Shelagh O'Connell - Red Sky at Night

I was seven when war was declared and I was living with my parents and two sisters in Sanderstead, Surrey. Our house was directly under the flight path from Croydon airport. Both of these aerodromes were bases for RAF fighter squadrons, and the whole area was a prime target for German raiders.
I remember my father was too old to join the Regular Services so he enlisted in the 60th Surrey Home Guard. He was the smallest man in the unit and his uniform was far too big for him. He had a rifle and a round of bullets which he kept in the glove box in the hallstand. We were forbidden to touch these!
During the day my father was working in the east end of London in Mincing Lane as Secretary to a Company that imported sugar and tea from the East Indies. The Company premises were destroyed by fire in the blitz and eventually the firm itself folded.
At the beginning of the war things went on much as usual. The siren would go frequently, without anything much happening. The Battle of Britain was going on in the skies above us, and we would collect shrapnel from the garden. A family in our road had two sons in the RAF based at Croydon Aerodrome. When their sons returned from a sortie they would come in low over our house and do a victory roll to let their parents know they had returned safely. Night after night, the sirens would go and waves of bombers would come over.
Then came the ‘Blitz’.
All our windows were blacked out with panels made from a thick brown paper filled with some sort of tar mixture. There would be trouble from the ARP warden if anyone was caught showing a chink of light.
Crump crump crump went the noise of the guns, as searchlights raked across the sky. The noise was extremely frightening and one was so helpless. Bombs would come whistling down and people would say that you wouldn’t hear the one with your number on it. The sky was alight with fire, and awash with colour.
During air raids we would shelter under the stairs, or the dining room table. Mother would read to us from Kenneth Grahames Wind in the Willows. Sometimes when things were really bad we joined our neighbours in their Anderson shelter in their garden.
We listened to the radio. We loved Tommy Handley's Itma, Arthur Askey, ‘Workers Playtime’, and of course Winston Churchill inspired us with his broadcasts. We knew all the popular songs and dance music.
I can remember tomato plants by the path being silhouetted against the red sky from fires burning in London. Some time later we had our own steel Morrison shelter in the front room, where we would be able to sleep at night. Most nights my father would be out on guard duty, either down by the railway bridge on the London to Brighton line, at the Canmco Factory, or at the bus depot in the Brighton Road.
When this was destroyed by bombs he helped to dig out the casualties. Our road was bombed at both ends and I remember the sound of the rubble falling in the road. An unexploded bomb fell in the road that we passed on our way to School.
After the war ended, an Irish labour force arrived to rebuild and repair the bomb damage our road.
There was devastation everywhere.

Submitted by Shelagh Morgan

Photo: Shelagh O'Connell

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