Dad's Wartime Adventures
When I was a child, I loved to get my Dad to tell me about the War. Dad was born in 1926 on Canvey Island, an island in the Thames estuary which had been reclaimed out of the Essex marshes by Dutch engineers in the seventeenth century. Nowadays, Canvey is joined to the mainland by road - you can access it without even realising that it is an island - but in the 20s and 30s you had to take a ferry across the narrow channel which separated it from the Essex mainland. Consequently, it was a much more remote place then.
My grandad, an Eastender, had moved to the island to work in a butcher's. Dad was born in the ramshackle accomodation over the shop. Apparently everyone was in such a 'dither' at the birth that a stove got knocked over and set the house on fire. Only the quick reactions of a neighbour prevented the newly-formed family from burning to death.
Sanitary conditions on the island were rudimentary. There was no main drain so the toilet had to be emptied regularly by the local 'Tom Turdsman'. Dad remembered with relish the day Tom tripped and fell coming down stairs. I don't suppose Nan was so pleased though.
As a schoolboy during WW2, Dad had a grandstand view of the aerial war. During the Battle of Britain the fighting was often visible from the island. Dad used to delight my brother and me by describing the dogfights - all played out on the vast canvas of the sky. Later on, during the Blitz, the Luftwaffe used the Thames as a route into London. Dad described the great clouds of German bombers flying overhead on the way to the Capital. The oil terminal on the island became a target for the Germans. When hit it would blaze for days - lighting the night sky for miles and providing a fine beacon for the attackers.
The beaches on the island were sealed off with barbed wire as a precaution against invasion but that didn't stop Dad and his young friends from getting through and playing on them. One day a passing German fighter plane swooped down over the boys and shot at them. Dad said that his brother, Geoff, had never moved so fast. By the time the others had got through the wire, Geoff (and his bike) were nowhere to be seen.
Grandad joined the LDV and, later, the Home Guard. He is said to have helped to guard a German airman whose parachute had caught on the roof of a house, leaving him dangling from the gutter. This sounds so much like an episode from Dad's Army that I'm not sure that I really believe it to be true.
When the tide of war turned and the planes were mostly flying in the other direction, the mud flats off the island were often crash landing sites for badly damaged planes returning from bombing missions. Dad remembered seeing the crew bailing out of one plane just before it crashed. Another time, a returning American bomber was so badly damaged that it just fell apart in mid-air as it passed over the island.
I don't remember Dad talking about the flying bombs, the V1s and V2s - Hitler's 'vengence' weapons. That was Mum's story. She lived on the mainland just opposite the island. By the time of the flying bombs she had left school and was working in London. One morning her bus passed the newly bombed site of the home of her best friend. Mum didn't like to mention what she had seen when she met her friend for lunch that day. She later found out that several of the family had been killed when the house had been hit by a flying bomb.
After the war, when I was a boy in the early sixties, there were still many war-time buildings left on the island. At one point, where the shipping channel comes very close to shore, several large gun batteries had been built, their concrete walls painted to look like seaside shops. The camp built for the troops manning the guns had been turned into a Butlins-style holiday resort. We often used to play on a section of the floating mulberry harbour which had been damaged on the way to the D-Day beaches and abandoned on the island.