Air raid sirens and bonfires mark my childhood… 102



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Bonfire - Starts at sixty

I remember the first time I heard the air raid siren whine, the first time I saw a German plane flying over Bristol, on its way to bomb Filton Aerodrome, the nights spent in the air-raid shelter, hearing shrapnel twittering as it fell to earth, and going out with young friends in the mornings after, searching for the stuff, to add to collections.

I was born four and a half years before World War II broke out and all my earliest memories are closely associated with that event. These memories were, and still are, very vivid to me, even though I was too young to really fear the effects of war. It was, nonetheless, a memorable time during which I saw houses, demolished by the enemy bombing, lost several friends who didn’t survive the nightly attacks and watched my Dad go off to war, having been conscripted.

I remember cars with their headlights hooded, streets totally blacked out and Air Raid Wardens yelling at home owners who were allowing tiny shafts of light to escape through incompletely curtained windows. I clearly recall platoons of American soldiers marching through our neighbourhood on some military errand or other, with we kids running alongside shouting “Got any gum, chum?” or “Got some nylons for me sister, Mister?” all of it blatant begging, but done more in the way of fun than avarice. The Americans would toss packets of chewing gum over to us and a battle royal would ensue among us, as we tried to get a piece for ourselves. I think the Yanks enjoyed the game just as much as we did – they were never without packets of gum to throw to us!

But most of all I remember VE Night, that glorious evening when bonfires were lit in just about every street in England, (and a complete wartime’s collection of rubbish was disposed of, or should I say cremated!) The previous afternoon was occupied in two ways, first, everyone who could, went scavenging around the neighbourhood to find, (or steal), fuel for the conflagration that was going to take place later, and second all the parents got together and organised a massive tea party for we children, right in the centre of our street. All sorts of tables and chairs were dragged out and set up together to form one long table, about the length of a cricket wicket, and an amazing array of tablecloths, cutlery, crockery and most surprising of all, considering rationing was still in effect, food! There was salad, pies, sausages, ham, spam, bread, butter, sardines, and tomato sauce. There was jelly, cake, trifle, custard, ice cream, chocolate, sweets, nuts and fruit. And there was lemonade, tea, coffee and water in abundance. God only knows where it all came from – some of it stored since the beginning of the war I wouldn’t be surprised, but however it was come by, it was the most wonderful thing that had ever happened to us kids; we were actually encouraged, (for a change), to glut ourselves for all we were worth, everything had to be eaten the parents said, or it would have to be thrown away, as great a sacrilege as one could imagine after the years of rationing. We did our part, and there was very little left on the row of tables by the time the sun started to settle over the roofs of the terraced houses, and the massive fire was lit.

Even the initial post-war days had plenty to remember about them, with the early jet planes flying over; in particular the Gloster Meteor and the twin boomed Vampire, both great aircraft, though not a match for the Spitfire, surely one of the most beautiful planes ever built. The slightly worrying aspect of all this is that my memories of that exciting period are almost as fresh now as they were during the days it all happened; now I find it hard to remember what I had for lunch today! I’m relieved to be told by experts that this is perfectly normal for an old man like me, though I do wish they wouldn’t call me that, after all I’m only eighty, that’s barely through middle age isn’t it!

What memories stand out from your childhood? Share them with us in the comments below… 

Brian Lee

  1. I was born at the end of the war but I remember rationing. Sugar was rationed until 1953 if I remember correctly. I remember waiting for my Dad to come home from work on a Friday when I would get a sixpence and a coupon to get lollies for me and my brother at the local cafe. I also remember vividly the returned soldiers begging on the streets in the early fifties……some missing arms or a leg. There musn’t have been any work because I remember men coming around with cameras taking pictures of kids for which the parents would pay. Another man used to come around with a pony & trap and charge 3d per ride. There was a man who was famous for his beautiful singing downtown. People used to gather around to listen and throw money in his cap. These were all returned soldiers and the UK government did not look after them the way the Australian government looked after their returned soldiers.

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