Wuuuuuu-Wuuuuuu-Wuuuuuu! It was 78 years ago, but I still remember that eerie echoing noise, rising and falling like some great asthmatic monster. Our local fire station here in Gippsland has a siren that makes exactly the same noise as the wartime one in those far off days, and it still has the ability to send a slight chill down my spine whenever I hear it. It was the autumn of 1940 when I heard the original one and I suppose, for the people of England, this was when the war really started!
It arrived on that night in late 1940 and its noise woke me up. The next thing I knew, Mum gently picked me up and carried me downstairs to where Dad was waiting; a large torch in his hand, and his overcoat and hat on (Dad never left the house without that Trilby on his head; I don’t think he felt dressed without it.) He opened the back door and walked out into the garden, followed by my mother, holding my hand as we moved down the dark path towards the new shelter, which had been installed there only a couple of weeks previously.
One of the few things I remember clearly from that night was glancing up and seeing narrow bars of light criss-crossing the sky, sweeping back and forth, some slowly, some quickly, like infinitely long white poles. “What are those, Dad?” I said.
“They’re searchlights,” he said, glancing up. “They’re like big torches and they’re used to find enemy planes.”
We got to the end of our garden, where the shelter was, and he pushed open the door so that we could all pile into the dark interior, which smelled strongly of fresh concrete and damp. First, he turned on his big torch and swept the beam around, until it settled on a hurricane lamp on a little shelf in the wall. He took out a box of matches, turned up the wick and lit it. Immediately, the interior was filled with a warm yellow glow, objects, like Dad himself, casting weird black shadows on the walls. All the time there was that weird wailing sound.
Dad went back to the door of the shelter, which he opened slightly and peered out into the darkness. Then he stepped right outside and stood in the doorway, his head tilted back as he looked up into the night sky, his breath forming a misty cloud around him in the cold autumn air, lit by the soft glow of the hurricane lamp inside the shelter.
“Hey, come and look at this,” he called back over his shoulder. “And shut the door too!” he muttered. “Or we’ll be in trouble with the wardens for showing a light.”
We looked up and saw a stunning sight, right above where we were standing. All the searchlights I had seen now formed an immense cone of light, fixed on one point, and there, at the centre, was a solitary aircraft, looking ghostly and white against the dense black of the sky. The plane was weaving wildly, trying to escape the dreadful light that was holding it, but it was impossible! Then, as we stood watching, small pinpoints of orange light began to appear around the plane, disappearing again almost as soon as they came. Now I heard a new sound. It was a dull ‘thud’ ‘thud’, like something heavy hitting a solid wood door. It was the anti-aircraft batteries on the hills around Bristol, and the little orange sparkles above were their shells bursting near the aircraft caught in the lights.
It suddenly occurred to my father that shells bursting right above us could mean schrapnel falling all about us in a very short time, so he quickly ushered us all back into the shelter and out of the cold night air. I don’t think my parents got much sleep at all that first night, it was all something completely new and terrifying for them, wondering if a bomb was going to land on us, but for me, at about five years old, it was adventure and fun, not danger. I slept soundly once I settled down in my bunk and the next morning my friend David and I went searching for shrapnel, something that became a major hobby of kids, until the air-raids ceased, a year or two later.
We came to no harm that first night in the shelter, and we later spent many more nights there, safe from the horrors going on around us. The little building served us for many years after the war too, until it was eventually removed to make way for the garage to put my first car in.