War Comes to England

by Gerald Keston


            I was born November 7th, 1928 in the London suburb of Hackney. My earliest memories go back to when I was three or four years old, at the height of the Depression.

            In 1932 we moved from Hackney to the East End, (a predominantly Jewish area) so my mother could be near her parents. Like most people at that time we were poor, I was fortunate in being sheltered from the trials and tribulations of those times by loving, caring parents and a very close extended family.  I didn't know we were poor because I always had the luxury of my weekly penny comic book.  In 1935 my brother Allan was born and my father got a good paying job.

            I started school at the age of four and a half.  From the beginning I was subjected to bullying (probably because of my small size).  When I was ten years old something clicked and I started retaliating against the bullies.  It came to the point where I enjoyed fighting and was expelled from two schools for being too aggressive.

            Jumping ahead to 1939, I remember war being declared against Germany on September 3rd.  All was quiet for the first year.  Then in September 1940 the daylight bombing of London started and carried on every day.  For me it was very exciting watching the German bombers flying in formation protected by fighters.

            Then the Royal Air Force Spitfire and Hurricane fighters came tearing into the enemy, machine guns blazing.  My friends and I watched, entranced, as we saw planes being shot down and crews bailing out.  The entire sky was patterned with vapor trails.  It was a very adventuresome time for us kids.  No doubt very worrying for the adults.

            My father was drafted into the army in 1940 and after training as a medic he was sent overseas.  It was only when he returned to England after the war, we found out he had been in Egypt.

            After a while the daylight raids were augmented by nightly raids.  Going to school each morning, my friend Bob Berry and I would stop to help the civil defense workers clear the rubble from bombed houses and help to get the injured and dead out.

            There were two experiences I will remember the rest of my life. On my way to school one morning, I came to what had been a four-story block of flats above shops on the ground floor.  The basement had been reinforced to serve as an air-raid shelter.  The building had received a direct hit.

            Numerous civil defense workers, aided by civilians were clearing the rubble.  I went closer to help, then I heard it.  Voices.  Men, women and children, screaming, "Get us out we're drowning! Please, get us out, the water's pouring in!  Evidently the water mains had burst and were flooding the basement.

            Everybody worked like mad to get to the people, listening intently as slowly the voices dwindled until there was silence.  Sadly, we didn't get to them in time.  More than three hundred drowned in that basement. I continually ask myself, could more have been done?  Could we have worked harder?  I'm certain everybody did all that was humanly possible.  Now, sixty five years later, I still hear those voices at night when I'm in bed.

            The other experience I shall always remember had a happy ending. I was helping clear rubble again from a bombed house.  A small opening had been cleared when we all heard a baby crying.  I was the only one small enough to get through the opening.  I found the baby who was being protected by a rafter.  I got him to the opening and handed him out to eager hands.  He didn't have a scratch on him.  I frequently think about him and wonder how his life had progressed.

            Now at the age of seventy-seven, I feel emotion over these happenings.  Perhaps writing about them will give me peace of mind. Although I know I will never regain my lost childhood.

            One year later, the air-raids were still a daily and nightly occurrence when I joined the Air Training Corps (similar to the ROTC). Every weekend we'd be taken to visit a fighter base.  This was the most exciting time of my life, up to now.  We'd be playing football, (soccer) table tennis and darts with the pilots who were dressed in their flying jackets, fleece lined boots and leather helmets, waiting for the "scramble" to sound.  I'd have given anything to be one of them.

            When the "scramble" sounded, (a loud clanging bell) the pilots ran like crazy to their planes.  On each plane's wing stood a mechanic who had the engine started.  The pilot would leap into his seat and the mechanic strapped him in.  The fighters took off five abreast on grass, roaring into the air.  We'd watch them until they disappeared into the distance.

            Now the Tannoy (P.A. system) came to life.  We could hear the roar of the Spitfire engines through the loud speaker.  We heard the female voice of ground control, "Four Zero Fiver squadron, bandits twelve thousand feet, one seven four degrees."

            A minute later the squadron commander's static filled voice, "There they are, two o'clock."  The high pitched sound of the fighters diving. Pilots shouting, "Tally Ho."  Different pilots shouting out their 'kills' amidst the chatter of the machine guns and roar of engines.

            About thirty minutes later the fighters started to return to refuel and have their ammunition replenished.  We counted them coming in to land. Occasionally a plane would land and stay at the end of the field. We'd all rush to the plane to find the pilot so fatigued after flying so many missions in one day, he'd fallen asleep in the cockpit.

            One time we saw a Spitfire make a perfect landing.  The plane stayed at the end of the field, engine running.  With the ground crew, we rushed to the plane to find those who got to the plane first taking the bloody, lifeless body of the pilot from the cockpit.  He'd stayed alive long enough to save his plane.

            Later in the day after stand down, before the night raids started, we'd all go to the officers’ bar for a drink.  Each pilot had his name painted on a glass.  The barman would place a glass before each man. The glasses of the pilots who didn't come back he'd place upside down on the bar.  We all raised our glasses in a toast as the squadron commander said, "Gentlemen, to our fallen comrades." After that no mention would be made of the missing men.

            On November 7, 1946, my eighteenth birthday, I kept a promise I made to myself in 1940, I joined the Royal Air Force.  I trained as a wireless operator and was sent to Ceylon (now called Sri Lanka).  I thoroughly enjoyed my time there and was able to travel to various bases in the Far East.

            I applied for aircrew training and was sent back to England to take aircrew selection tests.  I was accepted for pilot training and was sent to Jurby on the Isle of Man to commence training.  After six hectic months of pilot training, I was called to the commanding officer's office.  There I was informed I was required to train for a more important job.  I was given an address in south-west England I was to report to the next day.

            I commenced training for this 'important' job in a manor house in the county of Wiltshire in south-west England.  After six months and completing the training I was commissioned as an officer and sent to work in the Middle East where I was able to travel extensively throughout the region, engaged in a very interesting but onerous job.

            Completing the job in the Middle East, I was given other jobs which took me to other countries.  1954 after a number of years on the job, which turned out to be extremely trying but interesting, I realized it had taken its toll on me, both mentally and physically.

            In 1954 I resigned my commission and returned to civilian life, which although very boring was a more serene and normal life. I was content in the fact that I had carried out my obligations to my Queen and country to the best of my ability.