Primrose Hill in wartime
Pam Lutgen’s childhood in the war
As a child I lived in the Primrose Hill area throughout World War Two. My earliest memory of the war was my first sighting of a barrage balloon floating above our house. They were huge, silver-coloured, gas filled balloons with tail fins and were positioned in vulnerable areas to act as obstacles to enemy aircraft. On asking what they were, I was told “silver fishes in the sky, dear.” An answer which, young as I was, I didn’t quite believe.
I can remember our little baize-topped card table bouncing whenever the anti-aircraft gun on the hill went off or a bomb fell in the area, and eventually my mother decided that we should sleep in the comparative safety of Chalk Farm Underground station. This was an exciting experience for a child, but when a bomb was dropped on Haverstock Hill and a broken gas main threatened the Tube, it was decided that we might be better off in our own beds.
Later we moved nearer to Primrose Hill itself and were bombed out there by planes we believed were aiming at the gun emplacement on one side and the main railway line from Euston on the other.
Escaping gas threatened us here too. Our house was still gas-lit at the time and pipes had been pierced by the bomb. I can well remember picking our way in the dark down a broken staircase while well-meaning neighbours offered to light our way with candles!. We were put up by friends and the following day my mother braved unexploded bombs by returning to the house to get some clothes for me and shoes for herself to replace the odd ones she had scrambled into in the night.
The remains of the gun emplacement was left in position for a time after the War. I remember seeing the entrances to subterranean tunnels and my older cousin tells me that dances were sometimes held in the chambers underground. I also recall an underground air raid shelter in Chalcot Square where friends and I ran riot after school.
After our brief experience of the Tube we tried sleeping in surface shelters in the street. These were fun for kids. They had two –tiered bunks and little heaters where, if you put a kettle on at night it would be ready for you to make a cup of tea in the morning. The shelter we used was even given a pub sign and was called “The Cock and Pullet “ which caused amusement to some. One of the activities we children enjoyed at the time was to collect shrapnel – fragments of fallen shells – which one could find in the street after a raid. I once boasted that I had picked up a piece which was still warm, but that surely cannot have been true.
After the bombers came the doodlebugs – unmanned flying bombs whose engines cut out when they were about to come down. I saw one once flying westwards towards King Henry’s Road. Its engines stopped before it reached where I stood and I hedged my bets and fled northwards towards Swiss Cottage. The doodlebugs were replaced by the rockets. These were also unmanned flying bombs but were much faster and silent in flight. One fell on Primrose Hill while I was at school and I was reprimanded for nipping off for the afternoon to see if things were alright at home – they were.
On the other side of Primrose Hill from us was Regents Park, part of which had been taken over by the RAF for training purposes. RAF personnel were billeted in Viceroy Court and other blocks of flats in the area. I still think of this when passing Viceroy Court on the bus and am reminded of the day when, as a child, I peered through the gates of the Open Air Theatre in the Park to watch a youthful Vera Lynn singing to a sea of young men dressed in light blue RAF uniforms.
On the whole my experience of the war in Primrose Hill was more exciting than frightening. We children didn’t fully grasp what the bombs and the bullets could do to people or what was going on in other countries. Today the area is more fashionable and more expensive than it was then and there is little to show now of the activities of those violent years.