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Open Features: My War - Part One

…Early in the war, the air raid sirens that warned of approaching enemy aircraft seemed to wail almost every night, but more often than not they were false alarms. Either the raiders were heading for some other target, or the alert was simply a mistake. Real or not, we still had to get out of bed and wait under the table until the “All Clear” siren had sounded. But on nights when Sheffield was the target, the experience turned into a scary adventure for us kids, but a terrifying experience for the adults…

John Merchant was six years old when World War II began. Those years of austerity, excitement and terror were to have a major influence on the rest of his life.

This is the first of a five-part series presenting John’s vivid memories of that time. Watch out for his second article next Saturday.

I have lived through a few wars in my lifetime: Korea, Suez, Vietnam and now Iraq, but none of these conflicts impacted me directly. Certainly, while serving in the British Army I experienced the chilling possibility of being posted to Korea, and later Suez, but thank heaven, I wasn’t called. No, my war was World War II. That was the one that enveloped me, and was a major influence on the rest of my life. I sometimes wonder what I would have become as an adult had I not had that experience.

A large part of how I was affected derives from my age at the time. I was an impressionable 5 year old in 1938, when it was clear that a war with Germany was in the offing; old enough to sense my parent’s anxiety. I was later thrilled by The Battle of the River Plate, which took place on December 13th 1939, when ships of the Royal Navy forced the scuttling of the German heavy cruiser Graf Spee in Montevideo harbor. The engagement was the first major naval battle of WWII.

Shortly afterwards, my parents took me to Blackpool, on the last vacation we ever had together, due to the wartime constraints. Blackpool was crowded with airmen from the Polish air force who had fled to England ahead of the German invasion. I was fascinated by their unfamiliar uniforms and their dashing behavior, not to mention the strange sound of their language. But the really memorable feature of the vacation was a visit to the Blackpool Tower Circus.

I was not then, nor am I now, a fan of circus performance, but the attraction of this one, for me, was the water pageant that was the culmination of the evening’s program. During the intermission, the circus ring was flooded, and the show resumed with a series of tableaux. To my surprised delight, the grand finale was a re-enactment of the battle of the River Plate!

Looking back on it, I’m amazed that they could have constructed the 4 to 6 foot scale models of all the ships involved in the time available since the battle. I’m even more astounded at the way the ships maneuvered, fired their guns and sank when called for. To this day I have no idea how this was achieved, but to my childish eyes it was like seeing the real thing.

The battle was one of several major naval engagements through the duration of the war, and a spectacle that will never be seen again. Though war is terrible, the grandeur and glory of the great sea battles was inspirational. For readers who are too young to know about those events, the 1952 TV documentary series “Victory at Sea” captures them in splendid and dramatic style, and is available on DVD. HMS Sheffield, named for my hometown, later was one of the Royal Navy pursuit ships that chased down the German battleship, the Bismarck.

Our exposure to the great sea battles at the time was through watching newsreels from the comfort of a cinema seat, or listening to the war correspondents’ dramatic radio commentaries. By contrast, the war in the air came to us live. My first exposure to this reality was going with my father to pick up gas masks for the family, which we were required to carry at all times. Not long after that, the components of a Government-issue, steel table-shelter arrived at our house for us to assemble in the dining room.

The legs were steel girders and the top was a sheet of steel about 3 sixteenths of an inch thick. The base was steel mesh so we could lay mattresses on it with the unrealistic expectation of being able to sleep there during air raids. The whole assemblage was so big that there was hardly room for chairs around it, and we had to be wary of the sharp corners. It was a daily reminder that we were at war. As inconvenient as the table shelter was, its undesirable alternative was an “Anderson Shelter.”

Like the table, “Anderson Shelters” came in kit form and required the user to dig a roughly 6 feet by 8 feet hole in their garden, into which the corrugated iron sheets were assembled. Afterwards, earth was piled on top of the structure, and it was left to the user how they chose to fit out the interior. Some people went to extraordinary lengths to make the shelter habitable, but in the end they were cold, damp and claustrophobic places to spend a night, and somehow the worms always managed to find their way through the cracks.

Early in the war, the air raid sirens that warned of approaching enemy aircraft seemed to wail almost every night, but more often than not they were false alarms. Either the raiders were heading for some other target, or the alert was simply a mistake. Real or not, we still had to get out of bed and wait under the table until the “All Clear” siren had sounded. But on nights when Sheffield was the target, the experience turned into a scary adventure for us kids, but a terrifying experience for the adults.

The engines of the German Heinkel and Dornier bombers had an identifiable, throbbing drone, and it seemed an eternity from when we initially heard them to when the first bombs dropped. Many of the bombs had a small propeller in the tail that generated a screaming whine as they fell, presumably with the idea of adding an extra element of fear. As we listened to the screams getting louder, we were convinced that each one was headed directly for our house, but fortunately we were never hit.

Many of the bombs failed to explode, and it was said that Jews from the concentration camps, and other conscripted workers who the Germans forced to work in their factories, were deliberately disabling the detonators during assembly. The morning after a raid, we boys would go through the neighborhood looking for the tell-tale patches of fresh clay on the surface of the ground that would show where unexploded bombs had buried themselves. Many dropped in the woods behind our house and probably are there still.

One morning, as the “All Clear” siren sounded, we were thrilled to see a Dornier bomber gliding silently overhead. We boys all studied the silhouettes, provided by the Government, of German planes, so it was easy for us to identify this one. Apparently it had either run out of fuel or perhaps the crew wanted to surrender, but in any event it landed safely on a local golf course. We later tried to get close to it, but armed soldiers kept us away.

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