Childhood memories and the war years

Sent in from somebody who grew up on our estate as a child during the Second World War

One of my earliest memories while walking with my mother was looking down at my shoes and seeing water on my right and tall railings reaching up to the sky, we were in front of Windsor House.  I really don’t know why I remember that one event or what was happening that day to make such a strong impression on me, but it was the same type of memory that I have of my 1st day at school when I walked into that classroom and saw those huge cupboards reaching high above me full of toys, when I told my mother years later she said “fancy you remembering that you were only 3 ½ years old”.

I do not have any memories of the allotments in the early stages of their development but feel very proud that our dad, Leslie Albert Riley, at the young age of 25 years was giving his time to encourage and develop the involvement of the community in such projects.  When we were older my sister Jean and I would go to our allotment which was alongside Park Village East, to pick flowers, fruit, and veg with him for the house, sometimes helping with the watering but being girls we were not overly keen.  Years later when we were both married and living in our own homes, dad would say “Set aside ½ hour every day and your garden will never become a chore” So that was his philosophy.

In November 1940 our young mother aged 23 years was evacuated with my sister and me to Coventry; she had hardly settled down when Germany decided to raid Coventry on the 30th day of that month, with devastating effect.  That night mum took us both into her bed thinking if she was going to die we would all die together; we had been left in our billeted home while the owners had gone to a safe house for the night. Mum said as soon as it was daylight she made her way to the Railway Station with only as much as she could carry.  She asked if any trains were running to London and was told she would have to wait and see if any managed to ‘get through’.

She got onto the London train with steely determination to get back home, when the ticket collector came along she said to him “I’ve got no money but I’m going home with my children”, he just moved on to the next passenger without saying a word.  This Coventry train waited outside Kentish Town station for two hours while a bombing raid was on, it was then only allowed to continue slowly into Euston Station.  It was pitch dark as she ran with us both all the way to Camberley with hot shrapnel falling around her, she didn’t care she was nearly home. Within about eight weeks our dad had to join his unit, The Royal Signals in Yorkshire.

Dad settled very quickly into the Royal Signals and was soon promoted.  It was noted by those in authority how well the men responded to him and his way of teaching them obtained 1st class results.  This is why he wasn’t shipped out with the troops to North Africa, instead they used his obvious skills to train the new troops how to read and send Morse code.

After some very heavy bombing raids on London dad suggested that mum should travel to Yorkshire and turn up at the camp gates in Huddersfield with both of us.  He said the Army would take care of us all, and that is exactly what she did and the Army found us a billet.  I started school in Yorkshire in 1941 but by the end of 1942 or early 1943 we were back in Camberley House because dad had been knocked down along with several of his troops by a military vehicle, while marching. It was a nasty accident and he was discharged from the Army, having sustained head and back injuries.

The bombing of our lovely city was still relentless and on one afternoon while leaving school in Hampstead Road we had one of our aircraft clearly marked come over the top of the school with half of its wing missing, our granny said the pilot was trying to avoid the houses and it crashed into Regents Park.

We spent a lot of time sleeping below Camberley House in the air-raid shelters, the children had their own bay with bunk beds on three sides; we had to sleep two in a bed, and were generally cousins, brothers or sisters. There were 12 children in our little area; I think the older children were in a different area. I remember it was very dark down there, all the windows were packed to the roof with sand bags and the whole place smelt damp and no one liked it but for us it was an adventure.

As we got older we could leave the shelters to watch the fighting in the sky.  We used to see the doodlebugs come across the Black Cat Building then the engines cut out and they fell to ground to do their damage.  I asked my sister if I imagined Windsor House being ablaze and she said “No we both saw that” When I think of it today I feel so sad for those two little girls who had known nothing other than the war from their earliest memories, myself no more than 7years old and my sister 5years old, the sky was ablaze with fire that night.

Many years later when we took our children to the London Museum in the City, I saw an exact replica of the little area where we used to sleep in the Camberley House shelter, the shock I felt when that smell reached my nostrils brought a rush of emotion and tears to my eyes, with such deep seated feelings churning in the pit of my stomach, all caused by a little area in the corner of a London museum. I had no idea it would affect me in that way, but I have to say it still affects me now just writing about it.

On one occasion when the warning siren was heard mum put us both under the Oak Dining Table for added safety; I think people became more complacent about going to the shelter every time there was a raid. But that was the day when the Regent Park Barracks got a direct hit opposite our front door, which incidentally was blown off its hinges and onto our mum, but we were all safe, no harm done to any of us.  The bomb had hit the kitchens of Regents Park Barracks, I can still see my granny trying to get help to the soldiers who were trapped inside, she couldn’t help because the metal was all alive with electricity she had to wait for the troops and firemen to arrive, to make it safe.

The war years were also about feeding your family which was very difficult, our gran & granddad used to save their egg allowance for their four grandchildren, they would bring an egg for my sister and I to share, and the second egg was given to my two cousins to share, who also lived in Camberley House.

My husband’s father was on Fire Watch in March 1944 when he came across an incendiary bomb in the Camberley House courtyard, we aren’t sure if he kicked it away from the building or picked it up, but he was mortally injured and died 2 weeks later on 14th March aged 44.  We married on the 14th March 1959 completely unaware it was the anniversary of his death, and only discovered this fact when we decided to trace our family history in 1999.  There were other men on Fire Watch that night from Camberley who were also killed by those awful bombs.

A very large bomb fell into the Camberley House lawn, and my Granddad stood with others observing the damage and said “that has not gone off”, even though there was a huge crater.  I guess having served in the Great War with The Royal Horse Artillery he knew what he was talking about.  Several years after the war, a block of flats near the Elephant and Castle blew up.  The powers that be decided to check any suspect bombs which they were unsure about and our bomb was discovered still live under our lawn.  The Army Bomb Squad safely diffused and excavated it onto a military low loader; there was a photo of my cousin Norman Riley sat on top of it in the newspaper.

For me the greatest loss was my childhood from 2yrs to 8yrs and the loss of a good education, which was continually disrupted by teachers arriving and leaving each term.

My husband was sent to Kent when he was 4 years old to stay with his Grandparents and remained there until 1948.  He used to watch the Battle of Britain played above his school playground and above their house in the village in the evening.  His best friend from School went home for lunch and didn’t come back in the afternoon, because a doodlebug which had been shot down by our troops landed on the farmhouse where he lived in the middle of a field.  His granddad had to throw himself into a ditch one evening when he was walking home from work, because a German Fighter Plane decided to machine gun him, thank goodness they missed.

These are some of my childhood memories, and living in Camberley House in spite of the memories mentioned above; it was a wonderful place to grow up.  The neighbours who cared about us, the children our friends, the sound of the radio playing, the smell of food cooking, all of these things added up to a safe warm and happy environment for everyone, and Camberley House took care of us all.

Patricia Penfold nee Riley   

Poole Dorset


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s