Chapter 9

After the Balloon Came Down

Most of the hardships and horrors of war passed me by when I was an evacuee from Portsmouth to the Isle of Wight. I never experienced, for instance, the disruption to education caused by the destruction of schools by bombing, with pupils at best being moved from place to place, or at worst not attending school at all. The influx of evacuees, which caused such resentment between country and city children, and overcrowding of schools in rural areas, did not seem to affect Wootton village, possibly because the number of children thrust upon them was small compared with other areas. The loss of my sister also helped me to be accepted in a, village where newcomers would normally expect to spend two or three generations of residence, or more, before being considered to be an Isle of Wighter - or "Genuine Caulkhead", to give an Islander their correct nickname.

The Blitz, although destroying large areas of Portsmouth and Southampton, and causing so much disruption to the schooling and lives of returning evacuees, also did not affect us. Only the newspapers told of the damage and havoc in the large cities of Great Britain. It was the adults who had all the worry; they were the ones with husbands and sons away fighting, and who knew how close we were to invasion in 1940, and who had to cope with food shortages and a perpetual state of emergency. Only after the D-Day landings in 1944 did they feel the end of the war was in sight and could relax a little. Many of the older residents had experienced it before, in the carnage of the Great War, but that war had not involved the bombing of cities on such a large scale and the death of so many civilians. The realisation of how many children had died in the cities made it obvious why evacuation had been so essential.

Rationing of food was introduced in January 1940, followed every month by more rationing as German submarines cut off supply routes. Eventually almost everything essential was rationed, but even this did not seem to affect me too much, although some things, such as sweets, were sadly missed. Bacon was hardly ever tasted, Aunty Annie using our ration of this to exchange for butter or some other commodity she preferred. Country people could usually supplement their rations with a bit of poaching or the raising of chickens, or even pigs. The control by the Ministry of Food over extra food obtained in this way was difficult to monitor, and the odd chickens, eggs and even pigs did escape detection - I know.

"Digging for Victory", could be very profitable, the vegetables raised by energetic villagers giving them the edge when a bit of bartering was in the offing. Some unkind people even called this bartering black marketeering, but others had kinder names for what was obviously a flourishing business during the war. Aunty Annie had an attic room over her kitchen which groaned with the weight of tea, sugar, soap and tins of fruit, salmon and spam. Her store of home-made jams, bottled fruits, and eggs preserved in "Glassey", would have stocked the International Stores at Newport for a month. I visited her Aladdin's cave frequently, tasting small portions of luxuries and even whole tins when I felt these would not be missed. These excursions were discovered when a season's produce of bottled pears was ruined because I removed one piece of this succulent fruit from each bottle, not realising that breaking the rubber seal destroyed the remaining contents. An immediate inventory of the attic by Aunty almost gave her a seizure and necessitated me doing what we call nowadays, "a hasty retreat". A large padlock was immediately fitted to the attic trap-door, to stop my felonious visits to that room, the key of which was kept in a jar on the side-board just below the trap-door, I noticed.

Portsmouth. Our house at Eastern Avenue in 1946Portsmouth. Our house at Eastern Avenue in 1946

But I do remember some of the terrible things that happened because of the war. Like the bomb that fell on the farm cottages and killed so many children, and the face of a young soldier returning to the village after Dunkirk, and the crashed German aeroplane in the field near New Copse. I remember vividly the sadness, tears and anger of one of Aunty Annie's lodgers when she received a telegram from the War Office about her husband. "I regret to have to inform you", could only mean one thing, "being posted as missing. . . " was little comfort. Also, I remember the kindness of American and Canadian soldiers, with strange names like Hank and Marvin, who taught us baseball and how to spin a lassoo, and gave us gum, candy and cookies. Then one night in June they just disappeared, to land on some strange beach in France we heard, when all they really wanted to do was go back to Mom, and their girls back home. I can only hope that most of them did. These memories will always remain with me, although I know they are nothing compared to the hardships and horrors others must have experienced during the war.

When I eventually returned to Portsmouth in 1946, I found it to be a city almost in ruins. Large areas had been demolished, if not by bombing then by, crews of civilians and servicemen who had methodically knocked down unsafe walls and toppling roofs, leaving, or shoring up with wooden beams, only those which could be left to repair at a later date - for occupation by a population in Portsmouth who desperately needed homes. Bomb craters and open cellars had quickly been fenced off, mostly with what was called "ranch style" fencing. This was to protect all but the drunkest sailor from danger. Weeds sprang from walls and impossible places, and brambles and untamed shrubs covered areas which were once proud gardens. The better built, large Victorian houses, whose shells were still intact, stood silently overlooking their poorer cousins, the terraced houses - where first floor fireplaces, complete with wallpaper surrounds, hung in space like some hideous joke. Doors swung at insane angles from half demolished walls, exposing a skeleton of wooden laths behind broken plaster; and debris, loose bricks and rubble were everywhere.

On the flattened and bulldozed areas between streets, "short cuts" had emerged, making it possible to walk or ride a bicycle almost as the crow flies from one point to another, pausing only to ponder what was the outline of a front entrance door, or a lounge or a kitchen. An old saucepan, its handle missing, became yet another noisy football to chase and kick, and the gardens, now jungles of neglect, still produced fruit from stunted and torn bushes and trees - nature continuing to follow the cycle of blossom and fruit, slowly repairing itself, as nature can and always will.

Section of the 1930's Map and Street Guide
Section of the 1930's Map and Street Guide used by me to 'learn' Portsmouth on my return from the Isle of Wight

However there was no damage apparent to the houses in Eastern Avenue where I lived, or in the surrounding area, except for the inlet from Langstone Harbour, called Velder Creek, which must have been mistaken by the Luftwaffe bombers for naval dockyard territory because of the number of small boats and house-boats straddling its shore. The quay at the end of our road must have fooled the bombers also, because mother claimed that sixteen bombs were dropped in this small area. How she counted them I'm not sure. For many years after the war we swam across Velder Creek to the bombed out hulks and house-boats, finding all sorts of things lying around in these floating and sunken vessels, retrieval of items being hampered only by how we were to swim back to the shore with our looted booty.

Bomb damage in PortsmouthBomb damage in Portsmouth
Portsmouth Museums & Records Service

I had been too young when I left Portsmouth at the commencement of war to know its streets and layout. Now I had to learn the area quickly if I was to survive. Portsmouth and Southsea are contained on an island, called Portsea Island, which is no more than four miles long by three miles wide, not much larger in fact than the total area of my old territory at Wootton, on the Isle of Wight. But in a city of streets upon streets of similar houses - most with no front gardens and a handkerchief of a lawn at the rear -"territories" shrink to a few hundred yards each way. I was able to extend mine only because my school at Southsea, some three miles from home, enabled me to get to know other areas of the city, varying my route to and from school and spending hours and hours roaming the, streets after school and at weekends. My new shiny bicycle needed new tyres every few months, much to Mother's dismay, because of the high mileage I was travelling.

As a consequence of this, I was very soon able to find my way around the streets of Portsmouth and Southsea. A 1930's map and street guide, which I found in a drawer at home, was always with me, enabling me to work out the easiest route without asking the way from residents who generally knew only their own immediate areas, and sometimes not even that. For all this, I was still a virtual stranger in my own city. Those evacuees who had returned earlier had at least been able to pick up where they left off. Friends and family, even school friends gave them a continuity which long-term evacuees missed. The only advantage long-termers had over short-term evacuees was an uninterrupted education, but even this was of little help on my return, because I had to get used to a different style of teaching in a strange atmosphere where I knew no one. Also it is very important when you are young to know where you stand in the pecking order, and it took quite a lot of painful lessons before mine was established.

Long-term evacuees also tended to be those whose parents didn't want, or couldn't cope, with their children. Children from loving, caring and close families, generally spent a very short time evacuated, mothers preferring the risks of bombing to the heartbreak of separation. It followed that long-termers were considered to be the disturbed or semi-criminal element of the evacuee fraternity, a fact which I will always vehemently deny, even if it was true. The saddest group of evacuees were those whose parents had been killed by the bombing. I knew no children who suffered such tragedies, but they numbered thousands. Some stayed with their foster families for a long time after the war and some stayed for always in the villages to which they had been evacuated.

But for all the bad things war was responsible for, it also brought about many changes which were for the good. Rationing, for instance, was found to be very healthy, and for poor people actually meant an improved diet. School milk and dinners were introduced, mainly because the evacuation brought to light the poor nutrition and state of health of many of the children sent from the slums and deprived areas of large cities. Millions of children were immunized free against diphtheria during the war, halving the deaths from this terrible disease. I know my sister Brenda died because of this injection - but this was unfortunate, and does not diminish the fact that thousands of children were saved by immunization.

The largest impact, however, was the complete re-appraisal of social and welfare services. In 1939, paupers and the desperately poor were still subject to the Poor Law Act, whose roots dated back fo the middle ages. Brenda and I were well aware of the Portsmouth "Workhouse", called St. Mary's House, housing over one thousand people, whose male inmates could be seen working in the fields and piggeries around the establishment, literally for their daily bread. I know how close Mother must have come to entering that place, with all its stigma and hopelessness. The war changed everything, giving total rethinking to the whole concept of welfare.

St. Luke's School, SouthseaSt. Luke's School, Southsea. Dockyard entrance examination class of 1949.
The Author is at the front, closest to the camera

I could never do anything right, according to my mother. This undermined my already low esteem and confidence. "You're just like your father", had undertones of accusations of insanity, as also did the everyday innocent sayings which include the word, "mad", and there are a lot when you think about it. Mother mourned the death of my sister for the rest of her life, which I could understand. The word "tragedy" should only ever have one meaning, and that is when a young child dies, and only a mother who has experienced it can know how it feels. But my mother, in her worst moments, blamed me for being alive instead of Brenda, which doesn't make for a close mother and son relationship. If I offended her in any way, she would not speak to me - sometimes for weeks on end. I remember on one occasion she never spoke to me from Easter to Whitsun, and that was six weeks. But I was lucky, I suppose, compared to some who offended her; I've known her to stop speaking to people who have crossed her for years, sometimes for ever. My father was one of these.

But all good things come to an end, and when St. Luke's Church School 1933 saw me successfully pass the Dockyard Entrance Examination, school days were finished, and I put aside all things childish and became a man - as the Good Book says. I could not visit my beloved Island very much at all when I started work, two weeks holiday a year instead of the twelve weeks school holidays would not allow much more than a fleeting week-end visit, and sadly my close association with my friends at Wootton declined to the extent that when I did eventually return regularly, I was hardly known. My 'Genuine Caulkhead" Associate Membership was withdrawn, and I became just another "Grockle" (the Island name for a casual summer season visitor).

I served "Inside the Walls" of Portsmouth Dockyard, as an electrical fitter apprentice, beginning in September 1949 and receiving my indentures, which is nothing to do with teeth by the way, five years later. I will always remember my last Chargeman in the Dockyard, called Mr. Slaughter, (nicknamed Todd for short), sarcastically asking me what I was going to do when I finished my apprenticeship, because I certainly wasn't ever going to be an electrical fitter. This was a bit cruel but bordered on the truth, as I would have had difficulty in fitting a battery to a torch at that stage of my career. Fate plays strange tricks, however, and his words turned out to be almost true. I was to rise through the ranks of the dockyard promotion system with such breathtaking speed, that I never did need to practice my skills as an electrical fitter, other than for a very short period after I returned from my two years of National Service in the RAF. Even then, if I remember correctly, I was employed for a long period painting lampposts around the dockyard with aluminium paint, because dockyard painters had received electric shocks whilst painting these metal poles, thus it was decided that "skilled" electricians must paint these lamp-posts.

The greasy pole of promotion in the Admiralty dockyards, depended almost exclusively on Civil Service Commission written examinations. This suited me much better than facing oral or verbal examinations and boards - which seems to be the preferred method of promoting in modern times. I therefore took the "alternate" bi-annual examinations for Admiralty Draughtsmen and Admiralty Inspector of Electrical Fitters, much to the ribald comments of workmates, and surprisingly passed the Draughtsman's exam at the first attempt, and the Inspector's exam at the third attempt. The vacancy lists each year gave the number of posts that were available, and any candidates who passed the examination within the number declared, were offered confirmed appointments, which meant they would be established in the grade and never need sit the examination again. It may sound complicated, but it was the system of promotion used, and it suited me down to the ground.

I still wasn't too sure of one end of a torch from the other, but this wasn't particularly important any more, because management grades didn't need to know. It was for the Todd Slaughters of this world to understand such complicated things. There was one other requirement for promotion, and that was mobility, which means that if one is offered a post in Outer Mongolia, one must take it, or risk losing promotion. Outer Mongolia, to any Portsmouth dockyard draughtsman grade, meant Bath in Somerset, and that's what was usually offered to all new promotees, the difference being that most declined but I agreed to go there. And this was to be the start of my "Cook's tour" of Britain and abroad, lasting nearly forty years.

St. Luke's School, Southsea

I served at Bath and Pinner (Middlesex), as a draughtsman, though I never in those three years was ever asked to do a drawing, then at Malta for three years, which was wonderful because it was an island - smaller than the Isle of Wight - and I was by now an Inspector of Electrical Fitters, with all the status and privileges the Maltese still afforded such a grade. I was then posted to the House of Commons, which I refused because nobody ever went to London by choice, so was offered an Experimental Establishment as an alternative. I liked this place because you could talk to some very clever people who bent all the rules, had as much money as they wanted to spend on their experiments, and always bought the drinks. Also, at that place, I made two of the best friends I have ever known, George and Fred, who just happened to be rhesus monkeys.

I then went to Cyprus, our Admiralty allegiance having long disappeared when the three services amalgamated under one large department, called the Ministry of Public Buildings and Works. This meant we could serve with any of the three services, navy, army or airforce, and even with the civilian works organisation, the old Ministry of Works. Another promotion came whilst I was serving in Cyprus, after which I was posted to Colwyn Bay in North Wales, then on to Anglesey and six further moves in the UK and abroad. I went to Germany, of all places, but my wife frankly refused to go there because the Germans had bombed her house during the war and she never forgave them. I finally ended up again in North Wales. Some people said that my many moves and promotions had a hidden meaning, but I'm not quite sure what they meant.

But the candle of the department's life was burning low and, like many government organisations, it was privatised and we were all offered redundancy terms, leaving me with so much time on my hands that I decided to write this book.

Perhaps I survived my gipsy life style, even enjoyed moving from place to place, because of the excitement of meeting new people and seeing new places. I have always had an inability to form close friendships or to trust what people say, which is a legacy of my childhood experiences I suppose. So many children suffered because of war-time evacuation, torn from their families to live with strangers. But I was never happier than when I lived, as an evacuee, at Wootton Bridge on the Isle of Wight, where just for a while I felt I was part of one big family.

In 1979, forty years after I was evacuated from Portsmouth to the Isle of Wight, I hesitantly knocked on the door of David, my war-time friend at Wootton. When his wife Jenny answered the door, we stared at each other for a few moments, before I was able to say...

"Can David come out to play".

I know I can go there any time

"I know I can go there any time
And do, just what I did
But never will it be the same
For time has closed the lid."

Peter Bailey