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Feeling the way through the dark

May 11, 2015

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When I was growing up, the “Blitz” in Liverpool was well known to me – which is odd, because I was born in Edinburgh, some 200 miles to the north, in 1952 – ten years after the last bombs fell.

However, my mother was born and brought up in Albany Rd, Kensington, a residential area of Liverpool, just to the north east of the city centre, and her reminiscences were scattered not just with local street names: Hall Lane, Empress Rd, Guelph St, Adelaide Rd, Wavertree, Old Swan, Jubilee Drive – but with references to the second world war – the blackout, the shelter, the Blitz.

Of course, when you’re growing up, your parents’ youth seems like the early years of a previous century, and the matter of fact way in which she made the references deflected any chance I had as a child of truly understanding what she had been through.

I suppose I was well in to adulthood before full realisation dawned. Firstly, the events of which she spoke had taken place less than a decade before I was born, and, secondly, from the age of 22 to 28 – theoretically perhaps the most free and exciting years of your life, she had lived through the threat of war. Indeed, even her 21st celebrations, a year previously, in September 1938 had been under threat just because of the threat of approaching warfare

The generality of that was hard to understand – but it was in the details that the reality really took hold – and her stories were filled with details, because, invariably, when she spoke of the war it was incidental to some other tale she was telling about her younger days. She never made a big deal of the war, though she never hid her memories, and always claimed that her mother, being a gentle soul, died so soon after the war ended because she had been worn out by the terror and the uncertainty.

Without a doubt, war had been unkind to my grandmother. When my grandfather was in the First World War – he was a gunner in the Royal Garrison Artillery, who saw service at Paschendaele – she had moved around England to see him in his various home postings – from Shoeburyness to Gosford and various points around the coast, taking along with her my mum, who was only months old, and her sister only a couple of years older. In the Anderson Shelter during the second war she had been terrified by the bombing, and not helped by her husband, by then an ARP Warden, with Great War phlegm, stating: “Don’t worry, Rose, you won’t hear the one with your name on it!”.

So my mother’s stories related the ‘mundane’ every day realities of living in war time: feeling your way home along the wall in the total darkness of blackout; the move from ‘under the table’ to cellar to ’Anderson shelter’ as the bombing intensified over the months, and the destructive power of the bombs was illustrated on a sometimes daily basis.

One day she came out of the shelter to go to work and saw that a house further down the terraced street on the opposite side to her own had been taken out by a high explosive bomb; houses on either side of it, apart from smashed windows, were apparently untouched; the family, whom she knew well, had all perished in the cellar, the only upstanding thing in the wreckage of bricks and wood was a bird cage on a stand, the canary dead inside.

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Civilians, she said, started to talk like soldiers: “Who bought it last night?”

The answers would be general or specific: “The Maloneys on Jubilee Drive” “Blacklers in town” “Jimmy Kelly, crossing Smithdown Rd” “Mr and Mrs Rimmer in Empress Rd – the dog survived” “The Pier Head caught it badly” “The ice rink.”

Of course, the bombing didn’t occur on a nightly basis. The raids started in late August 1940, when 160 bombers attacked for three nights, and over the next three month period were a succession of attacks, some ‘minor’, others involving up to 300 aircraft, leading to incidents like the deaths of 166 people in the Durning Rd air raid shelter. This period ended with the “Christmas Blitz”, when over 360 folk died, mostly in direct hits on public air raid shelters between December 20th and 22nd.

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However, it was the uncertainty of where or when the bombers would strike which shredded the nerves. Thirty years later, when an air raid siren was incorporated into the credits of the hit TV show “Dad’s Army”, the BBC had to limit its exposure due to complaints from people who were severely affected by the memories the sound brought back to them.

Civilian bombing depends, inevitably, on demoralising the public by creating a sense of fear and tension. The bombs would often be aimed at docks, factories, and other important installations – but ordinary homes were also targeted. When the sirens sounded, there was no way of knowing whether you would be ‘in for it’ that night.

Sometimes death was arbitrary – a stray bomber dispensing its load as it headed home, a church too close to the docks, a hospital mistaken for a factory. My mother’s sister had married before the war and moved out to the Childwall suburbs. Sometimes mum and her parents would stay out there to avoid the worst of the raids – but even Childwall was hit. Years later I would play in the ‘shed’ half covered by earth in my aunt’s garden with not the remotest idea it was the Anderson shelter where they had spent nights during the war.

But, wherever you were, the horror was inescapable. Mum described tuning in to “Lord Haw Haw” – William Joyce, who would broadcast from Germany on a nightly basis. Obviously, the Germans had detailed street maps and knowledge of Liverpool. Indeed, Hitler had close family in the city and had stayed there pre-war – an irony being that the house which had once been lived in by his relatives was destroyed in an air raid.

As a result, Joyce would read out a list of streets which would be bombed that night. Mum would recount the horror of sitting in the small living room, clustered round the radio, hearing the bizarre tones of Joyce announcing: “Tonight, the Luftwaffe will drop bombs on Kensington, Albany Rd, Saxony Rd, Albert Edward Rd, Empress Rd, Adelaide Rd, Leopold Rd.”

At this distance, it’s impossible to imagine the dread instilled by hearing your own street read out as a target for bombers in a few hours time.

Of course, the point of the broadcast was that you never knew if Joyce was reading out from a list provided by his Air Ministry, or whether it was mere psychological warfare. Similarly, when the siren went off, there was no way of knowing whether an actual raid was incoming – or it was a ‘false alarm’ – that phrase remaining today in our every day speech.

Even the sound of the “All Clear” from the sirens was a mixed blessing: were the raiders really finished? What damage would they emerge to find, what bad and tragic news? Would my grandad, on fire watching and ARP duties, arrive home safely, and, if so, what tales would he have to tell of what he had witnessed? He was a Post Office Supervisor, and one night the head Post Office was hit – how many colleagues did he lose?

Inevitably, life went on as normally as possible – what other choice was there? Mum worked as a book keeper for a furniture store run by the Swifts – a well known Old Swan family who included two young lads who, as Clive and David would go on to become well respected actors. She also volunteered with the Girls Training Corps, and became an officer in that organisation, and supported young girls ‘in trouble’ in various ways, taking them on  residential stays to Llangollen in North Wales, as an escape from the city bound horror.

The Church was important to her, and she worked supporting those in need. As was the way at the time, much of her social life revolved around her church, her parish, and religious organisations, so that the bomb damage to churches, schools, and similar buildings around the city was painful to her, and she knew many who lost their lives or who were badly affected by the bombing and destruction. She very rarely talked about the young men of her own age who were killed on active service.

However, one story symbolises the people’s approach to the times.

She often spoke of a young priest who was a hugely talented pianist and much admired by his parishioners. Returning to the church house after the ‘all clear’ one day, he was putting the key in the door when a stray bomb demolished the presbytery. The door lintel fell on him. smashing his arms to pieces. When he died shortly afterwards, the general feeling was that it was merciful, as to live and be unable to play the piano would have been unbearable for him. I suppose that’s an example of how you cope with unimaginable situations.

Of 4000 people killed in air raids in Liverpool during the war, around 1750 died between May 1st and 7th 1941 – in the “May Blitz” – with the same number seriously injured. For seven nights it involved nearly 700 Luftwaffe bombers, dropping around 2500 bombs. As was the case throughout, death was random – pick the wrong air raid shelter, the wrong time to check on a relative, a different route home – and you might find it fatal – or, for that matter – your choice and timing might be life saving. During this week, a ship in Huskisson Dock – the SS Malakand was set on fire by burning debris from bombed dockland warehouses – and 1000 tons of bombs in its hold were detonated as explosion after explosion decimated the surrounding area.

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When Mum spoke of the May Blitz, it was as if everyone knew what it involved – and, of course, if you had lived through it, that would be true. They had no way of telling how long it would go on for, and, when the Germans turned their attention towards the Eastern Front – from 1941 onwards, the people in Liverpool were still listening for sirens, still existing in a darkened world of blackout, shelters, and apprehension. Though they couldn’t know it, the last air raid on the city was in January 1942 – but the fear and alarm continued until VE Day.

In the sixties, we drew cartoons on our jotters of “Jerries’ fighting the ‘RAF’, we passed by or played on open spaces known as ‘bombsites’ without ever relating them to war, death, or destruction; we walked down streets and passed buildings where bombs had rained and death had become commonplace – we were ignorant. And folk like my mum told their stories quietly, possibly without any expectation that we could really understand, but not wanting the memories to be lost in time.

So I am ambivalent these days when anniversaries of the two world wars are marked with various celebrations and ceremonies, and when every military campaign and death is described as ‘defending our freedom’.

And I am worried that, in a very short time, those who have not experienced the actuality of war – at first or second hand – will come to see it as part of the great British ceremonial, with soldiers parading, flags unfurled, Red Arrows flypasts, and stirring speeches. Proud tradition rather than appalling tragedy.

Such an inaccurate, sanitised view merely increases the possibility of it all happening again, and we need to remember, and to honour those who died, in a more appropriate fashion.

For my part, I will recall the second war as a woman hunched over in a corrugated tin burrow, terrified at the wailing of the falling bombs, demented for the safety of her husband and children; a man ‘doing his bit’ for the second time in his adult life, trying to control the shakes as the impact of explosives detonating hurls him back to the mud of Flanders; and a young woman on her way home, feeling her way along the wall made invisible by blackout regulations, preparing for another night in the shelter, wondering what tomorrow’s dawn will reveal.

For the people of Liverpool, merely surviving was a kind of victory; making our lives better was the ultimate justification.

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