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15 October 2014
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Celebrating My Birthday During an Air-Raid in Portsmouth by Sydney Johnson

by Stockport Libraries

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Stockport Libraries
People in story: 
Sydney Johnson
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Contributed on: 
07 June 2004

This story was submitted to the People’s War site by Elizabeth Perez of Stockport Libraries on behalf of Sydney Johnson and has been added to the site with his permission. He fully understands the site’s terms and conditions.

The second major raid on Portsmouth was on 10th March 1941. Several minor raids had taken place, and scarcely a night passed without some bombs being dropped, leftovers from raids on other towns especially London. The raid started about 6pm and it was soon evident that a major air raid was on. The anti-aircraft barrage was formidable and it was obvious air defences had been considerably strengthened since the previous raid on 10th January 1941. The noise was deafening and impossible to describe, the drone of the bombers wave after wave, the crack of the H.E., ack ack shells (a new shell from those first used early in the war), the thud of bombs being dropped, buildings actually shaking like in an earthquake. I was convinced it was my last day on this earth! I have reason to remember the date because it was my Birthday on the 8th March and my Mother had sent me a birthday cake and this was still in a cake tin intact waiting for the birthday party. It was going to be difficult to find a peaceful time to eat the cake and this was on my mind during the early hours of the raid.

I was living at Portchester (some four miles from Portsmouth) and we had all, landlady, husband, daughter, myself and another visiting friend, hastened to the air raid shelter situated in the back garden. It was of some concern that the refreshments taken to the shelter would not last the night out if the raid was to be longer than four hours – in fact the “All Clear” was not to be until 4.30am! It was of course a rather hazardous job to leave the shelter – a bomb would not be something we would remember, but the danger from shrapnel was very great indeed. We were not as organised in the shelter as we should have been and there were difficulties with toilet requirements as well as refreshment replenishment. To say we were all frightened is an understatement – we were all terrified! The noise of the guns and bombs falling, the cacophony, was incessant, there was no let up hour after hour. I was convinced I would not see the morning light! I therefore decided against my better judgement and come what may I was going to leave the shelter later in the evening and eat my birthday cake. Offers to join me were declined, so I was going to be on my own! At about 9pm I left the shelter, and rushed into the house with flasks from the shelter. I can’t remember now how I boiled the kettle, but some heating energy was still available, I think Calor Gas, so with all that swiftly organised, this was to be my last repast! I cut the cake into several portions, ate what I wanted, swilled down hastily with tea, and then filled all the flasks, and dealt with the buckets used for toilet purposes. To say I was nervous and frightened would be an understatement. I remember looking outside the house during this escapade and saw some hundreds of incendiary bombs (Thermite bombs) alight on Portsdown Hill, most seemed to be on waste ground and I didn’t notice any house in the locality being hit, but the blaze of these bombs lit up the night sky now full of smoke from raging fire and A.A. fire. We used to call them “Molotov Breadbaskets” named after the Russian foreign minister of the day. It was incredible Dante’s Inferno could not have been worse. One other event occurred during the raid of frightening dimensions. Guns situated on top of Portsdown Hill some hundred yards from where we were living were fired during the raid. These were 9” naval guns in the forts on the hill top. These guns were useless against aircraft, but were trained on the entrance of Portsmouth Harbour in case of invasion. They were fired I think to bolster confidence at the time. I had never heard a 9” naval gun being fired at close hand but it’s an experience never to be forgotten, a very awesome experience of extreme danger to our eardrums.

However I lived to tell the tale – I ate my Birthday cake and shared it with my shelter friends who were more than glad that some foolhardy person had braved the elements. The air raid “All Clear” at 4.30am was the most welcome sound to our very much damaged hearing. I have no figures for the casualties but very severe damage was inflicted on Portsmouth that night.

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