Wartime Potters Bar
By David Roberts
Wartime in Potters Bar
Potters Bar before the Second World was no more than an oversized village divided by a railway track. Unlike today, much has changed, with many buildings demolished and built over. Large housing estates now cover the fields and open spaces we local children once played on.
We lived in Park Avenue and known as the most bombed area in Potters Bar! The German planes would target the Railway lines as they emerged from the tunnel after leaving Kings Cross railway station, or transporting troops, tanks, guns, and other war equipment, from the industrial north. Many bombs missed their intended targets, hitting surrounding and often residential areas instead.
My mother drove a milk float pulled by an old Horse, rescued from a bombed out building in East London. My Father was exempt from service due to ill health, and worked as a booking clerk at Kings Cross Station, and was a member of the Home Guard.
I was 7 years old when the War started. My school teacher’s brother was Captain John Allcock of Allcock & Brown fame – The early Aviators who first flew the Atlantic non-stop in 1919.
In 1916 the Zeppelin L31 was shot down over Potters Bar, by pilot officer Tempest. A road was to be later named after him. The Zeppelin pilot, Heinrich Matty, jumped from the airship without a parachute, rather than be burned alive. On Armistice Day 1937, a service was held at a local Cemetery, attended by General von Ribbentrop, General Goering and other members of the German military, who were later to hold top positions in the German war ‘machine’, and would be later tried for War Crimes at Nuremburg. After the War, deceased German airmen from the Zeppelin were removed and re-buried in Germany.
We would spend every night in the Air raid shelter when the sirens would sound around 9pm in the evenings, and again the next day when we were at school. Anti Aircraft guns were positioned on street corners, and barrage balloons would fly above.
Most kids’ parents had gone off to war! Food was scarce. I had an Allotment where I would grow vegetables to help out. A local Policeman showed me how and what to grow. He also showed me how to shape up and learn to Box!! Johnny Wright, the 1948 Middleweight Olympic Silver Medallist lived in Potters Bar, and used the drill hall in nearby Barnet to train, where my friend and I used to go. I even managed a few rounds with him, as being in the Navy he was short of sparring partners.
On one night raid, Incendiary bombs fell on Park Avenue setting fire to some of the houses. Those that missed landed in the fields, stuck in the mud unexploded. We boys would unscrew the tails of the bombs and remove the magnesium, make fires, and then throw the magnesium on and watch it explode! We would then float the canister they were dropped in into a nearby flooded bomb crater.
One afternoon, whilst waiting for a bus, a giant U.S Bomber flew overhead at Rooftop height, before crashing at the bottom of Park Avenue, landing on a Piggery. We got inside the plane, and found it empty, finding out later that the crew had bailed out over Epping Forest 5 miles away.
We often saw squadrons of planes flying back after raids over Germany, with spaces in the formations, for those who did not return. We would also find parts thrown out of planes, to lighten the weight of a damaged plane.
2 of my Uncles arrived home after being rescued at the evacuation of Dunkirk, only to be sent back at the Normandy landings, where a cousin serving in the merchant navy was killed unloading ammunition at the artificial Port at Arromanches. Another uncle was shot down over Germany, and imprisoned at Stalag Luft III, while in England, German prisoners worked on the roads, repaired buildings, and were able to walk around freely.
I befriended a German prisoner – a lad about 17 years called Hans. I took him apples from the Garden, and the occasional Cigarette. In turn, he carved a miniature pair of ski boots from wood, which I still have.
My friend George Samson, who would later go on to join the Royal Marines, lived in Park Avenue, and would deliver Telegrams to addresses where servicemen had been killed or taken prisoner. The new boy stopped outside George’s house right at the end of the war in 1945, to tell his mother he had been killed. He is now buried in New Delhi, India.
We suffered food rationing like most people. Coal was scarce, so my brother and I would go to where the Railway Coal Trucks were kept in the sidings, and throw Coal onto the track to take home in a Handcart. One particular cold morning, my mother wanted me to go shopping with her, and at the last minute decided to light the boiler fire. While chopping firewood on the back step, there was an almighty bang, and the earth shook causing slates to topple off the Roof, and the bathroom windows and frame came crashing down on me, cutting open my head.
Had we not stopped to light the fire, we would have been at the top of Park Avenue, where a V2 rocket landed killing 23 people. When I arrived, there was a crater 200’ wide and 200’ deep, with water mains pouring, and gas mains burning, and surrounding houses destroyed. Nothing was left of the Catholic Church, and all of those inside had perished. On peering underneath some sacking, there were two small boys, one of which had been decapitated. There was a distinct smell of hot bricks and burning timber in the air, and it actually snowed that evening!
We were eventually evacuated to a relative about 4 miles away, only to be bombed again, and forced to return to a half repaired house again. Even the shop where I had a paper round had been bombed.
Meanwhile, air raids continued day and night. We could see the huge orange glow in the night sky, where London was alight from one end to the other. Wounded servicemen would walk around Potter Bar dressed in blue jackets, white shirts, and red ties, mixing with PoW’s who would wear their brown army uniforms, with a large orange diamond sewn to their jacket and trousers. It’s rather coincidental that the house I currently live in was built by German POW’s!
Towards the end of the war, in 1944, the streets around Potters Bar were full of Tank transporters, and guns and vehicles of all descriptions, all hidden under the cover of trees and hedgerows. British and American forces were based in the surrounding houses. One morning as I made my way to school, to my surprise, every single street was empty. All the troops and vehicles had disappeared overnight, heading for the D Day invasion.
Overall, it was ironic that we children would see more wartime action than when we went on to serve in the armed forces several years later! We were a generation who had experienced enough of war, hard times and fear. Quite an interesting 6 years in the life of a young lad!
David Roberts, May 2014.