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A Child in Hellfire Corner during the Coventry Bombing

by Elizabeth Lister

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Archive List > The Blitz

Contributed by 
Elizabeth Lister
People in story: 
Doug Bukin
Location of story: 
Background to story: 
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Contributed on: 
05 July 2005

This story was submitted to the People's War website by a volunteer from CSV Berkshire, Amy Williams, on behalf of Doug Bukin and has been added to the site with his permission. He fully understands the site's terms and conditions.

When the war was declared on 3rd September 1939 I was 10 years old. I lived with my mother in East London. My father had been sent to work in the aircraft industry in Coventry. The bombing got heavier and more and more bombers were coming over. That's when we decided to go to my aunty Eva's house in Walthamstow about 4 miles from our house. We went there by tram. We went to my aunty's house because there was a big cellar under the house so it was safe to be there during the bombing.

During this noisy part of the London blitz when we were at my aunt Eva's house the phone went one evening. It was my father phoning from Coventry. He was appalled at the sound of the bombing and the gunfire that he could hear because he wasn't getting any up there at all. So he said it's quite quiet up here come up to join me. We ended up in a pokey little two up two down red brick terraced house, which was a bit different from the modest but four bedroom detached house that we'd moved from. My father was working in the aircraft industry and we were sited almost in the centre of town. There were munitions factories, a Royal Ordnance factory, aircraft factories, chemical factories, all the way round us so we were completely surrounded. In fact it was called Hellfire Corner at the time, which a good description of what it could be.

I went to the John Gulson school a short walk away. We did have some light bombing -if you can ever have light bombing - light as opposed to heavy. The local cinema, the Rex, opened one night with 'Gone with the Wind' and the following night received a direct hit and was demolished so it went with the wind. The seriousness of it didn't sink in as everyone was so amused that this was 'gone with the wind'. That was a new film then that had just come out.

My father was a senior ARP warden. All the other wardens used to come to our house to report their duties and usually have a cup of tea. ARP stands for Air Raid Precautions. The wardens were trained to look out for aircraft, to watch out for fires, to look out for people. Because of the comings and goings of these wardens in our house in the evening, and sometimes nearly all night if something was going on, we had to preserve the blackout. Every time the door was opened the light would shine out of the door. So my father rigged up a metal cylinder that came down over the light and worked on a string on pulleys from the door. Every time the door opened up the tin thing came over the light. That was the sort of precaution you had to be careful of and that was my father's job too to enforce the blackout. They would say "put that light out!" or they'd call out: "close that curtain" which is all very important in a blackout. There was no light whatsoever. The vehicles were going around with masks on their headlights that kept the lights lower than horizontal so no light shone up at all. If there was moonlight the bombers could see the outline of the city to a certain extent but probably not all that well from up there.

This particular evening, November 14th at about 7 o'clock, the ARP wardens all came in and they were discussing what a bright moonlit night it was. It was just the night for a raid. And very soon after, the air raid warning sounded.

Then a little time after that the bombers came, some later on, some early. We lived in Hellfire Corner and we were surrounded by war factories: Royal Ordnance, chemical, aircraft. When the attack started, the noise and flashes were unbearable. It was unbelievable, the noise and the closeness of it because Coventry wasn't a big city and it wasn't spread over that much. Anti-aircraft guns and searchlights were all around us and pretty close as well because they were protecting the war factories - and I hoped us as well. Myself and my mother were on sort of bunks under the stairs, that being generally the safest place in the house if you hadn't got a shelter and as we hadn't got a garden in this funny little house there was no place to put a shelter. The centre wall of the house by the stairs was usually the strongest place.

One time there was a loud crash and the house seemed to lift up. My mother noticed that our kitchen curtains were on fire and she went out to beat them out. And I can remember screaming to her "come back! come back!" and she did after dousing the effect of the incendiary bomb that had fallen. My father came back every now and again and told us what was going on. The house next to us was partly destroyed, there was a crater in the road about fifty yards away, the corner-shop was hit with all its goods - tins, packages - all over the road. Strangely enough, though not surprising in those days, nothing was stolen. It was all left there.

I think it was the longest night of my life. There was ten hours of almost continual bombardment and it was terrifying. This was one night when we didn't look outside it was too dangerous. I can still smell this large pickle jar of pickled onions that was under my nose at the time. And it's always put me off ever since. My head and nose were close to it in this bunker under the stairs.

The sound of the dive-bombers screaming was frightening. You also got to know the effect of a stick of bombs. A stick of bombs was when a bomber came over, opened its bomb doors and all the bombs dropped out one by one. So as they were approaching you, the bombs also approached one after the other, eight to ten bombs coming nearer and nearer going 'crumph...crumph...crumph' getting louder and louder, and you were just hoping that the last one hadn't got your name on it. But you could tell this sound of bombs getting nearer and all these bombs dropping. You worried a little bit about that I must admit.

The bombing gradually stopped at about six o'clock in the morning. There were hardly any sirens left to sound the all clear and there was no electricity at all. We emerged outside wide-eyed and tired to the smoke and the smell and the sight of destruction generally. The police and the ARP wardens were going from house to house to check on the living and the dead and securing possessions; there were many in the road which was full of pump hoses, craters, debris. Us and our neighbours were surveying the damage and we were beginning to secure windows and doors with mattresses, blankets and boards - mainly as a protection but also should the German bombers come back that night. We had no idea whether they would or not as it happened they didn't. I went over out of our little back yard and the Grand Union canal, which was right behind us, was normally about 15 feet deep in water and it was just a trickle of water. All the fire engines and the auxiliary fire pumps had just drained it fighting the fires all the way around us.

During the early afternoon there was a knock at the door and my uncle Harry from London was standing there. Apparently he'd heard about the bombing on the BBC and decided to drive up using his precious petrol. He got as far as the city centre but due to the extreme damage he had to make a detour around to us. The cathedral was destroyed, the large department store Owen Owen was gutted and was still burning, amongst many others. Apparently the nearer my uncle was able to get to us, the more his heart sank. He didn't expect us to have survived. He arranged then to take my mother and I back to London and we went back to aunty Eva's again. My father stayed because he had lots to do for the Air Ministry due to the damage.

My father later found a house on the outskirts, of Coventry; it was a nicer house as well. We moved into this house for a while. I was surprised to see a new phenomenon on the roads; about every fifty yards there was what appeared to be a large black oil drum with a chimney on it. I don't actually remember these being mentioned in any reports or war reports anywhere. They were smoke producers and someone went round all the streets and lit up the oil in the case of a raid, and it provided a smoke screen over the whole of the city so that the bombers couldn't see it. The smell of them was so terrible it was almost worse than being bombed! The horrible acrid smell was choking - it didn't do us any good. On this Coventry raid, the bombers were able to find Coventry ever so easily because it was such a clear moonlit night that they followed the all the railway lines from London which were shining in the moonlight, and they went straight to Coventry following the lines. This was the idea of putting the smoke producers in. There were other bomb raids in Coventry but nothing like that. The morning after the raid I went up into the loft and an incendiary bomb had fallen through into the bedroom. It had actually started to ignite and fizzled out. It didn't actually set fire to the house. They would come down, fifty or sixty at a time and as they hit the house the magnesium ignited.

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