The scene in Whitehall, 11.30am, 3 September 1939. Police on bicycles wearing 'Take Cover' placards on their chest and back remind the public to take shelter. © Imperial War Museum
Interview: to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the outbreak of World War Two Culture24 speaks to some of the people featured in the Imperial War Museum exhibition, Outbreak 1939. Here Police Constable number 121384 George Taylor remembers the war in London as a 33-year-old PC.
“I was just looking at the display there about the blackout, I had a friend, another PC, and he was as blind as a bat, he was walking into lampposts and all sorts. It was the most inconvenient thing you can think of.
The first night of the war we had special orders to crack down on the blackout on vehicles and property, because headlights and even cycles on cars had shutters on them so they diverted the beam. One of the first I stopped, he was CD – Corps Diplomatique – he was a Chinese man and he had his headlights full on. There was no raid on, but he said ‘I’m claiming diplomatic advantage.’ I said ‘it doesn’t matter if you are or not, you are breaking the law. If you carry on you’ll get stopped again.’
Thinking back the most frightening thing was when they bombed the London Docks and all the German planes were coming up in formation up above. Of course following that the (V1) flying bomb was a real scarer. You kept thinking ‘keep going, keep going…’ and you’d be waiting for the engine to stop. The (V2) rockets you would hear them break the sound barrier and the next thing you heard was an explosion.
Of course the ordinary bombs you knew when they were coming. We were down in our little shelter in the garden, we had an Anderson shelter, and we heard a thump in the back but no explosion. The ARP came and said they couldn’t find any crater but I’ve always maintained there’s a massive bomb still buried in North West London around the Harlesden area, I’m sure of that.
The public were excellent; they had a different outlook on policemen in those days. You could always say to a member of the public, ‘give us a hand will you?’ – ‘awright guv’ they’d say. You could always get help when you wanted it. Of course all we had was a whistle and a truncheon for protection, nothing else, no wireless. There were no traffic patrols, no cars, only the Flying Squad had cars.
Sometimes there was a bit of looting that went on, but not a lot. I never had an arrest during the war but we knew there was looting going on.
The prostitutes were a great help to us, it’s strange to hear, but they kept their eyes open. I remember one night, there was a smash and grab going on up the road. It was a music shop and they were taking a big piano accordion out. One of them came and said I’ve got the number of the car. I phoned it in – because you had to go to a phone in those days – and they picked them up in Camden Town.
The only real trouble we had was in public houses. I got a call one night to a pub and a young policeman was there and of course we had steel helmets then and they had got the strap across his throat. There was a Guardsman in there and he said: “you want any help guv?” just like that, and he sorted it out. He did the job that I should have done. We took him down the canteen for a drink and that was that.
But it’s strange how fate can follow you. That young PC left the police – as a lot of them did to join the services – and he became a sub-lieutenant in the Navy and eventually he got killed practicing the landings off Milford Haven. The Landing Craft capsized and he was killed. It’s funny how fate can follow you around.
But as I say, the first day of the war was the blackout, but another thing in those early days was the worry of the parents. My daughter was a baby and they were off the next day to Northampton and it was very worrying. Then we had the phoney war as they called it so she came back, then we had the Battle of Britain and off she goes again.
The house I lived in was damaged three times during the war, but they were excellent repairing windows blown out and doors blown off. But the funniest thing is that we were advised to sleep under the stairs and when you look under the stairs that’s where all the gas mains and electricity cables were!”
A series of lectures and events has been organised by the Imperial War Museum to help commemorate the 70th anniversary of the outbreak of war in 1939. Follow the links below for more details.
Outbreak 1939 has been developed in association with ITV who will be screening a documentary that tells the story, hour-by-hour, of September 3 1939. Outbreak will be screened on ITV1 on September 3 2009 at 10.30pm.