By Sheila Sanborn
On September 3, 1939, I was walking with my grandmother through our neighborhood in Hendon, England, a suburb of London where I was born. To a little girl, it seemed like any other day, except for what happened next. A Royal Air Force plane flew low over our heads and crashed into a row of houses on Heading Street, the next block over. War had been declared just an hour and fifty minutes before. The pilot of that plane, Lt. John Isaac, was the first Briton to die in the War. The wreckage remained for several weeks so there was no avoiding the violent shift in my life from before that moment to all the things that would happen after it.
When the bombing began, we spent a good deal of time in shelters. We had a small shelter made of steel sheets and wire mesh in our kitchen for emergencies, but usually we went into a newly constructed concrete shelter at the end of our street. During the Blitz, we once spent more than fifty consecutive nights crowded into the shelter with neighbors.
Quite a few of the students in my school were killed during the bombing. You never really learned what had happened to them. One day they weren’t in school and you never saw them again. Some London children were sent away from the city for safety, some to Canada, and the United States. Since I was the youngest of three daughters, my mother decided to keep me at home, and I spent the entire war a few miles from the center of London. My father was serving in the Fleet Air Arm and we didn’t see him at all during the war so my mother had the responsibility of raising children and earning our income as well.
Particularly terrible were the German V-1 Buzz Bombs. You could hear their motors and watch them crossing the sky, sometimes pursued by RAF or American fighters trying to knock them down. You only hoped the bombs wouldn’t begin their dive and become silent when they were passing over your head. That meant you were in the target zone. Thirteen V-1’s hit our small town of Hendon during the war as well as two V-2 ballistic missiles. Those gave no warning, simply arriving unannounced with huge explosions. These were in addition to about 600 high explosive bombs and countless incendiaries which fell on Hendon.
Of the Hendon population of 150,000, about 250 people were killed and 1,300 injured. Eighteen thousand homes were damaged.
When German planes were flying over, British anti-aircraft guns fired at them from all directions. This friendly fire fell back to earth along with the enemy bombs and could also be dangerous. I was hurrying home during a raid when I was stuck by a chunk of hot metal and received a nasty leg wound.
My mother often had American servicemen come to our home for dinner, usually fliers, some of whom didn’t survive the war. Even as I write so many years later, I clearly remember each one of them.
Looking back, it amazes me to think of how we survived those days. Though we were being bombed night and day, and the Germans were mobilizing along the English Channel for invasion, not one of us ever thought England could actually lose the war. That attitude bolstered through those terrifying times.