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A schoolgirl's war

by Barbara MacArthur

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Archive List > The Blitz

Bab's To-day

Contributed by 
Barbara MacArthur
People in story: 
Barbara MacArthur
Location of story: 
Cardiff, capital of Wales
Background to story: 
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
06 July 2005

Young people of to-day do not seem to know that during the blitz in
Cardiff and elsewhere in Britain during the Second World War
absolutely everybody was involved one way or another, not just those
serving in the Forces.

For example, the disabled, arthritic 88-year old who with a
stirrup pump and buckets of water put out the fire
caused by an explosive incendiary, which crashed
through her roof onto the landing, the 13-year old girl next
door who scrambled over the iron railings (not yet taken
for the war effort) of a nearby park and gardens,
and extinguished incendiaries by frantically shovelling
earth with seaside wooden spade, knowing that if she did
not succeed the fires would guide the German bombers to
the surrounding residential area in Cardiff.

I was that 13 year old and still bear the
scar on my thigh where I was grazed by shrapnel. It does
not show after all these years except as a white mark when
my legs get tanned. Ordinary people did not have telephones
in those days and could not summon the fire brigade for each
and every incendiary bomb that started a fire as the emergency
services had enough to deal with when large buildings were
on fire and people had to be rescued after bombing. Civilians
put out the incendiaries and many purchased their own bucket and
stirrup pump. Others used buckets of water or sand, whatever was
available. One had to be careful of anti-personnel bombs such as
explosive or phosphorous incendiaries that contained a
thick, gummy substance which blew out and stuck to the skin and
clothes. This substance burned anything it touched. Sometimes there were
difficulties because the water and gas mains were damaged by bombing.
Either the services would be cut off or sometimes the broken pipes
meant that the gas and water mixed together and when one turned
on the tap an unusable white liquid would run out.

Around the same period explosive incendiaries destroyed my school (Canton
High. which used to be in Market Road - now "Chapter" Club)
When wading through the water in wellies to carry out salvage
work I remember we were told not to touch the remaining
walls in case they collapsed on us! Two of my friends
at school had already perished in a ship evacuating them
to Canada or USA which was torpedoed by the Germans.
Writing Paper was in short supply so teacher ripped pages from
their books and gave us a few pages each. I did not realise that
until I saw they had written their names at the top of
a couple of pages. I had been thrilled at the prospect
of being evacuated overseas which offer was read out
to us to us at school, but when my parents refused to
give permission for me to go I felt furious with them,
although in those days we did not dare show such
feelings openly to one’s parents. Being a child it did
not strike me afterwards what would have happened to
me if they had agreed to my wishes.

In our home in Cardiff we were lucky because we had a
cellar to go to when the bombing started. Our doors, windows etc.
were blown out and a tarpaulin had to be installed where our roof
used to be. A boy and his sister lived the other side of us. I remember
the same morning as my school was destroyed that they
told me our friends we used to play ‘cricket’ with in
Sophia Gardens, Cardiff, with a tennis ball and makeshift bat — had all
been killed. That same night my youth club (Rawden Place)
was flattened by bomb blast, as was my Sunday school in
Cowbridge Road, Canton, Cardiff..

Mum and dad never knew about the incendiaries
incident as I was afraid to tell them in case they got
annoyed that I had damaged my only
pair of lisle stockings. I had to hide the pieces of rag I used as
bandage; no sticking plasters or proper bandages available then.
My dad was a little eccentric and a fatalist. He had been invalided
out of the Royal Navy at the end of WW1. He had joined in 1914 at
the age of just 16. When we were in a downtown cinema one night, the bombs started
dropping. A large number of city centre buildings — offices, shops, restaurants etc. -
were destroyed. People huddled together under the
balcony of the cinema for shelter, but when someone decided to lift his
small daughter onto his shoulders to sing merry
songs to bolster everyone up, Dad and I did not feel in the
mood. We preferred to leave to walk home, and pick our way over the
rubble, firemen’s hosepipes, etc. with shrapnel falling all around, merchandise
from bombed shops all over the street.
Dad always thought if your time was up that was it. Walking with him I had no fear.

The New Yorkers, on 9/11, reminded me of those days,
where everyone carried on as usual afterwards. It was the only thing
to do. After our home was so weakened by the land-mines, we
walked over a city bridge each night to sleep either in the concrete
basement of some still-to-be-built flats in Westgate Street, or within the thick walls
of Cardiff Castle. We each took a blanket or eiderdown with us. There
were so many families bombed-out that we all learned to sleep,
fully clothed, sitting-up on the bunks provided. People
took their alarm clocks to wake them us as usual for work
or school. I remember how cold it was in the winter
because there was snow on the ground and no heating available in the
shelters or at home. We could not light a fire at home because the
chimney had caved in through the bombing.

The school teacher instructed us how to run for the nearest shelter or fall
flat to the ground when an enemy 'plane flew over, but I remember how we would
forget. We would stand outside our front door (Despenser Street, Riverside, Cardiff) to watch German 'planes machine-gunning the barrage balloons.

Other days and nights most of us carried small aircraft recognition books and would point to the sky, "It's all right; it's one of ours" or "Look that's a Heinkel" or "Oh,
that's a Messerschmitt!"

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