My WWII - What it was like for me, Peter Rayner

by Peter Alan Rayner (8 December 1924 - 29 July 2007)

Peter Alan Rayner

This account was submitted by Peter’s children Christopher, Peter, Hester and John in 2015.

I was born in 1924, therefore I was nearly 15 years old on Sept 3rd 1939 when war was declared.  I was about to study hard for my School Certificate which was a sort of rather more difficult O-Level. I was lousy at Latin a good Pass in which was a “Sine Qua Non” (see, I still know a little!) if one had ambitions of going to Oxbridge or if one wanted to read Medicine. My Dad engaged a tutor for me; he was a pleasant retired teacher called Mr. Barber, who also happened to be the Chief Air-Raid Warden for Sector 8.  He enrolled me as a sort of bicycle-messenger to carry information between Posts.  This was my very first, somewhat insignificant, contribution to our war effort! Old Barber must have been a good teacher, as I did pass.

My father’s Army career

Turning briefly now to my Dad, the late Douglas Rayner, C.B.E. He was a Major in the Army, attached to Western Command in Chester, and on his promotion to Colonel, in 1937, he was posted to London, so the family upped sticks and moved down to Harpenden, which had been chosen by Dad as having the best schooling for me and my two brothers, as well as being conveniently close to London, 26 miles away. Dad actually  became a bit of a V.I.P. — he was Director General of Army Contracts, which meant that he and his staff were responsible for the production and supply of all the weapons and ammo to the army (but not the R.A.F, which came under a separate department). He had the most wonderful “museum” of ammo, shells, fuses, bombs etc. in his office—I think his colleagues split it up when he retired.  I would really have loved to have it — I do have a few bits like a 6 pounder anti-tank shell which is my Study door-stop.

Dad never wore uniform during the War, but one story is worth telling. He was supposed to go somewhere near the Front – I believe it was during the disastrous campaign in Norway, but things were very Hush-Hush then and I do not know any details. It was decided that Dad must wear uniform, to protect him, should he be captured by the Enemy. The Powers that Be kitted him out with the uniform of a Major-General, but the only time he got to wear it was for one day, as the operation was cancelled!!

A teenager’s war

Returning now to my personal experiences: for a teenager the war was at once “scary” and also very interesting and exciting — we used to collect and “swap” all sorts of souvenirs, shrapnel, i.e. bits of anti-aircraft shells which had exploded and fallen to earth, on the principle that what goes up, must come down; .303 brass cartridge cases shed by fighters when firing their guns; tails of bombs etc — I remember that the highest value was placed on a nose-cone or fuse, as there was only one per shell!  Some lads managed to “win” live ammo from crashed planes, a dangerous exercise, which was quite rightly discouraged by the Police!

I well remember one fine day at the end of May, 1940 when Mum and we three went for a picnic on some fields near our home (at this time, one did not wander too far away owing to the danger of a daylight raid, about which more anon!). The fields are long gone — it is now a housing estate, but on that afternoon, sunny and with a light southerly breeze, we heard what I thought to be distant thunder – we eventually realized that it was the sound of heavy gunfire from Dunkirk over 120 miles away!

Raids by day and night

I mentioned daylight raids — we had two that I can remember, on the Vauxhall Plant, and the Skefko ball-bearing works in Luton. These were carried out by Heinkel 111s and Dornier 17s, also some Messerschmit 109 fighters. They were set upon by a squadron of Hawker Hurricanes over Harpenden, and a Heinkel was shot down crashing I believe, in the Bowers Heath, but I am not quite sure of this. A Hurricane was also shot down — the pilot bailed out, and I think he landed on Nomansland Common, about 3 miles from us. His aircraft landed in the garden of a private house, and came to rest about 6 feet from the wall of the house! I remember it was on show to the public at a charge of sixpence (2.5p) in aid of Wings for Victory!

There were, of course, over two months of continuous night raids on London during the “Blitz” and we often stood out in the garden looking at the “firework” display over London. We did have some night activity, the main one being when a bomber dropped a whole load of incendiaries on us, plus some High Explosive. The chapel hall in Batford was burnt, and some trucks in the sidings of Harpenden East station were set on fire — they were full of sugar, and blazed enormously! We all ran about putting out bombs with soil and using Stirrup Pumps, a sort of glorified bike pump, which pumped water from a bucket – they were better than nothing, but only just!  I still  keep the tail of one of these bombs in my Study.

Perhaps one of the most dramatic sights, was that of the City of London burning in the great fire raid of December 28, 1940. The light was so bright, that it was possible to read a paper in our street!

My time as an officer-cadet

Although I spent the first part of the bombing at home I was selected to go on an army-sponsored course for officer-cadets, in London. I was billeted in East London, near Walthamstow. We suffered many raids — we also had a mobile AA gun, a Bofors 40 mm. which used to let fly outside our front door – there was also a battery of 3.7s about half a mile down the road, and when they fired, it would make the windows rattle — none of this was conducive to studying!

One night, Jerry dropped a stick of bombs in the next street — several houses were destroyed, and we lost bits of our roof, plus my landlord Charlie and I were lifted backwards through the front door!  We were shaken, but luckily not badly hurt, which was fortunate, as the door had been shut at the time!  I remember the Heavy Rescue guys were still pulling out people next day.

Then, life as a “Bevin Boy”

I had in the meantime volunteered for the RAF, but when my course finished, instead of the RAF or Army, I was told to go down the coal mines as a so-called “Bevin Boy”.  I was furious but to no avail as my registration number ended in a 5.  I did my five weeks basic training at the Prince of Wales Colliery in Pontefract, Yorkshire – I saw on TV the other day that it had just closed down.  We worked mainly on the haulage system — trains of coal-filled trucks, known as tubs, are attached to an endless steel rope — we had to assemble and monitor these “sets”, and as there were around 4 different methods of attaching the leading tub to the rope, it could get complicated especially if we had to stop one!

We did have some Ponies — they lived on the surface and rode down after the men — this was at my work pit, Monk Bretton, near Barnsley. The ponies were highly intelligent, and I have had my sandwiches stolen more than once!  We had one who used to go on strike and wander off to the pit bottom on his own!  I mostly worked the morning shift, 6am to 2pm — we had a “knocker-up” who would wake us at 5 by tapping the windows with a long stick until we showed a light — we paid him sixpence (2.5p) a week for this service!  After work we would walk down to the Pub, where I would buy half a pint of beer and 5 Woodbines (small cigarettes) for fivepence halfpenny, about 2p!  But remember, our wages were only £4 a week!

One last story about our training — The Prince was a very deep pit: around 900 meters at the main shaft and the pressure underground was high. Some of the old hands told us lads that as the temperature underground was around 26C. everyone drank lots of fizzy “pop” so we went down with gallons of lemonade — of course, when we came to the surface again, the sudden return to a normal ambient pressure released large quantities of CO2 into our insides — the passing of “wind” by both the northern and southern routes was staggering — if they had awarded an Olympic gold we would certainly have won it!  Rotten Sods.

I was invalided out of the mines, due to my having stone dust in the lungs, and worked on a farm to restore my health. I was re-called to the army during the last months of the war, ending up as a Staff Sergeant.  I remember, we used to get cigarette rations — “big” ones cost sixpence for ten and small ones 3d.  It was then considered cool to smoke strong ones so I am afraid that I set a bad example by smoking Capstan Full Strength!


According to Wikipedia Peter (also know as Alan) lived in Harpenden all his life; attended St George’s school as a day boarder; worked for B A Seaby Ltd and then Paramount; was a numismatist, expert in English silver coins; assisted with the preparation of editions of ‘English Silver Coinage from 1649’ by H Seaby which is a main reference book and was the author of other books on coins.

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