During the Second World War the Germans carried out a sustained bombing campaign against Great Britain and Northern Ireland which is known as The Blitz (from the German word Blitzkrieg, meaning ‘lightning war’). The attacks started in September 1940, and by the end of 1941 41,987 civilians had been killed. For many people the devastation was summed up by a photograph of St Paul’s cathedral taken by Herbert Mason and published in the Daily Mail on 31st December 1940.
The photograph was taken during one of the most destructive of all the raids which became known as the ‘Second Great Fire of London’ as it caused fires in an area greater than the original Fire of London in 1666. In just three and a half hours during the night of Sunday 29th December 1940 136 German bombers dropped more than 100,000 bombs on London. Whole streets were flattened by the blasts killing more than 160 civilians on the night with many more dying of their injuries over the following days; but the civilian population were only secondary casualties for the Germans as their main targets were train stations, communication lines, the telephone centre on Faraday Street and bridges over the Thames. The Square Mile (the part of London best known to tourists) was particularly badly hit with 19 churches (8 of which had been built by Sir Christopher Wren after the fire in 1666) and 31 guild halls being totally destroyed along with about five million books in London’s publishing district.
Many of the buildings in the Square Mile were not covered by the Fire Watchers Order of September 1940, and as they were closed and locked on a Sunday evening this gave the incendiary bombs a chance to quickly take hold. Only 12 x 3 inches, these small bombs were filled with magnesium which started intense fires that were difficult to extinguish. The raid was deliberately planned for when the River Thames was at a low ebb causing the water hoses used to tackle the fires to become clogged with mud; this, along with a drastic fall in water pressure when the mains were ruptured, made fighting the fires incredibly difficult.
As well as the bombs dropped that night there were also many unexploded bombs from the previous 113 nights of raids which made the work of the firefighters even more dangerous – 14 firefighters were killed that night with another 250 injured. Artist Leonard Rosoman, who was serving with the Auxiliary Fire Service on the night of the raid, was relieved of his hose and stepped back for a moment to rest, almost immediately a wall collapsed where he had been working and the two firefighters who had just taken his place were killed. Rosoman painted A House Collapsing on Two Firemen, Shoe Lane, London, EC4 as tribute to them.
Like Rosoman, the majority of the men who manned the pumps were volunteers; these pumps needed fuel in order to work so women carried out one of the most dangerous jobs of the night – driving vans filled with petrol through flame filled streets to keep the pumps working.
Although most of the fires were extinguished by dawn of the following day others continued to burn for days.
While most people have not heard of the Second Great Fire of London many will be familiar with the photograph taken from the roof of the Daily Mail building by Herbert Mason that night, and which has become one of the iconic photographs of the war.
The St Paul’s Watch was a multinational group first set up during the First War to protect the cathedral from German zeppelins then re-constituted when war was declared in 1939. Their job was to ensure that the cathedral was able to maintain daily services during the war, and they were on duty that night. When the Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, heard that St Paul’s had been struck by incendiary bombs (28 in total) he sent a message to the volunteers of the St Paul’s Watch saying that the cathedral ‘must be saved at all costs’; and through their heroic efforts the building remained standing whilst almost everything around it was destroyed.
It was at this point that Mason took his photograph of the dome of St Paul’ still standing amidst the smoke and ruin, illuminated by the fires which raged throughout the city. The picture was cleared by the censors the next day and appeared in the Daily Mail on 31st December 1940 (cropped to emphasise the dome and to omit many of the gutted buildings which had appeared in the original). Entitled ‘War’s Greatest Picture’ it soon became a symbol of the strength of the British people to stand together in the face of unimaginable odds, and survive; as the editor of the Mail said to its 1,450,000 readers, you should ‘cherish this picture as a symbol of the steadiness of London’s stand against the enemy; the firmness of Right against Wrong’. The photograph was also used by the Illustrated London News and Life magazine (in an America which had yet to declare war on Germany) as ‘a symbol of the indestructible faith of the whole civilised world.’
But, as with everything, this picture was used in Germany as a way to tell a very different story when it appeared on the cover of the photo-magazine Berliner Illustrierte Zeitung in January 1941. Far from seeing it as a symbol of hope and endurance the headline was ‘The City of London Burns’, saying that the smoke was not a symbol of London rising from the ashes but obscured the extent of the destruction wreaked by the Luftwaffe.
Whichever propaganda take you might have on Mason’s photograph, it still remains a potent symbol of the devastating attacks which London and so many other cities endured during the Blitz.
Children who grew up during the long years of the Second World War had a difficult life, they certainly had little idea of the type of Christmas festivities which had been enjoyed by their parents or older siblings in earlier years. With food shortages, rationing, and manufacturing focused on the war effort, these children had far less too enjoy than those who had gone before. But what was worse for most families was the fact that they had to spend the festive season without their loved ones – many husbands, fathers, brothers, and sons were fighting overseas, or were prisoners of war; many women were in the services or carrying on vital war work, many children had been evacuated and would be spending Christmas far from home with strangers. And many families had empty chairs at their tables which would never be filled again – family members killed in action or bombing raids.
As well as the sadness of separation Christmas luxuries were also hard to come by, even basic foods were scarce and people had to improvise by finding creative substitutes for festive ingredients. The black market did a roaring trade in December but, even so, few people were able to buy gifts which meant that many of the presents unwrapped on Christmas morning were homemade and practical. The government even encouraged people to ‘Make it a War Savings Christmas’, buying bonds and supporting the war effort rather than giving presents.
Making Christmas look as festive as possible was more difficult from 1941 onwards because it was impossible to buy Christmas wrapping paper thanks to the Ministry of Supply ruling that ‘no retailer shall provide any paper for the packaging or wrapping of goods excepting foodstuffs or articles which the shopkeeper has agreed to deliver’. This effort to save paper impacted on many aspects of life, including making it difficult to wrap Christmas presents and keep them a surprise. The shortage of paper also meant that it was almost impossible to find decorations so these, too, were homemade, often using old newspapers which had been painted in festive colours.
Britain’s allies understood the hardships of people back in the United Kingdom and set up charities to help. In America many of these charities came together under the umbrella of the British War Relief Society whose aim was to send food and clothes to those in need. In this photograph a young boy called Derek Cunningham received a Christmas card and gifts from the BWRS in Canning Town (London).
American soldiers were also encouraged to spend Christmas with their English allies in an effort to integrate more closely as they were often resented by the locals for being ‘overpaid, oversexed, and over here!’ Most GI’s had never been abroad before so to be spending Christmas away from their families was difficult for them. The idea was that civilians would invite an American to spend Christmas Day with them and, in return, the soldiers would bring gifts (nylon stockings, chocolate, cigarettes, chewing gum etc.). Rationing meant that the British had limited food supplies so each soldier who accepted an invitation was given special rations from the PX for every day that they spent with a host family (the PX was the Post Exchange which was the American equivalent of the British NAAFI). Despite initial misgivings the programme proved a huge success.
Added to the sadness of Christmas without family members and the hardship of trying to find food and presents during a time of rationing, was the fear of the enemy. In 1940 London had been bombed for 57 consecutive nights leading up to Christmas, and no one believed that Christmas Eve would be any different. Fearing for their safetly many people spent the night before Christmas in air-raid shelters rather than waiting at home for Father Christmas to call. It could be a very dark and dreary begining to what should be a festive season.
Some places which offered shelter did thier best to raise people’s spirits with decorations and maybe even a little tree. This picture, by Edmund Knapp, depicts the crypt of St Martin-in-the-Fields church (close to Trafalgar Square) which was used as a canteen by firewatchers, ARP wardens, and people whose homes had been bombed. The church itself was damaged by the massive bombing raid on 29th December 1940 but the crypt remained intact and in use for the remainder of the war.
Despite the hardship of a war-time Christmas some pre-war rituals remained, such as carol singing and pantomimes, and the BBC tried to help with the festive cheer by broadcasting a special radio programme for Christmas Day. In 1939 this programme included a Christmas speech from King George VI. Although there had been previous broadcasts by monarchs this message had particular meaning as it was the first year of the war. As well as praising the armed forces the king ended with a message of hope from the poem ‘God Knows’ by Minnie Louise Haskins:
I said to the man who stood at the Gate of the Year, “Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.” And he replied, “Go out into the darkness, and put your hand into the Hand of God. That shall be to you better than light, and safer than a known way.”
George VI’s speech was listened to by everyone who could get close to a radio, instilling a sense of common purpose as the country faced an uncertain future. It was to be six long years before the king gave his next Christmas message in a time of peace.
May I take this opportunity to send you all best wishes for a happy and peaceful Christmas, and hope that 2018 is all that you dream it will be.
We have just marked Remembrance Day, honouring those in the armed forces who have made the ultimate sacrifice for their country. But we should never forget the civilians who gave their blood, sweat and tears during past wars. The people of Coventry loom large amongst those who should be remembered.
As darkness fell on 14th November 1940 the citizens of Coventry wrapped themselves against the biting cold. There was a full moon and the usual autumnal fog had not materialised, leaving clear skies dotted with bright twinkling stars. A beautiful evening. Until the bombs began to fall.
Even before the Second World War Coventry had been an important engineering and manufacturing city; with the outbreak of hostilities that role was massively increased as the factories played an important part in supplying the military in preparation for an expected German invasion. The civilians who worked in the factories lived close to their places of work, leaving them vulnerable if the factories were attacked. Yet despite the importance of its industry Coventry was poorly defended, with less than forty anti-aircraft guns and only about fifty barrage balloons.
It was early evening, 7.10pm, when the first sirens began to sound and the German Pathfinder planes began to drop parachute flares. The bright lights floating down were beautiful but with a deadly purpose – to mark the target for the wave after wave of bombers which were not far behind. The first bombers dropped their cargo of incendiary bombs, creating over 200 fires which lit the night sky, making any more flares unnecessary. In one long night 400 enemy planes attacked Coventry in four massive waves, flying east to west then making a return run west to east, trailing endless lines of bombs behind them. The fires were so fierce that they could be seen from 100 miles away. Guided by the destruction below them the enemy planes passed over again and again, dropping land mines and high explosives. In all 30,000 incendiaries and 500 tons of bombs and land mines were dropped, nearly 50,000 houses damaged and 20,000 rendered totally uninhabitable. Three quarters of the city’s industry was put out of action; telephone, water, electricity and gas supplies were all totally disrupted. The tram system was unusable and 156 out of 181 buses were out of action. During the attempts to bring the chaos under control 26 firemen were killed and over 200 injured; almost 1,000 civilians were seriously injured, more than 550 killed. Only one German bomber was shot down despite the thousands of anti-aircraft rounds which were fired. The raid on Coventry reached such a new, previously unimagined, level of destruction that Joseph Goebbels later used the term “coventriert” (“coventried”) when he described other mass raids which caused similar levels of destruction toenemy towns and cities.
Although the target of the attack on Coventry was the war industry, Hitler also wanted to try to break the moral of the British people. Very few of those on the ground were in the armed forces – mainly those who manned the ack ack guns and other air defences – the majority of people involved in the rescue operations during that night, and the days which followed, were members of the Home Guard and voluntary agencies. The victims overwhelmingly civilians. In my novel, ‘Heronfield’, I pay tribute to the civilians who were caught up in that terrible night of 14th November 1940; their courage and sacrifice, their endurance and strength should not be forgotten.
An introduction to the characters: Sarah Porter is an auxiliary nurse who is home on leave and staying with her mother, Alice. They share an Anderson shelter with their neighbours, the Cooks and the Normans. Sarah’s boyfriend, Joe, is a member of the Home Guard…
Joe met up with Bob Dean at seven o’clock. They made their way to the roof of the factory which was their spotting position for the night. Bob rubbed his hands together briskly.
“It’s going to be a cold one tonight.”
Joe nodded as he picked up the binoculars and slowly scanned the sky for enemy planes. “It’s just the sort of night when I’d prefer to be snuggled up close with a pretty girl to keep me warm!”
“And we all know which pretty girl that would be!” Bob laughed.
Joe smiled ruefully. “It wouldn’t be so bad if I could see her more often, but she’s hardly ever here.”
Bob’s reply was lost in the wailing of the siren at the other end of the roof. The two men covered their ears with their hands until the deafening sound ceased. Even then their ears still rang, and they felt the echo of the siren roll around inside their heads. Joe shook his head to clear it, then pointed out over the city.
“My God, Bob! Look at that!”
Away to their left the sky was full of planes, like clouds of midges in the air above a still pond on a hot summer’s day. But these midges grew and grew until the shape of the enemy bombers could be see ndistinctly in the clear, moonlit sky.
“How many do you think there are?” Bob had to raise his voice as the awesome roar of the plane’s engines reached their still smarting ears.
Joe shrugged. “I don’t know. At least seventy or eighty, I would think.”
In fact there were a hundred, closely followed by three waves of equal number. The two members of the Home Guard watched the leading planes drop flares attached to parachutes, to light the targets for those who followed. Then the bombs began to fall.
Joe saw the ack ack open up, sending what looked like little puffs of cotton wool into the air, and the shells seemed to have no more effect than cotton wool on the armada of aircraft above them. The roar and thump of falling bombs was still distant, but as the planes drew closer Joe felt the vulnerability of their position.
“I don’t think we’ll be much use up here spotting tonight,” he called over his shoulder to Bob, as he ran towards the roof door that led to the stairs. “Let’s get down to ground level and see if we can be any help there.”
“Don’t worry! I’m right behind you!”
Within moments they were running out into the street and away from the tank factory, which must surely be a target for the enemy aircraft. There was a high-pitched screaming sound as a bomb hurtled down close by. The two young men dived into the relative safety of a doorway just as the bomb struck. It destroyed the end house of a terrace and left the adjoining one only half standing. As they left the doorway and ran through the clouds of dust, Bob saw the first flickering flames of fire spread along the fallen roof timbers.
“Quick! Let’s put that out before it spreads!”
It was easier said than done. The two men ran to the area of devastation that had once been a kitchen, and began carrying water from a ruptured pipe in two bowls they found lying nearby. It was hard, hot work, running backwards and forwards across the heaps of broken bricks, tables, chairs and pictures. At last they had the flames under control and, finally, they were out. All the time, Joe had been aware of the roar and thunder of the planes, the echoing explosion of bombs, the thump thump thump of the ack ack and the wailing of sirens. Now he stopped for a moment to look around him and stood rigid with horror. The factory where they had been on watch was situated high on a hill, and the whole of Coventry was spread before him like a map. The air was alight with searchlight beams, and full of aircraft raining down bombs in an endless stream. On all sides he could see the yellow glow of fires started by incendiary bombs. He saw that the raid was not confined to Coventry’s factories alone. Fires were burning in all areas of the city.
“There’s no point trying to make it back to HQ through this lot,” he muttered. “Let’s just get down there and see what we can do.”
As the two men made their way down the street a woman ran round the corner ahead of them, screaming as she came.
“My baby! My baby!”
Joe ran to her. “What’s wrong?”
“My baby was asleep so I didn’t go to the shelter. My house is gone! Where’s my baby?”
She turned and ran back around the corner. Joe followed close behind. A whole row of houses had been flattened by a stick of bombs, leaving little recognisable behind. The woman ran to the rubble and began to dig with her bare hands.
“She’s here somewhere! I know she is!”
Joe pulled her gently away.
“Wait in the street, love. Bob and I will see what we can do.”
Over to his right a ruptured pipe spurted flaming gas into the air. Somewhere behind a weakened wall toppled, and fell with a crashing of bricks as the two men carefully began to remove the rubble. It was not long before their bodies were soaked with sweat, their hands bruised and bleeding. After almost half an hour they found the family’s pet dog, a mongrel whose skull had been crushed by falling masonry. Joe looked at Bob, but said nothing. They both knew that the chances of a child remaining alive in this were remote. They dug on, slowly clearing an area of the more moveable debris. Then Joe stopped, his head to one side as though listening to something.
“What is it?”
Joe held up his hand, and Bob fell silent. Then Joe began to dig frantically, a little to the right of where they had been before.
“I’m sure I heard a baby cry,” he whispered as he removed part of a roof timber. Sure enough there was the edge of a white lace shawl, covered in red brick-dust. They were close to the child. Joe began to move more carefully now. A door had fallen against a partially demolished wall, leaving a small triangular space at its base. Joe reached carefully inside. To his immense relief his hand made contact with a warm, moving bundle. Gently he eased the child from its sanctuary and handed it up to Bob.
“She must be the luckiest baby alive. There isn’t even a scratch on her. That door saved her life.”
Bob made his way carefully across the rubble. He handed the baby to her sobbing mother.
“There you are, love. Now you get yourself and your little girl to a shelter. Fast.”
She smiled up at him through her tears.
Bob turned and called to Joe. “Come on. Let’s see what else we can do to help.”
The hours passed quickly. Sometimes the two men helped to dig in the rubble for survivors, though they lifted out more than one for whom the raid had spelt death. At other times they helped fight the fires which raged throughout the city, a task made increasingly difficult now that the water supply was totally unreliable. Clouds of choking black smoke hung in the air obliterating the stars, and also the waves enemy planes, but the drone of their engines could still be heard, along with the explosions of their bombs. Joe lost all sense of direction and had no idea where he was. The scale of destruction was so awesome that he was lost in the city which had been home to him all his life. Midnight came and went with no slackening of the raid. Dirty and exhausted, Joe thrust his face into a bucket of water for a moment, then shook it to send drops of water flying in all directions. Feeling only a little revived by the icy water, he surveyed the carnage surrounding him, and prayed that Sarah and her mother were safe.
There was a shocked silence in the Anderson shelter as the first bombs fell. Then Alice spoke.
“Well, it looks like this is going to be the real one we’ve all been waiting for.”
“How far away are the bombs, Mummy?”
Mary smiled reassuringly at Tommy.
“Don’t worry, love. We’re quite safe here.”
“Can Daddy hear the bombs?”
Mary shook her head.
“I shouldn’t think so, he’s in the army now. Remember?”
“He’s a long way from home, so a few bombs here won’t worry him.”
There was the sound of more explosions, seeming to be closer, and Sarah felt a tingling in her feet, as though the very earth was trying to tell her of its pain.
“How long will this go on for?”
Alice looked at Mrs. Cook and shrugged. There was no answer.
For a time they listened to the droning aircraft and the crash of bombs, at a loss for words. Then they heard the screaming sound of a bomb tearing through the air close by. It landed not far away with a terrific explosion. This time Sarah did feel the earth shudder. Moments later, debris rained down on the shelter, the thumps and bangs waking little Lucy who began to cry fearfully. Mary lifted her down from the top bunk and held her close.
“There, there, darling. There’s nothing to be afraid of.”
The strange noises, and obviously nervous adults, filled the child with fear, and she continued to cry, despite her mother’s best attempts to quieten her. For a time the child’s sobbing was the only accompaniment to the awful cacophony from outside. Then a small, frightened whisper came from the top bunk.
“I’m scared, Mummy.”
Mary’s hands were full with little Lucy. She looked pleadingly at Sarah, who nodded reassuringly. She got up from the lower bunk and climbed up next to the little boy, having to lie down so she did not hit her head on the curved roof.
“It’s all right, Tommy. We’re quite safe here.”
The six year old looked at her with frightened eyes.
“Really. Would you like me to tell you a story?”
The small boy nodded and snuggled close to Sarah as she began to tell him the tale of Goldilocks and the Three Bears.
The whole city seemed to be ablaze. Streets were blocked by rubble, hampering the fire engines and ambulances in their work. Even if the vehicles were able to get through, there were far too few to make the slightest impact on the devastation. Joe and Bob attached themselves to a fire-fighting team and their whole world shrank to the size of the small road where they were working. It was a world of heat and flames, roiling black smoke, screams and cries, the shouts of men trying to bring order to the chaos. All the time the planes droned overhead. The barrels of the anti-aircraft guns followed them through the sky until, locked in the cross beams of the searchlights, they fired at the monsters which were spewing so much death and destruction on what had so recently been a calm, ordered world.
Joe was exhausted after a day of working in the aircraft factory and half a night lost in the confusion of the air raid. Working under the orders of the senior fireman on the scene, he moved from one task to another like an automaton. The carnage no longer broke through the barrier his mind had erected to carry him through the night. The sight of a doll, its head crushed by a falling brick, touched him with a tinge of sadness, but as he helped yet another injured person from the ruins of her home and bandaged her wounds, the pain and blood moved him not at all. Joe wondered at this total detachment. He could only see it as a mental escape valve to enable him to preserve his diminishing energy.
The dark night was moving slowly and inexorably towards dawn when the ‘Raiders Past’ signal finally sounded at nineteen minutes past six, almost twelve hours since the first bomb dropped on the unsuspecting city. For a moment the rescue workers paused and raised their weary eyes in relief. The sky was now empty of planes, but they did not halt for long. The raid might be over, but the task of clearing the devastation would take days, probably weeks, of continued backbreaking effort.
Joe and Bob were directed into a house with part of the roof and wall missing. Their instructions were to search for survivors. Initially there seemed to be little damage. Dust hung in the air like a midsummer haze, but it did little to impede their view. The front room was undisturbed. The embers of a fire glowed in the hearth, a mug of cold tea stood on the table. As the two men moved out into the hall they heard a sound, perhaps a groan, coming from the direction of the partially demolished staircase.
“Is there anybody there?
Joe listened to the silence for a moment, then the groan came again. Within seconds Bob and Joe were at the staircase, carefully removing the shattered remnants of the banisters. They had soon uncovered part of a torso, a man, and Joe began clearing towards the head. The injured man was old and frail. A blow to the head had rendered him unconscious, but Joe did not think he was seriously hurt. A sudden intake of breath from where Bob was uncovering the man’s legs caused Joe to turn and look.
“What is it? Are his legs badly hurt?”
Bob shook his head. “No. They’re just trapped under the thing that made such a bloody great hole in his roof, and demolished this staircase.”
Joe felt his throat go dry and his hands clammy. He licked his lips.
“You don’t mean…?”
“Yes.” Bob nodded. “A damned great German bomb. I doubt it was brought all the way over here just to make a hole in a roof, so I guess that it’s liable to explode at any moment.”
“Then we’ve got to get this old fellow out.”
Bob sucked in his lower lip thoughtfully, then nodded.
“I think we can do it. The bomb’s resting on a pile of timbers and tiles and is trapping the leg against the wall. If I prop it up with a few more timbers, we should be able to ease him out.”
Joe nodded. “The poor old fellow must have been sheltering under the stairs.”
“That bomb certainly seems to have had his name on it.” Bob gently eased the timbers aside, his forehead beaded with sweat, his brow furrowed with concentration. Joe watched, unable to offer more help than to hold the man’s shoulders and keep him still. The seconds ticked by, each one seeming an hour, each minute a day. At last Bob looked up.
“I think we can get him out now.”
Joe released his breath. He had not realised he was holding it. Gradually he dragged the old man clear. One of his legs was lying at an awkward angle, obviously broken, and Joe was relieved that the unconscious man could feel no pain.
“Come on then, Bob. Let’s get out of here.”
“That could be a bit of a problem.”
Joe looked across at his companion, who spoke fearfully through gritted teeth.
“The timbers have slipped. The bomb is only supported by me now. I’m afraid that if I move it will go off.” He licked his dry lips. “Get the old fellow out of here. Then send someone in to prop up this bomb.”
Joe hoisted the man over his shoulder. “I’ll be back before you can say Jack Robinson.”
“You don’t have to come back, Joe.”
“I do. You’re my mate. Now just hang on a minute.”
Joe began to make his way along the hall. His burden was light, for the old man was frail, and it only took him a few seconds to reach the front door. The blast took him there, throwing him and the old man through the door with the force of the explosion, leaving them lying there on the pavement like two discarded rag dolls.
After what seemed an endless night. Sarah looked at the watch Joe had given to her the previous Christmas. 6.16. As she gazed at the watch her thoughts were centred on Joe. Where had he been through the long, dark night? Was he safe? For a moment her anxiety for him held her frozen. All night long she had prayed for the air raid to end, and now that it had she was afraid to leave the shelter to face the unknown. None of the others moved. Eventually it was Tommy who broke the tense silence.
“Can’t we go now, Mummy? I’m hungry.”
His mother smiled indulgently
“Of course. Come on, my dears.”
She picked up little Lucy, still sleepy and clinging tightly to her mother. Tommy climbed down from the top bunk and took her free hand. Alice rose stiffly to her feet as Sarah opened the door of the Anderson shelter. The early morning air was cold, and she shivered. It should have been dark, it was still over an hour before dawn, but an eldritch orange glow streaked the night sky lighting it so brightly that Sarah could see her surroundings clearly. Her home still stood, though the force of an explosion had blown some of the windows in. On one side Mary Norman’s house was intact, but on the other, where the Cooks lived, some of the walls were cracked and all the windows were shattered. The house next to the Cooks’ had no roof left, and the walls leaned at dangerous angles. One of the bombs that had landed close by, probably the one that had shaken the very foundations of their shelter, had scored a direct hit further down the street. It had demolished three houses and badly damaged four more.In others curtains billowed out from shattered windows. For a moment the small group of people stood in silence; then Sarah spoke.
“If it’s like this here, what will it be like in the city centre?”
Alice shivered. “Worse no doubt. Let’s get our place cleaned up first, before we go to look.”
Sarah shook her head. “No. You should stay here. The fewer people wandering about the better. But I must go. I have a feeling my training is going to be needed.”
Alice looked long and hard at her daughter. She feared for her safety, yet knew she was right. Finally she nodded.
“Just be careful.” Without waiting for a reply she turned to the old couple, who were staring speechlessly at their damaged home. “Come on, Mr. and Mrs. Cook, there’s plenty of room for you in my house.”
Sarah watched the small group split up, Mary Norman taking her two children home while the elderly couple gratefully followed her mother up the garden path and through the kitchen door. Sarah turned and made her way towards the centre of the city.
There was death and destruction everywhere. Houses lay in ruins. Shops and factories burned furiously and there were not enough people to put out the raging fires. People wandered injured and shocked through the streets, and Sarah felt she had awoken in hell. She was stunned and walked aimlessly through the destruction, not knowing where to go or what to do. Then she saw two ambulance men carrying a stretcher towards a bombed house and ran towards them.
“Wait!” she called. The two men stopped and turned towards her.
“If you’re looking for someone, I’m afraid we can’t help you. We’re very busy.”
The young men looked exhausted. Sarah guessed they had been working all night.
“No, you don’t understand. I’m an auxiliary nurse at home on leave. What can I do to help?”
The young man smiled gratefully. “Thanks, love. We could do with all the help we can get. Injured people are being taken to the local schools. Do you know where the nearest one is?”
“Good. Go there. I’m sure they could use your help.”
Sarah watched the two ambulance men making their way towards the bombed house, and wondered if Joe was as tired and dispirited as them. That was if he was still alive of course. As Sarah made her way towards the school buildings her fears for Joe increased, and she was tempted to try to find him. But where should she look? Where could she start? His job of spotting would have been over as the first wave of planes came in. What had he done for the rest of the night? Sarah looked around her at the destruction, which stretched away in all directions. She realised that to search for him would be a waste of time and energy. If he had survived Joe would go to her house. She hoped and prayed that would be the case.
As Sarah rounded the next corner, she saw the local school. Part of the classroom block was destroyed, but the hall was still standing. She was in a state of mild shock as she made her way across the piles of rubble and through the open door where she stopped, stunned by the sight which greeted her eyes. Those not too seriously injured were seated on children’s chairs, waiting patiently. A doctor and four nurses laboured incessantly amongst the more seriously injured, who were stretched out on tables that had recently held nothing more gruesome than school dinners. After a moment’s hesitation, Sarah made her way over to the doctor. He was completing the amputation of the leg of a teenage girl. It was a mercy she was unconscious for Sarah could see no anaesthetics and precious few other medical supplies. The doctor spoke without looking up.
“Wait with the others please.”
Sarah did not want to spoil his concentration but knew that she must speak. “I’m a nursing auxiliary. What can I do to help?”
This time the doctor did look up. His face was haggard but determined, and there was a look of intense gratification in his eyes.
“Thank God. Do you think you could deal with some of the less seriously wounded, while we do the operating?”
Sarah picked up a nearby first aid kit and made her way towards the injured. Most had superficial cuts which she could deal with, and she set to work. The number needing her attention seemed endless, and she worked long and hard, the needs of those around her driving all fears for Joe from her mind.
Sarah worked unceasingly throughout the day and on into the night. Long before the injured ceased to make their way to the makeshift hospital, they had run out of everything – dressings, sutures, disinfectant, bandages, painkillers, antiseptics. The list was as endless as their needs. Able-bodied people who had brought their relatives for treatment were sent home to search for any first aid supplies they could find. Clean sheets were brought in and torn up for bandages, then sterilised in an old tin bath of boiling water placed over a fire made from roof timbers. Water was collected from broken pipes, which dripped incessantly. There was no electricity, so light was provided by a few candles scavenged from nearby houses, but their light was barely sufficient. The windows were broken allowing the chill November wind to sweep in, and the hands of the doctor and nurses were numb from the cold. Some of those who were uninjured came to offer their aid. The blankets they brought were gratefully received, some being used to cover the windows, while the rest were distributed to the patients. There seemed little chance of evacuating any of the wounded to a proper hospital. So far there had been no communication with anyone in authority, and the destruction was so great that it seemed unlikely that there would be any improvement in communications for some time. An able-bodied young man in his twenties was sent to the Town Hall, in the hope that someone there could tell them what was happening and send them some aid. But as the day wore on they were still awaiting his return.
With facilities so limited, all those not seriously injured had been sent home, including those with broken limbs, but that still left almost fifty seriously wounded people laid on the school tables: a baby with a fractured skull and severe internal injuries, the teenage amputee, a mother who had given birth in the debris of her home and almost died from loss of blood, a man with a broken back, an old woman suffering severe shock and pneumonia. The list was endless. By late evening, more than twenty-four hours after the bombing had begun, there had been six deaths, two of them during emergency operations. The bodies were removed to a small classroom to await identification and burial.
The night drew on. Sarah had been working in the school for sixteen hours when she looked up to find that no one else was waiting for treatment. She straightened up slowly, her back aching from so many hours bending, her fingers numb with the cold, her head aching with a pounding, throbbing pain that had been going on for hours. As she rubbed her tired eyes, she looked around her at the people whose lives had been so dramatically changed in the space of just one day, but she could find no tears for them. She did not know why. Perhaps she was too exhausted, maybe she was in shock. She did know, however, that her family had been remarkably lucky, and for this she was extremely grateful. Mixed with this gratitude was a gnawing fear about what had happened to Joe. There had been so much death and destruction. Everyone who came into the school had their stories of bombed houses and shelters, raging fires, rescuers injured by booby trapped bombs and land mines. Her fears for Joe’s safety increased.
As she rubbed her freezing hands together, Sarah was approached by the doctor she had spoken to when she first arrived. He looked exhausted, his face haggard and grey, his clothes covered with his patients’ blood.
“I’m sorry, but I don’t even know your name.” His voice was weak and shook with exhaustion. Sarah guessed he was little more than thirty, but the day’s experiences had aged him immeasurably. She wondered if she looked as bad as he did; perhaps that was why she could find no tears for the suffering around her.
“My name’s Sarah Porter. I’m based at Heronfield House near Marlborough. I was home on leave last night.”
The doctor took a deep breath. “I’m Charles Bailey. I’m just an ordinary G.P., but somebody had to do this.” He looked around him. “God knows how long it’s going to take to make some sort of order out of this mess. If we don’t get some of these people to a proper hospital soon, they’re going to die.”
“Have you heard anything from the messenger you sent to the Town Hall?”
Bailey shook his head. “I doubt if he’ll be back before morning. I told him not to come back until he had some firm news.”
“I’ll stay on as long as you need me.”
Bailey smiled weakly for the first time. “Thanks, I don’t know what I would have done without your help, or that of the other nurses who came here. They all live locally. I suppose you do too?”
“Is your house damaged?”
She shook her head. “No. We were lucky.”
“Then I suggest you go home and get some sleep. I’ve sent two of the nurses home too, the other two will stay and help me tonight. Perhaps you can come back in the morning to relieve them?”
Sarah smiled weakly. “Thanks. I don’t mind admitting I’m exhausted.” She looked around at the patients. Some were unconscious, many more sleeping, others lay groaning in unrelieved pain. “I’ll see if I can get hold of some food when I come back.”
Bailey’s eyes lit up. “That would be fantastic. These people must eat if they’re going to survive.” He smiled warmly at her. “Now get off home. I’ll see you again in the morning. Goodnight.”
“Goodnight, Doctor Bailey.”
Sarah wrapped her coat tightly around her against the cold night air, and made her way over the mounds of rubble in the school playground. When she reached the road, she walked down the middle where there was less rubble to impede her progress, though still enough to prevent motor vehicles from knocking her down in the blackout, though the blackout was in no way complete. Fires still burned where houses, shops and factories had once stood. Rescue teams still worked amongst the rubble, although with diminishing hope. Work parties were beginning to clear some of the rubble from the roads. Sarah could not believe that these were the streets where she had played as a child, where she had shopped with her mother and walked with Joe. Coventry was unrecognisable. She had an empty feeling deep inside when she thought of how long it would take to get things back to normal. As she turned into her own road she saw for the first time just how bad the damage from the bomb had been. Six houses were totally demolished, while the Cooks’ next door to her mother’s was in very poor condition. The damage to her own home was superficial, and she was glad that her mother still had somewhere to live.
As she walked tiredly through the front door Alice came out of the kitchen.
“Sarah! Where’ve you been? I’ve been so worried about you!”
Sarah hung up her coat and made her weary way to the kitchen. She slumped down at the table.
“I’ve been at the local school, they’re using it as a makeshift hospital.” She looked across at her mother, who was filling the kettle. “It was awful, Mum. There are so many people injured and nothing much we can do to help.”
Alice took her hand and helped her up from the table. “I’ll have to boil the kettle over the parlour fire, there’s no gas. Come on, love.”
The two women made their way to the front room, where they sat in front of the fire as the kettle began to heat.
“Have you heard anything from Joe?”
Alice shook her head.
“Sorry love, I’ve heard nothing. But don’t worry, I’m sure he’s out there helping to sort things out. We’ve been busy here today, first clearing out the glass and boarding up the windows, then helping to clear the road. Mr. and Mrs. Cook are upstairs asleep at the moment.” She smiled encouragingly. “Your Joe is a good man. He’ll know you’re worried, but he’ll put his duty to help others first. He’ll be back, when things begin to get sorted out. Wait and see.”
Sarah nodded. “I’m sure you’re right, Mum. I suppose I’m just tired.” She tried to bury her fears deep inside as she began to tell Alice of all she had experienced during the day. The death and destruction, the pain and suffering, the feeling of helplessness. The tears began to flow at last, partly for Joe but mostly for Coventry, her home; for its people, for what they had been and what they had become.