- Contributed by
- Ken Roberts
- Location of story:
- PLYMOUTH, DEVON
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 06 December 2005
THE PLYMOUTH BLITZ by Ken Roberts - Part Two
One of the Coxside gas holders was pierced by a bomb and set on fire in one raid, and the gas flame remained for several days, the whole structure giving the appearance of a candle or, more appropriately, a night light. I do not know how that particular fire was extinguished, but the gas holder was eventually repaired and is still there today in 2005.
One more long-burning victim of the blitz was the Reckitt's warehouse at Shepherd's Lane (colloquially "Candleworks Lane" at the time). The warehouse was situated on the site now occupied (2004) by a car parts supplier fronting on to Commercial Road, Coxside. The contents of the warehouse when it was set on fire included a lot of well-known brands of chemical products such as Reckitt's Blue, Brasso, cleaning liquids and other household potions. As the fire on the top storey spread it burned the floor, which collapsed into the next and, over a period of several weeks, continued to smoulder with an occasional collapse. I believe the structure was of three storeys originally but finished up in the cellars, below the level of the cobbled road surface.
Both bus depots in Plymouth - Milehouse Corporation Depot and the Western National depot at Laira Bridge - became victims of the blitz. Although my father (bus driver) and my sister (bus conductress) were both on the staff of the Corporation buses and were off duty and at home that night, the bombing of the Laira depot caused a lot of grief locally. Two of the men who died at Laira that night were friends of the family; they were on firewatching duties when the building was blasted to pieces. At the Milehouse Depot a whole double-decker bus was blown bodily on to the roof of a bus garage and remained there for several days; most of the fleet of buses suffered damage to their windows and were driven around on their routes with patched up, non-transparent windows for some time.
Prior to any air raids at all, each house had been visited by a Corporation lorry and a gang of workmen who deliberately smashed the cast-iron railings which adorned the outer walls and tossed the broken material into the back of the lorry. This was then taken away and deposited at Cattedown Quarry “for the war effort”. The buckets full of shrapnel subsequently collected after each air raid were taken away and dumped elsewhere — possibly at sea — where no one was likely to discover it. Most of it originated from anti-aircraft shells although often we found bomb nose cones and, of course, dozens of incendiaries. Incendiaries which landed in the streets were harmless enough and simply burned weird shapes into the tarmac of the road surface; only the tail fins survived as recognisable souvenirs because the body of the bomb itself was highly combustible, composed of a magnesium alloy. They, too, soon ceased to be souvenirs as we piled them up; only our school friends who lived outside the city tended to show any interest in them.
After a succession of heavy raids parts of the city were without gas or electricity or water or all three of these essentials. Cattedown, for a time, came into the "all three" category. Thus it was that my father and I set out to obtain a cooking range; we found one among the ruins of a house in Tresillian Street and managed to get it back home in one piece. I believe the official description of this activity was "looting", but we regarded it as doing something useful for the war effort with an item which would otherwise have been dumped, along with the house rubble.
My mother and sister found the range very useful for cooking and heating but also supplied hot water to neighbours who were prepared to obtain water (for cleaning purposes) from the static water tank at the top of the street. Water for drinking or cooking purposes was regularly stored overnight in containers such as buckets and saucepans, as a precaution against possible bomb damage cutting the water main somewhere close by. Sometimes it would be days before full water pressure could be restored. The cooking range itself was still in good working order when we sold the house about twenty years later.
Unlimited fuel for the range and for the other domestic fires was obtained by collecting it from bombed houses. In those days the only method of sawing wood at home was by hand; even homes with primitive power tools found the frequent absence of electricity a bit of a nuisance. Coal was rarely in short supply, there being huge heaps of it at Coxside, (the coal company) also at Tothill Park where it could often be seen smouldering. This was not as a result of enemy action but due to spontaneous combustion.
The Astor Playing Field was equipped with a barrage balloon, manned by the R.A.F. The balloon was called "Hector" by the local residents and, during daylight hours, one would hear a loudly shouted chorus of "Hector's going up !", suggesting that the air raid siren would shortly be sounding, with a daylight air raid being imminent. (We always presumed that the R.A.F. balloon people would be told about incoming enemy aircraft before we, the civilians, would; most times this proved to be correct.)
In spite of all the many thousands of anti-aircraft shells sent up from the various gun batteries and ships in Plymouth Sound (notably HMS "Newcastle", which was moored there for a very long time) I only ever actually saw two German aircraft brought down; I must have been in the shelter when any others met their fate. One was during a heavy night raid and it caught fire nicely, last seen heading east towards Plympton - I believe it crashed somewhere in Ivybridge; the other was in daylight and it was losing height rapidly, trailing blue and black smoke as it went out south over the breakwater. Both these events were heartily cheered by those able to witness them, something like a goal being scored at Plymouth Argyle's football ground, but much louder and with more sustained applause !
End of part two.
© Copyright of content contributed to this Archive rests with the author. Find out how you can use this.