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The Wail of the Siren

Heathcote Memorial School I was seven years and three days old when the Second World War broke out. This had no effect on me at this age as I was more interested in going out to play with my friends on Ash Common or going fishing along the Basingstoke Canal. I attended the Ash Common Heathcote Memorial C of E School in College Road, along with most of the other local children, who, like me, had no idea of what the consequences and effects of war were to have in store for us all.

When we returned to school for the autumn term the then Headmaster, Mr Pyatt, explained in great detail what would happen if there was an air raid or an invasion. If we heard the school bell being rung, or a football rattle being used, a horn being sounded, or the police or Air-raid Wardens blowing short blasts on whistles, we were to go inside and get under our desks. If we were at home we had to get under a bed or a table. If at school we would then be sent straight home and the Headmaster would ride a bicycle around the village to check that we were doing what we had been instructed to do. During this time, Mr Bence, the school caretaker, would have to go around all of the classrooms and rake out all the coke fires and make them safe.

Later air raid shelters were installed at the top end of the girl’s playground, which to our disappointment meant that we were not sent home during a raid. However an interruption to lessons was the next best thing. We sang songs and told stories to pass the time, but you would not have to wait long before someone wanted to go to the toilet. Usually a galvanized bucket was produced and had to be used in front of all.

A very tall telegraph pole was erected on the edge of the corner of the girl’s playground on top of which was mounted the air raid siren that was positioned so that when it was sounded the whole community could hear it. Depending on the direction of the wind other sirens could be heard from distant places. Church bells were not allowed to be rung other than to tell all that an invasion had taken place.

When the Luftwaffe approached the British coast local Air-raid Wardens arranged for the sounding of sirens. People were immediately expected to take cover before the raid actually started. Remember that most of the injuries in an air-raid are caused not by direct hits by bombs but by flying bits of debris or bits of shells. You had to stay under cover until you heard the sirens sounding continuously for two minutes on the same note which was the signal ‘Raiders Passed’.

People doing important war work were instructed to ignore the first wail of the siren that told them that enemy aircraft were approaching. Instead they could only go to the shelters when a second siren was sounded that indicated that the Luftwaffe were immediately overhead.

I was talking to a neighbour of mine who lived throughout the war in the London Docks area. If the school was still standing they would try to go as normal, but each day there would be empty desks. Some children and teachers would arrive late and the usual excuse would be "sorry we are late miss but we were bombed out again in the early morning". The wail of the siren would have a very different meaning to them than it had to us.

I wonder what happened to that siren.

By Bob Bunyan

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