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THE PLYMOUTH BLITZ by Ken Roberts - part three

by Ken Roberts

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06 December 2005

THE PLYMOUTH BLITZ by Ken Roberts - Part Three

As bombing raids began to become more of a threat than at first experienced, and as they increased in severity and frequency, people on the receiving end began to think about getting out as far as possible from the city at night. The roads north and east of Plymouth became more and more popular, with families putting as much distance as possible between them and the next raid. Many made the nightly journey on foot, pushing bicycles or prams laden with their food, extra clothing and so on. Some settled down as comfortably as possible on the south western edge of Dartmoor, others sheltered in farm buildings and haystacks in the areas which would, in the fullness of time, become housing estates in post-war Plymouth.

There was no such thing as broadcast weather forecasts and these travellers had to decide for themselves, on a daily basis, whether or not the Germans would be likely to come during the night. In the Cattedown area quite a few families had access to commercial vehicles such as coal lorries, builders' vans and the like; the owners allowed - in fact encouraged - the drivers to take these vehicles home overnight in order to disperse them from their premises. They would be loaded up with people complete with baggage and would set off, picking up other people - sometimes complete strangers - en route to comparative safety. In Cattedown we would gather at the street corners shouting "Yellow Convoy ! !" at the top of our young voices as they gathered momentum. There were probably some amongst us who also would have preferred to leave the city, but any such thoughts were closely-guarded secrets.

Most of the adults who chose to stay did so because they wanted to be on hand should their homes be wrecked or set on fire. It fell to these people to look after the unoccupied properties belonging to the ones who had moved out for the night, because one burning house in a terrace was almost certain to set other houses on fire unless dealt with quickly. Other people would have got out if they could, but transport to the countryside was not easily arranged, especially for the larger families. As luck would have it, although probably seventy per cent of the houses in Julian Street were affected by bomb damage to some degree, none suffered a direct hit by high explosive and only half a dozen or so were hit by incendiaries, those being dealt with by the use of buckets and stirrup pumps.

The cause of a great deal of damage was a land mine which exploded, fortunately as it turned out, in the allotment area about a hundred yards from the odd-numbered houses of Oakfield Terrace. Had this device landed on more solid ground or a row of houses, the damage would have been substantial and widespread; as it was, all the damaged and partly demolished houses turned out to be repairable and were re-occupied within weeks.

House owners were entitled to compensation for the cost of repairing bomb damage and I still have a copy of a claim which my father submitted in respect of our first lot of damage. There were other, later occurrences, but although they were equally serious there were, by then, gangs of workmen who could be called upon to repair minor damage without any fuss, bother or red tape. The copy of the claim referred to forms a page of the documents I put together into a binder as a record of my father's life story.

Unexploded bombs were a very dangerous hazard until they were found and dealt with. On the way to school (again) a group of us had to divert by about a quarter of a mile, the cause being a UXB in the Cattedown Corner off-licence, which had a wool shop as neighbour. As we got to the end of the diversion and regained our normal route, the bomb was detonated; we had the unusual (for daytime) view of two premises being converted from buildings to bombsites in a matter of seconds.

At the top of a row of terraced houses in Cattedown Road which backed on to the top of Home Sweet Home Terrace, there was a flattened bombsite which had been left there for some time. A bunch of us found a pile of rubble which had recently been disturbed and started to investigate; hearing the gasworks lunch hooter blowing, most of us made our way home for our meals. As we arrived home there was a very loud explosion and we later found that a UXB had landed on the bombsite during the previous night's raid and had now exploded, some twelve hours later. One of our classmates was killed.

At Home Park, Plymouth Argyle's football ground, the main grandstand was closed to the supporters and was used instead for storing the furniture of people whose houses had been demolished by high explosive bombs. Some time later, the whole grandstand and its contents were destroyed by incendiary bombs.

The Astor Playing Field was hit by two German bombs, both of which left huge craters. These became places for the smaller youngsters to play in, complete with several feet depth of water in the rainy season; the craters were not filled in for a long, long time. The district of Cattedown was mentioned specifically by "Lord Haw-Haw" (William Joyce) during his nightly "Germany Calling" broadcasts in English from Hamburg and Bremen. He was hanged for treason after the end of the war.

Obviously, by the end of the war in Europe, air raids on Plymouth were a thing of the past and it became difficult to remember the approximate date of the last one but, with V1 and V2 rockets still being launched against London and the south-east soon after D-Day no one allowed themselves to become complacent.

More than a square mile of Plymouth city centre was subsequently (and eventually) rebuilt, but it is not for me to comment upon that subject : it would certainly be "beyond our Ken" !


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