A teenagers war
I was born at Laindon Common near Billericay in 1930. I was nine years old when WW2 broke out and I lived at Billericay all through the war.
On the Sunday that war broke out I was attending the morning service with my parents at what was then the Gospel Hall in Chapel Street when at about 11.20 we heard an air raid siren. A hymn was being sung at the time and some people thought the noise of the siren was something wrong with the organ! Soon the preacher, Dr. Shackleton, asked for quiet and then said “Surely not an air raid. Surely they wouldn’t – not on Sunday”. We were soon to learn that Hitler had little respect for the Sabbath. Some of the men in the congregation got busy propping trestle tables against the windows and we all settled down to wait and see. Just after noon the “all clear” sounded and we walked home. The only excitement we had on the way was a breakaway barrage balloon flying past trailing a long steel cable followed by a lorry load of airmen. We never heard if they caught up with it. When we got home we learned from the radio that war had been declared at 11.00 that morning, and the Germans certainly lost no time in getting the first knock in.
During the next few months, little else happened and we began to wonder if anything ever would. I went to school as usual and classes carried on. Air raid shelters were built on the school fields and we practised leaving the classroom in an orderly manner and going to our allocated shelter. We had one or two air raid warnings but saw little action and if the “all clear” had not sounded by 12.00 we were sent home to lunch. Soon we began to see more soldiers in the area. Empty houses in the town were requisitioned and used as barracks for the army, the football field (now the site of the new Quilters school) was used as a parade ground and the Archer Hall which stood on the site of the new church next to Quilters, became a mess hall for other ranks. Almost all of the street name plates and highway sign posts were removed, allegedly so that enemy spies would not know where they were, and if your business was called say “Billericay Florists” you were ordered to paint “Billericay” out. This was the same for notice boards, in fact anything that bore the town name. Everyone was issued with an identity card, which you had to carry at all times. The street lamps were turned off until the war ended, and blackout restrictions were introduced. All enemy residents were interned which caused some surprises. Billericay had a barber who had a shop in the High Street and had always been thought to be British who disappeared one day and was in fact a German. On the other hand another man who looked like a German and was considered to be next on the list was left alone, as he was in fact Swedish and worked for a Swedish company with offices in London . Rationing was also introduced and although everybody was affected we were fortunate as my father was one of the leading vegetable gardeners in the town and we did not want for greenstuffs. I also had several uncles who worked on the railway, in fact 12 of my relatives did. One uncle had a gun, and we often got a message via my Grandfather, who worked a Billericay station, that if one of us went over to my uncle’s he had something for us. As often as not it was me who went, to Ingatestone and back on my bike, and I came back with a couple of rabbits, or a hare, which considerably helped the meat ration. Once we got settled in to the life, it was not too bad. War was like everything else, you got used to it, you had to – there was no other way.
My father worked at Billericay Post Office, and was Head Postman right through the war, being promoted to Inspector in 1947. He was not called into the forces as he suffered a back wound in France in 1917, and spent the end of that war in Roehampton Hospital . When WW2 broke out however that did not stop him from volunteering for the Home Guard and for the Army Post Office. When he went for a medical however the doctors told him that although they admired his loyalty he had been too badly wounded for further military service, but as he had volunteered he was listed into the APO Reserve, although they said things would have to get pretty bad before he was called up. Soon however the Post Office began to suffer a shortage of manpower as their staff were called up and my father often did not have enough men to deliver everything. Even doing a round himself, and the messenger doing one, did not solve the problem as there was nobody to deliver the telegrams. So at the age of 12, I was enlisted to do it, after school hours that is and on Saturdays. Now in time of war, telegrams often contain bad news and I had to get used to seeing people in tears, hearing screams, and so on. That was something else I got used to, it did me no harm, and a few extra shillings helped the family budget.
Things changed for the worse when the air raids on London were at their height. These used to happen day and night and occasionally if a German plane had to turn back they would unload their bombs just where they were, sometimes over Billericay. We never used an air raid shelter though, in fact we never had one until the Morrison shelters were invented. These were virtually a large steel table that you had indoors and could sleep under. In spite of this however the town suffered little bomb damage and I can only recall one bad incident. The army had requisitioned a house in Mountnessing Road , near to the junction with London Road , and during an officers’ lecture when almost 100 soldiers were inside, it received a direct hit by two bombs. We never knew how many men lost their lives, but from the look of the house after it must have been all of them. It was always said that three bombs dropped but one did not explode. In spite of a search it was never found, until the early 1950s when during work to build the London Road diversion, it was dug up by a bulldozer, a matter of 200 yards of so from the building that was hit.
We had many different Army regiments in the town, and several soldiers were billeted with us. One of the most memorable was a detachment of the Black Watch, who used to march up and down the High Street on Sunday afternoons, and then give a display with their pipe and drum band.
My railway relatives were of course kept very busy, and two were involved in incidents. My uncle who lived at Prittlewell was an engine driver and had a frightening experience whilst driving a Southend train one night during an air raid. He had just left Wickford when a bomb dropped in a field by the railway and exploded. The weather had been very wet, and as well as pieces of wood, stones, etc. a lot of mud was propelled towards the train, a lot of which fell into the engine cab, soaking uncle and his fireman. They arrived at Southend wet and filthy, but it could have been worse. Far more serious was the incident between Ingatestone and Shenfield one dark night when what was thought to be a parachute mine, fell on the railway and left a huge crater. The signalman at Ingatestone could not communicate with Shenfield with the signalling equipment so he stopped an up passenger train and told the driver that the block instruments had failed and that he was to proceed at slow speed. It was a very dark night and the train ran into the crater. The tender tipped up behind the engine and the crew died under tons of coal. The line was closed for some days until the damage was repaired, main line trains being diverted via Wickford, Woodham Ferrers and Maldon to Witham, a long way round but the only way.
I could tell you a lot more, but I must not make this too long. There is just one thing more I would like to mention as I have never seen this referred to in print or heard it talked about. In about 1943, about 10 miles of the Southend bound carriageway of the A127 in what is now the Basildon area was closed off and the London bound side converted to two way working. During the following months military vehicles of all kinds began to arrive and were parked on the closed road until there were literally thousands. Then, almost over one night, they all disappeared, and a few days after the invasion of Europe began.
12th September 2005 .
Sadly David died in September 2012 and we would like to thank his wife Anne, who found this article on his computer, for letting us publish this insight into wartime Billericay – Editor