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Whitstable at War - World War II

A Schoolboy's Experiences of Shelters
by Brian Smith

 

My own experience of using air raid shelters was limited but perhaps a little more varied than most Whitstable kids were exposed to. A Morrison was our regular shelter at home. We slept in it often especially during winter when the room it was in, our normal living room, would have been warmer.  But, sitting up room was limited, Dr. Calendar crediting the Morrison for my round shoulders.

 

Experience of The Anderson

I had but one brief experience of spending a night or two in an Anderson shelter - the mud, dampness and musty odour strong in my memory.  I believe there was an experience with an Anderson which family friends had in Faversham but, although I can recall going towards it and looking inside, I remember nothing of using it during an air raid.  

  

Under the Bed... or Down The Tube

When air raids occurred during our occasional visits to Catford, my Aunt and fireman Uncle expected us to shelter under the beds as they did.... excepting Uncle!  As a fireman, his duty, when at home, was to climb up a ladder, permanently leaning against the front of the house, and watch over the nearby railway marshalling yards. Mum would have none of sheltering under beds in such a dangerous location.  When the air raid sirens sounded, we ran - I guess about half a mile, to the nearest Underground station.  I do not know if that was actually Catford, Lewisham or another station.  That was no mean feat for diminutive Mum to carry baby sister or, as time passed, up to 3 year old sister on a half mile run. 

For me that Underground station held some sort of fascination although I would have preferred to be outside watching the action.  The noise, the buzz of countless voices, sometimes so cheerfully singing the many wartime favourites in harmony, was like nothing I could possibly experience in quiet Whitstable. 

 

Was there a Home to Return To?

Then there was the walk home after the All Clear had sounded, although I have no recollection of any ‘underground’ siren.  A quiet walk, not lonely, as countless others headed to their homes.  Most no doubt pondering the likely fate of theirs.  Some perhaps running as there were always reports and rumours of ‘so may houses hit in such and such road.’  Even though we were but visitors there was a community spirit which flowed along with us until perhaps, we were the last walking along the final few yards to my Aunt’s.  The final yards in which we knew for certain the house was, at least from the front, untouched by the air raid.

  

Loneliness of Home Shelters

All of that was in stark contrast to the comparative loneliness of home shelters, particularly at night.  We didn’t have the company or reports and rumours prevalent in the Underground. We just did not have anything to tell us what was happening - just our ears to guide our thoughts.  The peculiar pulsating drone characteristic of German multi engine aircraft told us the enemy bombers were coming.  

Usually the sound passed on its way to London without the accompanying ‘cerumpf’ of distant explosions or the sharp crack of the ack-ack guns.  The enemy bombers had passed, for now at least.  The All Clear sounded and usually our neighbour, elderly Mr. Clements, an ARP warden and the only adult male regularly at home in our street, would call around to make sure we were all OK and perhaps pass on any news he may have gleaned about the air raid.

  

School Shelter in Catford

For me, one Catford visit was a little different.  While there, I shared my girl cousin’s class in a school diagonally over cross roads from my Aunt’s house.  I have written elsewhere of one daytime raid which sent we kids down into the school basement used as shelters which were lined with wooden slatted bunks.  We got to use the bunks as we were shut in overnight.  I recall the lack of any bedding except for a few pillows so most of us sat up all night.  Many of us sat on the edge of the bunks but there was insufficient headroom beneath the frame of any bunk above us so we sat hunched forward.  One or two fell forward as they dropped off to sleep.  

Many of the girls were crying and no doubt a few of the boys also.  I have a vague recollection of food being talked about by teachers but no memory of any being given to us.  The initial excitement and novelty eventually wore off although I think any boredom was offset by the promises that we would be let out ‘soon’ and then be able to see what had happened above us.

We had been told  the school had been hit and remained surrounded by countless burning phosphorous incendiary bombs. When we were released around 10am there were still small pockets of the playground surface (tarmac) smouldering.  But, no sign of damage.  No shrapnel lying around to take back to Whitstable.  My new adventure felt a little flat.

  

School Shelters in Whitstable

I have little memory of Whitstable school shelters.  I was quite surprised to receive a photo of St. Alphege Infants school a few years back with a notation pointing to where the shelters were.  Perhaps there weren’t any school hours air raids during my two years there.  Of the Oxford Street Boys School, I have but one or two memories of being inside a shelter.  Just memories of the dank odour and us singing ‘10 Green Bottles’.

There was one brief Whitstable experience vaguely similar to those of the London Underground but, only vaguely.  I do not know if the old ticket office and post war Labour Club room under Oxford Street railway bridge was officially designated as an air raid shelter.  At least once, perhaps twice, Mum and I went in there during an air raid.  I know Mum didn’t like being under the railway bridge, such places typically a bomber target.  I just remember the displeasure of having to stand around waiting for the All Clear siren.

  

The Tunnels of Simon Langton (Canterbury)

My final ‘adventure’ with a war time air raid shelter occurred after the war.  I had to wait until the Spring of 1948, after my first Winter at Simon Langton, for one of the school’s mysteries to be unveiled to me.  Built in part on the old White Friars Hospital site the school was said to be built over a honeycomb of subterranean passageways and galleries.  Some of those passageways and galleries were adapted as Air Raid shelters.  Reportedly they had been left untouched since the War’s end less than three years earlier.  Behind an old flint and brick wall to the left of the main entrance, we could see fenced off what was reputedly the only entrance to those shelters, the floor being about 12 or 15 feet down.  We were, of course, forbidden to enter under threat of expulsion, the common threat for just about any misdemeanor reported to ‘THE HEAD’.  Nevertheless, arrangements were made to meet 2nd former ‘Pearce’ there early one morning, at 7.30.  Pearce knew how to gain entry and also find his way around.  I think Pearce provided the sole torch but I am unsure of that.  The cold, damp and, I must say, eventual eerie atmosphere was most uninviting.  Memory has those concrete passageways about 4 or 5 feet wide. 

After the approximately 40’ long plain section of the first passageway, there were a number of recesses along one side with either a few bunks or what I guess were 4 or 6 chemical toilets, some still in place.  There were a number of 90 degree bends and at least one ‘T’ intersection, which we looped around and returned to, but no sign of another entrance.  Once away from the daylight of the entrance the eerie atmosphere intensified.  Occasionally we could hear footsteps.  We didn’t believe we four made any noise for them to be an echo of our own.  As quiet as we were, the footsteps persisted so all the stories we had heard of those underground passageways being haunted came to mind and moved us along.  Whenever we stopped to listen, the atmosphere and confined space contrasted so sharply with that of the London Underground shelter that I found it difficult to imagine about 500 boys crowded in there.  One of the few times when, as a sub teenager, I was glad not to have been a few years older.

Today, thinking of those confined ‘tunnels’ with seemingly only one way out, I find it difficult to imagine anyone thinking those boys could shelter there in safety.

    


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