CHAPTER 1 EARLY DAYS

It is not an easy matter to throw one's mind back over seven years of hectic activity and hard work and to try to disentangle one's impressions of Walthamstow in war-time. What a medley they provide: distribution of respirators, interviews with Regional Commissioners, imperturbable wardens, piles of debris in which casualties are buried, reliable rescue men, ever-welcome mobile canteens, depressing blackout, hastening fire engines, kindly stretcher bearers, busy searchlights, the whistles of bombs, calm report centre, telephonists, the blast of mines, the rumble of the ack-ack barrage, hurrying messengers, white interiors of First Aid Posts, emergency lighting, enthusiastic fireguards, the feeding and sleeping of A.R.P. personnel, the Herculean task of repairing damaged houses, glimpses of ghostly balloons in the beams of searchlights, clearance of debris, weary patient people in Rest Centres, the bunking and heating of public shelters, the comforting headlamps of ambulances, the enemy's marker Flares, the all-embracing Invasion Defence measures.

All these things are jumbled together for us at Headquarters with a thousand and one other memories of what went on from March 1938 through the black hours of the disgrace of Munich, through the hurry of the months up to September 1939, and the first air-raid warning siren. Then the waiting for the sky to be filled with planes and, instead, "Raiders Passed": an anti-climax.

For the ordinary citizen, however, the impact of the war on Walthamstow was gradual. There was no sudden, unheralded rush of bombing planes causing the streets to be filled with casualties, but, rather an almost imperceptible, but nevertheless steady, change in the mind of the civilian population as the shadow of war loomed darker and darker in the national sky. At the end of March 1938, the Council decided to appoint an Honorary A.R.P. Officer and gave him, under the A.R.P. Committee, the job of creating the organisation which would be needed to meet the Government's requirements under the 1937 Air Raid Precautions Act and to deal with the problem of total war as it would affect the citizens of Walthamstow in their civilian capacity. We opened our A.R.P. General Office at the Old Monoux School in High Street immediately after the Council Meeting and this building also sufficed as Operational Control Headquarters and as Training Centre.

Various meetings were held of the A.R.P. Com-mittee, (later to be the Emergency Committee), with the officers of the Council primarily concerned and out of these meetings came proposals which were adopted by the Council and on which the future organisation was built. From the beginning we worked under a sense of urgency and were worried by a feeling that even in mid-1938 the Government either did not believe there would be a war or were of opinion that we had years for preparation.

Locally we held neither of these views and, with the support of the Council, we went ahead in the firm determination that if war came it should not find us unprepared.

Those first six months, leading to the Munich Crisis, provide, in retrospect, confused pictures of recruitment of volunteers, preparations of improvised Depots, enrolment of volunteer transport, improvisation of stretchers, training of all kinds, accumulation of first aid stores, issue of respirators, and the deci-sion that Walthamstow should be divided into ten A.R.P. Districts to be operated as self-contained units with decentralised authority so far as possible.

This decision was probably the most important decision taken, for upon it was based our whole future organisation.

In April 1938 the first steps were taken to obtain volunteers for the Service and a public meeting was held, presided over by the Mayor (the late Alderman H. Frost, J.P.), at which our first recruits were enrolled.

By the end of June 1938 we had set up our organiŽsation in skeleton form, had chosen our District Officers, had selected the premises which would be occupied in case of emergency and, in July, had arranged for a publicity campaign including an ExhiŽbition and Demonstration for the public of the various types of A.R.P. equipment.

Then came the Munich Crisis when British prestige sunk to its lowest and, at the expense of CzechoŽslovakia, the Government bought the breathing space which was needed in order that Britain might preŽpare for the war which now seemed inevitable. Although, looking back, Munich seems very far away and although the Organisation which we had at the end of the war was much more detailed and contained many refinements beyond those of which we thought in 1938, the framework of the later organisation was created before Munich and, if war had come in 1938, the machine would have worked - albeit creakily - and we would have been able to deal with casualties and with the problems arising there from.

There followed after Munich further months of feverish activity with a cold fear at the heart that when the testing came - any minute, any hour: no one could tell - the organisation which we had created so laboriously, with so much care and so much thought might fail us and that our fellow Citizens (lovable or unlovable, young or old, pleasant or un-pleasant but all, like ourselves, very human) would find themselves abandoned and unaided when they most needed help.

I had no fears as to the courage of our A.R.P. people, for they were free men and women who, when they volunteered, were told that death might be their lot and that, whether safe or unsafe, they must carry on their job. Nor did I fear that they would not do their job for all were warned that just because they were volunteers an even higher standard of self-imposed discipline was expected than if they were conscripts under a legal compulsion. They did not fail and through all the years I found no occasion to question their loyalty to the Service or their will to do the job.

Some, because of advancing years, later asked to be relieved of responsibilities, some were taken from us for other work of national importance, some obŽtained their release for private reasons, some had to go when cuts in the Service were imposed by the Government but, as a whole, those who volunteered in 1938 and 1939 played their part and played it well until their services were no longer required.

So also did those who volunteered in the subse-quent years for A.R.P., for Street Fire Parties, for Rest Centres and for the hundred other jobs of Civil Defence and brought with them new vigour and strength to supplement the efforts of the veterans. From the beginning we made no difference between the whole-time paid personnel and those who, working elsewhere by day, gave part-time unpaid service at night. We asked of each only the same contribution: his or her best in the service of Walthamstow during the time available and the response was heart warming.

The cold fear of failure to which I referred above was, therefore, not of a possible failure of the perŽsonnel but of the form of organisation which we had adopted. As the basis of our organisation we had divided the Borough into ten Civil Defence districts and, alone in the London Civil Defence Region, we operated from the beginning on a decentralised basis and associated all our services (the A.R.P. General Services, the W.V.S., various other ancillary services and, later the Street Fire Parties) as a combined organisation with a District Warden in charge of these Districts.

THE WAR OVER WALTHAMSTOW

The Decontamination and Rest Centre Services were exceptions and were organised from central points. This had" the happy result that Wardens and Stretcher Bearers, Rescue men and Ambulance perŽsonnel knew each other, rubbed shoulders day-by-day and, when the test came, were members of a homogeneous Service instead of being units in a series of isolated sections.

The District Warden was responsible to Headquarters for the accommodation and administration of all his services and for sending out any necessary services, within his jurisdiction as soon as he was advised by his Wardens that a bomb had fallen in his District. (If his own services were insufficient he informed C.D. Headquarters and we directed reinforcements from other A.R.P. Districts in the Borough.)

In each of our ten Districts was also a specially designed and constructed First Aid Post and CleanŽsing Station under the charge of a District First Aid Superintendent and associated with each F.A.P. were two or more medical practitioners. Apart from the value of the esprit-de-corps created in the different Districts our decentralised basis meant that, with few exceptions, no one in WalthamŽstow was more than half a mile from his F.A.P. or his District Centre. Consequently, services could get to the incident in a few minutes after the bomb fell and many a life must have been saved by the speed with which succour arrived.

Our scheme was criticised and frowned upon by all sorts of Regional "big-wigs" as being unorthodox and one after another they visited us but, if they came to scoff and did not actually "remain to pray", they at least permitted continuance. For some weeks in the middle of 1940, I wondered whether we were wrong in basing our organisation on decentralisation to Districts instead of retaining complete detailed Control at H.Q. and leaving no discretion to the District Officer (as was envisaged in the schemes normally operating elsewhere).

Then came the test at 3.25 a.m. on 23rd August, 1940, with bombs in Highams Park and, from then onwards, day by day and night by night, for six months we heard the growl of enemy planes, the whistle of the bombs, the crash of the bursting mines and, after the first few blank nights, the thud of the ack-ack shells trying to destroy or divert the enemy. And our machine stood the test of actual warfare!

The men and women whom we had trained, with whom we had talked and laughed and often argued, rose to the demands upon them. The fall of the bomb reported by the Warden to the District Report Centre was followed by the arrival of the Rescue and Casualty services, the wounds were dressed on the spot or the injured sent to First Aid Post or hospital, the homeless were cared for, first at the District Centre and then at the Rest Centre, and the machine soon settled down to smooth working.

So by actual test we found that our organisation satisfied our requirements and that, once again, "Wisdom was justified of her children."

Part I - General

Part IIa - The Services

Part IIb - The Services

Part III - The Story of the Raids

Part IV - Flying Bombs & Rockets

Part V - To the Unknown Citizen