Author Beryl Kingston was just eight years old when WWII began. By the age of nine, the Blitz was underway and she’d already been bombed out of her home. Now, 80 years since the start of the Blitz, Beryl shares her memories of that time which have since influenced her bestselling war-time sagas…
“It always worries me when people describe wartime characters rushing about like headless chickens and screaming and shouting. This all comes from films and they were made when the war was long over and audiences wanted ‘drama’. In fact, people alive and suffering during the war were deliberately very calm about it. They made jokes, they sang songs, like ‘Hitler has only got one ball’, they were trained to keep themselves under control and they did.
I remember how calm we were on the day the Blitz began. The sirens had sounded but nothing much seemed to be happening, so we went out into the garden to pick apples and suddenly the sky was roaring with big, black, German bombers, at least four hundred of them, possibly more. They were flying in squadrons with little silver spitfires harassing them and they were too high to bomb us, so we just stood and watched. After a while, it was obvious that they were heading for the Docks and before long the bombs began to fall and one fire after another jumped into the sky, multicoloured and very tall. When the German planes started to fly back, we went indoors and into the cellar very quickly, in case they had any remaining bombs and threw them out on us and my Gran said, ‘Well they’ll come again tonight, so we’d better be ready for it. That great fire will lead them in like a torch.’ And of course, they did and from then on London was bombed all night and every night for eight long months.
So, what was it like to be bombed? I was eight when the war began and nine when our street was bombed and, believe it or not, when those bombs started to fall I wasn’t taking shelter in the cellar – as we did every night – I was halfway up the stairs in the loo having a wee. Although the raids went on all night long, there were lulls from time to time when the bombers weren’t directly above us and the Ack-Ack was firing a good distance away, so we could run that sort of risk. But bombers move fast and by the time I’d pulled the chain and was on my way downstairs, they were right overhead and a stick of six was being dropped on our street.
Bombs make an awful screaming sound as they come down and when they explode the noise is so loud it hurts your ears. I tumbled into the hall hearing the next bomb screaming towards us and just had time to say a very selfish prayer, ‘Please God don’t let it kill me. Let it drop somewhere else. Please!’ when it exploded. It was so close it shifted the ground under my feet, I could feel the floor rippling as though it had been turned to water, there was a terrible roaring sound coming from our dining room and the hall was full of dust, clouds of it, swirling and buffeting. I was so frightened I couldn’t move and I couldn’t scream. I just stayed where I was and after a while my mother and grandma appeared, one on each side of me, and joggled me back down to the safety of the cellar. I was shaking all over, even in my stomach.
The next morning our warden came in to ask how we all were. He said the house was now uninhabitable and we would need to be evacuated again, and should he arrange it. He was, as all the ARP people were, wonderfully and reassuringly calm.
The Blitz went on for another five months after that, but we were in Harpenden and safe. I went back to Tooting on my own in 1944 to join up with a grammar school which I’d passed the 11+ to attend, so I was there when the doodlebugs and rockets fell. But that’s another story.”
To read more about “the courage and determination of the spirit of the Blitz” (Fiona Valpy, bestselling author of The Beekeeper’s Promise) check out Beryl Kingston’s WWII novel, Citizen Armies, which brilliantly combines the qualities of an absorbing family saga with acutely observed and beautifully written social history.