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The Greenock Blitz: May 1941

by mcleanmuseum

Contributed by 
mcleanmuseum
People in story: 
Misses Louisa and Jesse Ritchie
Location of story: 
Greenock
Article ID: 
A2451269
Contributed on: 
22 March 2004

This contribution is taken from the collections of the McLean Museum and Art Gallery, Greenock

Would you tell me your personal experiences of what happened on the nights of the Blitz in May
1941?

Miss Louisa
"Well they were quite bad. My father was - he was a warden in the street. He would go down the street and mother and I were here. Jessie was out at the prison.
We used to waken up through the night - the warning would go and "There it is. Are we going out?" mother says. Oh! she hated going out. She hated going into the dungeon and she hated going into two wee shelters at the foot of the street and she hated going in there too. There was one up by the gardens there, at the top of the street. She said, "Oh no!. We'll just stay here. We'll just stay here."

"This was in number 64?

Miss L Ritchie

"number 64 Kelly Street. And one night we heard them going over in waves, waves and waves but we knew fine it wasn't us. They were passing us they were going up the Clyde - it was Clydebank and all these places. The siren went and my mother would say "Do you want to go down to the dungeon?" It was all strutted up and she would say, "No. No. We'll no go down. We'll just wait for a while." They never dropped any bombs then. They all went up to Clydebank.
The next night or I think it was two or three nights they went to Clydebank. I am not quite sure if it was two or three nights. But the next night it was us.
We were in bed. We never undressed ourselves altogether. I would be in ma bed in ma petticoat but you never took all your clothes off. I had a pair of trousers at the foot and ma mother had her skirt, jumper and cardigan and her coat. We just left all these things lying. Then we - this night it was bad and we thought "Oh! We need to go down to Mrs Wilkie." She lived below us and she was stone deaf. Mother says "We can't leave her alone." So we went down and we sat in her house.
Oh! It came down and then, all of a sudden, we heard this terrible whistle. It was kind of ear piercing. It came down - oh you felt as if your shoulders were going before it even struck anything. I remember I had my fur coat on and Mrs Wilkie -- she had a settee - and my mother and I were sitting on the settee.

I had my fur coat on and I opened it out I didn't know what was going to fall. And then all of a sudden we heard this sudden thump, she had shutters on her window. They flew open and the windows flew in. I thought "Oh dear!" Its terrible and we didn't know what our house was like. We had a canary and I'd put it underneath the kitchen table before we went out. I thought "Oh! I hope my wee canary is alright." You know, I kept thinking about it.

We sat there and oh! the bombs that went off - and the whistling. Then I said;'Mother, I think we had better go down. We had better go down to the dungeon." So we got Mrs Wilkie out and went down to the dungeon. And then my other daughters - do you think that's the prison? Do you think that's the prison? We heard another rumble and crash. I said oh! No." I had no earthly idea.

Then we heard one down - it was the sugarhouse. There was a big whistle went off. I don't know what it was and then it hissed and whistled all the time. And mother says "Do you think that's the prison? Do you think that's the prison?" because Jessie was there. "No I don't think so." But I had no earthly idea of where it was.

We sat there for ages then there was thumping going on all over the place. And I wondered what we should do. Will they still be here? Then it got quieter then it seemed as if it had all sailed away. So we went up - oh! the glass it was down the back, on the stair, the staircase windows and everything had come in. And we walked up through the glass and we came up home into the house. Mrs Wilkie wasn't so bad because she had got her shutters which were alright. She could shut her shutters.

But when we came up here there was nothing. The blind was away. It was battered to pieces. The whole window was in lying on what was my recessed bed, in here. I hadnae been sleeping there ~ I had been sleeping with my mother in that one when my father was out we slept together there. My mother came in. She says, "Wonder where this is? Wonder where that is?" And she was wanting to get a candle and go through and look. I said, "Mother leave it just go in there and we'll lie on the top of the rubbish on the room bed", there were two beds through there. And we just lay on the top of that - we shook all the rubbish off and lay on the bed.

My mother didn't sleep and the first time it was daylight she was up. "I'll need to get on. I'll need to get on." And up she went and we looked through here with no window there was a hole right through the recess here, right through to the other bed. And there was no window in the scullery. And my mother says "Oh!" and she started clearing her stuff out and taking a table into the room. So we did that and then she kept saying, "Where is everything? Where is everything?"

The bird was alright. It was quite safe under the table.

Then she says, "Where's the butter?" We had the butter and milk and so on just ready for breakfast. She says "I can't find the butter." Well we had had a vase, a long thin one with a wide opening at the top and there was daffodils in it. Of course we never thought - mother had moved it into the room. And we hunted and hunted for that butter. And she kept saying "It's very strange. Everything’s blown in the way ~ how would it blow out? It's not there." Of course our butter was rationed and it was awfully scarce. We looked and looked for it and couldn't find it. We just had to do without it. I think we got dripping on our 'piece' for the next few days.

And then all of a sudden the daffodils - I said I would have to put them out. When I lifted the vase - right inside the vase was the butter. It was right down and we hadn't seen it, you know. it was right down and yet the flowers still bloomed till they faded. And when I says "Oh mother! There's the butter." Days afterwards you know, it was there.

It was a terrible night that night. I mean you didn't know where to sit. You wandered whether to sit down in the dungeon and we - my mother would say "I wonder if Jessie's alright? I wonder if Jessie's alright?" I says, "Oh! yes. She'll be alright," being very sure of myself and trying to make things as best as we could.

And my father would come down every now and again to see that we were alright in there. And we discovered that none of the rest of the firewatchers knew we were there only my father. There was two shelters at the foot and this one up next to the gardens and they thought we were up there.

Well the next night they came back again. We went up to this one at the garden gate up there. At the top of Kelly Street - just up at the garden gate. There used to be a rope work through there to your left, you know, in to your left. it used to be the Caddle Hill Laundry drying green long, long ago. But they built a hut. There was a shelter. We were sitting up there but mother didn't like it. She said, "I would rather be outside." We were sitting there and the bombs were dropping all over US. That was the two nights we had it. And there was this lady sat next to my mother and she was East End and she had lost her house and everything. And when they had come out of the house they had started to climb up the hills. You know how the country rose and the Germans fired at them with machine guns. A number of them were killed but this lady came down and was sitting there. She was saying, "I've lost my beautiful display cabinet. I've lost my beautiful display cabinet and I've got all my things in it.'

My mother - she got fed up. She says, "Be dashed lucky you have got your life. You can always get another display cabinet." "Oh!," she says, "I have a lot of nice things in it, a lot of nice things in it." I says, "Well, we can't help it - we're lucky we have got our lives."

They came back down again that night but we weren't much damaged. I think they guided them all up towards the cut. They set fires and things up and around about the cut and on the moors and I think they thought that was like Greenock getting bombed. There really wasn't so much in Greenock that second night. Oh! The first night was dreadful - really dreadful."

"How long did it take you to get the window replaced?"

Miss L Ritchie

"Oh! It was quite a while, quite a long while. We had a linoleum - a piece of linoleum - kept down in the cellar - bits that were done - however, it was nailed round the scullery window. There was a bit cut out of the middle with cellophane over it to give you daylight. That's what we had for quite a wee while. Oh! they took their time. Well they had such a lot to do cause the windows there were out at the front and Caddle Hill too. We were next. It was a dreadful night - I'll never forget it.
And then we discovered afterwards that nobody knew we were down in the dungeon except my father. The rest of the wardens who were walking about didn't know - they thought everybody was in the shelter - but my mother wouldn't go into the shelter. But the second night my father made us go in so we went. Oh! she wasn't happy in it but she would much rather be up above you know seeing what was going on."

"Now I'll ask you Jessie if you could tell us about your experiences in the two nights of the Blitz on Greenock."

Miss J Ritchie

"Well can I tell you from when the war started?"

Answer” Yes."

Miss J Ritchie

"Well it started on the 3rd September 1939 and that was my week end off. And I always remember I was out for a walk

I went down to the esplanade and there was a thunderstorm on and the whole places were flooded round the esplanade. I stood in yon garage on the corner.

And then I came back up again and when I came up home my mother said, "The war has been declared" and she says, "We are now at war with Germany." I came up, I said to my mother, "Well I'll be going in anyway tonight, I have to go on duty on Monday" - you see this was a Sunday. So I went back up into the prison. And when I went up to the prison Miss Morrison said, "Did you know that the war had started?" I said, "Yes." She says "Well we have just got back from the department that we have to release all prisoners."

Everybody was to be released and sent home. "The girls?" I said. "The girls," she said, "have all to go." The whole prison was emptied and on the Monday morning we had nothing to do. We had to cook for ourselves. But the prison wasn't touched at all ~ no damage done to the prison. And the authorities sent word then that we would have to make shelters for girls. So there was always few cells which were never used very much ~ well we made them into four shelters. You see that would take eight girls sitting you see, in each. We never had any more than about twenty four girls. It was all built up with sandbags and the doors were barred.

But we still had nobody. Well on Monday the first thing that happened was the 'Athenia' was torpedoed - torpedoed not far from us but in the Irish Sea. And the survivors were brought to Greenock. Everybody that could take a survivor did. Well these were six Jews they couldn't get anywhere far. They had phoned the prison to see if we could take them in. "Oh yes, Miss Morrison had said, "Certainly. These rooms with beds in and washing facilities, there's cooking facilities for them and they can come here."

The doors were never shut then of course - it wasn't treated like a prison - the doors were all open. Some shut their doors at night right enough. But there were three orthodox Jews and three ordinary Jews and the orthodox Jews did not like the other three Jews, and they had an awful carry on. The were terrible ~ we had to get special mugs from the state for them. And they kept them and nobody touch these things but themselves. And the other three they just mucked in with everybody else and they were very pleased to get there. They weren't very long there - maybe about four or five days when the Rabbi came down from Glasgow. He had heard about them. Mind you they were doctors - there was three of them doctors and they were very high positions they had. They were escaping from Germany to America and they were on the 'Athenia!

I remember him coming down and he said, he spoke so ~ he was an awful nice man, the Rabbi and he said he was trying to make the chance of another boat to take these six people away to America if they wanted to go. So he did do that and they went away.
But one young girl - she was a nice girl, Maria, we called her, of course they were Austrian but they all spoke English perfectly. She said - we didn't know what the rest were going to do - but Maria was going out to be married to her young man out there. And she said she hoped everything was alright as he would be worried when he knows that the 'Athenia' has been down because he knew that was the boat she was coming on. However, they all went away and they weren't very long away when we got a letter from Maria thanking us on behalf of the six people who stayed with us thanking us for our kindness."
"So the prison was empty but surely more prisoners were brought in as the war went on?"

Miss J Ritchie

"It was still empty and we had six staff and they said the youngest of the staff would go to other prisoners until such times as they were needed back here in Greenock. However, I was transferred to Perth and the other young officers were transferred to Aberdeen. Then we weren't very long away when we got word from Miss Morrison for all to come back again.
She said, "The prison is filling up, its filling up with men and filling up with girls and we are needing the help." So we were yanked back again to Greenock and they all came back and it was just run as a prison again. They filled it up ~ I don't know what happened to the men - they joined up you see into the army - probably they didn't they had a field day, stealing left, right and centre. But that is how we were back into our usual routine of prison work."

"We now come to the night of the two bad air raids on Greenock. How did this effect the prison?"

Miss J Ritchie

"Well we had an arrangement that two of the female officers had to go every night, - we did it week about - Miss Morrison and I went and two others paired off to go. We went for a week and we slept over in the male side. It was a funny arrangement but I don't know what it was for. And we always slept at the very top. It was supposed to be to look out for the - but they sent us to our bed. We didn't do anything at night - at night - and that went on for quite a wee while.
And then the big raids came and Miss Morrison and I happened to be on the night that the big raid came on. We were kept - and the funny thing about it was whenever the siren went we were brought back from the male side, back to the borstal side, which was the stupidest thing I ever heard of.
Then we went up to our sitting room - our sitting room was higher - we could just see over the wall ~ that was the girls sitting room but the girls were all down in the shelter. Every girl was taken out and put in the shelter. The look out was always male officers who came over to be with us. We were looking out of the sitting room this bomb was going away on - nothing near the prison. But you could hear this terrible bombing going on away in the distance.
Cause that was - we were away out the Inverkip Road. The bombing was away in the East End you see.

These two planes were over and I said to Miss Morrison, "Look at that falling down - there's two of them floating down from one of these planes." I says "I wonder what they are?"

Then there was a shewww - an explosion came "Oh!" she says, "they are what they call land mines" and I said, "Oh my." You see we looked - the prison if you look right over the cemetery and the gardens is back to back with the cemetery and Kelly Street is at the top. And that's just where the thing dropped as I thought. "Oh my" I says, "that dropped on Kelly Street." "No! I don't think it was" I knew by the change in her voice that she did think it was Kelly Street. However that went away and later on in the morning - we got up at five o'clock in the morning - the bell rang at the gate and they weren't allowed to enter in until it really opened at' that time - but the warden opened the gate and it was my father. He'd come up to say we were alright at home and that was that.

When it came time for to open the prison they let me off and I came home here and found what Ella (Louisa) told you.

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