Plymouth blitz – 1941

German bombing raids brought death and destruction to British cities during the second world war. But for children there was often excitement to be had amid the chaos.

In just seven nights, the centres of Plymouth and Devonport were laid to ruin. The devastating German air raids of the nights of 20 and 21 March and 21, 22, 23, 28 and 29 April have become termed the Plymouth Blitz.

Although the objective of the raids was to damage or destroy the naval dockyards, many hundreds of civilians were also killed.

The following account was contributed by Derek Dawes to WW2 People’s War, an archive of second world war memories gathered by the BBC

War through a child’s eyes: the Plymouth Blitz, 1941

My family lived in the city of Plymouth . It had a big naval dockyard and there were always large numbers of warships in the dock. In addition there were Royal Marines and large numbers of army units stationed in and around the city.

This resulted in Plymouth being a big target for German bombers, and a place where a young boy like me could see and be involved in a lot of important events. My house in Emma Place Stonehouse, was very close to the Royal Marine Barracks – so close the bugle call would wake me every morning. It was also close to the civilian docks where all the ships bringing food and supplies docked.

The first really big event I can recall was going down to Millbay Docks to see the thousands of soldiers coming back from Dunkirk . I had been given a cap badge by a soldier and it was stuck to my jumper. Another soldier gave me a big wad of French money (the money was no good because Germany had occupied France ).

Then I walked around Plymouth with a pal to see the forces getting ready for any German attack. There were big guns being put into position on an island in Plymouth Sound, and there were search lights being fixed inside circles of sandbags (these were in most of the parks and playing fields). There were barrage balloons floating all over the city and they were supposed to cause German planes to crash, but they seldom did. The Marines put machine guns on top of the entrance to the barracks, and also put a machine gun inside a steel turret to guard our local bridge.

Every house had all the windows covered in strips of sticky paper to stop the glass flying around if the windows were smashed. My mother also had to fit blankets behind all the curtains, because you were not allowed to show any lights at night in case the German bombers saw them.

We were all issued with gas masks – we had to take them to school with us in case of daylight raids. I remember we had a gas practice at school one day. We had to put on our masks and walk through the back of a large lorry, which contained tear gas. It was to make sure you were putting the mask on correctly, and that it did not leak. It was not very nice wearing a gas mask. The part you looked out of steamed up and you could not breathe easily. You could not talk as it covered your whole face, and I hated it.

The most frightening thing for most of us during the war were the air- raids, they were something you would never forget. I will try to give you some idea of what it was like to go through a typical raid.

You would get a warning during the day over the radio and from police that there would most likely be a raid that night. The worst part of the bombing of Plymouth was during the blitz. (This was the name given to any period of heavy bombing, when the bombers came every night anyway). You would go to bed after your mum had made flasks of tea and sandwiches, and you would put your ‘siren suit’ at the bottom of the bed with your shoes. The siren suit was for putting on over your nightclothes to keep you warm. This was an idea thought up by the Prime Minister Winston Churchill. It was very easy to put on quickly; it could be buttoned or zipped.

When the siren started to wail I would put on my suit and shoes and make sure my younger brother did the same. Then I would pick up a torch and we would go downstairs ready to go into our air raid shelter. My mother would have already put my grandmother into the shelter and she would have made certain that at least two candles were alight. We had to enter our Anderson shelter (which was in the front garden) by a small doorway, go down four rungs of a small ladder, close the wooden door behind us and pull a blanket over the whole entrance. My father was away in the Royal Navy serving on board H.M.S. Exeter, so I felt I was the man of the house.

Once the air-raid started my mother would leave the shelter because she was an air-raid warden. I can see her now wearing overalls, Wellington boots and a steel helmet. She carried a stirrup pump and a bucket of sand. Her job was to look for small German bombs called “incendiary” bombs. These were dropped by the Germans to start fires. She would put these out using sand or water. My mother was as good as any man would have been, I never remember her being scared.

When the bombs were being dropped it was frightening. You would hear the sound of the bombers engines, the sound of the various guns fired by the city defences, then the whistling noise made by the bombs themselves followed by the noise of the bomb going off. The worst part I remembered was listening to the bombs being dropped with the whistling getting louder and louder. You could only hope that if one did hit your house that the shelter would save you. When a large bomb went off fairly close you could feel the whole shelter give a jump, and you would then wonder what you would see when you left the shelter.

During one raid my mother came and called me out of the shelter to sit on our garden wall to watch the local town hall burning. She said it was something I should witness and I am glad she did, it was a sight I will never forget. The flames were hundreds of feet in the air, and the whole area where we lived was as bright as day but coloured red. My mother also let me stay at my bedroom window the night the Germans attacked Millbay Docks. It was like the biggest fireworks display ever. The guns of the ships and the marines were firing tracer bullets of various colours, the searchlights were darting all over the sky, and the sound of bomber engines was continuous.

As a young boy I was thrilled to watch everything, it was exciting. The day after a raid was a busy time for me because I would check to see if the school was still standing (during the worst bombing I did not go to school because so many homes were being destroyed that families were being moved around a lot). Then I would check on my friends’ houses. Then I would start on my favourite past time of collecting incendiary bomb tails, and bits of shrapnel.

One morning I called on a pal who lived just up the road, and saw a marine sentry stood by a big hole. My friend and I asked him what he was doing. He said he was guarding an unexploded bomb and would we like to see it? When we looked down this big hole we could see the fins of a large object, which he told us, was a 1,000 lb bomb. It was defused and removed by the marines later, but if it had gone off my friend’s house and many others would have disappeared.

During the course of the bombing I saw a lot of the city of Plymouth destroyed forever. It was a sight you could not really take in, to see local streets with houses on fire at night. The sky would seem to be full of bright red sparks and the smell of the smoke was very special, nothing else has ever smelt like it. The water supply ran out because so many water pipes had been bombed. This resulted in the fire brigade having to chop through some houses to create a gap to prevent whole streets of houses being burnt down.

During the day it was a common sight to walk down a street, which was full of people’s furniture and belongings. These were taken from houses that had caught fire, and were just stacked in the street because there was nothing else anyone could do. There was just too much stuff to move, but unlike to-day nothing was stolen or touched by anyone else. You could see clocks and things like that which would just stay where they were till the owners decided what to do. If you came across pieces of barrage balloon material you would take it home for your mother to make things with, but the best find of all would be parachute silk.

During the day after an air-raid it was great for me watching the rescue services, seeing what were left of the shopping centres. I can remember going to look at what was left of the Marks and Spencer store, just a framework of steel girders, all twisted and bent. Every so often you would come across a mobile canteen in the street with women giving cups of tea and sandwiches to anyone who wanted it. I could be out all day and eat well.

I was too young to understand that my parents’ city was being destroyed bit by bit. First the church where they were married was hit by a bomb and burnt down, and then the place my mother worked in was also hit and demolished. Local shops went one by one and the main shopping centre was destroyed completely.

Everyone had ration books, which enabled you to buy small amounts of food each week, but during most of the war some things were just not available. I do not remember eating a banana for instance until after the war, or an orange. Instead we were given orange juice and cod liver oil tablets, which we were told, would take the place of fresh fruit. All sweets and chocolate were rationed. Your ration coupons would allow you ounces per week and you would barter for sweet coupons, offering to run errands and things.

People took a great pride in doing things. The post would be delivered every day no matter what happened, and the milk-man always seemed to turn up. You could not store food because no one had a freezer or refrigerator. As time went by the air-raids became less frequent and everyone got used to the new way of living.

Source: Derek Dawes/WW2 People’s War