A true story of Essex in World War Two © 24/4/2010
"Please Mummy, may I go across the road to play with Carol?" eight-year-old Jane requested in a stage-whisper as she entered the kitchen where her mother was preparing one of the family's many rabbits for the evening meal. With a swift movement the rabbit was skillfully deprived of its skin as Jane watched the familiar procedure.
"That's not one of our own rabbits, is it, Mummy?"
"Er— of course not. I got this one from the butcher's shop. Why are you whispering?" asked her mother.
"Because Grandma is asleep in Daddy's chair again and I might wake her."
"Humph!" grunted her mother, the rabbit being of greater interest at that moment.
"Mummy, when Daddy comes home from the War will he let Grandma sleep in his chair like she does now?"
The eight-year old had asked that question more than once since her Grandma had come to live with them at number 14, Heath Drive in the quiet village of Theydon Bois at the edge of Epping Forest. Grandma's home and shop on Plaistow Road had been badly damaged by Luftwaffe bombs during one of the many air raids on the East End of London. Grandma had arrived on the doorstep of her married daughter Ivy's rural home accompanied by Jane's Aunt Cissy, a roll of carpet with a kitten inside it, some items of furniture and a piano with glinting shards of bomb-blasted window glass embedded in one end. Grandma felt safer, much safer, in Theydon Bois. Aunt Cissy went by train each day to work in London where her job entailed censoring mail. The Mansfield family and their next-door neighbours, the Johnstons, had jointly constructed an Anderson Air-Raid Shelter in the Johnstons' back garden. It had been used several times when the sirens wailed their rising and falling warning. The village had experienced a few air raids.
Digging Party for the installation of the shared Anderson Air Raid Shelterat 14/16 Heath Drive. L to R: Mr. Moore, Hod Mansfield (Jane’s father), Colin Dibble, Mr.Johnston. Mrs. Ivy Mansfield watches from over the fence.
"Will Daddy make Grandma sleep in some other chair when he comes home?" Jane asked again.
"We'll have to wait and see what happens when Daddy comes home, won't we."
"Mmmm. Please Mummy can I go to play with Carol?"
"Oh go on then!... Don't make a mess all over Carol's house... You should both play outside on a fine day like this."
"Yes Mummy!" Jane replied over her shoulder, already trotting down the driveway heading towards the home of her playmate directly across the empty road. As she reached the front door Jane became aware of a faint distant noise. An aircraft from nearby North Weald Airbase? She had often counted the Lancaster Bombers as they flew out on their deadly missions. She listened. No. This noise was not a Lancaster, nor was it the powerful snarl of a Spitfire. It gave her a creepy feeling, then, as she rang the bell she remembered what it was. She had heard it a few times before. The door opened and the welcoming, smiling face of Carol's mother looked down at her visitor as Jane pointed to the clear blue sky overhead said quietly,
"That's a Doodlebug, isn't it?"
Mrs. Forster's kindly smile vanished as she listened for a moment to the steady, harsh drone that was getting louder.
"You're right, Jane. It's a Doodlebug. Go home to your shelter!"
As Jane crossed the road her other friend, Meryl Brewley, was approaching and both girls pointed up at the sky together then ran to the back door of Jane's house. Jane burst in followed by Meryl and announced:
"There's a Doodlebug!"
"You'll call wolf once too often, young lady!" Jane's mother admonished her daughter and just then she became aware of the sound and realised the child was right as the rising wail of the Air Raid Siren confirmed the approaching danger.
"SHELTER!" barked her mother.
Jane and Meryl ran to the shared Anderson Shelter in the adjoining garden reaching it just as the now very loud noise of the Doodlebug suddenly stopped and Jane heard her mother yelling,
"Mum, Doodlebug! SHELTER! NOW!"
Jane leaped down over the few steps and dived into the Anderson Shelter followed by Meryl. The cramped metal structure was half under, half over the lawn, its roof covered in grassy turf. Glancing back Jane saw her mother run from the French window that led directly from the living room to the garden and almost throwing herself down the shelter steps. Meryl remembered her school training sessions, grabbed some pillows and clamped them over Jane's and her own ears. Jane's mother, Ivy, turned and screamed frantically towards the house:
The end of the word was obliterated by the most ear-shattering explosion they had ever heard. The shock-wave hit and they sat listening to the the tinkling of shattered glass followed by thuds and thumps outside. They waited. How long should they wait? Would it be safe to go out now? Would the house be still there? Would the other houses be still there? Would Carol's house be there? And what about the rabbits and the chickens in their flimsy accommodation under the apple tree at the end of the garden? It suddenly grew darker, much darker, as a dense cloud of black smoke enveloped the garden.
"Grandma?" said Jane. Her voice didn't sound right. Her ears were not working properly. She repeated it, louder this time and it came out as a shriek:
Without a word her mother ran towards the house. There was a changed and darker world outside. Where there had been fresh green grass, clear skies and sunshine there was now a pall of thick, black smoke. Black smuts fluttered down onto the grass where bits of strange stuff lay smoking between larger fragments of twisted metal. Glass splinters from shattered windows were scattered everywhere.
The siren's wail began again, this time holding a continuous steady note denoting ALL CLEAR.
They rushed towards the house, relieved to see that it was still standing. On the way they passed one half of the French Window leaning against a rose bush. All its glass panes were still intact. It's other half was still closed and bolted in its place but every one of its glass panes had been shattered.
On the living room floor Jane's Grandma was getting to her feet in the midst of broken glass, books, knitting wool, an empty wooden biscuit barrel and knocked-over chairs. Only her dignity had been injured and the gentle old lady said things about Germans that her little granddaughter should not have heard her utter. But then, her own house and butcher shop had been destroyed by an air raid.... There was a limit to one's polite tolerance.
"Did the Doodlebug throw you on the floor, Grandma?"
"Of course not."
"Tea?" asked Ivy.
"Yes please, Ivy. Unless there's something stronger?"
As Ivy went towards the sideboard her young daughter and Meryl went exploring into the hall. There they stepped over the attic hatch-cover that had tumbled down the stairs and now lay beside the door-mat. The girls cautiously ventured out through the hole where the front door had been. It now dangled crazily from one hinge having been blasted open. What an exciting day! Doors blown off hinges, windows broken and thick black smoke swirling about. Now Jane could definitely say that her home had suffered real bomb damage. Her status in school would be assured.
"JANE! MERYL! Come over and see what's happened to all our windows." Carol called excitedly from across the road but before Jane and Meryl could respond a convoy of emergency vehicles led by an ancient Fire Engine with a clanging bell came up Heath Drive, heading towards the column of smoke rising at the end of the road. Two trucks of ARP men followed and some Home Guard volunteers on bicycles.
"I must go home first," declared Meryl, "they will be worried about me."
Jane crossed the road to join her other excited friend.
An ambulance drove slowly past and a Red Cross nurse called out to the two girls:
"Is there anyone injured in there?"
"No thank you, not today!" came the cheeky reply.
The ambulance progressed slowly along Heath Drive, unsuccessfully seeking injured victims, closely followed by the village Policeman, P.C. Hart, panting along on his bicycle. The next vehicle to arrive was far more interesting. It was a large van with steam rising from a vent in its roof. Jane and Carol followed it and watched as the side panel was raised to reveal a counter from which tea was immediately offered to everyone. FREE!
"It's the WVS! C'mon, let's get some tea." prompted Carol. Jane hesitated.
"Better ask at home first." She did and regretted her decision.
"No!" Jane's mother dismissed her daughter's pleading request abruptly. "We have our own tea, even if it is rationed. The Women's Voluntary Service has come to help those people who have had their homes and their kitchens destroyed. It's not for the likes of you."
Jane was about to argue when her mother grabbed her by the hand and said,
"I'm coming with you to see what damage was done to Heath Drive by that Doodlebug."
At the gate they found another neighbour, Mrs. Wiltshire and her young son Raymond, calmly watching the spectacle. Other neighbours had also emerged from their houses or from shelters. Friendly hand-waves were exchanged but few words were uttered. Jane and her mother didn't get far. A team of men were approaching with ladders, rolls of tarpaulin, a wheelbarrow of tools and an assortment of other emergency materials.
"Temporary windows and roof repairs at your service! Anyone get hurt here?"
"Nobody hurt. Windows smashed, even the taped ones, doors off hinges, attic hatch came down. Haven't had a proper look around yet."
"That'll do for starters. Just show me around while these guys run up a ladder and check your roof-tiles. We don't want loose tiles sliding down on anyone."
"Anybody hurt further along Heath Drive?" Ivy asked.
"Just one caught by a bit of flying glass. Two houses at the end of the Weind lost their back walls. One old lady got a bad fright when the back wall of her house came down. The house at the end of Heath Drive is badly wrecked, Bennett's they told me. Mostly windows smashed in the rest. Lucky everyone at that end of Heath Drive had gone on an outing, a picnic in Epping Forest someone said. They'll get a hell of a surprise when they get back, especially the Bennetts."
"Which house did it hit?" asked Ivy.
"None! Hitler missed! Bloody thing landed in the field. The farmer came down and is hopping mad as it burned one of his haystacks."
"My Grandma is hopping mad too." said Jane, "She said awful things about Germans. She said they were...."
"JANE! That will DO! Go play with Carol."
And she did.
The two friends began to collect bits of Doodlebug from Carol's garden. Some of the bigger pieces were still warm. When Meryl returned and joined them they collected pieces from Jane's garden, then from the roadside and from other people's gardens. By the time their mothers came looking for them they had assembled a satisfying collection of twisted Doodlebug souvenirs. They intended to bring a few samples to school as evidence. That would show them! What an exciting day it had been. Pity about the WVS tea though.
That evening Jane's Auntie Cissy stepped from the LNER train at Theydon Bois station on her way home from her job censoring letters. There was an unusual buzz of excited chatter in the station booking hall as she passed through and she overheard "Doodlebug… Heath Drive… houses... V-1... destroyed... bomb... fire engines... many damaged…"
Cissy ran all the way from the Station through the village, along Dukes Avenue and into Heath Drive, arriving breathless and gasping at Number 14, and found it was still there with everyone in it unharmed. She had to ask several questions to elicit what had happened. They told her that a V-1 flying bomb had exploded at the end of the road and broke some windows.
Jane,leaving her home on way to school. In her left hand she carries her gas mask (not visible)
The V1 impact site is at the end of the footpath, 125 metres away.
I lived in Theydon Bois for a few years in the late 1950s. The crater left by the V-1 Doodlebug was still clearly visible at Heath Drive then. So was Jane. She came down a snow-clad hill on a toboggan and crashed into me. We got married in 1960 and moved to Ireland where we celebrated our Golden Wedding in 2010.
I count myself very fortunate that Adolf Hitler's V-1 Doodlebug missed Jane Mansfield of 14, Heath Drive, by 125 metres!