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- Elaine Kidwell nee Griffiths
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- 16 August 2004
The younger people of Swansea are very interested in the “happenings” of the “Blitz” (from the German word Blitzkrieg) whilst the older people who took part in the Civil Defence just want to forget the horror of those nights. I had managed to put the memories of those terrible hours to the back of my mind until V.E. (Victory in Europe) Day and then my family, the children and grandchildren, started to ask questions about the “Blitz” and the medal which I had tucked away in a drawer.
The BBC rang me up and came to tea one afternoon questioned me, and I started to remember half-forgotten incidents and happenings that I know I should have written down years ago. On V.E. Day I was with the BBC team that broadcast the Welsh contribution to the programmes. I was questioned by Penny Roberts their reporter on camera and she told the viewers that I was the youngest female air-raid Warden in the United Kingdom when we went through the “Blitz”. It brought home to me that I must “get it all down” on paper before it was “forgotten”. I shall try and tell how it was from the point of view of a seventeen-year-old caught up in a War.
When we “went to war” in 1939 we all knew that it was going to be a long struggle. From my point of view, life went on just the same for a time. I worked as Assistant Librarian in the Royal Institution (the Swansea Museum), went to St. Mary’s Church and was in the Girl Guides with great enthusiasm. One evening a man came from the Civic Centre and asked our Guide Captain (Miss Laney) if he could speak to us about Civil Defence. We listened politely and when he called for volunteers, I said I would go along to be trained.
I’m afraid I was the only one that turned up. My father, who had served all through the First World War in the trenches with the Welsh Fusiliers was already in the ARP as it was called and I started my training at Sketty Hall in Swansea. A dozen of us, men and girls, were taught how to crawl through smoke-filled rooms and it was not pretending. Huts were set on fire and we went in one end all nice and clean and emerged a few minutes later, black, coughing our hearts up and definitely not amused! We had been assured that if we had not come out of the hut in another few seconds they would have “come in after us”!!
We were taught how to make “Molotov cocktails”, a bomb which was supposed to blow up tanks. I rather enjoyed that and I jumped from first storey windows onto tanks, lifted up the turret lid and popped in the bottle-filled with petrol and a rag wick which we had set alight! In hindsight, I wonder where we would have got the petrol from as it was in very short supply, and what would the Germans have been doing when we were jumping on their tanks?!! Oh well! To a seventeen-year-old, it was easy; at seventeen, one is immortal and if anyone is going to be injured, or killed, it is going to be someone else!!
I was sent to Post 2.E in Pier Street in the old original Maritime Quarter. My father had a business there and I worked close by, in the Museum. We patrolled the streets and got to know everyone, and where they would spend the nights, if we ever had air-raids.
I was issued with my tin helmet and an arm-band. One afternoon, in the Museum, I heard a lot of noise coming from the docks area, and saw a small French plane diving down very low over the docks. To my horror I saw him machine-gunning dockers, civilians, anything and anybody. We couldn’t believe that a French plane could do that to us. It was not long after Dunkirk and the Germans had captured the plane from the French and we had had no warning at all. I rushed across to the old men who always sat around the steps of the Museum to get them under cover, but they assured me, that it was “nothing to do with them, and they would sit and just watch”. I rushed back into the Museum and asked our local Archaeologist, Mrs. Audrey Williams, to take over my desk as I had to go. I ran over to our Post and our Head Warden was telephoning for help and swearing and yelling at me, that we had no red warning, not even an Amber warning!! Then we ran up Pier Street and across to Quay Parade to help the lone policeman there to sort out the casualties as they came streaming off the dock. Anything that was about, was commandeered to take the people to hospital. The hospital in those days was in St. Helen’s Road and most went there. Some the policeman directed to the Mortuary in the Strand. My mother came along with an armful of towels and we all did the best we could. The French air-craft had disappeared by this time. It got “clean away”.
On the night of the 18th February 1941, an Amber alert came over the telephone at our post and we all scattered over our area to open up the shelters and stand at arranged points. At dusk, about tea time, several planes flew over but crossed over the bay and dropped a load of bombs on the Llandarcy Oil Works. The fire was very bright and, on the way back, a bomb was dropped by the German Pilot in our sector. Just one bomb, probably to get rid of it before flying across the Bristol Channel, and to their air fields in France. The bomb took the whole front of a building in Adelaide Street and when the smoke had cleared away, we could see a man standing on about twelve inches of floor against the back room of the house. He stood near a door with his arms against the wall. We called to him to stay where he was; I thought that was a laughable thing to say, as where was he going?!!!
When one is seventeen, one sees life as quite funny!! Although I still do!! Anyway, I knew his wife should have been with him and I called up to him to ask where she was. He pointed down to the rubble and said “down there, under that lot”. We started to pull away the bricks and shattered wood with our bare hand and soon the rescue unit came and we then stood back for them to dig. After about an hour we found her under a very strong table, not a mark on her, and her first words were “Is my husband alive!?” He had been brought down from the bedroom or what was left of it, and they just hugged one another. They had not a piece of furniture or clothing of any sort, except a small case with their “papers” in, that being comprised of, birth certificates and policies, insurances, etc. Everyone in those days took their bags or cases to the shelter. They went off to stay with relatives and we never saw them again. But they were just pleased and grateful, that they had each other and were alive.
All next day, the smoke rose into the air over Llandarcy, and the flames were burning very fiercely. We knew that something was going to happen that night, and we spent all afternoon calling at every house to warn everyone to take shelter as soon as the sirens sounded. That lunch time I had to show a young mother how to fit her baby into a gas-proof black rubber bag in case of a gas attack. The Germans had used gas in the First World War, and we had to be prepared. The mother did not want to put the baby in the bag, and the baby did not want to go in the bag, so I had quite a problem. But I showed the young Mum how to do it and she then announced to me that if it did not “work”, they would die together, and of course, there were floods of tears, mine included!!
I returned to the post in time for a cup of tea and the Amber Alert came through. The Head Warden told us that he would stay around Wind Street if we needed him. The Deputy Head Warden patrolled Quay Parade over to the Weavers Flour Mill. He was my father and he instructed me to throw myself against a wall if the bombs started to come down. The bombs came in salvos of six so we could count them. Not a lot of heavy bombs came that night, but when we heard that peculiar throbbing sound that the Luftwaffe planes made, we felt we were ready for them.
Everyone was in the shelters and we were outside looking up to the sky when they hit us with thousands and thousands of fire bombs called incendiary bombs. They came down like rain and although we covered as many as we could with sand bags, they were on top of buildings, in the guttering, down the chimneys, everywhere they were dropped.
It was not a long raid that night: it lasted about three hours but somehow we managed to contain it. By this time, the men streamed out of the shelters and were covering the incendiaries with earth or sand to deaden them. Some heavy bombs had been dropped and everyone was feeling shattered. Daylight came at last and we managed to get a few hours’ sleep before getting on with our work next day. Llandarcy was still burning and we now knew that the Luftwaffe was using it as a beacon to “home in” on our town. By four o’clock the following day, the twentieth day of February, we were all at our posts. There were just seven of us Wardens and a long night was ahead of us.
That night they dropped more incendiaries and even flares which seemed to hang in the sky for a long time, lighting everything up. There were also land mines on parachutes being dropped, and when they blew up every bit of glass blew out as well. There was glass everywhere, and the pavements and roads shone with all the reflections of every piece. It looked like frost and it was quite beautiful. The Head Warden was Mr. Scott (we called him “Scotty”) and every time he saw me, he would tell me to put my helmet on straight. I had a habit of pushing it back off my face. He would send me here, there and everywhere, and his last words were always, “put your helmet on straight”. But, who at seventeen takes any notice of sensible adults?!! I would be dashing around saying “Yes, Mr. Scott”, and my helmet always seemed to be on the back of my head!! The Caretaker of Lloyds Bank, Wind Street, called us to help him get the incendiaries off the partly flat room on the top of the bank and we rushed in, and up the stairs to his quarters, and with brushes and brooms we swept the roof clean and the fire bombs fell to the street below where they burned themselves out. I came down the stairs and as I came around the corner of the overhead bridge at the bottom of Wind Street, I could hear Scotty calling for help and he was kneeling over a man who was on the ground. As I came closer to him, Scotty told me to take my lanyard off and put it around the knee of the man on the ground. I did, and then tightened the noose so that I had a tourniquet around the knee. I could see that Scotty already had done the same at the top of the man’s leg. The man had tried to stamp an incendiary out but it had blown up and he had lost his foot. The blood was everywhere and it was all over my hands and my sleeves. He was swearing words that were a “foreign” language to me, but Scotty, I remember, told him off, and told him that there was a young girl at his side, so to “mind his language”. He did, and apologised to me, saying “sorry love”, then off he went again swearing more than ever!! I felt as if I was covered in blood but I saw the funny side of it!!
At long last the van came with a piece of canvas at the back that was used as an ambulance and just before the van drove away, Scotty, said “Hold on a moment”, then threw the man’s shoe into the inside, and the blood trailed after it, as the man’s foot was inside it. He told me afterwards that he heard a “clunk” and turned around and I was flat out on the floor, in a dead faint! But he also said “lucky your helmet was on the back of your head as it usually is, as it saved you a nasty bump!!” He never “told me off” about my helmet again.
The heavy bombs were coming down and we counted only four instead of six, and we knew that two had come down and had not exploded. We informed the bomb disposal army unit, and they came along. We knew the first bomb had come down the other side of the river. The army officer followed the line across the North Dock behind the mortuary. One had come down right beside Wind Street corner and had split in two, saving the lives of a hundred or more people in the shelter and all the sailors in the Sailors’ Home within yards of it, laying on the floor, in two parts. So that left another two bombs. Another had blown up in the South Dock, but one was still unaccounted for.
I always kept my “eye” on my beloved museum, and after every raid I always had a look around. At five o’clock in the morning, after a horrific night, I went over there to find that the huge doors had been blown in and were open to the elements. I had left all the petty cash in a locked drawer so I went in with the aid of a very small torch and groped my way to the desk. I took my helmet off and put the money inside the centre of it. I then went down to the bottom library, which had panels of glass in the roof.
I only was allowed to have a very small torch which showed me a way to walk, about two foot in front of me. I could not flash the torch about, because of the glass panels in the roof of the bottom library. There was a huge long, wide table running the whole length of this bottom library. There was no glass on the narrow piece of floor that I could see by the side of my feet, but, walking and stumbling around the huge table, which was used as a reading table by the members of the Royal Institute. I quickly went around the rest of the Museum on the ground floor. I went through the huge exam room, where children took their music exams, through the china galleries and onto the Welsh Kitchen. I couldn’t see a lot of damage, except for small amounts of glass and, quite satisfied that there were no intruders, we pulled the huge doors closed and we went home for another two or three hours sleep.
About six thirty, there was a “hammering” at our front door, and when the door was opened, a young officer from the “bomb squad” was there. He told my father that “Miss Griffiths (my maiden name) was not to go into the museum for a few hours as they had located the sixth unexploded bomb in the floor of the lower library, about a foot away from the big table! The reason that I had not seen any glass was that it had all fallen on the table and the bomb had gone into the floor about two foot with the metal fins sticking up in the air. I had walked inches from it and because my weight was just under seven stone, I had not disturbed it. The Museum and myself owe our escape to a man or woman who was a slave worker in one of the many munitions factories in Nazi Germany. I am deeply grateful to whoever it was. I hope they “made it” back to their homes after the war. Although I doubt it, as the Nazis were so cruel and no-one had enough to eat.
So the bomb was taken out of the library after it had been defused, and taken to the back of the building where there was a small garden opposite a lovely old house called “Burrows Lodge” belonging to the “Dillwyn Llewellyn Family”. There it was blown up and rendered safe. “Burrows Lodge” survived the war, but did not survive the Town Planners who did as much to Swansea as did Hitler’s bombers. The lovely late Victorian, early Edwardian Railway station about two hundred yards from the Museum suffered the same fate as “Burrows Lodge”, although it came through intact throughout the air-raids. It was called “Victoria Station”, and was a little gem of a railway station, lots of wrought iron and carved wood and loads of flowers. The people today would love it, but it went in the name of progress. The ugly buildings that are in Swansea now are a shame on the record of this town.
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