- Contributed by
- People in story:
- Frank Hiley
- Location of story:
- Small Heath, Birmingham
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 08 December 2003
It is the night of November 19th 1940.
The night shift has commenced at a large munitions works and men and women to the number of over a thousand have just entered on the task of making one of the vital parts of our war machines.
Work swings along merrily; the machines sing out their ceaseless tune joined by the strains of the latest dance tune from some budding crooner, everyone content on turning out the most they can for the defence of our country, and the earnings their work will bring at the weekend.
While machines are doing their part of the work, I pause to look around. Some of my fellow workers look quite happy tonight, cracking a joke with those next to them, others look troubled, even sad, perhaps bad news received of some loved one. I will ask them later on I think, for the night shift is young yet, only 7.15pm- all the night to go.
But listen, there goes the siren, the signal that Jerry planes are somewhere within striking distance.
Fellow workers look at each other; some chaff about it, some sneer at it, some take it to heart and look troubled about it.
Hundreds of workers at once make their way to the shelters, but others like myself just take it as the siren, just the same siren we have heard scores of times in the past nights, and continue with our work. Perhaps they will be driven off before they reach us, perhaps this, perhaps that, but there is work to do and money to be earned, so we just carry on.
Some workers shout over remarks, one saying, “Come early tonight and see us”, another more serious says, “Looks like a bad night coming this early.”
Then we see a steady stream of workers passing down the gangway, coats and masks in hand, making for the shelters, some taking it slowly, others hurrying for they have four flights of stone steps to descend before making the four minute journey to the shelters outside the factory.
We chaff some as they pass with such remarks as “Fellow” or “Mind you don’t get hurt”, but they all pass into the night air with one thought- safety.
After they have all gone, we who are left get down to work again, but not for long, for as the clock shows 7.30pm the danger signal goes. Planes are now overhead, dropping incendiary bombs and flares around the factory, so everyone must make a dash for it now.
Some wait for nothing and run with all haste for those four flights of stairs, but others like myself wait to collect coat, mask and other belongings, but by now all lights have been switched off at the main, and we are left to find our way to the stairs in total darkness.
We reach the stairs and I feel for my flashlight to show us the first few steps, for now I have my partner of every other night raid we have had. Will it work? I wonder, for I have often said I would throw it over some hedge, but tonight it is on its best behaviour and gives enough light to enable my pal Charlie and myself to get down those stairs. For old Charlie, a grand old warrior of 65 years, cannot see at all in the dark and depends on me for guidance. He was always inwardly afraid of the raids but tried to show pluck and fortitude. With a slight limp and snow-white hair he was affectionately known to us all as “old Charlie”.
We are now at the foot of the stairs, but too late now to go outside to the shelters. Planes are circling round overhead, we can hear the thud of anti-aircraft guns, so we go into the basement, a place we have been to so often for shelter. A very long oblong building, that ran under the four floors overhead, each floor containing some hundreds of tons of machinery. Round the basement, and down the sides of the gangways wooden forms have been placed for us to rest on, and here and there hurricane lamps gave out a glimmer of light that enabled us to find our seats, without knocking too much skin off our shins. Strange how everyone seemed to go to the same seat on every air raid night, the same faces in the same places.
There is a strange hush in the semi-darkness, as we all talk about the prospect of a long or short air raid tonight. We can hear thuds from outside and wonder whether they are guns or bombs. Women can be heard to say, they hope their children will be alright and men hope their wives and families will be kept safe and sound. Some start talking and laughing, some are quiet, sort of have a hunch that anything might happen on such a night as this. Some start to eat, some sing for over in one corner an accordion is playing the latest tunes. Myself, I sit and talk to Old Charlie and another man on our seat that I do not know. Over and above everything there is a strange tone that you can almost feel. Someone calls out to a pal to ask the time, he is told it is now five minutes to eight. Some now settle down to go to sleep, others sit and think- Old Charlie does that. I settle myself on the form between my two companions and listen to the accordion, guns are still going, planes still rumbling overhead.
Then comes a dull thud, and bright lights stab the darkness for a second, then a rumbling noise, as though the whole building is being crushed in a pair of huge pinchers. The one thing I had always said would never happen had happened. A bomb had hit the outside wall and the whole building had collapsed like a pack of cards. Hundreds of tons of machinery had descended on us.
What happened next I hardly know, for I must have been knocked out by a blow on the head. How long I was unconscious I do not know, but perhaps not long, for I came round to find that my two companions had been killed and crushed beside me.
I then took stock of myself, and was surprised to find that I had nothing broken, but one foot was held fast by something or other. I began to wonder if it was crushed and made frantic efforts to get it free, but it must have taken best part of an hour to do so for I was hemmed in on all sides and above my head by a solid wall and roof of machinery and concrete and brickwork that had come out from the floors above us. Having got my foot free and finding it was only strained a little, I wriggled and twisted from the form to a small space on the floor, that looked like an ordinary fireplace and about as large. How this small space came to be left clear near me, must have been the hand of providence. Men and women were shouting out in agony for help, and I started to shout my loudest to help them.
I noticed that a girder had come down from above and crushed my two companions, but that the curve of it had just cleared me, and held up the other debris from crushing me. What an escape but escape from what, I wonder, for I am in a living tomb. Fear takes hold of me, and I join my shouts again with those poor wounded and dying, but little did realise the depth of the ruins above us. No one from outside could hear our cries.
Then I noticed that a fire had started near my feet and was starting to burn furiously. This increased my fright and fear. No escape now I thought, while the cries of the injured and dying were all around me. Some were offering prayers for their wives and children in the future, for they knew they would never see the outside world again, neither did I expect to at that time. I still shouted louder, louder, but could get no reply.
I sat there watching that fire, wondering how long it would be before everything around me would burn, how long? I now notice that a machine has crashed down, has stood up on end, forming a small arch under which I wriggled and twisted. So that I felt somewhat safe from anything that may slip and fall from above me. But that fire, I see now that it is burning up that form on which I sat, and that my two companions were starting to burn. The sight sickened me and increased my frantic shouts for help, for by now there were few shouts from the others. Dead by now, I thought, how long shall I last?
The smoke begins to get down my throat. Then I feel a trickle of water coming from above, and I realise that they are trying to put out fires above.
What shall I do?
I think of Margaret, and wonder what she will do when they tell her I am gone, I now offer up prayers as hard as I can pray for both Margaret and myself.
My boot now catches fire for I cannot get my legs back far enough from that fire and put it out.
What's the use, I ask, shall I bang my head on something and let the fire set me off, at least I shall not feel it then. Other parts of my clothes catch fire and I become frantic in my efforts to put them out, for I have no room to turn about. Then I decided I must keep calm and use my head, for I notice the smoke from the fire is commencing to blow away from me, and the air gets a bit clearer. So I think if I can keep under the machine the fire will keep burning away from me. This calms me a bit and I decide to have a smoke if I can. I still have my pipe, and after a lot of twisting I get my tobacco and matches from my pocket. The tobacco is fairly dry, although by now I am soaked through and through by the water from above. I fill my pipe but my matches are damp, so I have to hold two by a hot cinder until they flicker up and I manage to light my pipe. Ah, that was better, one bit of comfort.
Water was now beginning to collect on the concrete floor on which I was half sitting, half lying, and I began to have thoughts of getting my death of cold, so I pulled loose pieces of concrete towards me and wriggled them underneath me to sit on, although water was now dripping off my trousers. I see now my two companions are burning up and the form they were on has become dust, poor chaps, but they could not feel it, thank God.
I now become conscious of a voice talking to me, and although I could see no one, I somehow felt the presence of my dad around me. My dad who had passed from this earth some months before. Something seemed to comfort me in a way I cannot describe, but his presence was there, and although never a believer in spiritualism, I would have believed anything just then. I even began to think I should be saved now, although how I could not see.
I began to shout again, help, help, help but there was no response. I realised I now must lie there and wait, but for how long? Could I keep my senses until someone got to me? Yes, I made my mind up I would, and so I reclined there thinking, thinking hundreds of things, mostly of wife and home. That unseen voice was still near me, and I almost felt I had company.
The silence was almost terrifying, but my big concern was watching that fire, it seemed now that I had been down there for hours and hours, so I start to shout again, anything to break that awful silence- but I got no response. I say my prayers again. At this time I cannot keep a limb still, shivering from cold and wet, although I can feel the heat from the fire on one side.
Time drags on, so I start shouting again. After a while I fancy I can hear an answer to my cries. I become frantic now and shout still louder. I listen and can faintly hear someone answering me, but they sound miles away. After a while I make out they are asking me where I was before the crash. I shout out my position from the outside wall near the canal and I can hear them telling me to hang on and keep up. So my prayers are answered I think, I am in touch with outside.
Then I can hear rumbling noises above me, and I realise they are moving wreckage to get at me. I wait. It seems hours. Why don’t they hurry? Little did I know until afterwards the amount of debris they had to move. I was now excited and still kept shouting to them, and then I can hear them shouting down a small hole, almost over me. They ask me if I am injured or crushed, I tell them I am alright except for the fire, but that is the first they know about a fire, they say.
They start to burn away metal and machinery until they can see the light from my torch, that torch I have always wanted to throw away. After a while they get a large hole over me and ask me if I can get up to it, but I have to tell them I cannot stand up, I am pinned down. They burn away more metal, and then drop a rope down, and by holding onto this they pull me up and up until my head is through the hole, then by grabbing my arms I am dragged through the hole to freedom.
Never did freedom and safety seem so sweet as this moment.
They patted my back and congratulated me on my escape. I shook their hands and found myself crying with joy and I felt they were crying too. They had won a victory over death. I thank them with all my heart.
Planes are still overhead, and bombs are dropping as they place me on a stretcher and carry me off to a dressing station. I was now in a bad state, shaking all over from shock and exposure.
Arriving at the dressing station I was taken in charge by a doctor and nurses, all my rags ripped off and life rubbed into me, with hot towels and given a hot drink. I asked the time, and was told it was now a quarter to six. I had been down there nine hours, it seemed more like ninety to me.
The doctor says I am to be taken to hospital, but I have enough life in me to tell him there was no hospital or nurse who could look after me better than my wife. I was going home.
Then we hear the all clear going, and everyone breathed a sigh of relief, now they could look for other survivors. Would they find any? I thought it was doubtful.
Then they bring in another man but the poor devil is put of his mind. Then they take me home in an ambulance in the half- light. The ambulance man opened the door and informed me that my house had been bombed as well as me. Although my back was almost broken I jumped out of the ambulance and after a quick glance at broken windows and doors, I ran down the house shouting at the top of my voice “Margaret, Margaret” I got no answer and this increased my fears. I fled to the back door, which was burst off, and shouted outside “Margaret, Margaret, Margaret” She had been taken next door and hearing my cries came running round to me.
We clung to each other, we cried together, crying with joy and fear. As we clung together we could each tell that we had been through a terrible night. Two souls with a single thought, thank God you are safe.
The fire was lit and Margaret dressed me in warm clothes, attended to my cuts and burns, quite forgetting her own feelings from her ordeal. What a nurse, what a spirit, a true Briton with true English pluck. I thank her for all she did for me.
We then sat down and told each other our experiences of the night, and with tears of joy and thankfulness we thanked God for sparing us to each other. So ended a night we shall never forget, and to anyone who reads this little story I would say "Never give up hope, you die with despair"
What of my fellow workers? I was told later by the manager of the works that out of eighty three who were sheltering in that basement, eighty one had passed out of this world. Poor souls, poor old Charlie- he died doing his duty.
What saved me? Perhaps my prayers, perhaps that spirit around me. Still here I am.
The author of this story sadly died many years ago. The story was sent to Warwick Library by a friend of his who wished to make his experiences available to others. Mr Hiley worked in the BSA small arms factory in Armoury Road in Small Heath, Birmingham.
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