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Pensioner Denis Llewellyn from Gravesend shares his memories of the Second World War

By Jenna Dobbs

Denis Llewellyn, of Stonebridge Road, Northfleet, has lived in Gravesend all his life.

The 89-year-old watched the Second World War unfold in the town, and has never forgotten the things he saw.

Lying in bed one night, he thought of his old friends, and what they went through together when they were just children.

A former tugmaster for the Port of London Authority, Denis said the moments began coming back to him, and he decided to write down his story.

The best days are flying by now, and the other night I was thinking about my friends, girls and boys.

My pal Tom, now nearly 89-years-old, and I am one of the lucky ones, still ticking over.

Nearly all of my play mates have moved on in that great space in the heavens.

Denis Llewewlyn of Stonebridge Road, Northfleet
Denis Llewewlyn of Stonebridge Road, Northfleet

So what was it like in those days? Very simple.

We all lived in the Perry Street area - only a 10-minute walk and you were in the countryside.

I will give you some of their first names - three Jeans, Joan, two Sheilas, Jerry, Charlie, John, Bob and myself, Denis. Happy days.

It was a very simple way of life. We all lived in houses with a toilet outside, coal fires for cooking and the old copper for washing.

Yes, we did have wireless, which you had to take to a shop to get an accumulator charged up.

About this time, houses were getting the first electric lights. This was wonderful after the gas lights.

We would go out into the country with a jam sandwich and bottle of lemonade, along Coldharbour Road with the great elm trees.

We'd then go off down through Longfield, playing in the hay stacks and roaming through Swanscombe woods playing Tarzan.

We used to play all kinds of games.

People watching the fire burning in London in a painting by Denis Llewellyn
People watching the fire burning in London in a painting by Denis Llewellyn

The girls would be skipping, and maybe play kiss chase, all very innocent play.

"Knock down ginger" was three or four sticks against the wall, like a small wicket.

If I remember rightly, you took turns at knocking them down, while the others would run away.

You had to put them back up again, and once you got them back up you had to shout stop, you threw the ball at one of the others and they had to take your place. Well, something like that.

It was a long time ago, it was just good fun - but soon this was going to change.

Back indoors, nearly time for bed, my dad listening to the nine o'clock news from the BBC.

He said to my mum, "the news is not good mate", but at this time I did not understand where our life was heading.

A great black cloud was heading our way from the East.

The school summer holidays were about to start. I left Dover Road primary school, then expected to go to Colyer Road secondary school - war was declared sometime before.

Nothing happened, except false alarms. We now had air raid shelters in the garden, and we all had gas masks.

I would see war for the first time, bombs were whistling down, explosions, guns and machine guns..." - Denis Llewellyn

Lots of aircraft would fly over from Thong Lane RAF air station.

My brother Tom had his paper round, I had a little job delivering meat on a Saturday.

Tom was four years older than me, and was lining up to join the navy.

Then my mother was shopping down in Perry Street, I was in the garden cleaning our old bike - we only had one - and suddenly I could hear thunder in the distance, getting louder and louder.

I would see war for the first time, bombs were whistling down, explosions, guns and machine guns.

As fast as it came, it was gone.

I tried to get my bike out of the garden, but Miss Terry next door and Mrs Gammon pulled me and dragged me down to the air raid shelter.

The air raid wardens ran through the alley at the bottom of our alley, and I heard my mother shout my name. We were glad to see each other.

Mum tried to get home, but the air raid warden made her go down to the shelter in Perry Street, at All Saints Church.

An air raid shelter in a painting by Denis Llewellyn
An air raid shelter in a painting by Denis Llewellyn

You could see black smoke coming over the roofs towards Vale Road, and brother Tom turned up.

"Where were you?", mum said. He never answered.

My dad was working over in Tilbury dock. He could see the raid right in line with Northfleet, so he came home right away.

Tom got told off for roaming off, but when Tom told him what he saw we all went to see what damage had been done, and maybe we could learn something if it came our way again.

I had seen blood in the butchers but never like this.

The first thing we saw was a big old car that had been converted into a fire engine.

This had been destroyed by a bomb blast, and brother Tom told us that the fireman was killed, and had no head.

The bungalow next to the fire engine was burning fiercely, nobody trying to put it out.

An air raid shelter in a garden was destroyed in a direct hit, a whole family killed..." - Denis Llewellyn

They were over at Colyer Road school, which had been bombed with direct hits, with fires burning at the back.

Moving on down Vale Road, houses had lost all their windows, doors blown off, with great gaps in the roofs where tiles had blown away.

A few doors down on the right side, I saw an air raid warden's tin hat, with a bullet hole in the top, and lots of blood on the pathway.

At the bus stop opposite Waterdales, the wall was peppered with machine gun bullet holes.

Tom said a poor man was killed there, and his bag of vegetables was still there, covered in blood.

A blue car had gone under the railway arch, but the poor man in it was killed.

An air raid shelter in a garden was destroyed in a direct hit, a whole family killed.

Lots of houses were hit with bombs, and it was a lot to take in for a boy of 11 years, but I shall never forget what I saw.

I remember my dad saying that we would have to make our air raid shelter more "bomb proof" - 29 people died in this raid, and about the same number were injured.

So, now what do we do? Not allowed to roam too far from home, evacuation, all the girls gone and some of my mates.

Mum asked me if I wanted to go, but I said no, and that was it.

The Battle of Britain had begun, which is another story, and all our mates had grown up very quickly.

Our school was in ruins, so we had no education for some months.

Many nights were spent in the air raid shelters, air battles going on in the skies above.

The battles were so high in the sky it was hard to tell friend from foe.

You could hear the sound of their guns - little short bursts - but it was not a good idea to stand about in the open because the empty shell cases coming down from above, so it was best to go in the air raid shelters.

I knew our young airmen were fighting for our very lives - my dad kept my brother and I updated on what was going on.

When the neighbours chatted in the garden there was never any talk of surrender.

Even when I played with my mates, it was not ball games any more - we were running around the field with our arms stretched out like wings, making noises like Spitfires or Hurricanes.

At about this time you could get books for a few pence containing all the silhouettes of the different aircraft in the war. I think I had them all.

I could memorise all the different planes, and make many models from these books, but you did not realise how fast you were growing up.

At the bottom of Stanley Road the old red mission was made into an air raid post.

Sometimes you could hear them say "amber's up, amber's up!", then you knew the sirens would start.

Even then, sometimes the raids did not come.

The odd raiders were the worst ones, droning around at night-time, looking for any lights on the ground to bomb us.

You could hear the whistle of the odd bomb come down and I am glad to say most of them went out in the countryside.

We are now coming up to August, when there was lots more activity in the air above us.

One weekend when my dad was home, we left to go shopping in Gravesend.

When going along Pelham Road, the sirens started as we arrived at St James' Church.

On turning onto New Road, there was a sight I shall never forget in my life.

Hundreds of German bombers coming up the river, all the anti-aircraft guns firing at them.

Shell splinters and shell caps were coming down like rain.

"Come on Nell, we must get to the shelter", said my dad. My mum had high-heeled shoes on, and could not run.

Anyway, we managed to get to a shelter at the back of Gravesend Market, and we were safe.

My dad was outside, and watched the tail-enders pass over.

"Come on you lot, we're going home - them buggers will come back this way", he said.

I think we were all stunned at what was going to happen next - I am glad to say they did not come back this way.

This was all-out war now, and my dad said we must all stay together, looking at my brother.

That evening, all the neighbours were out in the garden talking about the day.

Then, as it started to get dark someone said, "look, it's bright over towards London!".

But as it got darker, everybody realised it was London burning. The sky turned blood red.

We went indoors and had a cup of tea, and went down to the shelter for the night.

I think I said this before, but I can't say I was afraid.

Being there no school or lessons yet, me and my playmates were having lessons on things associated with the war.

Later on in the night of the red sky, German bombers returned again.

My dad said they had come back to stock up the fires, and that's what they did, going over our house.

When the fires had died down, they could not find their target, so we were back to them droning around in the night, dropping flares.

Somehow we got used to it and slept on, but one night when dad was home he was outside the shelter, and a lot of gunfire was going on.

"Come out here and have a look!" he shouted. A bomber was in the searchlights, my first sight like this in the dark.

Then a shout - "they've got him! My god, he's going down".

The sound of the plane going down in a steep dive was like nothing I have ever heard in my life. It was a scream that went right through your head.

The plane went down not too far from Broadditch Farm. My brother was there the next day, he came home with a piece of it across the crossbar of his bike.

Bad weather, rain and fog gave us a break from the raids, and indoors in bed, the sirens were few and far between.

At long last, the school was open, it was all very basic, and the workshops were just foundations - so no woodwork, metalwork or chemistry - all burnt down in the raid.

There were 40 in the class, and one piece of A4 paper in the art lesson, that's it - no waste like there is today.

I think my father wanted my brother to go in the Royal Navy, like he did in the First World War, and his brothers.

So my brother could not wait, and he went down to Chatham and volunteered in the few months before he'd reached the right age.

A few weeks and he was in HMS Collingwood, the training facility. Now just mum and I would be in the air raid shelter on our own.

Dad was away more now, he was working down at the River Medway, dredging the moorings for the navy ships.

He was the skipper for a dredger with the Port of London Authority.

Back to me and the school lessons again.

All young teachers were in the forces, so a lot of teachers who had retired had come back to work in schools, all very nice people.

One of the things we had to do were air raid drills to the shelter, which happened on a regular basis.

I must admit I was not very bright, so I was more interested in what the aeroplanes were doing, flying over.

The only thing I was any good at was art, and I used to get good marks for my pictures.

I remember the PE teacher was a young lady called Miss Ervin and we all went down to the lower field to play cricket.

I remember saying I had never done this before, we set up the bats and stump and she said "I will try it first".

A boy named Etoc bowled the first ball, it bounced off the ground and hit her in the head, knocking her out, and we never played cricket again.

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