The War At Home

THE WAR AT HOME

 BY EDWARD DRAKE

Based On True Accounts

This Is For You Grandad

London. The Blitz. Two young Home Guardsmen begin their nightly patrol, just as the air raid sirens begin to sound out and are plunged into dangers from all around as the bombs fall and everything they hold dear is endangered.

 

It was another cold April night, as they always seemed to be in London, and Gerry could not wait for his watch to be over. He was exhausted and badly wanted to go home and sleep. He could not help but yawn again and again.

‘Don’t worry mate,’ said the man beside him. ‘We’ve only ’bout another hour left.’

‘Yeah I guess,’ replied Gerry as he stifled yet another before rubbing his face, trying to wake up. ‘C’mon Bill, we’ve still got another few streets to check,’ he said as he clapped a hand on his friend’s shoulder. Bill grinned happily, as he always did as they marched down Portland Street, their boots sounding out on the cobbled road.

They were both tall for their age but still appeared young, pimples on their faces and not yet old enough to need to shave. Both had tried to lie about their ages and join the army several times before at different recruitment stations, but had failed each time. They wanted to do their part and cursed their luck after each failure.

The two men wore the green uniforms of soldiers but were a year under the admission age for the Army. At their shoulders was a green strip of material with white letters stitched into it. Home Guard. They carried rifles, but they had never been fired in anger. Gerry and Bill had served in these uniforms for two years and were carrying out the same routine that they always did. They patrolled the streets and the young men found it a very boring, tedious, repetitive job. That was until the warnings sounded. When they heard the wailing of the air raid sirens, Gerry and Bill would need to check that people got to the shelters, be it public or their own.

The pair were in Elephant & Castle, London, for their watch and neither minded the area one bit. They had grown up in that very neighbourhood and were near their homes and families. It was a quiet place, on the outskirts of the main city centre, but for Gerry, it was home.

So far it had been a dull night, not too much to do, just making sure that light discipline was upheld and that there was no one on the streets. Their presence was not really needed in all honesty, the citizens in the area having been used to the restrictions for as long as Gerry had worn his uniform. They were more there to help the remaining inhabitant’s morale and ease their constant fears. The work of the two members of the Home Guard really began after the bombers had passed.

All, including the two men, were weary and eager for the war to end. Then they heard the sound that every person dreaded. The sound of the air raid sirens. The wailing noise sent a chill down Gerry’s spine and he looked up into the sky. He could make out the droning of engines that were not too far away. The sounds of anti-aircraft cannons opening fire could be heard also in the distance, and both noises were coming nearer to Elephant & Castle. Several people piled out of their homes and ran down the street towards the air raid shelters.

‘Carefully proceed to the shelters!’ called out Gerry to those running hysterically.

‘Start with this house?’ asked Bill, indicating to the nearest building.

‘Why not,’ replied Gerry as he walked up the short drive. He knocked on the door and waited for a reply. The drone of the engines was coming closer and Gerry and Bill could both see the aircraft in the darkness. Two spotlights illuminated the sky whilst flak cannons and machine guns fired up into the night, trying to down the raiders that were causing so much panic to the inhabitants of London. The explosions of the flak cannons could easily be heard, but the people of Elephant & Castle knew they would hear worse before the night was over. 

‘Is anyone in here not in a shelter?!’ called out Gerry. There was still no answer. He knocked harder on the door again, but there was no reply. Giving up, the two men moved to the next house and this time Bill knocked on the door and shouted.  Again there was no reply, nor was there at the following six houses. Gerry and Bill both looked up as they heard whistling from the skies. They soon heard large explosions to the north, near Waterloo Station, not that far away. Overhead they saw more dark outlines of planes and heard the whistling of falling bombs. They saw fires in the distance to the north and the west, smoke rising high over London. A tremor shook the streets as their home city was pounded once again.

‘Come on mate!’ shouted Bill above the chaos. ‘That’s a bit close! We should get to a shelter as well!’ The fear was all too clear in Bill’s face and in his voice as he spoke and Gerry could not blame him.

‘Let’s go!’ Gerry replied. ‘There’s a public shelter around the corner!’ The two men marched down the road quickly, but stopped as someone shouted to them.

‘You two lads!’ called a man from behind. ‘You Home Guard?’ Gerry and Bill turned and saw that it was a warden who was calling out to them. The man was overweight, had thinning white hair and wore the dark navy uniform of his station.

‘Yeah we are,’ replied Gerry. ‘You need something?’

‘A house has been hit and I need help to look for survivors,’ explained the warden.

‘Whereabouts?’ asked Bill.

‘It’s on Manor Place,’ replied the older man. Gerry’s face then looked aghast as he turned and sprinted down the street.

‘What’s wrong?!’ asked the warden.

‘His family lives there!’ shouted Bill over his shoulder as he ran to catch up.

Gerry’s stomach knotted as soon as the warden had said the name of the place.

‘It’s not my house! It’s not my house!’ Gerry swore to himself repeatedly.

Bombs were still falling all around, but Gerry was oblivious to them. He had to get home and he had to find his family. The air raid sirens were still sounding and had been joined by the noise of fire trucks in the area rushing to put out the blazes. He stopped dead in his tracks as he reached Manor Place. Several buildings had been hit, and wardens, fire fighters and other volunteers were attending to them, battling flames and searching for survivors. One building caught Gerry’s attention immediately. Like the others, his house, his home, was now a pile of burning rubble.

‘Oh my God!’ proclaimed Bill as he caught up to his friend and saw what had happened. Gerry ran forward, dropping his rifle as he ran. Tears appeared in his eyes and he became numb to everything around him. He barged down the broken door and stumbled into what was left of the living room. The roof had caved in and two of the main walls of the building had collapsed. Several beams, all that remained of the roof, were on fire and the flames were spreading everywhere.

Gerry pushed several mounds of rubble away as he forced his way through the room and into the dining room where his family’s Morrison shelter was. It was a large metal box, which was just large enough for three people, his mother, his little sister and himself. The shelter had been crushed by a large beam from the roof and the door was covered in rubble from what had been one of the walls.

Tears poured from Gerry’s eyes at the sight. He could see no sign of his family, but he knew that if they were in the shelter, there was no way they could have survived. Bill stood level with Gerry and upon seeing his face and the state of what laid before them, knew what was going through his friend’s mind. He also knew that they could not stay where they were as the flames around them were growing.

‘Mate we’ve got to get out of here!’ Bill called out over the roar of the flames. Gerry did not move or make any reaction.

‘Look!’ shouted Bill, taking a grip of Gerry’s shoulder so that he paid attention. ‘We don’t even know if they were in there! We can’t look now, not with this fire!’ Gerry barely nodded, still in the shock that he may have just lost his only family.

‘C’mon mate!’ yelled Bill as he pulled Gerry through the wreckage of the house and out into the street. Both men had black ash on their faces and uniforms and both coughed deeply after inhaling the rising smoke. The warden from earlier appeared at last, panting hard, out of breath.

‘This is the house!’ he shouted just as the remnants of Gerry’s home collapsed and crashed down. The warden then realised that the two young men had already gone inside by the state of them. He picked up their fallen rifles from the road and threw their straps over his shoulder as the two Home Guard members recovered.

‘Was anybody in there?!’ he asked.

‘Not that we could see before the flames forced us out!!’ answered Bill, the chaos around them still so loud.

A voice sounded out to the three of them and they saw that it was one of the fire-fighters who were tackling the blazes on the street.

‘You couldn’t give us a hand could ya?!’ he asked as he wiped sweat and ash from his face.

‘What do you need?!’ replied Bill.

‘There’s people trapped inside this building!’ explained the fire-fighter. ‘We can hear them but I don’t have enough men to carry out a rescue! Can you help?!’  Bill looked over to Gerry and moved so that they were face to face.

‘Gerry you can’t do anything about your family now!’ he shouted over the roaring fires and wailing sirens. ‘But you can help these people!’ Gerry was silent for a few seconds before he nodded, showing that he would help. Bill turned back to the fire-fighter.

‘We’ll help!’ Bill announced. ‘Where can we get in?!’

‘I managed to force down the door!’ the fire-fighter explained. ‘But me and the others need to try to control the fire elsewhere!’ Bill, Gerry and the warden followed the ash covered man to the door and he pointed to where they had to go. Gerry turned to the old warden who was still trying to catch his breath from his run earlier and was struggling amongst the smoke.

‘Stay here and help any survivors who come out of any of these homes!’ Gerry ordered. The warden simply nodded, understanding that he would be more of a hindrance than a help.

Gerry and Bill cautiously entered the building, their hands over their mouths, trying to prevent inhaling so much smoke. The two young men fought hard not to break into coughing fits as the smoke slowly filled their lungs. They entered the next room they saw and witnessed the true extent of the damage that had been caused by the bomb. The roof had literally collapsed into the room and both the Home Guard members could see the dark sky through the gaping hole and the search lights hunting the bombers still flying overhead.

Before them, rubble, beams of wood and the remnants of the roof covered the room and amongst it, Gerry and Bill could see the shelter. This shelter was twice the size as the one in Gerry’s house and looked to be reinforced with steel. The sounds of people calling for help and banging on the sides from within could be heard and Gerry and Bill knew they had to get them out. The door was covered by a large beam of wood from the roof that had trapped the people inside. The flames from the explosion had engulfed all of the room behind the shelter and were quickly making their way towards Gerry and Bill. They had to act fast if they were to save the inhabitants of the shelter. 

Both pulled hard at the heavy wood but they could not move it. Bill succumbed to a coughing fit and Gerry heard a girl’s scream from inside the shelter. The girl sounded around his sister’s age and the thought of her gave him the motivation he needed. Gerry and Bill grabbed the beam again and after heaving hard at it, they managed to move it away just enough to open the door. It burst open, and Gerry could not believe his eyes. Inside were his neighbours, Mr and Mrs Thompson, and with them were his mother and his little sister. They rushed out of the shelter and Gerry embraced his family immediately. Tears appeared in his eyes again but this time they were of joy. Their words of surprise and shock were lost amongst the growing flames and he picked up his sister before shouting out to everyone.

‘Follow me!’ he ordered above the noise of the turmoil. Gerry led the way and they hurriedly poured out of the burning building into the street, all coughing heavily, just as the remains of the house collapsed in on itself.

The warden and fire fighter appeared and asked if they were all right. Gerry barely managed a reply before they were instructed to get down to the shelters at the tube station as the sirens started up again. Another wave of bombers were coming in and for them the night was far from over yet. Gerry picked up his sister again and the group made their way up Walworth Road.

As they hurried away from their home, Gerry could not help but look back. He had witnessed the docks go up in flames and St Paul’s engulfed in the smoke of the carnage around it, but the sight of his home gone hit him far harder. The City of London had taken a pounding over the past years, but this brought the war home.

Copyright. Edward Drake. 2011.

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Comments
  1. JennyBale says:

    My Grandad served in the Home Guard when he was young too and has many stories of the horrors and destruction he saw during the Blitz. I read this too him today and he really liked it, saying he knew many tales of families who had been lost and miracle stories like yours. Thank you for posting this up.
    Jenny

    • Edward Drake says:

      Hi Jenny. I’m glad you and your Grandad liked the story. There are so many of these real-life tales of bravery during this time, people just struggling to survive, and I merely hope that my account of one is fitting to those who lived it.

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