- Contributed by
- Karen Stoyles
- People in story:
- Ann Le Tissier (then Lilian Northwood)
- Location of story:
- Plymouth, Devon
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 02 November 2003
This was written many years ago by my late mother.
THE AIR RAIDS ON PLYMOUTH
This is not a documentary on the air raids on Plymouth, but some events as I remember them and others that I have been reminded of, with the passing of time one’s memories become a little hazy, forty years is a long time, but even after that length of time some that happened are just as clear in my mind today, for instance the particular raid on April 21st 1941 when my dear Uncle William John Croft was so terribly injured that he died of his wounds five weeks later. I just wish I had kept diaries in those days so that I would have an accurate record of the events as they happened, that not being the case, some incidents I relate have only approximate dates, more accurate information may be gleaned from the collection of newspaper cuttings of other people’s memories of the Blitz.
I write this in the hope that in years to come my grandchildren will be interested enough in the past to want to read about it, to gain an idea of what it was like living in times when air raids were an everyday occurrence, it is my fervent prayer that they will never suffer such experiences themselves.
When war was declared on Sunday September 3rd 1939 we were filled with horror at the thought of what would happen to our men and boys who would be called to fight at the various war fronts, but I don’t think any of us thought that there would be such slaughter and devastation on the home front. Even when the sirens sounded in London within minutes of the declaration of war, people quite cheerfully made their way to air raid shelters, they had no idea then of what was to dome, as it happened there was no activity on this occasion.
The people of London bore the brunt of the air attacks from early in the war to the ‘Doodle bugs’ and ‘V’ bombs which came at the latter part of the war, doodle bugs were pilotless planes which were able to sweep over the country between the barrage balloon cables, when the people heard the engines of these doodle bugs they held their breath waiting for the engine to stop, because when that happened it meant that the doodle bug was coming down to explode on houses nearby. ‘V’ bombs were a kind of rocket which could be fired across the channel on to their targets in London and the Home Counties, but as I said, these came later in the war. London was to experience concentrated air attacks very early in the war, hundreds were killed there before we in Plymouth had heard a bomb.
After the fall of Dunkirk in June 1940 it was not long before the Germans stepped up the attacks on the South and East of England, this was to be called ‘The Battle of Britain’ but that’s another story. The reason I have digressed from the story of the bombing of Plymouth and Devonport is because I don’t want to give the impression that I consider that Plymouth had the worst of the bombing. I’m sure it didn’t but compared to London, Plymouth was a much smaller place and after the Blitz very little of Plymouth remained, which is why the actual City of Plymouth was completely rebuilt as the modern city we see today, one has to search for old Plymouth buildings.
The sound of the siren became quite familiar to us early in the war, the first alert sounded at about 1 a.m. on Saturday June 29th 1940, you can imagine the panic we were thrown into being woken up by the siren for the first time. We hastily threw on coats over our nightwear and dashed to the Anderson shelter in the garden. I remember our dog Peter moved so fast he was the first one in the shelter, he sensed there was danger,but no bombs were dropped on this occasion.
I think I’d better explain that Anderson shelters were issued by the government to people who had gardens. It was a corrugated iron construction which was partially dug into the soil. For people who had no gardens there were indoor shelters like a large iron table with mesh sides, these were called Morrison shelters. There were also brick-built public shelters and some large underground shelters, often to be found in school playgrounds. In the town large stores had converted their basements into shelters. I remember I was working at Spooners, which was one of Plymouth’s largest department stores and when the siren would go during the day customers and staff would hurry to the basement. The hairdressing department had the biggest problem in those days having a perm meant being wired up to overhead electric curlers, the staff would rush to get their "perm" customers out from under these machines and with others with dripping wet hair, they would be herded to the basement all trying to look dignified, without success I might add, of course the male customers sharing the shelter thought the sight of these women in various stages of having their hair dome was very amusing.
As time went on we got less and less concerned about these raids as there wasn’t much activity apart from anti-aircraft gun-fire, then people would stay in their homes instead of going to shelters, having taken the precaution of covering their windows with strips of paper criss-crossed to prevent flying glass in the event of bomb blast.
Then came Saturday July 6th 1940, that was when the first person was killed by a bomb, this bomb was dropped on a row of houses in Swilly Road, which is now known as North Prospect Road, several people were injured, but one woman was killed outright, we later learned that this woman was my mother’s cousin Hilda.
We often had daylight bombing raids after that, one in particular which involved my sister Edna and her mother-in-law, it was on a sunny afternoon in September 1940, there had been repeat alerts all the morning with no activity, Edna lived at Barton Avenue, Keyham, which is near the dockyard, on this afternoon she went to visit her mother-in-law who lived in Goschen Street, which was just around the corner from where she lived. Soon after she got there the alert sounded, at first they didn’t take cover, there having been so many alerts that morning, but after a while there was heavy gunfire and they decided they should go to the brick-built shelter in the back lane. No sooner had they got there than bombs started falling so near they had to lie flat on the floor, eventually the ‘All Clear’ sounded and they came out to find the shelter was on the edge of a deep bomb crater and Goschen Street and neighbouring Hamilton Street were completely demolished. Edna and Mrs Cooper, her mother-in-law climbed over the rubble to what was left of Mrs Cooper’s house, just one wall of what had been her living room, the mantlepiece was still on this wall and on it was a photograph of Edna'’ wedding, with not even the glass cracked. You can imagine how upset Mrs Cooper was, but at the same time thankful that they were alive, the amazing thing was though that stick of bombs demolished two entire streets, not one person was killed, which says a lot for the air raid shelters.
Later my mother and my sister, Doreen came from nearby Alexandra Road, Ford to look for Edna at Barton Avenue, Edna’s landlady told them where Edna had gone, with great fear and dread they rushed to where Goschen Street had been cordoned off and pleaded with the police to be allowed to look for Edna, probably the fact that Doreen was in her A.T.S. uniform helped persuade the policeman to let them through. They were so relived then they found that Edna and Mrs Cooper were alright. At that time Edna’s husband Bill was stationed with Royal Engineers at Cawsand, Cornwall, Edna telephoned him with the news that his mother had been bombed out, he was refused leave to come home as it was not his own home that had been bombed, however, Bill ‘broke camp’ and got home. When my father got home from work and learned the news he went to Goschen Street to help Bill try to salvage some of Mrs Cooper’s home, but all they were able to save was a bed-settee. Mrs Cooper went to stay with Edna for a couple of days and then went to live at Launceston, Cornwall.
With the coming of winter 1940 the raids on Plymouth increased, we were to spend many nights in the shelters. Where we lived in Alexandra Road, there was an old people’s home nearby, known as Fort Workhouse, (now known as Wolseley Home) one evening the workhouse was hit by incendiary bombs, my nephew Peter was staying with us at the time on a visit from Bridestowe, the place to which he had been evacuated from London, he would have been about ten years old just then, after the All Clear on this particular evening, he and I wen to the workhouse to see the fire and I had great difficulty in restraining Peter from going into the workhouse to help with the rescue work, and him only a school-boy!
In November 1940 a new word was coined in the English language, it came about because the City of Coventry suffered a very concentrated air attack which caused many deaths and great devastation, after that whenever a town or city was very badly bombed it was said to have been ‘Coventrated’ and another word, from the German language was to become part of our own vocabulary, ‘Blitz’ an abbreviated version of the word ‘Blitzkrieg’ which means — ‘Sudden overwhelming attack with powerful force’. We learned the meaning of that word the hard way!
After Christmas 1940 the raids on Plymouth intensified, one night I remember in January, we had a young service man’s wife living in the upstairs flat in our house, she had a little girl and her second child, a boy, was born in our house in January. The night after the baby was born we had a bad raid and as new mothers weren’t allowed out of bed for some time in those days, she had to stay in bed in her upstairs bedroom. None of us went to the shelter that night and we took it in turns to stay upstairs with her during the raid, luckily no bombs dropped in the vicinity.
Because of these raids there was much damage in the town, but shops were still open with their shattered windows boarded up, with signs written on them saying ‘Business as usual’. Of course goods were in even shorter supply then and we would go to town and find shops that had had deliveries and join the queue for whatever they ha d to offer. Food was rationed and we had to register at one shop for our allowances of tea, sugar, butter bacon etc., but things like liver, biscuits and cake weren’t rationed, offal (when you could get it) was a great help in eking out the meat ration, the cakes were very plain and often tasted of bi-carbonate of soda, even the things that weren’t rationed could only be obtained in small quantities like ¼ lb of liver or sausages or half a pound of biscuits.
I was 16 at this time, but like so many other young people I rarely went out at night, the risk of being caught in town and unable to get home in an air raid was too great. I’d go to a little local cinema called Ford Palladium, I remember going to this cinema one night with my mother to see a film called ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame’ starring a famous actor called Charles Laughton. I didn’t enjoy the film very much, I thought it a very dreary, boring film, but we were to sit most of the night seeing that film over and over again, as just before the end of the film the alert sounded, so we had to stay in the cinema. It tuned out to be a long raid and to take people’s minds off the bangs outside, they ran the film over and over again. I lost count of how many times, I still feel I never want to see the story of Quasimodo again, we were so glad when the all clear finally sounded in the early hours of the morning.
The first night of the Blitz was on Thursday March 20th 1941, my mother had been ill, caused by the worry of the war. She had worried so much about my brother Les, who was in the Western Desert serving with the Eighth Army and my brother George who was in the Fire Service in London and had been in the thick of the raids there. My brother Stan was still in England waiting to go overseas, my eldest brother Charlie was in the R.A.F. stationed at Weeton, near Blackpool, and at that time my sister Doreen was serving with the A.T.S. at Devonport. My sister Edna’s husband Bill Cooper had left England on March 18th for an unknown destination abroad, but obviously to one of the war fronts, which later proved to be the Western Desert.
It had been arranged by my brothers and sisters that mother was to go by ambulance to Sourton, Devon, where my sister Ivy was staying having been evacuated from London. I was to go with Mother and spend the weekend there, we were to go on Friday March 21st, so on that Thursday evening we were busy with the final preparations for mother’s evacuation next day. I think it was soon after eight o’clock that the siren went, and almost immediately there was terrific gunfire then the bombs began to fall, it was a terrible sensation to sit in the shelter and hear the whistling of the bombs, the whistling getting louder and louder before exploding with a tremendous crash. The whole world seemed to be shaking and reverberating around us, we felt sure each bomb was for us. This raid went on for hours, longer than any previous raid, it seemed endless, eventually there was a lull for quite a while before we finally heard the all clear. We returned to the house to find it had surprisingly escaped any damage, but the red glow in the sky told us that not many streets had been as lucky as ours, broken windows being the only apparent damage from the blast of the bombs dropped in neighbouring streets. During the morning we began to hear of the horrific decimation in our town, that all the big shops in town had gone, hundreds of people killed and it was announced on the radio in the news bulletin that Plymouth had been Coventrated. That was the first time that Plymouth had been mentioned by name, until then the raids we had had were only mentioned as ‘Heavy raids on a town in the South West’.
On that Thursday the King and Queen had visited Plymouth, they had toured the town looking at bomb damage from previous raids, talking to people who had been bombed out, their train left Plymouth only two hours before the raid started. I have since heard comments from a B.B.C commentator who had been in the town to cover the royal visit. He spoke of seeing the blazing department stores with the dummy models in the windows melting in the terrific heat, giving the impression that they were human beings writhing, of the fire-fighters having to stand and watch the Guildhall burn because there was no water to fight the fires. After this raid we really did begin to wonder what was in store for us.
Later in the day my mother went to Sourton, but of course my father and Uncle Willie were still at home. Sourton is nearly 30 miles from Plymouth, but that night searchlights and a red glow could be seen in the distance, so we know that Plymouth was under attack again.
When I returned home on the Sunday it was then that I was able to see the extent of the damage as the bus reached the outskirts of Plymouth, but I didn’t see the city centre because the bus was unable to go any further than Mutley Plain.
I found my sister Edna had arrived home from Sidmouth, she had had a terrible shock, when she arrived, as being at Sidmouth with no radio, she had no idea of what had happened un6til she saw the bombed streets, she had a very anxious journey to Ford wondering if her family were alright.
We gradually heard the full story of how much damage had been done in the town centre, brought home to us by the fact that we had no water or gas. Water tankers used to come around the streets delivering water to us every day, for a few days we had to cook the best way we could on open fires. People with electric stoves were very popular as the electricity supply was alright, but after a while the gas pipes were repaired and supply resumed. We continued to have the water brought round in the tankers and we’d fill every receptacle we could find.
The spirit of the people was wonderful, taking all the inconveniences in their stride, but the stories we heard were horrific, of people who had been trapped in the town when the raids started and unable to get home until next morning to find their homes gone and all the families killed.
There were brides who were due to get married on the Saturday after the blitz and had to have their wedding ceremonies amid the ruins of the church. In one instance the wedding party had to wear smoke glasses because the ruins were still smouldering.
There was one girl who had arranged to get married at Charles Church on the 22nd but during the Blitz of the two previous nights her fiancé was injured, her mother’s house was bombed and she lost her wedding dress, five bridesmaids dresses and her chocolate wedding cake and Williams Restaurant in Union Street, where the reception was to have been held was bombed and so was the church. Her wedding had to be put off for two weeks until her fiancé had recovered from his injuries and then they got married in the ruins of Charles Church with just a few members of the family present instead of having the white wedding with all the trimmings that they had planned.
Rest Centres were opened up all over the town for people who had been bombed out and emergency kitchens were set up amidst the rubble and debris, life went on, we had no raids for a while but people still left town every night, going on the moors in whatever transport they could find, a lot of firms allowed their lorries to be used to take people out on to the moors.
We stayed on at our house in Alexandra Road, Dad, Uncle Willie, Edna, Doreen and I. We were busy at that time preparing for Doreen’s wedding, which was on April 5th. It was to be a quiet wedding because Mum wasn’t well enough to attend, but it was a white wedding. Doreen’s friend and I were bridesmaids, and after the ceremony there was a little reception at home, complete with chocolate wedding cake. Doreen was able to leave the A.T.S. and they set up home in Ednas’s flat in Barton Avenue. We often visited my mother and Ivy at Sourton, Edna worked at an off licence in Alexandra Road and I kept house for us.
There was a man who used to broadcast to the British people from Germany, he was a British traitor called William Joyce, but he was always known as Lord Haw-Haw and after the March Blitz he gloated about the devastation in Plymouth and said, “Look out Devonport it’s your turn next”. The spirit of the people was such that they refused to let this remark get them down, but we were soon to learn that he meant what he said.
On the evening of Monday April 21st 1941, Edna and I were at home with Doreen who had come to visit us, Dad was fire-watching at his work at Pickfords, the furniture removers and Uncle Willie was working until 9 p.m. in the Dockyard. Mrs Netherton, who lived in the upstairs flat was there with her two babies, at nine o’clock the sirens went and immediately we heard bombs dropping, there was no time to get to the shelter, so we all got in two small cupboards that were under the stairs. Bombs were falling continuously, we heard the windows smashing and ceilings falling down, we were so frightened, we all felt our end had come. This was even worse then the March raids, I think the fact that we were women on our own unnerved us, always before Dad and Uncle Willie had been with us and they would be on the look out for incendiary bombs.
There we were huddled in these dark cupboards and those dear babies never made a sound.
After a few hours we heard someone shouting at the front door “Is anyone in there?” “Yes” we all cried, thinking it was an A.R.P. warden to get us out, not knowing if we were trapped by debris or not, we got the cupboard doors open and crawled out, there was a Naval Petty Officer, he said “Does anyone called Croft live here?”.
He told us how he’d been in a shelter in the playground of College Road school, not far away, when a bomb landed in the road outside, they had come out of the shelter to find a man in the bomb crater badly injured, they had taken him into the shelter to wait for an ambulance and gone through his pockets to find his identity. This P.O. had come through the raid to tell us. Doreen said “Take me to him”, he asked if we had any sheets they could use as bandages as Uncle Willie was in a bad way.
Mrs Netherton said there were some clean sheets on the table in her room, as she had been ironing when the sirens went, so armed with the sheets Doreen and the P.O. braved the bombs and went back to the shelter to Uncle Willie. Several times on the way they had to lie flat in the road because of bombs falling. Doreen was so brave and I’ll remember the bravery of that P.O. forever. I have always regretted that in the confusion we never asked his name, he was a very brave man to risk his like for a stranger.
A little incident while he was at our house sticks in my mind, when he’d given us the message he asked if he could have a glass of water. We had to give him water from a can that was full of debris from the ceilings that had fallen, he stood in what was our living room and when he had drunk the water he put the glass down on what he thought was a table, but it as a harmonium with a sloping front, of course the glass slid off and broke. He was so apologetic about breaking the glass, there were things smashed and debris everywhere yet he was so concerned about breaking that glass, after all he had done for us.
When they got to the shelter Doreen was shocked to see how badly Uncle Willie was injured. She stayed with him until the ambulance arrived, but there was no room in the ambulance for Doreen to go with him. They couldn’t even tell her which hospital he was being taken to. By this time there was a lull, because the bombers would come over in waves and after a short interval they would return to resume the bombing, so during a lull Doreen made her way back to the house. We were all crying after hearing about Uncle Willie and praying that Dad was safe, eventually the All Clear sounded. As dawn was breaking we started to try and clear up the debris and broken glass, doors had been blown off their hinges and there was once again no water or gas. After a while Dad came home, he was shocked to hear about Uncle Willie.
He told us that it was Devonport that had got the worst of it this time, just as Lord Haw-Haw had promised. Our street was badly damaged but no houses had received direct hits at our end of the road, but down at the other end some houses had gone.
Uncle Willie had a lady friend called Mrs Wills, she was a widow who lived at St Budeaux, so of course we had to let her know what had happened. She worked at Ford Workhouse, so we went to the workhouse to wait for her to arrive. She was most upset when we told her the news and we told her we were going to find out which hospital he was in and we would contact her when we had more news. Doreen, Edna and I then went to tour the hospitals to look for Uncle Willie.
We decided to start at the main hospital at Greenbank, when we got there we saw that the City hospital opposite had been bombed, parts of it had been demolished. We went into Greenbank hospital and what a sight we saw there. There were stretchers everywhere, in the entrance hall and along the corridors were injured people on stretchers however, on enquiring we learnt that Uncle Willie had been admitted there and was upstairs in a ward. When we saw him we were so upset, he didn’t know us, his face and hands were badly pitted with gravel from the road, his hair was white with dust from the debris.
The nurse explained that his chest was crushed and both legs were broken. They had only been able to treat these injuries, there simply wasn’t the time or the facilities to see to his face and hands under the circumstances, she didn’t hold out much hope for him.
We spent a busy day sending telegrams to all the family. We had to notify the Dockyard about what had happened to Uncle Willie and try to restore some order out of the chaos at the house. Later that day Edna went to Sourton to tell Ivy what had happened and to stay with them.
Mrs Netherton decided to go with her children to stay with relatives in Cornwall. We couldn’t get into town to get the train, so I went with her to St. Budeaux station to wait for the train. That was a sight I will never forget, that little station was absolutely packed with people who had been bombed out or had decided they couldn’t take any more. With their belongings tied up in tablecloths and suchlike, it was like the pictures we had seen on the cinema newsreels of refugees when France fell. When the train came in they piled in until it was so packed it couldn’t take any more and the rest had to wait for the next train.
Mrs Netherton and children got on and I made my way home again to go to the hospital with Mrs Wills. We couldn’t stay long, they wanted all visitors out as quickly as possible in case there was another raid. I saw Mrs wills on to the bus for St. Budeaux and I caught the bus home.
That night I was at home with my father and Doreen,(her husband was on duty at Mount Wise in the Army.) When the siren went we got to the shelter before the bombs started falling, just the three of us and Peter the dog, there we sat in the candlelight and in no time at all there was that horrendous sound of bombs falling, we were in for another night of it. My father kept going out to make sure no incendiary bombs had fallen around us, he was so calm about it all. He kept telling us not to worry, it wouldn’t hit us unless it had our name on it and then we wouldn’t know anything about it.
There was such a red glow in the sky it was like being in the middle of an inferno, the droning of the German bombers, bombs continually raining down, the anti-aircraft gun fire, the sky lit up with searchlights.
After each wave of bombers all would go quiet for a while, but in no time at all it would start up again, this went on all night.
As time went on we resigned ourselves to the thought that we probably wouldn’t get out of that shelter alive, but eventually the All Clear sounded. The few people that still lived in the street gathered outside, so thankful to be alive but at the same time fearful of what news they’d hear of loved ones who were not at home when the raid started.
Our street seemed to have escaped again, but we were shocked to learn that a family called Organ that lived opposite us, who we had known all our lives, had been wiped out.
Mrs Organ was a very big woman who had difficulty getting into the Anderson shelter, so she and her family would stay in the basement of their house, however, as the raid had been so bad the Monday night, when the sirens went on the Tuesday night they went to the Anderson shelter. Later that night the shelter received a direct hit and they were all killed, Mr and Mrs Organ and three grown up sons. Ironically their house was intact.
Ivy and Edna came down that day to see how we had fared and to go to the hospital to see Uncle Willie, they had hitch-hiked down as there was no transport. They were to do that nearly every day for the next month.
A friend of Uncle Willie's came to see us, he told us that he had left the Dockyard with Uncle Willie on the Monday night when the raid started, he said they should take cover, but Uncle Willie said “No, I must get home to the girls, they are on their own their father is fire-watching” so he had set off on his own and of course got as far as College Road when he was hit, but he was thinking of we girls, when he died we said he had died for us.
We hadn’t told mother how badly Uncle Willie was injured because she was too ill to be able to go and see him, but as I said, Ivy and Edna came down almost every day. We all went to the hospital to see him each day, but he never gave any sign that he knew us.
On the Wednesday night we had yet another blitz that went on all night, just as bas as the previous nights, and if you think we were getting used to it by now, we weren’t. We experienced the same feeling of fear and horror as on all the previous raids. How we longed for the All Clear.
After these raids Devonport was practically wiped out. The main shopping centre was Fore Street, a long street consisting of shops and a great many public houses and some hotels. There was Woolworths, British Home Stores, Marks and Spencers, Tozers and many others, there were also three cinemas, but in these raids Fore Street was almost obliterated.
The only buildings left were Marks and Spencers and the Forum cinema but these were badly damaged.
The Royal Sailors Rest (Aggie Westons) at the top of Catherine Street was completely destroyed as was the rest of Catherine Street. The Royal Hotel was just a pile of rubble and of course inside the Dockyard there was great devastation. There was not much left of the residential areas of Devonport either, Granby Street and Duncan Street, where we had lived for many years were among the worst hit areas.
Plymouth also received another battering on these nights, one particular tragedy was in Portland Square, (which is near the library and museum) there are several references to this event in the collection of newspaper cuttings.
It was on the night of Tuesday April 22nd, in Portland Square there was a large shelter, used by the residents of the houses in the area, it was packed with people and during that raid the shelter received a direct hit, killing 72 people, entire families were wiped out, many seriously injured. This year 1981 on April 22nd the 40th anniversary of this tragic event, the survivors held a reunion on the site of the shelter ( on which is now built the Maritime College) there was a short service, a salute of gun fire and a marine bugler sounded ‘The Last Post’ there then being two minutes silence in memory of those who died in the shelter.
The survivors talked of their terrible experiences of that night. It has been suggested that a memorial plaque should be placed on the site, but this suggestion has been turned down as the council say they cannot put a plaque in memory of the people who died in Portland Square, when it is impossible to do the same for the other eleven hundred victims who died in other parts of the city.
On Wednesday April 23rd we had yet another terrible raid, we were convinced the Germans were determined to completely wipe Plymouth and Devonport off the map. We saw some terrible sights, we went each day to the hospital, more and more victims were being piled in, every available space was being utilises.
I remember we were making our way to the hospital and we passed the Bus Depot at Milehouse, it had been bombed the night before> Many buses were wrecked and on the roof of one of the buildings was a double decker bus, blown there by the blast of a bomb, from then onwards the buses were taken each night and parked around the streets of the town to avoid having the buses in one place in case of further bombing. I mentioned earlier that we had seen that the City Hospital had been bombed on April 21st, but in this raid in 1941 there was heavy loss of life.
The maternity ward got the worst of it, 14 new-born babies were killed as well as 3 nurses, there was such bravery from the doctors and nurses, some babies were born amid the debris at the height of the raid.
After these three nights of blitz we had five nights without an air attack, but on the following Monday night April 28th the blitz started again, and again on Tuesday 29th. These two nights were just as bad as the previous week.
On the Tuesday morning soon after eight we had an early caller, it was Mrs Wills, she was very upset, she had been bombed out and had lost all her home, she had returned from the shelter after the all clear to find the block of flats in which she lived had been demolished. She could salvage nothing.
She said she was going to go to Cornwall to stay with her son and his wife. I said I’d go with her and take her across the ferry to pick up the bus for Cornwall at Torpoint.
There were no buses because of all the damage, so we started to walk to Pottery Quay to get the ferry, however on the way a car pulled up and the driver asked if he could give us a lift part of the way, he was making for the Torpoint ferry, that was lucky, but when we got to the ferry there was chaos.
There were crowds of people and cars but no way across as the ferry had been bombed, the man in the car said he had to get to Cornwall on business and if we like he would drive us there via Gunnislake on the moors, so off we went. I went with her as she was frightened.
The man eventually dropped us at Liskeard, where Mrs Wills was able to get a bus to Duloe, near Looe, where her son lived.
By this time it was quite late in the afternoon and we had left home at 10 a.m. I was thinking about how Doreen would be worrying. Wondering where I was, I remember feeling very hungry, not having eaten since breakfast, but not having much money with, I couldn’t get anything to eat as I would need the money for train fare to get back to Plymouth. I went to the station where there were more crowds waiting for trains to go further down into Cornwall. There I overheard a conversation, a woman was talking about there being no ferry across the Tamar from Devonport and how she and her family had got a lift in a Pickfords furniture lorry to Liskeard.
I remembered that Dad was going to be working at Liskeard that day, so I asked this woman where she had left the lorry, she told me they were moving furniture into a house in Lux Street, so I dashed away to find this street and when eventually I turned a corner into this street there was the furniture van, I was so excited, I ran up to the house and asked one of the men if Charlie was there and he called my father out. Dad looked so shocked to see me, “Good God, what are you doing here?” he said. You see he had left for work before Mrs Wills arrived that morning, I told him the tale and then waited in the van while they finished unloading the furniture.
Dad gave me his sandwiches left from lunch and them we set off for home. You can imagine how Doreen had worried all day as it was nearly six o’clock when we got home.
The Blitz on that night of April 29th was the last really concentrated attack on Plymouth, we had more raids of course, the last bomb to be dropped on Plymouth was in 1944, but the raids were not of the intensity of the March and April Blitz, there was no point, the Germans had achieved their object of flattening Plymouth and Devonport.
Just after the last bad raid, early in the morning, Doreen and Horace went to bed for a couple of hours, but I stayed up, and I was glad I did, because about six-thirty in the morning my brother Stan walked in. He had got leave to come home to see how we were after all the bombing. He was relieved to find that we were alright, and the house more or less intact.
Later when Ivy and Edna came from Sourton, we took Stan to the hospital to see Uncle Willie. He was upset, he hadn’t realised how badly Uncle Willie was injured and the sight of all the destruction in the town filled him with horror. When we got home again Stan set about building a ‘field kitchen’ in the garden, making a sort of oven with bricks where we would have a fire and cook things in a biscuit tin, it was a great improvement to have food that was baked and not boiled on top of an open fire.
In the town we had seen all the ruins that had made up our city. The Guildhall and St. Andrews church were just a shell and over the door of the church someone had fixed a piece of charred wood with the word ‘Resurgam’ written in chalk, this word means ‘I will rise again’ this inscription symbolised the determination of Plymouthians to rebuild their church and city, we have learned since that this sign was the inspiration of the late Miss E. Smith, founder and Head of the Western College Preparatory School. I don’t know when she died, but I hope she lived to see the rebuilding of Plymouth, particularly of St. Andrews Church and the Guildhall. Such care was taken over the rebuilding of the mother church, that today it looks as though it has remained unscathed for centuries. The inscription was made permanent in granite and can still be seen today over the North door of the church.
We settled down to live a normal life after the Blitz, although really it could hardly be called normal. People still left the town every night, there was always the fear that ‘Jerry’ would be back, we were the only people left in our street at night.
There was just Doreen and I at home now, her husband had been transferred to another part of the country, Dad used to do firewatching at his firm every night, so that the younger men at the firm could be at home with their families at night.
Doreen and I used to go there as well, we would meet Dad there in the evenings after having been to the hospital and walking through the town with so few buildings left and hardly any people about was most eerie, like a ghost town. The servicemen stationed here had done a very good job of helping the demolition squads to clear the roads in the town.
When we got to Pickfords, my father would have beds made up for us, one evening he took us up on the roof to look out over the town and we could see miles and miles of destruction.
My father was a very brave man, when he had been on duty at work in the bad raids, he’d go up on the roof in the height of the raid and on one occasion he had to put out a fire caused by an incendiary bomb, but the nights we were there with him we had an alert once or twice but fortunately no bombing.
He was always so cool in the raids, I remember one raid there was just Dad and I and Peter-the-dog in our Anderson shelter and I really went to pieces. The bombs were dropping continuously and I felt it really was the end for us, I just cried and cried. My Dad put his arm around me and talked to me about all sorts of things to take my mind off the raid, he talked and talked until I fell asleep and when I woke up I didn’t feel frightened anymore, somehow my father had instilled confidence in me, he really gave me courage.
I said earlier that we hadn’t told my mother how badly injured Uncle Willie was, but as time went on we realised he was dying, so it was decided that Mum should be told, she would never forgive us if he died and we hadn’t warned her. Ivy brought her down to the hospital to see him on Saturday May 24th and as Mum went through the screens around his bed, he spoke for the first time. “Ann” he said, in such a way as though he had been wondering where she was. Mother was shocked and very upset of course, but she was glad she had been told.
Ivy and Mum went back to Sourton and next day there was just Dad and I at home when the Police came to say we were needed at the hospital. I phoned for a taxi but when I got there the nurse told me that Uncle Willie had just died at 1 p.m. he was 48 years old. I often wonder if he clung to life through all his injuries, waiting to see his sister.
Mother, Ivy and Edna came down again for his funeral and not long after Mum was strong enough to come home to live.
By this time, for the people of Plymouth and Devonport, the worst of the war was over, the town was soon tidied up, roads were cleared and dangerous walls pulled down. This was a mammoth task and even after the blitz the demolition squads and Royal Engineers still had unexploded bombs to deal with.
Some horrifying statistics were released, by March 29,000 people in Britain had been killed in air raids and 40,000 injured. Those figures didn’t include all the people killed in the April Blitz of course, and, with the advent of the Doodle bugs and the ‘V’ bomb the numbers of people killed and injured would become much higher.
We settled down to resume a normal life, although it was a long tome before people stopped going out on to the moors at night.
My mother came back home to live and I got a job at Marks and Spencers at Devonport which had been repaired.
We had to adjust to living without a lot we had before, rationing was tighter and soon after the blitz clothes rationing was introduced, that was a hard blow. I’m not sure how many coupons were allowed a year, I think it was probably about 40 at first but that was later reduced, when you think a coat or mac was 18 coupons, a pair of shoes were 6 and a dress about 10, you will understand we never had a lot of clothes, a basic standby was a black dress, and one would buy all kinds of trimmings and collars to make the dress look different, coat manufacturers tried to help by introducing half lined coats at 15 coupons, we figured it was worth having half a lining to save 3 coupons.
It was a few weeks before the bigger shops were able to open, then shops like Dingles and Spooners (now Debenhams) would have their various departments scattered over the town in private houses and Nissen huts.
After I had been at Marks and Spencers at Devonport for a month I was transferred to the new Plymouth branch which had opened in the market.
It seemed strange at first having the big stores in the market, there were Woolworths, Dolcis, Costers, Lyons Café and many more. There always seemed to be queues at the food counters, sometimes it was for biscuits, another time for jellies and anything that was in short supply.
I was on the hosiery counter and we had our queues there too, on the rare occasions we had fully- fashioned stockings in, I remember they were 3s.11d. and 3 coupons a pair, unfashioned stockings were 1s.9d. and 1 ½ coupons.
It was very hot in the market working under the glass roof, but in winter it was very cold, but we were quite happy.
That summer my friends and I would spend our evenings on Plymouth Hoe, there would be a band and dancing on the promenade, it always seemed to be good weather then, the dancing would end just before nine o’clock so we could get the last bus home.
There was one route that still had a tram, and for some reason the last tram was an hour alter then the last bus, so sometimes I was able to get the last tram home at ten o’clock because the depot was not for from where I lived, so I’d only have a short way to walk.
We were still able to go to Whitsands, we used to go to the main beach then, other beaches like Tregantle had barbed wire spread all over them as an anti-invasion precaution.
There was one occasion when Edna and Ivy were at Whitsands with the two children, Wendy and Terry, it would probably have been the summer of 1942, suddenly a German plane appeared as if from nowhere and raked the beach with machine-gun fire, Edna and Ivy grabbed the children and ran behind the rocks, fortunately, although the beach was fairly crowded at the time, no one was hurt, but it was a very frightening experience.
This was not the first time that Whitsands had been on the receiving end of an attack, one night during the blitz hundreds of incendiary bombs were dropped around the bungalows, which of course, were mostly built of wood, luckily no one was hurt, but it was only due to the efforts of the residents that the bungalows weren’t burnt to the ground.
Most of the raids we had during the summer of 1941 were daylight raids, I remember being in the bath one Sunday afternoon when the alert sounded, and I was in the house alone. I think I beat all records getting dressed on that occasion!
When winter came the raids were mostly at night, one raid I remember in particular was on a Sunday night in November, Doreen and Horace were living in the upstairs flat in our house at that time and Doreen was expecting a baby, on this Sunday night when the sirens went, we dashed to the shelter and in the dark Doreen fell over Peter-the-dog, she grazed her knees badly but course it was the baby we were thinking about, but she assured us she was alright, however, when the raid was over, she confessed to being in pain and by morning it was obvious the baby was on the way prematurely, she was taken to the Alexandra Nursing Home, near Devonport Part and late that day she had a baby son, Melvyn and they were both fine.
The war lingered on with no end in sight and in April 1942 my father died, he had had cancer of the ear for years and bore the pain like the brave man he was.He worked to within a few weeks of his death at the age of 61. We tried to get my brother Les home in time to see him, but the war was concentrated in that area, so it was impossible for him to get home, indeed Dad died before Les got the news that he was ill, but the rest of the family managed to get home to go to his funeral.
Later that year we were to suffer another blow, one night in November a telegram arrived to say that Les had been seriously injured, we later learned that he had sustained such severed facial injures that he was blind, this happened at El Alamein, he was later taken to a hospital in South Africa, you can imagine how upset my mother was hearing that Les was badly injured and not being able to go and see him.
My sister Ivy had returned to London towards the end of 1942 as the bombing had eased up, and she had another son, Brian in March 1944. Soon London was under attack again, this time from the Doodle bugs, these were the pilotless planes that were aimed at London and the Home Counties and were particularly terrifying, they caused much death and destruction. Eventually the strain in living under such conditions took its toll, the nerves of everyone living in the Doodle bug Zone were shattered and the people that had returned from having been evacuated earlier could stand it no longer and once again there was mass evacuation.
Ivy and the children, Wendy, Terry and Brian fled from London to Launceston, Cornwall, where Edna was living and she had been able to find accommodation for Ivy and the children near where she lived. Peter. Ivy’s eldest son was still evacuated with his school, he had graduated to the Grammar school and so had to go to Redruth, Cornwall, to where the Grammar school was evacuated, but he was able to visit his mum at Launceston some weekends.
During this time Plymouth still had air raids in which people were killed by H.E.bombs, but there was nothing on the scale of the Blitz of 1941. At this time there were large areas around the town, such as parks that were filled with troops, a great many of which were American and a lot of U.S. Navy ships in the dockyard. All this was in preparation for the invasion of France on June 26th 1944, ‘D Day’ as it was called, which proved to be the turning point of the war.
The last months of the war were considerably easier for the people of Plymouth as far as raids were concerned, the last bomb fell at Prince Rock on April 30th 1944 and the last alert was on May 30th 1944, that was the 604th alert, but from the first bomb on July 6th 1940 these are the statistics of that traumatic time
Bombs dropped on 59 occasions
1,172 people killed
2,177 people injured, 1,092 seriously
7 people missing
11 A.R.P. Wardens killed, 7 men 4 women
3,754 houses destroyed
18,398 houses seriously damaged
49,950 houses slightly damaged
All the shops in the City Centre
Marks and Spencers, the only shop left in Fore Street, Devonport.
A few weeks before D Day 1944, in April, my brother Les returned from the war, as I’ve said he was blind, he had been abroad with the army for 7 years, I’m thankful my mother lived to see him return, alas, my father didn’t.
Eight weeks before the end of the war my mother died after a short illness, so she didn’t live to see peace return to this country once more, which was particularly sad, she had so longed to have her sons home from the war, to know they were safe, after all she had been through, it was a shame that she was denied this.
The cessation of hostilities was declared on May 7th 1945.
This is my impression of the bombing of Plymouth, but of course I have only scratched the surface, there is so much that could be written by people who were old enough to do their bit in the defence of Plymouth at the time of what can only be described as a holocaust.
Many things remain in my memory, in particular the spirit of the people of Plymouth who were determined to carry on in spite of such adversity, helping others when they could and above all they kept smiling, the only graffiti you saw written on walls in those days were messages like ‘Hitler won’t beat us’ and he didn’t.
RESURGAM — we rose again.
A Le Tissier. 1981
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