My boyhood was spent in Plymouth, on the southwestern coast of England near the little harbor from which the Mayflower left for America. Our home was in a large old house, subdivided into three flats. My uncle Bill, a railway laborer, with Auntie Flossie, lived on the third floor; a naval officer, Lieutenant Basset, and his family were on the second floor; and our family lived on the first floor.
As war approached in the summer of 1939, things were changing. Air raid shelters were being dug and important office doors sandbagged. We had practice air raid alarms, the sirens whoo-whooing up and down for the Warning, wailing at an even pitch for the All Clear. In September, three weeks before my fourteenth birthday, Germany invaded Poland. The city blacked out. Street lights went off for the duration, car headlights were dimmed, and house windows were taped and light-proofed with funereal black material.
I saw everything through thirteen-year-old eyes. I had no contact with Friends at that time. When Britain declared war, I wanted to ride my bike through the streets with a sign saying “WAR!” At going-on-fourteen this was almost the total of my thoughts. But I saw newsreels of Hitler ranting to great stiff-armed, frenzied crowds, and of jackbooted stormtroopers goose-stepping among massed red-and-black, swastika-branded banners, and I felt a deep disgust and fear. For the first time in my life I became a joiner, joining my school’s Officers’ Training Corps (OTC). Dad became an Air Raid Precautions (ARP) warden at the local post, a windowless concrete box where the wardens would gather during a raid. During the Spring of 1940, I decided the OTC wasn’t enough for me and I became an ARP Messenger, as well, my second impulse to volunteer.
At times during that summer of 1940, when the Battle of Britain was going on well to the east of us, an air raid warning would sound during the night. Dad would go to the post and we men, Uncle Bill, Lt. Bassett, and I, would stand at the front door and wait for action. Later, during that winter, there were only a few nights when I didn’t have to scramble into my clothes, grab my ARP helmet, and, at the very least, go to the front door and discuss the war with the men.
During most nights the raid would last half an hour or so. A plane might fly across the city, engines throbbing, and the beams of five or ten searchlights would wave like the antennae of giant cockroaches and, every now and then, illuminate a small moving point in the dark sky. When the familiar throbbing sound came in from the sea and the lights jumped up into the sky and began searching too close for comfort, and the guns sounded off, we’d all go indoors and downstairs to the basement shelter. But then I would gather up my ARP-issue gasmask and tell Mum that I was “going to the post.”
With that, I would walk out the back door and down the garden path in my steel helmet with the search lights probing, guns crashing, and the airborne engines thrumming, and my heart full. Looking at TV news of boys riding in pickups, looking stern and holding automatic weapons in civil-war-torn Beirut, or Somalia, or Baghdad, I can understand them, at least a little. I wasn’t bloodthirsty, and I might have jibbed at shooting somebody, but the action and the excitement made me breathe deeply with sheer joy. I knew the threats that fell from the air and when to hide from them. After a heavy raid, there were usually undetonated incendiary bombs at the post, and it was my—important!—job to take them up to ARP headquarters on my bike. A bomb killed a police officer in our back lane. A boy in my class was killed. Houses burned down. Despite my exhilaration, I hated the Germans. I was at war.
Repeated raids destroyed the familiar city center, now still remembered as it was. On one day, after a very large raid, I rode home from school, turning off through side streets and past the newly empty, blackened frame of Charles Church weeping smoke, down to Norley Church, my family’s “chapel.” When I got there its two buildings were vacant shells, blind walls around smoldering, charred timbers. The pipes of the great organ were twisted, scorched, and fallen. The stained glass windows, eyes to heaven, were gone and the smoking ruin within the walls was open to the sky. A large part of my family’s life had disappeared and I wept.
But a very different kind of incident stayed in my mind, making a more important impression, one I have also never forgotten. Lieutenant Bassett had assured us that he was not your heroic type of naval officer, being a cook, up from the ranks, in charge only of the kitchens at the naval barracks in Devonport. Nevertheless, he had strong opinions about Germans. These were that no prisoners should be taken; Jerries were swine, to be shot at sight. He expressed these opinions forcefully.
One night, in the early hours, the front doorbell rang. Dad went to find two Naval police asking to speak to Lieutenant Bassett, who dressed and left with them. Our conversations buzzed with speculation. He returned later that night, and when we three again stood at the front door, Uncle Bill asked, in his Devonshire brogue, “Well, wha’ wuz that, las’ noight, then?” Lieutenant Bassett looked thoughtful and told us, reflectively, that the Navy had sunk a U-boat in the Channel that day and had later found German sailors afloat in the sea. They had picked them up and brought them in to port. The prisoners had not eaten, so he was called out to feed them. In the middle of the night.
This was a confrontation. “Well, then,” asked Uncle Bill, “wha’d y’ do?” I listened, expectant. Lieutenant Bassett looked a little abashed.
“Well,” he said, “I never saw a sorrier-looking lot of fellows in all my life. Wet through, all wrapped in blankets. They looked like drowned rats. Miserable faces, all of ‘em. Prisoners . . . Well, I just called the lads out and we cooked ‘em a good supper of Devonshire pasty.”
Meat and potato pasties were our staple in Devon and Cornwall. Lieutenant Bassett, faced with the humanity of the hungry German prisoners, had cooked them one of our own good, nourishing meals.