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- People in story:
- Antionetta Drury
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- Contributed on:
- 29 March 2004
December 1940, and the Blitz was raging over London and many other industrial towns.
On the evening of December 12, my mother, Antionetta, and her sister Rosina, were getting ready for an all-too-rare night out. As they fussed in front of the mirror in the shared bedroom of their Sheffield home, Rosina's thoughts were with her husband, Billy, who was serving in Italy. They had two-year old twin daughters, and even with help from her doting parents, she found it hard to look after them by herself. Antionetta felt blue too. Wartime restrictions meant that she couldn't see her fiance, Cliff, my father, very often. She fretted that the daily dangers would jeopardise plans for her upcoming wedding. But on this night, the sisters did their best to put aside their worries.
They were going to the Empire Theatre to see Henry Hall and his orchestra, and in those days everyone dressed up for such a special evening. The sisters would look their best, and despite all the shortages, what galled them most was not having nylons.
They used an eyebrow pencil to draw a line up the back of each other's legs which gave the impression that they were wearing seamed stockings.
They were only a year apart in age and were very close. Antionetta picked up on Rosina's melancholy.
"Oh Antionetta, I thought I were looking forward to tonight, but now I don't know. Do you think Billy would mind?" Rosina asked.
"Of course not Rosina," the younger one replied in the brusque, yet caring, Yorkshire style. "He'd want you to go."
Throughout all the hardships of war, "keeping a stiff upper lip" only partially kept their worries at bay. So Antionetta was determined that tonight would be more than just a girls' night out - she wanted to forget their worries and have a good time.
Once ready, they looked so smart in their best wartime fashions.
They looked in on the sleeping twins, crept downstairs quietly, kissed their parents goodnight, and threw their big-shouldered fur capes over their best suits. As they stepped outside, their neighbours, especially the nosy Mrs. Ship who missed nothing of what went on in their communal yard, watched them clatter across the grimy flag-stoned courtyard. They both briefly thought they'd got away with not taking their regulation gas masks, but their father called after them and insisted they take them.
So their smart outfits were completed by the gas masks slung over their shoulders in cardboard carrying cases.
The complacency they, and many others, felt about their safety was about to end.
They hadn't been in the theatre long before they heard air raid sirens wailing and the rumble of enemy planes overhead. The orchestra stopped playing, the house lights went up, and Henry Hall himself asked the audience to leave. As they were filing out an incendiary bomb crashed through the theatre's spectacular domed ceiling and started a fire. There were screams and some in the crowd began to panic, causing a dangerous crush around the exits. There was a risk of major injury until theatre staff, and even Henry Hall who was still on stage despite the spreading flames, pleaded with the crowd to stay calm.
The two sisters clung to each other, terrified they might be separated.
Once outside, Antionetta saw that Sheffield's city centre, was, in her words, "a wall of fire."
The street was full of soldiers and members of the Home Guard directing people to various shelters. Antionetta and Rosina went to the one under nearby Swears and Wells' fur shop. Frightened by the noise, but outwardly calm, they struggled over the cracked pavements.
Inevitably, there was a backup when they reached the shelter, someone stumbled, and several people fell. The soldiers' barked orders restored order and no-one was seriously hurt. Slowly, too slowly for Antionetta who was terrified that another incendiary would fall, the shelter filled up until there was only room enough to sit side by side on wooden benches.
The crowded shelter was damp and soon developed a rank odour, but Antionetta and Rosina huddled together for warmth and comfort. Rosina was almost hysterical with fear for her daughters.
Soon though, they had to endure even more terror when they were ordered to leave the shelter because a bomb had fallen too close to it.
They were herded to another shelter on the Moor. After a terrifying walk through the deafening bombardment they arrived only to find that this shelter was full, and they were ordered back the way they'd come to a third one on Arundel Street.
Of course they got no sleep, and spent an anguished night worrying about their parents and the twins. With no means of contacting them they couldn't help but fear the worst. Rosina cried constantly, and Antionetta, although terrifed, consoled her sister as best she could. Dark thoughts of what might be happening made her sick with worry. She hardly dared form the thought in her mind that they might be dead or injured.
At the "all clear" they clambered out of the shelter and were horrifed at the devastation they saw. Sheffield's downtown was a smouldering ruin, in fact many buildings were still blazing. Water mains had burst making it even more dangerous to pick their way through the debris.
Trams, buses, and cars were lying destroyed, hundreds of shop and office windows were shattered, and as the sisters made their cautious steps they saw that the C and A store was a smoking ruin. They were horrified to see that the seven-storey Marples Hotel was just a heap of rubble. Thoughts of how many were dead injured were put out of their minds as they picked their way over the smashed sidewalks.
The two trudged home and the journey they'd walked so often took much longer than before. They took comfort from seeing that as they got farther from the town centre, damage was less severe.
Their parents were outside anxiously looking up and down the street when their daughters arrived home. Not everyone on their street had been so fortunate...some neighbours had lost family members that night.
So relieved to find their mother and father and the twins, who'd spent the night in an Anderson shelter, unharmed, they cried tears of relief. Their mother fell to her knees and said a prayer of thanks to the Virgin.
Although exhausted, Antionetta and Rosina were afraid to go upstairs to bed. Their father gave them each a shot of whiskey and they fell into fitful sleep on the sofa. Antionetta woke in the darkened room hours later in a cold sweat. She'd re-lived the bombing in her dreams, and only after having surviving it so bravely did she allow herself to give way to the fear.
Antionetta was always deathly afraid of thunderstorms afterwards. The flashes of lightning and the crashes of thunder were too real reminders of that night.
The church where her wedding was to have been celebrated, the restaurant which was to have held the reception, and Walsh's department store where Antionetta's wedding dress was stored, were all badly damaged, but she refused to consider a postponement. She and my father were married as planned on December 22, 1940 in the Cathedral Church of Saint Marie.
Although sad to leave her parents, Antionetta was relieved to be moving to my father's hometown, Scunthorpe, which she thought would be safe from Hitler's bombs. This wasn't the case though, as being an important centre of the steel industry, it was bombed later in the war.
Countless thousands had many more dangers and hardships to endure, but for my mother, there was nothing as terrifying as the night of the Sheffield Blitz.
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