- Contributed by
- ron horsley
- People in story:
- Ron Horsley
- Location of story:
- Bolton, Lancashire, England
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 10 March 2004
A Civilian in Wartime Air Raids by Ron Horsley
My home town of Bolton, in Lancashire, was spared the heavy bombing that many in similar
industrial areas of Britain were subjected to during World War 2.
Early Preparations for War
The letters ARP had started to become familiar to the general British public in 1938 when the
threat of war got ever stronger. I remember when the cigarette cards we collected, featuring
pictures of cricketers, footballers, cars, ships, and wild animals, introduced a new series on
"Air Raid Precautions". From the cards, we learned about air raid wardens, air raid shelters,
gas masks, and how to use stirrup pumps and buckets of sand to extinguish incendiary bombs.
One day, on the way home after playing football in Queen's Park, I stood with my friends on
the cindery end of the recreation grounds on Spa Road and watched a live demonstration of
how to deal with one of those incendiary devices - the smoke and flames were great fun.
Twelve months later war was declared.
Air Raids in the Small Hours
There were regular night-time air raids in the early years of the war; this is an account of my
experiences of them as a young civilian (I was about fourteen years old when the raids started).
The wailing sirens sounded their warning in the very early hours, usually about one o-clock
in the morning - the middle of the night for most hard working folk. Roused to action by the
sirens, we donned coats over pajamas and nighties, wrapped blankets around our shoulders,
and thrust our bed-warm feet into cold shoes, before creeping out of the house into the blacked-
out street. Most of our neighbours were out there, and we joined them. There were a few quiet
words of greeting as we moved along the street in the darkness; then, with ears straining to
detect the uneven throb of the engines of German bombers - a sound that later we would come
to know so well - we turned into Mere Hall Park across the way, and trooped up the hill to the Hall.
The Hall's buildings were very familiar to us for they housed a branch library, museum, and art
gallery, facilities that were well used and very popular. We hadn't ever had cause to consider
what was beneath the main building, but Air Raid Wardens directed us down the stone steps and
into the extensive cellars which had been re-inforced and adapted for public use as air raid shelters.
We passed through black-out curtains into the bare rooms where the air was cold and smelled damp.
Timber supports were wedged between the floor and great wooden beams which ran across the
ceilings to prevent the building above collapsing into the cellars. Everything was whitewashed.
Friends and neighbours were soon sorted out, making themselves as comfortable as they could on
the hard, wooden, benches that lined the walls. Sleep didn't come easy. There were infants and
old folks to comfort and keep warm, and always a concern as to what was happening outside.
After the first few nights in the shelters, people brought along hot drinks in vacuum flasks, food,
games, and something to read - anything to pass the time.
Even deep in the cellars, we heard the drone of engines as bombers passed overhead. There was
the occasional whistle of falling bombs, and heavy bangs - some shaking the floor beneath us - as
bombs exploded or Anti-Aircraft guns fired; in time we learned to recognise their differences.
From time to time we heard from Wardens or Firewatchers who reported on the action outside:
of bombs they had seen exploding, and of fires that had been started; usually they tried to make
sure that their news was re-assuring. Night-time air raids lasted some two to three hours. We just
had to stick it out until the "All Clear" was sounded, then gather up our belongings and make our
way back home through the still dark streets - fearful of what we might find.
We soon got tired of trecking to the public air raid shelter; instead we stayed in our homes, seeking
some degree of safety by huddling together in the recess under the staircase. After a few weeks of
such disturbed nights, most people heard the sirens but stayed in their beds and went back to sleep.
The raids were notably noisier than they were in the shelters, but the home comforts were preferred.
Sometimes during raids we would go into the street and watch the beams of searchlights sweeping
the sky as they sought out the bombers for the anti-aircraft guns; I never saw an aircraft caught in
the lights, but did see shells exploding in the black sky above, the flash of bombs, and the red glow
of fires lighting up clouds of smoke on the horizon - particularly when Manchester, some ten miles or
so away, was being blitzed.
It was during one of the noisier night raids that I was most scared. There was just my mother and I
at home, as my father was on duty with the Home Guard; we had heard lots of explosions and I was
in the kitchen making a pot of tea when there was suddenly a great rushing sound that filled the air
and set the window rattling. To me it sounded like an express train screaming past within feet of the
window; the earsplitting screech completely engulfed me, and I found that I was petrified - I couldn't
move a muscle, and was hardly able to think. My mother was similarly affected for what was probably
only two or three seconds, but which seemed longer. We hadn't heard an explosion and, as nothing
appeared damaged, we took a quick look outside, drank our tea, and went back to bed. The next day
we were told that an un-exploded Ack-Ack shell had hit a terraced house two streets away; I went to
look at the damage and found the whole of the front wall had been demolished; the shell must have
passed directly over our house, and caused the dreadful noise I'd heard - good job it wasn't a bomb -
and lucky for the family in the house who had all been in a back room, and walked out to tell the tale.
There were some daytime air raids, but there was little to see in the sky; usually the bombers were too
high to be seen, or were skirting the town on their way to the bigger targets of Manchester and Liverpool.
Pieces of shrapnel were to be found in the streets after a raid - most households kept some as souvenirs.
One morning, on my way to work, I had to ride my bike carefully through piles of broken glass and debris
that covered the road and pavements at the lower end of Derby Street. Shopkeepers were out in force
sweeping up the remains of their shop windows, which had been blown out by the blasts of bombs that
had hit nearby Ardwick Street and Punch Street. At my place of employment, higher up Derby Street,
I mounted the stairs to the workroom but couldn't open the door; a coping stone about eighteen inches
long lay behind the door embedded in the floor boards; blasted from the bomb site, some two or three
hundred yards away, it had cleared neighbouring properties before crashing through our building's slated
roof and the workroom's ceiling. The rubble was soon cleared, and temporary repairs carried out.
I learned later that eleven people were killed, and sixty injured in that particular raid - with over a hundred
residents of the damaged properties evacuated to a rest centre.
The Night I was Lucky
We heard accounts of people's lucky escapes from the bombs; I experienced just one such narrow squeak.
With about 1,800 other people, I was in the Odeon cinema one evening in 1941; during the showing of the
main film, a message was flashed onto the screen informing us that an air raid was taking place; we were
told where the nearest shelter was, and also informed that the film would continue to be shown to those
patrons who chose to remain in their seats. A handful of people left the cinema, but the rest stayed on, as
had become the custom during air raids. We heard a few bangs, the film stuttered a bit, and as the building
shook, bits of plaster rained down onto our heads and shoulders, but we stayed on - and enjoyed the film.
It was only as we came out into the street that we realised the extent of our good fortune. A bomb had hit
a grocery warehouse on one side of the cinema; one of its outside walls had been demolished, its windows
and doors blown out, and the Odeon's outer wall was pitted with bomb fragments. On the other side of the
cinema, another bomb had gone through the pavement into a basement, where it had killed a man.
And so the war continued. We heard of the dreadful damage done to towns and cities throughout the land,
of high numbers of casualties; and we thanked our own lucky stars that we lived in a town that was a low-
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