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Memories of the 'Blitz' in Plymouth

by marysmith

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Mary E.H Smith
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14 November 2003

Memories of the Blitz in Plymouth, 1940/41

I had been in the mixed Grammar School in Plymouth from 1930 to 1937, but left home to go to London to study for a Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors examination in housing management, and to work as a student/secretary at the office of the Crown Estate Commisioners (now the Crown Estate Office) in Cumberland Market, North London.
When war was declared in December 1939, I came home to Plymouth, but continued my studying.
My parents lived near Cattedown, the area of the docks in Plymouth. We had an Anderson shelter in the courtyard with earth on the top. When my parents cleaned out the cage of our pet cockatoo, they put the debris on the top of the shelter where sun-flowers, marrows and other plants subsequently grew!
I was interviewed by Lady Astor and given the post of housing manager of the Astor Housing Estate at Mount Gould. My father was an engine driver who later faced the hazard of bomb craters on the lines and the sniping of German pilots.
My brother was in the Royal Navy, and my step mother became an air-raid warden (ARP) Before being called up to work in a meat factory.
After the period of the "phoney" war, the raids on Plymouth were horrendous. I was terrified as we sat in the shelter hearing the drone of the German planes over head, and the whizzing and explosions of the bombs they dropped.
I had an office in the Astor Institute where a barrage ballon flew over head and members of the R.A.F lived in a hut at the back. They guarded the ballon which frequently blew away from its moorings and the valiant members of the R.A.F (about five of them) had to rush down the streets to retreive it.
I managed the estate of 96 houses by day, and a girls' club at night at the Institute. I had a bicycle then and, after the sirens had gone, frequently rode like furry to get home before the bombs started to drop.
One evening a raid detained me at the Institute and when it was over, I got home to find a lage paving slab had crashed through my bed room ceiling and destroyed my bed and my finery on it. That afternoon King George and Queen Elizabeth had visited Plymouth and I was introduced to them by Lady Astor. I wore my best clothes, and when I rushed home to change to got to the Institute I left them on my bed. They were destroyed with the bed and my step-mother admonished me, "If you had put them in the wardrobe in a proper manor, you would still have them." The wardrobe was undamaged. That night, Plymouth had one of the worst air-raids when the King and Queen had left the city. We could not sleep in the house, with the gaping hole in the roof, but stayed with friends next door.
Another evening I came home from the Institute to find the house on fire from and incendiary bomb. I well remember one of my young brother's friends, aged about 12, and shouting to my parents, "Don't worry, Mrs Land, John's here and he's got a stirup pump!".
It was a dreadful time, and for a few weeks we used to go out to the surrounding fields in a lorry, where we sleept to avoid the worst of the bombs.
In addition to managing the Astor Estate, I used to collect the rents from a block of flats in Stonehouse, and I have vivid memories of riding home through the devastated city after the night's raids. I will never forget the sights of the badly damaged houses and public shelters, bombed, often with people in them, and the acrid smell of fire and destruction. No-one who had not experienced the blitz in any town, can invisage the horror and terror of it all, and the heroism of the many wardons and other workers who sought to lessen the catastrophies and dig people out of the ruins.
My parents eventualy moved to a safer part of the city, to a more "up-market" area, where we had a Morrison shelter, a large shelter/table in the dining room, and my mother was an air-raid wardon.
I look back on it with mixed feelings, I enjoyed dancing at the Institute and Virginia House twice a week, and made good friends with the Forces. Lady Astor recruited some of us to teach The Navy to dance on the Hoe. Although I was terrified of the bombs, I never for one moment feared the German invasion from just across The Channel. I mourned the death of several of the boys who were school-friends, especially those in the Navy and R.A.F. I was young, but for many older people, including my parents, the war destroyed their way of life, and their homes which they had worked for for many years.

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