As a family we were lucky that my father was too young for military service in WWI and too old for WWIII. He was in the Home GuardII and his rifle1 (when he eventually got one – most were lost at DunkirkIII) stood in the corner of the kitchen. I was under strict orders not to touch it although I doubt whether it was ever loaded! He worked all day in the CityIV and then spent nights sitting on the roofs of tall office buildings ‘fire watching’. Without mobile (or any other) phones, when a fire was seen somebody from the team had to run to tell the Fire Brigade. For some months, there were fires all over the place, so the exercise was rather useless, but the government tried to make everyone feel involved2 and to share at least some part of the sacrifice. Each day, I used to follow the little maps of the retreats3 (at first) and advances4 (later on) of the front lines in the newspapers and I learned more geography from them (and my stamp collection) than I ever did in school. They were probably just morale-boosting5 propaganda at times, but every newspaper printed them and they were eagerly awaited and discussed at length6!
A favourite occupation was collecting ‘shrapnelV’ – fragments of bombs and AA (anti-aircraft) gun shells7 – these were almost a kind of currency amongst us boys, with pieces being swappedVI for other treasures like marbles or cigarette cards. I remember on at least one occasion using aluminium powder from an unexploded incendiary ‘butterfly’ bomb8 to try to make thermite9 with iron filings10 in one of my more hazardous chemistry experiments. I was luckier than I realised at the time to escape unharmed from that experiment, except for blisters11 on my hands, not from the bomb, but from filing nails to make the iron filings. But it was all in vain as I never could get it to ignite12.
One of the tasks which fell to us youngsters was to collect waste wood for use as fuel at home. I had a home-made wheelbarrow13 for this purpose – it was just a box on a set of old pramVII wheels. A particular favourite fuel was the blocks of tarred14 wood used to pave some roads and used as flooring in public buildings like schools. They would burn well for a long time like logs15. If such a road or school was bombed, crowds of us would descend on the scene, doing our best to evade the policeVIII and ARPIX wardens, and collect as much of this prized loot16 as we could carry. On one occasion, my cousin and I were in a bombed house removing floor boards for firewood when we came across some telephonic equipment (that is what it looked like to us anyway) under the floorboards. We debated whether we should report it to the police, but that would involve explaining why we were in the ruins. We carried it off and I buried my part of the haul17, including earphones, in the front garden of the house we rented at the time – it may still be there for all I know. We avoided the spot for ages afterwards in case a vengeful spy was looking for us. I have often wondered since whether we missed the chance to achieve fame by helping to unmask a German agent.
Natural history was another great interest of mine then and the windowsills outside our house held a collection of glass jam jars containing snails, caterpillars, frog spawn, etc, which all sacrificed their lives to my embryonic scientific curiosity – it hardly qualified as ‘study’. My interest in chemistry progressed after the war from a fruitless quest to make explosive fireworksX to more satisfactory lines of experimentation, such as crops of coloured crystals, batteries of galvanic cells, arc lights18 and crystal wireless (radio) sets19 – no computers or TV then. In the unfettered20 days before the health and safety industry grasped21 us all in its numbing22 hand, it was easy to acquire strong acids23, other dangerous chemicals and no end of24 exciting war surplus equipment. There was no such thing as being bored or having nothing to do – the days were full from dawn to dusk. While the real seriousness of life was lost on me at the time, people like George were facing it in a way I could not have imagined. It is sad to think that people are still living in tragic war situations in different parts of the world today.
- by David Wright (UK)
I As an accountant in the food trade, he was also in a ‘reserved occupation’ and would have been ‘called up’ ie conscripted, only as a last resort.
II These were men who were supposed to be trained to fight the Wehrmacht – the German army, navy and air force – in the UK if we were ever invaded. Again, it was largely a symbolic measure and could at best have put up only token resistance.
III A coastal town in northern France, famous for the evacuation of the remnants of the British Expeditionary Force from France in the early part of the war when hundreds of ships and little boats crossed the English Channel to rescue many British (and French) soldiers from the advancing Germans. But almost all their weapons and equipment had to be abandoned.
IV The business district of central London.
V Major-General Henry Shrapnel (1761–1842) was an English artillery officer, whose experiments – initially conducted in his own time, and at his own expense – culminated in the design and development of a new type of artillery shell.
VII Perambulator – a carriage for children pushed by their mother, nurse or elder siblings.
VIII Our ordinary policemen did (and do) not carry firearms. They were mostly elderly men – the younger ones mostly having been called up into the armed forces, mining, agriculture or merchant shipping – and were seen more as benevolent ‘uncles’ than stern forces of law and order. Their own sons were likely to be in our midst too.
IX Air Raid Precautions. These wardens helped the police at incidents, crown control, etc, although their primary duty was to enforce the blackout regulations at night. They wore steel helmets and an armband, but no other uniform and sometimes thought themselves far more important than they really were.
X I could make coloured sparkling ones easily enough as saltpetre, metallic salts, flowers of sulphur and charcoal were all readily available.
1 rifle – винтовка
2 involved – вовлеченный
3 retreat – отступление
4 advance – наступление
5 morale-boosting – поднимающий боевой дух
6 at length – обстоятельно
7 gun shell – снаряд (артиллерийский)
8 butterfly bomb – бомба замедленного падения со стабилизатором зонтичного типа
9 thermite – термит (зажигательная порошкообразная смесь)
10 filings – металлические опилки
11 blister – волдырь
12 ignite – воспламенять
13 wheelbarrow – тачка
14 tarred – просмолённый
15 log – бревно
16 loot – добыча
17 haul – трофей
18 arc light – дуговая лампа
19 crystal set – детекторный приёмник
20 unfettered – нестеснённый
21 to grasp – сжимать
22 numbing – вызывающий онемение
23 strong acid – концентрированная кислота
24 no end of – (разг.) масса, множество
Читать еще в этой рубрике:
Читать еще в этом номере: