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York Blitz: Does He Speak Welsh?

Posted on 10 November 2012 | Narrative

There was no siren just a whistling noise that grew louder and louder followed by a terrifyingly loud bang.

The ground heaved and my bed shook. “What was that?” I heard Father shouting in the bedroom next door.

“It was a bomb,” my mother said crossly. “What did you think it was? Get John, now!”

It was the middle of the night and we had all been fast asleep, but we knew the drill. We rushed downstairs grabbing the three tin hats that were hung on the coat rack in the hall.

In the semi-darkness a debate began about where we should go.

“What’s it to be? The shelter or stay in the house?”

“I’d feel a lot safer in the shelter, if we could get there.” Dad’s voice had a strange calmness about it that did not sound quite real.

“It might not be over,” Mother cautioned, “What if they come back and we’re caught out there in the garden….?”

By then I was too terrified to care where we went.

Another long whistling noise followed by a thump and a shudder decided us. We flung ourselves into the alcove by the chimney breast in the front room. We were huddled so close together that our tin helmets rattled.

A pulsating droning in the sky grew louder. Somehow we knew these planes were not going to pass over – they were coming for us. Always cursed with a vivid imagination, I had visions of a swarm of angry bluebottles closing in on a corpse lying in the road. More bombs fell. Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang! They were coming in ‘sticks’ now, with a short pause between each explosion. Our front room lit up in brilliant pulses, for all the world like a photographer’s flash-bulbs going off in quick succession. The windows shook so violently all I could do was to I hold my breath and pray that the sticky tape recommended in the air raid precautions manual would save us from flying splinters if the windows did shatter. Then in the midst of this chaos the air-raid siren sounded.

“Thank you very much for telling us!” Father shouted. “Woken up at last have you? About bloody time!”

“There’s no need to swear Bill,” I heard Mother saying softly.

The aircraft noises came and went and so did the explosions and droning. Thankfully most of them sounding some distance away. I knew I mustn’t cry, but I started to shiver and I could not stop. My mother’s arms came round me. Suddenly there was a lull, startling in its contrasting silence, and there was another quick family debate.

Again Father’s voice had a false calmness about it. “Should we make a dash for the garden shelter or stay indoors?”

Fear showing through agitation Mother barked back, “I don’t know. Can we be sure there won’t be any more tonight?”

“I’d feel happier if we were in the …”

Before we could decide what to do that distant droning started again – another wave of aircraft was moving in. We stayed where we were in a huddled heap on the front room floor, cowering in the chimney breast alcove furthest from the window. We shivered, we waited and I think Mother was praying.

The whistling sound of one particular bomb began faintly a long way away, and grew louder and louder until it became a wild scream threatening to burst our ear drums.

“It’s coming down our chimney!” I cried.

We clung to each other and waited…

It passed over us. There was a dull, heavy thump, but, strangely, miraculously, no explosion. We were still alive, but the sense of relief did not last long. A plane roared low over the house and there was a violent rattle of machine gun fire. I was sure the bullets were pinging off our roof.

“That’s our Spitfires,” said Dad encouragingly. “Our lot’s after them now! Soon be over.”

I was not convinced. I was imagining some evil-faced Hun up there in the sky, with his sinister black-leather flying helmet and goggles, gleefully spraying us with machine gun fire, because he had run out of bombs.

Even with Mother and Father crouched protectively over me I did not feel at all like cheering. Perhaps Dad was right. The frequency of the explosions lessened and the aircraft noises faded.

It became ominously quiet and at long last came the plaintiff wailing of Moaning Minnie, the All Clear siren. What had those midnight raiders who had descended on us out of the darkness done to our town? What chaos was out there waiting for us?

 

Tentatively we opened our front door and went out into the street not knowing what to expect; dark figures in dressing gowns were emerging from other houses. We all met in groups in the middle of the road and from the vantage of our small hill looked down towards the city centre about a mile away. Lurid orange flames were glowing and dancing against the dark night clouds, while other smaller fires speckled the entire horizon; grim black smoke was boiling upwards.

Our next door neighbours were two spinster sisters, Mother called them Gert and Daisy, after the comedians on the radio. They were peeping out of their front door like timid kittens, but when they saw us all in the street they, too, emerged. One of them clutched a bottle of whisky as they joined us in the middle of the road. It was odd seeing all our sedate neighbours in their dressing gowns and pyjamas, some of the women had their hair in curlers.

It took some minutes for Gert and Daisy to realise what they were looking at, but when they did they started wailing and waving their arms in the air and crying, “York’s burning!York’s burning!”

“Drunk!” said Mother in disgust.

Drunk or sober we all helplessly watched the fires, wondering what to do. The adults were talking in low voices, as if frightened that the Germans might hear them and come back.

“I wonder if they got the Minster?”

“What are they bombing us for?”

“We’ve got no factories here.”

“Bloomin’ Germans.”

Then there was a plaintive woman’s voice, very quietly spoken. “I wonder how many have been killed….”

All went quiet, and another woman said sharply, “Shush, the boy…..” They were all looking at me in the semi-darkness.

“It’s getting very cold out here,” said Mother briskly. “What we need is a nice hot cup of tea.”

I was ushered back into the house, the kettle was put on and the tea cups brought out. And comforting normality returned.

“Put in plenty of sugar, John,” Mother ordered. “Sweet tea is good for shock.” I did as I was told though there was not much of my weekly sugar ration left in my own, personal jam jar. “Now drink up and get yourself back to bed. You’ve got to get up for school in the morning.”

“School!”

It was four o’clock in the morning! We had just been bombed by the Germans. And I was expected to go to school?

That was definitely not fair.

 

Over breakfast, a few hours later, it seemed like a bad dream. Had it really happened? And Mother was having second thoughts?

“Do you think it’ll be safe? Should he really be going to school?” she asked Father.

“Business as usual! I’m going to work, he’s going to school.”

So off I went. The first thing I noticed at the bottom of our hill was that the road to the shops had been blocked off. A notice read ‘Unexploded Bomb’. It was probably the one I thought was going to come down our chimney. I looked down the side street near the primaryl school. Some of the houses had collapsed, spilling bricks and torn timbers right across the road. Air Raid Wardens were climbing all over the rubble digging holes.

A policeman was standing nearby and as I stopped to look he waved me on with a gentle movement of one finger. “Nowt for you to see here, lad. Get yerself off to school.”

But I could see. People were buried under there; that was why they were digging holes in the rubble, and there was an ambulance waiting with its back doors open. I hurried on.

When I reached the main road it, too, was partially blocked. A bomb had fallen on the convent school tumbling half of it into the highway and slicing open the building where the nuns lived. Holy pictures and crucifixes hung on the walls of upstairs rooms that no longer had floors. Different coloured patches of wallpaper marked the different rooms. I was staring up at what must have been the nuns’ bedrooms, private places now brutally ripped open for everyone to see. And what was worse there were iron bedsteads half sticking out of the rubble. Were the nuns lying buried under there? More men were digging into the piles of debris.

I nervously skirted the rope barriers around the spilled-out bricks and hurried on. From the city walls I looked down on the devastated railway station and the smoke that was still drifting from the ruins. The girders that had once carried the great, Victorian, glass roof over the platforms were just a tangled jumbled mass. I felt a guilty admiration for the German bombers – they had flown all the way fromGermanyin the dark and blown our railway station to bits.

Not all the German bombers had been so accurate on their bombing runs. Near the river a warehouse was a smouldering shell and the old Guildhall on the opposite bank had lost its roof. I crossed the river, ran along the bank and turned up Nellgate to school only to find a blackboard propped up on the pavement.

‘To all pupils,’ said the chalk message, ‘return home and you will be notified when you can come back to school.’

I looked down the passage that led into our playground and discovered that my school had gone; it was just another pile of bricks, broken timber and plaster. Complete shock was overtaken by bewilderment and then delight. Hurrah for Hitler! No more school!

 

Father had also been sent home for the day, because the railway station had been put out of action. Throughout the city a lot of people had been killed, probably about eighty, said the rumours, including nuns in the convent. There were whispers that the worst casualties had been in a housing estate that straddled the railway line, on the outskirts of the town. There the houses had been victims of the near misses on the station.

Mother’s main concern was getting back to normal and buying bread and milk before it all disappeared, but the road to the shops was still blocked by an unexploded bomb. The ARP wardens had been round and told everyone that the bomb was inside a house just two streets away, and that it could go off at any time.

We turned on the radio and found we were on the BBC news.

“Last night German bombers raided the ancient city ofYork. There was a number of casualties, but only minor damage was caused.”

I was aghast. How could they say that? The BBC was telling lies? And then the announcer added, “The world famous cathedral atYorkescaped damage.”

“What!” cried Father shouting at the wireless. “You stupid idiots! Fancy telling them that! That’s what they were after, you twerps! They’ll be back now. You see!”

Five minutes later there was a knock on the door. It was an elderly neighbour from the opposite side of the street.

“Have you heard what they said on the news?” The old man was almost beside himself with rage. “Of all the daft things to say.”

Other people in the street were appearing at their front doors anxious to share the same views. They were all convinced that the Germans were only interested in bombing cathedrals, and as they had been told that they had missed ours the first time they would be back. We were convinced of it. Then three Spitfires roared over our street in formation, but instead of cheers they only provoked mutters of disapproval. “Where were you last night when we needed you?” demanded our neighbour

 

We were having tea when the unexploded bomb exploded. An ARP patrol car came round with a loudspeaker on the roof telling everyone not to be alarmed; it was not the start of another air raid.

“Good,” said Mother. “Now I can get some bread.”

I went with her. The street barrier had gone, and when we looked up the street where the bomb had been there was yet another gaping gap in the row of houses, and another horrible pile of bricks and plaster. Only then did it strike home. That was someone’s home and all their possessions, all their toys, had just vanished. Where were they going to live?Waleswith its mountains and gorse-strewn fields was another world and another life.

We bought some tired looking bread from the shop and that made me feel even worse. Here there were no baking smells to tingle the taste buds. I thought of Uncle Bob, with his spiky eyebrows and his hairy arms slamming pieces of dough into the tins? This sad little loaf that I was carrying did not come from my bake-house. That was far, far away, warm and safe, undisturbed by the long, terrifying whistle of descending bombs.

When we got home with the bread and milk Father was oiling the wheels on the old pram that he kept in the work-shed. For years its only use had been as a kind of wheelbarrow for moving things around whatever garden we happened to have.

Towards dusk he brought it up the yard to the back door. Mother, meanwhile, had been busy in the kitchen and she put packages of sandwiches and vacuum flasks of hot tea into the pram. Father appeared with the family cash box and some papers, and they, too, went into the pram along with gloves and scarves.

I watched and said nothing.

When it was dark Mother said, “Wrap up real warm, because we’re going for a walk. And take your flashlight.”

And walk we did, taking it in turns to push the pram. And very soon we were out in the country. We stopped in a lane and sat on a fence and waited. It was cold. At one o’clock we ate the sandwiches and drank hot tea, but there was no ominous droning in the sky. At 3.30am Father said, “I don’t think they’re coming.”

So we walked slowly and sheepishly back home and crept back into our darkened street, quietly letting ourselves back into the house.

Excerpt from ‘Does he speak Welsh?’ by John Scott; childhood reminiscences of life as a wartime evacuee in Wales and then as a schoolboy in York during the Luftwaffe’s Baedeker bombing raid on the city.

Published by Red ’n’ Ritten, Southfields Road, Strensall, York.