Wartime England
Essay by David George Ball, James City

I never bothered about war until I arrived home from school at the end of 1939 to find Mum and Dad cutting up large strips of black paper in the front room. Mum explained, “We have to black out all the windows so the German planes can’t see us at night.” Dad didn’t have enough paper for the front window downstairs, so Mum told him to use a poster with a verse from the Bible, “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.” People passing by said they found it
David (left) and Jonathan Ball in front of their house in Gloucester, England, with the Bible verse poster behind them.
comforting. A few weeks later when I woke up, the railings in front of our house and all the other houses in the row had been ripped away. One of our neighbors complained to Dad, “Nobody asked permission and nobody paid for them.” Dad didn’t like to see them gone either, but said stoically, “They’ll be melted down to build tanks.” Dad listened to the news on the BBC. It sounded bad. The German army had overrun Holland and Belgium and swept into France. The new prime minister, Winston Churchill. said, “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat.” A few days later 300,000 soldiers were evacuated from Dunkirk. I saw Churchill’s picture in the newspaper giving a defiant “V” for victory sign. He said in Parliament, “We shall go on to the end... whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing-grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills. We shall never surrender.”

When I heard about the prime minister I thought Dad must be important because he was a minister too, but the BBC never mentioned him. He ran all the meetings at chapel and spent a lot of time visiting people in their homes. He also held services for the soldiers at the Reservoir Road Army Camp, and as chaplain at the Gloucester Hospital, he ministered to men returning from the front in ambulances.

One evening while I was putting on my pajamas, Dad said, “If you hear the air raid siren, you must turn off your bedroom light. I may be on air raid duty.” He had enlisted in the Royal Observer Corps. Twice a week at night after his other jobs, he put on his uniform and reported to the headquarters in downtown Gloucester. He got phone calls from plane spotters who watched for German planes coming across the English Channel. When I heard the siren howling like a sick dog, I quickly plunged my brother, Jonathan, and myself into darkness and we scrambled under the bed. Hundreds of bombers thundered over our house. The window started to shiver and shake. Through a crack at the side of the blackout paper I saw a searchlight sweeping the sky. An ack-ack gun at Staverton Airport rattled in desperation. I froze stiff until I heard the long, steady “All Clear.” I hoped Dad wasn’t getting bombed. At breakfast I told Mum I had crawled under the bed. She said firmly, “You don’t need to do that. You must be brave!” Mum and Dad didn’t seem to be afraid. I mustn’t show that I was. The next night the bombers thundered over our house again. I pulled the sheets over my head and tried not to think about them. Tomorrow I would be 4 years old.

In the morning I heard Dad talking to Mum in the kitchen in a low voice. Some words slipped out, “Coventry... cathedral... invasion.” They seemed to have forgotten about my birthday. Some government workmen came to our house with metal beams and a square of steel. They built a small air raid shelter right in the middle of our tiny dining room. Mum put a tablecloth over the top, and we used it as our dining room table. It seemed funny eating beans on toast on top of an air raid shelter. In the beginning when the siren wailed, we all crawled into the steel cage. It was a tight fit with Mum, Dad, Jonathan and me. After a while, I noticed we just ignored the warning and carried on with dinner. I asked, “Why don’t we crawl under the table anymore?” “The Germans aren’t going to bomb here,” Mum replied. “They want to destroy the factories up north.” But they did bomb us after all. As I walked home from school with Dad and Jonathan, I heard a plane flying over the center of town. There was no air raid siren. Dad yelled, “A German plane!” I saw three bombs dropping. Boom! Boom! Boom! The ground trembled. Dad grabbed my hand and we ran back to our dining room bomb shelter. Mum crawled in too.

Later on, Dad said one bomb hit near the railroad station, another destroyed Elim Church, and the third wiped out some houses in Park Road only a mile away. I wondered if there were any people in those houses. Dad talked about a great victory by the Royal Air Force. He muttered with a dark face, “We stopped the invasion, but we’re all alone against Hitler.” People got bombed to death all over England. I was scared, but I knew I mustn’t say. I thought war was normal.

David George Ball of James City received his bachelor’s degree from Yale in 1960 and his law degree from Columbia University in 1964. He served as assistant secretary of Labor 1989-93. His autobiography, “A Marked Heart,” will be published in January.