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The Blitz - My granddad's story

By Maurice Clark (Coventry Kid b.1930)

Jennie Browne would like to to share the story of her granddad's experience of the Blitz when he was a young boy. He died in 2009 but before he did he'd written out his memories of the day....

Coventry Blitz 14th November 1940.

When the war was declared on the 3rd September 1939 I was 9 years old, living with my family at 26 Ballantine Road, Radford, Coventry, which was situated on the north side of town, one and a half miles from the city centre. This was a semi-detached council house which was built in 1930. Ballantine Road is a cul-de-sac of 28 houses, it was a very close community, more like belonging to a large family. We kids all got on together and have been lifelong friends even to this day, although some of them have passed away. I was the youngest child, my parents were George and Mabel Clark, I had one sister, Edna, who was the eldest aged 22, then brother Vic, 20, and brother Vincent, he was 12. Edna got married to Harry Rose on November 4th at St. Nicholas' Church, Radford, so they moved into their own rented property the other side of town.

Family portrait
Jennie's granddad is the boy standing up

Shortly after war was declared each home was issued with an Anderson Shelter. This was a corrugated iron construction, which was in a kit form, it was about 6 x 6 x 6ft. The idea was to dig a 6 x 6ft trench about 3ft deep, erect the shelter in this pit, then the soil that had been dug out would be covered over the top of the shelter. There was a small opening where you could get in and out. Our shelter was in the back garden situated at the side of the house, so that the house itself protected the opening.

Each home was also supplied with bunk-beds to put in the air raid shelter. These were also in kit form. When assembled these would fit in the shelter, one each side, each had an upper and lower berth, which accommodated an average size adult. I can distinctly remember Vic and my dad assembling these in our living room. Vic was very good at this sort of thing having made our full size kitchen table when he was at school. When Edna left home this meant that my brother Vincent shared one top bunk sleeping head to foot, leaving the other three bunks to mam, dad and Vic.

At that time I was at Radford Junior School, Vincent at Barker Butts Senior School and eldest brother Vic was working at the BTH. He started there aged fourteen and would stay there for the rest of his working life, 51 years. BTH (British Thomson-Houston) was a factory at Alma Street about half a mile from the city centre; they produced electrical apparatus for aeroplanes; i.e. magnetos, electrical motors, also household equipment; washing machines, etc. Dad worked at the Dunlop on producing aeroplane wheels, he was employed as a 'radial driller'. Our mam stayed at home as all women had such a lot of work to do in those days, very few went to work, of course later as the war progressed a lot of the women were engaged in some type of war work.

A lot of the car factories in Coventry were already changing over and making armaments, aeroplane, engines, etc. so all the factories were engaged in helping the war effort. This was also a time of re-cycling; a lot of garden steel railings were confiscated by the government, these were melted down so that the metal could be used for making guns etc. Rubber tyres were also in demand and other scrap household items such as net curtains that people have up to their windows. A job that I had at Radford School was to cut some of these old net curtains to shape then soak them in glue and paste them to the windows or the panes of glass in skylights above the doors, the idea being that if a bomb exploded nearby then the netting would help to stop the glass fragmenting. That was the plan anyway. This did prove to be a waste of my artistic work when the school was blown up later.

On Thursday 14th November 1940 I was off school and playing on Radford Common. This was a green piece of common land where a lot of us kids would go for a kick about with a football. There was also an underground community air raid shelter that could be used by anyone if the air raid siren sounded. While on the common I looked up into the sky and I could see a vapour trail being made by an aircraft very high in the sky and the vapour trail was done in the shape of a question mark (?). I never realised at the time that this was done by a German aeroplane, probably on reconnaissance. I do have a book, which also confirms what I, and probably many others, saw. Maybe this was a warning of what was to come.

Brother Vincent and me were usually in bed very early at night because we never knew when the sirens would be going and we would have to get up quickly and get in the air raid shelter. We were usually in bed for about 7.00pm. If the air raid sirens sounded and we had to get up again, this was a bit upsetting if we were asleep as we would be in a warm bed and have to go into a cold damp shelter. The only good point as far as I was concerned was that I could put on a pair of long trousers (hand-me-downs of course). Vic was out somewhere, Edna had come to our house in the afternoon as husband Harry was cycling to Kenilworth when he finished his day's work at GEC. He was trying to find some accommodation for Edna and himself where they could go and sleep each night. A lot of people were trying to get out of Coventry at night as we were a prime target for enemy air attacks. Kenilworth was a small town about 5 miles south of Coventry city centre. The GEC (General Electric Company) had several factories in Coventry, they were mainly producing Telecommunications equipment.

GEC Spon Street factory
The GEC Telecommunications factory in Spon Street.

Dad was still at work at the Dunlop (so he said), but there was a shortage of beer at that time. If The Pilot pub had a delivery, then he would definitely be calling in there before coming home.

The sirens started their wailing sound just after we had gone to bed so mam came upstairs to get us both up and into the shelter. We could hear the heavy throb of the German planes approaching and the dropping of incendiary bombs and flares to lighten up the city. It was very clear moonlit night anyway so no doubt it helped the German pilots. The planes always had this throbbing sound from the engines when they were heavily laden with bombs. After about an hour of continuous bombing, dad came home and went into the house to put the frying pan on as he wanted something to eat. Mam, Edna, Vincent and myself were in the air raid shelter. It wasn't long before dad also rushed into the shelter, frying pan as well, as the bombing was getting very intensive. The noise was deafening as the bombs were dropping. They always gave this screaming sound as they were falling, and what with anti-aircraft guns being fired. Edna's husband Harry arrived on his bike, we had all been concerned as to his whereabouts. He had to cycle from Kenilworth right through Coventry. As we lived on the far side this would have been about six miles in total. He was in a state of shock when he eventually got to our house. He said that as he passed by St. Nicholas' Church where they had got married a bomb hit that. I was amazed that he had got right across the city without being injured as there were hundreds killed that night, and being in the open you could be very easily be badly injured with flying shrapnel. We all managed to squeeze into the shelter, Harry making the total up to six. Still no sign of elder brother Vic, who was out somewhere with his mates I guess.

The bombing was continuous hour after hour, there seemed no let up, there were wave after wave of these planes coming and dropping their bombs. After the initial start of dropping the flares and incendiary bombs, then came the high explosive and land mines. Of course we didn't know what destruction was happening across the city, I think at the time we were just concerned about our own survival. I was at that age when I thought I will be OK because my mam and dad will look after me, as they always had, especially my mam. So at that time I was not shaking in fear or anything like that, hoping that we would be OK and having a quiet prayer I guess. Yes, we didn't know how bad things were across the city till the next day. I think we were all getting used to these air raids but this one was far worse than any that we had previously experienced. People always used to say that what with all the shrieking of the bombs as they are falling, you never hear the one that is going to hit you, which I guess is true. At that time our family thought that what with such a heavy bombardment that we were getting, they were trying to blow up the Daimler factory where aeroplane engines were made. The Daimler was about half a mile from our house, we could get a good view of any destruction there from the back bedroom window. We didn't realise at the time that the centre of town was devastated or that the Coventry cathedral was on fire and eventually completely gutted, leaving just the spire in one piece. So, the bombing continued throughout the night. We had an incendiary bomb explode in the back garden near the back door, but as the shelter was situated at the side of the house we didn't realise that had happened until the next day. There was such a tremendous continuous din going on hour after hour, it was just a case of keeping your head down and hoping for the best.

It must have been about 3 or 4 in the morning regardless of all the noise and being completely shattered I fell asleep. When I woke about 5.30am I found that I was alone in the shelter, and then I was frightened, I wondered where everyone had gone. I scampered out of the shelter and went in the house and they were all sitting in the room in candle light, there was no gas, electricity or water as all the mains had been bombed. Luckily we were ready for this and we were able to boil a kettle on the coal fire and we always had containers full of water. Vic eventually arrived home; he had been out helping to put fires out all night. He was a member of the Home Guard with headquarters based in the town centre, as we thought he had been fire fighting in town. The All Clear sounded about 6 or 7am, I think everyone was in a state of shock and depressed what with lack of sleep and wondering what devastation there was in the city. Luckily there were no badly damaged properties or injuries in our road. Of course there was some incendiary bomb damage here and there, it would be a job to get missed as there were 30,000 dropped.

Luckily, Edna and Harry were not at home that night, they lived at Eagle Street, Coventry, about one mile from the town centre in rented accommodation. Their house suffered bomb damage, and a table cloth that they had received as a wedding present a year earlier was seen flying like a flag from a nearby neighbours chimney stack for several days after. I did see this myself.

After I had had a bit of something to eat for my breakfast, it would normally have been fried bread, but no gas. I went out to see any of the gang, my mates, who were about and have a look to see what damage had been done in the close vicinity. It was also a hobby of most kids at that time to collect different types of shrapnel, incendiary bomb fins, parachute silk, the green canopy and the white silk cords were extra special! I had a walk up to the shops about 400 yards from our road, Mathews' the grocery and provisions shop had been burnt down. As it was getting close to the festive season they had bought in a load of Xmas puddings so there was a very nice smell as we approached that area. They were also selling some items at the roadside outside the shop, which they had managed to salvage. There was also a very large crater just behind these shops which was actually some gardeners allotments, a landmine had exploded there and you could have put a couple of double-decker buses in the hole.

We then had a walk towards the Daimler factory. I was surprised at the accuracy of these German bombers, they either had some direct hits or some very close near misses. There were a lot of soldiers around carrying unexploded bombs on their shoulders after defusing them and placing them on a lorry to dispose of. I did see that a landmine complete and still on its parachute had got caught on two house chimney stacks and was actually suspended in mid air. The houses were one each side of the rear entry and only about 20 yards from the Daimler perimeter fence. On the opposite side of the road to the main entrance to the Daimler was the Radford recreational ground. There were numerous bomb craters there, probably a dozen or more, very near misses luckily, but didn't do the football pitch much good!!

When we got to St Nicholas Church, or what was left of it, there was the remains of the landmine parachute, also as we were there an elderly lady told us a young Scout Messenger boy had been killed there, so that was sad. We did have a bit of the parachute though! At least that made up in some way for the demolition of the hard work that I had put in glueing that net curtaining to the windows at Radford School which had also been bombed.

Later on this day a lot of people decided to get out of Coventry before nightfall as they expected the same to happen again. To the best of my knowledge after 69 years have passed, this never happened. Mam and Dad thought it would be best if Vin and me should be evacuated, as they also thought if we had another night like that we would be lucky to survive. The lady next door to where we lived, Mrs. Smart, had a sister living in the village of Dordon about fifteen miles away, so me and Vin also Mrs. Smart's daughter Mary, who was Vin's age, were sent to Dordon until things calmed down. Mary was like a big sister to me and I will always remember her kindness during those days. It was hard leaving home, we lived at 39 New Street, Dordon, we went to school in Polesworth about two miles away. We had to walk there and back each day regardless of the weather and the winter of 1940 was very cold.

Vincent returned to Coventry in March 1941 as he was fourteen then and had to start work at Lea Francis. Lea Francis was a small factory based at Little Park Street, which was about 400 yards from the city centre. They were famous for making cars and motorcycles. Vincent was employed as an apprentice to be a Maintenance Electrician.

The next month, April, was the second blitz on Coventry, we could see the sky lit up from where we were living in Dordon. Mary's Aunty Maud and husband Bill Stockley received a telegram the following morning. I think that they were both afraid to read it, but it just said we are "All Safe", which was a big relief.

I did get home for the odd weekend during the time I was evacuated. That was great to see my mam again more so than anyone. I remember her making me a cup of cocoa and having a biscuit by the fire which was absolutely lovely. Just a bit sad when I had to get the bus back to Dordon on a Sunday.

Mary had to go back to Coventry shortly after April, and then I returned in the July, things had calmed down then. I was also eleven years old and I was starting at Barker Butts Senior School where Vic and Vin had also been educated.

It was quite an experience being evacuated to the country (but that's another story). I was so very glad to be back home in Coventry with my family (mainly my mam) and my mates.

These are some of my memories of the Coventry Blitz 14th November 1940.

Maurice Clark (Coventry Kid b.1930).
11th October 2009.

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