Rene’s house, 204 Lancaster Drive, was inside the perimeter fence of RAF Hornchurch during the war. Unlike many of her friends she wasn’t evacuated, ‘We’re a family and we live or die together,’ was her father’s uncompromising attitude. Her memories are vivid, but not what you’d expect. Rene ‘got on with life’. War was for adults not children.
Rene’s father rose to the challenge of war. Despite rationing they always ate well because he turned their garden into a mini-farm. It had a rabbit hutch, chicken coop and a sunken galvanised bath for ducks. These weren’t pets. They were food. There were no secrets about where food came from in the Wyatt household and no room for squeamish hesitation.
Her father’s allotment provided vegetables. Rene says that, ‘We ate better then than nowadays’. Fruit came from the Bramley apple tree and there were gooseberries, blackberries, plums, rhubarb and eating apples. They knew exactly what they were eating, which was always seasonal.
Rene moved from Ayloffs to Benhurst primary school because it was dangerously close to the airfield. After Benhurst, she went to Suttons Senior School, which was divided into boys’ and girls’ sections. This mattered on the 24th March, 1943 when Raimund Sanders Draper saved hundreds of lives by deliberately sacrificing his life. His crash landing plane slid to a halt on the boys’ side with just one child slightly injured. If he hadn’t sacrificed himself, that side of the school would have been devastated. Rene was on the other side of the building and wasn’t directly affected though it was a great shock for her and everyone else.
Rene wasn’t oblivious to the war. During the Battle of Britain, ‘The Few’ flew out of Hornchurch day after day. Ack-ack guns fired continuously and she spent long periods in the Anderson shelter. Her father buried it in the garden covering it with soil to make it as bomb proof as possible. It was very damp, very dangerous and uncomfortable. Rene remembers one week-end going into the shelter on a Friday and being there until Sunday night. Overnights were normal.
Going to school, meeting friends or going to the shops meant showing her pass to the sentry at the gate. That pass, her gas mask and the ration card were crucial to her day-to-day life. Rene’s family came through the war unscathed. She doesn’t dwell on the war or her experiences but they offer a unique insight away from all the well known aspects. She saw ‘The Few’ daily but got on with being a child in exceptional circumstances.
Rene, my neighbour and friend, talked to me many times over our fence. I’ve also had assistance from her daughter Jackie and grandchildren.
If you are interested I’ve put together a few sources that add to Rene’s story
For a very good overview see https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Category:RAF_Hornchurch
For the inter-war era see https://www.rafhornchurch.com/history/inter-war-years/
and for the conservation status of the area see https://www.havering.gov.uk/download/downloads/id/1970/lbhlp47_raf_hornchurch_conservation_area_appraisal.pdf pp8-9
For photographs see https://www.google.co.uk/search?q=raf+hornchurch+photos&sa=X&biw=1460&bih=761&sxsrf=ALeKk000RTv9AmmxjMcUJwRGdMPmJqBmuQ:1586451685367&tbm=isch&source=iu&ictx=1&fir=Tywuxcbje7vdsM%253A%252CPpSGvSfmqAI2zM%252C_&vet=1&usg=AI4_-kRLF1tKIM4sickAQk945tMdVramwA&ved=2ahUKEwjVlKOJ6dvoAhXKasAKHRJ2BMoQ9QEwBHoECAoQHw#imgrc=Tywuxcbje7vdsM:
For a brilliant interactive map see http://www.rafhornchurch.thehumanjourney.net/map.htm
After the war the site was used for gravel winning see https://www.rafhornchurch.com/history/life-after-the-airfield/