The change to this year’s public holidays in order to commemorate VE Day gives us the opportunity to look back to 8th May 1945 and remind ourselves of what life in Dulwich was like at the end of six years of bitter war in Europe. No doubt the diminishing number of survivors of the Far East campaign will feel aggrieved that once again they have been forgotten by the government’s failure to mark the close of that front and thus the end of World War 2. However, here at home, civilians themselves felt part of the war in Europe with its visits of death, dislocation and destruction.
The last bomb to explode in Dulwich was on March 4th 1945, just 65 days before VE Day. In January 1945 a V2 rocket had exploded in Court Lane killing seven people and injuring a further thirty-six.
So what was life here like? The Journal asked a number of people who were living here at the time to recall their experiences. Some admit to having no memories of it at all. Others, including myself have graphic recollections. The late Anita Brookner, then a sixth former at JAGS recalled in the school magazine that “Peace was celebrated at JAGS, not with fireworks but a crate of oranges. Not with a Victory Parade, but with what amounted to a Christmas revue, and although belated, a Peace Party was a great success.“
In the spring of1945 life was slowly returning to a form of pre-war normality following the gradual lessening of the V1 and V2 attacks as German launch sites were overrun. A glance through the local newspaper files of the period tells us that on the afternoon of Good Friday, over 5000 spectators gathered at Herne Hill Cycling Stadium, now the velodrome, to watch the traditional racing events. Local parks, which had been used as sites for allotments and for both surface and underground air raid shelters were being returned to former use. Evacuated schools and children were being returned to their homes. Former air raid wardens’ posts’ personnel were forming clubs to maintain their wartime camaraderie - Post 60 in Burbage Road and Post 56 at Townley Road successfully continued social activities for many years. The disbanded local Home Guard battalion met at Highwood Barracks in Lordship Lane for dances, whist drives and social evenings and ran football and cricket teams. It was just a matter of waiting until it was all over.
The actual date of VE Day itself was not certain, although by mid- April it was clear it would be soon. On April 6th the British Army’s Sixth Airborne Division had advanced across Germany towards Berlin at a rate of 25 miles in 24 hours. In Germany, destruction was total following Allied carpet bombing and German forces adopting a scorched earth policy in their retreat. In anticipation of victory, a two- day holiday was announced for when VE Day was eventually to be declared. Employers volunteered to pay their staff’s wages for those days and to pay double time for key workers who would work on one of the days only.
Problems began to surface over the owners of properties requisitioned by Camberwell Borough Council wanting to return to their homes which they had abandoned. The Council said that in view of the housing shortage it meant that 8000 people who had their own homes destroyed by bombs were being accommodated in requisitioned houses and they would be re-housed on a priority basis. The Council also noted that of the 40,000 houses in the borough, only 483 were undamaged and that a workforce of 4000 men were carrying out repairs.
As the last days of April 1945 were reached and the remaining V2 launch sites were finally overrun by the Allies, firmer plans were announced for the VE Day celebrations to come, by local councils. All cinemas and dance halls were requested to be open in London and locally there would be a Victory evening held at Peckham Rye when the date of VE Day was finally confirmed. The programme announced that ‘Following a short religious service at 7.30pm there would be community singing led by various Salvation Army bands followed by speeches’.
Happily, when 8th May was declared as VE Day, the rather dismal weather of the preceding couple of weeks cleared and a minor heat wave ensued. Almost every road in Dulwich seems to have lit a bonfire in their street; many children made Adolf Hitler ‘guys’ which were placed in the fire. Thunder flashes were set off and anything combustible was brought from houses and the marks in the roads would show up for years. A bonfire in Goodrich Road got out of control and set fire to a neighbouring tree. The fire was put out by the Fire Brigade ‘who remained to enjoy the street party and joined in the singing and dancing’. Pianos were dragged out into the streets to provide the music, or, in the absence of a piano, radios were turned up to full volume and dance music ‘blared out, long after midnight’. Soon after the celebrations the King and Queen drove through the streets of South London on a 25 miles circular trip. In Dulwich the Australian Imperial Forces cricket team, captained by Australian Test match vice-captain, Lindsay Hassett played the Public Schools Wanderers team on Dulwich Common in one of their Victory Test matches
On a more mundane note, the South London Press continued to publish cookery tips using dried egg as a main ingredient in recipes. In April 1945 the Ministry of Food announced that the preserves ration would be a two pound jar of marmalade per person per month or 1lb of other preserves or a pound of sugar in lieu.
Brian Green remembers
I remember VEDay particularly well. I was 8½ in May 1945 and had been obliged to carry my gas mask in its cardboard box, around for years. Now it would no longer be required. On the bright morning of 8th May I therefore sought to discover what the nose-cone of the gasmask was made from. Armed with a wood chopper I attempted to chop through it and inspect it. I made little impression and soon tired of the exercise. In the afternoon I accompanied my parents to join the crowds gathering in Whitehall. Walking towards Trafalgar Square my eyes caught site of a hawker’s cart on which shone a silver tin miniature trombone. My parents succumbed to my pleas and I marched down Whitehall behind some American GI’s playing my trombone. Later that day I examined it closer and found the words etched on the tin -‘Made in Germany’. The hawker must have kept this pre-war item in stock for many years before he dared put it on sale!
A few days later, I saw in the window of a small jeweller’s shop at Grove Vale, a bronze lapel badge of Winton Churchill superimposed on a V for Victory sign. The price was sixpence, and I bought it. That summer, on holiday at Weymouth I was shocked (even at the age of 8¾) to hear that Winston had lost the 1945 General Election.
Near my home in Glengarry Road, opposite Dulwich Hospital, were a number of bombed houses. The nearest, only two doors away had been damaged by the falling nose cone of a V2 which had exploded in mid-air, crashing through the roof, bringing the top floor down and pinning the two occupants to their bed and injuring them with splinters. Around the corner where Glengarry Road makes a sharp turn, the row of houses on the south side had been badly damaged in 1943 when parachute mines were dropped on Lytcott Grove behind it. This was my ‘playground’ for games of soldiers or spies, amid the burnt beams and rafters.
In one of the street shelters in Glengarry Road, every Sunday morning, a large lady conducted a fresh fish business. I was often despatched there to buy smoked haddock, which by its size I would today better recognise as smoked cod. Nearby, at the corner of Hillsborough Road and Thorncombe Road was a large bomb site caused during the Blitz. For the remainder of the war it served as a temporary brick-walled reservoir for use of the fire brigade.
Another area of play were the grounds of Bessemer Grange on one side of Green Dale and the ruins of Cleeve Hall on the other. In the former was a large lake with a small island with a man-made cave which later, when the lake froze over, I was able to explore. In the overgrown and abandoned Cleeve Hill garden, which covered several acres, I discovered a mysterious great stone fountain. It was on an earlier expedition to Green Dale, albeit this time in the company of my father, that I witnessed a V1 doodle-bug’s engine cut out above Dulwich Hospital and it exploded in one of the fields beside Green Dale.
Like most other London roads, Glengarry Road had its Victory street party after VJDay was announced. A frequent feature was a fancy-dress parade. I was dressed as a wartime ‘Bevin boy’.
Robert Worley remembers
Having been born in Dulwich in 1934, I spent most of the wartime years on the south coast near Bognor Regis, courtesy of some well-heeled relatives. Although King George Vth is reputed to have said, ‘Bugger Bognor’, I was very content to have a grandstand view of D-Day before returning to London in 1945 to take up a place at Alleyn’s School, having attended a C of E primary school and passed the 11plus examination. And I was a choir boy at the local Anglo Catholic church, St Wilfred’s. And a keen member of the Wolf Cubs. What a good little boy, I hear you say!
The state of Dulwich in 1945 came as quite a shock. Clearly the Luftwaffe had its eye on this area of south London. Our family home in Dovercourt Road had been hit by incendiary bombs and it was only though prompt action by the LCC Fire Brigade that our house survived..
As a temporary measure, I was sent to Dulwich Hamlet school before taking up my place at Alleyn’s in September 1945. Before gaining entrance, I was interviewed by the then Headmaster, Mr Allison and kitted out in my school uniform and sports kit at the school shop, managed by the appropriately named, Mr Belt. All I can recall of those days was, ‘He will grow into it’. When I looked in the mirror on my return home, my dark blue raincoat reached down to my ankles. I looked like a junior member of the German SS!
The War may have ended but everything was rationed and scarce. During the school holidays, I was sent on errands. Sometimes it was to the Village Dairy where Mr Tomsett presided or Bartley’s for greengrocery or United Dairies for milk and groceries. At other times, I was despatched to Dulwich Library to the Alleyn Farm Dairy in the hope of obtaining one or two Lyons individual pies - or even some iced buns. Occasionally, I would creep into the the Royal Arsenal Co-operative Society to collect my ‘Divi’ in the form of metal discs. My pocket money at Alleyn’s was four shillings a week. By Friday, I usually had two pence left which I invested in a Lyon’s ‘Polar-maid’ ice cream in the school buttery.
A visit to Rumsey’s the chemist in the Village was a treat. I can still recall the wonderful aroma of Yardley soaps and the distinctive packaging of posh chemist items such as Kent combs and Mason Pearson hair brushes - with Mr Rumsey sporting an Alleyn Old Boy tie and ‘half-moon’ specs. But the village shop that attracted me most was Salkeld’s second hand book shop. It was owned by an individual who resembled Wilfrid Bramble, aka TV’s ‘Steptoe’. Here I spent hours searching out those thick ‘William’ books and of course Rupert annuals. Throughout the wartime years, a Rupert Annual was my one Christmas present. And Mr Salkeld managed to obtain some rare specimens when Rupert was initially a brown bear and wore a blue jersey. I still treasure my collection of Rupert books and I am proud to be a member of ‘The Followers of Rupert’ This year, Rupert will celebrate his 100th birthday in the Daily Express. I shall be wearing my distinctive yellow check scarf and drink a toast to Rupert, Bill Badger, Algy Pug and their pals in Nutwood
Now 85 years of age, I look back to those far-off days immediately following the War as some of the happiest. I count myself fortunate in being brought up by loving parents - kept safe during five years of total war and spending my youth in a unique London suburb in a more innocent and less aggressive age. But I still haven’t decided what to do when I grow up!
Jim Hammer remembers
I was 16 and living in Allison Grove and surprisingly have absolutely no recollection of VE Day - except perhaps a wireless relay of Mall crowds shouting, ‘We want the King’. Perhaps my parents just felt relieved that it was over rather than celebratory. My father had lost his business which had traded with Europe and his parents had been killed by a direct hit during a daylight raid in 1941 My own parents also had had a narrow escape. For my aunts, it meant one of them no longer had to drive ambulances through the blitz and the blackout, or another, a consular official, no longer being cut off from home in Europe or for the third as someone bombed out, no longer needing to volunteer to help at canteens in London or even my mother providing evening refreshments to the troops manning the AA guns at the gunsite at the top of Grange Lane or the rocket battery in the fields between the golf course and Cox’s Walk. For my father there was no more Home Guard.
At times the intervals between the wail of the air raid warning and the steady ‘all clear’, and then back again, had been so frequent that I had made a sliding panel (which I recently found) which showed either “thick” (red) or “clear”(green) - possibly useful if anyone had remembered to change it.
By 1945 we had got used to no longer fearing the doodlebug’s engine cutting out and the terrifying silence until the explosion. Was this one for us ? The V1 that destroyed the two houses that stood where Frank Dixon Way joins College Road was the nearest to us and the pervasive smell of fragmented ceiling plaster, the unexpected crunch of broken glass and doors in odd places remain unforgettable. By then too we had got used to no longer hosting barrage balloons in the parks and fields of Dulwich as they had been moved to the coast in the hope of intercepting V1’s, leaving Kent, Sussex and Surrey free for the fighters’ dangerous job of trying to shoot down a ton of flying high explosives. It was also a relief no longer being aware of the very remote chance of being killed, or worse, seriously injured by a V2. And gradually bombed houses such as those across the road or The Grange which had provided our adventure playgrounds would be demolished or rebuilt.
Whilst I remember exactly where I was when I learned of Hiroshima, VJ Day is a complete blank. My parents, whose lives had been turned upside down for the second time in 25 years just wanted to get on with their normal lives. But I think that we were all conscious that so many others had in every sense lost so much more and that we had been fortunate to have survived.