WW II, a British focus  



A moving description of the Coventry Blitz. It was written in 1983 by the grandfather of a pupil attending a school in Peterborough. The class was set a homework to research the memories of relatives who had lived through the 1939-45 war:

Memories of Mr Frank Ainsbury

"The Catastrophe Of Coventry"
Frank Ainsbury

The following account is in no way as sharp as the actual fact, as it is retrospective by forty years, during which time the senses, emotions and life have taken the edge off memory.

Working on the Emergency Repair squad of the War Damage Commission, I had become used to the effects of war, bombing and fires, and while aware of the dangers, because they were universal in London, I had become oblivious to both death and fear.

About mid-day with the AFS still fighting the burning docks at Limehouse, an Army officer, Police officer of high rank, and a Royal Marine officer arrived and set up an office at the Black Horse Pub in Ropemakers Fields, Limehouse.

After much to-ing and fro-ing, rumours spread like wildfire, with the strongest being that the engineers were coming in to make explosions to blow the fires out.

When four Army lorries drew up at the building we were making emergency repairs on, this was the common belief of us all.

Rolls of felt, glass, tools and men were loaded up and my foreman told us we were going 'for a holiday' in the country.

We went north up the Old North Road and by nightfall, about five o'clock, we stopped just outside Stratford-On-Avon, where in the church hall we were provided with food and two blankets. It was a holiday apart from one thing. Armed Royal Marines stood guard with no-one allowed to leave the hall. The Army officer would not, or could not enlighten us, merely ordering us to get our sleep while we could. I was just about 15 years old....frightened of authority and even more so of armed marines. The older men, all too old or unfit for military service, argued with the officer, who without a word called a marine who pulled a bolt on his rifle.

About nine or ten at night, with most of the men sleeping, an army dispatch rider came and the officer called everyone to attend him. Already I had heard him tell a police officer and a fire officer that it was Coventry. Bedlam broke loose as fire engines raced through, army lorries and police. We were loaded back on our trucks and driven off to follow the fire engines.

It was blackout remember, and the lights on the lorries were just a three inch slit by about half an inch, yet everyone had their foot down.

The marine told the older men what it was all about. Apparently, the authorities knew that a major raid was to be mounted by the Germans against the industrial heart of the Midlands, but not the precise town. Hence the wait at Stratford. When asked why the armed guard on civilians he replied that he had heard his officer say that we might be War Damage repairers, but if need be we would be firemen, doctors and undertakers.

Well before we even reached Coventry, we knew its position. The skies were glowing in red and orange with a halo of smoke reflecting the shadows of dancing flames. Explosions lifted great showers of sparks and flames every few minutes and every now and then shells burst around the German planes caught in the searchlights. But to little effect. The few mobile guns were merely knat bites to the Germans. Waves of them literally, and that is how they sounded. A soft, rhythmic throb grew steadily until the sound went through our bodies, and that is how it continued all night, in waves about an hour apart.

Before we even reached the outskirts of the city some of the older men demurred, but the marine ensured that revolt, a strike you would call it nowadays, did not start.

He pulled back the bolt of his rifle and menaced the old boy who, being an old soldier, chanced his arm and tried to reach the back of the lorry to jump off.

The marine fired into the floor of the lorry. Not a word was spoken until we reached the outskirts of the city, and then the speed of events was to curtail arguments.

Army and ARP personnel directed us all. Some taken to run through flames to rescue injured firemen, but most of us had a stretcher shoved into our hands and told to follow an ARP man. I have no doubt at all of what hell is like. Coventry on that night. London was organised chaos. This was like raving banshees running about. Gas mains that had burst were lighting up the night into day with flames. Burst water mains made great fountains to make rainbow effects all over the place, and phosphorus bombs burst out like massive fireworks. The ARP man, a real old man, acted like a sargeant major, and was as hard as nails. We were at a shelter that had received a fairly direct hit, and this we had to dig out to get the wounded, which were many. Old men and women, a fair few mums with young children who had not evacuated under the government schemes. They were covered with dust and rubble, some were crying aloud, most just sobbing and looking bewildered as an opening was made and they crawled across the rubble on their hands and knees. The ARP warden, now called Pop, held their hand and cooed and encouraged them through the hole. He barked at us. "You, take Mrs.Smith. You, help old Mr.Jones. You, take Charlie......and keep 'em all together." Finally another helmeted head came through the hole. An ARP man crying like a little baby..."That's the lot, mate", he sobbed, "the rest is dead." As he cried old Pop pulled him through and held his head on his shoulder, patting him on the back like a mother does her baby.

"Come on lad, we needs you now." He nodded his head to the pathetic group of survivors. "We got to get them safe somehow, but God knows where. The injured were laid on stretchers and we were instructed by Pop to follow him. I was but a whipper snapper. Too small to carry a full grown person on a stretcher so I was given two kids about two years old to carry. One on each arm. We found a big open space, a park I think it must have been and there old Pop had them laid with the bombing still raging about them.

And that was literally what it was like all through the night. Digging out injured people and taking them to this park. Old Pop not only never flagged but he would not let us do so either. He knew his way around. We didn't, so none of us could skive off even if we wanted too.

Half past six the last wave of bombers came in, and as they hummed away in the distance going back to their bases, so the first cracks of dawn broke through the smoke laden sky. The wail of the sirens for All Clear came soon after seven, with it daylight and a view of the carnage around me with the group of people we had brought to the park. Blood caked with dust and smoke. Black eyes and bruises like people had been in the ring with Joe Lewis. Women and children with their hair burned right off. Great blisters on the faces and bodies from burns, and large weeping red flesh gaping where the flesh had been burned.

Oh I cried all right, though on reflection I really could not pinpoint the exact reason. I was freezing cold, burned, hungry and my throat was so dry I could not swallow. Mums, Grandads, Grans and little children were both crying and sobbing. They made me want to cry and as it was adults crying I felt no shame at joining them. Tired......I was so far gone that my eyes flashed with fatigue and the pain overcame the burning face that I had. As I cried I fell into sleep. It obliterated the horrors of the night from my brain....at least until I was woken up.

A water cart had arrived with water....for drinking purposes only, and with the water cart were two armed soldiers. Then the army came up with a field kitchen and soup and porridge was provided. As we ate and drank, further army lorries came into the park, and the wounded first, then the others were taken away to safety. I had had about two hours sleep, the same as old Pop, but there he was helping the wounded, and then he rousted us. Back into the still burning and smouldering ruins he led us, each with a shovel and pickaxe. We were to search for survivors buried under the rubble and this spot was a children's home that had been hit. Nuns knelt praying and crying over sheeted dead bodies. Bricks, stones, timbers and rubble was moved under Pop's instruction and urgeing then.....a moving foot...and it was rubble clearing by hand. Kids too shocked to even cry. Little kids hardly, if that, old enough to go to playschool, with injuries that are undescribable, at least not without causing retching sickness. One....a kid about 3 years old was placed in my arms and I was told to take him to the nuns. He was alive...he smiled at me...touched me under the chin. As I laid him down he held my hand. I felt him stiffen then relax. I cried and cried and old Pop came to me. He took the little boy's hand from mine, covered him with his jacket, and led me away. It stays with me to this day. I can still cry without shame for that little boy and do.

That single incident blots out all the rest of the horror of Coventry though I know it happened thousands of times all over England and Europe. It made me a man in a few minutes, and as a man able to feel the shame that man could do such horrors to each other.

It also shaped my whole life, my thinking towards people. Old Pop, now long dead, showed me the hieght that I, and others, could reach. The death and destruction the utter depths.

Frank Ainsbury
September 1982

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