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Columbia Market shelter bomb.

by Tom Betts

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Contributed by 
Tom Betts
People in story: 
Tom Betts
Location of story: 
Columbia Market Bethnal Green E2
Background to story: 
Civilian
Article ID: 
A8071238
Contributed on: 
27 December 2005

Wednesday 7th September 2005. By Tom Betts.

Today sixty five years ago on Saturday September 7th 1940 was the beginning of the Blitz on London. It was the day when my life was changed forever, although it was so very long ago, to me it is remembered as clearly as if it happened only last week.

I can remember it not just because of what happened, but at the age of twelve and a half, as I was, I can clearly recall the comments, actions, faces of all those with me at the time. A day recorded in my memory that I will never forget.

The Saturday was a very warm, cloudless day and just like any other early September day. We lived in Columbia Buildings Bethnal Green. The ‘Buildings’ as they were known were a grand project built by Madam Burdett Coutts, of the banking world, as a Victorian philanthropic venture in the 1860’s It was an enormous Gothic creation comprised of a covered market, accommodation for several hundred shops and storage for the traders. It had its own church, swimming pool and baths and the luxury of a laundry on the fifth floor. By no means the typical East End block of flats, far more majestic.

On the day in question after my mother had cooked my brother and I breakfast, friends and I went out knocking on doors to take orders for coke from the local gas works. Our ‘bit’ for the war effort paid 3 pence a sack which enabled us to buy pie and eels (Dutchy Lees) and also the means to go to the Saturday cinema. In the afternoon the sirens began but having had some few light air raids in the previous nights, we were not too alarmed. Today though was different, there was much more anti-aircraft gun activity. We were more than curious and climbed up six floors to take a better look. There were hundreds of German airplanes, so low that the crosses on their wings were clear to see. The bombs began slowly dropping from them, landing on the docks. It was bizarre, as I remember looking at the square below where children were still playing, completely oblivious to the destruction not too far away.

.After some time the all clear sounded. Because of the raid my mother was late for the weekly shopping trip into Bethnal Green Road. We had shopped for about an hour for the week-end groceries and our usual Superman comics.

When we arrived home we found that all the water to the flats had been cut off. We later learned that this was due to the amount of water being used to fight the fires. As evening came the flames from the docks were very bright. To get water meant me being sent to the standpipe in the next street. I had just filled the bucket when a woman came out to tell us that she had heard on the radio that another wave of bombers were on their way, and fearing an even more ferocious attack I raced home to persuade my mother to go to the designated shelter, a large area previously used as storage under the Market square.

We were not too familiar with the shelter, we had only used it once before, but that was light bombing. It was a large area about one and a half football pitches separated by a wall dividing it into two equal parts. We had all been given the luxury of a sheet of corrugated metal to sleep on. The shelter began to get warmer and with over a hundred people coming down into the shelter it began to get very hot. Every one was very calm and in one spot there was a wedding party going on they were laughing and singing. The noise outside told us all that the bombs were falling and the occasional rumble indicated that the bombs were getting closer. As the night went on I must have fallen asleep, I remember feeling very uncomfortable and hearing my mother next to me, chatting to my Aunt. All that I can next recollect was feeling very giddy and sick .Still feeling very giddy, I opened my eyes. It was dark I could hear screams and whistles. Startled, I suddenly remembered where I was and began to feel around for my mother and brother, as it was impossible to see. The area was full of dust and pitch black .In the far distance I could see a tiny light from a small bulb.. I could not get my bearings. Still lying on the ground I focused on the dim glow coming from the bulb in the distance. It was hanging above the exit doors.

As my eyes focused, I saw silhouettes of people pouring out of these doors. I began to crawl towards the source of the light. I crawled over a sheet of metal covered by a blanket on which a woman sat. She screamed at me to get off as she did not want her blanket covered in blood. Her words made no sense, what blood was she talking about? I felt my head. I had assumed that the sticky liquid I could feel on my head was perspiration. It wasn’t. I began to realise that I was the source of the blood she was referring to.

As I neared the light I realised fully what had happened and remembered that within the shelter was a first aid room, I had been to it as a volunteer to be bandaged up weeks earlier. So instead of going into the street I pushed my way to it and after nearly forcing the door they let me in. Inside there were about twenty people including one of my friends. A nurse bandaged my head and we sat in there for what seemed like hours. When the ambulance cars arrived I was led out by two A.R.P wardens into a street that was as light as day from the glow of fires. The man who was holding my arm asked me to put on a blanket he held. He said it was for shock. The converted ambulance took me to the Mildmay Mission hospital where they were really working hard looking after dozens of casualties.

After being re-bandaged I was taken onto another ambulance this time with four stretchers in it and an attendant First Aid worker.

It was an horrendous journey, all the time the raid was carrying on and often we stopped and turned around to avoid blocked streets. At one stage the woman first aider who was with us told the driver, through the slot in the cab, that the man on the stretcher above me had died. This really did scare me and when she touched me on the head I really did shout out “I’m not dead.” I am glad she believed me. The driver tried several hospitals and I could hear them saying ‘sorry mate we are full.’ Eventually a hospital in Kingsland Road took us in.

We were cleaned up and I was put into a room alone still listening to the guns and bombs raining down. At last I heard the all clear going and felt a lot easier, it was now daylight. It sound silly now but I was in that room for a whole day before another person came in. It was a nun. She gave me some jelly to eat and some warm tea to drink. Later a nurse came in and changed my dressings making me feel calmer.

That evening an uncle came to see me. He had traced me from the previous hospital he told me that my father was on his way down from RAF Sealand in Cheshire to see us. I began to fret over my mother and brother knowing that we had all been separated.

By an incredible twist of fate it appears that a 50kg bomb had fallen through a ventilation shaft and had exploded in the centre of the shelter which was an approved Air Raid Shelter and an A.R.P. depot. My mother, brother and I were less than fifteen feet from that ventilator, which was made from glass! How unlucky and how unbelievable that such a shelter could be built. To this day I still do not know how many people died in that approved air raid shelter.

When night fell on the 8th September the raiders returned. This time I really felt scared as I was alone, some four stories up in a small room listening to the bombs crashing down. Early next morning a nurse came in with some tea and food. Then about ten o’clock two ambulance men carried me down the stairs to the front of the hospital where a Greenline coach, converted to carry stretchers, was waiting. I was taken to the Chase Farm Hospital in Enfield.

Arriving there, I was taken straight to the ward at the top of the block where I was bathed, fed and prepared for stitches to be put into my head. This was a rather painful experience as I was kept in my bed as they stitched. They were talking extremely kindly to me but it really hurt. At one stage a black man from a ship who was unable to speak a word of English, went berserk, unable to understand anything going on around him, he screamed in his own language and began to throw things around the ward. I was concerned that he might hit the doctors while the needle was going into my head. However, eventually he was restrained and my head was sewn up and dressed.

After ten days my father found me and told me that he had been looking for my mother since the event. Unfortunately by the time he discovered which hospital she was in, she had died of her injuries before he could find her. It appeared that she had been taken to a hospital but initially she was unable to speak and when she was able to so, had given her maiden name making it impossible to trace her. I discovered that my brother had escaped without any injuries and was with my grandmother.

I was devastated and still have feelings of guilt because on that day I was the one who had insisted we all went to the shelter.

After a few weeks I was allowed up and began to help on the wards and work the washing-up machine which was in another part of the hospital. I remember at one stage cleaning up a casualty, a man who had been brought in, I noticed a piece of brick imbedded in his ear. I called a nurse and remember feeling that I was contributing something to the hospital. Although I felt well in myself, my head wound refused to heal and so I remained in hospital receiving an occasional visit from my grandmother.

Christmas came and a nurse took me on an outing to Enfield Town. It was a wonderful treat she even bought me a waffle with honey on it; a treasured memory during a dreadful time.

In the New Year, I underwent surgery and skin was grafted from my leg onto my head. I believe that this technique was in its infancy at the time. I stayed in the main hospital until May and was then transferred to a convalescent home where I remained until the late August when my Grandfather came and took me back to the buildings where I had lived.

When I saw the first of my friends they told me they were convinced I had been killed in the air raid. I assured them that that was not the case!

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