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A childhood in wartime Petts Wood

Television news programmes seeing the devastating scenes of war in the Ukraine through the fearful eyes of children in shelters; it struck a chord in recently speaking to energetic 91-year-old Pettswoodian, Derek George. His memories of living here as a child during the Second World War are illuminating. According to Peter Waymark’s History of Petts Wood the area suffered ninety-nine high explosive bombs, five land mines, five flying bombs and one V2 rocket.

Moving from Bermondsey in 1933, attracted by the garden suburb, Derek’s parents bought a Morrell house in Crest View Drive for £650 when the road was called Hill Crest Drive. There were no shops yet in Queensway but gradually Petts Wood West grew as did Derek and meeting Ken, who became his lifelong friend living nearby. As infants, sitting in their toy cars they would race each other up and down the crescent as it was being built around them and with hardly any traffic to worry about.

Derek still vividly recalls hearing the radio announcement of the outbreak of war with Germany on 3rd September 1939. At the time he and his cousin Jean who lived next door to him were in Fourboys, newsagents situated at the corner of Franks Wood Avenue (now site of the Tai Moom restaurant). Startingly, this radio broadcast was promptly followed by the howl of a local air raid siren. Feeling frightened they were ushered by passing members of a cycling club into a nearby deep air raid shelter (now site of Press House) but thankfully on this occasion a false alarm!

Following the rescue of troops from Dunkirk in June 1940, Derek and Ken stood on the railway bridge at Petts Wood Station to wave and cheer crowded troop trains as they raced through bringing soldiers back from the battlefield in France. Derek also recalls his schoolteacher telling him that some Belgian refugees had been billeted in houses in Great Thrift and that children were placed at Derek’s school, Crofton Lane. Derek didn’t meet them personally as school attendance had been reduced during this period. The school which was at that time surrounded by farmland, was involved in the wartime National Savings scheme. A ‘warship week’ fund raiser towards the building of HMS Columbine which was celebrated by a parade in Orpington.

Perhaps some local school pupils today will remember in years to come their school hosting current Ukrainian refugee classmates and maybe friendships evolving.

Derek says on the occasions he had to wear his gasmask he hated it as the visor misted up. Perhaps similar to wearing specs and wearing a mask during the Covid pandemic!

The Petts Wood’s anti-aircraft battery at West Kent Golf Club (now Jubilee Country Park) and Biggin Hill Airport played a vital defence role in the relentless raids on London and its suburbs. Many people from London travelled to the area for shelter and stay the night in Chislehurst Caves. One day, Derek remembers watching a formation of Luftwaffe bombers flying over Petts Wood and a dog fight with Biggin Hill fighters that successfully downed several enemy planes. Following loud cheers from a crowd in Queensway, his father took Derek for safety into the Embassy Cinema (now Morrisons). Derek and Ken’s favourite pastime was collecting pieces of shrapnel in the local streets including the boys’ prized fin from an incendiary bomb.

Petts Wood’s most famous arrival during the war was General Charles De Gaulle, leader of the Free French – he and his family resided for a while in Birchwood Road. Derek remembers seeing uniformed French officers standing on the platform at Petts Wood Station. He believes that they were visiting their exiled leader at his suburban retreat. ‘Vive La France!’

Mel Wright.

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