Monday, August 30, 2010

Memories of the Blitz

A new book, published in England, tells the story of the ordinary men and women who endured the Blitz - the Nazi air raids on England in 1940 and 1941. It's of immense interest to me, because my father and mother were among them. Dad was serving in the Royal Air Force, but Mom spent many nights wide awake, carrying a bucket of water and a stirrup-pump, keeping watch for incendiaries and trying to put them out before they set fire to buildings.

The Daily Mail has run three articles taken from the book, describing what it was like to endure the Blitz. Here are some extracts from the articles.

The familiar wail of the air raid siren had sent porter Robert Baltrop clambering on to the roof of a Sainsbury's store in East London on that never-to-be-forgotten warm and cloudless late summer afternoon of September 7, 1940.

'It wasn't bad doing lookout duty during these daytime warnings,' he recalled, looking back on events that happened 70 years ago, 'sitting up there in the sunshine, smoking and looking down at the people going about their business as usual in the streets below. I wasn't even really sure what I was watching for.'

. . .

'All of a sudden, on the skyline coming up the Thames were black specks like swarms of flies, weaving their way through puffs of smoke,' he recalls.

'They were flying right across my line of vision, and sitting up there on the roof I had a perfect view of them, watching them fly across the Thames, coming in past Dagenham, Rainham and Barking.

'They were heading straight for London, and it was going to be the docks that were going to get it.

'I began to hear loud thumps, and those were bombs falling, and clouds of smoke were rising up - clouds of black smoke floating away until you couldn't see anything but a huge bank of smoke, and still they were coming.'

The first bombs fell on the Ford motor works at Dagenham, closely followed by a rain of high explosives and firebombs on Beckton gasworks, the largest in Europe.

Two hundred acres of timber stacks, recently arrived from North America and the Baltic, burned out of control along the Surrey Commercial Docks: 24 hours later, only one-fifth of the two-and-a-half million tons was left.

Within minutes, the huge warehouses and factories on both sides of the Thames were ablaze.

At West India Dock, burning spirits gushed out of the rum warehouses, a tar distillery flooded North Woolwich Road with molten pitch and rats swarmed out of a nearby soapworks.

Fire burned through the ropes of barges tethered along the quayside and the burning boats drifted downstream, only to return several hours later on the incoming tide, still smouldering dangerously.

No more than an hour after the first bombs had fallen, London's East End was engulfed by flames. Station Officer Gerry Knight, yelling to his telephonists to call for urgent reinforcements, told them it seemed as if 'the whole bloody world's on fire'.

. . .

'Black Saturday' would set the pattern for the next eight harrowing months - a horrific period of relentless aerial bombardment that came to be known as 'the Blitz' after the German word 'Blitzkrieg', meaning lightning war.

First the Luftwaffe would drop showers of incendiary bombs that would start fires. These would act as a beacon to guide the next wave of bombers to their target, and distract the fire and medical services.

The planes would then return with their deadly cargo for a second murderous onslaught.

. . .

Gerry Knight, who had memorably thought 'the whole bloody world's on fire' the previous night, died with a colleague when a bomb fell on Pageant's Wharf fire station.

All that could be found to identify the 44-year-old, who had fought so bravely all through the previous night to save the lives of the public and his own men, were his standard issue thigh-high fireman's boots.

When the photographer Bert Hardy visited the East End two days later, it was like 'the end of the world', he wrote.

'Whole streets down and gone. East End soldiers deserting to rush home and frantically try to find their folks. A man and a woman sitting on a pile of wreckage staring listlessly in front of them without speech.

'Revolting stories of official red tape in dealing with refugees and bereaved survivors, climaxing in the hideous affair of the refugees bunged into one East End School on Saturday night to be all bombed to death on Sunday.'

This 'hideous affair' referred to the tragedy of South Hallsville School - one of the most horrific and defining events of the entire Blitz.

It was to that school in Agate Street, Canning Town, that 600 people had been led during the bombings on the Saturday night: men, women and children in an acute state of shock.

Most had lost their homes; for some, members of their family had been killed or wounded, or were missing; they had few if any possessions; their clothes were torn and dirty, their faces blackened by smoke and soot, often caked with blood, their feet burned and lacerated.

Terrified, confused, some hysterical, others racked with uncontrollable anger, others traumatised and unable to speak, they clung desperately to each other.

Rest centre staff, hopelessly unprepared, themselves shocked and anxious, bustled around offering cups of tea, trying to find blankets for the refugees, many of whom were only wearing thin nightclothes, offering reassurance as bombs crashed all around and shrapnel grazed the walls: 'Don't worry, you'll be all right. We'll get you away.'

Ritchie Calder, a reporter on the now defunct Daily Herald newspaper, described how he had found 'thousands', rather than hundreds, sheltering at South Hallsville.

'From the first glance it seemed to me ominous of disaster. In the passages and classrooms were mothers nursing their babies.

'Whole families were sitting in queues perched on pitiful baggage waiting desperately for coaches to take them away from the terror of the bombs which had been raining down on them.

'These unfortunate people had been told to be ready for the coaches at three o'clock. Hours later the coaches had not arrived. Women were protesting with violence and with tears about the delay.

'Men were cursing the officials who only knew that coaches were expected. "Where are we going?" "Can't we walk there?" "We'll take a bus!" "There's a lorry we can borrow!"

The crowds clamoured for help, for information, for reassurance. But the officials knew no answer other than to offer a cup of tea.

'I knew that Sunday afternoon, that as sure as night would follow day, the bombers would come again with the darkness, and that the school would be bombed.'

And so it was.

'Filled with foreboding', Calder 'hastened back to central London.

'Three times I warned the Whitehall authorities during that evening that the people must be got away before more bombs dropped and certain disaster overtook them.

'Local folk back at the school were making equally frantic efforts to force the local authorities to act.'

But the displaced East Enders were still huddled in the school at 8pm on Monday when the alert sounded.

At 3.45 on the morning of Tuesday, September 10, 'the inevitable bomb' scored a direct hit on South Hallsville School.

Half the building was demolished, and hundreds of tons of masonry crashed down on its occupants.

Rescue workers, frantically digging and scrabbling in the ruins, tried to free the injured, while a cordon was thrown around the area to keep people from seeing what was happening, and the censor warned the Press there were to be no reports or pictures of the tragedy, so devastating would the effect be on the morale of the already shattered population.

. . .

... the most obvious place in London to shelter underground was the one the government refused — for reasons of safety and morale, as well as the necessity of keeping the city moving and supplies flowing in — to sanction: the Tube stations.

But even on the very first night of the Blitz, East Enders had defied official policy by buying a penny-halfpenny ticket for a short journey on the Tube and refusing to come up again, camping in their thousands on the cold stone platforms with no sanitation or refreshment.

A week later the Daily Worker heralded it ‘a people’s victory’ when 2,000 East Enders stormed Holborn station and officials made no attempt to keep them out.

By the end of September, the authorities had finally given in. The battle was won and from then on long queues formed outside the stations every day, with some families sending their children on ahead to reserve their spaces.

‘From the platforms to the entrance, the whole station was one incumbent mass of humanity,’ wrote one reporter after visiting Elephant and Castle Tube station at the end of September 1940.

‘Even in the darkened booking hall I stumbled across huddled bodies, bodies which were no safer from bombs than if they had lain in the gutters of the silent streets outside. Little girls and boys lay across their parents’ bodies because there was no room on the stairs.

‘Hundreds of men and women were partially undressed, while small boys and girls slumbered absolutely naked. Electric lights blazed, but most of this mass of sleeping humanity slept as though they were between silken sheets. On the platform, when a train came in it had to be stopped in the tunnel while police and porters went along pushing in the feet and arms.’

Aldwych station was closed and converted into an underground shelter where around 2,000 people were able to shelter alongside the Elgin Marbles and other treasures from the British Museum.

Westminster Council donated 2,000 books from the borough’s libraries for the shelterers’ use and ENSA (the Entertainments National Service Association, or ‘Every Night Something Awful’, depending on your point of view) imported entertainers such as George Formby to entertain the crowds as well as putting on Shakespearean plays and films.

A local vicar conducted a regular service at the Aldwych shelter, and a play centre was provided for small children at Elephant and Castle, with a qualified teacher to provide handicraft lessons.

Such diversions spread to other shelters during that long winter underground (soon 52 stations had a library).

But there was one thing that no one could provide: any guarantee of safety. On October 14 a heavy bomb fell on Balham High Road in South London just above a point where two underground tunnels intersected and 600 people were sleeping.

Sixty-eight were killed, and for weeks afterwards those sheltering in nearby stations along the Northern Line were aware of a ‘ghost’ train that slipped quietly along the track at around midnight clearing the debris of the Balham disaster, a tragic cargo that included shoes, bits of clothing, handbags and toys.

At a minute to eight in the evening of January 11, 1941, a bomb fell on the booking hall of Bank station in the City, and a massive explosion tore through the building.

The blast from the bomb, according to one contemporary report, ‘travelled through the various underground passages, and in particular forced its way with extreme violence down the escalator, killing those sleeping at the foot of it at the time, and killing and injuring others sheltering on the platform opposite the entrances’ while others were hurled into the path of an incoming train’.

A total of 111 people were killed at Bank, including many passers-by, 53 shelterers and four underground staff.

While the injured waited for the ambulances to arrive, a Hungarian refugee doctor, Dr Z.A. Leitner, who had himself been injured in the blast, gave more than 40 morphine injections as he ministered to the injured single-handed in the choking dust.

At an inquiry into the blast opened in February 1941, the hero doctor paid tribute to those he had helped.

‘I should like to make a remark,’ he said. ‘You English people cannot appreciate the discipline of your own people. I want to tell you, I have not found one hysterical, shouting patient.

‘I think this very important, that you should not take such things as given — because it does not happen in other countries.

‘If Hitler could have been there for five minutes with me, he would have finished the war.

‘He would have realised that he has got to take every Englishman and twist him by the neck - otherwise he cannot win this war.’

. . .

The Coventry and Warwickshire Hospital, near the local ordnance factory, displayed a lighted red cross on its roof to indicate its status. But to no avail: a huge bomb came crashing into one of the wards, and surgeon Dr Harry Winter watched 'a whole wall of the building fall slowly outward across the open ground where I'd been just a few seconds before'.

Afterwards he wrote: 'We put the patients on stretchers and blankets along the main corridor. Then the casualties started to come in, so fast that we didn't have time for detailed examinations. All we could do was divide them into resuscitation cases and those requiring immediate surgery. I suppose I did about 15 operations throughout the night.'

One of the student nurses at the city's Gulson Road Hospital, now in her 80s, has similar memories. 'The beds began to fill up very quickly,' she remembers. 'Sometimes we would have to clear away thick dirt before seeing the patient: they seemed to have been dug out of the ground. Everyone was working as a member of a team - even the consultants, who were normally treated like gods, became human.

'Until then, I had always had the fear of being left with the limb of a patient in my hand after amputation. The Blitz on Coventry changed all that for me. I didn't have the time to be squeamish. Thousands of patients passed through the hospital that night. If a patient died, they were just taken out of the bed and it was remade for the next patient.'

All night, huddled in public shelters, frightened citizens would hear snatches of news from Air Raid Precaution wardens who poked their heads in: 'The Birmingham Road's blocked'; 'Woolworths is gone'; 'The cathedral's on fire.'

Just before midnight, a further wave of bombers swept across Coventry. They had no need of navigational aids now: the burning city was a beacon, their targets illuminated as clear as day. By 1am, all the windows in the operating theatre at the Coventry and Warwickshire Hospital had been blown out.

'It was an amazing scene,' said Dr Winter. 'Patients were lying head to toe on every inch of space. Near the entrance lobby I noticed the hospital superintendent. He was kneeling beside the patients lying on the floor, and as I passed along I could hear a few words of their prayers.

'Although we had only 440 beds, we had 275 patients when the raid started, and hundreds more were admitted during the night. New patients were put on top of the beds while the old patients sheltered underneath them.

'At 4am our emergency light failed as I was in the middle of an operation. We quickly rigged up an automatic headlamp to a battery set and I finished the job. Bombs were still crashing down and every few minutes hunks of earth and debris crashed against the brick wall outside the theatre. By this time no one even bothered to duck.'

. . .

While London held the unwelcome record with 126 attacks, Merseyside - including Liverpool and Birkenhead - was Hitler's number-one target outside the capital on account of its links with the Atlantic. On November 28, more than 350 tons of high-explosive bombs, 30 large land mines and 3,000 incendiaries carpeted the area, killing almost 300 people.

One of the most distressing incidents of that dreadful night happened at the Ernest Brown Junior Technical College in Liverpool's Durning Road, the basement of which had been converted into a large public shelter. When the alert sounded, two trams stopped outside and the passengers streamed into the already crowded space. At 1.55am the school took a direct hit.

The three-storey building collapsed into the basement shelter, killing some people outright and burying others alive. Gas and boiling water from the fractured central-heating system poured in, and wooden beams ignited - 164 men, women and children were killed in the shelter and 96 were seriously injured.

The Lucas family lived in nearby Chantry Street. They used the school shelter nightly, but on November 28 Mrs Lucas had decided to stay at home with baby Brenda and six-year-old Joe, because people in the shelter had complained about Joe's whooping cough keeping them awake.

She sent her other four children to the school in the care of 17-year-old Florence, the oldest. All four children died in the shelter: Florence, George, aged four, Frances, nine, and Winifred, seven. 'The trauma of that night was so terrible that for six months my mother couldn't speak,' remembers Joe Lucas, now 76. 'She never spoke a word. Brenda was only a babe in arms, but for a long time Mam wouldn't let us more than an arm's length away from her.'

There's much more in the source articles, here, here and here, as well as many photographs. Recommended reading - and I'm certainly going to be buying a copy of the book from which they were drawn, when it becomes available in the USA.


No comments: