A people's war
During the Second World War there were hundreds of stories emerging from those war years, some were funny, some were tragic while even more were downright foolish and one such story I would like to relate now.
We won’t use real names but call two young boys Harold and Michael and they lived in Brighton in the Southover Street area of the town.
Harold lived with his dad, auntie and grandmother. He had no mother. Meanwhile Michael lived with his mother while his father was away fighting in the war. It was a tough life for these two young boys who were just 8 years old. They attended the nearby school called Finsbury Road. There were several air raid shelters along Finsbury Road for the School children and teachers. They had regular drills and everyone knew what to do when the Air Raid Sirens sounded. The war had been raging for three years and England was getting the worst of it at that time. Germany had overrun France, Belgium and Holland and it was thought that England would be next.
It was now May 1943 and Brighton had suffered several bad bombings and some people had been killed. These bombings were mainly in the East Brighton area. Some of Harold’s and Michael’s friends had been evacuated and gone to areas in the north of England for safety. Neither of these two boys wanted to go away and pleaded with their families to let them stay here and they did. Michael’s mother worked as a cleaner at the hospital and he came to Harold’s house every school day to have his breakfast. Harold’s grandmother gave Harold a penny to buy two rolls every morning as part of their breakfast. After all they were growing boys, also the rolls were hot and although not good for them, this was pure luxury. They had eaten them by the time they reached school. Sometimes the first lesson was PT and when they had to run about in the hall, they usually suffered with indigestion for a good part of the morning; however, they never said anything to Harold’s grandmother otherwise she wouldn’t give them their daily penny.
Both these boys had been well briefed for air raid shelter drill. At this stage of their education they were having to share their school as another local school had been damaged in a prior air raid. Workmen were busy trying to get the school repaired and back to full working order. So, the school children went to school during the mornings one week and the following week they would just go in the afternoons. They enjoyed going to school for just a half-day, perhaps the teachers did too.
Tuesday 25th May
It was Tuesday 25th May 1943, when the two boys dawdled about at school instead of hurrying home for their dinner. They met a few boys from the other school who were now on their way for afternoon school. There were a few remarks shouted out towards each other and it looked like it was going to break out into a fight. Just then two middle-aged women stopped any chance of that by threatening to tell Harold’s family, who one of them knew well. In fact she lived next door to Harold’s family. Harold and Michael slunk away, their tails between their legs with the other boys calling out rude remarks. Just then the familiar wail of the air raid sirens could be heard.
The two boys were still nearer to the school than home and the orders were that you ran to the nearest shelter, which of course was the school. In fact they did neither. They started laughing and instead of running for some shelter, they merrily skipped down their street, past their house and to the bottom of the street, making no effort to seek shelter. People couldn’t believe the fact that they didn’t look for some safe shelter. They stood on the corner of two streets at the bottom of the road where Harold lived. They were acting like two silly little boys.
Sounds of local gunfire
There were sounds of local gunfire and just then an aircraft could be heard flying very low. Maybe it was because this aircraft was flying low and possibly distorted the aircraft engine noise, as the two boys never recognised it. Just then this aircraft could be heard even louder and it then came into sight from behind the houses. It was flying about 200 feet off the ground, its bomb could be easily seen as could the pilot. It was a German FW 190, one of Germany’s top fighter-bombers. For the two boys, it wasn’t now quite so funny, what to do and in a split second, Michael shouted ‘Run.’ The boys ran across the road into some shelter, the aircraft had used its machine guns and fired all the way up the road, in fact it had fired where the boys had been standing just a minute or so before. In a second the aircraft was out of sight, gone. Then a mighty explosion occurred, the aircraft had dropped its bomb on to a small parade of shops, killing several people. Then, not thinking of the dead and injured people, the two boys were back laughing again. They had been out in the street and saw this German aircraft and the German pilot and his large bomb. What a story to tell all their friends the following day. All their friends would just think how brave they were, standing up to a German with a gun. The two boys were dancing and shouting and generally enjoying themselves.
However, suddenly; the colour slowly drained from Harold’s face, looking up the street he saw his grandmother half running down the street, calling out “Harold, Harold, Harold, where are you, Harold come here”. He was scared and so was Michael. He said to Harold, “I think I had better go now, mum will be wondering where I am”. And then in a flash Michael was gone leaving Harold on his own. Things were not quite so funny now. She called out again, “Harold, come here at once”. He hurredly moved over to where she was standing, Then, with one movement, she grabbed his ear and twisted it around her fingers, “Ouch”, Harold cried, “that hurts”. “So will something else when we get in” she bellowed. “Don’t tell Dad, Nan, please, don’t tell him”.
She marched him all the way up the street to their home and indoors, it was only then that she released him. “Now get up to your room, your stupid little boy, go on upstairs”. Although he hadn’t had his dinner and he was so hungry, he knew not to argue with her. She was the boss in this house, He went straight up to his room, and cried himself to sleep. He knew what to expect when his dad came home.
Come down here Harold
He woke up some time later. He heard his dad come home from work. It was about half an hour later when he heard his name being called, “Come down here Harold”, he heard his grandmother shout. It didn’t sound as if she was in a good mood yet. He knew deep down she had told his father. He gingerly went down the stairs and said hello to his father. His father was sitting in his favourite arm chair his slippers close by. “Come and stand here”, his father ordered. “Now tell me what you have been up to. Have you been out with that damn Michael again?”
He replied that they had come home from school together, well, he didn’t want you to play with him anymore. “You always seem to get into trouble when you are with him, don’t you?” “Yes dad”, he slowly said.
His dad then proceeded to give him a lecture about just how silly he had been. This was a German aircraft with guns and bombs, did he want to be killed. “I hear a lot of people were killed, you were very lucky you were not one of them. You didn’t think of me and your Nan, did you?” “No dad”. “So very selfish aren’t you? Don’t you ever do that ever again, do you understand, never, never , do you understand.?”
Harold never ever did that silly thing again, he stayed in the school air raid shelters.
The following day when he went to school he was bragging about just how clever he was. The Head teacher came to hear and most certainly was far from impressed. The day after was the weekly assembly and as each class lined up the deputy head-teacher called all the children to attention. And the Head-Teacher marched in. He composed himself and appeared to be looking at every child as he addressed them. “Right, today children we have a story for you. I know that you all like stories, as I do. I want you to pay particular attention to this story, as I am going to ask questions at the end.
“Firstly, I want two boys to come out here and join me here on stage.” Oh, my goodness, Harold now realised what this story was going to be about. They really were in big trouble now.
And the Head-master slowly started. He said “One day there were two boys who ran out of school after the sirens had sounded. Was that a good idea?” In unison, the whole school said in a loud voice, “No Sir.”
The Head-master went right through the story concluding with “Come to my office after this assembly.”
The shelters we used were surface shelters, built in the early part of the war. Had a bomb exploded in Finsbury Road the shelters would have been blown apart and the kids killed. Mind we didn’t know that then, obviously. This is what happened to the shelter at the back of London Road. Luckily there were only half a dozen people in the shelter but five were killed out of the six.
Researched and written by David Rowland.
We were at the bottom of Grove Street and Albion Hill when a Focke Wulf 190 came over, very low. I am certain it was this plane that dropped the bomb on Down Terrace, on a small parade of shops. A woman wrote to me and told me about her mother being de-capitated in this raid. She was found laying in the gutter her head close by. Not stuff to write in stories I guess. DHR