmy?”  I’d left him with Nana.  This was all going through my mind and all of a sudden – you know Liverpool humour – this man says “Tomorrow’s Headlines: Making Their Own Way to the Cemetery.”   Within five minutes there was a battle going on.  Some people didn’t think it was very funny, but there was no bombs, no planes, and the all-clear went, so we went home.

1.  ARP:  Air Raid Precautions.

2.  September 3rd, 1939.

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