Monday, 9 March 2015

A brush with death

With 2015 being 70 years since the end of the Second World War, this month sees a particularly poignant anniversary - that of the last Nazi bomb attack responsible for civilian deaths. On 27th March 1945 a V2 rocket (the world's first guided ballistic missile) hit London's East End, killing 135 people, the second worst V2 strike on London, in terms of lives lost. One final V2 would fall later that day in Orpington, Kent killing one person.

London, of course, had already suffered the horrifying effects of mass incendiary bombs at the start of the infamous 'Blitz' (a word derived from the German for 'lightning war') and many other British cities would be targeted, including Coventry, a city not so far from Wednesfield, near Wolverhampton where my mother lived with her family during the war.

The devastation in Coventry in 1940
Although bombing raids on Wolverhampton were nowhere as frequent as in Coventry and Birmingham, the risk was considered great enough to install anti-aircraft guns on the edge of the city after the horrific and infamous attack on Coventry in November 1940, and provision had already been made for air-raid shelters.

My mum used to talk about the warning sirens and the drills at school, diving under their desks and the carrying of gas masks. Under the family's house in Wednesfield was a cellar – a small, damp and dingy space at the bottom of a flight of brick steps which ran underneath the stairs – which served as their own air-raid shelter. But on the day disaster struck, no one was using it.

Why Mum and the family were not in the cellar at the time isn't clear. As Wolverhampton appeared
My mum (right) and her sister
not to be a target in the same way as neighbouring cities, perhaps the adults had become jaded about disrupting their sleep to sit in a cold hole in the ground for no apparent benefit.

But whatever the reason, at some point in the evening, with Mum fast asleep in bed and the adults still downstairs, the house took a hit from a rogue incendiary bomb.

My grandmother, Wyn, rushed upstairs into my mum's bedroom which was at the back of the house above the living room. The bomb had come through the roof and landed at the bottom of Mum's bed, setting the floor alight. Having pulled Mum out of bed, Gran dragged the heavy feather mattress on to the burning floor-boards to smother the flames before scooping Mum up and carrying her downstairs.

Mum's wartime ID card
The fire would eventually burn its way through to the ground floor and land on the piano below but not before Gran was able to bustle Mum into the kitchen at the end of a corridor to the rear of the house. She dumped her on a chair and wrapped her in the old mac used for visiting the outside privy in the rain.

By now Mum could hear shouting as help arrived and very quickly the fire was extinguished before it could take hold, aided, no doubt, by Gran's quick thinking with the feather bed. Another house in the street had been similarly attacked and the assumption was that a German bomber had jettisoned what was left of its load as it headed for home.

As children, my sister and I loved to hear this story, particularly when visiting my Gran's house, as the heart-shaped repair in the plaster where the bomb had come through the ceiling was still clearly visible.

Mum said that the overwhelming memory of that night was shivering at the unwelcome chill of the cold mac Gran had draped around her to keep her warm, as she sat in the kitchen in her nightdress. But I'm sure, rather than the mac, it was the shock of the incident which caused her to shiver!



An excellent and detailed account can be found of Coventry's blitz (including other aspects of the city's history) on the Historic Coventry website.

Images of the London Blitz,  "Germany's Campaign of Terror over London", can be viewed on the All website.