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The Coventry Blitz and 50th Anniversary

by Helensmum

Contributed by 
Helensmum
People in story: 
My Mother
Location of story: 
Coventry
Background to story: 
VAD
Article ID: 
A2110906
Contributed on: 
05 December 2003

My mother wrote this account of her experience in the Coventry Blitz and going to the 50th Anniversary when my son was asking about World War 2 as part of his Sixth Form school work. She is not happy with computer technology so I am putting it on, with her permission, because we (my sister and I) think it deserves a wider audience than her (very proud of her) family. At the time of the Blitz she was 18.

"I recall that the air raid siren wailed at about 7 pm, just as I was in Broadgate on my way home. Within minutes all hell was let loose - bombs whistling and falling, fires starting, buildings rocking and crashing down all around - and a policeman blowing his whistle and shouting urgently 'TAKE COVER, TAKE COVER - GET OFF THE STREETS, GET OFF THE STREETS'.

I dived through the big glass doors fo the Gaumont cinema and just as I did so a big bomb hit the building, causing the ceiling to fall and the glass doors to shatter. I was blown over and partially buried. The blast caught the people sheltering in the stalls and the upper circle collapsed on to them. Many were injured, some were dead. We struggled and pulled people out from under the rubble and to this day I can remember how a young woman had her arms round her unconscious RAF husband (they had been married that morning) with his blood all over her brave new wedding coat.

We lined the injured up in the partial shelter of an undamaged foyer wall - hoping for an ambulance and rendering what little aid we could. Another enormous crash and the lights went out. This was not as desperate as it sounds because the buildings all around were on fire from cellar to attic, flames meeting across the road and lighting up the whole area as if it was broad daylight.

An ambulance crept towards us over the rubble, potholes and broken water mains, through the inferno. We stopped it and carried, pushed, pulled and led about 15 people into it, slammed the doors and watched it go - we hoped on its way to hospital. To my dying day - and I can close my eyes and conjure up the scene now - I shall recall the sight of it crawling into Jordan Well, flames all around it. Then it received a bomb on top of it and disappeared into a ball of flame. I was blown over again and pulled to safety by a young man.

It went on like this for many hours. The noise was tremendous with the whistle and whine of bombs and land-mines, the crump of gigantic explosions which made buildings shudder and fall, bringing more and more stuff down all over everything and everyone.

And that is how we stayed, huddled together with arms above our heads. We put a beautiful curtain from the foyer over the injured to try and protect them a bit - it was a lovely curtain, all reds and purples.

At about 6.00am the bombers' droning receded and we dared to hope that they were going away, not to return. At about 7.00am we all gingerly emerged into a a scene both awful and aweful - devastation like the end of the world. People were covered from head to foot in dust and dirt and blood and plaster - and it seemed, oh so quiet. We started off towards our various homes in a sort of crocodile, walking in what had been the middle of the road (feeling the heat through our shoes) because of all the fires and unsafe buildings. The buildings burnt and smouldered for over a week - no water supply.

I joined with those going roughly my way, dreading what I was going to find and hoping that my mother was all right. She, poor soul, had known that I was in the town and seen the horrific fires. But, there she was, at the end of the road among the rubble, coat slung over her shoulders, looking white and worried and anxious. When we spotted each other we clung on as if we would never let go.

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In the intervening years I had not thought of myself as much of a 'looker backer', so imagine my surprise when I attended the Memorial Service in Holy Trinity Church, to discover as the service progressed, a wealth and depth of emotion I didn't know I had. It was dredged up from way down, way back, out of the pigeon-hole marked 'The Past'

I had thought that a simple service for survivors would be a fitting and dignified way to reflect on that time of my life, the tennis club, the weekends in Stratford when we cycled there on Friday evening and back on Monday morning, University 'hops' with rival boy-friends in Medicine and Law, about old boy-friends who never made it to marriage and fatherhood. I think, no, I am sure, that any woman who has nurtured a boy child through teething, infant school, homework, cricket, exams, to young manhood and then have him go off to war (not of his choosing) and be killed before he had hardly started living, can appreciate the heart break. I thought of my brother's friends, killed in the Western Desert, the infamous Burma railway, of convoys protecting ships bringing us food from the USA. And I thought of the waste.....the utter WASTE of those young lives. Their lesser Calvarys.

It was a service both sad and comic. All those people of my own age-range, white haired, bespectacled, recalling briefly between hymns of how the'Blitz' had been for them....the lady brought up in an Orphanage because in two minutes a bomb fell on her home, killing her mother, father, two sisters, a brother and her Gran and she surviving because she had been put in a clothes basket under the dining room table. The man who had his trousers blown off by bomb blast outside Burtons the Tailors and his remark that in retrospect he should have taken the trousers off the window dummy which flew out at the same time. He said he had not thought of it!

Suddenly, in the middle of it all, the Air Raid siren wailed and we all froze for a second. To me the siren always posed the question was this going to be the day I died? Or would I be buried under rubble and slowly suffocate? Fanciful? Not really, it happened all the time. I must say though, one got used to diving into doorways and clutching at total strangers. As the war went on and I was posted with the V.A.D., R.A.M.C, to Southampton and London, both cities which received bombs on a fairly regular basis, it got rather routine. But I never got used to that wail.

I stuck it out until the hymn 'Abide With Me'. The tune is very moving and the words more so,

When other helpers fail
And comforts flee
Help of the helpless
Oh, Abide With Me

and it finished me off and I had to leave and seek a restorative cup of coffee. I was so very surprised at myself.

There have been numerous wars since 1945 (and stil going on). The whole world would appear to be in a desperate state - the Far East and Middle East in turmoil - suspicion and greed and hatred and bigotry; religous intolerance abounds. Terrorism. It is sometimes hard to remind oneself of the millions of ordinary people (of all nationalities) who do not want war, who want to live in peace with their neighbours, yet are caught up in violence not of their making.

I once read in the local Coventry paper that 'the last time Gerhard Baeker saw Coventry it was from the cockpit of his wartime bomber as it droned through a moonlit November sky, high above the city. Then the 25 year old pilot turned his heavily laden JU 88 into a sweeping loop and set its nose in a long, gentle dive towards the target below.' Herr Baeker was in the congregation, looking just like the rest of us. As, of course, he is.

Dresden, Coventry, Cologne, Berlin, London and many many more. As Mr Churchill once remarked 'Alas, poor humanity.'"

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