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A Shout From The Attic: Goodge Street Deep Shelter

Goodge Street Deep Shelter

...Our way lay across the Great Western Desert where my father served in the Eight Army during the Second World War, but our destination was Egypt, land of pyramids, camels, sand, history, and the Suez Canal, that we were being sent to guard. It seemed strange to us that anyone would want to steal the canal, but you never know...

Ronnie Bray flies off to serve his country in the Middle East.

To read earlier episodes of Ronnie's entertaining autobiography please click on http://www.openwriting.com/archives/a_shout_from_the_attic/


Jonah’s three days in the belly of the great fish could not have been any less terrifying or smelly that three days I spent in the belly of London’s Goodge Street deep shelter. I was being posted to Ægypt on an Avro-York full of assorted soldiers and Brylcreem Boys, as the RAF lads were affectionately known, and I was blessed to spend three days in the smell-hole of the universe. It came about on this wise.

The Company notice board at Sudbury held an invitation to us soldiers to volunteer for overseas service, and I was delighted. Now I would get to travel to exotic and exciting places that I had read about and longed to see. I filled in the appropriate AF and submitted it. I had stated my preference as the Far East and the Bahamas. The Army, true to its reputation, split the difference and sent me to Egypt. Ho hum!

After a short period of embarkation leave, I arrived at Goodge Street deep shelter in London. This was once an underground station but had been converted into an air raid shelter in wartime because of its depth from street level. It housed thousands of soldiers, airmen, and sailors in transit to and from around the world, holding them in its insatiable maw by stashing them in narrow bunks three tiers high and feeding them with insubstantial food that defied anyone to like it, even me.

All those bodies, essential to the defence of the realm and the punishment of its enemies, stowed in close proximity inside that breathless place made for an hot odour long since experienced, but never forgotten as whirring fans prevented sleep as they served only to circulate the unbreathable atmosphere. No one was ever sad to weeping at escaping into the non-troglodyte world with its sensational cool, fresh air.

Three days and nights of suffering were cut short by the interminable loudspeaker that broke our already broken sleep with instructions, cautions, and flight departures twenty-four hours a day, finally calling our flight. We lumbered up the long winding stairwell with everything we owned in the world that the Army allowed us to carry on to the aeroplane. An early ride by bus through the already crowded London streets and into the quiet countryside of Stanstead brought us to where we boarded an Avro-York four-engined troop carrier bound for Egypt.

The discomfort and nausea of the stinking transit camp deep in the bowels of London, miles below the surface in Goodge Street, had been eased when my flight was called, and along with several dozens of other eager young soldiers and airmen, I was driven in an uncomfortable and smelly bus through the sleepy mists of an April morning before the sun had climbed above the housetops and transported our heavy-eyed company from the oppressive but well-charted hegemony of inner London into the unfamiliar countryside and poured us into Stansted airport where our twin-engined Avro-York was warming up on the concrete apron.

We disembussed and shuffled into a low building that served as a staging post for our flight. We were briefly reunited with our luggage, mostly just a kit bag and whatever we could carry. There was a general air of confusion but we exercised our normal faith in the military mind, and relaxed. All would be well. It always was – eventually.

The wait was not long, just long enough for us to consider that the aircraft could run out of fuel from being stood with its propellers whirling on the ground. Then, time to go, so back on the move and more shuffling in a weak but promising sunshine as we straggled across to where our transportation stood shining silver in the brightness of our farewell morning.

We stumbled up the steel steps and piled into the plane, found seats, fastened the broad canvas seat belts with hardly time to think before the engines revved up loud to make afraid and straight into a madcap rush along a ribbon of concrete whose end, marked by a copse was alarmingly close, brought a flood of fear into the once apple-cheeked flower of Britain until we rose ponderously into the low sky through clouds and into the sun bright world above the world, the clouds, and even fairyland, though fairyland it seemed to those of us whose days of wonder were not done.

My first flight, and I was afraid only that I might be afraid, but as it turned out there was nothing frightening about flying. In fact, it proved to be quite the reverse. I enjoyed the rumbling and shaking of the aircraft as it reached around three-hundred miles an hour before the nose came up, the wheel rumbling suddenly stopped, and the death-threatening shaking almost vanished when the plane was at reasonable height, banking steeply so that I could see the fields below and villages and houses shrinking, first to pigmy and then to miniature size, before my eyes and could see more land than I had ever taken in in a single gaze, and then the cotton wool clouds swallowed us up, and all was a rushing whiteness, and then there was nothing to see.

We travelling with a variety of army and air force personnel, some returning from home leave and the rest going to take up postings in Egypt and glad to be heading for sunshine from the rainy cold days of an English April in nineteen-hundred and forty-four.

Eventually, with the essential pre-flight tests concluded, the plane taxied gently out onto the mist laden runway and stood for some time before its engines revved up to what must have been near to explosive speed, making an enormous sound and shaking the plane until it seemed it would burst into pieces. Finally, the parking brakes was released and the behemoth rolled along.

Goodness knows how many tons of steel and other stuff much too heavy to fly including sixty pale-faced passengers careered down the concrete strip bumping over existing cracks and dents, making a few new ones, and bumping over pieces of misplaced builders’ materials, and feeling every one of them, then the nose went up and we saw the first bit of blue and headed straight into it.

The people, cars, buildings, fields, and farms shrunk to Lilliputian size before our unbelieving eyes and we were airborne. After that it was like being in an old bus on a bumpy country road, with the occasional thrilling detour into an air pocket, whatever those are.

The aircraft now filled with the buzz of excited conversations as neighbours too-loudly and over confidently expressed their relief. These soldiers of the Queen, pretending to be brave, whose small ashen faces, round with youth and smooth-shaven with only fluff to shave, had saucer sized eyes giving looks of wonder over their youthful grins, and, in the silence of their hearts, noised fervent prayers of thankfulness to a God of whose existence they were uncertain, but who just might be closer to them now than He had ever been before, for their survival of, what was for most in that non-flying age, their first voyage in a machine heavier than air.

Then too soon, things seemed incredibly normal. When we should have been exulting in the vision of those who foreshadowed flight, the skills of those who made it happen, and the courage and matter-of-fact way in which the pilot and crew lifted that burdensome thing off the floor, when all earth’s gravity was sucking it down, and flew it blindly into nothing for five or six terrifying minutes, we thought only that we had been delivered from certain suffocation in the shelter only to be dashed from the sky to premature demises.

At some point, the aeroplane righted itself, heading eastwards and down a bit to cross the tricoloured skies of France, and then across the topaz blue of the inland sea to Malta to refuel on the George Cross Island and to meet the parrot in the airport and be let off the aircraft to enjoy the facilities of the public lounge.

Outside the sun was shining and beautiful among the white houses and sparkling off the distant blue of the Mediterranean Sea. Only the occasional shrill voices of passing rich English travellers demanding this and that in distasteful nasal tones that I had not heard since I was stranded in a lift with three Eton schoolboys and the prominent but asocial parrot were the only things that spoiled this almost perfect place.

The demands of the superior English met with suitably disarming servility, the parrot stuffed with fresh fruit salad, obviously its favourite, and the aircraft refuelled and recharged, we once again set off into the wide blue yonder, less nervously this time, for we were now seasoned travellers, and this was, after all, our second take off.

Back on board with all the airs of seasoned fliers, and less fear than a few hours earlier when we quit the grey skies of southern England for the clearer cerulean of the lower latitudes and, most of all, adventure. The trick was to pretend it was all old stuff and nothing novel about hurtling through the skies in a tube at speeds we had never reached before.

The aircraft was pressurised and we experienced our ears popping and thought it unusual but acceptable as we sucked on pieces of barley twist thoughtfully provided by the civil airline from whom the plane was chartered. The other noticeable thing was the strange smell, reminiscent of the smell at public swimming baths when the chlorine dispenser has gone mad.

Our way lay across the Great Western Desert where my father served in the Eight Army during the Second World War, but our destination was Egypt, land of pyramids, camels, sand, history, and the Suez Canal, that we were being sent to guard. It seemed strange to us that anyone would want to steal the canal, but you never know.

The engines droned monotonously on, and we forgot to hear them as the sky turned to steel blue, and then to Cimmerian blackness with a speed that took us by surprise. We split the skies in our wingéd chariot, and after some dinner the gentle throbbing of the aircraft resonating to the pulsations of the engines brought us to sleep and into dreams of terra firma and walking in peaceful ways where no danger lurks to spoil our tranquillity or threaten us with immanent decease from landing hard after a rapid nose-first from thirty-five thousand feet and us not shriven!

Waking from my fitful slumber in the afterglow of the day over the sunburnt Libyan Desert to watch the glowing red exhausts of the engines on my side of the aeroplane, it was interesting to note how fact and fancy combine to create something that never was but which is nonetheless satisfying by its construction on account of the lack of fear generated by it. What I had first imagined to be a blazing comet keeping pace with our transport suddenly and disturbingly metamorphosed into an engine fire.

My view of the starboard engine was better than fair and I probably should have been alarmed at how red everything about it was and what it meant when the airscrew slowed down and whirled aimlessly. The change in course was perceptible, but we were all new to this and too young to be afraid, besides which, we could not break out of our seasoned-traveller personas back into youthful fear without losing face.

Fortunately for us, the captain was also awake and noticed that something was wrong. Without specifying what the problem was, he announced over the tinny Tannoy that we would be putting down at Royal Air Force base at El Adem in Libya, for what he described as ‘maintenance.”

No details! We were only squaddies, and as such we were expendable and had no need to know the drama that was being played out with our lives at 30,000 feet. Prior to leaving for the transit camp we had each filled out a short form of Last Will and Testament with mock gravamen and touches of Gothic humour, so that was alright. If the plane plunged from the skies and was never seen again, they would at least know what to do with my piano, and everything else. I left it all to Ma.

Our ‘plane landed safely amid the clamour of fire tenders and lots of other vehicles with flashing lights and hooters and we were shepherded into the officers mess, whose guests we were for the next three days while they fitted a new fan belt or something to the aeroplane and also extinguished the fire and fixed it up nicely.

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