Eric and Joy Riley: Rationing and close encounters with V2 rockets

Eric and Joy Riley pictured in their garden in Radley in March 2006
Eric and Joy Riley, 2006

Joy was born in 1933 in Wood Green in north London (in what is now the London Borough of Haringey). When World War Two threatened, the family thought that it would be safer for Joy and her mother and brother to go to live in Watford with her mother’s sister. Joy’s father would stay at home in London because of his work. One day Joy was sitting carving bits off a lump of salt (salt was bought in fairly large cuboid lumps at that time) and suddenly became aware that her mother and aunt were crying. They’d been trying their best not to show that the outbreak of war was upsetting them as they wanted to protect their children.

As time went by air raids started and Joy remembers formations of bombers going out from a local airfield. The children counted them as they went out and were rather sad when not as many came back.

Joy and her family didn’t stay long with her aunt as there was some friction between the adults. She did manage one term at the local school but, as she had to follow a different curriculum, she didn’t do so well in the end of term examination.

Some way into war sweet rationing started and Joy was horrified to find there were no sweets. However, after rationing came in, they were allowed ¼ lb per person per week. Joy’s job was to go on a Sunday morning to buy four different lots of sweets, put them on to the table and share them out between the four family members. There was a mixture of toffees, boiled sweets and jellied sweets. Joy put the sweets into four dishes and each person was allowed roughly a couple of sweets per day.

Joy’s mother did the cooking and shopping, but the family never felt deprived. Her mother used to put butter or margarine on to a slice of bread then scrape almost all of it off for the next slice. There was a pig bin (a large dustbin) at the corner of most streets and it was where people put scraps of food and peelings in ready to be collected regularly to feed pigs.

At the age of ten, Joy’s mother asked her to go and pay the electricity bill at the electricity showroom. She took her brother who was three years old. As she reached the end of her road, instead of turning right as she usually did, she turned left as she could see her cousin there and wanted to ask him whether he’d like to go with them. He declined, so Joy and her brother kept on walking along the street and then took a bus. The fare was about one old penny for her and free for her brother. When the bus got to the top of Lordship Lane (one of the main roads through Wood Green) and turned into Redvers Road, there was an enormous bang near the Congregational Church. Joy was standing on the deck of the bus and saw the church windows go in and out twice before they fell on the pavement. A V2 rocket had fallen a couple of hundred yards away. The two children got off the bus and paid the electricity bill. Joy knew that the way they normally used to get to the shop would be blocked so they walked the long way home. Her mother was frantic with worry, as she didn’t know they had gone a different way there. Her cousin had saved their lives because, if they hadn’t seen him, they would have just been passing the place where the rocket dropped. V2 rockets came down without any warning whereas the doodlebugs were like an aeroplane and could be heard until their engine stopped and they dropped out of the sky.

War became part of everyone’s lives. One of the biggest changes Joy noticed as a child was her schooling. On some occasions the school closed completely, especially towards the end when doodlebugs and V2 rockets were dropping on London. But because Joy was in the top class and preparing for the 11+ examination she had to stay in school.

The blackout was difficult to cope with, as everywhere was so dark, especially in winter. People could carry a torch if they kept their fingers over the end of it. Nevertheless, her parents were quite happy to let her go on her own to Brownies and Guides in the dark. They never had any thought of taking her.

There were air raid warnings practically every night. There were not too many bombs where Joy lived but the family still had to go into a shelter. There was no tube station or public shelter near them, so they had an Anderson shelter in the back garden. A large hole was dug, which was covered with a corrugated iron roof with earth on top. Unfortunately it tended to flood. Joy’s mother suffered from claustrophobia and sat with her head outside, which defeated the object of being in the shelter. Because of this they managed to get a Morrison shelter. This was a large metal table, which they put inside the front room. They slept under that for a long time. Her cousin was staying with them, as he had been bombed out, so the whole family were under the table in this shelter. Joy’s father by this time was in the Army.

Eventually the war ended and a street party was held to celebrate. All the tables and chairs were brought out because there was no traffic – petrol rationing meant there just weren’t any cars on the roads. Children could roller skate in the road and ride bikes quite safely. Everyone did their best for their children at the street party. Someone got a piano on to the street; there were decorations everywhere and dancing went on to midnight and beyond.

Eric was born in 1931 in the area that now forms the London Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. The family later moved out to Tottenham in north London (also now in the London Borough of Haringey) because his father worked on the Underground and, at that time, the Piccadilly Line was being extended northwards to Cockfosters. Eric was evacuated two days before war was declared but, because he suffered from asthma, foster parents were not keen to have him and, after being with three sets, he returned home in 1940 just in time for the Blitz and the Battle of Britain. He was very keen to go home and eventually he was able to persuade his parents to let him.

Eric remembers the aerial bombardment of the Blitz, which came during the night. Doodlebugs were pilotless so they came at any time and were difficult to defend against. It was the same with the V2 rockets. Towards the end of the war he saw hundreds and hundreds of our planes coming back from bombing raids. The Germans cunningly sent doodlebugs amongst our planes, making it even more difficult to shoot the doodlebugs down as we might have shot our own planes. Some bombs fell within a quarter of a mile of him and he recollects the red glow in the sky when the London docks were on fire.

Eric was at Tottenham Grammar School (since demolished) in March 1945 when, during the lunch hour, a V2 rocket dropped on the opposite corner of the building to where he was. Had it not been the lunchtime he and many others would have been killed. However, about four boys were killed and one severely injured, losing an arm by shrapnel or falling masonry. The V2 landed opposite the cloakrooms, the administrative department and a biology laboratory. The boys heard the very loud bang and just sat there looking at each other until a prefect came to the door and told them to go out into the playground. Window frames and door frames were all over the place. Luckily their classroom was all right. Eric’s mother appeared on scene and was relieved to find he was safe and they went home. The crater made by the V2 was shallow as the bomb was designed to do more damage on the surface. It was more powerful than the V1, which was much more of a terror weapon as you could hear it coming and when it cut out you knew someone was ‘going to get it’. People waited for the bang when it cut out. Between incidents Eric said that they forgot about it all and got on with schoolwork.

Shortages were difficult. Eric felt he and other children didn’t really miss anything because that was what they were used to, being so young. He remembers having two daylight sightings of doodlebugs. When he was at White Hart Lane near his school and the home of Tottenham Hotspur Football Club, he saw one clearly going towards his home, so everyone ran quickly to see if their homes were all right. Another time he was going to the shops on a small errand and saw a doodlebug very, very clearly.

There was a tremendous thunderstorm on the day the war ended and Eric saw lightning strike a telegraph pole just at the end of his road. This brought the wires down with a loud noise, so the end of the war for Eric was quite noisy. He said that they were all disappointed that austerity lasted so long. Resources had been exhausted and goods were just not available. Britain didn’t have the capacity immediately to pick up. Sweet rationing went on until the 1950s. When his family moved into a flat in Bedford in 1957, Eric remembers that coal was still rationed.

Interviewed by Tony Rogerson on 13 March 2006