THE BLITZ THAT I REMEMBER By Helen McKenna - (b. Walney Island, 1923)
When Lord Haw-Haw made his promise that Barrow-in-Furness “would not be forgotten” I was a young teenager working at my first job. Two evenings a week I attended classes at the college as an Arts and Crafts student, travelling the four miles from my home in a small village by bus. My peers, like me, regarded the monstrous Haw-Haw as a comedian with plums in his mouth, not realising in our ignorance that he was a pioneer in psychological warfare.
The war was all around us, filling our days and nights with it’s associated activities. We fire-watched on rooves and other elevations. Parents and friends became Air Raid Wardens and Ambulance attendants, we gave blood, took courses in first aid, bought bonds and knitted scarves and balaclavas. Our beloved brothers were killed in distant places and although we wept for our losses, our mothers, fully realising the awful truth, suffered the worst heartbreak.
To us, the war held a feverish excitement. We danced every night we had free in dresses made out of unrationed curtain material. In lieu of stockings we painted our legs with ‘mock tan’. Our energy was boundless, a twelve hour working day and a four hour night out the nature of things. Nearly every night we could see poor old Liverpool under bombardment, the fiery glow across the bay telling the grim story. Barrow seemed almost immune, bombs were few and far between. Isolated damage drew spectators from all over the district and then faded in interest as daily living became more intense.
Came the spring of 1941 and came the Blitz. German planes droned over in waves, sending down death and destruction. The Shipyards were the target of course, but although damaged, work went ahead without appreciable hold-ups. Like most industrial areas the homes of the workers suffered terribly because of their proximity to the target and it was during their time of terror that I began to wonder if I had a guardian angel. Normally I caught the last bus at 9.15pm home. If I left my class on time, I had only a short distance to cover from the college to the bus stop and usually I had no problems. However, I had taken a little longer than usual saying my “goodnights” and I saw my transport disappearing over the bridge as I galloped up the road.
The air raid siren, like a soul in torment, wailed through the night air as I prepared myself for a trot home. An officious voice ordered my to “get into the shelter my lass, it’s a purple warning already”! and a warden took my arm. I started to follow his instructions then the thought of my mother, waiting for me to come off the bus, made me change my mind. “Sorry” I said “but I’ve got to get home”. “You’ll do no such thing” was the indignant reply, but I had already shaken off his hand and was loping towards the bridge. My mother is only five feet tall and I was a big healthy girl in those days, but I had a bigger healthy fear of her displeasure. An irate voice called some uncomplimentary remarks about my lack of intelligence after my retreating figure. Over the bridge, between the shipyards I pelted, and then it was on!
Such a noise! So many planes! I don’t think my feet touched the ground as I sped over the second bridge. As I neared home another warden called out to me, but I was scurrying into our underground shelter to a relieved mother and four other members of our brood, safely tucked away from the havoc over the channel. The next morning we learned that the shelter I had refused had taken a direct hit during the night with much loss of life and limb!
During May the blitz intensified, causing much damage to homes and public buildings. It says much for the local organisation that many more people were not killed, although the grim tally was growing. One night, my young brother and I were dancing like dervishes on the roof of our earth covered shelter screaming encouragement to our planes and anti-aircraft gunners and abuse at the German bombers pinpointed in the searchlights directly overhead We collapsed, spent and hoarse, after being hauled forcibly inside by an exasperated parent. John grinned at me in the lantern light, his eyes shiningly reflecting my own elation. Early in the morning, just at dawn, we crept out to survey the damage. It was low tide and much speculation was going on about an area of pale green down on the channel mussel beds. Somebody said it could be parachute silk, so, armed with kitchen scissors and wearing wellies, we hiked across the familiar mud banks to the heaps of gleaming stuff. Much of the material found it’s way through back doors and into depleted sewing baskets. The ropes, as thick as my arm were unravelled into knitting yarn. A couple of hours later we were ousted by tired looking army personnel led by a bomb disposal squad. The parachutes were attached to huge land mines nestling unexploded in the soft mud! We had been clambering about amid dormant death! Later, when the squad had finished it’s hair raising job, we learnt that the steelworks, training ‘drome and the village would have been wiped out had the mines exploded. Our quarter mile wide muddy channel bed had at least one credit due!
Several families had combined their Anderson shelters and dug out a large earth bank in the field at the rear of their homes. The result was an excellent communal shelter with bunks for the children and seats for all. Two of my birthdays were celebrated in that refuge and I’ll never forget those midnight voices singing “Happy birthday to you” underground. We were seven at home then. My eldest brother was with the Royal Marines in Hong Kong. He was never to return to us. My father was away on important defence installations and my second brother out on civil defence work at seventeen. My mother had us organised. She would awaken those who slept through the siren’s wail and we would help dress the younger ones warmly. Mother would grab the “policy and certificates” case and I the provisions basket in one hand and a child with the other. Our neighbours would be treated to a wake up whistle and a rattle at the door to hurry them up as we plodded down the track to the shelter. We were never first to arrive. I swear one man lived there permanently, his sister was rumoured to take him the necessities of life each day.
When the flak really started flying the shelter would rapidly fill with a motley crowd of villagers, the lantern lights glowing softly on patient and fearful faces of all ages. Maisie and her husband Jimmy were regular members of our crew. With her pleasant singing voice and droll sense of humour, Maisie was good company and most welcome. Jimmy had a fund of stories which usually began “When we was lads” much appreciated by the smaller fry.
Nights could be bitterly cold in the shelter and Maisie was miserable without her hot water bottle. One freezing night the alert sounded early and the comforting bottle was left behind in the rush. Maisie shivered and groaned theatrically “Go and fetch me bottle Jimmy love” she begged. An aghast Jimmy shook his head violently “Not now love! There’s bombs out there!” “Oh go on chuck” she pleaded, “I’ll die in this cold.” “Have my coat” offered Jimmy hopefully. “Then you’ll catch cold” was Maisie’s logical answer.
After several more heartrending pleas from a tearful Maisie Jimmy reluctantly took off through the hatch. We could hear him hollering as he sped round the pig sty and past the barn before he was drowned out by the crashing war noises across the channel. The trip must have been accomplished in record time because a particularly heavy burst of ack-ack fire brought a screaming Jimmy tumbling into the shelter in an amazingly short time. “I’m hit, I’m hit!” he screeched, “Oh the pain!” An ashen faced Maisie cradled him in her arms and anxious friends gather round “Where are you hit Jimmy?” asked my mother “In my leg, my left leg, Oh God! My shoe is full of blood!” While an inspection was in progress Maisie tearfully tore her character to pieces and swore eternal penance for her selfishness. No obvious injury marred the now exposed white limbs “But I can feel it” wailed Jimmy “Look at my shoe, it’s full of blood!” Suddenly Maisie dropped Jimmy’s head with a thump “You silly bugger!” she yelled “You’ve busted me hot water bottle! Tore it on a briar most likely and scalded yourself, you’ll just have to go back and get me another!”
After an awful silence Jimmy rose with offended dignity, silently he pulled his pants up. Thrusting his chin belligerently close to Maisie’s outraged face he said quietly and venomously “You want another, you bloody go and get it yourself”. Nobody laughed. Jimmy glowered darkly in a corner until the all clear. Now my children have children and, though I remember these and many more moments of the blitz with some gentleness, I pray my grandchildren will not have such memories to draw on.
Mothers see things in a different life. They see the whole picture.
Helen McKenna - 4th August 1982
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