- Contributed by
- Sutton Coldfield Library
- People in story:
- Patricia McGowan
- Location of story:
- Birmingham, West Midlands
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 27 July 2004
This story was submitted to the People's War web site by Sutton Coldfield Library on behalf of Patricia McGowan, and has been added to the site with her permission. The author fully understands the sites terms and conditions.
During late 1939 and the early 1940s, we in Birmingham were to suffer from quite a few air raids. It is somewhat difficult to set down here all the experiences we encountered at this particular time. We became accustomed to spending many long hours in the Anderson shelter at the bottom of the garden. This was a wooden construction with a corrugated iron cover, most of the structure being deep in the ground with about a fifth above the ground. It had a wooden door, which we bolted by means of a wooden bar fixed into two grooves either side of it. Inside there were two long benches at either side and in between these we had room for a small table on which we stood a small oil lamp. The benches were wide enough to sit upon and also had some space underneath for various provisions. The entire area of the shelter smelled dank and very earthy and at first it was unpleasant but gradually our nostrils became used to the odour and we even associated this smell with safety, as this was the place where we could have some hope of escaping death or injury. Of course, a direct hit was a disaster we did not care to contemplate.
We lived quite near to a park where anti aircraft guns were mounted. The noise from these guns was so deafening that at first, being new to the situation of air raids, we thought they were bombs being dropped and often heard neighbours screaming. We realised after a while that the sound of these guns was really music to our ears as they were our protection to some extent.
Referring to some of my old diaries I note that the air raids usually started about 7 or 8 o'clock in the evening and continued until the early hours of the morning. As soon as the siren sounded, Daddy would prepare to leave the house taking with him some cushions and the little lamp, plus a few odds and ends. Mother would then make a flask of tea or coffee and sometimes soup, some sandwiches and a biscuit tin full of cookies. Without fail, she always had, under her arm, the attaché case in which our life insurance policies were housed and also documents such as Birth Certificates and Death Certificates, old photographs and personal letters, in fact anything that qualified as being important and precious. Once settled inside the shelter, Daddy would make a ceremony of almost ramming the wooden plank across the doorway and driving it securely home. Depending upon the intensity of the raid and where it was concentrated, either we sat quietly drinking from our flask and waiting and listening, or, if the raid was aimed at our particular area, we would be fearful and cringing on our little hard wooden seats and praying for dear life.
A teenager in wartime
I was 17 years and two months old when the war started, so during the early part of the conflict I was right in the middle of my teenage years. It would be unfair to expect a teenager of today to fully understand how a young girl, full of ideas for the future and longing to get about and enjoy herself, by meeting people and going to dances and other activities, wanted to live. This was an impossibility because, if I went out for the evening, there was no guarantee that I would be coming back the same night to my parents and home. Naturally, my parents dreaded hearing me say that I was going out any evening; they were so worried for me. An air raid could start at any time, anywhere, so each day was lived precariously.
At times I would get very fed up with staying in, and feeling rebellious, would announce that I was going to a dance. A friend of mine at the B.S.A. where I worked wanted me to go with her to the YWCA as there was a dance there every Wednesday. I used to like it there and one often met the same dancers week after week. It was a good place to meet up with members of the opposite sex too. Mollie said to me —'Let's go this Wednesday, shall we?' I agreed and then had to face telling my parents. They were very upset but even so, they understood how cooped up I was feeling, so reluctantly gave their consent.
It was a dry clear night and, as I lived on a tram route that took me almost to the door of the dance hall, I made my way to the tram stop at the top of Colonial Road. With my dance shoes in a bag under my arm I set out and arrived in good time before the dance started. The melodic sounds of the dance band came across in a most inviting way; saxophones droning slow foxtrot tunes that seemed to give us itchy feet. The sounds from the band invaded the mind and one forgot about danger from outside that warm throbbing dance hall. So I paid my entry fee and hurried to the ladies' cloakroom where I had arranged to meet Mollie. Oh, it was so good to be in the swim of things again! For weeks I had been moping about at home feeling somewhat stagnated, and to get myself dressed up for this occasion was sheer bliss.
Mollie looked stunning in a bright yellow dress, and her hair was always so beautiful being naturally curly. She had very clear skin and lovely eyes, and it felt great being her friend for the evening. With our faces made up and hair in place, we made our way into the dance hall, noting the row along one side of the hall filled up with young men, as eager as we were to get cracking on the dance floor, and try out the new steps we had been practising. Ballroom dancing was the 'in thing' in those days and the girls would line up as the men did, on the opposite side of the room. As the music started, the two lines would surge forward and then pair up. Many are the times a girl would be embarrassed, when a fellow would make a bee line for a girl standing beside her. As he took the girl in his arms, the one who thought she was chosen would be left standing there with her arms out to reach the air instead. It happened to me a few times and was very upsetting and humiliating. We were very sensitive in those days.
The evening wore on and although we were all enjoying ourselves, at the back of our minds was the thought that at any time a raid could start, and even worse, this could be the last time we would be dancing! Our ears straining for the hateful sounds of a siren, we continued to dance around the floor until the last waltz. This was the moment a girl dreaded — for if she was left standing alone with no partner at her side, she would feel extremely embarrassed about it. The only cure was to dash quickly away from the scene and go to the ladies' room. But then she had to face the onrush of the luckier ones who had danced the last waltz, and all their chat about the partners who would be taking them home that night. Remarks would be made like:
'What happened to you, dear, did your partner leave you or what?' quickly changing her shoes, the girl would say, offhandedly, 'Oh, it's all right, I'm seeing him next week anyway.' All this was made up on the spur of the moment really, but was a kind of 'face saving' to all intents and purposes.
Mollie's partner wanted to take her home, and Dennis, the young gent I had danced with, wanted to do the same for me. But Mollie and I had made a promise to each other that we would go back together as far as the top of my road, and then Mollie would get a tram back to her home from there. As we were leaving the YWCA one of the girls said that she thought she had heard a siren wailing far away. We all stood in a bunch at the front entrance of the hall and listened. One or two girls thought that she was right, others were not so sure. Anyway we were all so happy and had enjoyed ourselves so much that we found it hard to come back to reality just then, but the girl had been right; the sirens were now wailing away and seemed closer.
The night was fresh and clear and the moonlight made it seem almost like daylight. This was a bad omen to us, as on such nights as this Jerry had free rein as the bombers could see their targets better. Being so close to the industrial centre of Birmingham, this meant that any bombs directed on our town spelled danger to us. Mollie and I, realising the awful plight we were in, hurried to catch the last tram leaving the terminus, but, to our dismay, we found that the trams had been stopped because of the raid. There was nothing for it but to set out and walk home. Like two scared little rabbits with our dance shoes under our arms, we ran more than walked, and hurrying along with very frightened faces, we didn't stop to talk to each other.
We were about halfway along Bordesley Green East carriageway when we heard the planes coming nearer. The road was completely deserted! Mollie and I felt we were the only ones left in the area, and by this time I think we were in tears and very frightened. I well remember hearing the bombs dropping amid the sounds from the droning planes overhead. I turned round to look as they seemed to be chasing us! Sure enough I saw them. There were three planes. I said 'Look Mollie, those are enemy planes bombing us as we run.' We felt that they could see us and were directing their bombs at US. I suppose in these circumstances, the mind plays tricks and one tends to think the whole 'bag of tricks' the world can throw at you, is your own special fate. Still hurrying on, we stumbled and bumped into each other.
As we neared some houses on the left side of the road we somehow found ourselves running down an entry besides on of them. Standing in this entry, the whole impact of the sounds of the raid reached us and we were, by this time, nearly hysterical! A lady came out to us and said, 'You can come into our shelter with us if you like — there is enough room.' As if it was yesterday I remember looking at Mollie and hesitating. She was tempted to take up the offer and was about to accept when I said to her, 'But what about our parents, Mollie, they will be so worried about us.' The lady, meanwhile, was patiently waiting for us to make up our minds, and I knew that she wanted to hurry back to her family in their shelter. We decided that we would try to get home as soon as we could in spite of the raid going on around us. We thanked her very much and then started to run for all we were worth. The road seemed endless and we must have looked like two drunken girls by this time. With our hair all over the place and tired worn faces, legs fit to let us down any minute and crying into the bargain, we were a sorry sight I'm sure. I lost my dance shoes, they must have slipped from under my arm as I ran in panic.
We finally reached a place near Bordesley Green Garage. From this time, I must have passed out. Some time later I regained consciousness at the ARP Centre that was near to the garage. I was told that I had fainted and was their first casualty that night. My name got entered in their book. I was given a cup of tea with something in it. It tasted good anyway and then this very kindly Air Raid Warden escorted me the rest of the way home. I kept going on about my friend Mollie, and asking where she was. They assured me that she had been running along the road and one of their chaps had given her a lift back to her home shortly after I had collapsed outside their centre.
I shall never forget the sight of my mother standing at the gate looking anxiously up and down the road for a sight of me. There was such relief on her face when she spotted me with the Warden coming towards her. She cried and I cried, and the Warden stood by and said, 'Right you are home with Mom at last. Glad to have been of help to you both.' And he left us. The raid was still on so I went with Mother straight away to the air raid shelter, and Daddy was so pleased to see me 'all in one piece' and unscathed. There followed a nice cup of tea and a bite to eat and a little lecture [well meant I'm sure] about the awful risk I took by going off to dances with air raids happening like tonight! I had learned my lesson, but even so, the fact that I had enjoyed the evening was some sort of compensation for the horror I had been through. The raid that night lasted for a long time and we emerged from the shelter when the 'All Clear' sounded at about 5:30am. We felt very ragged indeed and aching in every part of our bodies.
Morning — and there was so much stress about that not everybody returned to work. In our road itself there were houses down to a heap of rubble, people crying in the street and talking about folk they knew who had been hurt during the night; some killed also. My friend Pat and I went for a walk to see the extent of the damage and to see if we could do anything to help those in trouble. As always, after a raid most people would go looking for and enquiring about loved ones, relatives and friends.
I told Pat about the awful experience I'd had during the late evening and we retraced the steps I had taken along the road. Many houses were just heaps of bricks and rubble, some only slightly damaged, most of them with windows broken and the roofs caved in. As I neared the house where I had sheltered in the entry with Mollie, I saw that the entry was no more! There was no house at all, no sign of a shelter either — the whole place was a devastation of bricks, rubble and destroyed belongings. I felt terrible and began to weep for the poor people who had died there and for the lady who had tried to help us. Mollie and I had a lucky escape. Pat and I made enquiries and we were told that the family of that house had all perished and it was a direct hit on their shelter. It made me think how one's decisions can change things round. Mollie and I had made the right decision not to stay with the lady and her family and it is daunting to realise that if we had stayed, I would not have lived to write this story.
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