Origins – The Early Years
Anthony J Sargeant (Tony)
On the morning of the 22nd July 1944 Hitler sent a V1 flying bomb, the fore-runner of the cruise missile, from a launch site in the Pas de Calais aimed at London. As it cruised across the Kent countryside with its deadly payload attempts to shoot it down failed. It continued on its way until around 3.41 pm. My mother heavily pregnant with me was beginning to prepare the tea-time meal of liver and bacon when it finally started its descent. The engine cut out and it plummeted to earth and exploded loudly but harmlessly at the end of Worsley Bridge Road not far from our house. It had fallen just short of London landing in Kentish fields which still existed just to the south of the London County Council’s Bellingham Council estate. The bomb landed in a field used as a sports ground by the Hong Kong and Shangai Bank – a bank born of empire in 1865 – which like many other banks bought fields just outside London to use as sports grounds for their staff on half-days (Wednesday afternoon) and Saturdays. That the bomb fell short of heavily populated areas of London was a success perhaps for the counter espionage tactic of feeding misleading information back to the Germans. The Germans believed their ‘agents’ who reported that the flying bombs were overshooting their London targets: this caused them to pull back the range so that many fell in more open countryside to the south of the capital. Nevertheless a glance at the records shows 67 V1 bombs landing on Beckenham alone during the period from June 1944 until the end of August 1944. These unpredictable daylight attacks from pilotless high speed pulse jet missiles must have been terrifying after a period when conventional German air attacks had been reduced to a minimum by the superiority of the allied air forces.
Years later I unknowingly renewed my ante-natal connection with the Hong Kong and Shangai Bank. Having left school and working in a range of part-time and short term jobs I used to play rugby as a guest player for various teams on Wednesday afternoons. Brixton Building College was one such team because my friend ‘Bert’ Baker studied there Another such team was The Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank, probably for no better reason than that my friends and I thought it a wonderful name. Part of the fun of Wednesday games was that a few friends and I who were playing 1st team and County rugby would suddenly, and from the oppositions point of view unexpectedly, transform one of these lower ranked Wednesday teams into something rather more formidable. It gave us the fun of more uninhibited play, running and scoring without the seriousness of Saturday 1st team matches.
But to return to that V1: Perhaps the shock of the explosion induced my birth. Certainly I was born at home not long after the bomb exploded. On such stories are family myths created. In any case my Mother was disappointed. She had been hoping for a girl and instead she got another boy and the prudent economics of working class life, at least my Mother’s, dictated that there were to be no more children: So just two boys, David born in May 1942 and myself two years later. My father was a Staff Sergeant in the REME (Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers) and was posted to France soon after my birth. He did not return to England until after the war had ended in Europe having been part of the Allied Army as it advanced across France then down through Belgium to Maastricht in the south of the Netherlands and finally into a conquered Germany.
I had been ‘induced’ if indeed that is what happened, in a ground floor maisonette just off the edge of The Bellingham Council Estate, which was part of the London County Council’s slum clearance programme after the First World War (David Lloyd George’s “Homes fit for Heroes”) . My parents’ families were rehoused there in the 1920’s from inner London. My Father’s family moved from Malt Street just off the Old Kent Road (the cheapest property on the Monopoly board and not without reason) and my mother’s family moved from a rented back-to-back terraced house in Peckham.