Post Memories: Growing up as the flying bombs came down in Dagenham
- Credit: Archant
Destruction, death and despair were an everyday part of life in east London during Hitler’s notorious bombardment of the capital in his final attempt to alter the course of the Second World War.
But in among the chaos, the children of this landscape, where the piles of rubble grew more numerous with every passing day, found a way to keep their spirits up and even have a little fun.
Watching for Doodlebugs, by Robin Campbell, is a children’s tale drawing on the author’s experiences of growing up in Second Avenue, Dagenham, as the bombs of the Blitz fell all about him, his friends and family, for some nine months.
Robin, now 76, and other primary school boys of his age would sit on top of the corrugated-steel Anderson bomb shelters that had been constructed in gardens to offer some meagre protection from blasts and watch as the German V-1 flying bombs, nicknamed doodlebugs, whirred distinctly overhead before plummeting to the ground and exploding.
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Robin said: “Doodblebugs used to come across Dagenham and they would come across at a speed that meant we could stand and watch them and, as long as you could hear the engine, you were all right.
“If it was in the distance and it came down, you would jump into the Anderson shelter.
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The first of the flying bombs fell in June 1944 and the last fell in March the following year.
“Strangely, it became almost something I would look forward to. ‘Here come the doodlebugs!’ Really those things were lethal, but it was part of growing up as a child. It was quite something to watch.”
As well as watching the skies, children would also play on bomb sites left a building had been hit, said Robin.
“It was an absolute gem. There would be shrapnel bits and bricks and we would get thoroughly messy, but it was something new and interesting to play with.
“There was a house here yesterday and there is no house here today. It was just a fascination, somewhere different to play.”
But playtime wasn’t always an escape from the horrors of constant bombing and Robin recalled being told at school of children who “wouldn’t be coming to school anymore”.
“I knew it was happening,” he added. “Doodlebugs were landing on houses and people were getting killed.”
The extraordinary realities of the time were part of what made Robin want to write a book based on stories he heard and his own experiences towards the end of the war.
One such unique experience was encountering huge convoys of soldiers destined to go into action.
“Regular convoys of soldiers would stop on their way down to Southamption or Portsmouth ready to go across for the D-Day landings.
“We would run up and down the convoys shouting, ‘Got any gum, chum?’ and chances are we would get a piece of gum,” said Colin. “I can remember one occasion when half a dozen American soldiers got out of the convoy and we had a football game. The lads versus the soldiers.
“It would have been on the grass verge between North Road and Oval Road South, Dagenham. We just had a kickabout.
“It’s frightening when you think about it now – what those men were going to do – but when we were children it was just normal.”
• Watching for Doodlebugs is out now, priced £6.99, and available from amazon.co.uk and publisher Melrose Books’ website melrosebooks.co.uk