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Memories of wartime

Bells did not ring out on Christmas Day in 1940. If they had, it would have been a sign that we had been invaded.

18 December 2010

12:00 AM

18 December 2010

12:00 AM

I was born in London in 1935. By the summer of 1939, it was considered wise to get children out of the city before the war started. I wasn’t separated from my sobbing mother at Victoria station and put on a train holding a gas mask. Instead, my mother and I went down to Devon to stay with my grandmother, who had rented a house in the village of Torcross.

In London, the war did not stop for Christmas. Toy shops before the war had sold small forts modelled on the Maginot and Siegfried lines. Now boys in the city wanted toy planes like the ones they saw flying overhead.

But in Devon in 1940 things were still peaceful and we had a big Christmas lunch with all the trimmings. We were joined by an uncle whose job it was to pull bodies out of bombed buildings in London. The authorities thought he might have cracked under the strain and he had been ordered to take a few days off to get a grip and calm down. Lunch was too much for him, I’m afraid. After having a few words with Granny, he lost it and turned the table over, covering us all with gravy and turkey. I was quickly deposited in another room with some chocolate blancmange, which I squeezed through my fingers as the shouting went on. Christmas has never been such fun.

We sat out most of the war in Devon. It was a couple of years later, in August 1942, that I went to the beach on a hot day. It was covered in barbed wire and scaffolding, plus the odd mine. Dogs sometimes broke through the barricades and got blown up, but I was unwilling to wait until the end of the war just to have a paddle, so I climbed through the fencing and headed for the water. I remember that there were soldiers on the beach, too, enjoying the sun. Suddenly, two fighter planes popped up on the horizon. They separated and flew in towards us from each side of the bay. The soldiers thought they were our planes, until it was too late. The fighters came in very low — I could see the pilots’ faces — then raked the beach with gunfire before dropping a bomb on the village. I started to run back to our house. I was enveloped in smoke and could hear people shouting at me, telling me to lie down. A woman lay trapped under a settee that had been blown into the street.

After that, it was decided we would be just as safe in London. We went back to my father in Hampstead, where he was in charge of the National Fire Service. I often helped him out with his duties. Once, clusters of incendiary bombs landed on Hampstead without detonating. They had terribly sensitive trip fuses but I went round collecting them and carrying them like milk bottles, two clinking in each hand. I had no idea that I could be blown up any minute until some poor old dear noticed what I was doing and screamed at me.

Michael Heath is the cartoon editor of The Spectator.

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