When the war started in earnest in 1940 I was at the top school and at the sound of the siren heralding an airraid all the pupils were herded into the corridor which ran the length of the school behind the classrooms. Strategically placed along the corridor were banks of sandbags. The idea of these was that in the event of a direct hit we would meet our maker thinking we were on a seaside outing. Shortly after the daylight raids finished new air raid shelters were built but apart from practice were never used in anger. Oh, I forgot to say that we used to sing hymns whilst we were incarcerated in the corridor, well it passed away the time.
As the prospect of an invasion of this country by the Germans gained momentum, the home guard was formed. Able bodied men, preferably with military experience but anyway between 16 to 50 or thereabouts were formed into units and armed, at first with primitive weapons, but later with sophisticated guns like the Stengun. The officers were usually men who had served in a similar capacity in the 14-18 war. Parades were held on Wednesday evenings and Sunday mornings and the headquarters of the local force was at the Mens' Club opposite the Anchor. The Downham batallion consisted of about 100 men, give or take a few, each possessing local geographical knowledge which would have put them in the driving seat in the event of an invasion. That was the theory anyway and it is perhaps fortunate that they were never put to the test!
Another war-time creation was the Auxiliary Fire Service which comprised about a dozen men and a fire pump which was towed by a large Morris car. The firestations was opposite what is now the police house and later became Henry Lythell's butcher's shop. I don't remember the firebrigade ever putting out a fire but they put in many hours of practice, obviously enjoying themselves, squirting jets of water about. We kids enjoyed it too.
Also engaged in the fray were the ARP, or to give them their full title the Air Raid Precaution; that doesn't sound right somehow but it matters onot as they were always the ARP. Their job was to rescue victims of air-raids and I supposed they were trained in first-aid. They also went round checking that the blackout was being observed, for a carelessly opened door could show a light to an enemy plane. Their headquarters were at the church room, formerly called the parish room. Extra police were conscripted during wartime as special constables, probably to prevent looting but strangely enough they spent most of their time apprehending cyclists for having no lights.
I seem to recall that three high explosive bombs fell on Downham, two in 1940 on Lawns Farm and a large bomb of 8000 pounds which fell in Johnny Brook's field in the last months of the war, dropped by an ailing Lancaster bombe shortly after takeoff from Witchford aerodrome. The bomb fell at 9 o'clock on a Saturday evening and blew out many windows in Cannon Street and Ely Road-it left a huge crater about thirty feet deep. All the boys from the village were there on Sunday morning searching for bomb fragments and the local bobby, PC Smith, I think, was there to stop us.
In an effort to get us out of the crater he announced that only half of the bomb had gone off. One of the lads, Sid Rudderham by name, looked the copper straight in the eye and stated,
"That'd bin a bloody great hole if that had all gone orf, woont it?" The copper fled. I think it was on this day that the Home Guard was disbanded as it appeared that it would no longer be required.