It Came Through Our Door and Roof!
Firstly I must apologise for having such a poor blog. Months or even years seem to flit by without an entry – I dunno I always seem to have something on somewhow like giving birth or something. So sorry about that.
Well, I’ll try and redress the balance a little here.
My mum recently sent me a piece of writing that her Uncle Bill had done quite some years ago now. He’s no longer with us sadly but his son found the piece on his computer after he died and it was probably one of the last things he was working on.
It is a little bit of family history. It is set in 1941, in Saltash/Plymouth on the Cornish/Devonish border during the war, when Bill is 10 years old and my mum Rosemary has just been born.
I hope you enjoy reading it – I certainly did, but then I guess it means more to me than most.
I warn you it is quite long so if you are not interested – then don’t bother reading anymore from this point.
Postscript: Of Bill’s family, only Fred survives, although Arthur and Jack’s widows are still alive. My grandad Jack (or Jeff/Oppo) is still alive at 92 although poorly and now conversely living back in Devon. After the war he had to go where the jobs were and ended up at Courtualds at Coventry and the family moved to Nuneaton when my mum was 15. Bill became a civil servant in London and lived in Kent.
IT CAME THROUGH OUR DOOR AND ROOF! A NIGHT AND A DAY IN 1941.
BY WILLIAM ASHFIELD
On Sunday the third of September 1939 I was not feeling very well. Consequently, at eleven o’clock that morning I was not filing into the choir-stalls of SS Nicholas and Faith Church, Saltash, with the other choirboys, but sitting at home with my Mum, Dad and sister listening to Neville Chamberlain, the Prime Minister, saying on the radio ”......I therefore have to tell you that as from 11 o’clock this morning a state of war exists between this Country and Germany.”
To a boy who had only recently had his ninth birthday, this did not mean very much. Wars, as I had learned from history lessons at school, were exciting things that happened in other countries, and although we were involved we at home in England would not be affected. I mean, the last war (1914-18) all took place on the Continent didn’t it? True, there were a couple of times when a Zeppelin ventured across the Channel and dropped some small bombs I had heard, but that was the closest the actual fighting had come to this country. Surely it will be just the same this time? Ah! The innocence of childhood! I was soon to have my cosy view shattered.
Mr. Chamberlain’s broadcast had hardly finished, it seemed, than we heard the wail of the sirens sounding the “Alert” for the first time. There was one at the top end of the park in Callington Road only about two hundred and fifty yards from home, which meant that we could hear it starting up, its note very low to begin with but rapidly rising through the scale both in pitch and volume until it reached its maximum and then the note descended about six tones, then up again to the top, then down again, up, down, up, down, on and on it seemed to go for ages. It was a sound that, although I had no idea as to what it might portend, it made my blood run cold and my heart beat faster. (Even in later years, long after the war was over, and the sirens were used to call out the Fire Brigade, my heart skipped a beat when they sounded.) The “Alert” only lasted a very short time and then the sirens sounded the “All Clear” – a long, sustained note at the top of its range. We subsequently learned that the same thing had happened up and down the country, so the likely explanation is that it was a test pre-arranged by the Home Office and not an air raid at all.
Our household at the outbreak of war consisted of Dad, Mum, my sister Joan, and me. The remaining family comprised Jack, who was in the Royal Navy and away on commission; Fred, who had joined the T.A. earlier in the year, and serving in a coast artillery battery at Western Kings, Plymouth; and Arthur, a Civil Servant in the Admiralty in London. We lived in a four-bedroomed terraced house in Fore Street, Saltash, about sixty yards down on the right-hand side from “Double Lamps” ( a single lamp post with a cross arm at the top at each end of which was a street light )which stood in the middle of the junction of Fore Street, St. Stephens Road, Callington Road, and King Edward Road.
The house was solidly built, thank goodness, with large rooms, high ceilings, and tall windows. The outer front door, which opened directly onto Fore Street, was of solid wood with a ceramic door-knob about four inches in diameter set in the middle, and with the usual heavy iron door-knocker. Behind the outer door was a small square area, then three steps up to the inner door – another wooden one but with vertical glass inserts in the upper half. This led into the passage; the long flight of stairs was directly ahead going up along the wall to the left, and on the right were the doors to the sitting-room and living- room.
The declaration of war seemed to make no difference. Joan, my sister, married Jeff. His Christian name is Jack but he was known as “Jeff” or “Oppo” so as not to confuse him with my brother Jack. He was a writer in the Royal Navy stationed at Devonport, in October 1939, and they went to live in a flat in Victoria Road, St. Budeaux.
My brother Jack returned from his commission and married Cath Williams in February 1940. In fact, Jack’s wedding really brought the war home to us. He had been serving on board the aircraft carrier HMS Glorious as a writer. He and another writer on board had completed their time but only one relief arrived. The story as I heard it was that the other writer, who was senior to Jack and so had first claim to the relief, said to Jack “You’re going home to get married, so the relief is yours” , so Jack left the ship. A matter of months later, she was sunk in the North Sea with a great loss of life.
Dad was recalled to the Navy and posted to Bath as second in command of the Admiralty Guard. The Admiralty had evacuated large numbers of staff from London and relocated them in Bath, their “offices” being schools and hotels which had been requisitioned. These were guarded by sentries from the Royal Navy (the Admiralty Guard). It meant that he used to see my brother Arthur quite a lot as he was one of the Admiralty staff now out-stationed at Bath.
Apart from that, life continued as normal throughout the rest of 1939 and into the Spring of 1940 with only small changes from time to time, like the issue of ration books, clothing coupons, identity cards and gas masks, and the requirement to screen the windows at night so as to prevent any light whatsoever shining out in case it was seen by enemy planes, and, of course, there was the blackout – no street lighting at all. Then the immaculate lawns and flower beds on the upper level of Victoria Gardens were dug up and replaced with a public air raid shelter – an “E” -shaped structure of reinforced concrete constructed in a trench about seven feet deep, roofed with reinforced concrete also (except for the centre spur which was the access ramp), and then covered with the earth that had been excavated which was then grassed so as to add further protection and also camouflage it from the air: seating (wooden slats on upright breeze blocks) was placed along each side. Piles of sand were deposited at intervals in the gutters of Fore Street. Gangs of men shovelled this into sacks until they were about three quarters full and then tied the top. Yes, I saw my first real sandbags! These were used to build protective walls in front of the Banks and the Post Office (which was then in Fore Street, opposite Lloyds (?) Bank.
Gradually, more and more Service personnel appeared in the town. We had always had a strong Naval presence, of course, what with HMS Drake, the Devonport naval barracks, being just across the river, but now we had Army and RAF as well. The Army mounted sentries at both ends of Brunel’s railway bridge and also manned a heavy anti-aircraft battery at Carkeel, about three and a half miles outside Saltash. Those guns were heavy too! When they opened up, the windows rattled and it sounded as though they were in the street right outside the house! The RAF personnel were from the RAF Regiment and manned the various barrage balloon sites – one in the park in Callington Road, another at Wearde Camp, and yet another out at Pill.
We youngsters used to watch the Army doing weapons training. The soldiers must have been raw recruits and many of them were absolutely useless and had to do things over and over again. By watching them and their instructor I and several of my pals learned how to dismantle and re-assemble a Bren gun and when the poor bloke had to do it yet again, if he got stuck we used to prompt him. Watching the RAF deal with the barrage balloons wasn’t nearly so interesting. The balloon was anchored by a cable which passed through a pulley concreted in the ground to a motorised winch mounted on a lorry. When the balloon needed more gas, it was winched down and as it neared the ground men would grab hold of the wires dangling from it and use these to secure the balloon to the circle of mooring points, the gas was pumped in, the moorings released, and the winch-operator allowed to balloon to rise. I don’t know the height they used to go to.
So far as the war was concerned, we almost came to forget that there was one. We saw planes from time to time, but they were ours. The sirens went occasionally, but it was nearly always a false alarm. I suppose Mum noticed it most when she came to cook, although I didn’t realise it – there was always
something to eat – but no longer could she simply make out a shopping list and get as much butter, margarine, meat, sugar, sweets, or anything else she wanted. You were allowed only as much as your family’s ration books entitled you to. It was not until the fall of France and the Dunkirk evacuation that the war really started coming to our door. Now that they had airfields just across the Channel in France the Germans were able to make frequent sorties over us and the daylight raids began.
Plymouth was a prime target of course. Not only did it have the Naval Dockyard and Barracks, but large Army Barracks too being a garrison town, and some Air Stations in the vicinity.
Often we would stand out in the back garden and watch. These were not raids involving a great number of bombers, just three or four with fighter escort. I remember standing in the garden with others on one occasion watching a dog-fight taking place in the sky above us and we all cheered as one of the planes plunged downwards with smoke pouring from it. We cheered because it simply had to be a Jerry didn’t it! It couldn’t possibly be one of ours!
You will have heard about the Battle of Britain: well, this was our corner of it. As the RAF gained the supremacy the daylight raids became fewer and fewer and eventually stopped altogether. Then the night raids started!
At first, these were short and sharp involving only a few planes and bombs. Gradually, they increased both in intensity and duration. It is surprising what one can get used to, however. The sirens used to sound practically every night, usually when I was in bed and fast asleep. The planes used to be flying over Plymouth, and represented little or no threat to Saltash. As a result I was allowed to sleep on; the sirens had not woken me, and after the first few times, neither did the guns at Carkeel. Only occasionally did my mother wake me and tell me to get dressed and go downstairs, and that was when the odd bomb was dropped closer to home. Probably these were “strays”, dropped too soon by a raider making his return run over Plymouth before heading out across the Channel back to base.
I see from H. P. Twyford’s book, that the first bombs were dropped on Plymouth on 6 July 1940 and the last (after six months without any raids) on 30 April 1944. After London, it was the worst-bombed City in the Country. Despite this, it merited only a brief mention in the VE Day commemoration programmes.
By this time, Joan & Jeff had had Rosemary (born 25 January 1941) and were living with Mum and me. Dad was still serving at Bath.
I cannot remember the date, but I have always known it was around Easter-time. From H. P. Twyford’s book it would seem that it was the night of 22nd, 24th, 29th, or 30th of April. Whatever the date, it was obvious right away that tonight’s raid was going to be different from those we had become accustomed to during the past six months or so. The sirens wailed their warning much earlier than usual (I wasn’t in bed even). It must have been around 9.30 to 10 o’clock because Joan made up Rosemary’s feed of Ostermilk in a jug which she put in the hearth with a cork table-mat on top to keep warm. Very shortly after the alarm sounded the HAA battery at Carkeel opened up. They did not seem to be as loud as they normally were though and we realised the reason for this when we heard the distinctive rhythmic “thrum,thrum,thrum” of the bombers’ engines; tonight, they were approaching Plymouth from the West, so instead of the guns at Carkeel having to fire towards us they were firing away from us. Normally, the raiders came across the Channel and straight into Plymouth, or crossed the Channel further to the East and then turned Westward and flew across Plymouth. Coming from the West, as they were tonight, meant that their flight path brought them directly over Saltash.
Then came the distant crump of bombs. Gradually, they got closer and their crumps were punctuated from time to time by the much heavier whoomph of a land mine (a huge bomb which came down on a parachute). By this time, Rosemary had been brought downstairs from her cot, and when the explosions started rattling the crockery in the sideboard it was decided that we should take shelter in the cupboard under the stairs which, so we had been told by the authorities, was the safest place in the house if we had not been provided with an Anderson shelter. (Thinking about it now, it was strong, but it also contained the gas meter! )
I was sent in first and told to get as far as I could down to the point of the “V” where the stairs met the floor. Although I was only coming up to my eleventh birthday I was quite tall but luckily there was no ceiling to the cupboard so I could get my head by a stair riser: even so, my head was bowed and my back slightly bent over. Rosemary (three months old) was passed down to me to cradle in my arms, and then Joan, Mum, and Jeff piled in and shut the door. As you can imagine, the cupboard was not very high, it was impossible for anyone to stand up in it, so there we all were, sitting on the floor, listening to the guns and bombs, and feeling the vibrations coming through the floor. In there you could not hear the whistle of the bombs as they fell, and I doubt whether it would have been possible to hear them outside with all the racket that was going on. Then, during a brief lull, we heard a most incongruous noise. It sounded like three or four people running down the street one after the other and clapping rapidly as they went. The clapping was not in unison, each person clapped independently of the others, and so we heard “clap, clap, clap”, “clap, clap”, clap, clap, clap, clap” until it was drownd out by more bombs exploding. Suddenly, the stairs flexed downward, forcing me to be almost doubled over. I remember calling out: “Its breaking my neck!”. Joan used to say later that in doubling over as I did I saved Rosemary’s life. Not true! The fact is, I was forced into that position and, if I had had to stay like that a bit longer Rosemary might well have been stifled! Luckily, the pressure was only momentary and then the stairs went back to normal, and we became aware of a lot of “something” falling on them. I had no idea what it was, some of it hit the stairs with a sound like heavy rain or hail hitting the pavement while other pieces fell with quite a thump. Thank God! The powers that be were right; the cupboard under the stairs certainly was the safest place in the house!
How long we sat there in stunned silence I do not know. The sound of bits and pieces falling had stopped and I was wondering what had happened. I had heard no explosion so it could not have been a bomb could it? What had made the stairs move like that? It was decided that we had better make our way to the public shelter in Victoria Gardens (the one mentioned in the Prologue). I started to feel a bit panicky when the door would not open, but after a bit more pushing (by Jeff I suppose) it started to move. It made a scraping sound as it did so, and it would not open fully, something was stopping it. At any rate, it opened sufficiently wide for us to get out. Joan took Rosemary from me as I came out of the cupboard and my mother gripped my hand. In complete darkness we all picked our way cautiously to the back door, crunching something under our feet all the way along the passage as we went. Once in the back garden we became aware of the raid still going on, the planes still flying above us, the guns banging away. Still, we could now see better where we were going and could move a bit faster. We still had to watch our step though as there were bits and pieces lying on the path and scattered over the garden. Then there was a fizz, thud as something landed in the earth to one side of us. (It turned out to be a piece of shrapnel from an anti-aircraft shell. We forgot that what goes up must come down!) Probably because of this we went into our next door neighbours’ (No. 76) shelter to wait for a lull in the raid before making our way to the public shelter.
When we arrived there it was in darkness. Lights were fitted but they were not switched on lest a stray beam should be seen by an enemy aircraft. We were met at the entrance by an Air Raid Warden who acted like a cinema usher and led us, using a torch to guide us between the feet of people already sitting along each side. As we went along, somebody asked “Who’s that?” “Ethel” Mum answered (there was no need for her to say any more; everyone in Saltash knew everyone else at that time). “Oh, good! Are you all O.K.? What about Joan and the baby?” “Yes, we are all here” said Mum. The Warden found us seats on the right-hand side of the top arm of the shelter, by coincidence next to Mrs. Olver (Beattie), a very good friend of Mum’s. She lived next door down from us in No. 74. Her husband, Alfie, was patrolling his beat as a Warden.
Having seen us settled in the shelter, Jeff said he would go and check on my two Aunts and Uncles who lived in the town and would come back later. Being the latest arrivals, Mum and Joan were asked what was happening and the same question was asked each time someone else arrived. One snippet I remember was someone saying that the Wesley Church was on fire.
Outside, the raid continued while inside there was a hum of conversation as people talked together about what had happened to them that night and what they might find when the raid was over and they returned to their houses. Without any warning, this buzz was interrupted by everyone swaying to one side (in our case to the right; I suppose the people sitting opposite us went to their left), all of us letting out an “Ooohh!” quite involuntarily. Quite a babble of conversation broke out immediately after that as families checked that the other members were alright, and then everyone started speculating about what might have been the cause. There had been no big bang but we had been forced over by a rush of air. We learned later from the Warden in charge of the shelter that one of the barges filled with ammunition (there were a lot of these moored in the Tamar) had received a direct hit from a bomb. That must have been purely by accident rather than deliberate. Bomb-aiming in those days was by no means as precise as we are led to believe it is today, and I should imagine that trying to hit one of the barges from however many feet up the planes were would have been similar to trying to hit a tiny piece of a match floating in a pond with one grain of sand from twenty feet!
The raid gradually petered out, the guns stopped, and the “All Clear” sounded. With that, the lights were switched on in the shelter and we were able to see each other for the first time for hours. My mother looked at Mrs. Olver and said “My, Beattie! You ought to see your face! It’s black! ” “Well Ethel,” came the reply, “you wait until you see your own!”. It was only then we realised that we were all filthy!
Not long after the “All Clear” had sounded, Uncle Don came to us in the shelter -he had earlier met Jeff who had told him where we were – and escorted us via King Edward Road to his house at the bottom of Victoria Road. As we passed Back Lane we could see the Methodist Church ablaze from end to end. Auntie Bess met us all with hugs and kisses and, best of all, cups of hot, sweet tea! She found somewhere for all of us to sleep. I don’t know where I bedded down, probably on the settee. We only had the clothes we were wearing when the raid started so had no pyjamas or anything clean to change into for sleeping. I was beyond caring about that, all I wanted was to be able to lie down and sleep. It was about 4a.m. It had been a very long, nerve-wracking, but, oddly enough, very exciting night!
I must have slept very deeply because when I woke up it took me a few moments to realise where I was ! Everyone else was up and about so I must have been allowed to sleep on. That, and wanting to get out and about and see what had happened to Saltash (and our house in particular) during the night is all I can clearly remember until I was eventually allowed to go. I don’t know whether I wore the same clothes as I had had on the night before or whether Mum had already been to the house and collected some for us all. No doubt I was made to eat breakfast of some sort before setting out. No doubt also I was told not to use the toilet in my Aunt’s bathroom: the nose-cone of an anti-aircraft shell had come through the roof and landed in the pan at some time during the raid. What a good job no one was sitting there at the time ! At last I was allowed out, being told to be careful and, when I went home, not to touch anything.
There were bits and pieces of debris in the road – smashed slates from roofs, broken chimney-pots and glass – and wires dangling from their poles. Reaching Back Lane I paused to look at the Wesley Chapel. It was only a shell ! I had never been in it but now it was completely open, not a door or a window in it. I walked in throuh the side doorway and looked around. It must have had a wooden floor because now there was no floor at all, just the foundations, and over in one corner you could look down into what had been the boiler-house for the central heating system. If there were any seats left they must have buried under the piles of rubble, certainly there were none visible. It was the first time I had really seen how devastating fire can be. Now for home. Emerging from the Chapel I could look up the lane and see the backs of our terrace of houses. At first sight they looked alright; at least, they were still there, apparently intact and not just shells like the Chapel ! Walking up the lane, however, I saw that the windows of many were broken, and slates were off the roofs. Reaching our back gate and walking down the garden path I saw that there was not a pane of glass in any of the windows, and, like all the others, there were loads of slates missing from our roof. I went through the door into the passage and immediately saw what we had been crunching under our feet as we had made our way out during the night. The ceilings of houses in those days were lath and plaster ones and it was this that had come down. The floor was littered with pieces of plaster varying in size from quite small bits to quite large chunks, some with the laths still embedded in them, and it was this which we had been walking on and which had made the cupboard door difficult to open. Picking my way carefully along the passage towards the front of the house I went into the living-room. Again the ceiling was on the floor in pieces, there was dust everywhere, and there was no glass in the window, but the first thing I noticed was the sideboard. It was a solid piece of furniture, about four feet long, with three drawers and two cupboards, the latter being full of glass, and crockery. As you can imagine, it was very heavy, and yet it was no longer in its usual place against the dividing wall between the living-room and sitting-room, but three feet out into the room, still standing and still parallel with the wall ! It must have taken some force to do that which made the next thing I noticed even more remarkable. The cork table mat which Joan had placed on the jug containing Rosemary’s feed was still in place on the jug in the hearth ! I moved to the sitting-room. Same story, dust everywhere, ceiling down, but this time there was something different. In the sunlight coming through the gaps where the windows used to be it looked as though sequins (and some pretty big ones at that in places) had been scattered about the room; something was sparkling on the floor, on the furniture, all over the place. Looking more closely, I found that it was slivers of glass from the shattered windows. I went to the piano, the family’s pride and joy, and saw to my horror that not only had the keyboard cover been left open but so also had the lid. Looking inside, the strings and the action (the hammers and dampers) were clogged with ceiling debris, and this was in between the keys as well. It was impossible to play a single note! Not only that, it had been marked by falling chunks of plaster and flying glass, in fact, there were pieces of glass sticking into it. Oh, what a terrible sight!
Looking around more, I saw glass sticking into the piles of music on top of the music cabinet and a piece of glass had been driven through the hard cover of an album that had been on the music rest on the piano and it had penetrated quite some way into the album itself.
I looked out of the window space and had a shock. The two rows of cottages that stood one behind the other directly across the road from us were not there any more. In their place was a pile of rubble. So that was it, it had been a bomb; strange that I had not heard an explosion. Still looking out of the window I saw that several pot – holes had appeared in the road during the night. Later, as I was walking down the street , someone explained to me that they had been caused by incendiary bombs. Then the realisation dawned on me, the clapping sound I had heard during the night was the sound of these incendiaries hitting the road – they used to be dropped in clusters ! It was discovered that one had also come through our roof but had, luckily, failed to ignite.
I started to go upstairs, I wanted to see my room. I had to be very careful as I went up because the stairs were littered with laths and plaster and bits of brick. I remember reaching for the bannister rail to steady myself and stopped just in time. Just where I was going to put my hand, a piece of glass (which, from the pattern on it, I knew had come from one of the panels of the inner front door) was sticking out of the rail ! Eventually I reached my room and on going in I was struck by how light it was. Looking up, I found that I could see the sky! Not only had the ceiling disappeared but the slates from the roof as well. My bed was covered with rubble – laths, plaster, and pieces of brick – and lying on top of the pile, right where I would have been lying, was a complete chimney-pot! I had never seen one at close quarters before and was amazed at the size of it!
I poked around the house for a little while longer then made my way out through the front (both the inner and outer doors were off their hinges) and started walking down Fore Street. Opposite the Wesley Chapel was a Church Army van from which two ladies were giving out cups of tea and wedges of cake to anyone who wanted it. Naturally I took advantage of this free offer and as I stood there eating my cake and drinking my tea I looked again at the Wesley Chapel. It was situated on the corner of Fore Street and Back Lane. The Fore Street part of the site is now occupied by ???? and the Back Lane part by the Post Office. Normally, from where I was standing one would have seen a tall, imposing building at the top of a very long and very wide flight of granite steps. The steps were still there but now they were littered with debris, and looking up them to the Chapel itself the sky was visible through what had been a tall window above the now empty doorways, and one could also see through the window space the upper part of the smoke-blackened side walls.
Having finished my refreshments I continued down Fore Street. People were clearing the debris from damaged buildings, the bricks, slates, glass etc. from the street, hose pipes were lying in the gutters. Of course, the only cars on the road were those belonging to the Services and the Fire , Ambulance, and A.R.P. (Air Raid Precautions) people, because petrol was rationed and very difficult to come by (eventually, it was not available to civilians at all). So, the fact that there was so much obstruction in the street did not interfere with the traffic very much. More bombs had fallen further down the street. One had hit our local flea-pit, a privately-owned cinema known affectionately as “Quickie’s”, being owned by Mr. Quick. Another had fallen in the road itself. Someone following the path of the bombs on a map came up with the suggestion that the target the bombers were aiming for had been Brunel’s railway bridge. To me, that seems a very reasonable explanation, and ,if it is correct, they were not all that far out !
On returning to my Aunt’s, I learned that Mr. Olver, our neighbour from No. 74, whose wife we had been sitting next to in the shelter, was dead. He had been out patrolling his beat as an Air Raid Warden during the raid and as the bombs came nearer he stood in his doorway. When the bomb fell across the road the blast had blown him and the front door to the top of the stairs. When the ambulance people tried to move him they discovered that he had been blown against the door with such force that he was impaled on the ceramic door-knob!